Today I’ve included another chapter for your pleasure. If you’ve been keeping up with the drama, Richards is now safely home and coming to terms with his grief. After you’ve read the chapter (at the end) I’ve included a delicious recipe for you to take a glance at. Delicious Babootie from South Africa where I’ve just returned from holiday. Have a super day and thanks for dropping in!
It had been steadily snowing now for about four hours. Often the winters in Hampshire were mild and unseasonably warm for England, but this year from January onwards the weather was foul. Relentless freezing rain accompanied by a sharp icy wind, started with the New Year. Now February was here heavy snowfalls were dumping all over the British Isles.
The thick fresh snow looked soft and pretty as it silently fell over the South Downs. Groups of children were making the most of an unexpected Friday at home as their schools were shut. Frozen pipes prevented the school heating from working.
Now, excited children well wrapped in woolly hats and gloves were pulling homemade sledges alongside the more posh manufactured ones. Their eyes were gleaming with delight and little noses pink, sharp and running from the cold.
In his house overlooking and hill and valley below, Richard had been standing at the window for nearly an hour watching the children climbing up the incline and then following their paths as their homespun craft careered downhill. Their shrieks and gleeful whoops carried clearly to him through the thin cold air. Again he was wondering how different their life would have been if Connie had wanted children. His heart felt as cold as the scene outside.
A sudden light breeze filled the air sending little flurries of snow tumbling from the branches of the trees at the edge of his drive. Around the tree trunks he noticed little clumps of snowdrops peeking through their soft white coverlet. For thought of his mother; they had always been her favourite wild flower.
Richard had been living at home in England for two months. And for him they had been two very long miserable lonely months. With bitterness he went back over and over that dreadful accident. His, uppermost thought was that dying young could never be right. Connie’s death had definitely been a horrible way to die. She had been subjected to hours of abject terror, not knowing when and if it would all end and being completely incapable of helping herself to remove the object of incalculable fear. It was a relentless tortuous period, made all the more horrific by the brief respite near the end; a slender hope of miraculous salvation. How must she have felt with the sheer relief when the ship appeared, only to have it cruelly dashed away with an unstoppable brutal assault as she was swept from the scramble net?
Shaking, Richard imagined how she had felt as she had fallen, with the even more terrible realization that she was now completely alone. Alone and afraid knowing there was to be no redemption. No one would be able to save her. No one would hear her scream. No one knew where to look. It was as if she had simply vanished.
And then for Richard; he was finding it so hard to mourn for Connie. Never finding her body, and in knowing that her body would never be found. The placing of this additional burden on Richard left behind, was more than he could come to terms with. Richard was feeling a total helplessness of failing to lay her body to rest and overlaid with pangs of guilt, remorse and deep despair. At the root of it all the question was tearing at his heart. Why not me?
Richard had no heart for his business and besides, his manager was geared up for running the company solely in his absence when he was off sailing. Although Richard was the boss and owner he was not welcome. His recent loss made the office workers feel uncomfortable, and frankly Richard was glad letting him get on with it.
With Ellentari successfully scuttled, the insurance company appeared satisfied with Richard’s testimony and had settled his claim in full. Despite the money now being in his account Richard had no wish to set foot on another sailing yacht let alone think of replacing her with another.
Richard was living with a huge hole in his life created by Connie’s death. It was fair to say that their relationship was no longer the passionate, breathless obsession of that of teenagers, but it had been steady; good regular sex and the longer lasting values of trust, respect, understanding and patience. Making no great demands upon the other, they had fitted together like a lock and key. Now, the days were long and the nights far longer. Finding sleep hard to come by, Richard dreamed, reliving the last scenes at sea; these unconscious thoughts coursed through his mind. When sleep eventually came he would wake startled, sweating and trembling, that terrible journey racing behind his eyes.
In a particular way he also missed Toby. Despite all that had gone before them, they had once had a good easy-going friendship. Staying apart on the return sea journey to England each had been deep in their dark thoughts. At the time Richard considered that Toby had betrayed his trust and had made a play for his wife. Damn him! Neither made any attempt to get in touch with one another once they went their own separate ways from Southampton docks.
As far as other friends were concerned Richard was trying hard not to be a burden. Everyone was very supportive; especially in the first few weeks upon his return when it was still new and raw upon his nerves. As the weeks progressed, Richard sensed that they all somehow were blaming him. He thought that they were judging him and it was his entire fault. Too bad to lose your boat, but to lose your wife! He was now taking great pains to avoid them, not lumbering them with his desolation and so avoiding censure.
Richard was never an overly social animal. He enjoyed a few parties, concerts and suppers with really good friends, but he had never felt that he needed to go out of his way to look for entertainment. He was happy with his own company, Connie in the background doing her own thing, chatting on the phone to friends a glass of red wine in her hand. No, she was more the socialite. He had tried the occasional pint in his local pub but soon found there wasn’t much fun drinking on your own. The pints slipped down all too quickly and he found himself staring at the bottom of the glass. The locals all knew who he was from the awful publicity and he grew to hate their inquisitive stares and sidelong glances. Something amounting to paranoia raised itself whereby he knew that they were all judging and condemning him. It wasn’t long before he felt safer and less stressful at home. Trying hard not to drink too much, he found himself beginning to cope. Richard remembered his father’s words spoken long ago when he was younger and reckless. ‘Take one day at a time. None of us can know what is round the corner, so tread carefully and treasure each good moment while it lasts. Nothing is forever.’ A quiet man of very few words, Richard stood wondering what his father had been thinking of when he had said this.
Time was heavy in his hands. Daytime television was an anathema to him and so banal. Since when had Britain become a Nation addicted to trivial imports and afternoon contrived game and chat shows? Thinking they were nothing more than blatant advertising aimed at the gullible masses, he threw the remote control down on the settee in disgust.
Perhaps he’d get a couple of cats for company or better still, a dog. Most days he found himself traipsing over miles of countryside rediscovering quiet enjoyment stumbling across hitherto unknown hamlets and empty valleys. Owning a dog would give him every excuse to be out and about in the country and he welcomed the thought of unconditional love from a furry friend. Stop being morose and pathetic he told himself. It will get you nowhere.
Walking miles for exercise removed any surplus flesh that he’d carried. With his face looking gaunt and hollow-cheeked, there was a new tightness surrounding his blue eyes. Today he was looking particularly grim as he had one task that he’d been putting off; Connie’s things. Not those lost when the yacht went down, but the stuff left here in their England home.
The trace of her scent still lingered. The silk of her underwear, neatly folded in the top drawer of her dressing table. Antique crystal glass perfume bottles forever stoppered. A hairbrush with fine dark hairs caught in the bristles. Rows of assorted clothing filled the suite of wardrobes. And her books! Row upon row of well-read favourite paperback novels and huge thick tomes of textbooks that she’d spent years collecting during her nursing career filled an entire wall of the study.
Just what the hell was he supposed to do with it all? He couldn’t as yet bring himself to bundle it all up in black plastic bags and take it to the nearest charity shop; nor could he live with it next to his own possessions. Feeling utterly depressed, he’d spent the morning moving himself and his belongings into another bedroom. This bedroom was smaller and cosier. The gabled windows looked over a little coppiced area extending to the hills and valley beyond. At night hearing the paired owls calling to one another; the terwit followed by the mate’s terwoo, he felt oddly at peace with such an ordinary but comforting sound. In May the nightingales would return together with the cuckoos. Spring would be something to look forward to.
For now he was happier in this bedroom that bore no memories. There was no great empty space in this smaller bed. Her stuff he could deal with later.
He hadn’t yet realised that the true healing process had not really begun. Unaware that he was blocking something out, not all, but a few things went ‘cloudy’ when he went down that particular corridor in his mind. Whole scenes were obscured because of some primitive, numbing effect on those things too terrible to grasp.
* * *
February was slipping away and March fast approaching. Remaining at home, Richard was unsure what to do with himself. He was still unwelcome at work with his manager relishing his exalted position. Richard was considering how he was going to fill in the time on his hands. Friends issued invitations to dinner and Richard was accepting as many as he felt he could without being a burden. He was faintly amused at playing the ‘token’ single male companion to partnerless females. Connie’s name was mentioned only when necessary and Richard didn’t know whether he felt relieved or frustrated over this. Richard was still feeling that he existed in some sort of limbo and was getting to the stage where he needed to talk or he would end up banging his head against a wall.
He had recently realised that there was probably only one or two people to whom he could trust and let go to. These were his Aunt Mavis and his old sailing friend Stephen. Aunt Mavis was well-advanced in years, possessing a no-nonsense attitude. Richard became close to her when his mother died in her early fifties. His father had comforted his teenage son as best he could in his own way, but he had grieved sorely over his beloved Penny’s early death to cancer. Richard’s father had spent practicably all his waking hours caring for his wife and young daughter Megan. When Megan had tragically died, following her mother to her grave, Aunt Mavis had been the one to whom he had turned to for help and comfort.
Sometimes garrulous and quick-tempered Mavis was nonetheless a person with a kind heart and a passion for living.
She lived nearby in the next village and although it was unspoken between them he knew that she was keeping a gentle eye on him. Twice a week she’d call in with; ‘I was just passing,’ when walking her two Golden Retrievers. Skilfully, she’d enquire how he was and what he’d been doing with himself. Never questioning him about his loss, Mavis listened when he wanted to talk and only gave her counsel if she felt he was asking for it. As of old he found her comforting and easy to be with. She exuded calmness and understanding. Gradually he had found himself telling her about his and Connie’s ambitions, about the voyage, the storm and eventually the horror of Connie’s death. His guard was coming down bit by bit and, with it the tightness in his chest and throat began to ease as some of the stress left him.
The one thing he couldn’t discuss were his fears about the relationship between Connie and Toby. Something in his pride stopped him in his tracks. Aunt Mavis therefore knew nothing about his worries and suspicions that Connie was possibly going to leave him for another man. Feeling a complete failure over losing both yacht and wife was one thing. If she had been going to ‘jump ship’ as it were, then this compounded his guilt. He hadn’t taken enough care or paid enough attention to her needs.
As if on cue, he he espied Aunt Mavis marching up his drive; her two dogs’ foggy breath steaming from their pink open mouths. Must be Friday he fondly thought, Auntie’s visit time. Going through to the kitchen he pulled open the solid oak door.
‘Hello I was just thinking of you, I wondered if you’d come today. Come in; leave your boots under the radiator. There are your old slippers ready for you. Hello Tess, Tango.’ He greeted the two dogs who bounded in, feathery tails wagging, and smiles agape on their faces, ‘I already have the coffee on.’
Mavis and the dogs followed Richard from the small outer hallway into the comforting warmth of the huge farmhouse style kitchen. The dogs immediately went over to the bowl that Richard kept just for them greedily lapping at the water, droplets covering the surrounding floor.
‘Messy dogs,’ said Mavis eying the wet flags, ‘go and lie down’. They needed no further telling and promptly made their way over to the thick rug in front of the Aga. Flopping down with grunts of satisfaction, they lay their heads on their paws gazing at Mavis and Richard with their moist brown eyes. Soon their wet flanks were steaming with the newfound heat from the stove. They contentedly rolled over, fast asleep.
Mavis fixed her gaze on Richard and he knew by her look that she had something on her mind. She didn’t take long in getting to the point.
‘Richard, if you’re not going to go back to work just yet for whatever reason, or replace your boat with another, then maybe it’s about time you filled your days a little more. I’ve thought about voluntary work, either at home or abroad in some worthwhile project. Or why not take yourself off to the Alps for the remainder of the ski season. I know Skiing’s another passion of yours and the fresh air and skiing will improve your health no end.’
Richard knew what she was thinking. He could read her like a book. What she didn’t say was that staying in a cosy ski chalet in a chic resort with other like-minded people would give him the social contact that he was missing. He mostly shut away by himself in his country home in Bishop’s Waltham.
She carried on. ‘I know about your friends and their invitations to dinner parties, but they’re mostly joint friends. The overall situation is a little unreal. You need new friends, and new places. I think you need to meet people who know nothing about your past. I also believe it is time you begin to ease up on the punishment you’re inflicting on yourself. There, I’ve said all I wanted to.’
Shifting in his chair, Richard sat back thinking about her words as she continued.
‘You remember my old school friend Phoebe? Well, her daughter owns a ski chalet in Megève. I’m sure you’ve heard of Megève. Apparently it’s very pretty with typical French Savoire chalets, and very chic. Nice restaurants, bars and ski equipment shops. It’s not too big, quite French and not yet been turned into one of those ghastly spoilt resorts. The chalet is right in the middle of town, so it has wonderful access to the ski lifts and the ski runs. The skiing is supposedly superb with stacks of red runs and some challenging black ones scattered throughout the resort. The chalet itself is gorgeous and she has enough bedrooms for about twenty or so guests. The best bit is the food! According to Phoebe, who has stayed there on numerous occasions, she always hires a top class cook and the food. What’s the modern expression nowadays? To die for! There are masses of it and hand-picked wines from all over the Savoire region.’
She enthused, pausing as she took a sip of her coffee. They were sitting at the old scrubbed pine kitchen table, ceramic coffee cups in from of them. Richard was facing Mavis and he regarded her fondly as she unravelled her little tale. He suppressed from telling her that she sounded like a travel brochure. Richard guessed what was coming, but he loved her too much to forestall her enthusiasm. On the table between them lay a brightly coloured bowl of Moroccan origin filled with golden chrysanthemums. Their earthy woody smell combined with the aroma of the fresh coffee and wet dog. Richard felt an intense moment of pleasure that surprised him. Smiling, he raised his coffee mug to his lips, breathed in the vapour and took a sip while studying her over the rim.
‘Well I just thought, in passing of course that it might do you good. You know you’re a bit too thin at the moment,’ she continued. ‘And guess what, she happens to have a room free for March and early April.’
She leaned back in her chair, cradling the warm mug between her hands.
Fancy that! ‘Well I’ll have to think about it.’
‘Of course you do. Anyway the company is run on very casual, friendly lines. You can join in as much or as little as you want to. Being part of a chalet party also means that there is bound to be someone of your standard of skiing if you want company on the slopes. Or you can ski on your own of course,’ she finished with a slight challenge in her voice.
Richard heard the challenge for what it was and again he smiled, giving a short laugh.
‘You’re an incorrigible old woman at times, and it’s lucky for me that I realise it!’ Pausing, he gave a sudden grin. ‘I must confess I haven’t thought about going skiing for a few years. I reckoned I’d be spending the next couple of winters at least in the Caribbean,’ he added ruefully with a small sigh and shaking his head.
‘I know love. I can only imagine how you must feel, but you should also know that things change; times move on. They have to, or we’d all end up bitter and twisted and hating everything and everyone in the world. One day, all of a sudden, you’ll find that realization dawns; and when it does, you’ll look around you and find yourself surprisingly in an entirely different world.’
She covered his cold hand with her own dry warm one and squeezed it gently before continuing, ‘I don’t mean to either pry or preach, but don’t hurt yourself too much, lovey.’
Richard smiled a real smile; the effect lighting his handsome thin face. ‘Okay, Margery Proops the second. As I said before you’re a wily old bird and know too much sometimes. Okay. I promise I’ll think about a ski trip.’
She laughed good-naturedly.
‘Good. Then I’ll leave the brochure that I just happen to have in my coat pocket and you can look at it when I’ve gone.’
Reaching over, she delved into the voluminous pocket of her woollen coat producing a slim folded brochure that she tossed onto the table in front of him. The front cover showed an idyllic snowy vista with long glistening ice crystals hanging from the gables of a picture-postcard chalet. In the distance a lone skier could be seen descending down a snowy slope.
‘Now I’d better be going. I need to go to Winchester this afternoon and although the snow has melted the roads get icy in the late afternoon. Thank you for the coffee. Come on girls.’
Both dogs stood up on the rug stretching lazily. Neither dog appeared in a hurry to leave the snug, warm kitchen for the cold, hard gravel of the drive outside. Calling them to heel, they pushed in close to Mavis’s side, tails now wagging in anticipation of another walk across the fields. There was a sudden burst of a cold draught as Richard opened the kitchen door and the dogs bounded through.
‘I’ll see you later next week’, she said. ‘Heel girls!’ With that she was over the threshold and already following the two noses-down, tail-high, excited dogs.
Richard watched them disappearing round the corner, then closed the door and went back into the kitchen. He picked up the two blue coffee cups from the pine table and placed them in the dishwasher.
Did he really want to go skiing? It would be great during the day, lots of energetic exercise to take his mind off things. But how would he cope with the evenings? He remembered other chalet party holidays. Aunt Mavis had mentioned masses of good food and wine, that’s a plus. Convivial chat? Silly games? He’d enjoyed them before. For the first time he thought about how he might appear in front of others. Was he really being a coward and a total pain in the arse? Should he stay here feeling sorry for himself or give himself a good shake and say, ‘For God’s sake, Mavis’s right. You’ve got to move on and give yourself another chance!’
Picking up the colourful brochure, Richard took it over to the better light at the window. Inside the front cover there was a typical snowy scene with two skiers laughing and posing outside a mountain restaurant. The sun was shining high overhead, the snow sparkled, and the skiers looked tanned, fit and healthy. And happy. He might just contemplate it. Connie had been gone for nearly three months now. She wouldn’t have wanted him to wallow in self-pity.
* * *
A week had passed and with it came a real change in the weather. There was no sign of more snow, and the days were drier and warmer. The coming of March boded well; spring flowers, lambs, and nesting birds. It was the customary time to throw out the old and welcome in the new. The grass verges and hedgerows were showing signs of new growth; soft yellow primroses, fuzzy catkins and pussy willow, sticky buds and cowslips in the rolling meadowland beyond.
With the improvement in the weather Richard also decided to improve himself. He’d visited the local hairdressers for a decent styled haircut; finally realising long hair didn’t suit him. Or was it his age? Anyway, the long dark waves had disappeared along with the rather shaggy beard that had appeared almost overnight. His face stared back at him in the mirror. He definitely looked better. The haunted look was beginning to leave his eyes and he found himself smiling at silly things more readily. The clowns on Radio Two had him actually laughing out loud. His clothes needed an overhaul so, he found a men’s shop with garments that appealed, buying half-a-dozen casual shirts and some well-fitting jeans. With a couple of lightweight sweaters he felt that overall he had spruced himself up and no longer went around looking like some would-be vagrant. Even his three-times a week cleaner noticed the change in Richard and enthusiastically swept through the house cleaning and polishing with a cheerful song as if to encourage him on.
Richard decided not to go skiing. This years’ winter had been brutal, and he was quite frankly glad to see the back of the snow and ice that had lain around for so long. He wasn’t sure if he wanted more of the stuff voluntarily. He was sure Mavis was right. It would be good for both body and soul, but he decided he was better off on his own territory. He was beginning to feel a whole lot better in himself, stronger and not so angry.
As I’ve recently spent some time in South Africa, I thought I’d share this wonderful SA recipe with you – Babootie! (Beef pie)
Ingredients: 1 large onion, 2 tablespoons butter, 2 teaspoons curry powder, 1.5 teaspoons salt, pinch cayenne pepper, 1lb ground beef, 2 slices crumbed bread, 2 large eggs, half cup raisins. Milk.
In large pan, cook butter, add curry powder, salt, pepper and sauté for 5 mins.
Add beef, sauté until brown. Remove from heat, drain fat.
Soak bread in cup of milk. Add this to beef in pan and stir.
Pour into baking dish (8inches square).
In small bowl, beat eggs with little milk, add raisins.
Pour egg mixture over beef mixture.
Bake uncovered in a 375’F oven for 50-60 minutes, until light golden brown.
Serve with steamed vegetables, or rice.
Thanks for reading.x