Frank Dawson: Sign of Iron, Song of Earth

 

My hands are coarse with calluses from the plough. My fingernails are thick with the dirt of fields I have tilled for four hundred years. My blood has been shed a thousand times into the dark soil. In the eyes of all who know me, I have been born and died a dozen times in this stone-flagged farmhouse.

 

When you have lived so long with the earth, it is hard to raise your eyes to the sky.

 

I am still an Old One, of course, and will never be anything other than an Old One. But for four hundred years, I have lived as a mortal man with my own place in the world. My medium has been earth, not Light. In these latter days, I have loved, and taken a mortal wife. I have fathered children who will live on after I have gone. After all the other Old Ones have left without a trace, my blood will endure.

 

Perhaps that is why I have felt impatience as the years have passed in Huntercombe. Four hundred and twenty-seven years ago, it was, when they first sent me here to start my vigil. Sometimes the years have chafed. An Old One is supposed to move through Time like a fish through water, but I measure Time in harvests, and the slow toil of over four hundred winters. Even the greatest of Old Ones cannot avoid the bite of the cold.

 

But I am not one of the great ones. I have walked this land for over a thousand years, but I am not one of the oldest, nor the most wise. I was born in the dark times after the last great Rising, so it was not for me to participate in the struggles that were the making of our Circle. Until they came for me, I lived a quiet life, more fond of the land than of the Light that had wrought me.

 

Perhaps that was why they chose me. They came to me, Lord Merriman and the Lady, and told me that I was to build a farm on the edge of a tiny village called Huntercombe, not far from the great park at Windsor. An Old One should accept the will of the Light without question, but even then I thought too much like a mortal man. "Why?" I asked them, and Lord Merriman smiled a strangely tender smile, and said that I was to wait for a boy to be born, to befriend him and guide him, and be ready to protect him in his time of need.

 

"What boy?" I asked, for by then I was committed to the path of questioning, and I had seen a light of encouragement in Lord Merriman's eyes. I did not know him well then, although I have come to know him over the years. He, too, is drawn to this place.

 

"The last-born of the Old Ones," the Lady said, but Lord Merriman was smiling with something that seemed close to pity. "The Sign-seeker," he told me, "whose coming will herald the final rising of the Dark, and the end of all things, one way or another."

 

They did not tell me how long I would have to wait, but I was enough of an Old One to know that the waiting would be long. The Dark, too, would be seeking to befriend the Sign-seeker before he came into his powers. I had to live here long enough that my presence was unquestioned. I had to become part of the landscape. I had to gain the trust of the Sign-seeker's parents, and of their parents before them, so they would trust me with their boy. I had to watch for agents of the Dark, and be on my guard, and to wait.

 

And to wait.

 

I have farmed these fields for over four hundred years. I was Francis Dawson at first, and then I was merely Frank, and this is the only name that I now remember, although I have possessed others in my time. The villagers think that I am the latest of a long line of Frank Dawsons, father and son through the ages. It is a simple thing to alter their memories so that they believe this.

 

It is a simple thing to lie to friends.

 

I was alone in my vigil for many years, except for the phantom wives and children I created in the memories of those around me. Sometimes they almost seemed real to me, when the nights were very dark, and sometimes I spoke by the hearth to companions who were not there. As the time came closer, though, others appeared, slipping into the life of my farm as if they had always been there.

 

George is one of the oldest, and wiser than I will ever be. His part in this struggle is deeper than mine, and one which has not yet been revealed to me. John Smith is here in this century so he can be here five centuries past, to guide the Sign-seeker when he first comes into his power. Martha is here because quiet strength is needed, and because a time will come in Huntercombe when we need numbers as well as power. And then there is Miss Greythorne, but my place in this century does not overlap with hers, and her role in this battle is something else entirely.

 

My time is spent with mortals, too. As the centuries passed, and the years were hastening towards the end, I allowed himself to love, and took a mortal wife. Although my true nature is hidden from her, I do not regret my choice. I have lived more fully as a married man than I ever lived as an Old One of the Light, alone for these many centuries. I have always known the beauty of the Light; now I know the beauty of a child's first smile, meant only for me. For my dear ones, I have let myself age at the normal rate for men. The end will come before they start asking questions. I will be gone from this world before I have to face the death of those that I love. I will leave them with false memories of my peaceful death, long years ago, and the healing that comes after all but the most deepest of griefs.

 

I wish I could stay with them forever. After centuries of wishing the years to hasten off, now I wish I could slow down Time to a crawl, and let these next few months endure a lifetime. I wish I could give up my immortality, and die alongside them.

 

But those are the thoughts of a foolish old man. The Light is part of me, too, and I would never be without it. There is pleasure in it, too, for it has led to friendships, and it has brought me love of another kind. "Win the trust of his parents," Lord Merriman told me. "See that he is protected from birth with the sign of the Light. Watch over him and subtly prepare him for the time when he will awaken. Become someone he will trust and listen to, for you will be his first teacher in the Light, long before I can see him face to face."

 

This I have done. I became like a benevolent uncle to Alice throughout her childhood and young adulthood, and I was one of the first people she told about her engagement. When the children came, I carved birth signs for each one. They were meaningless gifts, of course, though not without power in the wrong hands, but they served to pave the way for the only gift that really mattered – the sign of Light that I would carve for her last-born son.

 

Will Stanton was born on the evening of Midwinter's Day, after a long and difficult labour that started at the very darkest point of the night. All Old Ones resist being born, I am told, because the Light rebels at being encased in mortal clay. We sat in vigil, we Old Ones of Huntercombe, as the Dark mustered outside for the darkest day. We knew the moment that young Will was born, and we lit a candle, consumed with fervent hope. The Dark howled, but not in despair. The coming of the Sign-seeker could lead to our greatest victory, or to defeat beyond all hope of recovery. The world is balanced on a knife-edge, because Will Stanton has been born.

 

I did not see his first smile, but I saw his first steps. I did not hear his first words, but by his second birthday, he could say "farmer," and said it joyously whenever he saw me. I remember his first day at school, so earnest and so proud to be following James to "big school", and so tired and so brave at the end of the day.

 

I became his protector, in ways that he will never know. The Dark knew who he was, and there were several attempts on his life. Before his eleventh birthday, he is just a normal boy, and any common accident can kill him, and end our hopes. I remember coaxing him into the farmhouse with promises of apples, while George drove off a pair of wolves, minions of the Dark. His family protected him in other ways. The youngest of such a large family is never entirely alone, and Stephen unwittingly saved Will's life once, and even James once kept him safe by blundering into a situation he will never understand.

 

An Old One must do what is necessary, without guilt and without doubt. I did what the masters told me to do, but sometimes my conscience smites me. The Stantons thought I was a genuine friend, but I only befriended them because I had been told to. I gave gifts to all the children, but only because of their brother. Everything I have ever said and done to that family culminates today. This was the reason why I let Alice whisper her confidences into my ear so many years ago. This is why I held her as she wept over Tom.

 

I have loved them, though. That much is real. Whatever the great ones intended for me, this old heart has loved.

 

The Sign is ready. Today is the eve of Will Stanton's eleventh birthday, and tomorrow the world will be changed.

 

Merriman himself brought the Sign to me this midsummer past, having retrieved it from the place where it has been guarded for all the ages of the world. "It is your task to give him the first Sign," he told me, "and to set him on his path." I have worn the Sign on my belt ever since, and the other Old Ones have drawn closer to me, as if in honour guard.

 

It is a magic too strong for me. After six months with the Sign, I feel drained. As I walk past the Manor, I am aware of the Sign of Wood, calling to me. The Sign of Stone is nearby, though it has not revealed itself. The Thames sings longingly of the Sign of Water, and the Walker is drawn to the farm like a moth to flame, the Sign of Bronze burning like acid in his pocket. Only Fire is entirely hidden, hidden somewhere beyond Time.

 

I was not meant to know this much. I watch the rooks mustering in the trees, and know that my short time as a Sign-bearer will soon be over. I watch the gleaming eyes of Maggie Barnes, and know that Will is close. I watch George look at the sky, and shiver. I look into the blue eyes of Martha, and I realise that I know nothing at all.

 

We hear the trundling of the cart before we can see it. "Young Will Stanton, coming with the wrong brother," Maggie Barnes says slyly. She appears to think we are ignorant of her true nature, but the Dark always did underestimate the Light. We prefer to keep her close, where we can watch her, than let her free to do her mischief.

 

Two boys enter the yard, one aged twelve, and one a day short of eleven. I have known them for all their lives, but one of them I have never known at all.

 

The Sign leaps joyously on my belt, and for a moment blazes fiercely hot.

 

I step forward to greet them, and the last great Rising of the Dark begins.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

James Stanton: Ice Man

 

"Today," James wrote, "is my brother Will's birthday. He is ten." He wrote it emphatically. "Everyone says he's eleven but Mum says he wasn't born until 8 o'clock at night even though he started coming at midnight so that means he's still ten for eight and a half more hours and I'm more than twelve and a half so I'm two years older than him, nearly three."

 

He turned over to a new page, and blotted his leaky cartridge-pen on a stained fragment of blotting paper. The snow was calling to him, shouting of all the games he could be playing. He had to get revenge on Will for the snowball down the back of the neck, and there were plans to build the biggest snowman in the whole of England. With Max on their team, they would build the best, too, even though Stephen wasn't there to help with the rolling.

 

"Will woke us all up this morning," James wrote. "He was shouting like a little boy because it's his birthday and because it's snowing." He hesitated over the next words, but honesty compelled him to add, "I think I might have shouted too if I'd got up first and seen the snow. But Will screamed in the night too. He's such a baby. He had a nightmare or something. Everyone rushed to look after him, of course. Paul got there first but I met Max and Gwen and Mum on the landing. It took me ages to warm up after I got back to bed. That was Will's fault, because he's a baby.

 

"And he's spoiled too. He's making us all eat liver and bacon for dinner which isn't fair because I don't like liver. Yesterday he was going on about the rabbits not liking him any more, and he looked really upset as if everyone in the world is supposed to like him because he's the cute little baby. Then he went on about birds attacking which is stupid because I was there and I didn't see any birds attack, and birds don't attack anyway, and he was making it up like a baby and just wanted attention."

 

He stopped, and read back what he had written. He stared at the paper, then out of the window. With a sigh, he tore the page out of his exercise book. It wasn't true, really, though it felt true when he was stuck inside, and Will was outside playing in the snow, and it was Will's birthday, not his, and everything revolved around him. In a big family, everyone had their time in the limelight, and it seemed like ages before it was James' turn again.

 

James turned the pages of his rough book, and checked his notes again. "What I did in my holidays," he read. He would have had to scrap his writing, anyway, unless he wanted to get told off again. "Write about a family member," had been his homework in the summer, but instead he had written about bike rides along the Thames. "You have more than your fair share of family members," Mr Thomas had sneered, "unlike poor Knight there, who is stuck with only one. Yet Knight manages to give me an interesting pen-portrait of his mother, while you, Stanton, give me an offering of a completely different homework assignment entirely."

 

Someone knocked on his bedroom door. "Come in," James called, hoping it was his mother come to release him, but it was Will, his cheeks flushed from outside.

 

"What are you doing in here?" Will asked.

 

"I wanted a break from you lot," James told him airily. He could not sustain the lie for more than a second. "I came in for a drink, and Mum saw how wet my clothes were. She says I have to stay in for an hour until I warm up. I thought I might as well get my homework out of the way." It was a family tradition that homework was done as early in the holidays as possible, so that Christmas could be enjoyed without shadow. "Stay here if you want, if you want somewhere to do your homework," he said graciously, "and don't want to be all alone up in that attic."

 

"I did mine yesterday," Will said placidly.

 

He made for his old bed, anyway, but James lunged for a cushion and hurled it at Will's head just in time. "You're soaking wet and covered with snow! Don't you dare sit on my chaise longue like that. I'll tell Mum, and then she'll keep you inside, too."

 

Will deflected a second cushion. "What do you have write about?"

 

"What I did in my holidays," James said. Will grimaced. "Quite," James agreed. "Just like we had to do when we were five." He threw his rough book at Will, who caught it one-handed. "I don't know why I keep on letting you read this. You'll have to do all his next year, but you'll have had a sneak preview. That's why you keep on doing better than me at school. I'm like those people who go first in an army and take all the bullets so the other people can come up afterwards and capture the enemy's flag and get all the medals."

 

"It is one of the better kind of hand-me-downs," Will said with a smile, still leafing through the rough book.

 

"What I did in my holidays," James repeated derisively. "I'm just going to do the same thing I do every year."

 

"But you like it like that," Will said. "You like complaining about it, but you wouldn't have it any different."

 

James threw another cushion. "Stop looking at me like that. Stop speaking like that. You're weird."

 

"And you're wrong," Will said with a smile, holding out the rough book. "You should have read the rest of it. Though how you can write down what your teacher says, and not remember a word of it three days later, I don't know."

 

James snatched the book back. "What I did in my holidays," he read out loud, "but not the usual things about presents and families and games. Write about a real event, then use it as the jumping-off point for an imaginary adventure." He threw the book down in disgust. "That's even more stupid. Imaginary adventure? We're not babies."

 

"I think it's interesting," Will said. He was now surrounded by discarded cushions. "What if you suddenly found out that one of your brothers was really a…"

 

Another cushion joined the scattered pile. "If I have to write a stupid adventure, then I'm going to be the hero, not one of you." He picked up his pen, and turned to a blank page. "What I did in my holidays," he wrote, and underlined it. A minute later, he underlined it again. Then he added the date. A minute later, he wrote, "By James Stanton."

 

"No ideas?" Will's voice said, infuriatingly calm.

 

There were no more cushions that James could easily reach.

 

"It doesn't have to be an event that's already happened," Will said. "You're writing this at the start of the holidays, but your teacher won't read it until the end. We always do the same things every Christmas. You could take something that hasn't happened yet, and use that as your jumping-off point."

 

"Like what?" James asked.

 

"Like carol-singing," Will said. "We're singing for… for Mr Hutton, and suddenly we hear a noise. We creep the window, and see that he's got James Bond tied up inside his living room. Little did we know, but behind that jolly exterior, Mr Hutton is really a criminal mastermind who wants to take over the world."

 

"And I can save James Bond and save the world," James cried. He lowered his voice, and put on a menacing glower. "The name is Stanton. James Stanton. Licence to kill."

 

Will smiled. "Or you could…"

 

"No!" James had the idea now, coming miraculously fully-formed into his head. Not James Bond after all, but something even better.

 

"I'll leave you alone, then." Will moved towards the door.

 

James looked at him. Will looked cold, with reddened cheeks, and melted snow clinging to his collar. Perhaps he was lonely, with his friends away on his birthday, and his nearest brother banished to his room to do homework. "You can stay, if you like," James said graciously. "You even sit on my chaise longue, if you take your coat off first, and help yourself to my books, but not the ones on the top because I haven't read those myself yet and I want to be first."

 

Will settled down, gathering the scattered cushions around him, and picked up a book. James searched for that warm glow that his R.E. teacher was forever telling him he should feel after doing a good deed, and thought he could feel it, though perhaps it was just because he was sitting near the radiator on a cold day.

 

"Today," he wrote, "is my little brother's birthday. Everyone thinks it's Will's special day, but none of them know that it's my special day too. I won't tell them because I'm a good brother and it would be selfish to try to steal Will's lightning." He thought that was the phrase. He almost asked Will, but Will seemed immersed in his book, and it did not do for an older brother to ask a child for help with homework.

 

"What happened was this," he continued. "Last night I woke up in the middle of the night to hear Will screaming. I got up and ran to his room to see what was the matter. I put on the light and saw him sitting curled up in the bed as if he was terrified. 'What's the matter?' I asked him. He couldn't answer because he was so scared but he pointed with a trembling finger.

 

"It was a spider. A huge spider, all black and hairy with lots of eyes and long legs and hair. Will was terrified but was I afraid? No! I pointed at it with one finger. 'Go away!' I said. 'Leave my little brother alone!'

 

"The spider froze! It turned into a solid lump of ice! It was blue and frozen and dead! And it wasn't just the spider that froze. Silver zigzags of ice came out of my fingers and they went outside through the window and turned the whole village white.

 

"And that was how I found out that I am a super-hero.

 

"No-one knows the truth. Everyone thinks the snow fell from the sky like normal snow, they don't know it came from my fingers with my super powers. Will thinks it's his own special birthday present. They're playing in it and I feel happy and important because I know it's all because of me.

 

"But a superhero never rests. I wonder what challenges the rest of the holidays will bring me. Does Miss Bell need to be rescued from a giant? Will Mrs Pettigrew's dog turn into a mutant monster dog and go on a rampage through the village with no-one standing between everyone and doom but me? At the moment I don't know. I will pretend to be normal and play in the snow, but all along I now know that I have been chosen for a special purpose and that one day the world will need me to save it from a terrible doom."

 

He laid down his pen. Will was looking at him, the book still open at page one. "Finished?"

 

Words came easier with someone else in the room. "Finished." James looked at his watch. It was not quite an hour, but surely it was close enough to satisfy their mother. She was normally far too busy to remember the various decrees she had issued to each of her offspring. "Fancy another snowball fight? It's payback time. Prepare to fall at the hands of me, the Snow Man." It did not sound right. "The Ice Man. Mr Ice."

 

"You can't beat me," Will declared, stating it quietly, like a fact. "It's my birthday."

 

He darted away, and James chased him. "Oh yes I can."

 

They thundered downstairs and tumbled through the front door, where James scooped up a double handful of snow and hurled it at Will. The door was still open, and the wind took the loose snow and deposited most of it on the hall carpet.

 

James and Will looked at each other. "I think we should play down the lane," Will whispered, shutting the door silently behind them.

 

"Just what I was going to say," James said, as he chased his brother through the snow, shouting loud enough to send the rooks scattering with furious cries.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Miss Bell: Jolly Wassailers

 

Christmas has never lost its wonder. On Christmas Eve, I am a child again, tingling with the anticipation of something marvellous.

 

My brother used to laugh at me, God rest his soul. You know how boys can be. Not that he was a boy at the time, but a grown man, bluff with self-importance and proud in his military coat. He visited me one Christmas, and made no attempt to hide how backwards and provincial he thought we all were. "Tuneless children singing carols," he said, "and a shabby vicar in a crumbling church, preaching second-hand sermons."

 

It is not good to speak ill of the dead, so I will refrain from saying any more about that.

 

Christmas morning unveils the true mystery of Christmas, as hymns are sung in a vault of stone that has seen worship for over a thousand years. We are a family, not a village, and we come together not merely in worship, but in fellowship. The snow is thick this year, and I am not as sprightly as I used to be, but I would not miss the Christmas service for all the perfumes of Arabia, to misquote the unfortunate Lady Macbeth.

 

But Christmas Eve… Ah, Christmas Eve… That is when the children come. "Tuneless children," my brother called him, but I recollect that he used to pull the legs off spiders when he was a boy, and people who do such things invariably have no heart. I would rather hear a dozen tuneless six year olds falter through a song meant just for me, than hear the best choir in the world sing distantly on the wireless.

 

For they are all my children, you see. For forty-five years, I taught at the village school in Huntercombe. I would be teaching there still, but the authorities in their infinite wisdom suddenly decided that I should have retired years ago. They closed the school after they had got rid of me, claiming that it was too small to be viable. Now the little ones are sent off by bus to larger schools in Eton and Windsor, and it breaks my heart to see them waiting at the bus stop, so tiny and so overwhelmed. The bigger ones need to spread their wings, of course, but the little ones need safety and security and a teacher who loves each and every one of them.

 

I have no children of my own. I never married, but I have loved. I was sixteen years old when my sweetheart died in the Spanish flu. I am not one of those foolish girls who have read too many romantic novels, and swear to never love again. I mourned him for a while, and got on with my life, but young men were thin on the ground after the Great War, and there were far too many young women. I hoped to marry, but it was not to be. I hoped to have children, but we do not always get what we want in this world, and neither should we.

 

My brother had an opinion on it all, of course. Men do not like educated women, he used to tell me whenever he saw me. Women are supposed to sit at home sewing and fluttering like butterflies, with nothing in their heads more substantial than thistledown. According to him, I threw away my chance to find a husband when I decided to train as a teacher.

 

Perhaps he was right. Had I not become a teacher, would I have married? Perhaps I would have. Would I have been happier? Would I have been happier…?

 

It is easier for these modern girls. Modern girls can go to university, and so many careers are open to them. They talk about feminism, and they demand the right to do anything that men do. The old men in the village disapprove, but I say good luck to them. I have seen many changes in my life. Not all of them are good, but some of them I cannot do anything other than approve of.

 

Sometimes I think I was born fifty years too early. Sometimes, when the nights are cold, and I am still alone, I weep.

 

Not today, though. Today is Christmas Eve, and, like the child that I was so many years ago, I am sitting by the window, gazing breathlessly out at the stars, waiting for the distant sound of music.

 

Some would call me a heretic for preferring Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. After all, the Eve is just the preparation; Christmas Day is when we celebrate the birth of Our Lord. Like the schoolmistress that I am, I could tell them that our ancestors believed that a new day started at sunset. Christmas Eve was Christmas Day. The miracle has already begun.

 

My coins are ready. "Nasty new-fangled decimal things", the other old girls call them, but I am not one of them. I hope I never get so old and set in my ways that I despise a thing just because it is new. As a teacher, I saw the world anew every single day, through the eyes of a child. This world was meant to change, not to stagnate. I am not supposed to think this at seventy. I am supposed to be a stick-in-the-mud, a… what do they call it now? A square? I will never like their modern music, and these modern hairstyles will always seem a little strange to me, but I am glad that they are happening. I am glad that the world is still alive, and that my children will bear the flame after I am gone.

 

They are late. Sitting here, waiting, I am distracting myself with memories, but the children are late. It is probably just the snow, though. Walking will be harder, and there will be more talk at the other houses. We are all so excited at the thought of snow on Christmas Day. We are English, and we talk about the weather even when there is no weather to talk about, so how much more must we talk about it when it lies six inches thick, like a child's most magical dream.

 

Ah, they come! I see the light of the lantern, as warm and welcome as home on a winter's day. Mindful of tradition, they will sing outside, like wassailers out in the snow, begging the maid to trip to the door and pull back the pin. There is no giggling as they prepare themselves, not like that cheeky pair of lads from across the Common, who sang one line of We Wish You A Merry Christmas and expected money. I made them stand on the doorstep until I had taught them two verses of Once in Royal. I gave them their pennies, though. One has to encourage all children, even rascals. Today's haughty businessmen and crusty old gentlemen doubtless scrumped apples in their day. I know my brother did.

 

Even these children, so solemn on my doorstep, have done mischief in their time. Stephen Stanton was once a devil for climbing other people's trees. I once found Max Stanton with young Anne Evans behind my rhododendron, although the poor dears were only ten and had no idea what boyfriends and girlfriends were supposed to do once they were alone in someone else's flower bed. Mary was always a vain one, and young James can be a terror, although he has a heart of gold, and is mortified if he thinks he has truly upset someone.

 

They are singing in Latin, bless their hearts. They cannot sing something as simple as O Come All Ye Faithful to their learned schoolmistress, oh no. Like five year olds proudly presenting me with an apple, they sing it in Latin, and then follow it up with some French. It is so delightfully touching and so beautifully childish. My eyes fill with tears. My voice will be husky when I answer the door, but I will make no attempt to hide it. It is not English to display too much emotion, but it is not human to hide it altogether, as I used to tell my children as they struggled so desperately to be brave.

 

The singing is finished. I move to the door, not as fast as I used to be, and open it to their beaming faces. "Beautiful," I tell them, truthfully. "Beautiful."

 

There is no Stephen today, of course, for he is away with the Royal Navy, and not a child any more. Max has apparently stayed at home writing a letter to his girlfriend, or so James gleefully told me, rolling his eyes, before Mary butted in to tell me that Gwen was washing her hair in case her sweetheart came round. How they grow up! I could tell Max's sweetheart a thing or two about Max, of course, but I never will. Sometimes I think that a teacher learns more secrets than even a mother, and all of them are cherished, and kept with trust.

 

Paul is here with his flute, of course. I still remember the day he first discovered music. He was painfully shy when he started school, in total contrast with Robin, who was always the first to put his hand up, undaunted by the fact that his answers were wrong as often as they were right. It took me days to coax more than two words out of Paul, but one day, when the older children were having a recorder lesson, he wandered up and picked up a spare recorder and started to play. It was far from perfect, of course, but after just an hour, he was better than any of the older children. His earnest little face had transformed, too, swept away with the joy of music. After just a few weeks, I had to get the county's peripatetic music teacher to come in to give him extra lessons. She started him on the flute after six months, and that, as Mrs Horniman would say, was that.

 

A teacher should not have favourites, of course, but I think Paul would be one of mine. I have a soft spot for all of the Stantons, though, and not just because they sing carols in foreign languages every Christmas Eve. Robin reminds me a bit of my brother, though without all the less desirable character traits that my brother exhibited. Mary is somewhat lazy and too concerned with her appearance, but she is fourteen, and fourteen is such a regrettable age. James is bright and lively, and never lies. Barbara is pretty, and was popular with the boys even when she was seven, but has a sharp intelligence hidden behind that pretty face. She once told me that she wanted to be a teacher just like me, but I expect that has fallen by the wayside now she is grown.

 

Young Will has the collecting box, and is holding it quietly at his side, as if he is ready to receive my coins, but reluctant to be seen to be asking. I put my money in, and he smiles at me. It strikes me suddenly that I have not seen him smile this way before. It is a genuine smile, with no inhibitions, but it seems somehow more complete than a child's smile, like a smile born from total knowledge. I smile back, and his smile turns into a grin, and he is a child again, the boy who started school six years ago, the last of his mother's enormous brood.

 

I taught Alice, too. She is a grown woman now, of course, with a horde of children, some of whom are already grown-up. She is older now than I was when I taught her, but, in my mind, she will forever be a child. I look at her sometimes in church and think, That is a middle-aged woman, and then my perception shifts, and I see a little girl whose dress is stained from playing on the grass. I wonder how she sees me. In my mind, of course, I am still a young woman, with my life ahead of me, and full of hope.

 

These children before me have yet to map out their lives. I wonder what paths they will choose to tread. Paul will follow his music, of course, and Max his art. The others have yet to make their choices, but they are good children, from a loving family, and I am sure they will succeed in whatever they choose. More importantly, I am sure they will be happy.

 

I look at them one by one, and each of them smiles, as if to say, Yes, I will. Only Will is solemn, no trace now of his earlier smile. I have never been prone to superstition, but it worries me. It is as if he is saying that, of all of them, he alone will not be happy. Ridiculous, of course. The carols made me emotional, like a silly little girl.

 

Will was always a mystery, though. He was quiet, but never shy. Everyone liked him, but no-one named him as their best friend. He was bright, but never showy. He did excellent work, but in a way that somehow encouraged people not to notice it. I saw his worth, but I was never able to coax it out of him, so that others would see it, too. He was taken from me too early, when the authorities made me retire. I hope the teachers at his new school are not overlooking him. I have sometimes thought of writing to them about him, but I know they would dismiss it as the twitterings of a mad old schoolmistress, relic of an older time.

 

I hug him now, and send him on his way, and then the others, one by one. It is not a farewell, though it feels like one, for Christmas Eve is special. I will see them all in church tomorrow, and barely a week goes by without one or other of them calling round to have a chat, or to ask if I need any shopping done. I expect they think I am as old as the hills. Compared with a little one like Will, I am.

 

"Goodbye!" I call, as they head out into the snow. "Goodbye!"

 

But Will lingers, the last of them all. "You were my first teacher," he says earnestly, not like a child at all. "I am learning again now, from others, but I will never forget what you taught me. Thank you."

 

By the end, he is blushing, like the child that he is. I ruffle his hair, and he hurries after his brothers and sisters, pleased, no doubt, to be hidden by the darkness.

 

Cold as it is, I stay at the door, and listen to the sound of them singing to other people, other houses. Now that no-one can see me, I can cry freely, the silly old lady that I am. They are my children, and always will be, and I love them. I love them. 

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Miss Hampton: Much Ado About Nothing

 

It is always Wenceslas. Every year, come rain or shine, they sing Good King Wenceslas, the boys with their voices like little angels. It's enough to make the hairs stand up on a body's neck.

 

Annie doesn’t like it, of course. She fancies herself as of these modern misses, dreaming of the fiddle-faddle that she sees down at the picture-house. She's a right one for dancing, and she reads paperback novels about women who are no better than they should be. Not that she's ever been further than Eton, for all her fancy talk of London. Huntercombe born and bred, she is, and in service at the Manor like her mother was before her, though her mother was before my time, for she handed in her notice when she got married. Girls did in the old days. It was only proper. 

 

Most of what Annie says is just talk, and I tells her so, for I am not one to mince my words. "Annie," I says. "Keep your head down, and serve the mistress." And she does, I'll grant her that. She does what she's told, and she's a good little worker. She shows no discontent in front of the mistress, and is as quiet as mouse when visitors come. She's worth two of the chit of a girl who came before her, who was all sweetness and light when you talked to her, but shirked on her jobs something terrible.

 

But where was I? Oh yes. Carols. Good King Wenceslas. Annie, as I was saying, doesn't like it when they sing the same carol every year. "Why don't they sing something modern, rather than this boring old-fashioned stuff?" she says, but only to me afterwards, and never in front of the mistress, oh no, and never in front of the singers, either. I think she has a bit of thing about Paul Stanton, though he's all of four years younger than her, and not much of a looker. It's the music, I think. She thinks a musical man is full of passion and romance, like in the stories. It's shocking, the things they let young girls read nowadays. It gives them all sorts of notions.

 

Me, I don't hold with these new-fangled Christmas songs that you hear on the wireless nowadays. Christmas is a time for old traditions. I like to think that Miss Greythorne's great-grandmammy sat in this same hall and listened to carol-singers singing the same songs. Call me a sentimental old woman. Perhaps, in my way, I'm as sentimental as Annie, but I trust that I am not so silly.

 

"I wonder why she lets them come," Annie said to me just this afternoon, as we made the punch. "She doesn't seem to do Christmas."

 

"Who's she, the cat's mother?" I rebuked her, for nice girls don't call anyone "she", let alone grand ladies like Miss Greythorne.

 

"Miss Greythorne," Annie said. She never seems properly humbled by being put in her place. In my time, girls like her were seen but not heard. "There's no decorations, just that great log Mr Bates brought in before he went on holiday. I wonder why."

 

"It is not for you to wonder," I told her, and would say no more about it, even though she twittered around me for the time it took to measure out the spices.

 

Not that I always practice what I preach, and may the good Lord strike me down for it. Miss Greythorne is an Enigma. That's what I told my sister the last time I had a holiday. I thought so all along, from the very first day I saw her.

 

I'm not from round these parts myself. I come from Stroud, over in Gloucestershire, but I went into service when I was sixteen, and when the young mistress married and moved to Slough, I went with her. For twenty-five years, I worked for her, first as maid and then as housekeeper, but time passed, and her husband divorced her, and she passed away in nineteen sixty-one, not yet forty-five. The day after the funeral, her son came to me and told me that my services were no longer required. "It's rather old-fashioned, having a servant in this day and age," he told me, "and there's nothing for you to do, anyway, now that mother's gone. You can stay here while you find somewhere else to go, but I'm selling this place as soon as the paperwork is sorted." And him just a green boy, barely twenty, for all that he tried to talk like a man of the world.

 

So there I was, without a livelihood, and still grieving for my poor mistress, God rest her soul. I was at my wits' end, I can tell you, but then my friend Edith told me that her friend, Irene, had heard that a Miss Greythorne of Huntercombe Manor was looking for a new housekeeper and cook, because the old one had left to be nearer her daughter who had moved to Inverness, if you'll credit it. Inverness! That's all the way up in Scotland, and everyone knows what the Scots are like. But it takes all sorts to make a world, as my old Dad used to say, God rest his soul.

 

Where was I? Oh yes. I was telling you how I came to be here, at Huntercombe Manor. Not that there's much more to tell, if I'm honest. I dilly-dallied for a few days, then decided to make an approach in writing to Miss Greythorne. After all, I had nothing to lose, I told myself. Miss Greythorne was offering accommodation and a good rate of pay, although of course it is not done to talk about such things. And, to cut a long story short, I got the position.

 

I have been here for nine years now. No, I tell a lie – for nearly ten. March, it was, when I arrived, because I remember the daffodils in the Manor grounds. Nine Christmases I have been here. Or does that make it ten? I was never good with numbers.

 

Ah, but I have seen many changes. Miss Greythorne is not one of those mistresses who expects her employees (that's the word Annie uses) to stay in the house all the time. She is an undemanding mistress, and a lot of my time is my own. I have made friends in the village, and I have watched its children grow.

 

Take the carol-singers, for example – part of the enormous Stanton brood. It took me two years to remember which one was which, and I'm normally very good with faces, if I do say so myself. People are so interesting, don't you think? Annie can go to the village and back without noticing a single person, and when I ask her who she saw, she can't remember. "That old lady," she sometimes says, after a lot of thought. "You know, the one with the hat. I can't remember her name." I ask you! It is not always fit for me to talk to them, if I am on an errand for the mistress, but I do at least notice them, and greet them by name. Modern people are so cut off, each in their own little world. I don't understand it, but I suppose it takes all sorts to make a world.

 

I remember when I first saw the Stantons, ten years back, when the daffodils were in bloom, and I was new to Huntercombe. I was walking to the Post Office, when I saw a lady struggling along with six children! Three of them were old enough for school, and were busy trying to tell her what they did in lessons that day. That was Barbara – she was six, I think – and the twins, Robin and Paul, who were seven or eight. Mary was four, and was tugging at her Ma's skirt, trying to get some attention. James was two or three, and was prodding something at the side of the road – a spider, I think, or some other nasty thing like that. You know how boys can be. And the baby, Will, was sitting in his pram, watching everything in that solemn way that babies have.

 

I can never resist babies. "Hello, sweetheart," I said, looking into the pram. "What's your name?"

 

James came towards me with muddy hands. "He's Will," he said. "He's our baby. I used to be the baby, but I'm a big boy now. My name's James. Will can't talk. He's stupid."

 

"He's watching everything," Mrs Stanton said, "and taking it in. He'll talk when he's good and ready – probably whole sentences." She offered me her hand. "I'm Alice Stanton," she said. "You must be the new housekeeper at the Manor."

 

"Miss Hampton," I told her.

 

"And he can't walk," James butted in. "He goes like this" – he mimed a toddler's walk – "and falls over. It's funny."

 

Mary tossed her hair. "I could walk before I was one. I'm clevererer than James and much clevererer than Will."

 

"You're all just babies," Robin said loftily. "You can't kick a football. You don't even go to school. I'm on the red readers now."

 

"Children!" Mrs Stanton smiled apologetically. "It was good to meet you, Miss Hampton. I'd better get this rabble home."

 

I saw them several times over the next year. By the summer, Will was walking alongside James, leaving Mrs Stanton to push an empty pram. He still didn't talk, though, and Miss Pettigrew in the Post Office told me that Mrs Stanton was worried. I didn't know them well, of course, so I don't know when he started talking, but I do remember him telling me just before Christmas that it was his birthday, so he was talking by then.

 

It's strange, the things one remembers.

 

Will didn't come with the others carol-singing that year, of course. That was the first year I heard the Stanton family sing Good King Wenceslas. Stephen sang the king's part, with his lovely deep brown voice, and Robin sang the page. Max and Gwen were there, too, and Paul played the flute, his little face so earnest. Oh, and Barbara, too. Beautiful, it was. The old songs are always the best.

 

After the singing, Miss Greythorne invited the older ones to take some punch. "What lovely singing," she told them, "and what lovely playing, of course, Paul."

 

"I made some mistakes." Paul's cheeks were red.

 

"But you will learn from them," the mistress said, "and you will not make the same mistakes again. Every year, you will play better and better, and when you are as old as Stephen here, you will play so beautifully that people listening will believe there is magic in your flute."

 

It is not for me to speak badly of my mistress, but I think this was foolish talk, to fill a boy's head with such hopes. But maybe she was right after all, for Paul stood here just yesterday, as old as Stephen was then, and his playing was enough to make a body forget about breathing.

 

"I won't be here next year," Stephen told her, back then. "I'm joining the Navy as soon as I finish my A-levels."

 

"But there are others to carry the flame," Miss Greythorne said gravely. "Other brothers will come, even as you older ones move on. One day, young Will will sing the part Robin sang so beautifully this evening, and… another one will sing the king. But after that, there will be no more singing."

 

She says things like that sometimes, Miss Greythorne. She's a rum old bird, as my friend Edith would say. Not that she's ever anything other than a perfect lady. She can't walk, of course, but the strange thing is that it is impossible to feel sorry for her. I thought I would, but she seems to… defy pity, as it were. I can't really explain it.

 

It was Annie who noticed another strange thing about her. "You know all those things that Miss Greythorne's father collected – those things we're not allowed to clean?" I nodded. "Have you ever wondered why there are no pictures of him – of her father, I mean? They must have been close, for her to keep his collection, but there's nothing…"

 

"It is not for us to wonder about such things," I told her sternly. It was true, though. After Annie said that, I started noticing it myself. I even talked to some of the older villagers about Mr Greythorne, bringing it casual-like into the conversation, because it is not fitting to pry. The thing is this: no-one seemed to remember him. Oh, of course they remembered seeing him. They remembered what he looked like, and they all remembered watching his coffin pass on the way to the churchyard, but none of them had any actual memories of him. It's strange.

 

But I will say no more about that. As I said to Annie, it is not for me to wonder about such things. Miss Greythorne is my mistress, and that is that. She is a good mistress, and if she has her secrets… Well, everyone has their secrets, and the rich more than most.

 

But I have rambled enough. You should have told me to stop. I talk too much – that's my weakness. I think it comes from being in service. When I am on duty, I can't talk much at all, for it isn't fitting. So when a kind gentleman like you comes along and is willing to indulge me, my tongue runs away from me. But it's not getting any warmer out here, and I need to get to the shop and back before dark, and I'm sure you have a home to go to, and don't want to waste time out in the cold listening to an old woman like me.

 

What's that? You want to know more about the carol-singers? Oh, silly me! That's what you asked in the first place, wasn't it? The carol-singers. Let's see… They were a little late, so there we were, all lined up in the hall, waiting for them as if we were courtiers waiting for the king. Now, that's a strange thought for me to have. But there was something in the way the mistress was waiting. Oh, outwardly she was all serene, but I've known her for nearly ten years, and I could tell that she was expectant-like. The new butler was as well.

 

I haven't told you about the new butler! Mr Bates is the butler, and he is a decent enough chap, I suppose. He doesn't talk much, and there is very little humour in him, but he does his job well enough, and he lets me get on with mine. I have known worse. Every year, he takes a week off in the summer to visit his sister in Weston-Super-Mare, but this year, he decided to take Christmas off instead. Regular as clockwork, he was, with his holiday in June, but this year he went off in December. He won't get much paddling in Weston, I can tell you, for the snow is that thick outside, and it's as cold as it was back in '63.

 

He didn't even have the decency to tell us. Just upped and went one morning without a word, and there was this new chap in his place, all dressed up and fancy, as if he's always been here. "Do you think he's killed Mr Bates and buried him in the garden?" Annie asked, her eyes like saucers. I ask you! Too many paperback novels, that's what I said, and too many trips to the pictures.

 

Not that I don't know what she means. The new butler is a perfect gentleman, but there's something about him… Maybe it's because he's so tall, towering over the mistress in her chair. Maybe it's his eyes… Oh, such eyes they are. If I was thirty years younger, and he was thirty years younger, I think I might be getting as silly as Annie. But maybe not. There's something dangerous about those eyes.

 

Oh, hark at me. Maybe it's not just Annie who's letting her imagination run away with her. He's a perfect gentleman, as I've said – though perhaps too much of a gentleman. He doesn't look like a butler. He looks like a lord who should have a butler of his own. He tries to talk humble-like to the mistress, but it doesn't really work. He sounds like her equal, but she doesn't seem to mind. I think she likes him more than she likes Bates. But Annie, though, thinks she is a little bit afraid of him.

 

Where was I? Oh yes. Waiting. Like I said, we were waiting for the carol-singers. There were no decorations in the hall, except for a large branch of holly. The mistress and the butler looked tense, as I said, but they visibly relaxed when the doorbell finally rang.

 

In they came, just like they've always done, though it felt more magical this year, somehow, probably because of the snow. They sang a lovely lullaby, and it was enough to give me a lump in my throat. Then God rest ye merry and The holly and the ivy, to a tune I didn't know. And then, of course, it was Wenceslas, just like always. I do like traditions. They feel like a… like a protection against the bad things that are happening in the world. Oh, don't look at me like that. I'm being silly, aren't I?

 

James and Will sang the page boy, of course, with their voices like little angels. I thought Robin was good all those years before, but those two are like something sent down from heaven. But then came the real eye-opener. The new butler, Mr Lyon, joined in, and sang the words of the king, joining in with Robin and the others. He had a good voice, too, but all too soon the end of the carol came, and that was it for another year.

 

They stayed for a little while, of course, to share some punch. Will had some for the first time; maybe that was why his eyes were shining so. Barbara and Mary came over to talk to me and to Annie. Barbara is trying to set up a village drama group, and has recruited us both to join it. Annie is terrified by the merest thought, and still doesn't know quite why she ended up saying yes. I've told Barbara that I'll make costumes, but that's as far as it goes. Ma would turn in her grave at the thought of a daughter of hers going on the stage.

 

No, I don't know what the others were talking about. Barbara and Mary were in the way, and I couldn't see Robin or Paul, or another of the others. I do know that Paul and Will went off somewhere to look at some old flutes from Mr Greythorne's collection, but Barbara was talking about scripts and lines and auditions, so I couldn't really pay attention.

 

I heard Will scream, of course. No-one could have missed it. Barbara ran after him immediately. I can say that for her – she's a good older sister. They all are, in that family. Sisters or brothers, I mean. They all look after each other, and they're particularly protective of Will, who's the baby. I feel quite sorry for him sometimes. He'll be the baby in that family for life. I know how it feels, because I was the youngest of my family, and my sister still tries to baby me sometimes, even though I'm nearly sixty years old.

 

I never really found out why Will screamed as he did. When they all reappeared, I could tell that the others were a bit annoyed with him, so I expect it was for nothing. He's never struck me as a fanciful child, though, and if anyone in that family was going to try a practical joke, it would be James.

 

Not that it really matters. Farewells were said, and they went on their way, and the carol-singing was over for another year. I don't know why you're asking me about it, Mr Mitothin. After all, nothing happened. 

 

******

 

Mr Beaumont: Emptiness on Christmas Afternoon

 

"Christmas Day," Mr Beaumont wrote in his diary, and underlined it thoughtfully. "Attendance poor because of snow. Preached on the coming of hope in the midst of darkness. Choir in good form. Afterwards found tramp collapsed in the snow. Alice Stanton took him in – a true Christian. And so to lunch."

 

He closed the diary, a gift from one of the choristers some Christmases past. Lunch had been bacon, fried to a crisp, with eggs and sausages and moist mushrooms from the garden. The Christmas dinner would come later, when Mrs Briggs from next door brought round slices of goose, and he made stuffing out of a packet, and roasted some potatoes in oil. He hoped there would be Christmas pudding this year, too, and perhaps a little brandy butter, for it was Christmas, after all.

 

It was still snowing outside, falling white on the little patch of garden outside his window. Earlier, he had scattered suet and nuts out for the birds, and struggled out into the snow to fill the bird feeders. Blue tits and great tits clung to the feeders, and chaffinches and greenfinches fought for their turn. He thought they looked very cold. Perhaps there was a sermon in this, he thought, or perhaps he had already preached that one. It was hard to be original after ten years in the same parish. Perhaps it was time to move on.

 

He still did not know precisely what had made him come to Huntercombe. He had been educated not far away, at Eton, but he had never been free to wander this way by bike, and he had never been a rower, to explore these reaches of the Thames by boat. His family was wealthy, distantly related to nobility and very proud of the fact, and he had disappointed his father greatly when he had emerged from Eton determined to go into the Church. Oxford had not changed his resolve, and here he was.

 

What had the world come to, he often thought, when a father could disown his son for choosing to devote his life to God.

 

"If you choose this path," his father had thundered, "you will be on your own. I've wasted enough money on your education. I refuse to support you in this folly."

 

Penniless for the first time in his life, he had scrimped and saved his way through his training, and taken up his first position, as curate in a city parish. He had seen poverty there, and real need, and yet here he was, not so many years later, ministering to a congregation of polite old ladies, retired businessmen and farmers.

 

He had scandalised quite a few of them when he had arrived, he knew that. The previous incumbent had been a white-haired gentleman of the old school, and had been rector in Huntercombe for as long as anyone could remember. So when his replacement came roaring in on a motorbike… He smiled wryly at the thought of that arrival. The motorbike had become a vanity, perhaps, but it had started as a necessity. At rector of Huntercombe, he had to serve half a dozen tiny parishes, and a bike was cheaper than a car, and that was that.

 

He walked to the kettle. There was just time for a cup of tea before he had to venture out into the cold to begin his round of afternoon services at his other churches, and then an early evensong, and then dinner.

 

His cat wandered in, her coming heralded by a peal of bells. "Oh no you don't, Missy," he told her, as she looked longingly at the boarded-up cat flap. "The birds need to eat undisturbed." With five bells on her collar, she never managed to catch birds, and she was outraged by snow, but it was better to be safe than sorry. "Have my left-overs." He offered her his bacon rind, and she chirped grudgingly, as if to say that he was not yet forgiven, but was tolerated, at least.

 

As the kettle came to the boil, he found himself staring out of the window again. His mood was strange, he realised, with none of the joy he normally felt at Christmas. Perhaps it was the poor attendance at the morning service, although that was entirely due to the snow, and didn't mean that his flock was beginning to turn away from the path of the Lord. Perhaps it was finding the poor man in the snow, abandoned and half frozen. Or perhaps he really had been here for too long, cut off from his family, and alone at Christmas.

 

"But we should be grateful for the blessings in our life, shouldn't we, Missy?" He addressed the cat, who was licking her paws, and ignored him utterly.

 

He thought back to the service. Attendance had been poor, yes, but wasn't that a blessing in disguise? At Christmas, like Easter, he normally got people coming to church who never came on a normal Sunday. They drove in in their expensive cars, sat there looking stiff and uncomfortable, and drove away, untouched by holiness. Today had been a day for the regulars, for the true spiritual family of Huntercombe. The snow separated the wheat from the chaff indeed, and what was left was glorious.

 

He thought of the ringers, giving voice to their remarkable bells. Those bells had been one of the things that had drawn him to Huntercombe. He had always been fascinated with old churches, and part of the fabric of the church of St James the Less dated back to Saxon times, and its six-bell peal was famous and rare. He fell in love with the place as soon as he saw it. Standing within its walls felt like coming home. And when he heard the bells calling the faithful to his first ever service… He still shivered at the memory.

 

The choir, too, was something remarkable. When their beautiful harmonies were soaring up to the roof, he defied any man to listen to them and not see the hand of God at work. But its glory days were passing, he feared. James and Will Stanton, the best trebles, would not sing treble for long, and this time there were no younger brothers waiting in the wings. Even Paul was bound to leave soon, for his prodiguous musical talent would take him far from Huntercombe. The congregration was ageing. In ten years, the number of children regularly attending church had halved. In ten years more, he feared, it would be a church only of the old.

 

"But that is many years away," he said out loud. "Things will turn out the way God wills it." It was just as worthy to preach God's word to the old as to the young, and God could be worshipped in many places, without music or bells or any other trappings. Christmas was a time of hope, not a time of regret. Jesus Christ had been born into the world to save sinners, and here, at the very darkest part of winter, was born the purest light.

 

"Dear Lord," he prayed. "Dear Lord…"  But even prayer was interruped by the nagging feeling of discontent that had plagued him since the service. Abandoning the idea of tea, he walked back to his diary, and read his entry again. It said nothing. Nothing in his diary ever said anything that really mattered.

 

Sick at heart, he closed it, and leant against the window, forehead against the cold glass. Outside, the birds scattered in alarm, leaving the garden white and empty, devoid of life.

 

Attendance was poor, but that was because of the snow. The choir had been in excellent form, and that contained its own regrets, for such things could not last, but that had not been in his mind while writing it. His sermon had been one of his best, and had appeared to go down well, although admittedly he was preaching to the converted.

 

After the service, then… What of that? He had talked music with Paul Stanton, as they came out of the church. He loved music, and had loved it since school – which was another thing that his father had disapproved of. He lived frugally now, but much of the spare money that he had, he spent on recordings. In the evenings, he lost himself in music, and in contemplation of God. He wrote heart-felt sermons to Brahms, and contemplative ones to Bach. He wrote playful ones to Mozart, and lachrymose ones to Mahler. Paul Stanton was one of the few people he could talk about music with, for Paul loved it just as passionately as he did, if not more so, for Paul could create it, too.

 

But that was nothing out of the ordinary. He and Paul often talked about music. This time, Paul's brother, Will, had lingered, apparently interested in what they were saying. The party from Dawson's Farm had been nearby, he remembered, but that was it. Nothing untoward had happened. When everyone had left, he had turned to lock the church up…

 

It had felt different, though. As he had pulled the door to, there had been just the faintest touch, just the tiniest whisper of feeling. The church had changed. The church was emptier. Something indefinable had gone from it, and it was no longer home.

 

"Foolishness," he told himself. He thought quickly through the events that had followed the service. There had been birds outside, dark against the snow, and bolder than normal, but starvation made even shy animals bold. He had been off collecting his bike when Paul and Will had found the tramp in the snow. That had been a shocking thing, and no mistake, but nothing he had not encountered before, in his city parish. He had carried the man to Alice Stanton at the Old Vicarage, and waited until he was settled in.

 

"I'll call Dr Armstrong," Mrs Stanton had assured him. "There's no need for you to wait, Mr Beaumont. You've got to get on to your other churches, I know. We'll see that he gets the care he needs."

 

Will had been outside the room, listening. He remembered that. The poor boy had looked unhappy and wary. It must have disturbed him, finding the poor man in the snow like that. It was easy to forget how sheltered children were from the evils of the world. Perhaps that could be a sermon… But, no. It was not a sermon for children's ears.

 

Sighing, he moved away from the window. It was almost time to venture out into the snow again, and ride to the tiniest of his churches, to preach to a congregation of seven. Perhaps there he would find again the joy and hope that was supposed to come with Christmas.

 

"After all, we all have funny moods sometimes, don't we, Missy?" He ruffled the fur on the cat's back. "Even vicars."

 

Outside, the snow stretched as far as he could see, pristine and beautiful. He did not live in Huntercombe itself, but in a tiny cottage on a farm, nearly a mile outside the village. Once, long ago, his predecessors had lived in the Stanton's house next to the church, but that was in the days when vicars had money, and large families to support. Not far away, the Thames flowed, a ribbon of silver in the snow. Windsor was only a few miles away, as was the school where there had been good times, as well as bad. His churches were some of the oldest in the country, in the Thames valley, where people had been living as long as there were men.

 

And the people were good people. There were few in the city who would take in a tramp with the kindness that Mrs Stanton had shown, and few teenage boys who would devote their time so passionately to music as Paul did. The snow kept some people away, but most of them still came, gathering together in fellowship, just as the villagers of Huntercombe had always gathered together against the dangers of the night.

 

As he walked towards his bike, the birds returned, darting from feeder to feeder, undaunted by his proximity.

 

He smiled. "Foolishness," he said out loud. "I said all along it was foolishness."

 

After all, nothing had happened. The church was unchanged; the village was as it always would be. The Thames would flow forever, and the snow would melt to reveal the spring. He lived alone, but Mrs Briggs would bring him dinner, and perhaps even invite him to share in their family evening together.

 

And God was there, eternal and everlasting, infallible and ever-wise. God made the snow, and the birds that sang. God caused man to make music, and God was present in every stone in every church. It was Christmas, and God's son was born, to vanquish evil forever. In the face of a truth like that, what possible reason could he have to feel sad?

 

He started to sing. "Oh ye frost and song, bless ye the Lord, praise him and maginfy Him forever."

 

The snow was God's work, and all that came from it. It was Christmas Day, and nothing evil could exist, and there could be nothing in his heart that was not joy.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Fred Pettigrew and his mother: Those Left Behind

 

My wrist hurts.

 

I wish I was tucked up on the couch, with the television on, and plate of cup-cakes there beside me, and some salt and vinegar crisps, or maybe some cheese on toast, nice and brown and bubbly. There's a James Bond film on this afternoon – From Russia With Love. I've only seen that one once before. Dr No I've seen three times. Instead I'm here in the shop, helping Mum. In other words, I'm running the shop, while Mum sits in the corner and panics about the snow.

 

It was different when Dad was alive. He ran the shop, strong and competent, and when Mum went into one of her flutters, he could always talk her out of it, all quiet and calm. Mum was different then, though. She hardly fluttered at all. I used to think she was the bravest person I ever knew, back when I was five. Except for Dad, of course. I hadn't seen James Bond then, of course, but when I was old enough to go to the Saturday matinees with my friends, I thought the heroes were all very well, but not a patch on my Dad.

 

"My Dad could fight aliens," I told my friends. "He could biff monsters and bash lizard men from space. If he had a gun, he would shoot the bad guys, bang bang bang."

 

But I was wrong. When I was sixteen, he fell ill, and he couldn't fight it, after all. He looked so small and frail lying in that bed, not like my Dad at all. And then he died.

 

"You have to be the man about the house now, Fred," Grandpa told me. "Look after your mother. Women don't cope well with things like this, but you're almost a man now. You'll be strong for her, won't you?"

 

I knew that real men didn't cry. I knew that proper children stayed with their parents, for as long as their parents needed them. Mum took to her bed, fainting and crying. I left school, and did what I could in the shop.

 

That was fifteen years ago.  Nothing has really changed.

 

I hurt my wrist yesterday, shovelling snow away from the door. I just slipped and fell, just like that. It hurt horribly, and Mum was panicking all around me, crying about her poor boy who was hurt, and in the end I had to comfort her, and help her inside, even though my wrist was hurting like anything. I think they tell lies in films. James Bond can get shot in the shoulder and just carry on going. In those first few minutes, my wrist hurt so much I could hardly breathe.

 

Dr Armstrong came round and said it was just a sprain, and not even a bad one. He bandaged it, and gave me a cream to make it hurt less, and told me to take aspirin just like with a normal headache. "Will I have to stay in bed?" I asked him, but he smiled, and said, "Oh no. You'll just have to do things one-handed for a bit. You're not left-handed, are you?" I'm not, so that means I'm still here, working in the shop.

 

I wish I was a boy again. Christmas always makes me feel this way. I stand in the shop, and watch all the children going past, all bright-eyed and happy, with their new toys and presents, and their Mums and Dads waiting for them at home. If they fell in the snow, their Mums would make sure they were tucked up snugly at home, and would bring them squash and cakes. At least they'd care.

 

No, no, that's not fair. Mum cares. Mum cares far too much. She flutters around me, saying I'm such a good boy, that it's so good of me to work like this when I'm hurt. Am I sure I'll be all right? Is it hurting? Should she call the doctor again? What if I trip again and hurt the other wrist, and the doctor can't get to us because of the snow?

 

I wish she wouldn't. I wish she'd sold the shop when Dad died, and gone to live with her sister, and let me go free.

 

I always did well at school. I was going to do A-levels. I might even have gone to university, the first in my family to do so. English was always my favourite; I liked making up stories. I had a hero called Jim Black. He was a bit like James Bond, but he fought monsters and aliens and he always got the girl. In my mind, he looked like me.

 

"Is it hurting very badly?" she asks me now, wringing her hands. Her dog stirs limply on her lap, a tiny pink tongue protruding from the ragged fur.

 

She looks far older than she really is. A lady never tells a man her age, she says, but I look after all her paperwork, and I know that she's fifty-four. She looks at least sixty-five. She dies her hair with tea leaves, which is silly, because her hair isn't really that grey underneath it. She aged ten years when Dad died, her face lined with fear and worry, and her shoulders all hunched, as if she was shrinking from the world. She could look quite striking if she tried. When I was little, I used to think she was the most beautiful Mummy in the world.

 

I have given up trying to make her change. I was only a boy myself when Dad died, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know enough about people to understand that Mum was destroying herself. I didn't have the confidence to tell her she was losing her way, and help her back to the world of the living. I needed someone to tell me these things, and I had no-one.

 

"No, Mum," I tell her, for I love her really, despite everything. "I'm fine."

 

******

 

Oh, I do wish it would stop snowing. It isn't natural, snow like this. There's something malevolent behind it, I'm sure. It just keeps on and on and on, and there's no end to it, no end at all.

 

"It's just snow, Mum," Fred said, just this morning. "There's nothing sinister in it. Don't be silly. You sit down by the fire, and I'll make you a drink."

 

But he can't! He shouldn't be doing it! He hurt his wrist yesterday, the poor boy. I was so afraid when I found him lying there, curled in on himself like a baby, moaning with pain. Almost crying, he was, though he swears blind that he wasn't. I was so sure his wrist was broken. Dr Armstrong says it's only a sprain, but doctors do sometimes make mistakes. They told me my Bill would get better, and he didn't.

 

I went to make him some hot chocolate with extra sugar, because the poor boy has always liked that. "Three spoonfuls," I counted out, "and a fourth for luck." But my hands trembled so, and I ended up splashing some water onto my slippers. Fred found me, and gently took the kettle from my hands. "I'll do it, Mum," he said.

 

He is such a good boy, my Fred. He never complains. He was my rock in the dark days when Bill passed away. If it hadn't been for Fred, I think I might have let myself fade away and follow Bill. He did everything for me, and kept the shop running when I was too ill to get up. "I do it because I want to, Mum," he used to tell me, when I got too worried about him. "I do it because you're my Mum, the only one I've got."

 

He's the only boy I've got. I am so grateful that he is not one of those young men who dreams of travelling the world and making a career for himself. You hear about so many of those, nowadays. Fred's friends from school have scattered to the four winds, and we saw one of them in the papers just last week, head of some company or other, with a big fancy car. Well I never! The things these young people want nowadays, as if family and home was not enough.

 

Mr Beaumont says we should count our blessings. I have had many trials in my life, but Fred is not one of them. I am so lucky that Fred has never longed for anything else other than life at my side, at the heart of our little village.

 

Here he comes now, bustling and smiling, despite the awful bandage on his wrist, that I can hardly bear to look at. "No deliveries today, either," he says, smiling cheerfully, although the news is dreadful. No deliveries! We're cut off! What if the snow never stops, and we all freeze to death or starve. It can still happen in this day and age. Poor Mrs Randall's out of coal, and lots of people are out of bread and milk. Soon we'll all be living out of tins, and tins aren't a proper way to eat.

 

"Mum!" he chides. "We'll be fine."

 

But we won't! I'm so scared that we won't. Fred's already hurt himself. What if an old person slips on the snow? It could kill them, for sure. The government in London will be out there clearing the big roads, but we're just a little village off the beaten track. They'll forget us. Oh, this snow is so unnatural. We'll never see the sun again.

 

"Customers coming," Fred says cheerfully. He peers out of the window at the muffled figures labouring down the road. "It's the Stantons."

 

I take my place behind the counter, and run my hands through my hair. One must try one's best in front of customers, even if they're old friends you've known for years. I've known the Stanton children since they were born, first as babes in arms, and then as little school children spending the last of their pocket money on sweets. I have watched each of them come in their first solo errand from their mother, earnestly clutching the shopping list, and proudly walking away with a bag of flour, or a packet of eggs, or whatever else their mother had asked them to get. Mary dropped a whole packet of eggs on her first errand, and cried. James used to lose the list, and make it up.

 

Roger comes in, with Robin, and a well-muffled bundle that I think at first is James, but turns out to be Will. I have always had a soft spot for him, because of my Bill. I'm glad they chose to shorten his name to Will, though. I don't think I could have borne it if they had called him Bill.

 

I try to be dignified, I really do. I set about finding the things Roger asks for, but it is all too much. It's this snow. I just can't take it any more, I really can't. This snow is going to be the end of us all.

 

******

 

Of course Mum goes to pieces as soon as the Stantons enter the shop. It embarrasses me. I'm used to her ways, but she normally keeps the worst of it hidden from the customers. In private, I can gentle her out of one of her panics. In public, I find myself becoming almost annoyed with her. 

 

But then the bell rings again, and in comes a tall man who introduces himself as the temporary butler up at the Manor. Will and Robin have met him before, it seems. I didn't even know that Mr Bates had left. I never know anything, shut up here as I am, except for endless gossip about Mrs Horniman's bunions and Mrs Evans' grandchildren.

 

The butler's called Mr Lyon, and he comes with a proposal from Miss Greythorne. She wants us all to go and stay at the Manor, the whole village all together.

 

I hope we go. It will be good for Mum to have other people around her, and I want a rest, too. I want to sit down and put my feet up. I wonder if there's a television at the Manor. There's a cook, so the food will surely be good.

 

Besides, it will be an adventure. Mr Lyon is the tall stranger who comes with a tip-off, leading the detective hero into a dangerous case. There is something about his face that seems to fit naturally into any story. He is the wizard who leads King Arthur to his destiny. He is the butler who saw everything about the crime. And a Manor is such a fitting place for it. All the villagers gathered in the ancient Manor, when suddenly there's a blood-curdling scream. "One of you did it," says Fred, the detective, and as the snow falls outside, he solves the mystery and exposes the murderer as… his Mum!

 

I come back to reality. Apparently the decision has been taken, and we are going. It is not an adventure at all, of course, and it is not an escape. I will have a few days of gossiping women and screaming children, and then the snow will melt, and everything will be the same as it has always been, and always will, until the end.

 

******

 

END

******

 

Dr Armstrong: An Old-Fashioned Family Doctor

 

This is a Christmas like no other. Who would have thought, a week ago, that the whole village would end up crammed into the Manor, like a relic of our ancient, feudal past?

 

Christmas is normally a quiet time for me. My sugery is closed on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, of course, but the villagers know they can call on me in emergencies. They seldom do, though sometimes they come to me in January, coughing fit to wake the dead. "It started on Christmas Day," they tell me, and they have been suffering ever since, without seeking help.

 

At first I thought they were being stoical and English, not wanting to make a fuss, not wanting to bother the good old doctor on his day off. We hear of these things in medical school – of old ladies who apolegetically call for an ambulance after four days of lying there with a broken leg. "You can come to me at any time," I used to tell them, and I still do, although I have since learnt that this is not the reason they suffer in silence during the holidays. No, it's because it's Christmas. People want Christmas to be perfect. If they feel ill, they try to pretend the illness isn't there. Things are not supposed to go wrong at Christmas. If they ignore it, they think, it will go away, and Christmas will be what it is supposed to be.

 

This Christmas is different. It's the snow that started it, I think. At first it was a pleasant addition to the festive season. The children were overjoyed, of course, and even the staidest of adults let themselves get swept up a little in the excitement. But the snow just would not stop falling. It got heavier and heavier, and colder and colder. That was when I started to be afraid. People die in winters like this.

 

I was called out on Christmas Day itself, for the first time in a dozen years. Mrs Catesby was giving birth to twins, a week earlier than expected. Admittedly, I cannot attribute this happy event to the snow, and it is always a pleasure to deliver babies. I know we are encouraged to use the hospital now, but I am a doctor of the old school. It is so much more comforting for the mother to be at home in the bosom of her family, especially on Christmas Day. If I had sent poor Mrs Catesby to hospital, she would still be there, cut off by the snow, while her husband fretted at home.

 

It is the first Christmas birth this village has seen, and it set the festive season off to a perfect start. New life at Christmas; hope in the middle of winter. I am sure Mr Beaumont would find something to preach about there.

 

Although, now I come to think of it, I remember that Alice Stanton's youngest was due on Christmas Day. "I hope he comes early," she used to say to me, "or properly late, after New Year.

 

I asked her why. In my innocence, I thought that a Christmas birth would be a truly miraculous thing, but women see things differently from us men. Alice had already looked ahead and seen what life would be like for her little one.

 

"He's got eight older brothers and sisters," she explained. "He's going to have precious few moments that are just for him. At least let him have a birthday of his own. I don't want him to have to share his special day." She smiled then, her hand on her bump. "Besides, I have to make Christmas dinner for ten. I won't have time to have a baby."

 

I never thought to ask if Mrs Catesby had made dinner before the babies came.

 

So the Catesby babies were delivered – one boy and one girl, and as ugly as all new-born babies are, although of course I would never say so to any of the mothers. I returned to my dinner, and that, I thought, was that.

 

It continued to snow through the night. It grew colder, and the snow grew ever deeper. On Boxing Day, I was called out to treat a sprained ankle, and a nasty bump on the head. The Randall baby went down with a fever, and I paid calls to some of my old ladies, to make sure they were looking after themselves in the cold. Even in this day and age, the cold can be a killer. Then we had a broken ankles, and the day after that, Fred Pettigrew sprained his wrist.

 

It was then that Miss Greythorne came up with her idea of inviting everyone to the Manor. The first I knew of it was when her new butler, Mr Lyon, came knocking at my door, asking me if I would accept Miss Greythorne's invitation. He was extremely polite, even humble, yet somehow he made it sound like a command. Certainly, I never considered refusing. Within minutes, I had gathered up a decent collection of medical supplies, and was heading out of the door without even a change of clothing, my scarf trailing and my coat only half fastened.

 

And here I am. We have a broken leg already, and various bumps and bruises. Mr Lyon tells me that the Stantons intend to come later, bringing an unfortunate old man that Paul and Will found in the snow after the Christmas Day service. "He will need especial care," he tells me, and his eyes hint at something more than his words are prepared to say.

 

I am not sure that I like this new butler of Miss Greythorne's. He is perfectly polite, but he looks at me sometimes as if he thinks he knows his job better than I know it myself. I do not like this.

 

I am not one of these arrogant young doctors, always boasting that I went to this glorious university, or that glorious medical school. I am an old-fashioned doctor, caught twenty years after my proper time. The world I live in is dying. I see myself as a proper local doctor, who lives in the heart of his community, and visits every patient at home. I do not want to go into practice with younger men. I do not want to have a shiny surgery in a shiny town, and know people only as names on a piece of paper. People sit all alone and worry for days before making an appointment with a distant doctor, a stranger in a far-off town. When the doctor is their friend and neighbour, they pop round for a chat, and their worry is eased. Sometimes, I think the most important thing a doctor can do is listen.

 

I wonder if Mr Lyon knows this. He does not look like a man who likes to listen, and his face is sharp, and not given to sympathy.

 

Still, one must always be polite. "I'll prepare a bed for him, then," I tell him, "so I can examine him, and see what care he needs."

 

Now that he mentions it, I do remember my landlady telling me that Max Stanton had phoned on Christmas Day, while I was out delivering the twins, and that Roger himself had phoned a few hours later, to say that it was a false alarm, and I didn't need to come. "He's sleeping peacefully," he said, apparently. "Panic over. It was nothing that a wash and a sleep can't cure."

 

I'd presumed he was talking about one of the children – a fall from a sledge, perhaps. There are so many of them in that family, and it's rare to find a time when at least one of them isn't suffering from some cough or cold or little accident.

 

I remember joking with Alice some months ago, saying that I expected at least one of them to go into medicine. "I need a successor, after all," I said, "and I'm not as young as I used to be." My father was doctor in Huntercombe before me, but I have no sons. I had hopes for Stephen, who looked after his younger brothers with a concern that was beautiful to see, but he chose a different path. Max chose art at a young age, and Paul's destiny was always plain to anyone with eyes to see. "But maybe it's not meant to be," I said, pretending to be regretful – or perhaps not pretending it, after all

 

"There's still time," Alice said. "Who knows what the younger ones will turn out to be. We might have a doctor yet."

 

If I was a betting man, I would have put money on Will. He was always a quiet child, sensitive to everything around him. He's clever, too, if what Alice says is true. But Alice disagreed. "Oh no, not Will," she said, shaking her head. "He spends too much of his time with his head stuck in a book, and he's happier with history than science. No, if any of them decide to become a doctor, it will be James."

 

"James?" I was surprised, and made no attempt to hide it. James is a pleasant boy, but he has never struck me as studious.

 

"James likes people," Alice explained. "Oh, he complains about his brothers and sisters all the time, but he hates to be alone. And surely you have to like people to be a doctor, Dr Armstrong. I can tell you do. You've been a friend to us these many years, not just a doctor."

 

I blushed at the compliment. Sometimes I envy Roger, for having a wife like that, and I envy them both for having such a good bunch of children.

 

"But Will…" She sighed. "Every spring, he creeps into the Manor grounds just to stand there in silence, looking at the glade of flowers. Paul followed him once, because he was worried about where Will could be going all by himself. Paul told no-one else, and I haven't told anyone, either. You wouldn't catch James doing that, or any of the others, except, perhaps, Paul, but Paul's different. His music makes him different."

 

"Are you worried about Will?" I asked, sensing more to this than Alice was saying. "Do you want me to…?"

 

She shook her head. "Oh no. He's just a quiet one. Many children are. I'm not used to it, with my chattering rabble." She sighed again. "Sometimes I think it would better if he had a special talent, like Paul with his music. He's clever, of course, but not excellent. He's near the top of his class in every subject, but he doesn't sparkle. I think people overlook him, and I think he lets them – encourages them, even."

 

But that was all last summer, and why it has come to mind now, I do not know. Will's had his birthday since then – I must remember to wish him happy birthday when he gets here. But it is James that I want to see. Alice was joking, of course, but… Oh, I am a sentimenal old man. I have no sons of my own, and I would like to think that the good people of Huntercombe will be cared for by one of their own for many years to come. That way I can retire content.

 

But I fear I am resisting the inexorable march of the thing they call progress. I think I am clutching at straws. It is a terrible thing indeed to place the hopes of an old man on the innocent shoulders of a child.

 

But if he comes… Children like to be let into secrets. They like to be given important jobs to do. We have a little sick room set up in the cloakroom, and there's nothing that a young boy shouldn't see. Maybe I'll ask him to hold something for me, then casually talk him through what I'm doing. From such small sparks a lifelong interest can grow.

 

Ah! The door opens, and here they are – Roger, Robin, Paul, Will… No James.

 

It was a foolish fancy, born from too little sleep, and this strangest of Christmasses. I become all doctor, and set to work. 

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Mrs Horniman: Blitz Spirit

 

People talk such nonsense. I hear them on the radio all the time.

 

I'm not talking about the silly young things. They listen to their new-fangled music and talk about love being the answer, and paint flowers on everything, and have long hair. It's silly and pointless, but at least it doesn't so any real harm.

 

No, it's the old ones I'm talking about, who ought to be old enough to know better. I hear them going on about the young ones all the time. "No respect," they say. "Not like when I was young." Then they go on about how wonderful everything was when they were younger, when everyone pulled together, and no-one said a bad word against anyone, and you could leave your door unlocked for years and no-one would ever dream of stealing anything.

 

Stuff and nonsense. It was grim then, and it is grim now.

 

The thing that really makes my blood boil is all this romantic nonsense about the so-called Blitz Spirit. That lie was being peddled even as it happened, and I suppose that was understandable, because they had to keep morale up somehow, and keep the enemy from knowing how badly things were going for us. But now it’s become truth. The way some people talk, the war was a golden age when everyone was happy and England was never so good.

 

I was there. I know what it was really like. In 1941, a bomb landed slap bang on top of my neighbour's house, and killed them all stone dead. It tore my house to pieces, too. The kids and me were in the Anderson shelter, and lived, but that was that. We'd lost everything we ever had. The kids had nightmares for months. They used to go everywhere with Pat and Mike, the kids that were dead, and play in the streets for the hours that they could.

 

Golden age? My foot! Try telling that to kids who wake up crying because their friends are dead, and they've got no home to go to.

 

A week later, the telegram came, and that was that.

 

I was homeless and widowed, with two mouths to feed. I saw precious little Blitz Spirit then, I can tell you. Even when the sun shone, the sky felt dangerous, because you never knew when the bombs were going to fall. Streets I had known since a child suddenly felt menacing. I had to get out of there. Everywhere I went, I saw places I had been with Joe.

 

I can't call it a miracle, the thing that happened next, because it came after so much tragedy, but it was a life-saver, and no mistake. My Joe's unmarried aunt went and died. Someone must have told her what had happened to us, because the next thing I knew, some city gents were asking round after me. She'd left me all her money, which didn't amount to anything much, but better than that, she'd left me her cottage. It was in a small place called Huntercombe, out beyond Windsor, out in the country and away from the bombs.

 

So that was that. We packed up what remained of our possessions, left the only home I had ever known, and came here. And thirty years later, with the kids long gone, I am still here.

 

And now a new enemy is battering down our doors, and the old foolishness is being spouted all over again. I heard Mr Stanton at it just a few minutes ago. "Splendid in adversity," he said, him with his education and his long words. That Mr Lyon was agreeing, too. It's the old Blitz Spirit nonsense again, spouted by people who weren't there. So Mr Stanton likes to think that we're happier stuck in here, suffering and afraid, than we are when we're safe in our own homes… It makes me sick. Not that I can say so, of course, when his wife has given me work for nigh on thirty years, and her kids are good 'uns at heart.

 

No, Mr Stanton, we're stuck here because he have no choice. The wind is wailing like an air raid siren, and its chill goes right through me. The snow is as ruthless as the Germans ever were. People freeze to death in their own homes. Kids see their friends taken away from them. Everyone thinks only of themselves. And it gets colder and colder, and there will be no end to it, until we each freeze where we sit, each one alone.

 

People are trying to pretend that everything is well. The doctor is bustling around treating bruises and broken legs. Mr Stanton has brought a tramp along to be treated. Will Stanton looks worried, like my kids used to look when the sirens were wailing. Poor little mite. He'll never forget this. He'll have nightmares about this, you mark my words.

 

And now the poor boy is trailing past me, following the doctor. I listen; I am good at that. The tramp has asked to see young Will, it seems. The doctor should be ashamed at himself. He should have told the tramp to shut his mouth and be grateful that he's got a roof over his head. Letting a boy of ten get close to a man like that… These fancy men in their fancy clothes with their fancy education think they know everything, but they haven't an ounce of common sense between them.

 

No-one listens to me, of course. I saw that Mary Stanton trying not to laugh on Christmas Day, when I told her mother what awaits us all. The think they know it all, these young people with their airs and graces, and the rich. They think it makes them better than us. They think I'm common, but I know more about life than any of them.

 

The tramp has one of them horrid diseases you hear about on the wireless. And here we all are, gathered together in one room, and we'll all catch it. Coughs and sneezes spread diseases. Ma used to tell me about the flu after the first war, how it killed more people than the fighting. We'll all go like that, or freeze in the cold. Nobody can say I didn't warn them.

 

Everyone's still prattling away, pretending everything's fine. I watch them talking again, a little knot of cheerful people. Something, it seems, is happening. A concert. Oh, dear, a concert. They'll be singing the wartime songs again, or London songs in their country accents. I've seen it before. I've seen everything before. The Blitz Spirit, they call it, but those songs are like the air-raid siren, something I never want to hear again.

 

Will Stanton starts the singing. It's a melancholy thing, not fitting for a kid like him. It tugs at the heart-strings, I have to admit. He has a beautiful voice, but all too soon he'll grow up and turn into a thug. Teenagers, they call them now. His hair's already too long for a boy. This world is the ruin of even the nicest of kids.

 

Take my own two. They grew up and left me. Went back to London, if you'll credit it, as if the memories and the nightmares were not enough. In my day, a girl would marry and live just down the road from her Ma, and everyone would be one happy family. It's not like that now. By the time Will Stanton is old and grey, the world will not be worth living in. But I'll be long gone by then, and quiet in my grave. We all will.

 

Then comes the flute, and I am almost crying, though what is the point of tears? It grows colder and colder, but people are still smiling, lost in their lies. Colder, and the lights fail. The radiators are fading, and there is snow down the chimney, so even the fire has gone.

 

I hear the wail of the siren, and the dreadful drone of the enemy bombers. I see faces by the flicker of candlelight, like fires burning in the wreckage of my home. I see a man who cannot get up. I see the hate-filled face of the enemy, the twisted face of the tramp. I see the hand of death reaching out for a young boy, closing on him like claws. Babies scream; they screamed then. Mothers hold small bodies in their arms, and weep.

 

The bombs falls then, in an explosion that tears the world in two. My neighbour's house is hit, and my house is burning. I hear the children screaming as they die. And my Joe is blown to pieces far away, and everything is lost, and this is the end, this is the end.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Mary Stanton: Fourteen

 

It isn't fair. I bet they leave me behind just because I'm a girl. Will's younger than me, and gets to have all the fun. He's up at the Manor, and I'm stuck here with Mum. They've even taken that dirty old man with them. I didn't like him, because he was creepy, but at least he was interesting. I bet Sarah and Rachel didn't have a mad old tramp in their spare room this Christmas.

 

I wanted to go, too, but Daddy wouldn't let me. I never get to do anything interesting. I have to do more housework than James or Will, just because I'm a girl. Mum and Gwen cooked all the Christmas dinner, though Barbara did a bit, too. I'll have to join in next year, I bet, while James and Will get away with sitting down and doing nothing. It's not fair when you're a girl.

 

"Mary!" Mum's calling for me now, probably to get me to do something boring like sewing or polishing something. I'm going to pretend I can't hear her. I do that lots. Sometimes it's true. "I've been calling you for ages," Mum says sometimes, and I said, "Sorry, I didn't hear you," because James is going on about something, and Paul's playing his flute, and Max is on the phone even though he knows I need to phone Rachel, and Barbara's singing, and Robin's kicking a football, and Will's reading, and Gwen's clattering in the kitchen

 

I'm going to write a letter to Sarah. I got nice new pens for Christmas, that smell like violets. We write letters all the time, me and Rachel and Sarah, even during lessons when we're sitting right next to each other. We use codes so no-one will know what we're talking about, even if the teachers catch us. If we talk about kittens, that means we're talking about the boys from the boys' school, that we see sometimes on the bus. Rachel spoke to one once, or so she says. Sarah fancies that tall fair-haired one, we think he's called Dave. I like his friend with the long dark hair. I don't know his name. I have to write "I love ?" in my rough book, because I don't know his name, but at least that means that Nasty Nora (she's called Kate really, but we call her that. She's got lots of friends and thinks she's so special) won't find out who I love and tell everyone. I'd die if he found out.

 

Mum and Daddy don't know I like boys. They think I'm a little girl, who "won't discover boys" for years and years. Won't discover boys? Grown-ups says such silly things. Do the boys live underneath rocks in far-away jungles, or something? I've got millions of brothers, I know what boys are like. I even saw Max naked once, when the lock on the bathroom door broke. Rachel and Sarah keep on asking me about his… well, you know. I get embarrassed and don't tell them. I mean, he's my brother.

 

I get out my writing paper – Rachel gave it me for my birthday, it's got blue flowers on – but I don't know what to write. I always know what to write – not in school, though. "If you paid as much attention to me, Mary, as you do to your friends, you'd do very well indeed," Miss Cook keeps on saying. Mum tuts sometimes because my reports aren't as good as everyone else's, but Daddy says, "Come now, Alice, everyone is good at different things. Mary will have her chance to shine."

 

I wish Daddy was here now. It's cold and dark in my room, because there isn't a fire, and everyone else is miles away. Mum bustles around and makes us feel happy, but Daddy used to call me his little girl. He's not strong and muscly, but I know he'd stop bad things from getting in. The snow seems even heavier, without him around. James laughed at me when I said the snow was pushing at us, trying to get in, but it is. I don't like it.

 

I'll write my letter tomorrow, when it's light. I'm not scared. It's not that I'm scared. I just… It's just that Mum needs me. She'll only be worrying about me up here in the cold. Everyone else is in the living room – I can hear their voices from miles away in the house – so I'll go and join in. You're supposed to be with your family at Christmas. Rachel and Sarah have both gone to visit their grandparents. I haven't got any left, because Mum and Daddy were quite old when I came along. I wish I was older, like Stephen. It's not fair being one of the youngest.

 

I'll just comb my hair first. Oh, I wish I wasn't so fat. Rachel's got this magazine, it's got lots of diets in it. She says she lost half a stone by not eating anything before eleven o'clock, but she didn't look any thinner so I think she was making it up. My school uniform's all tight and bulgy and I hate the way my legs look in games kit. Thank goodness we don't have boys at school. I'd die if they saw my legs.

 

Have we had New Year yet? Oh, crikey, we have. I didn't notice it, it's been so snowy and horrible. I need to do a New Year's Resolution to get thin. Not till the snow stops, though. You need to eat lots when you're cold, and I don't think I could stand it if we were stuck in this horrid snow and I couldn't have chocolates. We're running out of proper food, so Mum doesn't even tell me off if I eat chocolate at breakfast.

 

I like my hair, though. Sarah's really jealous, she says she do anything to have lovely straight fair hair, and not be all curly and ginger with freckles and skin that burns bright red in the summer. "Don't be silly," I tell her, "you're really pretty," but I know I'm prettier than her. Mr Mitothin liked my hair. He had red hair, too, but it looked really nice, not curly and silly like Sarah's. He liked me, too. He kept looking at me, not at Barbara or Gwen. Barbara's the one boys normally look at. I liked him. I hope he comes again. Will went all silly when he was there, though, and spoke all prim and proper, like he gets sometimes. Little children can be so embarrassing. I hope it didn’t scare Mr Mitothin away.

 

I go downstairs. "Mary's been combing her hair again," James says. "Who do you think's going to see it?" He's so annoying sometimes. Rachel's an only child and she says she's really jealous of me and wishes she had a little sister. A little sister might be nice, I tell her, but little brothers are awful. Sarah agrees with me. She's got a little brother, he's eight. He's a real pest.

 

"It doesn't matter who sees it," I tell him. "It's important to look good even if you're all by yourself. You'll understand that when you're older."

 

"No, he won't," Barbara says. "He's a boy."

 

"Come and sit down, Mary," Mum says. "We were just trying to decide what game to play. It looks as if Daddy and the boys are going to stay at the Manor for a while, so it's just us."

 

I settle down by the fire. It's lovely and warm, and I got really cold up in my bedroom. "I want to go to the Manor, too," I say.

 

Mum shakes her head. "We're better off here. We've got food and fuel, and we've got each other. I don't want you walking out in that snow, or sleeping in a room with lots of other people. At times like this, one really needs the comfort of one's own bed."

 

"Will went," I remind her, "and he's younger than me."

 

James groans. "Oh, don't start this again," just as Max tells me that I'm hogging all of the fire and should budge over and make room for everyone else. Everyone bullies me. They all get at me and gang up on me, and I'm never allowed to have any fun. None of them understand me. They don't know about the boys or the letters or any of the things I tell Sarah and Rachel in whispers behind our hands. Even Rachel and Sarah don't know everything about me. There's some things I'd never tell anyone. I'm a woman of mystery, that's what I am, doomed to be forever misunderstood by my family.

 

I sniff, and make room for Max to steal more of the fire than he's allowed to. I'll make do with nothing, cold and put-upon and neglected and misunderstood. One day they'll be sorry, when I run away and become a… a famous… a famous… What shall I be? A model. A model, all slender and slim, with beautiful hair, and all the boys queuing up to talk to me, but I'll only talk to some of them, and only when I want to.

 

"What game do you want to play, Mary?" Mum has her stubborn peace-maker face on – the face that means she's going to ignore all bickering and pretend it's not happening, and carry on with whatever niceness she's planned.

 

"Monopoly," I say. It's not in the pile.

 

"I think Will had it last. It's probably in his room," James says helpfully, but he doesn't move. Boys are so lazy.

 

Mum sighs, and gets up. I can hear her climbing the stairs. Don't go, I think. Don't leave us…

 

It gets colder and colder. Mum is taking ages. The lights go out. "Don't worry, I've got the candles," says Max, and strikes a match. I sit nearer the fire. Mum, I think. Daddy. I feel James edging closer towards me. I think he's scared.

 

Then there's an enormous clap of thunder. We all scream, even Max. But Mum screams louder. And there's a bumping and a clattering, and we rush out in the dark – Max has a candlestick in his hand – and Mum's lying at the bottom of the stairs, with Monopoly pieces all scattered around her.

 

It's my fault. It's my fault. If I hadn't said I wanted Monopoly…

 

I don't really remember the next bit. James is in the kitchen. Max has gone to get Daddy and the doctor. Mum will be okay, won't she? Oh, please, let Mum be okay. It's all my fault, and the snow… the snow…

 

"You're spilling the water," James says. How can he be so heartless? Mum's broken her leg, and the rain's battering the windows like wild animals trying to get in, and it's years since Max set off, and he's not back yet, and Daddy's not here, and I know something terrible's happened to them, I know it.

 

James is quite nice to me, really. He's bringing me a hankie. "They'll be fine." But what does he know? "Dr Armstrong will here in no time, and he'll make Mum better." But he's only a little boy, only twelve. He doesn't know. When you're little, you think nothing can ever happen to my Mum and Dad. You don't know. I do. I know.

 

James has gone again, I wonder where. Mum's… Oh, I can't bear to be in there with her. I can't bear to see her like this. It's all my fault. I need to do something, to make things better.

 

And then I suddenly I feel calm. The rain turns mild and soothing, and I know that Max has got lost, but I can find him. You, I hear, in the voice of my own certainty. You alone can do this. Go outside. Come. Come…

 

My eyes are still bleary with tears. I feel a bit like I feel when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't remember where I am. I drift to the door and put on somebody's boots, I don't even know if they're mine.  Coat? No, no, I don't need that. The cold's gone now. The snow's melted, and if I go outside I can make everything better again.

 

They don't call out when I open the door. Outside… Oh, how wet it is, but I don't really feel it. My hair will be… Oh. There was something about my hair. Tangled and horrid? No, that doesn't matter. Where did Max go? I need to find Daddy. If I save Max that will make up for hurting Mum. And Daddy will be there, with his arms and his warm chest and he'll call me his little girl, and nothing will matter, nothing will matter…

 

"Hello, Mary." Oh. It's Mr Mitothin.

 

Rain falls into my eyes. I feel really strange, as if I'm going to fall over. The road seems so long. I've been here for hours, I think.

 

"Come on, Mary. I'll help you up onto old Pollux here." Old George. I… I was sure he was someone else a minute ago… but that was hours ago, days ago, weeks… but I've only just left. My clothes aren't even soaked through yet.

 

I sit on the horse, and remember suddenly how much I longed to ride him, back when I was a little girl, and silly enough to be mad about horses. On his back, I'm taller than anyone around me, but I feel just like a little girl again. "I want to go home." My voice sounds very small.

 

"You will be home in no time." Old George smiles. I have never thought that a wrinkled old man could look beautiful before. "And your mother is well, and everybody safe, and the cold and the dark have been vanquished, and today starts the thaw."

 

What a strange thing to say. Old people lose their minds, sometimes. I think fourteen is the best age to be, though fifteen would be better.

 

But then Daddy is there, opening the door, and Dr Armstrong is behind him, just leaving. They're smiling, so it must be true, what Old George said about Mum. James wriggles past them. He calls my name, and I think he's crying. How silly!

 

But when Daddy hugs me and calls me his little girl, and tells me off for going outside, and hugs me again, I find that I'm crying, too. I don't even care who sees it. Well, except for James.

 

"Everything will be well." Old George says that, and he's right. Mum's okay, the snow's gone, and I'm going to lose a stone in weight and find out the name of the boy I like, and maybe even talk to him, like saying "Hello," or "Excuse me, have you seen my pen?"

 

He might even talk back.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Alice Stanton: After the Thaw

 

Dear Jen,

 

What a Christmas we've had! I've never seen snow like it, not even in '47 or '63, though it's all thawed now and unseasonably warm, as if spring wants to come before January is even over.

 

Was the snow really terrible where you are? I was thinking of you, when we were all huddled by the fire, with the power lines down and the telephones not working. At least we have the village, and the river keeps things a bit warmer for us, or so Roger told me once. I hope you all got through it. Well, silly me, I know you got through it, because we spoke on the phone last night, but I did worry. It's at times like this that I'm glad we don't live in the middle of nowhere, though it's lovely where you are. But each to their own. I know you're happy and have never looked back.

 

Now, I have something to tell you. I didn't tell you last night, because we didn't have long, you with the dinner going cold on the table. I'm afraid I was a bit of a silly during the height of the storm. I was coming downstairs when there was the most terrible clap of thunder. It was only thunder, but it did make me jump.  I fell all the way downstairs, and I managed to knock myself out.

 

No, don't worry about me. The doctor came in no time, and he said I'd only managed to sprain my knee – the children were panicking, you see, thinking I'd broken my leg. He sent me to bed and told me to take it easy for a few weeks. So that's it. I'm fine, really. I didn't want to tell you, because I knew you'd be worried, and I'm nearly better, as right as rain. But you know how men are – so bad at keeping secrets. I thought Roger would let something slip on the phone, or one of the boys. I didn't want you to find out that way, because then you'd worry that I'd only kept it from you because it was worse than it sounded.

 

There. That's over. What a lot I've said about myself. How was your Christmas? How's David, and the boys?

 

My lot are still growing, as ever. Will had his eleventh birthday just before all this started – thank you for his present. If he hasn't sent a thank you letter yet, I'll give him a nudge this evening. Max is all grown up, spending more time with his Deb than with us. He's been taller than Roger for years, but it still gives me a shock to see them together, because they always remain your little babies, don't they, even when they're grown up. Barbara's quite the young lady, and Mary is so sure that she's grown-up, when of course she isn't.

 

They're all taking their responsibilities very seriously now I'm supposedly confined to bed. Gwen's been doing the lion's share of the cooking, but of course she always does. Mary – I must have told you before how Mary likes to shirk housework. Now she's bustling around, busy doing important jobs like bringing me tea. I think she feels a bit guilty about me falling, for some reason. She actually went missing for an hour or so just after I fell. They weren't going to tell me, but James accidentally let it slip. I'll let you imagine how angry I was with Roger for a while. A mother needs to know these things. Anyway, she came back safely, and no harm was done. By the time I woke up, she was back to her normal self, or almost.

 

James made me breakfast this morning. I wish he wouldn't, but of course I wouldn't dream of telling him. No-one can ruin bacon like a twelve year old boy. Will just comes in often, and just quietly spends time with me, and brings me little things I hadn't realised I wanted. He's grown very perceptive all of a sudden, as if he decided suddenly to grow up as soon as he reached eleven. I don't remember James or Mary changing like this after their eleventh birthday, but I suppose it has been a trying week. With all that's happened since Christmas, you can't blame the boy for being changed.

 

We really must visit you this year. It seems as if you've been inviting us for years, and we never manage to make it. Maybe some of the children can come by themselves. It would be a good change for them. You mentioned once that your Welsh mountain air would be excellent for someone convalescing. I hope none of them will get ill – touch wood – but if they do, I think that's a lovely idea.

 

Or, if not, maybe Will could come and visit in the summer? His closest school friends are often away in the holidays, and I think he gets a bit lonely sometimes, though he's the sort of child who seems perfectly happy in his own company, his head in a book. Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing, having so many children. It's easy to get overlooked when you're one of so many. He's a bit less adventurous than James, too, who's perfectly capable of having hair-raising adventures all by himself. It would do Will good to have a change of scenery in Wales.

 

Besides, didn't you mention a boy who lives in one of the cottages on your farm? Quite a lonely boy, you said, and almost exactly the same age as Will. I don't believe in forcing children to spend time with each other, expecting them to make friends just because they're the same age, but it might be nice to give them a chance.

 

But here I am, thinking ahead to the summer, when only three days ago we were half drowning in the snow. There was something quite frightening about the week, don't you think? It didn't feel like normal snow, with the way it just kept on falling, and no-one could go anywhere. It's not supposed to happen in the twentienth century, at least not down here in the south of England.

 

And the floods, too. Did you have floods? I expect you did, what with all the snow melting on the mountain. I didn't see the worst of it, since I was tucked up in bed, doctor's orders, but there was all sorts of flotsam and jetsam in our garden the next morning. No-one died, though, and no-one lost their homes, and that's the main thing.

 

And now it's over, and everything will go back to normal. I'll be up and about by the end of the week, and it will be as if none of this ever happened.

 

Well, I'd better stop now, because I can hear James and Mary squabbling on the stairs about who's bringing me my supper tray.

 

All my love to you and the family,

 

                        Alice

 

******

 

Alice Stanton folded the letter and placed it on the bedside table. The door opened, and in came a tray of supper, closely followed by Will. Beside the bread, she saw a bunch of snowdrops in a glass vase, though how on earth he had found some snowdrops so early in the year, she did not know.

 

"I thought I heard James and Mary out there, fighting for the honour." She smiled at him. She had not meant to let on that she knew about the rivalry, but something about Will's appearance surprised her. "I take it you won."

 

"Yes." He placed the tray on the table already prepared for it, then sat down on the bed. His smile was serene. "We won."

 

******

 

END