by Kerry P
Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Word Count: 2987
I checked the post, but there were no letters from potential employers, just a bank statement showing how dangerously low my balance was. I’d already posted another pile of job applications, so there was nothing to do but wait. But I like to keep busy at the best of times, and given my recent worries, I needed a distraction more than ever.
In desperation, I went to the craft cupboard in the spare room. Every year, since I was nine years old, Aunt Cat had bought me a craft kit for Christmas and birthdays. It had started with a jewellery set that I’d adored. I’d made dozens of bracelets and necklaces and had worn them all the time. I’d made one for my aunt too and she’d worn my childish creation with her immaculate suits and heels. Aunt Cat, having found a theme that worked, kept it going for twenty years.
I took the first box that came to hand from the overstuffed cupboard. It was cheese-making kit Aunt Cat had given me for my last birthday. Well with money tight, it seemed the perfect time to start making my own food.
I carefully unpacked the contents of the kit onto the kitchen counter. It had been in the cupboard for almost a year, so I checked the dates on the ingredients and as I did, I noticed something was missing. It seemed typical of my luck recently. I was about to stuff the whole lot back in the cupboard when I spotted a note from Aunt Cat in the box.
Gemma, if you have any problems, go and see Tom at the cheese stall in the farmer’s market.
Seeing Aunt Cat’s clear, no-nonsense words gave me a mental kick. Aunt Cat never sat around feeling sorry for herself; she just got on with things. I slipped my warmest coat over my jumper and jeans, pulled on my wellies and set out.
It was a crisp day and walking through the narrow lanes of the village, I thought of all the times when, with Aunt Cat due to visit, I had opened the latest craft kit to make it look like I was working on it. I had spread newspaper across the table, scattered beads or wood shavings, daubed paint or solder or glue. I didn’t want my lovely Aunt Cat to think her gifts weren’t appreciated. She had been such a support to me over the years, like a best friend, but wiser. The kits had just been so complicated recently. So each time she went home, I would give up and scoop the whole lot back into the cupboard.
Once, I’d got an artist friend to finish a photo frames kit and I put a picture of myself with Aunt Cat in one frame and myself with Uncle Robin in the other. Uncle Robin had been, for thirty years, the love of Aunt Cat’s life. ‘A marriage made in heaven,’ she always said.
‘You’ll meet someone you feel like that about one day,’ she had reassured me.
‘I don't know how,’ I’d complained. ‘It’s impossible to meet anyone these days. The clubs and pubs are so noisy you can’t talk and the staff at the primary school are all women, except the caretaker... and he’s 84! And even when I do meet someone nice, they seem to lose interest after a couple of months.’
After that, Aunt Cat had tried to set me up with single men she knew. She’d invited me to dinner parties and included everyone from her yoga teacher to her gardener. But I’d made it clear I didn’t want her help.
I reached the farmer’s market and strolled up and down the muddy aisles. I’d been there many times before and loved the bustling place, but I’d rarely got past the stall selling delicious bread and cakes. The rich, sweet smell of the freshly baked pastries tantalized me now and I was tempted to stop for a Danish, but it was nearing the end of the day and some of the stallholders were packing up, so I hurried along to the blue striped awning of the cheese stall.
The man behind the counter was younger than I had expected, and tall, with long limbs and an aquiline nose. He gave me a warm smile.
‘What can I do for you?’
‘Oh,’ I didn’t know quite what to say. ‘Erm... my aunt Cat told me to come here if I needed any help.’
‘You must be Gemma,’ he said, his smile broadening still further.
‘And you must be Tom.’
‘Yes. Your aunt hoped you would come, but she said you usually managed far too well on your own.’
I wondered what Aunt Cat had meant by that, but was soon distracted by Tom leaning forward, his arms resting on the counter in a way that defined the muscles in his lithe limbs.
‘Anyway what can I do for you?’ he said.
‘I need some rennet. It was missing from the kit.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Tom said. ‘Cat bought that kit from me. I was sure I had included everything. Anyway, I’ve got some here.’ He bent to reach under the stall,
pulled out a small packet and handed it to me. Even his hands were gorgeous, masculine, but with long, slender fingers. ‘Pianist’s hands’, Aunt Cat would have said.
‘Thanks,’ I said fumbling in my bag for my purse. ‘How much do I -’
‘No, no, it’s on the house.’
His smile was so genuine it made me feel warm inside.
‘Come back and tell me know how you got on,’ he said.
‘Oh, I will, definitely.’
A woman approached the stall. She was petite and pretty with a halo of fluffy hair. I smoothed my own brown mop self consciously.
‘Tom! I thought you would be packed up by now,’ she said, leaning in to kiss him. ‘We have a date remember?’
‘I’ll be ready in just a mo’,’ Tom said, his smile now almost splitting his face. ‘Good luck,’ he added before turning back to his girlfriend.
I gave him a small smile, stuffed the packet into my bag and hurried away.
The January night was drawing in fast and the wind had got up. I walked quickly passed the school on my way home, reluctant to see it so empty. My last few days there had been hard; taking down the colourful pictures from the walls and packing books into boxes to be transferred to the bright, full schools; schools I was unlikely to ever be a part of. There had been too few pupils to keep going so they had been moved, along with the most senior teachers, to a school in a nearby town. There was a surplus of teachers in the area now, due to all the closures, and the nearest vacancy I had found was in the next county. It looked like I was going to have to choose between my home and my vocation.
I invited my friend Lucy to share the homemade mozzarella in a salad. She arrived with a nice bottle of red.
‘Oh, lovely, I haven’t had a glass of wine for weeks.’ I set the bottle with the salad onto the scrubbed pine table.
‘I can’t believe you made this yourself,’ Lucy said, tasting the mozzarella. ‘It’s delicious. Was it easy to do?’
‘Yeah, quite simple, although I had to go to the cheese stall in the farmer's market to get one of the ingredients. There was a lovely man there who helped me out.’
‘Oh Tom, I know him, he is lovely. Actually he’d probably be just your type.’
‘He’s got a girlfriend.’
‘Oh, that’s new. Shame.’
‘My aunt told him I managed too well on my own,’ I said pouring us each a glass of wine. ‘What do you think she meant by that?’
‘Perhaps that you are a little bit too self sufficient. You’ve a good profession, a nice flat and you can put up a shelf and change a washer. There’s nothing for a man to do around here,’ she laughed.
‘Well, I’m not going to become all girlie and useless just to get a man!’
‘Quite right. Though everyone needs a little help now and then,’ Lucy shrugged. ‘Now pass me some more salad and tell me how things have been with you. Any luck with the job hunt?’
‘There’s nothing in teaching,’ I frowned. ‘If I want to stay in the village I’ll have to find something else. I emailed for an application form for the supermarket today.’
‘Oh, Gemma, that’s a shame. I know how much you love teaching.’
‘It’s true, sharing knowledge is the most rewarding thing I have ever done, but I really don’t want to move away from my friends and family. And Aunt Cat isn’t getting any younger. I don’t want to be miles away if she ever needs me.’
We finished the salad and took the rest of the wine into the lounge. We relaxed into my old leather sofa and chatted away the rest of the evening, with me mostly reminiscing about my happy teaching memories. It was breaking my heart to think I might have to give it up.
‘Well, it’s been a lovely evening,’ Lucy said when it was nearly midnight. ‘We must do it again soon.’
‘I could make the wine as well next time. I seem to remember Aunt Cat bought me a kit for Christmas.’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’
Clearing up the plates and glasses, I felt quite despondent. I’d had such optimistic hopes starting my first teaching job and buying this flat with its spare room and garden. Now everything seemed to be falling apart. And Lucy’s words kept running through my head. Was I too independent? Was that the reason all my relationships failed?
I wondered what might have been if I had opened Aunt Cat’s present a little sooner and found the lovely Tom before he was spoken for. But there was no point dwelling on it.
I knew if I went to bed in this mood I would just lie awake worrying, so, spurred on with my success at the cheese, I decided to make a start on the wine.
As I assembled the pipes and stoppers, it became clear that, once again, there was something missing. Not only that, but the instructions seemed very complicated. I flung the box down in frustration. Would nothing go right for me lately? Then I noticed another note.
Faraday’s Vineyard and Winery. Ask Peter if you need any help.
It suddenly dawned on me what Aunt Cat had been up to. I couldn’t believe she was interfering in my love life again! And, although I briefly wondered if there might be another gorgeous guy at the vineyard, the timing was all wrong. I had to focus on getting a job and hanging on to my home.
The next morning I set off for a walk round the village to check if anyone had any vacancies. But there was nothing. At the end of the quaint high street, I just kept walking. There was a pub just outside town I could try. I passed windswept fields and felt a flutter of snow in the biting wind. The response at the pub was another no. I sat on the wall outside trying to hold back tears. The wind whipped round me and flakes of snow whirled faster through the air. I wrapped my scarf tighter and stood up. It was no good. There was no work here. I would have to leave.
Standing up to turn for home, I noticed a sign pointing down the lane that ran alongside the pub. Faraday’s Vineyard and Winery, I had forgotten it was there. I decided I might as well get the missing piece for the wine kit. I walked along the lane a little way and came to the entrance.
Standing behind the oak desk was a dark haired man with the eyes the colour of expensive chocolate. He reached over a strong hand to shake mine when I introduced myself and I had to admit, my aunt’s taste was spot on once again.
‘You look frozen,’ he said. ‘Can I make you a coffee?’
‘Oh, no, I’m fine, I just came in get the piece that was missing from the kit.’
‘No problem.’ He reached into a box behind the counter and pulled out a rubber bung type thing. ‘Did you need any other help? I know it can seem complicated at first.’
‘I expect I’ll work it out. Anyway, I have job hunting to get back to.’
‘But it’s snowing outside and you look freezing. At least take a break and have a coffee and sandwich with me?’
‘A coffee would be nice,’ I admitted.
‘That’s settled then. Take a seat, I’ll just be a minute.’
I settled into one of the armchairs arranged round a coffee table in the reception area. A few minutes later, Peter returned with a frothy cappuccino and a sandwich. I cupped the warm drink in my hands feeling the warmth seep into my fingers. I began to relax. It was so warm in the reception and the air had a comforting spicy scent of wood and wine. As we ate, we chatted and then, after lunch he suggested a tour of the winery. I looked out at the snow. It wasn’t settling, but the wind was blowing fiercely and I had no desire to go outside.
‘I suppose another half an hour won’t make any difference.’
The winery was fascinating, but I kept getting distracted. Peter stood so close when he was showing me how things worked that I could smell the fresh, spicy scent of his skin. When he touched the small of my back to guide me through a narrow archway, I felt my skin tingle. I tried not to think about it, though. If I was going to have to move miles away, there was no point even thinking about starting a relationship here.
‘So, that’s the tour done,’ Peter said, leading me back into reception. ‘Another coffee?’
‘So how’s the job hunt going?’ he asked handing me another cappuccino.
‘Awful.’ I settled into the armchair and pulled my legs up beneath me. ‘I’m a teacher, but there are no jobs around here because of all the closures, and none of the shops on the high street have any vacancies. If I don’t find something soon, I’ll have to move out of the village.’ I could feel tears in my eyes and blinked them away. I couldn’t believe I was making such a fool of myself in front of a virtual stranger.
Peter leaned forward and gave me a sympathetic smile. Then his face brightened. ‘Actually, you might be able to help me. I’m supposed to be running a winemaking course, and the tutor has just pulled out.’
‘Oh, that’s kind of you,’ I shook my head. ‘But I know nothing about wine. You should just take the course yourself.’
‘The trouble is, I’m terrified of talking in front of groups. It’s stupid, I know.’
‘Not at all, I remember the first time I stood in front of a class. I couldn’t write on the board my hands were shaking so much.’ I smiled at the memory. Teaching had soon become second nature and though it wasn’t always easy, the sense of satisfaction I got from helping the children discover new things was incredible.
‘So would you help me? I could show you the basics and then you could teach the class? I’ve got ten people signed up already.’
‘Haven’t you a wife or girlfriend who could help?’ I asked.
‘No-one at all,’ he replied in a mock sad voice.
I was afraid that Peter just felt sorry for me after my outburst of self pity? But I was desperate for a job, however temporary; it would give me time to look for something else before my financial situation got too desperate.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It all seems very complicated. I’m worried it’s too much for me to learn.’
‘But you’d be perfect,’ he said. ‘I can tell by the questions you asked that you're a practical person. And I’d be there with you in case you wanted me.’
‘Then why do you need me?’
‘For moral support. To be honest, I think just having you by my side would be a help.’
He looked at me intently with those meltingly brown eyes. I was scared to say yes because I wasn’t sure if he really did need me or was just helping me out after my earlier bout of self-pity. But I didn’t want to walk away without a reason to come back.
‘I suppose I could give it a go,’ I said at last.
‘Oh, Gemma, that’s great! Can you come for your first lesson tomorrow?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Now I’d better go, but before I do. I must buy a bottle of your wine.’
‘Not buy! A gift, to seal our deal.’ He stood up and went to the racks of bottles that lined the walls. ‘What type would you like?’
‘You’re forgetting I know nothing about wine.’
‘A lot of people like the red. But to me that’s more for a relaxing evening. I think you should have the sparkling.’ He pulled a gold labelled bottle from the shelf.
‘Why, what’s the sparkling for?’
‘Celebrating something special,’ he said with a smile.
I hardly noticed the snow as I walked back through the village, my stomach fizzing like the bubbly in my bag. I headed for Aunt Cat’s to deliver her thank you present. Perhaps we could open the bottle together. After all, a new job and the prospect of a week in Peter’s company was certainly something to celebrate.