The grey-green stone of the old mine-chimney at the summit of Kit Hill had been warmed all day by the sun. Now the day was fading, but a ghost of its heat still clung to the weathered stone. The old man leaned back against it, spreading his hands over the stone, looking out south and west, across the heather and the rolling hills to Plymouth and the distant, shining line of the sea.
An evening hush lay on the hilltop, still washed with sunset gold, and on the hills already dusky with blue shadow far below. There were few cars now on the road far below his feet, and not many people wandering the footpaths either: the people of the little town of Callington had already gone home for the evening. The bees that had bustled all day from purple heather to golden gorse were quiet now.
High above the hill where the old man and his companion sat quietly together, a sky of deepening blue was threaded with small clouds. Gold, peach and rowan-berry red gathered into a pattern like shot silk above the looming purple mass of Bodmin moor on the western horizon.
Somewhere down the hillside, a strong mellow note in the distance, warm bronze notes tumbling.
The old man smiled. “First time I ever heard a saxophone, it was an evening like this,” he told the young woman sitting next to him, brown arms wrapped around her knees. “Quiet evening it was, and the sky full of pink clouds, just like those... I was coming down the lane, over that way and I heard it in the distance, reaching out across the valley.”
“You were a kid?”
He nodded, eyes on the silver line of the sea. “I would have been... Oh, seven, I think I must have been. Seven years old, and I heard the music calling, just like that. So I came up through the heather and climbed the bank, and there they were, tall and strong, and the field all full of long lines of white tents, when it was empty that morning... I’d never seen a black man before, being an ignorant Cornish brat! But there they were, so tall and strong — or at least they were to itty bitty seven year old me — and one of them playing this music. Jazz, like nothing I’d heard before, on a horn made of gold. ”
“Not real gold?” His grand-daughter looked as disbelieving as only a teenager can.
He laughed. “‘Course not, but I wouldn’t know any better then, would I? I was seven... Anyway, they saw me creeping out of the heather to listen, and they made a great fuss of me. Gave me chocolate. You probably can’t imagine what that tasted like to a kid who’s used to eating the old war-time rations, can you?”
“Pretty good, indeed. Not sure I’d ever tasted real chocolate before. Ah, it was a wonderful day, that was. I went off home afterwards and had my poor Mam half-believing I’d met with the fairies.”
The girl laughed. “Black fairies that played jazz and ate chocolate?”
“Why not? I told you, I’d never met a black man before, any more than I’d met a fairy. And the next day — or maybe it was a couple days later, I forget — I went back to look and they had all vanished.”
The girl stared at him, taken aback. “You mean...”
“D-Day, you see?” he explained. “They’d all gone off to the ships. Over that way.” He pointed to the far-off shape of the river-mouth in the distance, the three tower-blocks and the Tamar Bridges outlined against the bright water of the estuary shining in the sunset light.
“There were landing stages all along the River Tamar, and all up the Lynher too, so they could get them all loaded onto the ships in time, and off across the Channel to Normandy to the battle. Not that I knew that at the time, of course; all I knew was that they’d gone. I don’t know which quay they sailed from in the end. I did try to find out, later, but no luck.”
“Did you ever see any of them again?” she asked, her freckled nose wrinkled in an interested frown.
He shook his head. “Don’t think so. Not to recognise, anyway. Brave men they were, and they went away to fight old Hitler, with the saxophone as well, no doubt. But I’ve always loved jazz since then.”
“I’d noticed,” she said with a pained sigh, and then gave him a shy grin, so he knew it was a joke. “Every time we go out, jazz all the way there and jazz all the way back!”
“An education for you. Your great-granddad Ben, he came back all right, though he wasn’t one of my fairies with the sax. And he married your great-granny Mary, and they were your Grandma Jean’s mum and Dad. ”
She laughed. “Can’t imagine Grandma Jean as a fairy!”
“She can’t be a fairy. She doesn’t have a saxophone,” he told her solemnly, and they both shook their heads gravely as if that were a terrible shame.
The red sun was dipping down into the dark line of Bodmin moor, washing the clouds with rosy brilliance, and stitching their edges with shining gold. At last the music stopped, as the lights were winking one by one into life in the town below them.
She bounced to her feet and wrapped her arms around her. “Come on, Grandad. It’s getting cold.”
“Right then.” he said in agreement, pushing himself to his feet. “I’m coming. Time for tea.”