Our neighbours – now much-loved and very dear friends – lived in the Manor House. We, in Manor Cottage: modest staff quarters, once part of their estate.
They were going away for Christmas. Would we like to use their house?
We invited my cousins to join us. They could have the cottage, as we would be in the house. They didn’t tell us until much later, but even with only four of them, for just one night, in the little cottage seven of us lived in for several years, it felt claustrophobic and cramped.
Christmas Eve: Bink, Alex and Ben were invited to sing at midnight mass in London and to a lavish dinner beforehand. In a throw-back to the dread mid-years of her illness, Bink missed her lift by hours and hours.
Shaun would drive her. (Perhaps that’s why we’d suddenly needed a car?)
I alone all that evening of 24th, Rosie asleep in the cottage, numerous trips to the Manor House. We always put our decorations up on Christmas Eve so there was much to do. Backwards and forwards, again and again, along the brief stretch of pavement between the two houses (it was far too dark and hazardous to use the slippery old stone steps and gap in the fence we’d made between our gardens), both doors left open because my arms were full: tree, Stilton, goose, candles... Cava in the Manor House fridge.
When all was done I popped the cork, alone on a bar stool enjoying their medieval vast stone kitchen chimney, savouring my isolation. I am not solitary by nature. But just occasionally, for a delicious few hours, once every few years...
Our teenagers safe in London. Shaun back before midnight. Still signed off work, so all the family would be able to go to church together on Christmas Day.
But for Rosie I would have gone to midnight communion myself, in the church opposite… welcome glass of hot punch in the street afterwards from the grumpy pub landlord. Without Bink, Alex and Ben there would be no choir in the little village church.
Shaun and I went to bed long before the others got in.
It was an iconic Christmas, in the oak-panelled Manor hall, thirty foot long, vast inglenook at one end. Many happy previous evenings spent there: mulled wine at Hallowe’en; dinner parties; champagne shared at two previous Christmases.
Our tree was lit up with its numerous tree-candles. The long oak trestle table laid with silver and linen, sparkling blood-red table-candles, matching candle-holders made of leaves and flowers. No light at all but the flames and the fire, dancing points reflected in the dark wood.
It was a good Christmas. I felt like a proper hostess again, though none of it was ours.
Lavish roast bird, flaming pudding, crackers to pull with whistles of different lengths so we had to co-ordinate into tunes.
A long time later, my cousin told me that she would catch my face in response, and dread. Her son voiced that he’d never seen me so not-myself.
“No,” she agreed.
Shaun gave me a wooden cheese safe. I loved it, and put it in the Manor House larder. It looked good there: it was the right temperature and proportions.
When the time came to take our belongings back to the cottage, I had no idea what to do with it.
We had nowhere to put it. The cottage was far too small.
It dominated that tiny kitchen.
Would my little cheese safe ever have a home? Would we, again?
To find that out, we would have to wait for Shaun’s New Year meeting with the churchwardens.
And you will have to wait till tomorrow…