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Authors: Valerie-Anne Baglietto

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BOOK: Once Upon A Winter
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the outside, the Gingerbread House had undergone a captivating transformation. As if it were under some spell perhaps. An enchantment, like Cinderella’s pumpkin. There seemed to be a magical haze about the cottage and the glade it stood in, glittering in the early December sunlight.

It was a Sunday, and Nell had volunteered to walk Truffle while her sister went to church. Gareth was sleeping in after working the night before, and the last thing he needed was an unsupervised dog yapping madly in the house or garden. Joshua and Freya, curious about ‘Sunday Service’ and what it entailed, had asked if they could go along with their cousins.

’ - Joshua’s favourite word at the moment - ‘the primary school age children go into the hall next to the church,’ he had said to Nell over breakfast. ‘Rose told me. And they paint and do crafts, and listen to stories like Noah and the Ark, and Moses and those tablets he brought down from that mountain. Although they’re talking about Advent today, like the calendars, because it’s nearly Christmas. Can I go, too? After Service there’s tea and biscuits in the hall. Choc chip cookies, Rose said.’

And so Nell, who hadn’
t set foot in Harreloe’s crumbling parish church since her mother’s funeral, had grudgingly agreed after checking with her sister. Emma, who was probably involved in the production of the cookies and the tea, had been all too happy to take her niece and nephew along with her.

It was a cold but clear morning, the sort Nell liked, and she had relished the idea of escaping for a while with her sister’s dog into the woods. No kids, no adults, just a diminutive ball of trouble for company.

In spite of his naughtiness, Truffle was appealing and affectionate, constantly nuzzling and licking and cocking his head to one side, doubtless melting most of the hearts he came into contact with. Nell’s own heart had entirely thawed towards him the day he had knocked Daniel Guthrie off his feet. An incident that had made Nell wonder if karma really did exist, and whether she had been witness to it in action.

The route she had taken today had brought her out all too soon from the woods. To the right, across a field, had been the copse she had avoided since her return to Harreloe.
A couple of thin chimneys poked out above it, and Nell had set out towards it along the footpath skirting the meadow.

There was a stereotype involving builders, and she had come across one or two who fitted it while working for Abe Golding in London. And so she had steered clear of the Gingerbread House on weekdays when there might be burly labourers around, just in case.

According to her father, who had been uncharacteristically vague, the renovation of the cottage was almost complete, at least on the outside, and everything was in hand, so there was nothing to worry about and no reason for Nell to involve herself in any aspect of it while he was away. Emma had also been nebulous about Dad’s plans, and all of this had only served to pique Nell’s curiosity. 

Within a couple of minutes, she had stumbled after Truffle into the clearing between the small, low trees. She hadn’t been to the Gingerbread House in years, but a rush of childhood memories
charged at her like a long-forgotten scent, instantly evoking the feelings that had accompanied her times here.

The spookiness, the thrill, the enticement of the place. To a child, it had been tantamount to a forbidden forest or a sorceress’s lair. Ignoring their parents’ cautions about respecting other people’s privacy, Nell and her sister had gravitated here far too often to spy on the elderly lady that resided in the cottage. ‘A novelist,’ people had said. ‘Keeps herself to herself. Lives in her imagination, not the real world.’

Emma and Nell had found her real enough, in a witchy sort of way. Nell couldn’t even remember her actual name. They had simply called her Old Sall. Always draped in black, with myriad beaded necklaces and bracelets, and her long grey hair twisted into a ‘chignon’, as their mother had called it. She had even had a black cat, who hissed at the girls if they came too close. All Old Sall had been missing was a pointy black hat, a cauldron and a broomstick, Nell had remarked once, as they crouched behind a bush. To which Emma had replied that maybe she kept those in the broom cupboard.

The old cottage had been freshly plastered and white-washed, Nell noted now. Its blue-grey slate roof showed no signs of being harassed by time or the weather, and the chimneys, though still crooked, looked somehow less precarious than they used to. The rotting timber window-frames had been replaced with sturdier black frames and double glazing, but in a style sympathetic to the age and character of the building.

Nell stood close to the edge of the clearing, taking it all in, as Truffle barked like a berserk creature at a seemingly innocuous bush.

Suddenly, there was a rustling noise, and the sound of snapping twigs. Nell jerked her head round, slightly alarmed, as someone else stumbled into the clearing.

Nell swore under her breath.

Daniel Guthr
ie was in his jogging attire again, the navy Adidas tracksuit and expensive, but tired-looking, trainers.

‘I thought that barking sounded familiar,’
he said, panting gently from the exertion.

kept himself fit obviously, considering he had been jogging the last time they had bumped into each other by chance. There didn’t seem to be an ounce of fat on him. And he cycled around the village, so that had to keep him trim, too.

Nell brushed back a twirl of hair
, which had tumbled across her face, feeling acutely uncomfortable, and annoyed that this precious time to herself had been hijacked. 

She had been doing her best to avoid running into Daniel when she was on her own, and mercifully he hadn’t appeared to be making it hard for her. It was disconcerting enough to know that when she was at home he was only yards away in the Annexe. The kids liked to comment on it - the source
of great delight, having their Deputy Head on their own doorstep - and Freya had even gone as far as to suggest asking him to dinner. ‘Nana Gwen says he needs fattening up. He’s too skinny.’

‘I don’t think she means for us to do the fattening,’ Nell had retorted, and made some excuse, so pathetic she couldn’t even remember it clearly now. Something about him being a tenant - not technically a lodger - and having his own kitchen. The kids had looked miffed, anyway. He obviously wasn’t a stern, forbidding breed of schoolmaster.

‘Hi.’ He grinned, having caught his breath completely now. ‘Fine morning, isn’t it?’

, thought Nell. Small-talk.

On the other hand, discussing the weather would be better than an awkward silence - and more preferable than
a continuation of their last conversation in the school hall.

Daniel nudged his head towards the cottage. ‘It’s looking good, isn’t it? I can see it now, in one of those holiday brochures. “A haven in the Welsh hills.” That
what your dad’s planning, right? It’s what I’ve heard, anyway.’

Nell shrugged
. ‘I’m not sure. This is the first time I’ve come to see it. I guess that’s what he’s aiming for.’

‘Was it derelict for years, before now?’

‘An elderly lady used to rent it from my family when I was a girl. She was some sort of reclusive writer.’

Lavinia Roseby?’

‘Who?’ Nell’s brow furrowed.

‘Exactly. Very likely a pseudonym. My mum used to read her books. Romantic fiction. Regency, I think. I remember Mum said she used to live locally.’

‘It’s probably her then,
’ said Nell. ‘Emma and I used to call her Old Sall. Don’t ask me why. I have no idea. I can’t remember her real name.’

Daniel chuckled. ‘Kids, eh?’

Nell bit her lip and looked away. This was excruciating. Any minute now he might start waffling on about their shared past. In the meantime, he was trying to be jovial, which was making her cringe.

‘So how come it went to rack and ruin then?’ Daniel did seem genuinely curious about the small house.

‘Well, I wouldn’t say it was a
to start with.’ Nell chose her words carefully. ‘But it wasn’t as nice as this. I think the old lady - “Lavinia Roseby”, if that’s who she was - wouldn’t let my dad do any work to it. She didn’t want the intrusion. But then she died, and not long after that my mother passed away, too . . .’ Nell trailed off, as Truffle attempted to wrap his lead around her legs. She distracted herself by unravelling it.

‘So no one rented it after that?’

Nell shook her head, and straightened up again. ‘It wasn’t a good time for the family . . . The state of this cottage was hardly a priority.’

‘Makes sense.’ Daniel sounded serious now, and sympathetic. ‘It was tough for me and my mum, too, when my dad died.’

‘Oh . . .’ Nell met his gaze squarely. ‘Your father’s dead? I - I’m sorry . . . I wasn’t aware . . .’

Although her sister had known better all these years than to bring up Daniel’s name in conversation, she could at least have told Nell about that. Couldn’t she?

‘Don’t worry.’ Daniel gave a small heave of his shoulders. ‘It was a long time ago.’

‘Yes, but - my mum was a long time ago, too. It still hurts, though.’

Oh, hell, Nell - what are you doing?
She realised as she spoke that she was inviting in a world of trouble. Mentioning one private, painful matter might lead to other private, painful matters. As if she were opening a door into her soul and beckoning Daniel Guthrie to come in and make himself at home.
Put your feet up, have a cup of tea . . .

She clamped her mouth shut.

Daniel regarded her with solemn grey eyes. The same grey as a stormy ocean and the clouds it reflected, Nell had used to think, very poetically, many moons ago.

‘Lauren and I had just got married,’ he said, and Nell noted with a sinking feeling that he was about to bare his own soul into the bargain. ‘They think my dad had a stroke on the way back from the driving range. He might have survived it, if he hadn’t been driving his car at the time . . .’

‘Oh, God,’ said Nell spontaneously. ‘I’m really sorry.’

‘It’s OK.’ He smiled wanly. ‘Thing is, Dad and I hadn’t been close for years. I guess I changed when I was at
uni. Grew up. Or maybe down. I don’t know. I was less ambitious than Dad had hoped. One minute I was telling everyone I was going to be a barrister, the next I switched to teaching. I met a lot of great people back then, including my tutors. I wasn’t really cut out for courtroom dramas. They helped me see that.’

Nell scooped up Truffle, who was trying to chew Daniel’s trainers. The small dog adored being cradled like a baby, and instantly snuggled into the crook of her arms. At least the yapping and chewing had stopped, even if he was slobbering over her anorak.

‘He looks like the sort of dog who’d happily be carried around all day in a celeb’s handbag,’ Daniel commented, thankfully changing the topic again.

‘With a diamond encrusted collar, you mean?’

‘And a name like Truffle, well . . . he wouldn’t mind getting his picture in
would he?’

‘He was born to be paraded in front of the paparazzi,’ agreed Nell. ‘It’s a shame his life’s so mundane.’

Daniel laughed throatily. Then, as an awkward silence descended, he looked towards the cottage again. ‘Is it completed inside, do you know? There doesn’t seem to be much action going on. I know it’s a Sunday, but I thought there’d be more signs that workers are still around during the week.’

‘I don’t know.’ But Nell was as curious as Daniel seemed to be.

Together, they approached the house. There was no garden, as such. There had never been a fence around the cottage, or a front path; just patches of grass sprinkled with daisies and buttercups in the summer, and a few tall weeds growing under the windows. The weeds were gone now, though, and the patches of grass vied for space with the dirt and mud.

A track led off through the trees, and Nell knew after a quarter-of-a-mile or so it would come out on to the private narrow lane that led to the village in one direction and Bryn
Heulog in the other.

The un-made track
from the cottage had clearly been used lately; the mud was churned up and imprinted with wide tyre tracks. The open space beside the house where a car could be parked looked equally churned up and muddy, and on closer inspection, the area around the cottage had been trampled on recently, as if a horde of angry village folk had swarmed around the house with flaming torches and pitchforks demanding that the witch surrender herself.

Daniel cupped his hands against a window and peered in, while Nell tried to peep in through the little rectangle of glass in the new wooden front door. Oak perhaps. Varnished to enhance its natural tones and markings.

‘It’s completely gutted in there,’ said Daniel, sounding almost disappointed. ‘What room would this be, do you know?’

Nell joined him at the window on the left. ‘The lounge. See, there’s a fireplace that goes up to that chimney there.’ She pointed upwards. ‘A
nd round this way . . .’ she led him to the right, past the front door ‘. . . ought to be the kitchen.’

BOOK: Once Upon A Winter
6.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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