No-one remembered how or when Christine came to St. Ives. So many people arrived daily on the Cornish Riviera Express from Paddington, or by car or by coach. Some stayed for fifteen days or fifteen months, others for a lifetime.
It was rumoured that she had been educated abroad, in Switzerland and France, and that she had been expelled from an exclusive Swiss finishing school before studying for a term at a French university. Her English was perfect, but people knew that she was really a foreigner, and that she wanted to paint.
Perhaps that was why she had come to Cornwall. In St. Ives during the late fifties, nearly everybody except the tourists and the fishermen seemed to be an artist of some kind or other. Christine must have been impressed after neat, clean Switzerland. The long, unkempt hair, ragged trousers, bare feet - were they beatniks, bums or artists, or a mixture of all three? So she went to the Loft School of Art, and started throwing paint at large expanses of cheap hardboard, primed with Wallpamur; spreading out the pure, bright colours over the whiteness with stiff bristle brushes, and blending them together with a flexible steel spatula.
There were about fifteen students at the Loft, all full of youthful illusions and aspiring to become one of the great.
The great actually took notice of them from time to time. Of course they were not really great, but just a step above mediocrity, and they exuded that magic aura produced by eccentricity and alcohol.
Christine's friend and fellow student, Ellen, remembered how one Sunday morning they had taken a stroll along Porthmeor, the long, white-sanded Atlantic beach to the north of the village. The wind blew fresh in their faces, and the surf spray dampened their hair. The beach was deserted at that hour, but about fifty yards further west, Ellen sighted a small dark mound, which, as they drew closer, appeared to be a bundle of old black clothes, half-buried in the sand. Christine poked the mound with her foot: it stirred a little and gave a grunt. It was not an inert mass, but one of the very greatest, sleeping off his hangover. She jabbed him again with her boot - how disrespectful, thought Ellen - and a deep croak rose from the mound. "I have reached the bottom of the well," it said.
But had he? thought Ellen. How far did one have to fall before reaching the very bottom of the pit? Christine just laughed.
"Come on, Ellen. He'll be okay in a couple of hours. Haven't you ever had a hangover?"
Ellen hadn't, but she knew that there was some truth in the rumours about Christine's expulsion from finishing school. Apparently she had taken a liking to Kirsch Vaudoise and foul, black Gauloises, while studying Goethe's Urfaust and Antigone by Jean Anhouil.
At the Loft the classes continued. Twice a week, there was a male model who disrobed on a wooden dais, and posed, poised in a lithe stance of dark-skinned, masculine beauty, his male attribute sad and slack from the cold, despite the fire of female eyes and frenetic fingers fumbling with long thin sticks of charcoal.
"That thigh-line is not right," said the maestro, peering over Christine's shoulder. Ellen glanced at the friend, and realized that the girl was absorbed in contemplation of the naked figure on the dais. Yes, Ellen thought, to Christine he must seem perfect. Those dark Jewish eyes were fathomless pools of romantic tragedy. The straight nose, not over-long, the full, sensual lips and the almost black, silky hair and beard completed the Christlike picture before their inexperienced eyes. Ellen could sense that Christine wanted him, not as a cold statue on a plinth, but as a warm-blooded body to touch and explore. Ellen was twenty-three, seven years older than Christine, and she became aware of her friend's ardent desire to possess and be possessed. The first move was about to take place.
It was past seven-thirty in the evening, and Max kept glancing at the electric clock on the wall behind him. Still half an hour to go before he could close the James Gordon Art Gallery and take refuge in the Sloop, he thought. Autumn was setting in. Soon it would be October and his job would end until April or May. Luckily there was the dole to look forward to in the winter. Few tourists visited the gallery in the evening, so he was surprised to hear the door swing open and light steps on the parquet floor. He looked up, prepared to give his usual 'welcome' chat, but no, this was no late season tourist looking for that 'so right' seascape for the hall. It was that art student, Christine. He wondered what she wanted. Surely she wasn't going to buy postcards.
"Hell Max," she said. "I've never been in here before. Isn't it ghastly!"
"Yes," he replied. "It is. But I prefer Tretchikoff to dirty dishes. Don't tell me you came here to criticize these works of art. Do you still go to the Loft?"
"No, I didn't, and yes, I do. I came to see you, Max. It's odd to see you with clothes on."
"Disappointed? It's usually the other way round."
"Oh no. I think I almost prefer you dressed. It makes things more interesting. I can imagine that I don't know what you're like underneath. Where do you come from, Max? I know you're not English."
"No, I'm not. I'm South African, from a place called Strand, near Capetown, but my parents were born in Tiflis."
"My mother was born in Russia," said Christine. "In Moscow, and Sergei is from St. Petersburg, now Leningrad."
"He's not your father, is he?" stated Max, for it was not really a question.
"Of course not, but he's known me since I was a baby. My parents are divorced. My father lives in France with his second wife. I hardly ever see him"
"My parents are still in Cape Province. South Africa is a beautiful country, but I don't think I'll ever go back," said Max, thinking of Connie lying beside him, golden brown, on the beach at Strand.
"Aren't you going to close now?" asked Christine. "We could go and have a drink together if you like."
"You're under age, aren't you? Surely you don't want to drink lemonade in the Sloop?"
"No, not really. You're right. I won't even be seventeen until February."
"We could go back to my place if you want, and drink green chartreuse. I'll play my guitar." Max was beginning to feel amused and slightly intrigued by the girl, despite the fact that she was little more than a child. Max at twenty-two, considered himself as being adult and experienced, especially after Connie.
At eight-o'-clock they turned off the fluorescent lights and Max locked the main door. They made their way slowly along the wharf towards the Island, which was really just a rocky hillock attached to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and crowned with a small granite fishermen's chapel, now disused, but once dedicated to Saint Nicholas. As they passed the Sloop, Max asked Christine where her mother was.
"Don't worry. She won't miss me. She's gone to a party at the Western Hotel with Sergei. They won't be back for hours."
The Old Smokehouse was only a five-minute walk from the Sloop. Max carefully unlocked the new padlock on the garage-like doors. The first thing Christine saw was the bulk of the old Lagonda. Daylight was fading and Max lit a paraffin lamp. There was no electricity in the Smokehouse. Christine noticed that the Lagonda had been freshly painted in bright yellow. "Does it work?" she asked doubtfully. Max laughed.
"It will one day," he said. "How do you like the colour? And just look at the leather upholstery! Real luxury, my dear. Where do you prefer to sit? In the car or on the mattress? I need the chair if you want me to play the guitar"
Christine sat on the mattress and waited for Max to pour out a glass of green chartreuse. She didn't appear to enjoy the liqueur, Max noticed; too sweet and sticky, no doubt, but there was no choice.
He produced a somewhat battered guitar from the dark regions beyond the pool of light cast by the Aladdin lamp, and sat down on the rickety chair, his left foot raised on a brick. He stared to pick out a few soft notes while tuning the strings, and then he burst out into the Rock Candy Mountain, followed by the rest of his small repertoire of folk songs. His voice was pleasant and he sang in tune. Christine would soon be feeling warm and sleepy with the music and the chartreuse, he thought, but he was wrong.
"Is that a chess set over there?" she asked, pointing into the gloom. "Do you like playing chess? I do. Sergei taught me."
"Don't tell me you want to play chess now?"
"Why not? Just one game. We can put the board between us on the mattress."
So Max went for the chess box and they set up the game, trying to sit still so as not to move the pieces accidentally. Before they had finished placing them on their respective squares, three pawns fell off the board.
"This is no good," said Christine. "We'd better put the board on the floor."
They played in silence for over an hour, and to begin with she appeared to be winning. But her end game was weak and tailed off into a stalemate.
"Well, I'd better be going home," she said. "If you like, we can have another game tomorrow."
She started to get up from the mattress, and suddenly Max put his arm round her shoulders and forced her down.
"What do you want, little girl? Do you expect me to make love to you? You're much too young for that, and I don't like deflowering virgins."
"Yes," she answered, "but not yet. First you must beat me at chess. The best of five games. That way I'll have time to decide."
Max could not help laughing as he kissed her lightly on the forehead. "You are a strange little girl," he said, and wondered whether she were serious. The idea was crazy - or was it?
So one late October afternoon, after losing three-two to Max at chess, Christine lost her virginity. Max watched her lying so calm and still beside him on the dirty mattress. Was she in love with him? He thought she must be, but it was hard to be sure. She was still only sixteen and he did not want to hurt her, but he realized that she had forced him to sleep with her. However sweet and attractive she might be, he did not love her. He wasn't even certain that he liked her, or that she liked him. Her attitude was more one of curiosity and desire than love or affection. Somehow he felt that she had used him to deflower her, and that sooner or later she would discard him like an unwanted toy.
No-one ever saw them together. They never had any relationship beyond those secret afternoons in the Smokehouse.
"Play something on the guitar," she would order, while she undressed, not in a normal, feminine way, but in layers, and so quickly that before he could finish the Rock Candy Mountain, she was already under the two worn grey blankets, her blue jeans, shirt and two or more pullovers in a heap on the floor. He had never seen her in a skirt, he thought, and her face was completely bare of make-up, framed by boyishly cropped fair hair. But her narrow, almost lidless blue eyes gazed up at him with a rare expression of tenderness at times, when the almost animal desire had passed, and for a moment at least, he felt that she really loved him.
Max could not remember when he had started visiting Edith in her caravan, except that winter had set in with that damp Cornish drizzle, which seemed to penetrate his bones. The caravan was not far from Porthmeor Beach, but Max had at last got the Lagonda into working order, so he would drive up to the Ayr Caravan Site and spend most of the afternoon with Edith. She didn't play chess, but had a wireless set and a few quite recent magazines and newspapers. Max had scarcely read anything since he left South Africa. Edith was not pretty, just plain and rather ordinary; she was not even very intelligent. While Max thumbed through the magazines, she listened to the Light Programme and knitted an interminable fairisle pullover, her lips moving silently as she counted the stitches. She was older than Max, just thirty, the same age as Connie, he thought, but that was where the likeness ended.
Somehow their relationship progressed from coffee and knitting to food at midday and finally, bed. Some days Max did not even bother to return to the Smokehouse in the evening, but twice a week he went back to wait for Christine, who had spaced her visits. She no longer came to him daily because Alya was becoming suspicious, and Sergei more so. Max wondered whether Christine knew about Edith. She must have seen the yellow Lagonda rattling down the Stennack from the Ayr Caravan Site. Max had grown fond of Christine, but she was too young; his 'little girl' couldn't even cook. In fact she admitted that she loathed the very sight of the kitchen and never even tried to fry an egg. Edith, on the contrary, loved cooking. She could make all those typical English dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, steak and kidney pie and apple crumble. She could knit, darn and sew. Christine could only paint and play Cornish skittles or a fair game of chess.
Then one winter morning, Edith told him she was pregnant. Max looked at her aghast. "But I thought you were taking precautions. Are you sure it's not just a false alarm?"
He repeated all the trite phrases that men have used before and since. And Edith assured him that she had visited the doctor: the analysis had been positive, and she had been sick every morning for the past week.
So Max repeated what most men in the same circumstances have been saying since time began: "Can't you get rid of it? Take a stilboestrol pill or whatever it's called? Drink a bottle of gin?"
"No," said Edith flatly. "I'm not going to have an abortion. If you don't want to share the responsibility, I'll manage on my own. I'm not Christine's age, Max. I'm nearly thirty-one and I want to have a baby before it's too late."
Max felt a little guilty. He liked Edith. She was really so out of place there in the caravan, knitting and cooking while listening to the Light Programme. She should have stayed at home in the midlands, and married the local bank manager or solicitor, and lived in a well-furnished semi-detached in the best residential area of her home town. And yet she had rebelled against her dreary background, and had escaped to St. Ives, where she had worked all summer as a waitress in a café on the sea-front. She never mentioned her family, her home, or what she had done before reaching the age of thirty.
"Let me think it over for a day or two, Edith," said Max at last. "But I'll have to tell Christine. She is so young, and I don't want to hurt her."
"Hurt Christine?" Edith laughed. "Don't you realize that she's just using you to satisfy her ego? No, you won't really hurt anything more than her pride. She'll soon find someone else to play chess with."
Edith appeared to have been right about Christine's reaction. Max told her about the baby and all she said was:
"So that's it. I suppose you'll marry her and settle down to being a humdrum, hard-working husband. But it was fun while it lasted, Max, and you'll never really understand how much you meant to me." Her eyes moistened with incipient tears. "Max, please play the guitar for me just once more."
He sat down on the bentwood chair, his foot raised on the brick, and started to play the Rock Candy Mountain, singing softly as his brown fingers stroked the strings of the old guitar. When he came to the last chords of the song, he realized that Christine was no longer there.
Copyright 1994 F. Melville