Guernsey legends revisited
Following the inland sweep of the cliff path, Margaret was led into a valley where woodland took over from the gorse and bramble covered cliffs. As she walked on the canopy of the trees closed in, changing the cliff path into a green tunnel, encircling her into its rustling, secretive domain. The restless rumble of the sea gradually turned into a soft murmur, a barely audible baseline for the chorus of this swishing, whispering world. Even the squeal of the gulls could no longer be heard here. Instead she became aware of a flurry of light, high pitch whistling and a sudden bout of bustling activity in the trees. She smiled as she noticed a group of tiny birds flutter around the nearby branches like trapeze artists in a circus tent. The first smile in days. Bella barked enthusiastically, causing the birds to dart off en masse.
‘Silly girl,’ Margaret said, affectionately grabbing her dog’s fluffy ears and shaking her head. The friendly cocker spaniel wagged her tail frantically in return and managed a sloppy lick on Margaret’s nose before she stood up again.
Sighing deeply, Margaret looked at her watch. Four o’clock. Two hours until the flight’s departure, taking her daughter away.
‘Mum, I have to go,’ Michelle had said, resolutely. ‘I love him, and that’s the end of it!’
‘But you’ve only known him such a short while!’ This fruitless argument had been flying around their house like a moth around a light – going nowhere.
‘I just want you to think of what you’re doing Michelle, quitting a promising job, moving to Zimbabwe, of all places on earth…’
‘You think I haven’t thought this through?’ Michelle was shouting by now. ‘You just don’t want to be left here on your own, do you!’
Michelle might as well have slapped her face. The truth hurts.
Staring through the trees, Margaret noticed how the dappled sunlight turned a spider’s web into glistening silver jewellery, like the ring Michelle had been given – a promise for the future. A few auburn coloured leaves sailed down on the slight breeze, signalling that summer was coming to an end. Margaret sighed again, dreading the thought of autumn this year.
Suddenly she felt a shiver run down her spine. She became aware that the breeze had picked up, the path darkened. She shook herself from her torpor. ‘Showers on the way Bella, better get a move on!’
But her dog stood stock still, growling deeply.
‘What’s up with you?’ Margaret frowned, gently pulling on the lead to get her to move. But Bella moved closer against her legs, persistently pushing until she was forced to step to the side of the path. Bella’s hostile behaviour was so uncharacteristic that Margaret was too distracted to notice the approaching couple until they were quite near. Bella firmly placed herself between Margaret and the passing couple, growling threateningly. Margaret had to grab hold of a nearby tree to prevent herself from falling over.
‘What are you doing, you silly thing!’ she hissed, cheeks burning. But the couple paid her no attention at all, sailing by as if she wasn’t even there. Regaining her composure, Margaret stared as the couple moved away, holding hands, long cloaks flapping. Then – disappearing.
Margaret ‘s mouth fell open. Unable to comprehend what she had just seen, she froze until Bella’s wet nose against the palm of her hand gently brought her back to her senses.
‘Well done, good girl!’ she said shakily, patting Bella’s shivering body.
Margaret headed home as quickly as she could, leaving the cliff path at the first opportunity and running through the lanes as if she was being followed by some headless hound from an old folk tale rather than by her faithful friend.
Could she really have seen an apparition? Ghosts? Panting heavily she banged her fist on her neighbour’s door, knocking incessantly until the bemused face of the elderly lady appeared in front of her.
‘Freda, I saw…, didn’t you once…, didn’t you say… ‘ She stumbled over the words like a struggling athlete over hurdles. But gradually understanding crept into the old lady’s eyes.
‘It’s alright,’ she said, squeezing Margaret’s hand gently, ‘there’s no harm in seeing these things, even though we don’t understand them. Come in, I’ll put the kettle on.’
The small cosy kitchen and Freda’s soothing voice broke through the tension of recent weeks. Leaning on the kitchen table, face hidden in her folded arms, Margaret confided all in between great, heaving sobs.
‘If you’re fighting true love, you’re fighting a losing battle,’ Freda said when Margaret finally fell silent. ‘Have I ever told you what my grandmother used to say? About the couple on the cliff path?’
Margaret looked up, eyebrows raised.
Freda poured a steaming cup of tea from the pot and handed it to Margaret. ‘Let me take you back two hundred years.’
Havelet Bay was a boisterous place that day in early spring, the ruffled sea full of motion and the bright air full of promise. Screeching gulls competed with a few loudly shrieking girls as they chased after a bonnet that had blown away in the stiff breeze. It came to a halt against Pierre’s small, sturdy fishing boat, stranded on the beach until the next tide. The strapping fisherman stopped repairing his crab pots, picked it up and twirled the runaway bonnet teasingly around his index finger. When Bernadette reached the boat, out of breath and with eyes that sparkled like the sea on a summer’s day, Pierre knew instantly that his future stood in front of him.
Throughout that summer Pierre and Bernadette met frequently at the fish market and a few months later, in the nearby shelter of the Town Church, Pierre sealed his best ever catch with an engagement ring. Two years later, the newly married couple moved into a small cottage near Saints Bay, the cliff paths in the area resounding with their laughter as they started on their joined path in life.
Time passed like the tides, the regular rhythm of months, years, decades flowing by with each season bringing its own blessings and challenges. But to Bernadette, it seemed like only a few years had gone by, on that fateful day when Pierre perished at sea in an autumn storm.
Grief-stricken, she stood guard at Saints Bay Harbour every day, looking out for the fishing vessel she so longed to see but that would never return. She roamed the cliff paths and spent hours hunched up on Moulin Huet beach where she and Pierre had spent so many happy summer evenings.
As winter set in, her children begged her to give it up, to let go, even to move in with her eldest daughter and son-in-law. But no icy gale, no pounding rain and no amount of heartfelt pleading could keep Bernadette away from the sea. When she finally succumbed to pneumonia, everyone knew that she had really died of a broken heart.
Margaret sipped the last of her soothing tea. ‘So?’ she said carefully, feigning ignorance of what Freda was trying to tell her.
‘So, when sightings of the couple started, people saw it as a sign, a lesson to be learned for whoever saw them.’
‘Are they trying to tell me my daughter is madly in love?’ Margaret couldn’t help sounding sceptical. ‘I can see that for myself!’
‘Don’t you think this could be about you? Letting go is the hardest thing to do – but not letting go could destroy you!’ Freda grabbed Margaret’s hand as if squeezing it would somehow reinforce her words. ‘Your daughter needs to make her own choices.’
‘I know,’ Margaret said weakly, ‘but I don’t want to admit it.’
‘Have you been home yet?’ Freda said with a smile.
‘Not for a while,’ Margaret whispered, ‘didn’t want to be there when she left.’ She looked at her watch. Five o’clock. She’ll be checking in now.
‘I think Michelle left something for you.’
A few minutes later, back in her own home, Margaret found herself surrounded by the largest sea of lilies she had ever seen together. Her favourite flowers. In the middle of it all, gloriously displayed like a crown jewel, an early bloom of the Guernsey Lily, displaying its gorgeous golden specks on its soft red petals. The sweet scent and vivid colours in the room softened the darkness and bitterness in Margaret’s heart.
She knew what to do. Grabbing her car keys, she knew she could still make it to the airport in time to say goodbye.