Half past five – and this was the sort of day that Orford did so well. Huge skies and racing clouds, the river glinting grey and silver and everything washed in that strange, bleached-out light that never seemed to belong to the modern world. There was a slight, nudging breeze. In the winter it could be merciless, coming all the way from Siberia, they said, blustering its way across the North Sea and sending the water shivering before it. But this was October. The wind, warm and benign, had gently ushered the last sailing ships home.
An hour before, the quay had been crowded. A clutch of four-by-fours had been waiting to drag in a queue of motor boats which had all arrived at the same point at the same time. The owners had stood knee-deep in muddy water, pulling on cranks, trying to swivel their boats round, their bad tempers made worse by their lack of familiarity with what they were doing. Meanwhile, cars and camper vans – illegally parked on a quay which had never been designed to take so much weight– had been reversing and steering around each other as if trying to untie a huge invisible knot. Families with over-tired children and empty picnic boxes trawled along the single high street past the old café which has closed six months ago and which was now used as a factory for packaging fish.
This general exodus, like something out of a war that had just been lost, happened every Saturday and Sunday during the summer. For this was when the out-of-towners went back to their homes. This was the magical time when Orford belonged, once again, to the people who lived there.
You could almost time it by the minute. A tick of the clock and peace returned with the suddenness of a curtain drawing down. The last trailer disappeared up the high street. The Harbour Master – who had looked after the quay for as long as anyone could remember - scratched his head as if bemused by the battles of the day, locked his office and went home. Lights came on inside the houses and The Jolly Sailor opened its doors. A single dog, damp and bedraggled at the end of the jetty, suddenly found itself alone and scratched its neck disconsolately.
It was at this time that two men made their way home, their feet crunching on the shingle. They had both come off the water: it was easy to tell from their cheeks and foreheads, beaten red by the sun and grimy with salt and mud. They were both in their forties, wearing thick shirts and trousers that had long ago surrendered almost all their shape and colour. One of them held a coil of old rope. The other was rolling a cigarette, manoeuvring the tobacco between fingers that seemed too thick and stubby to be up to the task.
“It’s quiet,” the first man observed.
The other nodded.
“They’ve all gone. And about bloody time.”
The second man lit his cigarette and blew grey smoke into the air. The tobacco, glowing as he sucked in, almost seemed to blink in the evening light.
“The village isn’t what it was,” the first man continued, warming to his theme. “Just five years, even. Strange how it is. Things happen without you even noticing them and then suddenly, you hardly recognise the place.”
“Yellow lines!” The smoker muttered the words as if they had only just occurred to him, as if he wasn’t even quite sure what they meant.
But his friend nodded in agreement. The yellow lines that now ran down the high street, all the way from the church to the quay, had completely divided the village – and not just schematically. On the one side, there were those who felt that the high street hadn’t changed much in five hundred years and shouldn’t change now, that the lines were little more than vandalism and, as there were never any police or traffic wardens in Orford, they didn’t really have any point. But there were those that argued that the street was getting too snarled up, the grass verges were being damaged by car tyres and that at least some of the out-of-towners might be deterred from parking there if it was clearly illegal.
This was the point of view that had finally won the day and the yellow lines had arrived, garish and out-of-place when they could be seen which, in fact, wasn’t often because (as had been predicted) almost everyone ignored them and for most of the time the street was still lined, bumper-to-bumper, with cars.
Both of the men had voted against the lines. And here was another reminder of the way things were changing all around them. They were walking past The Gables, a rather grand house with several balconies which had been built on marshland and – moreover - without the benefit of foundations. Somehow it hadn’t yet fallen into the river. A short while ago it had been sold. Nobody knew for how much. But certainly beyond the reach of anyone in their right mind.
“It’s all changing, George” the first man said. “There’ll be new arrivals in The Gables soon.”
“And old Jake leaving Grove House,” George replied.
That had been the big shock of the summer. Old Jake was a fisherman with a dozen lobster pots up near Butley Creek. He had lived in what had once been his parents’ home and they, of course, had inherited it from their parents before them. Everyone called him Old Jake. In fact there weren’t many people in Orford who even knew what his surname was. He was not a very pleasant man. He drank heavily and he often ran out of his house in his vest and underpants, his face bright red, swearing at passers-by in the mistaken belief that they were trespassing. A while ago, Jake had contracted some sort of skin disease that had rendered him, week by week, less recognisable. Finally, some relatives had turned up from somewhere and persuaded him to move into residential care in Woodbridge and his home – grandly named but in fact a rather shabby cottage – had been put up for sale. Jake had no children,. This time there was no question that it would stay in the family. On the contrary, it would be disinfected, the roof tiles replaced, repainted and sold for a fortune to someone outside the village.
It was another knock on the door for old Orford. Time’s up. Everybody out.
The two men stopped outside a white building that stood, two storeys high, on a sloping bank of grass. The Orford Sailing Club.
George, the man with the cigarette, stopped and rested his foot on an upturned dinghy. There were still a few of them strewn across the beach. The rest of the boats – the lasers and the wayfarers – had been hauled away for the winter, washed down and locked in garages. The clubhouse was empty and somehow a little sad, as if it knew that it had been deserted all too soon. Only October! The weather would be fine for at least another month.
“There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be than here,” the first man said. “But how much longer?” A sudden gust must have whipped into his eye for he was forced to wipe away a tear.
“High tide tonight,” George muttered, eyeing the river with an expert eye.
“Going to be a bad one,” the first man remarked.
“You’re right about that, Bill.” George twisted his cigarette in his fingers. His nails were chipped and stained yellow from the nicotine. “It’s getting worse and worse. Dunwich to Bawdsey…it won’t be long before the whole east coast is under water.”
“Drowned, the whole lot of it.”
“Six feet under.”
Both men nodded in silence, considering this gloomy possibility. George blew smoke. Bill rubbed a hand over his unshaven chin, his eyes focused on nothing in particular.
On the river, a shape loomed towards them. It was the Lady Florence, a wooden motor fishing vessel which had once been the pride of the Admiralty, carrying supplies in the second world war. These days it had been reduced to another tourist attraction, ferrying visitors up and down the Alde, chugging alongside the ten mile long Orford Ness, around Havergill Island and back again. Like the clubhouse, it was empty. The last cruise of the day was over. Somehow the sight of it, cutting through the darkening, grey water, added to the two men’s melancholy.
“Did you hear about the tea-shop?” Bill asked suddenly.
“The tea-shop?” George shook his head.
“They’re going to put a tea-shop on the foreshore.” Bill pointed a short distance down from where they stood. “Right there.”
“That’s what I heard them say.”
“That’s nonsense.” George took out his cigarette and spat. “A bloody tea-shop! What’s it going to be next? They’ll have a McDonalds out on the Ness. Or why not a bloody amusement park while they’re at it?”
“A tea-shop. Cakes and sandwiches. And they tried to get permission to do chips too!”
Nobody had really cared when the old café had closed down. In a way, it was quite funny, watching the families coming off the Lady Florence, trying to get a cup of tea in what was now a fish packaging factory. But this new venture…George and Bill could see that it would mean nothing but trouble. The truth was, the less there was in Orford, the fewer people would come. Having a fourteenth century castle and one of the most beautiful views in Suffolk was bad enough. Any enterprise – particularly if it was successful – would only make things worse.
The two of them continued walking, Bill winding the rope around the crook of his thumb and his elbow as if he was planning to strangle someone. George finished his cigarette and flicked it towards the water. The wind caught it and threw it back at him and he brushed it away.
They had reached the quay.
Orford Quay, the point where the village simply ran out, the road arriving at a straight line with the water beyond. A square of tarmac that had been resurfaced more times than anyone could say but which was still full of potholes and cracks. There was a rickety bus shelter on one side. It had been given to Orford decades ago but it had been years since a bus had been anywhere near. The shelter was used by teenagers in the summer months; somewhere to meet and smoke.
It had recently been discovered that the whole quay was on the point of collapse and that it would need many hundreds of thousands of pounds to repair. The local council had discussed it many times and two members had actually come to blows over what should be done. One wanted to launch an appeal. Another wanted to find government funding – either from the EEC or the National Lottery.
In the meantime, people still parked there. Even now, there was a gleaming, black sports car, a BMW convertible, right at the end, the headlamps gazing almost contemptuously out over the river. The two men glanced at it but said nothing.
“Well, I’ve got to be going,” George muttered. “Fancy a pint tonight?”
Bill ruminated on this. “I could stroll down to the Jolly,” he muttered. “But it would have to be a quick one. I’ve got an early start.”
“Let’s leave it then.” George frowned. “I’ve got to get away too.” He paused. “I’ve forgotten. Where are you now?”
“I’m with Morgan Stanley,” Bill replied. “Retail Equities. Office in Threadneedle Street.” He took out a key fob and pressed it. On the other side of the quay, the black BMW bleeped and the lights flashed. “You still with McCann’s?”
George, who was the managing director of one of London’s largest advertising agencies, nodded.
“All going well?”
“Couldn’t be better.”
“Can I give you lift?”
“No. I’ll walk, thanks. See you next weekend.”
“We’re in Paris next weekend. Maybe the weekend after.”
Bill walked over to his BMW and drove off. George waved as he past, then followed, on foot up the high street. At last the quay was truly empty, the waves rolling in, hard and choppy in the dying light of day.