The Winter We Met, my new heartwarming novel, is now just 99p!
The story is about a chance encounter, a care home, a toy shop and a very special Christmas party.
As a taster here’s the first chapter!
It was a misunderstanding that started it. I sat in the wrong row. The air steward said it didn’t matter. The flight wasn’t full and so I stayed there, by the window. We were about to take off.
I was travelling back to England after attending one of the many toy trade fairs that ran throughout the year, this time in Germany. I managed a shop called Under the Tree. It was the end of October and I was thinking ahead to next year’s must-have products. I yawned. It was an obscenely early flight.
Before heading to the airport I’d bought a little Bavarian cuckoo clock. I bent down and took it out of my hand luggage, put it on the seat next to me for a moment and grinned, imagining my plain-speaking gran’s face as the wooden bird flew noisily out of its door.
‘Must be a great joke.’
I looked up at the lofty frame, red jumper and eyes that laughed with me. Hastily, I put the clock back and removed my woollen bobble hat. He put his big rucksack and anorak into the overhead cabin and offered to lift my bag up there as well. Then he settled into the seat next to me and put on his seatbelt.
‘Sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Nik.’
He had an accent, it took me a moment to place it. Australian. He held out his hand and long fingers enveloped mine.
‘Jess,’ I said, unable to look away from those eyes, surprised by their startling blueness – and the tingly feeling spreading across my palm.
He glanced down at our hands and humorously raised an eyebrow. Blushing, I released him.
‘Sorry. Premature jet lag. I’ve been at a trade fair for two days and feel as if I could sleep through to next year’s.’
‘Me too. Nuremberg by any chance?’ he asked, and we chatted about how busy the fair had been.
‘So you manage a toy shop?’ he said, then really listened as I replied. His eyebrows moved up and down as we chatted. He was interested, paid attention.
Not everyone did that. It made me feel seen.
The plane vibrated as the engines started and Nik ran a hand through thick hair that was streaked with white. It was unusual for someone in their, what, early thirties, and contrasted with his tanned, smooth skin. He looked distinguished. At twenty-nine I’d not had my first grey hair yet.
‘What about you?’ I asked.
‘My family owns a toy manufacturing business in Sydney and I’ve been keeping track of the competition.’
The plane turned onto the runway – normally my cue to lean against the window and try hard to relax.
‘Do you like flying? You must be used to it, coming all the way from Australia.’
‘Love it. Night-time is best, with winds dying down along with thermal turbulence so that you just glide through the air, with stars coming out, realising Earth is just another spherical mass… it kind of gives you perspective, right?’
‘True. It’s so easy to believe that the world revolves around us – until we leave it and realise we are nothing but a tiny cog in a huge machine.’
‘Not that cogs aren’t important. Cogs have needs. Cogs have feelings – even teeny tiny ones.’ He caught my eye and we laughed. He stared at my hands again, which were clenched together. ‘Statistically, this is the safest form of travel,’ he said in a soft tone.
‘It’s still fairly new to me. I only started flying abroad a couple of years ago, with my flatmate Oliver. I never had foreign holidays when I was little.’
‘If it’s any consolation, I threw up the first time I flew. I was seven. It was Easter and I’d secretly scoffed a huge chocolate egg before boarding. The turbulence didn’t agree with my digestive system.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘Nor did its contents with the passenger in front. The poor woman was wearing white shoes. The whole cabin stank afterwards.’
Laughing loudly, I became aware we were up in the sky. Nik leant in as the air steward trundled towards us with a jingling drinks trolley. The aroma of coffee energised me and we each accepted a cup, both taking no milk and just one sugar. The two of us sipped and gave a contented sigh before chatting about Nuremberg. My shoulders relaxed as the conversation flowed. There weren’t any awkward silences and we had plenty of laughs. I’d heard people talk about it before – meeting someone you felt as if you’d known for years. That instant connection, like… I glanced down at my lap… like two halves of a seatbelt clicking together. I thought I’d had it once before.
Not wanting to think about that now, I bought a large bar of chocolate from the duty-free list, wishing I’d had time to grab breakfast. I shared some of it with Nik before we lapsed into comfortable work talk again about how his family’s company favoured making traditional products.
‘I loved that wooden clock you were holding, when I boarded,’ he said.
‘It’s for my gran. She used to collect wooden ornaments and would always look for unusual decorative ones for our Christmas tree when I was younger. She’s a huge fan of the festive season. Gran’s a keen reader and would read all of the new children’s festive releases with me. We spent many a cosy December Saturday in the library.’
‘Do you see much of her now?’
‘Yes, but we no longer live together. She moved into an assisted living facility four years ago. She still enjoys Christmas to the full, though. Every December they hold a huge Christmas Eve party. The residents start preparing for it as early as January, buying in cheap craft materials during the sales and, as the months pass, testing out new festive recipes in the communal kitchen for the buffet they put on. They also research different themes. Then in early November a meeting is held to vote for the best one.’
‘Why leave it that late to decide?’ he asked.
‘So that it ramps up the excitement in the weeks before the big day… Last year’s theme was a masquerade ball. The year before a Downton Abbey one.’
‘It sounds ace. Christmas really is the best time of year. My family and I are often too busy to go to parties, going into overdrive completing the production of extra orders of toys that no one predicted would be quite so popular. Not that I mind. It’s worth it if I’m out and spot a kid playing with one of our products.’
Before I could answer the pilot announced we were about to land. How had that happened? Nik had turned hours into minutes. We tightened our seatbelts and I stashed the remainder of the chocolate into my handbag. I gripped the arm rests. Nik pulled a funny face and I couldn’t help grinning. Eventually my rapid breathing slowed as he went on to tell a really bad joke, me shaking my head when he delivered the punchline. Relief surged through me as I realised the plane had touched down. When we came to a standstill, a whistling Nik passed down my hand luggage from the overhead cabin, slipped on his anorak and grabbed his rucksack. The air stewards beamed as he thanked them for a great journey. We disembarked and walked into the large, impersonal terminal, hit by the hustle bustle and flight announcements over the intercom. My stomach rumbled as I followed Nik who navigated the crowd easily as he stood a good head above anyone else.
‘Are you going to another fair?’ I asked, once we’d collected our pull-along cases, needing to leave but not quite wanting to say goodbye. Nik was good company.
‘Sure. Tomorrow – one in London just for manufacturers. Then I’m… taking a break for a few weeks. A friend of the family has gone away on business for two months and said I could have his flat for as long as I wanted, in a place called Islington.’
‘Nice. But a break? At this time of year?’
‘Mitigating circumstances,’ he said. ‘And I can’t think of a better country to spend time in. You’ve reminded me of how much I like England. I’ve really enjoyed meeting you, Jess.’
My stomach did a little flip as he said my name. It caught me by surprise. ‘It’s been great meeting you too.’ I looked at my watch. ‘It’s only ten o’clock. What have you got planned for the rest of the day?’
‘Nothing much. It feels like a waste, to be honest. Guess I’ll just head to the flat and stock up on food. If I was sensible, I’d get some sleep.’
‘Do you fancy having something to eat together first? My stomach is calling out, literally, for eggs and toast.’
He smiled. ‘There’s me thinking that noise was the weather gods welcoming me into London with a roll of thunder.’
We managed to find ourselves a seat in one of the airport’s crowded restaurants. Despite the early hour, a group of young men sat at a nearby table downing beer and flicking drinks mats, their raucous chat revealing they were heading to Amsterdam for a stag party. Nik and I both ordered a full English breakfast and sat nursing mugs of tea.
‘So, you’ve been to England before?’ I asked and took a sip.
‘Yes. It’s only the last few years or so that I’ve been going to the trade fairs on my own. I joined the company straight from university and Mum and Dad have been teaching me the ropes ever since, taking me on work trips abroad.’ He ran a finger around the mug’s rim. ‘They brought me here as a teenager though, on holiday to see the sights. Mum and Dad went backpacking during university holidays and always said there was nothing quite like travel for broadening the mind. They liked discovering unusual places. We travelled the length of the country, from Newcastle to Bournemouth.’
‘Wow. Any favourite places?’
‘Stonehenge was amazing – so atmospheric. And we rented a cottage in the Cotswolds for a few days, in a quiet little village. It looked like a picture off a chocolate box and ducks visited the back garden – Mum fell in love with it. Manchester was pretty cool with trendy independent coffee shops and warehouse stores. We had to visit the Cavern Club in Liverpool as Dad had always been a massive fan of The Beatles and we also took a wonderful steam engine trip through Norfolk. We only spent one day in the capital so I don’t really know London.’
‘It sounds as if you’ve seen more of my home country than I have. So what got your parents interested in toy manufacturing?’
‘Mum was studying a degree in arts and Dad a design degree with modules in consumer engineering. He was left some money from his grandparents – enough to start the business. Also both of their families are big and even in their twenties, between them, Mum and Dad had lots of nephews and nieces and loved entertaining them, and Grams and Grandpa – Mum’s parents – would often talk about how Mum was always making her own toys as a child out of food packaging and scraps of materials or plastic.’ He smiled. ‘She encouraged me as a boy. I used to love crafting with the week’s leftover cereal boxes and plastic butter tubs. I guess that passed the passion onto me.’
‘My gran used to be more of a chef and we’d make a new recipe up from leftovers each week,’ I said. ‘A friend of hers owned an allotment and we’d bake all sorts of crumbles and concoct different pasta sauces with vegetables. Our pumpkin spaghetti became a favourite.’ The waitress delivered our breakfast and I looked down at the plate. It had a small pot of baked beans, fried eggs, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms, plus slices of buttered toast and a hash brown. ‘Gran would love this. When I was younger, she’d do me a fry-up as a treat every Friday, before school. There’s nothing like waking up to the smell of bacon.’
‘So how did you get into the business?’ he said, offering me the salt before shaking it across his eggs.
‘Angela, the boss of the toy shop where I work – Under the Tree – went to school with my mum, therefore she knew Gran and heard how I wasn’t sure what to do after my A levels. She said there were worse careers than working in retail, and that she couldn’t pay me much to begin with, but would I be interested in a job in a new toy shop she was setting up.’ I shrugged. ‘Angela gave me a future, a purpose, and I was grateful, working hard to prove her trust wasn’t misplaced.’ A comfortable silence fell for a few moments. I popped the last bit of toast into my mouth. ‘What do you eat for breakfast in Australia?’
‘Similar to this if I’ve got time. Or I grab a bowl of cereal.’ He closed his eyes and made a satisfied noise before opening them again. ‘I hadn’t realised how hungry I was. Thanks for suggesting this, Jess. I feel like a new man. Well… almost. My legs are still aching from being squashed behind that seat in front.’
‘Not a problem I have, at five foot three.’ I cut through an egg, sunshiny yolk spilling across the plate. ‘Although next to Gran I’m practically a giant. She must be only four foot something now.’
‘Grams shrank too during her final years.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry to hear she isn’t with you anymore.’
‘It was a huge shock when she passed – even though it had been foreseen for a while.’ He stopped eating for a moment and his voice became quieter. ‘Grams didn’t always know who I was, at the end, but sometimes she’d wink or pull a comical face and we’d laugh.’ His mouth quirked up. ‘But then she’d always been a joker. Grandpa was the serious one and saw it as his duty to teach me the things he’d grown up doing, such as fishing and tying knots. Whereas Grams and me would dance in her kitchen, hand in hand, singing to her favourite folk music. He always did say he wouldn’t last long if she went first.’ Nik dug his fork into a mushroom and a sheepish look crossed his face. ‘Jeez, sorry, I’m getting way too serious this early in the morning.’
Don’t apologise. Your openness is refreshing.
‘You get on well with your grandparents?’ he continued.
‘My granddad died before I was born. He got hit by a stolen car. But yes, Gran practically brought me up. I don’t know how I would have managed without her.’
Nik nodded. ‘I used to love listening to stories from when my grandparents were younger and whatever problem I faced, they had some experience to draw on that they’d share with me and it would help.’ He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. I pointed to the corner and a splodge of yolk. He grinned and wiped it again before pushing his plate away and giving a contented sigh. ‘I don’t feel like moving now.’
I groaned and looked at my watch. ‘I hear you but I’ve got to drop into work. It’s almost twelve and I promised to help out this afternoon. I’d better get going.’
‘Is it in the centre of London?’
‘God no – I couldn’t face the daily commute. I live in a town called Amblemarsh and Under the Tree is in a neighbouring village called Springhaye which is also where Gran’s care home is.’
‘It sounds quintessentially English, I’m picturing meadows and wildflowers.’
‘It boasts a river with canal boats. The village is quite quaint. There’s a brilliant pub next to Gran’s place and the shops are very unique. There’s a bookshop that also sells art, and a shop that sells nothing but handcrafted umbrellas.’
I grinned. ‘A needlework shop sells everything you could imagine connected to embroidery, it’s next to The Corner Dessert Shop that serves the best ever puddings. Next to Under the Tree is a camera shop called Smile Please. The owner, Mr Wilson, begrudgingly sells the mod cons to do with digital photography but his heart is in the old school trends and he stocks quite a collection of film cameras – some you could practically class as antique. It’s a family business, like yours, and has been handed down over two generations and still offers film processing.’
Nik sat up. ‘There’s only one vintage camera and film processing shop I know of in the whole of Sydney.’ He reached into his rucksack and lifted out a clunky old-fashioned film camera. ‘I’m a huge fan myself and have even got my own dark room at home – yes, hands up, I’m a bit of a photography nerd,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing quite like the excitement of developing your own negatives.’
‘Then you’d love Mr Wilson’s collection – almost as much as he’d love showing you around. Since the proliferation of phones with cameras their shop is often empty and certainly the only young customers he has are photography students.’ I paused. ‘You’re most welcome to tag along, as I head into work. Springhaye is about forty minutes on the train from here and it would take you just half an hour from there to get back into London later. It stops at King’s Cross which isn’t far from Islington. You could pop into Under the Tree afterwards. I’m sure my colleague, Seb, could cover whilst I have a quick coffee with you in the staff room before you leave. Although I imagine you must be tired, so please feel welcome to pop in any other day, if you prefer.’
‘I’d love to come with you, if you’re sure you don’t mind! That breakfast has re-energised me and I’ve nothing else planned.’ His face broke into a smile. ‘Thanks, Jess.’
If you enjoyed reading this, why not head over here and treat yourself to the rest for just 99p?!