A Winter’s Tale.
It was Penelope who first noticed that ‘Sea Mist’ was occupied. It was a bitterly cold December day. Not at all the kind of weather to be hanging about on cliff paths. But as she passed, on her way home after an afternoon in the village, she happened to glance upward.
For a split second she thought she saw a face at the window of the pretty little holiday chalet. Then it was gone. She was a little disconcerted. The chalet was a delightful place for a summer holiday but was not equipped for winter like the homes that she and the other members of the Residents’ Association occupied. She made a mental note to speak to the agent, Edgar Branwhite, who generally ran his agency from the snug at ‘The Globe’ in nearby Fishguard, and she hurried on by.
Fortunately, or unfortunately for the new resident who watched her pass with a worried expression upon her face, Penelope was too distracted to retain the note she had made. Her mind was just too full from her afternoon and the note just fell from her consciousness, like a leaf falls from a tree.
Having spent the last two hours in the arms of her lover, and now homeward bound to her husband, Penelope could not be blamed for this unusual lapse of attention. She would, however, blame herself when the plight of the tenants finally became common knowledge and she would continue to blame herself for a very long time after it had all been resolved.
But for now, blissfully ignorant of the events that were to unfold and nursing the fond memories and the frisson of guilt that her afternoon had bestowed upon her, Penny shivered homeward, her secret burning bright scarlet blotches into her well-padded cheek bones.
In reality, Penelope was an innocent. From the tips of her sensible walking shoes to the jangle of pearls upon her twisted bosom, she was the epitome of restrained Welsh womanhood. Yes, she had been in the arms of a man, but there had been no loosening of clothing and the tango, passionate though it may be, is not adultery.
That she loved fiercely, the little Spanish dance teacher who held her so tightly on the dance floor every second Wednesday afternoon, is in no doubt. When he gazed deeply into her myopic blue eyes, she trembled in places a girl of good breeding should not even know exists. But he had kissed her only once and that at the end of a particularly energetic Rumba, at the conclusion of her third lesson some eight years before.
It was then that he had explained how he had fallen in love with her, but that their love could never be. It suited them both in some strange fashion and what her husband Dai didn’t know, they reasoned, well … it couldn’t hurt him.
And so it was that as Penelope stepped into the heat of her little kitchen and shouted to her husband that she was home, Sea Mist and its occupants was the last thing she was thinking of.
It was almost a week later when returning home from an expedition to collect fire-wood that Monty came upon the child.
To be strictly accurate, it was Tripod who made the first contact. Monty was yet to round a bend and find them together.
Despite his infirmity, the little dog had developed a passion for chasing gulls. It was not unusual for him to limp ahead, barking and gnashing his teeth after one that had become too familiar. Monty would usually find the dog waiting for him with an expression of impatience on its pointed canine face.
On this occasion as Monty rounded the bend he was surprised to see the dog on its back, all three legs in the air, enjoying having his tummy tickled by a child of no more than two or three. He was surprised because Tripod was normally very discriminating and would allow only those who had earned his trust to fondle him in such a manner.
He was also surprised because he didn’t recognise the child, either as someone who had been here on holiday or as one who lived in the nearby villages. It further disconcerted him that the red-haired little boy wore only a sleep suit of scarlet fleece with a teddy bear stitched onto the front and it was none too clean.
As he drew close, he could hear the child giggle. Tripod was now licking with great relish from the child’s face, the very sickly evidence of a chocolatey breakfast and a bad cold.
Monty pulled the dog away and knelt before the little person, feeling in his pocket for a handkerchief.
“Well,” he asked kindly,”and who might you be?”
The child surveyed him with that solemn gaze that only the very young and the very ancient are able to achieve.
“What’s your name?” persisted Monty, kindly.
The child raised a chubby arm and pointed in to the air.
“He can’t talk yet!”
Monty turned to face the imparter of such valuable information and found he gazing into the face of a little girl, of no more than six or seven. She was clearly sister to the little boy, her red curls and freckled nose almost mirrored exactly that of her sibling. However, where he was smiling and jolly, she was intense and wary.
“What’s your name then?” Monty asked, in a voice he hoped did not sound too much like that of an interrogator.
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m Monty. I live here.” He pointed up the path a few yards to the gateway of his chalet.
“Is that your dog?”
Monty nodded, watching helplessly as Tripod resumed his cleaning of the younger child’s face. Much, it has to be said, to their mutual delight.
” Pauly likes dogs.”
” And do you like dogs?” Monty asked.
The girl shrugged, her bony shoulders seemed to rise and envelop her neck for a moment. Her knees, he couldn’t help noticing, were purple with cold beneath the hem of the fairy outfit she was wearing, complete with wings.
“It’s a bit cold out here,” Monty said quietly.”I thought I’d go on in to the warm and have my dinner. Would you like some?”
The girl’s eyes had lit up for a brief moment at the suggestion of warmth and food but she had just as rapidly put up her guard. Monty levered himself to his feet and turned, feigning disinterest. He had taken a few paces when the child’s voice arrested him.
“What’ you having?”
Monty thought quickly. What did children eat?
“Chips,” he said emphatically. “I thought I’d have some chips.”
Moments later, Ruby was surprised to see her man ushering two tiny and clearly frozen children into the warmth of her kitchen. She gave him a quizzical look and he responded with a shrug. The little boy made a bee-line for the stove and his sister admonished him with a sharp tap on his hand. As he wailed, she threw herself onto the sofa pulling him with her.
“It’s nice here,” the little girl said above the wailing of her brother, and then, “I can’t smell no chips though.”
” Chips is it?” Ruby raised an eyebrow.
” We want them fresh don’t we?” asked Monty,”All crisp and hot?”
He was on his knees now before the children, gently trying to release the struggling toddler from his sister’s vice-like grip, in the hope of putting an end to the ear splitting shrieks.
“Chips coming up!” Ruby’s voice cut through the din, “And an explanation?”
As Monty explained in hushed tones and they both peeled and chopped, the noise subsided and in a few moments, lulled by the warmth and the softness of the cushions of the great sofa, the little boy was soundly asleep. The girl remained upright and tense but it was clear that she was far from wide-awake herself.
Leaving Monty to fry, Ruby made her way to the stove and throwing a log into the flames turned to survey their small guests. The girl turned sleepy green eyes upon her that hardened with mistrust.
“Where do you live dear?” Ruby asked her.
“In a big house.”
“Really? Where is this big house?”
“Not here,” the girl informed her, her eyes glittering. She thought for a minute and then said, “In Africa.”
Ruby raised an eyebrow.
“Not really in Africa.” She paused and then fixed Ruby with a firm stare of defiance before adding, “A’tually, it’s on the moon.”
From the kitchen, Monty snorted, “Bet that’s cold.”
“It is a’tually,” the little girl agreed. “Bloody freezing!”
She would say no more but she removed her wings and, dropping them onto the floor, made herself more comfortable on the sofa.
Ruby would have liked the children to have washed their hands before they ate, but Monty shook his head. A big bowl of steaming chips was proffered and, as if by magic, the little one stretched and woke and had to be restrained from thrusting a fat, filthy paw into the depth of the bowl. Monty shared the chips out onto plates and added thickly buttered bread.
“I’ll get the forks,” Ruby offered but Monty shook his head, again.
“We don’t need forks, do we?”
“No,” sneered the little girl, “we don’t need forks.”
“No!” shrieked the boy, who was so delighted with their shocked response that he shouted it again and again. He was only silenced with a chip that had been blown on to cool it, which he munched and sucked upon as though he hadn’t eaten for a week.
“This house of yours?” Ruby attempted, as the children sat back from the remains of the food, “Would your Mum and Dad be there?”
“You got any chocolate?” This said with a sideways tilt of the head, the little girl peering from beneath long spiky lashes.
Monty threw Ruby a look that could only mean, ‘I know you have some somewhere’.
To the child, he admitted, “Ruby always has chocolate.”
“Is that why she’s so fat?”
Ruby shook her head, “Is that the way to get me to give up a packet of caramels?”
The child sniffed.
“I don’t care,” she said, “I don’t want any anyway. I was only thinking of Pauly.”
Ruby shook her head. “I doubt if Pauly could manage a whole caramel anyway. What if you had one and you broke a bit of the chocolate off for him?”
The child sighed and nodded with a feigned reluctance. In a moment she was unwrapping a caramel and nibbling off chunks of thick milk chocolate which she smeared into her little brother’s eager mouth. Suddenly, there seemed to be chocolate everywhere. Amidst much laughter, more caramels were unwrapped and more chocolate found its way onto the sofa.
Little Pauly suddenly and without warning raised himself up to his full height and launched himself at Monty, at the same time shrieking something that neither Ruby nor Monty understood.
Caught in the older man’s strong arms, he pressed a chocolatey finger against Monty’s lips and said again, “Gan Gan.”
“Monty.” Monty corrected him, “I’m Monty.”
“Gan Gan,” the little boy insisted.
His little sister snorted.
“What’s he saying?” Ruby asked her, gently.
“Grandad,” she said, giggling, “he called him Grandad.”
The little boy pressed his filthy chubby hands to Monty’s cheeks holding the man’s face firmly as he planted a wet kiss on his lips. Monty’s weather beaten cheeks flushed a deep scarlet and a broad grin cut across his face. He gazed into the small child’s eyes.
“Did you see that Ruby? Did you hear what he called me?”
Ruby laid a gentle hand upon his back and her heart swelled. Monty had found another admirer.
“I certainly did my love,” she agreed, proudly, “I certainly did.”
Meanwhile, about a quarter of a mile away, along the cliff path, a lone figure in black leggings and an old moth-eaten green cardigan was struggling against the biting wind. She paused from time to time to peer in terror at the great drop to her right, to the unwelcoming rocks and the foaming ocean.
Dawn Hardcastle raised her head from time to time and, cupping her hands about her mouth, called as loudly as she could. Her voice was instantly swallowed by the wind. Clearly frantic, the young woman stumbled onward, her pale face distorted with fear and her cheeks wet with icy tears.
She had taken her eyes off the children for a moment. Tired and cold, she had simply sat down for five minutes and sleep had claimed her. For how long she wasn’t certain, but struggling against exhaustion she had surfaced from a dream of the usual terrors and she had found the chair pushed against the door. Carly must have done that so she could reach the bolt. She was nothing if not determined, that one.
Now, as Dawn checked her watch she realised that she had been searching for the best part of two hours. Biting winds and freezing cold caused her to resist the wariness she felt about involving strangers. This was an emergency that she could not ignore. A potential disaster to place all the preceding horrors firmly in their place. The children were out in this weather, in this dangerous place and she had to find them.
The first chalet, upon whose door she knocked, yielded nothing. She wasn’t to know that the Grangers were visiting a relative in hospital, complete with the obligatory grapes and Lucozade.
There was no other chalet for some while but as luck would have it, as she rounded the bend in the path, it was ‘DUN NUFFIN’ that came into view.
Steeling herself, she rapped upon the door, her knuckles blue with the cold, her heart pounding.
As the door was opened, she heard the children. The heat of the room hit her and the sound of their laughter brought an instant relief. This was followed swiftly, as is so often the case in such situations, with a blind and unreasonable rage.
Tripod was upon his feet and barking savagely as Dawn Hardcastle, overwhelmed and terrified, thrust Ruby aside and flew into the room. She threw herself at Monty and wrenched little Pauly from his arms, while the dog thought better of engaging with her and slunk between Monty’s feet.
The frantic action spoke to Ruby of desperation and despair and it was to tug upon her heart. She was instantly compelled to champion this mother and these wild dirty children, almost without question. As Monty calmly and patiently explained how he had come upon the little ones who now clung to their wild eyed mother, she stood silently by.
“We had chips,” the little girl was telling her mother, “and we had chocolate caramels and we had orange juice.”
Dawn looked around at the cosy room and was suddenly aware of the warmth. Her head was ringing from the cold, from weariness and from not having eaten since breakfast the day before. She felt the edges of her vision suddenly begin to fray, the room turned to liquid and she swayed helplessly. Monty was beside her instantly, catching her as she fainted, and scooped her onto the sofa.
“She was like a little bird, light as a feather, all bones,” he was to tell Ruby later, over and over as though he could not quite believe that a human being could be so thin and so frail.
But now, the anxious company was galvanised into action. While the little girl shrieked and threw herself upon the prone body of her mother, Pauly began to wail. Tripod, unaccustomed to such excitement, began a whirling dance that almost knocked Monty off his feet and Ruby began to fan the hapless victim.
As Dawn came back to herself, she was greeted with hugs and protestations of relief from her children and expressions of concern from Ruby and Monty. She tried to struggle to her feet but was pressed back into the cushions and swathed in the rug that usually lived on the back of the sofa.
“You need something to eat,”Ruby barked, adding, “I insist you have some of my homemade soup before you go.”
Dawn had no energy to protest and as the aroma of Ruby’s vegetable broth reached her, she became fully aware of the extent of her hunger.
While the children whooped and clambered over Monty, Ruby held her curiosity at bay, but as the stranger finally wiped her bowl clean with a thickly buttered slice of Monty’s excellent bread, Ruby could wait no longer.
Taking the young woman’s hand gently in her own she spoke kindly but firmly, “So, my dear, I really think you need a friend and, in the absence of anyone else, you might be stuck with us.”
Dawn shuddered and withdrew her hand but her eyes filled suddenly with tears.
“We are fine,” she muttered, making to stand rather unsteadily.
Ruby caught her as she stumbled, and gently encouraged her to sit down.
She shook her head, “You don’t have to talk right now but if you think I am going to let you take these little ones and go back out into the cold, you are sadly mistaken.”
The little ones, sensing the tension, had become silent and wary. They watched the two women from the safety of the sofa, eyes huge and wide.
Dawn bristled and it was clear to Ruby that she was accustomed to putting up a fight but, as Ruby was to say to Monty later with a laugh, ‘When did you know me to back away from a challenge?’
Smiling kindly, she took Dawn’s hand again. When she spoke it was clear that there would be no further argument.
“I don’t know what has happened and I don’t expect you to tell me if you don’t want to but I want you to know that you are safe here and we will help in any way we can.”
She looked across at Monty, who raised one quizzical eyebrow as if to ask, ‘What on earth are you getting us into old girl?’ but he nodded in agreement.
The little girl pressed herself into Monty’s side and the little boy closed his eyes.
“So,” Ruby went on, “you can stay here tonight in the warm, all of you. And in the morning after breakfast we will see what else can be done to sort things out.”
Dawn made a small noise of protest but it was clear that the warmth of the food and the fire had robbed her of all resistance.
When Ruby had made up a bed in the spare room and topped and tailed the children under a snug duvet, and Dawn Hardcastle was ensconced snoring softly on the sofa, she and Monty turned out the light and made their way to bed.
In the dark, snuggled together listening to the wind howl outside, Monty kissed the top of Ruby’s head and sighed.
“I know,” Ruby said softly into his neck, “I know… but tell me Monty, what else could we do?”
We’ll send you the next instalment – find out what’s been going on…