Hot Chocolate and Yellow Oilskins (June story)

Julie drove along the country lane cursing the rain.  The journey to her rented cottage in Cornwall had taken longer than she’d expected; she’d hoped to arrive before dark.  She didn’t like the dark.  The thought of it gave her shivery-goose bumps.  

A sudden flash of headlights swept fast around the bend momentarily blinding her. The driver sounded his horn.  Shocked, Julie jammed on the brakes and instinctively jerked the steering wheel to one side.  The van skidded on the mud spattered road and slid into the ditch.   What the hell, she thought as a black Land Rover, its lights blazing, flashed past, its horn blaring..

Damn, she thought.  Damn him, damn the weather and most of all damn herself for having made the decision to move to Cornwall to make a fresh start in her life.   In London she’d had a nice flat, a car and her own budding business.  What had possessed her to throw it all up, load all her possessions into a van and drive to a cottage she’d never even seen, having picked it off the internet?

It was Rich of course; Rich, the bonkers banker who’d broken her heart. She felt a tightening in her chest as his face flashed into her mind.  Biting back the tears she put the van into reverse and attempted to back-out of the ditch onto the road.   The wheels spun.  A fresh wave of despair washed over her; a ball of anger formed in her stomach. The driver of the Land Rover had practically forced her off the road.  He must have seen her.   The madman’s probably laughing his head off by now.  Country folk? Are they all like that?  She banged her hands helplessly on the wheel. 

Several more attempts to get out of the ditch proved futile.  Shivering in the wet she climbed out of the van; her feet sank in the mud.  Her small purple van, freshly painted with the name ‘Julie’s Jewels’ was firmly stuck. 

Fighting off the emotion that threatened to engulf her, she searched in her bag for her mobile phone.  The display showed ‘no signal’.  “Arrrrrggggh,” she screamed and threw the phone into the van.  She wasn’t even sure how far it was to the cottage.  She was just about to trudge along the lane in the direction she had been travelling when a tractor, its lights dancing in the sleeting rain, bounced towards her.  

The tractor stopped, the driver, wearing heavy oilskins, jumped down. Hands on hips, shaking his head he stared.  “You’m be proper stuck,” he said. 

Relief, gratitude and hope flooded over Julie but the anger lingered.  “Some maniac in a black Land Rover forced me off the road.”

A flash of lightening lit up the farmer’s florid face.  “Aye, that’ll be Adam Trevelyan,” he said.  “Where you’m be heading?”

“Trebarra Cottage.  I’ve rented it for six months.”

“It’s half-a-mile on.”  He chuckled. “Adam’ll be your neighbour.” 

Julie’s face flushed hotter than a bonfire on firework night.  Great, she thought.

The farmer attached a rope to Julie’s van and pulled it clear of the ditch.  He got back onto his tractor. “Good luck,” he called as he drove away.

Silently fuming Julie got back into her van and drove to the cottage.  So, she thought, that smart-aleck- road-hog-selfish-twit is my neighbour.  Well, she wasn’t feeling particularly neighbourly.

A wood-burning stove in the kitchen and open fires laid in all the rooms gave the cottage a cosy feel.  With its low ceilings, colourful rugs and numerous pots of dried flowers it felt homelyl despite the cold outside.  The dresser in the parlour held an oil-lamp which Julie guessed was for emergencies.  She smiled when she saw the electric kettle and microwave in the kitchen. Hot chocolate and a hot-water bottle soon restored her temper.  By the time her friend Felicity arrived for a visit a few days later, Julie had made herself quite at home.

“I’ve brought supplies,” Felicity said handing her a box containing half-a-dozen bottles of wine.  “Good job too.  I didn’t realise you’d be so isolated.  I got lost but thankfully your neighbour put me right.”  She sighed.  “Now I can see why you’ve been so quiet.  Keeping him to yourself eh? Not that I blame you.  He’s gorgeous.”

“Gorgeous?  He’s a maniac.”  Julie told her about her mishap on the road.   “If you must know I’ve never even spoken to him,” she said.  She’d seen him coming and going in his Land Rover, stared narrow-eyed out of the window, silently cursing him, but hadn’t had the temerity to approach him.  “I’ve been busy working on a commission.  Want to see it?”

It was the commission from a large chain of exclusive stores that had enabled Julie to rent the cottage in the first place and to follow her dream of having her own jewellery store in the fishing village where she’d spent so many happy childhood holidays.  She couldn’t wait to show Felicity her latest designs.

“What do you think?”

Felicity gasped.  She fingered the tiny ceramic beads.  “They look like miniature chocolates,” she said.  “How clever.”

“I’m calling it my Hot Chocolate Collection,” Julie said proudly.

Felicity picked up a couple more.  “This must be an orange cream and this one a caramel.  So sweet.”  She glanced at Julie.  “This one’s definitely you – a strawberry delight, all soft and gooey in the centre. 

Julie laughed.  “And this is you,” she said picking one up.  “A  hazelnut.”

By the time they’d had dinner and a bottle of wine by a roaring fire they had assigned chocolates to all their friends.  “What about Mr Tall-dark-and-handsome next door?” Felicity asked sipping her wine.  “He’s Brad Pitt, Jude Law and Zac Efron all rolled into one – he must be a mega-bar of lush champagne truffle at least.

Julie shook her head.  “He’s a plain chocolate brazil – dark and bitter on the outside and teeth-breakingly hard inside.”

Felicity raised her eyebrows.  “So you do like him then,” she said a mischievous glint in her eye.

The next morning they went to the harbour where Julie was hoping to sell some of her jewellery to the local shops along the quay.  The sun had broken through the clouds and promised a bright day.   Gulls screeched in an opalescent sky and boats bobbed on tranquil waters.  Julie’s heart softened, filled with a kaleidoscope of childhood memories. She recalled the colourful stone buildings around the harbour, the cramped, narrow streets, cosy pubs and idyllic days spent exploring rocky coves or playing on sandy beaches. 

“Oh look,” Felicity said.  “Open Day at the Lifeboat Station.  We must go and support them.  They’re all volunteers and real heroes.  Come on.” 

Julie followed her along the quay to the Lifeboat station.  The farmer who’d rescued Julie was manning one of the stalls.  “Hello there,” he said.  “Settled in all right are you?”

“Thanks to you,” Julie said.  “Lucky you happened along.”

The farmer chuckled.  “Weren’t luck,” he said.  “Nay, it were Adam there.”  He nodded in the direction of a man in yellow oilskins Julie recognised at her neighbour, the owner of the Land Rover.  “Rang me soon as he got to the main road.  He were on a shout see – couldn’t stop hisself and there’s no signal in lanes.”

Julie coloured.  “On a shout?”

“Aye.  Coxswain of the Lifeboat.   Nasty night to go out but when there’s a boat in trouble…”

Felicity nudged Julie.  “We must go and thank him – mustn’t we Julie?”  She grabbed Julie’s arm and dragged her over to where the Coxswain was securing the boat. 

“I hear you saved the day when Julie got stuck in a ditch,” Felicity said. 

He looked up his glance blatantly focussed on Julie.  A broad smile spread across his face. “Always happy to help a lady in distress.”  He held out his hand.  “Adam,” he said.  

Reluctantly Julie took his hand and caught her breath.  The warmth of his touch travelled up her arm straight to her heart.   He’s not a brazil nut, she thought, more like a cherry liqueur, luscious, rich, bittersweet and surprising.

“Glad to see you’re okay.  Them lanes can be treacherous if you’m not used to ‘em,” he said.

It was several moments before she realised she still had her hand in his.  “Ah, yes.  Please to meet you,” she stuttered.  She had the strangest feeling bubbling up inside her, like frothy hot chocolate.  Felicity was right, he was gorgeous. She noticed the sea-spray in his black as the night hair and wondered if his lips tasted of salt, then chided herself for her foolishness. Embarrassed, she cringed and pulled her hand away.  “Well, thanks anyway,” she said.

“I’m sure he’s used to that,” Felicity said as they walked back to the harbour.

“What?”

“That reaction he gets when meeting young unattached females.”

“What reaction?”

“You know the one – the way you melted like butter on hot crumpets when he shook your hand”

“I did not.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Did not.”  Julie huffed and stomped towards a souvenir shop.

“Did,” Felicity called after her.  “I saw you.”

At the end of the week Julie waved Felicity goodbye.  Her holiday had flown She sighed.  The nights were drawing in, the sky already darkening. It was the first time she’d ever felt so isolated. She flicked on the light switch – nothing happened. 

She went into the parlour and tried that light – again nothing.  There was no light in the kitchen or power to the kettle. She glanced out of the window, across the field she saw lights dotted like gemstones on the horizon.  

Her first thought was that it must be a power cut, hence the oil lamp in the parlour.  She tried to light the lamp but acrid black smoke filled the room.   The darkness was deepening.  Julie shuddered.  “This is stupid,” she said out loud as the irrational childhood fear rose up inside her.   “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she berated herself, tears stinging her eyes.  Through the window she saw lights twinkling in Adam’s cottage.

Must be a fuse, she thought.  She went out to the van to retrieve her torch from under the dashboard.  She had no idea where the fuse box might be.  Eventually she found it under the stairs.  All the fuses were intact.

She glanced again at Adam’s cottage, the windows ablaze with light.  She cursed the dark again, her heart pounding.  There was nothing for it but to go and ask if he could help. 

She took a deep breath, fixed a smile on her face and knocked at the door.  Inside a dog barked.  As few moments later she heard his voice. “Stay,” he said.

The door opened the chink of light spreading until she was bathed in it.  She drew a breath.  Even without his oilskins his powerful build was obvious.  “I don’t seem to have any light,” she said.  “No electric at all.  I wondered if you could help, your cottage doesn’t appear to be affected.”

“Power’s down. You need to fire up the jenny,” he said. 

“The jenny?” 

“In the shed.”

“The shed?”

“I’ll come over,” he said.  “Shouldn’t take a minute.”

She followed him to the outbuilding behind the cottage.   She’d thought it some sort of garage but now saw it housed a fair sized generator.  She held the torch while Adam checked for petrol and started the motor. Julie watched mesmerised as he worked.  His movements were economical, his quiet efficiency impressive. The musky smell of the engine filled the garage giving it a closeness and intimacy she hadn’t felt before.  The cottage was so isolated they could be the only people left on earth, she thought.  As soon as the engine fired the lights in the cottage sprung on.

Relief washed over her. “Looks like you’ve rescued me again,” she said. 

“My pleasure.”  He took a step towards her.  Julie’s heart raced, her mind whirled.

“I’ve got some pierce and ping in the freezer if you’re interested,” she said. “It’s the least I can offer after you rescuing me again.”

He smiled.  “Pierce and ping – sounds wonderful.” he said.

Julie warmed to him as they sat together on the marshmallow-like sofa in front of a blazing fire, drinking wine.  She felt sure he was an excellent cook and his enjoyment of the pierce and ping merely politeness. He explained to Julie how to fire the jenny and keep it topped up ready for emergencies. 

  He talked about his work on the boats and his pride in gaining the position of Coxswain of the lifeboat. She told him about her jewellery designs and her ambition to open a jewellery store in the area.  “Don’t suppose you know of any suitable premises going spare?” she said. 

His face clouded over.  His eyes narrowed.  He shook his head.  “I should be going,” he said.  “Early tide tomorrow.”  His abrupt departure left Julie astounded.  She felt a tug at her heartstrings and surprisingly bereft as she stood in the cottage doorway watching him walk away.

Men, she thought, she’d never understand them.  Felicity was right.  “Treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen,” she said, but then Felicity flitted between men like a honey bee on speed, hardly scratching the surface.  Julie on the other hand wanted to be loved truly, madly, deeply and forever.   She recalled Rich’s betrayal and her heartache returned. 

She reminded herself of her decision to come to Cornwall to make a fresh start and follow her dream and that didn’t include any romantic involvements thank you very much.  Adam had cooled off when she’d mentioned her plans to stay.  Perhaps it was better to keep it that way.

Over the next weeks and up to Christmas Julie pursued outlets for her jewellery all along the coast.  Wherever there were souvenir or gift shops she approached them with samples of her Cornish Craft Jewellery lines.   She made several trips to London and gained a further commission to design a collection she called Blatantly Beautiful Bling using sparkling crystals. For the Christmas market she put together Jewellery Making Kits which proved to be very popular.

She wasn’t particularly watching out for Adam’s comings and goings, but couldn’t help being aware of his presence. She became glad to see the lights in his cottage when she returned in the dark; her heart lifted and her feeling of isolation lessened.   His greetings were always friendly.  When she asked his advice he showed her how to light the wood-burning stove in the kitchen and taught her the ins and outs of keeping a dry wood-pile.  Perhaps she had misjudged him.  Or was he being friendly only because he didn’t think she was staying?

Despite what she saw as Adam’s disapproval, with a secure income she felt able to look for shop premises.  She tried all the outlying villages but her search was fruitless.  She had her name on the books of several Agents but all to no avail.  Every place she looked at was either too big, too expensive or had no passing trade.  She was beginning to despair of ever find anywhere suitable until one day, walking along the quay, she noticed an empty half-shop at the end of the parade, situated immediately before the steps leading up to the cliff path that meandered around the headland and onto the next town.

She went into the café next door, ordered a hot chocolate and plate of fish and chips and asked the proprietor about the vacant premises.

“Bless my soul me dear, bin empty for years,” the lady told her.  “Far as I know it’s never been for rent.  I never seen any boards or nuthin any road.”

Julie watched the passing trade; walkers bundled up against the cold weather, people with dogs and children whooping their way up the steps.  The tiny shop would be perfect. She was determined to find out more about it.

Despite calls to all the agents in the area she could find no details.  Eventually she went to the Harbour Masters’ office to see if he could shed any light on the subject. 

“Small shop at the end?  She’s not for rent,” he said.  “Can’t see the leaseholder letting her go.”

“But the shop’s empty, paint’s peeling.  It’s in a prime location.  Surely it can’t be right leaving it empty.  Why would anyone do that?”

“Nowt strange about it,” the Harbour Masters said.  “Sometime there’s things more important than money.”

Julie sighed.  “Well, yes, but it seems such a waste.”

The Harbour Master shrugged his shoulders.

Julie sighed again.  She wrung her hands in what she hoped was a most appealing way.  “Do you know who owns the lease?” she asked.  “Perhaps if I approach them directly…”

“Won’t make no difference.”

“But I’d like to try.”  Julie put on her most wheedling voice.  “If you tell me who it is…” she stared at him, wide-eyed – brows arched – hopeful.

The Harbour Master chuckled.  “It’s Adam Trevelyan.  His wife had a pottery and pictures shop there.  They lived in the flat above.  Devastated he were when she died in a boating accident. Shut up shop, moved to the cottage inland so’s he couldn’t see the sea. Never went back.  That’s when he joined the lifeboat.”  The Harbour Master shook his head.  “Never been the same since. Shame.”

Julie’s stomach clenched. She couldn’t have been more shocked if he’d punched her.  No wonder Adam went so quiet when she talked about her plans to open a jewellery shop.   Then she’d asked him if he knew of any premises. He must have thought…

Her face flamed at the memory; how crass and stupid she must have seemed, and how insensitive and scheming.  No wonder he’d kept his distance.

A few days later she saw him in the boatyard checking a pile of ropes.  “Hi,” she called.  “Lovely morning.”

His responding nod appeared friendly enough so she pressed on.  “I owe you an apology,” she said, “or an explanation at least.”

He glanced up, his face wary.

“I didn’t know.  Didn’t know about the shop, your wife, anything…” She shrugged.

“No reason you should,” he said, his voice guarded.  He carried on running the rope through his hands.

“It’s just that the shop is empty.  It seems such a waste.”

 “It’s not for rent,” he said.

Julie persisted.  “It’s in a prime location.  It would be perfect.”

Adam’s head shot up.  He glared at her.  “It’s not for rent,” he said and threw the rope to the ground before storming away.

Julie sighed.  Men, she thought.  They’re impossible.  She sighed.  Perhaps if I can catch him in a better mood…She’d set her heart on that shop and wasn’t to be deterred by his pig-headedness.

Christmas with Felicity in London consisted of partying, eating, drinking and various forms of outrageous conduct.   Julie told her about Adam’s wife. 

“He’s a lost cause,” Felicity said.  “He’s still in love with his wife. Forget him.  There’s plenty more fish in the sea.”

But Julie couldn’t forget him.  He kept pushing his way into her thoughts; his easy smile, his grace, his obvious charm. When she sat with her sketch pad doodling her designs she found his face appearing on the page, then she’d have to scribble it out and start again.  No one had ever invaded her mind like he did.

Boxing Day evening she was sitting watching TV with Felicity when she saw the report of a trawler being dashed against the rocks in a force ten gale. Lifeboats from around the Cornish coast had been called out.   She watched the screen in horror as small boats were tossed like matchsticks on an angry sea.  Thirty foot waves lashed the rocks as the crews, in their distinctive yellow oilskins, battled to rescue the trawler-men.  There were fears for the lives of two men who had been swept overboard in the storm.

Julie’s heart pounded.  Alarm surged through her. Supposing Adam was there – of course he would be there – it was what he did.    She recalled the Harbour Master saying he was the bravest Coxswain they’d ever had.  Reckless even – as though… Sickness swirled inside her at the thoughts running through her brain.  She’d never doubted his courage, but to see it there, on the screen in front of her…

She knew she had to get there to be with him.

All the way back thoughts tortured her mind.  Don’t let it be him… what if… supposing… Trying to rationalise it brought little comfort -he was an experienced sailor, he’d carried out hundreds of rescues… By the time she arrived she was exhausted. A tidal wave of relief flooded over her when she saw lights on in his cottage. Adam was safe.  She knocked on his door.

She couldn’t hide her joy at seeing him.  The warmth of his smile made her heart race.  “It’s a long time since anyone worried about me,” he said. “You’d best come in.”

Inside the cottage was warm and welcoming.  The room, which had a feminine feel to it, was dominated by the portrait of a woman, whom Julie guessed to be his late wife, in pride of place above the fireplace.  Pictures by local artists adorned the other walls; pottery items were dotted around the room on shelves and tables.  Julie took a breath.  Realisation of the depth of his loss washed over her.

“She was very beautiful,” she said.

“She was.”

“I’m so sorry.  I didn’t realise – didn’t understand.”  She swallowed the lump rising in her throat. “You must miss her so much.”

He nodded silently, sorrow shadowed his face.  “Always,” he said.

Julie’s heart swelled with remorse. 

Adam’s gaze moved from the picture to Julie’s face.  “She would have approved of you,” he said.  “She would have liked you.”

“I’m sure I’d have liked her too,” Julie murmured, smiling. She was wearing a necklace from her Hot Chocolate Collection.  He touched it, rolling the beads between his fingers.

 “She would have loved this.  You’re very talented.”  His voice was low and his gaze intense.

Julie blushed. “Thank you,” she said.  “Perhaps I should stick to designing and give up the idea of the shop.”

Adam sighed.  “Rachael wouldn’t have wanted the shop to stay empty for so long.” He gazed at the picture of his late wife.  “She loved life, the buzz, the people”.  He glanced back at Julie.   “You can have the shop, the flat too if you want.  It’s about time I moved on.”

Julie gasped.  “Do you mean it?  Really?  I mean…”

“It’s what Rachael would have wanted.” 

Happiness overwhelmed her.  “Thank you, thank you,” she said.

 His lips twitched into the beginnings of a smile.  “She wouldn’t have wanted me to be alone either.”

Julie’s heart pounded out of control. She threw herself into his arms.

He hesitated as though taken aback by her exuberance, then she felt him pulling her close. His breath brushed her cheek – and, yes, his lips tasted of salt

If you enjoyed this story there are plenty more in my Short Story Collections here.