Their holiday had been a time for bittersweet soul-searching – but the mysterious Grace had a message just for Maggie
Her eyes were the first thing Maggie noticed. They reminded her of a calm sea, the sort of sea that lapped gently at sun-tanned toes.
The questions that clamoured in her mind were silenced as the full focus of her attention was drawn, like a magnet, by the power and beauty of those eyes.
Maggie was conscious of the hammering of her heart, certain that her husband, David, could hear it too.
However, he gave no hint of this as he chatted with the other family members present in the sitting room.
Enveloped by a sense of warmth and tranquillity, Maggie stared into the perfect, cobalt-blue eyes. They held within them an ocean of knowledge.
She had encountered their like only once before.
She let herself drift away on the ebb and flow of their ancient tide.
The edges of the room blurred, her mind trading the warmth of the central heating for the warmth of the sun and her comfy chair for a wooden bench on a busy quayside – and as the years fell away, she remembered…
“The guide book says that when the gales blow, the waves come right over the roofs of the cottages,” David said.
Maggie shielded her eyes against the September sun, generous in its heat, and tried to imagine the quayside swamped.
Their first glimpse of the Cornish fishing village had been from the cliff path that morning. From such a height, the jumble of roofs resembled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle upended in a childish tantrum, mesmerising and chaotic.
As they had descended, they could see the outline of the fishermen’s cottages wedged along the deep cleft of the valley floor. Decorated in pastel pinks and blues, sunny yellows and dazzling whites, the cottages stood out, bright and hopeful, in the glorious sunshine.
Higher up, larger houses with shutters and verandahs occupied precarious positions on the cliffside. To eyes hardened by the stark architecture of London’s orbital new towns, the village had been a delight.
Now, Maggie and David were seated on a wooden bench with their backs to the old net lofts.
Ahead of them, the inner harbour wall was alive with people, their happy chatter sailing on the breeze. To their right, old stone cottages clung tenaciously to the foothills of the steeply rising cliff. To their left in the harbour, merry-coloured fishing vessels bobbed on the swell.
The only disturbance to the calm sea beyond came from the pleasure boats as they carved through the water, sending ripples to the tiny handkerchief of beach on their way to the steps at Maggie’s side.
“I wonder what it’s like.” Maggie tried to imagine a storm so ferocious.
They turned. A girl of no more than seven stood on the cobbled path that wound up from the heart of the village.
“Do you live here?” Maggie asked.
“The water bubbles,” the girl continued, “and the trees bend like they’ve got bad backs. The wind shouts and the sea roars.”
“It must be frightening,” Maggie said.
The girl smiled.
“No,” she said, “just loud.”
Maggie was struck by the fluidity of her movements. She had the carriage of a dancer.
Like a china doll, her skin was pale and flawless and framed by the most glorious hair Maggie had ever seen. It shone in the sunshine like burnished copper and fell in curls almost to her waist.
She wore a blue dress delicately embroidered and rather old-fashioned for a child of the swinging Sixties. It looked more suitable for a party than the beach, but the girl looked remarkably relaxed and cool, despite her legs being clad in white tights. On her feet were black patent T-bar shoes.
Maggie was entranced by her eyes. Inestimably older than the girl herself, they seemed to have the ability to speak directly to Maggie’s soul. She found their vivid blue a calming oasis in the hustle and bustle of the busy quayside.
“Would you like to come and sit with us?” Maggie asked.
“Thank you, no.”
Maggie and David smiled at one another at the politeness of her tone.
“What’s your name?” David asked.
“Are you on holiday?”
“Yes, we are,” Maggie said. “Won’t you tell us your name?”
The little girl laughed. The sound reminded Maggie of a babbling brook. Her laughter was so full of sparkle and joy as to be infectious.
“What do you think I am called?”
“Grace,” David said without hesitation. Maggie looked at him in surprise.
The girl clapped her hands in delight.
“I shall be Grace,” she declared.
How wonderful it would be to have a daughter like that, Maggie thought. She sneaked a look at David and wondered if he was thinking the same thing.
He looked more relaxed and happy than he had in a long time. With his sandy hair flopping into his eyes, Maggie saw an echo of the boyish charm that had first attracted her to him. She sought his hand and gave it a squeeze.
Despite nearly twenty years of marriage, they had never been blessed with children.
Both from large families, they had been made uncles and aunts many times over. With sadness and a little bitterness, they had toasted each birth while praying they might one day have an arrival of their own.
With David so intent on making a success of his career as a civil engineer, Maggie had immersed herself in her job as manageress of a small boutique and tried to put the thought of children out of her mind.
As the years had slipped by, fulfilled by their work, the subject had become one to avoid.
At least the holiday had given them the chance to talk. On long clifftop walks, freed from the constraints of their everyday lives, they had discussed everything from curtains to their feelings about their childlessness.
With the sun beating down and a backdrop of soothing blue sea there were no tears or strained silences, as there had been so many times before.
Cornwall had become a focal point for the peace-loving hippy community and as they had walked and talked, the sound of cowbells had drifted to them across the fields.
They had uncorked the bottle of their feelings in the summer-scented air and drunk deeply from it. It had been a cathartic experience.
“Whatever will be, will be,” David had said as they had paused to take in the view above Penrowan that morning. “Perhaps some people are just never meant to have children.”
“And if that’s us?” Maggie had asked.
David’s arm had tightened around her waist.
“If that’s us, we’ll count our blessings and make the most of what we have. Each other.” He had brought her into his arms then and kissed her. “Some people never find their soulmate. We got lucky. We found each other. We should let that be enough.”
Now, sitting at the quayside, David’s words came back to her. It was true. Luck, Fate, whatever you wanted to call it had delivered David to her door quite literally when he had come to the boutique where she worked to ask for directions. The following day he had returned to invite her to lunch. They had been blessed; it was greedy to wish for more.
Maggie shielded her eyes from the sun once more.
“Where are your family, Grace? Won’t they worry about you?”
The use of her new name produced a beatific smile.
“My family are close by.”
“Where are you from?” David asked.
“I come from a place far, far away.”
“Is it a city? London?” David asked.
Grace leaned over the thick stone wall, her hair cascading over her face.
“Come and look,” she commanded.
Maggie stood and smoothed down her mini-dress. She had wondered about wearing it. She was thirty-nine after all, but David said she had great legs and the dress was a Mary Quant.
Maggie peered over the wall. Below them, steps slipped away into the water. Two boys in shorts and T-shirts were playing a game of dare. Standing on the lowest possible step, they would race back up as the water rippled and slapped against the concrete, splashing them.
Grace’s laughter rang out as the boys misjudged their retreat and the sea soaked their legs.
“You shouldn’t laugh,” Maggie said mildly. “The steps are slippery. They could fall and hurt themselves.”
“Serves them right,” Grace said, with another peal of laughter.
Maggie looked back at David who grinned and shrugged.
“I’ll get us all some ice creams,” he said.
As Maggie sat down once more, Grace turned to sit on the stone wall, banging her feet against it. Lulled by the sound of the gulls, Maggie leaned her head back and closed her eyes. A Beach Boys track, playing in a pub, drifted on the breeze.
“You should never give up hope,” Grace said.
Maggie opened her eyes. David was standing over her.
“She’s right there –” Maggie turned to look at the wall. Grace was gone.
Maggie scanned the quayside.
“But she just spoke to me…”
They moved as one to look down the steps. The boys were still playing their game. Grace was nowhere in sight.
“She couldn’t have gone back into the village without coming by me,” David said. “And I didn’t see her.”
“Perhaps her family are renting one of the cottages,” Maggie said, scanning their façades for a face at a window.
They sat and ate their ice creams, sharing Grace’s between them, as they pondered on her whereabouts, hoping she might reappear.
An hour later, with still no sign of Grace, they left to go back to their hotel.
Whenever Maggie was to think back on the summer they were to call the Summer of Love, she remembered the gentle, tinkling sound of cowbells floating over the meadows and the little girl with the dancing eyes called Grace.
Six weeks after returning home, Maggie discovered she was pregnant and the following year a son, Mark, was born. He went on to father a boy of his own, Sam.
Now, Maggie felt David’s hand on her shoulder bringing her back to the warm sitting room and her comfy chair.
She smiled up at him. His face was older now but his eyes were as kind as ever.
She felt a wave of love for him so intense it took her breath away.
He knew. She was glad.
She looked down at the baby in her arms. Their first great-grandchild, perfect in every way.
The baby lifted a tiny pink hand and wrapped it around Maggie’s finger, her grip surprisingly strong.
Maggie laughed, marvelling at the beauty of the baby’s delicate nails. She had forgotten quite how small newborns could be. Small but utterly captivating.
A look of fierce determination settled on the baby’s face as she looked up into Maggie’s eyes.
Leaning in close, Maggie pressed a gentle kiss to her great-granddaughter’s forehead.
“It’s OK, sweetheart,” she whispered softly so that only the baby could hear. “I know.”
The door of the sitting-room flew open and Sam came running in.
“Grandma! Grandpa! Sorry I’m late.” He bent to kiss Maggie’s cheek and then laid a protective hand on his daughter’s head, stroking her soft, copper-coloured hair. “I see you’ve already met Grace.”
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