Step one, book a cottage. Step two, remember teenage years. Step three, meet Mimi…
I knew I should have bought a new swimsuit. Even my daughter, Lily, shook her head in disgust at this limp black excuse of a swimming costume, with its baggy and bobbled bottom, as I put it in my case for my one-woman-trip to Cornwall.
‘That’s tragic, Mum,’ she said, sitting on my bed and scoffing at pretty much the entire contents of my holiday wardrobe.
‘I know,’ I shrugged, screwing it up and chucking it next to my second-best fleece. ‘But who’s going to care? It probably won’t be hot enough for swimming anyway.’
I was right about nobody caring, but wrong about the weather. Ever since I arrived in Cornwall, the sun, a stranger all summer, has finally made a show-stopping appearance. Today is blisteringly hot and the sun is beating down on me and my hideous black swimming costume, that I’m trying to yank further down my thighs.
I’m standing on a rock, overlooking a tiny cove I read about in a pamphlet left at Spring Cottage, which I’m renting for a week. The cottage is half a mile from here, pretty, with a wildflower garden, and it’s three doors up from a picturesque pub, which of course I haven’t been to. I’m hiding here, licking my wounds. Trying to get over thirty-five years of Harry.
The rock is big and flat and the water below me is bright blue and sparkling in the sun. My Vogue towel – that I’ve had since my teens – is laid out on another smooth rock behind me. Harry – my soon-to-be-ex-husband, who asked for a divorce three months ago – hated it. He said it was threadbare and didn’t suit a middle-aged woman with the fashion sense of a flea. But I’d collected Vogues, as a teenager. I had a dream about working there, once upon a time. Instead, I’ve worked most of my life for Haringey Council, Planning Department. That’s how far from Vogue I am.
Damn, I’m not alone. I haven’t seen a soul in the three days I’ve been in Cornwall, until now. I’ve been to one secluded stretch of beach, or I’ve sat in the cottage garden and read; in the evenings I haven’t stayed up beyond nine thirty.
‘Are you taking the plunge?’
The sun is in my eyes, so I raise a hand to shade them. I can make out a woman clambering up the bank to the rocks. She’s wearing a bright orange swimming costume, yellow Crocs and a pair of pink swimming goggles stretched tight on top of wet hair. She has a mischievous face, which looks like it could break into laughter at any minute, and she’s about the same age as me.
‘No, I expect not,’ I say, backing off from the edge.
‘Why not?’ she asks. She’s on the rock behind me now. She has one Croc on the corner of Vogue, a striped towel over her arm.
‘I’m not brave enough,’ I say.
‘Well, you must want to,’ she says, hand on hip, ‘or you wouldn’t be standing there. Don’t you take leaps in life?’ she asks.
‘Not anymore,’ I reply, surprised by the question, but I find myself adding, ‘but when I was a teenager, I did this sort of thing all the time – jumping off rocks.’ I did. I was quite the daredevil. Leaping off rocks, whooping into clear cool water below. I met Harry on a rock by a lake in Norfolk, one summer, on holiday, when I was eighteen. He and I jumped off that rock several times together and, in the evening, we went to the pub and drank cider and shared a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. And then, one day, a few years later, we got married. And on a later day, it turned out Harry hates all sorts of things about me but loves plenty in another woman, his twenty-something PA – predictably enough.
‘Then you need to bring that teenager back,’ says the woman. ‘Stand clear!’ She drops her towel, slips off her Crocs and as I step back, startled, she charges for the rock edge, leaps high in the air and jumps clean into the water. There’s a huge splashing sound; I step forward and gingerly lean over the edge but there’s no sign of her, just ripples shimmering in the sun. Then her head pops up and she’s laughing, pushing her hair back from her face. ‘Come on in, the water’s lovely!’ she shouts up.
‘No, you’re alright,’ I shout down.
She swims swiftly to the side of the cove and clambers up the bank, dripping everywhere and grinning her head off.
‘Are you busy tonight?’ she asks, grabbing her towel and briskly rubbing herself down with it.
‘Doing anything?’ She rubs the towel vigorously on the top of her head.
‘Well, no, I was going to make myself some egg and chips and then have…’
‘Come to the pub,’ she says crisply, then glances at the neon green Fitbit on her left wrist. ‘The Hope Inn. Beer garden, eight o’clock. I’ve got to dash,’ she says, trotting off down the bank. ‘Pilates.’
‘Ok,’ I mumble, mostly out of bewilderment, but she has already disappeared, the stripy towel over her shoulders, like a superhero.
The beer garden of the pub is busy. I almost didn’t come, and I still might turn around and go back to the cottage, but she’s spotted me, the woman from the rock, and is waving to me enthusiastically from a bar at the bottom of the garden. She’s wearing a long emerald green kaftan and what looks like a whole lot of confidence; I’ve cobbled together an outfit of jeans, flat sandals and a broderie anglaise blouse, my make-up applied with an extra layer of fear.
‘There you are,’ she says, as I approach with caution. ‘What are you having? I’ve got a bottle of Prosecco here.’
‘That would be lovely,’ I say, feeling like an alien.
She grabs a fresh glass from the bar. ‘I’m Mimi,’ she says, pouring Prosecco into it, ‘what’s your name?’
‘Gillian,’ I say.
‘Very pleased to meet you. Why are you here on your own?’
I’m a little shocked, but, somehow, the words just fall out of me. ‘My husband ran off with his PA. I’ve come to get over it.’
She nods. ‘My brute of an ex-husband ran off with someone half his age. I sat in my house for three whole years feeling sorry for myself, then I decided to get out there. Forced myself to, actually. To take that leap.’ She grins, showing perfectly white teeth.
‘I wish I could do that,’ I say, ‘but it seems I’ve forgotten how.’
‘You have to be brave,’ she says, looking at me intently. ‘You have to fake it until you make it.’
‘Fake it?’ I sip at my Prosecco.
‘Yeah. I pretended I had confidence even though I didn’t. Walked the walk until I could walk it for real, you know?’
‘I don’t think I could do that,’ I reply. Who is this woman, I think? How have we jumped into this conversation, straight off the bat?
‘It’s easy,’ she says. ‘You just look out to the horizon, see the bigger picture, and you go for it. Get back to the person you used to be. Drink up, let’s get mingling.’
The sun goes down behind the bar, but it’s still warm. Some music sparks up. And as dusk envelops the beer garden, I follow Mimi around as she chats easily to people and introduces me to strangers. Her face is animated, she is having a great time. At first, I pretend I’m having a good time, too, putting myself out there – all those years with Harry, I let him do the talking – but after a while, I find I actually am.
‘Oh, and this is Tom, He’s from London, too. And single,’ Mimi winks, as a man walks past us holding a pint. Tom, who has a nice face, gives us a merry salute and returns to a group of people over by a makeshift stage. ‘Karaoke’s starting up in a mo,’ Mimi adds. ‘Get ready.’
‘Oh no, I don’t think so,’ I say. ‘I…’
Approximately twenty minutes later, Mimi is levering me onto the stage and two minutes after that, I’m attempting to sing ‘I Will Survive’, with Mimi an emerald apparition beside me. I am hesitant at first, my voice faltering and too quiet, but I look out to the crowd, friendly and cheering, and channelling Mimi’s words about faking it until you make it, I decide to give it my all. I grip the mike and let loose…
The sun is even fiercer today and glittering off the water below. I’m on The Rock again. I’m wearing a new swimming costume I bought this morning in a little village boutique. It’s bright turquoise and sleek and flattering; Lily would be very surprised. I look down at my toes, the nails freshly painted bright coral, like I did them when I was a teenager, and I hear a rustle from the grassy bank to my right. It’s that friendly-looking man from last night – Tom, from London. He’s sitting cross-legged on the grass and appears to be sketching some wildflowers in a notebook. He glances up and catches my eye.
‘Hi!’ he calls over.
‘Hi.’ I could feel self-conscious in my fashionable new swimming costume, but I decide I’m not going to be.
‘We met last night in the pub. I enjoyed the karaoke,’ he says, a surprising twinkle in his eye.
I laugh. ‘Oh dear, it was terrible, wasn’t it?’
‘I thought you were fantastic. Great fun.’ His smile is warm, and I feel a blush rise to my already hot cheeks.
‘Faking it till I was making it,’ I mutter to myself, shaking my head, but I am smiling, too. I haven’t been ‘great fun’ for a long time. ‘Have you seen Mimi today?’ I ask him. The sun in my eyes, I look down the bank, but there’s no sign of her.
‘Mimi? No, I think she’s gone. Someone told me she’s only here for a few days each summer. Quite the enigma,’ he shrugs.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Do you think you’ll go to the pub again? I’ll be there tonight.’
‘I might do,’ I say.
‘Great.’ His smile broadens. ‘So, are you going to jump?’
I look down at the water, a sapphire mirror glistening in the sun. I look up into the blue of the horizon where a lone bird soars and then is gone, out to the big beyond.
‘Yes,’ I say to Tom. He has lovely eyes, I think. ‘Yes, I am.’
And I take a deep breath, and I leap.