Blackford—where the path begins
When Gillian Pembury squeezed her car into the last remaining space of a small car park behind the austere building that housed Redbridge Veterinary Practice, she was certain that she had arrived at the end of the line. Single was how she was arriving and single was how she would remain in a place this small and isolated. Her mood drooped with the last remnants of the old autumn leaves. Late winter was not the most naturally hospitable time to be arriving.
Still, she had promised herself she would focus on her work. She tidied her appearance, scrutinizing herself in the rearview mirror. So far other relationships, even the presence of attractive females, had served only to decimate her concentration levels and obstruct her professional ambitions. At least that was what she was currently telling herself. It helped to convince her that she could, perhaps should, manage on her own without her thoughts wandering annoyingly out of her control. Anyway, it would just be for a few years, until she worked out where to head off to next. Perhaps being here was a deliberate attempt to keep herself out of the way of distractions. She stepped lightly out of the car, the bite of the still seasonally cold air catching her by surprise, as she made a concerted effort to sweep away the mental autumn leaves. Time just to be left alone for a while. She was unable to go as far as admitting that perhaps she was running away.
She unloaded some of her bags and headed into the surgery, applying herself to the task of moving some of her work equipment into her locker. She made an insignificant-looking figure: petite, dark hair cut into a tidy, practical bob, humbled against the backdrop of the Howgill Fells. Anyone looking down towards the village from up there would have failed to see her, not even comparable to a mite on an ant on a speck of grit from that majestic distance.
From somewhere inside the depths of the building a healthy voice—Bridget’s voice— called a welcome, “Gillian? Is that you?”
Work and progress had been her preoccupation recently. She had landed this countryside position soon after two years of breaking herself in at an intense urban practice in York in the north of England. The mostly small animal work was busy and repetitive, where she was often treated as the dogsbody. When the opportunity had arisen to apply for a vacancy out of the city in a broader, large-animal district, she had thrown herself eagerly into preparation for the interview.
Bridget Redbridge, the established, robust owner of the practice, now approaching her mid-forties Gill guessed, had been impressed with her enthusiasm and the encouraging references. Gill had sat patiently during her interview while Bridget ploughed through her CV, reading aloud about her year in Africa after graduation. Even if it did not directly apply to working in Yorkshire, what an adventurous undertaking, showing strength of character to tackle those difficult situations and stubborn, weighty beasts, and how that would be of use with the farmers. Bridget had exclaimed this with some mirth, apparently delighted by her ingenious comparison. The assessment continued to blossom, Bridget commenting on how Gill’s upbringing on the edge of rural Herefordshire would evidently give Gill some instinctive empathy. When she had been invited down for a trial week at the Redbridge practice, continuing compliments on her easy manner with the animals and determination to reach the diagnosis appeared to be the deal-clinchers.
Subsequently, after all the furor of succeeding, it wasn’t until Gill had arrived and moved into her little rented house by the old mill buildings of Blackford, crunching over the thin layer of ice on the puddles, that the possible consequences of her removal from any sort of social life began to dawn on her. ‘National Park Centre’. It was not that the village lacked promise. Blackford was nestled into a picturesque valley-bowl of the Dales, sizeable enough to house a post office, a school, a sprinkling of shops including a compact village supermarket, an independent delicatessen grocery and some cottage industries, such as the local cheese factory and crafts, all of which enticed the tourists. In the height of the summer the place was buzzing, while still being remote enough to attract committed hikers, cavers and climbers.
The old mill building had been renovated into an arts center and it had a background buzz of new ideas and initiatives rubbing up against traditions. She was close enough to cycle to the practice if she didn’t need to go further afield, and the roar of the Mill Race River outside the cottage pleasantly obliterated the world beyond. Perched on the crazy-paved back patio she could watch for dippers or wagtails foraging in the river and even the occasional mink or otter, while thoughtfully sipping a drink, putting her world into better perspective. Her neighbors on either side were kind enough. One kept Jack Russell terriers, the other poodles. Who would even question them for wanting dogs in this area? The walking country was fabulous, the hills beckoning just half a mile away, sometimes dusted with snow, a gorgeous backdrop. No wonder the artists were springing up around there, Gill had mused to herself.
Faced with the prospect of unpacking more boxes, she had decided to explore the arts center instead. The renovation of the old mill warehouse had included preserving some of its old textile looms along with an historical guided walk, which she decided to save for later, preferring to browse the original embroideries, pottery, pictures and craft items in the warmth of the mill shop. Individual artists’ studios crowded around the edges of the central display area. She was particularly taken with some appliqué pictures made from remnants of materials interwoven with well-chosen threads to create brightly colored landscapes and rushing rivers. At the organic café in the basement, which would certainly become a useful emergency watering hole, she stirred her coffee, mulling over her thoughts.
It was what she had intended, she told herself. Independence, a degree of self-imposed isolation.
Bridget was capable, reasonably jovial, and showed all the signs of being a fair and dependable boss. Happily married to an accountant, she was an intelligent, experienced colleague who was generous with her time and wages and was equally glad to share a drink at the end of the day. She had already demonstrated these qualities during Gill’s trial week.
After a month staying at a comfortable guesthouse in the village, even though the landlady had overflowed with hospitality, Gill’s move to the mill cottage had made her glad to have her privacy back. The first few back-breaking weeks of heavy-duty large animal practice in freezing outbuildings had made it feel necessary to step away from the village at the end of the day, into her own private reverie at the mill cottage. Chortling comments from weathered farmers at the arrival of this relatively petite, demure youngish thing from ‘down south’ wore thin on occasion. Gill had managed to wrong-foot several of them with her tales of charging bull elephants, angry hippos, raging lions and malaria as she injected, stitched and healed their herds.
She had started to add to the talk of the village, without realizing it. There had been an invitation to look in at the Women’s Institute meeting, but as yet there had not been a moment to head off to any larger metropolis. And strangely, she was beginning not to mind. It was perhaps the absorption with her work, the lack of opportunity to become distracted that she had been seeking. Even if somewhere inside herself, vaguely she was aware of some unfulfilled dichotomy and that perhaps tumbleweed was blowing across the road of her social life.
Anyway, there was some intimacy of a different kind in a place this compact. The small high street was crammed with useful shops. Already she was recognized at the bakery, the news agency and the secondhand bookshops. A trip to the tiny, independent cinema had been like stepping into a private club. She had sunk into the well-used, padded upholstery of the faded seats and been immersed in the whole experience more closely than at the massive multiplex in York.
In a village the size of Blackford there was space to breathe, just, but still the reassurance that people were looking out for you. She wondered whether that would gradually become people intruding into your business and claustrophobia. She smiled to herself. Only time would tell.
The meeting of two paths
About six weeks into the new job, on a Friday night at one of the local pubs, The Hounds, Gill was happily ensconced in a settle by the roaring fire with Bridget, her husband Alan, the other assistant vet Ethan and two of the practice nurses, Mandy and Becka, when a small group of local farmers thudded into the bar, steam rising from the hubbub of their voices as they brought the cold night air in from the porch. The end of week socials were a welcome outlet for everyone Gill thought as she looked up to watch and assess the group’s arrival, startled by the noise, reaching for her beer to cover herself.
“Take no notice of that intimidating lot. Their bark’s worse than their bite.” Alan grinned. “It’s just the end of the monthly meeting of the local Farmer’s Association. It usually gets a bit raucous.”
She recognized several from her work rounds already. Some were strangers. All were male. Wives had been left at home. Or so she thought until she noticed a tall figure at the back that turned to join the group after hanging her coat on the pub’s coat stand.
Gill was immediately struck by her. The stranger was tall and athletic in build, with an open-necked shirt, her hair pulled into a rough bunch at the back, exposing the angles of cheekbones and a slightly masculine muscular jawline, just on the female side of androgynous about the face, but also shapely about the figure. She stood out from the group, not just because she was the only woman, but by standing an inch or two above some of the men. She headed to the bar counter, leaning comfortably on it with one arm, while pointing across to her choice of pump, laughing with Lucy, the barmaid. The engaging face was lit up by a generous smile.
Gill caught herself analyzing the stranger and nudged her neighbor, Mandy. “Who’s that? She’s a bit courageous to be the only female, isn’t she?”
“Hah! You could say! If it were anybody else. That’s Sandi Helton. She owns Helton Farm with her brother John. He’s the one in the corner with the green fleece jacket.”
“Oh.” Gill let her eyes wander to take in the brother. There was a noticeable family resemblance in the aquiline nose, although the brother was darker both in complexion and hair color and seemed to be caught up animatedly in a serious discussion.
“Gill, what do you think?” Bridget called for her attention.
“About converting the outhouses into something more useful? Alan says kennels, Ethan suggests recovery rooms. Maybe a dispensary?”
“How about a little of everything? Kennels would prove useful. Maybe we could provide an occasional holiday kennel service for absent owners, some additional income, with a larger recovery area for the practice and a back-up dispensary? As long as it’s all secure?”
Gill’s attention was pulled back to the discussion and time passed before there was a moment to look away without seeming impolite. Then it was her turn to get a round in.
She gathered up the glasses and headed to the bar. While she waited for service she watched the farmers. Some had settled into groups at small tables, several still leant against the counter. She scanned them for another glimpse of the imposing Sandi, now apparently elusive and not to be seen. One of the more familiar stockholders raised a hand in greeting to her. Well, perhaps she’s headed home. A nudge at her elbow from her other side broke the reverie and Gill jumped as she realized the figure pushing a glass forward next to her through a press of people was the one she had been seeking out.
“Oops, sorry.” The tall woman apologized.
“Oh, no worries.”
“Australian are we?”
She grinned. “Hi, I’m Sandi.” She reached over a work-roughened hand.
“Oh, hi. Gill.”
“Yes, I know. The new vet. Frank said you were a dreamboat with his new Hereford.”
“That’s kind of him.”
“Well, they weren’t his exact words…more like ‘she dun a greet job with mee new bull’.”
“Ah…” Further conversation was postponed by the interruption of Lucy taking a drinks order and chiming in with her own running commentary on the cheekiness of the local farmers and the general hubbub in the pub, even for a Friday night. Sandi raised her glass to Gill in a gesture of finality and turned to talk to her neighbor, leaving Gill with the uncomfortable feeling that she was sorry there was no more to say.
She returned to her table. The conversation had reverted to relaying funny stories from the week and gradually metamorphosed into sporting events over the weekend. Becka tried to persuade Gill to join the local girls for netball or football sometimes and it was as she was signaling ‘No way’ with her hands that she noticed Sandi grinning at her from the bar. Gill raised her eyebrows in surprise and looked away quickly. She found herself unable to look that way again, suddenly self-conscious. Something prickled across the back of her neck and out onto her shoulders, like a heat rash. She threw herself back into the immediate conversation, trying to distract herself.
It was not until she headed for the ladies’ that she saw the tall, willowy girl again. Sandi was coming out, back into the bar, as Gill was approaching down the same narrow corridor. They stopped, faced with the predicament of passing each other.
“Excuse me.” They said simultaneously and laughed. Without reversing there was nowhere to go apart from squeezing through, which was the best option, so they did precisely that. As their hips brushed each other Gill risked a glance up to the other woman, only to find herself looking into warm, kind brown eyes and a smiling mouth that revealed healthy white teeth, all surrounded by very touchable-looking skin. It was a momentary glance that assessed so much in just a split second. They both stopped. Struck by an inexplicable sense of something significant.
“Busy tonight, isn’t it?” Gill offered.
“And a bit of a squeeze…” Sandi chuckled.
Then they moved on.
“See you!” Gill murmured.
From the retreating figure she could have sworn that she heard: “Hope so.”
A smile crossed her lips. She told herself off for the faint stirrings that crossed her body.
That night, tucked up at her cottage, Gill was bugged by the repeating images of the woman, Sandi. She was annoyed and slightly intrigued. Annoyed to find her thoughts straying distractedly, but the annoyance wasn’t winning. Something inside her was curious, requesting the option of another chance encounter.
The Heart of the Dales
“It is not infrequently the dampest of places and quite often one of the most beautiful of places in England. Ha! Look at this!” Becka was reading from a magazine article, while they kicked back for a moment with a pot of coffee in the surgery kitchen. She leant on the counter, leafing through the pages, as Gill poured out four coffees to suit their owners.
“No bloody kidding,” she continued. “You haven’t been up on the moors in the depths of winter yet have you, Gill?”
“Nope. But I’m looking forward to it.”
“Er, I wouldn’t look too forward to it. You can die from it.”
Gill cast her mind back a few days. She had been tempted to drive past Helton Farm, slightly curious after the comments that were made at the pub. After a short trip out of the village, she found it, about a third of the way up the hillside, where the pastures were still green and moist, before the harshness of the moorland climate could overpower the photosynthetic ability of the plants, a compact, determined smallholding, Helton Farm, clinging to the slopes. It seemed to be home to some of the hardiest breed of Swaledale sheep, a small but thriving shorthorn cattle herd and, so she had heard, an almost equally robust brother and sister. The remote buildings still part of the outlying edges of the rural community, balancing along the hilltops symptomatic of the backbone of England, still picturesque and autonomous despite the best efforts of the outside world to force changes upon it, she mused.
“Yorkshire. Renowned in Britain for its teabags, cheese, sheep farming, walking country and a history of textile industries. Also well-known for its stubbornly determined folk and stunning scenery.” Becka’s voice chimed in.
Gill still chuckled when her route took her along the M62 motorway’s opposing carriageways, where they are forcibly separated, like a pair of fire irons, by a farm at Windy Hill purportedly because the owner was of the doggedly stubborn type who refused to sell up. Myth or legend perhaps, or maybe just rock strata, but it goes to show that’s how stubborn Yorkshire folk are reputed to be—that roads are forced to go around the ragged hills, steep valleys and determined countryfolk.
She smiled as she sugared two of the coffees, drawn back to Becka by her readings.
“Harsh winters encroach upon the valleys, making mountains of hay and cozy barns necessities for the animals. Even in the warmer seasons, sudden rain showers, as quick to depart as they are to arrive, cause the surrounding hills to weep waterfalls that form crystal clear streams, plummeting down the hillsides, maturing into winding brooks with pebbled beaches, then lazier gravy-colored, peat water rivers, framed forever by the rolling hills, the crumpled bedspread of the bleak moorland tops where their journeys began. A magical land of limestone caves and steep valleys, where iron-age villages had clustered once at the bottom of waterfalls, superstitiously fascinated by the unending sources of pouring, life-giving water.” Becka continued, really sinking into her role as self-appointed tour guide.
“It is in the lush valleys, the sometimes boggy, sometimes meadow-filled lowlands that the biscuit-tin villages and small towns nestle in now, laid out in interlocking grey stone, the jigsaws of drystone walls spreading out arterially from their boundaries. Those communities carve their livings through their usual daily needs and the trading, farming, tourism and local industry definitive to the area. There you are Gill. That’s what you needed—a beginner’s guide to Yorkshire.” She giggled and gave Gill a friendly squeeze around the shoulders.
“Thanks a lot. Now drink your coffee.”
While Becka continued chatting, Gill’s thoughts drifted. She wondered…at Helton, were they averse to the advances of the modern world. Or did they spend the evening immersed online to avoid the fickleness of the outside climate, researching their ideas, responsible for the continuation of their livelihood?
She had asked the others briefly at work, knowing that John Helton and his sister Sandi ran the place. Their parents were now long gone, although details hadn’t been particularly forthcoming, as if she was not yet local enough to know such information, but the farm was wealthy enough, with a healthy flock, a reputation for thoroughbred rams and the small shorthorn herd. Certainly enough sheep to make life particularly hectic during the lambing season, she pondered.
* * *
Gill did not see Sandi again until one evening, about a fortnight later, at the small supermarket in the high street. She had ducked in out of a heavy rain shower, after parking on the return journey from a hilltop farm, aware that the refrigerator back at the cottage was looking particularly empty. Shaking the rain from a waterproof and already hunting for some inspiration on the grocery shelves, she had failed to notice the tall figure in a work-stained, waxed olive-green jacket in the sizeable queue. It was not until she had heaved a heavy basket, loaded with essentials, to the back of the queue and wearily stared at the line of waiting customers, that she registered who might be ahead of her.
Sandi had turned around at the characteristic sound of a basket clanking with a wine bottle and catching Gill’s eye had thrown her a grin. However, suddenly aware of the intervening people in the queue she had let the smile slide away and had turned to face forward again. Gill had managed a brief nod of acknowledgement. But that was it.
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