Work In Progress
Two people try to find their way in this observant short story by Katie Ashmore.
WHAT do you think?” Luke grinned at Sian, his excitement tangible. “It’s unrecognisable,” she replied, relief mingling with apprehension as she surveyed the façade of the cottage.
The roof had been retiled, the windows replaced and a navy front door now filled the gap that before had been boarded up with old wood and sacking.
The derelict garage, with its rusting red Austin, had been removed, too.
“It’s a different place altogether, isn’t it?” he agreed, beaming at her. “I’m still finishing off a few bits and pieces, but all the basics are done, so we’re fine to start on decorating the rooms or working outside in the garden if you prefer.”
Sian followed him up the path in silence as he chatted away, his enthusiasm spilling over.
The house wasn’t the only thing that had changed, she reflected.
Luke himself was hardly recognisable. He was leaner, more tanned. His dark hair was a little longer and his eyes alight with their old spark.
With a pang, she realised he had once again become the man she’d married ten years before.
The problem was she wasn’t the same woman and, somewhere along the way, they had lost each other.
She didn’t know if it would be possible to find their way back.
She took a deep breath and entered the cottage. Everywhere smelled of sawdust and plaster. It was cold and impersonal.
She couldn’t imagine the house as anyone’s home, least of all her own.
She’d been horrified the day Luke had bought it.
“We need to talk,” he’d said.
“Right now, Luke? I’ve got work to do and a conference call in an hour. Can’t it wait?”
“No, it can’t.”
Her foot was on the bottom stair, but something in his tone had made her stop and look back.
His face was grey, his whole body taut.
“What is it?” she asked. “I’ve made a decision,” he said, his expression a mixture of defiance and anxiety. “I’ve bought a cottage.”
“You’ve done what?”
Sian had sat down heavily, unable to believe her ears.
“I’ve bought a cottage,”
Once, this cottage had been her dream, but it was turning into a nightmare . . .
he repeated. “I miss the countryside and, since you’re working all hours, I could do with a project.” Sian stared at him.
“It’s not just any cottage,” he continued. “It’s the one near Mum and Dad’s. The one you always said was romantic. That you’d like to live in . . .”
His voice trailed away as he saw the look on her face.
“That was years ago. You must be mad. It was derelict back then so I shouldn’t think there’s much left of it at all now. What were you thinking of, taking such a big step without even consulting me?” Her voice rose.
“How dare you! How much money have you thrown away on this heap of rubble?”
He’d listened to her ranting on, his face hardening, and when she’d stormed off, he’d made no attempt to follow her.
Later, they’d talked stiffly over their supper and he’d tried to explain.
“I love you,” he’d said, “but I’m afraid that I’m losing you and something badly needs to change.”
Sian knew she worked long hours. During the week, they hardly saw each other, and for the most part weekends weren’t much better, but she enjoyed her job.
To give up their comfortable life in the city to live in a ramshackle cottage was madness and, quite frankly, she didn’t want to do it.
In the end, they’d reached a compromise. He would do the structural work on the cottage at weekends.
Once it was ready to be decorated and furnished, she would help.
If she still felt the same when it was completed, then he would sell it.
So, here they were.
“Where would you like to start?” Luke asked her now, spreading out his arms as he surveyed his property.
Sian wasn’t sure she wanted to start at all.
“I don’t mind. You decide.”
Luke chose the kitchen, suggesting that the sooner it was completed, the easier their weekends there would be.
They bought varnish, tiles and paint, then set to work.
By the end of that first day, Sian was exhausted and miserable.
No longer used to each other’s company, they had worked largely in silence, and now her whole body ached.
What a waste of a Friday, she thought. She could have been closing a deal.
As she washed the paint from her hands, her head ached and she wondered what she was doing here.
Luke, on the other hand, seemed as fresh as he’d been when he first got up that morning.
“Do you fancy a glass of wine?” he asked her, smiling, as he sorted the brushes.
She looked away.
“Not for me,” she said. “I think I’ll turn in.”
She tried not to notice the downcast look on her husband’s face as she trudged away.
The next morning, Sian and Luke ate breakfast in silence.
Sian hadn’t slept well and she felt stiff and drained, her muscles protesting.
They sat on crates surrounded by their decorating tools and assaulted by the smell of drying paint.
She felt depressed. She knew she couldn’t face another day working with Luke in silence on this drab room.
Looking out the window, the morning was clear and bright.
“I think I might start on the garden instead,” she told him.
“Sure,” he replied. An expression she couldn’t read crossed his face.
“It’s going to be a lovely day, by the look of it.”
She pulled on her coat and scarf.
“I’m guessing there are tools in the new shed?”
He nodded, watching her as she took the key and went outside.
For a while Sian worked mechanically, turning the soil, pulling up weeds and tossing them into a bag.
Gradually, however, she fell into a rhythm and her stiff muscles eased.
She took off her coat, noticing the sun’s warmth on her skin and the smell of the freshly turned soil.
She had forgotten how much she loved being outdoors, in the fresh air. When was the last time she’d done this?
A fat pink worm squirmed its way back into the earth and a robin, perched on the fence nearby, fixed her with its piercing eye.
Sian breathed deeply, feeling herself relax.
She couldn’t quite believe it but she was actually beginning to enjoy this.
She rolled up her sleeves and returned to work with zeal.
An hour later, as she was leaning on her fork, taking a breather, she heard a voice behind her.
“Hot work, isn’t it?”
She turned, to see a face grinning at her over the fence.
“I’m Roger. I live in Moss Cottage, up the lane. You must be Luke’s wife?”
“I’m Sian. Good to meet you.”
“I don’t want to interrupt the hard work, but would it be all right if I came in for a moment? I’ve brought something over for you.” Sian was intrigued.
“Of course,” she told him, unlatching the gate and letting him through.
As he stepped inside she could see that he was a man probably in his sixties and, at that moment, was partially obscured by a large cardboard box.
The back door opened. Luke must have seen them coming.
“Roger, great to see you. Let me take that. Come in.” “How are you, Luke?”
The two men greeted each other warmly and
Sian realised that they knew one another well.
As she washed her hands and Luke boiled the kettle, he explained that Roger had helped him out over the weeks that he’d been working here. They had become firm friends.
“He’s been brilliant. He’s shown me places to eat, introduced me to people and even given me a hand with the cottage.”
Roger shook his head. “It’s no more than anyone would have done,” he said, “and I’ve enjoyed your company, but enough of that. Take a look in the box, it might interest you.”
“What is it?” Sian asked, lifting out boxes of photographs, bundles of letters and other keepsakes.
“It’s some of Pearl and Ernie’s things,” he replied.
Sian turned to Luke, her eyebrows raised in enquiry.
“Pearl and Ernest lived in this cottage when Roger was young,” he explained. “His mum helped out as they grew older and was the closest thing they had to family.”
“They were a wonderful couple – salt of the earth and devoted to each other. Pearl loved that garden. They spent hours out there.
“Even when she grew ill she’d sit on a chair by the bedroom window, looking out. Ernie knew how much it meant to her. He worked on it for her until the day he died.”
Sian felt a lump rise in her throat. Even in the chaos she’d seen evidence that the garden had once been very much loved.
“Is it OK to look?”
She indicated the
When was the last time she had worked outside like this?
box’s contents, spread out before her.
“Of course,” Roger said. “Since you’re renovating their cottage, I thought you’d like to know about them. Mum would be thrilled that you’re doing this,” he added.
Sian felt uncomfortable. She’d given little to the project so far and still wasn’t sure she wanted to be here – however friendly the neighbours were.
She handed some postcards to Luke and picked up a box of photos. Inside was an assortment of black and white prints.
She picked one out, smiling at the picture of a young girl with a serious expression. On the back were words in black ink.
Gibson’s Farm Sept 1903 – the night we met.
The girl was wearing her best Sunday dress. Her thick dark hair was tied back with a ribbon and fell in ringlets to her waist. Behind her was a barn with bales of hay and lanterns strung from the beams.
Sian could make out a band in the background. It seemed to be a barn dance. “She looks young.”
“I think Pearl was only eighteen then,” Roger said. “Ernie was a bit older. He’d just moved here to take over as postie.”
“She has a lovely face.” She chose another picture, this one of a wedding scene dated 1905. Pearl smiled out at her. The tall young man must be Ernie. He gazed down at his new wife, his face a mixture of love and pride.
She spotted something at the bottom of the box.
“Oh! So cute.”
She held up a pair of tiny blue bootees. Underneath was a small packet with fine blond hair. She flicked through the photos, searching for a picture of Pearl and Ernie’s little boy.
“Are the photos of their son in another box?”
Roger shook his head. “No, it was the great tragedy of their lives. Their little boy was stillborn and Pearl was very ill for a while afterwards.
“Mum said Ernie was beside himself. He did everything for her. Eventually, she recovered, but they weren’t able to have any more children.”
Sian gazed at the photo, her heart going out to the couple depicted there.
“That’s dreadful, and look at these. They must have gone through such a lot together.”
He held up some postcards that Ernie had sent to Pearl from the trenches.
“Yes, there’s a photo of him in uniform here,” Sian said, passing it over.
“That was the only time they were ever apart,” Roger explained. “Ernie didn’t go to the war until 1916, but he was thirtyfive – still young enough for conscription.”
“Poor Pearl. She must have missed him terribly.” Roger nodded.
“She did, but she was very proud of him. She became an ambulance driver herself.
“She loved driving so much that, after the war, Ernie saved for years to buy her a car of her own.”
Sian remembered the rusting red Austin that they had thrown out and felt humbled.
“What happened to them after that?”
“Things quietened down. Ernie was too old to fight in the second war. He joined Dad’s Army and built an Anderson shelter. Pearl managed the rations by turning her beloved rose beds into vegetable patches.”
“I knew them a long time after that. They were older then, but still such a lovely couple.
“Anyway, it’s time I was off. I’ll leave these with you.”
After he’d gone, they made sandwiches for lunch and ate them in the garden, then they decided to take a short walk before returning to work.
Sian had forgotten how
much she loved this place. The cottage had been built up on the side of a hill, overlooking the village below.
The views were stunning, yet the centre was only a 20-minute walk away.
Later, back in the garden, she set to with renewed enthusiasm.
“You’ve done loads,” Luke said with admiration that evening, as they sat with their take-away and glasses of wine.
“Thank you.” Sian paused. “It’s beautiful out there, and once you dig up the worst of the brambles and weeds, you can see how lovely the garden once was.”
“Yes, there’s rose bushes over to that side and behind the shed are fruit trees – it must have been a small orchard at one time.”
“I wonder what happened to Pearl and Ernie, and why it all fell to rack and ruin?”
“I can tell you that. When they grew older, Pearl became ill, Roger said. She passed away in 1968, I think it was.
“They found them together, you know. He’d come in from the garden, found her gone, lay down beside her and went to be with her.”
Sian’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding me!”
Luke shook his head.
“It was the talk of the village at the time. As you know, they were devoted to each other. I guess it was the shock or, perhaps, he just didn’t want to go on without her.”
Sian shook her head. Could people’s lives really be so wrapped up in one another?
She glanced at Luke.
They had been inseparable once.
“How come the house was left to decay?” He shrugged.
“No family or wills. I believe it took some time to unravel the mess. When they found the heir he was living abroad and wasn’t interested.
“An uncle of his lived in it for a short time, but it was too much work for him. Eventually, his daughter decided to sell.”
Sian looked about and was suddenly glad, for the sake of the old couple, that Luke had rescued their home. This evening, tiled and painted and in the glow of candlelight, the kitchen seemed cosy and, for the first time, she could imagine this cottage as a home.
“I’m glad you’re restoring their dream,” she told him.
Luke looked up, his dark eyes sad.
“This was your dream once,” he said.
She bit her lip. He was right, of course. How had she forgotten? She had desperately wanted a house like this.
Moving to the city had been meant as a temporary measure, to complete her art studies and save enough to come back and set up a gallery.
Somewhere along the way, her city job and making money had ceased to be a means and become an end in themselves.
She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d picked up a pencil.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Next morning Sian woke and, for a moment, couldn’t think where she was.
Relaxed and exhausted from the day’s fresh air and exercise, she had fallen into a deep, untroubled sleep.
She got up quietly, so as not to disturb Luke, and tiptoed out.
Slowly, she wandered around the house, opening doors and inspecting each room in turn. She had to admit, he’d done an amazing job.
The views from the front were stunning, looking down over the village with its Saxon church and the river running through the valley. At the back was the garden and hills.
She went downstairs and rummaged through their things until she found a notepad.
Then, she picked up a pencil, weighing it tentatively in her hand.
Finally, she turned with determination, pulled on her coat and went out into the front garden.
“What are you doing out here?” Luke asked, when he appeared bleary-eyed, an hour later. “It’s cold.”
She turned, her face flushed, and shrugged.
He caught sight of the paper and the outlines of her sketch and his face lit up, but he didn’t comment.
“I’ll get you some coffee,” was all he said.
Sian waited until he made his way back towards her, two steaming mugs in his hands. He smiled and she could see the love and hope forming in his eyes.
It was then she realised what he had done for her. He had moved to the city, giving up a job he loved, without complaint.
Then he’d stayed, supporting her in her burgeoning career, and finally he had bought this cottage for her.
She had not lost him. She had lost herself.
She thought of Pearl and Ernest in this very place, the years of love that had lit their life together.
What did she really want from her own life?
She wasn’t entirely sure, but whatever it was, she knew she wanted Luke to be a part of it. She had missed him.
She took the steaming mug from him.
“I’ll work with you on the kitchen today,” she told him quietly.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You’re really enjoying the garden.”
She took his hand.
“I want to be with you,” she said simply.
A sigh escaped him.
“I’d like that.”
He turned to face her. “I meant what I said. We can sell the cottage, if that’s what you’d like. I want you to be happy.”
“I think I will be now,” she told him. “I’m not sure what we should do yet, but let’s work it out together.”