It had been over two years since my partner left. I thought we were for life; we weren't. In the time I went though all the classic stages of grief, not always in sequence and sometimes simultaneously. The rage, self –doubt, desire for revenge, guilt, remorse, you name it and I had been there. Now I felt drained and washed out. I should have been able to mine those experiences in order to generate ideas, but instead I felt utterly flat. My publisher knew what I had been through but nevertheless suggested from time to time that I needed to get writing again. As a professional author my income came from my pen. No write, no cash.
So here I was in my parents' cottage in the Welsh borders. They had begun to find the place a bit too cold in winter and had moved out until Spring came. The idea was that with few distractions I could start to work again. Instead I had writer's block, the affliction that my trade dreads but that hits us all sooner or later. You sit in front of your screen, keyboard ready to accept your outpouring of words, and nothing comes. It must have been just the same in the age of the quill pen, the typewriter, the biro, probably the clay tablet and stylus. Nothing comes.
There are various strategies that can be used, all of them designed to get some activity going. One is to map out the broad content of a piece and in so doing, apparently, the plot begins to emerge, the characters appear, the creative juices start flowing, and you are off. I laid out the section headings: introduction, meet the characters, describe the scene, introduce the crisis, resolve, all live happily ever after. Only without anything to introduce and characters without character, there was nothing further to write.
The trouble for me is that my creativity does not work that way. I tend to find a scenario, perhaps somewhere that I have been or some incident that I have seen. Then as I write about that, characters start to introduce themselves and in conversation with them I find out what the story is. It is a process of discovery and in it the characters take on their personalities, become more real, think and feel, and sometimes lead me to places in a story that I have not realised are there to be used.
Instead of this healthy and normal way of working I was sitting at the keyboard. Just sitting. I had tried sharpening pencils (which I do not use) and loading fresh paper in to the printer (though there was nothing to print).
The cottage is comfortable enough. The roof is secure, the windows are fairly draught-proof. The log burner generates a good warmth and provides constant hot water. The fire is in the main room that doubles as sitting and dining room. The kitchen is well fitted out and fortunately two years ago my parents had an indoor bathroom and toilet installed so that there was no longer a need to go outdoors when nature called. The two bedrooms were reasonably warm. The front window has a stunning view of the valley, the single-track road that runs through it a mile below, and the track that connects our place to the road.
That night there was no view. The weather forecast had been for snow overnight. It had begun early and was falling steadily. With the forecast in mind I had brought in enough wood for several days and stacked some extra in the porch. I checked that the car was safe under the car-port and put an old blanket over the engine. Other things to do with the coming of bad weather had been done until there was nothing left in the repertoire of displacement activities. So I sat down at my desk, pulled the PC keyboard over, and started to type.
One of the recommended ways to break writer's block is to write something, anything, and see what happens. So I thought for a moment and typed It was a dark and stormy night and the Captain said to the First Mate, "Mate, tell us a story" and the Mate began "It was a dark and stormy night and…" there was a loud frantic knocking at the front door. Who the hell could it be on a night like this?
The two young men who stood shivering in the porch were obviously cold and in need of help. The snow through which they had walked to get to my place was deeper than I realised. I had an instant to register that they were both wearing ordinary street shoes and jackets and were not at all dressed for tonight. I yanked them inside and got the door shut. I got them to take their wet shoes and coats off then pushed them in to the sitting room to be by the fire. There were some mumbled confused attempts at explanation but I shut them up in favour of getting mugs of tea, toast and biscuits on the table.
Chris and Kay introduced themselves. Two first-year university students in their late teens who had gone to a party on the coast. They had a satnav that they set for the return journey, and it took them along our road as the shortest distance between two points. Unfortunately the satnav knew nothing of the lane or the snow or the ordinary road tyres on their car. They had finally run out of traction at the lower end of our track. Unable to go forward or back they tried sitting it out where they were stranded but soon found it was perishing cold. Through a break in the snow they saw the light of my cottage when I opened the door to put the wood in the porch, and they decided that the best, indeed the only thing to do was to get to me. And here they were.
I remembered when twelve years before, looking just like them, I had driven back at night from a pop festival. I was at the wheel after three days of no sleep and somehow we made it home with the fuel gauge on 'E' and without hitting anything. These two had that same gorgeous aura of golden youth that let them fly to the stars and be unhurt. Twelve years, that was all, but it was like an unbridgeable gulf between their world and mine. But there they were in my world, or me in theirs. I pretended the tears that welled up were because of smoke from the stove.
They sat close together on the old sofa. Chris was the talkative one (though I judged him to be the younger) and told their story. His hair, now dry, kept flopping over his left eye in the most lovely way. As often as it flopped, he flicked it back. Their story was a simple one and slightly embellished with tales of derring-do now that they were warm and fed. Kay nodded through the story, and put in a word or two, but mostly looked at Chris and then occasionally at me. Since the story of how they ended up in my porch was a short one we soon got on to talking about wider grander topics such as the meaning of life, the universe and other pressing matters. I wept inside for their naivety, and their eagerness to learn about the world they were just entering.
They thought they might be on their way in the morning. I, having seen the forecast, knew they were going to be with me for the next few days at least. Eventually, since it was around ten o'clock, I suggested that we needed to consider arrangements for the night. I offered tots of whisky (small ones only) and coffee and suggested that one of them use the single bed in the spare room and the other could sleep on the sofa. A look passed between them which I intercepted, and suggested that as an alternative one might sleep on the spare room floor. In any case I would get a hot-water bottle to warm the bed. Kay said earnestly that perhaps just warming the one bed would be the most efficient use of the bottle. It did not take a genius to follow his meaning. I would have made the same choice at his age.
I helped them make up the bed and nothing further was said about its occupancy. I gave them a brief tour of the kitchen and bathroom, made some vague arrangement for the morning, and went to my own bed.
Sleep did not come easily. There was the excitement of the night and the knowledge that these two gilded youths were just the other side of a wall from me. I churned over and over under the duvet, my mind wide awake. I put the light on and did a few crossword puzzles but that didn't work either.
Eventually I realised what had happened. This was the pattern when the plot for a new work was developing. If I just let it run I would find that the whole thing including sections of dialogue would write themselves in my mind so that in the morning I could copy them down as if they were being read from a script. It was so long since this had happened that I did not recognise the return of creativity. The thought brought me properly awake and I stopped worrying about not being able to sleep: this, after all, was what I had been looking for.
Clearly the plot involved two young men seeking refuge from a snow-storm and finding it in a lonely country cottage. This felt like an Agatha Christie setting: take a bunch of characters, cut them off from the outside world (floods, snow, a bridge down would do it) and then let them interact. Trouble was she always ended up killing one or more of them. I wanted mine to live. What was going to develop was their inter-relationship so that when they finally left the scenario they and any other characters would be permanently changed in some way. My mind was fizzing and I let it do so.
Probably around three in the morning I must have dozed off. I was awoken at about nine by an unfamiliar noise from the kitchen. It took me a moment to remember that I was not alone.
I put on enough clothes to look decent and shuffled out to the bathroom. Kay was in the kitchen tracking down utensils and cutlery and obviously quite a home in the job. He gave me a radiant smile and announced that breakfast would be ready in ten minutes. A moment's doubt clouded his face as he remembered that he had not got permission to raid the food stores but the look of pleasure on my own face must have reassured him. We exchanged 'good mornings' and I went and got properly dressed.
Outside the storm had passed leaving a bright sunny day with snow so deep that the tracks the boys made the night before to get to my door had completely vanished. The thermometer by the front door registered -5C. Over breakfast I suggested that we should all go out and check that their car was alright (though what was going to happen to it?) and see what the prospects were. I knew, but they needed to find out for themselves.
We raided the collection of old coats and boots in the back conservatory and found something for everyone. It took a good twenty minutes to get to their car which was almost completely covered in snow. Chris wondered when the lane would be gritted, and as tactfully as possible I said that it would never happen, ever. The only thing likely to get through would be Mr Rees's tractor and snowplough and only then if the farmer needed to move his beasts. It dawned on my guests that they really were snowed in with no prospect of moving out until a thaw came, forecast for three days ahead.
We got back to the cottage and I put coffee on to brew and suggested that we have a discussion about what was to be done. Chris wanted to contact his parents and discovered that mobile coverage in these remote valleys was patchy at best and non-existent usually. Likewise broadband out here was a concept, not a reality, and an internet connection was not an option
I suggested that as Kay was apparently at home in the kitchen he might take charge of the cooking while Chris and I could look after tidying up. I explained about where I worked and made it clear that they could have the run of the property but to leave me to work in peace. There were board games and puzzles in a cupboard, and they could use the conservatory as their lounge. They could move the TV in there if they wanted. Kay got a tour of the fridge freezer and permission to use what he wanted for meals as long as he recorded what was used. My father had left a lot of old clothes in a chest and I suggested that if they needed, they could see if there was something that might fit them. The washing machine was available if they felt so moved. There were various jobs like fetching firewood that had to be done.
It all began to seem terribly middle-aged and domesticated. But the boys seemed to think of it as all rather a lark, and anyway it was not for ever. Even as I had that thought I found myself wishing it could be. They were seriously interrupting my work just by being around. I would start a paragraph and then drift off into a reverie about the early days of my own romance, and the intense delight of physical intimacy. I was jealous of their freedom, their youth, their delight in their own bodies. It almost felt as though they were personally intruding on my writing until I had an epiphany: they were not interrupting the story, they were the story. The scenes I wanted to create were being acted out in front of me. Suddenly it was as though the creative floodgates had opened, and words began to flow. I glance down at the word count on the screen and was astounded to see that it was logging better than three thousand. The words must have come from somewhere, and I knew the source.
That second night Kay produced a sausage casserole and a steamed pudding. I raided Dad's drinks store for a decent bottle of wine and we had a wonderful meal. With a little alcohol flowing they began to talk about their own relationship, of how they had met and what their hopes were. It felt to me as though I was listening to my own life story half a generation ago. Chris let out rather subtly that they were a couple. I pretended to be surprised and thought I had better own up so that there were no hidden mysteries. Kay had outed himself to his parents whereas chatty confident Chris had still not told his and realised that as time went on it was only going to get more difficult. From my vast store of adult experience I gave what advice I could and also told them some of the nasty experiences that we had faced. During this conversation I detected a few fleeting looks between them that showed me I had touched on a live problem.
I slept better that night since I had been able to get down much of the dialogue and plot that had run through my mind the night before. I woke briefly during the night and was aware of some activity next door.
The next few days passed almost without notice. The three of us had settled in to a cosy companionship where we did our best not to fall over each other. After the lunchtime news we watched the weather forecast and it was clear that a big change was on the way with a rise in the temperature. Throughout the afternoon we were aware of the thaw setting in. Down in the valley we watched Mr Rees's tractor work its way along the lane. Kay ran up another basic but very welcome meal and Chris and I tidied up. There was an air of expectation, even excitement, between the boys. I put it down to the end of their enforced isolation and the prospect of freedom.
After supper I put coffee on and I was just about to sit down when Chris said he had something to say.
"Kay and I have been talking. We owe you a lot and we want to do something for you".
I protested that I did not expect them to pay me, especially since they had done me such a great favour. But Kay said "we can't pay you, we've got no money. So we want to, um, well, … we want to make love to you".
I could have said lots of things. I could have said 'Wow', or 'Yes Please'. Instead the best I could manage was "What? Here? Now?"
"Yes" said Chris. "Here and now. You've been so kind and helpful and, well, it's something we'd like to do. And we think you'll like it too".
I could hardly argue with that even if I wanted to. But something I did need to do was have a pee. While occupied I wondered what they had in mind, how we would kick things off. I decided that since it was their treat I would fall in with their plans, if they had any. I was shaking with excitement. Coming back into the sitting room I found that the main light had been turned off and several cushions and blankets had been put on the floor in front of the fire, which had been stoked up.
I don't remember much detail of the night. I do remember that Kay stepped forward, took my hands in his, and gave me the deepest, sweetest most luxurious kiss I had ever had. Then Chris took his place and gave me more of the same. Somehow we made it to the floor. I had never been in a threesome before and I'm sure they had not either. Enthusiasm made up for experience and we made it up as we went along. I tried to remember that it was their treat and not mine, but with so much on offer it was hard to hold back. Six hands and thirty fingers can do a lot of exploring of secret places. I know that at one point I was on my back, Kay was kneeling between my thighs and Chris was straddling my chest. I think he had impaled himself on me but it was hard to tell, there was so much going on between my legs.
It must have been around midnight that we all ran out of steam and quietly fell asleep. Some hours later I awoke. The fire had died down, the room was cooling and so was I. I also needed to go to the bathroom. I did my best to get up without disturbing my angels but they were both already half awake. We went to my room, since it had the biggest bed and climbed in. I was between the two of them. I simply lay there overwhelmed with a feeling of love that was almost fatherly. How had these two arrived unbidden in my life and made such a profound change? I wanted to hold and protect them for ever, they were so young and earnest and vulnerable and beautiful.
In the morning Kay got up first and brewed coffee. He brought it back to the bedroom and we occupied ourselves while we waited for it to cool down. Kay got us to pose for a selfie on his phone. Later, with the curtains open, it was obvious that the thaw was well under way and they would be leaving today.
Packing their stuff should have been quick since they had brought so little, but none of us wanted to hurry the moment of leaving. Reluctantly I ran a check over the place to make sure everything was packed and then we made out way through the slush to the lane. The car was still there, quite safe. Someone, probably Mr Rees, had folded the door mirrors in to protect them. We put their gear in the boot and while Chris drove, Kay and I pushed and pulled the car out of its snowy bed, and got it on the road and pointing in the right direction. I'd put together some instructions on directions to the nearest proper main road. We had a last group hug. I could hardly speak for sadness and joy. We all had tears in our eyes, but then the wind was quite cold. At last I had to send them away or we would have stayed like that all day. I waved them off and stayed standing in the middle of the lane long after they had disappeared from view and the sound of the engine had died.
Back at the cottage I cried properly. I don't know whether for me, or them, or the beauty of youth, or the bloodiness of life that makes parting necessary. I wandered around the place unable to settle to anything. I half-started jobs and dropped them. More coffee helped. Eventually I found myself at my PC. It booted up, with the selfie as my new wallpaper. I loaded the last document I had been working on. The writing was finished, it just need a final revision and check over. For at least ten minutes I stared uncomprehendingly at the opening lines on the screen: It was a dark and stormy night and…
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