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Authors: Valerie-Anne Baglietto

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BOOK: Once Upon A Winter
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‘You stopped paying attention to her, I suppose. I couldn’t console her, and eventually she told me what had happened, sobbing her heart out. Nell retreated even
further into herself then. She was never going to confront you about it. So that was that. Lauren and her gang didn’t make a big deal of it. Nell wasn’t totally humiliated at school. It was weird, I thought they would make it public knowledge, but it seemed more like a private joke. Maybe they realised they’d overstepped the mark that time. I tried to talk to Lauren about it once, but she didn’t want to know. It was over and done with, she said. Well maybe for her, but it wasn’t for Nell.’

‘No wonder your sister’s still pissed off with me. Why didn’t she ever talk to me about it back then?’

‘Come off it, Dan, why do you think? How embarrassing or intimidating would that have been for her?’

Does your dad know what happened? I just don’t get how I can be living up in that house after -’

‘Because another man came along who blew Nell’s heart apart. Her whole
apart. In the family’s eyes, he eclipsed what you did.’ Emma held tightly to Truffle’s lead, as if she and the dog were in a tug-of-war contest. ‘Anyway,’ Emma went on, ‘Nell doesn’t trust men. To her, you’re an entirely different species and you messed her up collectively - with about one or two exceptions, like our dad, of course. And right now, she’s projecting her anger on to you, unfortunately, because you’re here, and Silas isn’t.’

‘Silas? Is he
the ex-husband?’

‘Not even
. Although he should be. It isn’t as if Nell hasn’t got cause to file for divorce. So, as it stands, practically all men are cast in his mould. And you’re worse than most, because Nell only knows the Daniel Guthrie you were twenty years ago. It’s not up to me to make her see you any differently. She won’t listen. You’ll have to do that yourself.’

Daniel bit back a groan. ‘That just sounds like an impossible task. How can I even apologise for something I don’t remember, without admitting I don’t remember it? Would it even ring true?’

Emma shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Maybe you should just be yourself. Let her get to know you. Don’t go looking for absolution or whatever. You’re a nice guy, and Nell will see that. Eventually.’

, yeah,’ muttered Daniel. ‘About the same time as hell freezes over. Or Harreloe Rangers win the league.’


Walking into the Victorian building - dated 1894 according to the plaque above the main door - was a little like trespassing on to the set of a film. A movie you had once watched over and over as a child, but hadn’t considered lately. The red brick exterior, the lemony green walls inside . . . Still the same shade, though obviously repainted since.

Did the children these days still whisper about the Edwardian ghost child with the same reverence and fear? Did they play hop-scotch in the playground, marking the lines out with chalk? Or jumping-games with lengths of elastic raided from mothers’ sewing boxes? Did the boys torment earwigs in the mounds of dirt around the boundary fence, while the girls chased each other manically with gleeful shouts of ‘IT!’?

Nell gripped her son’s hand tighter, engulfed by her recollection of this small village school when life had been at its most innocent. When ‘pretty and popular’ had seemed to be a given. Before everything changed.

‘Are you all right, Mum?’ Joshua gazed up at her with those jade green eyes that would never let her forget another age when anything had seemed possible.

‘I’m OK, Josh.’

‘It’s creepy here,’ said Freya. ‘I
feel like we’re being watched.’

‘Don’t worry. I think schools always seem eerie when everyone has gone home,’ Nell reassured her. ‘Especially in the winter, when the lights are on and i
t feels much later than it is.’

‘It’s not winter until the solstice,’ said Joshua.

‘Information overload,’ said Freya, but without any bite.

Nell shivered, although not from trepidation. Her emotions had simply swamped her for a moment. She needed to get back on track; to concentrate on getting through the next half hour, or however long this meeting and tour was likely to take.

‘Hello?’ A disembodied female voice floated down the corridor from the other end of the cloakroom. The rows of pegs lining the walls were practically bare, apart from a woolly hat here and a school jumper there, like relics from a distant past.

‘Hello,’ Nell called back.

A plump, middle-aged woman came into view, smiling broadly. ‘You must be Ellena, John Mason’s daughter? Your father used to treat my chickens before he retired.’ Her accent was more West Country than Welsh.

‘Oh . . .’ Nell tried to smile as the woman pumped her hand. ‘Yes, I’m
Ellena Jones. But call me Nell.’

‘Well, Nell, lovely to meet you at last. Daniel - Mr Guthrie - told me you were coming. He’s waiting in his office. I’m the cleaner, Angie Evans. The caretaker -
Daffyd - he’s my husband. Come this way, follow me. Don’t you have lovely children? What’s your name, hon?’ She looked at Joshua. ‘You’re a handsome lad, aren’t you?’

‘Am I?’ he said. ‘I thought you had to be a grown up to be handsome?’

‘No, hon, of course not.’ Angie smiled. ‘I bet you’re as good-looking as your dad, eh? Take after him, do you?’

Nell inhaled too sharply, and experienced that same wrench in her gut she often felt when someone talked to the children about their father, out of the blue. Angie Evans was right, though. As far as Nell was concerned, no man had ever been quite as arresting as her husband. From that first glimpse of him across the dance floor at her sister’s country house wedding, to that last morning together over five years later, he had remained just as compelling, just as heart-stopping. The passage of time or the stresses of life seemingly having no effect on him.

Disorientated, Nell realised she was flushed with heat. She’d clearly piled on too many layers. Joshua grabbed her hand again, and almost as if he was leading her gently back to the here and now, she blinked and focussed on her surroundings.

‘Mr Guthrie,’ called Angie Evans, as they rounded a corner. ‘Your visitors have arrived.’

Nell tensed, as the tall, slim figure of a man hurried out of the office at the far end. He wore a smart shirt and tie, but no suit jacket to match the dark trousers. This was another man who had once had a crippling effect on her, if not quite to the same degree.
back in the past, though, because time wasn’t being so kind to Daniel Guthrie.

Although Nell had recognised him easily the other day, it was a lie when she’d claimed he hadn’t changed that much. The golden, charismatic Adonis the girls at St Cecil’s had drooled over had been replaced by a tarnished, harrowed-looking human. He seemed older than his age, with more than just a few flecks of grey in his messy, fair hair and fine lines and shadows under his eyes.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
, thought Nell, except there was no canvas for his misdemeanours to transfer themselves to.

‘Thank you, Angie.’ Daniel smiled and nodded at the cleaner. ‘We’ll probably see you around in a little while, when I give them the tour.’

‘OK. Laters.’ Angie beamed at the small group and bustled off, disappearing around the corner.

‘Right,’ said Daniel, rubbing his hands together. ‘Do
you want to come through?’ 

They followed him into a plainly decorated room, with a short, sagging sofa along one wall. A potted plant seemed to have taken over a corner of the office, like a

He gestured to Joshua and Freya to take the sofa, as Nell lowered herself primly into a hard plastic chair. Daniel rubbed his hands again, and went to sit behind the desk.

‘Right. So. Where to begin . . . ?’ He started shuffling papers around.

‘I’ve got their uniform together,’ said Nell, keeping her tone efficient. ‘Emma helped out. She had a few jumpers Rose and Ivy had outgrown. And I went into town and bought trousers and skirts and other bits. They used navy down in London, not grey.’

She had finally managed to pin her sister down the day their father had left, cornering her about Daniel. Emma had claimed charmingly that she’d only lied by omission, and instructed Nell to give Daniel a chance. She’d even managed to sound sincere, not rude or clichéd, when she’d told Nell to act her age and not her - UK - shoe size. Emma had always had that knack, Nell grudgingly acknowledged, but she had no intention of following her advice. In fact, Nell had been avoiding going anywhere near the entrance to the Annexe, and always checked that the driveway was clear before setting foot outside.

She knew she couldn’t evade Daniel Guthrie forever; but she had settled for a few days, while she wrapped her head around it all.

‘So, you’re both ready to start on Monday?’ Daniel asked the children.

They nodded.

‘Good, good.’ He smiled again. ‘Excellent. I’ll show you around in a while, explain where everything is. That’s why I thought it would be best if you came in when there were no other pupils, so I could show you round with less distractions. Then, come Monday, you won’t feel so “lost”, and you won’t have to rely on anyone to show you where the loos are, or where to go for your lunch.’

Joshua and Freya smiled back.

He seemed to have a way with children, noted Nell, irked that she now felt a jot of gratitude towards him.

‘Have you seen a copy of our prospectus?’ he asked Nell, turning towards her again, and nervously fiddling with his tie.

‘Yes. Emma sent me one a few weeks back.’

‘Right. Good. Excellent.’ Silence.

‘Maybe we can do the tour
?’ she suggested after a moment, realising his own apparent unease was only adding to hers. ‘You can answer any questions that might crop up as we go along.’

‘Wonderful idea!’ Daniel Guthrie leapt to his feet as if he’d been sitting on a coiled spring. ‘Follow me. This way . . .’


ended the tour in the large hall, lined with shields from various sporting achievements and photographs of Harreloe Primary from Victorian times through to the present. While a couple of extensions had been built on to the school during its history, the hall was still part of the original building, and served as a gym as well as a canteen. Trestle tables were folded up against the walls next to vaulting horses and gym mats.

‘That wasn’t there when I used to come here,’ said Nell, letting her guard down as she pointed to the small stage at the far end. ‘They didn’t even have one of those at the school in London, and that was huge compared to this one.’

‘Wow!’ Freya ran towards it with Joshua in her wake. ‘It’s just like a real theatre. Velvet curtains and everything!’

Daniel smiled with pride, and for a second Nell glimpsed a flash of that lop-sided grin that had charmed the birds out of the trees at St Cecil’s.

‘That was one of the first projects I got involved in when I came to Harreloe Primary,’ he admitted. ‘We fundraised it ourselves. The whole village got involved.’

Nell glanced at Daniel again, but found her gaze lingering on him as he stared indulgently at the children, laughing and joking on the stage. ‘Was it your idea?’ she asked.

He nodded bashfully. ‘I’d taught at a couple of schools before this one. I’ve always found drama to be an excellent way for children to express themselves. Even kids who seem shy or insular - it always amazes me how they can come out of themselves through make-believe. OK, so they might not get up on stage in front of a full house, but everyone gets involved somehow. Designing sets, costumes, printing up tickets . . . And I always get the children to write their own productions, too. We never just pluck them off the internet. They’re always original works. Collaborations, I suppose you call them. We’re currently working on the Christmas play, a spin on the Nativity. Only a couple more weeks of rehearsals left.’

Nell was silenced. There was a stranger beside her in this echoey school hall. Not a boy she’d once been infatuated with, but a person she had never met.

‘Do you think Joshua will enjoy it?’ he asked her now. ‘Drama? Did he get involved in anything like that at his previous school? It’s a bit late for the Christmas show, of course, but I’m sure I can find some scenery or something for Joshua and Freya to paint.’

Nell stared at her children on the stage, framed by the long, red curtains, already acting out a duel with imaginary swords.

‘I think he might enjoy drama,’ she said softly. ‘He never seemed to get the chance before. He was just stuck in the chorus along with a load of other kids. It was always the same favoured few who got the main parts.’

‘I try to make sure everyone who wants a role gets one. We always take turns,’ said Daniel. ‘Mr
Frennison’s given me free rein with it, and the parents have been very enthusiastic.’

‘I can see why,’ said Nell grittily, reluctant to admit it out loud.

Daniel turned to her then, and lowered his voice. ‘I’ve had a good look through Joshua’s records and notes,’ he broached, suddenly coming across as serious and concerned. The dutiful Deputy Head.

‘You must be very busy with Mr
Frennison on leave,’ said Nell, shifting the topic, even though she knew Joshua was a subject they needed to tackle.

‘I am. But that’s fine. I thrive on it. Listen . . . Nell.’ He hesitated. ‘Can I call you Nell? Do you mind? I’ll call you Mrs Jones in front of other parents, if you like, but it seems pointless when we’re on our own. I’m practically your lodger.’

‘OK,’ Nell mumbled, and studied her shoes. The classically elegant ones she used to cram her feet into for her job in London. She was wearing a pair of work trousers, too, crisp and crease-free; a white shirt under a ballet-wrap style cardigan and a smart, black, wool-blend coat. All in an attempt to look like an intelligent, competent parent, and not some frumpy mum who hadn’t even brushed her hair; which would probably be her usual look in the future.

‘Can I show you a photo I took the other day?’ Daniel asked, still in that low, concerned voice.

Nell looked up curiously. ‘Er . . . Fine.’

He pulled his phone out of his pocket, and after a few taps and thumb sweeps, turned the screen towards her. It was a picture of the drive at Bryn
Heulog. There was a pattern in the gravel. Nell squinted, and then made out a mathematical equation in the centre. She looked up at him blankly.

‘That’s what Joshua drew the other morning,’ said Daniel. ‘When I bumped into you on my run. Well, when Truffle ran into me. Remember, Joshua had a long stick and -’

‘Oh,’ said Nell. ‘Yes.’ She looked at Daniel again. ‘And?’

‘It’s Pythagoras’
s Theorem,’ he prompted.

‘The one about the triangle?’

He nodded. ‘The thing is, did Joshua just copy it, from something he might have seen, or -’

‘Or does he actually understand what he wrote?’ said Nell. ‘Honestly? I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.’

‘He’d be
of understanding it, though?’ said Daniel. ‘That’s what I’m trying to establish.’

‘More than capable. I mean, would it be considered hard for a child his age?’

‘Well, it isn’t part of the curriculum until high school.’

Nell glanced towards her son again, as he acted out an overly theatrical death scene. ‘He’s had lots of “tests” over the years, for different things. He doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any category, though. People don’t like that. They want to pigeon-hole him.’

BOOK: Once Upon A Winter
7.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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