Exactly why I came back to village I couldn’t say, but after twenty years nothing seemed to have changed. I’d had a hard week visiting angry clients and was considering finishing early today when I found myself driving almost inevitably towards Worth Matravers.
I left my car in the deserted car park and made my way downhill towards the village green. The air shimmered in the July heat, while the gentle sounds of crickets and birds mingled with the smell of nettles in the sun – a lost world at peace. As I rounded the corner I suddenly remembered the last time I was here, aged fourteen. My brothers had been marched off across the hills with my father, while I stretched out on the warm grass watching the ducks bullying each other on the pond. The grass, the pond and the grey stone buildings round about were exactly as they had been. The only difference was a man sitting on the wall, his lunch in one hand and a book in the other. My own lunch was a sandwich, bought at a garage nearby, and as I settled on the grass, I opened it, eyeing the contents without enthusiasm.
‘That looks nice.’
I looked up at the man, who was grinning at me over the top of his book.
‘Want to swap?’ I asked, pointing to his baguette, which looked far more appetizing.
‘Tempting.’ He went back to reading his book, making a show of enjoying his lunch. I took a bite, grimacing at the soggy texture of the bread and the tasteless filling, conscious of the man’s eyes on me. Looking at him out of the corner of my eyes, I saw that he was quietly chuckling to himself.
‘Something funny?’ I asked, my eyebrows raised.
‘Not at all.’ He closed his book, placing it next to him on the wall, ‘Glad to see you like the sandwich. Is it as horrible as it looks?’
‘Worse!’ I returned the half eaten sandwich to its packaging in disgrace. ‘I’m not that hungry anyway.’
‘Fancy a stroll?’ I was so taken aback by this sudden question that I just stared at him with my mouth open. ‘Just down to the sea.’ he continued, ‘It’s not that far and it’s all downhill from here.’
I was suddenly horribly aware of how I must look, sitting here in my work clothes in this heat, my face flushed and my hair all over the place. Self-consciously trying to smooth it out, I wondered what to say. This sort of thing did not happen to me. Handsome men – and he was handsome I now noticed – did not usually offer to take me for strolls. In fact, they didn’t usually offer me anything. But I didn’t know this man. What if he was some psycho who would attack me in the quiet of the countryside.
‘Yes, please.’ I said, starting in surprise at my own words.
‘Good.’ he said, standing up and unzipping a bag that had been slouching at his feet. He placed his book and the remains of his lunch in it, then held out his hand. Assuming he was offering to help me up, I placed my hand in his. ‘Your sandwich.’ he corrected, pulling his hand away and pointing to the item question, ‘I’ll pop it in my bag for you.’
We made our way across the hillside towards the sea. Here and there sheep were grazing, occasionally staring at us suspiciously, and the air was alive with the buzz and chirrup of insects. As we walked, we talked – not about anything in particular, but the easy sort of the conversation that flows from one topic to another. We chatted about everything from our culinary likes and dislikes to the way the clouds cast strange-shaped shadows across the fields. What we did not talk about was work or family, not here where the sun lanced through such mundane and tedious concerns and where the breeze snatched at the cobwebs of our daily lives. I didn’t even know if he had a job or family, nor did I care. We were just two people, enjoying the beauty of our surroundings and each other’s company, far from the cares of real life.
‘I thought it was supposed to be all downhill.’ I said as I clambered breathlessly over a dry-stone wall. ‘This certainly involves more climbing than I was expecting.’
‘Yes,’ he said, looking back at the valley below, ‘It’s possible we took a wrong turn at the bottom somewhere. Still, there’s a path here, which should take us to Winspit.’
Winspit, it turned out, was the name given to a small, rocky area that jutted out into the sea. We climbed down the steep slope to the rocks and surveyed the scene. The Jurassic cliffs hemmed us in, while before us the sea gently lapped against the rocks and inlets, sparkling in the afternoon sunlight. On every side were large rocks, cut from the cliff face years ago, with smaller rocks and stones nestling among them. Most were well worn and rounded by the wind and the sea. I noticed that one of the rocks had a curious pattern of fossils on its surface and turned to point this out, but the words never came. Instead I stared in astonishment at the sight of my companion undressing, laying his clothes neatly on a rock.
‘Coming in?’ he asked, his grin daring me to join him, ‘It’s got to be twenty degrees out there.’
‘But I don’t have any bathing clothes.’ I explained, flustered by his lack of trousers. ‘Or a towel.’
‘Don’t worry about that. I’m going in in my boxers and you can share my towel.’ He produced this item from his bag, spilling out my disgraced sandwiches. He quickly scooped them up, but they fallen apart as they hit the rocks, ‘I’m so sorry.’ he said, ‘I’ll make it up to you.’
‘Forget about it. I wasn’t going to finish them anyway.’
‘So are you coming in?’ he asked, his grin back and the sandwiches discarded. For the second time that afternoon, I found myself at a loss for words. What would my mother say, if she saw me swimming in my underwear with a strange man? That settled it. Without a word, I began to tear off my work clothes as though they were on fire. I wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t.
‘See you in there!’ he said, diving into the water.
As I tiptoed to the edge, leaving my discarded clothes with his and kept decent only by my somewhat scant underwear – I had dressed to keep cool, not to go swimming with strange men – I dipped my foot into the warm water. Unable to contain my delight, I whooped and leapt into the waves. He swam over as if to say something, but splashed me instead before swimming away quickly, though not too quickly. Blinking water from my eyes I set out to catch him.
‘Thank you for today.’ I said as we sat in the pub garden, gazing out across the hills to the sea where only a short while earlier we had been frolicking like children on a summer vacation. He had made good on his promise to make up the loss of my sandwiches by buying me dinner and a glass of wine. ‘I can’t remember a more pleasant afternoon.’
‘A more pleasant afternoon?’ he said, mocking me with his eyes, ‘You sound like you’re in a Jane Austin novel.’
I blushed, ‘What I meant to say was that I’ve had a lovely time. Thank you.’
‘Thank you, too. I’ve loved every second.’
‘So, do you usually hang around village greens, looking for company?’
‘Not as a rule.’ he said, dabbing his mouth with a serviette in such a lordly way that I had to stifle an urge to laugh. ‘It’s supermarkets usually,’ he continued, grinning once again, ‘that produces the best value for money.’
‘So I’m not good value?’ I asked in mock indignation.
He turned and looked into my eyes, suddenly serious. ‘You, my dear, are priceless. I would spend today with you for the rest of my life.’ He looked sad then, though with a happiness behind it. ‘But now I must go, much as I would prefer to stay here for… well, for ever.’
He picked up a beermat and expertly peeled the paper from one side. Then, producing a pen from his bag, he wrote down his name, address and telephone number. ‘Here.’ he said, handing me the beermat, ‘Until the next time.’ He stood up then, and began to put his bag back on his shoulders.
‘Wait.’ I said, not caring how desperate I sounded, ‘Can I walk with you to your car?’
He leant forward and kissed me, once, on the cheek. ‘You don’t want to have to clamber back up to your car.’ He said, ‘Mine’s by the pond – it’s downhill from here.’ And with a wink, he walked away towards the village green.
I sat there, staring at nothing in particular, though no doubt smiling broadly, and thought about my day. It had been perfect. So unexpected and so needed. All the pressures of life had fallen away – the stresses of work, the worries of my everyday existence. And yet those pressures and stresses and worries had not gone away. They were still waiting for me, beyond the boundaries of the village, back in what I found myself thinking of as ‘the real world’. And it was the real world. This had all been some sort of illusion. Today had been amazing, but it was not how life really was. How could things ever be this perfect again? Even if I called him, even if we met up, it would never be as it was today.
I looked down at the beermat still gripped between my fingers, and laid it carefully on the table. Suddenly, decisively, I placed my empty glass on the beermat and walked away. Away from the village. Away from the dream of a perfect life. It could only ever be downhill from here.