“Did you teach Richard to swim?” Paula looked across at Georgie, whose eyes were focused on the young children splashing about in her small swimming pool. She reluctantly averted her gaze to focus on her friend.

“Not entirely. His prowess in the pool is largely thanks to months of taking him to swimming lessons. It was a schlep at the time, but they’ve paid off in the end.” Georgie returned her gaze to the pool.

“He shows such skill though.” Paula sipped her tea thoughtfully. “I’ve always meant to take Mike and Sue.” She sighed. “All those jobs that get stockpiled during the week … I don’t know, we always seem to be so busy over the weekends. One should look forward to them, but when I think of the regimen I would have to submit to if I had to fit in swimming lessons as well …” She broke a piece off a scone and pinched it between her fingers. “I’d never get to the gym for a start!”

Georgie took in her friend’s slender figure and glanced briefly at her own, which had rounded and softened during the eight years since Richard was born. She’d always thought that she would continue running, like Diane had, and going to the gym at least once a week the way Paula did. Instead, her lapsed gym membership card still glared accusingly at her whenever she opened the writing bureau she’d inherited from her grandmother. Any truly ‘spare’ time she had she either spent with Richard or working in her small garden …

“Goodness, it is noon already! We really must fly. Come on children, get out of the pool now or you’ll get left behind!”

“I want to be left behind, Mommy.” Sue pulled a face. “Richard’s going to be making mini pizzas for lunch with his Mom.”

“Susan! Get out now!” Paula turned to Georgie. “Isn’t it funny the way other people’s meals sound so much better than our own. Come on Susie B.” She strode towards the edge of the pool and, with a rapid movement, yanked her daughter out of the pool and tightly wrapped a towel around her wriggling body.

“I want to stay and have pizza with Richard!” Sue stamped her wet feet on the grass as she tried to get away from the dress Paula was pulling over her head. “I want pizza!” she sobbed.

“We’ll buy pizza on our way home. Come to the party Sue and let’s put your panties on.”

“I don’t like olives!”

“I’ll ask them to leave out the olives.” Paula rolled her eyes as she towel-dried Mike’s hair and gathered the wet costumes and towels into a large tote bag.

“Thanks for the tea, Georgie. I suppose you can stay calm because you’ve only the one to worry about.” She held her children tightly by the hands. “Say ‘bye now because Mommy’s still got to get to the gym.”

That afternoon Georgie sat on the wooden bench in the shady part of the garden while listening to Richard playing his recorder. Guy had been teaching him to play since the age of five and they both basked in the praise that washed their way via Richard’s music teacher. Georgie remembered how inadequate she had felt when Richard’s Grade 1 teacher had informed them that all the children ‘must learn to play a musical instrument’. Guy had covered for her perceived inadequacy by choosing the recorder. He and Richard played together most evenings after supper – often with Guy playing the piano.

Isn’t it strange how even a musical instrument can create a foe, she thought. Nearly everyone she knew had congratulated her when Richard performed a solo during a school assembly. Except for Berenice. She, who had often sat next to Georgie by choice during the periodic school music concerts, now pretended Georgie didn’t exist. That hurt even more than the parting comment that just wouldn’t leave her: “Of course it’s easy for Richard to do well – you’ve only the one to worry about!”

Berenice had three children and seemed to have a different colour hair every month. Whenever the mothers were asked to help out at school picnics, Berenice would make light of the fact that she was used to serving measured portions of food. Now Georgie felt she was being shunned by some of the mothers who had been friendly – until Richard started doing so well in various aspects of school life.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t have another child,” she told Guy that evening.

“What?” He nearly choked on his beer. “Georgie, after all our trying, aren’t we so fortunate to have Richard?”

“We are, it’s just that I seem to be turned on by people with more children who seem to resent his achievements.”

“Put it down to guilt.” Guy put his arm around her. “Not everyone is like that. The one’s you worry about don’t really want to give up what’s important to them like hair, smart clothes or the gym in order to focus on the development of their children. You know that I love you all the more for the – “.

“Dad, look at this large pile of extra-terrestrials.” Richard joined them on the patio. “If we had luminous paint we could put them out to glow in the dark like glow-worms.”

“It is by such means that our son expands his knowledge, grows in self-confidence and accumulates such a rich store of words to choose from.” Guy handed Georgie a glass of wine. It had been her turn to read the bedtime story.

“He wanted to talk about different countries tonight.”

“We’ve been looking at the globe.”

“Mm, so he was sort of ‘testing’ me.” Georgie laughed softly. “I’ve news for you my friend. I suggested you would be able to point out where his collection of extra-terrestrials live when they’re not here.”

The next evening the three of them watched the full moon rising behind a large tree in their front garden. Richard kept checking his wristwatch. “We’ve rotated one degree now, Dad.” His father smiled at him.

“Watch it carefully now,” Georgie warned him. “It’s about to clear the tree.”

“Ben is an uptight imbecile”. Richard said suddenly.

What?” Both of his parents called out in unison.

“Richard, where did you learn to use an expression like that?” Georgie could feel her lips quivering with indignation.

“Son, Mom asked you a question.” Guy spoke quietly into the pool of silence that followed.

Richard sighed. “He said I was one and that’s why I never have fun and have school all day and all night. He says imbeciles always have to keep learning otherwise they forget things.”

“And are you an imbecile?”

Richard laughed loudly. “Of course not, Dad. I’m normal. It’s Ben who is of low intelligence.”

“How do you know that?” Georgie looked across at her husband, now lit up by the ghostly light of the moon.

“His father keeps calling him an imbecile because he gets things wrong in class. We looked the word up in the dictionary. It means an extremely stupid person.”

Crickets chirped, a nightjar trilled and they could hear frogs croaking in the dam over the road in the long silence that followed. At last Georgie bent down towards her son. “Do you really think Ben’s stupid?”

“Of course not! He’s my friend. Besides, we’re in the same soccer team for tomorrow.”

“Accumulates a rich store of words to choose from?” Georgie whispered into Guy’s ear as she placed his bowl of soup on the table.

“I never said he knows how to use them appropriately yet,” he shrugged in return.

“Poor Ben.” Suddenly the envy directed towards her because of Richard’s achievements didn’t matter anymore.



The farm had been in their family for generations. Even as a young girl, Sarah had been fascinated by the drawings, diaries and farm journals stored in her father’s study that looked out across the valley. “All tamed now,” he would sometimes tell her, referring to the bush-covered land his ancestors had come to in the 1820s.

Sarah often begged her father to tell her stories from the diaries and letters in his possession. She was transfixed by the beautifully detailed family tree that adorned the passage wall. Her mother had spent years locating photographs and sketches that breathed life into some of the names carefully noted behind glass.

She was already in high school when she and Paul du Plessis had walked hand-in-hand through the maize lands to the grazing area at the bottom of the farm – far away from the prying eyes of her parents. Pigeon Cottage had already lost its roof by then, the windows were gaping holes and the chimney stack had fallen down. The remnants of the floor boards were covered with loose stones, bat droppings and owl pellets. They loved being there. Sarah and Paul had been meeting there for four years, ever since his sixteenth birthday.

Home from boarding school, Paul rode his horse across the open fields of Stony Brae to deliver a basket of apples to Sarah’s mother. Sarah sat in the shade covering the gaping doorway when Paul dismounted and looped the reins loosely over a wooden post that had once been part of a fence surrounding the cottage.

They munched on apples and drank water from the stream a little distance away. There was so much to talk about: both enjoyed watching the birds – Paul could imitate a lot of their calls – and loved animals. Paul wanted to become a vet. Sarah laughed at his ambition for even at the age of twelve she knew where her future lay.

“I am going to have to marry a farmer who wants to take Stony Brae over from Dad. I can’t plan to be anything because I will have to be a farmer’s wife.”

They met at Pigeon Cottage as often as they could after that. “The family outgrew the place generations ago,” her father told her one evening. “If you look at the ruins carefully, you will see it probably had three rooms at the most.”

“Our ancestors built this stone house from scratch, you know,” Sarah told Paul late one summer afternoon. “Some of these stones are so big that I wonder how they managed to lift them so high.”

Together they traced the uneven patterns in the roughly hewn stone. “They must have made some sort of plaster, look at these remnants here.” Paul guided her hand across the different textures.

He was in his final year of schooling at the start of what would be known as the Second World War. To Paul’s chagrin, his father insisted that he finish school. Sarah had seen his older brother in uniform and knew that it was a matter of time before Paul joined him. The two of them tugged at the weeds growing inside Pigeon Cottage – somehow it seemed important to hold onto what had been there for years. Paul tried to cut down the sapling growing up where the kitchen had once been. His penknife wasn’t strong enough though and they had more urgent things to do anyway.

Sarah’s father began involving her in more of the heavier farming activities as the pain in his legs and lower back began impinging on his ability to move.

“I hear you can drive a tractor straight these days,” Paul teased her on one of his later visits. “I had a look at the mealies on the way here. You have planted them well.” He kissed her on her cheek and then softly on her mouth. “Marry me, Sarah.” He breathed into her ear and was rewarded with a hot blush.

It was no fun having a birthday against the backdrop of a war, the scale of which reached deep into the rural areas. Sarah milked the cows early on her seventeenth birthday, fed the chickens and then joined her parents for breakfast in their farm kitchen. A small parcel and an envelope had been placed next to her plate.

“Open them, sweetheart,” her mother encouraged her. She pulled at the thin red ribbon and carefully unwrapped the tissue paper that hid a small hard box. Sarah held up the gold locket on a long gold chain.

“This is beautiful!”

“It belonged to a ‘great-great’,” her father held her hand in his. “We think you’re old enough and wise enough to start owning some of the family treasures.” His voice was gruff.

“Open it,” her mother encouraged.

The locket opened easily to reveal places for four items. Her mother had already inserted a picture of herself, her husband, and a recent picture of Sarah. The fourth space was empty. “What happened to the ‘great-greats’ that were in here?”

“Quite honestly, I don’t know who they are. I’ve put them in the family Bible. They can ‘begat’ and ‘begat’ in there.” Her father chuckled.

The envelope contained a hand-written note: Pigeon Cottage four o’clock. It didn’t need to be signed. She had a box filled with the letters Paul had written. “When did this come?”

“Paul brought it late last night.” Her mother collected the plates. “You were asleep and he didn’t want to wake you.” Sarah had been helping her father load bales of hay to take to the cows.

Paul was wearing his military uniform when he met Sarah at Pigeon Cottage. She hadn’t seen him for almost a year and knew as soon as she saw him that he would be going away. He swept her into his arms. “Happy seventeenth birthday.” His embrace nearly knocked the breath out of her. “I spoke to your parents last night. They know I’m going away, but have given me their blessing.” He pulled her closer to him on the broad stone step where the front door had been. “Sarah,” he swallowed hard. “Sarah, please say you’ll marry me when this war is over.”

“That was in 1941,” Sarah explained to the young woman who had driven her to Pigeon Cottage in a smart-looking 4×4 vehicle. She got out of it with difficulty and gratefully accepted the wooden walking stick, polished with age. Sarah stood still for a few minutes as she stared at the remains of the stone cottage she had last visited on her seventeenth birthday.

The sapling Paul had once tried to cut down now towered over the building and smaller bushes filled the interior.

The front end wall had been rent asunder by the tree roots, leaving a gaping hole and a pile of stone rubble. A section of the wall had fallen away, its stones now covered by grass and tall weeds. Two sections of the wooden fence posts made from Sneezewood remained. “That is where Paul hitched his horse once.” Sarah felt giddy and her eyes watered as she gazed around her: there were no neat mealie fields anymore; no farm road; no fences; no cows …

“Would you like me to take your arm, Mrs Upton?” The young woman moved closer.

Sarah shook her head and chuckled. “Miss Upton it is I’m afraid.” She held onto the wooden post, feeling its warmth in the sun. She could smell the horse, taste the tangy juiciness of the apples, and felt sure that Paul was nearby. Sarah touched her locket. Her clumsy fingers couldn’t open it as easily anymore. At ninety-four years old, she found that not much of her worked as well as it used to. “Open this, Lauren, and you will see Paul.”

Her father had died soon after the war had ended. The farm had been sold and Sarah’s mother had encouraged her to become a teacher. It was Lauren’s great-great grandfather who had gradually turned Stony Brae into a game farm.

“He’s in uniform – very handsome.” Lauren clicked the locket shut. “What happened to him?”

In the silence that followed, Sarah could feel the sun on her bare legs; her neck tickled the way it did when Paul kissed her there. She turned away from the 2018 view of Pigeon Cottage and gave Lauren her walking stick to hold. “Paul never came home,” she sighed.


It was a nail clinic really. Greta preferred to think of it as a beauty parlour. Even though they only offered manicures and pedicures. Well, foot massages too – that was enough to qualify it as a beauty parlour in her book.

This morning Greta woke up with a sour taste in her mouth. Larry’s late night phone call still resonated in her mind: how dare he tack on an extra two days when he had already been away for a week? He didn’t even acknowledge the extra effort it took for her to hold the fort in addition to her normal workload!

“It’s been a tough week, Gret.” Larry had sounded unconvincing. Why had he phoned so late anyway?

The suspicion that he may have formed a liaison with someone tightened around her chest like a metal clamp. She deliberately took a series of deep breaths as she wandered into the kitchen to make coffee. Instant coffee. She couldn’t be bothered to brew coffee for herself. Greta glowered menacingly at her tiny distorted reflection in the chrome panel of the Jura coffee machine Larry had insisted on buying soon after their business had started showing a regular profit – even before she began drawing what she considered a ‘decent’ salary.

Hot coffee splashed onto her pyjama top. Greta dabbed angrily at it with a wet cloth before wiping the kitchen shelf where the milk had spilled. She tossed the dirty cloth into the sink still filled with dishes and stared unseeingly out of the kitchen window whilst sipping her scalding coffee.

How dare he? Greta glanced at the calendar next to the fridge: Larry was going to spend two days at a nearby game lodge. “A few of us are going there, Gret. Just to unwind a little. You know.”

She yanked open the fridge: the yoghurt was finished. Greta frowned at the notepad on the shelf next to the kettle: she had started making a grocery list last night; had in fact been planning a fancy meal to welcome Larry home tonight. Had been! He was probably already enjoying a game drive – at whose expense? She felt the bile rising as her indignation increased.

Greta looked at herself in the mirror before setting off for work: beige slacks, olive-green long-sleeved blouse, sensible black shoes, and no make-up. She turned to see the rest of her more critically: her hair could do with styling again … there just never seemed to be time for such frivolities. On a whim, she kicked off her shoes and slipped on a pair of leather sandals.

She switched on her computer at work, sipped a mug of scalding coffee – why couldn’t someone else think of buying the milk for a change – and checked the figures for yesterday’s sales. That they were healthy ignited a small glow of satisfaction that didn’t quite reach far enough to soften her frown. Her introduction of items such as colourful garden implements and pretty gloves in women’s sizes, T-shirts in attractive colours and children’s shirts that were copies of the kind their fathers wore had resulted in more foot traffic and subsequently higher sales. The glow of satisfaction translated into a softer touch on the keyboard that had been stabbed at since the work day had begun.

Hardware would always be their core business. Greta knew that – and she suspected that she actually knew more about drills, generators and chainsaws than Larry did. After all, she was the one who usually met with the sales reps … the one who placed the orders … Larry liked chatting to the customers. Larry: the trip to the game lodge wouldn’t be cheap. Was he paying for himself – or did he have a companion? The metal clamp around her chest tightened uncomfortably.

“Cedric!” Greta glanced over her heavy-rimmed spectacles at the sales manager. “Why did you let Robert Oberman take the mini-generator on credit yesterday?”

“Larry’s always been so friendly with him, Greta. He said he was sure Larry wouldn’t mind. Cash is tight now you know.” Was that a sneer on his face?

“I also know that he owes us a vast sum of money. You didn’t think to check with me first?” She couldn’t prevent the steely undertone to her voice.

“Well, you know Greta. I’ve always worked with Larry and well, he’s not here and so I really thought he wouldn’t mind.”

Greta glared at him. How dare he casually lean on the counter like that? “Like you ‘wouldn’t mind’ not receiving your salary at the end of the month? Robert Oberman owes us more than three times your salary, Cedric. How am I supposed to pay you without money coming in?”

“Greta, you can’t do that to me.” Cedric, alarmed by her menacing tone, looked suitably crestfallen. “I have a wife and a young child to look after -.”

“And I live on fresh air!” Greta focused her attention on the computer screen. “No more credit to anyone Cedric. I mean anyone!”

Her neck muscles had contracted with tension and Greta was conscious of clenching her teeth as she scrolled through the orders that had gone through. What was Larry doing? Drinking beer in the sun with his mates? Think in the plural, Greta. The plural mates.

As Greta bent over the desk calendar to check when the vegetable seeds should arrive, her eye fell on the catchy advertisement for Sybil’s Nails. Why not? Greta typed the number into her cell phone and walked to the back of the storeroom to make her call.

A manicure was no good. Larry would notice it straight away and ask questions. No, it would have to be her feet. She chose the full option: nails, exfoliation, foot massage as well as an application of nail varnish. Why not!

At ten to ten Greta picked up her soft leather bag and iPad and then casually approached Wayne, who was assisting a customer with his choice of shifting spanners. “I’ll be out for about an hour, Wayne. Answer the phone if you will, write down the messages for me – and make no promises.”

Wayne watched her leave, noted the stiffness of her body, and turned to look at Cedric. Both men shrugged: they were used to Larry coming and going, but Greta didn’t even go home for lunch!

Greta felt uncomfortable as soon as she opened the heavy glass door emblazoned with the logo of Sybil’s Nails. The low murmur of voices washed over her as she leaned stiffly across the counter to confirm her appointment. “Let me pay you now,” she offered bluntly, handing over the business credit card. Why not!

To her relief she was directed to a chair in a quiet corner of the salon, away from the chatty young women occupying the seats in full view of the entrance. Don’t they need to work? A basin of warm soapy water was placed at her feet. When last had she enjoyed an opportunity to allow her feet to soak in warm water? She moved into a more comfortable position. This already felt good.

Greta pushed her spectacles to the top of her head, wincing as the rough sandpaper (as she thought of it) was briskly whisked across each foot in turn. She wondered briefly how the attendant felt about the ‘skin dust’ (she couldn’t call it saw dust, even though that is what it looked like) covering her arms and the towel in her lap.

“Would you enjoy a mug of coffee?” When last had anyone offered to make her coffee?

“Thank you,” she whispered, not trusting what the lump in her throat would do to her voice.

Her toenails were being cut and buffed. The sheer pleasure of having someone care to do that (even for the hefty fee she had already paid) made Greta feel guilty about the time she was spending away from the shop. She unzipped the cloth bag and withdrew her iPad. She could use the time to plan meals, make her grocery list, check their dental appointments, and look at the self-watering flower pots like the one her friend Rita had received a cyclamen in. She could order a few to test the market. Her frown returned.

“You’ve got a grumpy customer.” Deirdre whispered to Samantha when they met briefly at the sink. “She looks so grim. I haven’t seen her smile once.” Samantha shrugged her shoulders and collected the tubs of exfoliating gel and skin cream from the cabinet nearby.

She dried Greta’s feet and pushed the chair into the reclining position. “Perhaps you would like to put your iPad away now Greta,” she said gently. “Let’s place it and your spectacles on the side table here.”

Samantha watched as Greta leaned back in the chair. Earlier she had sat pressing her fingers to her temples. Now her hands were balled into fists resting on the arm rests. Samantha looked down at the foot she was working on. She could feel the ripples of tension in the ankles and in the arch. She set about massaging the right foot, deftly working the thick lotion into the dry skin. “Is the massage pressure enough for you?”

Greta swallowed and looked at her directly for the first time. “I’d like it as hard as is comfortable for you, please.” Then she put her head back and closed her eyes. That way she could enjoy the full sensation of the massage – as though the knots were being unravelled.

Larry had taken to calling her Regret – did he regret marrying her? Of course he still called her Greta in the shop. He used to stroke her arm in passing: she loved being stroked.

“It’s been a tough week, Gret.” Tough? Mingling with people at the trade fair. Listening to presentations or watching demonstrations. Really tough (Greta could feel her lips pursing into a sneer of derision). Larry would return with pamphlets and business cards galore – and leave her to make sense of them all!

Her other foot was being massaged now. Perhaps, just perhaps, she had inadvertently been pushing him out of that side of the business. Larry was so good with people. Strangers warmed to him and were easily taken in by his boyish enthusiasm and willingness to help them find a solution. She was better at the back end.

“Just to unwind a little.” They seldom spent time ‘unwinding’ together anymore. What if she left early sometimes to prepare some snacks and set out wine or beer …

Samantha winked at Deirdre: Greta’s stern mouth had softened a little. Her hands now held the chair loosely. Her eyelids oozed tiny trickles of dampness. Samantha patted both feet in a soothing gesture before wrapping them in a warm towel. “Do you still want the taupe nail colour Greta?”

Greta smiled broadly. “Remind me of the range of reds you introduced me to earlier?” She looked at the swatches of colour at the end of long lengths of plastic. “The brighter the better,” she said after little deliberation.

A tissue was woven between her toes before the ritual of applying various coats began. Perhaps we should eat out now and then, Greta thought as her toes were being transformed from drab to happy in front of her eyes.

“I’ll sprinkle some quick-dry drops onto your toes, but it will be at least an hour before the varnish is properly dry.”

Greta carefully wiggled her toes into her sandals. “Thank you Samantha,” she said, having noted the name tag for the first time. She stood up. “May I hug you?” They embraced lightly (when last did I do that?). “You have done more for me in this hour than you will ever know.”

Greta picked up her iPad and leather bag, looked down at her brightly painted toes and pushed open the heavy glass door with a renewed sense of confidence and a lighter heart.


Mark dumped his rucksack and laptop bag on the rickety wooden table on the patio outside the rustic looking cottage he had rented for a week. He appreciated the tall trees nearby and noticed with approval the narrow path leading through the tall grass towards them. The key was hanging on a rusty hook as promised and turned smoothly in the lock. He opened the door cautiously.

‘Writer’s retreat’ was the phrase that had caught his eye while skimming through advertisements on his screen. Writing in total solitude is exactly what he wanted – what he needed in fact – if he was to finish his conference papers on time!

The interior was starkly neat and very cold. Wood stacked next to a modern wood-burning heater hinted at the need for warmth he already felt. Mark placed his laptop on the wooden table and searched for a wall socket; having to crawl under the table to find it. An electric kettle, a microwave oven and a two-plate stove made up the kitchen part of the open plan room. Shivering a little already, he walked up the steep steps to collect the cardboard box of groceries from his truck.

Once in the tiny bedroom, he turned down the bed cover, noting the winter sheets with a sense of satisfaction and smiled at the hot water bottle placed on the folded towel at the foot of the bed: he would probably need it on the first night at least. Just then his cell phone beeped. Feeling annoyed by this intrusion into his intended solitude, Mark glanced at the screen:

Writing training for post-grad students on Thursday. Your input urgently required as Stan will be away.

Stan the Man: the know-it-all in the department; the one with the big mouth; the Ideas Man – never the Action Man! It was Stan who had dreamed up the idea of providing the students with practical training in academic writing. Everyone had bought into his idea that this would cut down on one of the more tedious aspects of supervising theses – fixing language and expression, when one really wanted to focus on concepts and quality. No firm plan had been formulated at the meeting – naturally. Mark stabbed a response.

In Outer Mongolia. No further reception.

With that, he switched off his cell phone and zipped it into a pocket inside his rucksack. He stretched his arms above his head and looked longingly at the path. He would unpack later, he decided. For now a walk would clear his head and help him get into the right frame of mind for his own writing.

A large tabby cat burst out of the long grass ahead of him. Ignoring Mark, it sat on the path and set about cleaning itself. “You’re obviously at home here,” he murmured aloud whilst watching it from a discreet distance. “Hello Pussycat.” This is ridiculous, he thought, I’ve been away from home for only six hours and I’m already reaching out for company. Company was the last thing he needed! The cat stretched and disappeared into the grass.

It was an hour later before Mark glanced at his watch: no wonder he felt hungry for it was way past his intended lunch time! He veered to the left as he approached the cottage to reach his truck parked on the same level. There he found a convenient rock to sit on while he ate the last of his sandwiches in the patch of weak sunshine. The cottage was already covered in the deep shadows cast by the trees.

Tink, tink … what was that noise? Mark stiffened. It wasn’t a natural noise. He had been listening to the soughing of the wind in the trees and straining to identify distant bird calls. Tink, tink … then a light clattering sound from within the cottage! My lap top! He had left it charging on the table! Mark glanced around … no vehicle of any sort was in sight – and there was smoke curling out of the narrow chimney!

Swallowing the last bite of his sandwich with some difficulty, Mark cautiously approached the steps leading down to the cottage. Now he could smell the wood smoke and thought he was able to hear a soft scraping sound. He looked around for a stout stick, just in case …

His first glance through the open door indicated that everything appeared to be as he had left it. His lap top was still closed and plugged in; the rucksack still lay on its side on the table, but … the box that had contained his groceries was empty!

Mark stepped inside, immediately feeling the gentle warmth from the wood burning heater that cast a cheerful orange glow on the wooden chair near it. His groceries … the shelves opposite the sink were lined with his tins, bottles and boxes. A low electric hum drew his attention to the small fridge under the counter: inside were the beers, fruit juices, butter and boxes of milk he had brought.

A brushing sound came from the bedroom. Mark looked in as a woman with her long brown hair caught up in an untidy ponytail emerged from the minute bathroom. She held a dustpan and brush in her hand.

“Hello, you must be Mark Forsyth. I tried to call but – ”

“My phone is switched off. You are?”

“I’m Nicky. Let me get rid of this and I’ll introduce myself properly.” She eased past him and made her way to the large rubbish bin outside. “I hope you don’t mind me unpacking your groceries. I wasn’t sure how long you’d be away for and I was waiting for Sam to bring me the right sized pane.”

“Pane?” Mark stared at her slim figure and felt warmed by her cheerful smile.

“The window pane in the bathroom needed replacing. You’d have frozen half to death with the blizzard that was blowing through there. This place is cold enough as it is – hence the fire.” She turned away from him to fill the kettle.

“Tea?” She smiled broadly. “You should always let the water run for a moment, just in case there are leaves or beetles in the pipe.” Nicky took two mugs off the shelf. “I see you’ve brought both Rooibos and Ceylon. Do you mind if we have Ceylon?” She pulled a white china teapot closer.

“Ceylon’s fine. Nicky, I wasn’t expecting anyone here.” Mark paused. “I’ve come here to write.”

“I know. That phrase in the advert has attracted some strange people to this place. Most don’t last more than two or three days. The remoteness gets to them – or the cold. This place is ever so much better during the summer.”

Mark watched her fingering the boxes of biscuits he had brought, for he enjoyed nibbling while he wrote. “Strawberry Creams! Oh, do you mind us opening these first?”

Nicky didn’t wait for an answer. She placed a few biscuits on a saucer before placing the tea tray on a low table in front of the heater. Mark watched her sink into the large bean bag before leaning forward to pour their tea.

“Don’t mind me. Sam should be here soon and I’ll leave you to your writing solitude.” Nicky smiled at him over the rim of her mug.

The cottage felt very empty in her wake. His lap top glared at him. Later, the words of the novel he opened in bed danced around the page and his stomach growled in protest for he hadn’t bothered making supper. Mark listened to the wind in the darkness. Each time he closed his eyes he could see his colleagues mouthing platitudes at each other. All talk and no action, he thought grumpily. Let them stew on Thursday.

Mark felt revived after an early morning run followed by a warm shower. Nicky must have switched the geyser on, he thought happily as he scanned through what he had written and then opened his notebook. Several hours passed before he looked out of the window, wondering at the flash of colour he had glimpsed between the trees.

There it was again: navy blue with white spots. Gone. Intrigued, Mark stood up and stretched. It was past lunch time already and he hadn’t even made tea yet. He switched on the kettle and stepped out into the sunshine.

It was a dress. “Hello there!” He called out loudly in the direction of the trees. There was no answer. Surely his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him already? To his surprise, the large cat he had seen the day before came ambling towards him.

“Hello fat cat.” Mark was taken aback by how pleased he was to see it. He bent down to rub the furry tummy that had been presented to him at his feet. “Hello, you funny thing. What are you doing here?”

“Oh thank goodness you’ve got him!” Nicky appeared from his left. “Cotona, you are a bad, bad boy. I’ve been looking all over for you!” She looked dishevelled and her bare legs bore light scratches. A thought flashed through Mark’s mind: she had looked confident and capable in her scruffy jeans and red jersey the day before. Now she looked vulnerable in her short dress and leather sandals.

“I saw this cat on my walk yesterday.”

“Cotona? He disappeared while Sam and I were clearing up around the cross.”

“The cross?”

“There’s a cross. Well, a memorial really – it’s not a grave – at the top of the hill. I usually clear around it at the end of winter, before the more regular spring visitors arrive. It’s there in memory of the man who created this beautiful nature reserve.”

“The kettle must be boiling by now. Would you like some tea?” Mark gestured towards the cottage.

“I don’t want to disturb you and I need to get back. Cotona is Sam’s cat.”

“I’ll make the tea anyway. Would you care for a sandwich? I haven’t had lunch yet.”

The next hour passed more quickly than Mark could have imagined. Cotona lay sleeping on the bean bag while Nicky regaled him with stories about the area. It was only when they heard tyres crunching on the dirt road below that she gathered up the cat. Apologising for the intrusion, Nicky insisted on meeting Sam lower down, “where it is easier to turn around”.

Mark returned to his paper with a fresh view and before long became immersed in making minor adjustments and checking his content against the tables and diagrams he intended presenting. “Read your work aloud”, Nicky had advised him. Feeling acutely self-conscious at first, he had got into the flow of reading his paper as though he was already presenting it at a conference.

Late the following afternoon, Mark looked towards the horizon where the sun would set. Reading his work aloud had exposed some obvious flaws which he had rectified during the day. Even though he had gone on a short run and showered, he felt reluctant to work on the other paper until his mind had cleared. Another evening alone in the cottage without sound wasn’t appealing either.

For the umpteenth time he looked at the number scribbled on the torn off sheet of notepaper held in place by the bottle of instant coffee. “Just in case something goes wrong” Nicky had laughed on the first day. She answered on the second ring. “Is something wrong?”

“You know the contents of my fridge,” he said conversationally, “and I wondered if I could tempt you into sharing the sunset with me.”

“What about your writing?” There was a clear note of teasing.

“My brains are rattling around in my cranium. Some beer and good conversation would help settle them down.” He hesitated. “I don’t know where you live, but I could fetch you.”

“Not to worry. Sam’s got a meeting over at Glen Fare. He can drop me on the way.”

Both jumped at the loud knock at the door two hours later. A tall man with greying hair stood in the open doorway. “Are you ready my girl?” He looked tired.

“Sam, meet Mark.” Nicky stood up and put her arm around the older man’s waist. “Mark, this is Sam. He’s the best Dad ever!”


Mandy looked down at the milky residue crusted on Ursula’s chin. She should have wiped her mouth properly after breakfast, instead she had given into the unaccustomed lightness – that rare feeling of freedom experienced as she watched her sleeping daughter curled on her bed for a morning nap. Mandy tiptoed into the kitchen to brew a mug of mint tea, pinching a leaf from the pot of mint growing on the windowsill and crushing it between her fingers.

Looking after Linda’s young children should have been a foreshadowing of what it would be like as a mother of her own child. “The difference is that it wasn’t all day – and I could hand them back!” Mandy had taken to talking to herself whenever she was alone: it was a way of checking that she still knew ‘grown-up’ words and how to articulate her thoughts coherently.

Robert was photographing a golf tournament in Brazil. Mandy settled into a comfortable chair and sipped her tea thoughtfully: he was testing her range of endurance to the limit. “He’d better applaud me, or at least acknowledge how difficult it has been to cope on my own for two weeks!”

She enjoyed a fleeting vision of being able to lie back and enjoy an uninterrupted soak in a hot bath. “How my pleasures have been reduced to basics,” she told the blank television in passing. She hadn’t even switched it on since Robert’s departure. What was the use of trying to watch anything when she was so tired at night and Ursula seemed more restless than usual?

“Perhaps she’s teething,” her mother had suggested during their daily phone calls snatched between housework and Ursula. Her mother lived too far away to be of any physical help and couldn’t really keep track of the different stages or ages of her four grandchildren.

“Do we ever stop looking after people?” Mandy asked her reflection in the mirror several days later. She straightened her tartan skirt and caressed the golden head of an Egyptian goddess (which one?) Robert had brought home after covering a soccer tournament in Egypt. “At least you’re not a pyramid. I wish your eyes weren’t so blank though!”

Ursula fell asleep in the car seat almost as soon as Mandy had pulled out of their driveway to head for the airport in the next town. The day was cool and heavily overcast. By the time she had driven into the valley some distance away, she found herself having to slow down to a crawl in the thick mist. Passing cars looming out of nowhere reminded her of the shiny flashes of small shoals of fish in an aquarium.

It was a relief at last to see the tall palms that lined the avenue leading to the airport. The joy flooding through her was quickly replaced by panic: what if Robert’s plane had been held up by the weather?

Once parked, Mandy bent down to lift Ursula out of the car seat. Her face was covered by her long hair and a blob of crusted food stuck to the pretty dress Mandy had chosen for her. She wiped Ursula’s face and hands with a wet-wipe. “Come Angel, we’re going to find your Daddy.”

There was limited space in the arrivals hall. Mandy wondered if a protest was in progress and hoped it wouldn’t turn violent: the crowd was shouting, singing, waving placards and some were even dancing. The noise in that confined space was deafening. Keeping her arm firmly round Ursula on her hip, Mandy edged around the fringe of the crowd and caught the eye of a tall man standing near the door leading to the luggage collection area. He stretched out his arm, inviting her to join him.

“I can see you were worried about being crushed by this mob,” the stranger told her kindly. “I’m waiting for my girlfriend who’s been working in Scotland for the past three months. And you?” His brown eyes twinkled.

“My husband has been in Brazil for just over two weeks.” Mandy hitched Ursula to a more comfortable position on her hip. “At least the sky is clearing. Do you know if their arrival time has changed?” She had to shout against the background sound of the ululating crowd.

“They’ll land on time. It won’t have been a great flight though: they are sharing the plane with the local soccer team returning from Morocco.”

“So that’s what this crowd is about!”

The mob of fans surged forward when the soccer team crowded around the carousel to collect their luggage. Mandy was grateful for the protective arm around her and even more so when her companion hoisted Ursula onto his shoulders as they were pushed about by the crowd. Ursula held firmly onto his thumb calling out “Daddy! Daddy!” every time someone emerged from the luggage area.

The crowd thinned out at last as the rest of the passengers came into view. “There’s my lass!” The man lifted Ursula down. “Look, she’s the one with the long blond hair. She’s limping in that moon boot – broke her ankle a while back.”

Mandy felt her companion’s stance stiffen at the sight of his girlfriend giving a tall dark man who had appeared behind her a hug. The two figures waited at the carousel until the man picked up a large rucksack to add to the heavy bag he had already slung over his shoulder. The blond woman touched his arm and smiled broadly. He shook his head and placed his arm around her in a protective way until her suitcase into view and then he lifted it off the moving belt for her.

“She seems to have got hooked up with another fellow on the plane.” The stranger sounded glum as they watched his girlfriend hook her arm into that of her companion and leaned into him as they walked towards the open door.

“You’re crying,” the stranger observed, looking down at Mandy. “Right now I wish I could.”

“Don’t! The man with your girlfriend is my husband.”

“Daddy! Daddy!” Ursula beamed as her father lifted her from Mandy’s hip and twirled her above his head before hugging Mandy with his free arm.

“My girls!” He kissed Mandy’s cheek. “Meet Iris, she’s from Scotland – “

“I know.” Mandy smiled through her tears. “This is –“

“I’m Evan Langford.” Her companion shook Robert’s hand. “Thank you for looking after Iris.” His voice was gruff.

“Thank you for looking after us too.” Mandy gave him a brief hug.

What bliss it was to be driven home by her animated husband, who regaled her with tales of his adventures.

“There’s no place like home,” he remarked as he drove up the last of the hills before reaching their town. “I’ve negotiated a year’s contract covering international events on our own turf.” Robert squeezed her hand. “You need a life too, my love, and I need to see more of our Ursula.”

Mandy hoped that her airport companion was feeling as happy as she was.