Christmas in the Country
by Carole May.
I am a very mature student returning to university after a gap of many decades and fifteen years after retirement. At the start of this course I was worried about working with people who were so much more in touch with education, but have found that working with such clever young people is both fun and stimulating. Their help and advice is invaluable, particularly when it comes to IT. Both my brain and arthritic fingers find this infernal machine increasingly unconquerable.
Christmas in the Country
The sound of continuous traffic swishing along the rain drenched surface of Lordship Lane increased Amy’s feeling of isolation as she realised how blind she had been. She had become so wrapped up in her job as a mid-wife, working erratic hours, she had never thought to question the number of evening meetings, and weekend activities John claimed necessary for the Deputy Head of a large comprehensive school. He had chosen the week before Christmas to finally tell her that he had found someone new and would be spending the holiday with her in Tenerife.
The prospect of spending a week here, in the house she had shared with him for over twenty-five years was more than she could stomach. She opened her laptop and checked their joint bank balance. When she saw how much John had taken out, she didn’t care what she spent and searched for a holiday cottage somewhere where she knew no one. Somewhere where there was no danger of friends or neighbours dropping in. Somewhere she could spend the entire weekend in tears and no one would know or care.
There were few places available, but one in a place called Pagan Hill had become free due to a last-minute cancellation. In no mood to celebrate the Christian festival, this seemed appropriate and the journey looked straight forward; A10, M4, M5, then turn off at Swindon. About sixty miles. Just right.
On 23rd of December the traffic was manic. Driving was made more difficult by rain so heavy that the wipers could barely cope. The compensation was that she had to concentrate so hard that she didn’t give John a thought until she turned off the M4. Then, the traffic became less was less dense. From there the route to Stroud was quite straight forward.
Pagan Hill was a mass of council houses and flats, not unlike those in Tottenham. The pretty country lane she was looking for was nowhere in sight. Everyone she asked turned out to be a visitor to the area.
In Tesco Express she struck lucky, as she paid for her groceries she asked for directions. A woman queueing behind her said, ‘It’s near where I live. You can follow me.’
They went down a single tack unlit road and stopped at the entrance to a large Georgian house. Amy pulled up behind. The woman stuck her head through the passenger side window of Amy’s car and said, ‘This is my house. The cottage you want is half a mile further on. On the right. You can’t miss it. There’s a huge Christmas tree in the garden.’ Her parting words: ‘If you need anything at all, someone will be here all over the holiday.’
Amy couldn’t miss the gaudy lights on a tree so big that it completely dwarfed the tiny cottage, but it did mean that she had no trouble finding the numbers to press on the key safe.
Inside, Christmas had penetrated every inch. A large arrangement of holly stood on the table. Next to it, the local paper was open at the page advertising festive events in and around the neighbourhood. There was a Christmas card addressed to her on the mantle shelf, and a pile of logs next to the fire with a basket of fir cones bearing a message saying, ‘When burnt, these give off a festive scent’. A box of Christmas Crackers sat on the sideboard and, the fridge in the miniscule kitchen contained a box of mince pies and a bottle of prosecco. Upstairs, by the bed, was a book entitled, A Cotswold Christmas.
She had finished her ready meal of lasagne, and settled down before the fire with a glass of Chianti, when there was knock on the door; carol singers from the local church. She listened politely to two verses of Away in a Manger and handed over a fiver.
The grateful vicar pressed her hand, ‘I hope you can attend the blessing of the crib tomorrow. It’s a happy start to this important celebration.’ He seemed genuinely sorry when she made her excuses.
All the usual programmes on the telly had been suspended in favour of Christmas Specials. She switched off and began to read her library book.
An hour later, a mass of cars arrived next door, accompanied by the slamming of car doors. Some kind of party was going on that lasted well into the early hours.
She lay awake mulling over her situation. She realised the only major effect of John’s betrayal was hurt pride and concern about her future.
As the first rays of light penetrated the curtains, she made up her mind. She would retire. She had lived in the Tottenham house for over twenty-five years. The mortgage was paid off and her share of the equity should be sufficient to buy a small cottage. She would like somewhere outside London, and more remote than this,. Mortgage free, she should be able to live on her nurses’ pension. Tomorrow she would explore the area and see what kinds of properties were on the market. Decision made, she went to sleep.
She found the addresses of three estate agents in the local paper. Armed with a map of Stroud, she drove into town.
Long queues were at every car park. It was thirty minutes before she found a space. The rain had stopped and the town centre was crowded with last minute shoppers. The Farmer’s Market was jam packed. As she fought her way through, stall holders offered tastes of locally produced cheese, pickles, wine and home smoked trout, and cold meats. The whole place was festooned with holly and mistletoe. Buskers and carol singers were dotted through the town. There was even a mummers’ play in progress outside the Tourist Information Centre.
The estate agents were deserted. ‘We never have much custom over Christmas.’
Houses were dearer than she expected, and having seen Stroud and its environs in daylight, she felt disappointed.
She reached the third agent just before twelve. He was on the point of closing for the holiday, but let her in. When she described what she wanted and the money she expected to be available, he said, ‘We do have properties at that price but they are either flats, very small, town houses; or, property in need of modernisation. Like this.’ He handed a brochure of a picture book Cotswold cottage.
‘Could I really afford this?’
‘Yes; it’s been on the market a couple of years. The owner died and the Trustees want it off their hands.’
‘How much renovation does it need?’
The young man shrugged and looked at his watch, ‘If we go now, I’ve just got time to show you.’
They turned into a long winding hill marked ‘Scenic Route’. They passed a vast, area of open grassland. She was told it was 180 acres of common land where farmers let their cows graze over the summer. Half a mile down an unmade track, the cottage came into view. Its charm coupled with the idyllic setting convinced her that this was the place for her, but she was worried about the cost of the renovations. In the living room she could see damp marks all the way up the wall to the top of the doorway, but the cottage was just the right size and the outlook was stunning.
‘It’s lovely,’ she said, ‘But there’s a lot to think about.’
back in Pagan Hill, she brooded over the cottage. To qualify for a mortgage to help with renovations she’d need to find a job, and that wouldn’t be easy at her age.
In hope of dispelling her dark mood, she decided to accept the vicar’s invitation to the church service that afternoon.
She was surprised by the number families in the congregation, until she realised that the local primary school children formed the choir, and the pre-school children had been invited to put the figures into the stable.
The service was short and cheerful. Afterwards, tea, coffee, orange juice, and biscuits were available at the back of the church. Pressed to join in, she stayed and was made very welcome.
She was the centre of attention. ‘I’m house hunting. I viewed a cottage up on the common today.’
A young woman, struggling to hold a baby said, ‘I know that house. At least two interested parties got as far as signing contracts, but something always happened to make them change their minds.’
There were tales of ghosts and murder.
Amy laughed, and said, ‘I expect the truth is that they were all frightened off by the builder’s estimate.’
An elderly man joined the conversation, ‘The secret is to get a quote, before making an offer and then negotiate the price down to accommodate the cost.’
Amy hadn’t bought another house since the one in Tottenham and then John had dealt with everything. She asked, ‘How do I go about finding a reliable builder?’
The man introduced himself as Pete and told her that he was a retired builder. He said, ‘A couple of year ago, before I retired. I quoted for the work on that place. It used to be an old stable. Came roughly to ten grand just to make it wind and watertight and add a new kitchen and bathroom. I expect it’s deteriorated a bit by now and the price would depend on exactly what you want done.’
Pete wrote his number on the service sheet, and said, ‘If you’re still around after Christmas, I’ll could come with you and have a look. If you’re still interested, I could recommend a builder.’
She thanked him, then sought out the Vicar, congratulated him on the delightful service and slipped away.
John decided to buy Amy’s share of the London house and in April, she left London to live in her dream cottage. It took her a while to get used to the sounds of the country. She had expected the nights to be quiet and peaceful, but found she’d swapped the roar of London traffic for the screech of owls and the sound of clanging dustbin lids as foxes rummaged for food. Sometimes, she could hear the late-night trains crossing the nearby railway bridge, but more often she heard the whinnying of horses. They must be stabled somewhere nearby.
In July she heard the sad cries of cows grieving for calves recently sent to market. The most constant sound was of horses’ hooves. Sometimes they sounded very close and added to the historic and rustic atmosphere of the hamlet where she lived.
A month before Christmas, double glazing was installed. The renovation had been costly and hard work. To save money and prevent herself from brooding, she had done several challenging jobs herself. When she had finished painting the walls, she frequented second hand shops and local auction rooms to replace the furniture she’d left behind in London.
Just in time for Christmas, she was able to hand her new curtains and the cottage was ready.
Amy stood back to admire the effect of the cushion she’d just placed on the newly-painted rocking chair in the corner, and. satisfied, she drove to the station to pick up her friend, Liz.
‘Perfect! A proper Christmas Cottage.’ Liz said as they arrived. Inside, she looked around, her comments were; ‘It’s really delightful.’ ‘Everything is just right.’ And, ‘The views, they’re lovely.’ Her envy was obvious and her praise felt earned.
On Christmas Eve they were gathering greenery in the grounds of the nearby, derelict manor house when Amy tripped on a large stone lurking in the overgrown and stubbed her toe. She swore loudly, and hopped around cursing.
Liz found a stout stick and attempted to clear some of the weeds. ‘Just look at this. I think it’s a headstone,’ and took a photo. Neither of them could make out the words engraved on the stone and they speculation about it all evening.
Next morning, they put the turkey in the oven and then retraced last night’s walk in the daylight. Even with the sun shining directly on it, the words on the headstone were illegible. No other graves were around.
That evening they heard the sound of hooves passing close to the cottage, but these were much preferable the continuous sound of traffic that continued, day and night in Tottenham.
A short time later, while sitting on the sofa before the festive log fire, Liz said that she thought the rocking chair was moving.
‘I must have knocked against it as I switched on the T.V.,’ Amy said, thinking that it was more likely the effect of three glasses of red wine with Christmas dinner, followed by a large brandy. She doubted if either of them would stay awake long enough to watch the special Christmas edition of Call the Midwife.
Liz was brought back from the brink of sleep by the sound of the distressed whinny of a horse some very close by. She roused Amy. They crept down stairs and opened the door. They could see nothing.
‘Maybe the sound is being carried on the wind,’ Amy said.
Sated with food and wine, they dozed companionably in the warm room, but were woken by the sound of horse’s hooves, so near the animal must have been just outside. Again they could see nothing.
A short time later, the living room door blew open, the curtains were stirring and the rocking chair really did begin to move. Then there was a bang, as the back door flew open.
‘It must be blowing a gale force wind out there,’ Amy said. ‘Perhaps I didn’t close the doors properly when we looked out earlier on.’ She recalled the tales of haunting, but refused to admit this was a possible explanation. In such old cottages, nothing is square, and this one was no exception. The doors don’t shut properly unless locked. Nevertheless, she was shivering and drew her chair nearer the fire.
A little later, Liz asked, ‘Are you sure the doors and windows are all shut, I could swear that rocking chair is still moving.’
Amy looked at her friend in concern, Liz had turned quite pale, ‘Too much Christmas spirit, it’s time we turned in.’
They hadn’t been asleep for long when the sound of whinnying woke them both. It sounded like a horse in real distress. Again they looked outside. Nothing. Amy wondered exactly where the horse was stabled. She knew horses were unsettled by strong winds and hoped someone was there to comfort it.
After that neither of them could settle. At around two in the morning, they made tea and revived the dying embers of the living room fire. Reluctant to return to bed they snuggled together under a blanket.
They woke late next morning to find the wind had dropped. They went out to see what damage had been done, but everything was intact. They re-laid the fire and tidied up ready to welcome and Amy’s nearest neighbour, Enid, who coming for lunch.
Edna admired the newly decorated living room, ‘With the log fire and all that holly and ivy its very festive and cosy.’
‘We collected the greenery from the old Manor House garden,’ Amy said, and told her about the discovery of the gravestone.
Edna showed no surprised, ‘That’ll be Kruger. Sir Henry really loved that horse. They served together in The Battle of Balaclava and both survived.’
‘And Sir Henry brought him back here?’
‘Yes. Kruger lived on for several years. They say, Sir Henry cared for that horse more than for his family.’
Liz got out her phone and showed Enid the photo of the headstone.
Enid knew the inscription by heart:
‘In memory of Kruger, my faithful friend, departed this life 26.12.1864. Rest in peace’
After Edna had left, Liz said, ‘What do you make of that? Perhaps this place is haunted.’
Amy was beginning to think this might be the case, but shook her head and replied, ‘I have never believed in ghosts, but phantom horse or not, this is a far better Christmas than any I ever spent in London with John.’
She sat quietly, thinking. For the first time in twenty-five years, she was experiencing the real meaning of the season: the clouds had lifted and the seeds were sown for an adventurous new beginning.