Stepping from the train the cold, damp air, hit you immediately. It stung me in the face and as we left the station my nose started dripping. I looked around with only a vague idea of where we were. In the middle of nowhere, is what it seemed like.
"Where do we go now?" Matty looked at me with an expression that told me perhaps this was all a terrible idea.
I remembered the town was not too far, but in the opposite direction to the main road that we needed to take to reach the old cottage which somehow had become our final destination.
I glanced over at him, "we'll head into town for some breakfast."
That sort of cheered him up. Neither of us had slept on the journey here. It's not easy to sleep on a train, besides I couldn't stop all the thoughts whirling through my brain. The only thing positive was that it was warm, we didn't spend a night in the freezing cold.
The town was waking up as we wandered into the square. The place seemed to announce itself as the centre by its size and emptiness. We found a cafe open on the far side and headed over there. Only a couple of tables where occupied with people having a coffee or breakfast before starting work. I told Matty to sit at an empty table by the window and went to the counter to order breakfast.
You could hardly see through the window, it was misted up, the heat inside creating tiny droplets of water which condensed on the cold glass. Lines of moisture streaked down the inside. I felt cocooned here, in a bubble that kept reality at bay.
A blast of cold air drifted over as two men in yellow jackets left the cafe. Workers, with a job to do and somewhere to be. I pushed away my own uncertainties and ignored the coldness outside. Breakfast arrived; eggs, bacon, baked beans, the smell was almost intoxicating. I also dismissed the thought of what we would do next and set about devouring the food in front of me. It seemed Matty wasn't in the mood for talking or posing questions either. We ate in silence.
As there was no hurry to be anywhere we lingered over a second cup of coffee and idly listened to the sound of the television from somewhere in the back of the cafe.
Finally, I told him we'd have to go and it would probably be a good hour’s walk to the cottage. Secretly I was thinking it'll be more than an hour, knowing that what was fifteen or twenty minutes in a car was a hell of a lot longer on foot. Matty, revived by breakfast, started up with his questions. Obvious ones that demanded attention. What will we do when we get there? What about food? How do you know if it will be empty? What about a key?
Overwhelming, but I just glided through it all like I knew what I was doing, because I neither wanted to let him down nor to stop to think about it. We bought some groceries, not too much, but something to eat later. We set out back in the direction we had arrived from. Past the station and up to the main road, left, and headed out of town.
It was still cold, but less so than when we arrived. I guess the hot food and now the walking counteracted the temperature. Even so as we trudged along the main road you could feel the cold in the air. The fields to each side were tinged with a fading frosty white, looking like a melting blanket of frozen dew that covered everything.
Matty wanted to try and catch a lift, but I told him it was only a couple of miles on the main road before we turned right on a tiny country lane and I couldn't remember the name of the village that it led to.
We hadn't seen a single car since turning down the lane for the village and it was difficult to see the landscape because of the banks and hedge rows on each side of the lane. I told him to look out for a farmhouse halfway up the hillside. It would be on the left. That was the landmark we were heading for. I told him that to keep him from thinking about how far it was, because we'd been walking for nearly an hour and a half. At least the mist had cleared and there was a hint of sunshine over the hills whenever you caught a glimpse through the hedgerows or past a gate to a field.
We turned left off the lane at the first junction and headed uphill at which point Matty turned to ask me if that was the farm. We were both looking up the lane towards the hills and what looked like a grey stone house way off in the distance.
"Yes, that's it," I told him, watching the thin wisps of smoke spiralling from the chimney into a now clear blue sky.
The smell of burning wood scented the air as if the smoke from fires had instilled itself into the very fabric of the countryside resting in place and never quite vanishing entirely. The lane to the cottage skirted the hillside away from the farm almost around and behind it. Grass grew in the centre of the cracked and broken tarmac, it dripped wet, no longer white with frost. There on the right at the end of the lane which finished blocked by a five bar wooden gate was the cottage, or more correctly two cottages, the first was almost derelict, it had never been inhabited even when I was here on holiday. The other cottage, our holiday home for two weeks one summer, looked a bit the worse for wear. It looked like a place that nobody spent any time or money looking after. I wondered if it was even rented out anymore.
The big problem was how to get inside. We did the tour of the outside, peered through the dirty windows, went round to the back door and overgrown garden. Definitely it was left to abandon, but that suited me. I didn't even hesitate and picked up a small stone from around back and smashed one of the small panes of glass in the window of the back door. Who would hear it out here? It was our lucky day, the key was on the inside.
It smelt musty and felt cold inside, colder inside than it was out. With two little rooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs it didn't take long to explore. What was there was only what remained from years ago that the owner never bothered to remove. Two single metal bed frames in one room, a double bed and mattress which seemed okay, in the other room. Downstairs, a table and three wooden chairs, the fourth one was on the floor with a broken leg, an old sofa, that's about it.
I smiled and Matty looked at me kind of puzzled. "Home from home," I said and we both started laughing. I grabbed him and we wrestled each other onto the sofa which complained with a large twanging sound as we fell on it.
"Let's dump our stuff upstairs and see if we can get the water and electric on." Matty chased me up the old wooden staircase swinging his bag about. "I think we'll need to buy a sleeping bag or something," I told him looking at the mattress, but he was opening the chest of drawers.
"There's a blanket here!" He was pleased with his find.
"Great, that'll do for tonight, I don't fancy the walk back to town just yet."
Back downstairs I tried the kitchen tap, nothing happened. "See if you can find the stop cock." I told him.
"The what?" Matty looked blank.
"Never mind, I'll look." I opened the cupboard under the sink, but no stop cock.
"Tell me what it is and I'll help you."
"It looks like a small copper tap sitting on a pipe, to cut off the water."
"Oh, okay, where do I look?"
Now that just made me smile, look up at him and laugh again. "If I... if I knew where you had to look..." Now he was laughing too.
In between bouts of laughing I opened the cupboard in the corner which I discovered had the hot water cylinder and... yes, a stop cock. It was either for the cylinder or... I turned it. Presto... water was coming out of the tap in the kitchen.
"Check the bathroom will ya?" I shouted.
"Yeah, water here," he shouted back.
Next all we needed was electric, which was easy because the meter was just inside the front door, but quite high up. I grabbed a chair, climbed up and switched it on. I jumped back down and flicked on the light switch, nothing. Not everything can go our way, it must have been cut off. No electric, no light, no hot water... damn.
"I'm gonna see if we can light a fire."
"Don't burn the place down Alex!"
"Ha ha. You got any matches?"
"No," came the reply.
Now why the hell didn't I think about buying some bloody matches? "Have a look around, see what you can find."
The next half an hour we spent looking for a miracle, to find a box of matches. We gave up, went back upstairs and decided to eat. I don't know what the time was, but it was surely afternoon by now. I would normally check my phone, but it was dead. No battery, no way to recharge. Matty's phone was dead too. At least we'd sent text messages last night to say everything was okay.
"If you lit a fire," Matty was saying, "people would see the smoke and know someone was living here."
"What people? There's no one for miles."
"That farm," he replied.
"I suppose, but I'd rather risk that than freeze my balls off in here."
"Let's look around again, before it gets too dark."
I think it was the freezing balls that spurred us on, but it was definitely Matty who decided to look outside. There was the old outhouse which he reported had a stock of wood and... yes... yes, a little miracle, a box of matches. Discarded, forgotten, or just left with the wood for starting a fire, who knows.
Before the afternoon disappeared into evening and the light was lost, I had tested the fireplace and lit a fire. Between us we brought in enough logs to keep it going and moved the sofa to sit in front of the flames.
"No one will see any smoke if we only use it in the evening, will they?" I put my arm round Matty and we snuggled up. Believe it or not, it was kind of romantic.
After sometime sitting together watching the play of light made by the fire we both looked at each other deciding it was time to go to bed. Upstairs it was colder, but the place was small and with the door left open the bedroom was no longer freezing cold. We lay down together on the mattress with the thick blanket over us and cuddled up. I watched him close his eyes and in no time at all we were fast asleep.
It was the early light of dawn that woke me and whilst I didn't much feel like getting up to face the day I thought I should go downstairs to check the fire, and take a piss. I left Matty wrapped up in the blanket and crept down the wooden staircase. On purpose I didn't flush the toilet, trying to be quiet and not disturb the sleeping beauty.
It was still dark in the house and I thought I'd go back upstairs for half an hour until it was properly light. Just as I was about to climb the stairs I heard a noise at the back of the house. Instinctively I turned back towards the kitchen, just in time to see the back door fly open. Standing in the doorway was a figure. Like someone in the shadows, it was difficult to make out in the dim light.
"What the hell's going on here!" The figure shouted.
Shocked I turned back to the stairs and run up towards the bedroom. Matty was up and walking out onto the landing.
A loud explosion echoed through the almost empty house, the sound ricocheting off the walls. I fell towards Matty pulling him to the floor with me, at the same time looking back down the stairs, at the bottom I saw the silhouette of a man wielding a shot gun. The acrid stench of gunpowder drifted in the stillness.