Return To Eden
This is one of the best romantic story. This love story starts with… The turning down to Edenbrae looked much as I remembered it. There was one difference, though.
My grandfather would never have a sign put up with the name on it. He said that everybody knew where the Howies lived and anybody who didn’t have only to ask. Now there was a signpost that said, To Edenbrae, and under it, Bed and Breakfast.
It was an excuse to go and look at the place again. Not that I really needed one. The approach road was a good half-mile long, dipping its way between hedges and grassy banks, but the car covered the distance quickly. Much more quickly than the legs of a child, particularly with wildflowers to pick and birds flitting in and out of the hedgerows.
I stopped the car at the gate and sat and looked at the house for a long time. It was the same and yet it was different. The walls had been painted, the roof recently repaired; there were tubs of geraniums set around the paved yard. It had been swept clean in my grandmother’s day, but never like this as if no muddy boot had ever set foot on it. And where were the sounds and smells of the farmyard?
There was a painted sign on the gate, just as there had been at the end of the road. I smiled at the thought of what my boss would say if he saw where I was proposing to spend my hard-won holiday.
As usual, he had thought up all sorts of excuses to postpone it.
“All the arrangements are made,” I said firmly, “and I’m taking at least three weeks.”
He protested that he couldn’t possibly do without me all that time. I told him I had arranged for a temporary replacement. He looked cunning and said that no one was indispensable. I agreed with him. He had to give in then because he knew I could walk into another secretarial post anywhere in the city.
“I suppose you’re off to some glamorous place to bask in the tropical sun,” he said mournfully.
“Something like that,” I said.
And now here I was in southwest Scotland, in the middle of the lovely Galloway countryside, about to avail myself of an offer of bed and breakfast. I wound down the window and breathed deeply of the soft, clean air. Oh, it was good to be away from London, away from crowds and rush and fatigue.
I got out, opened the gate, and from habit went around the side to the back door. The front door of a farmhouse is for ornament only. No dog barked, nor were there any multi-colored cats gliding around corners. I knocked on the back door. There was no reply so I knocked again.
“Come on in!” It was a woman’s voice calling from somewhere above.
I pushed the door open and stopped in surprise at the sight of the functional modern kitchen. Gone was my grandmother’s kitchen range that she had insisted on keeping, in spite of the family’s persuasion. I could see that range now, black and gleaming steel at the edges, smell the soup simmering and the bread baking. Gone was the stone sink by the window with its one brass tap reflecting the sunlight, and the wooden table scrubbed to whiteness that hurt your eyes. Now all was plastic and stainless steel.
“I’m up here,” called the voice again. “Be with you in a minute.
Grandpa was twenty-five years older than grandma. He had gone to sea in his youth and gained his master’s ticket before he retired at the age of forty- nine and came back to the place where he was born. Grandma was the daughter of one of his old friends, and when they met they fell madly in love.
She was the bonniest girl in all the world, grandpa said, and he knew what he was talking about. Everybody thought the age difference was too great, but they went ahead and got married and stayed in love for the rest of their lives. I remember still the little secret smile they would exchange when their eyes met. Being Scots, they made no outward demonstrations of love, but often they seemed to be shut away in a private world that held only the two of them….
There was a clatter of feet on the stairs, and the kitchen door flew open. A young woman stood there. Her tattered jeans and shirt were daubed with paint, and she had a smear of blue on her nose.
“Hello, who are you?” she asked, her gaze traveling slowly from my fashionable hairdo to my expensive shoes.
I felt ridiculously overdressed. “I’m sorry if I surprised you,” I said, “but you did call me to come in. Could I have bed and breakfast, do you think?”
“Why, yes. I do have a vacancy, as it happens. Just for the one night?”
“I did think of staying for a week, perhaps longer, but of course if you’re full, I’ll quite understand….”
She laughed. “As a matter of fact, you’re my very first guest. The sign only went up this morning, and then I decided the bathroom could do with a coat of paint. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. If you don’t mind being practiced on, that is.”
“Sounds great,” I said, laughing with her. “I’m Alison Howie, by the way.”
“And I’m Jill Hamilton. Perhaps you’d like to see your room.”
She took me up the narrow stairway I remembered so well and showed me into the very room I had had as a child. The wardrobe and dressing table were modern, but the bed was the one with the brass rails and the round gleaming knob on each corner. I exclaimed in pleasure.
“It is a nice room isn’t it?” said my landlady. “The view is terrific.”
The view was as it had always been, out over the river to the hills where the dark green of the leafy trees crowded up to the skyline.
“I used to come here every summer,” I said. “My grandfather had the farm then. And this was my room.
“When you were a child? How marvelous that you’ve come back! Let’s bring in your case, shall we? And then we’ll have a cup of tea and talk.”
We had our tea in the kitchen, and I told her all about my grandparents and my holidays at the farm. Jill, as she told me to call her, had only lived there for a few years but she had heard of the Howies in connection with the house. It hadn’t been a farm for quite some time. The land was taken over by another farmer, Mr. Martin. Perhaps I’d heard of him because the family had been here from way back.
“And speak of the devil!” she said, looking out of the window. “Here comes one of them now.”
The door opened and a man came in, ducking his head slightly as if he was used to lintels being a little too low. He was broad-shouldered to match and had straight, thick, dark hair and warm brown eyes. There was an incongruous dimple in his chin.
“Hello, Jill,” he said. “Just came to see if there was any word from Andrew and young Philip.”
He stopped when he saw me.
“This is one of the Martins I was telling you about. Ross Martin, Alison Howie.”
“Ross!” I said. “I’d have known that dimple any- where!”
“Alison! Alison Howie!”
We stood and grinned at each other like a couple of kids.
“Hey!” said Jill. “What’s all this?”
And then we were shaking hands, and Ross was patting the top of my head, which is five feet eight inches from the ground, and telling me I hadn’t grown much. Then we turned to Jill and explained that as children we had played together all summer, that we-Ross and Graeme, his older brother, and I- had been inseparable.
“How is Graeme?” I asked, perhaps too casually.
“Oh, he’s fine. He runs the farm now, you know. Dad retired a few years ago.”
“I’m a teacher, along with Jill’s husband, at the comprehensive in the town. He’s in Switzerland at the moment with a party of boys from the school.”
“And I haven’t heard from him yet. Nor from our son, Philip. If I know them they’ll arrive home saying cheerfully, ‘Didn’t you get our postcard?”
We all laughed.
“Are you married?” I asked Ross.
“No,” he said. “And neither is Graeme.”
Had he guessed that was what I really wanted to know?
“And yourself? I gather not when the name’s still Howie. But why not?”
“Concentrating on my career. Or perhaps it’s because nobody asked me.’
“That I don’t believe.”
We sat and talked for the rest of the afternoon, interrupting each other to tell Jill of our childhood exploits, exchanging news of our families, but not saying much about our present-day lives. There was, after all, plenty of time.
Ross insisted that I come back with him to the farm for tea. This, I recollected, would be a hearty sit-down meal and not an affair of sandwiches and cups balanced in the hand. His mother and father, he said, had gone to Canada on a visit, but he and Graeme had a housekeeper, who would not be at all put out by the advent of an unexpected guest. It would be a grand surprise for Graeme.
I was not averse to surprising Graeme.
The Martin house looked prosperous. Graeme was there when we went in, and he was all I remembered. Even as a boy he had been handsome, but now his good looks were almost spectacular. There was a deftness, a sureness about him that Ross lacked, a decisiveness that would always get him what he wanted. He was genuinely pleased to see me, and I reveled in the admiration I saw in his eyes.
It was heady stuff being admired for myself and not just because I had a boss who was useful for an ambitious young man to know. It was a recent experience of that kind that had made me decide to take a holiday from the rat race. I told Graeme and Ross about my job, glamorizing it a bit, mentioning casually all the places we went on business trips-not telling them that all I saw of these places was the airports and the insides of hotels.
It was better when we spoke of the old days, of sliding down the hay till the backs of our legs were sore, of swimming in the icy-cold river, of picking brambles on a warm September afternoon.
When it was tỉme to go, Graeme escorted me out to my car, elbowing Ross out of the way.
“Let me take you out to dinner tomorrow night, Alison. There’s quite a decent place opened up in the town.”
I said I’d be delighted.
The next morning I slept late, and when I came down Jill said that Ross had called in.
“He makes a point of calling in on me every day at some point to see if I’ve heard from Andrew. At least that’s what he says, but really it’s to make sure I’m all right and not fretting. He doesn’t stay long, of course, in case of gossip.”
“But surely no one would notice how long he stayed.”
She looked at me with an amused expression.
“You’re joking. However, they’ll be too busy just now, discussing you.”
I laughed. “I’ve been too long in London, where nobody bothers about you.”
As I went out, she called after me, “Don’t be late getting back for your date with Graeme.”
I hadn’t said anything about that. I wondered who had told her.
Graeme arrived in a good time, looking as handsome as ever. He exchanged friendly banter with Jill, and I noticed that she, too, responded to his charm.
The “quite decent place” was very good indeed, the food excellent, and Graeme was a wonderful companion. I enjoyed it all, but when he wanted to take me on to the Rugby Club to meet some of his friends, I refused, pleading tiredness. Why I didn’t really know. I got the impression that he wanted to show me off, which was flattering. But I didn’t want to be regarded as a trophy.
He would have kissed me when he took me home, but I slid out of the car quickly and said “Thank you” and “Good night” before he could. He looked distinctly put out.
Sleep was a long time coming. I had wanted to fall in love as my grandfather and grandmother did, completely and utterly, excluding all others, and instinct had brought me back here. But instinct had proved wrong. Graeme wasn’t capable of that kind of love. Pleasant, charming, but no depth to him. A love affair with him would be a happy, bubbly one with no scars that showed when it was over, but that was not for me. Not any longer. I decided to spend the rest of my holiday somewhere else.
In the morning Jill had a letter from her husband at last and was in high spirits. I was trying to get around to the subject of my departure when Ross arrived. In spite of the fact that it promised to be a fine day, he was wearing a duffel coat and heavy boots.
“Going somewhere?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
“Upon the hills, I’ll bet,” said Jill. “With the boys that are left behind.”
“Well, they get a bit bored with the others away in Switzerland. It keeps them out of mischief.”
“I wouldn’t mind a bit of hill-walking myself,” I said. “Remember father used to take us when he came on holiday?”
“Well, why don’t you go?” Jill said.
Ross looked doubtfully at my cotton dress and open-toed sandals. “Not unless you’ve got something more suitable to wear.”
“Of course I have. And I brought a pair of good stout walking shoes, too.”
I flew upstairs, a bit nettled by the coolness of his manner and determined to show him. When he saw me in trousers and shirt, with an anorak Jill lent me, he had to admit I was adequately dressed, but he still didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about taking me.
The boys were more appreciative, though, when we met up with them. There was a wolf whistle or two and a bit of nudging and winking. Ross introduced me calmly. They were all about fourteen or fifteen and some of them were taller than I was.
“Ever been up in the hills afore, miss?” asked Billy, or was it Hugh, pushing someone else aside to walk beside me.
“Not for a long time, but I don’t expect it’s changed much.”
Nor had it. The rolling moorlands stretched before us as they had before our ancestors. The hills reached into the sky, rejecting our voices as an intrusion on up the silence. The crystal clear air was invigorating, and I strode out happily, knowing that tomorrow my legs would ache, but not caring.
Presently the boys raced ahead, competing with one another. Ross fell back beside me.
“Enjoying it?” he asked without his usual warm smile.
“Oh, yes. I’d forgotten how good it feels.”
“I thought you would probably be too tired after your night out yesterday.”
“We weren’t late. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of leaving today until you talked me into this.”
He ignored the banter and stopped, making me turn to face him.
“But why, Alison? Why would you want to leave when you’ve only just come back? Was it something Graeme did? Tell me.”
He looked so worried I was touched. “Of course not. Graeme was the essence of charm, as I expect he is to every girl. I just felt like going somewhere else, that’s all.”
After a moment he relaxed and smiled at me. Things were back to normal between us again. He took my hand and we ran after the boys.
All morning we walked and climbed and sometimes stopped, breathless, to admire the view. We had lunch beside a stream that fell like a frill of white lace from the hills, and I was glad of the rest. Even the boys sat or lay about on the grass, chaffing one another and asking questions of Ross. It was obvious they liked and respected him. His manner was just right: he did not talk down to them but did not try too hard to be one of them, either. When they were cheeky he gave back as good as he got.
“Sir,” Hugh said suddenly. “What’s the yon bird?”
I had noticed it myself, particularly its mewing cry. For some time it had been gliding in circles not far from us.
“That’s a buzzard,” Ross told him. It circled again, lower, and this time came so close to us that we could see that the tips of its broad wings curved upward and that its tail was striped brown and white. Suddenly it swooped down and rose again, something in its claws, something that squealed piteously. Hugh ran at it, shouting. The big bird dropped its prey and glided off with an indignant cry. We saw Hugh bend to pick up a small, furry body and then turn toward us.
“It’s a rabbit,” he cried. “And it’s still alive.”
Ross went up and took it from him. It was a young rabbit and it was badly hurt. Ross turned away for a moment, and when he turned back the small body was still.
He looked at the boy and said, “It’s better this way. It wouldn’t have lived.”
The other boys had gone on ahead, but Hugh stayed looking at the young rabbit in Ross’s hands. His face was expressionless, but his throat worked as if he were trying to swallow past a lump in it, then he turned and dashed after the others. I saw the compassion on Ross’s face as he laid the dead rabbit on the rough grass.
I saw his kindness, his sensitivity, his concern for others, all the qualities that went to make up this man. And suddenly I knew. My instinct had not been wrong. This was the man I loved and would love until the end of my days. Would he feel the same about me? I held my breath until he raised his eyes to mine, and I knew beyond doubt that he did.
“Alison!” he said in wonder.
I went into his arms.
There was a chorus of oohs and aahs from above, reminding us of our interested audience. We turned and walked up toward the boys, our arms around each other.
“Are you sir’s girl?” asked one, pushing in beside us. Ross and I spoke together.
“Yes!” we said.
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