View from the Beach, page 1
About View from the Beach
After all the trials and triumphs, the sea was still there…
This is the story of four remarkable women.
Dorrie, who, in the dying years of the nineteenth century, dares to defy the conventions of her time by running away with an artist.
The ambitious Roberta, who rides roughshod over all opposition in her single-minded desire to reach her goals.
The gentle Louise, who defies her own nature to find the strength to pursue her personal happiness.
And finally, Ruth, who survived the terrors of the Second World War only to be trapped in a loveless marriage. Through ability, dedication and raw guts she finds fame and fulfilment in her chosen career.
Now the possibility opens up of a glittering triumph greater than anything she has so far achieved…
An elegant and beautifully-told story of the loss of innocence amid turmoil and change — and a woman’s determination to succeed.
About View from the Beach
Ballard Family Tree
About JH Fletcher
Also by JH Fletcher
With love to Susan, Karl,
Stefan and Tristan
In the middle of the night Ruth was suddenly awake.
Eyes wide in the darkness, heart pounding, she tried to identify what had disturbed her. It came again, clearly audible through the air conditioner’s hum: a thread of sound, sharp as a stiletto, that wounded the night once, again, then fell silent. The sound of a woman screaming.
Ruth got out of bed, groped her way across the room and stood listening, ear close to the door. Nothing.
She knew she had not imagined it.
She waited a minute longer before turning the key in the lock. There had been a time when she would never have locked her door at night but caution, unhappily, came with age. She opened the door an inch. The warmth of the tropical night came in to her. She opened the door wider. Beyond the starlit lawn invisible waves slopped against the base of the sea wall. A faint breeze rustled the fronds of the palm trees.
Ruth hesitated, then closed and locked the door again. She groped her way across the room and climbed back into bed.
‘Old fool,’ she said, ‘wandering around at night, imagining things.’ Certainly it was a sign of age. There were other things. In her seventies she found she was talking out loud to herself far more than she ever had in the past. ‘Falling apart, that’s your trouble,’ she scolded herself.
She looked at her travelling clock. Just after three. If she had been writing she would have been getting up in an hour and a half to begin her daily ration of words but for the moment her only project, if you could call it that, was fighting her editors over the novel she had completed six months earlier. She wasn’t getting up at half-past four in the morning to do that.
She lay down and pulled the sheet up around her neck. She doubted she would sleep again but still felt tired, despite having turned the light out before ten. She was glad she would be able to stay in bed as long as she liked. Sleeping in, she thought, what luxury. Not so many years ago she had been filled with such energy that she had barely needed sleep at all, her mind busy with a new book almost before the previous one had been sent off to her agent. No longer. Now, more and more, she needed time to recover, to be alone. Another step on the road to decline, she thought. At least the creative spark, whatever that was, was still there. Or had been, the last time she had tested it. Each time she started a book she feared she would find that nothing was left, that when she opened the magic box it would be empty at last. One day it would happen, no doubt, but not yet. Something to be thankful for, on top of all her other blessings. She closed her eyes. Perhaps she would manage to get back to sleep, after all.
Screams, she thought drowsily, whatever next?
They came again. Louder this time, shockingly loud.
Ruth was on her feet before she knew it, switching on the light and pulling her wrap around her as she crossed to the door. She yanked it open and went outside. The air was warm, as always at this time of year, but beneath her bare feet the dew-wet grass struck cold.
The resort’s other cabins were blocks of shadow in the starlight. As far as she knew only one was taken. It was why she had come here, out of season, to be by herself. Unreasonably, she had been irritated to find she was not. A man in his mid-thirties and a woman perhaps ten years younger, with two small children, had the cabin next to her own. She looked at it now. No light showed. There was no sound.
This is ridiculous, she thought.
As though in answer, a man’s voice, bellowing in rage. There was an answering shriek of protest, high-pitched and passionate, cut off by a sudden report. Silence returned like a threat.
Ruth’s eyes widened. Without pausing to consider, she marched over to the cabin door and banged violently upon it. ‘What is going on in there?’
She imagined ears listening in the darkness behind the closed door, threatening eyes stretched wide, a gun poised to destroy. Resolutely she put such thoughts out of her mind. She breathed deeply, knocked again. ‘Is anybody there?’
Of course they were. She hoped, none the less.
A man’s voice, low-pitched, suffused with anger. ‘What do you want?’
Three o’clock or not, Ruth was not to be browbeaten. ‘I heard a shot …’
The door was flung violently open. Ruth took an involuntary step backwards. A man clad only in shorts stood in the doorway. The heavily muscled torso was covered in black hair, the jowl dark with stubble.
He scowled. The stench of alcohol was like a sickness. ‘You know what time it is?’
‘I heard a shot,’ she repeated stubbornly.
‘You dreamt it.’ The voice was dismissive, contemptuous.
‘I did not.’
The door was swinging shut in her face. Without thought she thrust out her hand to prevent it closing. The man stayed the door’s movement, thrust out a head like a battering ram. Bloodshot eyes threatened.
‘Take my advice, old woman. Stop sticking your beak into other people’s business.’
Stubbornly she shook her head. She did not know where this confrontation might lead, only that there were things in life you could not ignore. ‘I intend to find out what is going on in this cabin,’ she said. ‘If you don’t let me in I shall go for help.’
‘That right?’ Now the red eyes mocked. The man pushed the door wide and stepped back. ‘You’d best come in, then.’
Now I’m for it, she thought, but stepped forward without hesitation. The door closed behind her. The world was black. She stood still, fear clawing her. Fingers as thick as sausages closed on her arm.
‘This way,’ the man said.
She could see nothing. The man led her through darkness. Groping, she felt another door frame as he guided her through
She sniffed. A distinctive odour evoked memories long-forgotten. Cordite. She had not imagined it, then; there had been a shot. Now it was too late she knew that she should have fetched help before challenging the man. Impetuousness had been a pattern of her life; now it might have brought her to her death.
His voice, close by her ear, startled her. The fingers vanished from her arm. Ruth stood absolutely still.
A click as the door closed behind her. The light was switched on. The sudden glare as violent as a blow. She squeezed her eyes tight against it then, slowly, re-opened them.
There was a window, curtains drawn tight. On the wall in front of her a moonscape of craters was scattered at random over a metre or more, focused at its centre in a mash of broken fragments and splintered wood. She had been raised on a farm, knew what she was seeing. She felt the whisper of blood in her cheeks as she stared at the damage caused by a shotgun blast. Slowly she turned, steeling herself for what she might see next.
A bed, rumpled, with disordered sheets. An empty rum bottle lying in one corner. On the bed, three people. They were so still that for a moment Ruth imagined they were dead, the woman with eyes closed, dark hair in a wild fall across a bloodless face, thin arms clutching each of the children huddled beside her.
As Ruth stared the woman’s eyes opened and looked back at her. The eyes formed charcoal pits in the bloodless face. There was no expression or life in them.
Before she could stop herself Ruth asked, ‘Are you all right?’
An idiot question. The eyelids closed.
Ruth turned, chin imperious. By the door the man stared back at her. Now he held the shotgun loosely in one hand. It was an old-fashioned gun, twin-barrelled, with hammers. The room stank not only of alcohol but of fear and a simmering rage. She realised that she had imagined nothing, the man really was dangerous and that by forcing her way in here she had placed her own life in danger. He might kill them all. Himself, too, no doubt. One read about such things, but that would not help. She put the thought away from her. She was here; she would fight.
‘I warned you,’ the man said.
‘They are shocked,’ she said. ‘Terrified.’
He did not look at the figures on the bed. ‘Serve ’em right.’
‘What have the children done to you?’
‘Their mum’s done plenty.’
‘Done nothing.’ The whisper from the bed rustled like dead leaves.
In their confrontation they had momentarily forgotten the woman’s existence. Startled, they both turned their heads.
‘Shut your mouth.’ His low-pitched voice menaced the stillness.
‘I wanted to leave and he wouldn’t let me, that’s what this is all about.’ She had passed beyond stress; her words fell wearily. She did not open her eyes.
‘It was your idea for us to come away together.’ Suppressed rage. Something else; a moment’s hesitation before Ruth identified it. Pain.
The woman opened her eyes. Anger spat. ‘I should have had my head read.’
‘I love you. You love me.’
Now it was Ruth who had ceased to exist. They stared at each other. Within the enfolding arms the two children, little more than babies, were as limp as dolls.
‘You got to be joking,’ she said.
‘You said so. That’s why we’re here.’
‘I said a lot of things.’
Suddenly the man was weeping, turning a distraught face to Ruth. ‘She wanted to leave her husband, to be with me. We’d be together always, that was what she said.’
Ruth had been prepared to tyrannise. Now she felt helpless. I should not have interfered, she thought, knowing even as she thought it that she would do the same should the situation ever arise again. Who was to blame wasn’t important. What mattered was the woman and children lying in the shadow of the gun.
‘Don’t you think all this could be sorted out more easily in the morning?’ she appealed to them.
The woman’s sullen eyes brooded. ‘I want to go home.’
‘Tough titty,’ the man said, rage a very present threat. ‘No one’s leaving till we get this sorted out.’
‘What about the children?’ Ruth asked. ‘They’re nothing to do with this.’
‘They stay, too.’
‘Because I bloody well say so!’ Sudden rage set his hands trembling, eyes starting in his head. ‘No one asked you to stick your beak in. Now you’ll do what I tell you.’
Ruth decided to put him to the test. ‘I am going back to my cabin.’
‘Oh, no, you’re not!’ He stood unyielding in front of the door, gun cradled in his hands. She marched towards him, daring him to make good his threat. Which he did effortlessly, transferring the gun to his left hand and shoving her so that she tripped and fell back across the bed.
‘You’re going nowhere!’ Screaming. Face mottled, he whipped up the gun and pointed it at them. ‘Hear me?’
Ruth lay across the sheet, not daring to move. Behind her the woman was still also. In the silence she could hear the children sobbing very softly as though they, too, understood danger.
Slowly the tension eased. The man lowered the gun and wiped his brow with a jittery hand.
Ruth asked, ‘How long are you going to keep us here?’
‘Until she comes to her senses.’
‘You’ll never get her this way.’
The gun swung, the twin muzzles sought her out. The man said, ‘Neither will anyone else.’
You read about these situations, never thinking you might be in one yourself. She was determined not to let him see how frightened she was. ‘And now?’ she asked tartly.
He sat on the floor, back to the door, shotgun cradled across his knees. ‘Now we wait.’
Wait they did while somewhere in the room a clock ticked steadily. The children slept, waking from time to time to wail petulantly for a few moments before sleeping again. The woman slept, too, her young face crumpled and ugly in the light’s white glare. Ruth did not sleep; neither did the man. Soon it would be light. Eventually Ruth got off the bed and went to a half-open door leading to the bathroom.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’
‘I’m an old woman,’ Ruth told him savagely, ‘as you were kind enough to tell me. I need to use the bathroom.’
He hesitated, then shrugged. She closed the bathroom door behind her. A light came on; a hidden fan hummed. She looked at her face in the mirror. My God. She sat on the closed toilet seat. She did not need to use it but was relieved to be away from those watchful eyes, the violence and fear in the bedroom. Even here she was still afraid but in the couple of hours she had been a captive had grown used to fear.
I was determined to get in, she thought, and I did. I never thought about getting out again. She wondered what would happen. The cabins were serviced; there would be people coming to make the beds. What would the man with the gun do then?
A sudden bang on the bathroom door. ‘You staying in there forever?’
She thought she might as well use it now she was here and did so, flushed the bowl, washed her hands and went back into the bedroom.
His red eyes glared at her suspiciously. ‘Thought you must’ve fallen down the plughole.’
‘I’m too fat for that.’
‘You’re not fat,’ he told her seriously. ‘You’re in pretty good shape.’
‘For an old woman?’
The sleeping woman’s head had fallen sideways on the pillow. Her mouth was open. It was absurd to think of her as an object of such violent desire, the helpless longing Ruth had heard earlier in her lover’s voice. She looked at him. If I can only get him talking, she thought.
‘Behaving like this won’t make her want to stay with you.’
His face darkened. ‘I told you before, keep your beak out of other people’s business.’
‘You’re holding me at gunpoint. That makes it my business
‘It’s your own fault.’
Which was true enough, but Ruth was not about to accept blame. ‘You intend to kill me, too, is that it?’
She knew instinctively that she was right to maintain the pressure on him, to try and make him understand the self-defeating idiocy of what he was doing. Beneath it all she suspected he was not such a bad man. It gave her hope.
‘I’ve got nothing against you,’ he told her suddenly. ‘I won’t harm you.’
‘And the children?’
‘Nor them.’ Sulkily. He gestured with his chin at the sleeping woman. ‘It’s her. She told me she loved me!’ he burst out. ‘She told me a hundred times.’
She gestured at the gun. ‘And this is the way to keep her love?’
‘We were meant for each other.’ But spoke wistfully as though he no longer believed it.
Around the edges of the curtain Ruth could make out the first pallid glimmer of the dawn. Time was running out, not only for the gunman.
The man was staring at her, a puzzled frown on his face. ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’
Her heart sank. If it came to a siege he would be more likely to use her as a hostage if he knew she was famous. Only modestly famous, she corrected herself hopefully, but enough for it to be dangerous.
‘I shouldn’t think so.’
He continued to eye her suspiciously, convinced she was hiding something from him.
I have to do something, Ruth thought. I came barging in here. Now I must try and sort things out.
It would have to be now, before the others awoke; after that it would be hopeless.
‘You want to tell me about it?’
The red-veined eyes continued to brood on who knew what memories. He gave no sign he had heard her but she would not admit defeat. ‘What are their names?’
‘Why should you care?’
She laughed a little. ‘If we’re going to spend any time together I must be able to call them something.’
‘Kylie,’ he said. ‘The kids are Donna and Michael.’
He shook his head. ‘Na.’
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