Writer's Retreat – Chapter 3
Bill regards me across the kitchen table, tea mug cradled between big, blunt-fingered hands.
‘Tell me more about Martha Reid, Bill.’
He thinks for a moment. ‘Martha inherited this place from a fisherman and his wife, Pat and Niamh Reid, but she wasn’t related to them by blood. She was adopted as a young girl – an orphan.’
‘They took her in?’
‘She just turned up. Sodden and barefoot. Her father was the skipper of a small coastal trader out of Port Albert. Hit a sunker offshore, it appears. Went down in minutes, taking the skipper, his wife, and the deckhand with her. They never found the wreck. All that washed ashore was Martha, her little brother, and a few scraps of flotsam.’
‘She had a little brother?’
‘Henry. They found him wandering on the beach after Martha reached the cottage and the Reids went out to search. The lad was never quite right after that. Passed away within a year.’
‘That’s sad. Poor Martha, all alone! At least she had the Reids to look after her.’
Bill grimaced. ‘Pat Reid was a right hard bastard, by all accounts. Too fond of the grog, and free with his fists. Other nasty habits, too.’
‘Martha put a stop to that.’
‘She was just a little girl, you said?’
‘Rumour has it, he raised his hand to her once, and once only … Nobody knows what she did, but his hair turned white overnight. Meek and mild he was, after that. So they say.’
‘So she was a strong character, Martha?’
‘Not just that. She had a … a goodness about her, a warmth, but she knew things, and she saw things. Ma Reid was someone you wanted on your side.’
‘Bill, this is going to sound ridiculous, but last week, just after you and I met, …’ I tell him about my encounter with the little girl and her brother. He listens impassively. ‘Looking back, I wonder if I just dreamed it, napping on the beach,’ I conclude, lamely.
Bill sits still for so long, I start to grow uneasy.
‘The thing is, Alice, this is a powerful place. Not to be trifled with.’
‘I’m not following you, Bill.’
‘What I’m saying is, you should take that seriously. If Ma Reid says it’s time to go home …’
‘Bill, it wasn’t Ma Reid. It was just a little girl called Martha. Anyway, it was her daddy who said it was time to go home. He just meant, head back here to the cottage, before the tide cut me off. Nothing sinister.’
Bill nods. ‘I’m just an old duffer, Alice. Pay no attention to my nonsense. Thanks for the tea.’ He heaves himself up from the table with some effort.
I was sceptical about the idea of a writer’s retreat. It always sounded so self-indulgent and … pretentious, I guess, is the word I’m looking for. ‘Oh, I’m going on a retreat to finish my Gold Rush novel.’ ‘Oh, how absolutely marvellous, darling!’ Intellectual wankery of the sort that I always claim to detest.
Nathan, my earnest young editor, saw it differently. ‘It’s always difficult to write that second novel, Alice, after a big success with your first one. It’s totally normal to struggle. A change of scenery could be just the thing for you. Isolation, nature in the raw, the fresh ocean breeze …’
Having made the move, I’m not about to back down now. Too much face to lose, and an admission that I can’t hack it as a professional novellist. So, yes, Bill: you’re just an old duffer.
If I say it to myself often enough, I might just start believing it.
Next week in Writer’s Retreat:
Chapter 4 – Cabin Fever
As the weather turns bad, Alice finds the isolation oppressive …