Geoffrey Heptonstall's first novel Heaven's invention, published by Black Wolf, is now available in paperback. He writes regularly for The London Magazine. Recent poetry has appeared in The Coffee House Anthology, The Journal and Poetry Super Highway.
MY LOVELY DEAR
‘There you are, my lovely dear, your coffee just as you like it: as black as night, as sweet as love and as hot as hell.’ Nora brought Mr Parfitt his coffee. Most customers had to take their orders from the counter. But Nora always brought Mr Parfitt’s coffee to his table.
Whenever possible (it wasn’t always possible in summer) Mr Parfitt would sit in the window alcove where he could look out at the Mill Race. That was the water which ran beneath the old mill. The time had been when the water drove the wheel that ground the corn in the mill. But in Mr Parfitt’s day the grinding of corn had given way to the baking of bread. He didn’t make his flour himself. It was bought from a mill upcountry. It was, he thought, too much of an enterprise to make the flour as well. He had thought of it, mind. But it was too much of an enterprise. Mr Parfitt was a baker, not a miller. He always had been a baker.
The Mill Race was a natural stream that had offered an enterprising miller the chance to set up in business. That had been many centuries past. For generations grain had been ground there, but not now, and quite likely never again.
Mr Parfitt liked the sound of the rushing water. He never tired of the Mill Race. Nora barely noticed it. She was too busy serving in her café. The place was rarely silent enough for her to listen to the sound of water. Like the sea, the Mill Race she had lived with all her life. She hardly noticed it was there.
It was Mr Parfitt she noticed. Every day he came into the café Nora took note of him. She greeted him warmly, for she always had some time for him no matter how busy things were, as they could be in the season. Nora knew exactly what her favourite customer wanted. He never had anything other than hot, sweet, black coffee. Every morning of the week Mr Parfitt came in as the clock on St Nicholas’s Church struck eleven. Nora said she timed it to the second.
There were not many other customers there. Even in the height of the season there were days that were not as crowded as others. This was such a morning. A mother and very young child were in. An elderly couple who said they were from Salisbury were about to leave as Mr Parfitt came in. Two young women sat at a table, talking in whispers. Nora thought there was something not quite right about those two.
She had given them quite a few penetrating glances, but they had seemed oblivious to her disapproval. Perhaps they were accustomed to disapproving glances if there was something not quite right about them. They were not local. They had a city air about them, the air of London. You could never tell with such types. London was another world where all sorts went on. You heard about it.
Mr Parfitt, as was customary, declared that his coffee was perfect. ‘Just how you like it, eh, my lovely dear,’ Nora replied. It was part of their routine. Every day the same routine. Nora looked forward to it. She knew what he would say. She knew what to say in return. It was the routine.
Then there would be some gossip. Nora always began the same way: ‘So, what’s the news, Mr Parfitt?’
‘No news,’ Mr Parfitt always replied.
‘Well, I’m surprised at that, with you working at the bakery. You must have a bit of news, Mr Parfitt.’
‘Well, I see the house on Prospect Hill is sold,’ Mr Parfitt replied. ‘They’re nice houses, he added. ‘Good, big family houses. Built to last. Nicely designed, too. Yes, very nice houses.’
‘Sold now, is it, Mr Parfitt?’ Nora replied.
‘They’re nice houses.’
‘Well, they’re big certainly. Just right for a family – if you’ve the money.’
‘They’re nice houses.’
‘Well, I prefer something a bit more modern. Contemporary, a contemporary look is what I like, speaking personally. I’m not that keen on old. It sort of reminds you of the past somehow, don’t you think, Mr Parfitt?’
‘Well, they are nice houses.’
‘Oh, they’re nice houses in their way, I’ll grant you, but they wouldn’t do for me somehow. I like modern, as I say. And not too big, mind. Different if you’ve got a big family, like.’
The city girls exchanged glances, trying to suppress their laughter. Nora gave them yet another of her disapproving looks. She asked Mr Parfitt if he knew who had moved into the house of Prospect Hill.
‘A family, I believe, ‘he replied. ‘Yes, a family. They’ve been in, of course. I served them myself, if I’m not mistaken. They have children. They look very nice. Girls. Nicely-spoken. Nice manners.’
‘I like nice manners in kids. I think it’s very important, myself. Of course, from my background we spoke any old how, but we was brought up to appreciate good manners. They don’t cost you, do they? So there’s no excuse. Anyway, it’s good to hear a decent family’s moved in.’
‘Well, that’s how it should be, Mr Parfitt. We’ve a nice town, and that’s how we want to keep it. I personally believe in standards. We’ve got to maintain standards. There was a man on the radio saying that very thing only yesterday. Or was it last week some time? Can’t rightly recollect. Anyway, the point is that once you let standards drop you don’t know where it will lead, do you? Well, I’ll tell you where it leads – It means the ruin of everything. We’ll not be safe in our beds at night.
‘I mean, if you remember that couple? You know, at Saltmouth? Do you remember them? Course you do. The trouble they caused. Who could forget them? You don’t forget that sort of trouble in a hurry. I thought things were never going to be the same after that. Do you remember? It was in all the papers. I had reporters coming in here. I said, “You get out. You get yourselves right of here, and don’t you come back.” That’s what I said. I said, “Get out.” This is a respectable town. But it was touch and go, Mr Parfitt. Do you remember? You don’t forget that sort of thing.’
‘I do, Nora, I do remember it very well. Nasty business. Shocking to think of it. I believe it was drugs, wasn’t it?’
‘It was drugs and all sorts, Mr Parfitt. All sorts. Best not to think about it, I say. You know what’s to blame, Mr Parfitt? I’ll you what’s to blame. It’s education to blame. Education gives people funny ideas, in my opinion. Funny ideas. They get it from the universities. They teach who-knows-what in the universities. I was reading only yesterday in the paper that some professor had been….Well, I don’t like to say what he’d been doing.’
‘Well, you can’t say it’s all like that, Nora. I mean, education can change people’s lives.’
‘It can do that all right, Mr Parfitt.’
‘I mean, doctors – they’re educated. You need education to be a doctor.’
‘Yes, but they go to medical school. Medical school’s different. They have respectable standards there. They teach them manners, which is the most important thing in being a doctor in my opinion. Same with the Church. And with teaching. They tell them how to conduct themselves. That is what all schools should be doing instead of filling young people’s heads with this and that. A good education is what children need, not funny ideas. I don’t think it ought to be allowed, all them funny ideas you hear so much about now. You never did at one time, did you? Not like now.’
Mr Parfitt said nothing at all. In fact he said nothing more for the remainder of his fifteen minutes in the café. He was content to let his mind drift away to thoughts of sailing. On Saturday he hoped for fine weather. The weather forecast was promising. Fine weather was going to mean a good day’s sailing. That, more than anything, was Mr Parfitt’s idea of recreation.
He loved his work. He was dedicated to his bakery. The thought of retirement never had any appeal to him at all. He intended to continue baking to the end of his days. Perhaps in later years he wouldn’t work every day, most days but not every day. In his leisure he would go sailing. But that was some time ahead. He had no intention of giving up yet. Although, it was true, that in good weather he did look out onto the Channel waters, and think how he might take out his lovely craft if the tide were high.
The young women of whom Nora did not approve made their way out of the café. They said nothing in words. But their manner indicated their contempt for Nora. They gave her not a glance when she said her usual goodbye. Afterwards Nora said, ‘Something not right about those girls. Can’t put my finger on it. Don’t like the look of them.’
Nora sighed. Mr Parfitt remained silent. He was a man of few words. That, for Nora, was intriguing. She thought there were ‘deep waters’ there, if only she might reach them
‘It’s the same with trying to find someone to help here,’ Nora was saying. Mr Parfitt hadn’t been listening, although Nora seems not to have noticed that. ‘I’ve had such problems. Well, you know the problems I’ve had, Mr Parfitt. The problems I’ve had with girls. In the end you give up. You can’t seem to find one who’s willing to do a decent day’s work. They’re all doing this and that. They don’t want to work, that’s for sure. So in the end you give up. They won’t be told. You can’t tell them how to do things proper, like. No, they want to do it the way they want to do it, which, as like as not, means it doesn’t get done at all. Like I say, they don’t listen. They just laugh at you behind your back. Oh, there she goes again, they say. And they just laugh. So what can you do? What can you do, Mr Parfitt? I’m blessed if I know. So, like I say, in the end you just give up. It’s not worth the bother of trying. I’m sick of trying with them girls. I do it all myself, then at least I know it gets done as it should. Of course it means I work every hour God sends. Every hour that God sends, and get no thanks from anyone for it, but at least I know it’s done up to a decent standard. Well, there’s regulations. Hygiene. Inspectors come, and they can close you down, as you know, Mr Parfitt. So it’s got to be done right, hasn’t it? And there isn’t one girl that I can find in the whole town who can do it right.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Mr Parfitt ventured to say, his eyes looking out to the headland.
‘Well, I do, and I’m telling you,’ Nora replied. ‘I know only too well, I’ll tell you, Mr Parfitt.’
It was time for Mr Parfitt to leave. The church clock was striking the first quarter. ‘Regular as clockwork you are, Mr Parfitt,’ Nora said. It was something she always said every day as the bells of St Nicholas chimed the first quarter after eleven. If Mr Parfitt was vexed by this ritual reference he showed not the slightest hint of irritation.
‘Now, I have to tell you something important, Mr Parfitt, before you go. I’ve been meaning to say this.’ Nora hesitated. Her customary confidence had escaped her. She took a deep breath. ‘The fact is, Mr Parfitt, that next week the café will be closed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday for some decoration. I think the place needs an uplift. I know it’s short notice, but it’s when my cousin’s neighbour can fit me in. He’s so busy, you know. Well, I say, it’s good that he’s got the work. There’s plenty who can’t say that, isn’t there? Anyway, for three days we won’t be open. But it’s business as usual Thursday.’
‘Well, I’ll miss your coffee, Nora.’
‘Course you will, my lovely dear.’ Nora sighed as Mr Parfitt rose out of his chair, picking up his newspaper before leaving. If he heard Nora’s sigh he gave no indication. He didn’t even look at Nora when she said goodbye.
Without saying another word Mr Parfitt closed the door of the café. He walked at his customary, unhurried pace across the road to the converted mill that was his bakery. A customer he knew greeted him cheerfully, and he responded in kind. Nora and the Crab Café were forgotten in the contingencies of the late morning.
Later perhaps Mr Parfitt would give time to thinking where he might take coffee in the days when the Crab was closed. He decided, on recommendation, to give the Captain’s Cabin a trial. It did look an inviting place. That was true. The Crab was conveniently close by, but Nora could go on a little too much. The coffee was acceptable, however. And the view of the sea never failed to please Mr Parfitt.
Mr Parfitt liked the sea, and the sight of a pretty girl. He had never married. He had hoped to find the right person, but she never came. He had been with a few girls. He had ventured discreetly into the realms of the intimate pleasure a young man hopes for as fervently as a young woman hopes to be cherished.
But those romantic days were long past. They had walked out to the lighthouse, or into Downe Wood. In secluded places they had sought out one another for the satisfaction of being more than simply alive.
But these encounters never found their way into a love that survives disappointment and failure. Mr Parfitt had wanted many things from a woman. He had much to give. He wanted to share his prosperity with someone. He wanted someone to listen to his plans for future expansion. He wanted a woman who might sail with him, and with whom he might reach distant shores by night. He wanted a pretty face, a shapely body and a warm heart. She would wear silk when he wore velvet. They would care for each other always. Even when the fires dimmed, in the embers would be something that surpassed a transient need, a momentary pleasure.
But it never happened. He never caught a mermaid by the tail.
The sea was so calm that members of the Yacht Club were unsure if there was any sailing to be done that day. They needed a breeze. Later in the morning light winds began to worry the surface of the channel waters. The tide was high, flooding the harbour, raising the yachts out of the mud. There were no more than a few wisps of cloud in the sky. This was, as every sailor knew, a perfect day. This was a day to glide across the water to the headland and beyond. This was a day when the horizon was limitless, a day when one might sail on to the moon.
‘Personally, I like things to be straightforward, then you know where you are. Blue sky thinking,’ Mr Parfitt said, taking his leave of everyone at the Yacht Club. He was in good form. He felt relaxed, content and well. He had never felt better. The sky was a perfect blue, with only a hint of cloud. The sea was turquoise. A light wind was sufficient to make for a perfect day’s sailing. There was nothing on Mr Parfitt’s mind except the thought of his craft floating on the water. The tide was high, and soon he would be out beyond the strand which shielded the harbour.
And so Mr Parfitt sailed on a light breeze beyond the headland and into the next bay, a great arc of coast revealed. It was always like the first glimpse of a new found land. To the left was the limitless horizon of the sea. It stretched like a great sheet of glass. Ahead were some notorious rocks. But Mr Parfitt was well-accustomed to those. Ships had been known to founder on those rocks. The sea was as much a danger as a pleasure.
There came a moment, out from the headland, when the waves stilled and the wind dropped. This reversal of climate was quite usual. For no reason it seemed, and without warning, the wind could rise or fall or change direction. It often happened. There was no reason to think that this moment of calm was unusual.
And yet Mr Parfitt did feel there was a difference in the air. It was not something he could know for certain. It was a vague feeling. Then it grew stronger. It was a feeling inside himself, a sense of well-being. Mr Parfitt loved to venture out to sea. He loved the spray of saltwater, and the cries of gulls, and the sight of other craft, many of which he knew. He knew the names of the boats. He knew the lives of their owners. They were familiar people, many of whom he had known for years and years.
On this day, unusually, there was no-one. On a Saturday afternoon in summer there was always another yacht in sight. But on this day Mr Parfitt was alone. He was not concerned. He felt at peace. Why beware of such a feeling of peace? What had he to fear from such a benign spirit? It was the way he felt when he woke in the Infirmary the day he was due to be discharged. It was a good way to feel, a Godly way.
This was the calm and peace of a world at harmony. There were many terrible things happening in the world, but at this moment none of that mattered because out there was only the vastness of the ocean, the waters that encircled the world. When there no more wars to fight, no more lands to conquer, no more races to subdue, there would be the sea flowing as it had from the beginnings of time. In the end there would be the same water. This never changed. This was as old as the Universe, and as mysterious.
That girl, the one he saw walking by the cafe, she was a part of that mystery. Her loveliness and her kindness both testified to the truth of that. Such beauty was a mystery. It surely contained a secret. It was one that Mr Parfitt never had understood as hoped he might. It was so near and so distant. He almost could reach that mystery, only to see that it was as far away as the stars.
The sight of the stars from the open sea was something to treasure. And when there was a crescent moon, then the vision was incomparable. Mr Parfitt was not one to sail his own craft at night, but he had gone across the water on a perfect night. Then he looked up to the sky, as now he looked at Lucy floating through the water towards the yacht.
At first he had thought her body lifeless, and the fear in him was awful. But when he saw her rise out of the water effortlessly he was relieved that she was alive and beautiful. She sat at the stern, her smile so welcoming, her eyes so clear. Hair cascaded down over her naked breasts, her modesty preserved by a pair of shimmering white tights.
Mr Parfitt whispered hello. When she gently slipped into the water Mr Parfitt followed her, for it was the most natural thing he could think to do. She had saved his life once. She would do so again. Mr Parfitt went down into the calm water. He had no doubt that this was how it ought to be. He felt no regret, no uncertainty, no fear. Then he felt nothing at all.
Suddenly the wind changed to a fierce easterly that brought rain and rough waves that crashed against the yacht drifting toward the headland to be broken on the rocks. Then, as suddenly as the storm came, it vanished. The sea was calm again, having brought Mr Parfitt’s body closer to the shore.
There came a letter from Mr Parfitt’s attorney. It was not the news Nora at the café had been expecting. She didn’t understand how it happened. She told everyone she didn’t understand. She said it so often to so many people that everyone became too familiar with Nora’s grievance. She couldn’t stop herself from declaring her shock at the news. It went round her mind endlessly in every waking hour, and often in her dreams.
Nora felt betrayed. She had been betrayed and humiliated by the man for whom she cared so much. She could not understand how he could do such a thing to her. She had cared about him. She had welcomed him into her café every day. Every day at the church clock was striking the hour he was to be seen walking across from the bakery to Nora’s café. She had loved those visits. It had been her ten minutes of heaven every day.
She had cherished him. She had prepared his coffee just the way he like it. She had brought to his table with such loving care. She had done this for him day in, day out in every season, year after year. Without her devoted attention where would he have been? Another lonely, unmarried man sitting in a café alone. But because of Nora he was a man who had known warmth and care at the hands of an adoring woman. What more could he have asked for?
What more could she have given? She asked for nothing in return, although, naturally, her expectation was that one day he would give some indication, some little indication, that he appreciated all she had done. He would give some indication that he cared. He would drop ever so subtly a hint that her devotion was to be in some large measure reciprocated. All Nora asked of him was love. Was that too much to ask for, too much to expect?
He had been thinking all the time of another who was not even a woman. What could possess a man of Mr Parfitt’s maturity to bequeath everything – his church and a few charities apart – to a mere girl? What madness had taken hold of him? What spell had been cast? If it was Mr Parfitt’s hand that had signed the document, but the dark presence of an evil spirit had guided his when he signed.
‘I know that girl, not to speak to, but I see her pass my café,’ Nora explained to Mr Parfitt’s solicitor. ‘I’ve seen her give my Mr Parfitt the eye. But he loved me. I know he did. I’m not stupid, you know. I know what love is. I’ve been married twice. He loved me, I tell you. I could see it in his eyes, in his smile. He had a lovely smile. I’ve never seen such a lovely smile – although you’ve got a nice smile yourself, young man. His smile, well, it was the smile of a man in love. And I should know. I’ve been married twice, and there’s many a man I could have taken as my third had I so wished. I know what love is, believe me. But, no, I waited for my lovely, dear Mr Parfitt. We’d have made a perfect match. Just think of it - him in the bakery and me in the café. That was how it was going to be. That’s how I planned. And I planned it with such care. I can see it now. Well, it was going to be perfect, wasn’t it, until…’
‘Well, I’m afraid, Mrs Gibbon…’
‘Don’t you Mrs Gibbon me, young man. I want what is mine. I’m an ordinary working woman, and proud to call myself such. And, by everything that’s right, I’ll bloody well get it. It was to be him in the bakery and me in the café. I know what love is. And I’m not having it. I’ve told you: I want what is mine.’
‘Well, perhaps if you..?’
‘Perhaps if I what, young man? Perhaps if I forget the whole thing? Is that what you mean?’
‘Well, I really don’t see how….’
‘No, well, you wouldn’t, would you. You’re not a woman who’s been wronged. I have been wronged and betrayed and tricked when I’ve worked my fingers to the bone to make ends meet. I’ve not been wrapped up in privileges all my life, not like some. I’ve had to work. And I’ve worked hard. I’m an ordinary working woman, and proud to call myself such.’
‘Well, quite, Mrs Gibbon, but I really don’t see how we can help you further.’
‘There’s courts, isn’t there? There’s courts and there’s judges. There’s courts with judges who can decide on these things, and give me what is mine by right. Don’t tell me that the law isn’t on my side. I’m a woman who’s been wronged. I have been wronged and betrayed and tricked.’
‘Well, there is very little room for manoeuvre. Perhaps if we could see the original will?’
‘It was always understood between us.’
‘It was a verbal agreement, Mrs Gibbon? Mr Parfitt discussed it with you?’
‘Not in so many words. It was more of an understanding. It was to be him in the bakery and me in the café. I know what love is. And I’m not having that little minx coming between us. I’ve told you: I want what is mine. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone. Nobody, I tell you, nobody understood that dear, good, generous man as I did. It’s almost as if we was made for each other. And if there’s a God above…’
The solicitor looked at his watch. He stifled a yawn. The room needed more air. Once she was gone he would open a window. A cup of tea might be in order.
‘You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re not listening to me. Well, there’s others who will listen. I’ll bloody well make sure they listen.’
The music was appropriately solemn for such an occasion. All who were gathered in the church were dressed in sombre formality, with black the dominant tone. Every face wore the serious expression that accompanies bewilderment and loss. Only the other day he had been alive and laughing. He seemed totally recovered. There was no reason for anyone to think there may be more bad news to come.
The silence lasted a long while until a noise at the back of the church disrupted all thoughts, and transformed in an instant all sorrow into anger, and all tears into fury. Everyone turned in disbelief to the back of the church. At first minds, roused from the depths of contemplation, could not hear the words uttered. All that was heard was disruptive noise. What was happening was sacrilege of a kind that nobody could imagine witnessing at such a time.
Nora Gibbon was shouting, ‘I loved him most of all. None of you loved him as I did. We were meant for one another. I know that in his heart of hearts it was me, and not that little minx as I should call her. None of you knew him as I did. None of you loved him as I did. It was me, me, me that he loved, I tell you.’
Firm hands were placed on Nora’s shoulders. Carefully, almost respectfully, she was gripped by men who had no intentions of doing her harm, but every intention of removing her from the scene of her embarrassing display of emotion.
Churchwardens and other men led Nora away out of the church. They had to drag her in her rage and sorrow that was so unseemly, so inappropriate and so unforgivably degrading that it was never going to be forgotten. Even outside the church Nora’s voice could be heard in her inconsolable vexation at the injustice of life.
‘I think,’ the Rector said, ‘we need to pray for another today - if we can find it in our hearts.’
‘Well, I can’t, Reverend,’ Jim Whiteley called out. There was a murmur of approval at this. ‘She’s gone and ruined our thoughts of Reg at the time of our saying goodbye to a lovely old boy. There’s no two ways that that’s not right.’
‘That mad cow don’t give a damn about Reg,’ another man added. ‘She’s only thinking of how she feels.’ They were approving murmurs throughout the congregation.
‘She’s only thinking of Reg’s money, I say,’ a man added to another round of approving murmurs.
Nora’s voice was found later murmuring in the churchyard: ‘There you are, my lovely dear, your coffee just as you like it.’ Over and over she said it until it was dark and everyone had gone – everyone except Nora and Mr Parfitt. ‘You’ll like it. Course you will, my lovely dear,’