hollie hughes

I am a Children's Author based in Essex, England. This is a blog about my life and work but, more often than not, about anything and everything else that occurs to me! I sometimes publish short stories, flash fiction and poetry for adults here too . . .

Month: July, 2015

De-Cluttering

You might have guessed I’ve been having a bit of a writing de-clutter – hence the uncharacteristic flurry of blog posts today . . .  It’s basically all the stuff I will never sell (and ain’t gonna be winnin’ any prizes anytime soon!) but I would rather put it out there than just hit delete.  There’s a bit of a hotch potch of short stories, flash fiction, children’s stories etc. – though I think you can search by category.  If you are looking for stuff for children though, please be aware that some (most!) of my stories for adults are not suitable for children – you will definitely need to vet first! – I have put in ‘Children’s Stories’ and ‘Children’s Poems’ categories, to make it a bit easier . . .

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PETER DENTER – BOY INVENTOR

My name is Peter Denter –

Peter Denter is my name.

I’m a boy inventor,

and inventing is my game . . .

Today I’ll make a pirate ship –

I’ll build it big and strong.

I’ll have it done by breakfast time,

won’t take me very long.

Next I’ll build a steam train,

like those in days gone past.

I’ll look after it, and polish it –

and drive it really fast!

I think I’ll build a rocket ship,

and fly it to the moon.

All I need is glue and yogurt pots,

and I’ll be finished soon.

I’m going to build a toy machine –

to churn out cars and bikes.

Plus dinosaurs and wiggly worms

  • which everybody likes.

I must just build a tree house,

to play in when it rains.

I’ll have it done by lunchtime –

then I’ll start again!

After lunch I’ll build a robot –

a magnificent machine.

It’s moves will be amazing –

the best you’ve ever seen.

Next I’ll build a castle –

with wood, cement, and stone.

I’ll also need some sticky tape,

to make a lovely home.

I’m going to build an aeroplane,

and fly right through the clouds.

I’ll fly it to a far off land,

with only kids allowed.

I’ll fit it with a parachute,

so I can jump and glide.

I’ll fly right up a mountain top –

and jump off the other side!

Just one more job ‘til teatime

(you’ll find it works a treat).

A micro-monster-cooker-bomb –

to make nice things to eat!

Now tea is done, it’s time for bed

(even though I am not tired).

But Mum says I need a helper

and – I’m pleased to say – ‘You’re Hired!’

FURY IN THE FOREST

There’s a fury in the forest,

there’s a trembling in the trees.

There’s a shakin’ in the ground,

and a whispering in the leaves.

Stop! Listen!

What can you hear?

I don’t know what is coming

– but it’s coming very near!

I think I see its body,

glinting yellow through the trees.

It’s really getting closer now –

won’t someone help us please?

It’s chewing up the ground,

with great big scooping teeth.

It’s flattening down the undergrowth,

with huge black circle feet.

It’s tearing down our shelter,

smashing through our homes.

Shouting out strange noises,

creaking grunts and groans.

We need to run and hide now

– we’ve got to get away!

Don’t want to leave this place we love

– but really cannot stay!

We need to find a new home,

somewhere safe and sound.

Where the neighbours are more kindly

and there’s more space to go round.

Please do come and see us,

when we’re all settled down.

It’s nice to come and visit,

when you need a break from town.

Though don’t be long, lest we be gone

  • and nowhere to be found.

THE BLUE ZOO

At the blue zoo, everything is blue . . .

When stuck in the queue, the sky is blue.

Come rain, come shine, come snow, come hail,

There is only one colour – be it dark or pale.

Look down at your feet; you’ll see a blue street.

Blue bushes, blue trees, blue birds, blue bees.

Once inside, you’ll be surprised,

’cos what soon becomes evident, are the bright blue residents . . .

At the blue park, plays a blue aardvark.

In the blue shop, lurks a snappy blue croc.

And, not to be outdone by the blue alpaca – in his bright blue, sky blue, blue pacca-macca –

a blue mere cat, models a blue top hat.

A blue gnu sits on a blue loo.

Oh no!  Let’s hope he’s not doing a blue . . .

Watching a blue bear balancing on a blue chair,

a blue scaly snake takes a well-earned break.

Down at the blue pool, looking incredibly cool,

a slippery blue seal savours a fishy blue meal.

And a cerulean blue lion, incredibly strong,

strums a guitar to a blue, blue song.

Just joining in, there’s a hell of a din,

as a blue cockatoo makes a right blue hullaballoo.

At the end of the day, when it’s getting late,

a blue zoo keeper shuts the big blue gate.

There’s just one thing at the blue, blue zoo – only one thing that isn’t blue.

Look in the blue mirror; you’ll see it’s true, that one un-blue thing, in fact – is you!

Although . . . are you absolutely sure you aren’t blue too?

THE STAR DRAGON

Far out at sea, on a small stony outcrop of rock, there lived a very lonely – and very grumpy – dragon.  Each evening, as dusk settled, the dragon would leave the tiny island to stretch his wings and hunt for supper but always, by break of dawn, he would return to sit in silence once more and miserably keep watch over the endless sea and the huge waves smashing and crashing against his gloomy grey rock.

One day, when the sea was calm and the sun was high, the dragon was startled to see a small wooden coracle boat approaching the island.  As it drew closer, he was surprised to see that the tiny skipper on board was actually a very young boy.  The dragon stared hard at the boy, expecting him to paddle away as fast as his little arms would take him once he saw that the island was already inhabited by such a fearsome beast.  But the boy did not paddle away at all – in fact, he seemed even more determined to reach the island once he saw that the dragon was there.

The dragon was angry.  ‘How dare you come to this island!’ he roared.  ‘Is it not enough that all of the other dragons have long since left this world?  I am the last of my kind – leave me alone to see out the rest of my days in peace.’

‘You are not the last of your kind,’ replied the boy calmly.  ‘You may be sad, and you certainly must be very lonely – all by yourself out at sea on this rock – but you are mistaken if you think that you are the last of your kind.  And – if you will help me – I will prove it to you.’

‘Help you?’ snorted the dragon.  ‘Why would I help a weedy little babe like you?  You know nothing of my kind if you think I would help you.  You are nothing but a puny weakling human child’

The boy did not reply to the dragon.  Instead he very deliberately closed his eyes and then, very slowly, opened them again.  As the boy’s eyes opened, a bright light shone out from them and bathed the dragon all over in a shimmering, luminous glow.  All at once the dragon realised his mistake.  This was not a human child at all – this was a star child, with all the love and might of the infinite universe pouring out through his eyes.  The dragon was humbled, and felt that he would travel the entire length and breadth of all the heavens if it meant that he might give some little help to the star child when needed.

The star child climbed onto the dragon’s back and gently guided him all the way to where help was needed right at the other edge of the world.  In a dark and dingy cave in a faraway land, a magnificent dragon queen had been kept prisoner for many thousands of years.   Her human captors believed that she was the last of her kind and, for a fee, they allowed visitors to view her through a tiny crack in the wall of the cave.  When the humans saw the huge and mighty dragon arrive with the star child on his back, they were frightened.  The star child told the humans that the dragon was a mighty dragon king, and that he had come to beg the dragon queen to share his throne.  He told them that the dragon king had a mighty army of warrior dragons behind him, who would come to rescue their future queen if the humans would not let her go willingly.  The humans had no wish to stand up to even one angry dragon – let alone an entire dragon army – so they quickly agreed to release their captive, in the hope that the mighty dragon king would yet prove to be merciful upon them.

When the dragon queen was released, she was grateful to both the star child and to the dragon.  ‘I can never thank you enough,’ she said.  ‘For rescuing me.’

The dragon did not answer at once (being already awestruck with love for the magnificent dragon queen) but, when he finally did find himself able to speak, he said: ‘It is I who should be grateful to you, and it is you who have rescued me.  I thought I was alone and last, but now I know that I was not last but only lost.  I was lost, but now I am found.’

The dragon and his queen at once joined wings, and flew together all the way across the oceans until they finally came to rest at the tiny rock of an island where the dragon had lived alone so miserably for all those years.  There they did indeed live happily ever after as king and queen of their very own small and stony realm – but this is not yet quite where the story ends . . .

One quiet day, some many years later -when the sea was once again calm and the sun high in the sky – the star child returned once more.  This time though, he did not come empty handed.  He brought with him an egg – an egg that the dragons were to watch over very carefully indeed.  As carefully even as if it contained their very own baby dragon . . .

And it did!  One hundred years later, the egg slowly creaked open and out from it emerged a perfectly handsome tiny baby dragon.  It is a well-known fact, of course, that a baby dragon is a very special type of beast indeed – and this is even truer for dragon parents who had thought that they were the very last of their kind in the entire world.  However, there was something even more amazing about this particular dragon baby – for, when the baby opened its eyes for the first time, they shone with the exact same glow of love and might that had shimmered from the star child’s eyes all those years ago.  Though the dragons would never again come to see the star child after the day he brought them their egg, still they would remember to think of him with gratitude each and every day – each and every time that they gazed adoringly into their own dearest star dragon’s eyes.

DUCK AND GOOSE BREAK THEIR TRUCE

Duck lived at the edge of the pond – Goose lived on the island in the middle.  That was the way it had always been for as long as either one of them could ever remember.  Or rather, that was the way it had always been for as long as either one of them ever cared to remember – which is not really the same thing at all.

Of course, it hadn’t always been that way.  A long time ago, when they were both very young fowl, they had gladly sailed round the pond together – each perfectly content to be in the happy company of the other.

‘Come share my bread!’ said Duck, when the children came to the pond in droves, trailing long lines of stale crumbs in their wake.

‘Help yourself to all the twigs and sticks from my island you can carry!’ said Goose, when their nests were due a re-build.

As the warm and balmy days of summer began to give way to the sharper breezes and crisp mornings of autumn though, their friendship began to cool also.  The children with their bread and stale cakes were fewer and further between now, and Duck began to think that Goose was taking more than her fair share of the food that was on offer.  Goose, for her part, thought that Duck was just being mean – anyone could see that she, Goose, was twice as big as Duck and therefore needed twice as much food.  But the children came to feed ‘the ducks’, not the geese – so Goose just had to bite her beak and put up with it.  Until, that was, along came the day when Goose could bite her beak no longer.

‘Just who do you think you are, Duck?  That bread is as much mine as yours!’ she squawked.

‘Oh really?’ Duck snapped back.  ‘Why do you think it is that the children come to feed the ducks at the duck pond then?’

‘Well, if that’s the way you feel, why don’t you just stay away from Goose Island from now on then?’ cried a now distraught Goose.

‘Goose Island!  I never heard such nonsense!’ exclaimed Duck.  ‘But, Goosy Dear, if you’re prepared to keep over there and stay away from my bread, then you’re very welcome to it!’

And that was the start of the uneasy truce.  From that day forth, Duck kept to the edge of the pond and Goose kept to the island in the centre – each going to extraordinary lengths to avoid even so much as having to look at the other.

Much, much later – when along came fluffy duckling and sleek gosling – still they kept to the hasty pact made many seasons ago.

‘Stay away from those greedy geese,’ quacked Duck to Duckling.  ‘They’ll steal your bread as soon as look at you!’

‘Stay away from those pesky ducks,’ clucked Goose to Gosling.  ‘They think they’re so much better than us with their hoity toity ways.’

Just like little anythings though, little ducklings and little goslings won’t be told.  Each curious about the other, they began to cautiously circle the middle water – the no-fowl’s lake exactly halfway between the central island and the shore.  Until, over many tentative days, they slowly but surely became friends – and, slowly but surely, they began to hatch a plan.  It was soon agreed that, in the dead of night, with only the moon for company, one very brave little Duckling and one very brave little Gosling would each creep from his own nest and take to the water with a gentle plop – each to be fast asleep in the other one’s nest by daybreak . . .

‘QUAACK!’ howled Duck in surprise the next morning, when she saw that Gosling was fast asleep in Duckling’s place ‘Just you wait ‘til I catch that naughty Duckling!’

‘SQUAAWK!’ shouted Goose in shock, when she found that Duckling was fast asleep in Gosling’s place.  ‘You just wait ‘til I catch that cheeky Gosling!’

As Duck gathered up cheeky Gosling, Goose scooped up naughty Duckling – and, hot under the feather, frothing at the beak, they each pushed angrily through the water to confront the little birds and each other.

‘DUCKLING – you naughty little duck!  YOU’RE NESTED!’ hollered Duck, as soon as she spotted him from across the pond.

‘Now, just you hold on a minute, Duck’ Goose spat back.  ‘I’m dealing with this, and I say this is entirely cheeky Gosling’s fault.  If anyone’s getting nested, it should be him, and I’m the bird to do it!’

‘Well that’s where you’re wrong Goosy dear.  This is just the sort of behaviour I would expect from one of your kind – Gosling can’t be blamed for that.  Duckling, on the other hand, has been brought up to know better – and must be the one to be nested RIGHT NOW!’ yelled a now furious Duck.

‘There!’ crowed Goose triumphantly to Gosling. ‘Haven’t I always told you about these ducks and their hoity toity ways?  Well, now you’ve seen it for yourself!’

Then, with a tut and a cluck and a muttering flurry of feathers, Goose and Gosling returned to Goose Island – and Duck and Duckling made their way back to their own nest at the edge of the pond.

When the moon rose again that night though, a rather unwelcome visitor arrived at the pond alongside it – sneaky, sly Fox!  With a flash and a howl, and a frightened commotion of fur and feathers, Duck and Duckling swam straight over to Goose Island without a second’s thought.

So, what was Goose to do now?  Well, even a very disgruntled goose will tell you that, if there’s one thing worse than a hoity toity duck, it’s a sneaky, silent, sly and deadly fox for sure!

Between them, they soon came to realise that there was actually plenty of space on Goose Island for two nests after all.  Then, when the sun rose again the next morning – and sneaky, sly old foxy had slunk on back to his lair – all four of them took to the pond together, sailing through the middle waters, to play and wait for the parents and children at the edge.  What is more – once they had begun to share the stale bread and cakes more freely, they found that there was more than enough food to go round as well.  Duck and Goose were friends again, and Duckling and Gosling were the happiest of playmates.

And Fox?  Well, let’s just say that old Foxy had to look elsewhere for his dinner after that.  After all, we don’t want to spoil a happy ending now, do we?

THE SWIMMING TIGER

First it was just a rumour, a whispered murmuring amongst the adult townsfolk.

‘Keep your children in after dark,’ they said, ‘there’s a tiger been coming down from the mountains.’

Soon enough though, the rumours turned to sightings – and the hushed murmurs began to turn to something more like a frightened kind of determination.

‘We need to do something,’ they said.  ‘After all, tigers are known to hunt humans.’

Sonam was not frightened – he was curious.  He knew that tigers lived in the forested foothills at the base of the mountains (and some were thought to live even in the highest peaks, where no humans would ever go) but he had never seen one for himself.  Once, when he’d been out collecting fire wood in the forest, he’d caught a flash of fur in the distance he was sure was a tiger – but later wondered if it was just his mind and imagination playing tricks on him.

So it wasn’t too long before Sonam decided to keep watch and see for himself.  He waited until his parents and Jamyang were fast asleep, and snoring softly in their beds, and then he slowly crept outside and climbed carefully up to the roof of the house.  Sonam did not see the tiger that first night, but dozed gently under the stars and dreamt of proud and fearsome mountain beasts prowling through the dark and silent streets in the dead of night.  At first light, Sonam returned to his bed long before the rest of the family began to stir.  Undeterred by lack of success on that first night, his resolve to glimpse the tiger was only strengthened – the prize of catching sight of him even more worth the waiting for in the end.

On the second night, Sonam heard a quiet growl and a slow padding of feet into the distance as he awoke at dawn, and he knew it would not be long now before the tiger revealed himself.

Sure enough, on the third night his patience was to be rewarded.  Sonam felt the tiger before he saw him – a slight shiver ran through his body, the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood up to attention and he knew then that the tiger was near.  He was right because, just as Sonam pulled himself up into a crouched position to get a better view, the magnificent tiger emerged – nose to the air and whiskers raised to the moonlight – as he slowly padded out from the alleyway across the street.

Sonam did not have time to even think of the consequences as he quickly and silently climbed down from the roof and began to follow the tiger.  The tiger prowled on through the dark streets, all the while sniffing at the air and seeming to search for something in the shadows.

‘What can he be looking for?’ Sonam wondered. ‘It can’t be humans he’s searching for, or he would surely catch scent of me.’

On padded the tiger – past the school and the temple, past the playground and the newly built swimming pool – on and on he stalked until he had all but completed a full circuit of the town.  Eventually he uttered a long, low growl – which sounded more like a sigh to Sonam than anything else – and slowly padded back towards the alleyway and the forest.  The young boy cautiously followed behind him at a distance, and once again made his way back to bed before the rest of his family awoke.

The next day Sonam was even more curious than ever – now it was not enough that he had seen the tiger for himself, now he felt he must discover the tiger’s secret and what it was he was searching for.  That night he once again crept to the roof of the house, but did not follow the tiger around the town this time.  As soon as the tiger emerged from the alleyway and began his lonely route, Sonam climbed quickly down from the roof and ran quietly to the other end of the alleyway – where he hid himself in the undergrowth and waited for the tiger to return.

It seemed like an eternity had passed before he eventually heard the sound of the tiger’s feet padding slowly back down the alleyway, and again that strange sigh of a growl under the tiger’s breath.  Heart in mouth, Sonam followed the tiger back towards the mountains – keeping his distance for now, but knowing he would have to get close if he were not to lose him once he got back within the thick trees and tightly packed vegetation of the forest.

Once inside the forest, Sonam kept close – hoping that the tiger’s own rustling as he moved fast and strong through the undergrowth would drown out any sounds that he, Sonam, might make.  Suddenly the tiger stopped dead, bent his head to the ground – and, once again, uttered that strange sound that was more like a sigh than a growl.  Behind the tiger, Sonam froze – he knew that any move now would surely alert the tiger to his presence, but he also knew that the tiger must be able to hear the thump, thump, thump of his rapidly beating heart by now if he stood still where he was.

Slowly the tiger lifted and turned his head but, when his yellow eyes flashed towards the frightened boy, it was sadness they were filled with – not anger.  Sonam looked beyond the tiger now, and saw for the first time the dip in the forest floor, the dip that would once more be filled with water when the rains came – but, for now, was dry and empty.  Finally then, Sonam understood.

Sonam ran all the way back to town, without stopping to catch his breath even once.  He knew you should never run from a tiger, but he also knew the tiger would not chase him – for it was not humans this tiger was hunting.  As Sonam came to the end of the alleyway, he realised abruptly that the entire town was not only awake but in chaos – and it did not take long to find out that he himself was the cause.

‘Sonam! Sonam!’ the townsfolk called.  ‘Where are you Sonam?’

Sonam knew that he would now be in terrible trouble with his father, but he also knew what he had to do next.  Quickly he climbed to the top of the old statue in the centre of the square, and called the townsfolk to attention.

Silently and disbelievingly the townsfolk listened to Sonam’s story – and to what he now asked of them to do.  When he had finished, there was outcry.

‘Have you lost your mind?’ they cried. ‘You want us to do what?’

And then angrily: ‘We say you lead us to the tiger right now, and let us shoot him.  That will solve the problem once and for all!’

Eventually, when the angry shouts finally gave way to more stifled mutterings, a lone voice quietly spoke out from the back of the crowd:

‘Maybe we should just give the boy’s idea a chance.  After all, what have we got to lose?  We can all stay safely locked in our houses tonight just as we have been doing, and then tomorrow we shall see if he is right.’

The lone voice was that of Sonam’s father.  Sonam breathed a sigh of relief – he knew he would still have much explaining to do later, but he also knew that the townsfolk would listen to his father and might just agree to give his plan a try.

So it was that, on the fifth night, Sonam once more waited on the roof of the house for the tiger.  This time though, he did not wait alone – his father was there waiting for the tiger also.  Once more the tiger came, and the two of them carefully climbed down from the roof and crept after him as he padded through the town.

Just as before the tiger padded past the school and the temple and the playground but, this time, when the tiger came to the doorway of the swimming pool he stopped, raised his whiskers to the moonlight – and sniffed the air.  This time something was different – this night, the gate to the swimming pool had been left unlocked and open.

The tiger padded cautiously through the open doorway towards the pool itself, and Sonam and his father crept closely behind.  At the water’s edge, the tiger slowly lowered his head to the water and sniffed. Almost at once, with an earth shattering roar, the mighty tiger threw back his head, sprung up onto his hind legs, leapt into the air – and dived down into the pool with such strength and grace that Sonam and his father wondered if they would ever see anything so amazingly magnificent again.

Awestruck, they sat silently and watched as the tiger swam up and down in the light of the moon – gliding sleekly through the water, with no more than the occasional top level ripple, as he switched between cruising the surface and diving deep into the furthest reaches of the pool.

Eventually, in a moment that seemed to stand still forever, the tiger emerged from the pool.  Water dripping from his sleek fur, he shook himself dry.  He turned then towards the boy and his father hiding in the shadows, as if he knew they had been there all along, and it seemed to Sonam now that the tiger’s yellow eyes were no longer filled with sadness – but with gratitude.

That was not the only thing though – as the tiger slowly padded out through the doorway to make his way back to the forest once more, Sonam could have sworn that the low growl the tiger uttered under his breath this time was almost certainly not a growl at all but was, in fact, a purr.

SPACE WATER

The pockmarked earth is burnt red and blistered; sucked dry and scarred by the parched air.  It is a landscape that seems alien to me – extra-terrestrial in a way in which Spain and Portugal on our annual two weeks away have never been.  Thank god for air con. I force myself to keep staring straight ahead; I am determined not to look at John, who is hunched close over the steering wheel beside me.

‘Look out for signs, will you?’ he snaps irritably.

‘I’d be surprised if it’s signposted,’ I counter.  ‘There haven’t been any signs since Goldfield.’

‘Well look out for some kind of caravan park then.’

‘I think they call them trailer parks over here.’

He snorts at this, but does not talk to me again – so I have that to be grateful for at least.

I catch sight of it then, the trailer park – about a mile ahead on the left.  I do not point it out to John though; surely he will notice.

As we start to draw level with the trailers and cabins, John screeches into a dirt track that’s invisible to us – almost right up until the point at which we are upon it.

‘Christ, I nearly missed it!’ he snaps.  ‘I told you to look out for it.’

I do not rise to the bait.  I do not want to arrive at his brother’s trailer in the midst of a domestic.  I can foresee Charlie’s slightly bemused – and ever so slightly amused – expression, even just contemplating the thought of it.  I know there will be a hint of ill-disguised sympathy there as well, and that I will be able to bear that least of all.

The little reception hut is empty.  There is a bell on the desk, and we press it expectantly – though we cannot see any doorway other than the one through which we have just entered.

‘Do you have a pitch number?’ I ask John hesitantly.

‘Oh yes,’ his response is sarcastic.  ‘Because I visit him all the time, don’t I?’

‘I just meant – you know – for correspondence?’

He shakes his head, and bangs his hand down hard on the bell once more.  Decades of long neglected dust rise – and fall – in response to this sudden expression of anxiety.  I realise then that John is nervous too.

I open my mouth as if to speak, but then close it again as the door creaks open.

The man is huge – he is probably the fattest man I have ever seen.  He does not have a greedy face though; he has a kindly face.  I imagine that he is fat because he is as generous to himself as he is to others.

‘Hey!’ his tone is welcoming, as he addresses John.  ‘You must be Charlie’s brother – he said you were coming.’  He extends his hand to John – who seems momentarily confused, but then redeems himself just before it is too late by reciprocating.

The man turns to me.  ‘And you must be John’s beautiful wife – very pleased to meet you.’  Having first had time to compose myself, I am quicker than John to offer him my own hand.

‘We didn’t know where to go – for Charlie,’ I explain.

‘Oh, I’ll show you.  He’s gone for a hike – didn’t know what time you’d get here.  But he said to go on in and make yourselves at home.’

There are some old camp chairs outside Charlie’s trailer, and John positions them right up against the side wall, in the full exposure of the afternoon sun.  It feels like a long hot death, by radiation firing squad, to me – and I am struggling to breathe; suffocating in the heat.

‘I’m going inside for a bit,’ I say – more to myself than to John.  ‘It’s too hot for me.’

‘What’s the point in coming, if you’re going to spend the whole time moaning about the bloody weather?’ he complains – but he follows me inside the trailer anyway.

‘It’s just like him,’ he grumbles.  ‘Just like Charlie to leave it all unlocked like this.’

‘He did know we were coming . . .’ my voice trails off.

There is a small table and chairs to one side of the little kitchenette, so I position myself there.  It feels somehow more appropriate than slumping down on the sofa bed by the TV.

It seems to me that John and I are like giants in this trailer, we are too big for it; we don’t fit.  We bend awkwardly round its tight corners and enclosed spaces, just as we bend awkwardly and edge round one another.

‘Oh, this is ridiculous!’ John is losing whatever patience he had left.  ‘I’m going to look for him.’

I half-heartedly try to reason with him; I tell him that he will get lost, that his chances of coming across Charlie in that huge expanse of heat are a million to one.  But he says that he is not prepared to waste any more of the day just sitting around here waiting for his brother to take it upon himself to come back.

Now that he has gone, I feel relieved – lighter and freer somehow.  A ligthter, freeer somehonw.s the door slams shut, even as its echoes reverberate through me; I have a sense of anxiety discharging.  I look around and begin to take in the trailer properly for the first time.  Charlie has not made much effort to make it homely – it is functional, utilitarian.  The only ‘extras’ are those preinstalled by the manufacturers to sell a lifestyle.  I do not think that the lifestyle Charlie has bought is the one that the manufacturers had in mind.  He is looking after the trailer though; it is well maintained and clean.

I am tempted to look through his things; I wonder what memories he stores in the little nooks and crannies of this impermanent existence.  I stand, and then twist above myself to see what is in the cupboard over my head.  It seems empty at first, but then I can feel a small piece of bony material nudged into one corner; it is the unmistakable shape of a bra.  I pull it out of the cupboard to get a better look.  I does not look cheap and nasty, like I have imagined the women Charlie must occasionally bring back here to be – it looks expensive, like something Elaine might wear.  I cannot resist the allure of its scent.  I raise it to my face and breathe in – tentative at first, but then inhaling deeply: Chanel No. 5.

‘It’s what Marilyn Monroe wore.’  I can hear Elaine’s voice filtered through the years, still smooth though, still poised.  I know that Charlie loved her; that she loved him.  I wonder what went wrong for them.  If I’d had to put money on which of us would go the distance, surely Charlie and Elaine would have got better odds than John and I.  Probably they still would.

The bra has made me feel self-conscious now and, deterred from any further snooping – at least for the time being – I hastily shove it back into its cubby hole, back for Charlie to continue forgetting about.  I cannot help but wonder if he ever takes it out and examines it though – not as I have done today, but with something more like sentimentality as his motivation.  I momentarily try to conjure an image of Charlie emotionally crippled; wrestling with a sense of nostalgic regret – but it is not an easy fit.  It is more like something I would do than something Charlie would do.

I do not want to think about this anymore, so I cross quickly to the little kitchenette area and fill the kettle with water, though god only knows who would drink tea in this heat.  I hear the door handle turn behind me, but keep staring straight ahead out of the window in front of me.  I am not ready to turn and face Charlie yet.  I don’t know how I know that it is Charlie and not John; it is probably something to do with the racing in my chest and the rushing hum thudding just behind my ears.

Charlie comes up behind me, places his fingertips on either side of my waist, just at the top of my hip bones.  His touch is slight, I can barely feel it.  For a moment I think that I will be unable to stop myself from leaning back against him.

‘Will you spend the night with me Liz, if I come home for Christmas this year?’

I cannot stop the sharp little involuntary inhalation of breath in time, and Charlie chuckles.  He lifts my hair, and lightly brushes the nape of my neck with a kiss.  His chuckle has broken the spell already though, and I find that I am able to turn to face him after all.  I do not need to twist out of his arms; he relinquishes his hold on me effortlessly.  This is how everything always is with Charlie; effortless.  I do not have time to appraise the passing of time on his face before I respond – that will come later.

‘Lizzie . . . it’s been too long . . . ‘

‘Twenty-three years.’

‘Is it?  Is it really that long?’

I nod.  ‘John has gone to look for you.’  I think that this is probably obvious to him, but I am taking a pre-emptive strike against any gaps in conversation before they occur.  I want to keep this light.

This time, Charlie nods.  ‘I know,’ he says.  He says it with a smile, so I don’t push it.

The kettle is steaming and, as we turn to it in unison, it clicks off.

‘Not making tea, are you Liz?’

‘No – no, I don’t think so.’

We both laugh then, any tension diffused.

‘Let’s see what’s in the fridge,’ he opens the door.  ‘Coke?  OJ?’

‘What’s that in the bottle?’ I say.  It looks like spring water.

‘Oh that,’ Charlie takes the bottle from the fridge, slowly tips it upside down and then upright again.  ‘That’s space water.’

‘From the missions?  You’ve kept it all this time?’

He shrugs, and takes down two wine glasses from a cupboard above the cooker.  ‘I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.’

I eye the bottle – somewhat apprehensively now.  ‘Should we wait for John?’

‘No, I think this is it,’ Charlie smiles.  ‘Shall we step outside?  It’s cooling a little now.’

I follow him outside, and we sit on the chairs John positioned earlier.

‘Sorry Liz, would you prefer to sit in the shade?’

‘No, it’s fine.’  I like it that he remembers I don’t like the sun, but still I want him to see that I have changed.  I am not the person I used to be.

He opens the bottle, and pours us each a glass.  I don’t know why, but I expect it to fizz – of course, it doesn’t.  Charlie hands me my drink, and I realise that I am suddenly thirsty.  I take a large gulp; it tastes slightly bitter – like vitamins.  I down nearly the whole glass – it’s been at least four hours since I last had a drink.

Charlie sips his.  ‘Still tastes like shit,’ he smiles.

‘What was it like?’ I ask him.  I have wanted to ask him for years.

He shakes his head.  ‘Most of the time, not as exciting as I thought it would be.  The rest of the time, just like you’d expect; like nothing on earth.’

‘Did you ever think about home while . . . you know, while you were ‘up there’, looking down on us?’

‘Did I think about you Liz, you mean?’  He doesn’t wait for my answer.  ‘Yes,’ he says.  ‘All the time.’

I can feel the space water gurgling inside my stomach, I am sure it has started to fizz now.

At last Charlie comes to it. ‘Was she in a lot of pain Liz?’

‘No, not in the end.’

‘I should have been there.’

‘I think . . . I think maybe she thought you were.’  As I say it, I realise it may even be true – certainly it could have been true.  ‘She said ‘my boys’ . . . she definitely said ‘boys’ – you know, in the plural.’

He nods, not entirely convinced, but he doesn’t pursue it further.  He still trusts my judgement, I think – and I feel a stab of guilt when I recall John’s characteristic bitterness on her passing, though on whose account I cannot say.

I had been driving back from the hospital, John shielding his grief with anger in the car beside me.

‘I can’t believe she asked for him,’ he’d suddenly blurted.  ‘After all these years – did you hear her?  Over twenty years since he left, and still she looked for him – ‘my boy?’ she said, didn’t she? – looked straight past me, only looking for him, wasn’t she?’

Charlie is waiting.

‘I feel a bit funny,’ I slur; my lips slow to form the words.

He is at once attentive.  ‘I knew I should have got you in the shade. Are you ok?’

‘Just a little faint . . .’ and it is true.  My fingertips are numb and tingling.  Sweat is cooling on my forehead.  I can feel myself teetering on the edge of control now, in a moment I know that I will be slipping down from the camp chair onto the hot dust below – and all semblance of dignity will be lost.

‘Come on Lizzie, let’s get you inside.  .  .’ he lifts me up, and leads my weight back inside the trailer – through the open plan living space and the partition doors at the back – into the bedroom.

Charlie’s bed is unmade but I do not care, the scent of Charlie on the unwashed sheets is strangely comforting to me; like home.  And then the sense of home turns at once to a sense of homesickness; a feeling of displacement.  I am vaguely aware of Charlie leaving, and then returning again.  He presses something cold against my cheek.

‘Coke,’ he explains.  ‘Try it, maybe you need a sugar fix.’

I sit up, accept the open can he is proffering and take a sip – then another one.  I lie back down, but he is right – the sugar is working its magic.

Charlie is stroking my hair, and cheek now; his hand slightly rough and smelling of sun.  I smile into his palm, and murmur that I’m feeling a little better.

‘How are the kids?’ I say.

‘They’re doing good Liz, real good – both high fliers now, in marketing – you know?’

I notice for the first time the slight American accent Charlie has picked up; I wonder if he’s aware of it.

‘And Elaine?’ I ask.  ‘Do you ever see her?’

‘She’s remarried – has been for . . . what? . . . at least ten years now.  She comes to see me here sometimes.  Says it helps to clear her head, escape from reality for a bit.’

‘Seems a strange way to clear your head though, Charlie – with your ex-husband.’  I realise I sound like a bitch, but I don’t care; I can’t stop thinking about that bra.

‘I wasn’t the best husband in the world Liz – back then.’   It is an explanation of sorts; though I don’t really understand of what.

I experience his words with something like a kind of excluded jealousy.  I sit up to face him; forcing eye contact; suddenly brazen in my desperation to recapture an earlier – now lost, it seems – connection.  Charlie doesn’t flinch or laugh; he just looks straight back at me.  The only other people I have ever stared at this intently before have been the children.  I have never been this intimate with John.  Charlie lifts his hands and cups my face; it is like something from one of those films, only it is happening to me – in real life.  I did not think this was something that would ever happen to me.  For a moment, I think that he will kiss me and that it will be awkward – and also slightly ridiculous – but he does not, so there is no embarrassment there.  We continue staring like this, and I do not see the face of my husband’s brother or a fifty-something ex-astronaut in front of me – I see the face of the kindest man I have ever known.  It does not surprise me then that John chooses this exact moment to crash his way back into Charlie’s trailer.

‘In here John,’ Charlie calls.  He does not let go of me though – I suppose he must have nothing to hide.  I, on the other hand, most certainly do have something to hide – but I do not fear John’s reaction.

‘Liz wasn’t feeling too good,’ Charlie offers, by way of explanation.

‘Never could take the heat,’ John is carrying the half empty space water bottle.  ‘Christ it is hot though – is this yours?’

Charlie shrugs.  ‘Sure John, help yourself.  It’s good to see you.’

John nods, and takes a large swig from the bottle.  ‘God, that’s awful,’ he says – but he finishes it anyway.  Charlie and I exchange a glance.  Muggy and oppressive, the air in the trailer is thick with an adulterous charge.  Charlie – reluctantly it seems to me – gets up and crosses to John.  It is an awkward hug that John breaks first.

‘Give us a shout if you need anything, won’t you Liz?’  There is a remnant of concern in Charlie’s voice, but still he places a hand on John’s shoulder and steers him away and out of the bedroom anyway.

Once they are gone I lie back down, curling up into a foetal position – and allow myself to reabsorb the scent of Charlie.  I hug what has just happened into me, cradling the gurgling space water in my tummy.  This is a better secret than sex I think, better than if we’d fucked.

Later John will tell me what he and Charlie discussed outside, what they have agreed about the house and the ashes and the assets.  Of course Charlie will relinquish his share to John, just as he has always done.  He will give all he has in his power to give to John, just as he has given all he has in his power to give to me.  It is his way.

LACQUERED SHELL

In spite of everything we have ever read or been told to the contrary, we always think we will get some warning of the things that will ultimately destroy us – ‘fair’ warning.  The concept of justice is so interwoven within our collective consciousness that we feel it is our right to be given some kind of heads up on impending doom – the tight little lump in the right breast, the occasional breathlessness on the stairs, the furtiveness of our husband as he checks his phone – the universe owes us that much at least.  Even the greatest natural disasters we encounter often come with at least a small dose of prediction.  We do not see that our search for pattern and symmetry is nothing more or less than a human construct – we find it because we look for it, because we are predisposed to discover it.  In truth, just like the universe itself, we are each of us gradually descending into a state of chaotic entropy – it is only after complete annihilation that any certainty might finally be found within consistency.

I have been privileged in my life, I know that.  I was born on a Monday and, true to form, have been blessed with a fair face.  People often think that those of us who happen to be beautiful are also bound to be self-centred and egotistical.  The reality is though that we don’t need to be.  People are kinder to us because of our beauty and, because of this, it is easier for us to be kind in return.  We go about our business expecting people to be accommodating towards us and, because we expect them to be, they are.  In childhood we are given preference over our peers, but our peers do not resent us for it – it simply reinforces their belief in their own inferiority, and increases still further their desire for us to like and approve of them.

As a child, adults spoke to me about what I might like to be when I grew up, of course – certainly my parents would have supported any career choices I might have made.  Nobody would have told me I couldn’t be an actress or a model or an artist if that was what I wanted to be.  But I always understood that any career I might choose would be strictly optional – I would, after all, be bound to find myself married to a suitably attractive, wealthy and intelligent man of my choosing within a few years of finishing uni anyway.  This was the future that was foreseen for me, and I saw no reason to question it.  It was a relief to me, if I’m honest.  What girl wouldn’t want the fairy tale, if she could have it?  Surely careers were just something you only did until you had children anyway – why invest time and effort in something that was only ever going to be temporary?

A nursing degree was the obvious choice for a nice, kind, girl such as me.  Predictably, it was this that led me to Justin.  Or, more accurately, led Justin to me.  And aren’t all young attractive junior doctors looking for a girl like me anyway?  They certainly aren’t looking for a slightly plump girl with bad teeth, and acne – that’s for sure.  Within three years we were married and, within another three, our family was completed with two almost perfect children – Hannah and Joseph.  All thoughts of nursing were now quickly abandoned, and I was happy to play the part of doctor’s wife and full time mother.  I did not – unlike so many other women I have known – ‘let myself go’ at this point.  I am a firm believer in the mantra that one must first look after oneself before one can even begin to look after others.

Hannah is seventeen, and Joseph fourteen, now.  In all those years, I did not go more than three days without a gym visit.  I have followed a strict routine of full highlights plus cut-and-blow-dry every six weeks, and a weekly visit to the day spa has allowed for a synchronised programme of manicures/pedicures, facials, waxing and full body exfoliating scrubs.  Just like so many of my contemporaries, I have had a boob job (uplift only, you understand), and periodically visit my cosmetic consultant for Botox and collagen fillers.  I have a housekeeper/cleaner contracted for mornings only and, whilst she is there, I usually concentrate on catching up with my shopping and errands.  Justin has never shown much interest in my purchases, so I have been free to spend his salary as I see fit.

When the children were younger, I used to volunteer a little time listening to other children read in the school.  I saw no reason to continue with this pattern once they were both established in secondary school though – since I only ever really did it because Hannah begged me to come in; ‘just like the other mummies do, mummy.’  I did not get any sense of achievement from this; there was no warm inner glow for me to be gained from this small amount of work.  I saw it purely and simply as just another function of my role of mother, of the persona I was creating around myself.  I have not experienced any urge to take on any other kind of work now that the children are older either.  I have not found that I have any more time on my hands than when they were younger – if anything, I find that I have less.  Looking good is no longer as easy as it once was, and I am mindful that these are dangerous years for Justin and myself.  Temptation is forever in his path, and there will be no shortage of much younger women perfectly happy to take my place given the option to do so.  I am not naïve enough to believe that he won’t have succumbed to the occasional opportunity by now either, and am even prepared to forgive the odd indiscretion – although I would much rather not know about it in the first place.  Whilst I can allow Justin the odd alternative to the marital bed, what I can’t ever allow him to consider is an alternative to our marriage itself.  It is my responsibility to ensure that there is no equal to me in terms of a viable candidate for his wife – it is a responsibility which I have always taken very seriously indeed.

So I had everything I ever wanted in life: a beautiful home, an attentive husband, two adoring children.  I have a body, face and wardrobe to be proud of still.  I could have been forgiven for thinking that, short of sudden tragedy or catastrophic illness, the future would pretty much take care of itself.  Which is precisely why – when sudden tragedy and catastrophic illness did strike – it caught me completely off my guard.

It was Christmas day last year.  One minute I was absolutely fine, my usual self – the next, my world was falling out from under me.  Fortunately I suppose, given the severity of the symptoms, we did not have to wait too long for a diagnosis.  It was touch and go at one point – the children have told me since that they thought they had lost me, prepared to say their goodbyes even.  Justin has not spoken about his own feelings at all.  He has been there for me, of course – but we have not discussed the illness even once.  I have not pushed him, and I have been fearful of pushing myself to think about the future any more than necessary anyway.  My consultant has said now that he believes we have turned a corner in my treatment, that I may even soon be well enough to think about going home – at least for a short time.  He says my recovery has surpassed all expectations, and I am grateful for this – but I am not at all sure about going home yet, if ever.  Justin as a full time carer has never been on either of our agendas, and we both know that a full time carer is exactly what he will be.  I think the fact that he is a doctor himself only makes it worse – he will have no hope, you see – he will understand the prognosis exactly.  I may get better for a while, but then I will get ill again.  Each episode will be worse than the last, and the recovery time in between will be shorter lived.  Eventually there will come a time when I just won’t ever get better again.  I hope to be able to say my goodbyes properly to the children before it gets to that stage, but Justin will have to be there right up until the bitter end.  I am not sure there has ever been enough of a marriage between us to withstand that.

It was Christmas day last year, and we were all seated in the living room.  Hannah and Joseph were handing out the presents.

‘This one’s for you from me, Mum,’ Hannah had said, handing me an ostentatiously wrapped box.  ‘I hope you like it – I thought it was ‘you’ as soon as I saw it.’

‘I’m sure I will, darling,’ I’d purred, as I’d begun to prise off the ribbons, ‘you know what I like better than I know myself sometimes.’

The gift itself was innocent enough – a cover for my latest model iPhone.  It was lovely really – a Kath Kidston design, all retro London and understated ‘shabby chic’.  The words on the packaging though were what crashed headlong into my consciousness and detonated my soul.  Just two perfectly innocuous words and my world would never be the same again . . . ‘lacquered shell.’

COMING HOME

The words of the jet plane song are running through my head on a continuous loop.  I repeat them to myself like a mantra.  I am never at my best on a plane, especially during take-off.  I wonder how the children are getting on, and realise they’ll be in Portugal by now – heading towards the luxury villa with their overly indulgent grandparents (aka – my mum and dad).  And here I am, heading off in the opposite direction to Kefalonia – an Island I have not visited in ten years.

‘It’ll do you good, hon,’ Mum had said.  ‘Have some fun, swim, eat – get some sleep.  Take your mind off everything for a bit.’

‘I don’t want to take my mind off everything,’ I’d argued.  ‘I want to get on with things, get back to normal – just me and the kids.’

She’d played her trump card then.  ‘The kids need a break,’ she’d said, with a slightly steelier edge to her voice.  ‘They’ve been affected by all of this too, you know.’

And, of course, they had.  How could they not be affected, at the ages of 7 and 9, by their parents divorcing?  I’d made it easy for him – their git of a father.  Ridiculously easy, in fact.   I suppose he had been honest with me – at least I have that to thank him for.  He didn’t carry on behind my back.

‘The truth is Lou,’ he’d said, ‘I’m in love with her – what else can I do?’

And what else could I do then – except to let him go?  So, for the last year, I’ve been biting my tongue and getting on with things ‘for the sake of the children.’

I decide to attempt sleep, and try to pretend to myself that I’m not actually on a plane at all. This trip had seemed like a good idea when I’d booked it, but now I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s looking a bit too much like a backwards step for me.  Last time I’d visited Kefalonia I’d been due to get married imminently – it had been an extended hen weekend really.  One final girly holiday with Jude before married life, kids and responsibility set in.  Colin hadn’t minded – he’d been skiing for his stag anyway, so couldn’t very well complain.

An extended hen weekend was what it was supposed to have been – the reality of it though had turned out to be somewhat different.  Jude had hooked up with Dave the first night there.  I’d tagged along with them and his loud rugby mates for the next two nights but gave up on the third – opting instead for a quiet meal on my own in the small friendly looking taverna just across the road from our apartment.  The waiter had been English, and had looked quietly impressed when he’d seen that I’d been on my own.  When I’d paid the bill, he’d asked if he could buy me a drink in his break.

‘I’m getting married,’ I’d blurted, ‘I’m here on a kind of hen holiday.’

‘That’s ok,’ he’d smiled.  ‘I’m here on a kind of ‘retreat’ – you’re safe with me, I promise.’

I’d felt like a complete idiot then of course.  As if he would be interested in me anyway.  He was just being kind, that was all.

‘It’s fine,’ I’d said.  ‘I’m really ok, you don’t have to . . .’

‘Please?’ he’d countered.  ‘You can tell me all about the wild hen holiday you’re having.’

‘Ok then,’ I’d quipped.  ‘You can tell me all about the monastic retreat you’re having.’

As we’d sat sipping our chilled robola twenty minutes later, I’d had a chance to get a better look at him.  I’d been admiring him from a distance all night, but he was even better up close.  Jamie was working in the taverna for the summer.  Sandy haired and green-eyed, he looked like he shouldn’t really fit in there at all – but he had such a self-assured friendliness about him, that he seemed popular with holiday makers and locals alike.  He had a way of making you feel perfectly at ease and excited, at the same time.  Like he was about to take you on the ride of your life, but you were in safe hands for the journey.

As it turned out, we didn’t talk much about either my hen holiday or his ‘retreat’.  My reason for being there was self-explanatory – and he said he was there to ‘escape’.  He said it in inverted commas, like it was a cliché.  Andreas, his boss, let him off early and we went for a walk on the beach. Afterwards, I’d questioned my sanity.  What was I doing taking a walk on a foreign beach at midnight with a complete stranger?  But Jamie was the perfect gent – anyone could see that.  If he had been a stick of rock, he would have had ‘Quintessential English Gentleman’ running through his core like a stamp.

After that, we’d spent practically every spare minute together.  Fortunately, Jude was so wrapped up in Dave that she barely even noticed.  I just said I was happy to read and swim, and make plans for the wedding – and Jude was happy enough to believe me, because it got her off the hook and stopped her feeling guilty.

Did I fall for Jamie?  Only like a five tonne weight dropping from a bridge.  How could any reasonably sane girl not fall for him?  Being a reasonably sane girl though, I convinced myself that it was just an illusion.  In later years, I would look back to that last morning in the airport and wonder if I hadn’t got it all wrong after all.  At the time my feelings had seemed so ‘unreal’, so magnified, I couldn’t trust them. Jamie had run in at the last minute – Jude’s mouth had hit the floor.

‘You must be Jude,’ he’d said, flatly.  ‘Do you think I could just have five minutes with Louise alone please?’

She’d been too shocked to argue – even though we were in danger of missing our flight – she’d just nodded and sloped off towards the coffee kiosk in a state of bemused bewilderment.

As for me, I hadn’t known it was possible for my heart to beat so fast.

‘I know you’re going home, Louise,’ he’d said, his voice sounding strangely parched.  ‘I know you’re getting married next week and I want you to be happy, I honestly do.  But I will never forgive myself if I let you leave without doing this first.’

And then he had very gently kissed me.  I did not play it cool at all – in fact, I’d kissed him back like my life depended on it.

I will not say that I wish I had been braver and stayed, because then I would never have met my two amazing children.  Now that things have turned out the way they have though, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if I had stayed.  My judgement has never been the best but, at the age of thirty-six – and with the benefit of a further ten years of hindsight behind me – I am feeling more than a little sick at the thought that, far from the holiday romance I’d always tried to convince myself that Jamie was, he was actually as close as I’m ever likely to get to ‘the real thing’. . .

The transfer to the apartment is straightforward enough, and I arrive just after nightfall.  The first thing I do is throw open the shutters to the balcony and step outside.  I can hear crickets, and catch the sweet sticky floral scent of the evening – I think that I would instantly know where in the world I was, even if I’d been teleported here in my sleep.

After showering and changing, I allow myself a quick glance in the mirror before I leave the apartment.  The med must be agreeing with me already.  I still look like me, but there is a spark of eye and glow of cheek about me that definitely wasn’t evident back home yesterday.

I retrace my steps to the taverna as if it was yesterday.  I know it’s ridiculous, that Andreas has probably sold it by now anyway – it may have even been knocked down – but I cannot resist the pull.  This is the reason I have returned.  Somewhere squashed deep down inside of me, I have known I would do this all along – ever since Colin had said he was leaving.

The taverna is still there, I duck down under the vines and step into the enclosed courtyard garden.  And there he is – Andreas – sitting at a table on his own, sipping robola as if nothing had ever changed at all.  I didn’t think he would remember me, but he recognises me instantly.

‘Louise!  Beautiful Louise!’ he cries out, as he rushes to crush me in an all-encompassing hug.  ‘I knew you’d come back,’ he is smiling and shaking his head at the same time.  ‘Poor Jamie . . . but I always knew you would – someday.’

‘Andreas!  I thought you might have retired . . .’

I’m not ready to talk about Jamie yet.  Of course I want to hear about him, about what he did next – after Kefalonia – but I think I will embarrass myself and cry if Andreas gets into that right away.  I am feeling tired and raw after the journey; the memory of Jamie and my younger self is so close I could almost touch it.

‘Retired?’ Andreas is answering my question, and I force myself to refocus.  ‘Retired?  Well yes, I suppose you could say I’ve retired . . .  I’ve sold it you see but . . . well, let’s just say I like to keep the new owner on his toes.  Louise, you look thirsty – you need a drink.  Come in and see what the old place is looking like now . . .’

Inside, as I scan the taverna, I think at first that my memory must be playing tricks on me – because it looks very much to me like Jamie himself is standing there, after all these years, behind the bar.  My breath catches in my throat, and I freeze to the spot.

Andreas is smiling, his eyes twinkling.  ‘I told you I’d sold the old place, didn’t I?’

At that exact moment, Jamie looks up – and I know that he has seen me because the blood drains from his face and he looks as if he might pass out.

‘Oh god,’ I panic.  ‘He’s going to be embarrassed, I’m going to be embarrassed – what on earth was I thinking?  He’ll think I’m a complete idiot – or worse, a stalker or something.’

But then he is grinning, and jumping the bar, and standing in front of me before I even have a chance to get my breath again.

‘You’re here,’ I state the obvious.  ‘I can’t believe you’re still here . . .’

‘I like it here.’  He takes my hands and holds my gaze, and it’s like we’re back at the airport all over again – only this time it’s happy.

‘Anyway,’ he shrugs, ‘there was always a chance you might come back one day, so I had to stay – just in case . . . ‘

He kisses me then, just the lightest of kisses – and we are both crying and laughing at the same time – and it feels like . . . well, it feels like coming home.