This story is by Katherine Forster and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Scrivener’s Ford, forty miles north of Dunedin, 1946.
The driveway wound around the hill, tall macrocarpas standing at attention like ancient sentinels along the edge of the carriageway. Water ran around the rutted surface and into the water table hugging the bend. She could hear distant thunder.
“They must have had a decent shower for that amount of run off,” she thought. No more, please! I don’t want to get trapped this side of a slip.”
She’d never driven out this way before, let alone driven up his driveway. It was such an isolated place; there were no farms around for miles. In the past he’d always driven the long windy metal road to come and visit her at the school house. But he’d rung and asked her to come. Maddie was unwell, he’d said. Was this simply a case of the common measles, or something more sinister? His words swirled around in her head, as she negotiated the steep drive.
Suddenly the macrocarpas ended. There it was; the quaintest older style house she’d ever seen. The flower beds edging the lawn were somewhat in disarray, but there were the bones of a fine cottage garden.
Keira Emma Jones edged her tall willowy frame out of the Ford Popular’s confines. She checked her appearance in the side mirror. Pushing back an errant lock of hair that had come loose from her long braid, she strode out confidently along the path towards the house. After knocking twice on the sturdy door, she could make out a figure approaching. The door opened.
“Keira….,” began a tense voice. It belonged to a man who looked like he had the world’s problems on his shoulders. He was standing on the door step, looking somewhat bereft. He simply beckoned.
Keira followed him along the passage, towards his only daughter’s bedroom. Even in the urgency of the moment, she couldn’t help noticing the broad shoulders, and the blonde slightly curly locks of hair which stopped just below them. The lighting in the passageway was dim. As soon as she entered Maddie’s bedroom, light flooded her senses. The curtains were pulled back and one of the windows was opened slightly. She walked towards the still form in the bed.
“Hello, Maddie,” she began. “How are you feeling today?” There was no audible response, other than the occasional unintelligible string of words. Suddenly the little girl sat up and shouted, “Where’s Mummy?” Keira moved in close, giving the tiny frame, a large, bear like hug. She whispered in Keira’s ear, “Remember, Maddie, Mummy’s gone to be with Jesus forever. She’s safe there, in heaven. One day you will get to see her again.”
Keira felt Maddie’s forehead. The girl was obviously running a fever. Keira could see spots, their angry red tops dotted all over the girl’s body.
“Lie down, Maddie,” she said. “I’ll bring you some cool cloths to put on your forehead. Just relax. Have this drink of water, then try and sleep.” Keira reached for the glass on the bedside table. She coaxed Maddie to take sips. Some of the liquid went onto her parched lips and down her throat. The girl swallowed three times.
“Good girl, Maddie,” Keira said. “Now lie down and try and sleep.”
Maddie lay down again, and was soon asleep.
Only then, did Keira turn around to look at Clement. His eyes searched hers.
“Is it…. bad?” he asked.
Keira pulled her gaze away from his. She flushed. It was nothing to do with the temperature of the room, which was a shade too warm. It was particularly humid, and she could hear the rumbling drawing closer.
“She’ll be fine,” replied Keira. “It’s just the common measles. Give her a week, and she’ll be just about back to normal.”
Clement exhaled. She realised he’d been holding his breath while he waited for her answer.
“I’m so relieved,” he said simply.
“The fever will run its course. I’d say it has almost broken,” she added reassuringly.
“Come. I’ll make you a cup of tea,” Clement invited. Keira trailed him into the kitchen.
As she took the seat he offered her, she looked around the homely kitchen. There was still much evidence of a woman’s touch, from the blue gingham curtains to the quilted tablecloth on the oak table. Grace had been gone over two years, and yet it seemed her presence was still here.
“A penny for your thoughts,” said Clement as he passed her a cup and saucer. “I’ll let you pour the tea.”
“I’m not sure how to say this,” she said. “It almost seems as though Grace is still here.”
“Funny you should say that,” replied Clement slowly.” Just this morning, I was thinking of her. The things around will always remind me of her.”
Keira’s stomach knotted. He must be still in love with her, or at least with her memory.
His voice halted her thoughts.
“Keira, we’ve been courting for eleven months now. I’ve loved you since the day I laid eyes on you…..that day in church. You looked like an angel. I could tell it was on your inside, as well as on the outside. Keira, please don’t think I’m too forward………” He paused before continuing.” I would love to live with you for the rest of our lives. Will you join me?”
Keira recovered her composure, but her face clouded. “I’m sorry, Clement. I have to say, ‘No.’ Your heart belongs to another still.”
It hurt Keira to see the effect of her words. Finally, he responded. ”So you don’t love me, then?” he asked falteringly.
“I do love you, so much, it hurts to see you so stricken. But Clement, you are still in love with your deceased wife. I cannot compete with that.”
A look of understanding came over his face.
“You need to know what Grace said on her dying breath. She asked me to let her go, and as soon as I had done that, to court and marry the woman who captured my heart. Keira, I have let Grace go. You are the one she was talking about. You have captured my heart, and now I am going to fulfil what was my dying wife’s wish.” He paused.
“Keira, will you marry me? I don’t deserve you. Will you not reconsider?”
A smile of realization came over Keira’s face.
“Clement, I love you. My answer is….Yes!”
He reached into his pocket. Gently he took her hand. He pushed onto her slender, but trembling finger, a simple, elegant diamond ring.
Keira was speechless, but filled with a bubbling joy.
“Let’s not wait long for a wedding,” he stammered. “When do you suggest?” he asked.
Keira reclaimed her voice.
“ Well, it is October now…How about just before Christmas?” asked Keira, her voice eager. “The 16th December? I know it is a Saturday, because it’s dad’s birthday.”
“16th December, it is, “replied Clement solemnly…..I can’t wait!”
As he replied, they both heard a close deep rumble. The room had darkened considerably since they’d come into the kitchen.
“That radio forecast was correct, then. There’s a rain warning out. I had shifted the stock to the higher country just in case,” said Clement.
“Why don’t you stay for tea?” he asked. I have some left over stew in the safe.
Keira smiled.” I’d love to stay, and help you prepare dinner. But I must leave straight afterwards. I don’t want those old gossips spreading a rumour that I stayed all night. ‘Spinster head mistress stays the night at her beau’s house.’ If I leave after tea, any rumour will be groundless.”
Keira was laughing as she skipped along the wet concrete path, that lead to Pop. Her hand was firmly held by the strong, work calloused hand of Clement.
“Thanks Keira,” he said simply. But Keira knew he was thankful.
Five minutes later, she was winding down the drive, the slap, slap, of her wiper blades partially mesmerising her. Finally, she turned onto the windy road out. A hundred metres down the road, her headlights illuminated a bank of debris and branches.
“Oh no,” she exclaimed. “There’s a slip across the road!”
In less than twenty minutes, she was propped up with fresh soft pillows in the cosy spare bed in the guest bedroom.
“Well,” said Clement, as he brought her a steaming cup of cocoa.
Trapped,” he said. “You’re trapped here with me, in my house, with no chaperone!”
“Those old biddies will have something to talk about now,” he said. Only the rumours of us ‘doing it’ will be ill founded. But God knows the truth. That’s all that matters.”
“Seven weeks, and then you will be my bride and I will be the happiest man alive. Good night, my dearest. I’ll collect the cup in the morning, when I bring you breakfast in bed!”
“Trapped,” repeated Keira softly after she called out a goodnight to him. She could hear his footsteps fading as he walked the length of the passage to his bedroom.
“I can think of worse people to be trapped with,” she mused, as she slid between the crisp, clean sheets.