A sprinkling of Christmas magic – and dreams really can come true.
Freya Merrick looked out over the rooftops of Penmora and scowled at the sea monster in the harbour. She squeezed her eyes tight shut, but she knew it wouldn’t go away. It was only September, and already the village was buzzing with activity in preparation for the annual spectacle of the harbour illuminations.
It had begun with a just few fairy lights strung around the quay to brighten the place up at Christmas. Now, fifty years later – and with the harbour about to be ablaze with floats, the streets and cottages festooned with lanterns, and the hill above Penmora twinkling with seasonal greetings – it had become one of Cornwall’s main winter attractions.
‘We’re hoping for more than 30,000 visitors this year,’ her father, Vincent, said. He and her mum, Trudy, were on the Christmas Lights Committee, and brother Davy contributed his carpentry skills. Freya did her best to help, but her interest had never been as strong as the others.
That all changed when Conan turned up. He’d arrived with a vanload of donated electrical equipment, from his uncle’s electrical shop in Penzance.
‘Freya …’ She could still hear her father’s voice calling from the back of the old pilchard shed, that had become a makeshift workshop for assembling the lights. ‘Can you help this young man unload his van?’
She glanced across to the tall figure filling the doorway. ‘No problem,’ she called back, scrambling to her feet.
The stranger nodded his thanks and turned to lift a large box from the van that was parked outside.
‘I can manage these myself,’ he said. ‘If you’ll just show me where they go.’
Glorious brown eyes smiled down at her.
‘I’m Conan Ellis, by the way.’
‘Freya Merrick,’ she stammered, her hand shooting out before she realised that Conan was still staggering under the weight of the huge box. She felt the colour flood her cheeks.
But he just went on grinning at her. ‘Pleased to meet you, Freya Merrick.’
Conan had seemed in no hurry to get away that evening.
‘There’s always a job for you here, lad, if you ever fancy coming along to give us a hand, Freya’s dad told him.
Conan’s dark eyes twinkled. ‘When would you like me to start?’
It had been love at first sight. Conan’s uncle’s shop was near the solicitor’s office where Freya was secretary to Isaac Pawley. Lunch at the cafe down by Penzance harbour became a daily treat. And since Conan was now an active volunteer for the Christmas Lights, they also met in Penmora most evenings.
They were inseparable. On warm autumn evenings they strolled hand in hand along the pebbled shore, Freya’s dog, Flash, running ahead, sniffing out every rock and boulder. It was here where they had kissed for the first time …
But that was all in the past now, and work had already started on this year’s Christmas lights. Freya had tried to prepare herself for the inevitable rush of bittersweet memories, but the pain still cut through her like a knife.
‘Come down with me tonight, Freya,’ her father suggested after tea. ‘You know how much we all want you on board this year.’
She knew he was trying to be kind. They didn’t need her help. The Penmora Christmas lights would be a huge success whether she was involved or not. She forced a bright smile. ‘Thanks, Dad, but I think you’ll manage just fine without me.’
She saw her parents exchange weary looks, but she was already out of her chair and signaling to Flash that it was time for his walk.
‘We’ll be there at seven if you change your mind,’ her dad called after her.
Freya raised her hand in a wave as she headed out the door.
She’d been dreading the preparations for the lights. It was bad enough knowing that Conan was out of her life for good without all the memories being dredged up again. Freya knew her friends wanted her back on the committee, but it was too soon.
With Flash trotting ahead, she made her way down to the quay, through the maze of familiar narrow lanes and low cottages, whose thick walls and tiny windows sheltered the families inside from the often wild Cornish weather.
She paused at the sound of voices coming from the old pilchard store. Some of the volunteers had made an early start. Her hand hovered for a second, tempted to push the open the wooden doors, but that would only invite the aching memories to come rushing back. She bit her lip, turning on her heel. She wasn’t strong enough to face it all again…not yet.
The harbour was in darkness, apart from the rippling light cast on the water by the street lamps. Freya could just make out the huge shape of the sea monster float, probably the best-known exhibit in Penmora’s Christmas lights.
Glancing up she noticed that the room above the harbour office was lit up. The committee had already assembled. She smiled, picturing her dad in his place at the head of the table.
When she was younger the two of them would come down to the pilchard store every night from October onwards to join the other volunteers working on the lights. They were a mixed bag – fishermen, office workers, hoteliers, shopkeepers, coastguards – everyone wanted to help.
The huge pit in the floor, where local fishermen once stored their catches, was now full of electrical wiring, and thousands of light bulbs. It had been Freya’s job to check which were working, and which were duds
Voices drifted ashore from the pontoons in the harbour, and she caught the occasional flash of torches. This time last year Conan would have been one of the men working on the Christmas floats.
She shivered, remembering how she and Flash would sit on the top step above the slipway, listening for the splash of the oars in the darkness, watching for his wave as he stepped onto the shingle, pulling the little boat ashore. Arm in arm they would stroll up to the pub, stopping to kiss before the others appeared.
Except that night he hadn’t waved. Something had been wrong for weeks; she’d sensed it. He’d waited until they left the pub before he told her.
‘I’m sorry, Freya. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It just happened…’
She hadn’t intended climbing the creaking wooden stairs to the committee room, but somehow she found herself there. They all looked up and smiled as she came in. No one was surprised to see her. Victor Merrick nodded, indicating an empty chair. Freya sat down and Flash tucked himself under the table at her feet.
She was only half listening as Morwenna Pawley, the committee’s secretary – and the wife of Freya’s boss, Isaac – outlined details for the 50th anniversary celebrations.
‘We need a really good public relations person this year.’ She looked across at Freya. ‘And we were hoping you would take that on, my dear.’
Freya blinked. ‘You’re asking me?’ She stared incredulously at the faces around the table.
‘I don’t know anything about PR. You need a professional for this.’
But her protest was pointless, they had already made up their minds.
Next morning, as she switched on her computer, she frowned at her boss. ‘I suppose you’ve heard that I’ve been roped into the Christmas Lights again?’
Isaac Pawley lowered his rimless spectacles and smiled. ‘Morwenna mentioned it,’ he said.
‘It’s not funny, you know. I didn’t want to get involved again. Now I’ve been landed with this PR thing, and I’ve no idea where to start.’
‘Well, let’s see.’ Isaac pursed his lips. ‘I’d say the best thing would be to make a list of newspapers, local TV and radio stations, things like that.’ He held out his hands. ‘They can only refuse.’
Freya groaned. ‘You make it sound so simple.’
Isaac reached across his cluttered desk for the local newspaper, and tapped his finger on it. ‘Start with them. I know the editor. Mention my name.’
Freya frowned, but she did as Isaac suggested. When she replaced the phone five minutes later she had an appointment to meet a reporter.
The Harbour Tavern was quiet as Freya nursed her drink, watching the clock above the bar. She saw him as soon as he came in, ducking his head under the low lintel. She raised her hand, and he smiled back.
Bryn Pascoe was at least six foot three, with blond hair that reached his shoulders. He looked more like a professional surfer than a journalist.
‘Bryn … please. You’ll be Freya?’
‘Can I top that up for you?’
Freya put her hand over her half pint of cider. ‘I’m fine, thank you.
He sat down, pulling a spiral notebook and a pen from his pocket.
‘Now … ’ he began. ‘Tell me all about these lights.’
Freya worried that she would be tongue-tied, that she might not make it interesting enough, but once she’d started talking, the words just flowed. Bryn’s green eyes switched from her face to his notebook, scribbling as she spoke.
She described how it had all started, mentioning the six miles of cable, and 7,000 bulbs that were in more than forty main displays.
When Bryn finally put down his pen and stretched, she realised she’d been talking for almost an hour.
‘Well, that’s about it,’ she added hesitantly. ‘Can you get an article out of any of that?’
‘Several, I should think.’ He was studying her with narrowed his eyes. ‘Maybe I could write a more personal piece if I was one of the team. What do you think?’
Freya stared at him. ‘Really?’
Bryn shrugged. ‘I don’t see why not.’
‘We can never have too many volunteers,’ she said.
“That’s settled, then.” He got to his feet, putting out a hand for her to shake. ‘See you tomorrow.’
The last thing Freya had expected was for Bryn to turn up at her office next morning.
‘I’ve had an idea,’ he said. ‘Now stop me if I’m overstepping the mark, but I have contacts and could ring them about getting more publicity.”
He put up a hand. ‘I’m not suggesting that you’re not capable of doing all this on your own…I just thought …’
‘That’s a wonderful idea. Would you really do that?’
His green eyes crinkled when he smiled.
The big switch-on was still weeks away, but many of the main exhibits were already in place around the harbour.
She’d had no intention of ever again setting foot in the old shed, but Bryn was expecting to see her here, and after all he was doing to help it seemed only right that she should turn up. She slipped off her jacket, looking round. Nothing had changed …except, of course, that Conan wasn’t here.
It was half an hour before Bryn arrived. Freya introduced him to the others, and they all exchanged friendly nods before getting down to work.
Later, mugs of hot tea were passed around. Bryn took his to join Freya. She smiled up at him. ‘It was good of you to come.’
‘I said I would, and I don’t make a habit of letting people down.’ He was grinning at her, but Freya turned away. His words had hit a sensitive spot.
Conan had let her down. He’d said he loved her, when all the time he’d been lying.
She’d seen them together once in Penzance. They were so engrossed in each other that they hadn’t even known she was there. The girl was pretty, in an ethereal kind of way, small, slight, with a cloud of dark hair. She was exactly the opposite of Freya’s athletic frame.
She’d cried herself to sleep that night.
She gulped at her tea, trying to push the painful memories aside, but Bryn hadn’t missed the glint of tears as she scrambled to her feet and crossed the shed, her long, corn-coloured plait bobbing. He’d had to fight the urge to put a comforting arm around her.
There was no real reason to call at Freya’s office next day, except that he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
‘I’ve had an idea for some posters we could distribute to all the local shops,’ he said, as her huge blue eyes narrowed. It was a lame excuse, and she probably saw right through it. But to his surprise she stood up, reaching for her bag.
‘Tell me over lunch,’ she said. ‘My treat.’
They walked round the corner to the Red Lion.
‘I lied about the poster thing,’ Bryn admitted sheepishly. ‘But only because I was worried about you, Freya.’
The look of concern in his eyes made her swallow. To her horror, hot, salty tears began to roll down her cheeks. She swiped angrily at them.
‘Sorry … I’ve embarrassed you,’ he said. ‘I can’t believe I’m being so stupid.’
For the next twenty minutes, her voice trembling with emotion, Freya told him about Conan.
Bryn listened tight-lipped, but inside he was raging. What kind of man would behave like that?
Freya sniffed, still red-eyed as they wandered along the beach later. ‘Isaac will probably want to sack me now for staying away so long.’
‘I doubt it,’ Bryn said, putting an arm around her shoulders. ‘If you point this Conan guy out to me I’ll flatten him for you.’
He saw her look of shock and put up his hands. ‘I was joking, but the bloke seriously needs his head examining.’
It was two weeks before the big switch-on, and Penmora was manic with activity. The lights would be truly spectacular this year.
Bryn had been as good as his word. The local TV and radio station, plus numerous newspapers, had already carried stories about the event. Ten thousand people were expected to cram into Penmora for the switch-on.
The village choir had been practicing for weeks, as had the silver band.
They’d all been so busy that Freya hadn’t had a moment to think about Conan. She’d actually begun to feel happy again, which was why it had been such a big mistake to wander over to the quay on her way to the shed that particular night.
Out in the bay the moon was casting a silvery path across the water. She sat at the top of the slipway, where she’d waited for Conan so many times in the past.
She didn’t hear the approaching feet, and started at the voice.
‘Is this a private party, or can I join you, Freya?’
Her head shot up and she stared at the figure towering over her.
‘Conan!’ Her heart was hammering. ‘What are you doing here?’
He sat down next to her. ‘I used to get a better welcome than that. Aren’t you pleased to see me, Freya?’
She glanced behind him, but there was no sign of his dark-haired girlfriend.
He took her hand. ‘You’re trembling. Are you cold?’
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
‘I’m back, Freya,’ he said quietly. ‘If you’ll have me, that is.’
She stared at him. Was she dreaming this?
‘I don’t understand. What do you mean…back?’
He lifted her hand to his cheek. ‘I made a terrible mistake. Can you ever forgive me?’
She shrank back, trying to make sense of what she was hearing.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his voice gentle. ‘I can see this is all a bit of a shock. I should have called first, asked if we could meet up somewhere.’
He took her hand again and brushed his lips across it.
‘But you know me, Freya. I’m still rushing in before thinking.’
She snatched her hand away again. She’d dreamed of this moment; longed for the day when Conan would come back to her. Now that he was here all she could feel was anger – cold, raging anger that started somewhere in the pit of her stomach and surged through her body until she wanted to scream.
She struggled to her feet. ‘I can’t believe what you just said. Did you really think I’ve been mooning about Penmora, missing you for the past year?’
It was exactly what she had been doing, but she wasn’t about to admit it to him.
‘OK, I deserved that.’ He gave her that same puppy-dog look that always used to melt her heart. ‘But don’t you think we’re worth another chance?’
She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘What about your girlfriend?’
‘Poppy and I are finished. We were never right for each other.’
He traced a finger down her cheek. ‘Tell me it’s not too late for us, Freya?’
Her head was in turmoil.
‘I don’t know what to say…’
He put a finger to her lips.
‘I can wait. I want you to be sure.’
Every head came up as Freya and Conan walked into the shed a little later. She saw her father frown.
Bryn was staring at them.
‘Hi everybody.’ Conan lifted a hand in casual greeting. ‘I’m back.’
Freya cleared her throat into the awkward silence.
‘I’m sure there’s plenty for Conan to do, eh, Dad?’
She didn’t see Bryn leave, but when she looked for him, he had gone.
She bit her lip. She thought that he, at least, would have been pleased for her.
The switch-on was always a huge occasion in Penmora, but this night was extra special, and the place buzzed with excitement. The rich aromas of mulled wine and festive food filled the air. Crowds were already milling around the harbour, even though there was still an hour to go.
All the way down the hill to the quay Freya could hear the robust notes of the Trevene Silver Band as the musicians went through their repertoire of carols. Soon the village would be blazing with colour, the streets festooned with lanterns. The cafes, gift shops, and galleries, were already packed to overflowing.
Mel Miller, a minor TV celebrity, who was appearing in one of the Cornish pantomimes, had been booked for the official switch-on.
Freya had to fight her way through the press of good-natured drinkers that had packed into the Harbour Tavern. She spotted Conan in a corner and he waved her over.
‘I saved you a mulled wine,’ he yelled over the din, producing a glass of red wine. ‘It’s gone cold, but you’ll get the idea.’
Freya took the glass and sipped the pungent contents. ‘It’s good,’ she laughed, catching sight of Bryn’s blond head at the far end of the bar.
She tried waving, but he’d turned away. He’d been keeping his distance lately.
Conan signaled above the crowd to the barman for a refill.
Freya frowned. ‘I think we should go if we’re to find a good spot on the quay.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Conan said. ‘I don’t plan on you missing anything.’
He had an odd glint in his eyes and Freya wondered how much he’d already had to drink.
The village choir, muffled in thick jackets and woolly scarfs, had struck up their first carol.
‘Come on, Conan,’ Freya grabbed his hand. ‘Never mind that drink. I want to hear the choir.’
The pub was beginning to empty as everyone filtered out onto the packed quayside. The seafront was in darkness, as the crowd waited for the big moment.
A space at the front had been reserved for the media, where the TV cameras would miss none of the action.
Bryn turned round and she waved when she caught his eye. Conan spotted him too, and put his arm around Freya drawing her close. She saw Bryn turn away.
Cheers echoed around the harbour as Freya’s dad stepped up to the microphone and made his little speech, thanking everyone involved. Mel Miller waved to the ecstatic crowd and pushed the button and the harbour blazed into colour. A deafening roar went up, and then applause, as everyone gasped at the bobbing floats. Out in the darkness, a Celtic cross blazed on a tiny island.
Freya clasped her hands. It was perfect.
Conan checked his watch. ‘One minute to countdown,’ he said.
Freya stared at him.
‘You’ll see,’ he laughed. ‘Just keep looking at that fishing boat.’
Freya did, and then her jaw dropped.
On the bow of the boat was a heart of pink lights, and inside the words ‘Freya, Marry Me.’
The message had flicked on for only thirty seconds, and then it was gone.
Freya blinked. ‘Am I seeing things? I thought…’
Conan had reached into his pocket and now produced a tiny box. He opened it and the diamonds in the ring glinted multi-coloured beneath the harbour lights.
‘You’re not seeing things. I’m asking you to marry me, Freya.’ He hesitated when he saw her look of disbelief. ‘Come on, it can’t be that much of a surprise. I thought it was what you wanted.’
Freya stared at the ring. He was right. It was what she’d always dreamed of. But all she could feel was acute embarrassment at such a bizarre proposal. She glanced across to where Bryn stood with the TV crew, and hoped he hadn’t noticed it, or worse still, that the TV camera hadn’t filmed it.
‘When did you manage to do all that?’ She pointed to the now darkened boat.
Conan gave her a sheepish grin. ‘I have a confession. I actually made the thing last year before we…’ he stopped suddenly, looking embarrassed.
‘Before you dumped me, you mean?’
Conan frowned. ‘No, don’t be like that. That’s not what I meant.’ But now that he had put the notion in Freya’s head he couldn’t take it back.
She glanced down at the ring, wondering if it was the one he’d given Poppy.
She was struggling to keep the bitterness from her voice. ‘Put the ring away, Conan, you won’t be needing it.’
He stared at her, his eyes narrowing in disbelief. ‘You’re not turning me down?’
‘That’s exactly what I’m doing. It was a mistake to think we could go back to how things were between us. I’m sorry, Conan. I thought I still loved you, but I was wrong.’
Conan turned a furious glare on the crowd, searching the faces until he found Bryn’s. ‘No need to ask why … It’s him, isn’t it?’ The resentment in his voice shocked her.
‘Bryn and I are friends, that’s all,’ she said defensively.
‘That’s not how it looks from where I’m standing.’
Freya followed his hostile gaze and saw Bryn staring at them. He couldn’t possibly have heard their conversation, but their body language would have spoken volumes.
Conan snapped the little ring box closed and thrust it back into his pocket. ‘I thought better of you, Freya,’ he said, stiff lipped. ‘Seems I’ve had a narrow escape.’
He turned without waiting for a response and pushed his way through the crowd, leaving Freya to stare open-mouthed after him.
He’d had a narrow escape, she thought furiously … the arrogance of the man!
She gulped back a lump in her throat. The evening wasn’t turning out at all as she’d expected. All she wanted to do now was to get away from there.
The silver band had struck up again and the crowd was joining in with the carol singing. ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas …’
Freya was fighting back tears. Someone touched her arm and she pulled it away.
‘Freya? Are you all right?’
‘I’m fine, Bryn. Just let me go.’
But he took a firmer grip. ‘You don’t look fine. Where has Conan gone?’
Suddenly all the fight went out of her, and she would have slumped to the ground if Bryn hadn’t caught her.
‘It’s all this noise and excitement,’ he said gently. ‘Let’s find somewhere quieter.’
She let him steer her though the crowd, threading their way through the car park at the end of the village, and down onto the dark rocky shore.
‘OK,’ he said, sitting her down on a large stone. ‘Care to tell me what’s going on?’
Once she’d started talking she found she couldn’t stop. It all came out. She’d loved Conan so much, and had been so devastated when he left her. Freya didn’t realise she was crying until Bryn took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed her cheeks.
‘I saw Conan’s proposal, Freya,’ he said gently. ‘… The one he rigged up on the boat. I thought you’d both be ecstatically happy.’
Freya let out a long breath. ‘Me too,’ she said. Her voice was shaking. ‘I made a big mistake about Conan. I always knew he was selfish, but I thought I loved him, so I didn’t think it mattered.’
‘Thought you loved him. You mean you don’t?’ It was Bryn’s voice that was unsteady now.
Freya shook her head. ‘I didn’t realise it until tonight.’
She turned to face him.
‘It was that ridiculous proposal that did it for me.’
Bryn pursed his lips, trying not to smile.
‘It was a bit naff,’ he grinned.
Suddenly they were both laughing, and then they were kissing.
It was a deep, loving kiss that left them both breathless.
For a long time afterwards they clung to each other, gazing out to the white Celtic cross over on the island.
This was turning out to be the best Penmora Christmas Harbour Lights … ever!