Stepping Back – Dreams or Nightmares?

The sound of Mrs Kneller woke Rachel from a troubled sleep.  She wasn’t sure whether she had dreamed it or not, but she had a vague memory of crying out in the night, and the sound of Mark’s voice, soothing and calm, cutting through the fear, and his arm around her shoulders as he gave her a sip of water and some painkillers.  She scrabbled around on the bedside table; found her glasses and a piece of paper.  Blinking frantically, she had to wait till her eyes had adjusted sufficiently to be able see what was on the paper.  He’d drawn another picture of her. No pigtails this time, just a curtain of hair and two scared eyes peering over the edge of a duvet. “Have left a message for Mrs K to look in on you and call the GP in if necessary. You have a bit of a temperature – that will account for your delirious babblings during the night – I hope. M x”

Delirious babblings!  Oh no! What had she said?  Rachel swung her legs out of the bed in order to get up, but the sudden movement left her dizzy and disoriented.  She collapsed back against the pillows with an audible moan.  Mrs Kneller must have been in the hallway; she rushed in and had tucked Rachel back into bed before she even knew what was happening. “You stop right where you are young lady!  I don’t know what has been going on but I’ve no doubt you’ll tell me once you’re feeling a bit better.  There was a note from our Mark put through my door early this morning, AND a phone-call just as I was getting ready to come out.  Had to make sure that I’d found the note he said.  Of course, I found it.  I’ve orders to check on you and call Dr Hussein in if I think you need it.  What’s happened to you?  You’re white as a sheet!”

Rachel closed her eyes, took a deep breath and did her best to tell Mrs Kneller about the hedge, meeting up with Damaris, and Mark’s subsequent first aid skills.

“Show me your legs then, especially that nasty cut.  She’s a wild one that Damaris.  If I was Mark, I’d tell her I was a copper, and if she still insisted on breaking the law, I’d get her locked up!”

Lifting the duvet up so that Mrs Kneller could cast an unprofessional eye over Mark’s medical handiwork, Rachel frowned.  “You mean Damaris doesn’t know what he does for a living?”

“No, there’s only Lou, the girls, me – and now you – as knows what he does.  He does undercover work.  Folks round here just think he dabbles in boat stuff and a bit of business.  You haven’t told anyone have you?”

Rachel shook her head, trying to sit very still whilst Mrs Kneller examined minutely the scratches down her legs.  She raised one side of her nightshirt and tried not to wince while the dressing was removed.  She didn’t want to look but felt that she ought to, even to her non-medical eyes, the wound looked red and it certainly felt sore.  Mrs Kneller put a hand to Rachel’s forehead and tutted. “You sit tight.  We need to get the doctor in to you.  Mark’s done a good job but it looks to me as if that cut has got infected.  No arguments!”

Not normally a person who acquiesced easily, Rachel had the sense to recognise an immoveable force when she met one.  She closed her eyes again and tried desperately hard to remember what she could possibly have said to Mark when he heard her calling out in the night.  She put a hand to her own forehead; it felt cold although she felt as if it should be on fire.  Common sense persuaded her that Mrs Kneller was right, and the situation needed some real medical intervention. 

She heard the clattering of cups and saucers in the kitchen. The aroma of fresh toast and coffee prompted her to look at the clock.  Half-past ten! She should have been at Lou’s ages ago.  She was about to get out of bed again when Mrs Kneller bustled in with a breakfast tray and plonked it unceremoniously on the bed. “You stay put!  Lou knows what’s gone on.  Mark dropped a note through her door as well, and I rang her at the teashop after I called Dr Hussein.  He’s popping round after surgery in an hour’s time.  I’ll stay till he’s been, then Lou’s going to pop in with your lunch.  I’ll check in on you again this afternoon and Mark says he’ll be home early.  I’ve made you some breakfast. The doctor says you’ve to eat, and then you can have some more of these painkillers, but you can’t have them on an empty stomach so I’ve not to give them to you till you’ve eaten up every scrap of that toast and drunk your orange juice.  I made fresh coffee in that pot thing so you can have more if you want it.  Here you are.”

She moved the tray closer to Rachel and stood menacingly with her hands on her hips whilst Rachel, still reeling slightly from Mrs Kneller’s kind but scary arsenal, buttered the toast and took a sip of cold orange juice.  She had to admit, everything tasted extremely good, far better than it did when she made her own breakfast.  Seeing that her patient was being compliant, Mrs Kneller nodded and left the room.  The low hum of the vacuum cleaner soon permeated the cottage as it was made ready for the doctor’s visit.  Rachel finished the last piece of toast and had moved onto the coffee when Mrs Kneller returned, a disdainful look on her face and carrying a very large and garish bouquet of dyed dahlias. “No prizes for guessing where these have come from.” she said, handing Rachel the card that had been attached to them.  She stood, carrying the flowers like a reluctant and very cross bridesmaid, and Rachel hurriedly opened the envelope. “’So sorry about your little fall last night.  I’m sure my darling Mark got you home safely.  He’s so good with waifs and strays.  Kind regards, Damaris D-H’. What does the D-H stand for?”

“Not what you’re thinking, but it might just as well.  They go by the name of Davenport-Hooper.   He’s the Davenport; local landed gentry as was, fallen on bad times so he married Doris Hooper. Her dad was filthy rich, and I mean filthy.  Made his money in rag and bones so she’s no call to be putting on airs and graces.  Tongue on her like a fishwife though she does her best to sound posh.  The kids all went away to school and had those elocution lessons.  Our Daw is the only one who sounds common now, except when she puts in an appearance at that posh restaurant of hers in the Square.  She can’t cook or manage to save her life, so she has people to do all that for her.   Finished your coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.  Breakfast was lovely.”

“Good.  Here’s your painkillers and some fresh water.  Do you want these flowers?”

Rachel grimaced as she swallowed the tablets. “Not really.  Would you like them?”

“Lord in heaven no!  I’m going round the old peoples’ once I leave here.  They like a nice bit of colour in the residents’ lounge.  If I mix them up with some white chrysanths, they might look a bit less ….”

“…tacky?  Please take them with my blessing.  I would imagine that she sent them in an effort to get back in Mark’s good books, rather than to say sorry to a waif and stray like me.”

“You’re worth a million of her, my lovely!  You have a little doze now, and before you know it Dr Hussein will be here.  He’s a bit gorgeous but not a patch on our Mark.  Dr H is very smartly dressed though, and he does have a lovely way with him.” 

She took the tray off the bed and went back to the kitchen, pulling the door closed behind her.  Rachel turned over onto the side of her that wasn’t throbbing and took a deep breath.  She could understand this sort of thing happening to foreign correspondents who were dodging bullets, and diving behind burned out buildings, but she was on a three-month sabbatical in a sleepy South coast village for heaven’s sake!   She’d barely banished this thought and closed her eyes when she heard a gentle tapping on the door and turned over to see Mrs Kneller ushering in an extremely attractive man carrying a large black bag. “Here we go my dear, here’s Dr Hussein to sort you out.  I looked in on you a short while ago and you were well gone.”

Rachel blinked. “What time is it?  Was I asleep long?”

Dr Hussein sat down on the bed next to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse.  The room was silent whilst he glanced at his watch, then apparently satisfied he opened his bag and took out his in-ear thermometer.  Rachel sat patiently until he removed it from her ear and dropped the disposable end into his waste bag. “Okay.  It’s a quarter to twelve, and according to Mrs K you dozed off about an hour ago.  Your pulse is a little bit racy but that’s not uncommon in my patients.  You have a raised temperature which is probably due to an infection.  Can I have a look at your cuts and scratches please?”

For the second time that morning, Rachel pulled back the duvet and raised her nightshirt up on one side.  Dr Hussein examined the scratches and nodded but shook his head when he got to the cut on her thigh. “Mark’s done a good job on the scratches, but he really should have taken you down to A&E for this cut.  I’ll clean it up now, give you some fairly strong antibiotics, and I’ll get the district nurse to come in again for the next couple of days to change the dressings and check it over.”

“Why is the cut infected? I was pushed – I mean I fell into a bush.  The scratches are okay.”

“The scratches are superficial but this cut was caused by a branch that probably snapped when you fell against it.  There’s a fair chance there may still be some debris in there but the Steri-strips are holding it in.  This is going to be a bit painful I’m afraid. I’ll spray some local anaesthetic on it but you might want to bite the pillow if it gets too much.”

He pulled several items from his bag and laid them on the bed before pulling on some blue rubber gloves.   Rachel decided not to watch, and buried her head in the pillow. Mrs Kneller hovered nearby, a look of total fascination on her face as Dr Hussein began the painful process of removing the strips and washing out the wound. “Got it!” he cried triumphantly, holding aloft a piece of twig that he’d extracted with his tweezers.  He continued probing the wound, occasionally patting Rachel’s leg when her muffled yelps became too audible.  Mrs Kneller fetched fresh water.

“We’ll just put a dressing on for now rather than stitches.  The cut may knit together without them if you rest up for a while.  No gallivanting down at the beach for the next couple of days, and we’ll see what Nurse says when he visits.  Take these tablets for now and perhaps Lou can get the prescription for some antibiotics filled this afternoon.  The painkillers Mark left for you should be strong enough, but bed rest is the best healer of all.”

He stood, and Rachel gingerly sat up; her leg did actually feel better already, and she smiled.  He really was rather gorgeous, with brown eyes that rivalled Sam’s and a particularly attractive set of cheekbones.  He extended his hand and she took it. “Thank you, I’m sorry to have been a nuisance.”

“Not at all Rachel, you are much the most attractive patient I’ve seen all day – and yes – I know that I shouldn’t make comments like that, but I find it very hard to stick to political correctness when in the presence of a lovely woman. Perhaps we could meet up when you are feeling better?  Lou tells me that you are likely to be here for the next three months.”

Rachel blushed and ducked her head down; it had been a long time since anyone had paid her such a plethora of compliments.  Dr Hussein smiled, patted her hand and said his goodbyes before being shown into the bathroom to wash his hands and dispose of his rubbish.

Mrs Kneller came back after seeing him out. “I’m off now my lovely, you were a very brave girl, that must have hurt a lot and you barely squeaked.  I’ll take these flowers with me and Lou will be in shortly.  She’s got a key so you won’t need to get up.  I might pop in later to see how you are.”

“I’m very grateful for all you’ve done, and especially glad to see the back of those hideous flowers.  Thank you.” 

Mrs Kneller patted Rachel’s hand, straightened the duvet and left, clutching Damaris’ bouquet as if it were some poisonous snake.

It wasn’t long before Lou popped her head around the bedroom door and grinned sympathetically at her. “I come bearing gifts.  Poor you!   Grievously assaulted by a pyracanthas bush and meeting Damaris Doubly-Horrid in the same evening.  How Mark can actually bear to be anywhere near her amazes me.  Did you think she was attractive?”

Lou sat down with a bump on the bed then moved back gingerly as Rachel winced. “Sorry, sorry. At least you got to meet gorgeous Dr H.  My girls absolutely adore him and, I have actually been out with him for a drink a couple of times …”

Rachel waited for Lou to draw breath.  “I can see that Damaris is attractive….”

“…you’re trying to be nice and kind.  Don’t bother. She’s horrendous.”

“… but I found her a bit too – blonde? Too orange.  Too in your face.  She sent me some disgustingly disfigured dahlias this morning.  They’d all been dyed in unnatural colours.”

Lou looked around the room.

“No, Mrs K’s taken them off to the old folks’ home.  She’s going to dilute them with some white chrysanthemums and spread some colour around the residents’ lounge.  I thought Dr Hussein was very charming, and obviously good at his job.  My leg hurts a lot less now.  It wasn’t Mark’s fault that it got infected, there was a piece of twig that got stuck behind the Steri-strips.  It’s out now anyway.  How come you know all about it?”

“Network Kneller.  Who needs the Internet when you live in a small village?  Mrs K is friends with the health centre receptionist, who told the story to everyone that went in there after she got the request for Dr H to make a home visit.  Mrs K phoned through the grocery order to the SPAR, so everyone knew there, ditto with the chemist, the butcher, and little old me!  Virtually everyone who came into the Square this morning knows that Damaris nearly killed you by trying to run you over – and all because she was jealous that you were staying in Mark’s cottage.  Rumour has it that you and Mark have been seeing each other for months, that when he disappears it’s because he’s gone up to London to see you.  Damaris wasn’t the most popular girl in the Village anyway, but now! Oh! How I laughed!  People also know that Damaris said that she thought she was running Mrs K over rather than Mark’s guest, which makes it look like a deliberate act rather than an accident.”

“But Mark!  What will he say when he finds out?”

“He knows already.  Laughed like a drain.  This has actually worked wonders for his undercover work.  There were some people in the village who were getting a bit curious about his frequent absences; they’ll be satisfied with the explanation that he’s been spending time in London with you, and it may help with some of the foreign nationals that he’s trying to catch as well.  I believe that the guys you saw outside Dippy Dee’s are currently under some kind of surveillance at the moment.”

Feeling as if her head was going to burst, Rachel took a deep breath and tried to make some sense of it all.  Realising that she had probably overloaded her friend at a time when she should have been looking after her, Lou started to unpack the basket she had brought.  It was a lunch designed to tempt the palate of any invalid; tiny triangular sandwiches, Greek salad with feta cheese in a little earthenware bowl, dainty iced biscuits and a couple of mini-muffins.  She disappeared in to the kitchen and came back with a fresh glass of orange juice and a tray to put it all on. “I’ll stay while you eat, then I’ll clear away and pop the prescription into the chemist on the way back.  Mark says he’ll be home at tea time and will pick up the tablets.  He has a few loose ends to tie up.  I’m making a huge stew for dinner so he can pop down and get some for both of you.  He’s really sorry about pushing you into that bush you know, but he seriously thought that Damaris was going to run you both over.  She ought to wear her glasses – or contacts at least – but too vain and too lazy.”

“You’ve talked to Mark then?”

“Yes, quite a long conversation for him.  He was very worried about you.”

“Did he – did he say anything about me being delirious?  About me …babbling?”

Lou grinned. 

“He told me that he heard you calling out in the night and he came in with some water because he didn’t want you getting out of bed and falling over.  Why? Can you remember what you said?”

“No.  I only know he’d been in here because he left me a note.”

“Did he?  What did it say?  Can I see it?”

“Oh, I’ve put it away somewhere.  It was just to say that Mrs K would sort things out for me.   That’s all.”

Lou looked disappointed, but sat still whilst Rachel attempted to eat some lunch.  It all looked so enticing but her appetite seemed to have disappeared. 

“Don’t worry,” said Lou, “I’ll put the muffins and biscuits on the bedside table in case you want them later.  I bet you need the loo though?”

Nodding gratefully, Rachel eased her way out of bed and although it was slow going, Lou helped her next door to the bathroom and told her to yell when she was ready to come back.  As she stood up to wash her hands, Rachel caught sight of her face in the mirror, and reeled back in shock. The pyracanthas had done some damage to her face as well, although Mark seemed to have cleaned them up, there were several scratches down one side of her face.  Gently she combed her hair so that it didn’t look quite so much like a bird’s nest, splashed some water on her face to freshen up and made her way back to the bathroom door. 

“Lou, are you there?” she called.

The door opened and Lou helped her back to bed, settling her back against pillows that had been plumped up and straightened. “Shall I plait your hair before I go?” she asked.

“Yes please – and I can’t do anything about the state of my face but a smidge of lipstick …”

“… and a dab of Chanel No 5.  I remember.  I’ll also take your dress home with me, give it a good wash and see if I can get it mended.  One of my regulars does dressmaking and alterations; I’m sure she’ll be able to put it right.”

“It’s not an expensive dress; it is my favourite though.”

“I know.  I even remember the charity shop that you bought it from.  You did look lovely last night.”

“Not so lovely now.  I really do look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.”

Lou finished the two neat plaits, passed her the lipstick, mirror and perfume, then nodded in satisfaction at the finished result.  “You look and smell very sweet. Is this for Mark’s benefit?  Or is Dr H popping back later?”

“Neither.” said Rachel, a little abruptly, then grinning “I thought I’d try my luck with the district nurse.”

“Ben is gay, extremely camp, and rather wonderful.  The Village took a while to accept a male district nurse but all the old dears love him now, and the mummies spend hours chatting with him about mastitis, cabbage leaves, and cervical stitches, at the post-natal clinics.  If you need anything, Ben is the best person to go to.  He has friends everywhere. Right, I’m off, get some sleep and Mark will be here soon.  Your phone is fully charged, and on the table, you have fresh water and nibbles.  Sweet dreams.”

Kissing her on the unscratched cheek, Lou picked up the basket and was gone.  In a matter of moments Rachel was asleep again but the dreams were not sweet.

Stepping Back – Dreadful Damaris

By the time Rachel arrived at Lou’s house the walk had given her a healthy glow in her cheeks and her freshly washed hair had lost some of its initial fluffiness. Jenny opened the front door and looked her up and down before nodding in approval.  “Very nice Auntie Rachel, you look far more girly than usual.  It wouldn’t have anything to do with our other dinner guest, would it?”

“Leave her alone Jen, you look lovely Rachel.  Makes a change from your usual jeans and baggy jumper look.  I appreciate your efforts even if my horrible daughter doesn’t.” 

Lou took Rachel’s arm and squeezed it, steering her into the front room, which also looked as if it had been given a bit of a makeover.  Pictures of Mark; with Lou, with the girls, and with a stunningly beautiful red head who Rachel took to be Mark’s ex-wife Sorrel.  She found herself hoping fervently that it wasn’t Damaris. 

Lou picked up the picture.  “I’ll put this one away, he won’t thank me for leaving it up.  He doesn’t talk about Sorrel at all.”

“I thought it might have been – what was her name? Damaris?”

“Good Lord No!”  Lou laughed and tucked the picture behind some books.  “Damaris is a blonde, a brassy-streaked bottle blonde, with a mahogany spray tan, and extremely enhanced curves.  In another age they would have said she was pneumatic and compared her to Monroe.  I think she looks like a tart, but I’m biased.  She and her horrible mother did their best to drive me out of business by spreading nasty rumours about my baking, and making racist comments about me and the girls.  They were trying to divert customers to a friend of the family who had set up an ‘artisan bakery’ in the next village. We rode out the storm thanks to a number of lovely regulars who continued coming, and persuaded others to come back, but it was touch and go for a while.”

“And the artisan bakery?”

“Went bust ages ago.  It helps if you know what your customers want, and around here they don’t go a bundle on rock-hard seeded loaves and sour grape chutney.”

Rachel looked incredulous.  “And Mark still goes out with Damaris despite all this?”

“He doesn’t know why I don’t like her.  I didn’t tell him about it.”

“Why not?  He could have gone in there and threatened them or something!”

“When you get to know him better, you’ll realise that he is not that type of detective; not that type of person.  Mark is one of the most honourable people I know, and I do my best not to get him involved in my battles just in case he’s pushed too far and loses his temper – and his job.”

“He didn’t lose it with Pete then?”

“He desperately wanted to; as my new-found brother, and uncle to the children that had been abandoned, he wanted to rip Pete limb from limb and it took a lot of persuading to stop him flying out to Portugal and doing the dirty deed.  I managed to convince Mark that the girls and I couldn’t cope without him, not to mention Sorrel’s protestations; she was clingy to say the least.  Anyway I’ve a few things to finish off in the kitchen before dinner, come and tell me about your day.”

Rachel followed Lou into the large and well-equipped kitchen.  Most of the baking for the tea shop took place here, and the kitchen had been remodelled for that purpose.  Perching on a stool whilst Lou put the finishing touches to the sauce, that would accompany the fresh sea bass she had acquired from Jeff at the Gun’s brother; Rachel ran through her day.  When she reached the part about the Spanish-sounding men, Lou frowned and stopped stirring the sauce.

“They are probably Portuguese; we have quite a few families living outside the village in some old cottages that belong to one of the boatyard owners.  It’s become quite a settlement; some of the children are at school with our girls. Most of the residents are fine, but they have a few relatives who come over on yachts and bring contraband.  Don’t tell Mark I told you, but this is the job he’s been involved in for the past year or so.  We know they are bringing drugs in but it’s really hard for the police to catch them.  Mark might be interested in what you saw and heard though so if you can bring it up in conversation …….”

“Sure.  I also paid a visit to a boutique that I believe is owned by Damaris.”

“Ooh!  Dee’s Designs!  Hideous place, hideous designs and hideously high prices.  You didn’t actually buy anything did you?”

Rachel grinned.  “I bought a nice green silk scarf that I cannot wear down here because your brother is of the opinion that all lady writers are middle-aged and wear long, flowing scarves.  I acquired some disgusting silver and turquoise earrings for our receptionist at work – she will absolutely adore them – and a lovely little water colour of the Square and your tea shop.”

Rachel picked up the picnic basket, pulled out the picture and handed it to Lou who let out a squeal of delight.   “Oh! Wow!  I know who painted this.  She’s one of my regulars.  Miss Sharp.  It looks as if it were painted a few years ago though, two of the shops in the Square have changed hands since then.  I expect Damaris only brought it because ‘Dee’s Designs’ is in it.”

“It’s for you.”

“No!  Really?  Oh Rachel, thank you.  I love it and I’ll put it in pride of place in the tea shop.  Miss Sharp will be so pleased.  You couldn’t have brought me anything nicer.”

“Good.  Watch your sauce!”

Lou squealed again and stirred gently until the sauce was smooth and velvet.  From the yells and laughter coming from the lounge, it sounded as if Mark had arrived and was busy teasing his nieces.  Putting the sauce to one side, Lou gave Rachel a meaningful look and motioned for her to follow.

Mark was on the sofa; Sally was snuggled up to him, Jenny was perched on the arm of the sofa, and the usually reticent Sarah was curled up on his other side.  He was wearing an old pair of jeans that fitted him very well, a battered but clean navy sweatshirt and the disreputable deck shoes.  He grinned as they walked into the room and Rachel, feeling self-conscious anyway, blushed as she found herself under his perceptive scrutiny.  He had the good manners not to make any comments about her appearance, but she was sure that she saw just the tiniest wink, which made her blush even more. Jenny opened her mouth to make another tactless teenage comment but was grabbed by Lou, who hustled her into the kitchen after motioning the others to their seats at the table.

Sally and Sarah grabbed the seats next to Mark, leaving Rachel to sit opposite with Jenny, and Lou at the head of the table.  Lou’s pep talk to Jenny had limited success however, in that she sulked, rather than made any more intemperate comments. There was good-natured sibling banter between Mark and Lou that enabled Rachel to sit back and watch rather than try to join in. The occasional sly glance confirmed that Mark was indeed very attractive, with bright blue eyes that were totally different to Sam’s.

Stop it, Rachel!  Stop comparing.  There were times when Rachel felt that the only way to overcome the visions of Sam was to be quite stern with herself.  There was no one else to do it, although she was sure that if she asked, Lou would oblige. This was something that Rachel knew she had to sort out for herself however.

The fish was beautifully cooked, and although Mark raised an eyebrow when Lou lied about it coming from Tesco, he ate with gusto and demolished two bowlfuls of apple and blackberry crumble before volunteering himself and Rachel to do the washing up.  It was Rachel’s turn to raise her eyebrows when Lou graciously accepted the offer and threw herself down on the sofa grinning.

Rachel followed Mark into the kitchen; he looked at her quizzically then picked up a tea towel.  “I’ll dry if that’s okay, I know where everything goes, and you might find it less hazardous if you wash, given your habit of smashing things.”

She opened her mouth to argue but decided it would be a waste of time.  Her washing up technique was thorough however; she decided that she didn’t want to give Mark the opportunity to hand back any smeared glasses or grubby forks.  They worked in a companionable silence, eventually interrupted by Lou putting on the kettle and shooting interrogative glances in Rachel’s direction.

Mark took Sally and Sarah off for a bedtime story.  Jenny sloped off to her room, her hair straighteners, her laptop and mobile phone, leaving Lou and Rachel to finish their coffee at the kitchen table.

“He definitely likes you.  I can tell these things. He keeps looking at you and smiling.”

“Leave it Lou.  I have no desire to be involved with any man at the moment – or ever.” Rachel said defiantly.

“Not even if Sam turned up and begged you to marry him – on bended knee?”

Rachel blushed.  “He wouldn’t.  I mean no.  I mean that I wouldn’t take him back under any circumstances.  At least I don’t think I would.  Oh, I don’t know Lou.  I wish I could just slam the door on what we had, but it’s so hard when there was so much.  I honestly don’t know what I’d do if he turned up here.  Part of me never wants to see him again, and yet there are times when I ache for him.”

Lou put her arm around Rachel’s shoulders. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Mark in the door way, and signalled to him to go into the other room for a while.  Rachel cried quietly, a tissue clutched to her nose as Lou held her tight and made the same soothing noises that brought back memories of past disastrous dates and humiliations.  Coming up for air and deciding that this was not the time for all-out sobbing, Rachel blew her nose, squared her shoulders and gave a weak grin. “Thank you, I’m okay.  Do I look dreadful?”

“No, but go up to my bedroom and put on some more lippy and a dab of powder, I’ll persuade Mark to make some coffee.  He’s probably fallen asleep by now.”

Lou went back into the lounge and nudged Mark awake. “Well?”

He squinted at her through half-open eyes. “You were rather economic with the information about your friend Rachel.”

“I didn’t tell any lies.”

“No, but you didn’t tell me that along with being clumsy and stubborn, Rachel was also rather lovely.  I don’t mean glossy magazine stuff either.  She is very easy on the eye. but doesn’t seem know it. I like that.”

“I thought it better to let you two make your own minds up about whether you could share the house together.”

“Well, so far, so good.  She’s definitely stubborn though.”

“It’s another of the things we found that we had in common; probably what drew us together at Uni.  That and the fact that Rachel hasn’t a racist bone in her body, and stuck up for me when the others in our residence were making nasty comments. She threatened to punch one of the boys.  He backed off so she didn’t actually have to do it but she was fully prepared to.  I held her specs. I for one, am very glad to have her back and I hope she stays for as long as she needs to.”

“No rush as far as I’m concerned.  Mrs K seems to have taken a shine to her too.”

By the time Rachel came back to the lounge, Mark was pouring coffee and watching the news.  Lou was curled up in the armchair leaving Rachel a choice between an upright chair or the place on the sofa next to Mark.  Grimacing at Lou she took the latter, making sure that she sat as far away as possible.

At the end of the news Mark yawned, stretched and got to his feet.  “Shall we go then Rachel?  A nice bracing walk up the lane to wake us up?  I’ll be up at the crack of sparrows again tomorrow.”

Lou saw them both out to the door, hugging Mark and then Rachel, and standing in the doorway to watch them as they walked up the lane.  Rachel did her best not to shiver, but the thin cotton dress and cardigan were not much protection against the cold night air.  Mark offered her his arm and she took it, warmed by his very solid and comforting presence. She talked lightly about her day at the beach, remembering to throw the incident with the Portuguese sailors into the conversation in a fairly inconsequential way.  Mark’s interest was sparked, and he began to fire questions at her that made her feel as if she was in a police interview room.

They had just come round the bend in the lane when they heard the sound of a roaring engine and were temporarily blinded by full on headlights.  A bright red sports car came into sight, and Rachel realised that it was heading straight for them.  Mark blocked Rachel with his own body, and pushed her into the hedge, narrowly avoiding being hit by the car himself as it screeched to a halt some yards further down the road.

“For God’s sake Damaris!” he yelled, hauling Rachel out of the hedge, “You nearly killed us.”

A blonde vision in a tight red dress unfolded herself from the driver’s seat and sashayed over, wiggling in a pair of killer Louboutin heels, and draping herself over Mark’s shoulder. “Don’t be so dramatic darling, I just thought I’d give Mrs Kneller a shock.  Oh, gosh.  You aren’t Mrs Kneller, are you?  So sorry! Not wearing my contacts tonight.”

“Then you shouldn’t be driving.  Have you been drinking as well?” said Mark as he shrugged her off and turned to Rachel who was surveying the wreckage that the hedge had made of her dress, legs and face.  She couldn’t be sure but she had a feeling that she was bleeding in more than one place, and the skirt of her dress was definitely ripped.  Mark turned back to Damaris; he did not look like an adoring fiancé. “Go home Damaris, and for God’s sake, drive slowly.  I need to get Rachel back and see to these cuts.”

“Oh, darling Mark, I thought you might invite me in for a nightcap.” She drooped and pouted but to little effect.

“Push off Damaris, before I call the police.  And drive slowly!”

Sulkily, she tottered back to her car and after revving the engine, smirked at Rachel and roared off into the night. 

Mark took Rachel’s arm and steered her up the road to the cottage.  She was in too much pain to argue and allowed herself to be led down the driveway and into the kitchen.  In the bright light she looked down at her legs, and was shocked to see how much damage the hedge had done to them. Without saying a word Mark lifted her up very carefully, and sat her on the kitchen table, before turning around and getting out a First Aid box from one of the drawers.  He took a clean tea towel and ran it under the tap before gently wiping the blood from her legs.  He still looked absolutely furious and Rachel, shocked and in pain, started to shake. “I’m sorry Mark.”

“Hey, it’s okay Rachel.  It’s bloody Damaris I’m angry with, not you. Your legs are a bit scratched; they look worse because of the blood, but there’s not so much damage now I’ve cleaned you up.  Your dress is pretty torn up though.  Shame, you look really nice in it.  I think you need a drink.  Whisky, brandy or sherry?”

“Umm, sherry please.  Does she always drive like that, your – fiancée?”

“Yes, she does.  And whatever she says we are not engaged; we are not even an item.  I have taken her out a couple of times on some very boring dates, and went to a dinner dance that her mother was hosting.  That does not constitute an engagement in my book.”

He handed her a generous glass of sherry and poured himself one as well. “Cheers.”

Rachel sipped at the sherry and began to feel a little less shaky as the warmth filtered down through her body.  She took another sip and looked down at her legs, then at the rip in her dress which was showing off rather more of her thigh than she would have liked.  She tried to pull the material together to cover her modesty; Mark put down his glass quickly and grabbed her hand. “Hang on a sec, there’s quite a deep cut on your leg there, I didn’t see it before.” 

He grabbed up the tea towel and rinsed it through again, before dabbing it very gently on the cut at the top of her thigh. He was right; it was deep, deep enough for stitches. “I ought to take you along to A&E.”

“No!” Rachel wailed.

“Are you sure?  I don’t relish the thought of going; we could be in there for hours.  Let me have a look at what’s in my emergency kit in the car.  Back in a minute.”

Rachel drank the last of her sherry and tried not to look at her leg. Mark ran back in clutching a small packet.  “Steri-strips!” he cried triumphantly.  “Do you want to do this or do you want me to?”

“You please, I’m not good with blood – or sick – or anything like that really.”

“Okay.  Drink some more sherry.  Oh, you already have.  I’ll top you up then.” 

He poured her some more sherry and she tried to concentrate on the glass, and not on the soft black curls barely an inch from her nose as Mark concentrated on sticking the cut together.  He surveyed his handiwork with some pride then put a clean dressing on top of it and pulled her dress back down. “Good girl.  I think it’ll be okay now.  How are you feeling?”

“A bit wobbly.  I’m not sure if it’s the drink or all this blood, or – or.”

Mark handed her his handkerchief, then sat down on the table next to her and put his arm around her shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “I’m sorry Mark, blubbing twice in one night, I feel such an idiot.”

“Sssh.  Come on, I’ll help you to your room.  Will you be okay with getting undressed?”

“Of course, I will!”  Rachel felt quite outraged, until she noticed that Mark was grinning at her. 

He picked her up from the table and carried her down the hall to her bedroom; pushing open the door with his foot. She leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, trying not to enjoy the warmth of his skin against hers too much.  He placed her very gently on the bed and sat down beside her. “Are you sure you’ll be okay now?  I’ll get you some water.  Don’t want you falling over in the middle of the night again.”

Rachel sat in the middle of the double bed, slightly drunk, slightly shocked and having more than slightly enjoyed being carried to her bedroom by Mark.  He brought a fresh glass of water back with him and put it on her bedside table.  Frowning, he removed a stray twig from her hair and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Call me if you need anything, please?  I’m really sorry about Damaris.  This has made my mind up about her though.  The end of a very imperfect relationship.  Goodnight Rachel, and sweet dreams.”

She watched him close the door, very slowly moved off the bed and got changed into her nightshirt.  She managed to stagger next door to clean her teeth but it was a relief to finally get into bed, find a position that wasn’t too uncomfortable, and drift into sleep with a rather sweet fantasy of Mark’s strong arms picking her up and carrying her off to bed.

Stepping Back – On the Beach

The journey to the beach was becoming so familiar to Rachel that she felt she could almost get there with her eyes shut.  She smiled and waved in response to the boat builders at Pete’s old boatyard, catching a whiff of paint and fibreglass that was reminiscent of the golden summers she and Lou had enjoyed. 

It wasn’t a conventional beach by any means; very little sand, mostly muddy shingle, but with plenty of huge rocks that provided an excellent perch from which to watch the yachts sailing in and out of the Marina, and the little pink ferry shuttling across the river.  When she wanted more action, Rachel walked further round the headland to where the river broadened into sea and the big liners were tugged into the port.  She was in the mood for crashing waves today, so she carried on walking until she came to the old blockhouses, one of which was the home of a transplanted Bofurs gun.

At the weekend and during the holidays, the blockhouses teemed with small children climbing from one building to the next, playing hide and seek, or more complex war games, but on this chilly morning, Rachel had the beach and the blockhouses to herself.  She climbed the steps and sat on the wall at the top, breathing in the scent of salt and seaweed peculiar to this part of the coast.  It was a fine clear day, and she not only had a good view of the shoreline but also of the Island on the other side of the water.  She and Lou had sailed there many times, and it remained a place of very happy memories. 

Lost in her reminiscences for a while, she had managed to move Sam into that part of her mind where his presence couldn’t cut and hurt her.  Whenever she returned to the present however, he was a constant, as was his subsequent betrayal and desertion.  She could see him in her mind, see every part of him, feel the warmth of his skin against hers and smell the faint musk of his aftershave.  As she filled her lungs with his imagined scent, the tang of the sea broke through the reverie, and reality returned.  The tears that she hid from Lou and the girls flowed freely here on the beach, with no one but the gulls and the occasional dog walker as witness to her grief.

As far as Lou was aware, Rachel came to the beach to get inspiration, but it was the only place she felt safe enough to give vent to the feelings she had to keep locked away inside.  If he had turned up then; if Sam appeared on the beach at that moment with his penitent grin and irresistible charm, she would have taken him back.  She would have thrown herself into his arms and forgiven him for everything.  What a fool she was!  She shook her head in amazement at her own stupidity.  Sam wasn’t coming back.  He’d been gone for over a month, and as far as she knew, the affair with Adele had been going on under her very nose for several weeks before that. He’d made his choice but what choices had she ever been given?

Pulling a tissue from her pocket, Rachel blew her nose defiantly and dabbed at her eyes, after glancing around quickly to make sure she was still alone.  A huge oil tanker slid slowly into the port and several small boats tacked to and fro up the river in order to catch the best of the wind.  She climbed off the wall and walked down the steps to the shore, placing the lunch basket down, and picking up stones to skim across the water.  The complex search for the correct size and shape of stone concentrated her mind, and the further science of getting the right angle and spin on the skim rescued her from the bad place again.

Having exhausted the supply of stones on that particular stretch of beach, Rachel picked up the basket again and headed back.  Her path lay towards the foreshore; the picnic benches, car park, and a patch of green that overlooked the river.  Settling herself down on a bench, she unpacked the basket; feeling a better constriction in her chest at the delights Lou had prepared for her so lovingly.  A package of her favourite chicken salad sandwiches, a bottle of fresh orange juice wrapped up in a cool pack, sea salt crisps and Lou’s speciality, two cupcakes in girly pink with chocolate icing, red butterflies and a golden letter ‘R’.  In the four days that Lou had been sending her off to the seaside with a packed lunch, it had never been the same dessert two days running.  Even Lou’s daughters, streetwise as they were for such a small village, enjoyed their mother’s packed lunches, and were the envy of friends who were given an allowance to hit the fish and chip shop, or buy boring school lunches.

Sitting there each day, nibbling absent-mindedly at her sandwiches and watching the boats sail past or moor up at the jetty, Rachel had become familiar with the regular fishermen, and wondered if one of the them was the brother of Jeff at the Gun. She’d lost count of the nights that she and Lou, had spent evenings at that particular pub, playing pool and drinking orange squash.  At ten pence a shot and free water, it had been a cheap night out, and there were usually a few boys who would buy them something a little stronger, and challenge them to a game of pool. They’d scrape together a pound for the meat raffle on a Friday night in the hope that they would win something to cook for the weekend back in the grubby kitchen of the halls of residence where they lived.

By the time they started their second year at Uni, they had moved into a cottage in the Village rented by Rachel and paid for by her ever absent grand-parents. The girls acquired part-time jobs to enhance their social lives, and as barmaid and sous chef at the more affluent Crown Inn, orange squash and pool became a thing of the past. It was in the Crown that they had made further acquaintance with Pete and his fellow yachties, and were enticed on board to crew on trips around the Island, and further down the South coast.

Bringing herself back to the present, Rachel realised with a start that she had finished all the food and drink in her basket and was idly picking up the last crumbs of her cupcakes with a wetted finger.  She sighed; and took the wrappings and bottle over to the recycling bins; noting the presence of a group of men talking animatedly in a language that sounded Spanish, but not quite.  She couldn’t be absolutely sure but she got the distinct feeling that the men weren’t particularly happy, especially not with the thin, gangly young man wearing washed out jeans and a tee-shirt that had definitely seen better days. He was shivering and hugging himself in a way that wasn’t just from the chill of a breezy day; his hair was lank and his sunken eyes had huge pupils. 

Whilst living in London, Rachel had seen many young men and women in a similar state, and it saddened her to see that even here, in this sleepy backwater village, the steely hand of the drug world had taken hold. She shuddered and throwing the last of the wrappers in the bin, picked up the picnic bag and decided to go back to the cottage.  The foreshore no longer felt the safe haven she had thought it to be earlier.

As she walked past the group of men, she felt them scrutinising her and keeping her eyes forward, she walked briskly up the hill and into the first shop she could find. Unfortunately, it was the designer boutique she had been avoiding for the past couple of days.  It was a typical tourist trap; the windows adorned with expensive and impractical dresses and tops. Rachel was tempted by a long silk scarf in shades of green, but remembering Mark’s comment about lady authors in flowing scarves, she put it back quickly and turned her attention to a display of silver and turquoise jewellery.  It was particularly pricey and not very nice, but the dangling earrings and spike-adorned necklaces provided a suitable subject for browsing.

“They are darling, aren’t they?” gushed the assistant, picking up a particularly ferocious looking bracelet and holding it out to Rachel.

“Lovely.” She replied, “and so – original.”

“Oh yes, we pride ourselves on only stocking artisan goods in this boutique.  All our stock is made in the locality by artists and dressmakers known to the owner personally. She is an artist herself, of course.  Those lovely hand-painted vases on the bookshelf are hers.  Such a talented person.”

Rachel looked over at the stubby clear glass vases adorned with amateurishly painted flowers. She smiled and decided that she would have to buy something in order to get out of the shop.  Tucked away on a lower shelf she found a little watercolour of the Square.  As she picked it up to examine it more closely, the assistant tutted. 

“That ugly little thing.  I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  You can have it for twenty pounds but I wouldn’t give it house room.”

Rachel rummaged in her pocket for her purse and was pleased to see that she could pay by credit card. With Lou providing her with food, she hadn’t had cause to go the bank since the day she’d arrived and bullied Lou into accepting all the cash that she’d brought down with her.

In order to mollify the now slightly sniffy assistant, Rachel took the least offensive pair of turquoise earrings, and in a moment of devilry, picked up the green scarf as well.  The assistant rang up the purchases; her attitude warming as she realised how much her commission would be.

“Are you staying in the village or just visiting?” she asked in a friendlier manner.

“I’m staying here for a while.  My friend Lou runs the teashop up in the square.”

“Oh.  Lou.  Well in that case you’ll know our owner’s fiancé Mark.  He’s going to be marrying Damaris in the autumn.”

“Oh, how lovely.” said Rachel, wondering how this piece of information tallied with what Lou had already told her about Damaris.  She picked up the rather gaudy carrier bag containing her purchases, said goodbye, and left the shop. 

The group of men had disappeared from the Quayside, and the Square was beginning to fill up with muscle cars disgorging yummy mummies collecting their tiny offspring from nursery.  In an hour or so it would be packed as the school run began.  Rachel decided not to call in at Lou’s tea shop to return the picnic bag, and hurried back to the cottage instead.  She and Sam had never discussed the idea of children, but that wasn’t to say she hadn’t fantasised about adorable babies and toddlers with her hair and his eyes. Yet another area of her life that smacked of failure.

Closing the cottage door behind her, she felt relieved to be able to shut herself away from reality for a while.  Her mobile rumbled and she pulled it out of her pocket.  A text in reply to the one she’d sent earlier agreeing to take on the commission.  She could tell from what Tony didn’t say that he was relieved to get her reply.  An email containing the details would follow, so could she turn her laptop on please? The laptop was still sitting in a bag by the side of her bed, and with a sigh she went into her bedroom, dumped the carrier bag on the bed and set the laptop up on the dressing table.  Lou had given her the password for Mark’s Wi-Fi; he had a separate secure network for official business, but this was for his own personal use – and that of his guest.

Once the laptop was on line, Rachel’s inbox filled up ominously and only stopped when the tally reached three hundred and twenty-seven.  She sighed again and set about sorting the junk mail from the real emails, then separating the dull from the more interesting correspondence.  By the time she’d finished she was down to about seventy emails, some that she would answer and some that could be safely ignored for the time being. The worst were those of commiseration from friends who had heard about her leaving London, and assumed that she’d had some kind of breakdown in the wake of Sam’s desertion.

She put together a cheery standard reply about working on a piece about the countryside and being able to tie that in with visiting an old friend and her family.  It combined cheerful practicality with tinge of truth, and through the wonders of cut and paste, she managed to respond to two thirds of the outstanding emails, and decided that the rest could keep whilst she read the email from Tony in greater detail.  It was long; with two attachments, so she dug out a memory stick and saved it all in the hope that she could persuade one of Lou’s girls to print it off for her.  She knew that she should make more of an effort to be green and save paper, but sometimes she needed the tangibility of a paper copy in her hand.

Looking in the mirror, Rachel felt that the pigtails and sea air had done sufficient damage to her hair and a shower was in order.  As she dried her hair, wrapped in a huge fluffy black towel, she also decided to make more of an effort with her clothes.  This had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Mark was coming for dinner, and she in no way wanted to impress him, nor give him the idea that there was more to her than a clumsy, short-sighted woman with pigtails who might or might not possess at least one flowing scarf.

Oh, Rachel.  Whatever happened ‘to thine own self be true?’

She looked in the carrier bag and carefully extracted the watercolour, propping it up on the dressing table next to her laptop.  It brought back memories of happier days, and no matter what the stupid shop assistant said, Rachel could see that whoever had painted it loved the Village and the Square in particular.  There was a signature in the corner but even with her glasses on, Rachel couldn’t quite make it out. The hideous earrings hadn’t improved in style or beauty on closer inspection; they would do as a present for the receptionist in the office who had a penchant for the kind of dangly earrings that looked as if they could cause serious damage to herself or anyone nearby if she moved too quickly.

The green silk scarf was rather gorgeous though; going from pale jade in the middle out to vivid emerald at either end, and tasselled with tiny faceted silver beads that caught the light and sparkled.  She was tempted to build up an outfit around it but had a feeling that it might lead to a conversation about Damaris and her designer shop that Rachel now realised, from looking at the carrier bag, was called “Dee’s Designs’.  Something of a misnomer considering the only items in the shop actually designed by Damaris were the tacky painted glass vases.  Rachel felt relieved that she hadn’t allowed herself to be bullied into buying one.  

Looking through her wardrobe, she found the item she’d been thinking of; a sleeveless dress in a soft lilac which was fitted to the waist then flared out in gentle folds to below her knees.  An old Oxford blue cashmere cardigan that she’d found in a flea-market, and comfortable blue sandals completed the outfit, and satisfied Rachel’s vision when she looked in the mirror.  Her dark blonde hair hung in shining, newly washed strands around her shoulders, and as she turned this way and that she felt happy with the effect, but it needed one more touch. Rooting around in her makeup bag, Rachel found the string of amethyst beads and matching earrings that she had thrust in there as an afterthought, just as she was leaving the flat in London four days ago.

Finally, she was ready.  She tucked the watercolour into Lou’s picnic basket, locked up the house, checking all the doors and windows, once, twice and a third time just for luck.

Stepping Back – Lou

“So, you and our Mark were clearing up broken glass in the middle of the night then?”  Lou raised her eyebrows at the thought, as she placed the picnic basket containing sandwiches and a flask on the kitchen table.  “He put a note through my door on the way to work. Mrs K has also just informed me that he came home late last night.”

“Yes.  News certainly travels fast round here,” said Rachel pulling a face. “You could have been a bit more honest in your description of him.  My vision of the elderly recluse has been blown right out of the water. Why didn’t you tell me about Mark before?”

“I didn’t know myself.  Mark is the result of my mother’s misspent youth. She was only fifteen when he was born, and he went off to live with his paternal grandparents.  His father disappeared into a commune in India and was never seen again.  My mother was kept out of the picture in case she was a bad influence on him. They called him Mark in order to dissociate him from any Afro-Caribbean heritage. By the time Mum had married my father and achieved a level of respectability, she had lost all contact with them. Mark did very well at school, then Uni, and into the police force.  As you may have noticed, he has the kind of appearance that can blend in with most nationalities. We only met up when his grandparents died and the solicitor told him that he had a little sister and three gorgeous nieces.  By that time Mark was married and working up in Edinburgh. He and I have inherited my mother’s curly hair and colouring, but he has his father’s eyes apparently. The girls will be pleased.  We can put the rest of his photos back on display now.”

“Lou!  What are you up to?”

“Look at it this way Rachel.  You’ve come down here to escape from a relationship that took over your whole life.  Would you have come if I’d offered you a room in the cottage of my extremely attractive and eligible older brother?  No.  You’d have thought that I was trying to set you up – which I’m not.  I’d have had you stay with us, but Jenny really needs a room to herself now she’s in senior school.  Besides, Mark is not the most sociable of characters.  You might have been staying here for months without setting eyes on him.  If he’s invited himself to dinner tonight it can only be because he approves of you.”

“We only talked for a few moments – and I wasn’t exactly looking my most glamorous – scruffy old nightshirt and plaits, blind as a bat and littering his hallway with broken glass – some first meeting!  What have you got me into Lou?”

“Nothing.  Even we don’t see that much of him, he seems to specialise in these undercover jobs where he’s gone for weeks on end.  You might not have met him at all so I didn’t see the point in giving him a big build up.   Hand on my heart Rachel.  I invited you down for a break, not to set you up with my big brother.  Having you here this week has brought back a host of happy memories for me, and to be honest, your being here is doing me the world of good too. Mark currently has a brainless beauty from the village hanging on his every word anyway. Her name is Damaris and her parents own that very posh restaurant on the High Street, as well as a number of other local businesses.”


“Oh, don’t ask!  She has extremely gormless twin brothers called Dickon and Dominic as well.  Probably saved them a fortune in Cash’s name tapes when Mummy packed them all off to boarding school.  Her mother is the ghastliest woman I’ve ever met; all fur coat and no knickers, and her father is a vague and chinless member of the local gentry.  If Mark thinks he’s going to clutter up our exotic family tree with that kind of dross, he’ll have to bump me off first.  He spends most of his time avoiding her and cancelling dates so I don’t think it’s at all serious.  Not that you’d care anyway because you’re still drooling over Sam the Man.”

Rachel took the picnic basket and smiled ruefully at her old friend.  Lou grinned back; the signs of worry and stress briefly stripped away by the twinkle in her eyes. For the moment the strain of bringing up three girls and running a business alone seemed to disappear, and they were both bright-eyed freshers in their first week of university again. 

Lou glanced down at her watch. “Time to go.  Melanie’s opening up the shop this morning and although she’s coming along, I don’t like to leave her on her own too much.  Where are you headed today?”

“My usual place.  Who’d have thought you’d end up living here all those years ago when we came down with the grotty yachties.”

“Steady on.  I married a grotty yachty.  Not that it did me much good.  The sea won.  The last I heard Pete was doing holiday tenders out in Portugal, and surrounding himself with bronzed bimbos.  Mark and I seem to have the most appalling taste in partners – and now you too.”

“How long has Mark lived here?”

“He and Sorrel moved down here a couple of years ago.  They used to live in a very posh part of Edinburgh where he worked on some rather nasty people smuggling rackets.  Sorrel was very beautiful but impractical, and completely wrong for Mark.  When he discovered that he had a younger sister that no one had told him about, he got a transfer South to help me with the girls and the shop.  One season of the high life here, and Sorrel was off with a handsome sea captain who promised a more entertaining future.  Our divorces came through almost exactly a year apart.  At least you and Sam never tied the knot.”

“If the subject came up, I received an eloquent speech on the importance of being a free spirit and how we didn’t need rules and regulations to keep us together.  Sometimes I think we only lasted as long as we did because I didn’t push him for commitment.  Good luck to his new lady anyway.”

“Do you know who she is?”

“Yes.  Her name is Adele.  She works for the paper as a fashion editor.  Saudi Arabia is her country of origin, but educated at the very best places in England and France.  Tall, elegant, immaculately dressed, and blessed with a very rich daddy.  He couldn’t have found someone more opposite to me if he tried. Don’t say it, Lou!   I may not be the shy specs-wearing mouse that you took under your wing any more, but Adele is not someone I could ever compete with.”

Lou hugged Rachel and shook her head. “You are worlds away from the little boarding school girl that you were and you know it.  You have brains and a huge amount of journalistic talent which I am constantly boasting about to anyone who will listen.  There are still people in the Village who remember us from Uni days and they often ask after you.  I’m glad you kept the specs though, always something to hide behind.”

“If you need a hand in the shop any time Lou, you only have to say?” said Rachel.  “You won’t accept any rent off me for your brother, and the little that you take for food wouldn’t keep a gnat alive. Let me help?  God knows I’ve nothing else to spend the money on.”

“You’re staying on for a while then?”

“My boss Tony texted to say that he’s got a commission for me to write a series of articles about our Village life – if I accept it.  He knew that I’d go to pieces if I had to see Sam and his new paramour every day, so I’ve been offered a kind of sabbatical. Initially for three months but if I turn in the work – who knows?”

“Great news!  Let’s talk about it later though.  Go and get your inspiration from the sea, and I’ll cater to the needs of my regulars, and the more pernickety tourists.  Just don’t make any hasty decisions Rachel.  Promise?”

“Yes, I promise.”

Rachel waved as Lou got on to her bicycle and rode off to her shop in the centre of the village.  Closing the door, Rachel finished washing up her breakfast dishes, dried up meticulously, and put them away together with the plate and glass that Mark had left on the drainer.  He’d left her a note too although she hadn’t told Lou about it.  The note was stuck to the inside of her door, so there was no doubt that it was meant for her and not Mrs Kneller.  She drew it out of her pocket and looked at it again.  It was very simple; just ‘Good Morning’ and a face with two long pigtails, but it made her smile inside and out for the first time in weeks.

She put it back, and sighing, picked up her mobile.  Tony had texted to see how she was; he’d promised not to phone unless there was an emergency, but this was his tenth text in four days so she felt it was time she replied to confirm his offer of the commission and sabbatical.  It was only just after half-eight but his response was swift, and she pictured him lounging in his office chair, huge mug of tea in one hand and iPhone in the other. The TV would be on, as would his radio, and the computer would have several different news channels up as he flicked from one to another, in case he missed anything.

Tony believed in straight talking, so Rachel wasn’t surprised to find reference to Sam in his messages. It appeared that Sam and Adele had gone off to Dubai for a holiday, leaving everyone fuming at the short notice.  Not that there would be any repercussions – Sam was too valuable to the paper for that and although Adele was only a junior fashion editor, no one would want to risk upsetting Sam or her father, by sacking her. 

The news of Sam’s latest exploits left Rachel with constricting lump in her throat that even another quick glance at Mark’s note couldn’t dispel.  It had been a month now since Sam had moved out and she wondered when, if ever, the pain of his leaving would ease.  His belongings had been removed very swiftly from her flat on the day that she received his letter; she’d been away at a conference that weekend and returned to find gaps in the bookcase, a half empty wardrobe, his letter, and a vase of white roses with a card saying ‘Sorry’ on them.

She’d spent most of that day in a daze induced by alcohol, and the final loss of his physical presence.  Walking in to this stark reality had almost pushed her over the edge; as it was the roses went out of the window, but not the vase.  Even in her rage and grief, Rachel still had consideration for her neighbours.  Sam had stayed away from the office for the rest of the week, emailing his pieces and ignoring her texts.  A call to Lou had brought her to her senses to some extent, and with it came the invitation to stay.  It had taken a while to tie up life’s loose ends sufficiently to escape from London, but now at last she was in a place that held no reminders of her life with Sam.

She could remember quite vividly when she and Lou had first discovered this village.  They were in their first year at university; two lonely girls in a busy hall of residence occupied by middle-class girls and boys who had never had to cope before without parents or staff to look after them.   They found themselves invited by accident to a very grand party held in the grounds of a nearby stately home, and met up with a group of hard-drinking, fast-living and devilishly handsome young men with sun bleached hair and real suntans. Footloose and fancy-free, the two girls were invited to more parties, and to the yachting weekends that led to both of them falling in love with this little village, and ultimately to Lou losing her heart to Pete, the most rakish and gorgeous yachty of them all.

Their romance continued to everyone’s surprise, and culminated in a glorious drunken wedding two days after Lou and Rachel’s graduations. Lou had a win on the new Lottery, and abandoning the career of journalism that she had been studying for, used the money to set up home with Pete in the Village.   They bought a share in a local boatyard for Pete, and Lou built up clientele in her little teashop, in between giving birth to her three beautiful girls.  Whilst Lou felt happy and settled with her life, Pete obviously didn’t and Rachel, though saddened, wasn’t surprised when he got the seven-year itch, voted with his feet and sailed off into the sunset six months after his youngest child was born. 

In the meantime, Rachel had worked her way up through regional newspapers and local radio until she had reached her current post on a national broadsheet.  She specialised in the slightly bizarre, rather than more traditional reporting, or women’s issues.  She had a knack for finding common ground with her interviewees, and it was this ease that had first brought her to the attention of Sam Miller, the newspaper’s headline reporter. 

His single-minded pursuit of her was the talk of the paper and a source of wonder to Rachel.  She considered herself to be forgettable; of average height and on the slim side, her hair had mellowed into a dark blonde, and the dowdy specs had been replaced by something more stylish once she could afford them. Sam was not attractive in comparison with Pete and his sun-bleached cronies, he was only a little taller than Rachel, with thinning brown hair.  His eyes were the stuff of dreams however, a deep, dark brown that twinkled and enchanted by turn.  He was the kind of man that knew everyone’s name, and his charisma usually gained him friends wherever he went.  When Sam decided to move in with her, Rachel felt that life was perfect.  It didn’t matter that he travelled extensively, or that she barely saw him, even when they went out together.  He always came back to her at the end of the evening, no matter how many attractive women – and men – had been hanging on his every word. Life with Sam was rarely dull and Rachel was aware that his reputation had helped her career along as well.

The arrival of Mrs Kneller interrupted these sad musings, and putting on the bravest of faces, Rachel picked up her basket and a waterproof jacket borrowed from Lou, in readiness for her trip down to the beach.

“You’ve met our Mark then?”  Mrs Kneller said as she hung her coat up under the stairs.

“Yes.  I broke a glass I’m afraid but I think he managed to pick up most of the glass.  He said he was going to vacuum later.”

Mrs Kneller peered over the top of her bottle-bottom thick spectacles.  “I’ll do the vacuuming.  He likes to think that I leave it to him but I still do it.  Don’t you tell him mind!”

“I won’t say a word.”  Rachel smiled conspiratorially, “Your secret is safe with me.”

“Good girl.  You go off and have a lovely day.  Lou’s getting some nice fish in for your dinner tonight.  I saw her having a word with Jeff from the Gun, he’s got a brother who brings in a lovely fresh catch every day.  Don’t tell Mark where it’s coming from though, there might be a problem with Jeff’s brother and his fishing quota.”

“The secrets in this village!   I never knew there was so much going on.”

“You don’t know the half of it my dear.  There are that many skeletons tucked away in cupboards and under patios!  You could write a book about it!”

“You’ll be the first person I come to then.  I’ll get out from under your feet now.  Don’t work too hard.”

Mrs Kneller smiled knowingly as she opened the front door and watched Rachel walk down the road with a lighter step than she’d seen before. “You’ll do my dear,” she said to herself.  “You’ll do very nicely.”

Stepping Back – Rachel

When Lou suggested that she come and stay in her brother’s cottage, Rachel was initially dubious, but by Thursday night Rachel was beginning to wonder if she would ever meet her elusive host.   He was away on some kind of a mysterious operation and the only evidence of his existence so far had been an old oilskin and some disreputable deck shoes under the stairs.  Any personal belongings were tucked away somewhere.  According to Lou, her brother Mark was a police detective but very few people in the village were aware of this; it was assumed by most people that he had some kind of dodgy business in London that kept him away for days on end.

The cottage was cleaned and the daily shopping done by his next-door neighbour, Mrs Kneller, a pleasant soul who sang 50’s tunes from her youth, as she polished and vacuumed.  Never having stayed in a house with a housekeeper, Rachel felt a little confused about what her own household duties might be but after the first day or two and a word with Lou, she came to the conclusion that if Mrs Kneller wanted something done – or not done – she would definitely say. That included doing Rachel’s washing and ironing; a situation that Rachel hadn’t been in since the days of boarding school and having all her clothes sent to the laundry.  So far, Mrs Kneller proved far more efficient and caring than the school laundry had ever been.

Rachel loved the solitude of the shoreline in early spring, and found the old cottage with its beams and strange angles more suited to her mood than the clinical modernity of her London flat.  The cottage was long and low, with her bedroom at one end, and the room presumably occupied by her host at the other.  The galley kitchen and a large lounge and dining room were in the middle of the building with a set of stairs going up into the sail loft.  Two small beds had been squeezed in there as well as dozens of canvas bags containing strange shapes redolent with the scent of the sea.  Rachel had a choice of bathrooms; an all mod-cons shower room next door to her bedroom, or a more traditional bathroom on the other side of the kitchen.  Patio doors from the lounge led out to a terraced garden full of herbs, the cooing of wood pigeons, and the tinkle of flapping halyards from the nearby boatyards.

Rachel had dined with Lou and her three daughters each evening so far, and was given an immaculately prepared packed lunch so she could stay out on the beach all day, her trusty Dictaphone to hand for moments of rare inspiration. Lou was very proud of her big brother and the girls spoke about their uncle as if he were a legend.  The more she heard about him, the more curious Rachel became about the man.  She couldn’t remember Lou talking about Mark when they were at Uni together, or ever having met him before. Sally, the youngest of the three girls and also the most garrulous about her Uncle Mark, was holding forth about how he was involved in some mysterious undercover work that meant no one had seen him for days.   Rachel put aside the uncharitable thought that he might just as well be involved in illicit smuggling as far as she knew, and finished off her glass of wine. Her offer of help with the washing up politely but firmly refused yet again by Lou, Rachel picked up her bag and said her goodbyes.   Sally and her eldest sister Jenny offered to walk her back to the cottage as it was such a clear night.

The walk along the coast road to the cottage was short but exhilarating, with a wind blowing in from the sea that swept away the last vestiges of mellowness engendered by a good company and an excellent meal. The cottage was in darkness, and only Rachel’s car graced the gravel drive. Sally and Jenny insisted on unlocking the door for her and checking to make sure everything inside was okay.  Whether this was a thinly veiled opportunity to snoop around their uncle’s home, or a security measure that he had instilled into them, Rachel wasn’t sure but the silence when their chattering voices had eventually left, became more eerie than it had seemed on the previous nights.  She decided that a good book and early bed was the antidote and after performing her usual night time ablutions, ten o’clock found her settled in the large double bed with her hair neatly plaited, and wearing a comfortable old flannel night shirt.

She woke with a start as her book tumbled to the floor; her bedside light was still on and the hands on the travelling alarm clock on the cabinet read three am.  The room was very warm, despite the half-open window, and picking up her glass, Rachel decided to get some fresh water from the bathroom.  It was the first time she’d done this at night in the four days she’d been staying at the cottage.  She felt along the wall for a light switch but having found it, decided she could manage in the darkness.

She turned on the cold tap and let the water run for a while, and then downed two glassfuls in quick succession, pressing the cool of the empty tumbler against her forehead before filling it again.   Once in the corridor she felt strangely disoriented and leaned against the wall for support, unable for a moment to see the way back to her room.  She found the light switch and turned it on; hoping that a few seconds of light would enable her to get her bearings again.  The light came on, and then went off again with a resounding pop as the bulb blew.

Rachel cried out and dropped the glass in her panic, it shattered on the floor spraying her feet and legs with cold water and shards of glass.  She froze, afraid to move in case she cut herself.

“Don’t move!”

She jumped at the sound of the unexpected and very authoritative voice.

“Stay very still please.  I’ll be back in just a moment with a torch.  I don’t want you to cut yourself on the glass.”

Rachel sighed, relaxing slightly at the realisation that this must be her host at last.  The shock was replaced by embarrassment as she drew a mental picture of herself; worn out navy nightshirt and hair in school girl plaits on either side of her face.   Her spectacles were on the bedside table so she could only see about a foot in front of her clearly.  This was definitely not the way one should meet a man, let alone the person that she was sharing a house with.

The darkness was cleaved by a powerful torch beam shining at her feet.  His feet, also in the spotlight, were bare. His calves were athletic and not too hairy, and at least he was wearing boxer shorts, although she had a feeling that he had little else on.  He continued shining the torch on the floor, and Rachel shivered as he crouched down and began picking the tiny pieces of glass from her feet and putting them carefully in a pile to one side.  The beam of light moved as he shone it on the little airing cupboard door.  Opening it, he took out a couple of towels, one of which he placed in front of her feet and the other he used to gently wipe the water from her legs.

“Please?  I can do that if I can get back to my room.  I’m very short-sighted though, and I can’t see much without my specs.  They’re just on the bedside table.”

“That’s okay. Please take my hand and step onto the towel.  I don’t want you treading on any of the glass.”   His voice was very deep and slow, more relaxed now that he had dealt with her minor crisis. “I’m Mark by the way.  I’m assuming that you’re Rachel and you’re not a burglar?”

“Yes, sorry.  What a way to be introduced, smashing glasses and blowing up bulbs in the middle of the night. I really am very sorry.  I have a tendency to clumsiness.”

“Obviously that’s something else you and Lou have in common.  Has she let you wash up yet?


“She usually gets one of the girls to stack the dishwasher.  I’ve never met such a woman for breaking things.”

“I’m not that bad!  I was just startled by the bulb blowing.  I’m sorry about the mess.”

She let Mark lead her across the towel and back to her room, where he sat her on the bed and used the torch light to check her legs and feet for any glass or cuts.  Smoothing her nightshirt down over her thighs, she put on her spectacles and glanced down at him, noting that his dark curly hair was abundant with no sign of thinning or bald patches.  Like Lou, he had inherited skin the colour of smooth caramel, and on closer inspection she could see now that he really did have an impressive torso.  The boxer shorts were loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough to cause an increase in blood pressure in the most laid-back of women.  Which she certainly was not.

Mark stood up.  “You’ll do.  I’ll go and clear the mess up.  Would you like another glass of water?”

“Please Mark?  I made the mess.  I’ll clear it up.  I can see now.  If you’ll just tell me where the dustpan and brush is?”

He grinned.   “No offence Rachel, but it’s very late and it’ll be much quicker if I do it.  I need to get a new bulb for the hallway anyway.  Just sit tight and I’ll be back in a moment.”

Rachel stayed where she was, rapidly coming to the conclusion that people didn’t often argue with Mark.  She heard him return to his room, then to the kitchen.  He was back very quickly and placing another glass of water on her bedside table before she’d even had time to get back into bed.  He’d put on a washed-out black tee-shirt and those very old deck shoes she’d seen in the hallway.  She blushed as he caught her looking at him, and was aware that he was carrying out an inspection of his own. “I thought you’d be older.  When Lou said I’d be having a lady writer for a lodger, I had visions of some grey-haired old dear in flowing scarves.”

“Sorry to destroy the illusion.” Rachel muttered, blushing again and lowering her eyes as she pleated the duvet cover nervously between her fingers.

“Not at all.  If I’d known you were so definitely not an old dear, I’d have made myself known sooner.”  He extended his hand.  “How do you do Rachel?  I hope you’re enjoying your stay here and you find the accommodation acceptable?”

Rachel took his hand and shook it.  She began to rally her defences a little.  “Hi Mark, I must admit I was beginning to wonder if you existed at all.  When Lou suggested I stay in her big brother’s cottage, I had my own visions of some portly old chap gently easing himself toward retirement.”

“Seems we were both a bit wrong then?  I’m only six years older than Lou – and well away from retirement. Are you sure you don’t have any of those scarves?”

“Haven’t you already checked out my wardrobe and luggage? I’ve been out every day since I came down.”

Mark had the grace to blush slightly, and laughed.  “Touché.  I ought to get that glass cleared up.  I have another early start tomorrow.”  He moved toward the door and Rachel felt disappointed that he was leaving. “Can I help?  I could hold the torch while you change the bulb, and I’m sure I can sweep up a bit of broken glass.” 

Mark grinned again and gestured with his head.  “Come on then.  Lou said you were a bit stubborn.”

“Oh, did she!  What else did she say?”

“That you were an old and trusted friend who needed a holiday.  She didn’t elaborate but I got the impression that you’ve had a bad time recently.”

“A bit.  Being down here helps but I’m not looking forward to going back much.”

“There’s no rush as far as I’m concerned, be my guest as long as you like.” 

He turned and went out into the corridor.  Rachel slid off the bed and shoved her feet into flip flops before joining him.  He handed her the torch and reached up to take out the old bulb.  As he stood on his toes to remove it, she couldn’t help but admire his physique and the ease with which he moved.  Once the light was on, he took the torch from her and replaced it with the dustpan.  “I’ll sweep if you collect the bits.  Is that okay?”

She nodded, aware that the bright light was maybe not the most flattering to her, and ducked her head as she crouched down and held the dustpan flat against the floor.  He was very quick and efficient, checking all around him in case there were any stray pieces of glass left.

“I should wear your flip flops when you come out in the morning.   I’ll be home in the afternoon and do the vacuuming then.”

She protested.  “I’ll do it.  Really!  I don’t mind.”

He reached out and tugged one of her plaits. “You’re on holiday and you’re my guest.  I have to fight Mrs K for the right to do my own vacuuming as it is.  Tell Lou to set the table for one extra for dinner. I’ll see you later.” 

He took the dustpan from her and disappeared back along the corridor and into his room, closing the door quietly behind him. 

Rachel slowly stood up and went back to her own room, leaning against the closed door.  She did not need this.  She did not need to be alone in a house with an exceptionally attractive single man who had just smiled very sweetly at her.  She sat down heavily on the bed and picked up her bag, extracting from it the letter that had sent her far away from her ordered London lifestyle and down to this sleepy South coast village.

Sam wrote an excellent letter, she had to give him that.  In all the time they’d been together he’d only written to her twice; once to tell her how smitten he was with her, and this second time, to tell her that he was leaving.  That he had found another woman who made his heart beat faster. 

“It’s not you, its me.” 

That old cliché.