Artists’ Retreat

Shutterstock / Sibirtseva Marina © Cottage in woods Illustration: Shutterstock


Full of happy childhood memories, Nina bought the cottage, and now it was her home – and so much more…

The tyres crunched along a winding gravel drive through a tunnel of leafless trees; silhouettes on the blue night sky. Nina gripped the steering wheel, almost hugging it to her chest. This place really was the middle of nowhere.

To her relief, the trees’ knotted and gnarled arms finally parted, like wrought iron gates left open. The car headlamps gazed at the house like a pair of cat eyes gleaming through dark. Nina felt her heart thud. This was it.

This was Snowdrop Cottage.

“It’s almost as I remember,” she whispered to herself.

Last time, Nina was just a child staring in wonder past her parent’s shoulders from the car’s back seat. It was summer then; arriving for a week’s holiday.

The chimney pots had puffed away on the tiled roof, despite it being perfectly hot outside. An older couple had greeted them on the doorstep; the man smoking a pipe, the woman wrapped in an apron, both wearing smiles brighter than the sun. Bill and Eva had welcomed Nina and her parents as if they were family, not just guests in their cottage bed and breakfast.

They devoured cream teas in the afternoons, and hot meaty pies and mash for dinner. When Nina wasn’t chasing through the wildflower gardens, she’d sit and read, curled up with the teddy bears in her bedroom window seat gazing out at the woods beyond. A place, she thought, which was surely full of magic.

Each day Nina woke in the cottage feeling as though she had fallen into one of her favourite books. The holiday may only have lasted one week, but the memories had stayed with her forever.

Now, sitting in the driver’s seat of her own car, staring up at the house with that same excitement in her tummy twenty-five years on, Nina felt like the book had fallen open for her again, just at a different page, a different season, a different time.

She stepped out of the car, glad of her wool coat on this wintry evening, holding her breath for the next chapter.

Inside the cottage, a breeze blew through. The fire was not lit. A layer of dust had settled in the months the house had lain sleeping. It felt cold. Lonely.

She was still sad about Bill’s and then Eva’s passing some months back.

Nina panicked. Had she let memories cloud her judgement? Was buying this cottage at auction, unseen after all these years, a terrible mistake?

Nina was used to being surrounded by people. Boarding planes and trains. Living out of a suitcase, moving from hotel to hotel. Business meetings. Drinks. Networking for her corporate career.

An icy chill shivered down her spine…

Pulling a blanket, glass, and bottle of wine from one of many bags, she slumped onto the sofa with a heavy heart and heavy eyelids.

As Nina fell into an exhausted slumber, outside the midnight sky swirled into a misty grey and white pool, like pigments washing from a watercolour brush. The air grew colder. Snowflakes began to fall.

Nina woke to a blanket of snow covering everything outside the window. Without thinking, she shrugged on her coat and boots, unable to resist the shimmering garden calling her.

Where pockets of snow hadn’t quite reached, drifts of snowdrops glowed like fairy lights. It was the one thing Bill and Eva had not been able to magic up on Nina’s holiday.

The heavy flurry had covered the ground like a roll of soft white paper. Nina’s boots punched through it leaving trails of wellie-shaped holes that led to nowhere. A child-like grin never leaving her face. Maybe this was a sign that the magic of her holiday still existed here.

So quiet was the garden, so isolated, that after a few minutes Nina suddenly got a strange feeling she was being watched. Her eyes darted around like birds flitting among hedgerows.


A rustling sound.

Nina spun in a circle trying to locate the noise or movement. The hurried crunching of rubber soles on thick snow echoed into the distance.

Then nothing.

Nina bit her lip. “Maybe it was just snow falling from trees,” she said under her breath, hoping that’s all it was.

After warming up with a pot of coffee and hot buttered toast, Nina wandered around her new home. She still couldn’t quite believe she’d bought this cottage. She ran her hand over an aged oak dresser, its skin still polished, if a little wrinkled here and there. The crockery, vases, and personal items had been packed, safely stowed back with Bill and Eva’s family, and rightly so.

Nina pictured a new ceramic jug taking pride of place – in the spring she could fill it with flowers from the garden.

Her fingers paused by a brass handle

She was sure it wouldn’t be there, but…

Nina slowly drew open the drawer. An old wooden artist’s box sat snugly inside, as if in hibernation. Her eyes shone. She carefully lifted it out. Underneath was a few sheets of textured paper. She carried both to the kitchen table.

Opening the lid was like time-travelling; Eva showing ten-year-old Nina how to cover the paper in lines and shapes and dapples of colour to form trees and birds and flowers. Nina had fallen in love with painting then and there; creating something special to keep forever. Eva had smiled enthusiastically, telling Nina she was a natural artist.

However years on, Nina fell into a job far less exciting but offering financial security. It demanded almost all her time over the years. Everything else, including painting, had washed into the background of daily life. But now, Nina smiled, now things could be different.

She’d worked hard all these years to save up for a place to call home, and now was her chance to find a new happiness. To follow lost dreams.

After lunch, and an enjoyable couple of hours staring at the snow laden garden with a brush and watercolour palette in hand, Nina decided to explore. A walk in the snowy woods had been on her mind since she had woken to the dazzle of snow.

A little while later, she spotted three figures padding through the dense snow towards her: a man, a young boy, and a little girl. They paused in front of her.

The man looked about Nina’s age. The young boy stared up at him. “See,” he said, “I told you the new person had moved in.” The boy then looked at Nina, blinking into the sun behind her. “I saw you running about in the snow this morning,” he told her.

Nina’s face briefly flamed with embarrassment. So someone really had been watching her.

It was you hiding in the hedgerow?

The man frowned at the boy, a warning in his voice. “Peter?”

Peter grinned. “I wanted to see who’d moved in. Uncle Henry’s minding us because our parents are getting divorced. Plus, he has nothing else to do at weekends,” he added.

Nina tried not to look startled by the boy’s bluntness.

Henry spluttered, his eyes sliding to the children, his cheeks spotting pink. “And I do mind them quite a lot,” he said, deadpan.

“No, you don’t,” said the little girl. “We haven’t been to stay since last month.”

The boy rolled his eyes impatiently. “Chloe, he means he begrudges us being here. It’s a joke, because he likes having us to stay really.”

“Oh,” said Chloe.

Henry and Nina looked at each other, trying not to laugh.

“I live next door to you,” said Henry, smiling. “This is my niece and nephew, and as Peter has so eloquently explained, they come to stay here sometimes for the weekend. To give their mum, my sister, some peace and quiet.”

Nina gazed at the small party. Chloe was wrapped up in glittery wellies, pink corduroy coat and cream fluffy earmuffs. Peter lifted his chin, sharp eyes eager for adventure as he looked around the forest. Henry’s navy puffer jacket was filled with broad shoulders, a stripy scarf wound around his neck. Dark, kind eyes crinkled when he smiled.

“It’s nice to meet you,” said Nina, almost shyly. She blushed as her gaze caught Henry’s.

I wasn’t even sure I had any neighbours apart from the wildlife, it’s so quiet here.

Henry nodded. “It takes a while to get used to. You’ve moved from the city?”

“More than one. My job required me to travel a lot.” Nina looked around at the snow, the tress, the hopeful sky. “I felt that I needed to make roots, start a new career.”

It struck her that maybe this morning was a sign of what that could be.

Henry grinned. “I can’t say I wasn’t curious as to who the secret bidder, and my neighbour-to-be, was.”

Nina laughed. “Well I hope I’m not a disappointment.”

They looked at each other for a moment, Nina suddenly feeling embarrassed again.

“Not at all,” he said, smiling shyly back at her.

“Eva, who lived there before, would bake me and Chloe a cake when she knew we were staying with Uncle Henry.” Peter looked at Nina. “Do you bake cakes?”


Nina burst out laughing. She didn’t know what was more funny, Peter’s cheekiness, or the thought of herself trying to bake a cake!

“I’m so sorry,” said Henry, “We’ll leave you to your walk.”

“No, wait,” said Nina. “I do have cake. Admittedly, it’s shop-bought, but I’d much rather share, than eat alone.”

Peter high-fived Chloe with a smug smile.

Henry grinned. “If you’re sure you don’t mind these two running around your new house.”

Nina grinned back. “I’ve always had the feeling that it’s a house that wants to be full.”

“You paint?” Henry asked.

Nina followed Henry’s interested gaze to her half-filled paper of watercolour spills. Trees and brambles covered in snow; a snapshot of this morning’s garden.

He looked at her, intrigued. “This is beautiful. You’re talented.”

“Thank you. It was Eva who first put a paintbrush in my hand actually. On holiday as a child. She showed me the basics. Her enthusiasm was contagious.”

“Eva was a lovely person.”

Nina smiled.

I found her old art box. It was as though Eva’s hand was placing them in mine again.

She laughed. “That sounds silly, I know.”

Henry smiled. “It sounds like you’ve found something that makes you happy.”

Nina had called this place home for a few weeks now. The snow had fallen, melted, and fallen again, and she’d captured as much of its beauty in her paintings as she had cold pressed paper.

Word had got round. Nina would be hosting her first art class from the cottage next week, as well as tea, cake, and chatter with new friends.

As Nina and Henry strolled through the woods, tiny sugared stars floated through the sky, melting into skin. In the distance, peeking through the arms of trees, the cottage glistened.

Nina spotted the attic bedroom window. The place where on holiday as a little girl she’d curled up with a book, daydreaming of magic forests.

How strange that she lived here now, but how wonderful. Perhaps this forest did hold a little magic of its own.

Nina remembered, she never did finish that book in the window, but she was almost certain the ending would have been bright. With her heart beating with happiness and hope, Nina smiled at Henry. And he smiled back, brightly.

Our My Weekly Favourites series of lovely feel-good fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
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Allison Hay

I joined the My Weekly team ten years ago, and I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazine. I manage the digital content for the brand, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters. I also work for Your Best Ever Christmas - perfect as it's my favourite time of year!