"Penzance?" Miranda Clayton's plucked eyebrows rose towards her blonde streaked fringe and her voice was horrified. "Mother, why in the world would you want to go to Penzance? And why, for heaven's sake, would you want to drag me along with you? It's not like we've ever been there before. We don't know anyone there, and personally, I know nothing about the place. Heavens, I'd have to find it on an atlas before I'd know which direction to go to get there."
Her mother, Giselle, rolled her eyes. Like her daughter’s, they were big and baby-blue, surrounded by lush long eyelashes. Naturally, nature had been assisted in their lushness, but the effect was still striking. Although approaching fifty, Giselle was still slender and lithe, and her daughter had inherited all her good looks. They shared the trait of petulance when crossed, although not to the degree of obnoxiousness, except to each other. Many a male eye had been turned and many a male heart broken by this pair, although over twenty years separated mother and daughter.
"Honestly, Miranda, you are being so-o tiresome. Here I am, organising – and paying for – a nice holiday for us both, and you are complaining. Typical, I must say! You give me a headache. I'm going to have a nice cup of tea and a lie down for a while. You may start packing. For us both.”
"Packing?" Miranda regarded her mother, really worried now. "Just when are we leaving, Mother?"
"Oh, tomorrow. It's all organised. Booked, paid for and everything else." Giselle beamed at her daughter. "The taxi's coming to collect us at seven in the morning. We join the bus tour at nine." She patted Miranda's cheek. "You're going to love Penzance. We can take a helicopter trip to the Scilly Isles, and you can walk across to St Michael's Mount. You love walking, so that should be fun for you. I think you just need to be careful of the tide." She swept out of the room, leaving an almost palpable air of bewilderment and frustration behind her.
It wasn't that she didn't love her mother, Miranda thought to herself. It was just that she was so, so, so damned overbearing and obstinate. Once she had an idea in her head, nothing short of a nine point nine on the Richter Scale could move her from it. Typically, she seldom bothered consulting her daughter until it was too late for her to do anything about it.
Until her father had died, three years previously, Miranda had worked as a nurse at a small private hospital. But upon becoming a widow, Mrs Clayton had developed an unidentifiable, not debilitating but scary disease. Symptoms included panic attacks whenever she was separated from her only child and feelings of insecurity if she had to pass any period of time alone. Convenient, Miranda thought.
She knew what her mother's problem was. However, no doctor was going to listen to a mere nurse tell him his patient simply had hypochondria and was a control freak. So Miranda had quit her job and moved in with her mother to look after her. It wasn't that difficult a job, she thought, just a twenty four hour a day one. Three hundred and sixty five days a year. Well, her mother was wealthy. She could afford their many trips and holidays. As she had told Miranda, she couldn't take it with her, and it gave her pleasure to 'entertain' her daughter in return for being well looked after… Indulged in every whim, Miranda had thought sourly on more than one occasion!
Miranda only hoped she would outlive her mother and remain mentally stable while so doing. She didn't have any fears about the money running out. Her father had patented a small but extremely useful device that was part of every modern communication system and the royalties would pour in for years after she herself had died of old age.
Penzance, she considered wryly. Well, at least that was better than last year. Then it had been the Outer Hebrides. She had never been so cold in her life. If it hadn't been for that handsome blond young sailor and his spare Aran pullovers she would have frozen to death ....
Next morning saw Giselle and Miranda on the bus with thirty others and on their way to Penzance. Giselle was in her element, while Miranda had discovered that apart from the bus driver, their tour guide and herself, not another person on the bus was under sixty. She settled herself as comfortably as possible under the circumstances, popped the earphones of her iPod into her ears and prepared to be soothed by Bruce Springsteen for the however many hours it would take them to travel from London to Penzance.
By the time the coach had unloaded its geriatric cargo at the bus station and Miranda had tracked down her mother's four suitcases and her one, she was close to exhaustion. But the taxi who drove at maniac speed through the narrow streets and finally delivered them to the small guest house in a quiet area beyond High Street had sensed her mood and mercifully remained silent along the way. Except, of course, for the continuous stream of abuse he had cast at the other road users. Idiots, all of them. And of questionable birth. At least he had obliged by carrying their luggage into the guest house. Miranda sighed, smiled wanly at the taxi driver as she paid him and followed her mother inside.
"Now, darling, I'm going to have a little lie down. You go for a nice walk. I know how you love walking. Afterwards I'll freshen up and watch a bit of telly." Giselle glanced at her tiny watch. "Oh yes, Neighbours will be on in a couple of hours."
Miranda shuddered. TV was the pits, as far as she was concerned, and imported Australian soapies were the worst in the world, barring American. So when offered escape she did not hesitate in the slightest. She didn't even pause to grab up the local map her mother had bought at the bus station. Penzance was tiny compared with London, and she had never been lost there. Neither did she bother with an umbrella. Penzance had a temperate climate and it was July, she told herself. It wouldn't rain.
An hour later Miranda was not merely lost, she was wet and angry as well. It was midsummer, for heaven's sake! Who would have expected the sudden downpour that had drenched her thoroughly? This was reminding her more by the moment of their last holiday in the Outer Hebrides. All she lacked now was a handsome stranger to come to her rescue. A large St Bernard dog bearing brandy would be even more welcome. The anger, she had to admit, was self directed.
She was somewhere along the Western Promenade Road – she thought. Well, in one direction she could see only water. It should have been blue and smooth, but was grey and choppy. On a nice day she might have considered sunbathing, somewhere.
But not today!
She cringed under the meagre shelter afforded by an overhanging shop front, sneezing and trying to remember which roads she had followed to bring her to her present position, when a mellifluous voice intruded on her thoughts.
"Ah, may of I be assistance?"
Writing-wise, it had been a wasted day, Jon Delaney told himself ruefully. He hated deadlines, and this one was due to expire at the end of the month. If he himself didn't expire first, that was. He loved writing; the feel of his own books in his hands, the sight of his own words of paper, the pleasure of reading favourable reviews. (He never got bad ones). Not to mention the money. Considering next year he’d reach the big Six Oh, he wasn’t doing all that badly for himself. It was a shame his wife hadn’t lived to share his success. He smiled gently at the photo that sat on his desk.
But he whole heartedly hated deadlines!
However, for a change, he was running ahead of schedule. The story was just about complete. And with days instead of hours to spare. Time for a break. He glanced out of the window at the sunny sky and decided a walk would be just perfect. Then he gave a wry smile to himself. Being unable to drive, his usual method of transport was via an ancient and quite decrepit bicycle. The local constabulary had decided to turn a blind eye to the fact that it had no lights and probably no brakes ... for the time being anyway.
But the weather was too nice for the effort involved. He decided to walk. At the last moment, he grabbed up the red umbrella that leaned against the corner of the foyer. Of course he wouldn't need it, but the mere act of twirling it sometimes helped with his mental processes. Long walks were excellent for smoothing out the wrinkles in his usually highly convoluted plots.
Off he strolled along Alexandra Road, turning left along the promenade when he reached the sea front.
By then he was glad he had brought the umbrella along. The sky had darkened and before he reached Morrab Road down came the rain. He jabbed at the button on the red umbrella and was gratified when it unfurled and protected him. Like the half dozen cats he kept (and indulged), he hated getting wet.
The young woman huddling against the shopfront ahead of him hadn't been so fortunate. She was clearly soaked to the skin and looked totally miserable. He hurried along, tapped her on the shoulder and spoke.
"Aargh!" She started in shock and swung round to face him.
"You are soaked, dear. Can I help?"
"Oh, thank you." Normally Miranda avoided middle aged men like the plague, especially ones who addressed women as ‘dear’. However, one bearing a large red umbrella and offering her shelter and possibly more in the way of assistance was not to be spurned. At least he hadn’t called her ‘love’ or spoken in some incomprehensible Cornish dialect. She glanced at him through her (wet) eyelashes, hoping desperately the mascara really was waterproof. "I – decided to take a walk – and I don't have an umbrella." She sneezed. "And I think I'm lost. As a matter of fact, I'm sure I'm lost."
She wasn't merely sneezing; she was shivering. Jon took off the light jacket he had been wearing and draped it over her shoulders.
"Where do you live?"
She laughed. "London. But my mother and I are staying at a guest house in ... ah ... um, oh damn, I can't remember. But it's somewhere up and off High Street. I seem to remember crossing over Market Jew Street and following my nose, so to speak."
He raised his eyebrows.
"You have had a long walk. What about a taxi? I can't offer you a lift myself." Suiting action to suggestion, he waved imperiously and a taxi zoomed up and drew to a halt in front of them. As luck would have it, it was the same taxi driver who had taken them from the bus station to their guest house. He gave Miranda a look of recognition as Jon explained her predicament.
"Lost, are you, lady? Yes, I remember you and your ma. Want a ride back there, do you? Lucky I remember where I took you both."
Oh yes, he remembered all those suitcases. How could he forget? Fortunately Miranda had given him not merely a brilliant smile of thanks, but had followed it up with a very generous tip. He hoped when they left they'd call on him again.
Miranda gave a great sigh of relief and turned to Jon.
"You've been so kind. Would you like to come along? I'm sure we can find something in the way of afternoon tea to offer you."
"That's very thoughtful of you." As he climbed into the taxi behind her, he gave her a brilliant grin. "Just, please – not chocolate cake. I can't stand chocolate anything."
"Oh, you poor man! You're missing one of life's luxuries." Fancy not liking chocolate, she thought, and then she smiled inwardly.
Her mother hated chocolate, too. This handsome man was certainly a damn sight closer to Giselle's age than hers. Maybe he was unmarried? Or at least alone. That might be one way of keeping her mother amused. If they had to be in Penzance for any period of time, better if she were kept entertained. It might even help keep any incipient attacks of hypochondria at bay, too.
If her rescuer were married, hopefully he would turn out to be a rich widower with a similarly handsome son ... or two ... or three.
Miranda sneezed again, and hid a small smile under her handkerchief.
Giselle woke from her afternoon nap to see her daughter changing from her wet clothes.
"I got caught in the rain," she explained, to her mother’s exclamation of concern. "But this absolutely charming gentleman – "
"Where?" Giselle jumped up, as if expecting to see her daughter's rescuer in the bedroom with them. Miranda refrained from rolling her eyes and continued, gabbling rather more than was her usual habit.
"He got me a taxi – the same taxi driver who brought us here this morning – wasn't that wonderful? I had got lost, you see. So I asked him to come along and have some afternoon tea with us. He's out sitting on the patio right now." Of course, during their taxi ride the rain had cleared and the sky was again a brilliant Cornwall blue.
"I'll get dressed and come out and meet this knight in shining armour."
"Not exactly in shining armour, but certainly armed – with a bright red umbrella, Mother."
It didn't escape Giselle that her daughter was in a far better mood now than when they had arrived. Wonderful what a bit of attention from the opposite sex can do!
At the sight of Miranda – now dry and spruce looking – returning with an older woman who just had to be her mother, Jon Delaney rose and smiled through the introductions and explanations. Their afternoon tea – not chocolate cake, but small sandwiches, delectable cream cakes and tiny meringues, with coffee and tea, of course, was brought – and the three settled into companionable silence.
"Do you live here in Penzance?" Giselle asked, trying not to simper, and Jon nodded.
"Yes. My son and I have a house, not all that far from the beach. I, um, I write."
"Do you? Novels?"
"Yes. Usually with exotic settings."
"Oh, are you famous?"
He grinned ruefully.
"Um, yes. A bit. I use a pen name and no one recognises me. Saves my son a bit of embarrassment, too. He teaches at one of the local girls' schools and would so hate to be known as the son of a fiction writer. He, um, teaches English." Giselle burst into laughter while Miranda hid her disappointment behind her eyes. If the son taught at a girls' school, chances were that he was either gay or married, maybe separated as he lived with his father. She stifled her sigh and sipped her coffee.
Finally Jon rose to leave.
"My thanks, ladies. It's been a delightful interlude." He paused. "Ah, I have tickets for the circus tomorrow evening. I wonder if you'd both do me the honour of accompanying me?” Giselle accepted briskly before Miranda could open her mouth.
"That would be lovely."
“And my son, too,” Jon continued blithely. “It'll do him good to leave his marking and reading and lesson preparation for a while. Those girls take up far too much of his time and I’m damned sure they’re all too young to consider as potential daughters in law." He grinned crookedly. “Oh, I rather think, for a writer, I phrased that comment really badly. I mean I don’t fancy him bringing home a child bride from that crowd of bimbos he teaches.”
“Bimbos?” Miranda echoed.
“Are they really?” demanded Giselle. “Well then, in that case, your son will probably love some adult company and conversation.” Standing, she took Jon by the arm. "Let me see you out. Do you want to call a taxi? It might rain again, and it is getting late."
He nodded. "Probably a good idea."
Left behind, Miranda put her head down on her hands and whimpered. He was all right, and after all, he had rescued her, but ... Then she pulled herself together. He would keep her mother occupied, for sure. St Michael's Mount and the Scillies beckoned her. Still, the circus sounded okay. She hoped it would be the old fashioned kind, with lion tamers and bare back riders and trapeze artistes and maybe even an elephant or two. Maybe it was kinder not to – what was the word – 'exploit' – animals, but so many of them had been born into circus life and knew nothing else. In the wild, they'd probably die of starvation or be shot by some macho moron attempting to prove his worth. Miranda remembered fondly the circuses of her childhood – lions, tigers, bears, elephants, ponies and all the rest.
The circus was, alas, composed of only human performers. Miranda snorted into her popcorn. Didn't any of these circus people ever consider they were being exploited as much as animals had been? Jon's son Greg however was a more than pleasant surprise. Like his father, he was tall, dark and handsome.
He was neither married nor gay.
In fact, he was just perfect. Miranda did indeed see the Scillies, and she did walk to and from St Michael’s, but not alone. Penzance was considerably better than she had anticipated. Considerably. Even the weather remained sunny and fine, so she and Greg Delaney could stroll arm in arm along the Promenade, licking icecream as they went.
Holiday romances do not always last, but by the time Giselle and Miranda finally packed their belongings and returned to London, again on a coach packed with hyperactive and noisy geriatrics, Miranda and Greg had decided each was 'the one'.
It came as no surprise that Giselle and Jon had done similarly. Fortunately, they had more in common than a dislike of chocolate. Both loved cats and Jon was an unashamed addict of every Australian soapie on the television. Upon discovering his pen name, Giselle was delighted to realise he had been her favourite author for many years. She had envisioned said author to be a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Clint Eastwood, but was so pleased to discover she had been wrong.
(Jon had carefully stipulated in all his writing contracts that his photo was never to appear on a dust jacket. He would never make public appearances, either. He wasn’t shy, but valued the privacy of both his son and himself. Fame was all very well as long as one wasn’t to be annoyed every time one went out in public.)
Her hypochondria disappeared as if it had never been, and she took up walking, encouraged by Jon. She even, much to Miranda's dismay, invested in a bicycle. She and Jon would take long bike rides together through the Cornish countryside, she told her daughter, dreamy eyed.
It was a double wedding, the following summer in Penzance. Jon and Giselle settled down with his – now their – cats, while Greg and Miranda took a course in ESL teaching and travelled to China where they took up residence at a small school near Shanghai. In between teaching over a hundred bright and inquisitive Chinese children the fundamentals of British English (as if course it should be spoken), they visited the zoo and saw pandas and elephants and all other sorts of animals. Eventually, of course, when they decided to start a family, they migrated to Australia. (Where else?) Once or twice a year Jon and Giselle flew out to visit them. There was always plenty to do and see, but if they wanted to watched television, they had to hire a set, as both Greg and Miranda firmly refused to waste their time in front of what they referred to as ‘the idiot box’.
Amazingly enough, they all lived happily ever after.