Soup and a SmilebyYgraine©
CHAPTER ONE : The Visitor
The cats were the first to announce his arrival. Tails high in the air they paraded up and down the hall. Pushing open the door to the living room, they rubbed themselves against her legs, gazing at her with bright eyes as if to will her to do something, to get up and follow them.
She pushed them gently away, too deep within her book to want their interruption. A log fell to cinders in the fire with a gentle hiss while the old clock's steady tick counted the lazy seconds marking a peaceful evening.
As the quarter hour chimed she heard the approaching car. Drivers rarely came this way at night, unless it was a local taking the short cut between two villages. The engine had a high pitched whine, rather like a death keen, then it spluttered and there was silence. Jo sighed and put down the book, marking her place with a worn leather bookmark. She made her way to the kitchen and filled the kettle, setting it to heat on the centre of the hot plate. Whoever was in the car would want tea on such a frosty night as tonight.
The cats crowded round her ankles, mewling at her, eyes bright with anticipation, willing her to follow them to the front door, but she refused to be hurried. Instead she went into the larder and fetched down the red cake tin. The travellers might be hungry too. Carefully, she placed a small plate on the large, oak table and arranged the flapjack in a tiny pyramid. That would soothe them as they waited by the fire. There was plenty of soup if they needed a meal and bread fresh from baking. It was all prepared.
The bell jangled in the hall, the noise so loud in the silence of the cottage, she almost jumped. Time to greet her visitors. As she walked along the hall, she caught sight of herself in the mirror and gave a half smile. A middle-aged woman, streaks of silver in her brown curls smiled back. She hoped she wouldn't frighten off whoever stood on her doorstep.
She knew she must look strange in her long velvet skirt and the plaid shawl thrown around her shoulders to ward off the draughts. People didn't wear clothes like this any more, but most people lived in centrally heated houses where summer reigned all year long, not in ancient cottages with thick stone walls and leaded windows. Her clothes were warm and comfortable and she enjoyed wearing them. Let others think what they might, it didn't matter to her.
She drew back the long bolt and turned on the porch light before she opened the door. There was no sense of danger, but she wanted to be able to see her visitors clearly before she let them across the threshold.
A man was standing on the top step, his black raincoat thrown hurriedly over his suit.
"Can I help you?"
"I'm terribly sorry to trouble you at this time of night, " his voice was deep, the cold and anxiety making it rasp, "My car has broken down and I wondered if you had a telephone I could use. My mobile doesn't seem to pick up any signal around here."
She gave him a smile. "It's no trouble," she said, "Come in and warm yourself. The phone is just there by the stairs." She pointed to the small table and chair. He thanked her, ducking his head as he entered the dimly lit hall.
"I'm on my way to Lower Slaughter Manor for a conference. It's not far away I think."
She nodded. "I've left the number in the car...do you happen to know it? Can you suggest a taxi firm? It shouldn't take them long I hope."
She lifted the heavy directory from the table and found the number of the hotel for him. Then she searched in the basket of oddments and gave him the card for the local taxi firm. She knew they didn't work after ten o'clock at night in the winter months and wondered how he would react when he realised he was stranded here until morning.
It was lucky she'd made up Vicky's bed in the spare room this morning in readiness for the arrival of her niece for her half term holiday. At least, that was the excuse she gave herself when she took the sheets out of the warm airing cupboard. She should know by now that there was no such thing as luck. She'd been waiting for a visitor all day and now he was here.
She went into the kitchen and took down the jars of dried herbs from the cupboard to make some tea. He was tired and frustrated, she could tell that from his eyes, not to mentioned the raised tone of voice on the telephone. He must have just been told the curfew by the taxi operator. Chamomile then with some lemon balm and lime flower - those would do for a start. She placed the dried herbs into the waiting china pot before pouring some golden honey into a tiny bowl. He would need the sweetness if he wasn't used to herb tea. The kettle began to sing. She poured the boiling water into the teapot and fastened the cosy around it, then left it to steep on the tray.
He was standing by the phone, running his hand over his head as if to stop himself from destroying something. She heard muttered curses under his breath."Is everything all right?"
He spun round to face her. "No! It isn't alright! The hotel swear they have no reservation for me and the taxi firm say they're closed until tomorrow morning! What am I supposed to do?"
"Let's have some tea." She took his coat and hung it on the coat rack, then led him into the living room and sat him on the sofa near to the fire. "You'll soon warm up," she said, throwing more logs on the fire and giving them a good poke until the flames rose.
He sat hunched against the arm of the sofa, but as she left the room he stretched out his arms towards the warmth. The large ginger tabby padded her way towards him and jumped up onto his lap. Jo expected him to push her away, but instead his left hand began to stroke her. Soon her purrs could be heard above the crackle of the flames.
Jo collected the tray from the kitchen and set it in front of him. "This is very kind of you," he began, "I don't like to be a nuisance."
"It's no bother." She pushed the mug of tea towards him. "Help yourself to honey. Herb tea can be strange if you're not used to it." He took a sip, then tried not to grimace as he spooned in the honey, watching it melt as he stirred it.
"I think this must be a first for me," he offered after they sipped their tea in silence for a while. "The car is usually so reliable; I've never broken down before."
"Have you had a long journey?"
He looked at his watch and then compared it with the grandfather clock ticking away in the corner. "Four hours! It was only supposed to take three, but there were roadworks on the motorway around Manchester, so the bloody routemaster brought me down the A41 for some reason and then along some Godforsaken roads up hill and down dale until I didn't have clue where I was. I ended up just turning right or left whenever it told me to. Then the car started playing up but there wasn't sight nor sound of a garage. I hoped it would last until I reached the hotel." He sighed, "but it didn't."
Jo pushed the flapjacks towards him. He took one, munching it absentmindedly. "Are we far from the village? Does anyone do bed and breakfast around here?"
"Don't worry," Jo tried to reassure him, "You can stay here, I've got a spare bed. It's no trouble."
His face showed a mixture of guilt and relief. "I hate to impose on you."
"Don't worry," Jo smiled. "You look tired. Did you start off after work?"
He nodded, sinking back into the cushions. "I couldn't leave until I'd finished everything for my presentation tomorrow. Harris...he's one of my colleagues...didn't have the figures I needed until 3 o'clock, so I knew I wouldn't be able to make an early start."
"What time is your presentation?"
"Not until eleven, but the conference starts at nine, which is why I wanted to be there tonight."
"It's not very far. If needs be I'll take you there myself in the morning."
"You're very kind."
"I'm sure you'd do the same for me if I were in the same situation." She smiled at him again.
"You must think me terrible rude," he suddenly leant forward, "Here you are, taking me into your home and I haven't introduced myself. I'm Allan Metcalf." He stretched out his hand to shake hers. "Jo Masters," she responded. "Are you still hungry?"
Allan thought for a moment, realising he'd not eaten since lunchtime - a hurried sandwich between meetings."Yes, I am...the flapjack was delicious. Did you make it yourself? Can we call a take away?"
Jo chuckled. "We're too far from civilisation for takeaways, Allan. Would you like some soup? I made bread fresh this morning too."
"It sounds wonderful," he replied, his voice weary. She took the tray out into the kitchen and came back with the soup steaming in her green dragon bowl and a thick slice of brown bread spread with butter.
She stood for a moment in the doorway. Allan had loosened his tie and was staring at the fire as if hypnotised by the dancing flames. The ginger tabby still sat peacefully on his lap, purring away like a steam engine, her head butting at his hand if he stopped stroking her.
"What can you see in the flames?" Jo asked softly as she set the tray down in front of him and poured some fresh tea into their mugs.
"People dancing, "he murmured, "the fire sprites seem happy here." Then he noticed the tray and pulled himself into an upright position, rubbing his eyes with his hands like a small child waking from sleep. "This is very kind of you."
Jo picked up the cat and set her down in the small rocking chair on the other side of the fire. Allan pulled the tray onto his lap and took a spoonful of soup, blowing on it before he risked tasting it. As he swallowed the first few mouthfuls, he realised how hungry he was; soon the bowl was empty and the bread demolished.
"You're a good cook," he said, smiling at her for the first time.
"Not really, I just throw things together and see what happens." She picked up the tray. "Would you like some more or I have some bottled pears and cream in the fridge for afters."
He thought for a moment. "Could I be difficult and ask for both?"
She chuckled. "Of course! It won't take me a moment."
This time when she returned he was talking to the cat, rubbing behind her ears and telling her how beautiful she was.
"Off you go, Megan, " Jo pulled her gently away as she put the tray down. "You're going to cover Allan's suit with your hairs."
"I don't mind, really, " he said, "it's a long time since I made the acquaintance of such a beautiful moggie."
"She is lovely, isn't she?" Jo agreed. "Her sister is more of a grey green tabby and tends to keep her distance when strangers are around unless she wants something. They arrived soon after I moved here, about five years ago."
"Really?" Allan was surprised. "I quite thought you must have always lived here."
"It does feel like that, " Jo agreed, "but I was like you once, busy in the real world, projects to manage, deadlines to meet, people to influence. Then..." she stopped and drank some tea. "...now I'm here." She smiled at him, her eyes veiled and hidden.
This was no time for sharing. That world was gone now, there was only this one. She let the slow ticking of the grandfather clock soothe her. She wondered whether he noticed anything, but when she looked, he was busy finishing the pears, running his spoon around the dish to catch the last drop of juice and sucking it from his spoon.
He sighed happily and leant back against the sofa. "You know I haven't tasted pears like that since I used to stay with my grandmother in Worcestershire. She had pear trees in her garden. In the spring they were white with blossom, then as the year went on, we'd watch the tiny pears grow larger and fatter." He drank some tea, "I was never very keen on pears themselves, but Gran used to bottle them like you do. We'd have them for tea on Sundays with cream and bread and butter. I loved it!" He grinned and Jo could imagine the naughty imp he'd been as a child. "Come to think of it, this house reminds me of hers as well. The smell in your hall...is it lavender?"
"Yes, I always keep a bowl of dried lavender by the phone. It helps me if I'm taking a traumatic call."
"Do you get many of those?"
"A fair few. Occupational hazard I suppose, I'm a healer." She waited for his response, watching his face to see whether he recognised the term or not.
"I wish I could say the same," he said. "All I seem to do is watch people die."
"How do you manage that? You don't quite fit my image of a hired assassin."
"Not quite debonair enough for James Bond, you mean?" he gave a wry smile. "You haven't seen my luggage yet, it's amazing how little space an AK42 can pack away into these days."
"Really!" She'd forgotten how good it felt to gently tease someone you felt comfortable with and she did feel comfortable. Now she'd seen to his immediate needs, she could sit back and take stock of the man lounging in front of her. He seemed perfectly at ease with his surroundings, his long legs in their light grey trousers splayed out in front of him, his head with its neatly cut black hair leaning on the back of the sofa, dark eyes watching her lazily.
Did it matter she didn't know why he was here, what purpose her hospitality was serving in the wider universe? It was a long time since a companion shared her quiet time by the fire, other than her cats and they seemed quite happy with the situation. The grey tabby, Morgan, leapt down from her perch on the high window shelf and padded across to Jo's chair, jumping up so she could lie across her shoulders like a live stole.
"Now we've both got one!" he remarked, rubbing a gentle finger under Megan's white throat.
"Do you have cats at home?"
"No, my flat's too small and I'm never there so it would be pointless."
"You're on your own then?" Jo made a polite enquiry, "I was wondering if you needed to ring anyone to let them know you'd arrived safely."
He gave a strained laugh, "No, there's no-one sufficiently interested in my whereabouts. My ex-wife lives in Spain now with her new family. My daughter is happily set up in university and doesn't want me interfering with her social life. You know what they're like."
His throw away remark was almost Jo's undoing, but she managed a smile and busied herself tidying up the tray. The clock struck the half hour.
"My goodness, I hadn't realised how late it was. You must be tired after your long drive. Would you like to get your things in from the car and I'll show you your room."
He got to his feet. He seemed taller now he was standing close to her. He opened the door for her; then put on his coat and disappeared into the cold and darkness outside.
Jo washed up the crockery and left it to drain while she filled two hot water bottles from the kettle. Although the bedrooms were relatively warm, it was still comforting to have some heat for your toes during the long dark night. Not that this night was particularly dark. Through the kitchen window she could see the full moon shining brightly on the frosty grass of the orchard. The outbuildings cast shadows against the garden wall, turning the cockerel on the weather vane into a ghostly figure sitting astride the capstones.
She banked the fire in the living room and hooked the guard around so it could be safely left until morning. She heard the front door close again, so she went out into the hall. He was carrying a large black briefcase and a small overnight bag. He leant the bag against the telephone table while he took off his coat, complaining against the bitter cold outside.
"Do you have everything you need?" Jo asked him. When he nodded, she bolted the door and turned the ancient key in the lock, showing him where it was hung behind the coats in case he needed to go outside in the morning before she awoke.
"This way," she led him upstairs and along the landing to the small room at the back of the house. She showed him the bathroom and fetched clean towels from the airing cupboard. "Do help yourself to a bath or a shower either tonight or tomorrow morning. There's plenty of hot water." She turned down the bed and slid the hot water bottle inside. "I hope you'll be comfortable." "I'm sure I will. It really is good of you to go to all this trouble for a stranger in distress."
Jo smiled. "I should thank you," she said, "for allowing me to follow Mother Teresa's prayer."
"Her prayer?" Allan's face was puzzled. Jo pointed to a picture hanging on the wall with writing underneath.
"I found it some years ago and framed it; you can read it if you like." She thought for a moment and then said, "Do you have a dressing gown?" Allan shook his head, thinking of the silk kimono hanging on his bathroom door. She went out of the bedroom and returned holding a blue plaid man's dressing gown with grey piping around the edges. Although it was thick, it was obviously well worn. Allan wondered to whom it belonged, but he didn't like to pry. It could be Jo's for all he knew.
"This will keep you warm." Was it his imagination, or did she hold it to her cheek for a split second before handing it to him.
"I'm sure it will, thank you. I'll try not to disturb you if I get up in the night. I often have trouble sleeping." Jo nodded as if she already knew his sleeping habits.
"I'll leave you to get settled," she said. "If you need anything, I'm the second door on the left along the landing."
"Thank you. Good night"
Jo left the room, closing the door behind her. She went into her own bedroom and leant against the wall to catch her breath. Why was she being so stupid? It was only a dressing gown. It was just something to give her visitor so he wasn't cold in the night. If it upset her so much, she could have given him hers - but that would have been silly when Philip's was hanging in the wardrobe doing nothing. She didn't know why she kept it, she'd given away all his other clothes as soon as she'd been discharged from hospital. She couldn't bear to see them spilling out of the wardrobe, knowing he was never coming back to wear them again.
Stupid! She wiped the tears from her eyes before they ran down her cheeks leaving a bitter trail of cold. Why now? It was ten years ago the accident happened, ten years of change and growth. She had another life now, she was happy with her work and her animals and her writing. She was very lucky.
She took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. It must be the moon, making her so emotional. It would be good to spend time in the moonlight. She'd been so busy lately finishing the last draft of her book she'd not spent any quiet time in meditation. That was it; she'd wait until her visitor was asleep then go upstairs to her "inner sanctum".
CHAPTER TWO: Ghosts
Allan woke with a start. He was sure he heard a child laughing. It must have been a dream. Footsteps pattered across the ceiling overhead. There it was again - the infectious giggle of a small child. What was going on? There were no signs of anyone else in the house earlier on, no small coats or boots or toys anywhere. Perhaps they'd been asleep upstairs all the time. That must be it.
He turned over and closed his eyes, but now he was wide-awake. He heard the footsteps again, heavier this time, the floorboards creaking in protest above him. Perhaps he should go and ask them to be quiet. Tomorrow was a really important day for him. The culmination of ten years of intensive research would be unveiled to the medical world. He needed to be at his best.
Throwing back the covers, he found his shoes and drew on the borrowed dressing gown over his blue silk pyjamas. Whoever had it before must have been shorter than Allan, because it only came down to his knees, but it was warm enough.
He opened the bedroom door and searched for stairs leading up into the attic. They must be behind one of the doors. The first one he opened took him into another room. He made out an easy chair and what seemed to be a treatment couch over by the far wall. The next door was obviously her bedroom, but the bed had not been slept in. Another door yielded another bedroom, but no occupants. Then he caught sight of a small door seemingly part of the wooden panelling. If the moonlight hadn't caught the outline, he'd have walked straight past it.