When Louise awoke the early light was streaming into her room. She scrambled out of bed and crossed to the window. She loved the view from her bedroom. It wasn’t always as bright and clear as it was this morning. More often than not, the towering mountains were shrouded in mist and low cloud. Today they looked beautiful. By looking round to the left, she could just see the morning sunlight shimmering on the waters of Lake Derwent, a spectacular sight. She sighed wistfully, realizing that this was her last morning. She hoped she was making the right decision.
After a quick shower she felt almost human, which was surprising considering how late they’d gone to bed. She presented quite a picture, her trim figure dressed in jeans and summer top, with her unruly short, dark curls framing her pretty face. She pulled on her boots that were so comfortable for driving and hastily ran a brush through her hair. It was funny not having to rush down to work and she couldn’t help feeling a little bit sad. She looked around the room that had been her home for almost two years.
She had enjoyed her time working in this large rambling hotel in Keswick until that man had arrived on the scene. After finishing her course on hotel management at college, she had acquired a job in Ambleside in a much smaller hotel than this one. After only six months working there, she had been successful in her application as an assistant manageress here in the King’s Head Hotel. She loved her work and got on well with both her employer and fellow staff members. When the manageress had left unexpectedly to start a family, Louise had been delighted to be asked to step into her shoes. Now, she felt leaving was the only answer.
“Hi, Lou. How’s the head this morning?” Kate, her head waitress, asked, as Louise entered the staff kitchen. Louise smiled back at her.
“Not too bad now. Where’s everyone else?”
“I expect they’re having a lie-in. The others weren’t coming in till ten o’clock. We’re only siding up today and sorting the freezers out. Good night last night, wasn’t it?”
The hotel was closing for fourteen weeks while major renovation work and decorating were being undertaken. A skeletal staff was being kept on until the hotel re-opened in time for Christmas. Louise had decided to return home and had applied through an agency to work abroad. Kate was the only person she’d told about Martin. The situation had become almost unbearable and the fact that he was their boss’s brother had made things more difficult. Louise couldn’t bring herself to complain about his persistent attention. In fact, it almost amounted to stalking. The wedding invitation from an old friend back home in Dowerdale could not have come at a more convenient time.
She found it hard to imagine Richard married. His brother Neil maybe, but not Richard. It felt a little odd in a way, for as she’d been growing up there had always been a vague thought that they might end up together. They’d got on so well as children. She was quite looking forward to this break and spending some time with her parents. It was only after her Mother had been ill a couple of months ago that she’d realized how precious her parents were to her. She and Kate made themselves a bacon sandwich and went to sit in the now deserted restaurant.
“What time are you hoping to get away? asked Kate.
“Oh, around eleven, I think. When I’ve finished my packing and said goodbye to everyone. I’m driving leisurely home; maybe I’ll have a bite to eat on the way. I told Mam not to expect me till mid–afternoon.”
“Are you looking forward to your visit? It’s a while since you’ve spent any length of time there, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose it will be a bit strange to begin with but I’m sure I’ll soon adapt to the old ways. Anyway, I’ll be hoping to hear from the agency.”
“You will write and tell me how you come on, won’t you?” Kate asked. Louise smiled at her companion. They had become firm friends, although very different in character. You would never catch Kate taking a hike up any of the fell-side walks, as her rather ample figure proved, and she certainly would never go near a horse. Her idea of an afternoon off was to put her feet up with a racy novel and have a box of chocolates close at hand!
“Of course I will.” Louise smiled, her blue eyes sparkling. “I’m hoping that I might get the chance to ride. It’s the one thing that I’d like to do again. Well, I’d better get on with the rest of my packing.” She stood up to leave. Kate jumped up and hugged her.
“I shall really miss you. I’m sure if you’d told Harry how things were he’d have sorted his brother out.” She blinked back a tear. “Good luck, anyway,” she added, trying to smile. “I don’t want to say goodbye in front of all the others.” Louise returned the warm embrace.
“Thanks Kate. I shall miss you, not only as a friend but a great person to work with. Don’t let my successor boss you around like I have done.” That brought a big smile to her friend’s face.
“Go on” Kate laughed. “I’ll see you later.”
Louise returned to her room and set about completing her packing. She thought about the time she’d spent here. It had been a very busy summer with all the rooms been taken most weeks as well as all the numerous functions they’d catered for. There’d always been plenty of things to do on her one day off each week and there had never seemed to be enough time to explore her favourite valley, Borrowdale. Each time she did manage to go there, she usually found something new to captivate and enchant her. Although she had made many friends, there was no special man in her life. Time enough for that, she thought.
As she tidied up her room, she tried to imagine what it would be like living back at home. She hoped she wouldn’t find it too quiet. Hopefully it wouldn’t be for long. It was certainly a very different way of life. Dad, who was head gamekeeper on the local estate, would be very busy, as the grouse-shooting season had just got underway. The moors should be looking a picture at this time of year. Her mother had told her that they had a new ’keeper on the estate now. It always aroused interest when someone new, especially if they were young, came to live in the dale. She took one last look around the room and, picking up her cases, went down to the foyer. Now she would have to find Harry to pick up her references. He was busy in his office. She tapped on his half-open door.
“Good morning, Harry.”
He smiled up at her over his dark rimmed glasses. “Hello Louise. I’ve just sorted all your papers out along with your reference,” he said, handing her a large brown envelope. “We’re all going to miss you, you know, but good luck in your quest to work abroad.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Remember, there’ll always be a job here for you if you need one.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much,” she replied, grasping the proffered hand. It was a shame that Martin wasn’t more like his brother, for she really liked Harry. “I hope all the alterations work out. I must try and come back to see you all some time,” she added, smiling. She bade him farewell and took her luggage out to her car before saying her goodbyes to other members of the staff. She pulled out of the hotel car park to a rousing cheer and left behind a sea of smiling faces and waving arms.
Oh well, that was that, then; the end of one era and the start of another. She pondered on the action she’d taken and hoped she’d made the right decision in going back to Dowerdale. She made her way through Keswick, taking the road for Ambleside. Soon she was driving along past the eerie waters of Thirlmere. It was her least favourite lake, always seeming dark and threatening. Perhaps it was because there had been a tremendous thunderstorm overhead the first time that she had driven alongside it. Today it looked almost friendly, with the towering crags reflected in its deep waters.
On she went, past the picturesque lakes of Grasmere and Rydal. Traffic was rather hectic as she made her way through the bustling town of Ambleside. Shoppers and tourists alike were vying for parking places in the limited areas and at times traffic ground to a halt. Even so, it wasn’t long before she was clear and leaving the vast, blue waters of Windermere behind, taking the road to Kendal. Heading west, she crossed the M6 and, half an hour later, was high on the Pennines.
For once, there was no mist hanging on the fell tops and she could see for miles across the vast and bleak open moors. She decided to stop in the busy little market town of Hawes for a snack and drink. No point in having too much to eat for she knew her mother would be preparing a welcome home dinner for her and it would be a waste of time arguing about not being hungry!
Feeling pleasantly refreshed and her headache from the night before now totally gone, she carried on down the winding road through Wensleydale to Leyburn. Driving along, she smiled to herself as she mused on her last night at the hotel. There had been no residents in, of course, the last ones having left at the end of August when they’d unofficially closed. Harry had put on a buffet supper for their local customers who frequented the public bar, and all the staff. One of the bar lads had brought his guitar and singing had gone on until the early hours. They really were a great bunch that she had worked with and the locals provided some excellent entertainment, singing their own special brand of hunting and shepherding songs. Quite a night to remember!
It didn’t seem long before she was leaving behind the stark open fells and stone walls, travelling now past green fields and hedgerows. Corn was already being harvested and in the fields huge round bales of straw lay waiting to be ferried home. Cows lay contentedly chewing their cud, enjoying the afternoon sunshine. Although traffic was rather heavy, there were no real hold-ups and having passed through Northallerton, she was well on her way back to the North York Moors.
No matter where she’d travelled or how happy she had been in a place, seeing that wonderful panorama of purple heather with the hills and valleys gave Louise a marvellous feeling of homecoming. She was sure it must have that effect on anyone who had been born and brought up in that wild and wonderful region.
Finally, she dropped down from the moors into the valley where she had spent all her childhood and soon could see the familiar spire of the village church, reaching high above the houses. Everything looked much the same in Dowerbridge as she drove slowly through. Children were out in the playground of the village school, which she herself had attended, no doubt playing the same games that she had played. Surely that was old Lily Baxter walking her beloved Westie? She smiled as she noticed the familiar form of Jack Watson sitting outside the Red Lion, puffing away on his pipe and wearing his old flat cap, slewed to one side. He always had a pint at lunchtime. He said it helped him concentrate on his Sporting Gazette. Life didn’t change much in these places.
She crossed the river and, turning right, took the narrow lane leading up the picturesque valley of Dowerdale. The road followed the course of the stream for a while before gradually climbing out to higher ground further up the dale. Lanes branched off to farms nestled on either side of the valley and soon she passed the tall wrought-iron gates leading down to The Grange, or the ‘big house’ as it was often called. Memories came flooding back as she pulled in at a small lay-by a little farther on. She just had time to take a short walk down a well-remembered footpath to the stream. It was such a lovely afternoon and her mother wouldn’t be expecting her back just yet.
She climbed over the style and made her way down the side of the field. The air felt sweet and clean and she really appreciated the beauty and serenity of her surroundings. As she went through the gate into the little copse by the stream she could hear the gushing of the small waterfall a few yards farther upstream. She reached the clearing and sat down on the grass by the huge oak tree, resting against its broad gnarled trunk. The canopy of green leaves shaded her from the hot glare of the afternoon sun. Swallows darted to and fro, catching insects above the water. Birds sang in the branches of trees and bushes that lined the bank side. It was so peaceful, with not a breath of wind. She closed her eyes and relaxed, listening to the stream as it gurgled over rocks and stones. She could hear a grasshopper clicking in the grass nearby and a tractor droning away somewhere in the distance. Her mind slipped back over the years and she could once more hear the voices of children. Her thoughts drifted to that summer twelve years ago.
Childish laughter and squeals of excitement rang out above the sounds of the gushing water that summer’s day twelve years ago. Louise almost slipped as she waded farther into the stream.
“Come on you two, it’s time we were heading back home.” A young lad in his early teens stood on the bank side. Brown tousled hair framed his suntanned face, emphasizing the dark brown eyes. Being the eldest, he always felt responsible for his younger brother and their tearaway neighbour.
“Oh, just a few more minutes, Neil. We nearly had it then,” pleaded Louise from her knee-deep position in the water. “Look, there it is, Rich,” she yelled, pointing to under the cam side of the beck. Her socks and trainers had been discarded on the grass and her denim shorts were none too dry as she splashed about barefoot in the water. Twelve year old Richard, the same age as Louise, raced down the bank side to where his pal was indicating.
“Go on Rip, get in,” he urged to the energetic brown terrier as it flew past him and jumped into the stream, sending water flying up at Louise. The terrier dived under a tree root in the water, bounded over a rock and vanished under the overhanging bank side. A high-pitched squeal was followed by deep growling noises before Rip re-appeared, his little paws treading water as fast as could be. He scrambled up onto the grass, tail wagging furiously with his quarry in his mouth.
“Well done, Rip.” Richard patted his beloved pet and was rewarded with flying sprays of water as Rip shook himself vigorously. The triumphant terrier dropped a huge brown rat at the feet of his master.
“Look Neil, we caught one,” Louise exclaimed, splashing her way to the edge of the stream and scrambling out of the water. Her shorts were now soaked and most of her tee-shirt too. One side of her face was streaked with mud. Neil smiled at her jubilation. He didn’t really mind her always being around. At least she liked doing the things that boys liked doing and Richard got on well with her. If he was honest he quite liked her really.
“Yeah, Rip did well,” he answered her. Richard was holding up the unfortunate rat by the tail. “Rich, throw it away.”
“No, I’m going to show Dad,” he replied, his face beaming.
“I’ll walk back to the oak tree with you,” Louise said, as she pulled on her trainers.
“Would you like to come over for a ride tomorrow?” Richard asked, as they made their way back along the track. “It’s Neil’s birthday and Dad and Mam have a surprise for him.” The boys’ parents owned The Grange Farm and a few other farms in the valley, too. Keeping two ponies was quite within their means. Louise was mad about the ponies and with the help of Kathy, the boys’ elder sister, had soon learned to ride. She wasn’t as competent as Richard and certainly not up to Neil’s standards. The brothers had been attending Pony Club since the age of seven.
“Can I? Yes, please! When I’ve done my jobs at home,” she replied, her delight evident as she skipped ahead of them, sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards. “Do you know what the surprise is?” she queried. Strands of her wavy dark hair had escaped from their bunches and were blowing across her impish happy face. She was always thrilled when the boys invited her over to ride.
“No, silly, or it wouldn’t be a surprise but we’ll find out at ten thirty,” Neil informed her, looking serious. He wasn’t too keen on surprises. They had reached the oak tree where they parted company. The boys bade their young friend goodbye and continued on their way, heading for The Grange.
“’Bye, see you tomorrow,” Louise called after them before turning and retracing her steps back up the course of the stream. She climbed over fences and ducked under the strands of wire dividing the fields as she made her way home. She pulled at the long heads of grass as she went along, parting them from the stalks and chewed at the soft tender stems. She picked up a broken twig and whacked the tall heads of the thistles, sending downy seeds flying everywhere. She stopped momentarily, a knowing smile on her pert little face, listening to the distinctive call of a woodpecker. Her knees were filthy from kneeling on the muddy riverbank and there was a trickle of dried blood on one of her legs where she’d caught herself on a briar. None of this bothered the carefree youngster. Eventually, she reached the path leading up the fields to the ’keeper’s cottage where she lived with her parents.
Her father was just coming out of the feed-house as Louise arrived in the yard. He was followed by two black Labradors, their silky coats shining in the sunlight. His eyes lit up when they alighted on the young girl. George Bentley would be the last to admit that she got away with murder.
“Now, mi lass. What have you been up to?”
“Dad, guess what? We caught a rat down by the trout pool. A great big one.” She stopped stroking the dogs to illustrate with her hands the exaggerated size of the unfortunate creature. “It didn’t ’alf squeal when Rip got it.” She continued patting the dogs as the words tumbled forth. “They’ve asked me to go riding tomorrow.” She glanced up at her father. “Can I, Dad? Can I? It’s Neil’s birthday and he’s getting a surprise.” George found it difficult to say no to his little girl. He smiled down on her as she knelt on the cobbled stones, caressing the dogs.
“Aye, I expect so, lass. As long as it’s all right with yer mother.” She jumped up and threw her arms round him.
“Thanks Dad.” Her face was beaming. “Do you want any help with the dogs?”
“Well, you could take that young’n out for a run. She just torments these two with her playfulness.”
“Great. I’d better let Mam know I’m back first, though.” She grinned cheekily at him in a knowing way and skipped off into the house.
Ellen Bentley was a devoted wife and mother who kept her domain spotless. Her sharp tongue was only surface deep though, for beneath the firm exterior lay a tender, loving heart. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for her family. Young Louise had obviously inherited her mother’s good looks for, despite having a son in his twenties and an extra inch or two round the waistline, Ellen was still a very attractive woman. All hope of having a second child had long gone when she and George had been blessed with their daughter. Ellen was preparing the evening meal when Louise burst through the door.
“Louise Bentley! What am I going to do with you? Just look at the state you’re in. Where’ve you been?”
“I’m all right, Mam. I went for a walk down by the beck and met the lads from the big house. We caught a rat. Well, Rip did,” she added gleefully. Louise ignored the gasp of horror from her mother and carried on. “I’m just going to take Bella out for Dad, before I do my jobs,” and rushed back outside. Ellen sighed, shaking her head in a resigned way.
Louise loved Bella, the young cream Labrador. She was one her father had bred from his working bitch, Gina. Louise had been present at the birth of the puppies and George had let his daughter choose one to keep. He needed a replacement for one of his older gundogs. Louise had looked after the litter, once they’d been weaned, and hadn’t been too upset as each of the other puppies had left for new homes. Louise had helped with the young Bella’s initial training, teaching her to sit when told and walk quietly on a lead and had spent many a happy time encouraging the puppy to find and fetch her rubber bone when they played together in the field nearby.
Louise set off up the track to the moor with the boisterous youngster prancing round her legs. The young girl loved the moors and often took Bella with her when she went for walks. On her way back she went through the pine plantation, searching for huge cones to take home and save for Christmas. She had to scold Bella when she chased a rabbit, which fortunately soon found a hole down which to escape. Dad would not be pleased about Bella doing that. She knew that well trained gundogs didn’t chase rabbits. She called the young dog to heel before making her way back home.
Next morning, Louise was up early and went out to help her father exercise the dogs. Louise loved to go with him, especially when she could take Bella. None of the dogs were allowed off their leads on the moors when the grouse and other birds were nesting but that was just in the springtime. At other times Bella loved bounding across the moor, and when the heather was in bloom would send clouds of pollen into the air which made her sneeze. Louise would hide in the deep ling beds, only to be jumped on by Bella, barking excitedly when she found her companion.
“Are you going to take Bella shooting on Monday, Dad?” she asked as they fastened them all back in their kennels.
“No lass, not ont’ first days. Maybe next time out.” The first shooting days of the season on the grouse moors were always a bit fraught with anxiety. Then things usually settled down as everyone got into the running of things.
“Can I come on Monday?” she pleaded. He looked at her eager face, knowing how she loved to be on the moors with him.
“Not this year. When you’re a bit older you can come for a day.” Seeing her disappointed face, he added, “How would you like to come round t’butts with me tomorrow, when you get back from t’Grange?”
“Oo, yes please.” Once more her face was beaming. “Can I take Bella with us?”
“Aye, I reckon so.”
Later, after coffee, Louise rushed upstairs to change ready to go riding. She pulled on clean jeans and chose her favourite blue sweatshirt. Ellen was giving her daughter a lift to The Grange.
“I have to go into the village this morning so I’ll drop you at the gates.” They soon arrived at the entrance to The Grange and Louise jumped out, thanked her mother and set off down the long driveway, which was lined with horse-chestnut trees. Clutching a birthday card for Neil in her hand, she half-skipped, half-ran down to the big house. As usual, Richard was watching out for her and went to meet her. He took her inside where his mother and elder sister, Kathy, were waiting.
“I’ll go start tacking up the ponies, Lulu,” he said, a secretive smile on his face, and went back out and across the yard. The old pet name often slipped out. As a toddler, Richard found difficulty in pronouncing Louise’s name correctly and ended up calling her Lulu. The name had stuck with her over the years. Mrs. Nickerson was a tall, elegant woman with light brown hair swept back in a roll. She was an excellent horsewoman, having represented her county at Three Day Eventing in her younger days. She had taught all her children to ride and was very happy to encourage Louise. The blue eyes softened and smiled when she saw her sons’ young friend, who beamed back at her. Grace had always had a soft spot for the gamekeeper’s young daughter.
“Hello Louise; glad you could come.”
“Hello Mrs. Nickerson. Hello Kathy.” Louise thought the world of Kathy, who was almost as beautiful as her mother, having the same golden brown hair but with contrasting brown eyes, which she’d inherited from her father. At eighteen, Kathy seemed very grown up to Louise. Kathy was leaving at the end of summer for nursing college.
“Hi, Louise. I expect you’d like to borrow my riding hat? Mum says there’s a pair of Neil’s riding boots he’s grown out of that you can wear. They’re out in the tack room. Shall we all go and find Neil?” Louise could hardly contain her eagerness as she rushed ahead to the stable. The two ponies were tethered to rings outside. Richard was brushing the mud off Cloud, a stocky grey pony, thirteen two hands high. Louise went immediately to pat Cloud, as she knew this was the one that she’d be riding. Next to Cloud, standing patiently, was Fizz, a bonny bay pony with a white blaze down his face. He was a good hand higher than Cloud and normally would be ridden by Neil but when Louise was riding, Richard rode Fizz. Richard stopped his brushing and linked his arm through his pal’s.
“Come on in here.” He guided her to an open door in the building next to the stable. It had once been a pig sty but Louise knew it was now used for any sick animals on the farm. She stopped, rooted to the spot, and gasped in amazement at what she saw. Neil turned and smiled proudly at Louise. He was stroking the most beautiful horse Louise had ever seen. She stared, open-mouthed.
“Wow!” was all she could manage, her eyes glowing.
“Come and say hello to her,” invited Neil.
“Is she really yours?” Louise could hardly believe that this was Neil’s surprise birthday present. She walked over to Neil’s side and stroked the smooth black coat that felt like silk.
“Wow!” again was all she could say. The mare stood at fifteen hands and looked every inch a thoroughbred. Her mane and tail had been expertly pulled. She had wonderful intelligent eyes with a white star on her face and one white fetlock. Coming back to earth, Louise found her tongue once more.
“I nearly forgot. Happy birthday, Neil.” She handed him the card, glancing briefly at him before returning her attention to the mare. “Are you coming out with us today?” she asked eagerly, realizing that there were now three ponies. Louise normally only rode with Richard while Neil helped his father with the stock. Neil turned to Louise, taking the card from her hand, his handsome young face transfixed with joy.
“Thank you. Yes, I am.” He turned again to the mare, his hand still stroking her neck. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Even the normally undemonstrative young lad could not conceal his pleasure at this special gift from his parents.
Ten minutes later, the three young friends set off down the field to the track which forded the stream and headed up the road leading to the moors.
That summer holiday was the best Louise ever had. The three pals spent many happy days riding together, exploring all the tracks across the moors, crossing streams and climbing up steep stony hillsides. They rode over to the forestry plantations and cantered freely along the grassy rides. Sometimes they took a packed lunch, provided by Mrs. Nickerson, which Neil would carry in his back-pack and always found a place to stop near a stream so that the ponies could have a drink. The ponies were tethered to a tree or fence using string from their pockets. When this was done the three young riders could settle down to enjoy their picnic.
Some days they built small jumps in the wood behind The Grange, using fallen branches, and devised special courses. They would imagine they were competing in great competitions, awarding each other points. Needless to say Neil was nearly always the winner. These adventures were not without mishap but no serious injuries ever befell them.
Towards the end of August, they attended the local gymkhana and joined in all the pony games. Neil entered Star (as his beautiful horse was named) in the novice jumping class and rode home proudly wearing his rosette for having a clear round. One day before the end of the holidays, when Kathy was there to watch over them, Neil let Louise have a ride on Star. They were in the big field by the house and Louise was thrilled as she climbed onto Neil’s horse for the first time. She trembled with excitement as Neil adjusted the stirrup leathers to the correct length for her. Proudly she rode the beautiful mare, her face aglow with pleasure.
“My, but you’ve improved these holidays,” declared Kathy to the jubilant youngster, as Louise dismounted. “You handle her well.” Louise went home very happy that day with Kathy’s praise ringing in her ears.
Louise always had her jobs to do at home, of course, but as well as riding, she spent many days with the boys down by the beck. Sometimes they lay on the grassy bank overlooking the trout pool, watching those beautiful fish glide gracefully through the water or dart swiftly away when startled. They climbed trees, made rope swings on the branches and built dams in the streams. Other times, when Richard had Rip with him, they hunted for water rats but didn’t have much luck in catching them. It was fun trying, though, and Rip enjoyed it, as he tore up and down the riverside, jumping in and out of the water, barking madly.
The barking startled Louise. She opened her eyes, half expecting to see Rip but it wasn’t the little terrier she saw. Not more than ten yards away from her was a black and white Springer Spaniel, watching Louise curiously, its head cocked to one side. It barked again, twice. Just then someone whistled from a short distance away and the spaniel bounded off. Louise stood up, rubbing her shoulder where it had been leant against the rough bark of the tree. She smiled to herself, thinking how her daydreaming had brought all her childhood flooding back. Checking that her keys were still in her pocket, she made her way up the footpath back to the road.
Louise continued in her happy frame of mind as she drove along the narrow lane thinking about her childhood. They had been good years, and it was only now that she realized just how lucky they were to have been brought up in such wonderful surroundings. She had seen very little of the boys since leaving school. They had all gone off to college. Kathy had gone first, to study for a career in nursing. Then Neil went to agricultural college and two years later Richard and Louise had gone to university. Richard was now a fully qualified accountant and had just recently been offered a junior partnership in the firm where he worked. This had encouraged him to fix the date for marriage to his fiancée, Sue, feeling his future would now be secure.
It would be good to see them again. Louise had met Sue once but only briefly. Now that she was home for a few weeks, she would have time to catch up with all the news. Soon she was crossing the cattle grid and pulling into the familiar yard at home. The dogs started barking, as they did when any strange vehicle approached the house. She barely had time to get out of the car before a welcoming voice greeted her.
“Hello love, good to see you.” Ellen Bentley enveloped her daughter in a huge hug.
“Hi, Mam. How are you?” asked Louise, returning the warm embrace.
“I’m fine, thank you, and even better for seeing you. C’mon, I’ve got the kettle boiling. You can bring your cases in later.” Louise followed her mother into her old home. The well remembered sight of Wellington boots, waterproofs, walking sticks and dog leads met her as she entered the porch. The smell of home baking drifted through the kitchen door. There was something very reassuring about it all. Yes, it was good to be home.
An hour later, George Bentley arrived home from work and the pleasure on his face at seeing his daughter was very evident. He was a short but strong man, his tanned complexion showing that he spent most of his time outdoors. The sleeves on his green checked shirt were rolled up past the elbows and braces supported his plus fours.
“Now, mi’ lass. You had a good drive over, then?” he asked, hugging her warmly.
“Yes, not bad at all, thanks, Dad. How’re things with you?” Louise asked, kissing him affectionately on the cheek. Her father sat down in his carver chair and began unlacing his boots.
“Oh, can’t grumble, you know. Busy as ever but it’s made a big difference having young Tony around.”
“Is he your new underkeeper?”
“Aye. He has a bit to learn but willing enough. He’s living in Crag Cottage. Nickersons did it all up last year. You’ll meet him Monday if you come out with us. We’re shooting again.” He stood up and picking up his boots took them out into the porch.
“She’s come home for a rest!” interrupted her mother, laughing. She was busy setting the table. “She won’t want to go traipsing all over the moors.” Louise hadn’t actually thought about going beating but it did sound rather appealing. She hadn’t done any beating since leaving school.
“Oh, I don’t know, Mam. If it’s a day like today it’ll be grand up on those tops. How’s the shooting going, anyway, Dad?”
“Not bad lass. We had two canny days this week but it needs to be a bit cooler for t’birds to fly better. We’ll see how they go on Monday.” Even though it was summer time, George Bentley still looked forward to his ‘meat and two veg’ dinners and all three of them tucked into a hearty meal of shepherd’s pie with fresh greens from the garden. George wasn’t interested in growing flowers but he was very proud of his vegetable patch. Ellen then produced a delicious apple crumble served with ice cream. By the time they’d finished eating, the dogs were letting everyone know that it was their mealtime. Louise offered to go out with her Dad but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“No, plenty of other days for that. Besides, they won’t want to go far. I’ve had them out with me most of today going round t’butts. You stay and have a natter with your Mam. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to talk about. I know what you women are like,” he teased, adding, “not to mention that there’s a wedding coming up!”
“Go on with you,” chided his wife. “Come on, Louise. We’ll take a drink and go sit in the garden. Might as well enjoy this lovely weather while it lasts. We can do the dishes later.”
Louise followed her mother outside. She was quite surprised at how comfortable she’d felt being back with her parents. Perhaps she’d made the right decision after all and felt greatly relieved at not having to be constantly looking over her shoulder. It was a beautiful evening as the slowly setting sun cast long shadows across the dale. Although not a great gardener, Ellen liked her flowers and the neat borders were a blaze of colour, with the fragrant perfume of stocks, sweet peas and evening primroses permeating the still air. Swallows were darting to and fro, chattering madly, stopping momentarily to rest on the telegraph wires. The two women made their way to the old rustic seat and relaxed, at ease in each other’s company.
After Louise had brought her mother up to date with all the latest news from Keswick, (she omitted her real reason for leaving) and the prospects of her new employment, the conversation inevitably turned to the forthcoming wedding and the Nickersons.
“How are they all down at The Grange? I haven’t seen them since the funeral and didn’t have a lot of chance to talk that day,” asked Louise.
“No, it was a shame you had to rush back to work. Still, it was good that you managed to come for the day. Grace seems to be coping very well and Richard, of course, has Sue. I think it’s been very hard for Neil, especially with taking on the responsibility of the farm so young. He certainly works hard but I know he misses his Dad a lot.”
“Yes, I’m sure he does. Must have been an awful shock for Neil – well, all of them when Mr. Nickerson had his heart attack. He wasn’t that old, was he, Mam?”
“Philip? No, he was younger than your Dad,” Ellen replied. The silence that fell between them wasn’t uncomfortable as they each dwelt on their own thoughts. Louise felt great sadness as she thought about what they all must have gone through. She couldn’t bear to think of what it would be like to lose her father. She would have to go and visit Mrs. Nickerson and Neil. Louise turned to the rest of the family.
“How’s Kathy?” she asked.
“Keeping well but she was quite devastated at the time. She was always very close to her father but I suppose she had plenty of things to do that helped her through. She came to visit quite a lot in the early days but with two little ones to look after and Rob working all hours at the hospital, it was never easy.”
“It will be good to see Kathy again and I’m looking forward to seeing the children,” declared Louise.
“Yes, young Rebecca starts school after Christmas. I bet they’ll be getting excited about the wedding,” replied her mother. Kathy had met her husband, while working at the same hospital in Scarborough. It had been love at first sight. Louise had been quite surprised when she was first introduced to Rob. He wasn’t at all the kind of man she would have expected Kathy to fall for. Hiding behind his spectacles and a neatly trimmed ginger beard was a lovely person, who was sensitive and kind with a wicked sense of humour and he absolutely worshipped Kathy. The joy felt when their first child arrived was tinged with sadness. The baby girl was diagnosed with Spina Bifida. It had taken a while for Kathy to accept the truth of baby Samantha’s condition. However, with Rob’s knowledge and her own practical nursing experience, they had soon come to terms with Sam’s disability. The little girl was now six years old and although confined to a wheelchair, was very bright and full of life. She had responded well to the physiotherapy treatment, both at the hospital and at home.
Rob was aware that if you have a child born with this condition, there is more chance of its happening again, so he and Kathy decided not to take that chance. Two years after the birth of Samantha, they were successful in adopting a little girl, Rebecca.
“That reminds me, I thought we might go shopping on Saturday,” her mother continued, smiling at her daughter. “New clothes and all that!” The conversation drifted on to more frivolous affairs as the sun set ever lower.
Not used to lying in, Louise was up in good time the next day and after breakfast set off up the track to the moor. Having consulted her father on which dog she could take, she was accompanied by Donna, a granddaughter of Bella’s. She was a cream Labrador and very much like her grandmother in nature, too. At two years old, Donna was showing great promise and enjoyed her work. George had told Louise that if she got on well with Donna, she could take the young dog on the moors on Monday.
It was a clear fresh morning as Louise climbed up the hillside and through the plantation, out on to the open moor. The shades of pink and purple heather stretched endlessly before her, its honeyed perfume filling her nostrils. Curlews called out in alarm as they noticed her presence and a cock grouse cackled out a harsh warning call to his family. Donna behaved very well and remained at heel to Louise’s bidding. Yes, she would go beating on Monday. It felt so good to be back on the moor with its familiar sights and sounds and the air so fresh and clean.
As of old, Louise once again felt in awe of this vast beauty around her and thought how privileged she was to have this wonderful freedom. Much as she loved the grandeur and majesty of the fells and mountains of Lakeland, she realized for the first time that this was where she felt she truly belonged. It felt like a home-coming in every sense of the word. She had a great respect, as well as love, for these wild expansive moorlands. They weren’t always bathed in sunlight with heat-waves rippling across the distant skylines like they were today. She knew their darker moods, when they were wrapped in shrouds of dense mist, swirling menacingly across each hill and gully, transforming the terrain into an eerie alien land. She’d seen them wreathed in blankets of powdery snow with the howling winds causing blizzard conditions, whipping up deep drifts in the lee of every mound and hillock. Even the hardy grouse sought shelter in the deepest ling beds when faced with such arctic conditions. She loved them as they were today, a sea of purple foam, stretching away to the distant horizon.
Later in the day, Louise was in her bedroom finishing her unpacking when the ’phone rang. Her mother’s voice called up the stairs.
“Telephone, Louise.” She rushed downstairs, wondering who would be calling her, and picked up the ’phone.
“Louise? It’s Neil. Heard you were home.”
“My, but news travels fast. I only arrived yesterday.” There was pleasure in her voice as she spoke to her old friend.
“Ah, yes, but we knew you were coming. Nothing stays a secret round here, or had you forgotten? Mother asked me to call you to see if you’d like to come down for tea on Sunday. She’d love to see you. Well, we both would,” he added. Louise smiled at his afterthought.
“Thank you. I’d love to come. I was just saying to Mam that I planned to visit you. I shall look forward to it.”
“Will around four be okay?” asked Louise.
“Yes. Fine. We’ll see you then. ’Bye for now.”
“’Bye.” Louise hung up the ’phone. There was a difference in his voice somehow. She couldn’t quite make out what it was but then a lot had happened since she’d last spoken with him. She hoped he hadn’t changed too much.