‘She lives on the coast, in a cove,’ said Marcia one day as we were driving to the shops.
‘Who does?’ I asked.
‘Mathilda,’ she replied as we pulled into the car park. ‘We’ll talk about it later,’ and with that I had to be content.
‘He’s a botanist,’ she explained after we had finished the shopping, ‘who studies coastal plant life in the south west but he’s a don at Oxford so they only come down during the holidays which he spends collecting things that he takes back to study later.’ She had that far away look which meant that we were about to inhabit another universe, roughly parallel with the one in which I live but infinitely more important.
‘I think I’m a bit confused. I though you said the name was Mathilda.’
‘That’s his daughter. She’s an academic like he was. Anyway, they’re living in an odd house in a cove on the coast.’
‘They haven’t said yet but they do their shopping in Kingsbridge and there’s a boathouse and I think there’s a little cottage as well.’
‘So we won’t have to drive all round the coast of Cornwall before deciding its in Dorset?’ My sarcasm was rightly ignored.
‘But she doesn’t live alone – she’s too old for that. There’s someone in the cottage who cleans for her and so on. The cove’s a bit like Lannacombe but it’s more private and I think you can see the Mew Stone so it will have to be the other side of Start Point – but only just or they’d use Dartmouth and not Kingsbridge.’
This narrowed down the search considerably – the Mew Stone is a great rock stands lightly to the east of the entrance to the River Dart. The cove had to be somewhere between Torcross and Start Point.
Gradually Marcia began to ‘see’ the cove more clearly: a stream running through farmland and woods and then plunging into a fairly narrow valley before running over the sand in the cove itself.
The day came when we set out to explore and once more we sought the fictional within the real. Turning south in Stokenham at Carehouse Cross we worked our way to Start Point and back. In the end we decided the cove lay to one side of Tinsey Head.
Like the locations of all the previous books, this was very familiar ground for both of us. Throughout much of Marcia’s childhood, the family had spent at least a fortnight on holiday staying in a guest house in Stokenham which was run by a French woman who had married an English soldier at the end of the First World War. She was a superb cook and Marcia’s father loved his food. Perhaps I should add that the family, being so large, took over the entire guest house and so a very special relationship was forged with the much loved owner.
Days would be spent exploring the coastline between Dartmouth and Portlemouth or lazing on one of the beaches: favourites being Torcross, Lannacombe and Portlemouth. Marcia is often asked if the cove in this book was based on Lannacombe. The answer is (as so often) ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yes because the cove ‘feels’ like Lannacombe: no because it is smaller, more private and on the other side of the Start Peninsula. This meant that we did not need to spend much time learning the area – the pleasure of exploring pastures new was yet to come – but we thoroughly enjoyed going back to places we had not visited for some time.
‘It’s very odd,’ said Marcia. It was a few days later and we were eating breakfast, ‘Isobel wants to work in the Harbour Bookshop in Kingsbridge and nothing I say will make her change her mind.’
‘Can we start at the beginning? Who is Isobel?’ I asked. There are times when keeping up with a creative novelist is just too much for a hack writer like me.
‘Well,’ patiently, ‘Isobel is the girl who is looking after Mathilda. She left her husband and had an affair and it all went terribly wrong and she’s on her own and trying to make a fresh start in life.’
‘Why can’t she work at the bookshop?’
‘I didn’t say she couldn’t but I’ll have to ask Pat.’
At this stage I should explain that the Harbour Bookshop is a very real bookshop in Mill Street, Kingsbridge and it is run by Pat Abrehart. Pat had held signings and even arranged a ‘meet Marcia Willett’ evening which was great fun with about a hundred people enjoying the party.
After we had finished eating, Marcia disappeared and made a telephone call to Pat.
‘That’s all right’, she announced on her return. ‘Pat says “Fine, but she’ll have to work as a part-timer.”’
Thus does reality and fantasy merge and meld in our household. Later that day, I left Marcia at home and took Isobel with me to help with the shopping – it seemed the safest thing to do!
When Isobel answers the advertisement seeking a part time helper in exchange for free accommodation, she is in a very emotional state. She has had an affair – a moment of madness – which has destroyed her marriage and wrecked her relationship with her much loved daughter. It is an affair she bitterly regrets but she can find no way of repairing the damage that she has done. All her love and desire to care for someone is turned towards Mathilda. What she does not know, because Mathilda does not want her to know, is that Mathilda is dying of cancer. When that day comes, Isobel is devastated. She is convinced that she has failed Mathilda by not knowing about this illness. Above all, she cannot forget that she had no opportunity to say ‘good-bye’.
Marcia’s mother also died of cancer. She also hid her condition – the only member of the family who knew was Marcia’s father. The last time Marcia saw her mother was a few weeks before she died and, as she was to write out in this book, her ignorance meant that she had no opportunity to make her final farewells. It is probably true to say that writing about Mathilda’s death was the start of a long overdue period of grieving and has helped Marcia to come to terms with the first of three tragedies in her family (two of her sisters have since died of the same condition).
To start with Marcia had been certain that Mathilda would leave all her money to her father’s old college to help meet the cost of research into his specialist subject – coastal plant life. However, it seemed that the college authorities had decided to scrap this department and so Mathilda changed her mind.
If not the college, then who was to benefit under her will? It was soon clear that we would have to emulate Mathilda and work out her family tree – and a very complex affair it turned out to be. The reason why Mathilda chose Beatrice, Clarence (better known as Will) and Tessa as her joint beneficiaries was quite simple – there just wasn’t anyone else.
So now we have three people each setting out on a personal journey into the unknown: three people with one commonalty – they were all alone having lost their families.
Will is marking time in his retirement. For many years he had worked as an administrator at the United Nations in Geneva, an unexciting and even boring job. He had married a Swiss girl, attracted by her calm blonde beauty and her smiling good natured charm only to discover that her calm good nature masked an unthinking indifference to life. Will was a loyal man and no-one, least of all Bierta, guessed at his disappointment. Their only child was stillborn and with it his last hopes of real happiness died. Although there is nothing to keep him in Switzerland since his wife died, he has made no plans for the future.
Beatrice, known as Bea, is just beginning to discover her loss. She has been a matron at a small preparatory school for boys for the last fifteen years and the school has become her ‘family’. When she retires, she believes she will be able to stay within its bosom but reality is proving to be somewhat different. The new matron has her own ideas and wants the freedom to express them: her predecessor looking over her shoulder is the last thing she wants. The headmaster’s wife, who has always disliked Bea, ensures there is no welcome for her when she visits her old school. It is time to move on but Bea has no idea where she should be looking.
Tessa is very well aware that she had lost her family. They all died of suffocation during the Lake Nyos tragedy in the Cameroon. This was a very real event. The lake lies within the Oku Volcanic Field and, in August 1986, a vast cloud, a mixture of gases and water vapour, erupted from the surface of the lake with great force. Nearly two thousand people died, unable to breath. How many cattle and other animals were affected? Nobody knows: nobody counted.
Suddenly all three are offered an opportunity to make new lives. They soon learn that they are all related but can they become a true, if unconventional, family? It was this that Marcia wished to explore – this sense of kinship from which, no doubt, comes the expression ‘blood is thicker than water’.
For some notes and photographs describing Second Time Around country the link is STA Country