This story is about one particular Christmas, but it actually starts with a very Bad Thing happening the previous spring.
It’s a bit of a shame that the Bad Thing happens in the spring and we’re only going to look at it for a bit, because the Cornish tidal island of Mount Polbearne in the spring is an extraordinarily beautiful place.
There is a causeway leading to the ancient settlement, which used to be connected to the mainland until the seas rose up. Now the tides cover the old cobbled road twice a day, which makes it both a very romantic and an extremely inconvenient place to live.
There are a jumble of cottages and shops alongside the harbour and beach, including Polly’s Little Beach Street Bakery, to distinguish it from the original bakery. You might wonder how such a tiny village sustains two bakeries, but then you obviously haven’t eaten there, because Polly is to baking what Phil Collins is to playing the drums. Hang on, that might not be the best example.
Anyway, rest assured: she is very, very good at baking. Her sourdough bread is nutty and firm and has the chewiest of crusts; her baguettes are lighter and fluffier than air. She makes the densest, most delicious olive oil focaccia and delicate, sharp cheese scones. The scent of her baking – she tests things out in the kitchen at home in the lighthouse, then there are the big industrial ovens in the bakery itself, plus an amazing woodburner – floats across the town and brings the hungry and the curious from miles around.
As well as the bakery along the harbour, there’s Andy’s pub, the Red Lion, which plays fairly fast and loose with licensing laws, particularly if it’s a warm evening in the beer garden, which is strung with fairy lights and scented with the sea. Andy also runs a fantastic and mind-numbingly expensive fish-and-chip shop next door, so he’s a busy man. In the harbour itself, the fishing boats rattle and chime; fishing, once the backbone of Mount Polbearne, is now the second most popular job in the tiny community, after tourism.
Up the hill ramble various little cobbled streets, where the same families have been living for generations. There were fears that the community was dying out, but Polly arriving to take over the bakery, after the graphic design business she used to run failed miserably, coincided with – some people say brought about – a new influx; there’s even a posh fish restaurant now. Babies are being born and there’s a sense that things are definitely on the up.
The trick now is to keep it on the up without all the lovely tumbledown houses being bought as second homes by rich people from London and Exeter who never show up during the week and who make it too expensive for local people to live there. But with one or two exceptions, the lack of reliable Wi-Fi and the constantly shifting tides have kept the place more or less cut off from invasion – as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years – so it could be worse.
Summer in Mount Polbearne is always mobbed and busy and a bit nuts, as everyone tries to make enough money to get them through the long, cold winter. But in the spring, the tourists haven’t quite started yet – or at least, there’s normally a bit of a rush at Easter, when everyone turns up and hopes for the best and pretends that they aren’t remotely disappointed when the wind that used to wreck ships on that treacherous stretch of southern Cornish coastline blows their candyfloss right back in their faces; that the picturesque bounce of the fishing boats that line the little harbour isn’t done just to look nice in holiday videos but is actually the white-tipped waves hurling the boats about, with red-fingered fishermen mending nets or, more commonly these days, frowning at computer printouts showing shoals and movements and tallying up just how much they can take from the sea.
But once the slightly disappointed Easter holidaymakers (and the incredibly smug ones, I should say, who hang on until the second Tuesday and are rewarded with a golden day so exquisitely perfect and beautiful that they annoy their friends immeasurably for the next five years by reminiscing about it) have gone, Mount Polbearne has a short respite before the summer floods arrive: children with crabbing nets; adults dreaming of the kind of holidays they had as children, with wide golden beaches and the freedom to run around (until they realise that the causeway doesn’t have any sides and the tide rushes in astonishingly fast, and what was perfectly okay for their parents to let them do in 1985 is now a bit horrifying; and, well, obviously they’ll need good Wi-Fi too, something Mount Polbearne can’t provide but they’ll just have to make the best of it).
In April, then, Mount Polbearne takes a breath. Looking towards the mainland, you can see the trees starting to blossom out in great big garlands of pink and white. Days that start chilly and unpredictable suddenly get a darting bolt of sunlight; and the early-morning mist burns off, and the heat rises and releases that gorgeous aroma of everything growing and birds building nests and chattering to one another, and the light bright green of trees in bud and a particular buzzing, gentle loveliness that is England in early spring, at its very best.
Our story does not stay there.
But it begins there. And it should be a time of new beginnings; of cheery emerging from winter fleeces and television and blinking into the fresh light of the morning.
Mostly, though, it has Polly Waterford’s best friend, the blonde and sophisticated Kerensa, wife of Huckle’s best friend, swearing wildly down the telephone.
‘Stop swearing,’ said Polly sensibly, rubbing her eyes. ‘I can’t make out a word you’re saying.’
As it so often did, the connection cut out between Polbearne and the mainland, where Kerensa lived in a huge and ridiculously opulent mansion with her wunderkind (and quite noisy) American husband Reuben.
‘Who was that?’ said Huckle, waiting for toast to pop up in the sunny kitchen of the lighthouse they shared, a faded grey T-shirt pulled on over his boxers. It wasn’t really warm enough for just that, but Polly absolutely wasn’t complaining. It was a Sunday morning, her only day off; there was salted local butter waiting to be spread, or a squeeze of Huckle’s own honey, sweet orange blossom to go with the gentle morning weather.
‘Kerensa,’ said Polly. ‘She had some very busy swearing to do.’
‘That sounds like her. What about?’
Polly tried to ring her back, without success.
‘Could be anything with Kerensa. Reuben’s probably being a putz again.’
‘Well I’d take that as a certainty,’ said Huckle gravely, standing over the toaster, watching it fiercely. ‘Oh, someone needs to invent a speedy toaster,’ he complained.