Matthew was one of life’s optimists. Not that he needed it on a day as glorious as this. Oh to be in England! He grinned whimsically to himself. Some days you just felt good to be alive for no reason at all. This wasn’t one of those days. Any idiot could see that it would be impossible to feel anything but good in Firthope.
It was one of those little, out of the way English villages that were such gems for a travel writer like himself to find. Best of all it was completely unspoiled by tourism, which was almost unheard of nowadays. Looking at the chocolate box prettiness of the main street (well, only street) it was easy to believe you’d taken a step back in time. The whitewashed cottages sat at regular intervals like comfortable matrons at a village meeting, sober brown reed wimples well tended. Matthew knew how hard it was to maintain a thatched cottage and was secretly impressed. The whole village was in very good repair, especially since the newest house had been built over two hundred years ago.
Everything was so clean. And bright. True, he was seeing Firthope on one of those golden days that in Britain make up for an entire summer of rain, but really this was like walking in a Renoir painting. He’d parked his car just outside the village, desperate to be outside. There was only limited vehicular access anyway. It was so pleasant not to see fourteen-year-olds smoking around the bus stop or sixteen-year-old yobs tearing up the idyllic street on motorcycles.
By the time he reached the village inn he was feeling a little drunk on it all. As if his senses had imbibed rich summer wine and could now only allow sensation to flow over them in pleasurable, helpless languor. The bees humming gently on the sweetly scented breeze seemed just as drunk on the richly colored flowers they frequented.
And everyone was so friendly. He’d been stopped at least half a dozen times by locals with a ‘hello” and “what brings you this way?” or at least by a friendly wave if they were too far off to talk. You certainly never got that sort of reception in London!
He glanced up at the pub sign. The Selworthy Arms. A white field with a black sickle and a sort of spear crossed above a wheat sheaf. He was just peering at the Latin motto underneath and trying to work out what ‘Spero melior’ meant, when the pub door swung open and a very pretty girl came out. She nearly walked right into Matthew as he stood staring with slack-jawed surprise.
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” She backed up a step and gazed up at him. “Although there’s so much of you I can’t think how I missed you! Besides that, handsome strangers turning up in the village are a rarity.” She dimpled.
The normally easy-mannered Matthew couldn’t get his tongue to form a sentence of any kind. He just kept picking up details like how tiny her waist was. What a shapely pair of legs, only partially concealed by her loose, flowing skirt. The teasing pout of her red-lipped mouth. How the sun caught her black hair and pulled out hidden strands of chestnut and copper until it gleamed. She had the brightest blue eyes he had ever seen.
She raised her eyebrows at him in amusement. “My name’s Lita. Do you have a name? Or are you the strong and silent type?”
“M- Matthew. Matthew Heaton.” He held out his hand and felt a thrill when she took it. “Pleased to meet you, Lita. What an unusual name.”
“More or less the only unusual thing round here.” She waved a hand indicating the picturesque scenery. “If it’s excitement you’re after you’d be best off going up to Minehead. I could give you directions?” She said this hopefully.
“No, thank you though. I’m here to review this pub for a magazine.”
“Oh, you’re a writer then? Well, it’s a good pub. The food is delicious – everything is grown or reared locally. None of that supermarket rubbish here. Still, it’s not glamorous. I hear there’s a new Jamie Oliver place open in Minehead….”
“Did you particularly want to go to Minehead? Because I’d be happy to take you.” Matthew flushed. “Sorry that was really forward of me.”
“You would? Now?” Her gaze softened a little.
“Well, as soon as I’ve reviewed the pub. Good Food is expecting the piece you see.”
“I see.” Lita bit her lip for a moment. “In that case how about this evening? After your pub dinner?”
“It’s a date.” Matthew smiled his happy-go-lucky smile and his whole face lit up. “Shall we meet here around 7pm?”
“Surely. Although promise me one thing. ” She caught his arm as he went towards the door.
“Ok.” Matthew was still smiling, slightly puzzled now.
“Don’t drink the spring wine. It’s a specialty but the last batch went bad. Better safe than sorry.” She said this all in a breathless rush, then smiled apologetically.
Matthew felt chivalrous. “For you, anything!” Then he tipped her a wink, lifted his hat in farewell and went inside.
The Selworthy Arms was in as good repair as the rest of the village despite being three hundred and fifty years old. The beams in the ceiling were dark oak against the whitewashed plaster. Somehow the proprietors had made the entire inn look both classy and comfortable. He was very pleased with his room, which had a view of the entire street. He had never seen a place with such quiet personality.
The meal, too, was excellent. Homemade paté on toast made from locally baked bread. A series of pork loin steaks in a cheese and apple sauce with trimmings and a light bread and butter pudding with the best custard he had ever tasted. All homemade, homegrown and home-reared, the landlord had said with pardonable pride. He then brought out a glass of sparkling, champagne-colored liquid with great ceremony. Replete with good food, Matthew took it and nearly drank without asking what it was.
“Our village specialty, that is. Spring wine, flavored with wild endive. You can’t say you’ve experienced Firthope until you’ve tasted it.” The landlord clasped his two large hands together.
Spring wine? Didn’t Lita say something about wine? Oh well, it would be rude not to accept and if he had an upset stomach, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. He meant to take a sip but it was so delicious he found himself downing the wine in one go. Its crisp, tart sweetness stayed on his tongue. He caught a glimpse of the landlord’s face. Did he seem a bit too eager? Matthew felt a swift flash of foreboding that was gone so quick he barely noticed it. Coffee and mints chased away the feeling entirely.
Just before seven o’ clock he changed his shirt and went outside to meet Lita. He was hoping to persuade her that their trip could wait till tomorrow. He would love to see what the Selworthy Arms would do with a cooked breakfast.
She was tapping her foot, looking impatient and very pretty in a dress the same dark blue as her eyes.
“Matthew! Come on!” She caught his hand and started towing him towards the street. Well, it would be a pleasant walk. He humored her and walked along. They talked of inconsequential things. Matthew made her laugh with a story about a place he’d gone to review that had used pictures of the much nicer pub next door to advertise on its website.
“Needless to say I didn’t stay there!”
Lita laughed. “And you won’t stay here either.” They were approaching the edge of the village where he’d left his car.
“Well….I was hoping we could go tomorrow…”
Lita looked very grave. “Matthew, it’s now or never. I really like you. Let’s have no more nonsense about staying, shall we?”
She stood on tiptoe, pressed the length of her body against him and kissed him. The sudden rush of blood to his head made him inarticulate. Best village ever. He was just getting really involved in the kiss when she suddenly broke away and shoved him back. There was no trace of humor in her face now. Matthew stood in a daze.
“You drank the spring wine, didn’t you? Didn’t you? I can taste it!” Lita was furious.
“Well yes, one glass but it wasn’t off or anything. I’m safe to drive…”
“Oh you fool. You idiot!” She fumed.
“Forget it. Just forget it. We’re not going anywhere now. You’re not going anywhere now!”
“What the hell…?”
“Just leave me alone, Matthew. Leave me alone.” She looked at him in bitter disappointment for a moment and then ran off into the violet evening light.
Matthew got into his bed at the inn feeling disgruntled. What on earth had she been playing at? How was one glass of wine so bad? With that slight shadow cast over his day he fell into a surprisingly deep and restful sleep.
In the morning he laughed at himself a bit. Clearly he’d said or done the wrong thing. That didn’t mean that he couldn’t find Lita and make it up to her. He was surprised by how smitten he was with her. He’d never been a big believer in love at first sight but they had definitely clicked, hadn’t they? And in this place anything was possible. Dreams must come true here all the time. His natural optimism had reasserted itself stronger than ever.
It was another scorcher of a day. He set off from the pub to find Lita. He tried asking the landlord who said he thought she worked in the Tea Clipper down the street. Which was odd because the Tea Clipper was shut when he got there. The proprietress was happy to point him towards Mrs. Downes’ house, where Lita sometimes helped with the gardening. Mrs. Downes hadn’t seen her since yesterday but she sent him to Mr. Grice since Lita helped feed his chickens and walked his Cocker spaniel now the old man’s gout was bad.
Matthew didn’t mind these side trips. He was finding out so much about his new beloved. At each stop he felt his hopes flare and renew. By mid- afternoon he was becoming weary. He wished he’d stopped long enough to have breakfast after all. Maybe he would go back to the Tea Clipper and have scones. He thought he might just try the church first. He didn’t think it was likely Lita would be there but it was a beautiful old building and worth a look. He didn’t want to admit how discouraged he was becoming. In a village this size with a population below two hundred he should have tracked her down in no time.
Matthew would have thought he’d imagined Lita except everyone knew her. Which made him start to wonder if an elaborate game was being played? Send the newcomer one way while Lita ran the other. He felt a prickle of anger at the thought. He went up the grey stone steps into the cool church and all other thoughts flew out of his head.
Lita stood before the altar in an ankle-length white dress. Like a bride, he thought. His hopes flared painfully higher than before.
She turned to him with a sad smile on her face, “You should have gone to Minehead when I first suggested it.” Her voice was soft.
There was a crack and a sudden pain at the back of his head before darkness swallowed him…
…Matthew bounced out of bed filled with hope and purpose. Last night had just been a silly misunderstanding. He had to find Lita. He was surprised by how smitten he was with her. He’d never been a big believer in love at first sight but they had definitely clicked hadn’t they? And in this place anything was possible. Dreams must come true here all the time. His natural optimism had reasserted itself stronger than ever.
It was another scorcher of a day. He set off from the pub to find Lita…….
Lita hooked the IV bag back up and checked the line feed. The man in the bed didn’t move. After thirty years she didn’t expect him too. It was always hard to tend this one though. She really had liked him, not just seen him as a ticket out of the Village. She didn’t bother looking out of the attic window of the Selworthy Arms. The village would look perfect as it had every day she had lived here.
She remembered the day she had walked into the young, handsome writer outside the Selworthy Arms thirty years ago. That day was more real to her than any other day because that day had been different. She was still beautiful but there was grey in her hair now and faint lines around her mouth and eyes.
The figure in the bed was wasted from inactivity. No doubt he was spending another fruitless day searching for her as he had done every day for the past thirty years. He’d been what the village thought of as ‘quite a find’, someone with natural reserves of hope. The Village had fed very well on that for the last three decades, thank you very much, and hoped to get at least another decade more.
She allowed herself a few moments as she always did. She brushed his now white hair from his lined face and kissed his hollowed cheek. She looked at him sadly.
“Oh, Matthew. I wish you hadn’t drunk that wine.”
She sighed and moved on to the next figure in the row of beds.
(First published in 69 Flavours of Paranoia 2014)