The Hills of Ffostrasol by Alex Barr


Tom went in first. I followed and put down my suitcase. My hand was shaking. I waited for him to speak.

‘Nice room,’ he said.

I thought, And does it remind you of anywhere, Tom? 

He threw his coat on a chair, took off his shoes, and flung himself on the bed. ‘Good bed.’

I still expected him to comment on the room. But he wasn’t looking at the room. Just me.

‘Join me, Steph.’

‘In a minute.’

Because I had to inspect the room, didn’t I?

Curtains covered one wall, rich brown, maybe angora. Closed because it was already dark outside. I peeped behind and found a picture window the width of the room. No street lamps, so the dark was total. The wall opposite the window was behind the bed head, above which was a wide mirror, full of grainy shadows as the bedside lamps threw light downwards. No pictures. Two walls to go.

The one with the doors (entrance and en suite), was lined with hessian. Just two pictures – flower prints, agapanthus and heuchera. One wall to go.

A chill went around my heart and my breathing became shallow. There was a large print of a painting by Matisse, the interior of some Moroccan palace. Even in the subdued lighting, the colours glowed. It was what I’d dreaded. I went to the en suite and splashed my face with water, thinking, But this is what we need: the test, better now than later.

I went back in and lay beside Tom. He turned and took me in his arms.

‘Steph, you’re tense.’


‘What is it?’

‘Hard to explain.’

‘Is coming here together too much commitment?’

‘Not that simple. Maybe I’m superstitious.’

He looked at me solemnly. I thought, Well Tom, this is how I am, take it or leave it. He stayed still for a while, looking into my eyes, frowning a little. Then he went to the bathroom. I held my breath as he passed Morocco, but he didn’t seem to notice. 

His head poked out.

‘Going to shower. You can join me.’

‘In a minute.’

I knew it would be a long minute. I couldn’t bear to be wet and naked while he passed the print again and said, ‘Ah, Morocco, I was there in such and such a year.’ So I went on lying there, and the bouclé texture of the bedspread under my palms burned into my memory. I must have fallen asleep before he came out again, because when I woke the lights were off, the darkness and silence were intense, and Tom was lying near me on top of the counterpane. He must have crept there like a cat not to wake me. He must have felt awful.


The bedside clock read 3:15. I was cold, so I lifted my side of the duvet and wriggled under as far as I could with him on top. I was conscious of the weight of his body, his solid presence. It had been a long time since I slept with a man in a guest house.

In my early twenties, I was a mess. I failed my course and broke up with my boyfriend. I was all at sea, and Morgan was my anchor, mooring, lifeline – any comparison involving rope. He was also (to change metaphors) my gateway to the exotic. Okay, so his was the only way to do things. (One way to make love – you can guess.) Okay, so he chose where we holidayed. At least he made me feel confident, unlike men who forgot their passport or dropped their camera in the sea. With Morgan arrangements ran like clockwork, and we always got decent hotels.

In Venice we stood at the window and admired the crumbly Gothic tracery on the building opposite. I was mesmerised by the traffic on the canal below: very few gondolas, mainly barges loaded with beer crates and cement bags. Meanwhile Morgan, at my shoulder, said, ‘Oddly enough, this makes me think of Bruges.’

‘Bruges? In Belgium?’

‘Yes. They call it the Venice of the North, you know.’


He went in. I tried to imagine Bruges. The effort detracted from the scene below. I watched as a woman in the building across the canal opened her shutters, but before I got a proper look at her Morgan called, ‘Look at this, Stephanie.’

He was looking at a framed print on the wall. It showed a man in a funny hat like a lampshade. Behind him, way below, were white buildings, a sweep of bay, an indigo sea.

 Morgan said, ‘This is Funchal, Madeira. Fascinating.’

A creepy, dislocated feeling came over me. Bits of the world were getting mashed together.

I said, ‘Who’s the guy in the hat?’

‘A chicken seller, apparently.’

‘Have you been there, Morgan?’

‘Not yet. You and I will go. Of course, it won’t look like that.’


But now there was Tom, and this was our first weekend away together. In a village in Wales with an unlikely name: Ffostrasol. It didn’t sound romantic, more like a brand of sun cream. We chose it by sticking a pin in the map, because neither wanted to influence the other. Tomorrow we’d do some walking. 

We didn’t know what the scenery was like. It was getting dark by the time we got away from work. We drove most of the way in silence, both preoccupied, I suppose. I was thinking, You don’t really know someone until you’ve spent a few nights away with them. I used to fall out with my best friends when we went camping. Maybe Tom was having similar doubts. What endeared me to him, when we met on a walking holiday, was when our party halted with a sunlit panorama below us, and I said, ‘I can’t describe how that makes me feel’, and he didn’t say a word, just smiled and nodded.

On a narrow road on the way to Ffostrasol, some comedian flashed us for going too slowly and screeched past, hooting. Tom laughed.

‘One more for the madhouse.’

I said, ‘Morgan wouldn’t laugh. He’d flash and hoot back, then zoom after him and tailgate him for miles.’

Tom knew about Morgan, but it was too soon to burden him with details. I thought I could put the balance right by asking about his wife. All I knew was that she died of cancer a few years earlier.

‘What was Beth like, Tom?’

He didn’t answer, and I suddenly felt hot with anxiety. He pretended to adjust his glasses, but I could tell he was wiping away a tear. We went on in silence, accompanied by the unseen presences of Morgan and Beth. I’ve blown it, I thought.

But after a few miles we touched hands across the gear lever, and said how lucky we were to have met. I said my favourite film was Spirited Away. He said he loved that too but his favourite was O Brother Where Art Thou. I said I needed to see it again to be sure and he said, ‘Then let’s.’ He said he had a sister and seven cousins, I said I was an only child with only four cousins. We didn’t talk about places, or people we’d travelled with.

I began to feel it was going well, then remembered this stage had gone well with Morgan. This stage was like arriving at a railway station and being surprised to find it clean and cheerful, then realising the train might be late, or overcrowded, or it might not arrive. When we pulled in at the guest house my heart beat faster, and the smell of pine trees and honeysuckle didn’t calm me.


My next holiday with Morgan was Sorrento. We took a boat tour to a marine grotto where features were picked out with spotlights. The guide gave a commentary in English.

‘Look the piece of rock. Like head of a soldier.’

‘Look the pattern in the stone. Like lace tablecloth.’

‘Look when I move the torch. Reflections like stars of the Plough.’

I muttered, loud enough for him to hear, ‘I’ll decide what looks like a soldier or lace or stars.’ Morgan shushed me.

After dinner in town we strolled back to the hotel along a winding road high above the coast. The air smelt of lemon trees.

Morgan said, ‘Oddly enough, Sorrento is like Rottingdean.’


‘Rottingdean, near Brighton.’ In a tone implying that my unfamiliarity with the south coast of England was wilful ignorance. ‘Trust me, Stephanie, it’s like it.’

I had already noted the main picture in the hotel bedroom. It was a pen-and-ink study of Tower Bridge. In the unsettling moments of arrival I felt reassured by this London icon, but now, absorbing Italy into my veins, I was irritated. Once again Morgan studied the picture. He explained how the huge counterweights of the bascules fit into the bases of the towers, so the halves of the bridge can lift to let ships through. I developed a headache.

For some weeks after we got home there was a coolness between us, which only planning an activity holiday seemed to cure. We did in fact spend several pleasant months looking forward to walking in Madeira. I thought it would break the spell of the pictures in Venice and Sorrento.

In Funchal we found the exact spot where the chicken seller had stood. It was high up at the western end. Morgan was right – the place had grown, and didn’t look like the picture. Below us were new luxury hotels and timeshare apartments. Morgan began to list the places in Britain with heights at one end of a seafront. Aberystwyth, Llandudno, and Sidmouth were a few. He then moved on to France via California. He thought all those resorts could learn from studying Funchal. 

We stayed in one of the new hotels. It was pretty swish, if lacking in character, and the décor in the room pulled no punches. One entire wall was a photographic mural of the towering Rocky Mountains, seen from the Great Plains. I plonked myself down on the bed and stared at it.

Morgan studied it too. ‘I wonder what state we’re in here. Colorado?’

I knew what state I was in. I said, ‘Shut up for heaven’s sake, Morgan.’

I could sense his irritation as he forced himself to keep quiet and sat reading the tourist bumf. I stared at that wretched mural for half an hour, burning with dissatisfaction, longing to be in that dramatic scene instead of safe little Funchal. I felt as if all the places in the world had been forced into a giant food-processor, until none was whole.


In the embracing dark of Ffostrasol I lay wide awake. I couldn’t even make out the curtains. So different from the city. I was in a warm cocoon with Tom breathing quietly beside me, still on top of the covers. I told myself I ought to be happy, all was well, I would soon stop feeling tense. Carefully I sat up in bed, not wanting to wake Tom, who might have thought the drumbeat of my heart was a glitch in the rhythm of our life together.

The clock read 6.20. I rubbed my face against the pillow, wiping the sweat from my hairline, then lay down and tried to sleep. Impossible. I wanted to roll around to ease my agitation, but forced myself to keep still. So far Tom hadn’t commented on Morocco, or anything else that wasn’t actually there. But in the weekend ahead Morgan’s doppelgänger might put words in Tom’s mouth like a ventriloquist.

Time passed quickly, because next time I looked the clock read 7.23, and I heard clinks and bumps from below as the staff prepared early breakfasts. Grainy light through the curtains showed indistinct shapes of furniture, and the muted outline of the picture of Morocco. I thought, Let the trial begin soon and not hang over me till later.

I tried to adjust my breathing to the rhythm of Tom’s, but anxiety welled up again. I turned away and huddled up, clutching the pillow. If our relationship was a train it could so easily break down, crash, or divide with me in one half and him in the other.


I split with Morgan in Marrakech. In the hotel lobby, inexplicably, was a framed watercolour of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. A wave of fatigue and melancholy swamped me. The wheel had come full circle to that first holiday, as if nothing in our relationship had moved.

That evening, we went up to the hotel roof to take in the sights, and saw the Jemaa el-Fnaa with its fire-eaters and storytellers and alien music. When Morgan exclaimed that it was just like St Mark’s Square with its outdoor orchestras, I took off my shoes and threw them at him. He dodged and his glasses fell off and broke.

‘I’m here and nowhere else,’ I screamed. ‘Here! Understand?’

He didn’t.


A warm hand stroked my back. I sat up, startled.

‘Still tense,’ Tom said.

I turned and smiled, trying to reassure him.

‘I’m not usually like this.’

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’


He had to pass Morocco on the way to the kettle.

He stopped.

He studied it.

My mouth was dry. He smoothed his hair, checking his reflection in the picture glass. The vanity of the man! Then he moved on. I breathed again. But he still had to pass it coming back.

I couldn’t stand the tension any longer. While he filled the kettle I jumped out of bed and stood beside the picture, and when he came back I said quite aggressively, ‘Well, Tom, what do you think?’ and pointed to it. Come on, Tom, I thought, bleed Ffostrasol dry before we’ve even seen it.

He said, ‘Shall I open the curtains?’

‘If you think that helps.’

By all means, Tom, see the damn thing clearly. I stared at the deep reds and vivid blues of that interior and felt Wales drain into Morocco. Still Tom wasn’t looking.

‘Steph!’ he exclaimed.

That made me jump. I turned to look at him and he pointed to the window. It was blurred.

‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘I’ll put my contacts in.’

I stood in front of the mirror to do it. The reflection of the room-wide window leapt out at me, and I caught my breath. It framed a view across a valley. A sweep of hills was crowned with a larch plantation, dark and spiky against the lightening sky. The view was itself and nowhere else. The mirror was full to bursting with the hills of Ffostrasol.


Alex Barr’s short fiction collections are ‘My Life With Eva’ (Parthian 2017) and for children ‘Take a Look At Me-e-e!’ (Gomer 2014). His recent short fiction can be read on MIR, Sam Yukta Fiction, and Litro . His creative nonfiction has appeared recently in The Blue Nib and Sarasvati. His two poetry collections are ‘Henry’s Bridge’ (Starborn 2006) and ‘Letting In The Carnival’ (Peterloo 1984). He lives in Wales.

26 July 2021