Se­rial Part 1: Snow and Star­dust by Della Gal­ton

With ev­ery­thing they’d been through, it would take a mir­a­cle to res­cue this Christ­mas...

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - HELLO! -

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?’

‘Eight.’

‘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

Con­tin­ued over­leaf

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

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