They were some way out of the village before they found somewhere to grab breakfast; at a grubby petrol station where James filled up and Mandy ran in for more coffee and pastries- two different kinds, warm in a paper bag. As James drove away she carefully broke each one in half and laid them out on a napkin on her lap so that they could share. Often in the past, when she'd cajoled him in to agreeing to be designated driver, they would split their kebab shop chips in the same way; James shaking his head mockingly and reaching for his share while she sang happily in the passenger seat. When power ballads came on the radio they would sing exaggeratedly at one another like lovers from a film, the unspoken winner being the one to hold off on laughing the longest. He usually won.
Now, they drove in comfortable silence. The roads were clear- they had planned out the least commuted route- so Mandy amused herself by counting trees in the fields beside the roads. Every so often he reached over to pick at the pieces of breakfast in her lap; tipping his head back to drop crumbs in to his mouth. When he’d finally finished she screwed up the napkin and threw it in to the bag at her feet. With her lap free she folded up her legs, braced her knees against the dashboard and shut her eyes.
After a while, the silence was broken by the brash sound of a phone vibrating against the plastic casing of the glove compartment and Mandy dropped her knees and lurched forward to open it. When she looked at the screen and glanced back at James his cheeks were red and his eyes set firmly on the road.
"I figured," he replied simply, "Just ignore it. He's been doing it a lot recently."
"Recently? Hasn't it been months?"
Daryl, who had been James' first and so far only boyfriend, had come as a mild shock to Mandy, who usually prized herself on knowing everything about her best friend. They had met before Mandy returned from university and she remembered him scowling as he shook her hand the first time she came home. James had been giddy when he told her they had made things official, and she had tried to match his enthusiasm, but there had always been something about the guy that put her on edge. To her guilty relief it had been short lived as far as relationships go, although longer than Mandy's own record, and she hadn't pried at the end. He had told her simply that it was over and there seemed to be little that needed to be said about the matter. In hindsight, she wished she had encouraged him to open up a little when he turned up at her door with a bottle of wine and a sad smile.
Carefully, she reached over and squeezed his thigh.
“You never told me why you two broke up,” she said quietly, “You can… you know… if you want.” The words came out limply; finding something that they couldn’t talk about was unknown territory for them both. He shrugged but said nothing, eyes still glued to the road ahead.
"It wasn’t that big of a deal,” he said eventually and squeezed her hand, “Don’t worry about it. Really.”
She sat back in the seat and watched him carefully as they lapsed back in to silence. After a while, she saw him wipe his eyes with the pad of his thumb before leaning forward to press play on the CD player.
Three hours in to the drive and they had finished their snacks, exhausted his CD collection and comprehensively covered everything there was to spy on the motorway. The silence after James’ final guess was broken by his stomach growling.
“Lunch?” he glanced at her hopefully. She waved the empty bag that had previously contained their snacks at him.
“Seriously? You’re hungry already?”
He shrugged. “Always.”
Before long James was turning the car off of the motorway as Mandy searched for places to stop and eat. They found a pub on the edge of the nearest town and parked up, wrapping their coats tighter around themselves as they crossed the car park to the entrance. Inside, it had the welcoming feel of a family run place and they soon settled in to a booth towards the back.
“Reminds me of the Fox and Hound,” James observed as he shrugged off his coat and pulled his scarf from around his neck. The Fox and Hound was the local- and only- pub in Welford. It had been where she had bought him his first legal drink on his eighteenth birthday, handed to him with a flourish, and where they had re-homed an abandoned lurcher when they were twelve and thirteen respectively. The owner- of both pub and dog- had given him his second drink on the house, but only after she insisted that the first be on her.
After a few moments a big black shaped lurched at them from under a nearby table and Mandy laughed as a black Labrador pushed its nose in to her lap.
“Oh hello!” she rubbed his head, “Aren’t you a sweetheart!”
Her new friend wagged its tail in agreement, looking up at her with big brown eyes, and she cooed for a moment until a movement by the kitchen drew its attention and the dog trotted off in search of food. When she turned back to James he was watching them both with doting eyes.
“Reminds me a little of Blackie,” she murmured, thinking fondly of the dog James had grown up with. He smiled sadly for a moment, eyes drifting unfocussed in to the distance, before he shook himself and scrunched up his face.
“I still miss him, even though he was a pain,” he laughed quietly before meeting her gaze again, “Did I tell you my mum is thinking of getting another dog? I think she wants some company now that she’s on her own a lot during the day.”
“No! That’s a great idea!” she clapped her hands together excitedly, “I’m sure I could find her a great rescue dog if she’s willing to adopt?”
“I don’t think she’d dare face training another puppy after Blackie,” James laughed, “But I’ll send her your way when she’s ready, obviously.”
They were interrupted by the waitress, who took their orders quickly and brought them an assortment of condiments and cutlery. She was young, possibly a year or so younger than James, and he watched her go with a faint blush on his cheeks.
“Don’t get any ideas about abandoning me and running away with a Scottish waitress,” Mandy teased, laughing at his horrified expression, “At least drop me off first.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he stuck his tongue out at her, “Besides, I’ve been looking forward to this trip for weeks. It’s been ages since we had any time just the two of us, I’ve
Now it was her turn to blush and she propped her head up on her hand and watched him thoughtfully.
When their food arrived they ate in comfortable silence; James’ appetite had not dampened with age and she laughed when he took a mouthful slightly too big and dribbled sauce down his chin. Both vegetarian, largely due to Mandy’s influence, they had ended up with the only two options on the menu and they shared in their usual way.
James moaned when she pulled him out of the booth as soon as they had paid the bill, arguing that he should be able to let his food go down a little, but she was too impatient to sit idle. In the end he put up very little protest and, giving a brief wave of acknowledgement to their waitress, followed Mandy back out in to the cool, crisp air.
They arrived at the Loch in good time; James drove carefully around the neighbouring town while Mandy read out the directions from her accommodation booking email. Eventually, they found the unpaved road that would lead them to the cottage they had booked and he drove slowly down towards a collection of old stone buildings.
“Amanda Hope?” a small, middle-aged woman greeted them when they stepped out of the car and shook both their hands enthusiastically, “I’m Theresa Blake, we spoke on the phone. You made great time didn’t you! You’re lucky, my husband and I have only just got home from the market so I’m glad you’re not having to wait around!”
She beckoned them towards the smallest of the buildings, which lay some way from the others, and fumbled in her pocket for keys.
“Come in, come in,” she insisted, stamping her wet feet on the mat before walking through the door, “Let me show you around before you fetch your things, it’s too cold to be hanging around out here.”
The inside of the cottage was cosy but dated; a mismatch of furnishings, rugs and rural watercolour scenes on the walls. Mandy’s heart leapt at the sight of a real fire in the living area; her grandparents had often warmed their home with an open fire when she was a child and she and James would lay out and do their homework on the rug in front. Glancing over, she saw James was smiling slightly at the sight of it too.
“Not much in the way of modern comforts, I’m afraid,” Theresa said, shaking out a blanket that hung over the back of the sofa, “But you’re welcome to wood from the barn for the fire and we have electric heaters in storage in case the weather turns even colder. Here, I’ll show you the bedroom. It’s a twin room, but feel free to push the beds together if you’d prefer. Bathroom is next to the bedroom.”
With a wave of her hand she led them towards the bedroom door and ushered them in to the room. Inside was fairly spacious; two small double beds separated by a bedside table. James wandered over to the bed furthest from the window and sat down, bouncing once and grinning at her.
“Mine,” he said simply, patting the mattress. Theresa smiled fondly at them.
“Keys are here, I have a spare in case of emergencies but come and go as you please. We’re up early to work but you’re fairly secluded in the cottage so don’t worry about disturbing us if you’re out late, just don’t beep the horn. You have my number in case you need it?” Mandy nodded. “Great, well, let me know if I can help with anything, but I hope you’ll enjoy your stay!”
She left them briskly, her boots loud on the stone floor and James winked at Mandy.
“Are we rearranging the room or do you think we can cope with this massive distance between us?” He swept his hand across the narrow gap between the beds for emphasis.
“It’ll be hard,” she flung her hand across her forehead dramatically, “But I think we’ll manage. Now, come on, let’s go and get our bags.”