Category Archives: Serials, Shorts and Stuff

Short Stories and Short Chapters for busy people wanting quick reads

Well Head Cottage – 9

Late on Sunday morning, Jean crawled out of bed, groaning and wincing. She had been exhausted, and just slightly drunk on the wine she and Lesley had shared, as they had talked long into the night. Consequently, she had slept well. Now though, her body was punishing her for the abuse of yesterday.  She tottered stiff legged to the shower and stood for a long time under the hot water. It helped, until she had to try to bend and dry her bruised, grazed legs. After swallowing two pain killers she went in search of caffeine, hoping it would get her on the way to feeling almost human.

Lesley had been up early and walked into the village to buy fresh bread from the bakery. She’d made bacon sandwiches, and brewed the coffee. The kitchen smelled wonderful. As Jean staggered through the door and fell onto a chair beside the table, Lesley grimaced in sympathy. “You need to take it easy today.”

Jean nodded in agreement. “Yes, I will. But first, I really need to go and see Doris. I can’t put it off. I’m not looking forward to it, but it won’t be any easier leaving it. Will you come with me?”

“Yes, ‘course I will. It might not be as bad as you think though, eh? After all you didn’t find his body, did you? Just the car.”

“Yes, but I don’t think that’s going to help her that much. She’s been living with the thought that he was wandering around somewhere suffering some sort of amnesia and she said it broke her heart. This seems to back that up, doesn’t it, in a way? I mean if he’d accidently crashed and hurt himself then, well, surely, someone would have found him, or he would have struggled to get help. The fact that there was no sign of him isn’t going to be much comfort. I bet she has imagined him, over and over, just driving back into the farm yard one day, and now she knows that can’t happen.” Jean sighed, “Then again, as you say, at least I didn’t find his body.”

***

Doris had a friend staying with her. A slim, wiry woman, with short, grey hair, thin lips and mournful eyes, who introduced herself as, ‘Sandra, from the women’s group’. She and Jean and Lesley stood together in the little vestibule at Hawks Farm. Boots were lined up untidily against the wall, and coats hung, one above the other on a rack of hooks beside the front door. A big dog basket with a grubby, squashed cushion was pushed into a corner with a water bowl beside it. It was all rather dreary and sad. The windows were streaked and dull, the floor in need of a clean. A sense of despair swept over them as Jean and Lesley took off their jackets and hung them on top of the others already there, some of which obviously belonged to a man. They were Ted’s, no doubt. They hadn’t wanted to come, and now didn’t want to be here. This was not the holiday that they had been looking forward to. Still, it had to be dealt with, out of kindness and a sense of duty.

“She’s in the living room. Try not to upset her. The police have just been again. Do you want tea?” As she spoke, Sandra led them down the narrow hallway and leaned past them to push open the door.

Doris looked up as they walked through from the hall. She began to rise from the easy chair and then flopped back as if she just could not summon the strength. “Mrs Duncan. Are you alright? They said you fell.”

“I’m fine Doris, a bit bruised and battered, but I’ll mend. What about you, though?”

Doris shook her head and wiped at her eyes with a balled-up handkerchief. “I haven’t seen it yet, the car. They won’t let me. I know it’s ours though. They found some stuff, in the glove box, a notebook, his knife, work gloves. Brought ‘em to show me, just now.” She began to sob and Jean went to kneel on the carpet in front of her. She laid her hands over those clasped tightly now on the other woman’s lap, the fingers wringing together. Doris looked up and tried to smile. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I really don’t. When all is said and done this hasn’t changed much. He’s still gone, still wandering about somewhere. They didn’t believe me, I suppose now they might but…” She shrugged. Lesley had quietly taken a seat on the settee and it was only now that Doris became aware of her. “Oh, hello Mrs Brown. I didn’t know you were here. I’m sorry. You ladies, don’t need to be bothering yourself with all of this. It’s not your problem. Don’t spoil your holiday because of us and our troubles. Thank you for coming though. That was kind.”

“We had to come, Doris.” Jean joined Lesley on the settee and as, Sandra from the women’s group, clattered about in the kitchen, they tried to find out what had happened since Jean had been taken back to Well Head Cottage.

The Land Rover was probably going to be recovered later in the day. The police had done all that they could do to examine it on site, given the perilous position, and, until it was towed to the police pound, there would be nothing more to say. Again, Doris complained that nobody had believed her, when she had told them over and over that Ted wouldn’t have gone away and left her, even though they had been having such troubles. “We had some rows, Mrs Duncan. I never hid that and so they thought he’d left me. He wouldn’t have done though. He never would have done, leastways not without making it clear.”

There didn’t seem to be anything more that they could do and so, with awkward hugs, and promises to come back in a day or two, to keep in touch, they left Doris staring vacantly at the dead, empty fireplace.

They walked around the house to stand before the sad remains of the farm shop, and the derelict tea garden. Their mood lowered by the encounter, wishing they were back in their own homes, the two women set off back towards their holiday cottage. Rain overnight had made everywhere wet and muddy, but the verge was safer than walking in the road proper. As they trudged through the soaking grass, Jean was very quiet. Remembering her sister’s illness earlier in the year, Lesley glanced across, assessing, worrying. “Are you okay? Well, I know you’re a bit sore and what have you, but you know; are you okay, apart from that? Jean just nodded and carried on.

Weaving along the side of the road, stepping around puddles and debris needed total concentration and, Lesley had to grab at Jean’s arm, pulling her back to the kerb edge as a white van swept past throwing up dirty, oily water. “Bloody hell Jean, watch what you’re doing. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, I’m okay. It’s just…” Jean’s response, muttered quietly, made her stop, and turn her sister to face her.

“What?”

“I wonder where he is?”

Lesley sighed, rubbed a hand over her face. “No. Leave it, Jean. I mean it. The police will look into it again now, probably more carefully. If he doesn’t want to be found then maybe everyone should respect that. It’s possible, isn’t it? On the other hand, if he is somewhere, wandering around with a screw loose, then surely, they’ll find him. I doubt that myself though. I reckon he’s gone because he wanted to. She said they’d been having rows, and all that other stuff, well you can’t blame him wanting to make a run for it.”

“But what about the car?” They had stopped again, faced each other at the side of the road. “How come the car was there and he wasn’t? No sign of him.”

“I don’t know. Neither do you. Maybe he crashed and just thought ‘sod it’ that’s the last straw. Maybe it was left parked near the edge of the river and the land collapsed.” As she spoke Lesley saw the same thought come into her sister’s mind the instant she acknowledged it herself. “No, surely not? No. If he’d thrown himself into the river, surely his body would have washed up somewhere. Oh god, Jean. They must have thought of that, mustn’t they?”

“Yes, I’ll bet Doris has as well. She didn’t say anything, but she’s not daft.”

They began to move forward. “Anyway, as I say, leave it, Jean. The police are the ones to handle it and I’m sure we’ll find out if his body does turn up. You’ve already done everyone a favour. It was accidently I know, but still. it’s a good thing. Really, I don’t think you should think about it too much now.”

“Yes. You’re right, of course you are. But…”

Lesley snorted, screwed up her eyes and muttered under her breath. “Jean. Please, just leave it.” But, from the look in her sister’s eyes, she had a feeling that it was already too late.

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Well Head Cottage – 8

Lesley was livid. She had paced back and forth in the little kitchen, slammed out of the room and then stormed back in thumping and banging as she went.

Right now, she stood beside the table, opposite Jean, her hands flat on the surface, her arms braced, leaning forward to glare into Jean’s eyes. “A police car, Jean. A bloody police car. Have you any idea? Have you the remotest idea, the things that went through my mind when I saw him? The sodding copper, standing there with a notice with my name on it. Have you any idea?”

Jean was very tired, very sore, and very sorry. She had tried to explain that her main concern had been to save Lesley and Slumpy, who was hiding in the pantry, being left in the cold and dark at the railway station. She had said the police had been more than happy to send a car and, though she had known it would be a shock, she had decided it was better than a taxi and a driver with no explanation until they reached the cottage. She’d tried to call; the phone went straight to voice mail. Lesley admitted, sheepishly, that she had turned it off, so that her boss couldn’t contact her before she had left home, and then had forgotten to turn it on again.

Jean tried to make her understand it had truly been the best option. After the police had brought her home from the side of the river, where she had eventually retrieved her things. They had been kind, taken her statement, and then refused to hear about her driving herself into the town.

The events swirled in her brain now, she tuned out. as Lesley railed and ranted, and replayed the events that had brought them to this.

She had been very afraid of approaching the wrecked car. Afraid of what she was about to see. Already she was imagining the body, horrifyingly decayed, slumped and broken in the front of his car. Ted’s body, the sturdy, grizzled farmer she had known on and off for a couple of decades. Ted, who had let Carl pet his orphaned lambs, who had become a friend albeit for only a few weeks every couple of years. She could have clambered past without looking, so the image wouldn’t be burned into her memory, but her conscience wouldn’t let her.

She was sure, it was Ted Smart’s car. If, knowing that he had driven away in it when he vanished, hadn’t been enough to convince her, the painting on the side of a soaring hawk, with the name of the farm shop underneath, left her in no doubt.

She had scrambled over fallen debris, dragged herself closer, by clinging to bits of twisted metal, and she had steeled herself to peer through the broken window in the door.

To her intense relief the Land Rover was empty. There was rubbish in the cab, some old polythene bags, bits of stuff floating where the water pooled. There was more wedged between the seats, across the dash board. It was mostly covered in muck and mud, and she could only guess what it was, but it was clear that it was not the remains of Doris’s husband. There were twigs, some bigger branches, that had washed down and lodged in the nooks and corners, and silt had begun to build up in the lower parts.

Relief dizzied her for a moment, but she pulled herself together. The aches and pains that had dogged her were forgotten. She had concentrated on getting out, rushing to let the right people know what she had found as quickly as possible. When she looked back later, she realised that, in truth, there had been little urgency because the car had been in the water for such a long time that any helpful evidence, to give them a clue about what had happened to the driver, was long gone. Nevertheless, she clambered up and over the fallen debris.

The climb hadn’t been too bad. Whenever the car originally slipped over the edge it had brought much of the bank with it. Rocks and wood, piled haphazardly down the tumbled slope, now provided good hand and footholds, like climbing a wobbly, uneven staircase. When she had trudged back to her bag she wasn’t surprised to find that there was no mobile phone signal. She was pretty much in the middle of nowhere and anyway, wasn’t it always when you really needed to use the darned things, they wouldn’t work. Sod’s law.

She had turned back towards the main road, and as soon as one of the little bars filled with grey, she called the police, sank onto an ancient tree root, and perched, shivering and uncomfortable, waiting for the authorities to arrive.

She took them to where the vehicle was upended in the river. They wrapped her in a rug, and brought her home. Once she was snuggled in her dressing gown, and despite all her protests, they had been adamant, they would call out the police surgeon. They insisted he must check her wounds and make sure she wasn’t concussed, suffering from hypothermia, shock. They tried to leave a constable with her, until her sister arrived, but all she wanted was a few minutes of quiet before the furore that she knew was heading her way.

She told Lesley over and over that if there had been any other way she would have avoided the constable, the car, and the upset, but at the time it had seemed the best option.

She closed her eyes, laid her arms across the table and lowered her head onto her hands. “Les, please love. I’m done in, really, really done in. I know you’re mad but please…” she raised her head, “Just shut up, will you.”

There was a shocked silence, and then a whispered apology. Lesley sat on the chair opposite to Jean and screwed her face into an expression of embarrassment. Jean smiled at her. “Make us a cup of hot chocolate, would you?” I’ve had nothing to eat since breakfast and my stomach’s growling. Then I’ll have a bath and after that perhaps a glass of wine, and we’ll think about dinner – yeah?”

“Yeah. Sorry, Oh, sis, you know what I’m like. I go to pieces and it turns me into a bitch.” Jean reached and squeezed her sister’s fingers, nodded.

Lesley came around the table and they embraced for a couple of seconds before she spoke again. “I’m so glad you’re okay. For a bit there, back at the station, I thought the worst. Look, I’ll start dinner while you’re in the bath and then you can tell me all about it. The rest of it I mean. About Ted Smart and all that.” Jean nodded, though, being honest, all she wanted was her bed. But, she would make the effort, and it would be good to talk about it and, no matter how bad she felt, Doris Smart was probably feeling much worse. She would need to ring her tomorrow, go and see her. It would be good if Lesley went with her, as moral support, and before then, she needed to know the background.

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Well Head Cottage – 7

The path had become very overgrown and hard to follow. Jean could remember it well enough though to stick to the route. It led eventually to a river, flowing along the bottom of a steep gorge. Parts of the way were deep mud, and she was glad of the walking stick, not as support so much, but as a gauge to test the way, and an aid to keeping on her feet. After an hour she was filthy and tired. There was a spot where they had picnicked in the past. It meant a bit of a clamber over rough ground and, though her progress was inelegant, she managed it okay.

A flat-topped rock gave her a seat in the sun, and she spread her waterproof trousers over the damp top, settled down to enjoy the calm, and listen to the rush of water way below her. She threw a couple of sticks over the edge and watched as they were swept away in the current, knocking and banging against partly submerged boulders. The disturbed night caught up with her, here in the patch of sunlight, and soon, her eyelids were drooping. She could either give in and have five minutes snooze, or, rouse herself and move on. Her leg made the decision for her with a spasm of cramp. If she stayed here now, then she would pay for it later, with stiffness and aches. She rolled lazily onto her knees in front of the flat rock and began to fold the waterproof trousers.

She felt herself begin to slip on the wet grass and realised her mistake moments before gravity took hold. There were no secure foot holds. There was no ledge below her, just slick greenery, loose shale, and mud. She reached out in panic to grab the ledge. There was nowhere to cling onto. Her finger nails tore as she tried to grip the hard edges. The slither downwards began slowly at first but grew faster and faster as the slope became steeper.

She had to let it happen, there was no choice. She tried to control the fall by digging her toes into the bank but the results were minimal. Sliding was safer than tumbling and she managed to stay on her front until the inevitable happened. She came to a halt sprawled in the ice-cold water with shale and small rocks cascading around her. For a moment she sat, gathering herself and checking that there were no serious injuries. The tough waterproof jacket had protected her belly and, though her sweatshirt was wet, there was only minimal scratching and the starts of a couple of small bruises. She had managed to keep her face from contact with the scree but, her hands hadn’t been so lucky. There was a lot of tearing to her nails. She drew in a hiss of breath. Her palms were reddened and abraded. Her trousers were torn, the skin underneath on her knees, was grazed and scratched. She spoke aloud, “Well that’s going to be sore. Bugger it.”

The injuries were relatively minor, no fractures, no heavy bleeding, but, she was paddling in the edges of the river with no obvious way back to the top, where her spare trousers and socks were safely tucked in her back pack. It was too steep and slippery to climb, the surface loose and wet.

She glanced back and forth. Further upstream, on the bend she could see what she thought was the edge of a tiny beach, tumbled rocks in the flow, and a couple of trees rotting in the water. The land appeared different there and maybe it would be less sheer. Probably it had been a landslip at some stage, and it offered her the best hope of a route back to the rock, her stuff, and her way out of this stupid mess.

She walked in the river, the hiking boots were weather proof, but already filled with water, so a bit more didn’t matter. Clinging to overhanging branches and clumps of grass and weed she fought her way onwards. She reached and stretched, testing for firmness, ignoring the stings and aches, this had to be done. The choices were clear, either this beach was the answer, or she would have to turn back, paddle who knew how far downstream, past where she had fallen in, and hope that there was another place to climb out. She could wade in and cross the river where the bank was less steep, but she had no way to judge the depth, the bed was uneven boulders and loose shale, and the current was possibly enough to push her off her feet. It would be a very risky thing to do, and would make her even wetter than she was now, with at least an hour walking to get her home.  Apart from that, she would be on the wrong side, away from her dry clothes and most importantly, her phone which was safely in her bag. Not wet or broken to be sure but not a lot of use either right now.

She pressed on. Clinging to the undergrowth, one foot in the water, the other slipping and sliding on the muddy bank. She was almost at the bend, cold, tired, and soaked through. This had to be a way out. She felt tears gather and fought them away.  The going became a little easier, flatter, and wider. She could walk more steadily beside the water. There was still no sign of a way up and out though.

Her hands hurt, her legs hurt, her feet were cold and soaking, and her back and shoulders were aching now, either tension or damage, she didn’t know which. She felt the first pangs of worry. She had left her note though, hadn’t she? So, if the worst came to the worst, Lesley would get to the cottage and know where she had gone. Then she remembered. She had changed her route, had gone, ‘The Lazy Way’. She was not where they would go to find her. Her stomach clenched. She had to get herself out of this, it was all down to her. She drew in a deep breath and carried on.

The first sign that there was a change in the flow was an increase in the noise of the water. It had shushed and gurgled alongside her all the way, but now she heard distinctly the rush and rattle of a cascade. She chose to believe this was good. A waterfall, rocks meant easier climbing than the steep grass and soil of the bank. She carried on, struggled around the next deviation, and there it was. It was nose down in the water, wheels and flatbed towering above it, the windows smashed the bonnet bent and crumpled. There were rocks and debris all around it, the water flowing over and through it. An old green Land Rover.

 

 

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Well Head Cottage – 6

Lesley was due to arrive later, and Jean was determined to rid herself of the remnants of gloom before then. Once she had cleared away the breakfast dishes, she pushed a bottle of water and some chocolate into her back-pack, ready to set off on one of the longer walks. It should take about three hours and, as insurance against a problem with her recently damaged leg, she took the walking stick with her.

There had been a time when embarking on such a trek alone would have meant leaving a note for someone in case of disaster. Nowadays all of that was negated by the ubiquity of mobile phones. There were some places where it was still wise to register, the Pennine Way for example and some of the climbs in The Lakes, Ben Nevis for sure. She hesitated for a moment, what if she were to find herself in trouble, somewhere with no connection. She was swept with a deep longing for the safety and companionship of, Jim. She felt a lump in her throat. No, she was going to cheer the hell up, she was going for a walk and she was damn well going to enjoy it. She came up with a compromise, wrote a memo, with her route and time of departure, and then left it under the sugar bowl on the kitchen table. Conscience salved, she stuck a piece of fruit and nut chocolate in her mouth and strode down the path and out into the lane. The view towards the mountains was purple with heather, and gold with autumn foliage. She smiled.

Gorgeous, just gorgeous. It was easy, with the clear blue sky above her, and the changing colours all around, to see why autumn is such a favourite season.

There were a couple of cars on the road but otherwise, it was just her, the birds, and the farm animals. Nervous sheep, inquisitive cows and unexpectedly, a couple of Llamas who leaned over a fence to let her tickle their hairy heads.

When her phone trilled out and Lesley’s name scrolled across the screen, her stomach flipped and she automatically crossed her fingers. She shook her head, stretched out her hand. Silly, anticipating problems. “Hello Les. You okay?”

“Fine, yes. Great. How are things going there?”

She had intended to be bright and upbeat, but that wasn’t how it sounded when she answered, “Yes, fine. It’s alright.”

“Are you sure? You sound a bit down.”

“Do I? Oh no, it’s fine.” She stopped herself, there was no need to force this. She should be honest. “Well, things haven’t got off to the best of starts, nothing too drastic but… Oh look, I’ll tell you all about it when you arrive. Is Carl coming?”

“He’s coming up on Wednesday, for a couple of days. At the weekend his mates are picking him up to go climbing in Snowdonia. Well, it’s so close it seemed silly not to. Is that okay?”

“Yes, that’s great. Are you ready to leave home now?”

“Ah yes, about that.” Jean’s heart sank. If Lesley wasn’t coming she didn’t want to stay, but she had just now committed to being here for Carl. Dammit.

“Problem, Les?” She had stopped walking, and as she waited for the bad news, Jean leaned against the night damp stones of an old wall.

“Not really. It’s just, Mrs Burton your next-door neighbour called me?”

Oh no, not Slumpy. Jean felt her heart glitch. “What?”

“Her daughter has gone into labour. The baby wasn’t due for another three weeks, anyway they’ve taken her into hospital. It’s not a major drama but Mrs Burton has to go and look after the other kids. So…”

“She can’t feed Slumpy.” Jean was swamped with relief. “God, I thought you were going to say something had happened to him.”

“Oh, sorry love, no. It’s just that I think the best thing will be to bring him with me. Is that okay?”

“Yes, why not. He’s been here before, lots of times. I think he likes it. Do you know where his carrier is. In the hall cupboard.”

“Yes, I’ve been to get it already. I’ve got him here with me. He’s looking a bit cross.” Lesley laughed.

“Well, tell him he’s going on holiday. He probably thinks you’re taking him to the vet. Anyway, that’s fine. What time will you arrive?”

“About half six as long as there are no delays. I’ll see you in the car park, yes?”

“Yes, great. I’m really looking forward to seeing you, Lesley.”

“Yeah me too. See you later.”

Jean pushed the phone back into her pocket. She really needed to get her nerves under control. All this leaping to the worst conclusions was ridiculous. She had another piece of chocolate, turned back to the road and strode on, trying to force the feeling of background dread away. There was no need for it, it was reaction to the broken night that was all.

The road was becoming steeper now and she turned through a hefty wooden gate, latched it behind her, and paced out across the stubbly field towards the hills. She was breathing harder now, a bit out of condition, not enough exercise this summer. Her leg was stiffening, not as healed as she had thought, not yet ready for the hardest walks. Perhaps she’d cut this short, there was an easier option. Jim had called it ‘the lazy way’. It was not very much used, but it did follow the route of a pretty little river. Jean spoke aloud, “Sorry Jim, it’s the lazy way today.”

She’d be back in time to have a bath, and now the idea came to her, she’d bake a cake, yes, that would be nice for when Lesley arrived. The cottage would smell homely and welcoming. She’d call at the farm and buy some cream. Okay, she’d said she wouldn’t go again, but cutting off her nose to spite her face would rob of them of a treat and when all was said and done, this was a holiday.

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Well Head Cottage – 5

Later, cosy in the cottage, with the curtains drawn against the darkness, Jean settled down to watch a DVD. She was content and looking forward to a longer walk the next day, if the weather held. If not, she had work to keep her busy. She tried not to think about the experience in the farm shop. It was done, and after Sunday she wouldn’t go there again.

At eleven she checked the door locks and went to bed.

It was hard to tell how much later it was when she woke. She struggled back to full consciousness, her skin prickling with nerves. She didn’t think she had been dreaming but something had come between her and sleep. She lay still and quiet in the warm bed, listening, waiting to see if there would be more, tense, listening.

An owl called, far away, and there was a click and buzz as the fridge cycled into life, the latter noise causing her to twitch with shock. Though all seemed well she couldn’t settle. She sat up against the pillows. Her ears were alive to every creak and rustle, and her heart thumped. Something had alarmed her.

Since the robbery at her home earlier in the year, she had been more aware of noises in the night, not exactly nervous, but less secure than she used to be. She knew, that the only way to get back to sleep would be to go to the rooms downstairs, and reassure herself there were no problems.

She sighed and reached to the bottom of the bed for her dressing gown.

It was chilly on the landing. She flicked on the light and stepped gingerly down the stairs.

It was all okay, wasn’t it? Everything appeared normal. Her walking stick, which she didn’t really need any more, but carried because she had become used to the feel of it in her hand, was leaning against the wall, beside the hat stand. She picked it up and turned to move down the hall. She pushed open the door into the lounge. She didn’t want to turn on the light it would be too bright for her night-time eyes, too glaring. Though the curtains were drawn across the window, she could see enough to know that all was as she had left it.  Her empty glass was still on the table. Relaxing now, pretty much convinced all was well, she tutted, picked it up and carried it with her into the kitchen.

The tiny red light on the microwave glowed bright in the gloom, that, and the illumination from the cooker clock, was enough to see by. The moon shone through the small panes, glinting on the taps and the stainless steel of the drainer. She walked, in her bare feet, across the chilly tiles to the sink. Her nerves were settling as the ambience of the house, calm and undisturbed, wrapped around her. She reached a hand to the tap to rinse the brandy snifter. As the water ran over her fingers she glanced up, directly into the pale oblong of a face against the window, the eyes no more than a glint of moonlight on moisture, the mouth a dark gash. Jean gasped with shock.

The figure withdrew quickly as their eyes met, and she heard the thud of feet running across the garden, the swish of bushes in the narrow side passage. She cried out, just once, and then brandishing the walking stick before her, rushed to the kitchen door.

The key was on its hook, fastened to the side of the cupboard and, with shaking fingers, she slid it into the lock, struggling with darkness and nerves. She turned the key and handle and flung open the door. Afterwards she acknowledged that it was the worst thing to do. She should have turned on all the lights, maybe poked the buttons on the smoke alarms, made a fuss and bother but, in the event, she banged her hand on the switch for the outside light, and stepped into the cone of brightness outside the door. Replaying it later she even grinned at the sight she must have made, wrapped in white towelling, hair dishevelled, waving her walking stick, and shouting into the darkness, but in truth it hadn’t felt funny, and she was absolutely convinced she hadn’t made a mistake. There had been someone there, looking in through the window, and she didn’t want to think what might have occurred if she hadn’t disturbed them. Did they intend to break into the house, and then what? Had they any connection with the shouting and gun fire that she had heard on the first night? And, what, if anything should she do about it?

Now, she turned on the lights, all of them, and rechecked the window and door locks. There was a burglar alarm but she hadn’t set it, because she worried that she would forget in the morning and activate it walking down the stairs. She didn’t relish the thought of a blaring klaxon before she’d even had her coffee. She dug out the instruction leaflet and reminded herself of how to bring the darned thing to life.

She made a cup of warm milk, poured a shot of brandy into it, and took it back up to bed. Propped against the pillow, sipping the drink, she acknowledged that this visit wasn’t panning out the way that she had hoped.

From the disappointment of Lesley not coming with her, the outpouring of despair from Doris Smart, and the unsettling encounter in the new farm shop, it had all been disappointing. Now this latest thing had her wondering if she should cut her losses, call it a day, and go home.

If she did that though, she doubted that she would ever come back. She had loved this place for such a long time and hoped that this first visit, without Jim, would have been a move into the future by way of the past. She didn’t want to remember it as a place of upset and failure.

She only had one more day on her own. Lesley should arrive by early evening tomorrow and then she would feel better, they could visit old haunts, have pub lunches, talk and laugh into the early hours, and it would all be fine.

As she turned out the light she felt calmer, it had probably been an itinerate, a chancer, and she had scared him away hadn’t she. She must remember the alarm, but that was all that was necessary. She really was still too lazy about security, despite the events of the past spring.

She pulled the quilt up to her chin, concentrated on relaxing her limbs, and the next thing she knew the sun was sneaking round the edges of the curtains and warming the room.

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Well Head Cottage – 4

The next morning Jean tried to settle to some work but the sun and the autumn colours pulled her from the house. Constantly, her gaze had wandered to the brightness in the garden. Before very long she gave in. She put a light, waterproof jacket over her sweater, slammed and locked the door and set off on one of the familiar walks. She turned the opposite way from yesterday, away from the depressing atmosphere of Hawks Farm and out towards the hills.

It didn’t seem as though much had changed since she had last been here with Jim, the same bits of wall were broken, the same stile offered a wobbling step into a field full of sheep, who coughed nervously and scattered to the further edges, to huddle against the hedge. It was bittersweet to be sure, but this was a new memory that she was making and, though it wouldn’t take away the others, it was progress. Every day for over two years had been the same, another step along the road alone. Though she would give the world to have her husband back, she had accepted that he was gone, and made a life that was fulfilled and content.

The exercise was good, her joints and muscles warmed and she felt the residual sadness her talk with Doris Smart had caused begin to dissolve. She followed the footpath to the further side of the field, climbed a second stile and turned back towards the village.

There had always been a farm along this road, but it was an untidy, ordinary place. The yard was always puddled earth and there were never any flowers, no attempt at beautification and, she could see as she walked nearer, that this too looked about the same as ever.  The house was dingy and unwelcoming, the open barn beside it was littered with bits of farm machinery and other detritus. However, there was a sign on the gate which had never been there before. It was hand painted but neatly done. ‘Farm Shop’.

There was a list of the stuff that was available, pretty much the same as Doris had used to sell and though she did feel traitorous, Jean saw the answer to her provisions problem. She turned in through the gate and followed the direction of the arrow pinned on the post holding the sign.

This was not like Hawks Farm, no lawns and flower borders, no chickens, but up ahead she could see there was a small, metal walled building. There were baskets of produce on a shelf outside the door and a light burning inside.

The place was deserted. It wasn’t as bad as she had thought it might be, from the scruffy frontage, and there were indeed all the things that she had looked for in her abortive shopping expedition yesterday. She picked up a plastic basket and began to choose pickles and preserves. She recognised the names on the labels, and again she was stabbed by a feeling of disloyalty. She pushed it aside. These, local specialties, were what she had been looking forward to. Welsh butter, honey, Bara Brith and Doris no longer supplied them. Though she felt sorry about what had happened at Hawks Farm it would make no difference to them were she to deprive herself.

In the chiller cabinet was the meat she had wanted and it looked fresh and well prepared. She picked up a couple of trays to take her through the next two days and she would come back again before Lesley arrived.

She had finished and no-one had come into the shop. There had been no movement outside and, though she had heard a bell ring as she entered the front door, there had been no response. She put the basket on the counter beside the cash register.

She coughed.

She walked to the door and peered into the yard, where an old dog had now taken shelter in a wooden kennel.

The voice behind her was harsh and sudden and she let out a little cry of shock. “Is this it?” She spun to face the interior of the dim little place to find a tall, bulky man behind the counter removing her shopping and punching the keys of the till.

His jowly face was darkened with stubble, podgy fingers made her jars look like doll’s house miniatures. His dark eyes were shadowed and deep set, and she found his very presence intimidating. Worst was the grey-white apron stretched across his bulging belly. It was stained with blood, some bright and new, and some darkened and dried. There were bits of stuff sticking to the stains and she didn’t want to begin to imagine their origins. He saw her staring and brushed a hand down his front.

“Sorry, been doin’ the chickens, a couple of rabbits. Should ‘a’ taken it off, but I heard the bell.”

Jean was lost for words. She knew that the meat in the chiller didn’t get there by magic, the sheep in the field were not for decoration, and it was hypocritical to deny the messier side of food production. There was though something terribly unsavoury about the appearance of this burly individual, covered in what could only be bits of slaughtered animal, standing behind the little counter, handling jars of damson jam and tomato chutney.

Her instinct was to turn and walk away but she wanted the food and the other shopping choices were all very unsatisfactory. She forced her lips into a smile.

“I wondered if I could order some lamb for the weekend?”

“You staying around here then?”

“Yes. Well Head Cottage.”

“You the owner?”

“No, it belongs to a friend. I’ve been coming a long time though. There wasn’t a shop here last time?”

“Well, it’s been open about a year now. I expect you used the other one. Hawks Farm. Nearer to Well Head.”

Jean was embarrassed he had guessed she was only here because there was no other choice. She fiddled with her bag, didn’t like to meet his eyes. Still he continued with his gruff enquiries.

“Know ‘em do you? Smarts? Place has gone downhill now. Don’t expect they’ll be there long after.”

The fractured, confusing back and forth had Jean on the back foot and, more and more, she disliked this person, but she was torn. Did it matter if she didn’t like the shop keeper? No, not really, not if she wanted what he had to sell. She cleared her throat. Gained control. “I would like a leg of lamb enough for four please and I’ll pick it up on Sunday morning if that’s alright.” She reached and began to pack the shopping into her back pack.

As she held out the money to pay, he spoke again. “Well do you? Know ‘em, at Hawk’s Farm?”

“I’ve been coming a long time, I have got to know them a bit yes. It’s sad, what’s happened.”

“Aye, told you all about it has she, that Doris?”

“Not really. No. Look, shall I pay you now, for the meat.”

“No, pay when you collect it. We close at twelve on a Sunday.” With that he turned away and, running a hand through his greasy, thinning hair, he walked out through the door at the back of the shop. Jean stood for a moment in the sudden emptiness. She felt upset but couldn’t put her finger on the reason. She would come back on Sunday morning with Lesley, but then she didn’t think she would use the place again. There was no compunction on business people to be jolly and friendly, but the man she had just spoken to was unpleasant in many ways and she didn’t want to deal with him again.

The outing had been soured by her decision to enter the shop and she was sorry she hadn’t walked on past the dingy farm, as they had done every other time in the past.

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Well Head Cottage – 3

Loud knocking on the back door took her from the living room, where she had been about to start work, into the kitchen. Doris Smart’s face was pressed close to the little pane of glass. Jean waved and unlocked the door. She stepped over the threshold, carrying a large shopping basket.

“I can let you have some eggs, I’ve got carrots and a cauli’, there are some nice baby sprouts. If you want a chicken, I can bring you one tomorrow. Didn’t want to bring it over just to ‘ave to take it back. There’s some spuds as well, nice they are.”

As she spoke Doris unloaded the bag, and piled the contents onto the draining board. Now she folded the basket over and placed it on the kitchen table. She turned to look at Jean. “I’m sorry Mrs Duncan. First, I’m sorry about your husband,” Jean smiled at her, acknowledgement of the courtesy, “And I’m sorry if you thought I was rude earlier. You weren’t to know, about the shop.”

“No, it’s such a shame. And the tea garden is closed as well?”

“Aye. It is. I couldn’t keep it going.” The bright eyes sparkled a moment but it was tears that lit them, not the laughter that had used to be so near the surface. “I’ll be honest Mrs Duncan, I’m struggling. It’s been a bad year. The B&B business finished. I had a few of them bad reviews on the internet, we were fighting back, answering the complaints that were all made up. Then somebody said they’d been bitten by fleas and bed bugs. Well, they weren’t, of course they weren’t, but what can you do. Mud sticks and the bookings dried up. A couple of my regulars still wanted to come but you can’t run a business with a couple of regulars. Then we lost some ewes. Out in the summer grazing, that just about broke my Ted. They’d been worried, dogs probably. It doesn’t matter how many signs you put up, how many notices in the shops and what have you, it still can happen. But this was bad, half a dozen several days on the run. Awful it was. Then we had the fire in the shop. We were out, at a wedding, just one night, but it meant nobody saw until it was too late. Destroyed all the stock, the fridges, everything. We were lucky that it didn’t burn down the whole farm, but the shop was finished. I tried to claim, but I’d got the insurance wrong. It had grown from a little stall you see, and I didn’t realise. A separate venture they called it. I suppose they were right but it meant I got nothing.

A fox got in the hen house one night. Leastways that’s what we think happened. It could have been vandals, but we don’t have much of that up here. Anyway, the chickens were dead, most of ‘em. Locked ‘em up night times to keep ‘em safe, and look where it got me. Oh, it was just one thing after another. Then…” The woman paused, struggling for control. Jean’s instinct was to throw her arms around the thin shoulders but when she felt Doris tense and pull away she stepped back to the table. Doris coughed and continued. “My Ted is gone, Mrs Duncan.”

“Oh, Doris I am so sorry. When? Was he ill? An accident?” Doris was shaking her head.

“No, not dead, just gone. The trouble was too much for him. We were eating into our savings, we couldn’t fight back. Not with everything coming at once like that and,” She shrugged her shoulders, “He went off one day and didn’t come back.” She was crying openly now and when Jean pulled a chair from beside the table the other woman lowered herself slowly onto the seat, dragged a tissue from her pocket to wipe her eyes. She looked up at Jean, seemed to make a decision and continued. “I never would have thought he could do a thing like that. For hours I walked about looking for him. The police looked for him, they put notices in the shops, in the paper, even the local radio. But he were just gone. He’d taken the Land Rover and there was no sign of it, so they said it must have been deliberate. I still don’t believe it. I still keep waiting for him to come walking in. I can’t hold on much longer. When it starts to freeze I’ll have to get the flock in. When the spring comes, I can’t manage the lambing on my own, and I can’t afford help. I’m going to have to sell up, all of it. We had already let the big field go but now it’s the whole farm. But, if I do, what will he do when he comes back?” Jean was lost for words and so she sat beside Doris at the table. She took the other woman’s hand in hers.

“I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Diana didn’t say anything.”

Doris shook her head. “No, she hasn’t been up for a long time and I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to risk losing this job. I need it. It’s only a bit but it’s regular.”

“Oh, I’m sure she wouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s hard to know what people will do, and I just couldn’t take the chance.

We thought we were okay, we didn’t need much. We didn’t have a mortgage but there were some loans, huh, show me a farmer without loans. Without the tourist trade we went down so quickly.” She flapped a hand in front of her. “Oh look, what am I bothering you with all this for. It’s not your business and you here on holiday. Ignore me. Do you want the chicken?”

The unexpected outpouring had left Jean struggling for how to respond. “Yes please. Is there anything I can do for you, Doris.?”

“No, there’s nothing anyone can do. I’m just trying to get by, day by day, you know? But, it can’t last much longer and then I’ll have to go and I’ll have let him down, Ted.”

“And you’ve no idea where he might have gone?” Though it was obvious all these questions had already been asked Jean felt compelled to go through the routine. It seemed the only way to show sympathy in the face of such a disaster. “I knew that it was hard for hill farmers but I am so sorry about all this.”

“Aye, well. I have to accept it and if I sell now, I’ll perhaps be able to buy a little place and then maybe, I’ll get work. I can’t think about it, I can’t see a way ahead, not properly. But we have to keep going don’t we. You lost your Jim, you have an understanding.”

“Yes, I did but it wasn’t like this. It was hard, yes it was horrible, but then my way ahead was relatively uncomplicated, there was insurance, well you know, all that stuff.”

“Yes, I can’t believe I could say this to you, Mrs Duncan, but there’s a bit of me that envies you that. Forgive me, I know that’s an awful thing to say but this… this is torment, and I don’t see any end to it. I can’t believe he would have done this to me without something terrible happening. I think he had a breakdown, lost his memory. I think he’s out there somewhere lost and on his own. It breaks my heart, and it’ll stay broken till he comes home. Well, now you know, and don’t you upset yourself. There’s nothing you can do, there nothing anyone can do. But please don’t tell Mrs Turnbull. I’ll not let her down, and when I go, I’ll make sure there’ll be someone to take over, but please don’t tell her.”

“Of course, I won’t, and please, Doris, if there is anything I can do, ever, just let me know. Here.” Jean pulled a sheet of paper from the shopping list pad on the wall and scribbled her contact details. “If ever I can help you in some way, call me.”

Doris took the piece of paper and dredged up a smile from the depths of her misery. “You’re a good woman, Mrs Duncan, thank you. I’ll bring a chicken tomorrow, you can pay me then. Cash if you would. Is your sister coming and that lovely boy?”

“Carl? I hope so, he’s at college now, so it will depend on his classes and suchlike.”

“College, good heavens. I remember when he was nothing but a little thing. Do you want giblets for the cat?” it was obvious now that the woman was trying to restore some equilibrium, was possibly embarrassed by the outpouring of grief. Jean respected and acknowledged the strength it took. She had been through similar situations herself when the emotion had ambushed her, suddenly and embarrassingly. She let go of the woman’s hand. Gave her back her dignity.

“No, thanks Doris. I left Slumpy at home, a neighbour is feeding him.”

“Aye well, it’s a precious thing that – having nice neighbours.” Doris shook her head gathered up her bag and, without another word, she stepped through the door and off down the path.

Jean turned to stare at the pile of vegetables beside the sink. What a dreadfully, sad conversation.,

Jean’s mind began to turn, scenarios started to play out in her head. She went through to the living room, opened her laptop, and began to type. Listing the facts, making short notes of ideas and inventing explanations. Lesley thought it ghoulish using real life events for her books, but they all started somewhere and often it was somewhere sad and tragic. She was always very careful that none of the characters were identifiable.

A sheep farmer walking away from his farm and his flock though, it was intriguing.

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Well Head Cottage – 2

Ever so slowly Jean’s nerves began to settle. When there was no more noise, her muscles relaxed and, when it became clear that the drama had past, she stepped out from the corner. She picked up the glass from the floor, lifted the edge of the curtains and peered out into the dark garden.

There was nothing and no-one to see. She stood for a while, watching, waiting, until she was sure that, whatever had been going on, was finished.

Well, that was it, her contented mood was shattered. She blew out the candles, checked the door locks and went to bed. It took a long time for sleep to come. She wasn’t afraid now it was past. Looking at it calmly, it didn’t really seem that she had been in danger, and yet… Replaying in her mind, were the events in the clearing.

A gun man with an automatic weapon had crouched and fired. The noise and shock of all of that resurfaced and niggled at the edge of her memory, indistinct as it had been on the day. Lost in a fog of illness, it had been a nightmare that came back, in bits and pieces, over the following weeks. There were things she was told, things she thought she remembered. She accepted it was a part of her history, that, realistically, she would never completely forget.  She spoke aloud into the dark room, a habit she had developed when her world became so quiet after Jim died. “It’s over Jean. It was just some country thing. Nothing happened. There is nothing to worry about.” But as she turned onto her side under the duvet, she acknowledged that she had been shaken to the core.

Eventually she slept.

There was a moment of disorientation when she woke in the strange room, but it was fleeting and she smiled as she threw back the curtains to a bright morning. The grass in the little garden sparkled with dew and already the wildlife was up and about.

Drinking coffee at the table outside the back door, she replayed the events of the night before. Here, in daylight with birds chattering and complaining in the trees, the rumble of a tractor somewhere far away, and the bleating of sheep on the rise just over the narrow river, she could view it all calmly.

Whoever had been outside with a gun had been very close to the house. But, they hadn’t threatened her, safe inside. She knew that Diana had refused permission for the hunt to cross her land, years ago. Her friend was a vegetarian and totally opposed to hunting of any sort, but, she hadn’t been to the cottage herself for almost two years, and so her influence had obviously waned.

Jean decided that she wouldn’t mention it. There wasn’t anything Diana could do from a distance and Jean felt that, in the country, then country ways had to be respected.

It had probably just been someone out lamping, luring, and shooting rabbits, and there was no point dwelling on it any longer. She took her cup back into the kitchen, collected her coat and backpack and set off to walk to Hawks Farm.

There had been a few small changes in the area. A couple of new bungalows had been built on the road into the village. The farm itself was a disappointment. It had always been neat and pretty. Flower pots had lined the path to the little shop and tea garden, and there had been chickens running loose in front of the house.

Now, it appeared neglected, the paint on the fences was dirty and peeling, the pots were filled with weeds. As Jean walked closer she could see that the tea garden was deserted. The plastic tables and chairs were piled in a corner and they were grubby and wet. Weeds had grown around the legs. They had not been put there because it was the end of the summer season, but had been stacked for a long time. She rounded the corner of the building and was swept with disappointment when she saw that the farm shop was also closed. The display counters, which stretched along the front wall, were bare and broken, the place looked dark and dishevelled.

She went nearer, peered through the glazed door. The interior was destroyed, the walls blackened, and piles of twisted debris covered the floor. The paint on the door itself was bubbled and scorched. She looked up and saw the roof was bulging inwards. The shop had burned, it was shocking.

Selfishly she muttered, “Damn it.” This would mean that she would have to shop in the village. The locals had long since succumbed to the lure of the retail park, just a short drive along the motorway, and so the nearby shops were rather dull. There was a bakery which was okay, but the tiny supermarket was very lack lustre.

She was disappointed. Visits to the farm shop had been one of the pleasures of stays in the cottage. Diana hadn’t mentioned anything about it being destroyed. If she had been forewarned she would have brought more supplies with her. She didn’t want to go to a hypermarket and, if she was staying for three weeks, she didn’t want to have to make do with the limited choice in the village.

As she turned away a figure appeared at the corner of the building. Wrapped in a blue jacket and with a woollen hat pulled over her grey hair, Doris Smart stepped across the paved path. “Can I ‘elp you?”

“Mrs Smart, Doris. How are you?” Jean moved forward with her hand outstretched. As she reached where the other woman stood, it was a struggle to keep the shock from showing in her face. It had been almost three years and in that time, this once bright, bubbly, busybody of a farmer’s wife, had lost the sparkle that once lit her bright blue eyes, her shoulders had hunched, and her once round, clear skinned face had become lined and grey.

“Oh, it’s you. Mrs Duncan. I didn’t see it was you.” Unexpectedly the voice was still strong and, as Doris Smart smiled, the ghost of the woman Jean remembered showed itself.

“Doris, it’s lovely to see you. I came to buy some things but…” Jean half turned, swept a hand towards the sad, empty shop.

“Aye, well. As you see I can’t help you I’m afraid. Sorry.”  Doris shook her head, waved a hand towards the gate, leaving Jean with no choice but to walk past her and down towards the road. Doris nodded once as she fastened the latch and then turned away to stomp back towards her front door.

With no other choice, Jean retraced her steps and walked into the village where she bought some bread and a pie for her lunch.

She would call Lesley, get her to bring some things. But, apart from the small disappointment about shopping there was a greater unease. There had been something unsettling about the feel of the farm and the change in the farmer’s wife. It was sad that the little shop had been destroyed but surely that wasn’t enough of a disaster to cause such a deterioration in the woman. She wondered if she should call Diana and ask her. Or, was she yet again poking her nose in where it might not be wanted. Lesley was coming in just a few days and there was no doubt that she would tell her to mind her own business. With a sigh Jean climbed the stairs and started to unpack her suitcases.

 

 

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Well Head Cottage

So, Do you remember Jean Duncan from The Girl in the Water?

Here she is again.

Chapter 1 

Jean Duncan took a deep breath, reached out, and unlocked the door to Well Head Cottage. When Diana Turnbull, had offered it to her for a few weeks, she had hesitated. Jean and James had been coming here for years and took their last holiday, just months before his death, in what had become a favourite place for walking, and getting away from his stressful job but where she could, if she felt like it, still work on her writing. She had thought that maybe the memories would be too painful. But, it would give her a chance to hide, out of the way, after the court cases that she had just endured. She could avoid the publicity surrounding her part in the capture of a gang of people traffickers, and the death of two young women refugees. It had been horrible and it would be good to get away from it all.

She had pushed aside her worries and accepted. There had been dozens of things just like this to face in the years since Jim died and she had learned that the best, no, the only way to deal with them was head on. There was work to do on her new novel, and she loved the cottage, so why not?

Lesley, had agreed to come, but then last-minute drama at her job had interfered. So, here she was, alone, about to step into her past, just a little bit.

It was warm in the narrow hallway, and the olfactory memory hit her like a gust of wind. Old wood, sun warmed dust, and the faint undertone of damp, and disinfectant. The local woman who looked after the place had obviously been, there was the hint of furniture polish in the mix of scents. She always left fruit from her orchards, and usually cheese and eggs from the farm shop, in the kitchen.

Jean let the atmosphere wash over her. She remembered the last time, Jim thumping about, bringing in their bags, shouting from the kitchen about getting to the pub in time for dinner, and then turning on the tap because he always had to run the water, ‘to clear the pipes’ even though he knew Mrs Smart from the farm had used the kitchen not long before.

Jean smiled, she could remember him now without the sharp stab of pain, and he would have wanted her to smile.

She went back outside. It was beginning to get dark. There was a chill in the air, but the smell of loam, and the feel of autumn was magical. She stood for a moment gazing at the purpling sky, the Welsh mountains looming grey in the distance. She enjoyed the quiet, with just the evening rustlings in the garden around her.

She was glad she had come.

Once the car was parked on the hard standing at the side of the little house, she carried her bags back inside, and dumped them in the hallway.

She had brought her sister’s case with her so that, when she came up at the weekend she could travel on the train with no luggage. She would give, Lesley the big double bedroom and take the twin at the back for herself. Some memories were still tinged with sadness and she didn’t want to feel sad.

The cottage was warm and clean, but she was surprised that there were no supplies in the fridge. It wasn’t that she had arranged it, just that it was usual. Milk, eggs, usually cheese and some veggies. Obviously, things had changed in the last couple of years. Still, she had food in a box in the car and some milk from home, which would still be fresh.  It was a tiny disappointment nothing more, and in the morning, she would go over to Hawks Farm, say hello to Doris Smart, and buy what she needed. The apples were there though, in a bowl on the kitchen table. She didn’t want apples, she wanted a big glass of red wine, something easy to eat, like, cheese on toast, and to sit and bask in the peace and quiet.

Tomorrow would be soon enough to start work. So, for this evening, she had music and a novel.  She lit candles, drank brandy, and allowed her nerves to unravel and let all the upset and distress drift away. Sitting on the settee, a blanket over her legs, warm and cosy, she could have stayed just there, just like that, forever.

The explosion of gun fire froze her in place for a moment, the glass half way to her lips. Then instinct jerked her from her seat and sent her scurrying into the corner. She had dropped the brandy glass and as she stood with her back against the wall, her heart pounding and all her nerve endings jumping with shock, she watched the amber liquid soaking into the sheepskin of the fireside rug.

There was a second sharp crack, a shout, and a flash of light, the beam of a torch, sweeping past the window. Jean was terrified. She had been involved in a shooting, too short a time ago, the pain and fear came rushing back, vague and unformed, tumbling emotions. Her mind was racing, trying to understand. Wild panic caused her to whimper into the gloom. There was the tramp of feet on the gravel drive, the rustle of bushes and just once the bark of a dog.

What the hell was going on?

 

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Short Story – Love is blind.

I groaned even before I opened my eyes I’ll admit it, Bloody Valentine’s day – Yay.  So, we had to start early, pratting about with stupid roses and pathetic shiny hearts scattered on the table tops.  They’d all have to be cleaned up later and we would have to do it because the cleaners had refused.

We all had to wear antlers – bloody antlers with sparkly heart shapes on em. I ask you what the hell have antlers got to do with sodding Valentine’s day – huh.  Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Luigi had us all in for a staff talk before the lunch time service.  “You are my link with the lovers – oh for Pete’s sake.  My waiting staff are the ones who make the impression on my beautiful romantic customers, well I would have thought it was the free pudding and inclusive wine deal but, hey what do I know?  You must smile, be so very, very nice to them, make the restaurant hum with love.”  Hum with soddin love, he’s from Preston, Luigi, his name is really Les but he’s got so caught up in his pretend Italian background he makes me want to vomit.  On he went “Make sure all of the candles are lit and the glasses are sparkling yadah yadah yadah and not a word of thanks to those of us who had taken an extra shift to help out.”

So, I thought of the extra cash and the red stiletto heels I was going to buy with the bonus, I gritted my teeth and I got on with it.   It was every bit as ghastly as I thought it would be, simpering bloody girls giggling and crying and stupid arsed blokes looking smug, – Oh look at me aren’t I the cat’s pyjamas, I’m so cool, I remembered to make a booking three weeks in advance and with a bit of luck it means I’ll get my end away tonight.  Pathetic.

That was until they came in.  I saw one of the other girls jump to open the door, that was what attracted my attention.  Two older people struggling with the heavy wood and glass.  Milly showed them in and checked their names and took them to the table in the corner, one on my tables.

I grabbed the menus and gave them a minute to get themselves sorted, coats off, seats adjusted but they were making all sorts of fuss, that table is behind the pillar and I couldn’t see everything that was going on but something was.  Yes, I admit it I sighed, great just my luck a high maintenance pair.  Nothing to be done, think of the shoes, think of the shoes.

Well I took them the menus, they were holding hands and he was leaning over and kissing her on the cheek, and I mean they were old they must have been nearly fifty.  I felt like making that fingers down the throat gesture but that would have lost me my job and I thought of the shoes!

So, I got there and by now he had picked up the freebie rose and kissed it and handed it to her and she was sniffing at it, oh bloody hell, think of the shoes, think of the shoes.

Then I saw, two Labradors under the table, well behaved, tucking themselves in out of the way, both wearing yellow harnesses.  The bloke turned to me “Hi, could you be lovely and read the menu to us, do you mind?  They were still holding hands, they were both smiling and then he said “It feels so lovely in here, you can feel the love in the air.  It’s our big treat this we come every year it’s the anniversary of the day we met.  Are you all wearing those silly antlers again? The waitress last year said they were giving her a headache.”  I nodded and then realised that wouldn’t do it and so I just muttered

“Yeah, yeah sparkly antlers,” and I looked at her and at him, sitting there so – you know together somehow and so happy in spite of their problems.  I poured them some water then I told ‘em, “The tables are set with white linens, the cutlery is the heavy silver stuff that we keep for special occasions and there are silver vases with red roses in each one.”  There are little shiny hearts scattered on the tops.”  I picked a couple up and gave them one each to hold, “there are vases of lilies in the corners, I expect you can smell those?” she nodded then,” The lights are very low and candles are stood on all the window ledges in red heart shaped holders, each table has a wine bucket with white wine chilling, Shall I pour yours now before I read the menu to you?”  He nodded and reached out and just found my hand and squeezed it.

“Thank you, thank you so much. That’s the first time anyone has taken the time to tell us what it looks like.  It sounds wonderful, you have made this so very special for us, bless you.”  I think they enjoyed themselves.  I even sneaked some chicken to the guide dogs.

Yeah, I got the shoes, they rubbed a blister on my toe

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