Authors: Trisha Ashley
‘OK,’ I agreed, thinking that actually it was probably just as well, because after being tossed aside on the night of the wedding, my bridesmaid’s dress had been very creased, though I was working on that. Lily Grace had told me an old trick: you hung the garment in a steamy room to sort of relax the crumples away. It had been in the bathroom ever since, and it did look better
every time I had a shower or bath. I just hoped it didn’t get mildew before it was crease free.
I went out by way of the French doors and found Tim and Dorrie standing under a carriage lamp, impervious to the cold and the dusk, discussing the garden.
‘That Rambling Rector has rambled quite out of order,’ said Dorrie. ‘It needs a firm pruning back, and then it should make a glorious backdrop by next year. Now, in front of it, there used to be a magnificent herbaceous border, if you recall, but it’s well and truly overgrown. Disgraceful! I just couldn’t keep it under control at all, and Moorcroft was worse than useless.’
‘Could we salvage the perennials?’ asked Tim.
‘I should think so. Between us we could go right through it and save what we can, then plant it up again next spring.’
The moonlight showed the path through the rose garden to the distant gazebo, which I had noticed on the day of the wedding was sadly shabby and in need of a good coat of paint.
Tim must have been thinking the same thing, because he said, ‘The gazebo would be a perfect spot for photographs of the happy couples. If we get some dry days, I could start repairing and painting that myself’.
‘Harry would give you a hand, with advice, if not anything terribly physical,’ I offered, then, finding it a bit chilly for standing around, went home.
Behind me their voices started up again, debating the merits of whether to try to recut the croquet lawn out of the rough grass.
‘Our Sadie’s sent more photos of what she calls the granddad flat,’ Harry said. ‘It’s come on a treat—nearly finished.’
‘You can’t say she isn’t doing her best to entice you over there, Harry,’ I said. ‘I’m sure you’d be very comfortable. Maybe you should think seriously about it. I mean, I know it would be sad to leave your friends, but think of the fun you would have with all your family, especially the grandchildren.’
‘Nay, I couldn’t leave you on your own, lass!’ he said, though his gaze lingered on the photos spread out on the kitchen table.
‘I…well, I would hate to see you go, Harry, but I’d be fine, absolutely fine!’ I said encouragingly. ‘If you change your mind about going, you mustn’t worry about me. After all, I’ve got Libby here now, ordering me about, and once the wedding season at Blessings starts, my time’s going to be fully taken up. I’ll probably be making lots of extra cakes too, as well as doing my usual work in the kitchen and garden.’
‘It’s getting too much for you. I’m that worried about you, you’re looking so peaky.’
‘But I love being busy, you know I do.’ I paused. ‘Harry…you
stay here just because of me, if you really wanted to go to New Zealand, would you?’
‘No, but I don’t want to leave my friends either—or what’s left of them. And this is the place I’ve lived in all my life, man and boy, except for the war. And what about poor old Mac here?’ He reached down and gave the dog a pat and Mac licked his hand.
‘Oh, that’s OK then,’ I said, relieved and feeling happier. It suddenly occurred to me that it was ages since I’d emailed the MOD and there was still no reply, but if they thought I would quietly go away if they ignored my letters, then they were wrong! But I supposed it
have gone astray?
Anyway, when Harry had gone off into the garden again, I emailed them another:
Dear Clive Wapshott,
On 8 November I sent you an email. We’re now into December and so far you have not had the courtesy to acknowledge that you have received it, let alone replied. In case it did not reach you, you will find it below. If you did receive it, but it has been filed in the box marked ‘ignore
her and she will go away’ then I suggest you retrieve it and pass it on to someone who attained their present position through the exercise of their intellect, rather than by any other means and/or has the good manners to reply to their correspondence.
If you would like to telephone me instead, you can reach me on the above number. I am not feeling terribly happy about the efficiency of your department, but of course if the first email didn’t reach you, then I may be maligning it…slightly.
The lack of response hadn’t improved my temper, but I thought perhaps they would deign to reply to this one. I can’t really believe my first email went astray and their lack of response made me even more furious than I was before. How dare they treat Harry, who had served his country so bravely and deserved his medal, in such a shabby way? If they didn’t deign to answer this email, then I would phone them up and tell them so!
At this time of year, having lots of leeks and potatoes, I make batches of vichyssoise and freeze it. You can eat it hot or cold; it just needs a generous swirl of cream in it before serving. French onion soup is another good one for winter, especially after a year like this, when I have strings of onions hanging everywhere. A good soup is economical, filling and, above all, comforting.
‘Cakes and Ale’
Although I would have liked to forget Christmas altogether that year, unfortunately that was not really an option. Usually I love it, from carol singing to the last dark, rich cake crumb, and for several years it had followed the same pattern.
Harry and Mac would come round at about two for a Christmas dinner of free-range chicken (not ours) and flaming pudding with brandy butter and white sauce. Then Harry went back to his cottage to fall asleep in front of the TV, until I took him some sandwiches and mince pies later. Ben and I walked off our dinner with Mac, then played Scrabble and Monopoly in front of the roaring woodstove.
This year it would be just the two of us—three if you counted Mac.
I discovered I was dripping tears into the old sweet tin full of Christmas cake decorations, which I was rummaging about in, trying to find some extra fir trees for the Skiing wedding cake.
‘You daft bat,’ I admonished myself aloud, mopping my eyes. ‘Just get on with it.’
So I put the finishing touches to the Skiing cake, which I thought was quite impressive, even if the pair of figures did look as if they were going to launch themselves into space once they reached the bottom of the very steep, tree-edged run.
But then, I suppose that’s symbolic of marriage really, so quite appropriate—
relationships, since Ben certainly went well and truly off-piste, so it was his own fault if an avalanche of all the things he didn’t want, like marriage and fatherhood, crashed down on his head.
Having got the decorations out I thought I might as well carry on and ice all my Christmas cakes. There were several, in different sizes, from tiny to large, since I give them as gifts. Ours was usually huge, since Ben loved Christmas cake, especially accompanied by a good chunk of Lancashire Crumbly cheese, but what would have been ours was now destined as a present for Libby and Tim. I’d told her not to buy one. Harry wouldn’t miss out because he always had a small one to himself, decorated with the same little igloo, white-clad Eskimos and slightly out-of-scale polar bear every year.
My four Acorns had fallen into the habit of passing Christmas Day together and pooling their resources, and it was easier for Dorrie to go to the Graces than the other way round. Now that they were spending so much less on food, drink and other necessities, they could afford to turn the heating on and light a roaring wood fire in the sitting room if they felt like it, though I expected Dorrie thriftily turned her heating off whenever she went out. I ordered their large, free-range chicken at the same time as mine—they paid me in Acorns, and I paid the people who supplied them—and I always gave them a Christmas cake and a large plum pudding.
Dorrie took soup as a starter, and brandy and brandy butter for the flaming pudding, plus an old video of Charles Dickens’s
A Christmas Carol
, which they watched right after the Queen’s speech. Then, after a cold collation of chicken and stuffing sandwiches and sherry trifle, Dorrie went home.
They know how to live it up in Neatslake.
Chopping wood for our stoves and Harry and the Graces’ open fires had been one of Ben’s chores, and it occurred to me to check how much firewood there was left. This turned out to be very little, though there was a dauntingly enormous supply of large logs in the lean-to store, a whole winter’s worth.
If I didn’t want everyone (including myself) to freeze, I’d have to do it myself, and sooner rather than later. Resignedly, I fetched the axe and set to. By spring, I would have muscles like Mr Universe.
After a while Harry came through the fence with a big tin mug of hot tea for me.
‘I heard you chopping. But you shouldn’t be doing that, our Josie—it’s too hard for you,’ he said, looking worried.
‘I really need the exercise, Harry,’ I lied, wiping my brow with the edge of my fleece jacket. ‘But the tea is wonderful—just what I need.’
I drank it down, then scooped up Aggie, who had followed him through the gate, and handed her to him, together with the empty mug.
‘Dratted hen,’ he said, and trudged off to see where she had got out this time.
Reluctantly picking up the axe, I was just about to set to again when I heard my mobile, though it took me a couple of minutes to find it, fallen among the logs. Lucky I hadn’t chopped it in two, really.
‘Hello?’ I said, snatching it up. ‘Josie Gray, Weird and Wonderful Cakes.’
, Josie Gray, Weird and Wonderful Cakes,’ enunciated a
voice like Golden Syrup. ‘I’ve run you to earth at last! This is Rob—Rob Rafferty.’
‘I—yes, I recognised your voice,’ I said faintly, sitting down on a large, upended log, since my knees had gone a bit funny ‘How did you find my number?’
‘Remembered that someone told me you made cakes, so I put “Josie Gray cakes” into an internet search engine, and there you were.’
‘That’s very clever of you. And
you want a cake?’
‘No, I want
, he said, in that smooth, warm, hard-to-resist voice.
‘M-me?’ I said nervously.
cast are having a Christmas bash in the wine bar in the old Butterflake Biscuit factory over at Middlemoss—do you know it? I thought you might like to come with me.’
I stopped silently opening and shutting my mouth like a landed fish and said, as firmly as I could, ‘That’s very kind of you, but really I can’t. I—’
‘You’re doing something else tonight?’
Flustered, I blurted, ‘Well, no, but—’
‘Then you could spare an hour or two, so we can get to know each other better, couldn’t you? I’ve been thinking about you ever since Libby’s wedding, Josie,’ he added, his voice going a little throaty.
Flattering though his invitation was, my heart was racing with panic as I frantically tried to think of a way out.
‘How nice,’ I managed, primly. ‘But actually, I am terribly busy with cake orders and then later Libby’s coming round to discuss business. You know she and Tim are starting up a wedding reception venue at Blessings?’
‘No, but you can tell me about it later. After all, it’s just for a couple of hours, Josie. The cakes and Libby can wait, can’t they? So I’ll pick you up about eight?’
He didn’t wait for an answer, but rang off. I’m sure the thought that I might really not want to go out with him never even entered his handsome, golden head, because he probably has a mirrorball for a brain, endlessly reflecting his own ultra-masculine beauty back at himself.
Quickly I called Libby and told her what had happened.
‘Rob Rafferty did
But, Josie, are you mad? He’s the playboy of the west Lancashire world. Why on earth did you agree to go?’
‘I didn’t, I was just too stunned to get out of it before he put the phone down. And there’s just something terribly attractive and compelling about his voice. In fact,’ I confessed, ‘there’s something very attractive and compelling about him, so I’m really afraid he might mesmerise me into doing something silly and then I would regret it.’
‘I’m sure he would love to show you a good time, if you let him,’ she agreed, ‘but is that what you want?’
‘No, of course not! The Noah thing was a one-off and I certainly am not about to have casual sex with every man who comes my way, however gorgeous they are. I just never had the opportunity to learn how to say no, that’s all.’
‘Then you’d better learn fast because I don’t think you can get out of going to the wine bar with him now,’ Libby said thoughtfully.
‘I did tell him I had a business meeting with you tonight, Libs, but he said you could wait.’
he? Then I’ll phone you about nine thirty and say some crisis has blown up and you have to come home. You’ll need to be terribly firm and tell him you have to put the business and your friendship with me first, and then jump into a taxi. But I’ll be waiting for you here, in case he drives you back himself.’
‘Thanks, Libs,’ I said gratefully.
‘And if he asks you out again, you’ll just have to say that you’ve
put your social life on hold, because of your own cake business and helping me to get Old Barn Receptions off the ground,’ she suggested. ‘He’ll get bored with you eventually and go and find someone else to play with.’
‘Yes, and if he hadn’t caught me on the hop and steamrolled me into going, I’d probably have managed to put him off in the first place.’ I sighed. ‘I could do without this complication.’
‘Lots of women wouldn’t think being invited out by Rob Rafferty a complication,’ she pointed out.
I grinned. ‘I suppose not. I mean me, Josie Gray, and Rob Rafferty!’ Then I had a thought. ‘What on earth shall I wear tonight?’
‘A chastity belt?’ she suggested.
My new jeans, being quite tight, were as close to that as I could get, and I teamed them with a burgundy and gold Indian cotton top Stella had given me.
Rob picked me up in something long, low and red—don’t ask me what, I’m not good at recognising sports cars—and although I felt really shy and nervous he talked enough on the way for both of us. Just as well, since I was silently recovering from his greeting kiss, which had involved an alarming amount of body contact. ‘Thorough’ was the word that sprang to mind; I felt as if I’d been rotovated.
The bar was very full and rather dark and I was pleased to see that most other people there were fairly casually dressed too. I’ve never watched
, but I still managed to recognise several of the actors from it and, even if I hadn’t, Rob introduced me around and told them all I made wonderful wedding cakes.
There were some TV production people there too, and a young, attractive, dark-haired woman called Claire Flowers immediately said,
What, the Josie Gray who writes for
Skint Old Northern Woman
magazine as Country Mouse?’
I nearly dropped my glass. ‘Yes, but…how do you know?’
‘I saw that article in
Country at Heart
‘Oh…yes, that did blow my cover once people had twigged.’
‘That’s the internet for you. A couple of people make the connection, and it spreads like wildfire.’
Rob, who had been standing looking puzzled, said,
‘Skint Old Northern Woman
‘It’s a cult women’s magazine. It went online at the start of the year and the circulation’s gone massive. Just everyone gets it. Josie writes this brilliant column called “Cakes and Ale”, all about her struggles to be self-sufficient. Urbanites love it because it makes them think of a lifestyle they would love to be living.’ She looked me up and down. ‘But I really didn’t expect you to be tall and…well,
, if you don’t mind my saying so. I really thought you’d be a quiet, plain little country mouse, like your pseudonym.’
‘Well, I’m tall, but apart from that I
the complete country mouse bit,’ I said, embarrassed.
She started to ask me about my lifestyle and I found myself telling her all about how we’d tried to be self-sufficient for years, but the twenty-first century kept intruding, and the cake-making business and all the rest of it. I even mentioned Uncle Harry next door and how the Artist had gone off to live in London.
‘That’s a pity,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘I liked the bits about him. It sounded so idyllic, the two of you, a bit like
The Good Life
‘My best friend has moved back to the village, though, which is good,’ I said. ‘Did you read about that in “Cakes and Ale”?’
‘Yes, and that would make an interesting angle…’ she mused, seemingly deep in thought.
‘For the articles, do you mean?’ I asked, puzzled. Rob, bored, had gone off to get another drink and not come back, and the noise level in the bar was rising, though most of the voices were
enunciating with right-to-the-back-of-the-hall clarity. It made it a bit deafening.
Claire looked at me with bright-eyed enthusiasm. ‘No, what I’m actually thinking is that you and your life in Sticklepond would make a really great TV series. Sort of self-sufficiency with a twist!’
‘I live in Neatslake actually. It’s a couple of miles from Sticklepond and it’s very quiet, so I don’t think it would make terribly exciting viewing.’
‘Seasons in Sticklepond
, starting with
,’ she said dreamily. ‘That could be the first series of, say, six episodes of half an hour each. And if that takes off—which I’m sure it would—
Sticklepond Summer, Autumn, Sticklepond Christmas…
’ Her cheeks had gone quite rosy with excitement. ‘You know, it’s just what the current market needs! Everyone wants to know about growing vegetables and fruit, and making things and saving money, but without giving up
the comforts of the twenty-first century.’
‘Do you think so?’ I said doubtfully. ‘Wouldn’t it be terribly intrusive, though, and people would come and descend on me? I’ve already tried to keep the more personal angle out of my columns since the
Country at Heart
‘I don’t think Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has much problem with visitors,’ she said. ‘And, of course, they’ll think you live right in Sticklepond, won’t they? So they’ll go there, if anywhere.’
‘Yes, I suppose there is that,’ I agreed. And now they’ve found that Shakespeare document at Winter’s End, they must be used to masses of visitors to the village, so a few more wouldn’t make much difference. There’s already a new teashop and craft gallery.’
‘I really think this could work, Josie,’ Claire assured me earnestly. ‘It will have everything—gardening, cooking and preserving, wedding cakes, a cute hen…’
‘You mean Aggie?’
‘Yes, she’s obvious star material. And then your friend’s
wedding reception business—showing you involved in that would add an interesting twist.’