As usual the dog was impatient to get going.
'Sit!' said Angharad.
Ben reluctantly lowered his backside until it was a couple of inches off the ground, frantic tail sweeping dust into the still night air. Angharad gave him a stern look, but it was as close to a sit as she was going to get. She stood for a moment, gazing up at the moon, her hand resting on the garden gate. They had a beautiful night for it, anyway; warm, calm and clear. The two mile walk to Butterwick Point would be a pleasure for them both, and it might even help untangle her knotted thoughts. She glanced at her watch: 11.00 pm. Time to make a start.
'C'mon then, dog.'
With a yelp of pure joy, Ben was up and running for the coastal path. Angharad followed him, thinking how simple life would be if only people could be more like dogs.
She was slower these days, her joints stiffening with age. Up ahead, Ben stopped, sniffed the grass, and waited for her to catch up.
The moon gave enough light to see by, but she'd walked this path, fields to her left, sea to her right, so many times she could probably have found her way in total darkness. When her husband was alive, the three of them had regularly taken the stroll out to Butterwick Point before bedtime. Ted had missed the Navy so much after his retirement. He'd always said his idea of heaven was a calm sea at night, and The Point was the closest he could get to that without buying a ticket for a ferry. They'd walk out there, Angharad, Ben and Ted, and she would sit between them on the old bench above the pull-in, looking out over the water, listening to him talk about the ships he'd loved and the places he'd seen. Sometimes, when he got a bit down, she would remind him gently that he still had her, he still had Ben, they still had plenty of good years left.
She'd been wrong, though. Ted went to get the newspaper one Sunday, and never came back. A massive stroke, the doctors said. He died in Mrs Tuplin's shop with his paper in one hand and a surprise box of chocolates for Angharad in the other.
Eventually, when agony began to dull towards ache, she and Ben took to going night-walking once again, just the two of them. They would sit side-by-side on Ted's bench and stare out over the water. Angharad could see that Ben missed him too, and there was a peculiar comfort in that.
They were sitting like that, side-by-side on the bench, six months ago. That was the evening Bernard Collins had first stepped into her life.
Tonight, Bernard was a little late. Angharad and Ben, having covered the two miles of dirt track at a fair old pace given her stiff joints, were sitting on Ted's bench watching out for his car. It was nearly midnight when he finally arrived, flashing his headlights to reassure her - three quick stabs of yellow against the sloping sea-bank. There was no need. Who else drove such a wreck?
She waved, even though she knew that he probably wouldn't be able to see her. Bernard's vision, especially at night, was much worse than hers - no one watching him step out of his battered Ford Escort and peer uncertainly in the general direction of the bench could have doubted it. No, he couldn't see her, not even under this wonderful moon. Blind as a bat, she thought, and smiled. How very strange. A short-sighted old bugger like him, someone who could hardly see to read those letters his son sent him from Australia, a man who regularly drove his car into walls - yet in the space of just a few short months he'd opened her eyes to all manner of wonders.
'Angharad? You up there?'
Ben began wagging his tail furiously, and her smile became a grin. Oh Lord, that accent! She stood up, waving her thermos flask in greeting. The white plastic cup screwed to the top of the darker tube looked oddly disembodied as it jiggled in the moonlight. Even Bernard couldn't fail to see it.
'And who else might you be expecting to find on Butterwick Point at this time of night, Bernard Collins? That new redhead in the Post Office, is it? Did a bit of chatting up last pension day, did we?'
'Don't talk so bloody daft, woman!' His voice seemed to float through the darkness. 'And if that's tea you've got in there, I could do with a drop.'
Still grinning Angharad sat down and rummaged in her bag until she found the spare cup and the packet of chocolate biscuits. Ben snapped to attention. She opened the packet and gave him one. She unscrewed the thermos and poured the drinks, spilling a little on the bench when a loud metallic screech made her jump. Just Bernard, opening the boot. Angharad tutted, partly at her own schoolgirl jitters, partly at the state of that poor, ill-treated car of his. Covered in scratches and dents it was, but the one in the boot was the biggest and the most recent. She'd been with him when he did it last Saturday, during their shopping trip to town. He'd reversed straight into a concrete bollard. Then, on the way home, he'd told her that he used to drive tanks in the war, and she'd nearly chewed the knot off her scarf trying to keep from laughing. In the evening, she'd cooked for him.
Dented boot or not, it had been a good day.
She looked up at the moon again - was it a little darker, perhaps? - wondering for the thousandth time how this day was going to turn out. Her hands felt the need to be busy, so she went back to the packet of biscuits, gave another to Ben, and began to nibble one herself.
'D'you want some help with your stuff?' she called over her shoulder.
'No, I can manage. If I could just find.... ah! Got it!' Another groan of metal, and the boot banged shut.
'Right! On me way, Angharad!'
Ang-Arrid! Oh Lord, it was awful, but how it had grown on her! She wondered, not for the first time, what her sisters back in Wales would have made of Bernard’s Black Country accent, and it was easy to conjure up their horrified expressions. But she herself wasn't horrified. Far from it. She knew full well what she was feeling, and it wasn't horror. She'd had sixty-three years to work out what made Angharad Llewellyn tick, and she recognised the old danger signs, but it came as quite a shock to find them all flashing away once more. Not what she'd expected at her time of life. Not what she'd expected at all.
The first hints had been the little flushes of warmth that wriggled up her arm whenever their hands accidentally touched in the darkness. Then came the pleasure she felt watching him eat a meal that she'd cooked for him, and the glow when he complimented her on the cooking of it. These past few weeks in particular, she'd been acting like some daft valley girl, like her old school friend Ceridwen Morgan, who fell for Reverend Thomas back in '47. And what an almighty fuss that had caused in the village! She'd even started doing the fitness exercises with that woman on morning telly, nearly dying of shame when the milkman looked through the window and saw her leaping about in her dressing gown! Daftest of all, though, was the night-time nonsense. Lying awake with the curtains open, finding some star or other that Bernard had pointed out, making silly wishes on it. And when she was able to get to sleep, the dreaming! X-rated dreams, they were, the kind of dreams she hadn't had for thirty years or more. The kind that woke you up all hot and bothered, feeling sixteen, not sixty-three. Such dreams!
'Bernard, I think we need to have a bit of a chat. I've been wondering, see...'
No, no, no! A shiver of self doubt shuddered through her. She'd rehearsed a dozen opening sentences, but none of them were right. She still didn't know how on earth she was going to tackle this, or even if she'd have the courage to tackle it at all.
In the pocket of her coat was a small bottle of Bells Whisky - just in case. She took it out and added a splash to each cup of tea, hesitated for a moment, then tilted the bottle and took a good swig before capping it and returning it to her pocket. The spirit started a friendly little fire in her throat and she sat and waited for the jitters to pass. Cool moonlight danced on the water as Bernard, his telescope, lenses and tripod under his arms, trudged slowly up the gravel slope towards her.
'Couldn't 'ave had a better night if we'd got the Man himself to arrange it personal,' said Bernard as he unstrapped everything and placed the telescope itself gently on the bench. He patted Ben. 'Hello, dog.'
'It's grand,' said Angharad, meeting his eyes for a moment and then quickly looking up at the sky. 'Is it me, or is that moon a bit darker?'
'Oh, aye. Getting darker all the time. Been in the penumbral shadow for a couple of hours now, at least. But the real show starts in about fifteen minutes. I'll just get this lot set up and then we can sit back and enjoy it.'
For such a big man, Bernard showed surprising physical grace. Angharad watched as he assembled the equipment, his hands and fingers spotted with age, but still clever and sure in their movements. He lifted the telescope and slotted it onto its tripod, and she remembered how when she'd seen him up here that very first night, six months gone, a stranger in the darkness, she'd thought he was pointing a huge gun at her. And how, within five minutes, he'd been showing her the Rings of Saturn, a sight so incredibly beautiful that her breath had caught in her throat.
'Don't let your tea get cold,' she said, misty-eyed with memory. He finished tightening a nut then picked up his cup and took a sip. She saw his eyes glitter in the moonlight.
'Whisky, eh? Won the lottery last week, did we?'
'Well, tonight's a bit special, I thought. But I'll put it back in the thermos if you don't want it, man!'
'Not on your life!'
He drained his cup and she poured him another while he finished setting up, humming ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ to himself as he did so. 'Right,' he said at last, squinting down the eyepiece and twiddling the focus knob until he was satisfied. 'Lesson time. You take a butchers and tell me, is that the Sea of Tranquillity, or the Sea of Serenity?'
* * *
The eclipse, when it came, was magnificent. The curved line of the umbral shadow slowly swept across the lunar surface until the moon was no more than a red-brown ghost hanging in blackness. With the moon temporarily dimmed, the stars glittered more brightly than ever, and the great sweep of the Milky Way emerged, stars so numerous and distant that her mind still couldn't grasp the numbers involved. And yet, according to Bernard, the entire Milky Way was just one galaxy amongst billions! It made her head swim!
She was pouring out the last of the tea, selecting an opening sentence and trying to find the courage to say it, when Bernard said something that stopped her in her tracks.
'Angharad, love, there's something I've been meaning to tell you. You know I'm not one for flowery talk, so I'd best just come straight out with it. I'm going away.'
For the second time that night she spilt tea all over the wooden slats of the bench.
'What do you mean, going away? Going away where?'
'Australia. Melbourne, to be exact. My boy Martin and his lass have invited me over, and if I don't go now, I never will. Their little lad's coming up to his first birthday, see, and it's high time he met his grandad...'
He carried on speaking, but the rest of his words didn't register. Bernard was going to Australia! He was going to Australia and he'd never be coming back! Why would he, when he had a ready-made family out there, and lots of brand new stars to look at through his bloody telescope? The flotsam of all those ridiculous dreams of hers, all those childish wishes, flooded through her and left her feeling embarrassed and stupid, and oh so very, very old. She looked to Ben for help, but he was fast asleep under a nearby bush, worse than useless.
Bernard had picked up her hand and he was trying to press something into it.
'Angharad? Say something for God's sake! Even if it's only no!'
She looked at the delicate band of gold that lay on her palm, and then looked into his face. He was squinting at her in that short-sighted way of his, trying to make out her expression, and for the first time in six months she saw lines of worry and uncertainty around his eyes.
'What?' she said. 'What did you just say?'
'It belonged to my wife, God bless her. But I know she'd want it to belong to you now, and so do I. What d'you say, lass? Come with me to Australia for a month and meet my boy. He tells me the sight of the Southern Cross over Discovery Bay is a glory. It'd be a pleasure and an honour for me to show it to you. And then, when we come home again, well... if you'll 'ave me...'
He kept hold of her hand, but shifted off the bench and got down on one knee, his poor old bones cracking in protest and making him wince.
'You want the lot, woman, don't you?' he said, locking his eyes onto her own.
'Yes, please,' she said, smiling through her tears. Her heart was hammering in the cage of her chest. He squeezed her hand, raised it to his lips and kissed it.
'I love you, Angharad Llewellyn,' he said. 'So... will you marry me?'
She looked up and saw the first sharp curve of light on the leading edge of the moon as it slipped free of the earth's deep shadow.
'Yes, Bernard Collins,' she said. 'I do believe I will.'