Tania, my wife, used to wonder why I’d never wanted to return to Salcombe. “It looks such a lovely place”, she said to me once, looking at a picture in a colour supplement. And for one terrible moment I thought she was going to insist that I take her there. I just nodded; she returned to her reading and my heartbeat returned to its normal level. Then there was the time when the diving club came on their ‘shipwrecks of the South Devon coast’ tour, and I had to invent some excuse not to come. It was easier than trying to explain: there are certain things I would rather leave undisturbed. And so, for twenty-three years I had never set eyes on the place, until that day last summer. That was different; that was ‘business’.
I arrived an hour or so before the appointment, just long enough for a return trip on the Portlemouth ferry, and a drink at the outdoor café overlooking the estuary. From that point of view, the view of the postcards and the colour supplements, little had changed on the other side: a few new hotels in the higher part of the Town, a new pontoon for the ferry. But to me, the whole place looked smaller and prettier than I remembered it. I watched a tern fly in from the mouth of the estuary, hover between the moored dinghies and fishing boats, dive vertically into the clear water, then move on, making room for another. Yes Tania, it is a lovely place, particularly from where I am sitting, admiring the girls on the little beach below me.
At one end of the waterfront opposite, I could just make out the property which had tempted me to break my twenty-three year resolution. In a terrace of small cottages like a block of Neapolitan ice cream, it was the vanilla one. I pulled out the agents’ details:
‘An original fisherman’s cottage with unparalleled views over the estuary. A superb investment opportunity. Guide price £275,000. Mrs M Luscombe, Sales Representative’
I tried to imagine Marianne as an estate agent – what a strange idea.
I looked at my watch: time to wander down towards the passenger ferry weaving its way between the buoys towards us.
The cottage lay behind a row of quiet iron railings, overgrown with privet and ivy, with only a narrow footpath between the railings and the harbour wall. I opened the gate into the overgrown front garden, walked four or five paces to the front door and turned the knob; it was already open.
There she was in a smart blue uniform, tailored around her small waist, her face revealing a little more of what was underneath, but still, unmistakeably, Marianne.
“How are you?”
“Considering the fact that I’m showing people like you round houses in this lovely weather.”
“Not pleased to see me then?”
“What do you think?” She gave me one of her enigmatic smiles, and I wondered.
“So what d’you reckon on this place then?” I looked around the tiny sitting room with just stains on the wallpaper to show where furniture used to stand.
“It won’t be on the market long; I’ll tell you that. You’re the fifth person to view it since yesterday. Anything on the waterfront just gets snapped up.” Her voice was tired – she didn’t sound like a saleswoman, I was pleased to hear.
“So what’s it like, being an estate agent?” I asked, strolling around the room – the smell of dust was everywhere.
“It pays the bills, I suppose.” I stopped a couple of steps away from her.
“Are you satisfied, all in all?” She looked straight at me for one brief moment.
“More or less.”
“How’s darling Ted?” as soon as I heard the sarcasm in my own voice I thought: damn; I’ve overstepped the mark. The tone of her voice turned defensive.
“He’s fine – back in work now. We’re very happy together. Do you want to see the back room?”
I watched the line of her skirt tighten over her thigh as she stepped forward, trying to make out whether she still wore suspenders.
Three steps and we were standing in the other half of the ground floor.
“This is the kitchen-diner: gas-fired Aga…”
The previous owners weren’t particularly into cleaning, I was going to say, but stopped when I saw the cast iron table and chairs in the small back yard.
“Fancy a little chat in the sun?”
“I haven’t got long,” she said, but went to open the back door.
“It’s a small garden, as you can see, but it’s a lovely sun trap.” She sat down on the opposite side of the table and I noticed the grey streaks camouflaged amongst her thick black curls.
“So what is Peregrine Investments?”
“One of my companies. We own quite a bit of property along this coast – all holiday lets so far, and we’ve got some other properties in London and Bristol – luxury apartments, mainly.”
“You’ve done well for yourself.” Her voice betrayed more admiration than she probably intended, and I basked for a moment in the glow, and the sun, and the breeze, before turning to look straight into her eyes – as innocent, and deceptive as ever.
“Do you ever regret staying…”
“No, I never regret staying with Ted. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve given Andrew the best upbringing we possibly could.”
“How is Andrew?”
Her expression lightened.
“He’s really looking forward to the wedding. He’d never show his mates but I think he’s more excited than she is. If only they…if only we can sort out where they are going to live.”
“They’ve had no luck then?”
“There’s absolutely nothing – I tell you. The cheapest property we had on our books until this morning was a flat for a hundred and fifty thousand – they’ve just accepted an offer of a hundred and sixty.”
“Can’t they rent?”
“There’s nothing in Salcombe – it’s all holiday lets. The nearest we’ve got are in Kingsbridge and the rents are way beyond anything Andrew could afford. It’s terrible.”
I could hear her struggling to keep the emotion out of her voice. Our eyes met and she stopped. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop worrying about him – even when he moves out.”
“I always knew you’d make a good mum – good mums always worry. Are you going to take me upstairs then?”
She stood up and her legs were in front of my face. I think they must be tights – more’s the pity.
I followed her slim calves and shiny high heels up the narrow staircase and into the front bedroom.
“This is what you’re paying for.” The glow from the window traced a few delicate lines over her face. I moved close enough to smell her perfume, and we both looked out over the water.
“D’you ever think about moving back?”
“Only now I’m looking at you.”
She tutted and gave me her old ‘I know you’ smile.
“So have they had any other offers?”
“One this morning for two hundred and sixty. They won’t accept it.”
“Isn’t it a breach of professional ethics, telling me that?”
“Of course.” Her face had turned serious.
“But you’re willing to break the rules, for him”
“At the moment, yes. He really needs my help…and yours.” I went to take her hand, and she let me hold it. It was still there, somewhere, the old warmth. “Will you do it…for both of us?”
“Hmm?” I paused, trying to keep her guessing. “How much do you think they could afford?”
“Three hundred pounds a month?”
“Close the deal at the lowest price and I’ll make it two hundred and fifty, and your company can be the managing agents.” I waited for some reaction but she said nothing. “Has anyone ever suspected?”
“I could always rely on you to keep a secret.”
Still holding my hand, she turned to face me.
“One side of me says I ought to thank you for this…and the other says it’s the least you could do, under the circumstances… What do you think?”
“I think…you’re still as beautiful as ever,” and I went to kiss her. Her body felt reluctant at first, then seemed to melt in a wave of acquiescence.
“You haven’t changed.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It wasn’t meant to be.”
“Of course, I’ll want to see the managing agent from time to time, in private.”
Her eyes turned hard, and neither of us spoke, until I lowered my head to plead in my softest voice:
“Keep a secret?”
A blank expression came over her face, before a barely perceptible nod and a quiet, emotionless voice repeated: