On the blue wooden door there’s a sign. Its words are written in black marker pen. ‘Sadly Cat Rescue has once again been targeted by a thief who manhandled the padlocked moneybox off the front door. He was about to depart with it until a neighbour managed to photo him before he ran off, without the box.’ It is a story in forty-or-so words, a tale of cruelty or desperation. The testimony is signed ‘Dora and Belle’, a human and an animal whose names together sound like a cutesy fashion label or 1970s Eurovision entrants.
For the week we are in Padstow, we don’t see Dora or Belle, just the latter’s empty window throne. Every day by the doorstep in front of her house, Dora sets-up a mini-shop. It reminds me of childhood and little girls with their street stalls. She carefully places disused ornaments in a small crate, stacks teddies and dolls in a wooden box and lines a small old drawer with thick novels by Maeve Binchy and Lee Child. Prices are set out on pieces of cardboard, no item costing north of 50p, and customers expected to choose their goods and place their coins in the moneybox. Until the thief struck, that is. Dora’s shop, despite the theft, lives on, defiant, monies now to be placed, the sign notes, through the letterbox. It probably gives Dora pleasure and worth, her life valid as all others – rich, poor…even desperate.
Ten footsteps from the former Alms House in which Dora and Belle mind their own, one celebrity chef has a café and a souvenir shop, while another has a restaurant selling pork, lettuce and eel for £29. Cornwall masks poverty and sadness well. Every day here we walk heavenly streets that all seem to lead to the same figure: a handsome young homeless lad who carries a board asking for ‘any type of work.’
We are on holiday, though. If nothing else, holiday is about shutting the world out. My daughter gives “Cat Girl” a holiday quid through the letterbox, and I suddenly feel better. Each day we walk tight and dandy streets of hanging baskets and ivy, chase living things across a meadow and warm the freezing sea. I become generally bewitched with an England I’ve only previously seen on ITV dramas. We hang about the harbour listening to tinkling boat bells and watching kids from Leeds and Leicester fish for crabs. “I can’t get any today, Grandpa” says one lad. “One day you’re the statue, the next you’re the seagull” says his Grandpa. The boy looks pityingly on this seemingly mad old man he loves and says “can I have chips now?”
The best in town are from Chip Ahoy. It has a rhythmic list of former owners on the wall, like a Rotary Club roll call of Chairmen: Ida Bat, Horace Jones, Peggy and Fred Norfolk, Stan and Cherry Withbread. We meet an old sailor on his way back from the more expensive chippy. He tells us of the boats he crewed, and lights up recalling some now berthed in Scotland. He has only a children’s portion of fish and chips: “I got there and it’s all I could bloody afford.”
One night, I sneak off to the pub nearest our cottage, a faintly glorious old boozer in which a swift pint is impossible. An Australian couple talk with a pair of locals. When the Ozzies leave, a pub regular joins the Padstonians. “Apparently they’re all like that down there,” he says. “Friendly, talk to anyone in a pub. Not like us miserable bastards.” At the bar, the natter concerns an agricultural show starting the next day. The bargirl will only go if she gets free tickets from “that bloke who stays every year…you know, the tall one with the hat.”
That next day comes. We visit a more functional town nearby. A lady falls from her mobility scooter and into the road. Six different people rush to help, each slightly less charitable when a half-done bottle of vodka rolls from underneath her jacket. The bus back to Padstow hits a traffic jam outside the agricultural show and I pass the time looking for a tall man in a hat. A teenage girl, her Mum and Granddad begin chatting to us, and a boy from the girl’s school joins in. They’ve never spoken before, but her Mum announces: “I’ve just worked out you pair are cousins.”
The Granddad needs help to get off the bus, and I fumble to some kind of assistance. His upper-half is ox-strong and the arms I grab are hard as lampposts and wide as beer kegs. “Two years” he croaks into my ear as we ease him down into his wheelchair, “two bloody years to turn to this. I was fit as a bloody flea. Now look at me.” I do, and I see eyes filled with stories to be jealous of.