The Storyteller


1. The Beginning of the End

Being in love is very different to what you hope it might be. I’ve read that it’s wonderful, that it allows you to forget all the imperfections in your life. And it does, to some extent. Time and time again the love that the fairy tales describe leaves people together. It leaves people walking hand in hand under a moonlit sky, or gazing into one another’s eyes. Happily ever after. But the only love I have encountered has left me alone; desolate and wandering beneath that star studded night, and the only gaze that meets mine is my own; that of my reflection staring emptily out of a shallow puddle beneath a bench, perched on an isolated peninsular. My story begins about a year ago. It was a day where the very air seemed to pulse with excitement, to tremor with a colossal secret that I was yet to be told of. I sat at my mother’s kitchen table and tried to defuse the silent anticipation in the atmosphere, frowning down at my hands as they twitched atop the sand-coloured wood. Standing suddenly, I marched to the window and flung open the dust laced curtains, feeling the warm rush of sunlight as it seeped through the thin casement glass and settled comfortably on my face. Through the battered panes I could see water; the sea rolling with an almighty strength as it crashed upon the rocks, seeking to destroy but instead ricocheting away in a thousand splendid droplets, thrown into sparkling focus by the sun. I could not see the cape though… And suddenly felt that today was the day to stand out alone at the viewpoint and watch the sapphire ocean below writhe in turmoil in its on-going battle against the hard-faced land. A moment later the front door slammed behind me, surely startling Mother into missing a precious loop on her next knitted monstrosity. I sincerely hoped it was an essential twist in the pattern, then perhaps she would have to dispose of the entire thing and I would be free of another ill-fitting, fuchsia jumper. I’d had these hopes before however; considered resorting to open sabotage of the garments, but all this had concluded with was a spectacularly holey night cap. None the less, today would not be ruined by the looming embarrassment of my mother’s handicraft, and so I ran into the salt-scented air with a smile and a shiver as I wished – ironically- I had smothered my pride and worn one of my mother’s scarfs. My boots crunched on the frosted grass as I stomped gleefully towards the outcrop of land that was widely known as “Cape Cornwall”. I wondered if today would be the day to see my seal. I’d had not seen him since the previous summer; yet I had a feeling that this thronging exhilaration I was feeling had something to do with his return. I finally reached the cape, and skittered up the stone steps to the look-out post, all the while searching the sea below for a sign of my friend’s rubbery head. As I reached the summit, I spotted what I had longed to see and forgot myself; leaping towards the edge of the land, yelling out in happiness and waving down to the cheerful little animal in the freezing water below. He bobbed smartly in the sea, now and again ducking beneath the waves when the tide carried him in too far. The sight of my seal was a small luxury that I had so looked forward to through the winter months, and now that May had come around once more and he was finally back, I could do nothing but squeal in delight. Only after I had momentarily worn myself out did I hear something else carried on the roaring wind biting at my ears. A laugh that was now perfectly audible now that I had stopped my childish act. I slowly lowered my upraised arms and turned back towards the seating area that had been erected by the workmen about a month before. On it sat a boy, his elbows propped on his knees as his right hand clenched in a fist stifling his mouth. Other than his obvious amusement at my behaviour, the first thing I noticed about this boy was his hat. It was rounded and black, the rim pulled low over his eyes that were still flickering with mirth. For some reason this hat struck me as out of place, for it was like nothing I had seen before, especially not on a rocky peninsular in the remotest part of the country. His shirt too was odd, the collar curved and stubby beneath a rigid black jacket and buttoned overcoat. These observations were made whilst I waited patiently for the boy to leave; he looked like a gentleman and therefore should act so, and should surely have left after laughing so openly at a lady. But leave he did not and instead stood, straightening his jacket and striding over to me, raising a hand in greeting. “Top of the morning to you,” he called once he was within speaking distance. Top of the what? The morning? The morning can’t have a top, surely? It’s not a jam jar. His voice was almost as strange as his exclamation; it lilted and bounced over the syllable of each word. As he approached I could see more of his face, his skin was freckled over high arching cheek bones, cast into shadow beneath the rim of his hat. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed my seal dipping in and out of the water, I didn’t want to miss a moment watching him talking to this oddly-hatted man. “Are you lost?” I asked, attempting to sound polite. “Me? No miss,” he paused, “just came up to see the view and noticed the little fella’”, he waved vaguely towards the water. I had to pause for a moment as I attempted to process what had just been said. I was still struggling over the “topping of my morning” conundrum, and was trying to decipher what he meant by “fella’”… though could deduce that perhaps he was referring to my seal, in which case I nodded and said; “Yes, it’s the first time I’ve seen him this year,” a pause, “are you from around these parts?” “No, miss, not originally. I’m over from Wicklow,” seeing my confused expression he added, “Ireland”. Ah, that explained the peculiarly pleasant accent. We stood for some moments longer, him considering me from a short distance as I slowly developed a headache from analysing his alien terms of phrase. He asked me in turn about my home, chuckling gently as I cautiously described my mother permanently rocking in her wicker chair, our disjointed array of animals, and the tasks we had faced living alone in an over-sized house in the most isolated part of Cornwall. He asked all the correct questions, egging my on with wide grey eyes glinting with curiosity. Without interruption, I spoke for the longest amount of time I could remember, for Mother never wished to hear me ramble for more than a minute. I found myself to be enjoying snickering with a stranger about the state of my mother’s knit work, and my inquisitive new friend seemed to be as amused as I was by her endless woven catastrophes. When I had run out of stories of wild chickens fleeing their coup, and our dogs that had the unfortunate habit of diving into rock pools, we stood in silence and watched as my seal bobbed slowly further out to sea. Finally I could not make him out, and instead watched the light glimmer on the water. “I should be heading home,” I thought aloud, breaking the silence. The boy nodded and smiled, bowing his head as I turned and walked away. How strange. He had not even said goodbye, and then I remembered something I had meant to ask him all along and forgotten. “Sir?” He turned, still smiling, “what is your name?” “William Carrick, miss” he answered, “and yours?” “A pleasure to meet you, Mr Carrick,” I replied, “As for my name, we shall save that for next time.” Satisfied with the fittingly bemused look upon his face, I once again spun and galloped away before my legs could carry me back to the ledge where he stood. *        

That night I sat curled on my bed, feet tucked beneath me to prevent my toes from turning blue now that the fire in the grate had died. Staring out between the draperies of my window I wondered where Carrick was. If he was in the inn at St. Just, he would surely have encountered the village girls as they passed through the square on their way to church this morning. I imagined him tipping them his extraordinary hat whilst they blushed and giggled to one another as I had seen them do. The image irritated me for some inexplicable reason. Despite this I fell asleep smiling, because I knew he would be on that same ledge tomorrow morning. I could tell from the spark in his eyes. He was. Outlined against the blinding cobalt back drop he stood with his hands buried deep into his pockets, his head bowed against the wind. I sauntered towards him, dismissing the slight thudding in my ears as a result of the biting gale. Instead of walking to the shelf on which we had stood yesterday, I marched past him to the bench where I had first seen him laughing at me. There I sat with my feet pressed together beneath my heavy skirt, and squinted out over the horizon. My seal was there again, further east of the cape than yesterday. Carrick turned, and spotting me, wandered over, wobbling slightly on the uneven. I nodded politely as he approached, and then felt the damp wood slightly sag underneath me as he sat down. “Morning Miss,” he greeted me cheerfully, leaning back against the seat as he too strained his eyes for a sight of the seal. “Good morning, Mr Carrick,” I replied, “the seal is back, have you seen?” He conferred that “yes, he had seen the little fella’,” apparently he had been here for quite some time. “I believe I am still not suitably acquainted with you miss,” he told me, after we had discussed the weather to a great extent, “For you still have not conceded to tell me your name!” and in that moment, I found that (worryingly) I was beginning to like his bouncing accent. “Bethany Pembroke.” “A pleasure to meet you Miss Pembroke”, grinning, he tipped his hat the way I had imagined him doing so yesterday evening. Thinking of nothing better to discuss, I boldly asked him more of Winslow, his home town, for I had never heard of it before, nor did I know anything about Ireland.  He had lived in a small country manor left to him by his parents when they had passed away some years ago. He did not seem sad about the loss of these relatives, just fond of the memories he harboured of them. He had come to England to write, he told me. His distant relation owned a small cottage in St Just, and so he had travelled here in the hope to be motivated by the spectacular scenery he had been informed of in Ireland.  He spoke not of what he intended to write - a novel to be precise- but of how he would write it. And I listened in rapture as he described precise phrasings and the imagery that only this landscape has inspired him to transcribe. I had never seen anyone so passionate about an immaterial article, his hands flying through the frozen air as he avidly described the setting with which his story would begin. The voice that I had become accustomed to hearing full of laughter was suddenly serious, and I found him to be more captivating than I thought a single human being could be possible of doing. He would occasionally pause, and look at me as if asking if I was tiring of his outburst, but when he did so I prompted him on, desperate to hear more. We met there every morning, and each morning we would sit and briefly acknowledge the niceties of the weather and how Carrick was enjoying his stay, before plunging once more into the fascinating world which he could conjure up using nothing but words. He would ask me questions, usually to do with the nearby towns and cities, which he explained was because he wanted to be utterly steadfast in the knowledge of his setting. Yet sometimes I felt that when I spoke he was not listening to what I was explaining. He would sit as he did when I first saw him, elbows on knees, and frown down at his clasped hands, a half-smile playing about his lips. On which occasions I would just talk, fearful of missing out a crucial snippet of information that a particular metaphor may be dependent on.  These times I often wondered what my Mother would say if she knew I was spending hours upon hours with a young man, alone together with no one but my seal for an audience. However I never gave much thought to the situation for fear of talking myself out of it. I cannot say how long we sat there each day, but I knew that if I arrived there before having breakfast, I would surely miss not only that meal but possibly lunch; if the chapter he was depicting that day was particularly enchanting. I would look at my seal devouring yet another fish, and feel somewhat envious. One afternoon, (for we had talked for so long it was surely that late,) my stomach rumbled and Carrick, hearing, bit back a smile as he asked me, “It’s certainly time for lunch, don’t you think?” I nodded, “I dare say I missed breakfast too! You are very welcome to come back to the house, a lady from St Just comes and cooks for us, you would need to look no further for a meal.” “I would like that very much, thank you,” came the reply.  I was all at once thrilled that William Carrick and I would finally be in each other’s company away from the constant battering of the elements of the mantle.        * When we finally reached the house, I faltered. “My mother can sometimes be a little eccentric Mr Carrick,” I warned him. He nodded silently, and the expression on his face told me that nothing would stop him from entering the house I had described so vividly. His eyes were curious, taking in the numerous wide windows and dawdling path that led through the battered cottage garden to the front door. We hurried up the path, and on the porch step, each took a deep breath before I pushed the front door open. The first time (and last) time my mother had ever prioritised another person over her knitting, was the first time my mother met William Carrick. When her eyes first flicked away from the bluebell coloured wool to my friend, I felt my heart pause momentarily. Standing at the threshold of the sitting room, I cleared my throat; “Mother, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Mr William Carrick”. Mother slowly and deliberately laid down her knitting, (much to my astonishment) and began a close scrutiny of the man standing jut behind me. I saw her small hazel eyes move over his smartly buttoned coat, and to his face. Her expression twitched momentarily, as she took in his large wide-set grey eyes and the smatter of freckles across his nose. Her gaze continued to travel upwards, to that splendid hat he wore, which he immediately took off. I then realised I’d never actually seen William not wearing his hat. His hair beneath was messy, crumpled from its time captive beneath the hat, and stuck up slightly at the front. “Pleased to meet you ma’am”, he greeted her. Mother’s faced convulsed to a smile as she heard the Irish tone in his voice, and welcomed him in. He did so graciously, and sank down on the small settee, his eyes flickering back to me as he leaned forward, elbows on knees. I stood, confused in the doorway, listening in amazement as my mother and Carrick exchanged pleasantries; no, he wasn’t from Cornwall, yes, he was enjoying his stay, than you very much. My mother’s eyes flicked between William and myself, and after about five minutes, had appeared to reach a decision about how to handle our relationship. She sat back, her hands reaching, as if instinctively towards her knitting. Then, interrupting William mid-sentence, declared; “You two must be in want of some tea,” we nodded, “There are some tea and scones in the parlour, you may take it there.” Her gaze finally dropped from William’s face and came back to rest, as always, on her knitting. Seeing himself as abruptly dismissed, Carrick stood and followed me towards the parlour, walking at a safe enough distance away for it to be proper, but closer than a fairly newly acquainted pair should do. Finally seated at the rickety parlour table, I allowed myself to look at the man opposite me for the first time. His lips were pressed tightly together, supressing a smile as we talked as if strangers about the daintiness of the china teapot, and how delicious the Cornish cream tea set out for us looked. His eyes flicked up, meeting mine over the delicate table wear as his grin finally cracked through its restraints. He beamed at me, his hand jostling slightly against mine as I passed him a brimming cup and saucer. From there, the talked turned inevitably to his book. He talked today of the main character, a girl. “Not dissimilar to you, Beth,” he commented, his tone offhand but his eyes bored into mine, searching for some sort of answer, and apparently finding one, leaned away from me smiling to himself. My cheeks were flushed as I shifted slowly away from his gaze, shaking my head slightly to rid it of the sudden deafening pounding that had exploded in my head. “Ah,” I paused, my voice had cracked out of my chest unnaturally loudly so I cleared my throat, starting again, “how interesting! More tea?” I offered the teapot, changing he subject seemed like a good plan. I refused to succumb to the wave of tension building in the room, bow to its might and be consumed by irrational feeling. “Thank you,” his eyes met mine, and in that single moment I glimpsed the feeling that I had read about, heard about, and even described to me (in her own, special way) by my mother. A remote peninsular in Cornwall seems an unlikely place to have found the phantom spectre that both haunts and makes life, yet even to this day, I believe that what has since brought me so much misery did in that single second become a real, tangible thing. A smile crept across Will’s sun-drenched face, and lit the grey in his eyes with a flicker of excitement. There suddenly seemed nothing more to do than sit and absorb the situation, so I did just that. We sat in comfortable silence until the light grew old on the pale papered walls and turned the air chilled. “I should be leaving you, Miss Pembroke,” Mr Carrick finally uttered, his voice alive with the thrill that had battered the room all afternoon. But his formal address frightened me, and, panicking, I sprung from the table, fixing a smile to my face. “Ah, keen to get on I see! I shall take my leave, good night,” William exclaimed, standing up himself. How had I managed to wrong-foot the situation without saying a word? Was it even possible that such an event as this afternoon could collapse in the space of two utterances? Apparently so. I opened my mouth to argue but he swept in front of me towards the front door. I practically chased him to the front door, confused and embarrassed, “Mr Carrick!” He turned, his hand on the door handle. And to my disbelief, a smile I now know to be mine, was curling his lips, his eyebrows raised as if pleasantly astonished to see me standing, bewildered, in front of him. He nodded, encouraging me to go on. “I… Er… Good night!” I mumbled as I barged past him to open the door, letting the sea air cool my burning face. “Good night, Beth,” and so quickly that do this day I wonder if it happened, he bent and kissed me lightly on the cheek, then flew over the threshold. As the garden gate swung open he turned, and grinning against the blood-red sunset, fitted his hat to his head as he strolled into the dusk. * Looking back, I remember for days the excitement of seeing him either on the cape or crossing paths as we pretended to go about our everyday business with the hope of coming across the other. The memory of him striding towards me, confident and bold, brings about an ache at the centre of my chest, so painful I can hardly believe such intensity of feeling to be possible. But it is. And I live with it not only when I remember him on those meetings, but when I see a young man wearing a rounded cap, when I see cape emerging from the morning mist each day, when I walk through the parlour, past the seat he once sat in. But worst of all are the headlines. Stamped, black on white, the resounding message that he will never come home. Of course I’d known the troubles brewing across the expanse of ocean I loved so well, I knew of the politics and the threats, the whispers and the meetings our media tirelessly uncovered. But these were the rumours one heard in the bakery, whilst delivering a letter in St Just. Never did I believe the war would touch me. But it did. William and I never spoke about these troubles, only of his sense of duty. “If our country were to enter into war,” then his lilting voice would falter, choking, “I would sign up immediately. You’ve heard of conscription?” I had nodded. “I wouldn’t wait for that. My father was in the military, and if I shirked what he had worked so tirelessly for, I could never forgive myself.” This was all that was ever said on the matter. Though 3 months after our afternoon in the parlour William Carrick vanished. It pains me to say that the last time I saw him I hardly believed anything to be amiss. We spoke as we always had, sitting on our bench, watching my seal splashing below. Only when I was leaving did he make any suggestion, “Beth?” I turned, “If… something were to happen,” he waved away my confusion as to what this may be, “promise me you will take my stories, read them and study them. You will find the answers to anything I may have left unreturned.” With this strange sentiment, he kissed me, as was the norm now, and fled the peninsular. Even to this day, I can taste the salt on my lips that I had dismissed at the time as sea spray. When he left I believed for a short while he had realised it was not me that he wanted, but the wild imaginings he described to me so vividly. Though after a week of wondering, I remembered that final, strange wish, and wandered towards the cottage he had spent so many hours describing. I found the key under the mat, as he had always informed me, and let myself in to the lifeless home. It was as if I had been there a hundred times before, Will’s telling of it had made it so real, but strode immediately to the study. “First door up the stairs, shove the door a bit if it won’t budge,” I had no idea what “shove” meant, though could vaguely translate that it meant “push”. I did, and it swung open to reveal a small oak desk, piled with leather bound black notebooks and newspapers. Every newspaper was about the war, for it had begun and with it came the tales of lives being lost meaninglessly and without recognition. Atop one tower of particularly battered looking notebooks, lay William’s hat. I recollect walking shakily to the desk, gently pulling the hat into my lap, and beginning to read the first book. He had gone, of that I was sure, for the journals described at length his guilt, his constant self-hate that he was ignoring his father’s wishes and was instead spending every waking moment with me. I believe my heart did not break until I began to read his “stories”. For there were none. Each notebook would begin with a title, some of which I recognised, and a plot, yet instead of reading the words I remembered him to tell, I read only avid analysis of the conversations we had had. There were descriptions of Cape Cornwall, my home and me, sprawled across every page of the books. All the tales he had dreamed would never see justice, for the only thing William Carrick had written of, was me. * Now I sit alone on our bench on the peninsula. I hold a single notebook and a time-beaten hat that I found in a deserted house ten years ago. I look out over the glistening sea, speckled and frothing in the pouring rain. This time of year used to mean my seal. But since everything was lost, won and forgotten, he has not returned. The war has ended, the men returned to their families and friends. But William Carrick had no family, he had no friends. He had only a girl that sat and waited for him. That still waits for him; waits for the endings of his stories, waits for the pain to be over. However it remains, cutting into me as I gaze into a puddle, hoping to see a reflection that will never emerge.

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