All day the rain lashed down. It drummed on the cottage's roof, poured from the eaves and gurgled down the drains. A dismal December day just a week before Christmas! Out front, beyond a wide and usually nicely sheltered veranda, the valley was veiled by rain. Beneath a leaden sky I could barely see the meadows sweeping down to the stream, and the forest rising up the far slope was just a slightly darker blur. Behind my home, the boughs and twigs of the skeletal woods danced in the wind. I threw the last log from the basket onto the stove, smiling with satisfaction as the fire crackled. Yes, it was good to be indoors. I was here by the fire, and my horse was cozy in a stable. We lives beneath the one roof, the two of us. Once there had been more of us, but not for a while. Oh, well, I thought - distracting myself from an unsavoury train of thought - time to fill the log basket.
The back door banged shut. Thank goodness I'd extended the eaves behind the cottage to provide a dry way to the stable and wood shed. I'd been busy the previous spring cutting timber, splitting the logs and stacking them to dry. That was labour well expended. I'd be warm through the winter. With a basket full of nicely seasoned firewood I slipped back inside. But a whinny caught my ear just as the door swung closed. Slipping back outside I listened. That wasn't my horse calling. The whinny came again, faintly through the wind and flat as if attenuated by the rain. Well, whoever that was would need to get a move on. Dusk was falling. There was a path through the woods, but it wouldn't be easy to follow in the dark. With that I ducked back indoors, switched on the light and put the coffee pot on top of the stove. A brew would be nice!
And then a doubt began to nag. Who was out there? I stepped outside again, huddled in the dry space against the wall. A minute passed. Wasn't I curious? I should get on and write! That was my job, not that I'd done much since she left. That horse must have passed carrying whoever was daft enough to be out in this weather. Then my mare called, momentarily startling me. There was her familiar brown muzzle at the stable door. A curious, sociable animal well suited to me. I like her. A call from the woods drew me forth from my thoughts. A silhouette had appeared between two great beech boles a hundred metres away, a slate grey horse and rider barely visible against the mounting gloom. Like moths they were drawn to my light. The rider was huddled in a big heavy-looking coat, face lost in the depths of a hood.
"Where are we?" It was a woman's voice, thin yet resolute.
"Far forest." That was the name of this distant hillside. To me it seemed like a lovely romantic name.
"Oh. I'm a little off my way."
"Where would that be?"
She named the riding centre four miles distant: I worked there in the summer. Her plaintive voice was garnering my sympathy. I can be soft like that.
"That's an hour away, if you don't get lost again."
"Can you point me in the right direction?"
"Yes, if you jump down and come in to see the map."
Stiffly she dismounted. Quickly I led her horse to the spare stable, then conducted my visitor in through the back door. Drips from her sodden coat coalesced to form a puddle around her boots, which were stout leather. So she was a traveller. I'd noticed the saddlebags on her horse.
"Slip your coat off and get warm by the fire," I suggested.
She needed no persuasion. Goodness, she was soaked through. Our eyes met as I returned from the bookcase with a map. There was something eerily familiar about this woman, though I was meeting her for the first time.
"You could stay. Or we can phone the place where you're going. I'd take you there if I had a trailer."
Her eyes interrogated me. Was I harmless? Could she stay here safely? I smiled. Really I felt sorry for this wet cold lady, known but unknown, whoever she was. The question of whether I was safe didn't occur to me.
"May I stay?" Now she was shivering. If she was a friend I'd have hugged her.
"Of course. You get into some dry clothes while I look after your horse."
"All my stuff is soaked."
Of course, it had rained all day long. Why was she out in this? I led her through a door, one that I traversed but rarely. Now it was a store, the bed unused. I slept on a surprisingly comfortable sofa by the stove. Boxed were stacked, and tack lay in a pile. Compassion overcame prickly memory as I pointed to an old wooden wardrobe.
"You'll find some clothes in there."
With that I slipped outside, untacked my visitor's mare, fed both horses hay and hung out a few minutes with the pair of them. Good beasts make nice company and, besides, having invited a stranger into my cottage I didn't want to barge in upon her changing clothes. And memory gnawed me from within.
xxx ooo xxx
It's tempting to regale you with a tale that Sophia and I spent the night together, that I woke up with her in my arms. I could claim that we became lovers and that she came to dwell together in that cottage. It would be good to say that our horses share the stable. But I would be lying: and I am not a good liar. Besides, it would be incongruous, as you will see.
In reality Sophia gave me much more than her body, beautiful as it was. She gave me freedom.
I had slipped back into the cottage, after knocking and hearing her laugh. There Sophia was, smiling. A wan smiling ghost in a soft ankle-length red velvet skirt and a mauve tie-dyed top. Two of her favourite clothes. I stood for a full five seconds rooted to the spot. It was just as if she had returned: a little shorter, perhaps, but disturbingly similar.
"What is it?" Sophia asked, frowning.
An atmosphere of weirdness spread through the room. I was tongue-tied.
"Is there a problem? Should I go?"
"No." I hesitated, fumbling for words. "There's no-one else. It's OK."
She laughed mischievously. "Well you've a nice collection of dresses....."
"You look just like her...."
She did too: much the same build, a similar length and colour of hair too, and that cute rounded face. But their eyes differed. Sophia's brown eyes were warm and calming. Her eyes pierced whatever they rested upon. I'd never forget those green eyes.
"I'm sorry. Listen, if this awkward for you...."
"No, it's better than leaving you out in the rain. Please, let's eat. You must be hungry."
I cooked quickly: bacon and onions with fried potatoes. For me that's comfort cooking. The recipe I discovered in The Good Soldier Svejk, of all places. A glass of wine slipped down too, and then another: and Sophia drank as much as I did. Sometimes a quick drink really hits the spot. And Sophia liked my cooking, which delighted me.
After that simple tasty dinner I opened a second bottle. The ghost seemed safer now. Of course it looked like her. The same clothes. Similar hair. That love of horses. The lithe figure. That feline way of sitting, feet curled under her. We talked of journeys: of Sophia's in France and Scotland, and mine in the Balkans. We discussed my writing. For an hour we tiptoed around the most awkward subject.
"I can see that you miss her."
Was it that obvious?
"Yes. I do."
"Will you tell me more?"
How much had we drunk? I focused on the thick woven rug. I'd bought it to try and change the feel of the room.
"That's so sad. You're a kind, hospitable man."
Then I told the tale. How she had arrived one spring morning nearly two years ago wanting to help. Back then I led trips for a riding holiday centre further up the valley. About the rides we made: days and weeks out with the horses. The joyful love-making: told deadpan so that Sophia wouldn't take this as a hint. The requests for money. Accusations that I was hiding money from her. I wasn't: there was none. My frustration. Her rages. How I blamed myself for her unhappiness. Secretive phone calls made from the woods out of earshot. Mail delivered to a PO box in the town. Disappearances, which I felt responsible for. Finally an abrupt departure, abandoning the contents of her wardrobe. I'd kept those things, hoping that she might return.
"You're as silly as you are kind," Sophia told me.
I stared at her. Until then I'd felt guilty rather than stupid.
"Yes," she continued. "You've been taken for a ride."
"But she loved me. What did I do wrong?"
"You can't bring yourself to hate her, can you?"
"How could I?"
"Stupid male lack of judgement! Sorry - I'm not getting at you. Have you internet access here?"
We huddled over the laptop on my work desk. Sophia started a Google search.
"I've tried that," I told her.
"Probably not very well."
It took Sophia quarter of an hour to bring up the court records. She had holed up with me awaiting her husband's trial. Her husband! I felt both angry and sick at once. Then she had divorced him and taken the bulk of his assets: the ones that hadn't been seized in repayment of his fraud. It sounded like a lot of money. She had left me as soon as the settlement came through.
"You poor naive thing," Sophia told me gently. "Please stop dreaming that she was good for you and that she will come back."
Sophia slept in my old bed in that dusty store room: soundly judging by how well rested she seemed in the morning. I spent much of the night awake on the couch, my mind whirling.
Next day, once Sophia had departed, I emptied the wardrobe and took those clothes to the nearest charity shop. Someone would appreciate them at Christmas. And then I cleared up the dumped tack, cleaned the room and made the bed. I would move back in there. The ghost had left.
xxx ooo xxx
Sophia rode up one more time, on a bright May morning. In a series of nimble movements she dismounted, kissed my cheek and tied her mare to the fence. I smiled.
"I've brought better weather."
"Thank goodness. Will you stay?"
"For an hour."
It was enough time for me to tell Sophia about the obituary, which didn't seem to surprise her. That was odd. She had died three months before Sophia's first visit, wrecking the fast car bought with some of that settlement. We had been talking about a ghost still twisting my mind from beyond the grave. That seemed in her character! The information had taken some rooting out, for she had married again - quickly. Her obituary used the new name.
"Promise me you'll stop looking. You've found all the meaning that there is in this."
I acceded. I found the obituary on Christmas Eve, a week after Sophia's first visit. My Christmas was peaceful. Soon after that I had finished mourning. I'd been a fool, and I had been lucky to get off so lightly considering who had held me in her clutches. Now I was moving on. Really moving on. Just one thing intrigued me.
"How did you guess what she was up to?"
"That would be telling you a secret."
"But you did arrive here by chance?"
"It's true that I got lost on the way here. I arrived hours late."
"Sophia, you're being enigmatic."
"The papers she left didn't name you, but she did mention the riding centre. Someone there told me just how she'd behaved. I wanted to meet you, and in the horrible weather you were every bit as hospitable as she described. Now I must go."
"You came in the rain so that I would let you in?"
"Yes, and thank you. I really needed shelter after getting lost."
Bristling, I held Sophia's horse whilst she mounted. We said our goodbyes, frostily for my part. Sophia rode away, her mare's hooves raising a little dust. Then I softened: Sophia need not have helped me.
"Thank you, Sophia. But why did you help me?" I called after her.
With a nudge from Sophia's heels the mare broke into a trot. She turned in the saddle.
"My sister was a black sheep. I'm sorry."
I never saw Sophia again.