MOUSEHOLE, KATIE AND ART
My mother and I took the early morning train down to Penzance. I sat watching the landscape slipping past us. We began to get glimpses of the sea. I felt the excitement growing in me, I have always loved the sea. My relief at leaving London and Michael behind me was huge and I felt the tensions of the past year slowly evaporating. It seemed that I was embarking on a whole new phase in my life.
Major Kelly, the owner of The Lobster Pot met us in Penzance. He was a pleasant, affable man in his late forties, casually dressed. On the drive to Mousehole he told us he was a retired Army Major. He had been able to buy the hotel with his annuity. His aim was to turn it into a first class hotel which would attract an exclusive clientele, and he was especially interested in good food. This seemed right up my mother’s street.
We drove along the seafront at Penzance, lined with big hotels, then we came to Newlyn, a large fishing port in those days. I loved all the fishing boats in the harbour, with a sprinkling of sailing boats and yachts. There were lobster pots and nets spread across the walls, and a strong smell of fish.
Then we were in Mousehole, going down a steep, narrow hill, twisting roads leading us past the small harbour and we were there. A low white building, with small windows outlined in blue. There were window boxes filled with flowers, and a blue door above which a painted board said: The Lobster Pot Hotel - Proprietor John Kelly. It was enchanting.
The inside was as attractive; salmon pink walls, antique pieces of furniture, highly polished. Major Kelly showed us the dining room, round oak tables, copper candlesticks, more polished copper on the walls. Large sliding doors opened out onto a verandah with a blue and white striped awning and a view over the harbour. There were flowers everywhere. He was clearly very proud of it all.
We met Mrs Kelly and Henry, a black spaniel. She was a very pretty woman with blonde bobbed hair and was called Cinders. She showed us our rooms, my mother was going to be in the hotel just above the kitchen, and I was to sleep in one of the nearby cottages. I loved my little room, it was small, with a bed, one easy chair, chest of drawers and built in cupboard. There was a table and chair by the window which looked out onto a narrow lane. It felt very cosy.
It all started off well enough, but soon my mother started complaining to me about the Major.
“He’s too interfering” she said, “after all, I know what I’m doing after all these years.” My mother had always been given a free hand in all the schools she had worked in, but she and Major Kelly did not see eye to eye. She had her own ideas and he had his. I looked on with some anxiety. They had many arguments. My mother finally gave in her notice, as she did not feel she could work with him. I was dismayed, I had settled in and I loved the place. We decided that I would stay on and my mother would look for another job; she soon found one, cooking in a nursing home further along the coast.
I was on my own and I began to enjoy my freedom and the feeling of independence it gave me. This was when I got to know Katie.
I had been fascinated by Katie from afar. She was tall and glamorous, with flame red hair. Outgoing and extrovert, she always seemed to see the funny side of life. She swirled around in long black skirts - it was the time of the New Look and longer skirts - wore dangling earrings and long beads. She was in charge of the dining room, the drinks and the waitresses. She had great warmth and a quick wit, and the most tremendous energy. She would be on her knees scrubbing the floor one minute, and the next she would be serving the drinks in the dining room.
Once my mother had gone, she took me under her wing. Perhaps she thought I would be lonely. She invited me to her bedroom, where we would have a cup of tea and she chatted about her life. She was the sister of Kenneth More, the film actor, she told me. She talked a lot about her daughter, Juliet, whom she adored. Before she was born she saw God coming towards her carrying her baby in his arms. I laughed.
“Was he an old man with a long beard?”
She rebuked me. “I’m perfectly serious.”
She often talked about Jesus and the Man upstairs, as she called him. She felt she was looked after and wanted me to believe too, but I had no kind of religious faith in those days, and was simply amused by her.
She asked me questions about myself and I told her all about Michael. It was a relief to be able to tell someone, as I never talked to my mother about him. A few days later she showed me an advert in one of the daily papers. It said: “Daphne, where are you?” and it was signed Michael.
“Do you think its him?”
I pooh-poohed the idea. I didn’t want to know. Most definitely not.
“You are not a mouse,” she said to me once.
I often remember those words. She saw beyond my reticence and shyness to the person I really was. We were very different people, yet there was always a deep bond and understanding between us. She would play a very important part in my life from then on.
I loved Mousehole. It was still a fishing village then, with real fishermen propping up the walls of the pub and leaning against the harbour rails, looking out to sea. I loved the narrow winding streets, the small harbour with its bobbing boats. On my days off I would take the bus to Porthminster beach, with a picnic lunch and a book. Porthminster had a long sandy beach, with at one end the Minack Theatre, where performances of Shakespeare were put on in the open air.
I remember that year as a succession of long sunny days. I began to feel relaxed and happy.
Quite why I started making little sketches in my room in my free time I do not know. I had bought myself a small sketchbook and some watercolour paints. I had never done anything like it before, although I had enjoyed copying paintings. There was something about Mousehole which inspired me, and I wanted to get it down on paper. I showed them to Katie and she liked them.
“They’re very funny. Let’s do a book together. I’ll write the words and you can do the drawings.”
So we started our book. I drew Katie in London, dreaming of far away places. I drew her in Mousehole with the admiring fishermen. I drew the little bus going through the narrow streets of Newlyn. I drew the maids, Sylvia, Gwen and Nita, the cook and mad Mattie in the kitchen, Mrs. Kneebone and Doreen who did the cleaning. I drew Major Kelly and Cinders, welcoming their guests at the door with Henry, and Major Kelly playing Hamlet, and Cinders doing splendid things with flowers. I drew squiggly little drawings in black ink and coloured them with watercolours. I could not really draw, but somehow I was able to capture the quirkiness and the magic of that little village. I have never done anything like it again. *
The summer passed quickly and I was very happy. I was tucked away in a small office in the courtyard and I enjoyed the work. I found Major Kelly a pleasant and kind employer. His wife seemed more distant, but I had very little to do with her. The Cornish people were all very friendly to me, and I felt accepted by them. Kate, I found, had her dark days when she would not talk and the maids told each other she was “in one of her moods.” I was to find out much more about these later on.
I must have seen my mother from time to time and I kept in touch with her by writing.
It was time to think of the future and I decided to try and find a similar job in London. I wrote to several London hotels asking for work as a receptionist. I always got the same reply: they only employed men in that position. Someone made the suggestion of an air hostess. In those days it seemed like a glamorous job, plenty of travel and, of course, languages would be useful. I had not much of an idea what an air hostess did, but I sent off an application. I was called for an interview. I had to face an intimidating row of three men and a woman.
“What is a pink gin?” I was asked. I had no idea.
“How would you deal with a drunken passenger?” Again, I did not have a clue.
This was clearly not a job for me. I was politely dismissed.
The summer came to an end. My mother and I prepared to return to London. I promised to keep in touch with Katie, and I said farewell to my Cornish friends. I have kept a warm place in my heart for Mousehole ever since.
* We tried repeatedly over the years to get our little book published, and finally, by one of those quirks of fate, it was published in 2008 under the title “A Small Hotel in Cornwall – The Lobster Pot”. It was published by Diana Ayres of Trungle Books, Cornwall.