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Authors: Valerie-Anne Baglietto

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BOOK: Once Upon A Winter
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‘A princess should always have a turret,’ declared the old lady, her high, wing-backed chair taking up most of the hexagonal space formed by five narrow panes of glass and the gap that opened on to the large, top-floor bedroom. ‘If I take my glasses off, and everything goes blurry, I can almost see a gallant knight riding by on his noble steed . . . Of course, it’ll probably just be that wimpy teacher on his bicycle, but beggars can’t be choosers. At least I still have my imagination, thank God.’

‘Yes, Nana.’ Nell plumped up a cushion and attempted to tuck it behind her grandmother. ‘Isn’t it going to be cold sitting here, though, with all this glass around you?’

‘Oh, stop fussing.’ Nana Gwen puckered up her face so much she was almost gurning. ’I don’t need a nurse! Your father thinks I do, but I’m more than capable of asking for a cushion if I need one, and I can take my own medication, too. So don’t go anywhere near those tablets, it isn’t time yet.’ She tapped the gold watch which hung from her skinny, veined wrist. The last gift her husband had given her, for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, three months before he passed away.

‘Nana, listen, it was your decision to take this room up here, even though Dad thinks -’

‘I know what John thinks. But he should never have let the Annexe out, least of all to Daniel Guthrie. I’m not dead yet. John could have waited. What sort of a son-in-law is he?’

‘An amazing one, Nana, and you know that.’

‘Tsk. I go to stay with Edith in the Lakes for a few months, and he lets my home out! It’s not as if I’ve never paid my way. I have money invested in this house, too, you know.’

‘It was more than just a few months, it was well over a year,’ Nell pointed out, while trying to sound sympathetic. ‘I know you wanted to be independent, and the Annexe was perfect for you in the past, but you need more help now, and it’ll be easier if you’re actually
the house with me.’

‘Easier for you, yes. But this is all wrong. You’re young, Nellie -’

‘Nell.’ She had never liked her grandmother’s pet-name for her. It invariably reminded her of the elephant in the song. Her mother had started calling her Nell when she’d been little, mainly because Emma apparently couldn’t get her tongue around ‘Ellena’, and with most people the name had stuck. Her grandmother had decided to go one step further, though.

‘You shouldn’t be banged up here with me,’ hissed the old woman. ‘You had a life down in London. It’s a crime, what your father’s asking you to do. Giving all that up to come to the back of beyond to look after a dying invalid like me. And all the while he goes frolicking off with that fancy woman of his, throwing his money around while the rest of us are marooned here.’

Nell raised her eyes heavenward, pleading for patience. ‘Nana, you’re not dying. And Dad’s been seeing Yvette for five years now, so she’s hardly his “fancy woman”.’

‘She’s only fifty-seven, though! And she’s not your mother, Nellie.’

. And no, she’s not Mum. But she’s a lovely lady and practically my step-mother. And Mum’s been gone a long time,’ Nell added softly. ‘It’s about time Dad had a little happiness. He’s been so involved in the practice for so long, and now that he’s retired - well, why shouldn’t he do all that travelling he always talked about? It’s not as if he can’t afford it. We’re not all going to be stuck here, destitute, while he lives the high life. I’ve got full access to the account all the bills come out of, and -’

‘I could never understand how he made a small fortune out of sticking his hand up
sheep’s behinds,’ snapped Nana Gwen.

Nell smothered a laugh behind the cushion she was still holding.

‘Well, at least one of us can find some humour in this situation, Nellie. But that’s probably only because you’re the deluded one.’

‘Yes,’ said Nell, with grim amusement, ‘I am deluded. How could I even think I’d be happy living in a big house with all mod cons, in an idyllic village far away from the frenzy of city life? I must need my head examined.’

‘There are plenty who would go doolally around here. Plenty who thrive on that frenzy.’

Nell sighed. ‘Yes, I know. But I’m not one of them any more. I’ve had my fill of the big city.’

‘Well . . .’ Her grandmother pursed her lips, staring out of the window to the shadow-dappled hills opposite. ‘You’re my carer now, Nellie Jane Jones. Plain and simple. Nothing glamorous about it.’

‘Yeah, because I’m the glamorous sort.’ Nell snorted. ‘Nana, it’s OK -’

‘No, no, it’s not. You’re an infant compared to me! You’re not washed up. But you’re going to be cooped up in this house, running up and down stairs, fetching and carrying, every time I ring for you. I’ll feel as if we’ve gone back a hundred years, and I’m the lady of the house and you’re my maid.’

‘Running up and down stairs will keep me fit. And I won’t be cooped up all the time. You’ve got your new phone, I’m on speed dial, so it’s easy to get hold of me if I’m down in the village shopping or whatever.’

‘If I’d been on the ground floor, like your father suggested -’

‘Nana, I don’t blame you for wanting to have this view. And you’ve got lots more room up here than if Dad had converted his den into a bedroom. This is perfect. You’ve got an en suite and everything.’

Nell glanced around the room, which had been the master bedroom when she’d been a child. Her mother and father’s sanctuary on the third floor. For years now, though, Dad had been one floor down in a more modest bedroom; too lonely up here once her mother had gone.

Pills and potions were now lined up on the dressing table, like a chemist’s shelf. An age ago there had been perfume, and trinket boxes spilling over with beads, and a silver hairbrush, comb and hand-mirror laid out on a brocade and lace mat.

Once there had been a woman with long, auburn hair and laughing nut-brown eyes. Her two little girls playing dressing up games in the walk-in wardrobe, teetering around in her heels, and smearing themselves in her make-up.

Two princesses, as they had seen themselves back then, looking out from the high tower over their kingdom. The village, the far hills, the
copse and the Gingerbread House. And their mother had been the generous, loving queen through to their teenage years, even though Nell had long since ceased to think of herself as a beautiful princess by then.

It had seemed as if her mother would be queen forever - up until the day of the ambulance and the stretcher and the realisation that the human heart could be frail in so many ways.

Nell’s throat suddenly felt hot and swollen. She swallowed the emotions that still stunned her sometimes with their rawness, even after all these years, and now threatened to dredge up all the pain she had known since.

She was a mother herself. That ought to take precedent, she felt, over everything else - the long-ago loss of a parent, the more recent breakdown of her marriage . . . even the desolation that sometimes enveloped her when she saw a couple in the street, holding hands or staring into a shop window together.

With practice, Nell pushed it down inside her like a Jack-in-the-Box. Squashed it all into that compartment reserved for everything she didn’t want to confront at that point in time; ignoring the fact that one day it might jump up into her face if someone turned the handle too far.

‘Would you like a cup of tea, Nana?’ she asked, and forced a smile on to her reluctant lips.

‘You read my mind.’ The old lady smiled back, and the wrinkles of her face, dusted with loose powder, looked caked and dry, as if they were cracks in her skin. ‘But I want you to swear now that you’ll never make a cup of tea for me without making one for yourself, too. You’re
my maid, Nellie. I need you to remember that.’

‘I promise,’ said Nell, and resigned herself - as she had in the past around her grandmother - to being called after an elephant who had once packed her trunk and run away from a circus.


descended on the house like a smothering blanket. Nell felt as if she was taking her first relaxed breath of the day as she crept away from the two doors either side of the family bathroom. They were slightly ajar, each letting in a chink of light to reassure the sleepy children in the bedrooms beyond. Their first night at Bryn Heulog as more than just visitors. In their own separate rooms, rather than crammed together in one space as they’d been in the flat in London, a configuration becoming more untenable the older they’d got.

They had to be exhausted after their early start this morning and their chaotic day. Nell was shattered herself, but it was still early and the kitchen had been trashed when Joshua and Freya had insisted on helping their grandfather prepare the lasagne for dinner. Nell had been busy unpacking and sortin
g out the children’s rooms, trying her best to ignore the racket drifting up from the kitchen. Nagged by guilt now, she knew she ought to help clear up.

But the kitchen was already much tidier than when she had gone upstairs to give the kids their baths.

‘Dad, you should have waited! I told you I’d help . . .’

‘It’s not much hassle loading a dishwasher, sweetheart. I’ve been doing it by myself for long enough.’

‘But you’ve cleaned all the worktops, too.’ Nell frowned at the expanse of speckled brown granite.

‘Indeed I have.’ Her dad put down the tea-towel he’d been drying his hands on. ‘Right. You. Me. My den. Now.’

‘Dad, I’m not a kid. You sound as if you want to tell me off about something.’

He smiled his familiar, tender smile. ‘I just want to sit somewhere comfortable and catch up with my favourite younger daughter. And if we sit in the lounge we might be tempted to switch on the TV.’

‘The den it is then.’ Nell didn’t need to be asked twice.

Her father’s study was one of her favourite rooms in the house. The walnut desk and bookshelves had been there since as far back as she could remember, and the two gargantuan armchairs seemed to have been there since time immemorial, too, although they’d been reupholstered when they’d become embarrassingly threadbare.

Her father set about lighting the fire.

‘I’ll leave the door open a crack,’ said Nell, flopping into the armchair nearest the hearth. ‘In case the kids call out for me.’

Her father straightened up at last, as the fire spluttered to life. ‘Time for a whisky now, I think. Water? Soda?’

‘Water, please. Without the whisky.’

‘Oh? Still a wine lover. I haven’t convinced you otherwise yet?’

‘Nope. And as for wine - only a bit, now and then. But if I have any alcohol tonight I’ll be asleep in seconds. That fire’s going to hypnotise me as it is.’

She watched her father pour himself a generous drink, and a glass of water for her, feeling somehow reassured by the sight of him, yet experiencing a tug of sadness that she only had him here with her for a couple more days. Not that she begrudged him his trip of a lifetime. She’d been instrumental in making it possible. But she realised now, when faced with the
of him, that she was going to miss her dad over the next few months. Somehow more than she’d missed him when she’d been living down south.

This entire house was filled with objects that would remind her of him constantly; and his absence would be felt in the village, too, with people inevitably stopping her to ask if she’d heard from him, and if he was enjoying his extended holiday.

John Mason, hailing from nearby Chester, had been a fixture in Harreloe since he’d been a young man. Just a newly qualified vet back then, joining a small practice, marrying a local girl, and gently insinuating himself into every aspect of village life until he was possibly the most respected member of the community.

Tall, broad-shouldered, virtually Scandinavian with his blaze of fair hair and mesmerising blue eyes. He was still well-toned to this day, having aged with a flair other men could only dream of. White-gold hair only made him more distinguished. Lines on his face lent him a wise, rugged look. Nell still looked up to him as an Arthurian type king.

The stuff of Legend.

And yet also -
just Dad.

‘I’m really happy for you and Yvette.’ Nell’s sincere pleasure for them brimmed over into her voice, making her sound emotional. ‘You both deserve this trip. Especially Yvette, after that cancer scare last year.’

‘I know. I want to make this special for her.’ Her father stared down into his whisky. ‘Actually, there’s something I need to tell you, Ellena . . .’

Nell realised that she already knew what he was about to say. ‘You’re going to ask her to marry you - aren’t you?’

Her dad looked up with a jolt, almost spilling his drink. ‘How . . . ? I haven’t even told your sister . . . I’ve never mentioned marriage with regards to Yvette before . . .’

‘You’ve been “dating” for years now, so it’s hardly a shock. Did you think Emma and I wouldn’t approve?’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps . . .’

‘It was weird when you first started seeing her, I’ll admit. You hadn’t been out with anyone since Mum . . . But Yvette’s such a genuine person, and she’s made you happy again. We were all upset last yea
r when she was ill, waiting for the test results to come back. She
like part of the family. And it’s so rare to get a second chance like this, Dad.’

BOOK: Once Upon A Winter
8.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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