At first, it hadn’t been easy going on holiday on her own. Not that she didn’t enjoy her own company; she loved being alone and found most other people irrelevant and frankly boring. What she did find difficult was the attitude of her fellow holiday makers. She was acutely conscious of the pitying looks and whispered conversations behind her back. Through the buzz of chatter in the bar and dining room she could hear herself being discussed and picked over. Was she a widow perhaps? Maybe she’d never married? How awful to have no friends to go on holiday with. We don’t want to get stuck with her for the whole holiday – sometimes these women can be so clingy. Oh yes, she’d heard it all, but over the years had learned how to deal with it.
On most of her holidays she was lucky. There were often other single travellers staying in the same hotel, people who clearly wanted peace and quiet. Apart from exchanging ‘Good Mornings’ and ‘Good Evenings’, nothing else was required of her, which was exactly how she liked it. Occasionally couples, usually elderly, would try to take her under their wing, but she mostly managed to decline their polite overtures of friendship and eventually they gave up. Why did perfect strangers always want to know all about her anyway? She liked her own company and was happiest wrapped up in her own thoughts. She loved photography and bird-watching, both of which pursuits lent themselves to quietness and concentration and there was always her reading and embroidery to occupy her.
Which was why she felt deeply irritated this particular evening when, after a full day photographing the wonderful bird life of the Cornish coast, she entered the dining room to find someone already at her table. Her glance quickly took in a rather large, florid man whose clothes were too tight. He was obviously wearing a wig and little drops of soup fell onto his shirt every time he raised his spoon. His hands were meaty and calloused and there was dirt under his fingernails.
Really, she thought, this isn’t fair. What was the landlady thinking of? She and the new guest obviously had nothing in common, and now she would have to make conversation with him, when all she wanted to do was eat her meal quietly and think about her wonderful day. She braced herself for the ‘Where are you from, how long have you been here, where else have you been?’ litany that was always the opening salvo of any chance holiday encounter.
As it happened though, she didn’t need to make much conversation – he had enough for the whole dining room. He was obviously some sort of engineer, wedded, or even welded she thought wryly, to his job and that was all he could talk about. For the next few days she was treated to ‘Towers I have climbed,’ ‘Bridges I have walked over,’ Towers I would like to climb,’ ‘Bridges I would like to walk over.’ He told her he loved structures. She’d tried to be polite; after all she was well brought up wasn’t she. She’d asked questions about the Tamar Bridge and marvelled over the skills of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She wondered if he had been to the Menai Bridge.
As the days went by, the holiday began to take on nightmare proportions and she spent her days upset and angry at having to share her table and her privacy with this boor of a man. It all came to a head on the fifth day of his holiday when he asked her if she would like to go with him for the day to visit the Saltash Bridge. He was particularly anxious to see it, as it was one of the first bridges ever to be widened using cantilevers. She had no idea even what a cantilever was and stopped herself in the nick of time from asking. Politely declining, she wished him a good day and set off for the beach.
That night, he was full of it – the girders, the cross-bracing members, the bridge abutments and particularly the tubular arch in compression. He even brought out his photos and made her examine each one as he explained their finer points in loving detail. Finally, because she was at heart a kind person, he wore her down. She gave in and agreed to visit Linkinhorne Church with him the next day. Perhaps then she could shake him off for the rest of her holiday. Linkinhorne church had the second highest tower in Cornwall and he particularly wanted to climb it. It would be a pleasure to show her its finer points he said gleefully, particularly the battlemented turrets. Apparently it also had some of the finest crocketed pinnacles in the country.
After dinner, she sat quietly in the residents’ lounge with her embroidery. There was no sign of her table companion; he had gone to look at maps in preparation for the next day and she was enjoying her solitude. Around her the conversation rose and fell, but she took no part in it. Her fingers were busy, but not half as busy as her mind. She found herself recalling her visit to the Menai Bridge all those years ago – the last bridge she had ever climbed. She’d vowed then that she would never go up any high structure again, but now here she was planning to go up a church tower with a complete stranger. She felt oddly excited by the idea, and passed a restless night lost in her thoughts.
They met in the Reception area the next morning and he commented on her pallor.
‘Nothing like some good Cornish air to put some colour in those cheeks,’ he boomed. As if she hadn’t been out in the good Cornish air every day of her holiday.
‘I slept badly,’ she said. ‘I had a lot on my mind.’
Linkinhorne Church was beautiful and the view from the top was spectacular. She felt herself relax as she climbed the steps up the tower. It wasn’t anything like the Menai Bridge, she thought. She listened to everything he had to say about the turrets and pinnacles, remarking that they were indeed fine. He gave her a detailed history of how the tower was constructed and she smiled throughout. Really she was quite glad that she had come after all.
That night, she once again sat quietly in the residents’ lounge busy with her sewing. The day had been tiring and she was glad to rest. It was when the landlady brought in the bedtime drinks that she heard voices in the reception area. Apparently there had been some sort of incident in Linkinhorne and there was a policeman outside. He wanted to speak to her. Curious gazes followed her out and she heard a whispered, ’Only goes to show, doesn’t it.’ She found herself being driven down to the Police Station. ‘Just a formality, Miss.’
By midnight, her head was beginning to spin. Really, this was most inconsiderate. She needed to be up early to see the turn of the tide and if they kept her up any longer, she would oversleep and miss it. Why didn’t they simply leave her alone?
According to the Sergeant, a man had been found dead at the foot of Linkinhorne tower and they thought she might be able to help. What was this man to her anyway? Now, one of them was suggesting that she might have been ill, or possibly confused. He wondered if the seafood lunch, taken in the nearby pub, had upset her. The landlady had already told them that she had looked pale and distracted whilst her companion had tucked in heartily. A young policewoman asked if she had remembered to take her tablets that morning. They even speculated that the man had threatened her in some way at the top of the tower.
She sat impassively through all of it, saying nothing. Even the pleasant-faced young policeman, who had brought her tea and a sandwich, could get nothing out of her. And she was never going to tell, not ever. It was the words ‘flying buttress’ which had finally tipped her over – or more accurately tipped him over. She reflected that it was often the tiniest of tiny straws that broke the camel’s back. It had been the same with her husband all those years ago on the Menai Bridge. No-one had ever found out the truth then and they wouldn’t now. There was no way she was going to prison. She couldn’t bear all those people who would be constantly asking her questions and trying to sit at her table for meals. Turning her back on the Sergeant, she took out her embroidery. She was doing a very detailed picture of a seagull and she needed to concentrate.