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Christmas At Trennels.

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Karen walked briskly back to the old farmhouse, wishing that she had dug out her good winter coat. There was a distinctly ‘advent’ feel to the day; the December sky pale and translucent with cold, the early frost still on the ground. She had been discussing Christmas plans with her mother. Coffee, and the exchange of gossip, had once been something of a regular ritual between them, Karen supplying village news and Pam stories from the hunting set; but since Pam and Geoff had been mainly living in London it had become a rare treat. Today they had been mostly talking 'family'.
Emma no longer came home from the village school at lunchtime. She had protested that eating sandwiches with her friends before playing at cat’s-cradle or fortune-tellers was better than walking all the way home to have lunch with her mother. She might have added that lunch at home was usually warmed-up leftovers from the previous night’s tea, which hadn’t always been that exciting in the first place, but Emma had considerable tact and good sense for a girl of seven. It had made a hole in Karen’s day to start with, but now she had come to enjoy the freedom of child-free stretches of time.
Today Edwin was working at home, so she had made an unusual effort for lunch. She had baked a corned beef pie earlier, a surprising favourite of Edwin’s, and she was glad she had. She was going to need food on her side for the conversation they were going to have, she thought, setting out pie and pickles on the kitchen table.
She let him start eating first, while she made a pot of tea. (Drinking tea with lunch - something they’d never have done at Trennels, but a familiar habit now.)
“Mum wants to have a proper family Christmas this year,” she said, as casually as she could.
He chewed his mouthful, giving himself time to answer. “Who’s cooking?”
Karen took a bite herself to hide her smile. He obviously wouldn’t want to go. His opening question was simply a reconnaissance mission while they both marshalled their forces.She could have waited to have this conversation when the kids were there to back her up, they would have been eager to go, and Edwin would have yielded without a fight due to force of numbers; but he would have been left resentful and annoyed, feeling that his hand had been forced. If she wanted to get her way, it was better to let him think that it was his own free choice.
“Peter’s going to do the food,” she replied. ”So it should be edible.”
“More than edible,” he acknowledged, being fair. Peter taking over the farm had overlapped with Mrs Bertie’s retirement; and he had taught himself to cook in much the same way as he had once taught himself carpentry. “And who’s going to be there?”
“Nicola’s coming,” she replied, a good move to open with. He liked Nicola, not just because of that dreadful day with Rose, but because of the farm log and history and Oxford. “And she’s bringing her boyfriend.”
“Poor chap’s got to run the gauntlet, has he?”
“I suppose he has rather. Mum doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic.”
Edwin looked a question.
“His sister was at Kingscote, year below me, so he should be alright. He’s in some sort of rock band though; I think that’s why Mum is dubious.”
“If she’s got her mind set on him, I doubt family approval is a requirement,” said Edwin. Karen smiled. Edwin’s voice was so characteristically dry and irritable-sounding that people didn’t always notice when he was joking; amused, she recognised that he wasn’t only referring to Nicola.
Emboldened by his apparent good humour she pressed on. “Lawrie can’t come, she’s doing panto and doesn’t think it would be worth trying to get down and back in a day. And Ann’s working - she always seems to be - and Ginty and Tom are doing their own thing because they give all the stable girls the day off and do the horses themselves.” Karen wondered what it would be like to have Christmas as just the two of them, with no children always disrupting things. It must be rather romantic, she thought with just a touch of wistfulness, although she supposed the horses didn’t really leave much time for all that.
“But Giles is coming home, and he almost never gets leave at Christmas! That’s the main reason Mum wants to make a big do out of it,” she continued.
“If you want us to go to your parents for Christmas Day, Katy, all you have to do is say so,” replied Edwin. “I daresay I can summon up enough Christmas spirit to cope with your brothers, as long as they’re somewhat diluted.”
Having got her own way, Karen became chatty and frivolous. “I wonder what I should do for presents. If people are going to be there for the Tree, they have to have something. There’ll be Wendy as well, for tea at least. Do you think I’ve got time to knit a couple of jumpers for her and Peter. Maybe Nick’s Philip too.”
Edwin was wearing a navy object which had been Karen’s first attempt at knitting a wearable garment. He made rather a point of wearing it on days that he was working at home and didn’t have to leave the house. “Do you suppose rock musicians wear home-made knitted jumpers?” he asked.
“Oh, everyone wears jumpers at Christmas,” said Karen, optimistically. “What about our lot? We’re not going to get Chas the bike wheels, are we?” Chas and a friend were rebuilding an old motorbike that they’d saved from a scrap yard, and all he wanted for Christmas were spare parts.
“No, we are not,” said Edwin.
“So, we’ll have to think of something else for him. The others are easy enough, I know what they all want.” She stood up, clearing their plates.
“Did I notice some jam tarts on the side earlier?” asked Edwin hopefully.
“Oh yes. They were for tea really, but if you don’t mind two lots of pastry…..”
“Not at all.”
“The red ones are that raspberry jam that never set. I thought it might cook better in tarts. The orange ones are shop marmalade…… If we go for Christmas I’ll offer to take mince pies. Oh, and the cake. Fruit cake is one of my best things, isn’t it?”
There was one thing about Edwin, she thought; he could certainly be crabby about many things, but he had always been scrupulously polite about her cooking. Or failure to cook on some occasions - when some blackened disaster had to be scraped into the bin and a tin of soup opened instead, he never complained.
“Mum’s being awfully traditional about the rooms. Nick in her old room and Philip in one of the spares - do you suppose she’s choosing not to wonder how late Wendy stays some nights?”
“Do you think we could tell her to get a new exhaust on that car? Or at least wait until a civilised time in the morning to go home?” The Dodds were often woken in the middle hours of the night by Wendy’s rackety old Landrover driving away from Trennels.
“She’s got all those horses to see to at the crack of dawn. That’s why she never stays till the morning. I could try telling Peter about the exhaust though,” said Karen. “But it won’t be for much longer. Once they’re married she’ll move in permanently.” She hesitated. “But it did make me wonder. Rose could easily ask to bring a boyfriend home from college one of these days. Would we let them share a room here?”
“Certainly not,” said Edwin, sharply. But Karen could see he was surprised by the thought, just as she had been, and his answer was an instinctive reaction, not a considered response. They still thought of Rose as young, shy, diffident, absorbed in books. But Rose, finishing her first term away at university, was at the same stage as she herself had been when she first met Edwin; and was only a term away from the point at which she had thrown everything up to marry him.
Had it been worth it?
She mused later, alone with the washing up. Certainly things had been different to what she had expected. But most of the time, she did think it had been worth it. And the odd moments when she didn’t - Nicola graduating, Rose deciding to train as a librarian, moments when she herself was feeling low and she watched other people doing the things that she could have done - well, those moments tended to pass quickly enough. And after all, if she hadn’t married Edwin, there would never have been Emma.

 

 

Emma solemnly hug the thick woolen stocking on her bedpost. Methren had knitted it especially for her, in wobbly red and white stripes. She was the only one still to have a stocking. Fob, in theory, could have carried on having one until she was sixteen as Rose and Chas had; although for them, it had mostly been as a link to the way Christmas had been before. But Fob had chosen not to, wanting to align herself with the older two rather than the seven year old Emma.

“Will it be Christmas when you get back?” Emma asked Rose, who had come in to say goodnight before going out.

“No. We’ll be back before midnight, I should think. But you’ll be asleep by then.”
“I won’t. I’ll be waiting.”
“You’d better not or Father Christmas won’t come,” Rose warned.
Emma smiled condescendingly. You couldn’t be the youngest in a house of four children and not have realised that Father Christmas wasn’t real by her age. But she had a vague sense, that she couldn’t yet have put into words, that everyone else (except Daddy perhaps) liked the idea that she still believed, and she was kind enough to play along.

 

Rose and Chas and their respective friends rarely socialized together. Although there was less than twelve months between them in age, they were in different school years; and the separate year groups in school tended to stay fiercely segregated. But Christmas Eve was different. Colebridge Grammar drew its pupils from a wide circle of villages, and meeting outside of school usually involved everyone bussing into Colebridge. The buses stopped early this evening; people either couldn’t drive yet, or if they could, couldn’t borrow a car. So only their most local friends could meet Rose and Chas in the pub at Westbridge, and by tacit consent the two small groups amalgamated, spreading out round a long trestle table with Rose at one end and Chas at the other. The difference between them was even more marked than before: Chas and his friends were in their last year at school and were subsequently being patronized by Rose’s year group who had spent the last few months either at University or in jobs. And there was a difference within Rose’s group too; those who had been working felt subtly superior to those others who hadn’t yet tasted the ‘real world’ while the students struggled to explain what life at uni was really like, given the absence of a common frame of reference. They were drifting apart, even if they hadn’t realised it yet. But it was Christmas, everyone was over-excited, inclined to be sentimental, willing to let cheap cider smooth off the rough edges.
Chas and his friend Ben were discussing the rebuilding of their motorbike when the Trennels party came in and squeezed onto the last empty table in the rapidly filling pub.
‘Nacker!’ thought Chas, but he didn’t shout it across the room as he would have done eight years ago. Instead he grinned and gave a casually friendly wave. His feelings about Nicola had gone a bit peculiar in his early teens, a fortunately brief but embarrassing phase which had been superseded by a series of crushes on girls his own age, a couple of which had even been reciprocated. Now he was glad to realise that all he felt on seeing Nicola was the enthusiasm appropriate to a favourite aunt (even though she was only four years older than him) and, as she had someone with her who was presumably the new boyfriend, that was a very good thing too.
Catching Peter’s eye, he included him in his wave, and Wendy as well. Fob had spent a year making voodoo dolls out of Emma’s plasticine and stabbing them with the Methren’s knitting needles, but it hadn’t worked and now Wendy was going to marry Peter.
Giles was also in the group but Chas had little interest in him. When he and Rose had been younger they had listed the Marlows in order of niceness. That Giles was at the bottom of the list was initially because they rarely saw him but since then he had not impinged on their lives at all - although the Grandmethren got very excited about him coming home.
The buzz that had started amongst Rose’s friends finally reached him. ‘Have you seen .. ?’ ‘Is it .. ?’ ‘Oh my god, it is!’
“Chas, who’s that with all your steps?”
“I don’t know. Nacker’s boyfriend. He’s in a band or something.”
“Chas, seriously, don’t you know anyone?”
Chas shrugged. His interest in music went no further than watching Top Of The Pops if nothing else happened to be on. He looked again at the back view which was all he could see, thick blond hair falling over the collar of a leather jacket. He certainly didn’t look anything like one of the locals.
“Can you introduce us?”
“Of course not - I don’t know him.”
“No, but you know all the others.”
“It would be mad, all of us charging up there,” protested Chas. He caught Rose’s eye and they shrugged at each other.
But the others got their chance; when Philip Scott went to the bar, Chas and Rose’s friends all decamped and rushed up to the bar too.
It took some time before they returned, beaming and excited, with a stack of signed beer mats. Someone had a pocket camera and they’d all posed for a picture with him, (a copy of which ended up framed behind the bar, next to the one of the TV presenter who’d bought a holiday home nearby.)
“He was super-nice,” said one of the girls. “Are you really having Christmas dinner with him?”
“I suppose so. He’s just a bloke, isn’t he?”
She laughed. “You’re not jealous, are you, Chas?”
He liked her. He supposed he was jealous, a bit. On the other hand - “Shall I see if I can get some VIP tickets to a concert? If I do, would you come with me?”

 

“It’s not the same here without Rowly, is it?” Giles said this to Nicola, but just loudly enough that Peter, half-hearing, wondered if he should be offended.
Nicola wondered too, but said neutrally, “I bet Christmas is lovely where she is though - proper snow and everything.”
Giles looked discontentedly along the table and said in a low voice, “Peter can’t half bore on when he gets talking about farming.”
“He’s only answering questions.” Like you should have, she thought, indignantly, disturbed by Giles’ bad humour. She knew Giles could be amusing and self-deprecatingly entertaining when describing accounts of Navy life, but Philip had asked him a couple of perfectly simple questions and been brushed off with casually snubbing monosyllables, not quite saying, but certainly implying ‘you wouldn’t understand’. After which Philip had given up and was talking to Peter instead.
“I’ve think I’ve been at sea too long. I don’t know how to talk to civilians anymore,” said Giles mock-ruefully. “But what about you? Have you thought again about joining the Wrens now you’ve done your solo trip. You were always going to?”
“When I was fourteen! And it’s not as if I’d ever have been allowed to do anything worthwhile,” she replied. It occurred to her that Giles had been like this before, harking back to her Navy mad days as if he hadn’t even noticed that she was doing other things.
He didn’t ask her about what she was doing now. Instead he drained the end of his drink, and said, “Well, it’s my round. At least I should be able to get up to the bar and back without being mobbed.”
“I expect you will,” said Peter, amused. Giles hackles were clearly up, but nobody else seemed to care in the least.
He’d been telling Philip about his pet projects, one of which were his spruce trees. There was an awkward sloping field - always difficult to plough, and as something of an experiment he’d planted rows of baby Christmas trees. The first ones would be ready to fell in a couple of years, for the smaller end of the market.
“You could hold a music festival in the summer,” suggested Philip.
“I’m not sure Westbridge is quite ready for that,” said Peter. “Ted and Shep haven’t got over the Christmas trees yet.” He grinned at Wendy. “Wendy wants me to build a cross-country course and run horse trials, but as far as I can see, that will cost us money, not make it.”
“Your mum would like it though. She even said she’d be secretary,” Wendy replied. She found Peter’s mother the least alarming of the Marlows. Geoff was always polite to her, although she never knew quite what to say to him. Giles she found intimidating, because he was essentially Peter’s boss and their landlord, given that he would one day own both the farm and the house that was going to be their married home. She was also uneasily aware that she found him rather sexy, in the way that not-very-nice people sometimes could be. Lawrie, on her rare visits, could be horribly snooty towards her; but Nicola was alright - and she seemed softer somehow with this new boyfriend in tow. He seemed nice - that long mane reminded her of a Haflinger pony she’d once had, although his build was more rangy.
Giles returned, putting the tray of drinks down between them. “It’s nearly last orders. You’ll have to buck up, Peter, if we’re to get another one in before they call time.”
“Actually, it’s mine next,” Nicola pointed out. “Peter got the first ones in.”
Giles almost visibly blinked. “Oh. Yes, if you like.” His glance swept across Philip, as if he expected Philip to come to the rescue. But Philip was answering Nicola, who was asking if he wanted whisky.
“Leave me out this time,” said Wendy. “I can only drink so much orange juice. I should probably make a move now anyway.”
Peter went out to the carpark with her to say a somewhat protracted goodbye. That only left Giles and Philip at the table trying to think of something to say to each other, in which they both failed; the only difference being, that unlike Giles, Philip didn’t seem to mind at all.

 

Rose noticed Chas urgently catching her eye, and jerking his head towards the door. She turned to look. Precociously pneumatic breasts encased in a tight black sweater, a short - very short skirt wrapped round chunky thighs, a wide black belt cinching in every thing between jumper and skirt. Leather boots below and lots of black eye make up on top completed the look.
Rose sighed, and quietly said goodbye to her friends, as Chas was doing. A chorus of ‘Happy Christmases’ followed them to the door, where they took one elbow each and propelled Fob outside.
“Who made you two the gestapo?” Fob asked in her deep growl.
“What were you thinking of?” asked Rose. “Everyone in there knows you! You’d never get served.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to get served. I just wanted to come in and look.”
“Honestly Fob, what if Dad sees you - in that get up?”
“I wish he would,” grumped Fob.
“Fob, no,” said Rose anxiously, foreseeing a horrible row, on Christmas Eve of all nights, and the Methren getting worried the way she did….
“S’alright Rose - I’m not stupid! But did you see who was in there?”
“Yes, we did. And you’ll get to meet him tomorrow, same as we will. He’s with Nacker,” said Chas smugly.
“Oh. I wouldn’t have thought you two even knew who he was. I bet someone had to tell you.”
Rose and Chas, too honest to bluff it, grinned and admitted that was true. Having won a point, Fob regained her good humour and they walked on in relative amity.
“If we walk slowly, and it’s after midnight when we get in, do you think we can open our presents?” Fob asked thoughtfully.
“It’s not Christmas till you’ve been to sleep,” Rose and Chas said as one; a childhood mantra.
“I wish I knew what I’m getting. It’d better not be another watch.” The birthday before Fob started at Colebridge Grammar she had been given a watch, instead of the set of Caran D’ache pencils that she had really wanted. She had brooded vengefully for weeks, until she found a girl in her new class who had been willing to swap her tin of pencils for the unwanted watch. Inevitably, the watch’s absence had eventually been noticed and the fallout had involved Rose and Chas too, because they’d known about it and not said.
What Fob wanted this Christmas was a special set of fabric paints, and a few cheap T Shirts. (She had a plan to sell her own designs on a stall at Colebridge market. This, of course, had not been fully explained to Karen or Edwin, who would almost certainly have said no; Fob was working on the principle that what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.).
“It’s alright,” said Chas, who had been shopping with Methren the previous weekend. “It’s definitely not a watch.”
They all allowed themselves a moment of hopeful anticipation, tinged with a little nostalgia for the days when presents had really, really mattered. But it was better to be past all that, thought Rose, because you didn’t have the disappointment if the longed-for thing didn’t appear. Instead she thought with pleasure of the book token they’d pooled their money to buy, to give to Methren.
“I wish I had had a stocking now,” said Fob. “Bet Emma’s already got hers.”
“No,” said Chas. “Methren will be waiting up for us, then she’ll put it in last thing.”
“How’s Fob going to get in without them seeing?” asked Rose.
“Same way I got out. Through the front door.”
“Don’t panic, Rose,” said Chas kindly. “We’ll go and talk to Methren in the kitchen and be a distraction. We can ask for cocoa. And some of the mincepies.”

 

 

 Going home, Peter had supposed that he and Giles would walk briskly on, allowing the other two to linger, hold hands, look at the stars (fitfully visible between blown clouds) or whatever kind of soppiness they wanted to go in for. But Giles had suddenly become expansive, and was telling a long and amusing anecdote, determinedly matching pace with theirs. Peter, having already heard the story, had no need to listen, and was free to muse on something from the day before.
Giles had walked round the farm with him in the afternoon, and then they’d gone down to the pub for a quick one before dinner. Ted and Shep and some of the others had been at the bar, and there’d been some ordinary joshing between them while they waited to be served. When the landlady came along she’d asked the men what they wanted; and Giles had suddenly stepped in, declaring that he should get them all a drink. An ordinary enough incident, Peter thought, a nothing story really, but his mind ran on, chewing at it. There’d been something a little too uncomfortable about their thanks maybe - no-one could ever describe Ted or the others as fawning - but heartily polite in a way that they never were with him. And then his thoughts crystallised into a sentence: he may own the place, but I’m the one who belongs.

 

 

There had been no point making a fuss about the rooms when they had been shown them on their arrival earlier that afternoon. (Honestly though, what did her mother think they had been doing in the flat in London for the last six months?) Nicola simply waited till the traffic in and out of the bathroom had ceased, and then padded softly down the corridor.
Philip, in the boxy single room that had once been Peter’s, stirred as she slipped inside the door, saying, in a pleased voice, “Have you come to save me from hypothermia?”
“It’s not that cold, is it?” she exclaimed, sliding into the bed and finding him still fully dressed.
“Yes! I can see my own breath, look!” He pulled the blankets back over them both. “What are you wearing?” he asked, fingering the thick, flannel pyjamas she had on. “Arctic convoy issue?”
They were a pair she’d discovered still in a drawer in her old room. It was true that she’d forgotten just how cold Trennels could be, in the rooms without fires. As they nestled together, sharing warmth, she protested, “At least take your jeans off. Something’s poking into me.”
“I doubt it. I’d get frostbite…”
“Your belt buckle, you fool..”
Ignoring a certain amount of muffled protest, she eventually removed jeans and jumper. “Now look what you’ve done,” said Philip. “Unless you’d like us to make the bedsprings creak loudly all night long - just to really wind up your brother.”
So it had been obvious, and Philip had noticed. When she didn’t immediately respond, he said, slightly alarmed, “Nick! I was joking…”
“I know,” she said, uncomfortably. “I - I don’t know why Giles is being - so - so -” And then foundered.
“He’s just being a big brother is all,” Philip said, consolingly. “There you are, his favourite little sister, and you’ve only gone and got yourself hooked up with a chap who can’t even navigate his way to the barbers.”
His voice had slipped into an unconscious, but fair imitation of Giles’ voice, and Nicola felt herself wince. Had Phil actually overheard something or was he just guessing ….
“Perhaps I should commiserate ….. It was such a relief to me when Jan settled down with a nice, sensible girl …”
Nicola frowned into the dark. It should have been a relief that Philip was amused rather than annoyed, but she had an uneasy, muddled feeling that actually that was worse. Unpicking that thought, she supposed that it implied that Giles’ snideness wasn’t really worth minding about. Maybe that Giles himself wasn’t - and she was aware of a confused reluctance to follow that line of thought any further. She felt an urge to apologise for him; but then Giles was an adult, someone who had been brought up just as she had to be at least moderately polite to visitors, and if anyone should apologise he should surely be doing it for himself…..
She’d been silent for a long time. Eventually, Philip distracted her from her thoughts, saying sleepily, “So what happens in the morning?”
“I thought we could go for a walk while the others are at church,” she suggested. “Down to the sea, maybe?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, sounding relieved. They exchanged a deliberately sedate goodnight kiss, and shifted, getting settled comfortably in the narrow bed.
“Breakfast is going to be at eight thirty,” she added, remembering that Peter had warned them he wanted them all well away from the kitchen before he started preparing the grand feast.
“Eight thirty? We’ll only just have got warm by then.” Philip said in mock dismay. “I’m starting to see why you lot never minded going away to boarding school.”
“I’m sorry,” she said lightly, because it was easy to say it when it was just a joke.
“It’s alright,” he said in the same tone. “I’m sure I’ve had much worse Christmases than this.”
And that was all too true, she thought, knowing all she now knew about his and Jan’s childhood. She wanted to shelter him in her arms, an impulse both possessive and protective; a feeling that could still take her by surprise. The ghosts of her own past Christmases drifted through her mind, mostly quite safe and ordinary, except for that one year. And she found herself obscurely wondering, had Edward ever seen his mother again?
She must once have been used to these cold rooms, but how nice to have a warm person to lean against. How had she ever got warm before, she wondered sleepily, but before she could follow that thought to any conclusion had fallen asleep.

 

 

Peter, coming in from doing the morning essentials on the farm, shooed the stragglers out of the kitchen, claiming that he needed peace and quiet to start creating his culinary masterwork. But Philip and Nicola, on their way through to get wellies and raincoats by the back door, were press-ganged into peeling a pile of potatoes, parsnips and carrots before they made their escape.
Pam went to church, secretly rather pleased to have Geoff on one arm and Giles on the other. And as they met Karen, Rose and Emma there, they were quite a respectable pew full.
Chas and Fob had explained some time previously (Chas tactfully, Fob a blank refusal) that they no longer wanted to come to church, but Rose had carried on, partly to keep Methren company, and partly because she knew that Mummy had believed, so just maybe, if she kept trying, one day she would too.
It took them some time to get away after the service, as several older parishioners made a point of stopping to wish them a happy Christmas, saying how nice it was to see both the Captain and Giles at home - and how were all the other young Marlows - although it was Ann that they most particularly asked after by name.
The church party arrived back at Trennels shortly before the walkers. Philip and Nicola returned very wet and windblown about the hair, faces glowing from the combined effects of exercise and rain, and looking, thought the church-goers, extremely pleased with themselves.
“Goodness, you two look like you need a brandy,” said Geoff. “Let’s get the fire going.”
“Were you caught in that heavy downpour?” asked Pam. “It was rattling on the church windows while we were all singing ‘In the bleak midwinter’.”
“I suppose being out in a bit of bad weather is something of a novelty for you,” said Giles.
“I suppose it is,” said Philip, agreeably. “But we sheltered in a cave for the worst bit.” It didn’t seem that they’d minded being caught out in the rain at all.

 

The phone rang and Pam answered it. “Ann! How lovely! Yes, we’re just back…” The others half-listened to her end of the conversation, shouting ‘Happy Christmas’ obediently into the phone when Pam passed it round. Meanwhile introductions were made between Karen, Rose and Philip; and before they could all move into the sitting room where Geoff was lighting the fire, there was a diffident knock on the front door and Edwin, Chas and Fob were there, bearing a basket of presents, closely followed by Sam the dog.
Peter carried a tray of glasses of something orange and fizzy into the sitting room. “Bucks fizz anyone? No, Emma - this one’s yours.”
“I think I’ll stick to brandy,” said Geoff.
“Me too,” added Giles, pouring himself one from the decanter on the sideboard. But the two unused drinks disappeared anyway. Fob, catching Rose’s eye on her, smiled innocently.
Karen, Rose and Pam went to variously help and hinder with the final preparation of the dinner; and eventually they all sat down, very jolly after the Bucks Fizzes and the Tree, to a genuinely impressive feast.
“Cooking Christmas dinner is like what they say about war,” remarked Peter. “Long periods of inactivity and then everything going off at once.”
“Except nobody dies,” suggested Chas, spearing his first chipolata.
“Apart from the turkey,” Rose murmured. On going away to university, Rose had finally become a vegetarian, and she had a chunk of nut loaf on her plate, along with the roast potatoes and vegetables. (Sam was privately dismayed by this turn of events; when Rose, still living at home, had to eat the same as everyone else because otherwise ‘it would be too much trouble for Katy’, Sam had benefited from regular pieces of meat sliding under the table.)
Nicola found herself sitting next to Edwin, whom she hadn’t seen for some time. He seemed interested in what she had been doing, and asked the right sort of questions, so with occasional interjections from Philip, she told him a little about her singing and quite a bit about her writing.
An acquaintance of Philip’s, who’d heard her sing before, - “and kept on asking me if I knew when she was coming back” - thought she might do for some neglected songs he wanted to record. Frank was writing, or trying to write, a book about the history behind some traditional folk songs, and by way of a day job, asked Nicola if she could help sort out his notes.His written notes had been a hopeless mess, so they decided to try just letting him tell stories, - “give him a beer and he’ll talk your ear off” - with a cassette player recording, and then she could write it up. Daunted at first, she had come to enjoy organising the material into themes and chapters; it was satisfying to use the skills she had developed at Oxford, and at least she knew how to do a proper bibliography.
“Like a ghost writer?” asked Edwin.
“To start with.” Rather shyly, she explained that once the book had got to the readable first draft stage, Frank had said that she’d written just as much of it as he had, so both their names would go on the cover, as co-authors.
“And is this significant?” he asked quietly, indicating the ring on her left ring finger.
She grinned. “Yes.”
“Congratulations then, both of you.” He was speaking in a low voice, but a lull had fallen in the conversations at the further end of the long table so everyone heard. And then looked, and exclaimed.
“Let’s see!” “Congratulations!” “When did you …?”
Nicola obediently let everyone see the ring, although she had to get up and walk to the far end of the table.
“Oh, that’s charming!” said her mother. It was a seemingly simple silver ring, cunningly crafted to look like a fine silver rope, tied into a reef knot.
“Aren’t engagement rings usually a bit more sparkly?” asked Giles.
“Why, how many have you bought?” asked Chas. Chas’s skinny, nerdy appearance had helped him get away with being something of a class clown at school; he was answered now by a distinctly unfriendly look from Giles.
Peter, slightly anxious that his own wedding, being planned for April, might be overshadowed, asked,”So when do you think you’ll actually do the deed?” and was relieved when Philip answered, “In the autumn.”
“Phil’s away for the next nine months or so,” explained Nicola.
“Nine months!” exclaimed her mother. “Goodness, it’ll be just like being a Navy wife!”
“Well, hardly,” Giles said. “What we do is ever so slightly more important.”
For the first time Nicola saw a flicker of irritation - or dislike - in Philip’s eyes. But Chas, remembering his possible date, was distracting him, “Are you coming anywhere round here?”
“Later in the year,” Philip told him. “We’re doing Europe till the end of May, then we’re back for some of the festivals, then we’ve got a proper UK tour at the end of the summer.”
“Can’t Nicola go with you?” asked Pam.
Philip grinned, and asked Nicola, very politely, “Tell me Nicola, would you be able to come with me?”
“Bits of it, I will.” Then, somewhat reluctantly, she explained to her family, “I’ll be away quite a bit myself.”
“On tour,” said Philip.
“Not a tour exactly. We - Frank and me - are doing some odd dates across the country - just in arts centres and pubs and things.”
“So, in other words, a tour,” said Philip.”And not just a music tour either.”
Nicola had to explain again. “Oh, well, we’ll just take some boxes of the book along, so people can buy it at the end of the concert, if they want.”
“And get it signed by the author.”
The young Dodds were looking impressed. “Can we come? If you do anywhere round here?”
“It’s folk music,” she warned them. “Very trad.”
“Don’t you jazz it up a bit?” asked Peter.
“No, of course not! We - well, what Frank says - we’re passing the songs on, without ourselves getting in the way.”
“A voice without an ego, that’s what he said he wanted,” said Philip, who’d been pleased by the phrase, summing up as it did the quality of Nick’s voice, like that of a bird, or even of something unearthly.
“Well, we’d love to come,” said Edwin, rather surprisingly. “You’ll have to let us know when you’re anywhere near.”
“Or we could have a weekend away to see you somewhere,” suggested Karen hopefully, striking while the iron was hot.
“Maybe,” agreed Edwin.
Chas had not yet grown out of his ability to out-eat everyone else at the table, and had already been helping himself to thirds of everything that was in reach by the time Peter offered him the last potato. All the others declared themselves stuffed, until the pudding appeared, doused in brandy and flaming gloriously, when they all agreed they could probably squeeze in a tiny helping. After which there was a cheese, bought at the Harrods food hall by Philip and Nicola for Geoff, who was particularly partial to a good Stilton. Eventually even Chas could eat no more.
“My compliments to the chef!” said Edwin.
“Oh yes!” echoed Karen, pleased by Edwin’s continuing good humour.
“Well, I cooked it all so I’m not going to do any of the washing up,” Peter told them. “I’m going to have a nice zizz in the best arm chair.”
“Let’s have coffee in the sitting room,” suggested Pam.
“I’ll make it,” said Karen. “You go and sit down. I said I’d do the washing up, if I can have some helpers?”
Nicola and Philip volunteered themselves, and because they had, so did Fob.
As they rose from the table, Rose asked, “Methren, did you remember the cake?”
“Goodness! No! It’s still sitting in the pantry at home. Edwin, you couldn’t possibly nip back and get it, darling?” She could have asked one of the children, but a short walk would give Edwin a breather away from the family. Karen was well aware that her family en masse was much more bearable when broken up into manageable chunks of time.
In the kitchen, Karen took charge. “Fob, you can load the plates into the dishwasher. I’ll wash the pots if you can dry.” She passed Philip a tea towel. “And Nick, can you start on making the coffee?”
They fell to their tasks, but Sam, gazing lovingly at the bowl of giblets on the table, kept getting under their feet.
“Chas!” Karen stuck her head into the sitting room. “Can you take your dog out for a walk or something? Before one of us falls over him?”
“Of course,” said Chas, stretching his long limbs and getting up from his place on the rug in front of the fire.” I was going to anyway, if it’s stopped raining. I might go and look at all the little Christmas trees. Want to come, Rose?” he added, with gentle brotherly malice.
Only Chas knew that ever since Rose had read the story about the Christmas tree in her Hans Christian Anderson book, she had wept every year for the tree that they threw out on January the sixth. And though of course she had grown out of that, the sight of all those growing trees, bravely lined up in their ranks, waiting their turn, could still make her feel embarrassingly weepy.
Instead she asked if she could go in the library. Her bookishness was respected by the family in the same way Karen’s had once been, even if, as with Karen, few of them really understood it. Possibly Emma did - she had taken the book that had been her Tree present behind the sofa and was curled up, reading it with fierce absorption.

 

Nicola carried the tray of coffee into the sitting room.
“Is Fob actually helping?” asked Peter. “She must be impressed with your fella.”
“Oh well, rock stars and fourteen year olds - what do you expect?” said Giles.
“Giles, really,” said Pam. Peter looked at Nicola with interest. Her eyes were a dangerous shade of blue but Giles seemed oblivious.
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Geoff.
“The stories one hears - the ‘rock and roll lifestyle’ and all that -” Giles realised that everyone was staring at him with varying degrees of astonishment and backed down a little. “Sorry, bad joke. Sorrow and all that. But seriously Nick, you’re not really going to marry him, are you? …. I mean, I can see the appeal if it’s for a bit of a fling. But he’s hardly a long-term proposition, is he?”
“You’re making rather sweeping judgements about someone you don’t know, Giles,” said his father.
“My mother never thought Geoff was a good prospect. And where would you all be if we’d paid any attention to her!” Pam said quickly, afraid that some of her own doubts, expressed a little unwisely to Giles on a previous occasion, were going to be thrown back at her, in Nicola’s hearing.
“That was different. Dad was in the Navy. You don’t think this is a good idea, do you Mum?”
“That’s enough, Giles!”
Giles shrugged. “Well, it beats me what these girls are doing choosing their husbands. First Karen and now Nick. If ever I have daughters I don’t think I’ll let them go to Oxford - they seem to lose their heads and come back with the most disastrous men!” He caught Nicola’s eye and raised his eyebrows, making a comic grimace with his face to show her that he was only joking.
But she stared straight through him. “You don’t know anything about it,” she said, cold and hostile, then abruptly turning on her heel and leaving the room, almost crashed into Fob coming in with the cream jug.
“Won’t you have a bigger problem having daughters?” asked Peter.
“What?”
“Finding someone to put up with you in the first place?”

 

Nicola put her head round the kitchen door and beckoned to Philip.
“Something to show you.” She pulled him into the middle of the hall and indicated upwards.
“What?”
“Up there. Hanging from the landing.”
“Oh. The mistletoe. Oh, I see …..”
After a moment, he said, “What’s happened?”
“Come in here.” She saw the library door was ajar and led him through, but hesitated when she saw that Rose was already in there,sitting at the big table with books spread out in front of her.
“Oh, Rose, sorry,” she said, startled, then remembering her own university reading, asked, “You’re not studying today, are you?”
“Oh, no, I’m just looking ….. Do you want me to go?”
“Gracious no! Of course not,” said Nicola hastily, as Rose was already closing her book. “If you don’t mind us. You can practice your librarian’s shush if we talk too loudly.”
Rose flushed and smiled, more pleased than the joke deserved.
“Are these all real?” Philip asked, touching a leather backed spine. He wandered along the shelves in mild wonder. It occurred to Nicola, seeing the library shelves anew through the eyes of a stranger to them, that the books in here must be worth a fortune. It was lucky that they hadn’t all been sold off to pay for ponies…
“What’s up?” asked Philip, low-voiced, as she joined him.
“Oh, it was Giles being” - a complete arse, is what she wanted to say, but the last shreds of loyalty made her amend it to “impossible.”
Thank goodness she hadn’t just blurted out what Giles had said as they walked into the library, she thought. It was bad enough that Emma had been in the room, although she been lost in her book and not listening to the adults’ conversation. And what if Fob had heard it from the hallway - although Fob was Fob and inscrutable at the best of times. But Rose - Rose minded about things; any slight or insult, even said in jest, could upset her and make her anxious.
Philip pulled out one of the heavy chairs and sat down at the end of the table. She supposed she could too; it was peaceful in the library and Rose was a calming presence.
“So, Nick’s brother doesn’t like me,” Philip said jokily to Rose. “Do you think we should call the whole thing off?”
“Peter?” asked Rose in astonishment.
“No, the other one. Peter shows signs of being able to tolerate my presence, but these Naval types are made of sterner stuff.”
“Oh, Giles,” said Rose, and then blushed, as if even her tone of voice might have been considered too rude. She hesitated, then said timidly, “Peter didn’t like Daddy - Edwin, when Methren married her, but they’re alright now.”
“Sorry, what do you call her?”
Rose explained. Nicola watching, thought that Karen’s jumper, which Philip had touchingly put straight on, was rather a success. A flecked green, a shade lighter and brighter than khaki, it brought out the green in his eyes. And rather perversely, made her want to take it off and have him to herself for half an hour ….
“There’s mince pies,” said a deep voice, and Fob appeared, carrying a plate.
“I don’t think we should eat them in here,” said Rose, alarmed, gathering up the open books protectively as if an avalanche of stickiness was already descending.
“Come into the sitting room then,” ordered Fob. “The fascist regime is about to be on.”
Phoebe!” said Rose warningly.
“It’s alright! I’m not going to do anything,” Fob replied. “I’ll just be a silent protest.”
Fortunately for Rose’s nerves, Fob’s silent protest was indistinguishable from the respectful silence with which Pam, Geoff and Giles watched the Queen’s Speech.
Karen sat congratulating herself on having got Edwin out of the house for this bit, not only saving him from having to watch it but from having to bite his tongue throughout as well.
Nicola pondered Rose’s assertion that Peter and Edwin were fine now. Certainly they seemed to be managing the ordinary, everyday civilities of being neighbours - even if they weren’t exactly bosom buddies. They’d been relaxed around each other at lunch. Perhaps they had become more friendly over the last few years while she hadn’t been around to see. Or maybe Giles being there had inclined them to a little more understanding of each other. Another disloyal thought. Another shot through the flag which she’d borne for Giles for as long as she could remember. There wasn’t much left of it, she thought sadly, a few tattered threads which could surely be abandoned ……
“Goodness, Emma,” said Pam, once the Queen had finished, “You’ve been reading in that dark corner for far too long! Come and help me give Chocbar her Christmas carrot.”
Emma obligingly agreed. She felt fairly neutral about horses, but she did like the Grandmethren, who was inclined to spoil her.
Peter, who had been dozing in the best seat near the fire since lunch, roused himself, saying that he ought to do the rounds before Wendy arrived, and was surprised when both Geoff and Giles said they’d come and help.
Chas and Edwin returned, and there was an amiable discussion about which film to watch on TV, eventually settled by tossing a coin.
Fob pulled out her sketchbook, seizing her chance. “Can I draw you?” she asked Philip.
“What for?” he asked, amenable but cautious.
“I want to put it on a T shirt,” she explained, and then as he looked doubtful, added grumpily, “Not for me! You’re not my kind of thing.” She explained her T shirt stall idea.
“How many are you planning to make?”
“Only a few. They’re all going to be strictly limited edition. So can I?”
“I suppose so,” he agreed, wondering what he was letting himself in for. But he was surprised how quickly Fob drew, a few swift, sharp lines stabbed decisively across the page, and then she showed him.
“Wow. Seriously wow. Look, Nick.”
“That’s amazing, Fob.”
“I know,” she said complacently. “And can you sign it so’s I can put your signature under the picture too.”
He did so, with a flourish. “So tell me, what is you’re kind of thing?”
Chas rolled his eyes and yawned elaborately. “You had to ask!”
Fob glowered at him. But Philip let her extol the virtues of Siouxsie and the Banshees and all her other favourite artists, encouraging her to go on with a well placed comment, so that gradually she lost her fierce demeanor and became almost charming in her enthusiasm.
“Can you do a picture of Nick too?” Philip asked.
“What for?”
“For me, of course!”
Karen and Edwin, half-paying attention, watched with interest. Fob rarely drew anything to order. But perhaps because Nicola herself seemed somewhat dismayed by the idea, Fob shrugged and agreed.
Nicola tried to keep her gaze steadfastly on the television as Fob sketched and Philip teased at her to smile; and the end result, everyone agreed, looked exactly like her.

 

Peter grinned expressively at Nicola when the men came back in from the farm. He had just had the rare experience of hearing Giles getting the crisp edge of Geoff’s tongue, and Peter had enjoyed it very much indeed. Giles, according to his father, should learn to stay well out of other people's’ love lives. Nicola, who in his opinion had perfectly good judgement of her own, was obviously happy with Philip,and Giles was making himself look like an ass. He was more restrained in his defence of Edwin, but Karen had after all made her own choice, and showed no sign of wanting to unmake her bed.
But Wendy’s arrival postponed the telling of any of this.

 

Peter had warned Wendy not to bring much, as the family didn’t go in for extravagant presents; but feeling nervous about turning up empty handed she arrived with a large box of liqueur chocolates for everyone, and a selection box each for Fob and Emma.
“Seriously?” murmured Fob in disgust.
“I’ll have yours if you don’t want it,” offered Emma.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t have it.”
“What are you two muttering about?” asked Karen. “You can come and help me do the turkey sandwiches.”
They soon had an efficient production line going in the kitchen; Karen slicing up meat, sausage and stuffing, Emma buttering bread and Fob putting the sandwiches together.
Fob slid the finished sandwiches onto small plates.
“Oh, Fob, no. I thought we’d put them on a big serving plate, then people can help themselves.”
“This is better,” Fob insisted. “We can eat in the sitting room.”
“Oh, well, I suppose we could. People would probably rather stay by the fire.” Fob had a point. The formal high tea around the dining room table did seem to be a thing of the past.
Fob handed plates to Emma. “That’s Grandmethren and Grandfather.” “Wendy and Peter.” “That one’s cheese and pickle for Rose.” Karen supposed they were enjoying playing at tea-parties, and turned her own attention to teapot and kettle. It was nice to see them getting on so well for once.
“This one’s Giles,” Fob told Emma.
“Ok.”
Only for Giles.”
It’s alright. I get it!” Their eyes met as Emma obediently took the plate.
The cake sat waiting in its gleaming, white iced splendour on the coffee table. Karen poured tea and Chas handed round the cups.
Giles took a large bite of sandwich. His face puckered as he chewed, and he swallowed with an awkward grimace, as if he’d found a bit of gristle.He took a more cautious second bite, and then violently spat out his mouthful. “What on earth was that?” he spluttered, pulling the top slice of bread off the remains of his sandwich. “What the f - “ Catching Emma’s eyes on him, he swallowed the word just in time.
All eyes were on the now open sandwich. Arranged on the bread was a selection of dark brown lumps, interspersed with a rubbery line of small bones.
“It looks like you got the giblets,” observed Pam. “However did that happen?”
“Honestly, Kay,” snapped Giles. “I get that you’re not much of a cook but I thought even you could manage a sandwich!” He pushed the plate away angrily, sending the remains flying onto the floor. Before anyone could inspect the evidence, Sam wolfed the lot down with some very audible crunching of bones.
“Well, he enjoyed it anyway,” Chas remarked.
Giles, looking round at the sea of surprised or mildly amused faces, saw one that was positively grinning - the youngest of Karen’s steps - that bloody malevolent toad - Phoebe.
Pam, catching sight of Karen’s embarrassed face, said hastily, “I expect it was a simple mistake. Shall I make you another one?”
“No,” said Giles, making an effort to sound agreeable. “ I’ve gone off sandwiches. I think I’ll go and make myself an omelette. Anyone else want one?”
It seemed no-one did. By the time he’d made it and returned, the others were all on cake and exclaiming over how good it was, how pretty it looked and how rich and moist it tasted. None of which was stopping Karen from feeling both mortified, and utterly furious with Fob.

 

Peter had set up the chess set, with the chocolate liqueurs as pawns, and was playing a rather foolish version of the game with him and Wendy against Nicola and Philip. The taken pawns ended up in a clearing station operated by Fob; from which most of them were never seen again. Edwin, noticing, suggested quietly to Karen that perhaps it was time they took their leave.
The game ended with Nicola and Philip triumphant, and the Dodd parents stood up and made leaving noises. Everybody said goodbye and goodnight in apparent good cheer.
But once the Trennels door had closed behind them Karen could hold it in no longer and exploded at Fob.
“How could you? What were you thinking of? Of all the foolish, childish, senseless things to do! What was going through your head….?” She ranted on, shrill and upset, and then it occurred to her that she was the only one shouting. Edwin hadn’t said anything yet - not that she’d given him much chance.
Fob stomped on, sullen and silent.
“Haven’t you got anything to say for yourself?” she asked in exasperation.
Emma bit her lip in indecision. She and Fob weren’t always the best of friends; but this wasn’t being fair.
She piped up, “It wasn’t meant to make you look bad. And it was me who gave it to him.”
Karen rounded on her. “You didn’t know what it was!”
“Yes, I did.”
“She didn’t have anything to do with it,” Fob growled.
“Yes, I did. I saw what you’d put in it and I still gave it to him.”
Why?” asked Karen, bewildered now. Edwin still hadn’t said anything.
“Giles was rude!” explained Emma.
“To you? Nonsense!”
“He was rude about Daddy!”
“Was he?” Karen looked from Fob, dark and taciturn, to Emma - earnest and indignant. Neither of them ever remotely dishonest.
“What - what did he say?” she asked with a sinking heart.
“That you shouldn’t have gone to Oxford and got Daddy because he was a disaster!” Emma looked anxiously at her father. “It’s not true, is it!”
He gave her his thin smile. “Don’t worry, Emma. I’ve heard worse things in my time.” He let her small hand slide into his.
Karen breathed again.
“Fob,” said Edwin, gravely. “That wasn’t the way to deal with it. You need to apologise to Katy.” Fob looked sulky, kicking at the gravel under her feet. “But all the same - you can take it that I appreciate the intention - if not the action.”
If Fob was surprised that she wasn’t being punished, she didn’t show it. “Sorry, Methren,” she said, gruffly. She walked on ahead, but both Chas and Rose hurried to catch up with her.
“Is that really why you did it?” asked Chas.
“Why not?” asked Fob.
“Well, it’s not like we haven’t heard you be rude about Dad often enough. You’ve said worse things than that yourself.”
“That’s different! It’s our family. We can say those things. He can’t!”
They couldn’t argue with that. The three of them linked arms and walked the short distance home in unusually sentimental good humour.
They would drift apart in the years to come. But this Christmas had been a good one, and Fob making Giles Marlow a giblet sandwich was a story that would be retold at many a reunion, the expression on his face getting more horrified and more comic with every retelling.

 

 

Karen put the kettle on. She’d put Emma to bed, the others could see if there was anything on the TV, then maybe a bath if the boiler was co-operating …
“Methren, there’s still a present here you haven’t opened,” called Emma. Leaning against the base of their own small tree was a flat, rectangular package. It hadn’t been there in the morning.
The younger ones were looking at her with curiosity. Presents didn’t usually appear at the end of the day, just when Christmas seemed to be over and done with. But Rose had a complacent, conspiratorial look, thought Karen, looking at her and Edwin.
“Open it then!”
She peeled away the wrapping to reveal a thin, A4 sized booklet. She didn’t immediately register what it was. Words in small, bold print, some sort of code, a logo in which she recognised an O and a U. ‘An introduction to the humanities’ she read.
“I’ve enrolled you in the first module,” said Edwin. “All the books will arrive in February. It takes six years, but you’ll have a proper degree in the end.”
All she could say was “Oh!” And then collecting herself, “Oh, thank you!”
“Do you like it?” asked Rose, doubtfully, because the Methren almost looked as if she was about to cry.
Yes. Yes, of course I do! I - I’m just so touched that you thought of this!”
“Well, desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Edwin, drily.
Karen looked at him. He continued, with the raised eyebrow that Karen recognised as a sign that he was joking, “It’s been getting drastic, you see - something had to be done - we just had to think of something to prevent you from doing any more knitting.”