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