Festive fluff, just because.
(I may well change the title if/when I think of a better one.)
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Minor character(s), Rosalie Dene
St Briavel's, SwitzerlandSchool Name:
Domestic, Family, Seasonal, Slash
Rhyll Everett/Peggy Burnett
06 Dec 2016 Updated:
05 Jan 2017
1. Chapter 1 by crm
2. Chapter 2 by crm
3. Chapter 3 by crm
4. Chapter 4 by crm
5. Chapter 5 by crm
Rhyll was first to arrive.
She threw her suitcase down onto the platform at Innsbruck, before climbing down herself and casting a swift look up and down the platform. She needed to find somewhere to wash and brush up; after that, breakfast. The station was clean and well-equipped, if rather tired-looking, and she was quickly able to accomplish the former and then find a little cafe where she ordered coffee and a hot buttered roll. She chose a table next to the window, and as she waited she watched the morning bustle in the streets outside. The city itself was pretty enough - if also tired, which was only to be expected - but it was the unexpected backdrop of the Tirolean Alps which made the view so striking. She had woken somewhere in Switzerland, early that morning, and had been mesmerised by the mountain scenery ever since; now, with the coffee warming her and the bright October sunshine bathing the flagstone streets beneath her in golden light, she was no less enchanted.
Peggy would not arrive before noon. Breakfast finished and paid for, she found a porter and had her suitcase taken to the Hotel Europe. Thus relieved, she stepped from the station into the sunlight and crisp autumn air, and - at a whim - turned left down the street. She had declined Peggy's kind suggestions of things she might want to do this morning, sights she probably ought to see: she preferred to take this time to wander the city alone, absorbing its atmosphere, looking for nothing and therefore noticing everything - or as close to everything as she might reasonably hope for. Time enough for Peggy to show her the things she ought to see, enlivening them with her own easy commentary. They would have four days, after all.
The station clock ticked round to half-past twelve. Rhyll waited anxiously in the ticket hall, reminding herself that Peggy arriving on this train would be a stroke of good luck; far more likely, she would be on the half-past fifteen. She would return to the station cafe for lunch, if that were the case. Afterwards, she might go across to the hotel and check in. She could buy some flowers for the room, perhaps: nothing too extravagant, just enough to make Peggy smile later on.
She did not go for lunch in the station cafe, and she did not have a chance to check in at the hotel - much less fill it with flowers. Alighting from the half-past twelve was a familiar figure, dark and slight, and even at this distance Rhyll knew the moment when her eyes lit up in recognition, a split second before she broke into a canter which startled a fair few of her fellow disembarking passengers. Moments later, Rhyll found herself almost bowled over as Peggy dropped her bags at her feet and flung both arms around her: "Evvy!"
It had been eight long weeks - long enough for Rhyll to start slightly at the familiar feel of Peggy's hair nestling against her throat, the sinewy arms clutched tightly around her; the faint smell of violets. She reciprocated the embrace, breathed Peggy in deeply.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Peggy demanded, as at length she untangled herself, standing back to look at Rhyll.
"It is," Rhyll agreed wholeheartedly. So are you, she added mentally, but did not say it aloud. Mawkish sentimentality: likely her face said it all anyway. "Shall we dispose of your bags, sweetheart, and find ourselves some lunch? You must be famished."
"I'm always famished!" Peggy retorted cheerfully. "All the more so for running away before brekker, the better to catch the early train. Yes, your plan's a good one. Hi, porter!" and here she switched smoothly to German to direct and pay a passing attendant to take charge of her luggage. "I've an idea of where we might go for lunch, if you're happy to follow me? It shouldn't be more than ten minutes or so from here, if I can remember the way at the first time of asking."
"Perfect. But what do you mean, 'remember'? Surely not from - how old were you when you left? Eleven, wasn't it?"
Peggy grinned, slipping a slender arm through Rhyll's proffered elbow and steering her towards the station exit. "Perhaps you'd be surprised at how well I think I remember Innsbruck, at least! On this matter, however, you're quite justified in questioning me - it's a recommendation from my old friend Irma. She was Hungarian, but after her marriage she settled in Innsbruck. I wrote to her as soon as I had the idea of meeting you here. She would like to meet us while we're here, naturally, but I haven't promised anything."
"We should."Rhyll murmured, enjoying letting Peggy guide her through the streets. The train journey had not been a bad one, but she was aware of having had a restless night nonetheless. Having accomplished her one task for the day - meet Peggy - she felt pleasantly sleepy, compliant.
"There are plans we must make!" Peggy announced, once the waitress had taken their order and they had remarked on the charm of the quaint little gasthaus, cosily tucked away up a little cobbled side-street; there was no chance they would have found it without Irma's recommendation and detailed directions from the train station. "Christmas. I want to see you at Christmas, Evvy."
A slow smile spread across Rhyll's face. Peggy's words were as warming as the fire which roared in the grate, and her undisguised enthusiasm was as endearing as it always was. "I'd love to. Are you extending an invitation? You'd be very welcome to come with me to my folks', but I'm not the least wedded to the notion of visiting them. I went last year, and none of the others did." - an acccusation which was somewhat unfair on all three brothers, seeing as Ralph and Charles lived on the other side of the world and Julian had been on active service in the Royal Navy, but Rhyll did not let this detail of accuracy bother her unduly.
"Are you sure?" Peggy looked pensive. "Only I really would like to go to my folks, and take you with me, but I don't want to make things difficult for your own family..."
Rhyll laid a reassuring hand on top of hers, smiling openly at the waitress who had returned with the wine, in a manner she hoped was suggestive of sisterly kindness and nothing more troubling. Once the waitress had graciously departed again, smiling at their chorus of thanks, she answered. "Not at all. I don't go every year - as a general principle as much as anything else. I don't get enough time off work to justify spending it all on them, and more importantly I don't want to create the expectation that I will do so. Because that would make a problem when there's someone who matters more at Christmastime."
Unexpectedly, Peggy blushed deeply. She took a quick mouthful of her drink, and spoke again once she had restored her composure. "Have some time to think on it, if you'd like. But I'd love for you to be there, and I'm flattered to think you think I matter more."
"You do," Rhyll's eyes twinkled as a shadow of pink returned to Peggy's cheeks. "Oh, don't feel obliged to reciprocate! Your family isn't my family. I'm pleased you want to be with them, and all the more so that you want me to be with them too." She paused for a moment. "What are you going to tell them about me?"
"Only that you're a friend, from work," Peggy began, her eyes searching Rhyll for traces of disapproval. "It's not that I'd care too much if they guessed otherwise, only - I'd rather not talk about it openly with them. Not just now, anyway. Is that - is that all right? Do you mind?"
"Well, if you've had a fair guess at what will happen - have you?" She kept her voice casual, though in her heart she was deeply serious. "You'll say you're bringing a friend. They'll picture somebody like Biddy, maybe - someone like you, for that matter - young, pretty, charming. Probably she'll have to be tragically orphaned, or otherwise with parents a long way abroad, and so you've stepped into the breach to bring her back into the warmth of a wholesome family Christmas. Quite likely you went to school with her - or if not, she probably went to school with a cousin of yours, a neighbour's friend, maybe the vicar's nieces. And then you fetch up with me -" she paused for effect - "me, having to confess a wilfully neglected set of parents of my own, and looking decidedly - well; not so much like Biddy."
Peggy giggled, but did not look startled. "Thank you - and wholly pleased I am with how you look, thank you very much. Yes, I had thought of all that. That's what I mean, I wouldn't care too much if they guessed it. I know it's not such an unlikely event that they might."
Rhyll could not suppress a small smile - joy, at what Peggy was saying, mingled with embarrassment at having so underestimated her. "You're really sure, then?"
"They love me." Peggy's answer had all her usual certainty now; and though Rhyll had heard too many sad stories down the years to feel fully reassured by this assertion, she supposed that Peggy's absolute confidence had to come from somewhere. Unconditional love was at least as likely a source as any other. Doubt and suspicion were born of experience, but that did not imply that either made for a wiser or more mature response. And for what experience was worth, she knew at least twice as many families where the only rejection was the unswerving refusal to acknowledge love; painful though it might be, there was still great safety and comfort to be found lurking in those particular shadows. In any case, Peggy's relations were her own concern - and the prospect of being taken home with her for Christmas was too marvellous for her to invest herself in finding reasons it might be an unwise idea.
Thank you for the lovely comments!
A confession, ahead of this chapter. I had this all planned out in my head, on the basis that the Burnett family home is never given an exact location but that in 'Lavender' they are described as having been "bombed out on the south coast".
Only, when I went to double check this, that turns out not to be the case: instead, they had in fact been "bombed out on the east coast".
I don't think this is the worst error in the world, but - rather than try to modify my whole imagining of it - I've simply redacted actual place names (or other unmistakeable references which identify place) in this account. If you recognise where it is - or indeed recognise that it cannot possibly be the east coast - then I can only apologise and hope that it doesn't ruin the story for you!
If Rhyll felt some long-absent pang of nerves as she descended from another train carriage two months later, she did not give any outward sign. Following Peggy, who darted through the crowded station with a speed and dexterity that belied the cumbersome bag she carried with her, cheeks pink with the cold and eyes alight with excitement, it hardly seemed reasonable to mention the churning anxiety in the pit of her stomach. She hoisted her own bag more firmly over her shoulder as she quickened her pace.
It was cold but dry and bright, and the seaside town was busy. From the station, Peggy led her downhill, round a twisting avenue lined with grand hotels and countless shops, until they reached the town square where the great Christmas tree stood. Peggy gave it a satisfied nod, and smiled almost shyly at Rhyll - as though she was presenting the tree, along with the rest of the town, to her for approval. She waved one hand out at the distance, with a little less shyness, a touch more pride, almost catching a passing family as she did so and beaming an apology on them. "The sea!"
Rhyll's gaze followed her direction, across the manicured gardens and past the pavillion: the sea, indeed. Her own smile widened. There was such tremendous rightness in its nearby presence: reassuring, grounding. It seemed a good omen; she hoped it was.
"I'll bring you back to see it properly tomorrow," Peggy continued. "That's if we can't find the time to come out again before it gets dark this afternoon. Promise." She grinned playfully at her, and caught the tips of Rhyll's fingers in her gloved hand, momentarily, to steer her away from the sea and up through the public gardens, weaving past the throng of shoppers and merry-makers along the path between fenced-off grass and flowerbeds. Even in winter, it was obvious at a glance just how well-tended they were, neat and tidy and without the slightest patch of overgrowth; the extreme human control of the plants could have so easily been cloying, but it was carefully judged and finely executed, Rhyll decided. She thought she could picture it quite well in full bloom, and wondered whether she would ever be back here to see it in summer.
The gardens followed a running stream, maybe four feet in width. As Peggy guided her alongside it, the crowds thinned out and the gardens dipped lower than street level, the hubbub of the town centre beginning to fade out of view higher up and partly obscured by delicately-groomed bushes. Nonchalant, Peggy picked up two twigs from the ground, examined both before passing one to Rhyll and pulling her onto the little bridge. "My count - three, two, one-" and in perfect synchrony they released their missiles into the water below. Peggy spun and leaned across the other side, and when the twigs emerged from beneath them they had become entwined and she laughed in delight. "Well, I can't think of a better draw than that!"
They passed the war memorial next, and by unspoken agreement both fell respectfully sober until the great stone structure was safely behind them. Rhyll thought of her brother Julian for a moment, stationed in the Far East for the second Christmas running; perhaps next year he would be home.
Yew. Cherry. And pine, scores of pine trees as far as the eye could see, tall and ancient, majestic in their sense of prehistory: they must have been here for all of time, and they would be here for generations beyond Rhyll's own death; she felt comfortingly inconsequential as she gazed up at them.
"Watch!" Peggy commanded now, dropping her big bag at Rhyll's feet and - barely pausing to check that Rhyll did as instructed - suddenly running at the stream and taking a flying leap across it. She landed neatly on the other side, only bending low enough to stabilise herself with a hand out of caution, Rhyll thought, rather than actual need, and when she turned to face her she was grinning with childlike delight. Rhyll put her own bag down and gave a round of applause, and Peggy paced the grass her side of the river thoughtfully. "I don't think I can jump back here," she remarked. "It's too wet. I'll slip."
"And here I am with two bags, then?" Rhyll chafed, but she was not displeased as she reached to pick both from the ground.
"Sorry," Peggy called, still cheerful. "I don't think it's too far to the next bridge. If it were summer, I'd wade across and propriety be damned, but..."
"Well, if that's so, I'm bally glad it's December!" Rhyll retorted. "What sort of impression am I to make on your parents, if you turn up in my company looking like some sort of urchin?"
Peggy giggled, positively skipping along, running her hands over the low-hanging tree branches as she dipped underneath them. "They're used to it. They'd be more concerned if I turned up without a hair out of place. Out of five of us, it's only really Mary you can hope to manage that sort of thing reliably." As she had predicted, another bridge loomed nearby, and she came across it to Rhyll, retrieving her big bag with a grin of gratitude. "Isn't it ducky here, Evvy? Now I think about it properly, I don't suppose we will be able to get out again today without being horribly rude, but definitely we'll go for a good walk along the shoreline tomorrow. Invite Mary and Kitty along too, if they want. Mary's been down a week already - I know for she wrote to me and said she'd arrived last week - and Kitty was due to arrive yesterday. I'm glad we're all here. I've been looking to it for such ages." She glanced at Rhyll, and her mouth twtitched as though she thought of adding something more, but thought better of it and grinned sheepishly at the ground instead. Rhyll tried on a number of responses, found them all somewhere between trite and banal, and also settled for smiling at her feet.
It was Mary who first came to the door to greet them, standing in the wide hallway with a soothingly familiar smile. "Come in, come in! Very well timed, we were just about to have some tea. Leave your things there-" and here she stopped talking, smothered as she was by Peggy's embraces. She gave Rhyll a helpless grin over her sister's shoulder, and Rhyll smiled back as she laid down her big bag against the skirting board and nudged Peggy's neatly into place beside it. Two youths pressed through into the hall, mumbling greetings and offering shy smiles: both were startlingly like Peggy to look at, the same tousled hair, the same dark eyes set in sharply angular faces, and on this basis alone Rhyll liked them already.
Mary led the way through the passage to the parlour, and Peggy caught up Rhyll's hand in a quick squeeze. She was animated, alive, and Rhyll was warmed by it, enough to quell her own nerves.
The rest of the family were congregated in front of the roaring fire. Kitty Burnett and a man Rhyll vaguely recognised as Mary's husband Andrew sat at either end of the Chesterfield; one of the boys perched on a pouffe beside Kitty, and the other leaned against the armchair in which their mother was - upright, alert, eager to greet her latest arrivals. Peggy crossed the room swiftly, kissed her on both cheeks, her own cheeks flushed with pleasure. Someone rang for tea, and it seemed almost immediately Rhyll was seated amongst them all, drinking good hot tea and luxuriating in the warmth of the fire and the easy comfort of the family, where no one stood on ceremony and it was taken for granted that the latest visitor would join in straight away.
"Dad working today?" Peggy asked her mother. Her father was a district Recorder, the position for which the family had moved here more than a decade earlier. "Tomorrow, too?" Her mother answering both in the affirmative, she then glanced at her two sisters side by side on the Chesterfield. "I was thinking about a walk in the morning, follow the coast path west until... Well, just 'until'; I don't know how far we'll want to keep going. Coming? - And you, Andrew?"
Mary nodded immediately, looked sideways at her husband in questioning. He, too, nodded his assent.
"Not me,"Kitty answered quickly, and Rhyll caught a little note of something in her voice; not something altogether likeable. She cast her mind back, tried to remember Kitty at school: the sharpness, coolness of her response now - neither recalled anything to her. Even still, it was probably nothing; none of her family gave it a moment of attention: Peggy herself had shrugged indifferently, and moved the conversation on to other things.
It was not entirely unnoticed by Peggy, however; nor was it forgotten, though it was the following morning before she had a chance to investigate further. Catching her sister on the way out of the bathroom before breakfast, she fell into step beside her, accompanying Kitty to her room. "Not coming out with we four this morning, still?"
"No," Kitty answered shortly, evidently keen to let it go at that; but Peggy did not leave her, and her continued presence quickly prodded the elder sister into expanding on her point. "Look, Peggy, I shall be civil and all, but I wish you'd not brought her with you. Won't you think of the position it puts me in? She was our teacher, Peg! It doesn't quite sit right with me. Yes, I shall be civil, but I've no inclination to come cavorting about with you all."
Peggy saw red. "What's not to sit right? It's no different from Jo and Jack Maynard, or Jane Eyre and Rochester, or - Mary hasn't any problem. I don't see why you should have."
"It's different for Mary. She'd left already, and now she has Andrew too." Kitty scowled to herself as she retrieved clean clothes from the wardrobe and began to dress. "It's not fair of you. You never think about anyone but yourself. Go for your walk! I shall amuse myself with Dick and John, but I wish you'd never brought her."
She turned away from Peggy now, and knowing herself dismissed Peggy stalked angrily from the room. Her high mood of yesterday disappeared, she descended the stairs to the dining room with a heavy heart.
Rhyll was there already, contentedly engaged in conversation with Mary and Andrew. Andrew was regaling both women with tales of his general practice in Aberdeenshire, the curious collection of patients he came into contact with in any particular week, and they were all laughing. Peggy took her place, and reached for a slice of toast. Rhyll and Mary both turned to her with warm smiles - two very different warm smiles, both going a long way towards restoring the upset her unexpected altercation with Kitty had caused. Mary hasn't any problem: Peggy had thrown it at Kitty with the conviction born of a great sense of injustice; but while the injustice she had felt was no affectation, her confidence in the pronouncement had been less than she had implied. The breakfast scene cleared her mind of any doubt, however: Mary was more than merely a good host, was welcoming Evvy into the family home with real care - even, Peggy cautiously recognised, with pleasure. As for Andrew - well, she couldn't guess what Andrew thought or knew of the matter; but she did note that he was already more at ease with her guest than he had ever seemed to be with Kitty or herself. Thank goodness for these two; Christmas good-cheer remained possible, because of them.
It was likewise because of Mary and Andrew that the walk was a delightful one. Rhyll marvelled aloud at the gentle rolling hills, the way the cliffs in the distance fell away sharply into the sea; at how lushly green it all was, healthy with the heritage of millennia as undisturbed swampland. Through her admiration, Peggy found herself appreciating the landscape as if for the first time; she had always shrugged off the scenery here, considering herself to have been spoiled by the more dramatic beauty of the Tyrol; but now she saw it as Rhyll did, a pastoral idyll, a gentle triumph of benign neglect. She talked about the area as they walked, and - hearing herself as though the speaker were someone else - she realised how fond ofthis place she was, how proud, how much knowledge she had absorbed unknowingly over the years: part history, part geography, part folklore. She pointed out the places she and her brothers had played as children; the deserted island in the peninsula which had been set up as a decoy during the War, and so saved the harbour a great deal of damage; the tropical gardens set into the cliffs just above the sea, where they walked down to the promenade itself on the return journey. At this last Rhyll's eyes lit up, as Peggy had known they would, and laughingly she led the way into the quiet pathways of the gardens, where she fell into step beside Rhyll, taking her turn to listen. Rhyll at her happiest and most knowledgeable always thrilled her; and there was something exquisite in this new admixture of a place which was unshakeably familiar - almost boring 'til now, she owned - with this precious new visitor.
The early dusk was beginning, as they began the last leg of their journey up through the chine. Andrew and Rhyll had settled into a comfortable conversation which Peggy - trailing several steps behind, together with Mary - could not hear, nor guess at its content. Being able to relax and chat with Mary was yet another unexpected pleasure. They spoke of nothing important - none of the serious or important things they might have thought to, if this time together had been contrived or felt costly; as it was, they talked of work and home, the small quotidian details of their respective lives, minor amusements of the past few weeks for each of them. Mary asked after mutual friends at the School, and Peggy teased out little details of past exploits, the better to understand her colleagues' current and inconsequential foibles; each had a sense of at last knowing the other as an equal, neither parent-figure nor overgrown baby but as sisters, with divergent lives and almost diametrically opposite personalities but nonetheless a rich shared history and all the comfort that that could bring.
Thank you for the lovely comments!
Clearly I haven't managed to get this all finished ahead of Christmas, which was originally my intention - but I am (for now!) running in 'real time', at least, and should have the final couple of chapters done by the end of the month, I think.
Happy Christmas. :)
The next day was Christmas Eve, and Kitty appeared to shelve her resentments in the spirit of the season, making all the usual efforts to make the family guests feel welcome; this was no small matter, for 'making family guests feel welcome' was a great deal more than mere politeness and propriety in the Burnett household.
It was Kitty who stopped and turned to Rhyll in the midst of the eager early-morning rush to decorate the tree, insisting that of course she must come along too. There was a great charm to how the youngest four of the family thrilled to this task: the youngest brother was fifteen, and Kitty ten years older, but as they scampered through the halls carrying decorations, and squabbling goodnaturedly over the business, not one of them seemed a day older than ten or eleven. Mary hung back a little, smiling indulgently but holding herself somewhat apart, the responsible eldest, quasi-parent - but after a similar cajoling to that which Rhyll had just been subject, she too left her duties in the kitchen and her husband in the company of her father and joined the crowd.
It was a beautiful tree. Rhyll wondered, but didn't like to ask, whether it was the first in a while. It was hard to imagine that trees could ever be hard to come by here, as they so often had been elsewhere over the last twelve years - but perhaps that was not as simple as it seemed; and in any case, perhaps even if it had been consistently possible to get hold of a good one, it didn't quite 'do' to do so, the rest of the country considered. Neither of her most recent landladies had had one, any year she had been there; but that of course was a different matter again. Anyway, a Christmas tree needn't be a rarity to be cause for excitement: quite conceivably the very consistency of all coming together like this, Christmas after Christmas after Christmas, the tradition of it would bring its own special joy. She hung a glass bauble carefully on a branch, watching the others all the while. Kitty was the one with the artistic eye, stepping back, considering, moving ornaments around and teasingly mocking anyone who dared challenge her relocation of their handiwork. Peggy, meanwhile, had taken it upon herself to dress the highest branches, clearly deciding that her diminutive stature posed no problem natural agility couldn't solve; Mary was keeping a cautious eye on the stepladder on which she precariously balanced on one foot, while John - the youngest - watched with some envy, fidgeting distractedly with the unmistakeable air of a child who is waiting their turn, with absolute certainty that a turn is justly theirs but nevertheless may well be prevented by their elders. From the armchair, their mother watched over proceedings with an air of proud affection: the practicalities of supervision delegated to Mary - for, in spite of the mature ages of all of her 'children', supervision it most certainly was! - she was very evidently enjoying watching the activities of her offspring. Rhyll could not deduce whether Mrs Burnett was actually frail, or whether she and Mary had simply settled into this state of affairs to their mutual satisfaction: it was not Mary's home, but it was quite obvious that she was running it - and well, and perfectly in line with the contented expectations of the whole family.
Perhaps it was the latter - a habit, or an acceptance of the best fit of personalities to roles - for Mrs Burnett gave no hint of frailty when the family walked to midnight Mass.
"You don't mind, do you?" Peggy asked, her voice low, as they passed along the wide pavements towards the town.
"The Mass? Not at all. Firstly, I'm a guest in your house. Secondly, it's Christmas," she caught Peggy's quizzical expression. "Oh, I don't know exactly - but Christmas is different somehow. I don't see that anyone could object to church at Christmas. Anyway, that doesn't matter. It's for you, that I dont mind. Do you believe it deeply, Peggy? Surprisingly I don't think we've ever really discussed it."
Peggy considered for a moment. "I'm not sure, to be completely honest. I definitely believe something. God is there, in some form or another. And the ritual - the eucharist - that means a lot to me. But there's such a lot I'm not certain of. I don't mind in the least if you don't - you don't, do you?"
"Definitely not," Rhyll agreed, with firmness but without antipathy. "Still, that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the wonder of it, or respect it for what it means to other people."
They walked in comfortable silence for a little while, and before much longer the party had arrived at the church. Candles flickered, and Rhyll tasted the tang of incense in the air. She had spoken the truth to Peggy on the journey, and she marvelled at the soothing reverence of the atmosphere, the sense that - beneath the festivities and the gifts and the gathering-together of families happy or awkward - underneath it all lay something precious, something important, something which needed to be marked. She did not receive communion, but came forward for a blessing instead - hoping, belatedly, that this would not cause any issue with Peggy's family, knowing that her moral integrity was, in the church at least, more important than giving a good but untrue impression to her partner's parents.
It did not seem to. After the service, Peggy's parents and their young sons walked back the route they had come; Mary, Andrew, Kitty, Peggy and Rhyll walked instead along the same little brook past which Peggy had first brought her home. The moon was large in the sky, lighting their way, and some sort of magic hung in the air around them, the dusting of silvery frost on the branches of the trees, the hooting of an owl; the brilliant sparkle in Peggy's eyes as she turned smiling at Rhyll, every other step of the way. The group did not chatter much, but they were nonetheless relaxed and companionable as they hurried along through the cold night air, well wrapped up and thoroughly alive to the many wonders of Christmas.
The clock was striking one as the members of the household scurried around from room to room in half-darkness, getting ready for bed; a quiet, comfortable merriness persisted. Peggy, clad in pyjamas and dressing gown, appeared on the threshold of the guest room in which Rhyll was sleeping; in her hand she held a candle, perhaps as a more festive substitute for a torch, Rhyll supposed. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder as she approached; but the only nearby bedroom in use was the one occupied by Mary and Andrew, who had turned in with calls of goodnight several minutes earlier having eschewed the excitable antics, the drawn-out goodnights and the scampering up and downstairs on the pretext of having forgotten something and the giggles in the passageways of the younger family members, for the comfort of bed and rest.
"I've come to wish you a merry Christmas," she murmured, and - with another cautious look around - stood on tiptoe to place the quickest of kisses on Rhyll's mouth. She flashed another grin - conspiratorial, and tinged with very definite pride - and turned tail, padding softly to her own room.
Rhyll went to bed, heart-full and warm and brimming over with the kind of thankfulness for which prayer almost - almost - seemed to be the only appropriate response.
Thank you for the comments!
My self-imposed goalposts for finishing this story have slipped again - I am now aiming to have the fifth and final chapter up before Twelfth Night...
Christmas Day itself passed in an enjoyable haze of nothing, for the most part. Dinner was the doing of Mary and her mother, all offers of help sternly refused, and Kitty was moved to remark that it was more than her life was worth to cross the threshold of the kitchen if that was how they felt about things; Mary, who had not lost the teacherly ability to listen to everything whilst appearing to hear nothing, had put her head round the door to invite her - with the most innocent of smiles - to clear up afterwards, since she was so eager to help. Peggy and the boys remained silent until the sound of her footsteps along the passageway had faded, whereupon they teased their sister for this most undesirable task she had brought upon herself.
There would be no walks that day. The driving rain against the yellow-green of the hills outside made the blazing fire seem that much cosier; the wet grey sky faded indefinitely into the sea in the distance. Peggy reclined against Rhyll on the great Chesterfield and Rhyll concentrated on breathing. She longed for some time alone with Peggy, no matter how brief, and realised with a pang that she was not sure when that might be. A quick look from Peggy told her that she had been entertaining a similar thought, and had reluctantly reached the same conclusion: the sympathetic recognition somehow provided the sustenance circumstances required.
The meal, when it finally appeared, was much admired by all. "I can't help hoping this year will be the last where that's quite so worthy of comment," Mary remarked, after shyly accepting compliments and insisting the best part of their praise was due to her mother alone. "Rationing can't continue very much longer, can it? Of course, one doesn't like to complain..."
"The end is in sight," her father agreed, and Mary smiled at him gratefully, "but I don't believe for one moment that your efforts with a liberated Christmas menu would be any less remarkable, so we'll have less of that talk if you please!"
The candles flickered; the laughter rang out; the evening was a happy blur.
After a contentedly quiet Christmas, greater excitement came late on Boxing Day with the arrival of Rosalie Dene and her father. Rosalie stepped from the driver's seat with a familiar wave, and from the pasenger side came her father; the startling likeness of the two made Rhyll widen her eyes, where she stood with Peggy at the window watching. Peggy saw and laughed.
"Yes, there's no mistaking the family connection there, is there? It's not just looks, either - as you'll find, Rosalie is her father's daughter in a great many ways. We're pleased they're both here - Rosalie came last year, which was smashing, and I'm glad for her that she's managed to drag him off for a holiday this year, as I know she worries about him. December is one of the busiest times for a curate, of course - but with the Christmas services out of the way, he hasn't much excuse not to take some time off to recover. I think it'll be better for her to be here, too, for she slips so readily into the role of housekeeper again whenever she goes back there. That's not what I call a holiday."
"Rosalie's a dear." Rhyll agreed. "I can quite picture her giving her own holidays over to helping with parish work."
"Mary's much the same, in a way." Peggy dropped her voice to a murmur. "She had to leave school early, you know, to look after the house and the boys after Mother got sick. Mother's fine now, at least as far as Kitty and I know - hard to say really if we do know! - but even now, Mary comes back and she mothers everyone. It's her nature as much as habit, I suppose."
"They're very alike too. Mary and your mother, I mean - or I suppose I should say your mother and Mary." Rhyll hastily amended.
Peggy nodded. "And Kitty's like Father - quick-tempered and easily distracted! So are the boys, for that matter."
"And you?" Rhyll turned from the window to her friend now, interested in how she might answer. "Who are you like?"
An unexpected flush of pink coloured Peggy's face, though her smile was undisturbed. "Nobody, I expect! Where you might call Mary - and my mother - 'dependable', it'd probably be more correct to call me 'stubborn'! I'm not so good as either of them. But quick-tempered isn't really me, either, most of the time. I don't think I take life seriously enough."
This off-the-cuff clarity delighted Rhyll. Peggy was quite right; it was her irreverence, her irrepressible lightness, more than anything else, that set her apart. "I love that about you," she whispered softly, and forestalled any need for a reply by indicating the passageway. "Ought we to go through for the meeting and greeting and suchlike, now?"
"I want to be with only you for a while," Peggy muttered, a protest that was neither attainable nor resentful, and was no less truthful than the enthusiastic hug in which she enveloped Rosalie on the doorstep.
Peggy had been quite right about the striking resemblance Rosalie bore to her father. Rhyll supposed it must be obvious, really; the indefatigable sense of generosity and of duty, so often exercised thanklessly and far from the limelight and yet with persistent good grace - they were the textbook features of a clergyman, and how could Rosalie have escaped inheriting them? How could Rhyll ever have seen Rosalie at work and not guessed from whence she had learned her sunny, pragmatic nature?
After supper, Rhyll found herself sitting with Andrew, not for the first time: through years of working in a male-dominated career, she was at much greater ease with the company of men than many women she knew, and she could tell that he saw in her a reliable ally. She had noticed, with a pang of sympathy, that he was somewhat nervous of his father-in-law; fortunately, from that perspective, this evening Mr Burnett's attention was quite taken up with his wife and her brother; the sisters and their cousin were still in the early excitement of Rosalie's arrival, and the boys were engrossed in their Christmas presents.
"You're off soon, aren't you?" She asked.
He nodded. "The day after tomorrow. Mary's staying a wee while longer, but the patients won't wait!"
She wanted to remark that it was unusual, in her experience, for a husband to be so content to let his wife choose when and where she wanted to be; was pleased that he clearly neither wanted nor expected anything quite so Victorian. But she did not know him well enough to say something so uncomfortable, so she merely nodded in understanding and accepted the cigarette he offered her.
"It's still a few more days past that for you, isn't it?"
"Wednesday," Rhyll agreed. She nearly added that she really ought to see her own parents for a day or two before she went back to work, but it seemed unwise: if Andrew were her acquaintance, then any resulting question of why she was not with her parents for Christmas itself could be quelled with the response that he was not spending Christmas with his parents, either; but Andrew was not her acquaintance, he was her lover's brother-in-law; it would not be fair to say something so uncompromising, in the circumstances; Andrew would not mind a short response; he did not mind the companionable silence; she did not mention her plans for the later portion of the following week.
He nodded again. "Change of scenery does you the world of good, doesn't it?"
She couldn't help wondering if he was referring to her thoughts, rather than the simple difference between Carnbach and here. Was it the newness of here in particular, in contrast to the familiarity of one's own family home for Christmas, that constituted this beneficial change of scenery? She supposed it was unlikely he had consciously thought any such thing; it was just one of those things people liked to say. "That it does. I suppose you can't prescribe it to your patients..."
"Oh, I do when I can," he answered, suddenly in earnest, and Rhyll roused up, interested. "Rest, change of air, new ideas, good company - I believe that would cure 90% of the ailments I see in a typical week. The only trouble is that in the case of most of them, you can tell without even trying that they'll not hear a word of that."
Rhyll laughed. "Schoolgirls can be just the same. Actually, never mind schoolgirls, it was always the folk I gardened for who were most wilfully hard of hearing once they'd got an idea of their own into their head!"
He laughed too, and in almost perfect synchrony, as if attracted by the sound, Peggy and Mary turned their heads to check their respective guests were all right. Perhaps in equal synchrony, Rhyll mused, she and Andrew returned reassuring smiles. Peggy waved a pack of playing cards at them, a question, and Andrew raised his eyebrows at Rhyll, making the question hers to answer. Rhyll nodded, and hauled herself to her feet.
Peggy grinned as they approached, and dealt out the cards. Six players made a good number, and Rosalie's arrival also meant that the group no longer felt like two pairs and then Kitty. Rhyll's unintrusive position between Andrew and Rosalie seemed to cement that shift: it did not matter that she drew attention by winning the first three games in a row.
The fire had almost burned out in the grate before anyone spoke of heading to bed.
Peggy had entertained a vague idea that Rosalie's arrival and Andrew's departure soon after might smooth relations in the Burnett household. Forming two pairs, together with Mary and Andrew, had pleased her enormously - had seemed to bestow an equivalence on both relationships; she could tolerate imagining the annoyance this state of affairs might cause Kitty - surplus and alone, left behind, no part of the validation and victory Peggy herself was so much enjoying. That would be no unreasonable feeling on Kitty's part, and meant nothing personal to Peggy, either.
But the change in company did not alter Kitty's bad mood. The evening after Mary's husband had left, they gathered round the table after supper - all three sisters, Rosalie and Rhyll, drinking coffee and chattering gaily. Peggy shuffled the cards suggestively, cutting and stacking and preparing to deal, impatient, waiting for the moment she could interrupt and solicit opinions on what game they would play; but Rosalie was in the middle of regaling Mary with the finer details of how the school had come to move from St Briavel's to Switzerland, and the moment for interruption did not come. Peggy fell into the conversation too, giggling wildly at the recollection of Michael Christy and his hunt for long-lost pirate treasure, the nonsensical stuff of children's adventure stories, and how utterly ridiculous that he had indeed struck gold.
"Of course, as reasons to move go, it's probably no more farcical than the drains at Plas Howell..." Rhyll put in with a grin, and Peggy and Mary both laughed along too.
"Not that it was strictly Commander Christy's unexpected riches that we have to blame," Rosalie corrected her cheerfully. "That was the funniest part of it - that he turned up, terribly solemn and business-like, quite prepared for Hilda to - well, I don't know what he thought he was prepared for: shock, undoubtedly - but sorrow? fury? Anyway, there he was, apologetically explaining that he'd come to serve us with notice to quit - and the letter already in the post from Canada giving him notice!"
Without a word, Kitty rose angrily to her feet, pushing her chair away behind her and stalking out of the room with her head held high. Immediately the group fell silent. Mary shrugged at Rosalie in a show of helplessness, evver the peacemaker.
Peggy was not convinced by the shrug, and did not imagine Rosalie would be - but if their cousin recognised the reason for Kitty's departure, she did not mention it, nor take blame on behalf of the whole group for indulging in thoughtless gossip on a subject that couldn't help but exclude one of their number. She gave another shrug of her own, and kept her voice reassuringly light as she suggested Peggy deal out the cards now. As Peggy dealt, Rosalie kept up a gentle flow of chatter, as if their conversation had never been disturbed: "Did you already know he had a habit of coming and going via the window of Hilda's study, if you please?"
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mary's quick smile of gratitude; and then, immersed in the game, doubled up with Rhyll against the other two - and losing quite spectacularly - she quickly forgot all about Kitty.
The following morning was a fine one, bright and cold, and Peggy declared her intentions of a walk on the beach after breakfast. Rosalie looked up with an eager smile, and Mary announced that she would come too, adding a tentative "Kitty?"
"Not me," Kitty answered airily, busying herself with a book. "It's bitterly cold out there today."
Out of sight, Peggy made an impatient face at Mary. The lie was obvious: Kitty had never been one to be left out of any adventure, had accompanied them on enough blisteringly cold occasions for this excuse to hold no water at all with either sister.
"I think I'll stay here too," Rosalie intervened swiftly, surprising them all. "It is cold, and I've some letters I might get on with while you're gone."
Peggy shrugged and went straight to the cupboard to fetch her coat and boots. Behind her, she heard the murmured goodbyes of the others, and then Mary and Rhyll following her.
It was fiercely cold outside: along the beach where gulls shrieked and the wind whipped mercilessly right through them, they all three gave up on conversation for the words were carried far away almost the instant they opened their mouths. She saw the pleasure on Rhyll's face, and it warmed her; she looked again at the familiar coastline, and saw for the first time how powerful it was, how commanding; she had thought the landscape here could not compare with the greater drama of the alps, that the shapes and the colours and the weather were all milder and consequently less interesting, less striking, but she had been wrong.
Near the town centre, just in sight of the pier and the pavilion, they sought pink-cheeked respite in a small tea-room. They ordered hot drinks, and Rhyll excused herself to go and freshen up, leaving Mary and Peggy alone at the table.
"She'll come round eventually," Mary murmured insistently. "Kitty, I mean. Oh, I know she's upset now, but you know as well as I do just how quickly up and down she is."
So Kitty had spoken to Mary; of course. Typical of Kitty to speak first and think later, especially when aggrieved. Had she sought in Mary a sister and an ally, or a mother's uncritical indulgence? And what had each said to the other?
"I told her I didn't know what she meant," Mary went on, one eye on the little passageway through which Rhyll would re-emerge at any moment. "I agreed that it must be hard on her as the only one amongst us who didn't ever join the staff, and that perhaps it might feel a little odd for her to have one of her former mistresses visiting. But when she sighed dramatically and asked sarcastically whether I really thought that that was the whole of the problem, I feigned ignorance. It wasn't the greatest stretch from the truth, but it was untruthful nonetheless. I didn't like to be dishonest, but I thought it was the best answer I could give."
Rhyll reappeared at that moment, and the sight of her brought a faint smile to Peggy's face. It was only much later than she mulled the discussion over and felt an unusual bitterness. Mary's good intentions could not be faulted, of course not - her discretion was considerate, and there could be little choice for her in it. Peggy supposed it did, after all, have to be secret. But that realisation took away all the pleasure of having been a valid counterpart to Mary and Andrew over the previous week; diminished everything, making her feel as though perhaps she had imagined the camaraderie, the mirror that Mary and Andrew had held up to her and Rhyll; cloaked it with shame, somehow - something where the 'best answer' was a pretence of ignorance and of innocence, a lie worth telling, even to a sister.
The day for their departure finally arrived. Both would catch the same train initially, as far as Southampton, where Peggy would take the ferry over to France and Rhyll would catch another train onward to Wales. Rosalie and her father were leaving the same day - Rosalie driving them both home to Kent, where she would stay another night before flying to Switzerland.
After the first flurry of goodbyes, once the Denes' car had swung out of the drive and along the shady road out of sight, Rhyll loaded their bags into the boot of Mr Burnett's car. Mary hugged Peggy tightly, reiterating in a quick whisper her reassurance about Kitty, together with a recommendation to keep in touch with her as usual - correctly anticipating Peggy's instinct to cut her off in a sulk. Releasing her hold, Mary raised her voice. "You'll always be welcome to come to Aberdeen, just as soon as you can find the time. That goes for you too, Kitty. I wonder whether you could both manage Easter - or is that too much to hope for our little continental dweller?"
Peggy smiled brightly, appreciating the effort; and - perhaps it was her imagination, but - Kitty's smile did not seem entirely false. She submitted to her mother's embrace, grateful for the excuse not to speak immediately in reply, for she thought her voice might break. The conciliatory effort was well judged and generously made, she recognised; but the explicit exclusion of her own friend from the invitation - the reminder that she might not even be able to travel back to England for Easter, which already felt a distant prospect - the inescapable truth of the hard choices she would always have to make concerning too-scarce time in this country and how to spend it, with whom - tears sprang to her eyes and she blinked them back, face pushed safely into her mother's warm shoulder. Hopefully Evvy would move to the Oberland before too much longer; that would make some of these problems, at least, a great deal easier.
It was a pleasure to be alone together again - if in the company of numerous other travellers. Tired, they sat in easy silence for much of the journey, each interrupting it occasionally to point at something through the window, or to offer the other a toffee from the bag Peggy had impulsively bought at the station. Peggy smiled as their fingers brushed against each other inside the paper bag: when she looked up, Rhyll was turned away, looking determinedly through the window at the fields outside, and Peggy knew quite well that she was hiding an unstoppable smile of her own.
Safely disembarked at Southampton, they scanned the departure boards. "Oh - you could make the ten-past train if you hurry now," Peggy observed, keeping her voice factual, trying to silence any trace of disappointment.
"Oh, I don't think so," Rhyll said, firmly. "It's ages yet 'til your crossing, isn't it?"
"Five o'clock", Peggy answered.
Rhyll nodded. "Then I've no urge to catch the ten-past. There's an evening train - I think it's at about seven. I'll take that one."
"You'll be dead by the time you arrive in Cardiff."
Rhyll shrugged. "Worth it."
Peggy grinned. "Shall we walk down to the docks for a while, then?" As she spoke, she led the way through the station and out into the cold air. "Remember being here at Easter? It seems hard to imagine that was only - what - eight months ago." It feels many years. Peggy felt the sharp stab of impending separation. In a great number of ways she was keen to get back to the clean, breathtaking beauty of the Alps in winter, but she wished desperately that Rhyll was coming with her. Rhyll would love the sheer splendour of the mountains, huge with vitality and promise and adventure...
All week she had yearned to be alone with Rhyll, unseen and unheard; but now that her wish had been granted she could hardly think of a single thing to say. This was no longer the comfortable silence of the railway carriage: she felt tongue-tied and stupid, unable to find a way of bridging the gap that was already opening up between them. She was almost relieved when the time came for her to board the ferry; at yet as soon as she was gone - the very moment she stepped off the gangway at the other end, where the smiling officer checked her ticket and directed her to her cabin, and she could no longer turn tail and run back into Rhyll's familiar arms - she regretted that sentiment, and cursed herself for the wasted afternoon. Standing hopelessly at the railings, squinting back to see Rhyll in the dim light and distance, she felt the unbearable feeling of having left some small but essential part of her ashore.
She must pull herself together: she was a strong helpful woman, not a jellyfish! Almost mechanically, she noticed a woman nearby, struggling with two small boys and a suitcase.
"Here - let me." With a smile, and without waiting for a reply, she took the suitcase from her and waited expectantly for directions. The woman gave her a grateful smile, the harassed look fasding from her face temporarily. Taking one child in each hand, she led the way down the steps until they reached her cabin. At the door, Peggy laid down the suitcase, waved away her thanks, smiled quickly at the children and retraced her steps in search of her own cabin. The brief act of doing something for somebody else had strengthened her, and suddenly nothing was so dreadful after all.
Through the door of her cabin, she set her suitcase down, unpacked her essentials and stowed them neatly on the little ledge. This task done, and the great ship preparing to set sail, she took up her notepaper and she settled down to write a letter:
"In my mind's eye, you're still standing on the docks, waving bravely at the ship as it draws further and further away from land. No doubt this is fanciful nonsense and you're already striding back to the station, or sitting on your case in the ticket hall waiting for the evening train. I hope it's not delayed. I hope you're not too cold."
On a whim, she put the pen down and slipped back through the door of her cabin, heading for the deck and a view of England as she pulled slowly away.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but there she was - she was right: Rhyll still stood on the docks, watching the boat as it swung out to sea. Feeling a little foolish and hoping nobody on board was watching her, Peggy waved frantically. It was silly, of course - she was too far, and too small, and it was too dark: there was no chance of Rhyll seeing her. And then - could it be? - Rhyll was waving back. A broad smile seemed to stretch right across Peggy's face, ear to ear, in spite of the chill; she could not make out Rhyll's face at all, of course; but she had no doubt that she, too, was smiling.
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