It was a flat November morning, a morning when colours run and the mist hung in the jaws of the estuary above the liver-coloured flott. A slatternly wind was ruffling the tussocks of coarse grass that grew along the littoral, doing nothing to shift the grey curtain. The air smelt of salt and older, darker things. Even the normally raucous gulls were muted, their endless carping muffled by the damp air. No horizon was discernible. The sky coalesced into the iron water, leaching all colours into unrelieved gradations of greyness. Only the dogs seemed unconcerned. They pursued their normal doggy rituals of sniffing at and pissing on every small feature they encountered on the beach. I trudged behind them, collar turned against the cold, pockets stuffed with icy hands. I called them away from worrying at a dead crab. I love my dogs but their habits are distinctly unsavoury. Their world is roughly divided between food and not-food. Sometimes the boundaries blur.
The morning suited my mood. I'd come up to the cottage this weekend to get away from London. The cottage belonged to some sympathetic friends. "You need a break," they said, "why not use our place in Norfolk?" I agreed in a moment of weakness. I guess in Samuel Johnson's eyes I was tired of life. London held no attraction for me since I split with Steph. We'd been together for about four years. Suddenly, instead of my Earth being flat and stable, she'd let me know it was really round and spinning. I wasn't 'exciting anymore,' whatever that means. I'd never felt particularly exciting. Steph provided all the brightness in my dull little lawyer's life. If I'm completely honest, the world of restaurants and wine bars through which she sparkled like a meteor was alien to me. I tagged on to her coat tails with a fixed grin and an open wallet. The denizens of these places all seemed to know Steph. In their eyes, I was as much an accessory as her Hermes scarves or Gucci handbags, just less explicable.
I'd met her quite by chance in a little gallery in the Fulham Road. The one fruit of my success that I truly enjoy is collecting bronze miniatures. She was in there with another woman, gushing over a small piece by an unknown artist called Angela Sable. I'd bought it a couple of weeks previously and had just popped in to collect it. Conversation was inevitable. The three of us went to a coffee shop to continue the discussion on the merits of Auguste Renoir. The other woman, I don't recall her name, left after about twenty minutes. I took Steph to supper at Green's. Things progressed from there. Within six months she'd moved into my home in Kensington and had started rearranging my life. My wardrobe underwent the first transformation. It's now full of Dior and Balmain. My Crombie overcoat and Sackville suits were laughed out of court. "You're so predictable, Darling. You dress like a lawyer!" I reminded her that I am a lawyer; it cut no ice.
Steph glided through life, I plodded. I've always been a plodder. I'm a 'details' sort of person; Steph was broad-brush. That was all part of the attraction. I was thirty-seven, unmarried and reasonably successful. Actually, that's too modest, very successful. Although I'm a barrister, I've rarely appeared in Court. I'm a tax specialist. I provide opinions for smart arses who want to sail close the wind. Steph thought I should be more glamorous but Tax isn't sexy, it's just very well paid. Before Steph, my life was simple. I worked; I walked my dogs. Winters were for ski-ing holidays in Cervinia and summers were spent in Scotland or the Isles. She was right, I was, am, predictable. But there is comfort in certainty. Steph changed all that.
In Steph's mind, summers were to be spent at House Parties in Tuscany. Ski-ing was to be at Klosters or St Moritz. Dog walking was to remain my solitary occupation. Sensible shoes didn't figure in Steph's wardrobe and as for picking up dog-logs in Kensington Gardens, well! I went along with it. She brought something into my life that hadn't been there before. I won't say it was missing. That would suggest that I felt the lack. Steph was a member of another species whose existence I'd barely believed in, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. She moved in different circles. My few friends were bemused by her and she by them. Sometimes a sympathetic glance would be cast in my direction as if to say, 'what have you got yourself into this time?' I didn't have an answer.
Of course it couldn't last. Could I say it was fun while it lasted? Probably not. I didn't have fun; I had Steph. I was consumed by love, blind as Oedipus. The inevitable happened. She collided with another meteor. I got burned in the fall-out. All of which led me to a Norfolk beach on that dismal November morning. Once I was there, I couldn't help wondering if I wouldn't have been better off staying in London. Still, the dogs were enjoying themselves.
I have a Siberian Husky called Trotsky and a Retriever called Magic, because he's black. I don't usually let Trotsky run free because he's a bolshie sod and is liable to vanish into the next county, if the mood takes him. However, that morning, with no one else in sight, I'd let him go and he and Magic were thoroughly enjoying the change of scenery. Kensington Gardens is a good place by London standards but this was real freedom. They were oblivious to the weather and Magic was charging in and out of the sea, always contriving to shake himself violently next to me. It's some kind of unwritten doggy law. Trotsky was behaving himself for a change and living up to his name as he followed his nose along the tidemark. I shambled along between them wishing I'd put another pair of socks on under my wellies. It wasn't that cold really, it was the damp that seemed to penetrate and chill my bones to the marrow. Moisture clung to my coat in grey pearls. All in all, I was thoroughly miserable.
We'd gone just over a mile when I saw another figure, bundled against the weather, trudging up the beach towards me. Trotsky chose that moment to disgrace himself and took off like a cream and brown rocket straight for the stranger. Magic started to follow but responded to my whistle. I could see Trotsky bouncing up at the figure. Whoever it was didn't seem concerned, thank God. They were ruffling his fur and pushing him away in a playful manner. He can be a complete tart to strangers. If I try to play with him, he'll gaze at me with injured dignity writ large in his ice blue eyes. He fawns all over someone new as if to say 'look at me, love me!' Huskies aren' t all that common in England so he usually attracts lots of attention. He laps it up. Magic, on the hand, is your typical Flat-coated Retriever; sunny disposition but as daft as a brush. I swear that dog has brains he hasn't used yet.
As I drew closer, I could see Trotsky's playmate was a young-ish woman. Dark brown hair stuck out from under a woolly fisherman's hat. She wore a thick quilted jacket over a chunky Arran sweater, cord trousers and wellies. Trotsky was still going through his 'bounce and bow' routine and she was laughing. "I seem to have found an admirer," she said. Her voice was low and well modulated with just the trace of an accent I couldn't place. "I do apologise," I replied, "I'm afraid he has no manners." Magic wandered up, dismissed her as a source of potential food, and wandered off back to the water. She turned to look at me. Her eyes were every bit as piercing as Trotsky's. "Who needs manners when you're beautiful?" She turned back to the dog, "You are beautiful, aren't you?" He gave her his famous husky grin -all teeth and lolling tongue - then wandered back to me with a hint of innate superiority in his stride.
"I have not seen you down on this beach before. Are you a visitor?"
"Yes. Just up for the weekend. I'm staying in the old Coastguard Cottage. It belongs to some friends. I take it you live here?"
"Yes. The tranquillity is good for me. Very few people come here after the summer."
"What do you find to do in such an out-of-the-way place?"
This made my ears prick up. There aren't too many sculptors that I haven't heard of. Sculpting is still largely a male preserve, at least among the commercially successful. The cogs whirled and something clicked into place. "Good God," I said, "I think I know you! I mean, I think I know who you are. You're Angela Sable." She smiled.
"I am, but how did you know? Someone in the village, perhaps?"
"No, no. I have three of your pieces. They're among my favourites."
"Ah, you are a collector?"
"In a modest way. I always wanted to be a sculptor but I lacked that vital ingredient called talent. I'm Martin Booth, by the way, and this disreputable animal is Trotsky."
"Pleased to meet you, Trotsky." She laughed out loud as he wagged his great bush of a tail and gave her his best play-growl. "It is truly a horrid morning, this mist! What is the other dog called?"
"Oh, that's Magic. You like dogs then?"
"I adore them. I would like to do this one. I've never done animals. I think he would look grand in bronze."
I tried to imagine what Trotsky would like in a Bronze by Angela Sable. All her pieces were figure studies but were tortured somehow; both riveting and painful at the same time. She saw the look on my face. "Oh no," she said, " him I would do natural."
"How long have you lived in Norfolk?"
"Almost ten years now. I came here when I came to England. It reminds me a little of home."
"Where is home, if you don't mind me asking?"
"I am an Estonian, Mr Booth. What your newspapers would describe as an 'economic migrant'."
That explained her accent and slightly odd, formal phrasing. I've never visited Estonia so I couldn't say whether it the flat Norfolk coast would remind her of it, but I suppose the Baltic can be just as depressing as the North Sea in winter. "Look," I said, "I know it's terribly forward of me, but would it be possible to see your studio? I am fascinated by sculpture; not just the finished article but also the process." She looked at me shrewdly and considered for a moment. "Very well. It is not inconvenient today. I live down there." She waved a hand at a low building set back from the beach about a half a mile away. " Shall we say at Two O'clock?" "Thank you, that is really very kind of you. Two O'clock it is." We chatted a little longer about the dogs, who were now getting bored with standing around, and went our separate ways.
I spent the rest of the morning doing some 'reading in' for a new case I'd been instructed on. It was fairly routine stuff on Capital Gains Tax and should be what Bernie, my clerk, describes a 'nice little quickie, Mr Booth. ' The dogs were flaked out on the hall carpet so after a quick sandwich and yet another cup of coffee, I set out for Angela Sable's studio. The wind had picked up during the morning, turning icy, and the mist had lifted, at least for the moment. I strode along the coast path. The grey sea was flecked with dirty white spume and the light was already fading although it was early afternoon. I didn't need to have seen a weather forecast to know that we were in for a bit of a blow.
The studio turned out to be a little row of old fishermen's cottages that had been knocked into one. I supposed in the old days, whole families would have lived in two or three cramped rooms. Angela must have seen me coming for she met me at the door. "Very punctual," she said, "Please come in." Inside the hall, the extent of the alterations was apparent. To my left was a large room that served as her main studio. The ceiling had been taken out and large skylights set into the roof. It was a jumble of tool racks and trestle tables. Something I took to be a small electric furnace stood at one end with a high tech ventilation arrangement that looked like a space-age cooker hood. Through the open door on my right, I could see a small parlour with a couple of old but comfortable-looking armchairs and a very modern hi-fi system. There were a couple of other doors off the hall, which I took to be the rest of the accommodation.
She led me into the parlour. "Which of my poor pieces do you own?" she said, folding herself into one of the chairs and indicating for me to take the other. "Oh, 'Ivan#42', 'The Greek Woman' and 'Self Portrait'. And they are not 'poor pieces', they're masterpieces." She laughed. "You flatter me, Mr Booth." I shook my head. "Not at all," I said, "and please, call me Martin." "Very well, it shall be Martin, then and Angela, too, I think?" I smiled and nodded. Without the heavy layers of clothing I could see she was quite slightly built. Her dark brown hair was cut severely, framing her face. There were a couple of streaks of grey at her temples. Her complexion was pale but not unhealthy-looking. Despite the grey in her hair, her face was unlined. I guessed her age to be around thirty-two or three but I'm really hopeless at that. She could have been five years either side. The most striking thing was her piercing blue eyes. I want to say they were cornflower blue but that isn't quite right. They were harder than that, more steely. Her gaze seemed to reach inside me and search out all my secrets. She held eye contact all the time; it was quite disconcerting at first. I could see some men might see it as a challenge. I don't have that kind of ego.
We talked easily for a while. More accurately, she asked questions and I answered them. I may not be a trial lawyer but I'm still enough of a barrister to recognise cross-examination. I had the vague impression that she was testing me for some purpose of her own. After a while, she seemed satisfied and said, "Good! Come now and we will look at the studio."
We moved through into the larger room I had glimpsed when I arrived. It soon became apparent that it was a lot more orderly than my first impression had suggested. She explained the process she used for casting bronze.
"It depends on the size of the piece. Sometimes I use 'lost wax' and sometimes I cast in sand. The ancients used both methods, you know."
She showed me how she started with the model and used this to make the mould. Some artists use modern materials for the moulds but she stuck to either plaster or sand mixed with motor oil. I was surprised at first but then she explained that it was like children playing on a beach. You need to moisten the sand so it sticks together. Water would just evaporate whereas motor oil has a naturally sticky consistency. Each of her pieces was a one-off so she didn't mind destroying the mould to liberate the finished bronze. The whole studio was set up like a mini production line.
Angela answered my questions with patience and the semblance, at least, of real interest. I think she thought at first that my professed interest in seeing the studio was some reverse play on the 'come up stairs and see my etchings' ploy. Once she realised that I was genuinely absorbed by what I saw, she relaxed. It would be wrong to say she thawed for she was never unfriendly. She was just less guarded and more inclined to expound, rather than just limiting her answers to simple factual replies.
We must have spent over two hours in that studio. Suddenly she noticed the time and became flustered. It was nearly Five O'clock by then and full dark outside. To tell the truth I wasn't relishing the walk home through the strengthening gale and the rain that set in at some point during the afternoon. As a result, I'd probably spun things out a bit. What was clear, however, was that I had suddenly out-stayed my welcome. I put on my coat and made my farewells. She recovered enough composure to see me to the door with a smile. She even agreed to accept my invitation to lunch the following day. I had a vague uneasy feeling that she had accepted too readily. We agreed to meet at the local Inn at 12.30 and I left. Her relief was almost palpable.
I butted my way back along the coast path against the wind and driving rain. I was pretty well soaked and chilled to the bone by the time I got home. The dogs were pleased to see me, of course, but then it was their dinnertime. I fed the animals and then myself, lit a fire in the parlour grate and settled down for the evening. There was an old TV in the corner but a quick scan of the newspaper told me there was nothing I wanted to watch. I decided to open a bottle of my favourite Gevry Chambertin, get a plate of cheese and spend the evening in the company of a good book.
The dogs reacted to the fire in their own characteristic ways. Magic got so close I could smell his fur starting to singe and Trotsky sought out the coldest spot in the room, as far away as possible. Both curled up and went to sleep. Outside the wind was now distinctly audible and every now and again, another squall would drive the rain to rattle against the windows. I enjoyed some primitive atavistic satisfaction from being snug inside on such a wild night. I do enjoy a good storm - as long as I'm not out in it.
I couldn't concentrate on the book. My grasshopper mind kept flitting from Steph to Angela Sable and back again. I don't think it would be possible to get two more different women. I was going through that 'jilted lover' stage of finding fault with my ex; trying, unsuccessfully, to make myself believe I was best out of the relationship. I could admit to all her faults but still the pain stalked me in the recesses of the night. I confronted myself with the truth: I had always known what she was but loved in spite of it; maybe because of it, who knows?
Steph was tall and voluptuous. I don't know what her natural hair colour was as she seemed to have a standing appointment at Tony and Guy. Every time she came out of the salon, she was a slightly different shade of blonde. Highlights came and went. Her body offered no other clues, she had had all her hair removed by laser treatment and was smooth as silk. Her personality was essentially frivolous, purely hedonistic. Whenever I tried, I found it hard to think of a single thing for which Steph had ever evinced the slightest passion, other than herself, of course.
Angela Sable was something else again. Her hair was natural, even down to the odd streak of grey that she made no attempt to cover. She possessed an intensity; something smouldered deep within her. I felt she was driven. I was puzzled, however, by her sudden agitation and spent a little while trying to come up with an explanation for the rapid change in her demeanour. My ideas ranged from the banal to the fanciful; but nothing I could think of rang true. I would have to ask her outright when we met for lunch tomorrow. I sipped the wine and nibbled at the cheese and listened to the storm huff and puff around the house. One of the dogs was dreaming, giving out a series of muffled yipping noises as his paws twitched. What do dogs dream of? I bet their dreams are good ones. For one thing, they wouldn't involve Steph
Continued in Chapter 2