I have been sadly missing in action for a while now. Good intentions apart, I have been writing on various projects but here is my Christmas story for this year. I hope you enjoy it.
HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
“Your sister’s coming home then.”
Marg Nicholls stood, dripping, in the doorway of Hetty Pimm’s shop. Marg had lived in Lower Vale all her life, but the speed news travelled around the community irritated her. She considered it must be the postman who regularly delivered more than the mail to anyone willing to listen. The local grapevine would have expanded from there. Who needed a cell phone when they had a Barry Jones?
“Well, shut the door,” Hetty commanded, rubbing her arms against the wind gusting forcefully into the little shop. “You can use that mop and bucket to clean up your puddle, and there are old newspapers by the door to soak up what you miss.”
Marg looked down at the rivulets of water trickling off her unflattering oilskin mac and green-booted feet and shook her head, which caused more water to fly off her plastic hood. Where else but in the bastion of an English village shop would one be expected to clean up after oneself? Marg took hold of the mop and spread its cotton threads over the floor. One did not argue with Hetty. Her shop had been converted, not very imaginatively, from her cottage’s living and dining rooms, and Marg supposed she still thought of it as her home.
Shelves stacked with bottles, tins, and packets, which, to Marg’s eyes, looked not to have been dusted or changed since her last visit, lined the walls. There was just enough space for a central display stand packed with Mother’s Pride bread, Mr. Kipling cakes and biscuits on one side, and toiletries and cleaning supplies on the other. At the end of the counter, from behind which, Hetty owlishly surveyed all who entered, stood a small cooler holding milk, butter, cheese, and eggs.
Marg knew it was not Hetty’s way of doing business to ask if she could help her customers. The customer had to do the asking, and Hetty would point a gnarled finger to the items they wished to purchase. Cash would cross the counter, and that would be it. No debit or credit cards for Hetty. Anyone who missed the ‘Cash Only’ notice on the door was invited to leave. Marg had no idea how Hetty managed to keep her business going, but the locals were thankful for it as it was the only shop in their small community.
Having purchased the unsalted butter, cornstarch, and waxed paper she needed, Marg left the shop, bending her head against the roaring wind and lashing rain. She threw her shopping bag onto the passenger seat of the old Land Rover and squeezed in behind the steering wheel. The weather reflected her mood, which transferred to the gears as she viciously reefed through them.
The wipers barely cleared the rain from the windshield as the Land Rover laboured up the lane to Hill Farm, which took its name from the slopes rising steeply behind it. Bare, blackened tree branches on either side rattled above her like sabres. Marg peered ahead, steering between every pothole and wheel rut in the gravelled surface. She knew them all.
And into this moisture-laden mayhem, her sister was about to arrive. How could Ruth do this to her after all this time? Marg didn’t even need to close her eyes to see the note she’d received. It was too brief to be considered a letter.
Kenny and I are in London and would love to come and spend some time with you and John. We’ll travel down on Christmas Eve and stay for a few days. Hope that’s all right. You will have stacks of that delicious shortbread you always used to make, won’t you?
That was it. No return address on the rich but anonymous cream-coloured stationery. No telephone number, text, or email contact.
“On purpose,” Marg muttered. “She knew if I couldn’t contact her, I couldn’t say no.”
Marg parked as close as possible to the utility room door. Holding on to her plastic hood with one hand and the shopping bag with the other, she dashed to the door, thanking heaven that farmers were practical people who expected and provided for extremes of weather. The old rush matting inside the door took the brunt of her wet wellies as she kicked them off. The dogs, Harvey and Beau, brushed their damp, smelly bodies against her in welcome, soaking up the rain from her mac but leaving a swath of their yellow and black Labrador hair. She shooed them back to their beds while she hung up her outdoor clothes, pushed her feet into ratty looking but comfortable slippers and entered the warmth and peace of her kitchen.
Well, it had been peaceful when she left. Now it was something of a battlefield. Her daughter, Penny, sat grumpily on one side of the long, pine table. An antique dealer would describe it as distressed and probably sell it for a small fortune. Penny’s brother, Mark, sat opposite her. Marg’s husband, John, sat in his usual place at the head of the table. He sipped tea from a battered old enamel mug which he refused to replace. Pottery broke. Enamel chipped but lasted longer. End of argument.
Marg knew he disliked the prospect of the impending visit as much as she did. Now it looked as if the children were rebelling too.
“Ask your mother.” John pursed his lips and cast Marg a gloomy glance.
“It’s not fair, Mum,” Penny complained. “I don’t want Mark sharing my room.”
“For heavens’ sake,” Marg snapped. “Who said Mark had to share your room?”
“Well, where else are Uncle Kenny and Aunty Ruth going to sleep if not in Mark’s room? They’re not having mine.”
“I’ll sleep in Pilot’s stable and take the dogs for extra warmth,” Mark said.
“Good idea. That pony would probably appreciate the company.” Marg went to the Aga, where a large teapot sat warming and poured herself a cup of tea. Was it too early in the day to add a tot of whisky? “There’s that foam mattress and your sleeping bag from when you camped last summer with the Scouts. You should be cozy.”
“Oh, wow.” Mark suddenly looked cheerful. “Can I take a flask of hot chocolate and some cake out there with me?”
“Whatever your heart desires.” Marg passed a weary hand across her forehead as Mark scraped his chair back and rushed upstairs.
“You never let me sleep in Lark’s stable,” Penny grumbled as she stood.
“You never asked,” Marg said.
“Bloody Aunt Ruth.” Penny kicked the leg of her chair and stalked out of the kitchen.
Marg recalled when she kicked the leg of another chair, and her mother immediately told her to stop that. At twenty-two, she was old enough to know better.
Her mother’s tears and her father’s temper had flowed and raged for days, ever since her younger sister, Ruth, announced she was going to Australia with her boyfriend, Kenny Parker. Their father raged that she was going nowhere, especially with Kenny, that skinny, spotty, good-for-nothing layabout. Ruth shouted back that she was nineteen and could go where and with whom she pleased, and anyway, they had already got passports and visas. Their flight was booked and paid for, and that was that.
Marg sighed and topped her tea before sitting in Penny’s recently vacated chair. Looking around the kitchen, she realized that, except for a coat of paint and a new backsplash behind the Belfast sink, Ruth would hardly see any difference. It saddened Marg that twenty years had slipped by almost without her noticing.
The early days when she and John were first married were marvellous. They lived in the cottage across the yard, helping her parents run the family sheep farm. One of their shepherds occupied it now. He also helped raise and train their border collies. Autumn, winter, spring, and summer did not mark their seasons. Breeding, feeding, lambing, shearing, and all the other tasks necessary to maintain a well-run farm, did. Marg’s father passed away quite suddenly, leaving her mother in a permanent daze until she, too, gave up her grip on life and peacefully followed him.
Ruth’s letters then had been full of remorse that she had not been able to support Marg and John, but in her heart, Marg knew this was not true. The letters became more infrequent, and when they arrived, they told of endless blue skies, beach, pool, tennis parties, and all the excitement of shopping in Melbourne. There were postcards showing kangaroos and koalas, sheep and camels. Did they have camels in Australia?
Marg wasn’t sure but supposed it must be true for them to be on postcards. Photographs occasionally accompanied the letters bearing the legends, ‘Me at Ayers Rock,’ ‘Me scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef,’ ‘Me with opal miners.’ Me having a great time. Me having no responsibilities, me obviously not working. Me! Me! Me! Marg supposed all these adventures were because Ruth and Kenny had decided not to have a family, but what was Kenny doing all this time, Marg wondered.
Penny and Mark came back into the kitchen, still bickering. It was suddenly all too much. Marg slammed her mug down on the table, making John and the children jump.
“You listen to me,” she snapped, standing and gripping the back of her chair as if to gain strength from the solid wood of it. “Ruth has been gone for twenty years. She’s not coming back to live here. She’s coming for a couple of days’ visit. The least you can do is be accommodating and welcoming. Ruth’s your aunt, for heaven’s sake. Hill Farm was her home before it was yours. Yes, she chose to leave, just as your father and I chose to stay here and run the farm, and that’s all there is to it.” Marg paused for breath. “Penny, Mark, I don’t want to hear another peep out of the pair of you. And you, John, can stop looking like you’ve lost a pound and found sixpence. Ruth’s my sister. She’s the only family I have outside of you lot. She may never get to come home again, and what chance have I to visit Australia, even if I was invited? Oh.” Marg stopped as something became blindingly clear to her. “You’re afraid I’ll want to go back with her.”
John blustered it was no such thing, and Penny and Mark quickly removed themselves from the kitchen, sensing a disagreement brewing between their parents.
Marg pinned John with a fierce glare. “That’s it, isn’t it? It’s not the fact that Ruth’s coming to stay but that I might want to leave.”
John spread his big hands with their square-tipped fingers down on the table and pushed himself out of his chair. “You’ve got to admit you used to get pretty mopey when you got Ruth’s letters. I knew I couldn’t put a step right for a few days after they arrived. I put it down to jealousy.”
Marg bit her lip, knowing John only spoke the truth. She nodded slowly. “It seemed like she had an easier life than ours.”
“But you don’t know that.” John gripped her shoulder. “And who knows what kind of dance Kenny might have led her? Come on. I’ll help you make up the bed in Mark’s room.”
Marg could not quite believe how they managed to pull everything together. For once, Penny and Mark did everything she asked of them without arguing. They fetched boxes of decorations from the attic and arranged the blue and silver tree on its stand. Now, on Christmas Eve morning, everything was as festive and ready as it could be for Ruth and Kenny’s arrival. There was only one thing left to do. Marg didn’t even need her mother’s old cookbook. She knew the shortbread recipe by heart. Beat one cup of brown sugar into two cups of softened butter, then add four to four and a half cups of all-purpose flour. Simple.
She placed the butter and sugar in her mixing bowl and beat it until it was fluffy, then carefully mixed in most of the flour. The dough was too soft, so she added more flour until satisfied with the consistency. Humming to herself, she sprinkled flour onto her pastry board, took the dough and began to knead it. She should have made it yesterday and left it to chill overnight in the refrigerator. Now she could only give it half an hour but filled that time with trimming Brussels sprouts while she waited.
Marg kept a close eye on the clock as she listened for the oven timer. At least the family was out from under her feet while she busied herself with the food preparation. Another glance at the clock had her reaching for the chilled dough. She transferred this to a sheet of parchment paper and rolled it out. When she had an almost perfect rectangle, she placed it on a baking sheet and cut it into finger-sized strips. Using a fork, she pricked each strip several times before putting the tray back in the fridge for another half an hour and then turning the oven on to preheat.
Her mother had made the preparation of Christmas dinner, and all the trimmings look so easy, Marg thought now. She had paid attention and helped her mother, while Ruth always managed to find something else to do and stay out of the way. Marg grinned while taking the baking tray from the fridge and slipping it into the oven. If Kenny had expected a home-cooked meal every evening, she didn’t mind betting he was one disappointed man. The sound of car doors slamming made her look up, frowning. They couldn’t be here already, could they? She wiped her hands on her apron and opened the back door but gasped at the figure filling the doorway.
“Kenny?” She looked up at the well-built man with a tanned face and laughing grey eyes.
“G’day, Marg. Here, take these.” He handed her the shopping bags he carried.
“Kenny?” she repeated, still squinting at him. Of the skinny, spotty youth she remembered, there was no sign. “My Lord, Australia’s been good to you.”
“We made the most of our opportunities, that’s for sure.” Kenny stepped inside. “Hope we’re not too early, but someone’s been hopping around like a shrimp on a barbie since early this morning. Now she’s gone all shy.”
“No, I haven’t.”
Kenny moved out of the way, and tears sprang to Marg’s eyes when she saw her sister. Kenny, she would have passed on the street and not known him, but Ruth, her dark brown hair now fetchingly streaked with grey, she would have known anywhere. The years rolled away as they fell into each other’s arms, hugging each other tightly, words, for now, unnecessary. All the talking and catching up could come later.
Mark and John came in from the yard. Penny wandered downstairs, a little shy but intrigued to meet the visitors. Marg was happy to introduce her sister and brother-in-law to the children. For once, Penny and Mark behaved impeccably. Mark asked Kenny what Australia was like and grinned at the response, “bloody hot, mate.”
Ruth turned her head and sniffed. “Is something burning?”
Marg’s hands flew to her face. “Oh, no.” She raced to the oven, grabbed a tea towel and opened the door. Smoke billowed out. She wafted it away and stared in dismay at the tray.
“Mum,” Penny breathed, stunned at the sight of the blackened offerings. “You never burn anything.”
Marg shook her head as she emptied the tray into the waste bin. “There’s a first time for everything, I suppose.” She looked at her sister. “Sorry, Ruth. I so wanted everything to be just right for your homecoming.”
Ruth stepped forward and hugged Marg. “Tell you what, why don’t we have coffee and then you and I will make shortbread together.”
Marg stared at her. “You? Make shortbread?”
“You’d be surprised at what Ruthie can make.” Kenny pulled out a chair and sat on it. “She’s been writing a cookery column for our local paper for the last few years.”
Marg’s mouth fell open. “A cookery column?”
Ruth nodded. “It’s been quite successful too. But in my last post, I promised my readers a shortbread recipe. Would you please–pretty please– share yours?”
Marg thought of all the times Ruth was MIA when it came to anything in the kitchen. She heard again her mother’s grumbles, the mutterings that Ruth would likely live on fast-food and fresh air, and now, Ruth was asking for help making shortbread. Marg smiled, then started to laugh.
“How can I refuse?” She shook her head. “Mum would be so impressed, and as it’s her recipe, I don’t see why not, but we’ll have to run down to Hetty’s for more butter.”
“Good Lord, is she still running the shop?” Ruth sounded incredulous.
Marg nodded. They collected their coats and left John and Kenny chatting as if they’d only seen each other yesterday while Penny and Mark fired questions at Kenny about life in Australia.
“They can come out for a visit any time they like,” Ruth said quietly as they headed outside. “You and John too.”
Marg paused as she opened the Land Rover’s door. “Ruth, I will do my best to make it happen. But if we come for a visit, I expect you to make shortbread.”
Ruth clambered up into the passenger seat. “I’ve missed you, sis. I’ve missed all this.” She indicated the sweep of the hillside dotted with sheep, the windswept trees and hedgerows, and the lowering grey sky. “But you know what I’ve missed most?”
Marg swallowed the lump in her throat and shook her head as she turned the key in the ignition.
“Family,” Ruth said, raising her voice over the cough and splutter of the engine as it came to life. “Us. I remember all those Christmases when I’d do anything to get out of doing chores, and now I so wish I hadn’t.”
The rain started as Marg pulled up in front of Hetty’s shop. The sisters sat looking at the bow windows on either side of the door, the sturdy limestone walls, and the slightly overhanging roof.
“Hasn’t changed a bit,” Ruth commented as they left the vehicle and stepped across the narrow pavement.
Marg pushed the door open, listening to the clamour of the overhead, old-fashioned doorbell. Hetty looked up from behind her counter. There was no welcoming smile, just her usual owlish look, but Marg was sure there was a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth when she saw Ruth.
“You’re home then,” Hetty said.