Cowboy Williams Dances

We called him Cowboy because of his hat, which was broad-brimmed and, apart from the stains and its chewed-up edges, just like the one Clint Eastwood wore as the Man With No Name.

He had lived in our village – or rather, in a cave on the beach – for as long as I could remember. When, as children, we built our sandcastles against the incoming tide, poked our fingers into rock pools to feel the lightly-suckered touch of sea anemones or raced, screaming and leaping, into the lacing surf we always knew he would be nearby. Watching from the rocks outside his cave, leaning over the harbour wall or lurching along the foreshore, gathering driftwood for his fire.

To look up in our tiny bay and not see Cowboy Williams would have been like a Londoner looking downWhitehalland not seeing Big Ben.

He was crazy, of course. Now we would use a more socially acceptable but, paradoxically, more frightening term. In those days we just knew that he was crazy.   Especially at full moon.

Then, at low water, with the tide so far that our bay was a shining expanse of wrinkled sand and shallow, glinting pools, we would see Cowboy Williams in his turned-down sea-boots gliding in the pale light across the empty space. Dancing.

Sometimes he waltzed, arms held to the waist and shoulders of an imaginary partner, moving smoothly across the sand to the rhythm of the palm court orchestra inside his head. Sometimes, hands held high above his head and clicking invisible castanets, he danced a haughty, sinuous tango, his bulky body, wadded in torn and dirty sweaters, the trousers tied with lengths of fraying string, appearing to those of us who watched as elegant and filled with repressed fire as any compadre‘s. Sometimes he would gallop in dizzying circles, under and over the arms of unseen fellow dancers, stamping out spouts of water that rose into the air to fall back in shards of light and ending in a  whirling frenzy that laid him out like a beached porpoise on the gleaming sands.

No-one, in my memory, ever fetched him in on those occasions but he must eventually have staggered back to his cave, although there were mornings when he was found in the angle between the quay and the harbour wall, sound asleep amongst the stinking seaweed, the tar-stained driftwood, the broken plastic and the rusty cans that had been brought in on the tide.

We were none of us afraid of Cowboy, whose bizarre behaviour and unsavoury appearance sometimes dismayed visitors but in those days we didn’t concern ourselves about such things. He existed and was part of our community and that was all that mattered.

In any case, most of us were at least a little crazy ourselves – or so the tourists said.

Cowboy had a self-created job in the village, feeding the stray cats, whose population had reached, by the mid Eighties, almost forty, which, in a village of around a hundred inhabitants, was quite a size. No-one knew quite how they had started – a discarded stray, presumably, augmented, perhaps, by an unwanted litter of kittens – but, under Cowboy’s care, mangy, un-neutered toms who might otherwise have died grew into sleek, fit, enthusiastic maters and our cat herd became a wonder to tourists and the villages round about.

At least they meant we were free from rats, the curse of the foreshore, and Cowboy tended them so well that the sight of our plump and glossy tabbies, tortoiseshells, gingers and black and whites stretched out on the sea wall, coats gleaming in the sunshine, was quite an attraction. On the other hand, you could have too much of a good thing, and Mr Treloar, the publican, who generally took the lead in village affairs, had long since taken it on himself to capture any young males and take them to the vet for what he called ‘the two bricks treatment.’

As a little girl I loved to watch Cowboy make his way around the village, canvas bag of tins over his shoulder, to be greeted at various feeding stations by his yowling, leg-rubbing friends. He spent all his income, as far as anyone knew, on cat food – and only the best, according to Miss Pearson in the shop where he received some sort of weekly pension at the post-office counter, returning it to her day by day in exchange for tins. My friend Eric used to say Cowboy ate cat food himself but we didn’t believe that, knowing that he regularly presented himself, on a rota basis, at the back doors of the pub, the shop and certain houses where he was given leftovers and, quite often, entire meals.

We had care in the community, at least as far as Cowboy was concerned, long before Mrs Thatcher thought of it. In that way we were ahead of the world. In other ways we were well behind it and the life of the village – although we didn’t notice it at the time – was in a terminal decline.

The five fishing boats that had once gone out from the quay had become four, then three and now there were just two, whose elderly owners fished only as a hobby. When the butcher retired no-one took over his shop and eventually he put up curtains in his front room window and reclaimed it as a lounge. The primary school where my father had once taught closed down so that the handful of village children had to travel five miles to school and the nearest doctor, library and shop of any size were almost twice that distance.

Tourism, of course, would have been the answer for our spectacular little bay whose grass-topped cliffs descended dramatically to a flat beach of golden sand with a narrow channel leading out from the grey stone harbour into a sea that lay, in good weather, green and gleaming before a vast and curving horizon. But there was only one road into the village, down a steeply curving and treacherously narrow hill and with little more than turning space at the bottom so that visitors had to leave their cars at the top and make their way with their bags and children down a steep flight of alarmingly sloping steps – returning the same way, sun-burnt and exhausted, at the end of the day. And, if the weather was poor – and Cornish weather can be very poor indeed – and the rain gusted in great, grey clouds off a black and heaving sea, streams of water, brown with mud, would pour down the hill, through the drain holes in the harbour wall and out in muddy deltas across the sand and the whole village smelt of decaying seaweed.

On such days the few drenched and dismal visitors would huddle in against the houses, struggling to keep out of the wind and avoid the overflow from clogged down-pipes or broken gutters. They would look hopefully for a tea-room or amusement arcade, a church, gallery or museum – even a junk shop or a village hall in which they might shelter – and, finding none, would clamber back up the steps under the dark, low-hanging sky and drive away.

It was no wonder most of my school friends left as soon as they were old enough, for there was hardly any work in the village. Of the children I grew up with only Eric, who could barely read and certainly couldn’t write, and Tamsin and Karenza, the beautiful twins who shared, according to my father, half a brain cell, stayed on. Eric helped his carpenter father, although his skills were limited in this area also, and the girls earned a little money cleaning and rather more in other, unspecified, ways.

And me… I stayed on too, although I had gone off to university with no intention of returning. But then, in the summer after Finals and with no job arranged, I found myself doing exactly that. My excuse – for I felt I needed one – was that my mother had died, leaving my father bewildered and unable to cope and I must come home to look after him – just for a while and until I had decided what to do with my life.

Mr Treloar gave me a temporary job behind the bar at the Admiral’s Arms, allowing me, on account of my first class honours degree in Business and Economics, to help with the book-keeping, and every year for four years I told myself that this season would be my last. I knew there was no future for me here and my father, who was no longer bewildered and coped perfectly well, told me so regularly. It just seemed impossible to tear myself from my past among the three grey lines of cottages between the cliffs and the beach and the sea. Impossible to imagine waking in the mornings without the call of the gulls in the air above me or to fall asleep without the iodine scent of the sea in my nostrils.

And so I was there – in the front row, as it were – for the clash between Cowboy Williams and the Pomfrets.

None of us liked the Pomfrets. Who were the future, although we didn’t know it at the time and who bought a small cottage above the harbour when the owner died. As a ‘holiday home’, they told us.

We knew little about second homes at the time. A couple of villagers, both widows, did bed and breakfast and Mr Treloar owned three cottages which he let out in the season, generally to the same families who came back, year after year, but that was different. They were people we knew.

We didn’t know the Pomfrets who arrived one February afternoon in a Volvo crammed with bags of groceries from Waitrose – which was not a supermarket we knew either – blocking the harbour-front and the entrance to the quay. After that they came down one weekend a month and in between times the cottage stood empty.

Mr Pomfret – his first name was Mason – was a graphic designer – ‘whatever’, as Eric said, ‘that might be.’ He had a disturbing tendency to dress in mustard yellow and talked of trendy magazines in which his work might be seen, although not by anyone in our village, where Miss Pearson stocked nothing more cutting-edge than My Weekly.

Mrs Pomfret, an interior designer with a loud voice and even louder laugh, was called Midge and wore long denim skirts, blue and white Breton sweaters and flat shoes which fastened with a strap. At the beginning of March, she sent down what she called a ‘team’ from a firm in Balham, who lived in caravans on the cliff-top and came down every day to tear down interior walls and strip the paint from the woodwork, the varnish from the floors and the old lighting fitments from everywhere.

Eric had fun scavenging rejected doors and cupboards from the pile in the back yard that they must have noticed never getting any higher but everyone else, resentful that the work hadn’t been given to his dad, ignored them.

By Easter the work was finished and the Pomfrets arrived with their two children – a sixteen year old called Ben, who wore an ancient overcoat, black lipstick and mascara and sat on the harbour wall with his guitar, singing songs about necrophilia, and a fourteen year old called Bekki, with long red hair and pert bosoms which she thrust like twin machine guns in the direction of any male under fifty. There weren’t many of these in the village but those few were duly terrified.

From the start Midge hated Cowboy, one of whose feeding-stations was in the narrow alley next to their cottage.

“ He pees in there, I’m sure he does!” she brayed at me one morning. “ The stench is appalling!”

There was an onshore breeze and all I could smell was the usual mix of salt and seaweed with a whiff of diesel from one of the boats and anyone who lived on the waterfront had to expect that. And I was quite sure Cowboy didn’t do his business in the alley. One facility we did have in the village was a public convenience and he had always used it as his personal bathroom.

The cat-bowls, however, were undeniable – six of them lined up along the wall. All empty because the breakfast feed was over but by five o’clock there would be a queue of cats waiting impatiently for their tea. I watched as Midge, in pink rubber gloves,  flung the bowls, one by one, over the harbour wall – repeating the action every time Cowboy retrieved them.

After a couple of days he gave in and moved them to the next alleyway, between the Admiral’s Arms and the old butcher’s shop, but the cats continued to wait outside the Pomfrets’ cottage until Cowboy appeared, when they would follow him in a yowling procession up the road.

Midge complained bitterly to anyone who would listen but hardly anyone did and certainly no-one took her seriously.

Mason Pomfret was more concerned about Cowboy’s cave. Which must constitute, he said, a health hazard. It would be filthy in there, he insisted in the bar of the Admiral’s Arms, fingering the glass of white wine that Mr Treloar had reluctantly allowed me to pour. ( It had meant opening a new bottle and, as no other customers drank white wine, he could see the rest of it being wasted.)

“ I shall get on to Environmental Health,” he announced. “ They’ll soon have him out.”

“ Leave the poor bugger be,” one of the regulars told him. “ ‘E don’t do no harm.”

The rest of the gathering muttered approval but this didn’t deter Mason and a white van turned up in the village the following week – after, it was noted, the Pomfrets had gone back toLondon.

It was a foul day with rain lashing at angles of forty five degrees across the beach and the incoming tide flinging waves against the rocks to pour back down in drenching torrents of white suds. From our window I watched two men in boots and heavy, waterproof jackets struggle across the sand towards the cliffs, sliding sideways in the brown stream that poured from the hillside and just managing not to fall flat on their faces.

Cowboy’s cave wasn’t easy to spot at any time and certainly not with fistfuls of rain in your face. To reach it you had to clamber across an outcrop of rocks, avoiding several rock pools, and then over two large boulders that had fallen from the cliff several life-times before and were now firmly weathered into position.

I watched the two men stare upwards, hands raised in their efforts to keep the rain from their faces, and then stand close together, obviously consulting. Then, having checked briefly to see if there were any other caves above high tide mark, they turned back to their van.

One of them pressed a clipboard against the front of his jacket. Presumably it held whatever forms they were meant to complete about Cowboy’s dwelling and I wondered what, assuming they got them dried out, they would write on them.

I imagine they thought that if anyone was daft enough to live in such a place, he’d be more trouble than he was worth to re-house. Certainly we never heard anything from them and Cowboy continued to sit outside his cave on warm evenings, to collect driftwood from the beach and to feed his feline army.

At the end of June Midge and the children re-appeared. Ben and Bekki attended some private school that had extremely long holidays and they were down, Midge informed us, ‘for the whole summer.’ Bekki brought a skinny friend called Amy who looked like some weird sort of insect in her narrow black jeans and skimpy T shirts. Ben, who probably had no friends, took up residence on the sea wall and went on singing about graveyards. Even Tamsin and Karenza ignored him, although they would mutter darkly to each other whenever they came across the girls.

Each time Cowboy passed their cottage, arms flailing, head forwards as if he were walking into a gale, his battered sea-boots making their characteristic squelching sound as if they must be several sizes too large for him, Midge would rush to the door and hiss loudly at his herd of cats. Ben strummed loud and tuneless chords, which obviously made him nervous as he hurried past at such speed that he seemed likely to fall flat on his face, and Bekki and Amy, who spent their time wandering about, posing provocatively, would stare after him, whispering and giggling.

It didn’t seem to matter. That summer was the warmest for years and every day a couple of dozen cars parked in the cliff-top field and their occupants came down to spend the day on the beach and buy lollies and ice cream at the shop and beer and pasties in the Admiral’s Arms. Most people commented on the cats as they slept in the sunshine or waited at their appointed station for Cowboy to appear with his canvas bag and some took photos of their children with the vast ginger tom who had taught himself to rear onto his back legs at the sight of an ice cream. They didn’t include Cowboy Williams in their pictures – he wasn’t exactly photogenic – but would point him out to each other as ‘the cat man,’ as he scuttled across the street or sat outside his cave, peacefully watching the sea.

I was behind the bar the night it happened. It was a Saturday and the place was full – with locals, bed and breakfast guests and a few people who had driven out on such a fine evening. Eric had brought his squeeze box and, as happened sometimes, everyone was singing.

“ She’ll be wearing pink pyjamas when she comes,” we bawled. “ She’ll be wearing pink pyjamas when she comes.”

We weren’t that tuneful but it was a darn sight jollier than the dirges Ben Pomfret had been strumming all afternoon.

“ She’ll be wearing pink pyjamas…” The door opened but there were too many people in the tiny bar for me to see who it was. “ Wearing pink pyjamas!”  There was some sort of a fuss going on over there. “ She’ll be wearing pink pyjamas when she comes!” we yelled with a flourish which disintegrated into a woman shouting for us to shut up and listen.

“ Singing aye, yi, yipee, yipee, yi,” somebody started. “ Singing aye yi yip…” but by now most people had stopped and the few voices trailed away into confusion as Midge Pomfret’s voice rose over everything.

That man, she shrieked – and none of us locals needed to know who she meant – had raped her daughter.

I don’t think anyone had ever spoken the word ‘rape’ in the Admiral’s Arms, much less shouted it. We weren’t that sort of community. The old men talked about fishing or the weather and, occasionally, rugby. The younger ones talked about rugby or the weather and, occasionally, darts. The women talked about each other and, occasionally, about the men.

I’d never heard anyone say what Midge had just said.

That disgusting old man, she said, still loudly, although she no longer needed to shout as the whole room had gone silent, had attacked Bekki and Amy on the beach. They’d come home in a terrible state and she’d phoned for the police.

“ So why i’n’t she home with ‘er daughter then?”

Old Mr Ellis asked the question of himself but everyone within earshot nodded.

“ Shouldn’t you be with… them?” Mr Treloar asked. “ If something… unpleasant’s happened.”

If? Of course it happened!” Midge screeched so loudly that the glasses sung and jangled on the shelf behind me. “ Ben’s with them. I just I came to tell you – so  you can go out and catch that stinking old goat!”

There was silence after she had slammed out of the door and then a great deal of chatter. One or two people, mostly visitors, looked around as if they expected to be swept into a tidal wave of activity but no-one got up. If Cowboy really had ‘attacked’ Bekki – and those of us who knew him found it hard to imagine – no-one seemed keen to go chasing after him and in the end everyone stayed put until we heard the police arrive, when we went out onto the quay to watch as half a dozen of them started to walk, spread out and wary-looking, in the direction of his cave.

It took them some time to get there. It was a light summer night but they had difficulty clambering over the weed-covered rocks and there were a few yells and curses as their feet slid into rock pools. I was surprised Cowboy didn’t come out to see what was going on and, just for a second, I wondered if there was some truth in Bekki’s story.

I wasn’t the only one.

“ ‘E’s done a runner,” I heard someone mutter, but then, just as two officers with torches advanced cautiously round the boulders at the cave entrance, the rest of us saw quite clearly, from our position above the sea wall, Cowboy, framed against the yellow interior light, emerging from the Gentleman’s public convenience at the far side of the harbour. He looked as if he were coming on stage.

Mr Treloar went to the trial as a character witness and my father was one of several who went to observe proceedings.

Cowboy, he told me, came over badly. He looked strangely clean, with his hair washed and cut uncharacteristically short. His chin, without its usual unkempt beard, was weak and narrow and his ears, which no-one had ever seen, what with his hair and his hat, stuck out like big, pink jug-handles. He wore a blue boiler suit in which he looked startlingly thin and stared down at his feet the entire time, although the chief magistrate kept telling him to look towards the bench.

He seemed bewildered, as if he had no idea where he was or what was happening to him, and answered questions in abrupt and monosyllabic shouts and only after they had been repeated at least twice.

And there was no rape charge in the end. The doctor who examined Bekki said there was no evidence and, once she’d calmed down, she said only that he had ‘touched her where he shouldn’t have’ – although none of us believed that either.

She looked, according to my father, cute and child-like in a kilt and a white blouse of a kind he had never seen her wearing before and said that she and her friend had been walking home when Cowboy came up behind them and said ‘something nasty.’ ( She wouldn’t repeat the words but wrote them down for the magistrates.) Then he put his arm round her waist and touched her… she pointed coyly at her breasts and dissolved into what my father called ‘convincing tears’.

The magistrates, ignoring Mr Treloar’s submission that Cowboy never spoke to anyone except his cats and had never gone near any girl in the village, let alone touched them, sentenced him to three months in prison.

It was very quiet in the Admiral’s Arms that night. Mr Treloar blamed himself for not doing more, although it was hard to imagine what more he could have done. Several people muttered about what they would like to do to ‘that little bitch’ but most of us just thought about poor Cowboy locked up in prison.

He wouldn’t survive, we said – a loner like Cowboy, with criminals and perverts who, if they knew what he was in for, would attack him in his bunk or in the showers. We’d seen the films. We knew what happened. And if by any chance he did make it, the experience would change him for ever and the harmless simpleton we knew would be hardened and criminalized.

The village would never be the same again, people said. It was as if the place itself had lost its innocence.

When Midge and Mason came back – Ben and Bekki had, apparently, gone to a summer camp in the South of France – most people ignored them. Not that they seemed bothered. They brought another couple with them – a tall, deep-voiced man  who was supposed to be an actor, although none of us had ever heard of him, and his wife who had a mass of black hair flecked with grey and wandered about the beach collecting shells and pebbles and skate’s egg cases, which she apparently made into collages to sell at craft markets. They sat at the corner table in the Admiral’s Arms, talking loudly about mutual friends and drinking a great deal of wine – in spite of which Mr Treloar said he wished he could think of a reason to bar them. The village, they announced to anyone within earshot, was an absolute gem and they were thrilled to have discovered it. They would tell all their friends…

Various people fed Cowboy’s cats, who still gathered at the appropriate times at their feeding stations. We collected tins of food and there was a weekly rota of feeders but we all had other things to do and the cats often missed out – or someone would remember very late at night and creep around filling their bowls long after they’d got tired of waiting. Their numbers noticeably reduced, mainly because they found it more convenient to attach themselves to a household and keep regular hours, although Eric did for two of them with his motor bike and the ginger tom who was so fond of ice cream simply disappeared.

By the time the letter arrived to say that Cowboy had died in the prison hospital – of a ‘congenital heart defect’ it said, but none of us believed that either – only half a dozen of his strays were left.

I admit to being one of the unreliable feeders. This was because my mind, as Mr Treloar kept telling me, was elsewhere that summer. One of his cottages had been taken by a young journalist who was writing a novel but didn’t get far because we spent so much time together and when he went back toBristolhe persuaded me to look for a job there too.

Meanwhile he came down whenever he could and I knew that this season really would be my last at the Admiral’s Arms. By late September I’d found a job that would do, at least to start with, and Tim came down to drive me back with him.

It was the time of the Autumn tides. Twice that month the water rose so high that I could stand with one foot on the quay and the other touching its shining surface and by sunset on this particular day it had dropped so far that rocks which were normally hidden even at low tide were clearly visible, hung about with gleaming skirts of seaweed, encrusted with limpets and barnacles, on sand that seemed to stretch for ever. As the moon rose it was a huge, golden ball – a true harvest moon, although the harvest had long been gathered in this year of glorious weather.

There was an end-of-summer feel about the village as I walked with Tim and my father for a last drink at the Admiral’s Arms. There were no visitors left, the Bed and Breakfast signs had been taken down for the winter and there was scaffolding all round the cottage where old Mr Ellis had lived until he went into a home and which had been bought by some friends of the Pomfrets.

One of Cowboy’s few remaining cats, looking thin and dirty, skittered across the shadows and, in spite of Tim’s warm hand around mine, I felt cold and rather sad. This was my childhood I was leaving and the village, the backdrop to my memories, was changing too. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Hanging so low in the sky, the moon was a vast, apricot gold sphere, almost close enough, it seemed, for me to reach out and touch. Below and crossed by its pale pathway of silver light, the sea lay, far out and apparently immobile, beyond the unfamiliar rocks and the broad expanse of eerily empty sand.

It was strange that it should have been Tim, the outsider, who saw him first. Perhaps my father and I were too deep in our own thoughts or the great, golden moon took all our attention but it was he who tensed suddenly, jutting his head forwards and screwing up his eyes. Which was when we saw what he had seen…

I heard my father’s gasp as though it had come from my own mouth, his hand clutched at my arm and the skin at the back of my neck seemed to lift itself from the flesh.

Behind us the sounds of the public bar faded and a lone gull calling from a roof top fell suddenly silent as we stood, all three of us, still and breathless as corpses on the quayside, gazing far out at the dark figure we could now, quite clearly, see. The figure of an unkempt man in a broad-brimmed hat and battered, turned-down sea boots who danced delicately, arms outstretched in the moonlight, and raised jewelled splashes from the shallow night pools in the glorious, golden sand.


One comment on “Cowboy Williams Dances

  1. Phil Friend says:

    Loved it, made me feel quite sad. Those were the days!


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