tagRomanceThe Smallholder Pt. 01

The Smallholder Pt. 01

byAlwaysraining©

This is in three parts, posted on consecutive days. It's set in the hills of the Peak District of Northern England. All characters are fictional and are not based on any real living people. There is sex here and there, but it's not a stroke story. There is no actual sex in this part.

*****

ONE

January 2009

The Golden Labrador stood behind the man who was seated cross-legged on the floor of his living room before a small altar in one corner, upon which a candle was burning. The dog, technically a 'yellow' labrador, stood quite patiently, quite still, with his lead in his mouth.

At length the man uncurled himself, blew out the candle and stood, his broad, toned six feet two inches towering over the animal. The dog gazed up at him in adoration and wagged his tail.

"All right Bob," he said, "let's go."

His voice was deep, mellow and quiet, as was his whole demeanour, as he glided from the room to the hallway. It was only a few steps. He put on his scarf, Barbour Jacket, his Beanie Hat and his gloves, and picking up his torch went out into the dark, foggy winter's evening.

In fact, foggy is not an accurate description. In the hills of the Peak District of England, low cloud feels like fog, except for the wind and the fine rain battering the face. The man and the dog were used to that sort of weather. They were also used to the walk of a mile and three quarters to the village and its public house.

The cottage was in a valley between two hills, or rather ridges, and as such was usually protected from the worst of the gales that blew often at those higher levels. It lay at the end of a mile long cart track. From the house, the track ran straight for half a mile or so, then bent sharply to the left and then just as sharply to the right as it skirted a field, before running into a wooded area.

From the end of the wood it was a hundred metres to the minor road which led in one direction to the nearby town, and in the other, to the more local village and the pub. From the track's junction with the minor road it was a further three quarters of a mile to the village.

Except in the very worst weather, man and dog would walk to the pub a few evenings each week. Apart from Barry, his farmer neighbour, who visited him early each morning, and Church on Sunday, it was his only contact with other people in general to chat and exchange news.

Though he had a lead for the dog, he only used it when he arrived at the pub. The dog would run ahead, exploring and marking his route with a lift of the leg, returning often to the man. Once on the road the dog would walk carefully to heel, casting an occasional glance up at the face of his hero and leader of his pack (of two).

In the pub, Bob, with a wag of his tail, would be provided with a bowl of water, and would lie beneath or beside the man's seat by the fire, while he drank his beer and chatted with the landlord or his wife, and the other regular patrons before the walk home.

This evening however, as the man shut the cottage door, leaving it unlocked as always, the labrador stopped, sniffed the air, barked and took off at a gallop along the path in the opposite direction to the cart track they should have taken, disappearing into the pitch black of the foggy night.

The man sighed, and turned in the direction the dog had taken. His torch making little impression on the foggy rain which beat on his face, so he walked carefully on the uneven ground.

He had walked about fifty metres up the valley alongside the stream on the short sodden tussocky grass, when he heard Bob's bark again. It came from the right, and he obediently left the water's side and trudged in that direction up the beginnings of the slope. Another bark and he knew he was going in the right direction.

After a further fifty metres up the slope, a shadowy tableau emerged out of the cloud, picked out by his torch. A woman was sitting on the wet ground and sitting beside her, licking her hand, was Bob.

"Good dog," he said, and fussed the animal who wagged his tail vigorously, panting with his tongue hanging out.

He shone the torch on the woman, careful to avoid her eyes. She was shivering continuously and he recognised the early stages of hypothermia. She had a thick fleece and jeans both of which where completely soaked with the rain.

Ignoring the wet seeping from the grass into the knees of his chinos he knelt by the woman.

"My name is Joseph," he said gently. "I live near here. What's the problem?"

"T-t-turned my ankle," she stuttered through her shivering. "C-c-cold!"

He squatted on his heels and shone the torch on her foot. She was wearing trainers, footwear totally unsuitable for the conditions. He touched her foot which seemed to be a little swollen and she winced.

"My cottage is nearby," he said, "but you'll not walk that far. I'll carry you. Can you hold the torch and shine it in front of us?"

"Y-y-yes!"

He stripped off his Barbour, putting it on her, then his beanie, and gloves. He shivered briefly as the cold hit him, then handed her the torch. Then he lifted her effortlessly and she put an arm around his neck, shining the torch with the other. He could feel her shivering.

She was not heavy for him, long hours of manual work had made him strong, and they made their way back to the cottage, the wind now at his back, where he opened the latch with his elbow, the light from inside bursting out as he did so, so that they both blinked and squinted at the contrast. He carried her inside and placed her in an armchair by the log stove in the living room, moving the chair further away from the direct heat.

Bob followed them to the living room with a resigned air, tail down, having missed his walk, and lay down by the wood stove.

Between the humans no word had been spoken on the short journey back. His silence had a peaceful quality to it which she instinctively knew not to breach with unnecessary conversation. In any case she felt exhausted and immense relief, and felt it enough she had been carried to this warm place. She continued to shiver, her teeth chattering.

He knelt at her feet and untied her trainers, carefully removing them. He was gentle with her socks but she still moaned as he peeled the fabric from her injured foot. He glanced at her face and she smiled bravely at him. She was still shivering.

He left her there and returned shortly with a man's vest, teeshirt, briefs, shorts and thick socks, as well as two large towels.

"Can you undress and dress yourself?" he asked.

She nodded. He held his hands out to her, and she took them and stood, wincing as she inadvertently put weight on the injured limb.

He took the Barbour, Beanie and gloves from her.

"I'll leave you now," he said. "Take all your clothes off, towel yourself down thoroughly and put on these things. They'll be a bit big for you and not very feminine, but they're dry and warm. Leave the sock off your injured foot. Call me when you're finished or if you need help. I'll make you a drink."

He turned and left her, shutting the door behind him. Bob looked up at the door, then put his head on his paws again.

She wondered why she felt no worry that he might have designs on her and why she felt so secure with him.

She quickly stripped off her clothes, all of which were damp, even her bra and knickers. She towelled herself off and put on the oversized clothes. She immediately felt warmer and the shivering lessened.

She had time now to look around her, and take stock. Two armchairs, a circular dining table with four ladder-back chairs, a sideboard, and what looked like a small low altar in one corner, which seemed to feature some photographs in frames; she could not see clearly what else was upon it.

The place was spartan but very clean and tidy, and she was surprised how much at home and how comfortable she felt there. She felt better for being dry and tentatively put weight on her injured foot. There was immediate pain and though it felt better than before, she thought better of trying to walk on it. She called him.

He arrived, a crepe bandage in one hand and a mug of steaming tea in the other. He gave her the mug.

"It's tea and it's very sweet," he said. "You need warmth and energy inside you. The sugar will warm you from the inside. You are on the edge of hypothermia. Even if you hate the tea you should drink it."

She obediently began to sip the tea, while he knelt at her feet and applied the bandage quite firmly. It hurt.

He bundled up her clothes and took them away. The dog got up and followed him, perhaps wondering if it was time for his walk. Joseph checked her clothing to see if he could tumble dry it, and then set it to be washed. He noted she had been wearing a camisole vest, a thick shirt, a sweater and a fleece. There were jeans and long socks, though her bra and knickers were thin and lacy.

Joseph poured some soup into an earthenware bowl and cut some home made wholemeal bread, then returned to the room with a steaming bowl and a plate of bread.

"Some soup to warm you," he said. The dog followed him into the room, and came to her for some loving. She fondled and patted him. She realised if the dog had not scented her, she could well have died. Fortunately the wind was from her to the cottage that night, blowing down the valley.

Joseph put the soup on the table and she hopped to it and sat down.

"You are not eating?" she asked.

"I ate earlier," he said. That was all.

Then he spoke again, "You had no waterproofs?"

"When we were climbing I got hot and gave him my cagoule. Then we had a row and he went off with it in his rucksack."

Silence fell and she realised, looking round her, that there was no television or radio that she could see. There was no sound but the panting of the dog and the crackling of the logs in the stove.

She ate the soup, which was obviously made from vegetables and was delicious, and the bread more so, noticing that Joseph now moved her armchair nearer to the stove and was seated in the other armchair, and was reading from some sheaves of A4 paper.

She looked about her as she ate. She was nearer to the little altar and saw it contained a cross, a little statue of what seemed to be the Buddha, and the photographs. He was so obviously living alone that she wondered whose the photographs were, but she feared to break the silence which enveloped the place, so peaceful was it, nor did she feel comfortable looking too closely.

Angela Furness, for that was her name, was a city girl, living in a suburb of Manchester. She was twenty-five years old. She was Personal Assistant to the General Manager of a company that provided industrial cleaning materials and expertise, and was very good at her job, knowing nearly as much about the firm and its customers as her boss did.

Her flat could not have been more different from this house. It was plush, with central heating, thick fitted carpets and a king sized bed, leather sofa and a massive wall mounted Television. Either it or her radio was in constant use; the place was never quiet while she was at home. She had always thought she hated a silent flat, but now she wondered about this quiet man who seemed so much at ease with himself, and of so few words.

As she finished the soup, he was immediately by her side.

"More?" he asked.

"It was lovely," she said smiling up at him, "but with the wonderful bread, I'm feeling full and warm."

He smiled at this, and as she noticed his soft brown eyes looking down on her, she felt a tingle up and down her spine. She felt an urge to reach out and touch him, but felt unaccountably shy.

"You should be careful with that ankle for a few days. Have you got someone at home to look after you? Someone to come and pick you up; take you home?"

Her face hardened into an angry grimace.

"Not any more!" she retorted. "He left me behind. It was sunny when we started out this morning, then it got cloudy and you could see the clouds rolling in lower and lower. I got tired and the ground was rough. We had a row and he went off with my stuff in his rucksack. He shouted me to keep up. I said I couldn't and he said tough. He had the map and the compass. Then the fog came down and the rain started. I didn't know where I was going, and then I turned my ankle over."

Joseph did not comment, because there was nothing constructive he could say. What would be the point of saying she was ill-dressed for hiking in the Peaks in winter? She now knew that and she had a brush with death to prove it. A sturdy cagoule would have made a big difference; she would not have been so drenched by the rain, and as a result would have been warmer.

"What would you want to do now?" he asked. "If you want to be taken home, I could do that."

She spoke almost without thinking, "Could I stay here for the weekend? I mean if it's not too much trouble?"

She surprised herself with her boldness, but she felt totally safe with this quiet self-possessed man and his acceptance of her gave her confidence.

"Of course you can stay," he said, "but you may be bored. I haven't got a television. There is one wind-up radio if you would like it. There are books in the study. As I said, I have no phone and I'm afraid your mobile won't work; there's no signal between these two ridges, but you are welcome to my home. Is there anyone you need to tell where you are?"

"My parents don't know, but they wouldn't anyway: I only phone them now and again. Gerry is the only person who knows where he left me, but he did leave me out here. I don't really fancy telling him."

"If you put a text message on your phone, I will take it to a spot where I can send it."

"Let him worry." She was venomous.

"He might call out mountain rescue," Joseph offered. He left the implications for her to work out, "or you could tell some of your friends so they can let him know you're safe."

She thought and then took out her phone. Her fingers flashed over the keys, and then she gave the instrument to Joseph.

"I won't be long," he said, "Bob needs a walk. Explore the house if you wish, but hop, don't put too much weight on that ankle. May I know your name?"

She put a hand to her mouth in embarrassment, "How rude of me!" she exclaimed, "I'm Angela Furness."

"Well, Angela," he smiled, "you've not been in the best condition to remember such niceties!" and he laughed. It was a deep and musical noise and she loved it, laughing in her turn.

He put on his second coat, his Barbour being slightly wet inside as well as out, and Bob caught on immediately and with tail wagging furiously, brought the lead. The pair went as far as the road. The cloud had lifted and the moon shone down. When he saw he had a signal, he sent the text without reading it.

He took out his own phone and called the mountain rescue.

"Brendan, it's Joseph. If there's a call out for Angela Furness, she's with me. I found her, or rather Bob did. She was cold and wet and it could have been worse, but she's ok."

"Not the first one Bob's found, eh? Ok, thanks Joseph."

Then man and dog turned back for home.

----

TWO

Angela sat for a moment looking round the living room. Her gaze fall upon the little altar in the corner and after a moment's indecision, she hopped over to it, and knelt with some difficulty to look more closely. The little statue by the cross was indeed of the Buddha sitting in meditation.

The picture at the front to the left was of a really beautiful young woman and a pretty little child of perhaps three years old. The woman looked to be in her mid-twenties and was smiling happily. Behind it was a photo of a older couple, and she thought she could see a resemblance to Joseph. These two were smiling and seemed to be in love, though if pushed she could not have explained why she thought that. On the other side was a silhouette of a man. She wondered why there was no photo of him.

To the front, on the pristine white cloth, was a thick white candle on a saucer and on the floor to the right, a box of matches. Then she saw something else. Behind the candle lying one on top of the other, were two rings. They looked like wedding rings, and she wondered if they belonged to the older couple or someone else, perhaps the woman.

She looked at the array for a long time, before the ache in her ankle forced her to clamber clumsily to her feet, wincing at the pain as she put the injured foot down for a moment.

She felt curious, very curious. Joseph had said she could look round after all. So she hopped to the door and out into the hallway.

The hallway floor was of stone flags as was the living room. There was a coat stand, a carved oak settle which probably contained boots and gloves and the like under the seat, a tall grandfather clock methodically ticking away the seconds. It was the only clock in the house, she was to find out later. She did not remember it chiming.

There was a door opposite the living room, and this she opened, switching on the light. It was a study. What walls she could see were white and one wall had tall bookshelves from end to end on which were books on all sorts of topics, as well as the classic English authors. There was a large reclining armchair, with an integral footstool, which looked really comfortable, and at the window, which had the same thick curtains as in the living room, there was a large desk upon which was a laptop and a printer, and the usual array of writing materials, tidily arranged. An office chair was pulled up to it. The room was warm though the wood stove in the fireplace was not lit, and she noticed a large radiator on the wall behind the door, where there was also a large cupboard. She did not open it.

She switched off the light, left the room and turned down the hallway towards the back of the house, passing a staircase to an upper floor, which in her present state she did not want to climb. At the end of the hallway was a door facing her which looked newer than the others, though in the same style, and this she opened and stood amazed.

It was the kitchen. The room ran the whole width of the cottage and was clearly an add-on. It was huge and almost square. There was a large multi-fuel range cooker and oven; there were fitted cupboards and drawers all round, a washing machine and tumble drier, dishwasher, huge fridge, a chest freezer and a double sink under the large window. With all this, there was still room for a large oak kitchen table and six chairs with plenty of space all around.

Two long racks hung from the ceiling, one with herbs hanging from it, and the other with some clothes. Hers were in the tumble drier which had finished its work.

The room surprised her because it was in stark contrast with the rest of the cottage. She did not go in, but moved on to the room between the kitchen and the living room.

It was a bedroom.

Like the living room and hallway, the room was plain. No pictures on the walls, and all the walls painted flat white. The floor was of stone flags which like the study and the living room had a carpet square that that been cut from a bigger carpet. The king-size bed and bedroom furniture were simple and practical. Why Joseph would want a king-size bed crossed her mind; it seemed at odds with the rest of the furniture. There was a plain dressing table, a matching wardrobe and a wooden round-backed armchair. In one corner was a dog basket which was clearly Bob's bed. From the dressing table she learned it must be Joseph's bedroom. The bed she was sitting on must be Joseph's; she wondered if there was another bedroom up the stairs. The room was warm and there again was a large radiator.

She closed the door and hopped to the room opposite the bedroom. This was the bathroom and again she was surprised. The room was as large as the living room or the bedroom, with white tiles from floor to ceiling and with black glossy tiles on the floor. There was a large bath, large enough for two or even three, she thought with a grin, a toilet and bidet, and double wash bowls. There was a wet area the length of one wall with a shower. She used the toilet and washed her hands, turning out the lights and returning to the living room. On the way she saw a door between the living room and the bedroom, and opened it to see a narrow passageway leading to what seemed to be a large storeroom. She went no further but returned to the living room.

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