They passed a smattering of barns and medieval-looking dwellings with thatched roofs, the buildings becoming increasingly few and far between, only snow-dusted fields and trees visible in the car’s headlights.
Jack slowed and pulled over. ‘ You sure this is it? It’s a lot more remote than I was expecting.’
‘I did warn you it’s in the middle of nowhere,’ Martha said, ‘although I only remember visiting the cabin in summer before, and the last time was almost thirty years ago.’
Checking the map on his phone, Jack heaved a huge sigh. ‘Damn, there’s no signal either. What is this the Middle Ages?’
‘It’s called “rural”. Martha giggled. ‘Hey, don’t huff at me; this was your idea, remember? A chance to escape the city for a couple of days. I wanted to go to the Maldives, but no, not you. So, here we are in drizzly paradise.’ She grinned at him, almost enjoying his discomfort.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ He started up the car and drove on. After several more kilometres she pointed out a sign for the village.
‘Thank God for that, I’m getting hungry.’ He sat forward, looking left, right and ahead, moving against the rhythm of the wipers. ‘This cabin does have electricity, doesn’t it?, only I don’t see any sign of light … anywhere.’
‘Of course, Dad said Grandpa had it refurbished a while ago, all the mod cons await. But, you’re right, the whole village seems to be shrouded in darkness.’
Driving through the village, there was not a single person to be seen. No street lighting, no cosy glow from cottage windows, no florescent glare from shop signs. ‘Must have been a power cut,’ said Martha, not looking at her husband’s face for fear of the death stare he’d be sending her way.
‘Wait! There’s something up there, at the very end of this road. If it’s a pub, we should stop and get some food.’
They neared the brightness to find a café, its floor-to ceiling window softly illuminated to reveal an array of empty tables.
‘Shall we check it out?’ he asked, bushy brows drawing together and highlighting his wide-set eyes.
‘Might as well. Could be the only chance of a hot drink before the power comes back.’ Martha fastened her coat, reached into the backseat for her handbag and got out. Jack came around the car and joined her, reaching for her hand.
‘Careful, the path’s icy.’ He pushed the door to the café open and warm air engulfed them. A tinkling sound overhead made him look up; he glanced at his wife, mouthing, “Really?”
‘Hello,’ said an elegant, elderly woman, wearing a flour-dusted apron over her chic blouse and tapered trousers. ‘I was about to shut up. The generator is on its last legs.’
‘Oh, we’ll leave then,’ said Martha, tugging at Jack’s arm.
‘Well, seeing as you’re here now, why not have a cup of tea first? It’d be a shame to waste what’s left in the urn.’
‘Don’t suppose there’s any food?’
The woman laughed. ‘Typical man, eh? Thinking of his stomach.’ She winked at Martha, then faced Jack. ‘I can offer you a slice of cake, sonny. Home-made about an hour ago.’
Jack nodded, grinning at Martha who was shaking her head at his boyish eagerness.
‘If you’re sure-’
‘Call me Connie, and it’s no bother. No point in letting a good cake go stale, is there? Come on through to the back; it’s warmer and turning these lights off with save what little power is left.’
Several cups of tea later, Jack and Martha were ready to leave. Connie had refused payment, after recalling Martha’s grandparents as regulars back in the day. She wrapped up the remaining half of the Madeira cake following Jack’s compliments on how good it was.
‘Can we drive you home then, Connie?’
‘No need,’ she said. ‘My bungalow is only across the street. But thank you. Enjoy your stay, and tell your grandpa I said hello.’
Ten minutes later, they approached the cabin, nestled atop a hill, overlooking the village. While the track was like a ribbon of ice, it presented no problem for Jack’s LandRover, and he pulled up outside the ochre-coloured stone wall surrounding the house.
‘Look,’ said Martha, her voice rimmed with sadness, pointing at a fallen tree, half-covered in snow like a festive Yule log. ‘Tim and I used to climb that tree as kids, spying on the village below.’
‘Can we do the memory lane stuff tomorrow maybe, you know when it’s warmer?’ Jack said blowing on his hands as he took the luggage from the boot. He trudged up the path, waiting for Martha to bring the key.
‘You’re heartless, Jack. We loved that tree,’ she said, nudging him out of the way to open the door.
‘I’m sorry, love, but it’s brass monkey weather out here. You can tell me all about it tomorrow; I am interested, really.’ He stamped his feet on the doormat and headed into the dark cabin. ‘It’s pitch black … ouch!’
Martha shone her torchlight inside the room, where Jack rubbed at his shin, wincing. She scanned the immediate area and found a stone gargoyle on its side. ‘Aw, Grandpa made that himself; we used to watch him chiselling away at it. Never did understand why he made something so ugly. I think it started out as a peacock but he lopped off a bit by mistake...’ she laughed and reached for the light switch. She flicked it on and clapped her hands when the room lit up. ‘Guess the power cut is over then.’
‘Yay! Silver linings,’ said Jack, getting to his feet and looking around. ‘Thought you said it had been refurbished.’ He pointed at an old armchair, its chintz fabric faded and threadbare on the arms and headrest.
Martha rushed a hand to her mouth. ‘Oh, Jack. That’s Grandma’s chair. I guess he couldn’t bear to part with it.’ She sat down in the chair, running her manicured fingers along the well-worn threads. Tears smarted her eyes and she swallowed against the hard lump lodged in her throat.
Jack limped across to the hearth. ‘I’ll get this going, shall I?’
‘You’ve been dying to do it, so fill your boots.’
Jack unzipped his jacker, rubbed his hands together and pulled a couple of logs out of the basket beside the fireplace. Absorbed in the task ahead, he went quiet, placing logs in the exact position he’d memorised from a YouTube watched on repeat a few days earlier, and fired up the hearth. ‘That should do it,’ he said, standing back to admire his handiwork as the naked flame sizzled against the wood.’ He went in to the kitchen and returned carrying two glasses. ‘Here, this’ll warm you up.’ He handed her a crystal glass filled to the halfway mark with an amber liquid. ‘Your Grandpa had good taste in single malts anyway. There’s a box full of them back there in one very modern kitchen.’ He smiled and raised his glass. ‘Cheers, love. I reckon this’ll do me nicely for a few days.’ He took a sip of whisky and stood by the window.
‘Grandpa always did get his priorities right,’ she said, feeling the warmth of the whisky slide down her throat. ‘What are you looking at now?’
‘It’s started to snow.’
Martha joined him, a slender arm creeping around his waist. ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’
‘Better than the Maldives?’
‘Ask me that when the place has warmed up.’
After demolishing the rest of the cake, not to mention several large measures of single malt, they began to explore the cabin.
Martha was enraptured by the kitchen, opening every door and drawer to find gadgets galore. Meanwhile, Jack left her to dream and wandered upstairs to the bedrooms with their luggage.
He came back down, admiring the intricate carvings on the banister, to find Martha sitting in her grandmother’s chair and leafing through a photo album, lost in a world of nostalgia. She glanced up, her cheeks rosy from the whisky and the fire. ‘I can’t believe he kept all these.’
‘We should take a few photos back with us; you can show them to him at care home,’ Jack said, rummaging through the piles of memorabilia Martha had dumped on the coffee table.’
‘Oh, Jack, that’s a great idea; he loves to reminisce. He might not be nimble of foot since that stroke, but there’s nothing wrong with his mind.’
‘Hey, what’s this?’ He held up a scrapbook, leaking newspaper articles.
‘I have no idea,’ she replied, but her husband had already settled on the sofa, skimming through the pages.
‘Blimey, some of these go back years, decades even. There’s a piece on the opening of a new railway station.’
‘Aw, he loved his trains. A proper spotter, he was.’
‘Look at this. Remind you of anyone?’ He passed the scrapbook across to her, holding it steady as she read the article.
‘Is that Connie?’
He grinned back at her. ‘That’s what I thought. Looks like she and your grandpa were ballroom dancers. Competitive, too. Champions, no less.’
‘I didn’t know that. Can you read the date?’
‘1950 something, the last digit has faded. When did he and your nan get married? Do you think he and Connie were romantically connected? She did seem to remember him fondly.’
‘Hang on, there’s a wedding photo in here. Might have the date on the back.’ She flicked back through the album, pausing at a black and white photograph. ‘Here it is. Oh my God, Jack, I think this is Connie in the line-up, standing next to Nan, quite possibly a bridesmaid.’
‘Bet there’s a story behind that photo, love. You’ll have to ask Grandpa about that. Maybe we can bring him back to house for a visit, catch up with Connie …’ Jack took the scrapbook back and continued to mooch through the articles.
‘You know, Jack Metcalfe, you can be quite the romantic when you try.’
‘And you’ve just realised this?’ he said, quirking a single brow; his imitation of Patrick Moore minus the monocle. ‘Whoa! Check this out.’ He jumped up from his seat and perched on the arm of Martha’s chair, and pointed at the headline: Fatality at The Café on the Corner. ‘Says here a fire destroyed the building back in 2009, claiming the life of its owner. It looks remarkably like Connie’s place-’
‘-and on the same corner of Main Street. Maybe Connie had it rebuilt in the same style.’
Jack rifled through the book looking for more articles on the fire. He hesitated a few pages on, his face ashen. He whistled out a breath.
‘Jack! What is it?’
‘An obituary,’ his voice shaky
Martha frowned. ‘Whose? Read it out.’
‘Miss Constance Golding, owner of The Café on The Corner, perished in a fire on September 27, 2012. Much loved member of the local community, cake-maker extraordinaire, and one-time Queen of the Ballroom alongside her partner, Arthur Dickens. Connie, as she was known, will be greatly missed by all who knew her. Service to be held at …’ his words trailed off.
Martha stared at her, open-mouthed.
‘It can’t be the same person,’ Jack said.
‘B, b, but Dickens …that’s Grandpa’s surname.’ She grabbed the scrapbook from him and combed through the pages looking for the article featuring Connie and her grandfather as ballroom dancers. ‘It’s the same woman, Jack. Says so here: Connie Golding and Arthur Dickens, Ballroom Champions.’
‘It has to be a coincidence. We saw her only a couple of hours ago. We just ate her cake.’ He stared at the crumbs on the plate at the end of the coffee table.
‘We’ll have to go back to the café tomorrow. See what Connie has to say. But it does seem odd. Same name, same café, same connection to Grandpa, and the photo of her as a bridesmaid … I don’t get it.’
‘Maybe we’ve had one too many drams of whisky,’ Jack said, rubbing her back. ‘It’ll make more sense in the morning.’ He bent to kiss her forehead but she stood up, banging her shoulder against his chin. ‘What’s up? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘That date, Jack. The night of the fire, the night Connie died…’
‘What about it?’
‘I’ve just remembered, it was the same day Grandpa had his stroke.’