By Mark Cane and Tasty Little Pop Tart
Thirty years in the same house, 34 years married. Henry and Bella had left the country only once in that time, a trip to Ontario and Niagara Falls in 2001. They went in July, before Arab terrorists declared war on the United States and devastated Lower Manhattan and a wedge of the Pentagon. It was time for another vacation, this time abroad, Henry thought: England, where he was born.
“You know Dad was an airman,” he said, by way of starting the conversation. “He was stationed at RAF Menwith Hill first, where he met my mom--”
“--and later at RAF Mindenhall, where you were born and raised the first 5 years of your life.” Smiling, Bella glanced at him over her lenses and shook out the paper. “I know all this, so tell me what’s on your mind, Henry.”
Henry chuckled. “Mom was born in Liverpool; did you know that?”
“And the Partridge’s raised a wonderful little girl, who moved to Birstwith in North Yorkshire at the age of 22 to meet a lovely young man at a sponsored dance on base. Clarence fell for Nancy, and she for him, and they married following a whirlwind courtship. It took a year to get her pregnant, and 9 months later you came along, just in time to christen the new house.”
“Flat,” Henry corrected. “A minuscule little 2-bedroom affair with no running water and a coal-fired stove.”
Bella rolled her eyes. Turning to page 19, she stated: “You know you don’t remember the place. How can you know it had a privy out back and no heat?”
“I do so. A little. Somewhat.” He raised a finger in an Ah-ha! gesture. “Mom lost me once in a department store in Harrogate! I stumbled around crying until a matronly shopper took pity on me and led me to the lost and found, where Mom separated me from all the other lost kids.”
“That never happened, Henry.”
“What about the time Mom and Dad took me to the pantomime show at the Crowley Theatre? Jack and the Beanstalk vs Mother Goose. I absolutely remember The Ogre coming on to roar: “Fe, Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
Bella’s smile said what she thought of that idea.
“He looked right at me when he roared it!” Henry protested. “He had 6” long teeth and a pig-snout of a nose, and he breathed fire. The entire audience went ‘Boo’ and ‘Hiss’ and--”
“You buried your head in your mum’s lap, didn’t you?”
Henry laughed. “Of course, I did. I laughed though, when the disgruntled ogre stalked off the stage in a huff!”
Bella folded the paper and set it aside. She loved the morning banter, but obviously was mystified by this morning’s exchange. “Regular, or decaf?” she asked. Normally, but not always, they drank decaf on weekends.
Henry stood. “Decaf. I’ll get it.” Crossing to the coffee maker, he withdrew the grounds tray, dropped in a filter paper and half-filled the pot with water. Emptying it in the backside of the machine, he accepted the can of Folger’s from Bella, popped the lid and scooped 6 heaping teaspoons into the tray. While Bella returned the can of coffee to the refrigerator, and retrieved the Half and Half, Henry closed the tray and flipped the switch.
“Remind me to thank Lucy for this wonderful coffee contraption,” he said. Lucy had replaced their 8-year old Mr. Coffee with a brand-new model. The new model was sparkling white, and blessed with a timer and automatic shut-off.
This reminded Bella. “Lucy called. She won’t be home from school this weekend, unfortunately. Exams.”
Henry looked almost stricken. “Damn. We were gonna catch a game, too.” Lucy was in her first year of post-grad at Penn State. “I bet it’s that fella, more than any exams,” he grumbled. Lucy had introduced them to her new beau two weeks ago.
“And if it is... ?” Bella grinned. “It’s time that girl had some luck with boys, Henry Wheeler.”
Henry had to agree with that. “Heard from Martin?”
“Last month,” she complained. Martin, their wild child, was surfing in New Zealand with a half dozen friends. He was two years older than Lucy, and a college dropout. His old bedroom was now Henry’s home office.
“Milestone Manor’s prodigal son,” he muttered.
“Only if he returns.”
“Oh, he’ll return. When he runs out of money.”
Though well to do, the Wheeler’s were far from the likes of Bella’s sister and brothers. Mary Elle had married into money--in the form of a North Carolina furniture making family--and Joe Jr. and Bob Dallas operated the biggest plumbing supply chain on the East Coast. Milestone Manor was a nice place to live, but not the home of any McMansions. Still, Henry and Bella were happy enough in retirement. Blessed with a his and her garage.
Bella opened the Style section of The Washington Post. “So, are we discussing the long-lost vacation again?”
Henry grinned like a kid. “Absolutely not! We don’t have money for that, Bella.”
“You mean a trip to England.”
“Exactly!” Henry exclaimed. “There goes the bank account! And the IRA! We can’t afford West Virginia, much less a jaunt across the ocean, woman.”
“Oh, good heavens, no,” Bella agreed pleasantly. “Pop Tart?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’m thinking a Pop Tart for breakfast. We have a toaster, don’t we?”
Henry looked all around. “What does it look like, dear?”
“Like that thing you normally see in the mirror. That thing,” she said, pointing at his head.
Henry sighed. “All this, to dissuade me from suggesting a vacation.”
“I never said we couldn’t afford it. The vacation, I mean. Pop Tarts are out of our reach, though.”
Henry crossed to the pantry and removed a package of frosted strawberry Pop Tarts from the box. “How you can eat these, I don’t know.”
“And yet you buy them for me week, after week, Henry.”
Hiding a smile, Henry rolled his eyes. “Women. Can’t live--”
“Your continued bedroom privileges depend on how you complete that statement, Mr. Wheeler. I suggest you consider it wisely.”
Henry laughed. Bella Wheeler was still a plum, a shapely 64 year old that looked not a day over 50. Men half her age turned to stare, others to get a second, Oh, really look. Her hair was stylishly cut to just above her shoulders, coloured brown with auburn highlights. She weighed a scant 130 pounds, still fitting into her wedding dress. She was a retired teacher and high school vice principal.
Tearing open the package, he dropped the pair of tarts into the toaster and depressed the lever. He really didn’t understand what Bella saw in these things. Even heated, they tasted like flavoured cardboard.
Startled, Henry turned around.
“I paid $80 for these shoes yesterday at Macy’s! Look at this!” Whipping the paper around, she whapped the offending ad with her fingertip. The low-heeled boots were advertised on sale for $39.99. “I have a good mind to take them back right now, dammit.”
“And buy them again for $39.99?” Henry suggested.
Bella whacked the paper again indignantly. “Not on your life, mister! I wouldn’t be caught dead in $39.99 boots!”
Henry burst out laughing, and Bella followed suit. “You are too much,” he said. Turning back to the toaster, he gingerly lifted free the heated confections with his thumb and forefinger, and dropped them on a plate.
“Harvey Nichols has nice boots.”
Eying him again over her lenses, Bella grinned. “That would be Harvey Nichols, London?”
Henry winced. “I was raised to hate Londoners. They don’t even speak real English in London. The rest of the country rolls their eyes hearing a London accent. Liverpool, now...”
Bella rolled her eyes. “Your mother left Liverpool, to escape Liverpool, if I remember my history right.”
Henry affected his best hangdog expression. “May she rest in peace, the beloved dear. Actually, I was thinking about the West Country. Somewhere in the Plymouth area, maybe, along the south, or the east coast. We holidayed in South Devon a number of times in the 50’s. It was one of mom’s favourite places. The scenery there is truly breath-taking, sweetie.”
“Truly,” Bella agreed, taking a cautious bite of Pop Tart. “There’ll be lots of bargains at Harvey Nichols and Harrods there.”
Henry rolled his eyes.
“The dollar is strong against the pound at the moment,” she admitted, accepting her mug of coffee and taking a sip. “So, it would be a good time to go. Let’s see what they have to offer.”
Working at the big-screen iMac, it took a mere half hour to push them east away from Plymouth along the coast to Start Point, and then north to the village of Torcross.
“Check this out,” Henry said, following the link to a self-catering cottage on a cliff. “Fully restored fisherman’s cottage, over 200 years old. Holy cow.” He whistled, eyeing the view from the flagstone patio. Towering rock face, and open sea. A white wrought iron table with croissants and strawberries in the foreground, and two glasses of orange juice.
“What does self-catering mean?” Bella asked.
“It means we eat out a lot,” Henry advised. “A culinary adventure.” He pointed out the amenities. “Shops and services within easy walking distance. Slapton Sands and the Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve to the north. Dine in comfort at the very affordable Sea Breeze Café, The Start Bay Inn, or the famous Torcross Boathouse Café. The A379 swings inland towards Kingsbridge at the—”
“What do they mean, the cliff top location is unsuitable for people with mobility difficulties?”
Henry had to mentally re-direct. “Well, from the picture it appears there’s a number of stone steps leading up to the cottage, but that shouldn’t affect us. We’re both fit as a fiddle. Especially you.” Bella had practiced yoga the past fifteen years. “Let’s go for it gal!”
Bella laughed. “Just hold on a minute, Horatio. How about we book it for a week, and then spend a second week in a classy London hotel?”
Henry mock-scowled. “There’s that London word again. You serious about that?”
“Big Ben? The Tower of London? Buckingham Palace? Westminster Abbey? Harrods?”
Henry sighed. “Fine. A week it is then. Torcross Village, and then—” He made a face as though someone had farted. “—London.”
Surprisingly (more likely not), the cottage was unavailable until the first week of October. Bella was none too pleased.
“Think about it,” Henry argued. “England in the fall! The West Country in the fall. We’d be crazy not to go, sweetie. Fall was when we went there, mostly. You’ll love it. Trust me.”
Flying British Airways out of Baltimore Washington International, they touched down at London Heathrow at 8:20 am. Henry slept soundly on the 7 hour flight; Bella fitfully. Bella never did well on airplanes: the seats were uncomfortable, even in Club Traveller class, and vibration from the smoothly turning turbine engines was at just the wrong frequency. Bella deplaned in a foul mood.
“Make sure they write the contract in both names,” she grumbled in the Hertz queue. “I don’t want to be chauffeured the entire two weeks, Henry.”
Henry took her hand and squeezed it tightly. As always, this brought a grin to Bella’s lips and the desired calming effect to her anger. “I wouldn’t have it otherwise,” Henry promised. “Just remember they drive on the wrong side here.”
“As though you have to remind me.” Stepping off the kerb to cross to the shuttle bus location, she’d nearly been flattened by a taxi. She had looked left, forgetting the opposite traffic flow. “Bloody American,” the driver had muttered though his open window.
“Good morning, sir! Welcome to Avis!” The Hertz agent grinned. “May I have your driver’s license please?” He smiled warmly at Bella, as did young men everywhere. Bella returned his smile with one of her own, sparking a touch of embarrassment in the young man. He graciously accepted her license as well.
“Maryland, I see.” He pronounced the state in typical non-American fashion, as ‘Mary-land.’ “We have a nice Audi A5 reserved for you.” Spinning the monitor, he displayed the specs on the car. “I daresay you don’t see these often on Maryland streets.”
Bella looked amused. The model shown, however, a beautiful royal blue, looked decidedly beyond their price range. A mistake had been made.
Laughing, the clerk assured her otherwise. “A no-charge upgrade on Hertz. Our more compact models are all leased out this morning, love. It’s your lucky day!” He turned his smile to Henry. “I’ll need your insurance card as well, sir; the lady’s also if you plan to both drive. In all cases, I’ll need an insurance excess waiver filled out.” He passed the required forms and noted where Henry and Bella needed to initial, or use a full signature. It was not so different than renting a car at American airports.
“What about GPS?” Bella asked.
The agent answered while tapping at the keyboard. “The A5 comes equipped with a Satnav, ma’am. Simply enter your destination and the unit will handle the rest.” He raised his index finger. “It’s a touch screen. Navigate just like you do on your phone and double-tap the location you want. Absolutely no worries.” He handed them both a keyed remote. “Follow the signs and enjoy your stay in London, folks.” He laughed at Henry’s scowl. “Remember to drive on the left. The A5 gets rather cross when driven on the Yank side of the road.”
In the car park, despite knowing the Audi’s space code, Bella raised her hand high and clicked the remote. Two aisles over, a royal blue sedan chirped anxiously and flashed its lights. Bella was pleased: she’d hoped the car would be blue. Up close, she was more impressed than ever.
“Nice car, Henry.”
“Open the boot for me, will you, lass?”
Laughing, Bella thumbed the button for the trunk latch. “Lass? Isn’t that a Scottish term of endearment?”
“Got me,” Henry admitted, stowing the luggage away. Bella grinned as he accompanied her round to the ‘passenger side’ door and swung it open.
He looked confused, then looked down. “Stupid English cars,” he muttered. Red faced, he walked his smirking wife around to the proper passenger side of the car and opened the door.
Having spent his first five years in England, Henry was familiar with right-sided steering wheels. The shock was coming to the US in 1955, where driving was dangerously wrong-sided. His dad had re-acclimatised fairly fast, but not so his mom. It took Nancy a dozen years to stop endangering other drivers. Henry understood why.
“This is insane,” he muttered, belting in. “I can’t imagine shifting with my left hand.” Henry’s SUV was a stick shift. The A5 was not. Bella patted his hand.
“Just don’t run anyone over, Henry.”
He shifted into drive. “You mean Americans.”
“Anybody,” she qualified.
Henry returned the shift lever to park. “Let’s find Torcross, shall we?” Locating and locking the village into the Satnav, he was dismayed to discover the township lay two hundred miles distant, meaning hours on the road, navigating against wrong-way traffic. Maybe he should let Bella drive, after all. Let her suffer the guilt of seriously injuring or killing someone. He cracked a smile; he shouldn’t think like that. After adjusting the mirrors, he pulled from the space.
The A5 announced his drift across the line the same instant Bella yelled, “Henry! Henry, wrong side!” He whipped the car back to the left, cursing auto-reflex and British cars. Not yet out of the airport, not even on the airport road proper. He slowed, choosing to endure the ire of drivers behind him, rather than ploughing into oncoming traffic.
“This is crazy,” he repeated. He slowed, approaching his first roundabout, the nemesis of tourists everywhere. The truck behind him unleashed a blast from his air-horn; Henry was unfazed. “Up yours,” he murmured, yielding into the flow of vehicles from the right.
To his surprise, he made it around without being forced into a complete circuit; which sometimes happened at home. Within minutes, he was safely on the M25, heading south to the M3.
“Should we stop for breakfast?” Bella questioned.
“Not on your life,” Henry said. “Not until we get free of London.” He indicated on the display where their route bore off the M3 onto A303 in North Waltham. “Anywhere after there,” he said, switching lanes. At least the M3 was a divided highway, with no oncoming traffic. He had eased up to the posted speed limit and was following a semi-tractor trailer, what the Brits called a lorry.
“So much for sightseeing,” she sighed.
Bella laughed and patted his knee. “I know, I know.” After considerable discussion during the summer and early fall, it was decided to forestall London sightseeing until week two of the vacation, when Henry had acclimatised to British driving standards. Finding himself behind the wheel this morning, only reinforced that idea.
“We won’t drive straight through, I promise. There’s plenty to see on the way, Bella. Give me an hour, and I should be fine.” It felt so weird—otherworldly, really—traffic flying by on his right. The signs, the cars, especially the trucks, all so different here across the water.
It was Andover before Henry was sufficiently sure of himself to abandon the security of divided highway driving and exit into two-way traffic. Taking the A3093, he followed signs into town, and at Bella’s suggestion, stopped at a small restaurant on Locksbridge Road. Neither had a clue what a Marsh Hen might be. Neither had the courage to ask inside.
Henry chose a selection from the Daily Special breakfast menu: sourdough crumpets and buttermilk pancakes with sausage. Bella did likewise, ordering milk, while Henry ordered a Diet Coke. Breakfast was Bella’s introduction and Henry’s reintroduction to English dining.
“Be headed west?” asked their server, Gwendoline. Not awaiting an answer, she dove right in. “Plymouth, I bet? You should visit Dartmoor National Park, and the South Devon Nature Reserve while you’re there. Kingsbridge, now there’s a good place to stay if you want to be centred in the countryside, or maybe Chillington, or South Milton. All have lovely traveller’s inns to stay. Salcombe down on the coast is nice, too. Stay away from Torquay, Brigham and Dartmouth though; notorious tourist traps on the east coast that’ll eat all your money and send you home with naught.”
Bella looked alarmed. Dartmouth was not that far north of Torcross. “Do you know Torcross?” she asked anxiously. Gwendoline smiled.
“You couldn’t ask for a nicer village than Torcross, love. Is that where you’re headed?”
Relieved, Bella nodded. “We rented a fisherman’s cottage there.”
“Perfect, love. Terrific choice. I can recommend the Start Bay Inn, and the Sea Breeze, especially for tea. I’ve holidayed there myself with my first husband, Alfred. Stokenham, a bit west on the A379 is a lovely place also. It’s worth the drive, just to try The Tradesman Arms. Only for dinner though. The steak and lobster dinner is absolutely fabulous. You should go!”
Reaching the A379 just after 2:00 pm, they stopped in Stokenham to check out The Tradesman Arms and the menu posted outside, and then conducted a tour of the small burg before continuing on to Torcross. Arriving in the village just after 3:00 pm, they found the office of the estate agent off Dockey’s Lane. The estate agent’s name was Roderick Clive.
“Fisherman’s Cottage, oh yes.” His grip was firm, his handshake quick and perfunctory. “One of the finest rental cottages we have, Mr. Wheeler. The location insures a high demand, even in the off-season like this.”
“The off-season?” Bella echoed.
“Oh, yes. Summer is tourist season here in Torcross, as it is all up and down the coast. Don’t worry, though.” He laughed convivially. “Plenty of attractions remain open year round, and the local dining is superb.”
“A friend recommended The Tradesman Arms, in Stokenham,” Henry fibbed. “Should we plan to eat there tonight?”
Clive’s eyes shone. “Best steak dinner you will ever sit down to,” he assured. “Your friend did you a good turn, sir.” He held out a gold pen. “If you would, I’ll run you briefly around the village and point out the places to eat, and the local establishments. We have an excellent pub or two, if enjoying the nightlife is your preferred style.” While Henry bent to sign the lease, Clive appraised Bella questioningly. She offered her most tolerant smile. Clive, with his actor’s good looks and confident bearing, only smiled back.
“How steep is the climb?” she asked.
The estate agent shrugged. “Not bad for a couple in excellent shape such as yourselves. Twenty-seven flagstone steps from the car park to the gate. You’re aware of the view?”
“Looked spectacular,” Henry confirmed, handing back the pen. “We’ll skip the guided tour though; like to head right up to the cottage and relax a bit with our view.”
Clive nodded solemnly. “Of course, sir. I’m available anytime. Never be afraid to ask.”
Following the A379 to Tor Church Road, Henry drove it up the hill to the unmarked intersection, and bore left as instructed by Clive, wending up the gravel road to where it dead-ended at the car park. Four sets of flagstone steps continued up the steep embankment, two at alarmingly sharp angles. Bella pointed out their steps with relief, the least strident climb, and the closest to the ocean. Henry could just make out the southeast corner of the cottage; it had a slate roof.
“Where’s an elevator when you need one?” he quipped.
Retrieving the luggage--he was glad now that he’d insisted they pack lightly as possible, depending on the washer/dryer to keep them supplied with clean clothes--Henry followed Bella up the stone steps, half the luggage left behind for a second excursion. He was surprisingly not short of breath at the top. Bella evinced no sign of effort all. Thank God for their gym and yoga regimens, he thought.
“Wow. The pictures do it no justice at all, do they?” The view of Torcross Village laid out below them, Slapton Sands, the Ley and the ocean, was breath-taking. The view inland was obstructed by the hillside behind them, but north and south along the coast, the view ended in the haze of distance, dozens of miles away. Neither had realized that Torcross extended so far northward, a goodly length of the Ley, in reality, a seaside lake.
The cottage was surprisingly large, constructed of stone, and half covered in ivy. The roof was slate tiles, as were all the roofs in sight. Two big stone chimneys, one in the bedroom, the other the front room, invited the evening fires to come. The bay window overlooking the ocean was wide, tall and modern, surprising large in comparison to the remaining windows. Surrounding stone walls assured against an accidental tumble over the cliff. Henry winced. The squall of disturbed seabirds, was surprisingly loud.
“Shall I carry you across the threshold, dear?”
Bella grinned. “Better drop the luggage, first, Tarzan.”
Henry did, and swept the lightweight woman up in his arms.
“Henry Wheeler! Put me down this minute!” She giggled, playfully punching his arm. “Remember your back! We don’t need a medical emergency in Bumfuck, Egypt.”
“I think the local populace would object to being characterized as Middle Eastern, Bella. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with this man’s back.” He comically waggled his bushy eyebrows. “I’ll prove that tonight, if the fortunes are with us?” Being married to Bella kept his sexual status equally fit as his physical.
Bella grinned. “Hope the beds are as sturdily built as the house seems to be.”
Alighting Bella on her toes, Henry returned for the stranded luggage and then joined her inside. Logs had been stacked in each fireplace, paraffin set aside along with long lighter matches, and cleanly scrubbed ash buckets.
“Love these rugs,” Bella said. Barefoot, she dug her toes into the thickly woven mat. It was oval, covering the centre of the front room. Around it was arrayed the heavy wooden furniture; a low, weathered coffee table sat before the couch. Lamps salvaged from a castle graced the three tables. The floor was ancient granite, smooth and cool. Rough beams overhead gave a sense of impregnability.
“This place lives up to the hype, I’ll give it that,” Henry said. “Let’s unpack.”
The larder, as Bella would come to call it, was minimally stocked, with essentials like salt and pepper, spices and cooking oils all covered. The modern refrigerator was spotless and empty, however; the cabinets containing only flatware, glasses and cookware. They would need coffee for the morning; a pot was provided, along with a nice tea cosy. A visit to the market was in order. Bella checked the hours in the hospitality pamphlet.
“They close at six, Henry. We should go before dinner.” Henry agreed.
The Start Bay Stores accepted all major credit cards, including Henry’s Visa debit card. An ATM beside the office dispensed Pounds Sterling, replenishing Henry’s small reserve and promising a ready supply of cash for the week. The smart tourist carries a minimum of cash. Henry had made a living of being smart.
Properly stocked with food for the week, Henry drove Bella back to Stokenham for dinner. The Tradesman Arms was exceptional as advertised, the menu extensive, the wine list excellent. Ordering a bottle of local Cabernet with dinner, both husband and wife went for the surf & turf: lobster tail with braised brisket. The accompanying potatoes and green beans were the best that Henry had ever encountered. The kitchen was quite extraordinary.
“Extend our compliments to the chef,” Henry told the server as he placed a tea before Bella. “This American couple is quite rightly impressed with his expertise.”
“Would you like to meet her?” Rupert asked. “Ms. Connell always enjoys meeting the clientele.”
On the way home, Bella couldn’t stop snickering.
“Give it a rest, will ya. It was a natural mistake. Places like this usually adhere to traditional values.”
“I bet they have female constables, as well, dear, and possibly even women doctors. Not to mention, proprietors of drinking establishments, and maybe even, boat captains.”
Henry snorted. “Yeah, right. In Torcross.”
“Our pilot was a woman,” she reminded him. He had forgotten that.
At the cottage, Henry started a fire in the main hearth, then changed into evening attire with Bella and settled in for the evening. He had bought makings for hot toddies that afternoon, substituting rum for the more traditional whisky. Tea was freshly brewed, the lemon squeezed, and the honey jarred with comb. Bella appreciated the effort.
“This is quite good, Henry. A girl could find herself looking for excuses to snuggle up to a drink like this on a chill evening.” And the evening had turned chill, a stiff breeze off the ocean dropping the temperature into the mid 30’s.
Henry wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Thank the store clerk. It was her suggestion.”
“The pretty young thing, or her mother?”
“Gloria was pretty, also,” he remembered. “Not like you, though. Not with your yoga conditioned body, either.” He nuzzled her neck and shoulder.
“Behave yourself, old man. We want no broken beds left in our wake.”
Henry took away her drink. “I don’t think the bed has any worries tonight.” Placing her mug beside his on the table, he pushed her down into the cushions and joined his father in plugging a pretty lass on foreign shores.
Henry’s sleep was restless. He awoke at 3:00 am, disoriented and mulish. Refusing to leave bed, he listened to wind whipping through the eves, moaning plaintively, triggering groans in the old structure. Shadows danced on the walls and ceiling. In the adjoining bed, Bella slept soundly.
Forcing himself to sit up, Henry slipped his feet into the old moccasins used for slippers, arose, and padded to the privy down the hall. Beautiful though it was, maybe Fisherman’s Cottage was a mistake: in the absence of a fire in the main hearth, the temperature inside the cottage had plummeted. He returned to the bedroom for his robe, and then to the kitchen for a spot of hot tea.
He scarcely remembered the dream. He’d ventured south along the South West Coast Path, enjoying an unhurried sightsee, documenting the landscape, architecture and wildlife in a notebook. Twice his local map had gotten away from him on the wind, the second time blowing over a low cliff. A mechanical hedgehog deployed by the local constabulary had warned him away from the edge. Henry had not thought it even remotely unusual conversing with a mechanical hedgehog. He chuckled, remembering the miniature uniform, complete with checked cap and a baton.
“I can recommend the old coastal defence emplacements on the cliffs south of Beesands,” squeaked Murray, as he’d introduced himself by way of a gold nametag. He pointed along the coast with a stubby forepaw. “The site is quite impressive, a trio of pillboxes and two old artillery mounts. Unlike some emplacements along the east coast, these are completely graffiti free.”
“Thank you,” Henry had said, bidding Murray adieu. The mechanical hedgehog had waddled away along the cliffs, while Henry made note of the conversation in his notebook. He remembered this exchange, having awoken with a strong gust of wind.
“There’s no way,” he muttered. Charging on the counter was his iPad. Unplugging it, he sat at the table and synced to his cell phone, establishing an Internet connection; the cottage had none of its own. Googling World War II coastal defence sites near Torcross, UK, yielded no results. Revising the location to Beesands, the larger village to the south, resulted in a hit.
“I’ll be damned.” Sipping tea, he noted the location and pertinent details of the site. This might bear checking into at the end of the week, he considered. A nice afternoon venture along the cliffs. Perhaps Bella would come along. That idea triggered the snort it deserved. Yoga aside, Bella had little patience for strenuous exercise. She also disliked the outdoors. Going it alone, or not, he would need to invest in stout hiking boots and a parka--anorak as the Brits called them. He wasn’t sure he could find them in town.
Monday morning broke clear and bright and cold. Having a go at the Sea Breeze for breakfast, they struck a course north along the A379, visiting the Slapton Sands Monument, a tribute erected to the 749 Allied sailors and soldiers who drowned offshore or were mistakenly killed by friendly fire the night of April 27, 1944. Training for the D-Day invasion along the long beach, the convoy was attacked by German torpedo boats.
At the Mountain Warehouse in Dartmouth, Henry located the hiking boots and anorak. Explaining his plan for later in the week drew a look of amusement from Bella.
“Falling off the hillside isn’t enough, you have to find a cliff, Henry?”
“Want to join me?” he invited, indicating sturdy footwear on the shelf.
Bella rolled her eyes. “I’ll lay in the heating pads and support sock for your sprained ankle. Maybe mercurochrome and bandages for the nasty knock you take on the forehead during your fall.” Looking about, she walked to the head of the adjacent aisle and selected a collapsible aluminium hiking stick. “I strongly suggest you not go anywhere near uneven ground without this.”
Snorting, Henry returned the walking stick to the display and exchanged it for a less expensive model. Having it, though, was a good idea, loathe to admit it or not. His sense of balance had always been a taxing point.
After visiting the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park during the warmest part of the afternoon, the Wheeler’s purchased a number of forgotten provisions at the nearby Morrison’s, and then continued north to visit Torquay, taking dinner at The Orange Tree Restaurant. The fare was pleasant, if not exciting. Due to the long return drive to Torcross, Henry chose a non-alcoholic brew with dinner, rather than his accustomed Heineken’s. Bella mixed wine and an apricot aperitif. Both had a pasta dish.
“Mind you don’t get us lost on the way back,” Bella taunted leaving Torquay.
Henry laughed. “So easy taking a wrong exit, driving down the wrong side of the road like this. Oh, there’s an exit now!” He laughed as the exit slipped by. “I promise not to get us lost, dear.”
Rather than chance the narrow coast road after dark, Henry headed inland upon reaching Paignton, taking Preston Down Road west to Marlon, Totnes Road southwest to Totnes, and the A381 south to Sands Road, which they followed into Torcross. It was 8:45 pm, pulling into the empty car park.
“Are we the first home?” Bella wondered. “Or the only ones renting this late in the year?” It turned out to be the latter option, although a nice Scottish couple took the cottage above them Thursday night for the weekend. By then, Bella had soured on Torcross and the Devon Coast. They vacated a day early, but that’s jumping ahead.
The evening was pleasant, spent before the crackling fire with Heineken and Chardonnay, cheese and crackers, chocolates and mixed nuts. Henry worried about gaining weight; Bella was concerned about salt content. Pleasantly inebriated by 10 pm, Henry again boffed Bella on the couch. Another night of extraordinarily good sex for the retirees.
Tuesday proved another sunny day, with temps in the mid-40’s. Breakfasting on the small side patio, they enjoyed coffee and tea with their fare, a practice likely to set the locals scratching their heads, Henry imagined. Scrambled eggs, bacon strips and sausage links, biscuits with gravy, sliced oranges and pink grapefruit. Henry felt right at home. The coffee, though rather bitter to his taste, was pleasantly strong. Bella had brewed the tea, a delicious local blend sold exclusively at the Start Bay Stores market.
“I’d like to revisit Slapton today,” Henry proposed, “and then venture south to see Start Point Lighthouse. Maybe head over to the South Devon Nature Preserve and dinner in Kingsbridge? How’s that sound, sweetie?”
Bella consulted the map provided by Roderick Clive, the estate agent. “I’d like to see the show playing at Kingsbridge Theatre tonight, so that fits nicely. What about Slocumbe—Salcombe, rather,” she corrected, turning the map. “A trip down the Kingsbridge Estuary like we saw advertised yesterday on the signs?”
Henry slapped his knee. “What a brilliant idea, as the locals would say! Cheerio ... pip-pip!” He consulted Bella’s map. “We’d be right in the English Channel. Wouldn’t that be something?” He laughed, imagining the view across the channel to France. To the east was Normandy, where his father had gone ashore at Omaha Beach with the invasion forces on D-Day. Wounded slightly in the chest by shrapnel, he’d been laid up nearly three months from a more serious thigh injury during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes; a round had nicked his femoral artery and chipped the femur. He’d luckily not bled to death. The intense cold had slowed his bleeding.
“You slept restlessly last night,” Bella commented. “Did you have bad dreams?”
Henry unwontedly flashed back to his awakening just before 3:00 am. The wind had whipped the cottage again last night, the reason, he imagined, for the unwelcome dreams. He’d awoken twice, but remembered nothing of the dream around 1:00 am. It had wisped away even as he got up to go pee. The second dream, though, that was a doozy: he’d hiked along the cliffs and had encountered the coastal defence site south of Beesands. Rather than a heritage site, however, he’d discovered recently completed earthworks, a trio of pristine concrete pillboxes, a pair of freshly mounted artillery pieces between. Bewildered at the discovery, and afraid of trespass on a military installation, he had immediately turned back--to find his way barred by a newly erected chain link fence, razor wire strung along top. More afraid than ever, he had croaked a plea for help: no answer, and it was nearing sundown. Verging on panic, he’d detected movement behind the nearer pillbox.
“Is someone there?” he called tightly. “I’m locked in. I don’t mean to trespass, sir. I’ll gladly leave, if someone would open the gate.”
The shadowy figure said nothing, only watched him stand nervously, walking stick in hand. It was polished oak with a loop of red cloth at the top, not the collapsible model he’d purchased in Dartmouth. His clothes were decidedly different than anything he owned or wore. The coat was heavy sheepskin, his shirt gabardine, and trousers a course denim. He wore a fisherman’s cap as weather-beaten as his boots. He smelled of fish.
The shadowy figure spoke. “Ye be a stranger. Are you lost, sir?”
“No, ma’am,” he objected. “I walked down from Torcross alongside the cliffs. I wanted to inspect the old gun emplacement here, only...” He indicated the freshly poured concrete and dangerous looking guns.
The old party cocked her head. “You shouldn’t be here, aye. Soldiers patrol this area regular, they do. Might be taken abrupt, they find you out of uniform, sir.”
Henry let that go. “I would like very much to leave, ma’am. Have you a key to the gate?”
The old woman cackled. “I dare say, not. I advise you leave the same way you came —” She pointed a gnarled hand, and turning to look, Henry discovered the chain-link fence gone, his way unbarred.
“Be careful not to lose your footing, young man. A fall over these cliffs would be the last anyone saw of you.”
“I’ll be careful,” he promised. “Do you live somewhere close? Do you need accompaniment home?”
The old woman chuckled in amusement. “I’ve walked these hills my whole life, haven’t I. Be fair to useless needing of someone to see me home, wouldn’t I now.” She waved dismissively. “Be off with ya. Mind your step and not me.”