Word from Wormingford

17 July 2015

The discovery of an old book takes Ronald Blythe back to 40 years ago

IT IS the summer of 1976 all over again. The heat builds up until noon, then turns down a notch or two. The trees burn for a bit, then creak and sigh. The mason bees buzz outside their crumbly mansions in the track, and the hornets, as big as little birds, swarm by the ruined bread oven. A kind of high-temperature intensity, plus a torpor, rules all things.

A collection of Cornish ghost stories tumbles from behind the radiator. Dated 1974, it is the work of my first writer-friend, James Turner, now in heaven. Surprisingly mint from such dusty hiding, and entitled Staircase to the Sea, it is set on the Cornish coast — that violent edge of it called Bedruthan Steps, where he and I talked “writing” by the day, to the ceaseless crash of the Atlantic far below.

When he died, a year or two later, I returned from Suffolk to speak at his funeral, and the hearse, with only me and the rector in it, travelled to the crematorium. Strangers to each other, we scarcely spoke. Every few minutes, a mile or two of James’s and my Cornwall passed by in the great heat — a hill, a tower, a pub, all sizzling in the sun. Thirty miles to Truro, where many wreaths were wilting in the racks.

I cannot remember a word I said, feeling sorry for the young curate who had never heard of either of us. The dead man’s address remains vivid up until this moment when his novel fell from the radiator. It was Parsonville, St Teath.

Our minds are curiously retentive and rejective. So I can hear every decibel of the Atlantic as it crashed on to Bedruthan Steps, but not a word of what I said at the funeral. James’s widow had stayed at home, rather as women do at a Highland funeral. She had looked bewildered as much as sad. It had all been so sudden, that final Sunday: holy communion at the eight-o’clock, coffee with the neighbours, a roast for lunch, a BBC concert at three, some of the new novel rattled off on the tall Remington, a letter to me in his Gothic hand, and then the pipe falling from his mouth at bedtime.

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When I got off the Cornish Riviera train, his widow, Catherine, said: “What did he mean — going off like that?” People can be very indignant about death. I managed a few hours at Bedruthan Steps, his “staircase to the sea”, the title of the novel from behind the radiator.

They say that the heatwave will go on for days. The white cat sleeps 20 feet up in a tree. The ancient farmhouse is cool within and baking without. It is the quality of such buildings. Its water supply runs near freezing. Walking in the garden, I saw what at first I thought were burnt emblems on stilts, but which turned out to be old roses, York and Lancaster, Duchesse de Somebody or other, and John Clare. And St Edmund, of course. And wilting water plants and bright-as-a-button heart’s ease.

My Cornish friend was 68 when he died: a good age, I thought then. But, later, one changes one’s mind. Animals never change their minds. They like a routine, a place, a temperature; and, in the white cat’s case, a height. The birds like to sing at dawn in the summertime, and are Augustine in their collective voice. Heaven knows what they are saying. But it gets one out of bed.

Another hot day. People return from the Italian holiday they booked in winter, feeling short-changed. My friend’s letter says that “Cornwall was hell over Easter, but our new vicar is the goods.” But one can’t have everything. Although my house at this moment says that I might.

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