Tunsgate Green stood, thinking of Ruth, back in the cottage, typing away at her wretched manuscript. Some romantic nonsense, mainly to make up for the total lack of it in their lives, he imagined. Once she’d been young, vivacious, sexy even. He snorted. Hard to imagine that now! Their love life currently resembled this salt marsh – dead flat.
He gazed over the dry beige marshland to the distant level horizon, the faintest deep blue ribbon set against the pale blue sky indicating the start of the North Sea, next stop the fjords and islands of western Norway, 400 miles away.
They’d come to Stiffkey, on the Norfolk coast, to try to rekindle something of their relationship, but with Ruth immersed in her fictional romantic world, and him stalking the lonely marshes and empty beaches, they rarely seemed to meet when one or the other wasn’t tired. She could be irritatingly churlish too, which didn’t help, and he probably wasn’t much better, he admitted.
He missed Shiva, his black labrador and companion of the last twelve years. She’d developed stomach cancer and had to be put to sleep six weeks earlier. Ruth had made sympathetic noises, but she didn’t really care. He’d been devastated. He realised he still was, as tears came to his eyes at the thought.
A gentle cool breeze ruffled the stubby coarse grass. It was warm and he felt sweaty, even though he’d not walked fast. Out there he knew appearances could be deceptive. Salt water lurked under the soil, always eager for a victim, perhaps an overzealous dog, or even a careless walker. At night, spirits of footpads and pirates were said to roam the endless flat landscape, damned to do so by virtue of their heinous deeds in life.
He walked back alongside a creek of bright blue water. The soil was exposed here, clay-brown, but dry from the heat of summer. There was no sign of modern life, no fences, telegraph poles, nothing. Just this ancient path, scuffed by centuries of wayfarers.
Coming into the village he encountered the Stiffkey Stores. A pale-red pitched roof surmounted walls made from small stones, some grey, some black, cemented together somehow. A faded blue awning, stained green with moss, overhung a dark curtainless window. In front of the store stood a trailer full of pots of colourful flowers. Someone had recently given it a lick of fresh grey paint.
He pushed the door open and a bell rang. To the left was an old brown wooden counter with an ancient till at the near end. Shelves on the far wall contained tins of soup, loaves of white bread, bags of sugar and the like. Against the wall to the right was a stand containing potatoes with soil on them, large, almost-fluorescent orange carrots, huge cauliflowers, and other vegetables and fruit.
“Hello.” A young woman behind the counter, dressed in an enormous thick bottle-green turtle neck pullover, smiled brightly. She had shoulder length blonde hair, and an attractive, tanned face, unadorned by make up. On the counter in front of her lay a salmon. Its scales held shades of purple and red. Freshly caught, he surmised.
“Hello,” he said, surprised. He’d met old Mr. Blush on his one previous visit to buy some stamps. “Did you catch that yourself?” he found himself asking.
“No, I created it!” She laughed a warm laugh, showing perfect white teeth. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, it’s, … don’t laugh. Tunsgate! Apparently I was conceived there. My mother never knew my father’s name. What’s yours?”
“She smiled, it’s Nancy, but you know me as Calluna … in the other place.”
He began to wonder if she was all right in the head. She seemed somehow familiar though, and exuded an aura of friendship. “What do you mean, you created this salmon?!”
She stood up and smoothed the green wool down over her breasts. She laughed her warm laugh again. “There are four of us, you – Arthemis, that’s what you’re called, me, Nathum and Senji. Our guide and teacher is Shato. He sometimes comes to us as an Irish leprechaun, other times as a beautiful young woman! Your ego-mind doesn’t remember, but inside, deep inside, your superconscious mind, the mind of your soul, remembers very well!”
Something in what she was saying rang a distant, faint bell. “I … er, I don’t know. It’s interesting what you’re saying but ….”
She came out from behind the counter and he noticed she had one pale blue eye, and one jade green eye. He felt a jolt of recognition. His imagination though, surely?
“We were on what we call Earth Two, a ‘practice world.’ Now we are at level three we can practise, with Shato’s help, channelling energy to make things. At first small pebbles and rocks, then plants, then … fish!” She laughed. “It took a long time. Many, many, many lifetimes!”
She approached and put her arms around him. Tunsgate closed his eyes, hugging her back. Yes, he knew her. Deep inside. He could feel the love of a soul mate emanating from her. Then she broke away. “I have to close the shop now.” She wrapped the salmon in greaseproof paper and put it in a brown paper bag. “Here, a present from Calluna!”
“What did you do?” asked Ruth. She was in the small kitchen, pouring boiling water into a large blue china teapot. He enjoyed the familiar, fragrant smell.
“Oh, just walked along the coastal path. I miss Shiva.”
“I know, darling, she was a lovely dog.” She came over and, to his astonishment, hugged him, kissing him on the cheek. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that.
He continued, “I called into the store. There was an amazing young woman there. Said she knew me from a previous life!” He felt embarrassed.
Ruth laughed. “I wonder who that was, there’s only old Mr. and Mrs. Blush run the store.”
“She was about twenty-five, blonde hair, attractive. She gave me this salmon!”
“Oh, that’d be from the salmon farm just down the coast. They’ve got a son. He works there. There’s no daughter though. Well ….”
Ruth poured strong brown tea into two blue enamelled mugs and splashed in milk from a carton. “Well there was a daughter. Old Mrs. Blush told me the girl used to ride a horse along the coast. One day, about ten years ago, she went out and neither she nor the horse ever came back.”
“Yes, some said the horse was a water kelpie and had taken her back to the sea. More likely they went onto the marsh and just got swallowed up, poor girl. Her name was Nancy.”
He started. “Nancy. That was the name of the girl in the shop!”
Ruth looked up. Her lips were glossy and he noticed she’d applied some powder to her normally pale cheeks. “Old Mrs. Blush told me Nancy had an unusual characteristic … she had one blue eye …”
“… and one green,” he said.
Ruth looked into her mug. “Truth can be stranger than fiction … sometimes.”
“I suppose so.”
She smiled. “Look, let’s drink our tea, then ….” She nodded towards the bedroom door.
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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