The Kindness of Strangers by Ceinwen Haydon

Two strangers with deep personal tragedies meet on a lonely hillside path, and for a moment their destinies are intertwined; by Ceinwen Haydon.

"...Sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?"

"Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are."

From 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

1. John

I left the house, my chest tight and my face rigid. I followed a track at the end of the village, an old drovers' road on which I was unlikely to meet anyone. As I walked I kicked a fallen conker in front of me, it had lost its sheen and was now a sad reminder of the bright nut that had lately emerged from its prickly green shell. The lignin veneer had dried up, but the shell was now the stronger to bear my buffeting as it rolled along. I had lost my shine too but I was not stronger, at least not today.

After a mile or so I got into my stride and my heartbeat steadied. I tried to think what to do next, but accepted that this might take quite a while. I had to manage my agitation before I made my final decision. A hare with a strong gait loped across my path three or four meters ahead and it entranced me; then it disappeared into the hedgerow, and overwrought as I was I felt its departure as a personal loss. An air of sorrow clung to each aspect of my senses and it reinterpreted the world in terms of naked sadness.

My mobile phone vibrated in my coat pocket and my hand shook as I pulled it out. It was her: a text.

John - have you told her yet? Why haven't you been in touch? Mandy x

I turned the damned device off. I had no news to give to her.

I sat down, thump, on a nearby granite rock. I knuckled my clenched fists into my eye sockets and rocked back and forth in time to the metronome of my heartbeat. It bumped along in clumsy meter, adrenaline driven and flushed with cortisol.

2. Maria

I rounded the corner and saw him sitting there. A tall man with a mop of untamed curls, he was younger than me, but not really young. He was possibly in his late forties. I watched him for a good few seconds before he realised that I was there. He was not in a good way; that much was obvious. I was concerned and I didn't want to frighten him off before I'd checked if he was safe to be left alone.

"Hi, I'm so glad to see someone. It's a great relief. I'm lost; could you help me?" I said.

This strategic lie slid out of my mouth, justified by my instinct that this man was at the end of his tether. I was unable to think of any other reason to talk to him; talk to him and maybe get the measure of his vulnerability.

He looked unfocussed and bewildered. I might have been a creature from another planet. But then he rallied.

"Of course. What's the problem?"

"The thing is I was trying to find the iron-age fort. I'm staying at a guest house in Wooler and my landlady said that if I headed out beyond the end of the houses, over the common and along the track I'd reach Humbleton Hill. But I think that I've missed a turning?"

"There are a couple of ways that you can go, this isn't the main one, but it'll get you there. Have you got a pencil and paper and I'll draw you a rough map?"

"Sure," I said, "give me a minute."

I perched on the tread plank of a low level stile, and poked around in my small rucksack. My fingers closed around a notebook with a pen in an attached sheath. Before I drew it out I felt the matt-marbled metal of my green Stanley flask.

"I don't know about you but I'm ready for a brew. Would you fancy a cup? By the way, my name is Maria."

The man hesitated and then sighed, signs of his reluctance to forego his solitude. He paused and resigned himself to my intrusion.

"John. I'm John. Yes thanks. I didn't think to bring a drink with me today."

I poured the tea out into two small beakers and handed him one. Then I ferreted around for the writing stuff once more and passed it across to my new companion. He bent over the notepad on his lap and frowned with concentration. There was a tremor in his hand as he gripped the pen, and as he started to write he bore down with an exaggerated firmness to compensate for his unsteadiness. The paper tore under the heavy stroke of the ball point. He flushed a deep red as he realised that I had noticed his discomfort.

"Sorry, I'll try again," he said in a quiet voice.

"No worries at all," I said. "I'm just grateful for your help. At my age I don't want to get lost in the hills. The weather can change so quickly, especially in the autumn. One minute you can be in bright sunshine and the next the mist has blown in and the temperature's dropped."

"You're right there," he said. His doleful brown eyes expressed more than he was prepared to say aloud.

I watched as he drew a map with deft strokes, and labelled key reference points with care. He seemed to be a man who set himself high standards. When he'd finished he polished off his tea in a single gulp.

"Let me explain this to you, Mary," he hesitated, "sorry, Maria."

I sat and paid attention as John talked me through the route. I acted the part of the disorientated stranger with total conviction. He could not have known that I'd walked these hills on many holidays ever since my childhood and that I knew each path like the back of my hand. Funny, I'd done many contrary things in my life but I'd never thought of myself as a good liar. Still, needs must.

"That's great, John. You've been a star. How can I thank you enough?"

"You're fine. I'm glad to have got one thing right today."

"I'd guess from that that you've got a bit of a downer on yourself?" I said.

"Maria, if you only knew the half of it."

"I don't; but I do know that not long ago I thought that everything was finished for me, and now it's not. Not at all."

I ran my fingers through my curly hair; it was still strange to feel the short but silken regrowth. For most of my life my hair had been coarse and straight. Then I heard a raptor's plaintive cry and looked up to see two buzzards circling high above the hills against the misty blue harvest sky. I pointed and John followed my gaze; the buzzards were being harried by a gang of crows until the pair rose and soared in ever widening wheels and made their escape. Their haunting calls plucked at my nerve strings.

I glanced across at John, aware that the time had come for us to get on with our respective days.

"I have a lot on my mind at the moment," he said.

"John, would you like to walk with me? And if you want to talk, that's fine? If you don't, I'd just be glad of your company."

3. John

I stood still, in suspended animation; I was tempted by her offer. When Maria had first appeared on the path where I'd all but fallen, I felt bitter bile surge into my throat. I had come out to be alone and this old woman, albeit in innocence, had trashed my privacy. My resentment was amplified by desperation. I felt like a cornered beast, and I wanted to tell her to go to hell. But I was brought up to be a gentleman and even in my current torment I'd managed to be polite.

Our random encounter had inserted a tranche of normality into my distressed introspections, and as we chatted I had been drawn towards Maria's down-to-earth kindness. When she invited me to join her on her ramble I surprised myself.

"You know what, Maria? I'd really like to step along with you, at least for a while until I'm sure that you're on the right path."

"Great. Lead on McDuff," she said with a swift chuckle and her eyes creased into a warm smile. I glimpsed her sexy charm, now partly veiled by her advancing years.

The narrow path forced us to walk in single file for the first ten minutes or so, and then as it widened we continued abreast. We concentrated hard on avoiding the knotted tree roots and chunks of rock that conspired to turn our ankles, but eventually the ground levelled out.

"John, you remind me a bit of my son, Sam. He has your height and similar hair."

"Do see him often?"

"No. We Skype, but he lives in New Zealand. Has done for nigh on fifteen years."

"That must be hard for you."

"It is. But I know he's happy and he's loved, and that's the most important thing."

"It certainly is, Maria. It certainly is. I wish that I had the knack for it; my only gift seems to be for hurting people, especially those closest to me."

My jaw clenched after I'd spoken. I had no right to burden this amiable stranger with my indiscretions, and the fallout that was about to rain down with cataclysmic consequences.

"Most people have done their fair bit of that," said Maria. "I know I have. But sometimes it can feel like you're the only one who ever stepped out of line."

I met her straight gaze, and wondered what she'd say if she knew what I'd actually done and what faced me today. Before I could think of what to say next Maria blew her nose hard, I looked across at her and it was clear that she was on the verge of tears.

"Maria, are you ok?"

"Sorry, I've just thought about my past. And what I'm responsible for. It never goes away," she said.

"I really can't imagine that you've done anything so bad."

"John, the reason that Sam is in New Zealand is that when he was fourteen, I had an affair. I thought that I was really in love for the first time in my life. I left Sam with his dad, Liam, and I went to live with my new partner. Liam was distraught, and returned to his native Christchurch. He took Sam. Sam wouldn't have anything to do with me. We've only just got back in touch, and he's very cautious. He's thirty years old this year."

"Jesus, I'd never have thought..."

"I know," said Maria, "it's surprising what skeletons are in people's closets, even an old biddy like me. And, like everyone else, I've paid the price."

"Was it worth it, if you don't mind me asking?"

"That's a hard one, and something I think about more and more as I get older. I had some amazing adventures with the man that I fell for, beautiful times that I'll never forget. But I was blinded by a sort of madness. I could not see the damage that I was doing to Sam; I thought that he could cope without seeing me every day, and I was wrong. Then his dad took him so far away that I really was out of his life. I felt that I had no right to object. After all, I'd broken our family up in the first place. Sam told me a couple of months ago that he had expected me to insist that he stayed in the UK: as it was he took my acceptance of his father's plan as proof that I didn't love him anymore."

"But you said that he is happy now?"

"Yes, he's got a good life and Liam and his stepmother have supported him well. He got a first class degree at university and he's working as an architect, a job he loves. He's about to get married to Sally, a teacher, and they're expecting their first baby early next year. He's happy in spite of me, not because of me. I am only on the periphery and I may not be able to get any closer to him, ever."

"What happened to your lover? Is he still around, Maria?"

"No. It lasted a little short of three years. Milo wasn't a man to put down roots. Liam had become more like a brother to me, and I gave up everything for Milo because he excited me, he woke me up. The last dozen years have been a heavy price to pay for that passion. I've lived in purgatory and felt the loss of Sam every single day."

"Has there been anyone else? Since you and Milo split up?"

"I've tried, I even re-married once. The problem is, you see, that my thoughts keep returning to the world that I up-ended when I left Liam. I've found it hard to focus on the present and that's been diabolical for anyone who's shared my life since those times. But not long ago I had a big health crisis and it dragged me into living in the here and now. In a strange way it's been good for me. Finally I had to focus on the present to survive. Earlier this year, I wrote a proper letter to Sam, quite different from the bland cards that I always sent for his birthdays and at Christmas. I asked him if we could try to get to know each other again. It's early days, but we speak every couple of weeks now."

As Maria said this, I felt insect wings brush the back of my neck. I gave a reflexive swipe with my hand and a sharp pain stung my earlobe. I yelped and saw a late wasp fall to the ground at my feet. Maria stamped on it and put it out of its misery.

"You poor thing," said Maria before she removed the sting with a small, effective squeeze. She rooted inside her day sack, pulled out a tube of antihistamine cream and applied it to my inflamed skin.

"Is there anything that you don't keep in there? Are you always so well prepared?"

4. Maria

I felt sorry for John when he was stung, but I was relieved to have an interruption to my heavy story. I usually keep quiet about my past, at least until I've known a person for a long time. I don't want to be judged by people who hardly know me. In fact sometimes I can't credit that I did those things; that I ever left Sam. With hindsight, my reasons for leaving were poor justification for the path that I'd chosen all those years ago.

John turned his face towards the sky. The blue was edged by banks of cumulonimbus clouds, and the wind speed had gathered.

"I think the weather's changing. I can smell rain. Do you want to press on, Maria, or would you prefer to head back?"

For some reason I wanted to climb Humbleton Hill with an urgent energy that I had not possessed for a long time. Latterly I'd become pretty risk averse in general, and especially when I walked alone in the hills, whether here or in my native Welsh valley; I'd had my fill of wild antics. But that day I wanted to push my limits and get up there, even though I knew that in a storm I'd be blown of my feet.

"I'd like to go on, if you're up for it?" I said.

"Well, I guess skin is waterproof. We'll be OK if we keep on the move and stay warm. We've both got jackets and scarves so we should be ok."

Unintentionally, I'd started to assume that we were taking the full walk together. John also seemed to have this in mind.

"Maria, how did you find the courage to speak to Sam, with so much at stake?"

"I was scared; but I had to give us a second chance."

"Was it as hard as you thought it would be?"

"It was different. Fear colours expectations when you're apprehensive about something, don't you think? And it also makes you doubt what you can cope with. Why do you ask, John?"

"Nothing really. I'm just interested to know how you managed. Sam is lucky to have a mother who is so committed to him."

"How can you say that he is lucky to have a mother like me? I left him."

"Yes, you said. But you did so much more than that, you mustn't shrink everything down to that as if that is all that counted," said John.

"But surely my selfishness ruined anything good that I'd done before?"

"Maria, you raised your son with love for fifteen years and laid the foundations for the man that he is today. Don't forget that; and don't underestimate the trust that you have shown to each other in getting back in touch and talking. I would say that you are both exceptional human beings from where I'm standing. Don't dance with guilt and turn your back on the future."

Even though John had somewhat air-brushed my wrongdoing, he had a point. I'd spent far too long dwelling on the past, and it had become an entrenched position for me. I risked the loss of Sam a second time if I refused to meet him in the present, our present. I understood this now with new clarity. I felt my shoulders loosen and my stomach unknot.

As we continued along the path, I remembered being a child in the playground at school. I recalled a game that I played with my friends; they would tell me to shut my eyes and they would spin me around and around. When they told me to look again I was in another place, and dizzy with delight. In a similar way John's comments had shaken up me up; and I'd landed somewhere else.

I sensed that John was getting close to talking about his own worries as he spoke to me with less reserve. He appeared to want to talk and I was more than ready to listen. The way that he'd looked when I'd come across him on the path had testified to his great distress, but I still had no idea what had caused it. Whatever I'd been through, the worst of it was in the past. This man's problems were excruciating and immediate.

"Do you live alone?" I said, as I tried to open a door into his world.

"I think that I soon will be. I have a wife, Helen, and two daughters, Martha and Bethan. Martha's fifteen and Bethan's twelve."

"Are you unhappy?"

"How to answer that?" said John, under his breath. Then he became more animated. "Helen is the only woman that I can imagine living with, for sure. She's bright and argumentative, very passionate, a real force of nature. But she's pretty uncompromising with a clear idea of right and wrong. There are few grey areas in Helen's world view, and she doesn't take prisoners."

"It sounds as if life with her can be a challenge, but that you care for her very much."

"That's right enough," he said.

"How about your girls?"

At this question John's fragile mask didn't so much slip as dissolve. His face crumpled and the tears trickled down his face and ran with the snot that dripped from his nostrils. He turned away in male shame.

"I'm so sorry," he said.

"You're fine John," I laid my hand on his shaking arm and waited. A stand of oak and beech trees stood by our path and their branches swayed in a swept, violent rhythm above our heads. Rooks cawed and the cacophony echoed darkly under the graphite clouds.

John turned back to me and opened his mouth as if to speak, then he shut it again. He swallowed hard and his Adam's apple rolled taut beneath the rough skin of his throat. He tried once more.

"It's Bethan, you see. She's sick, very sick, and she needs a bone marrow transplant. In our family, none of us is the right match. So her chances are reduced, and time is critical. I would give my life for her but it would be no use, no use at all."

The tears overwhelmed him again, and I waited. I took his hand as if he were a young child and led him along the track. It was too cold to stand still for long.

5. John

The cadence of our steps, as we resumed our walk, steadied me a little. I found strange comfort in the firm grip of Maria's old hand. I knew that she felt sorry for me, for Bethan, for my family. But she did not know the whole story, the complications. It was easier to talk when we strode on and looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact.

"Bethan does have one good chance but... Maria, things have happened, and I'm ashamed of them. There was a time before Helen and I were married, when she went travelling for six months with her best mate from college, Anita. We'd got engaged before she went, but she wanted to get the wanderlust out of her system before we settled down. She'd just finished university and was ready for a holiday after she'd studied hard for five years. I wasn't thrilled about her decision, but I respected it."

The first rain splattered down in oversized hesitant drops, before it settled into a heavy downpour.

"Go on," said Maria.

"So, Helen went off on her travels. Well, the thing is, I'd always got on with her older sister, Mandy. Her man, Bob, was with the Merchant Navy, which left her at a loose end for months at a time. I know what you might imagine, but in all honesty we were just friends. That is, until one crazy night, when Bob was on shore leave. We'd all three been out for a curry, but Mandy got upset when Bob admitted that he'd had a fling on his last trip, in Rio. I don't know why he chose to tell her in front of me. Maybe he was trying to contain the fall-out. Whatever it was, Mandy lost it and told him to go. She was beside herself, and begged to go back to my place rather than have to face her parents. They'd never liked Bob anyhow. Perhaps, in her heart, she didn't want to give them more reasons to disapprove of him, in case she ever wanted to take him back."

"I think that can start to see where this going, John."

"And you'd be right. I'll spare you the details. Except that nine months later, when Bob and Mandy had settled their differences and Bob had left the navy and got a job with the Gas Board, Lydia was born. Of course I had my suspicions, but Mandy and I had promised each other that our lapse would remain our secret, ours alone. That way Bob and Helen wouldn't be hurt."

"How can you be sure that Lydia is yours, John?"

"I wasn't. But when Bethan's leukaemia was diagnosed in June, Helen, Martha and l were all tested to see if our bone marrow matched Bethan's. None of us had the right type, so now she's waiting for another donor. The day after we got the results, Mandy suggested to me that Lydia should be assessed as well. It turns out that Mandy had been convinced for years that Lydia is my daughter but she'd kept quiet, understandably. First we talked to Lydia, who took our story in her stride, at least after the initial shock. She agreed to do a DNA test, and this confirmed that she's my child. She's eighteen now, and she and my girls are very close. She's desperate to help Bethan if she can. Last week Mandy, Lydia and I spoke to Bethan's consultant, Dr Douglas. More tests revealed Lydia to be a perfect match for Bethan. Two things remained; to talk to Bob, and to talk to Helen, Bethan and Martha as well. They have to know the truth."

"Where are you with that now?" said Maria.

"Bob knows; he played merry hell at first, until Mandy reminded him of his own adventures. Then Lydia told him that, for her, he'd always be her real dad. Bob's not a bad lad anyway, and he'd do anything to help Bethan. So he's coped better than I expected."

"So, that leaves Helen and your girls: does Helen know?"

By now we were saturated, and our boots were squelching with every step. I couldn't fight back the bile this time, and stumbled towards the hedgerow and threw up everything I'd eaten that day. Maria handed me some soggy tissues and I tried to clean myself.

"Keep on the move," she said. "It's cold now. Let's think how you can handle this, for everyone's sake. Have you ever said anything at all to Helen, about you and Mandy? About Lydia?"

"No, never. And time is running out."

Maria stopped and stood in front of me; she locked her eyes with mine.

"Has it occurred to you that most mothers would first and foremost be utterly relieved if they learnt that their poorly child might live? Surely if you let her know there is reason to hope it would be the greatest gift that you could possibly give her?"

"I see that, I do. But I'm so scared. Helen won't ever want me again will she? She'll know that I betrayed her trust, and that I lied about it. And with her sister as well."

"You have to risk that. My guess is that, in time, she'll love you for your courage, especially if Bethan lives. She'd know how hard it would have been for you to speak out and chance the loss of your marriage. And even if you lose Bethan, heaven forbid, you will have given your girl her best chance. I imagine that the others will break the silence anyway, to help Bethan. It must be better for Helen if the truth comes from you, yourself?"

6. Maria

We continued our walk in silence, both of us deep in our own thoughts. The rain pelted down and saturated our clothes. When we arrived at the foot of Humbleton Hill the wind was wild, but we made our way up the ancient path. Dogged and determined we aimed for the top. As we stood upright on the highest point a gust of gale force power knocked us off our feet. We fell into each other's arms and clung together for several minutes.

I'd like to think that that was a true turning point for each of us; the time when John and I started to forgive ourselves for messing up in our lives. Our bad decisions did not, after all, define everything about us.

I, who had no belief in a god, prayed for Bethan's recovery with an intensity that made me gasp for air. And I hadn't even met her. I knew from my own journey that some of us survive cancer, more of us with every year that passes.

When we pulled apart we hesitated, caught in a shared smile.

"Thank you, Maria," he said. "I'm so pleased that we met."

"So am I, but we'll be blown from here to kingdom come if we don't climb down. Come on."

This time John took my hand, and he led me with care down the path. We leant into the hillside to gain a little shelter from the raucous elements. A short distance from the flat I slipped on a lichen-covered outcrop but he was quick to grab me and I remained upright.

As we retraced the original path, John muttered something that I couldn't quite hear.

"Sorry. What did you say?"

"Nothing much. I was wishing out loud that I could find a dry place to use my phone. Now that I know what I'm going to do."

"You're in luck. There's a barn not fifty yards from here. You can't see it from the path, but I'll show you."

He stopped stock still, and frowned.

"So you were lost were you? You knew exactly where you were. What was all that crap about?"

I tried to make light of his question.

"Maybe I fancied you?"

For a second he looked flummoxed and then the penny dropped.

"Got it, you wanted to help, but didn't want to scare me off? You're very sharp."

"Kind of you to say. Now let me show you the way to the outbuilding. If you forgive me, I'll share my chocolate with you."

Once inside, John checked his phone for a signal. His face relaxed in relief and he started to dial.

"Helen, it's me. I'll be home by five. I need to talk to you. I think, well I know, that there's someone who's a match for Bethan.

"Don't cry, love. There's real hope for her now.

"Yes, it is Lydia. But how did you know?

"My God Helen, you're stronger than me. I should have told you years ago. I'm so sorry.

"I love you too. Wait at the house for me, we'll tell Bethan and Martha together and then call Dr Douglas.

"Yes, we'll go and see Mandy, Bob and Lydia; and take Martha and Bethan too. We have a lot to talk about.

"No, it won't be easy.

"I agree. We'll make it together. And Helen, I couldn't love anyone more than I love you, do you hear?

"Thank you. Thank you."

I broke my bar of Green and Black's in half, and John took the offered squares from my hand.

"Go now, don't waste any time. Whilst you were on your mobile, I wrote down my address. Please take it. One day, if it feels right, let me know how Bethan gets on?"

"Of course I will. You made all the difference Maria, I can't tell you."

"Away with you, you helped me too. Very much as it happens. So long, and take care."

I turned away and dashed out into the damp evening. The light was fading and I needed to get into dry clothes before my arthritis started to play up.

6. John

It's been the most intense time, these last three months. Lydia had her bone marrow harvested and she bore up well, as her Facebook posts show, with pictures to prove the point. As for Bethan, her courage has left us all breathless. The transplant went as planned and now she's well into her course of chemo. She smiles often and cries when she needs to, and she tries to reassure everyone that she's comfortable even when the drugs stress her young body to the limit. Dr Douglas is cautiously optimistic that Bethan will make a good recovery, the signs are all positive.

It's January now and Bethan might be discharged home in two weeks' time. We're planning to celebrate our delayed Christmas when she's back, and Mandy, Bob and Lydia will be with us for that.

My mind has been frantic, but I feel more confident now. I can dare to hope that all will be well. Last night as I drifted off to sleep I recalled my strange encounter with Maria; I wondered what I would have done if our paths hadn't crossed? The time has come to write to her, and to let her know things are going in the right direction.

Then I turned over and looked into Helen's sleeping face. She has aged as I have. Her red hair is faded and threaded with silver streaks. Her skin is etched with laughter lines and with traces of sadness; she is as familiar to me as the smell of my own body, farts and all. Inside her sleeping form, exhausted by another day at the hospital, beats the bravest and most generous heart. Bethan is her daughter alright; and also in the coven dwell Martha and Mandy and dear Lydia too. If they ever met Maria, they would recognise her as a kindred spirit. The strength of these women has overwhelmed me; words cannot express my respect for them. I know that I am more blessed than I have any right to be.

Today I'll post my letter to Maria.

7. Maria

One morning, as snow starts to fall, I hear the postman knock at the door of my terraced house in the Welsh village of Blaenavon. He has a fistful of letters for me. Most are catalogues that try to flog me stuff that I do not want and cannot afford. The others look important. One has a New Zealand postmark. Another is from Northumberland. It is exceptional for me to get two hand written letters in one delivery.

I go inside, pour myself a cup of coffee from the cafetière, and sit down at my battered oak table. I debate which to open first. I close my eyes and move them around on the table in front of me. I clap my hands three times and then pick one up. It is the one from England. I slit it open with care with my father's old pearl-handled letter knife. I swallow hard before I settle to read it.

The news is good; Bethan is doing well and her family is healing too. That day near Wooler I sensed that John was a strong man who was capable of great love. It was a shame that he found it so hard to have confidence in himself; but things changed for us both the day we met. I think some of the nonsense was washed out of each of us for good.

Now for the letter from Christchurch. It is not in Sam's writing; I dearly hope that all is well.

Dear Maria,
I know that we haven't met each other yet, but I'm sure that we will soon. Our baby daughter, Marietta Rose, is now three weeks old. Every night since she was born Sam has talked about writing to you, but he does not know where to start. He wants to tell you that he loves you and that he needs you to see Marietta, and to meet me too. The honest letter that you wrote to him before our wedding day revealed so much. It helped him to understand that whatever happened between you and Liam, you never wanted to go out of his life. It was Liam's pain that led to that. He was also distraught to hear of your breast cancer, and mastectomy. He realised that he might have lost you a couple of years ago, before he had the chance to reach out to you again. He is very grateful that your recovery has been good.
With Marietta's birth the time has come for reunions and for forgiveness. Life is too short to dwell in the past. We are lucky in that we both have good jobs; please accept our invitation to fly out to New Zealand to stay with us for a few weeks. We would love to pay your air fare; it would give us great pleasure.
In case you are wondering, Liam and Anna (his wife), are absolutely fine with this. They are very happy together and have no axes to grind. It has always felt wrong to Anna that the bridges weren't mended before now. Please let us know if you will come, please do...
Much love,
Sally x
PS Sam says that Marietta has your mouth x

I feel that I might faint with happiness. I look out of the kitchen window at the flurries of snow and watch ice crystals form on the glass. Everything seems dusted in magic as the storm intensifies; I am on the cusp of a new era. Two wild swans come into view and fly with majestic certainty across the sky, unhindered by the wind-driven snowfall.

Later the sky clears, the sun comes out and refracts with a blinding light on the whiteness. I dress up in warm clothes and my walking boots and leave the house by the back lane. I climb a good way up the valley until I can look down upon the rooftops of my old home, with its proud mining history. As I shift my gaze from the earth up to the sky, I whoop with joy, safe in the knowledge that no-one can hear me and call the men in white coats.

Later in the afternoon as the sun sets, I am back at home and I enjoy the tired wellbeing that comes from winter exercise. After a lie-down on my bed whilst I listen to Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf' (music that Sam loved as a child), I am ready for my tea, so I head for the kitchen. When I walk into the hall I catch sight of my face in the mirror, my skin glows and my eyes are bright with optimism. As I wait for my baked potato to cook, I write to John. I tell him that, against all the odds, my life is back on track too.


  1. this is a first class story that will stay with me for a long time, I´m sure.
    the quality of the writing is, as usual, top notch, the descriptions and characterisations bring the surroundings and the characters to vivid life.
    I guess we´ve all had our awful moments and it´s important not to give up.
    this is the kind of story that, I feel, could be very uplifting to people at their most needy.
    Either way, great and thought provoking
    Well done Ceinwen

    Mike McC

  2. I felt emotionally drawn to this twin tangle. One part of my brain told me; 'not so, contrived - would never happen,' while the other part insisted; 'this is exactly how we find pathways through life's insidious maze,' and yes Carlos Zafon is correct, it's essential for our guardian angels not to know our genetic personalities...Insight usually springs from spontaneity.
    I enjoyed the clarity of the two points of view, the detailed pictures and events surrounding the other family members, and the telephone and epistolic resolutions. I also liked the length, sometimes one needs to take ones time to tell a story. Many thanks.
    B r o o k e

  3. Mike and Brooke,
    Thank you very much for reading my story,especially one of this length. Your thoughtful comments have both encouraged me and given me a lot to think about. The issue of artistic licence and contrivance - and how to balance the narrative so that underlying truths might emerge is a challenge. And, comme on dit, truth is stranger than fiction? I look forwards to reading your next stories in due course,
    Again, many thanks,

  4. I actually read this in Charlie's new book ("The Best of Fiction on the Web') and can't believe I missed it. I echo what Mike and Brooke have already expressed. As with Mike, I enjoyed that the characters and scenes jump out from the page at you, while I like Brooke's comments that "insight usually springs from spontaneity," and that she thought the length of the story played well.

    Well done