THE ECHOING SHORE
November 1991. Jim Trelawney tilted his head to admire the sweeping lines of the orange and blue lifeboat. There was a purposeful grace to the Talan Bray. Out of the water, she appeared immense, her fourteen-metre length filling much of the boathouse. But, in the vastness of the North Atlantic on a storm-tossed night, she could feel smaller than the head of a pin. A night such as this, in fact. A shrieking wind was conspiring with falling temperatures and hammering rain in some of the worst weather Trelawney could ever recall.
The thud of heavy boots on the steps at the back of the boathouse and raised voices caught his attention. The Ridley brothers, Bobby and Jed, were exchanging bitter words as they arrived.
‘I don’t like it. We should get out while we still can,’ Bobby Ridley was saying. His anger was edged with a sharp anxiety.
Jed laid a steadying hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. ‘Bobby, we need to keep our heads…’ The words died on Jed Ridley’s lips when he saw Trelawney standing nearby. He forced a grin. ‘Don’t go without us.’
Trelawney slipped on his lifejacket. ‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’ He hesitated, listening to the wild hostility outside rise to a new intensity. ‘Is everything okay with you two?’
‘Never better. So, what have we got tonight?’
‘A yacht. In trouble out beyond The Mouls. Taking on water. Two people on board. Sounds bad.’
Jed Ridley glanced upwards into the creaking roof before looking around at the ruddy, weather-beaten individuals who’d scrambled to the boathouse on this most godforsaken of nights. The crew were quieter, more sombre than usual. Talk was confined to essentials as each man absorbed himself in checking and rechecking equipment and contemplation of the task ahead. ‘Where’s Harding?’ he said at last.
Trelawney climbed aboard. ‘John’s gone down with the flu.’ He nodded at a young man adjusting his lifejacket. ‘Seth’s stepping up to join us.’
The older Ridley locked eyes with the youngster, a smirk on his fleshy lips. ‘So, young Seth, you’ve been promoted to the A-Team.’
Seth Maltby’s broad, open face expressed a steady confidence. ‘Looking forward to it, Jed,’ he said in his soft Westcountry burr.
Trelawney smiled paternally at the young seaman. ‘You’ll do just fine, lad. I was about your age when I made the first team.’
Thrumming hydraulic machinery raised the Talan Bray to the angle of the slipway and the boat’s twin Gardner diesel engines were already spewing fumes and starting to turn as the launch team battled with the storm to fold back and secure the boathouse doors.
The lifeboatmen stared down at the heaving black mass of the ocean, their eyes widening when a wave rose almost to the boathouse itself before falling back with a sucking, slurping roar to expose most of the slipway.
‘Holy shit.’ Typical of Jed Ridley, he’d expressed in one succinct obscenity the feelings of every member of the crew. It was going to be one hell of a night, one hell of a ride.
The Talan Bray was lowered outside to be pummelled by wind, sea spray and rain. Her radio and radar masts were erected and then Trelawney, braced with a foot on the wheelhouse, waited for the perfect moment to launch. It was his call and his call alone. If he got it wrong, the rescue could end in disaster before it had begun. Everyone held their breath. They just wanted to be out there now, on their way.
Another surge of water rolled up the slipway, bubbling and frothing, seemingly unstoppable. Its power petered out just short of the bows.
‘Now,’ Trelawney bellowed above the elemental roar and made a slashing gesture with his right arm.
Jake Bolitho, the head launcher, thwacked the retaining pin with a twenty-one-pound hammer and the lifeboat slid downwards, gathering speed behind the retreating wave.
The Talan Bray plunged into the sea, carving a deep, foaming V in its turbulent surface, to be clear of the slipway and under power by the time the next great swell of water loomed out of the darkness. A textbook launch.
In the boathouse, those left behind paused in silence to watch the masthead light disappear as the boat charged into a trough, but then blink again as she struggled upwards, shrugging aside the churning water streaming across her decks.
They’d never see the Talan Bray again.
Nearly ten years later.
The ancient wooden door, swollen by the damp of autumn, shuddered but stayed firmly shut. Another shove, a stout kick and at last it swung creakily wide. A tousled giant, red in cheek and fleshy of jowl, filled the entrance, dripping with Cornish rain. He unbuttoned a rumpled Burberry coat to reveal a plaid shirt stretched by a paunch.
A drinker, if ever I saw one. But he used the full power of an easy, boyish smile as his gaze settled on me. ‘It’s raining cats and cows out there. Filthy day for sure,’ he said, flinching when a squall rattled the rickety windows of the North Cornwall Gazette.
The north coast was being battered by an Atlantic storm, which drove waves high up beaches, pounded cliffs and headlands and made strolling down St Branok’s winding high street a misery. Spume erupted from the crests of the rollers crashing against Tregloss Point. The seagulls had been silenced for once, their shrieks replaced by the howl of wind and surf.
‘Editorial isn’t open to the public,’ I said with my fingers poised over the keyboard of my computer.
His smile was unwavering as he strolled into the office. ‘Well, I’m actually a journalist myself and there was no one at your reception desk downstairs.’
‘Brenda must have popped out to visit a customer,’ I said as I wondered about the real cause of her disappearance. In fairness to her, she might have just gone to the loo.
‘Brenda?’ His dripping face expressed puzzlement.
I stepped out from my desk. ‘Our advertising manager. She looks after reception.’ Brenda Rosewall did indeed glory in the title of advertising manager, though she was also our receptionist, distribution manager and occasional, very occasional, cleaner.
He held out his hand in the offer of a handshake, which I accepted. His grip was warm and firm. And damp. A minty tang of after-shave lingered. ‘The name’s Danny…Danny Flanagan.’
‘Kate Tregillis, I’m the editor,’ I said with a tight smile. I might have added owner, managing director, clearer upper and completer of any task which Brenda didn’t get around to. ‘And this is Roy Kerslake, our editor-at-large,’ I added, gesturing to the only other person in the room - a wizened figure who was far from large, hunched at a nearby desk with an empty pipe in his mouth. Roy’s quick, intelligent eyes flicked up from his computer screen. He grinned a greeting.
Danny reached out to shake Roy’s hand as well. ‘Pleased to meet you, Roy. Sounds like you’ve got a big job.’
‘Roy retired after many distinguished years as our editor-in-chief,’ I said. ‘But he found retirement a bit too quiet, so came back to us with a roving brief.’
‘You name it, I write about it,’ said Roy. ‘Kate calls me editor-at-large to spare an old editor his blushes, but I’m just a reporter. And I love it, never been happier.’
Danny nodded. ‘Oh aye, once journalism is in your blood, it’s there for keeps.’ There was a sincerity in his tone. Clearly, Danny was a journalist through and through. His blue eyes swept around the echoing, empty office. ‘So, this is where the magic happens, eh? Where is everybody?’
In truth, there wasn’t much magic percolating through our editorial offices at that moment. Roy was doing a re-write of a report from the local Women’s Institute to fill a hole on an inside page of the Gazette. And I was struggling with my scrappy shorthand to turn a dull monthly meeting of the St Branok Chamber of Commerce into an article of remote interest to the local community.
‘Everybody?’ I coughed. ‘What were you expecting?’
A puddle of rainwater was forming on the worn linoleum floor next to Danny’s feet. ‘I’m used to newspaper offices being a little more…well er…more active. I thought there would be more people.’
‘We run a tight operation,’ I said. For tight, read threadbare. ‘These days there’s just Roy and me in editorial with a trainee and a sub-editor, who comes in to help us out on an occasional basis.’
A hot flush of embarrassment crept up my throat. Local newspaper offices aren’t intended to be immaculate, but ours had a distinct air of neglect. A line of books, dominated by hardback versions of the Oxford Dictionary and a Roget’s Thesaurus, gathered dust on a wonky shelf in one corner. An askew noticeboard covered a large crack and a stain in another. At the far end of the room, a row of grey four-drawer filing cabinets stood like sentinels, empty relics from the days when paper records were king.
The offices were way too big for us these days. They’d existed since the Gazette’s halcyon days when circulation was booming - at least by today’s standards - and editorial had bustled with a team of senior reporters and sub editors.
‘Looks like I’ve come along at the right time,’ said Danny. ‘You could do with an extra pair of hands, and I know my way around. You won’t find a better journalist this side of the Tamar.’
I noticed a coffee stain across a corner of my desk and made a mental note to give it a good wipe later. ‘Sorry, we’re not hiring.’
Danny spread his hands, that smile still on his face. ‘I’m not looking for a full-time job. I’m down here mainly to do some freelance work for the London press, but I could also knock up a few stories for you and get paid for any published articles. I really need a local base to work from. We’d be helping each other.’
‘I don’t get it,’ I said. ‘Why is a London freelancer looking for stories in the wild west? There must be more lucrative pickings to be had from nosing around in Westminster with dodgy politicians.’
‘I’ve been commissioned to write a few Cornwall features. The usual sort of thing: surfing mecca, land of magic and mystery and the delicious Cornish pasty where brave souls pit themselves against the Atlantic. All that baloney.’
‘Well, most of it is true. People do risk their lives on this coast every day.’ If we were to work together, Danny would learn soon enough that I was fiercely protective of the raw nature of Cornwall. A childhood playing in the dunes and surf had shaped me.
Danny pulled a tatty notebook from an inside pocket. ‘The ocean can be a fickle mistress right enough. Anyway, I’ll be down here for a while and could help out if you just give me a desk and a phone line and pay me whatever your rate is for any articles you publish.’
All this sounded ideal. Too good to be true. I was desperate for help. Newspaper deadlines were running me ragged as I struggled to run a business and fill a twenty-eight-page weekly newspaper.
‘Where did you used to work?’ I said.
‘In Ireland for many years - for the Telegraph, the Sentinel and the Star before moving to London and freelancing at The Enquirer and a few others. I’m NUJ, of course.’ He flourished a National Union of Journalists membership card and then handed me a dog-eared business card with the name Daniel.J.Flanagan, Investigative Journalist printed in large letters. ‘Give me a chance. You won’t regret it.’
‘I wrote for The Enquirer,’ I said.
‘Worked my way up to Deputy Editor.’
His eyes widened. ‘And there I was thinking you were a Cornish girl.’
‘I am. I was born and raised here, in St Branok, but moved to London when I was in my early twenties.’
‘The lure of the bright lights, eh?’
‘I was ambitious back then, wanted to be at the centre of things.’ Enough of me. I needed to do a little more prodding. ‘If you were at The Enquirer, you must know Bob Fletcher, the editor.’
‘Bob? Yes, of course. Great guy. A legend.’
I chewed my lower lip, weighing up the pros and cons. The pros won out. ‘Okay, let’s give it a try. When can you start?’ For all his rumpled appearance, Danny might be the ray of light we were so desperately needing.
His broad, Irish smile grew to incandescent proportions. He held out his hand again. ‘Let’s shake on it. I can be here first thing tomorrow.’ His hand was drier now and his grip even stronger.
He licked dry lips. ‘What time do you guys get off duty? I spotted a welcoming little watering hole on my way over here. The Mermaid Inn, I think it was called. How about a celebratory drink to mark our new partnership? You can bring me up to speed with the latest in St Branok. I’m sure there’s lots to tell.’
I searched his features for a trace of sarcasm but saw only a well-meaning sincerity. Aside from reckless teenagers tombstoning off Tregloss Point and the opening of a new charity shop in the high street, there wasn’t much to tell at all. I consulted the clock on the wall. Nearly five o’clock. A bit early for a drinking session, but The Mermaid would be open – it was almost always open. And it was Thursday afternoon, a brief window of time when we could relax a little because the latest newspaper had been put to bed prior to hitting the streets the following day.
‘Why not?’ I said. ‘It’s been a long week. We deserve a break. And I can introduce you to Joe Keast, the landlord at The Mermaid. You’ll like him. He knows everybody and everything around here.’
Roy wrapped up his article in record time, I grabbed the jacket I’d bought for a romantic skiing holiday five years earlier, which never happened when Mr Right turned out to be Mr Wrong, and we clumped down the narrow stairs to the Gazette’s reception, now manned again by Brenda. She was on the phone, cajoling a prospective advertiser into taking a quarter page, instead of a single column.
The sales pitch was ratcheted up a notch when Brenda noticed she had an audience. ‘If you can make a commitment now, I’ll speak to the editor about a free news feature.’
Her round face had turned triumphant by the time she replaced the handset. ‘Hodgsons will be taking a two-column ad for the next four weeks.’
‘Well done,’ I said. I’d speak to her later about offering space reserved for hard news in return for advertising. The Gazette was a newspaper, for goodness’ sake, not an advertising leaflet. I gestured to our drying recruit. ‘Danny will be working with us for a while.’
With a twinkle in her eye, Brenda eased her ample figure, clad in trackies and a floppy jumper, out from behind the desk. ‘Delighted to meet you. It’ll be good to have a new face around here.’
Danny’s ‘one million candles’ smile, the one he obviously saved for good news and, I suspected, members of the opposite sex, bathed her in its amiable light. ‘Well, well, two beautiful women in one office. We’re lucky men, aren’t we, Roy?’
Roy harrumphed a vague, indecipherable reply, while Brenda’s full features cracked in delight, and she managed a half curtsey.
I barely suppressed a groan and tugged open the front door to allow the wildness to enter and clear the air of Danny’s clumsy compliments. ‘Brenda, we’re popping over to The Mermaid to see Joe. Are you okay to lock up at five-thirty?’
‘No problem at all, Kate,’ she said, having slipped back behind the reception desk. ‘Have a lovely drink in The Mermaid.’
I gazed at her, unused to such helpfulness. It wasn’t like Brenda to be all sweetness and light near the end of a tiring week in dreary autumn. ‘Thanks. It’s just a quick one. We probably won’t be long.’
Brenda gave Danny a wave. ‘See you tomorrow,’ she said. Of course, he beamed at her again.
Rain was being driven up Crantock Street in a horizontal direction as we strode the short distance to The Mermaid. It had swept shoppers from the streets. On the other side of the road, the ironmongers and a charity shop, which had once been a local bank, were in darkness and locked up tight, having given up on the possibility of snaring any late customers on such a day.
As I pulled up the hood of my ski jacket, I wondered about the wisdom of my flash decision to bring Danny into the fold while knowing almost nothing about him. A charmer, certainly. And I knew from experience that with that kind of personality often came deceit. I really should have insisted on seeing a CV, I decided too late.
But perhaps I was being too hard on him. Perhaps he would bring a new drive and, God only knew, the Gazette needed something new if it was going to survive.
I glanced over at his flaccid features. His collar-length hair, tinged with grey, was plastered flat on his head and rainwater dripped from a fleshy nose.
But he had something: a presence, an easy authority. Saviour or waste of time and space? More likely the latter, but I would give him a try. Anything was worth trying. I had little to lose.
We turned a corner to see welcoming lights streaming from mullioned windows. Above them, swinging in the gale, was the jaunty sign of a smiling mermaid sitting on a rock.
Shelter and alcohol beckoned.