John didn’t know where it came from. There had been no hint of it through the thirty years of his marriage to Susan. Then, suddenly:
‘We should try camping,’ she said.
John thought carefully about his reply but nothing immediately occurred to him that would not provoke an argument.
‘Did you hear what I said?’
John sighed, trying not to make it too audible, put down his crossword and took off his glasses.
‘Yes, I heard you.’
‘You don’t sound very enthusiastic.’
He ignored the comment. Of course he hadn’t sounded enthusiastic. He wasn’t enthusiastic. Also, he was sixty-one years old with knees that made walking upstairs the most dramatic gymnastic exercise imaginable. Susan knew all this, but still she carried on.
‘I’ve been thinking about it for ages. It would be fun, and a lot less expensive than staying in a hotel all the time.’
John allowed his mind to wander to the thought of staying in a hotel. He liked staying in hotels. He liked dressing up and eating a three-course dinner prepared with the sort of expertise that Susan had never mastered. With wine. He liked sitting in a comfortable bar afterwards with a decent single malt close at hand, either reading a good book or engaging in masculine badinage with the barman.
‘What’s brought this on?’
‘Alison at work’s always going camping. Three, four times a year. It’s easy and cheap and she’s seen bits of Britain she didn’t know existed.
That didn’t surprise John. He had met Alison and her husband, Trevor, once. They were in their early forties and were the sort of people who would look out of place in even the most modest of hotels. Trevor wouldn’t know how to engage in badinage with barmen if he had a book of instructions. And he wasn’t surprised that Alison had been camping in bits of the country she didn’t know existed. Geography hadn’t seemed to be her strong point.
‘We could pick up a tent and some camping stuff and give it a go,’ Susan was saying. ‘Hotels are too expensive. What have we got to lose?’
‘Hotels have roofs,’ he found himself replying. ‘Which is always useful when it rains. Which it will, trust me, if we go camping. And tents aren’t cheap these days, you know. They’re not just a strip of canvas with a couple of poles. And you need a physics degree and the strength of an ox to put them up.’
But he could tell she wasn’t listening to him. She’d opened the laptop and was busy googling tents and camping equipment.
It was the following Saturday. Susan arrived home from the food shopping with rather more than half a dozen Tesco bags for life in the back of the car.
‘What’s all this?’ he asked, although he already knew.
‘Tent,’ she replied, struggling in the door with a large, obviously heavy green nylon bag. ‘Camp beds, two,’ she announced three minutes later. ‘Stove. Tables, chairs, kettle.’ And so it went on. The living room carpet was soon covered with paraphernalia, the likely function of a lot of it a mystery to John. He glanced out the window at the Volvo estate and Susan staggering up the front path with a final armful of stuff. He wished he’d bought the Mini instead of the Volvo, but it was too late now.
Susan had a further bombshell. ‘Look at this,’ she said, moving the laptop around in his direction. She had a website open. John read. Sunny Views Campsite it said at the top of the page. He guessed immediately what was coming. ‘I’ve booked for seven nights, the week after next.’
‘The week after next?’ He hadn’t expected that. He had hoped he might get more warning, and in any case: ‘But that’s the week we’re going to Brighton, the hotel’s…’
She cut him off. ‘Cancelled. They were very understanding, especially when I explained about your knee.’
‘My knee? There’s nothing wrong with my knee.’
‘Stop moaning about it then. And if there’s nothing wrong with it, it won’t stop you putting up the tent. We’re going. It’s all sorted.’ Suddenly she smiled. ‘You’ll love it. Trust me.’
‘But it’s Wales,’ he stuttered, reading the website. ‘It always rains in Wales.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s the Pembrokeshire coast. It’s lovely. And they’ve got whales offshore. Whales in Wales. It’s brilliant.’
It was too late for arguing; John knew that. He would just have to make the whole experience so disagreeable that it would be the first and last camping trip they went on. There was a car boot sale due to be held in the town next month. He thought he’d book a pitch. Just in case the stuff currently on the carpet proved surplus to requirements.
John kept an eye on the weather forecast for south west Wales as the camping trip drew closer and Susan became more and more excited. He was hoping that it might be so dire that even Susan would think twice about going. But it wasn’t. The nearer they got to the date of departure, the better the forecast for Pembrokeshire. And finally, the day before, with the Volvo packed to the gunwales and creaking under the weight of all the camping equipment, the weatherman confidently predicted wall to wall sunshine for the whole week and balmy temperatures approaching 25 degrees.
The three-hour journey to Wales, with John driving and Susan gazing happily out of the window, was undertaken in near silence, although John cheered up briefly when he discovered they no longer had to pay a toll to cross the Severn Bridge.
Soon afterwards, Susan said, ‘We should stop for lunch before we get there. We don’t want to be putting up the tent on an empty stomach.’
John didn’t want to be putting up the tent at all, but that was a battle already lost and he was definitely in favour of stopping for lunch. As far as he was concerned, lunches in charming country pubs were nearly as high on his list of desirable meals as dinners in smart hotels.
Having rejected three pubs on the grounds of lack of sufficient charm, they finally spotted one that ticked all John’s boxes apart from the undeniable fact that it was in Wales, and they ate a pleasant lunch on a terrace overlooking a small but fast-rushing, rock-strewn river. Even John had to admit that any looks cast in their direction by the other customers seemed friendly enough.
They were approaching the campsite down some narrow, picturesque country lanes with the predictable sheep staring steadfastly at them from the fields alongside the road, when a thought occurred to him.
‘Are there toilets at this place?’
‘Of course there are toilets. Didn’t you read the website? It’s a proper campsite. There’s a shower block, all the facilities, outside barbecues, a shop, everything.’
John had not bothered to do more than glance at the website. He hadn’t wanted to think too closely about the week ahead. The absence of torrential rain had been a disappointment, so he was hoping that the place itself would be so irredeemably awful that Susan would immediately tell him to point the Volvo at Tenby and the very pleasant hotel overlooking the beach where they had stayed ten years ago. However, it appeared that wasn’t going to happen and when they turned in through the gates of Sunny Views Campsite, he was, despite himself, pleasantly surprised.
The small car park inside the entrance was immaculate and dotted about with lovingly tended wooden pots of colourful but, to John at least, unidentifiable flowers. There was a whitewashed shower and toilet block at the far end and a low white painted fence around a second building with a sign proclaiming itself to be the Reception and Camp Shop. There was a large tabby cat asleep on a picnic table outside the shop.
‘This is lovely!’ exclaimed Susan. ‘Come on, John, dear, you have to agree. It’s perfect.’
John forced himself to smile and nodded reluctantly. ‘But it’s only first impressions,’ he said, warningly. ‘We’d better go in and find out what the people are like. You never know with the Welsh.’
They got out of the Volvo and John stretched luxuriously in the sunshine. Susan was already walking up the steps to the door of the shop-cum-reception. Just as she disappeared inside, a voice behind him made him jump.
‘Just arrived?’ it asked. John turned to see a young couple, both smiling, both with ponytails and sunglasses. The girl was dark and pretty, wearing cut-off jeans and a checked shirt. The man was similarly dressed but less pretty with a full beard and tattoos on both forearms.
‘You’ll love it here,’ said the girl. ‘Really friendly, and there’s a path to the beach. We’ve come three years running. Made lots of friends. Are you in a hut?’
John wasn’t sure if she’d said hut or rut. Hut made little sense and rut would make it a more personal question than seemed likely. So he just smiled and said, ’No.’
‘We love them,’ continued the girl, who seemed to be the allotted spokesperson for the pair. ‘No hours spent erecting a tent, and we’ve only got a bike anyway, so a tent isn’t really an option.’
At this point, Susan stuck her head out of the shop. ‘There you are,’ she said. ‘What are you doing out here? We need to sign in and they want to give you a wristband.’ She held up her left hand to display a bright yellow band on her own wrist.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve just been talking to this couple here. They say the campsite’s very nice.’
‘Flick and Bez,’ said the girl mysteriously. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘Susan and John,’ said Susan who apparently had no difficulty working out that Flick and Bez were the young couple’s names. John wasn’t sure which name belonged to which. Susan turned back into the shop and John, with a shrug and a ‘Goodbye,’ followed her.
A large jolly lady with an engaging Welsh lilt booked them in and then jumped on a quad bike and instructed John and Susan to follow her in the Volvo. It seemed quite a distance and on the way they saw the corrugated tops of some colourfully painted huts peeking over a hedge.
‘What are those?’ asked John.
‘Shepherd Huts,’ replied Susan. ‘Quite cute, aren’t they, but it’s not proper camping.’
John realised that this must be what Flick, or possibly Bez, had been referring to. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Removes all the hard work putting up the tent.’
But actually, erecting the tent had turned out to be less stressful than John had feared. Susan had everything organised expertly and directed proceedings with an enthusiasm and eye for detail that John had never known she possessed. ‘It’s almost as though you’ve done this before,’ he remarked at one point.
‘Just hold that rope there a second while I bang this in,’ she said, which was not really a response at all.
Anyway, within an hour everything was done and the big green tent, high enough for them to stand upright, looked as homely as a tent could ever look, tucked away fifty yards from their nearest neighbour next to a hedge with a couple of ancient oaks standing guard behind them and the glint of sunshine on the sea half a mile away.
‘Right, I need the loo,’ announced John. And then he realised. ‘Don’t tell me the nearest toilet is back at reception. That’s miles away.’
‘Don’t be silly. It’s only a couple of hundred yards. Here, you can bring some water back with you.’ She handed him a collapsible plastic water container. ‘I need a cup of tea.’
John trudged off back towards the camp entrance, which was out of sight behind a clump of trees and rather more than the two hundred yards away Susan had suggested. On the way, he passed a gap in a hedge, through which he could see half a dozen of the Shepherd Huts. Up close, they were really rather attractive, all painted a different pastel colour, with small hard standings or garden areas in front, and grouped in a circle around an open, covered, barbecue area with comfortable outdoor seating. He could see a group of six or eight people sitting around the barbecue, drinking wine. Several were smoking something that smelt faintly pungent.
One of them waved her hand at John and called out. It was the pretty dark girl, who John remembered was probably called Flick. Or maybe Bez.
‘Hiya, John, all settled in? Come and say hello to the gang.’
John smiled, but shook his head, holding up the water container.
‘Laters then,’ called Flick and raised her wine glass in a vague sort of salute.
John went to the toilet and had a look around the shower block, which was immaculate. Either nobody on the site ever had a shower or there was a cleaner hiding around the corner to give it the once over every time anyone did.
He filled the water container at the tap next to the shower block. There was a notice that announced that the water was fit for drinking, which was encouraging, although not necessarily to be trusted as far as John was concerned. The plastic container grew to unfeasibly large proportions as the water filled it, and when it was full, he found he could only just lift it. He debated whether he should empty a significant proportion of the water out to lighten his load, but he didn’t want to be accused of waste (possibly by the hidden cleaner, who could leap out from his or her place of concealment with a triumphant and accusatory “Hoy!”). John did not like the thought of being embarrassed in this way, and nor did he enjoy the thought of what sort of withering remark Susan might come up with were he to return with a half-filled container.
So he decided to stagger back to the tent as best he could. It was only two hundred yards after all. Or four hundred, possibly.
It took him several minutes to reach the gap in the hedge where the Shepherd Huts were located. He had had to switch the water container from hand to hand three times and was now reduced to hugging it to his chest, which was not much more comfortable but prevented his fingers becoming more raw and painful than they were already.
‘That looks like hard work!’ called out the now familiar voice of Flick. John stopped, put down the water container and looked across, pulling out a handkerchief as he did so, and mopping his brow.
‘Yes,’ he replied, trying to smile in a devil-may-care kind of way, but not wholly succeeding. ‘It’s heavier than it looks.’
‘I dunno about that,’ said Flick, coming across from the barbecue area with a glass of red wine in her hand. ‘It looks bloody heavy to me. Water surprises you like that.’ It appeared the wine she was carrying was for John, not her. ‘Here, have this and come and rest up. You look all in,’ and she smiled again. It was a nice smile, John thought. She had nice teeth. In fact, she was a very pretty girl altogether, with black hair and olive skin that seemed to suggest some eastern Mediterranean ancestry. Not really a girl either. Up close, she appeared rather older than he had originally thought, maybe around thirty. A little too old to be gallivanting around the countryside on the back of a motorbike with a tattooed man called Bez. Not that it was any of his business, he reminded himself.
‘Well, er, okay,’ he said, looking at his watch. The smile and the wine won out over Susan’s already overdue cup of tea. ‘Just for a minute, maybe.’
Flick took him by the hand and led him over to the small group of people sitting around the unlit barbecue. There were a number of bottles of wine and beer on a table in the middle, several empty, and a low hum of broken and, to John, largely indecipherable conversation. A thin pall of sweet-smelling smoke hung in the warm air, trapped beneath the large pale green shelter that was keeping the sun off.
‘Guys, this is John,’ said Flick in the general direction of the group, one or two of whom glanced up. One girl, who looked about eighteen, smiled. ‘Take a pew.’ Flick sat down next to him and picked up her own glass of wine from the table. John peered back at where he’d left the water container, twenty or so yards away in the shade of a hedge. ‘It’ll be fine there,’ said Flick. ‘Nobody steals anything on campsites. Not water anyway.’
John looked around the group. There were six people in total, four girls including Flick, who seemed to be the eldest, and two men who, whilst looking fairly similar to the tattooed Bez, were not actually him. At least he was pretty sure they weren’t.
‘Do you smoke?’ asked Flick, holding up what looked like a poor attempt at a roll-up.
‘Er, no, not really,’ replied John. ‘Just an occasional cigar. Christmas, birthdays, you know.’ And only outside in the garden, even then, he reflected. Susan didn’t like the smell.
Flick laughed, prettily. ’No, dummy, I mean, do you smoke?’ She emphasised the word smoke heavily, and John cottoned on.
‘Oh, I see. Again, no, I’m afraid not, not any more.’
’Once then,’ she said. John took another sip of his wine and allowed his mind to drift back to university. Flick was correct, although perhaps inadvertently so. Yes, his encounter with what he referred to as weed had indeed been a brief one, instigated by a girl he hardly knew who had decided she was too drunk, too stoned, too something to return to her own room down the hall at uni, and had made the unlikely decision, to John’s mind at least, to stay with him after some freshers’ event or other. The memory was a bit blurred, but he recalled enough to know that this one-time-only acquaintance with drugs had made him violently sick, much to the disgust of the girl who, although still refusing to return to her own room, had proceeded to keep a metaphorical wall between the two of them for the remainder of the night. John shook his head ruefully and took another mouthful of wine. He was quite surprised to find his glass was empty, but Flick had the bottle in her hand and was filling it again almost before he had removed it from his lips.
She was smiling. ‘We’ll stick to the wine then,’ and she stubbed her own roll-up out on a plate.
‘So,’ Flick continued, settling back in her chair and fixing a pair of deep brown eyes on John. ‘A misspent youth followed by… what exactly?’
John couldn’t remember claiming ownership of a misspent youth, so he ignored the first part of the question. ‘I’m retired,’ he said. ‘Last year.’
‘Really?’ Flick seemed genuinely surprised, either that or she was a latent actress. ‘You seem far too young.’
‘Sixty-one.’ Why was he giving his age to this complete stranger? Admittedly an attractive, friendly stranger who was plying him with wine, which she did again now, noticing that John had nearly emptied his second glass. ‘I took early retirement.’
This was the bit that John always hated. ‘Accountancy,’ he admitted with a small, self-deprecating grin. ‘It’s not as dull as it sounds.’ He always felt he had to make some sort of extra remark like that.
Flick’s response though suggested that he had not needed to be quite so defensive. ‘Accountancy’s not dull,’ she said. ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you it is. I’ve known several accountants and they’re all a lot of fun. One spends his weekends diving, looking for sunken treasure.’
‘Well, I’ve never done that,’ and John laughed at the pretty girl-woman sitting next to him, smiling at him with her brown eyes.
‘So, are you a Felicity?’ he asked.
She looked puzzled. ‘What?’ she asked.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, feeling slightly embarrassed. ‘I thought Flick would be short for Felicity.’
‘Oh, no, I see. No, it’s a nickname from way back. I used to have a fringe and kept flicking it out of my eyes apparently. Could never see it myself, but it sort of stuck.’ She grinned. ‘Actually, I’m really a Susan, like… ‘
‘My wife.’ And they both laughed. ‘I didn’t think there were any Susans younger than about fifty-five.’
‘Well, you’re wrong. I’m living proof. More wine?’ she asked, changing the subject and John looked, astonished, at his glass which seemed to be empty for the third time. How long had he been there? It seemed like not long at all, but he looked at his watch and saw that it must have been nearly forty-five minutes. That meant he’d been away from the tent for the best part of an hour, which would be difficult to explain away, especially with Susan in urgent need of the water for a cup of tea.
‘No, thank you,’ he said, easing himself, slightly unsteadily, to his feet. I must be going. My wife will be wondering where I’ve got to. You’ve been very kind.’ A thought occurred to him. ‘By the way, where’s your boyfriend, Daz is it?’ He found that the wine had blurred his memory. ‘I can’t see him.’
‘Oh, you mean Bez,’ said the girl, laughing. ‘I don’t know where he is, gone off somewhere mysterious I imagine. And he’s not my boyfriend. He’s my brother.’
John found himself feeling quite pleased that Bez was not after all Flick’s boyfriend, although he couldn’t imagine why he felt that.
Bez? ‘And what’s Bez short for?’ He asked, smiling. ‘Don’t tell me it’s John!’
‘Very good,’ said Flick. ’Funny. No, he’s a Barry. I don’t think either of us will forgive our parents any time soon.’
John wondered whether he should shake Flick’s hand, or maybe a peck on the cheek would be appropriate. He wasn’t sure, so did nothing. ‘Thanks again,’ he said. ‘You must come over to ours some time and have some of our wine.’ He would have to buy some. ‘I feel I’ve drunk you dry.’
‘Maybe,’ she replied, sounding non-committal. ’And I promise you, you haven’t. There’s much more wine where that came from. And grass, if you change your mind.’ And she laughed and strolled back to the group around the unlit barbecue.
Somewhat mysteriously, John discovered that three glasses of red wine made the water container seem lighter, unless some of its contents had evaporated in the heat, which seemed unlikely.
When he turned the last corner, he was quite surprised to see that their tent, which he had left an hour earlier standing in imperious solitude a long way from any others, was now surrounded by at least three more, which had sprung up as if by magic. He was even more surprised to find the tent zipped up, with no sign of Susan. He unzipped the main door and stuck his head inside. The air was hot and stifling in the afternoon sun.
‘Susan?’ he called unnecessarily. Whilst the tent was large, far too large for two people, he maintained, it wasn’t so large that he had to call out. Susan was clearly not there. Whilst this was unexpected, he realised that it was not entirely odd. She had undoubtedly got fed up waiting. Perhaps she had gone to the shop or was off looking for him. If so, she had failed to notice him sitting outside the Shepherd Huts and he had failed to notice her, although he had had his back to the gap in the hedge, so that was understandable. Maybe she was visiting one of their new neighbours and was busy drinking tea in one of the other tents nearby. However, he couldn’t see or hear her and he could hardly go around knocking on other people’s tents asking if she was there. Knocking didn’t seem the right word in any case.
So he decided to make a pot of tea himself and sit and wait for her. She was likely to be quite cross and whilst, with three glasses of wine inside him, he found he wasn’t too concerned about that, it would be nice to at least be able to offer her a cup of tea on her return. He was sure she wouldn’t be long.
He remembered Susan showing him the small black gas hob she had bought and soon found it in a bag under one of the camping tables. He knew enough not to light the hob within the tent, so moved the table outside, set it up and, rather to his surprise managed with no difficulty whatsoever to prise a flame from the gas ring. It was less easy to pour water from the over-filled, over-heavy container into the camping kettle he had found in the same bag, but he managed without spilling too much and settled down to wait in the sunshine. He rather wished he had some more red wine, but Susan had not packed any alcohol and the thought had not really occurred to him.
He drank his tea and gradually drifted off to sleep in the sunshine.
When he woke up, he was momentarily confused about where he was and what was happening. He soon remembered he was on a campsite though, and the answer to the second part of the question was nothing much. He was still alone. Susan had not returned. He looked at his watch and discovered it was past five-thirty. That meant he had been asleep for, how long? He worked it out. It had been over an hour and a half. Where on earth could she have got to?
John went into the tent and fished around in his bag for his mobile phone. He rarely carried it with him, although Susan said he should in case of emergencies. John had pointed out that he had survived for most of his life without having need of a phone in his pocket, and in any case he hated the sound of a ringing telephone. Always had, and now that he had retired, he couldn’t think of many good reasons to answer one. He left that to Susan.
However, Susan had insisted they both bring their mobiles with them on the camping trip and so he had stuffed his in her bag. Susan never went anywhere without hers, so he switched his on and dialled her number. She didn’t pick up, and finally her voicemail clicked in. John didn’t leave a message.
He sat staring at the phone in his hand indecisively for a few seconds, then realised that what with the wine and the tea earlier, he was again in need of the toilet. He also felt a bit hot and befuddled and thought a quick wash might help him think straight. And he could ask the jolly Welsh lady in the shop if she had seen Susan.
When he reached the gap in the hedge he was prepared to walk past as quickly as possible in case Flick should hail him once again but there was nobody sitting around in the barbecue area. He continued to the shower block, relieved himself and gave his face a wash. He was right; he did feel better for doing so. Then he heard the unmistakeable sound of a motorbike driving past, but he couldn’t be sure if it was coming or going, and when he emerged it was nowhere to be seen. Probably Bez, he thought, returning from whatever mysterious errand Flick had referred to earlier.
John walked through the empty car park to the shop. However, it was shut. A notice on the door gave a phone number for late arrivals to call. John wasn’t a late arrival so didn’t call it. But as if on cue, his own mobile started buzzing in his shorts pocket, where he’d put it. He never had the ring tone turned up, a vibrating phone seeming much less intrusive somehow than a ringing one.
Susan’s name came up on the screen. ‘There you are,’ said John, more relieved than he cared to admit.
‘Yes, here I am,’ replied Susan. ‘But where are you?’ It was difficult to be absolutely sure, but she didn’t sound as angry as John would have expected.
‘I’m up by the shop. It’s shut, but I’ve been to the toilet.’
‘You’re still there?’ asked Susan, incredulously. ‘That was hours ago. All afternoon. Are you ill?’
John saw what she was getting at. ‘No, no,’ he said, shaking his head although Susan wasn’t there to see him. ‘I’ve been again. I was worried. You weren’t at the tent when I got back with the water.’
‘Oh, you came back in the end then?’ There was a distinct and possibly understandable note of sarcasm in her voice.
John didn’t feel inclined to have an argument standing by himself in a public car park, so merely replied, ‘Yes, and I’m coming back down again now. Put the kettle on, there’s a love.’ Susan merely snorted and hung up.
On the way back down to the tent, John decided that no good would come of his attempting to lie about why he’d been delayed on his earlier trip to get water, so explained straightaway how he’d been waylaid by Flick, her friends and a glass or two of wine. It didn’t seem appropriate to mention the weed as he hadn’t actually partaken.
Susan’s reaction rather surprised him. ‘That’s nice,’ she said. ‘I told you that camping’s good for making friends, and Flick seems a nice girl.’ John couldn’t remember when Susan had said that camping would be good for making friends, but she’d spent several weeks being generally effusive about the whole forthcoming experience, and it was entirely possible that he’d zoned out. In fact, he knew he had. Several times.
Anyway, it appeared that Susan had got fed up waiting for him to return with the water and had decided to take a walk. There was a footpath, signposted to the sea, at the corner of the camping field.
‘It was lovely,’ said Susan. ‘Fields full of wildflowers. Lots of bees. And birds, more than I’ve seen for ages.’
‘Not sheep?’ said John, laughing, relieved that he did not appear to be in trouble.
‘We must get a bird book,’ continued Susan. ‘I didn’t recognise half of them.’
‘Did you get to the sea?’ asked John.
‘Oh, yes, a secluded little beach with sand dunes and a little tea shop. So I did get my cuppa after all, no thanks to you.’
‘You must have been there quite a long time.’
‘Must I?’ Susan suddenly looked a bit vague. ‘I suppose I must. Anyway,’ she added, changing the subject, ‘dinner. I’m starving. I’ve got some pasta we could heat up, or we could go back to that pub where we had lunch, maybe.’
Hearing the word pub, John allowed his wife’s vagueness about how she had filled her afternoon to be immediately forgotten. ‘No disrespect to your pasta, love, but the pub sounds good. It’s been a long day; we don’t need to be making more work for ourselves.’
They enjoyed a very pleasant meal at the pub on the riverbank. It was such a balmy night that they were able to eat on the terrace as they had at lunch time and John, perusing the menu, saw enough variety on it to think they might come again later in the week. More than once possibly, and when he put this suggestion to Susan, rather tremulously bearing in mind the large Tupperware container of pasta that she had brought with them, he was surprised when she nodded vigorously. ‘We are on holiday, after all,’ she said, smiling at him over her wine glass.
All in all, she did seem to be in an extraordinarily good mood. John put this down to her pleasure that their foray into camping, despite his misgivings and negativity, was so far going very well. Even his earlier non-appearance with the water for her tea was seemingly forgiven and forgotten.
So happy was Susan that, when they arrived back at the campsite at gone ten o’clock, John suggested that they stop at the Shepherd Huts armed with one of the bottles of wine that he had bought at the pub. He could see the smoke from what he presumed was the barbecue and not something more illegal drifting over the roofs of the huts as they approached the gap in the hedge. However, when he suggested it, his wife’s sunny smile turned suddenly to a frown.
‘Oh, no, I don’t think we should,’ she said. ‘It’s very late. We shouldn’t intrude.’
‘I think we’d be very welcome,’ replied John, slightly surprised. ‘Especially as we come bearing this piquant little Merlot. After drinking their wine this afternoon, I think I owe them something in exchange. They’re very friendly. They won’t bite, you know.’
But she was adamant, so they drove past the gap and drank the Merlot sitting in front of their tent listening to the hoots of the owls and the murmurs from the neighbouring tents.
The next morning, they stopped at the camp shop for a few provisions on their way out to explore the area. Susan stayed in the car whilst John went inside. The first person he saw was Flick.
‘Hello,’ she said, smiling brightly. John smiled back with equal wattage. ‘That was a coincidence, wasn’t it?’ continued Flick; ‘your Susan bumping into Bez down at the bay. A really helpful ice-breaker.’ John’s smile faded. What on earth was she talking about?
‘I’m sorry, Flick, what do you mean?’ he stammered.
‘Yesterday afternoon, in the café by the beach.’ Suddenly she put her hands up to her face. ‘Oh, no, have I put my foot in it? Hasn’t she said anything?’
John was confused. ‘Oh, er, yes, she may have. Probably.’
‘She hasn’t, has she? I’m so sorry. Me and my big mouth. He only went to get sausages for the barbecue. The farm next to the café makes their own. Really nice ones. Gwen doesn’t stock them.’ Gwen was the large, jolly lady who ran the campsite and who was now listening intently to their conversation whilst pretending unconvincingly to sort out the rack of newspapers. ‘He should only have been about twenty minutes and was gone for ages.’ Flick seemed suddenly aware that the hole she was digging was getting deeper and deeper. She stopped talking abruptly, smiled uncertainly at John and left the shop.
‘Sausages!’ snorted Gwen. ‘You want to watch that Bez. Up to his tricks again, I’ll be bound.’
‘What tricks?’ asked John, filling his basket distractedly.
‘Oh, you know,’ said Gwen dismissively and unhelpfully.
When John left the shop a couple of minutes later, Susan was waiting by the car with her face turned to the sun. Flick was nowhere to be seen.
‘Gorgeous, isn’t it?’ said Susan, dreamily. John looked at her carefully. She seemed like a woman reborn, but that was surely just the result of the weather and the holiday. ‘Flick just came past,’ added Susan, getting into the car. ‘Did you see her?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he answered. ‘Maybe.’ He decided not to mention the conversation in the shop.
They spent the morning walking around part of St Bride’s Bay and had a picnic on the seafront green at Little Haven. A young couple riding motorcycles drove past noisily, parked in the car park next to their Volvo and walked off to the pub nearby.
‘These are nice,’ said Susan when they returned to the car. She ran her hand lightly over one of the motorbikes. Susan had always hated motorbikes. ‘Softails,’ she added, mysteriously.
‘Harley-Davidson Softails. Lovely machines.’
‘You don’t like motorbikes.’ John tried to laugh but it didn’t come out right, so he stopped.
‘I don’t, of course I don’t, but I can still appreciate quality.’ She looked distracted and changed the subject. ‘Where shall we go this afternoon?’
‘What about that café you went to yesterday. Down at the bay by the campsite.’
‘No, I don’t think so. It’s nothing much to shout about. You wouldn’t like it. And we’ve only just had lunch anyway.’
‘But you said it was lovely.’
‘No, I didn’t. I said the wildflowers were lovely. The teashop was a little drab, if you must know. Anyway, I’m feeling tired. Perhaps we could just go back to the site. I’d like a lie-down and you could go for a walk and leave me in peace and quiet.’
The wildflowers by the path down to the secluded cove were indeed lovely. And, far from being drab, so was the little teashop, which was named Bangers, presumably after its famous sausages. John decided to sample a couple along with his tea. They were succulent. Sausages or not though, he couldn’t quite understand how the café made a profit. It was a glorious sunny afternoon in the middle of the holiday season and both the café and the little curve of beach were empty of people.
John decided to make the beach slightly less empty. He left the café and walked onto the soft, powdery, almost pure white sand, and breathed in the fresh, scented air. The complete absence of people really was quite extraordinary. He sat down, removed his trainers and socks, and was preparing to lie down to grab forty winks in the afternoon sunshine, when the quiet was broken by the sound of an engine, getting louder. The lane that wound down to the café was hidden from him, so he couldn’t see the vehicle that was approaching but he nevertheless knew what it was. He’d heard the same engine yesterday. It was Bez’s motorbike. He found himself wondering if it was another Harley-Davidson, not that he would have been able to distinguish it as such without seeing a badge.
He remembered Gwen’s comment about Bez’s “tricks” and wondered what they might be. He doubted if they were magic tricks. There was no harm in asking, he decided, so instead of settling down for a snooze on the warm sand, he picked up his discarded trainers and socks and headed back to the café. The noise of the engine cut out and suddenly he could hear voices. It wasn’t just Bez who had arrived but Flick too.
As John reached the café’s small front terrace, Bez and Flick appeared around the corner of the building. They stopped short at the sight of him. Bez looked for all the world as if he wished he wasn’t there, glancing around him as though searching for a place to hide. Flick, though, patted her brother on the shoulder and walked towards John, smiling.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘I know what you’re going to say, and I’m sorry.’ She glanced behind her at Bez, who hadn’t moved. The expression on his face was a strange mixture of embarrassment and pugnacity. ‘I mean, we’re sorry. We could have handled this much better, but Bez wanted to talk to mu… Susan, first. And then none of us really knew how to break it to you. We should have done it together, not just left it to Susan.’
She stopped and waited for John to answer. Flick may have known what he was going to say but he didn’t, although he’d had thirty years to come up with something. However, he felt it would be impolite not to fill the gap somehow. ‘If Susan was supposed to tell me something, I’m afraid she hasn’t got around to it yet. And anyway, Flick, I didn’t even know you’d spoken to her. Not beyond the “good mornings” and so forth yesterday anyway. Look, why don’t we all go inside and have a cup of tea.’ He looked at Bez. ‘I don’t bite you know, young man. Come along,’ and without waiting for a reply, he turned and entered the café and sat down in the window seat he had only vacated ten minutes earlier. He was relieved to see that both Flick and Bez had followed him in, and they proceeded to seat themselves opposite him.
‘Barry and Susan,’ said John to the brother and sister opposite him as the waitress hurried away with their order. ‘As soon as Flick mentioned your real names, I guessed who you were. I’m afraid my Susan was never very imaginative, but lumbering you with her name and you, Bez, with your father’s… well, I’m sorry.’
‘Why didn’t you say anything yesterday?’ asked Flick. Bez was looking at the tablecloth.
‘It wasn’t my place. I was waiting for Susan – my Susan – to tell me in her own good time. I’ve always known she had kids before we met – there were obvious signs which Susan didn’t realise I’d spotted – and, when it was clear they were not going to be part of our life together, well, I dug a little further and discovered that Susan had signed off full parental rights to your father, Barry senior.’ He sat back and laughed, quietly. ‘There had to be something behind this camping trip. Susan had never given any indication that she ever pined for the great outdoors; she enjoyed a comfortable hotel even more than me, if anything. You know, you could have just arranged to “accidentally” bump into us in the pub. Bit of a rigmarole this, really. And why now especially. You’ve made lives for yourselves.’
‘We thought neutral territory would be a good idea. And, anyway, we really do come here every year. It seemed a good place.’ She looked at Bez and took his hand. ‘There’s something else, too. Something you don’t know, John. Our father died last month. Cancer. It seemed like the right time as well as the right place.’
John nodded. He’d never met Barry. Indeed, Susan had never actually mentioned him. It had never mattered to John. He’d fallen in love and, with or without children, he would have married her anyway. ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ he said.
The tea arrived. John held up his cup. ‘To Barry,’ he said. ‘And to a late-flowering family.’