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    Mawgrim
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Travelling On - 2. To the Country

Craig felt upbeat, yet nervous. He’d had an easy Friday. No emergencies first thing, so he’d gone to one of his local sites and done some updates on the servers before they opened, then sat around drinking coffee with the manager until mid-afternoon. It had been almost like the old days and had left him feeling perhaps the job wasn’t so bad, after all. There were a lot worse things he could be doing, like being stuck on a production line, or sitting in an office bored out of his mind, watching the clock hands move at a snail’s pace until it was time to go home.

He’d spoken to Madge and asked her to look after Jerry for the weekend.

‘Going somewhere nice?’ she’d asked.

‘Derbyshire. A friend’s place.’

She smiled. ‘A special friend?’

‘Maybe. We’ve only just met, but I think there might be something there.’

‘Well, good for you. Enjoy yourself. You only live once.’

He’d dug out his hiking boots - only worn a couple of times - and packed a selection of clothes. He had no idea if James intended them to eat out somewhere or not. Country pubs weren’t usually very formal, but it was best to be prepared for any eventuality.

Before he left, he took a deep breath and checked himself in the hall mirror. Not bad for his age, he supposed, almost instinctively sucking in his gut as he turned sideways. Since becoming a projection engineer, he’d put on quite a bit of weight. He wasn’t sure exactly how much, since he tended to avoid scales, but the last few pairs of trousers he’d bought were a couple of inches larger around the waist than he’d used to wear and he’d let his belt out by two holes.

Back in the days when he was a chief projectionist, he’d been fairly trim. The job kept you that way without even trying. He’d been on his feet all day, dashing from one screen to the other and carrying films around. If there’d been such as thing as a Fitbit in those days he’d have definitely exceeded the recommended 10,000 steps per day. Back then, he’d also eaten more healthily, tending to make meals in bulk and freeze portions he could take to work and reheat in the staff room microwave. There was no way you could eat proper food while driving at seventy miles an hour on the motorway. These days, he didn’t have time to prepare meals in advance, or even shop more than once a week. Not knowing when you’d be home meant fresh food often got thrown out. Easier to live on frozen ready meals, heated in a matter of minutes and wolfed down without much thought.

Ah well, no point in regrets. Moving on to become an engineer had been a natural progression. He’d seen the writing on the wall, anticipating that in a few years - no one was sure how many in those days - cinema projection would inevitably progress from film to digital. They’d been prepared for some loss of jobs. Craig had been sure the larger venues would keep a few technical people on site and even the smaller cinemas would do well to have at least one person with diagnostic and maintenance ability. So it had been, at first, until the cost of the new equipment and the need to justify every last penny in wages had led to further waves of redundancies and the situation as it was today.

Craig threw his bag in the back of the car and set his sat nav with James’s postcode. He’d warned in his last text it wasn’t wholly accurate. In rural areas, postcode locations often covered a couple of miles. Once he’d gone through the nearest village, he’d be looking out for a barn and some outbuildings on the right, followed by a wood on the left. Just past the wood was the track leading to James’s cottage.

As he set off, his nervousness increased a notch. What if this all turned out to be a big mistake? What if the easy camaraderie of their enforced stay had vanished and they didn’t have anything to talk about? Couldn’t even recapture the spark of attraction that had kindled between them?

Well, if that was the case, then at least he’d know about it sooner rather than later. Get it over with, so to speak. And if not… well, he barely dared to let himself think through the possibilities.

It was a relatively easy journey on the main roads. The snow was definitely on the way out, as was often the case in England. No weather, be it sunshine, snow or rain, lasted too long. It was good in some ways - heatwaves were only a matter of enduring a few days sticky heat, snow melted before it had time to be too much of a nuisance - but it made planning an event very difficult. Many a garden party or summer fete had been rained off. In spring or autumn, experiencing a taste of all four seasons in the space of a single day wasn’t unknown.

He made good time. It was still only ten-thirty when he turned off onto a ‘B’ road bordered by high hedges, bare at this time of the year, which allowed brief glimpses onto the rolling patchwork of the Derbyshire countryside. He wasn’t overly familiar with this part of the country. He’d heard of the Peak District and even driven through it on journeys between Manchester and Sheffield, but this wasn’t the same at all. There were hedges rather than walls and the few villages he drove through had houses built of red brick rather than grey stone. It must be idyllic in summer. Even at this bleak time of year it wasn’t unpleasant to look at. Uncertain sunshine peeked through the cloud, illuminating the fields as if a spotlight had been turned on them.

His sat nav told him there were less than five miles to his destination. Soon, very soon, he’d be seeing James again. Anticipation tingled through his body. He felt his heart beat a little faster. He’d almost forgotten that feeling; the sense of suspension, as if you were poised on the top of a rollercoaster, waiting for the ride to begin. Once again, he found himself hoping everything would work out. Except hope, by its very nature, meant you exposed yourself to the possibility of failure.

He spotted a familiar place name on a road sign, then the village pub and a steepled church. Carry on through the village, he reminded himself, as houses once again gave way to fields. A building loomed up on the right. Was that the barn?

‘You have reached your destination,’ the sat nav announced, but he’d expected that. He silenced it and carried on driving. Ah! That must be the wood, on his left. Lots of trees he didn’t know the names for, anyway.

He almost missed the track. Good job there were no other vehicles about. He braked sharply and reversed, then turned left and drove carefully alongside the wood, his car lurching over unavoidable potholes, splashing up slush and muddy water. He was glad he hadn’t bothered to clean it. The track seemed to go on forever; long enough for Craig to seriously start wondering if he’d taken a wrong turn and might end up bogged down in a dead end. According to the on-screen map, he was already driving across a field. Then as he rounded a left-hand bend, he recognised the cottage from the pictures he’d seen on James’s phone. It was built of the local red brick, with a slightly ramshackle outbuilding attached at right angles. In front of it was an undulating cobbled yard, dotted with puddles. A fairly old Range Rover was parked to one side. This wasn’t the sort of gleaming four by four people drove around town. Dents and dings showed it had spent most of its life as a working vehicle.

Craig parked next to it, hoping he’d arrived at the right place. Just as he climbed out of the car, a door opened and James stepped out, a smile on his face.

‘You found it all right, then?’

‘Yes, although that track made me happy this is a company car.’

‘Well, grab your stuff and come in. I did warn you the place is a mess, didn’t I?’

‘A few times. I’m not expecting the Ritz.’ James was all he needed. If it had been a ruin he probably wouldn’t have minded much.

The porch was floored with slightly muddy quarry tiles. James led the way into a large kitchen, where similar tiles were mostly covered by a large, rectangular rug. A battered looking table sat in the centre and one of those large cooking appliances that also heated the house took up most of the back wall. A huge pile of logs were stacked in the alcove beside it and armchairs had been placed to either side. It was plain, but cosy. A real farmhouse kitchen, as opposed to the ones on the covers of glossy magazines advertising a lifestyle. A little bit scruffy, a little bit worn, but authentic.

‘Well, here we are. Cup of tea?’

‘That’d be great.’ Craig dumped his bag on the floor. He watched as James filled the kettle and replaced it on the hob. Yes, he was every bit as attractive as before; more so probably now he was casually dressed in a pale blue fleece and jeans rather than a rumpled business suit. He looked - what was that saying - at home in his own skin. As if he belonged here.

Craig wondered if he should hug James. He wanted to, but even though they’d had that brief kiss in the snowbound village, he wasn’t sure. Damn his indecision.

‘Have a seat,’ James said. ‘Make yourself at home.’

‘I’ve been sitting for the past two hours.’ Craig moved towards him, just the corner of the table between them. ‘And what I’d really like is…’ Before he had a chance to over analyse what he was about to do, he reached out for James’s hand, pulling them closer into a hug. All of a sudden, he felt everything click into place; the connection was still there. He relaxed into the easy embrace, feeling the warmth of James’s body, then as they drew back briefly, found himself caught in that blue gaze. James took the initiative then and his lips brushed Craig’s in a gentle kiss which slowly deepened. And this time there was no dog walker to interrupt it. Craig cupped the back of James’s head, feeling the soft curls of the hair at the nape of his neck. One of James’s hands snaked around his waist, while the other, between his shoulder blades. stroked his back. It felt right.

Finally, they broke apart. James smiled at him. ‘Glad to see you, too.’

‘Definitely.’ He was a little bit out of breath. An absurd sense of happiness surged through his body, as if he’d somehow managed to claw back some of the magic of a few days ago.

‘While the kettle’s boiling, shall I give you the grand tour of the place?’

‘That’d be good.’ He’d have quite liked the kissing to continue and maybe lead to more, but there was no need to hurry. The whole weekend lay ahead of them, after all.

A old, battered door led through into a small hallway with age-darkened wood panelling. ‘Some of the house dates back to the seventeenth century. Other parts were added on later. This room is one of the oldest.’ James opened the door onto an empty space, whose walls were lined with the same dark panelling. The ceilings were high and at the far end, a tall window provided a surprising amount of light.

‘I’ve always thought old houses were dark.’

‘That’s more the Victorian era. They didn’t want sunlight to fade colours and they had gas lights. Further back, people had to rely on candles and oil lamps, so they made the most of natural daylight.’

The window looked onto a sloping lawn and from there, the woods. A sliver of sunlight filtered through the trees as a pigeon winged away.

‘I’m probably going to make this the sitting room. The view’s one of the best in the house. Nice and cosy too, once I get the heating going properly. Plus there’s the fireplace.’

An ornately carved surround framed the grate. Craig visualised a fire burning there, Jerry curled in front of it as he and James sat in matching leather armchairs on either side, like lords of the manor. Stop it, he told himself. No losing yourself in flights of fancy. ‘It’s lovely.’

‘Thats what I thought, first time I stepped in this place. It felt like home.’ From the kitchen, a whistling alerted them the water had boiled. ‘I’ll just go and take that off the heat.’

Left alone, Craig looked around the room again. He thought of his own, modern house with its featureless plasterboard walls, just like all of the others in the road. He placed a hand on the ancient panelling, thinking of all the generations who must have called this place home through the centuries. The massive cast iron radiator reminded him of those in nineteen-thirties cinemas, although this must be a lot older. It was only slightly warm, but enough to take the winter chill off the room.

James returned. ‘I’ve mashed the tea. Now, let’s show you the rest of the ground floor. It’s the newer part of the building.’

Craig could tell that immediately from the difference in ceiling height. The room to the other side of the hall had a totally different feel to it. In fact, it had been so stripped of character, it wasn’t far removed from his own house.

‘As far as the surveyor could tell, this was added around a hundred years ago. The UPVC patio doors are somewhat more recent. The last owners boarded up the original fireplace and put in that monstrosity.’ He gestured toward the nineteen-seventies stone ‘feature’ with a hideous electric fire inset among the shelves and niches.

‘I’m guessing this was their sitting room?’

James nodded. ‘Yes. The panelled room across the way was basically used for junk storage. Only finished clearing it last weekend. Still, I reckon once this is restored it will be a great dining space. I’d like to make it the library, too. I have lots of books,’ he said, almost apologetically.

‘So have I.’ Although most of them were still in boxes in the garage. Matt had suffered from multiple allergies and had always insisted books gathered dust and set him off sneezing. Craig used to bring in one or two at a time to read, then return them to cold exile. Even though Matt had been gone for a while, he’d been too busy with work - and too tired when he wasn’t working - to find them a permanent home indoors.

‘You enjoy reading?’

‘I used to. When I worked as a projectionist I always took a book in, to read when I was waiting for the films to end. Nowadays…’ he shrugged. ‘Don’t get much time.’

‘I used to read in those Deluxe Inns. Better than the crappy TV and it felt like more of an escape from work. And it’s always good to have a book to keep you company during those solitary meals.’

‘God, yes. No one looks at anyone in case they might feel obliged to speak. I tend to use the time to catch up with my emails.’ Or check Grindr, but he didn’t want James to know that. Most of his hookups had happened that way rather than by the old fashioned method of talking to someone.

‘Right. Want to check out upstairs before tea?’ James asked, before continuing. ‘That sounds like an awful chat up line, doesn’t it?’

Craig smiled. ‘Depends who’s saying it.’ Flirting with James felt easy and natural. He guessed James must feel the same. Well, they were both old enough to know what they wanted, after all.

The stairs creaked. Sneaking downstairs for a midnight snack would definitely not go unnoticed in this house.

‘I have to show you the bathroom first,’ James said enthusiastically. ‘These days, it’s possibly quite a rare example of its type.’ He flung open a modern door and switched on the light. ‘A genuine avocado suite.’

Craig remembered them well. They’d been all the rage in the seventies, when people had chucked out their old fashioned white bathroom suites and put in the latest colours; avocado, baby pink and harvest gold. ‘It’s… it’s very retro,’ he said, trying to be tactful in case James actually liked it.

‘It’s going in the skip. Unless someone who’s into seventies decor offers to take it off my hands. But the bathroom’s not high on my list of priorities at the moment.’ He opened another door. ‘My room.’ It hadn’t yet been decorated. The walls had recently been re-plastered and were still drying out by the look of it. Bare boards were covered by a couple of rugs to either side of what looked like a genuine antique bed finished in the same dark varnish as the panelling downstairs. A matching wardrobe fitted neatly into the alcove to one side of the chimney breast. The window overlooked the garden and woods.

‘This is the old part of the house again?’ Craig asked, still trying to get his bearings.

‘Correct. Although they partitioned off part of the original room to put in the bathroom. No indoor plumbing back when this place was first built.’ He shut the door again. ‘The next one is just storage right now; all the stuff I’m not going to even unpack until there’s somewhere to put it and this one…’ he opened the last door. ‘I’ve made up for you. I, er, didn’t want to presume anything.’

Craig liked him even more for that, even though he was fairly sure he wouldn’t be sleeping in the new-looking queen size bed given half a chance.

They went back to the kitchen, where, over tea, James outlined his dreams for the house. He was full of enthusiasm, even unrolling a couple of architects drawings for an extension. ‘I won’t have the money to spare for this for a couple of years, but planning permission’s been granted.’

‘Didn’t you say something about building in the woods?’

‘Yes. A couple of log cabins. You’ve just got to see the views. Maybe after we’ve finished this, as the weather’s fine?’

‘Sounds good. I brought my hiking boots.’

He looked slightly dubious. ’You might need wellies. After the thaw, it’s pretty muddy out there. What size do you take?’

‘Nines.’

‘Same as me. I’ve got a spare pair in the porch. My sister bought me some new ones for Christmas. She said now I was living in the country I had to have proper green Hunter wellies.’

‘And one of those waxed coats?’ He’d noticed it hanging up when he first came in.

‘Of course. Although the locals tend to just wear their oldest, scruffiest stuff when they’re out and about. If you’re seen in anything too new, it marks you out as a townie.’

Craig vaguely remembered James telling him he’d grown up in a village. ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit of a townie myself.’

‘They won’t hold it against you. Someone has to live there.’

It wasn’t long before they were kitted out for a walk. James insisted Craig put on the new boots, while he took the well-worn old ones.

‘Is that so they all point at me and shout “townie”?’

‘No, just I haven’t worn them yet and you might not want to put your feet in these smelly old things.’

As they stepped outside, a pair of horses walked down the track. The woman riding the larger of the two waved cheerily. ‘Gorgeous day,’ she shouted across.

‘Isn’t it,’ James called back. ‘That’s Jane,’ he told Craig. ‘With her daughter Fiona. They often ride past. There’s a bridleway down by the stream. Might be a bit boggy today, though.’

He led the way through a gate into the garden. Craig thought of his own garden; a small patch of balding grass with a patio right next to the house. This was more the size of a football field, with a few gnarled old trees dotted here and there. It sloped away from the house toward a tall hedge which was equally as bare and black as the trees. Beyond lay the wood. As they picked their way down a muddy track, crows cawed overhead.

‘It’s not the best time of year, of course,’ James said as they walked. ‘In a couple of months, this will be thick with bluebells. You won’t recognise it as the same place.’

Craig heard the sound of running water long before they reached the stream. The water was brown, murky and fast moving. A somewhat rickety looking bridge led over it. He wasn’t at all sure it would take their weight, but James crossed without a qualm, so he followed. The climb up the other side made him realise how unfit he’d become. It would have been good to pause for a breather half way, but James didn’t seem to need a rest, so he forced himself to keep going. The new boots were heavy with mud by now, adding to his exertion.

‘All right?’ James asked.

‘Yes,’ he managed to gasp, trying not to sound as if he was about to expire. Fortunately, the slope became gentler, levelling out to a natural plateau.

‘This is it,’ James said, happily. ‘This is where I’m going to put the first cabin. Just look at that view.’

Craig looked back down into the valley. ‘Nice,’ he said, able to breathe slightly more easily now they’d stopped.

‘Now look the other way.’

He did. The trees rapidly thinned out, giving a glimpse of rolling hills and blue sky that seemed to go on for miles. Even for a townie like himself, it was impressive.

‘There’ll be a terrace facing this way. Imagine sitting out here with a glass of chilled white wine, watching the sun set over all that.’

It had a certain rustic charm, he had to admit.

‘The other side, there’ll be room for a hot tub. Luxury in the midst of nature. People pay a premium for that. A couple in the village have two glamping pods in their field and they’re booked out almost all year round.’

‘Glamping?’ It sounded like some weird country ritual.

‘Short for glamorous camping. Rather than roughing it in a tent, you have a cosy little building with all mod cons. Perfect for short breaks to explore the countryside.’

Once again, Craig was struck by the way James had thought it all out. They walked side by side along the ridge. Somehow, their hands touched, then curled around each other.

‘Do you like it so far?’ James asked.

‘I like everything about it.’ I like everything about you, he really meant. He wouldn’t normally choose to walk through damp woodland on his own in the middle of winter, but with James, the experience was somehow transformed. He realised he was falling for James and wasn’t sure if it was wise. Was he really fit for a relationship with anyone? Hookups were different. There was no expectation of anything more than sex and maybe a bit of chat or a quick drink together if you really struck lucky. Anything more was potentially dangerous. It might lead to complications. Changes. Craig admired James for the way he’d taken control of his own life, but could he ever match up to that?

Copyright © 2021 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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I'm glad Craig took the initiative to hug James, and the move was obviously welcome and led to kissing. I wish Craig didn't stomp on his dreams, but hopefully James can persuade him to drop the crappy job and join him in the cottage. Craig's neighbor gave good advice.

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9 hours ago, Timothy M. said:

I wish Craig didn't stomp on his dreams, but hopefully James can persuade him to drop the crappy job and join him in the cottage.

It might take a bit of time, but if Craig can see he has other options, he might be able to see a way out.

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7 hours ago, CincyKris said:

 

I'm loving this gentle, romantic story featuring real people around my age!  Reading about young folks can be fun and new (I'm reading your Pern stories right now and loving them), but I can relate to these characters and there are considerably fewer stories with middle aged love interests.

 

I agree. Young love, or first love is a wholly different experience. Middle aged people have a lot more of life's baggage to cope with.

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7 hours ago, drsawzall said:

The seed from the winds of change looks to be germinating and long term planning, effecting life changes are a distinct possibility.

Yes, Craig's beginning to realise there are other options, although he'll still take a bit more convincing.

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I agree Craig seems to be seriously considering change, nonetheless, it is always a scary step! 

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Glad Craig took a chance on himself and went to see James. It's easy to convince ourselves as we get older we are not good enough, fit enough or interesting enough for love.

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