This love story starts like this… Maria stepped off the London train and walked quickly along with the deserted platform. She felt suddenly lost and alone: a feeling of overwhelming strangeness enveloped her, and she wished she had not made the journey to Stately-on-Sea.
She didn’t quite know why she had come. The trauma of Robert’s desertion six months before had engendered a longing for the old safe times of her childhood. After the rows and bitter recrimination that had taken place when her parents had learned of her affair, she had not been back to Stately. “I’ll live my own life,” she had stormed. “You don’t understand. I’m young. Life is for a living!”
“There will always be a welcome here for you,” her mother had replied sadly, and she had meant it. Ma- ria knew that, but she had not been back. She could not have done so, for there would have been no welcome for Robert.
Now, on a sudden impulse, Maria had returned. She was standing alone on the platform at Stateley. The clean crisp air of the coastal town was all about her. She had not written to her parents to tell them of her intention. She did not know how to make the first move toward reconciliation, for her mother had been right: Robert had left her.
The station itself had changed from the days of her childhood and even from the days of her visits home from college. The old green paint had been peeling then. Now the building gleamed fresh white, which endowed it with an alien, almost foreign, atmosphere.
Five years ago Mrs. Mitchell would have waved to her from behind the security of the bookstall. There would have been a welcoming smile on the lined face of old Jack at the ticket barrier or a saucy remark from young Mike as she was swept into Tom’s strong arms. She did not want to remember Tom. She had not thought of him for years. There had been no room for him in her life in London. There had been no room for anyone except Robert.
Today there was nothing. Her face meant nothing to the lean-faced man holding out his hand for her tičket.
The row of taxis stood sentinel in the yard before the station entrance, for even out of the summer season people took a few days’ holidays in the bracing sea air of the small town. Maria wrinkled her nose appreciatively. The wind was blowing off the sea and bringing with it the pungent odor of salt and seaweed and fish from the vicinity of the quay. She tucked the fur collar of her coat comfortingly around her ears as she felt the rough caress of the salt wind on her face.
Stateley was a flat and windy place, a place frequented by the yachting fraternity and by countless families with small children who loved to dig on the sandy beach that stretched so invitingly and safely along the coast. It was a place for jeans and flat shoes.
The taxi driver took her small case. She was aware that the man eyed her curiously. She smiled inwardly once-long ago-she had looked at a citified stranger in that way.
“Beechcroft Hotel,” she said.
“Are you staying long?”
“Just a week.”
The friendly voice invited her confidence in his eyes in the rearview mirror reminded her disconcertingly of Tom’s. “I lived here as a child,” she added. “Down by the quay. My father was the lifeboat engineer and we lived above the boathouse. He’s retired now.”
“Like to see it?” He smiled into the mirror, and without waiting for her reply, he turned the taxi sharply and headed toward the long esplanade and the sea. He reached a brown hand across the cab as if he had read her unspoken thoughts and turned the switch on the meter. “No extra charge,” he murmured softly as she frowned. She could not see his face, but she wished the eyes in the mirror did not remind her of the boy she had known.
Tom Sands had been in her life all the days of her childhood. Her first memory of him had been as a small boy of eight curled up asleep in the hidden darkness of the lifeboat. When he shut house for the night her father had found Tom. He had lifted the boy out of the boat and carried him in his strong arms to the flat above. Her mother had made hot soup, and Tom had dunked great chunks of fresh bread in it while the tears welled in his large gray eyes. up the lifeboat, Maria had twisted her dark pigtail thoughtfully in her small hands and stared at the boy.
“Why were you sleeping in the boat?” she demanded.
“Hush, dear,” whispered her mother. “Tom was just resting.”
“But he shouldn’t have been in the boat,” insisted Maria. “Daddy never lets us get in the boat.” She pointed a finger accusingly at Tom. “Were you running away?” Her voice took on a shrill, excited quality as her quick mind embraced the magnitude of possible reasons for such an enterprise.
“I was pretending there was a wreck on Foxborough Head and I was going to rescue the sailors,” the boy said falteringly. “I must go home now. My mom will be waiting for tea.”
He stood up. He didn’t look like a child at all. He looked like a small man. It was something to do with the way he stood, stocky, and firm in his rubber boots. Maria’s father put a hand on his shoulder in a man-to-man gesture that shut her out.
“Come and see me again; I’ll show you the lifeboat,” he offered.
“Tom came… and came again. He helped polish the brass plaques recording the rescues of shipwrecked sailors by the Stateley lifeboat, while Maria sat curled up on the coiled rope and listened to their men’s talk. He spent all the hours of daylight he could along the beach. As soon as he was old enough he worked every Saturday morning at the yacht center.
He still spent time in the lifeboat house and teased Maria and was her best friend. He watched as she gathered a crowd of teenagers around her, but he did not join the group. While Maria was studying for her examinations and enjoying discos and sailing, he was working as an engineering apprentice at the boatyard. He grew stocky and strong; his sturdy stance became more pronounced…and Maria could not imagine life without him.
One summer evening she walked across the slipway and leaned her arms on the railing of the long esplanade. The sun was golden, low in the sky when she felt his quiet presence beside her.
“What now, Maria?” he asked softly. “No disco? No party?” And she knew instinctively that he was smiling in the dusk.
“Then we’ll walk to Foxborough Head,” he announced firmly. He took her hand in his, and his touch sent a strange tingling response running up and down her arm.
The night was warm as they strolled along the soft sand and climbed the rough path to the headland. The lighthouse beamed its warning across the darkness of the sky and the water as they sat on the worn stone of the old disused quay. Once the quay had been a busy bustling place of trade and sea activity. The old stone customs building was still standing, though its windows were boarded up and it had a sad and desolate air about it. It was long and low, the uneven stones of its walls seeming a part of its rocky surroundings.
Maria dangled her feet above the gently lapping water and felt the quivering of Tom’s young body as he leaned against her in the darkness. He took her small hand and held it tightly in his own broad fingers as he bent his face to hers. And he kissed her slowly and Maria wondered at his gentle touch and felt both safe and trapped in the warmth of his arms. He kissed her again as the light from the beam struck the water, and Maria was afraid.
“Wait for me,” he murmured softly into the moving strands of her dark hair. She laughed and twisted a piece of hair through her fingers and played with it and smiled up at him…and pretended she had not seen the longing in his eyes.
“Forever and ever,” she teased.
“I mean it,” he said seriously. “You will go to college, but I shall stay here in Stateley… and I will be waiting for you, “I cannot promise,” she said levelly, but her generous mouth curled happily and enticingly as she said it. “The world is waiting for me, too. I want to live….” She hesitated and laughed huskily in the dark and added to herself, a little dangerously.
“You will come back to me,” he said with firm conviction.
Foxborough Head was a dim misty outline against the sea when the taxi turned at the end of the esplanade by the long low building of the beach café. Maria turned to watch it out of sight; she had spent the happy summer there, serving endless burgers and chips, sausages and chips, eggs, and chips. She had Scooped out ice cream after ice cream for tanned youngsters with sand in their hair. And when the day was over she had climbed the headland with her hand in Tom’s. Sometimes they had taken the small dinghy and rowed far out in the calm water beyond the beach and talked of their hopes for the future.
“I’ll have a boatyard of my own one day,” said Tom. Maria.” Maria listened and smiled, but she dreamed of a glittering future for herself among the bright lights of London.
Their happy carefree summer came to an end. Ma- ria went to college and when she came home during the vacations, the broad familiar figure of Tom was waiting. But very soon that part of her life was over.
The bright shining dream of the future was in her eyes and the soft sand of Stateley was still clinging to her feet, but life had begun. She was nineteen. And She had a job in the merchandising control section of a large department store in London, and she shared a small flat with three other girls besides the lapping water of the Thames.
She wrote to Tom and he answered belatedly in a large and stilted hand and his letters seemed almost to come from a stranger. The silent strength of his person was not conveyed in the untidy writing. The time that elapsed between their letters grew longer until the intimacy of their youth had faded.
Within a few months of her arrival, she met Robert at the launch of a big sales promotion at the store. Her dream was no longer a dream but a reality. She lived at a bustling, rushing pace as Robert pursued her with single-minded determination. She had no time to think. He sent presents of flowers and chocolates with the ease and charm of a successful man… and Robert was successful in any project he undertook.
He undertook the conquest of Maria… and she was fascinated and flattered by his attention and thought herself in love. She did not believe the gossip of her colleagues. She did not believe her mother who told her bluntly, “He’s a philanderer, my dear. He will leave you when he has won your love.”
She left the small flat by the river and moved alone to a more comfortable one and Robert was a frequent visitor.
In the beginning, Maria hoped-almost expected that Robert would ask her to marry him. Three years after their meeting he had not done so, and she watched helplessly as their relationship began to lose its excitement for him. She guessed that he had met another girl, but she dared not ask him.
She could see the pity in the eyes of his friends. And she knew they were saying among themselves, “He’s tired of Maria. Ans she’s trying too hard.”
She felt as soon as she opened the door of the flat on that dreadful day that something was wrong. It wasn’t only the silence of the empty flat as she walked in. Robert’s coat was not on the hook in the small hall. She went into the kitchen and felt the same desolate emptiness around her.
The new camera he had recently bought her lay on the bed where she had left it in the morning. Beside it was a small card; she picked it up with a faltering hand and read the words, “Thanks, Maria” in his neat handwriting. Maria stood and stared at the small white object in her hand. She did not want to understand the meaning of the cryptic note. She did not want to believe that he had left her.
The wasted love of the past years flashed through her mind as she repeated the two words aloud. She ran to the window in a frenzy of despair and opened it and threw the camera out. She laughed as she heard it crash on the hard stone pavement below. It was the last present he had bought her, and it was of no value to her now.
She went on laughing alone in the flat until the unreal laughter turned to sobs and she slept exhausted on the soft bed.
Now it was over and Maria had come back to the sea. She walked along the one street of shops that was Stateley High Street and marveled at the friendly chatter around her, for the summer season was over, and the women with their shopping baskets and children in tow were not strangers to one another as were the shoppers in the crowded streets around her own small flat. She bought herself a pair of blue jeans and some sweaters and went back to the hotel and tied her hair in a rough ponytail. Then she ran down to the beach to the row of dinghies parked along the sand. The boatman was a young student, his face and arms well burned by the recent summer sun. He looked doubtfully at her well-manicured hands as she paid for the rental of a dinghy.
“Are you sure you can handle it?” he asked.
“I’ve been used to the sea all my life,” Maria retorted sharply, and she rowed the boat firmly away from the shore toward the gray-green outline of Fox- borough Head.
Half an hour later she reached the rocks by the lighthouse, and she turned the boat and rowed steadily into the old quay beneath the headland. She tied up the dinghy to one of the old mooring rings and looked around her. The crumbling wall where she had sat with Tom had been rebuilt, and several boats were moored there. The old stone customs house building had been roofed, and a gleam of sunshine glinted on its glass windows. A large yacht was docked in the slipway.
A man and a boy seated on a plank slung alongside the yacht were rhythmically painting the hull a glowing red. The man was stocky and the swing of his arm was powerful and steady.
Maria clambered slowly up the iron stepladder on the wall of the quay. The stiffness in her legs was almost painful, and she rubbed her thighs with her small hands. Leaning on the stone parapet, she felt the warmth of the sun on her back as she watched the two painters working on the hull of the yacht. They moved gradually along the plank until they reached its end, and the man climbed lithely onto the deck of the yacht. Maria smiled. She had forgotten the sure-footed stance of a man of the sea.
He crossed the deck and jumped to the land. He looked at Maria and a smile wreathed his face and reached his gray eyes, and her heartbeat suddenly faster at the recognition on his face. She had seen that smile a long, long time ago.
“So you’ve come home at last,” he said.
“Just a short visit.”
“I heard you were living in London.”
“Yes, You’re still working on boats,” she remarked in the old teasing way.
He laughed with the hidden smile of the boy. Then he walked unhurriedly to the long stone building and placed the paint pots inside the door and the brushes in a jar. Maria followed and stood silently beside him. He pulled the great doors partly shut and the white lettering showed starkly bright against the dark green surface: TOM SANDS. Boatyard.
He glanced at the mark on her finger where she had worn Robert’s ring. Then he looked away, toward the lighthouse on the rocks and far out to the distant horizon.
“I’m brewing up a pot of tea. Would you like some?”
She stood beside him as he filled the kettle and plugged it into the new socket on the old stone wall. She smelled the oiled wool of his seamen’s jersey. It was the familiar smell of her father’s clothing during the days of her childhood. He poured the tea carefully into two large mugs and carried them over to the wall, and they sat upon the edge of the quay. Their feet dangled over the edge as they had when the couple played there as children as they had on the day Tom first kissed Maria.
She laughed as she saw the wobbling reflection of their legs in the moving water beneath them.
“Why didn’t you come back?” he asked quietly, as the sun turned the sky into a beautiful tapestry of blue and gray and pink.
“I don’t know. Perhaps it was because I became a Londoner.” Her high-pitched tinkling laugh grated on her ears. His eyes were boring into hers.
“What else?” he demanded.
“There was a man,” she added recklessly. “A man I could not bring home to Statele, so I did not come myself.”
He did not say anything. He slowly sipped the tea from the mug in his hand and watched the changing colors of the sky. She felt the warmth of his jersey against her arm, and she did not mind the silence that had come between them. Ans she felt no compulsion to fill the void with idle words as she would have done if Robert had been beside her. And she threw a fallen crust of bread to a circling gull. It swooped toward them and caught her offering in midair and flew away.
The waves of the sea were beckoning Maria as they had so many years ago. She was sure that Tom knew of her life with Robert, and she wished that he did not. He pulled her to her feet with his broad strong hands, and he was smiling in the dusk.
“We will go to your home now,” he said firmly… and Maria let her hand rest happily in his.
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