Twelve Days Of Christmas Part 17

'He was much older than she was, wasn't he?'

'Yes, she told me once he was the father of her childhood sweetheart, who was killed in the war, and it seemed natural that they should marry and console each other. I barely remember him, though everyone says he was the nicest, kindest of men.'

'Perhaps you should just carry on reading the journal and not try to join up the dots yet,' Laura suggested.

'I suppose you're right and besides, I'm way too busy to worry about it, really. But I might just try and discover when Ned's accident was and then check that against the dates Gran got married and my mother was born I've brought the whole trunk of her papers with me. If it doesn't all match up, then I'll know for sure.'

'That's true,' she said. 'And there's no point in worrying over it, when it's all in the past. I mean, it's not like you're going to claim a stake in the family fortune or anything, is it?'

I laughed. 'I don't think there is one! The house is pretty shabby and Jude Martland didn't hire any live-in staff when the last ones left, plus he seems obsessed with how much money I'm costing him or he thinks I'm costing him. I really should charge him for all the extra work I'll be doing, because things are escalating!'

'So what's happening? I thought you were just having the family from the lodge up for Christmas dinner?'

'I was, only they've moved in already and so has Becca, Noel's sister, so I'm hosting a Christmas family house-party at Old Place. I'm cook, groom, maid and cleaner though to be fair, Becca seems to have taken over looking after the horses.'

And I told her all about Tilda's accident and how inviting them to move into Old Place immediately was the only possible solution, and then Becca turning up on Nutkin and the discovery that there would also be two more guests for Christmas dinner the retired vicar and the family's old nanny.

'If Jude Martland doesn't like any of this, it's tough, and he'll have to sort it out with his relatives when he gets back, because I could hardly stop them, could I? And we couldn't consult him first, because of the lines being down.'

'You could call him on your mobile, or from the village?' she suggested.

'I just tried and it said his number was unavailable. It's a relief not having him calling me every day and hara.s.sing me, really, because none of my clients have ever done that before!'

'It'll be okay, Holly I mean, what else could you do? It was really taken out of your hands,' she said, laughing.

'You're right, I couldn't do anything else, even though it means a lot more work and being part of a big family Christmas celebration.'

'You might even find yourself enjoying it,' she suggested.

'At least there's enough food and drink in the house for a twelve-month siege, and Noel has the keys to the cellar, so that's his responsibility.'

'So, even if you are totally snowed in, you can manage?'

'Oh yes, and I've just bought up the village shop, too! There were a few things I was running out of and I suddenly wondered if I needed some presents.'

When I explained about the sweets and then Oriel Comfort's suggestion of a Christmas stocking for Jess, Laura thought that was funny too.

'If Jess isn't too old for one, surely her granny or mum will have it in hand?' I said.

'Perhaps, but you can never have too many things in your stocking.'

'I bought a huge jigsaw puzzle of a Christmas scene too, because I thought it would keep everyone occupied if the weather was bad. Oriel says if I take it back afterwards with all the pieces, she'll give me back half the price.'

'She sounds a hoot.'

'She is and I think she's also my love rival. George, the farmer who gave me a lift down today, is an admirer.'

'Oh? What's he like?' she asked, interested. 'Hunky?'

'He's well-built, with white-blond hair, bright blue eyes and a very attractive smile.'

'Sounds lovely!'

'But on the downside, well the wrong side of forty and a widower with an adult son. He said I was a strapping la.s.s and he liked my mince pies, which may const.i.tute an offer of marriage round here, for all I know. Only I think, from something he said, that Oriel was favourite before my mince pies stole his heart.'

'Are you going to fight her for him?'

'No, I think I'll probably retire gracefully from the field . . . though he is nice. I've bought you one of Oriel's pamphlets of inspirational verse for your birthday present, with matching shopping bag.'

'I can't wait! Ring me on Christmas Day if you get a chance, but I know it'll be difficult to get away so I won't worry if you go quiet for a couple of days at some point.'

'I'll do my best. And could you ring Ellen and just update her with the situation for me?' I asked, to cover my back in case the objectionable Jude was miffed at my arrangements. 'And tell her not to bill Jude extra for the cooking and cleaning, because she's sent the list of charges to him and he thinks she is.'

She promised to do that and then she had to go. My bottom had practically frozen to the bench while talking, but I left my bags there while I had a quick look into the unlocked church, which was chilly, but quiet and lovely, with an old stained-gla.s.s window at one end showing Noah's ark and all the little animals going in two by two, including a pair that looked like giant slugs. I think Noah should have given those a miss, together with spiders and a few other unlovely things.

Collecting my shopping I trudged through the snow to the Auld Christmas, where I ate delicious crumbly Lancashire cheese, bread and pickles in a snug empty of anyone except old Nicholas Dagger, who was in the same hooded chair by the fire.

I chatted with Nancy a bit and then, perhaps awoken by our voices, Nicholas poked his head around the side of the chair like a strange species of tortoise.

'I'm Auld Man Christmas,' he piped. 'My father was Auld Man Christmas and his father before him, and-'

'Yes, we know, Father,' Nancy said soothingly, adding to me in whispered explanation, 'he gets excited at this time of year.'

'That's all right, Noel Martland told me a little bit about the Revels and then George Froggat did too, on the way down when he kindly gave me a lift.'

'They told you, did they, then?' She looked at me thoughtfully.

'Only a bit I know it's a fairly private ceremony, just for the village. Do you play a part in it, too?'

'Oh no, I only watch. Women have never taken part in it.'

'Isn't that a bit s.e.xist?'

She looked doubtful. 'No, because we don't want to be in it. There's a man dressed up half as a woman, though. I like the Rapping best.'

'You know, George said he joined in the Rapping, but I thought I'd misheard him it seemed a bit unlikely. They don't breakdance too, do they?'

She giggled. 'No, the Rapping's just dancing with swords.'

'What, on the ground, like Scottish dancing? Rapiers?'

'Rapper dancing is different to that they weave their swords together to make a sort of knot pattern. Then after the Dragon kills St George, it puts its head in the middle of the knot and they chop it off.'

'It kills St George?'

'Yes, but it's only pretend and the Doctor makes him better. Old vicar says it's all deeply symbolic rebirth and suchlike. It's in his little pamphlet.'

'Noel said he would look for that in the library later, I must read it. So is that the end of the Revels, after the Dragon's head is chopped off?'

'Pretty much. St George gets up and they all dance again and that's it. We open up the pub afterwards, but everyone's usually still full of wa.s.sail.'

'Sounds fun.'

'Mrs Jackson, that used to be the cook-housekeeper at Old Place, she used to bring the Revel Cakes, but of course they retired after Jude's father died.'

'Oh? What were they like?'

'Spicy little buns with candied peel on top and lots of saffron to make them yellow. Sort of coiled round like a c.u.mberland sausage.'

'They sound interesting I'll look for the recipe. It may be up there somewhere, she left a lot of recipe books. If I find it, and I've got the ingredients, I'll make some before I go and Jude can bring them down with him on the day.'

'Or you could stay for the Revels and bring them yourself?'

'I think Jude is expecting me to have gone by the time he gets back. I'll probably be exhausted by then anyway and ready for a rest! I'm used to cooking for very large house-parties, it's my summer job, but then the food preparation and cooking are all I do. Now I'm cleaning and doing all the rest of it, too.'

'It's a hard time for women anyway, Christmas: nothing but cooking and washing up, cooking and washing up . . .' She sighed heavily.

'Yes, and you're working in here as well.'

'Well, that's the way of it,' she said with resignation and then she was called into the public bar on the other side, which was getting busier, and I was left to the roaring fire, the snoring Auld Nicholas and the rest of my bread and cheese.

I sat there quietly reading the next few entries in Gran's journal, though without making any further major discoveries other than her desire to get their romance on to an official footing.

As I was about to leave, I remembered that I wanted to buy a half-bottle of brandy for the flaming Christmas pudding, because the stuff Noel had brought up from the cellar looked much too good to use for the purpose. Nancy was just giving me my change when the outer door slammed heavily and a thin, tall blonde staggered into the snug, dragging behind her an enormous glittery pink suitcase on wheels with a vanity case strapped to the top of it.

'It must be one of them SatNavvers,' Nancy whispered. 'Barking mad if she tried to get a car up the lane in this weather!'

Chapter 18.

Ice Maiden

Today I accused N of putting off telling his parents about us, because he feared they would not be pleased and think me not good enough, being the daughter of mill workers. He said neither would mine approve of him, since he was not a Strange Baptist or, indeed, any other kind of Baptist.

March, 1945 'h.e.l.lo?' she said, looking from one to the other of us while pushing back a large, white fur hat that had slipped drunkenly over a face that was still extremely pretty, despite being pink and shiny with cold, exertion and temper. 'Thank G.o.d there's some sign of life in this hole. I was starting to think everyone had been wiped out by the plague, or something!'

'Did you turn off the main road to get to Great Mumming?' I asked her. 'Only those SatNav things send you the wrong way.'

'No, I intended coming here, but my car slid on the ice on the first bend and now it's in the ditch. I need someone to drive me to Old Place.'

Nancy had been eyeing her narrowly. 'Aren't you that model that was engaged to Jude and came here last Christmas, the one that took up with his brother, instead? Arrived with one, and left with the other?'

'I suppose you could put it like that. I'm Coco Lanyon. I expect you know me from the Morning Dawn Facial Elixir TV advert.'

'No,' Nancy said simply: I don't suppose she gets a lot of time to watch the telly.

As well as the fur hat, Coco was wearing shocking pink Ugg boots and a long, white quilted coat. Her hair was platinum-pale too, but her face was still almost as pink as her boots.

Her voice, a trifle on the shrill side, must have penetrated Nicholas's ears, because his wizened face suddenly appeared around the side of the chair again and he chipped in, in his own high but sweet, elven tones, 'I'm Auld Man Christmas, you know!'

'We know, Dad,' Nancy said. 'You just sit back and let me see to the customer.'

'I'm not a customer,' Coco snapped. 'I'm merely in search of transport.'

'But why are you going to Old Place?' I asked and she swivelled her ice-blue eyes in my direction and looked down her retrousse nose at me . . . or tried to, because I was inches taller.

'And you would be?'

'Holly Brown. I'm looking after Old Place while Jude Martland's away.'

'Oh, right . . . did your husband drive you down? Because if so, you can take me back up with you right now.'

'You're mixing me up with the couple who usually come I haven't got a husband and I didn't bring my car today, because it would never have got up the hill. In any case, why do you want to go there?'

'You mean Guy hasn't arrived yet?' she demanded, staring at me.

'He hadn't when I left a couple of hours ago and we certainly weren't expecting him or you. Why did you think he might be here?'

'Because this is where he said he was going, of course!'

'But . . . surely he wouldn't have come here when he's fallen out with his brother?' I asked, puzzled.

'Oh, but he rang old Noel early last week, so he knew Jude would be in the States right over Christmas and it would be safe to hole up here. But I'm not letting Guy get away with this he can't throw me over just because I sent the announcement of our engagement to The Times and set a date for the wedding! We're going to Mummy and Daddy's for Christmas, too, and they've invited all the family to an engagement party on Boxing Day.'

'You didn't tell Guy any of this beforehand?' asked Nancy, clearly fascinated.

'He's a commitment-phobe, he'd have carried on dithering forever,' Coco said shortly. 'He may have dashed up here in a panic, but he'd better have got over it by now, because he's coming straight back to London with me.'

I wouldn't put it past her, either, because even cross and pink-faced she was stunningly beautiful . . . if you liked chilly blondes with ice-chip pale blue eyes, that is, and presumably, both Guy and Jude did.

Still, I certainly didn't want another unexpected visitor, so she could remove him with my blessing. 'I suppose you'd better come back to the house with me, I don't really see what else you can do. Perhaps he's arrived by now he probably stopped off for lunch on the way, or something.'

I turned to Nancy. 'Would it be all right if we left the luggage here for a bit? I've got all my shopping and I don't suppose Coco can carry much more than the beauty box up with her. That case is enormous!'

'What, this little thing?' Coco said, astonished. 'It's only an overnight bag, in case we decided to go back early tomorrow instead of today. And I'm definitely not carrying anything anywhere, because I'm still exhausted from the walk from the car. You can go up to the house and tell Guy to come and fetch me. I'll wait here and-'

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