Hap­pily Ever Af­ter

Re­becca Holmes’s per­cep­tive com­plete story set in north­ern Wales wel­comes you to a brand-new Spe­cial.

The People's Friend Special - - CONTENTS -

A nos­tal­gic story by Re­becca Holmes

IKNOW it’s not much to look at, but you’ll f ind it com­fort­able once you’ve set­tled in,” Derek, the car­a­van’s owner, as­sured us. “My wife and I stayed in it while the roof on our house was be­ing re­paired. If we man­aged in the mid­dle of a Welsh win­ter, then this au­tumn weather should pose no prob­lem for a young cou­ple like you. And then there’s the view! What more can you ask for?”

He was right about the car­a­van – it wasn’t much to look at, cer­tainly to my tired eyes af­ter a drive that had taken al­most all day. This was 1972, and the route was long and ar­du­ous. It seemed a mi­nor mir­a­cle our lit­tle old Austin had coped. As for the view, at the mo­ment it was nonex­is­tent, and not just be­cause it would soon be dark.

“North Wales is so pretty,” ev­ery­one had said when they heard where we were go­ing. “Even the jour­ney there will be part of the hol­i­day.”

They couldn’t know that the rain would start within sec­onds of our cross­ing the bor­der and grow steadily and re­lent­lessly heav­ier the fur­ther we went. In­stead of a pic­nic en route, we’d ended up eat­ing our sand­wiches in the car with the win­dows wound down to stop them steam­ing up. All I wanted right now was a hot cup of tea.

“There’s a very nice pub, the Black Sheep, at the other end of the vil­lage,” Derek was say­ing. “Noth­ing fancy, but they’re very friendly. The vil­lage shop has the ba­sics, though Mrs Jones has closed for the day now. And a new lady moved into the old black­smith’s cot­tage last year and she runs a gift shop.”

“Does the pub serve food?” Colin asked. “I’m fam­ished.” Derek frowned. “They might rus­tle up a sand­wich if you ask, and they al­ways have crisps. I’ll leave you to it. The la­va­tory’s in the shed at the top of the gar­den. That was fun in win­ter, I can tell you! You’ll sleep well, any­way. It’s very quiet.”

Af­ter we’d un­packed and had a cuppa thanks to the tea bags we’d packed, I opted for early bed and a book while Colin de­cided to try out the Black Sheep.

A few min­utes af­ter he left, the rain be­came even heav­ier, drum­ming on the car­a­van roof and mak­ing it hard for me to get into my book, so my mind soon wan­dered.

When Colin and I mar­ried, just over two years ago, I was so happy. We en­joyed plan­ning all the things we’d do – the home and fam­ily we’d build up to­gether.

I took no no­tice of my mother’s cau­tion­ary words.

“You may feel as if you’re in a fairy tale at the mo­ment. The trou­ble with those sto­ries is that they al­ways end with the wed­ding. They don’t carry on to the re­al­i­ties of ev­ery­day life. The next few years will be a bumpy ride.”

At the time, I thought she was be­ing a sour­puss. Some­times it seems to be a mum’s job to spoil her chil­dren’s fun! Be­sides, she and Dad seemed to get along and they were nowhere near as ro­man­tic and lov­ing as Colin and me.

As the months went by, though, I be­gan to won­der if she was right. We were lucky – we both had jobs and had been able to af­ford a nice lit­tle house, but some­times it felt as if the long hours we worked weren’t a labour of love to help achieve the things we’d dreamed of, but a slow grind just to make ends meet.

Shop­ping for food and cook­ing meals at the end of the day soon lost its nov­elty and joined the grow­ing list of chores.

Week­ends were spent work­ing on the house, which needed a lot do­ing to it, and catch­ing up with the wash­ing, iron­ing and end­less clean­ing.

We seemed to spend ev­ery wak­ing mo­ment jug­gling our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and f inances. A hol­i­day seemed out of the ques­tion till Colin saw the car­a­van listed in the clas­sif ied ads sec­tion of the lo­cal pa­per.

“It’s ba­sic and in the mid­dle of nowhere, but we can just af­ford it.”

The car­a­van door opened and Colin came in, shak­ing the wa­ter off his coat. “Is there a towel handy?” Once he didn’t look quite so much like a drowned rat, he sat down on the edge of the bed and handed me a packet of crisps.

“It’s a nice lit­tle pub,” he told me once we’d set­tled down for the night. “It was too late for any proper food, but the land­lord and land­lady were pleas­ant. Their son cooks there a cou­ple of times a week on his evenings off from be­ing chef at a res­tau­rant. He’s keen on lo­cal food, ap­par­ently. Lo­cally grown veg­eta­bles and all that.” He paused. “Funny to think of a man do­ing the cook­ing.” I rolled my eyes. “What about the Gal­lop­ing Gourmet? He even man­ages to make it seem fun.”

“Each to his own, I sup­pose.” Colin turned over, set­tling into his favourite sleep­ing po­si­tion, and fell asleep al­most straight away.

I lay awake, lis­ten­ing to the rain on the me­tal roof and won­der­ing what it would be like to have some­one like the Gal­lop­ing Gourmet cook me a de­li­cious meal, un­til at last I drifted off, too.

AS it turned out, I did have a meal cooked for me the next day. The weather perked up long enough for us to get out in the car and ex­plore. Moun­tains reared up in the dis­tance, streams seemed to flow ev­ery­where, and ev­ery­thing was green and some­how mel­low and dra­matic at the same time.

Then the clouds and mist de­scended again as if to herd us back to the vil­lage. We stocked up on pro­vi­sions from the lit­tle shop run by Mrs Jones. At the gift shop we were greeted by a friendly young woman of about my age who in­tro­duced her­self as Gla­dys Par­tiger.

Most fairy tales end

with a wed­ding, have you no­ticed? But that’s just the be­gin­ning of the

story . . .

“Feel free to browse,” she told us. I found my­self drawn to a del­i­cate wa­ter­colour which I recog­nised as the view across the f ields near our car­a­van, to­wards the moun­tains.

“I never tire of that view,” Gla­dys said when she saw me look­ing at it. “The moun­tains may not be as fa­mous as Snow­don, but they’re mar­vel­lous char­ac­ters. I could al­most feel them watch­ing over me as I painted.” “You painted this?” She nod­ded. “Along with sev­eral oth­ers. Quite a few lo­cal artists and crafts­men sell their work here, so if you buy any­thing you’ll know it’s truly lo­cal, not mass-pro­duced.”

“Peo­ple seem keen on lo­cal pro­duce round here,” Colin re­marked. “The land­lord at the pub was telling me his son uses a lot in his cook­ing.”

“Rhys? He’s cook­ing at the pub tonight, if you want to treat your­selves. You need to get there early. The place soon f ills up.”

“Can we af­ford it?” I asked Colin as we went back to the car­a­van. “I was plan­ning cheese on toast tonight.”

“Don’t you mean Welsh rarebit?” Colin teased. “From what I gath­ered last night, the prices at the pub are rea­son­able. I think we can stretch to one meal out. This is our f irst hol­i­day in a long time, af­ter all. We de­serve it. We can live on toast for the rest of the week, to make up.”

I thought of the paint­ing I’d seen. I would have loved to buy some­thing like that. I hadn’t asked Gla­dys how much it cost be­cause some­thing told me the f ig­ure would be too high, and then we’d both feel awk­ward.

In the Black Sheep the food was as f ine as we’d been promised, the roast lamb ten­der and flavour­some with young, sweet veg­eta­bles cooked just right. Even when we turned down the dessert, mind­ful of our bud­get, they still served us each a small piece of ap­ple-pie.

“On the house,” Gwyneth, the land­lady, said. “Our ap­ple trees have given us such a bumper crop this year, we’ve more than we know what to do with.”

We’d opted to sit in a quiet cor­ner, close to the f ire that had been lit against the early au­tumn evening chill. As Colin savoured his pint of lo­cal ale and I sipped my lemon­ade some­one walked to­wards us, hand out­stretched. “Hello, there. I’m Rhys, the chef.” He was around six feet tall, with a mane of thick, black hair, brown eyes, broad shoul­ders and a warm smile. My knees went weak. “I hope you en­joyed the meal.” “It was lovely, thank you,” I stam­mered. “De­li­cious,” Colin agreed. “The best lamb I’ve ever tasted. Even bet­ter than Janet’s, here,” he added, as an af­ter­thought.

“I’m sure that’s not the case.” Rhys drew up a stool and my heart flut­tered. “I think the soft­ness of the air here helps with the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of food, and, of course, the qual­ity of the in­gre­di­ents plays a vi­tal part. Where are you stay­ing?”

He smiled again when we told him about the car­a­van.

“I’ve heard it’s . . . ba­sic. Still, it’s in a beau­ti­ful spot.” He stood up. “I’ve an early start to­mor­row, so I’ll say good­night. En­joy your hol­i­day.”

THE weather im­proved. We ex­plored cas­tles and lit­tle sea­side towns, and walked on beaches. Although our f inances wouldn’t stretch to another meal out, we did call in at the Black Sheep for a few quiet drinks, to en­joy the com­pany and the warmth of the f ire.

For me, those weren’t the only rea­sons. I couldn’t help hop­ing we’d bump into Rhys again. A cou­ple of times, we did. On both oc­ca­sions he came over to chat, but was never able to stay for long.

“It must be diff icult try­ing to f it in cook­ing here with your main job,” I said. I could feel my­self blush­ing.

“It is, but this is our fam­ily busi­ness, and I’ll do what I can to help build it up. It will be worth it in the long run. My dream is to be able to give up my other job and con­cen­trate on work­ing here one day. There’s no place I’d rather be.”

I could un­der­stand that. The week was go­ing by far too quickly for me.

Colin, on the other hand, was grow­ing rest­less.

“It’s nice for a rest, but I’d go mad with bore­dom if I had to stay here for any length of time.”

I thought of our daily life. If I lived here, with my sec­re­tar­ial ex­pe­ri­ence I could surely get a job in one of the nearby mar­ket towns. My ca­reer prospects might be lim­ited, but wouldn’t it be worth it? I thought so, even if Colin didn’t.

It made me won­der. If we viewed things so dif­fer­ently, per­haps we didn’t have as much in com­mon as we’d thought. Now, with some­one like Rhys . . .

I stopped, shocked at my train of thought.

ON our last day rain drove us back from our walk. With our pack­ing more or less com­plete, it wasn’t time to cook our evening meal, which we would eat by one of the win­dows over­look­ing the moun­tains whose names I could never re­mem­ber.

“I’d like a last look round the gift shop,” I said. “We prob­a­bly won’t have time in the morn­ing.”

Colin looked up from do­ing a crossword.

“I thought you’d al­ready seen ev­ery­thing there.” “I have, but . . .” “What, love?” “There’s a paint­ing, you see, and as we’ve been care­ful with our funds this week, I thought it would be some­thing nice to take back with us. I don’t know how much it costs, though.” Colin stood up. “We won’t know if we don’t ask.”

I soon wished we hadn’t. Gla­dys was apolo­getic, and was able to drop the price a bit, but it was still too ex­pen­sive. That was the f irst blow.

The sec­ond was when Rhys walked into the gallery.

The way Gla­dys’s face lit up as soon as he stepped through the door was enough to tell me how the land lay be­tween them, even be­fore he strode over to her and they em­braced.

Colin kept up most of our side of the con­ver­sa­tion. Rhys learned we were leav­ing the next day.

“Are you com­ing for a last drink, then?”

Colin looked at me. I shook my head.

“I need to get back to the car­a­van to pre­pare our meal, then it’ll be an early night. We’ve a long jour­ney ahead of us.” I smiled at my hus­band. “Go if you want, love. As long as you’re back be­fore din­ner’s burned!”

Some­how our lit­tle car rat­tled its way over the miles the next day.

The week away must have worked some magic be­cause our re­turn jour­ney was much more re­laxed than our out­ward one.

It prob­a­bly helped that we were both still com­fort­ably full from the night be­fore, when Colin had re­turned to the car­a­van laden with, among other things, an ap­ple-pie; a farewell present from the Black Sheep.

“They’ve still got more than they know what to do with.”

The re­mains of the pie were in the boot, safely wrapped for later.

Colin was pleased to have sur­prised me. And that wasn’t the only sur­prise.

“The way Rhys is such a dab hand at this cook­ing lark, it’s got me think­ing. Maybe it’s time I did some cook­ing, to take some of the bur­den off you. What do you reckon?” I frowned. “But you can’t cook, love.” “I could learn. Rhys has given me some easy recipes to get me started.”

I was still tak­ing that in when he car­ried on.

“I thought we might go in that new hard­ware shop and choose some new wall­pa­per for the liv­ing-room. The right de­sign could brighten it up no end.” I nod­ded. “I like the sound of that. It’ll need to be some­thing that matches the paint­ing, though. I’ve al­ready de­cided that’s go­ing over the side­board.”

Colin had re­turned with it along with the ap­ple-pie. It wasn’t he paint­ing – that had still been too ex­pen­sive.

But Gla­dys had re­mem­bered she had a sim­i­lar, slightly smaller one. It would still be more than we could orig­i­nally af­ford, but my birth­day was com­ing up in a few weeks.

“Just re­mem­ber that you can’t put it up be­fore your birth­day,” Colin warned. “And try to look sur­prised on the day.”

He paused at a junction and looked across at me.

“Our house should start tak­ing shape and feel­ing like a home soon.”

Over the next weeks, the thought spurred us on so that dec­o­rat­ing no longer felt such a chore. A year later, we were dec­o­rat­ing the spare room, choos­ing nurs­ery rhyme wall­pa­per and mak­ing plans for fam­ily life.

WE didn’t go back again for a long, long time. Hol­i­days were still a strain on the bud­get, even more so when a grow­ing fam­ily meant mov­ing to a big­ger house. When we did have some spare money we opted for hol­i­days in sun­nier climes, with warm weather guar­an­teed.

It was only when our chil­dren were grown and with chil­dren of their own that our youngest daugh­ter, Abby, came up with the idea. She was present when we were hav­ing a clear-out. Our old photo al­bums, nor­mally kept in the side­board, were out on the ta­ble along with var­i­ous odds and ends.

Abby started look­ing through them, smil­ing at pic­tures of her­self as a baby. It was the al­bums from the ear­li­est days of our mar­riage that fas­ci­nated her most.

She came to the photos of Wales. “That place looks so pretty.” I peered over her shoul­der at the faded colours.

“These don’t show it at its best,” I told her. “My favourite pic­ture of the val­ley is up there.”

I nod­ded at the paint­ing, still in pride of place over the side­board although we were in a dif­fer­ent house.

“Oh, yes. The val­ley far, far away you used to tell us about in made-up sto­ries at bed­time.”

Abby had al­ways been the most fan­ci­ful of my chil­dren; a dreamer, tak­ing af­ter me.

“But it isn’t so far away, is it?”

“It felt like it back then, when we didn’t have such fast cars or as many mo­tor­ways. I won­der how much it’s changed over the years?”

A few months later, we found out. This time, we didn’t stay in the car­a­van – there was no sign of it, any­way – but in a com­fort­able cot­tage, large enough for the whole fam­ily.

Aside from the car­a­van’s dis­ap­pear­ance we were pleas­antly sur­prised at how much still seemed the same.

“That’s the ad­van­tage of be­ing out of the way,” Owen, the young, some­how fa­mil­iar­look­ing man be­hind the bar at the Black Sheep told us on our f irst evening.

Colin and I had slipped out for a quiet drink as our chil­dren got the var­i­ous grand­chil­dren set­tled.

The pub looked al­most the same from the out­side, though its in­te­rior had been re­fur­bished. The nearby Black­smith’s Cot­tage Gallery was still go­ing, too, look­ing more so­phis­ti­cated than be­fore.

“Who runs this place now?” Colin asked. “It was a fam­ily con­cern when we were last here.” “It still is.” I recog­nised the voice even af­ter all these years. To my hor­ror, I felt the colour surge to my cheeks, as if I was still that young woman who hadn’t yet grown into her role and found con­tent­ment.

Thank­fully, the re­ac­tion sub­sided as quickly as it had ar­rived.

We both shook hands with the distin­guished-look­ing land­lord, who suited the patches of sil­ver at his tem­ples.

“Haven’t I seen both of you some­where be­fore?”

Soon we were catch­ing up on each oth­ers’ news. The young man at the bar was Rhys’s son, Owen.

“A f ine chef, fol­low­ing in the fam­ily tra­di­tion,” Rhys an­nounced proudly. “We need him, too, to keep up with de­mand. Gla­dys would have been help­ing tonight, but she’s busy f inishing off a paint­ing for an ex­hi­bi­tion she has com­ing up.”

It was al­most as if we’d never been away. The place was as mag­i­cal as ever.

Yet, as we walked back to the cot­tage with the bab­ble of the stream in the back­ground, I knew that a life here would never have been right for me.

Nei­ther would Rhys have been.

What I had felt back then had been a girl­ish in­fat­u­a­tion. A dream while I was learn­ing that you got the best out of life by ac­cept­ing the rough with the smooth, and that the man be­side me now was the one to share that life with.

The fact that he’d mas­tered the art of mak­ing a mean cot­tage pie and suc­cu­lent roast lamb with per­fect roast pota­toes prob­a­bly helped!

The grand­chil­dren were still awake when we got back.

“I made the mis­take of men­tion­ing the sto­ries you used to tell us about this place,” Abby con­fessed. “They want to hear one, and it has to come from you.”

I smiled at the solemn yet rapt ex­pres­sions on the faces of the lit­tle ones as I sat on the edge of the bed where they’d all gath­ered.

“Once in a val­ley, far, far away,” I be­gan, “a young princess and her bride­groom shel­tered in a lit­tle tin house, near a stream that chat­tered all night long. Even though they didn’t know it at the time, this was to be the be­gin­ning of many ad­ven­tures.”

The End.

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