It was one of those situations that could only come once in a lifetime. A sequence of events that led to something unexpected, something unplanned that ends up being something special, something amazing.
Maybe I'm getting a little ahead of things here. Let me introduce myself. My name is Lucy Montgomery. Lucy Elizabeth Mary Montgomery to be precise. You may have heard of Montgomery Jewellers. Well, that's me, or I should say that's my father and his father and maybe even his father for all I know. I'm aged twenty-one. I have ginger hair, which goes frizzy when wet, pale skin, which reddens when I blush, freckles, which I hate, green eyes, which I love, and a petite figure, which the men seem to love. I would like to think myself a modern woman. I was privately educated and went to college, where I studied English literature. I drive a motor car, which Daddy bought me for my birthday. I don't know much about motor cars, but it is painted red, which matches my usual nail varnish and lipstick.
This was the plan. My friends and I had arranged to spend Christmas 1933 together at a holiday lodge near a place called Killiecrankie in Scotland. The group consisted of Tilly and Milly, who we call 'The Twins'. Although they are not sisters or even related, they look the same and act the same. They are both blonde and bubbly and loud and fun to be with. Then there was Susie. She was the opposite of the twins. She was shy and a little awkward. She wore glasses and always had her nose in a book. I met her at college. If there was someone you wanted to confide in or ask for advice then it would be her. Pam was another college friend. She says she wants to be a working woman but can't make her mind up on what she wants to work at. Then there were the boys. George, I had known all my life. His parents had a house near my parents, and when we were children, we would often play together. Nigel was another college friend, a perfect match with Susie, if only they both got their noses out of their books. Finally, there was Donald, dependable Donald. He worked in one of Daddy's stores and was one of the many boring men that was paraded in front of me as a possible suitor at every social gathering arranged by my parents. I think the only reason I was allowed to travel to Scotland was dependable Donald. He was the one that would look after me and make sure I didn't do anything silly. Well, that's what Daddy thought. If only Daddy knew what wandering hands Donald had. Nothing I couldn't handle but still annoying. Anyway, Donald wasn't my type. He was too… Too predictable. Too boring. Splendid, if you want to marry and spend the next five years being pregnant and then join the pearl and cardigan set. You know the type. They meet for afternoon tea, sponge cake, and gossip, then sneak away for the secret gin and tonic when they think no one is watching. Not for me. No! No! No! And an extra No! Just to make the point.
So, there am I, bags stuffed into the small boot of my lovely new motor car when Pam telephones.
“I've got an awful cold and headache,” she said. “I must be coming down with something.”
Yes, I thought. A cold and headache.
Now it's just the six of us. Some of us were travelling up by train. Some of us were driving up. I had planned to drive up. I had it all worked out. In fact, even Daddy would have been pleased, if not a little surprised, at my planning skills. I had the route all planned. The stops all planned. The hotels with their cosy little rooms, or so the adverts said, all planned. It would have pleased the Brigadier. The Brigadier, who now commanded a brigade of jewellery stores.
Mummy stood by the kerb outside the family home in Knightsbridge and waved me off with a tear in her eye as she had probably done with my daddy when he was on his way to the battlefields of Northern France.
* * *
Once outside of London, I was able to put my foot down and was soon at my first planned stop, a hotel just outside of Doncaster.
“Yes,” I said to the elderly couple that owned the hotel. “There was supposed to be two of us. Now there's only one.”
“There will be no reduction in the charge for the room,” they said.
“No problem,” I said.
I had a lovely meal of sausage, mash, and mushy peas, which was a new dining experience for me. Got up early next morning, fed me with tea and toast, and fed the motor car with petrol and water. Then I was back on the road. Now, this is where my plan started to unravel, and just like the famous Schlieffen Plan, which was supposed to take the Imperial German Army to the gates of Paris in 1914, my plan also ran out of steam long before I reached the gates of Edinburgh. Looking at a map, it seemed so simple. After Doncaster, my second overnight stop was Edinburgh. After Edinburgh, it was then on the A9 to Killiecrankie.
Easy-peasy, I thought.
But it wasn't quite so peasy. It snowed. I mean it really snowed. I mean it snowed so bad that the roads were almost impassable. Marvellous for skiing but not so marvellous for travelling in a car. I eventually arrived in Edinburgh in the early hours of the morning.
“Hey, lassie!” the man shouted down from an upstairs window. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Yes!” I shouted back up at him. “It's exactly three fifteen in the morning!”
He muttered something I couldn't repeat here, and a few moments later, I was let in. No food. No drink. My room was freezing. I was up at what seemed like the crack of dawn, but was actually 8.45 am, with a polite knock on my door to remind me that breakfast was ending in fifteen minutes time.
Any sane person would have changed their plans, maybe even re-considered the whole trip, but I had made these plans and was determined to stick with it come rain or shine, or in my case, snow or snow.
Now you would think the A9 would be like the A1. What I mean by that, is that it's an A-road. A-roads have proper tarmac and those white lines that keep you on the right side of the road, or I should say, the left side of the road. Instead, the A9 seemed more like a narrow lane in places. The snow cover had made white lines undetectable. My poor little motor car struggled along, probably cursing me for taking it away from those lovely safe streets of London.
Finally, I arrived at the holiday lodge. It was a building made of dark grey stone with a light grey slate roof. It looked a lot bigger in the holiday brochure, and to be honest, a lot more salubrious. Now that's a lovely word! Salubrious! Meaning: pleasant, agreeable, high class, upmarket, not run down. Emphasis on the 'Not run down'.
Never mind, I thought. Maybe it will look salubrious tomorrow.
I knew something was wrong even before I got out of my motor car. Maybe it was the obvious signs: no lights showing, no other motor cars, no sign of life for miles around. With travel case in hand, I trudged up the path, which I'm sure was underfoot if it had not been hidden under the foot deep snow. Attached to the sturdy wooden door was a soggy envelope addressed to 'Miss Montgomery and party'. With frozen fingers, I tore open the envelope and pulled out the handwritten message.
Dear Miss Montgomery,
My wife and I had hoped to welcome you personally, but due to the bad weather, we felt it better to drive back into town before the light and the weather worsened. Also, we took telephone messages from your friends. It seems they are stuck in Edinburgh and think it unlikely they can make it here until the weather improves. The key is under the mat. We hope you enjoy your stay.
I found the key and entered the not so salubrious lodge. The front of the lodge was taken up by the lounge. There were several comfy, if well worn, sofas that all faced towards a large wood-burning iron fireplace. I was freezing, so my first task was to light a fire. After several attempts, I was soon sat in front of a log fire, and the heat and the comforting crackling sound made by the flames seemed to lighten my mood. My next task was to explore what was to be my home for the next week. The lodge was a lot bigger than I first thought and was about the size of my family's country home in Surrey, which is not a lot of good to you as you've never seen my family's country home in Surrey. The kitchen had a wood-burning cook stove that looked as though it could feed an army and a large wooden kitchen table with bench seats placed around it. I could imagine a family, or even my friends if they bothered to turn up, sat around this table. I read another note placed on the stove that reminded me to keep the stove alight as it also heated the water, so I threw in another few logs just in case and made my way upstairs. Four bedrooms, all roughly the same size, with two single beds in each room plus chair, bedside cabinets, and wardrobe. Again, all very basic but at least clean. I decided to take a very hot bath in what was probably the best room in the lodge, the bathroom. Here the owners had obviously spent some money on the large porcelain bathtub with matching hand basin and toilet. I exited the bathroom with my skin as pink as a lobster, thanks to the hot water, and as I was exhausted, I decided to have an early night. I chose one of the bedrooms overlooking the front of the house and was soon in the land of Nod.
* * *
I've never been very good at waking up, although I have been doing it at least once every twenty-four hours so should be used to it by now. It takes me a while to get my wits together. I stared up at the cracked ceiling and couldn't think where I was. Then I remembered. The not so salubrious lodge in the middle of nowhere. In my haste to get into bed the previous night, I had forgotten to light a fire in the small fireplace in the bedroom. The room was freezing. I could actually see the condensation from my breath. Getting washed and dressed was going to be mighty cold.
“On your mark, get set, go!” I shouted to myself as I jumped out of bed with the bed covers still wrapped around me and ran to the bathroom.
After a quick wash, I was back in the cold bedroom, where I dressed in my newly acquired outfit bought just for this occasion: brown corduroy trousers, cream chunky sweater, thick wool socks, and boots. I don't think I have ever been so elegantly dressed before. It would have certainly raised a few well-plucked eyebrows in my social scene back in London. Yes, London! That faraway land, somewhere further down the map, where there was that modern invention called central heating.
Thank God for the cooking stove in the kitchen! I sat on the stove and felt my bottom heat up, the heat then spread to the rest of my body and finally my fingers and toes. I made a mental note to make sure all the fireplaces in the lodge were lit, so I didn't have to suffer like this again, and then I was ready for breakfast. I checked the walk-in larder and found it stocked as promised by the owners. Plenty of fresh food to be eaten in the next few days and plenty of tin food to be eaten later in the week.
Now at this point, I must admit that I don't cook. Ever since I was a child, food would just miraculously appear every meal time as though by magic. I suppose I just assumed that someone else in the group, perhaps Susie or maybe even dependable Donald, would know of such things. After a breakfast of very hard boiled eggs, burnt toast, and tea so strong I could have used it as nail polish remover, I wiped down the condensation from the windows, so I could see what was going on in the outside world. The view took my breath away. I mean literally took my breath away. The lodge was once owned by some clan chieftain in a previous century and set on private land surrounded by trees and views of the Cairngorm mountains. It had stopped snowing, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and everything as far as the eye could see was covered in a blanket of snow. It was picturesque. I assumed my little motor car was out there somewhere hidden beneath that blanket. I looked through the small library of books made available for guests, selected a book titled, 'The Great Gatsby', which I had never heard of, and settled myself in front of the log fire to read. By the time Gatsby and Daisy were getting to know each other, I was asleep in front of the log fire.
* * *
I was awoken by the noise of loud knocking on the front door. It was late afternoon and already dark, so I quickly turned on the light and ran to the door, only to find two strangers, both men, aged somewhere in their twenties. One was tall and the other short.
“Afternoon, lassie,” the tall one said with a Scottish accent so thick I could have sworn he was speaking a foreign language. “Our motor car is stuck in snow. Couldn't trouble you with some hospitality?”
“Of course,” I said, standing back to let them in.
I heard somewhere that a vampire could only enter a home if invited in. Not sure why I suddenly thought of vampires. Anyway, I could see it was snowing again, and I could hardly turn them away, so I invited the two vampires in, just kidding, I invited the two men in.
“How may I help?” I asked.
“Maybe a bed for the night then first light we can dig ourselves out and be on our way,” the tall one replied.
“This isn't a hotel,” I said, politely as I could.
“But there's a sign outside,” the tall one said.
“Well… Yes… That's true, but…” I was actually lost for words.
“That would be just grand, lassie,” the tall one said.
“Aye, just grand,” the short one mumbled.
“I am expecting friends,” I said.
“If that be the case then we'll happily take the sofas for the night,” the tall one said.
“Aye, the sofas,” the short one mumbled.
By now they had taken off their top coats to reveal clothes that had seen better days, with jackets and trousers torn and ill-fitting. They looked like tramps, and I would have softened my opinion of them if that had been the case, but they had a motor car and tramps don't drive motor cars, well not in London anyway.
Do you know what it's like when you see something that you want to comment on but think it inappropriate, and the more you think about it, the more tempted you are to say something? In fact, it had got to the point where I couldn't even look at them for fear of having a giggling fit at the absurdity of it, which meant the more I tried not to laugh, the more I wanted to laugh. Well… The one with the big head was wearing a flat cap that was too small for him, and the one with the small head was wearing a flat cap that was too big for him. So there we all were, sat around the fireplace in silence with me biting my tongue, trying not to ask why they didn't just swap caps.
“Do ya have a meal for us, lassie?” the tall one asked.
“I could rustle up some soup and bread,” I replied, grateful to get away from the flat caps.
“That'll do just grand, lassie,” the tall one said.
“Aye, just grand,” the short one mumbled.
I went into the kitchen to prepare the meal for my two unwanted guests. The tall one soon came out to join me. He never tried to start a conversation with me. He just stood in the doorway watching me. Now I'm not opposed to being ogled, in fact, a little ogling, if that's a real word, can be appreciated by most women, but his ogling bordered on the spooky, which made me feel uncomfortable. Anyone would think he had never seen a woman before. I could hear the sound of creaking floorboards from above.
The tall one saw that I had heard this and said, “Just using the cludgie. Don't mind him.”
Cludgie? Now that was a word I had never heard before. I assumed it had something to do with the toilet, but I didn't like to ask and thought it better left unknown. When they sat down to eat, they gorged themselves on the food, helping themselves to more soup and bread even before they had finished what was on their plates. I wanted to retire to my bedroom, but I also didn't want to leave two complete strangers the run of the lodge. Then matters suddenly got worse when they found the alcohol. I began to realise that I had got myself into an awkward situation. No, awkward wasn't a strong enough word. I had got myself into a dangerous situation.
“Have a wee drink, lassie,” the tall one said as he put his arm around me.
“No, thank you,” I said, pulling myself away from him as gently as I could so as not to provoke him.
I went to walk up the stairs but was dragged back down with some force by the tall one. I pushed him back.
“C'mon, lassie, just a wee cuddle,” the tall one said.
There was a knock on the front door, which made everyone pause. It was this pause that allowed me to escape the clutches of the tall one and head for the door. I hoped and prayed it would be my friends. I opened the door to find yet another stranger. He was around six feet tall, slim, with an athletic build. I would say he was in his early thirties. He was wearing a black trench coat with the collar turned up and a black hat. He was carrying a leather travel case.
“Good evening," he said in that unmistakable English accent. "I hope I am not disturbing you, but the road is blocked, and I was hoping you could accommodate me for the night."
I could see his motor car parked next to mine. “Gosh! Yes please!” I said, almost dragging him into the room. I had no idea who this man was, but whoever he was, I was grateful for someone else to be around, especially as I was now clearly in danger from two drunks. “You must sleep with me, er… I mean, you must sleep here.” I waffled on with some embarrassment.
So keen was I to have him stay, that without thinking, I was already unbuttoning his trench coat. I could feel myself blushing and knew my cheeks would now be bright red. He looked down at me and smiled. It was a lovely warm and friendly smile. He had gorgeous brown eyes. I have to say, my heart skipped a beat. He was very handsome, like some Matinée idol. Yes… That good looking!
I glanced over at my two unwanted guests and could see they were not very happy at having another person in the lodge. They stared at my new guest. They looked threatening. I even wondered whether they were going to get violent. Time seemed to stop. I felt as though I was watching some scene out of a cowboy film, where gunmen face each other in the street waiting to draw their guns. I hoped and prayed my new guest wasn't the type of man to cut and run.
My new guest stood still, relaxed, calm, seemingly unworried by the obvious threat, but I had the impression he was thinking, assessing the situation, weighing up the two men stood in front of him. He stared back at my unwanted guests with cold eyes that now seemed devoid of any emotion, almost challenging them. He reminded me of a lion, powerful and dangerous, waiting to pounce on prey. I watched the two men back down like two pussycats. Then he smiled. It was just a small smile. It wasn't the sort of smile you give to someone else but rather one you give yourself when the penny drops or things fall into place or things make sense. Does that make sense?
He handed me his hat, coat, and gloves, and said, "John Reed, and I accept your kind offer of a room for the night."
He was dressed smartly in a dark blue suit, white shirt, and dark blue silk tie. He had brown hair that was parted on the left. I couldn't help but wonder what my parents would think if I brought a man like this home for afternoon tea. He certainly made dependable Donald look like a wet weekend in Scunthorpe.
“Lucy Montgomery,” I said, like a silly schoolgirl, almost giggling with relief. “I have soup in the kitchen.”
He smiled again. “Soup in the kitchen it is then.”
I served him the rest of the soup with thick slices of bread and butter, also coffee, which he insisted was black and strong. After the meal, he took out a gunmetal cigarette case and a Zippo lighter and offered me a Pall Mall cigarette. As we sat and smoked, I explained to him the sequence of events that had led me to where I was now, and he seemed interested.
“You have remembered it's Christmas Eve?” he asked.
I had truly forgotten. I mean, yes, I travelled all the way here to spend Christmas with friends, but what with my two unwanted guests keeping me distracted, I had completely forgotten. "And what brings you all the way up here?" I asked.
“I was doing a spot of skiing with some army chaps.”
“Gosh! That sounds exciting!”
“Who are the two men?”
“Just turned up, like you did, claiming their motor car was stuck in snow and wanting shelter for the night. I could hardly turn them away. But then they found the alcohol and things were starting to take a turn for the worse."
He reached out and gave my hand a reassuring squeeze. “Well, don't worry, I'll stay the night, and I'll see them on their way in the morning. Hopefully, your friends will turn up Christmas day, if not, maybe you should consider finding somewhere else to stay or you can follow me down to Edinburgh, which is where I planned to be before the road became blocked.”
I felt a lot better now my knight in shining armour had turned up. I showed John to the room next to mine. I didn't want to leave him, and if I could have followed him into the bathroom, I would have. Instead, I went into my own bedroom. Now I remembered closing my bedroom door before going downstairs earlier in the day and now it was slightly ajar. I then realised that the short one must have entered my bedroom while I was in the kitchen with the tall one. I opened my travel case and found my purse. I had brought with me three ten shilling notes and some silver and coppers, which were now missing.
Damn cheek! I thought.
I wasn't worried about the money, yes I know it's a week's wages for some, it was the thought of that grubby little man rifling through my silk underwear that upset me. If anyone was going to rifle my silk underwear then let it be the handsome man who had just come out of the bathroom and was now climbing into bed at this very moment on the other side of the wall.
I had a quick wash, brushed my teeth, and almost ran back into my bedroom. I lay in bed with the blankets pulled up to my chin. Every noise I heard just set off my vivid imagination. I kept my eyes on the doorknob expecting it to turn at any moment. I felt as though I was in a horror film. In the end, I couldn't cope with it. I put on my dressing gown, nervously opened my door, and went and knocked on John's door.
He let me in. “Are you alright?” he asked.
Now I was in his room I felt a little embarrassed. I felt like I was a child again, running into my parent's room after a bad dream. "They've stolen my money and there are no locks on these damn doors, and I…"
“Don't worry,” he said, reassuringly. “Take the spare bed.”
I took off my dressing gown and quickly climbed into the bed next to his. I'm not sure whether he was expecting trouble, but he had not dressed for bed. He had taken off his jacket, tie, and shoes, and had been laid out on the top of the bed covers reading Agatha Christie's latest novel, 'Lord Edgware Dies'. He jammed a chair up against the doorknob to prevent anyone from entering, something I hadn't thought of doing, and then resumed his position on the bed with his back leaning against the headboard. The light from the bedside table lamp and from the fire in the fireplace made it seem very romantic. I lay there looking across the narrow gap that separated our beds and fell asleep staring at his handsome face.
I was awoken by a loud noise from downstairs. It startled me. I quickly climbed out of bed and into his bed. He moved over to accommodate me and put his arm around me. It made me feel safe and protected. And another first for me, not just sausage, mash, and mushy peas, but also, in bed with a man. Yes, I know he's dressed and lying on top of the covers, but still, another first.
* * *
I don't know whether he slept, but I awoke to find him still laid out on the bed, keeping watch, like one of those lions guarding Nelson's column.
God! I thought. I hope I didn't drool.
“Sleep well?” he asked.
“Oh yes!” I replied. “Although I do feel a little foolish now it's daylight.”
He smiled. “Your two unwanted guests are still with us, although it did go quiet around three in the morning. Wait here while I use the bathroom. I suggest we make our way into town, find the police station, and leave it to our local constabulary to evict your unwanted guests.”
“Yes,” I said. “That sounds good to me.”
I watched him pick up his travel case and move the chair away from the door. Before he left, he said, “Merry Christmas, Lucy!”
“Merry Christmas, John!”
I snuggled back down in the sheets, feeling all warm and comfy. What a wonderful feeling! It wasn't long before he was back in the bedroom, looking and smelling just gorgeous. A quick wash for me and back in my warm winter clothes, although I did add a little lipstick. I had to make some effort to look nice for my handsome hero.
Downstairs smelt of alcohol and cigarettes. The tall one and the short one were laid out on sofas looking none the worse for wear. I followed John into the kitchen.
“Always start the day with a good breakfast,” he said.
I sat at the kitchen table and watched as he prepared scrambled eggs. He cracked six eggs into a bowl, adding a tiny pinch of salt and pepper, then using a fork, he beat the eggs together. He then placed a generous knob of butter into a pan and let it melt on a low heat. When the butter began to bubble he added the eggs. He stirred the eggs slowly and gently with a wooden spoon until they looked silky, runny, and slightly underdone. He then removed the pan from the heat to allow the eggs to cook to perfection. He also made toast and a pot of coffee. Throughout this cooking, he was deep in thought, concentrating on the task at hand. Here was a man who took pride in what he did. I like that in a man.
As we ate, I talked about my family and friends. He seemed genuinely interested in my life, even encouraging me to think about a career. He gave me some useful tips on driving and maintaining my new motor car. We also talked about our overseas travelling experiences. I asked him about the scar he had on the back of his left hand. He said it was from an accident while on a walking holiday in Ireland. He said he worked for a courier company in London but didn't go into too much detail, and I didn't want to press him on it. He was very attentive. I could have spent all day sat at that table with him. Unfortunately, we were interrupted by my two unwanted guests.
“Any chance of a breakfast for us, lassie?” the tall one asked.
“Not really, no," I replied. I felt a little bolder now I had reinforcements. "But you're welcome to help yourself."
John looked across the table and gave me an encouraging smile. He then stood and got out his motor car keys.
“On your way then?” the tall one asked.
“Yes, we both are,” John replied. “I'm escorting Miss Montgomery into town.”
“Is that right?” the tall one asked.
There was an exchange of looks between the tall one and the short one. I noticed it and so did John.
John asked them, “Is there a problem with that?”
There was no answer from the two men, so John picked up his travel case and together we walked towards the front door.
“Nah… We canna let you leave,” the tall one said. “I think we'll take your motor car and you can stay.”
John put down his travel case and faced the two men. He said, “That's not going to happen.”
The short one suddenly produced a knife and began to wave it around in the air as though he was conducting an invisible orchestra. He said, “Give oos the keys, Sassanach, or I'll gut you like a wee auld 'aggis.”
I don't know whether it was just nerves, but I laughed. I couldn't help it. I just had to laugh. The short one had not been able to string a sentence together with more than a few words since he arrived, and now when he did, it made no sense, no sense at all.
The short one took a step towards John and lunged at him with the knife. John took a step back, and with remarkable speed and accuracy, he punched the short one in the face. In fact, I think it must have been the nose. I definitely heard a cracking sound as though something had been broken. The short one fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The tall one then ran across the room, screaming what sounded like a clan battle cry. John stood his ground. The tall one’s face then ran into John’s fist, cutting short the clan battle cry, which resulted in another sack of potatoes. I have never witnessed a fight before, not even with the pearl and cardigan set after a few gin and tonics, but it was impressive. John then straightened his tie.
Gosh! I thought. Even in a fight, he still had style.
He handed me his motor car keys and told me to wait in the motor car, which I did. Fifteen minutes later he came out of the lodge and got in beside me. “Those two are tied up and won't be going anywhere for a while,” he said with a smile.
His motor car started on the second attempt, and he drove over snow-covered roads into the nearest town. He spoke with authority to a policeman at the local police station. A police motor car was then dispatched to arrest the two men trussed up at the lodge, while I was escorted into a room and asked to make a written statement. I learnt that the two men had escaped from His Majesty Prison in Perth, stolen a motor car, and were on their way into the highlands. They were both violent and dangerous. I was told many times, I was lucky to be alive. I already knew that.
“I have some good news for you, Miss Montgomery,” the policeman said. “While my officers were at the lodge arresting the two escaped prisoners, your friends turned up. They are waiting for you, so when you're ready, I'll get someone to take you back there.”
“Oh! Thank you,” I said. “I'll let John know this.”
“Actually, I've already given him this news, and he asked me to pass on a message to you. He apologises, but he has to be back in London, and as your friends have turned up and there's a break in the weather, he thought it best to leave.”
I wasn't sure how to respond to that. Even the policeman seemed a little embarrassed. I'm not sure what I was expecting from John. Maybe a lovely Christmas dinner, some drink, and maybe… Well, maybe another first for me. I was grateful for what he did for me. He saved my life. He was my hero. My handsome hero, who turned up just when I needed him the most. I spent Christmas with a stranger, and I will never forget it.