By Stephen Tuffin
He had come here to get away. From what? In a nutshell, he’d come because a colleague had pulled him to one side in the corridor two weeks prior and told him that his wife was having an affair. I suppose some men might have gone to see the man in question and given him a bloody nose. And some men might have given their wife a bloody nose too. But that wasn’t Raymond’s way. Raymond’s way was to withdraw—withdraw and consider before doing anything he might regret later. So here he was, in a remote cottage on a small hill overlooking trees and meadows and the big white house below. The cottage had a cozy lounge with comfortable sofas, a well-stocked bookcase, a desk for writing, and an easel for painting. There was also a small galley kitchen filled with pots, pans, and utensils, and a bedroom with a high iron bed and a comfortable mattress. He’d told his wife he needed a break and he would be back in a couple of days. And she hadn’t seemed to mind. Off you go, she’d said. I’ll be fine, she’d smiled.
The next morning, he awoke to the sound of the river flowing past the front entrance of the main house some twenty feet below and away from where he’d slept. He washed, dressed, drank tea; fried bacon with eggs. As he ate, he listened to the early morning news on the radio. Andy Murray had made it to his second Wimbledon final, and a union leader and a politician were locking horns over something Raymond didn’t much care about. He switched off the radio and inserted a CD into the player. The opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture filled the small lounge. Stepping out onto the terrace at the back of the cottage, he placed several items into a small blue rucksack: a bottle of water, a notebook, a pair of binoculars, and a well-thumbed copy of Somerset Maugham short stories. He pocketed his mobile too in the hope that he’d get a signal while out walking. He would call his wife.
The narrow road leading to Warriors’ Bridge was silent but for the river and the call of wild birds. Three hundred yards further on, Raymond came to the bridge itself. Passing by a high cottage wall on the crossroads, he smiled at the sign that had been fixed there:
MORGAN PARKING ONLY. ALL OTHERS WILL BE CRUSHED.
An Audi estate was parked beneath the sign. Across the car’s windshield, it read: HM COASTGUARD. Raymond wondered if the coastguard’s name was Morgan. A short while later, he came to a turning and a sign that read, ‘footpath.’ The path was narrow, the ground dank and black and in near darkness, shrouded by the oaks that grew on either side of it. The smell of rot and decay hung low in the air. He stopped to look at a herd of young cattle. Across the field from the cattle, he could see a timber framed menagerie and hear a bird, probably a tame jackdaw, calling across the field to where he stood. ‘Come on! Come on! Come on!’
From time to time, a river would appear alongside the pathway then veer off only to reappear a short while later. Raymond decided he would call his wife. He would ask her outright if it were true about the man in her office. If she denied the affair, he would believe her and the matter would be forgotten. Raymond had loved his wife from the moment he’d set eyes on her twenty years ago. She hadn’t been so enthusiastic. She’d tried to tell Raymond that she was too young for a serious relationship, but he could be surprisingly persuasive when he wanted to be. And so, he’d pushed and cajoled her. Then one morning, she’d come to him and told him she was pregnant. He was shocked and elated. She was terrified. Terrified of what her parents might say and terrified at the prospect of spending the rest of her life with a man like Raymond. A short while later, they married. The baby had been born and the marriage had survived—but the child hadn’t.
The path opened out and the trees fell away to reveal a great sloping landscape that pitched and rolled along on either side. Wildflowers grew in abundance: tiny purple flowers with pale hearts at their centers, rich yellow flowers, blue and pink flowers, and every once in a while, the heady aroma of wild honeysuckle filled the air. There were ferns too, with broad, flat delicate leaves, and nettles tall as a man. And then there were the Foxgloves, his wife’s favorites, growing in great clusters.
Raymond left the path and walked over to the riverbank. The river was narrow here, no more than ten feet across, and shallow, about a foot deep at its center. He watched as the water rippled over the rocks, gurgling on its way towards the sea. Beautiful as it was, Raymond couldn’t help but feel hopeless.
He came to a second signpost. This one read: COAST PATH HARTLAND POINT 1M. He wondered where his wife was. He reached into his pocket and took out his phone. To his surprise, he found he had a two bar signal. He shucked his rucksack and sat on a mound of rough grass. He called her number, and on the ninth ring, she answered.
‘Hi honey?’ he began. ‘How goes it?’
‘How goes what?’ She sounded bored. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m on my way to Hartland Point.’
He waited for a reply, but he could tell she’d placed her hand over the receiver, was speaking to someone. He heard her laugh, and then, ‘I’ll call you back,’ she said.
‘Who’s that with you, honey?’
‘Shan’t be too long,’ she said.
And he imagined all sorts of terrible things when she said that.
‘I’ll call you in a tick,’ she said, and then she was gone.
He sat for a while on the warm grass, staring at the phone in his hand. Unthinkable images filled his mind—his wife and her lover naked and alone, with him here, in the middle of nowhere. Powerless. And the two of them laughing at him, making love in his bed. He tried to distract himself—to think of anything but his wife. The 1812 Overture popped into his head. Why did he love it so much? Maybe it was the drama—all that banging and crashing, the booming of the heavy guns. He thought about Tchaikovsky. He wondered if listening to Tchaikovsky meant he was pretentious. He understood that other people liked Tchaikovsky, and he understood that they weren’t being pretentious, but was he? Did he have the right to like Tchaikovsky? He hadn’t liked him initially. So why continue listening? And why squirm whenever his wife caught him listening to the Overture on full volume? Sometimes, he reasoned, persevering with something, even something a person doesn’t at first like, wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, he’d persevered with cigars, and now he enjoyed nothing better—once in a blue moon.
Glancing down at his phone, he saw, to his distress, that the two bar signal had disappeared. He tried standing on a nearby rock and holding his phone aloft in his attempt to find the signal again, but the signal failed to materialize. Anxious, Raymond headed off toward Hartland Point in the hope that his signal might return, and with it, his wife.
A half-mile later, and Raymond had just about managed to bring his emotions under control again. He told himself he was being foolish, paranoid. In any case, there was nothing he could do at the moment. It was best to try to enjoy the walk, find a place where his phone had a signal and call her. All would be well, he told himself.
The ground ahead dipped then rose up in front of him. And there, on breasting the steep incline, he saw the coastline. Leaving the pathway, he picked his way across the grass until he found himself looking down into an immense inlet where the river emptied into the sea. The freshwater spilled out over the edge of the black cliff and dropped a full forty meters onto the rocks below. Once there, it ran horizontally across water-worn rocks for twenty or so meters before falling into the sea. The noise was impressive.
Raymond took his phone from his pocket—still no signal—and so he began taking photographs, and it was only then that he spotted the slight figure of a young woman perched on a narrow ledge a few meters below the lip of the waterfall. She was soaked from head to foot and was staring intently down at the rocks, her narrow frame perilously close to the edge. She must have climbed down and gotten stuck, he thought. Much later, he would remember how the familiar urge to withdraw had come over him then, but as he turned to leave, a less familiar impulse made him stop, and before he had time to think about what he was going to do, he called out.
The young woman stared up at him then back to where the water met the rocks below. Raymond scrambled across the grass until he found himself no more than fifteen feet from where she stood. Dropping onto all fours, he slid down onto the ledge above her. ‘Hey!’ he shouted again. ‘Hey!’ She looked up at him, but this time she didn’t look away immediately.
‘I’m Ray.’ he said. ‘I’m Raymond. My name is Raymond.’
The young woman didn’t answer.
‘Stay there, I’m going to climb down to you.’
The surface was slippery, but he was determined to reach her. ‘Here I come,’ he said. He lowered himself down, the physical effort and his own fear making his legs feel as if they might give way at any moment. The ledge was barely big enough for them both to stand on. Sliding the last part of the way on his backside, he came to rest with a jolt next to her. Still, she didn’t respond. ‘I’m Raymond,’ he repeated. ‘What – what are you doing down here?’ He had the urge to make a joke—he usually made jokes in times of crisis.
She was shivering. He wondered how long she’d been here. Unsure of what to do next, he touched her on the shoulder. She shied away, but it did have the desired effect, and she turned to face him. Her eyes were dark brown, and in happier times, would have been beautiful. Now all he could see in them was desperation. Down here, so close to the fall, the noise was louder, and so he had to raise his voice. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘why don’t we go up top and have a chat? I’ll buy coffee if you like.’ The words sounded ridiculous, and he wondered for a moment if she’d think he was trying to chat her up. An old fool like him, chatting her up on a narrow ledge underneath a raging waterfall. ‘I mean—’ he began.
‘Go away.’ She said.
‘I just want to—’ He didn’t know how to finish the sentence. ‘Maybe you could tell me what the matter is.’
She said nothing.
‘Listen, I know what it’s like. I’m having problems myself.’ He hesitated, hoping she might speak, but she didn’t.
‘It’s my wife,’ he said. ‘She’s having an affair.’
He sensed that she was listening now. ‘I know who the guy is. I know his name and where he lives. I suppose I ought to go to his house and give him what for.’
Water dripped from her face, from her nose, from her hair.
‘The thing is, I’d rather not know,’ he hesitated. ‘Not really. I’d much sooner they just got on with it, and then, when she’s had enough, she could come back home, to me.’ Raymond wondered how much the young woman could hear above the sound of the fall, but she had heard him, and she turned and saw him, properly, for the first time.
‘I’d kill her,’ she said.
‘Would you?’ Raymond laughed, embarrassed.
‘I’d kill them both,’ she said.
‘Why don’t we go up top and talk this through?’ He tried to smile. ‘You could do with getting out of those wet things.’ She shot him a look. Raymond pushed on. ‘I bet you could do with a hot drink. A coffee.’
‘I don’t drink coffee,’ she said.
‘Tea then. How about a cup of tea?’
‘I don’t drink hot drinks.’
‘Okay, well, what do you like?’
‘Coke,’ she said. He felt he was losing her again. She said something else, but it was carried away with the rushing of the water.
‘What was that?’ he said.
She didn’t reply. His wife’s face popped into his head. When he got back to the top, he was going straight home. He was going to sort this mess out. He’d tell her how much he loved her. He’d tell this other guy to back off. It would be fine. He’d make her see. It would all be fine. ‘Come on, what have you got to lose?’ he said to the young woman. ‘Let’s go back up, huh?’
There was a change in her expression, and Raymond felt he was finally getting through to her. ‘You go first,’ he said, and he inched out onto the ledge so that she could inch past him on the inside. He felt the edge of his heels go out over the ledge. She looked nervously at him, as if afraid he might do something terrible to her. Right there. Under the waterfall. What the hell had happened to her, he thought.
She moved slowly past him, her head down—their bodies unavoidably touching. With a bit of luck, he would be able to help her make it up to the next level, and from there, onto safe ground.
And then his phone vibrated in his pocket; he could barely hear the familiar ringtone above the noise of the fall. The young woman must have heard it too because she gave him a quizzical look. Raymond said, ’It’ll be my wife,’ and he made to answer it, but he stopped midway as the young woman suddenly shifted forward, wrapping her arms and her body around his torso.
‘Don’t answer it,’ she said pressing her face hard against his chest.
The phone continued to vibrate. The young woman clung to him. Carefully, he placed a hand on her shoulder. The waterfall rushed by close to them. Raymond hesitated for the briefest moment.
‘I ought to just—’ he said, and he lifted the phone from his pocket. He could see that it was his wife calling. ‘It won’t take a moment—’ he said, but the young woman didn’t hear.
‘Hello Raymond? What’s that noise?’
The young woman took a step away from him, and fixing her eyes onto Raymond’s, she made to step off the ledge. He dropped the phone; it bounced and split on the ledge, spun out, and was gone into the falling water. Raymond grabbed the young woman, and his fingertips caught and held the thin fabric of her top. And so they remained, each of their lives delicately balanced above the black rocks, their strangers’ eyes locked.
Stephen Tuffin is an A-Level and undergraduate creative writing tutor who has a BA and MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. He has, in the past, been a door-to-door salesman, a care worker caring for psychiatric patients, a civil engineers’ labourer (digging holes in roads) and a carpenter. He is currently working on his second novel, The Scenic Railway. He has two grown children and lives with his wife and two fabulous cats in Wiltshire.