Chapter ten

The hour Leslie spent with Dick Moore on the Shore Path was the sweetest hour she would ever spend with him. And if, years later, she maintained that she never thought of him at all, it was simply because one hour in the space of many years can soon shrink to something too small to remember.

She came to the Shore Path because she felt so alone. No, not alone. She was used to being alone. She may even have preferred it and purposely held herself away from the likes of the Kirk girls and their pitying smiles, and Saul Elliot, and his simpering ones. Of course, there were always her neighbours, but they were so much older than her. And Mother, well, she was very different to Leslie. Not better, nor worse, just not the kindred spirit Papa had been.

Now her mother was gone, and the Misses Kirks and Mr Elliot never smiled at Leslie anymore. Miss Bryant brought her baskets of food and such (and refused to take a penny), Miss Russell came by with posies from her garden, and Dick Moore tarried away, leaving her bundles of kindling by the backdoor. And so Leslie came to feel quite self-sufficient with the whole of the house to herself. She really was free to do what she liked, nobody wanted anything from her. She was quite alone. So very alone. No, not alone.

She was lonely.

It was thinking about a getting a dog again that brought Leslie to the shore. Though she didn't go down to the Cove that day. She sat on the dunes and looked out at the sea and the words came to her unbidden.

I think the waves will devour, the boatman and the boat in the end. And this by her song's sheer power, Fair Lorelei has done

And all at once he was beside her as if she had conjured him here. Leslie could tell from the smell of him where he had been. That and the dog hair on his trousers.

He brushed them down meticulously, before he sat with her in the sand. "Haven't seen you here for ages."

"And I haven't seen much of you," Leslie said.

Dick shifted his hat further up his brow and flashed her one of his white teethed grins. "You should see the Simons place, you wouldn't recognise it now –"

"I can't pay you," Leslie cut in, "so I don't know why you're going to such trouble. I know you're not the charitable sort."

"Charity is a mug's game," Dick said. He lay back on the dune and set his brim low over his eyes. "You depend on charity then you've got to take what you're given with no power to ask for more. I want to make my own way in the world. Never depend on anyone. That's why I'm working on the Simons place. It's all part of my plan…"

He let that last word hang in the air, knowing that sooner or later the saucy lass beside him would ask him more about it.

Leslie got as far as, "What plan?" and that was all Dick needed. He leaned up on his elbow and talked at her for ten minutes together.

Travelling the world as a sailor, Dick had heard many things; met strange and interesting folk, and made important connections. He knew a bosun, who knew a captain, who knew where there was a great deal of gold. Not here, out west, or so he told his father.

Abner Moore did not believe it at first. But his son's constant tales of nuggets the size of apples soon got the better of him. That June he took a whole month away from Moore's General to see this gold for himself. What he found were piles of crumbly dirt and a mess of holes in the ground. Abner wouldn't lend another penny to his wayward son for this pitiful piece of land. Not till Dick proved that he had shaken off his layabout ways and came back to work at his store.

"As if I would!" Dick added, laughing.

"What's so wrong with that?" Leslie asked.

"Me in an apron dishing out ounces of sugar and bits of ribbon? Not on your life. If I have to prove myself to that old bastard then I'll do it on my own terms."

"You don't like your father?"

"That shifty ol' devil?" Dick sighed. "Why do you think I went off to sea? Damn, I wish I was there right now," he said, looking out to the pounding waves. "Next job's not till winter. Me and the boys are off to the Caribbean."

Carribean. The word was like a soft stroke on Leslie's skin, exciting yet comforting at the same time. Warm and sweet and filled with mystery. Though all she could say was, "The boys?"

"The boys, the crew, my mates. We all get round together. Of course, we live all over the place, the ship is our real home. Pete's a Newfie, Mick's a Herring-choker and so's my cousin. You should meet him," Dick said, giving Leslie a wink, "you'd like him."

Leslie stiffened and drew her knees close to her chest. "I still don't know what any of this has got to do with the Simons."

"Do you not, clever girl like you. I'm fixing up the place, aren't I? Turning it into a proper farm. Then the farm'll make money and you'll get yours, which means my father will get his and I'll get what I want out of him. Though it's not a simple as I thought it would be…"

Leslie smiled despite herself. "Farm work too hard on you, is it?"

"It's not the work, it's getting folks to do it. Every job I come up with, ol' Simons has an excuse. His back, his heart, his gammy leg. He'd get his wife to do everything if he could."

Leslie had heard Miss Bryant say similar things herself. That comforting stroke felt more like a prod – straight at her conscience. There she had been day after day wandering the rooms of her house and feeling sorry for herself. It hadn't once occurred to her to offer Mrs Simons a hand.

"You're right," she said, "I will go see them."

"Ah…" Dick sat up and drew in knees just like Leslie, "maybe that's not such a good idea."

Leslie knew immediately what Dick was inferring. She didn't even blush over it anymore. The Simons had obviously heard the rumours about her stealing the Lennox watch. "Maybe we should just sell the farm," she muttered. "Move away and start elsewhere –"

"Don't do that!"

"Why is that, Mr Moore, because it might ruin your clever scheme?"

Dick looked like he was about to say something which would reveal some tender truth. His eyes were wide. The hazel one slightly wider, Leslie noticed, and there was a smudge of purple under the blue one where he had received a knock – or a punch.

"You don't like me much, do you?" he said at last.

Leslie had no intention of soothing his feelings and said, a little proudly, "No. And if you're think you can call me Lore-liar and it will get me to change my mind, I can tell you now, it won't work."

Dick sniffed. "Maybe you aren't a liar, but you're a hypocrite at least. I know why you don't like me and I know it has nothing to do with that smooch I gave you before I went out west. You think I'm no good."

"You are no good."

"And how do you know that precisely, what have I done to you? Won you a toy, searched all over for that watch, worked night and day on your farm."

"What about the girl," Leslie said before she could stop herself, "the one at the Cove?"

"Carlotta? She minds my dog for me, the old man won't let me keep him in his house. That's where I got him –"

"That's not all you got." Leslie glared at him.

Dick shrugged and returned to his bed of sand. "She's a whore – so what? Carlotta needs money same as you. And I need the company."

"You call that company?"

"Damn straight I do. The best sort of company. I get lonely like everyone else. You think I don't know what folks round here say about me? My own father's the worst. I thought you more than anyone would understand what it's like to be judged, especially by the hoity-toity types round here. I'm not the only one who keeps company with Carlotta, I can tell you."

Dick stood up and went to pick up his hat which had dropped on the sand. Leslie reached for it too. When his hand brushed over hers, she did not pull away. He gave her that same look as before, as if there was something else he wanted to say. But whether it was the expression on her face that changed his mind about voicing it or something else entirely, Leslie could not tell.

"Forget it, you're just a kid, I don't even know why I'm talking to you. Good day, little Leslie," he said stiffly, tipping his hat at her. "Mind your elders and don't hang round these parts again."

A week later Leslie found a note from Dick telling her he would be away for a couple of days. On the evening of the first, she wandered down to the barn to check on the animals, then climbed the ladder that lead to the hayloft. She knew Dick slept here sometimes. He never brought his father's wagon anymore and when he worked late he would sleep in their barn. Some mornings she could smell him frying bacon under the alders behind their shed.

Everything in the hayloft was laid out a neatly. Shipshape and Bristol fashion, as any sailor would do. A rolled-up blanket, a pillow stuffed with straw, a pan, some salt, some coffee, a crock of lard stored in the coolest corner. And a little sea chest etched all over just like Dick's own chest. Inside (yes, she opened it) was a shirt that needed mending. But of course, Leslie couldn't mend it without revealing what she had done – and seen. For beneath the shirt were stacks of postcards depicting… what was this one depicting? A drawing of a naked woman – was she Japanese? – and an octopus doing – what was the octopus doing exactly? Leslie held it sideways, then upside down. Was the creature devouring her? Well if it was, the woman appeared to be in raptures over it.

The postcard was returned with some haste, and the shirt was about to be placed on top when Leslie drew it to her face. She smelled rum, which she had been expecting, then beneath it the musky smell of him. It made Leslie feel even more dizzy than the postcard had, and she dropped the shirt and shut the lid. She paced the hayloft with her arms around herself, when she remembered the shirt should be folded properly so that Dick would not know she had been in there.

While she was doing that something else caught her eye. A package wrapped in brown paper. It had the look of a present and the shape was very familiar…

Inside (yes, she unwrapped it) was the book. Her book. Five Hundred Years of Verse. And on the inside cover written in beautiful copperplate:

Happy Birthday, with fondest wishes

Leslie's birthday wasn't until winter when Dick would be going back to sea. It looked like he meant to give her the book before he went away.

Leslie sat back on her knees and flicked through all those precious pages but she did not read one word. She was thinking of her pupils, Myra, Henry, and Homer Smith, who all knew how much she wanted this book. Those same children were there when Dick Moore presented Homer with a First Prize for his pea. Did Dick hear the children talking, did he realise the toy dog was not what Leslie wanted? Did he go back and win the book for her on the day of the Fair?

Or did he steal it, did he rob that poor tinker? Leslie did not want to think about that. Maybe he found it on the road... maybe he bought another copy... maybe she was so used to thinking the worst of Dick Moore that she found it impossible to accept the best.

Tucking the book back in its place and carefully folding the shirt, Leslie slipped down the ladder and went back to the house, humming the tune to Spanish Ladies as she went.

Dick came back the following night to a mighty downpour of rain. He tapped on the kitchen door, he was soaked right through and asked if he could dry himself by the fire. He smelled of rum and when he shook his jacket before the stove, wisps of dog hair sheared off with drops of rain.

They struck Leslie like little cold darts and harrumphing loudly she bid him good night and went upstairs. Dick followed and grabbed her by her apron. He asked if he might spend the night in her mother's armchair as the roof above the hayloft leaked. It seemed an innocent request; Leslie wanted boarders after all. There would be nothing unseemly, she told herself, if she offered him the parlour sofa.

"I'd rather not," Dick said. "I know your father hanged himself in there. And we sailors are a superstitious lot."

No one ever mentioned the way Leslie's father died. Even Miss Bryant, and she had cut the rope from her father's neck. And washed his body, and set him out in his Sunday best like he was only napping after church.

Frank West had been riddled with consumption and could no longer afford the doctor's care. He knew what was coming; a long, slow death while his women sat by watching. He would rather finish it quickly and put everyone's suffering to an end. He didn't know that his daughter would have gladly spent every hour she had left with him tending to each painful breath. Robbing her of those last few months with him was the one thing she could not forgive. It hurt Leslie more than discovering his swinging body. More than the sight of her mother hacking at the beam that bore the rope before turning the axe on his roses.

Leslie stood a little taller, ignoring the wound that throbbed in her heart like it had just been cracked open again. "It's the parlour or nothing, Mr Moore."

"You're a heartless wench," he said, dropping her apron. "I'll take the barn."

Leslie bid him goodnight and turning her back on him went up to her room. She lay in her small bed listening to the wail outside; the slap of the willows leaves striking her window as the downpour turned into a storm.

In the early hours of the morning when the rising sun shone weak through the heavy rain, Leslie left the house for the purpose of delivering a few more blankets to Mr Moore. That was all she was doing. She wasn't as heartless as he said. She could be kind, she could be charitable – forgetting that Dick disdained charity. Dick Moore took whatever he wanted.

He was awake too, she knew it before she had left the top rung of the ladder. The sodden blankets were slung over her shoulder and dripped down her back.

"Your roof leaking too?" he said gruffly, and shifted along his makeshift bed. "Why are you up here, what do you want?"

"Company," she said.

In a matter of moments her kimono was off and his rough whiskery skin was all over her. And he took her, once, twice, too many times to remember, and she held onto him like a port in a storm.

Afterwards, he was snoozing beside her and she traced her finger over the mermaid on his chest.

"Who is she, that mermaid?" said Leslie softly, the glimmerings of what felt like love bursting through the cracks in her heart.

"Ah," said Dick, he was sated now, and didn't give a damn how his glib reply would hurt the girl beside him. "That's Lorelei. My lucky charm. We all got the same one years ago."

"You all got the same?" Leslie's finger stopped right on the mermaid's grinning face.

"My boys, my crew, we all got the same tattoo on our maiden voyage. The ladies love it, you know."

He turned to give Leslie a wink and thought perhaps he might have her again. That hoity-toity look was all over her face and he wanted to wipe it off and cover her with his kisses instead.

"Love?" The word stuck like a fish hook in her throat.

Leslie went to remove her hand. Dick pressed it into his breast. One brow was cocked over his hazel eye while his voice took on a mocking tone.

"She combs with a comb that is golden, and sings a weird refrain, that steeps in a deadly enchantment, the listeners ravished brain."

Leslie knew it then. She was not Lorelei, she never had been. She never had one whit of power of him. Dick Moore had lured her with his tattoo and his poem and had got Leslie to bite. Then carefully, carefully, with all the skill of a sailor, he had slowly reeled her in.

"I hate you," she said, and pulled his quilt from him, wrapping it about her naked limbs before heading for the ladder.

"Think I care?" he said, as he watched her flee down the steps. "But you'll be back my Lore-liar, they all come back in the end."

END OF PART ONE

...

* poem fragments from the same poem featured earlier, Die Lorelei

* A Newfie is someone from Newfoundland. A Herring-choker is someone from New Brunswick

* the postcard is a print of the painting, Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, by Katsushika Hokusai, 1814

Thank you to everyone who gave this story a chance, and especially to those who reviewed. Part Two is coming next. But don't worry, Leslie is going to be one massive thorn in Dick Moore's side. So if you want to read about that, come join me for the next installment.

Love kwak