James Barrington bade farewell to his friends in the small Devonshire village of Strete, folded back the hood of his MGB and settled himself comfortably for the long journey back to Oxford. Driving along the coastal cliff road, he glanced as often as he could at the placid shimmering sea stretching out to the misty horizon and smiled with pleasure as the golden crescent-shaped beach at Blackpool Sands appeared below him through the trees. Three years ago he'd lived in this part of Devon when he'd been articled to a firm of lawyers in Dartmouth and, as he drove the familiar route with its breathtaking views, his mind fled back across those years.
He turned inland from Dartmouth heading towards Totnes but, at the junction by the Sportsman's Arms, decided to cut across country. How often he'd driven these lanes in his old battered Citroen Dyane, looking forward to those summer evenings when he could relax and sail his Mirror dinghy on the creek. Even as he thought of it, the signpost caught his eye: 'Abbot's Mill Creek 2 Miles. No Through Road.' On an impulse he swung the steering wheel and headed down the narrow track. Here, in this deep secret lane, the bluebells grew thickly and the May sunshine was warm on his head.
He rounded a bend, caught his breath and abruptly braked, switching off the engine. Cut deep in beneath the sloping rounded fields, the creek spread out below him; its waters smooth and dark, the trees crowding at its banks, their boughs just tipping the surface. Small boats rode at anchor and the sound of hammering, from the boatyard which was hidden from sight by a bend in the river, echoed up the valley. James sat quite still. The mill, at the head of the creek, was not visible but he could see it quite clearly in his mind's eye; the mellow stone walls, the water wheel, Hattie pottering out to feed the ducks, the two little cottages crouching under their golden thatch close at hand. How happy he'd been there. Why had he left it so long before returning? Supposing they'd all gone: Hattie, Joss, the Admiral, Miggy . . .
His heart gave a little twinge of remembered joy and longing, and he thought of Daisy, waiting patiently on the hard in her old shorts and sandshoes, her copper curls bright in the sun, her twelve-year-old face lighting up when she saw him. Her voice came clearly down the years.
'Oh, James! You're late again! We'll miss the tide if you don't hurry.'
'Can't help it. Messrs Whinge, Whinge, Bellyache and Moan have kept me at it all day long.'
'Shoulder to the wheel?' Her small face was alight at their silly joke.
'Nose to the grindstone!'
And Miggy, waving to them from the lawn as they sailed past - Miggy. James swallowed some strange obstruction that seemed to have lodged in his throat, started up the engine and followed the winding lane down to the head of the creek.