I had slept three or four hours at most when something exploded by my head. The telephone. Where was I? Uh, motel room, Pensacola, Florida . . . Hello? It was Cynthia, calling at 8.15 on Saturday morning. Could I come to dinner tonight? Good. I scribbled down explicit directions on how to reach Pensacola Beach: over the Bay Bridge, all three miles of it, then straight over the first strip of land, Gulf Breeze, and across another bridge, turn left on to Via DeLuna.

'By the moon?' I asked.

'Uh-huh. Way of the moon,' she answered. 'Turn right towards the Gulf of Mexico, and look out for the house with a pagoda roof, right on the beach. That's my house.' I savoured the words, wishing I had been the one to say them.

We had met the previous afternoon. I was in her home town to write about the murder of local doctors by rabid anti-abortionists. She was the continuity person of a local film crew hired by British director Tony Kaye, who is making a documentary about the American abortion issue. Between interviews, Kaye had invited me to give my impressions of Pensacola on camera. I saw it as a road grid connecting the five staples of southern life: fast-food restaurants, strip joints, churches, chiropractors and shopping malls. Afterwards, Cynthia wanted my name for her records.

'For your records,' I said with mock gravitas, 'my name is Alexander Sharkey.'

Later, at the home of Pensacola's leading anti-abortionist, a Christian fundamentalist and former Ku-Klux-Klan member who now runs a refuge for unwed mothers, Cynthia said she was interested to hear my observations on her community. By now I had been informed that she had taught English literature at the University of West Florida.

'I was being flippant,' I said, a little too quickly. 'I've only been here two days.'

'Oh, you should look around a little more.'

While Kaye prepared to film our host growling about Christian family values, Cynthia and I whispered about our children. I told her about my six-year-old daughter and she told me about her 24-year-old son. My jaw dropped. She was 10 years older than me, not, as I had imagined, two years younger. When she addressed me as 'Alexander' in that honeyed southern accent, my knees went weak. Would she meet me later for a drink? No, but she would call me, she said. Cynthia's house looked as if someone had uprooted a Buddhist temple from Kyoto and dropped it right here on the Gulf coast, on a strip of sand so white, so fine, it might have been castor sugar. The sea was hot and turbulent, the colour of molten bronze. Suzette and David pulled up alongside me. We walked around to the front and went inside, where the hardwood floors were lacquered and the air was chilled to a crisp tautness.

Cynthia uncorked champagne and led us upstairs to watch the flaming-red sunset and meet a man she introduced as Bo. He was clearly not her 24-year-old son. Hastily, I rearranged some mental furniture. A tall, powerfully built man in his forties, Bo was feeling unwell and had been lying on the four-poster in the master bedroom, but rose, ran a hand through his crown of fluffy grey curls and welcomed us to his magnificent home.

Out on the sundeck we chatted and joked, the way you do while sipping champagne in a place of mind-numbing natural beauty. Bo asked if I had ever seen a movie called The Straw Man. I was not sure. Could he remind me of the plot? 'It's all about this idiot virgin innocent who goes to investigate crime in a strange community and is sacrificed by the local pagans.'

'Oh, yes. What's the relevance?' I asked, with what I hoped was disarming directness.

'Well, Alexander, after dinner, we're going to kill you as a pagan sacrifice,' said Bo with deadpan precision. Not a hint of malice in those grey eyes. I was awestruck by the subtlety of this bluff, which could have been the lightest of jests or the deadliest of threats, or both. I think I said, 'Yeah, right,' or something equally inane.

Our dessert was Key lime pie, the consistency of which prompted David to remark that the meal had been good 'from the soup to the soup'. Then, at Suzette's suggestion, we walked barefoot along the moonlit beach, while Bo retired back to bed. The sky was impossibly high and saturated with stars and lightning that crackled across the eastern horizon. Warm, foaming waters rushed up our shins. 'It's the Gulf stream,' explained Cynthia. Suzette and I raced along the beach, scattering sand crabs. David apologised for knowing everything, which he clearly did.

Back at the house, Cynthia hosed the sand off our feet. 'Foot-washer,' I said, referring to the fundamentalist trait, before thanking her for her extraordinary kindness. 'Now you have some friends here, you'll have to come back,' she said. 'But of course,' I said. After all, only my closest friends call me Alexander.