Work In Progress

Two peo­ple try to find their way in this ob­ser­vant short story by Katie Ash­more.

The People's Friend Special - - FICTION -

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.

She sighed.

“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.”

She shrugged.

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?”

She nod­ded.

“I’m Sian. Good to meet you.”

“You, too.”

He smiled.

“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.”

Roger nod­ded.

“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.

Luke sighed.

“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.”

Roger smiled.

“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.”

He nod­ded.

“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.”

She smiled.

“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.”

The End.

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