strangers in a strange land

so to my next guest writer ….

Saying goodbye to old Soho and his season ticket for Craven Cottage journalist and raconteur Jonathan Futrell moved his shoes and vinyl collections, and his humidor, to an Edwardian red brick house overlooking Cornwall’s windy north coast. Between endless beach walks with his artist wife Kim and their dog Asta the former travel writer has scratched the surface of this maritime idyll to reveal a community of peripatetic likeminded immigrant ‘locals’.

 
Strangers In A Strange Land
for Christina
by jonathan futrell

I can see her now, over 20 years ago when she will have been younger than I am now. In a black one piece swimming costume, slender and erect.
The waist of a model and the shoulders of an athlete gingerly stepping over the pebbles towards the shallow waves breaking upon an empty Cornish beach. Watched only by her two black Labradors, sat open the foreshore, and my wife and I unseen on the windy path from the town. She cut a lonely figure slipping through the spine tingling elements of sea and sand and sky.
She was there every day of that holiday, apparently impervious to the icy cold of the north Atlantic whatever the weather (and there is a good deal of all kinds here), swimming slowly but strongly against the current for two minutes. Her gamine head of nickel hair protruding above the water like the prow of a ship. Indomitable. Fearless.
Asking around I discovered that our siren of the seas wasn’t ‘local’ – in the strictest sense of the word. She’d arrived from the other side of the country several decades prior, dazzling the people along this barren stretch of the north coast with her easy laughter, her Jean Muir dresses and Afghan coats, and her and her late husband’s predilection for the sort of British sports cars favoured by sixties rock stars and secret agents. They’d arrived at a time when many hereabouts boasted they’d never ever left the town.
In a region popular with retirees whose sole ambition is to sit by the window in zip-up fleeces, and gaze upon a platinum horizon until the day their daily nip of sherry misses their lips and the dribbles begin this chic immigrant, with a dash of rock ’n roll, had sought life on the Cornish coast not death. Her journey west was for her a beginning, not an end. She’d sought somewhere to feel alive in. A place to sharpen the senses. Be seduced by the elements. Where the colours of the big sky in the sea are never the same twice. Not for her the last resting place of grey daytime television mediocrity.
Monica chose the relentless Atlantic that ceaselessly forges new beach contours and reveals sunken wrecks. A place where distant forests disgorge coal and timber to feed the stoves that scent the winter air.
Her name is Monica and she is sat in front of me. We are in a room that I always imagined Miss Havisham inhabits in Great Expectations, where brass and wood garnitures are linked by drifting cobwebs. There is a fire at one end. Alcoves of leather bound volumes. Solid settees and heavy frames. There is a demi lune bearing ornate crystal glass, and the aroma of old dog, wood smoke and elegant neglect. We are a long way from the blue and white china, factory prints of fishing boats, and table lamps made from pebbles of most of the cheerily gentrified homes nearby. No attempt here to create a Disneyesque faux maritime world. Monica doesn’t need a clothes rack fashioned to resemble a rowing oar, or an occasional table purporting to be contrived from driftwood (arriving in a cardboard box with a label that states made in China).
Much is made of locals from “back along”, whether Cornish or Cockney; the descendants of people born, raised, and subsequently themselves rearing within yards of their ancestors. I, on the other, admire the ambulatory itinerants. Those who choose to live miles from where they grew up. People who have grabbed their lives by the jugular and taken them where the wind suits their clothes.
Of course many have no choice where they end up; they up-sticks and move for work. Or they are driven by war or famine. Others, like myself and Monica, step off the train for no other reason than to be in a place like this, surrounded by an ocean at the edge of the world. Far enough away to be other worldly. Somewhere to be forgotten in. A place where clifftop walks are treacherous and exhausting but which nourish the soul in a way the even the best martini cocktail fails to. Ok, maybe. Alright, a great vodka martini with a twist does have the edge, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
My town is peppered with Monicas; not as modish and sophisticated perhaps, but there are of many from very different backgrounds, each lured by the freshness of the salty air and the shifting scenery:
Benjamin was stationed oversees when he asked his wife Celia to find them somewhere to live, on a budget. She found a former bank with the vault still intact in the basement and a hallway large enough to host five a side football.

The entire building is leaning towards the sea with every piece of furniture on the west and eastern walls kept on an even keel with blocks of wood. John is from Portsmouth and fell in love with a Cornish maiden. Sue, hailing from a stucco mansion in Belgravia, keeps house for the local gentry in a magnificent pile that dates from the 16th century. For a time she lived in the old coffin store halfway along a ginnel that runs beneath and between ancient homes. There are many narrow, subterranean thoroughfares hereabouts. Sue was drawn to the endless beach and the sky but misses those essential decadences on sale in London’s Jermyn Street. I’ll wager her’s was the only coffin store on the planet with a bathroom decked out in Czech and Speake.
Tamsin divorced and followed her son here, hooked on surfing since his first holiday on the north coast. He works as a coastguard and among Tamsin’s multifarious activities is running an exclusive and very bohemian cinema club from her front room. She lives next door to a tall man from Los Angeles who, when he is not dreaming about plastic surgery, writes and quaffs Pinot Grigio and irks local restaurateurs (the way every Americans does) by redesigning the simplest meal. I’ve yet to meet an American who can accept even something as undemanding as a sandwich on face value.
Then there is the local musician and raconteur, Paul from Liverpool, who hosts a Friday night soiree in a bar overlooking the quay. He plays the bars and restaurants in a number of guises hereabouts; sometimes with his daughter on jazz vocals, and on others with Big Dave or The Lost Yankees.
Monica grew up in East Anglia, where she must have given those muddy farm boys sleepless nights. Whenever I see her I hear Dave Rawlins’ ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’. She’s never worked. By all accounts never given it much thought. She’s been too busy being beautiful and reading to do anything so plebeian. She reads everything she can get her long decorous hands on. There are books everywhere in her long shadowy home of bitter memories. Books line the stairs. They fill the alcoves. And although I’ve never seen them there are many more she says beneath her mahogany four poster bed where at night an illuminated dredger boat throws Christmas lights on her ceiling.

Monica reads everything, although she tends to avoid novels. She steered me towards Lauren Bacall’s autobiography after something I said about Bogart, and thence a wonderful book about clouds: I now sit in my kitchen and stare at the alto cumulous strativarus that interlock like celestial chainmail, and monitor the nimbus clouds soaking Rough Tor and Brown Willy on the horizon. She insisted I read Nana, Emile Zola’s study of prostitution and despair in 18th century Paris, and her favourite book, The Rings Of Saturn, by the German writer WG Sebald, because it chronicles an immigrant’s odyssey through the county towns and coastline of her youth in East Anglia. It contains as a passage about I am pledged to recite at her funeral, heaven forbid. In the book Sebald follows the coast from Great Yarmouth to Southwold, dwelling on many places I have visited over the years. I particularly like the section in the Seaman’s Mission and another about a palace near Lowestoft. Sebald’s previous book, The Emigrants, published three years earlier in 1992 (ironically a gift from the American who exchanged California for the blustery tranquility of Cornwall) recounts the experiences of four characters who have left their native Germany for new lives in this country and the United States.
Monica is alone much of the time. Her family is all gone. Just her with her sepia photographs and books, and her dogs who share her passion for beach walks, and dunes, and long nights by the fire.
She told me once she’d found that black swimming costume I’d seen her in that first time, on the beach. In fact, she has a wardrobe full of swimming costumes, hats, shoes, sun tops, sweaters and scarves, all saved from a watery grave by an immigrant from back along.

3 thoughts on “strangers in a strange land

  1. LOVED this piece of writing! Very interesting. Happy Mothers Day to you..I thought of you today actually as I spent the day with my mother who has dementia…I skyped my son Tom who is now in assisted living (he has Autism) and managed to get him to sing her a song then wish her a happy mothers day…very interesting to watch the interaction between them both, both ‘locked’ in their own worlds in different ways but SO SO happy to see each other, she came alive when she saw him and vice versa…it jolted her back into the ‘now’ for at least 20mins…such a beautiful thing to witness..who needs a present when you see this happening. What a joy! xxx

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  2. how touching Maggie – I went to visit my mother too, she seemed happy to see me too, but sadly didnt remember my name this time – usually she says my name…. Jon is a sensitive writer and so glad that you liked his writing. hope you enjoyed your day too, the weather was perfect x

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