Serial Part 1: Snow and Stardust by Della Galton
With everything they’d been through, it would take a miracle to rescue this Christmas...
Zach Peters was not in the best of moods. The traffic out of London had been murder – the M25 was its usual chock-a-block self, and it had taken him three hours to cover what should have been a 40-minute stretch.
It was his own fault, he knew – Friday afternoons were always bad – but he’d really wanted to get home despite the fact Liam had done his best to dissuade him.
‘They’ve forecast more snow, mate. Why not stay for the weekend?’
‘I need to get back.’ The prospect of snow had made Zach even more determined.
‘I can’t see why.’ Liam had shaken his head. ‘It’s not like anyone’s waiting for you.’
Zach had known it would be pointless telling him that was exactly why he needed to get back. Liam would never get it. Liam was a hedonist who was at his best around people, the more the merrier. He loved the drama and craziness of London, whereas Zach had only ever tolerated it because of the band.
He and Liam were founder members of True Bohemians – Liam played sax and Zach trombone. They’d played together for as long as he could remember, and the jazz band they’d formed at uni with three other musicians had gone from strength to strength. They’d finally gone professional nine years ago, when he was 27.
They’d done well. There’d been enough work to give up their day jobs, although the dream hadn’t panned out as well as they’d both hoped. Maybe dreams never did.
Those days were gone now. Zach was amazed sometimes that he and Liam were still such good friends, they were so completely unalike. Maybe that was why it worked. They had been the yin and yang of the band. He had been the
balm to Liam’s craziness.
Nowadays, Zach yearned for peace. He wanted his own bed and the fresh, Dorset air of home.
It was only the beginning of December, but the city had already been hotting up for Christmas. Two days of London had been enough. Despite the horrendous journey, he was glad he’d left when he had. The forecasters were right about the snow!
Typical! What were the chances of breaking down here?
At least he was on the home stretch now. The last and most picturesque part of his route was through the New Forest.
He knocked the gears back down to third, partly because of the speed limit, although he was below it already, and partly because the snow was coming down thick and fast now, and braking time would be trickier. You never knew when a pony or a donkey would wander across the road, totally oblivious to the cars that sped through the centre of their home.
The engine spluttered a couple of times. It had done that earlier after he’d filled up, and he’d put it down to impurities in the fuel. It was odd that it was still doing it now, though…
He stared out at the snow – it was mesmerising, swirling down against the windscreen. The sooner he was home, the better, he thought, just as the engine gave another couple of ominous-sounding splutters, then cut out completely.
Still not unduly worried, Zach let the car coast to the side of the road – or, at least, what he could see of it; the white edges had already merged into the verge. He was pretty sure the car would start again. But it didn’t. On the fifth attempt, wary of flattening the battery, he gave up and reached over to the passenger seat for his phone. Time to make use of his breakdown cover.
Zach’s heart gave a jolt as he saw the display on his screen: ‘No service’. Peering out of the windscreen, which was already half covered, he realised he was approaching Godshill. ‘Godforsaken’ might have been a better name for it, Zach had often thought. It was a black spot as far as phones went. Typical! What
were the chances of breaking down here? Ah well, he would just have to walk for a bit until he got a better signal and could phone for assistance. It wasn’t the end of the world – it wouldn’t be dark for another hour yet.
Lucy Snow was also driving home. Ringwood was her hometown, although she didn’t live there any more. In fact, it felt like a failure to be coming back tonight.
She’d moved away six years ago when she’d married Michael, who wasn’t with her today. He worked abroad and they hadn’t spoken for a week, except for once, briefly, when she’d told him she was going to stay with her brother and sister-in-law and the house would be empty until after the festive season.
‘The estate agent has the keys,’ she’d added, sensing he was about to protest. ‘So we’ll still get viewings if anyone’s interested.’
It was unlikely. Who goes house-hunting in December?
‘Right,’ he’d said, in a coolly distant voice that had nothing to do with the fact that he was in Abu Dhabi and she was in England. ‘I hope you have a nice time.’
‘I will,’ she’d murmured, too proud to say the words that were on the tip of her tongue, which were, ‘That’s not very likely, is it? Not with things as they are between us.’
But they no longer wanted the same things from their marriage. Michael had made that crystal-clear during that last, terrible row. What was the point of talking about it any more when Lucy knew in her heart that there was nothing left to say?
The snow had edged the trees with lace and sprinkled the heathland on either side of her with a dusting of soft white. Now it was settling on the road. Thankfully, she only had a few miles to go. She was just thinking that she wouldn’t have fancied being stranded out here tonight when she saw the brokendown car. It was pulled up onto what Lucy assumed to be the grassy bank. There was no-one inside. She hoped the driver was OK.
About a mile further on, she saw a solitary figure walking at the side of the road. It was hard to tell at first whether it was a man or woman, shrouded as they were in a big coat and hood. She slowed down. She didn’t fancy picking up a strange man, but her conscience wouldn’t let her ignore anyone on a night like this.
As she pulled alongside, the figure turned and she saw it was a man: youngish, tall, well-dressed. That was an expensive-looking ski coat. She lowered the passengerside window.
‘Are you OK? Do you need any help?’
‘I broke down about a mile back,’ he said with a half-smile.
‘You don’t have any breakdown cover?’
‘I do, but there’s no signal.’ His voice was gravelly and oddly familiar – and, peering at him through the dusk, she thought he looked familiar, too.
Lucy hesitated. Her instinct was telling her, ‘Don’t risk it. He could be an axe murderer.’ But, she told herself, ‘You’ve seen too many horror films. Don’t be ridiculous.’
Besides, he was right about the signal – she had a friend who lived out here.
‘Where are you headed?’ she asked.
‘Fordingbridge. It’s the turning by the Post Office, just off the High Street.’ He paused. Snow was settling on his head. ‘My Aunt Florrie owns the Post Office,’ he added randomly.
Lucy nodded. She knew Florrie – everyone did. But that wasn’t why he looked familiar. She knew him from somewhere else – a good somewhere. It would come back to her in a moment.
She made a decision. ‘I’m on my way to see my brother in Ringwood. I can drop you back if you like?’
‘I’d be eternally grateful. Thank you.’
She disengaged the central locking so he could get in.
At close range, she could see he had snowflakes on his eyelashes, and nice eyes. There was a little mole to the side of his nose.
He was looking at her properly now, too. There was a pause and his brow creased. ‘Hey, haven’t we met before? Aren’t you Dan Langton’s sister Lucy?’
‘I am, yes.’
‘I used to play rugby with Dan, and I went to his wedding.’ He smiled properly now. ‘I’m Zach Peters.’
Relief flooded through her. ‘Of course.’ She had a vague memory of him with a leggy blonde.
He looked older than the last time she’d seen him, which was inevitable – Dan and Jo had been married 10 years, after all – but it was more than that. He looked as though the world had swallowed him up and spat him back out.
He was the same age as Dan, so he couldn’t be more than 36 – two years older than she was – but his worldweariness made her warm to him, more than maybe she would have done otherwise.
‘I’m Lucy Snow now,’ she said, even though it felt bittersweet to say the words. ‘And yes, that really is my name, so no wisecracks.’
He did up his seatbelt and held his hands up. ‘I wouldn’t dream of it. Not when you’ve been so kind. I was beginning to think no-one would come past at all.’
‘Maybe there’s been an accident at the other end and they’ve closed the road. It can be a bit of a black spot, that crossroads.’
There was a pause and his brow creased. ‘Haven’t we met before?’
It was inevitable, Zach supposed, what with it being so close to Christmas, that the first thing she asked him about was what festive plans he had.
He felt a bit of a heel telling her that his priority was to try and miss as much of it as possible. No doubt she was
off to some huge, family knees-up. But, to his surprise, she was sympathetic.
‘If I could get away with it, I’d be doing that, too,’ she remarked. Her face fell a little, then she went on, ‘Christmas isn’t all tinsel and turkey, is it?’
‘No,’ he said with feeling. There was a little pause, and, to fill it, he asked her brightly, ‘So how are things? Are you still in the area?’
‘No, I moved to Kent when I got married.’
‘Ah. So how long are you staying with Dan and Jo? It’s been ages since I saw them.’
‘It’s a bit open-ended, actually.’ She sounded tense, and he realised he’d picked the wrong subject. He tried again. ‘Are you enjoying…?’ ‘How long is…?’
They spoke at the same time, and he gestured for her to go first.
‘I was going to ask you how long it was since you’d seen them,’ she said. ‘They have a little boy now, called Tom.’
‘Wow, really? Amazing! How old is he?’
‘No! Time flies.’ It was warm in the car. He smiled at her. ‘I bet he’s cute.’
‘He’s absolutely adorable.’ The wistfulness in her voice was at odds with her words.
There was another pause. Zach let it hang. He’d learned long ago that if you wanted to know stuff about people, you just sat quietly and listened. Not that he particularly wanted to know stuff about her, but hey, she had just picked him up, for which he was incredibly relieved – they still hadn’t seen another car.
Also, there was something about her that was rather lovely, and after tonight he probably wouldn’t see her for another decade, or however long it’d been. If she wanted to talk, he was happy to listen.
They were driving slowly. It was hard to see anything through the persistent snow. The sides of the road had disappeared completely. There was only the odd bush to tell them where it might be.
‘I’m moving back to Dorset, actually,’ she said. ‘Things didn’t work out in Kent.’
There was a heavy sadness in her voice. ‘It turned out we didn’t want the same things.’ ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘That’s tough.’ ‘Are you married?’
‘No.’ Then, because he felt obliged to tell her something in return, he added, ‘I was.’
He could’ve told her anything, Zach thought, and those lovely, blue eyes would have widened in sympathy. He could’ve told her that
Sian had died of some terrible illness or been in a car crash. He’d said both those things to inquisitive strangers before now. It was a good way of cutting the conversation dead. But, on impulse, he told her the ugly truth. ‘My wife left me for another bloke. She told me last Christmas Eve.’
‘What? That stinks!’ She sounded so outraged on his behalf, he almost laughed. ‘Yeah.’
‘Did you know him – the guy in question?’
‘Vaguely. Through work.’ It was an understatement, but he didn’t want to get into it.
‘I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse,’ she said.
‘It maybe knocks your pride a bit more,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘But it would still hurt the same, I guess, however it happened.’
He paused, wondering how she had managed to elicit more information from him than anyone else had got in a year, and whether he should be asking how it had happened for her. He’d never been good at talking. It’d been one of Sian’s many gripes.
‘I thought you liked the strong, silent type,’ he’d joked once, before he’d realised she was looking for a way out, not a way to fix things.
‘Strong and silent, not totally incommunicado,’ she’d shot back. ‘It’s like trying to have a relationship with a man made of stone.’
Had he really been that bad? He was still contemplating this when Lucy began to speak again. She seemed encouraged by his silence, not put off by it.
‘There was no-one else in our break-up,’ she murmured, ‘and it still hurts like mad.’
‘It’s early days,’ he offered, and when she nodded slightly and swallowed, he felt the need to add more. ‘Is there any chance of reconciliation?’ ‘No, definitely not.’
He waited. They were, if it were possible, driving even more slowly – at 15mph.
After another few moments, she said, ‘When we got married, we both wanted the same things. We wanted a big family – at least, I did. Michael was less keen.’
Her knuckles tightened around the steering wheel.
‘He was an only child, so I understood him having reservations. He said the thought of a big family was a bit overwhelming.’
She sighed. ‘A few months ago, he told me he doesn’t want children at all.’
‘I see,’ he said, and it sounded so inadequate. There was a part of him that wanted to add, ‘Better to find out now than later. You’re still young.’ But he knew what it was like when complete strangers offered you clichés.
When Sian had gone, some of his friends had said, ‘You’re better off without her, mate.’ Others had crossed the road to avoid talking to him. He’d preferred the road-crossers.
‘Is there no chance he’ll change his mind?’ He felt out of his depth, but he was also moved by her distress.
‘I don’t think so. Gosh…’ It was as if she’d suddenly woken up and realised where she was, who she was talking to. ‘I won’t bore you with the details. Sorry, I don’t know why I’m telling you – you’re just such a good listener.’
That was a turn up for the books, to coin a cliché. He’d never been called that before.
‘It’s sometimes easier to talk to strangers than to people who know you,’ he said.
‘Yes.’ She blinked several times in quick succession.
He would’ve hugged her if she hadn’t been driving. It seemed inappropriate to touch her arm or shoulder, so he didn’t. He could only hope that it had helped her to unburden herself, even a little.
They were coming to the edge of the forest. He could see the familiar landmark of the pub ahead, its lights twinkling out of the dusk.
‘They probably haven’t had the gritters in Fordingbridge, except for the High Street,’ he said. ‘So if you want to drop me there, that would be great. I’d hate you to get stuck.’
She turned to smile at him. ‘You sure? OK, I will. Thanks.’
For the rest of the journey, the conversation was lighter. Maybe she was embarrassed, he thought, regretting what she’d told him.
But, when she did finally pull over to let him out, she seemed cheerful enough. ‘Thanks for your company. I hope your Christmas works out OK,’ she said.
‘Thanks for the lift. And ditto.’ He gestured down his road, which was ablaze with festive lights, apart from his house, which stood out like a dark monolith. ‘Spot the
He could’ve told her anything, Zach thought
“bah, humbug”,’ he said, and she laughed.
Then she was gone, and he thought how strange life was. He felt better for having talked about Sian, and for having been told that he was a good listener. His heart felt lighter as he turned into his road and headed for home.
Lucy drove carefully back out to the main road. He’d been right about the gritting. Still, she’d be at Dan’s in another 25 minutes, tops. In some ways, it’d been good to have Zach’s company. It had distracted her from what would otherwise have been a pretty hair-raising journey.
It had also been good to talk – she’d told him stuff she hadn’t even told close friends.
The saddest thing of all was that Michael had once been her best friend, not to mention lover, partner and soulmate, all wrapped up in one amazing package. She felt she’d won the Lottery when they’d met. So had he.
‘I know it’s corny, but I feel as though you’re the one I’ve been waiting for all my life,’ he’d said on their second date, when they’d stayed up all night, talking – just as they had on the first.
Neither of them had wanted to leave. And that feeling, so strong and so powerful, had increased with each day they’d known each other, despite the negativity of some people, including her parents: ‘The candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long, Lucy,’ her mother had commented.
Lucy knew they didn’t mean to be unkind, they just hadn’t wanted to see her get hurt. They’d been afraid things were moving too fast. So had some of her friends.
Jo hadn’t, though. Her lovely sister-in-law was the only one who’d been totally supportive. ‘When it’s right, you just know,’ she’d said.
Their whirlwind romance had turned into a wedding proposal, and they’d been married inside the year. And they had been so happy until she’d begun to drop hints about starting a family.
Michael had always come up with reasons why it wasn’t a good time: ‘Let’s get settled in the house first’; ‘Let’s see if my job becomes more secure’; ‘Let’s wait until I get another contract in the bag’.
Her mind flew back to that last, bitter row. ‘I’m sorry, Lucy. I’m just not ready for a family.’
‘Then when?’ She was 34, the ticking of her biological clock getting louder.
Then… ‘I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.’
His eyes had been so cold, so distant, and, no matter how hard she’d looked, she couldn’t see her soulmate any more. She could only see locked doors, ‘Stop’ signs and endings.
Zach’s hand closed around his keys as he went up the front path, and he felt around for his phone, which didn’t seem to be in either of the deep pockets of his coat. He frowned. He had a distinct memory of locking the car and stuffing both phone and wallet into his pocket. But he hadn’t zipped it.
His wallet was still there. Maybe he hadn’t grabbed his phone, after all? Maybe it was still lying on the passenger seat? It seemed unlikely.
He unlocked the front door, but was too distracted to see the cardboard box he’d left just inside, full of Christmas decorations for the charity shop. He put out his hands to save himself as he tripped, falling forwards, but it was too late. He went sprawling, cracking his head heavily on the bannister.
Suddenly, he was seeing stars that definitely weren’t of the Christmas variety, and he lay in an ungainly heap on the hallway carpet...
TO BE CONTINUED Della Galton, 2018