In the rolling hills of beautiful Exmoor, there’s a barn. And in that barn, you’ll find Dan. He’s a maker of exquisite harps – but not a great maker of conversation. He’s content in his own company, quietly working and away from social situations that he doesn’t always get right.
But one day, a cherry-socked woman stumbles across his barn and the conversation flows a little more easily than usual. She says her name’s Ellie, a housewife, alone, out on her daily walk and, though she doesn’t say this, she looks sad. He wants to make her feel better, so he gives her one of his harps, made of cherry wood.
And before they know it, this simple act of kindness puts them on the path to friendship, big secrets, pet pheasants and, most importantly, true love.
‘He gave you one?’
‘Just like that?’
‘Well, pretty much.’
Clive lowered the motoring magazine and transferred his full attention to my face. His eyebrows drew together and two deep vertical creases appeared between them.
‘I presume you’re having me on?’
‘No,’ I said.
Then added, ‘I’m not,’ to underline it.
‘So he offered, and you just took it?’
‘Well, it was . . . it was hard to say no.’
This was going to be tricky. I couldn’t explain it to myself let alone offer an explanation to anyone else. Which is why I’d been driving around Exmoor for the last half-hour – with frequent stops to look in the back of the car and check that it was true – before I finally headed homewards.
Our nice but nosy neighbour, Pauline, was out in her garden, so I had gone straight inside. I had launched myself into the kitchen. I’d swept a brief kiss into my husband’s receding hairline. I’d sought out the kettle, filled it to the brim, spurted myself with water in the process and abandoned it. Then I’d blurted out a tangle of sentences that sounded frothy and ridiculous. I’d blushed, become aware of it, and blushed some more. Now I stood limply grinning by the fridge.
Clive closed the magazine and tugged at the neck of his sweatshirt. ‘Sorry, El, but I have to ask: exactly how long have you known this man?’
My mind travelled back to the strange encounter of earlier; the huge open door of the barn that had enticed me in, the warm scent of wood, the light falling on the myriad harps, and there, in the centre of them all, the lone figure. There had been some sort of tool in his hand but already my memory was playing tricks on me and I couldn’t say what it was. He had initially appeared to be an alien. His lower face was covered by some sort of blue mask and he was wearing ear defenders, presumably protection from sawdust and machinery noise. But the minute he’d taken them off, I was struck by the beauty of the man. He was tall and sinewy with dishevelled jet-black hair. Although his skin looked weatherbeaten, there was a strange translucent quality about it. His face was classically sculpted, as if a great deal of thought had gone into every line and curve. But it was his huge, dark eyes that really claimed my curiosity. I’d never seen eyes like that before.
‘I only met him for the first time this morning.’
Clive was as nonplussed as I’d been an hour earlier. He leaned forward, his expression wavering between amusement and disbelief. ‘I don’t get it.’ I laughed manically. Explanations swam round my head but not one of them managed to formulate itself into words.
Clive was clearly preparing to escort me to the nearest asylum.
‘Come and look,’ I tried. Once he saw it, surely he would be as enthusiastic as I was?
I led him outside into the bright chill of the September air. Pauline, I noticed gratefully, had disappeared. The car was still unlocked. I flung open the boot. Clive’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
‘Ah!’ I cried in a voice that was half irony, half relief. ‘So I wasn’t hallucinating!’
It’s a good thing we have a hatchback and seats that go down. I stood back to allow my husband a thorough examination.
The harp was carved out of red-gold wood (cherry, Dan had told me, to go with my socks). It had a lovely soft sheen and there was a marbled swirl in the graining at the joint where it would rest against my shoulder.
A light Celtic pattern was carved along the sweep of the neck, and embedded in the wood at the crest was a shiny blue-black pebble. Apparently Dan always puts an Exmoor pebble into his harps. Each stone is carefully chosen to complement the style and character of the instrument. This harp – my harp – was a lovely size, just as high as my waistline when it was standing. Now it was lying on one side, nestled cosily in the tartan rug in the back of the car.
Clive knocked at the wood of the soundboard with his knuckles as if to check it was real. ‘But this is quality craftsmanship!’
‘I know,’ I said, smug now, almost proud of Dan. ‘He’s been making them all his life.’
‘This would cost – what – two thousand pounds? Three? More, even, if it’s all hand-made. Look at the carving along the top.’
‘The neck. It’s called the neck. Apparently.’
Clive was scrutinizing as only Clive can scrutinize. ‘It’s – well, I have to say it’s pretty cool! But Honey-pun, there’s no way you can keep it. You do know that, don’t you?’
The voice of logic. It came hurtling through my haze of surreal, heady joy, and it stung. ‘Of course I do,’ I mumbled.
Clive straightened and shook his head. ‘The guy must be insane.’
I sprung to Dan’s defence. ‘He’s definitely not insane. But he’s a little . . . unusual.’
‘That’s a cert! What could have possessed him? A woman he doesn’t know from Adam comes waltzing into his workshop one day and, on the spur of the moment, he decides to give her – to give her – nothing less than a harp. A hand-made harp that took him God knows how long to construct. Sell, fair enough, I could understand sell, but give ? Even the materials must have set him back a bit. Come on, Hon, get real! You must have misunderstood. He must have meant you to pay.’
‘No, he didn’t. He made that quite clear.’
Clive frowned, unable to comprehend such a concept. ‘Well then, I guess he gave it to you to try out, hoping for a sale, and you completely got the wrong end of the stick.’
‘I didn’t! Look, I told him about fifteen times I couldn’t possibly accept it. He just didn’t get it. He kept asking why not – and he was so . . . I don’t know, so open, so well-meaning, that I felt stupid and couldn’t think of an answer. Then he said, “Don’t you like the harp?”
He sounded really hurt.’ ‘He sounded hurt ? El, I think you’re pushing it a bit.’
‘No, I swear it’s true! And then he started pacing about the barn, hunting for another, better one to give me! So I had to tell him it was a lovely harp. I had to tell him I loved the harp. And it’s true. How could I not? But I said again and again I’d never be able to play it and it would be wasted on me, and I kept on protesting.’ I leaned over and gazed lovingly at my gift. ‘While I was protesting he just carried it to the car and put it in.’
My mind leapt back again. I had felt so touched by the man’s extraordinary gesture. I had not been able to resist plucking a few strings, as the harp lay there on its side in my car. I did it badly of course, never having done such a thing in my life before, but the sound was rich, wild and resonant. It had a strange effect, like a shower of golden sparks soaring inside me.
‘Good,’ Dan had said. ‘You can cross it off your list now.’ He had walked quickly back into the barn and shut the door behind him.
I had stared at the door for a long time.
Today, of all days. After all my wandering and crying and remembering. Clive’s voice jolted me back to the present. ‘Look, El, I’m afraid it’s going to have to go back.’
The words bore down on me with their dull weight of common sense. Of course he hadn’t realized what day it was today, and what that meant for me. I probably should have reminded him, but my stubborn streak wouldn’t let me.
‘I know. You’re right,’ I said, trying to sound as if I didn’t care