I can see her over 20 years ago when she will have been younger than I am now in a black one piece swimming costume, slender and erect. The waist of a model and the shoulders of an athlete stepping over the pebbles towards the waves breaking upon an empty Cornish beach. Watched only by her two black Labradors on the foreshore and my wife and I, unseen on the path leading from the town.
She cut a lonely figure that flinty spring morning slipping through the spine tingling elements of sea and sand and sky. Years later she told me she’d found that swimming costume on that very beach. She has a wardrobe full of hats, shoes, sun tops, sweaters and scarves, all saved from a watery grave. One day I expect I’ll see her in the Ralph Lauren baseball cap that went overboard on one of my infrequent sailing days around the estuary. She’ll look better in it than me.
She was there every day on that holiday, impervious to the icy cold of the north Atlantic, swimming slowly but strongly against the current for never longer than two minutes. A gamine head of nickel hair protruding above the water like the prow of a ship.
Asking around I learnt that this siren of the seas wasn’t ‘local’ – in the strictest sense of the word. She’d arrived from the other side of the country several decades ago ruffling the senses of the people along this barren stretch of the north coast with her easy laughter, her Jean Muir dresses and Afghan coats, and her and her late husband’s predilection for the sort of British sports cars favoured by sixties rock stars and secret agents. They’d arrived at a time when many hereabouts boasted they’d never ever left the town. In a region popular with retirees whose sole purpose appears to be sitting in a window in zip up fleeces gazing upon an indistinct horizon, until the day their daily nip of sherry misses their lips and the dribbles begin, this pair of boho immigrants, with a dash of rock ’n roll had sought a new beginning. Not for them a death by a thousand dribbles. They’d arrived at a place to feel alive, to sharpen their senses and be seduced by the elements. She’d sought a place to walk her Labradors, where the reflections of the sky upon the ocean are never the same two hours later never mind two days.
“If the weather is bad, just wait an hour,” she says accepting her daily meteorological challenges with relish and widening her radiant blue eyes with a flash of anticipation.
Her name, for the sake of discretion, is Monica and she is sat opposite me in a room that I always imagined Dickens depicted Miss Haversham in. With brass and wood adornments, garnitures, brocade drapes and stout curtain poles, hessian baskets and small shrines to lives past, everything connected by gossamer cobwebs and “provenance”. Her home is a townhouse where centuries past there lived a certain Dr.Marley whose surname Dickens, believed to have been an acquaintance, purloined for A Christmas Carol. The house is no brighter behind the shuttered sash windows now than it was in the 19th century. There are stout iron fireplaces at each end but a fire in only one. There are alcoves of leather bound volumes. Heavy gilt picture frames and hefty settees with heavily pressed cushions like body moulds (“I like to see the impression of where people they have sat,” she says eagerly). There is a softly tapping grandfather clock, a demi lune bearing ornate crystal glass, chandeliers, the satisfying scent of old dog, wood smoke and elegant neglect. We are a long way from the blue and white china factory prints of fishing boats, and table lamps made from pebbles that feature in many of the cheerily gentrified homes nearby. Monica has no need for furniture purporting to be contrived from driftwood (arriving in a cardboard box with a label that states made in China). No faux fishing village paraphernalia here. This is the richly embellished domain of one who values provenance above all else. Point to any artefact and be lost in its story.
She’d grown up during the Second World War on the other side of the country in a place where a brown sea washes against a barren hinterland. Not far from where our own puppy comes from. I remember the breeder deriding the eastern wind that each sweeps across that vulnerable landscape; exposed, cold and treeless. It’s a description that could just as easily apply to the place Monica found herself in a generation later. Except here there is soft sand and the bluest sea.
She’s had Labradors by her side since being a child, and for a while was accompanied by a young pigeon she’d nurtured back to health whom she named Andrew and who perched upon her hat as she cycled across the fens to school. She married young but years later fell for another, also married, and the pair, with her children, ran away to set up home in former railway station in Sussex. She remembers evenings on the roof gazing at the stars and soirees going on for days. Despite, or perhaps because of the parties, the cars, the friends, the eccentricities others can only imagine, she sought out the far west for her holidays moving here permanently in the 1970s.
“I don’t think Richard particularly wanted to be here but he agreed because I wanted to. Like he used to say, ‘Monica, if you want it – you can have it’.” With an attitude like that, and an Aston Martin, is it any wonder she fell for him?
Monica is a woman of contradictions, one moment gregarious and witty the next distant and aloof. Small wonder many around here keep their distance, especially those intimidated by a natural beauty, her a fondness for acidic one-liners and a predilection for Proust and champagne.
“Quelle bliss,” she muses.
“That there Monica Flemming,” to some, while others, acknowledging the sparkle in her eyes and the glamour in her clothes, encouraged a rumour that she was a former Tiller Girl from the London Palladium. She was and remains an enigma in a town she’s called home for over 40 years.
Monica and I were on courteous nods, no more, when one lunchtime Kim and I chanced upon her and Richard outside a pub a couple of miles out of town. Their grey coupe parked across the way. We drank there infrequently owing to the landlord being a curmudgeonly type. Tall, dark with the demeanour of a resentful headmaster and an axe to grind. Nevertheless the pub has a pleasantly bucolic outlook with fields and an ancient church across the way.
“Oh you’ve found us,” she bridled, with merely a hint of cordiality. Another time when she and Richard were walking to a garden party at the local stately home I fancy I made her colour a little. She was wearing a long gown and he full black-tie. She blushed when I told them they were the best dressed couple in town. She reasserted her composure and graciously accepting the compliment pressed on.
I can’t recall how we came to know each other. It was long after Richard’s death and doubtless had something to do with dogs. In my limited experience there are two social lubricants; subjects that will get almost anyone talking. One is football that I have had success with in taxis, bars and many times abroad, especially for some reason in Turkey and Spain. Except Monica loathes football, almost as much as she loathes people using smart phones in her company or peering through her windows when the nights draw in and her living room is alight with a flickering glow. So it had to be the other, dogs. Kim has made many friends here and elsewhere among the dog walking community. But it wasn’t out walking, it was our dog and the daughter of a friend depicted in a photograph taken outside Monica’s home. It’s one of those charming depictions of childhood innocence that could feature in a travel article, in which terraces of slate grey roofs and pastel painted cottages tumble to a harbour. In the foreground a scene of unbridled companionship; a young girl in a sunhat with a dog skipping along. The girl’s mother took the photograph and sent us a copy as a memento of a happy holiday. After some discussion (after all, Monica was just as much a ‘that there Monica’ to me as others) I decided to have it framed and took it around hoping she’d accept a gift from an occasional neighbour and dog walker who lived on and off (a second home owner then) a few yards down the road. She was delighted and instantly hung it on the fireplace wall where we can all enjoy it whenever we share an open fire and a bottle. During one such evening she told us she chose this treeless stretch of Cornwall’s north coast over the “whimsy, flimsy, wooded” south of the county for its big skies (perhaps recalling those of her native East Anglia). And for the moon, in its lucent brilliance, that illuminates our lambent estuary. For the magenta sunrises and the waves pummelling Pentire Point. For the feral deer, the falcons, the egrets, and kingfishers, the curlews, gulls and buzzards. For the restless Atlantic forging new contours and revealing sunken booty. Fast forward two decades and its Kim’s turn to scour that beach for lumps of coal for Monica’s fire, welcome bounty from a cargo ship sunk off Gull Rock back along. There is a map inside a book by Brian French that charts the dozens of ships that went down here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The timbers and maybe some old bones remain there to this day. Years ago the black gold was washed up in lumps the size of hearth rugs. Today Kim is lucky to retrieve a piece as big as a fist.
Much is made both here and beyond of genuine locals; the descendants of people born and raised upon the land on which their ancestors toiled. Such connection instills status in a small community, and no small degree of social one-upmanship. By way of contrast I admire the peripatetic itinerants, the wonderers whose destiny is elsewhere for the making. Those who choose to live many many miles from where they grew up. They who have grabbed their lives by the jugular and Banking over the north east wind arrived where the wind suits their clothes:The Australians and New Zealanders who worked in the local newspaper industry where I trained in North West London; those Windrush children who worked alongside me in the music business; pals raised in neglected parts of Liverpool and Glasgow coming south for the opportunities London promised; people just like Monica, unsatisfied and thirsty for improvement. Of course, many don’t have a choice. They up-sticks and move for work, or war or famine. Others, like myself and Monica, step out of the car and straighten our clothes for no other reason than to be somewhere that satisfies our senses. Far enough away to be other worldly. Somewhere to be forgotten in. A place where clifftop walks are treacherous and exhausting but which nourish the soul in a way the even the best martini cocktail fails to. Alright, a great vodka martini with a twist does have an edge, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
This town is peppered with Monicas. Not as modish and sophisticated perhaps, but all from very different backgrounds lured by the freshness of the saline air and the shifting sands, and formerly and the affordability of the property.
Benjamin was stationed oversees when he asked his wife Celia to find them somewhere to live. She found a former bank with the vault still intact in the basement and a hallway large enough to host five-a-side football.
The building leans towards the sea with every piece of furniture in the south facing extension maintained on an even keel with graded blocks of wood; Vida moved down shortly after Monica finding many suitors when her husband passed away. Husband number two passed away too leaving her alone with her beauty and terriers; John from Portsmouth fell in love with a Cornish maid; Jenny, a cardiologist, hailing from a stucco mansion in Belgravia keeps house for the local gentry in a pile that dates from the 16th century. For a time she lived in a former coffin store off a ginnel running beneath and between ancient homes. (There are many narrow, subterranean thoroughfares hereabouts.) Jenny was drawn to the endless beach and the sky but misses those essential decadences on sale in London’s Jermyn Street. I’ll wager her’s is the only coffin store on the planet with a bathroom decked out by Czech and Speake; Tamsin, divorced, followed her son here, who has been hooked on surfing since his early holidays on the north coast in the 90s. He works as a coastguard and among Tamsin’s multifarious activities hereabouts is running film club from her front room. She lives next door to a tall man from Philadelphia who, when he is not dreaming about plastic surgery, writes articles for students in another country and quaffs Pinot Grigio and irks local restaurateurs (the way all Americans do) by redesigning to his own exacting standards the simplest meal. I’ve yet to meet an American who can accept even something as undemanding as a sandwich on face value; Simon was a journalist, and by all accounts a bit of a bon viveur. Someone said he wrote about fashion which is believable as he cuts a dapper figure in a town where with only a few exceptions, Monica and Avril among them, style is a term used only for interior decorating. As far as I know Simon is the only resident to possess an overcoat and a hat with the snap brim. His wife is an artist and sells in a local gallery. Her works depict the joys of beach life; then there’s the local musician and raconteur Christopher, from Liverpool, who hosts a Friday night shindig in a bar overlooking the quay. He plays the bars and restaurants along the coast in a number of musical configurations. Sometimes with his son on jazz vocals, and other times with Little Phil or The Lost Causes; there are teachers, and lorry drivers, publicans and retired accountants. A raft of people who have settled here for all manner of reasons, many enjoying a cliquey network of clubs, societies and charities. But not Monica. She’s a woman who values distance, the space between her and the outside world. She didn’t move here to make friends despite there being a great many desirous to befriend her. When I think about it she must have given those muddy farm boys in East Anglia sleepless nights. Whenever I see her I hear Dave Rawlings’ ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’. She’s never worked and by all accounts never given it much thought.
“They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day,” she says quoting Winnie the Pooh, then casting her mind to the precise location in her of that tome? “Beneath the second wardrobe in bedroom three on the first floor. No, sorry. On the stairs, four steps up by the garden window.”
Monica’s been too busy being a beautiful mother, reading and walking her black Labradors to do anything so plebeian as work. While Richard took a sledgehammer to the house, reconfiguring a warren of Marley’s rooms into something unstable but with more grandeur Monica read everything she could get her decorous hands on. There are books everywhere in her shadowy home of bitter sweet memories. They line the stairs and fill the alcoves. Others in a bookshelf integral to a standard lamp with a tasselled shade. There are many more, boasts this nocturnal reader, beneath her mahogany four poster bed where at night the red and golden illuminations of a dredger in the estuary shines “Christmas lights” on her ceiling. “Quelle bliss,” she says in her favoured Franglais, revelling in the perfection of her maritime twilight show
Monica prefers biographies, poetry and history. She enjoys The Daily Telegraph and The New Yorker and reads fashion magazines, Vogue and Harpers & Queen. She steered me towards Lauren Bacall’s autobiography after something I said about Bogart, and thence to a book about clouds: I now sit in my kitchen and stare at the alto cumulous Stradivarius that interlock like celestial chainmail, and monitor the nimbus clouds soaking Rough Tor and Brown Willy on the eastern horizon. She insisted I read Nana, Emile Zola’s study of prostitution and despair in 18th century Paris, and her favourite book, The Rings Of Saturn, by the German writer WG Sebald, because it chronicles an immigrant’s odyssey through the county towns and coastline of her youth in East Anglia. It contains a passage from Thomas Browne’s Hydrotaphia she is especially fond of.
…there is no antidote against the opium of time. The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Not even those who have found a place amidst the heavenly constellations have perpetuated their names: Nimrod is lost in Orion and Osiris in the Dog Star. Indeed, old families last not three oaks. To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace? The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten…
Sebald, himself an immigrant, a German scholar who taught in Norwich, walked the coast from Great Yarmouth to Southwold, dwelling upon a number of places I have visited over the years. I was especially drawn to the segment in Southwold’s Seaman’s Mission and another describing a long gone former palace near Lowestoft. His previous book, The Emigrants, published three years earlier in 1992 (ironically a gift from the American who exchanged Pennsylvania for Cornwall) recounts the experiences of four characters who have left their native Germany for new lives in this country and the United States. Whenever I think of it I can hear Carole King lamenting nobody staying in one place anymore?
Monica is alone much of the time. Both her children taken much too soon. Richard’s Moulton bicycle unridden for over a decade is chained to the front railings. The frame and wheels encrusted with rust and there is moss on the saddle. It has the aura of something recovered from an architectural dig. Two French youths were photographing it when Monica appeared at a first floor window directly above them.
“What are you doing,” she wanted to know?
They were polite and respectful and inquired why it was there, and in such a state?
“It’s a monument,” was all she said.
Could they photograph it? “Yes,” she replied, evidently softened by their courtesy.
Monica isn’t enjoying her advancing years very much despite being sharper, better dressed and with more recall than those a quarter of her age. In moments of exultant exuberance we three put her demeanour and well being down to “vanity and alcohol”. Whereupon we raise our glasses with the easy conversation veering off to some other overlooked but essential decadence..
For much of the winter she remains indoors. She has an Aga upon which she dries the logs for her fire, and bakes jacket potatoes. In the summer she moves outside, her garden a verdant jewell in a cramped town where every available square foot is built upon. A serpentine path and screens of foliage twist and turn revealing hidden enclosures and romantic perspectives. It is overgrown in a controlled sort of way thanks to Monica’s daughter-in-law who strives to keep it in check. In it Monica can follow the courtship of the randy sparrows going about their noisy seduction within an ivy that is silently wrenching the stained glass mullioned porch away from the rest of the house. Or she can sit in her summer house and marvel at the blooms that burst in spectacular profusion from the vast and magnificent magnolia grandiflora.
Without her dogs mostly it’s just her now, her photographs and books. She seldom if ever leaves the house she says with pride is falling apart around her. Her only company for much of the time her daughter-in-law who lives next door and who cleans and shops and manages Monica’s affair. Monica no longer enjoys impromptu tete a tetes and has been known to remain unseen, concealed beneath piles of sofa throws and blankets to avoid visitors. Her stringently enforced isolation only interrupted by bi-annual soirees: hot ticket events every spring and autumn equinox. Within the town’s expat community these are not to be missed. On a table spanning the entire length of the lounge are savouries to satisfy the most discerning gourmand and all the wine anyone, even Monica on a roll, could want. We’ll sit together, her in something floor length and body hugging with long silver earrings glistening in the firelight, while at the other end of the room guests in fleeces and unspeakably bad footwear enjoy their time at the ‘go to’ party of the season. That’s when she’ll lean over to me and quietly inquire who half of them are? It’s then she’ll stand erect, a glass of sauvignon blanc in her hand and work the room with her seamless social repartee.
That’s when I am reminded why I love her.
“So, precisely how many husbands have you had?” asked a guest bearing the expression of unbridled earnestness, dressed as though he might just have stepped off a rubber dingy.
“It was perfect,” Monica told me later. “Peggy Guggenheim’s retort was there for the saying.
“I asked him, do you mean mine or other women’s? Quelle bliss.”
How could it be anything else?
Sonia Morgan April 25, 1930 – February 28, 2022