It was Christmas morning, but Len Maynard had so much to do that she wasn’t really getting the chance to feel festive. She hadn’t got to bed until the small hours of the morning, having been given the task, after returning from Midnight Mass, of filling the younger children’s stockings – “You’re so much quieter than either Papa or I are, and the last thing we want is for them all to wake up!” – and this morning she’d been up early to assist Anna with cooking the Christmas dinner.
Maybe she hadn’t really had to, but if she hadn’t offered to help Anna then either Rosli would have had to stay at Freudesheim for the morning instead of spending the whole day with her family or else Anna would have had to rise well before dawn and have no time to rest until the evening. And now she was having to supervise Cecil, Claire, Geoff and Phil whilst her father called in to check that everything was all right at the San, her mother made a long phone call to wish the relatives in Britain a merry Christmas and the three eldest boys went out for a walk – to get out of having to do anything to help, she strongly suspected. So much for “’Tis the season to be jolly,” she thought to herself wryly.
This year, she didn’t even have her triplet sisters there for company and to share the responsibility. Ruey was absent as well: the three Richardsons were spending the festive season with some Rosomon cousins in Warwickshire. Roger had managed to obtain a work placement with a big engineering firm in Birmingham for part of the university vacation, and as a result Ruey and Roddy had elected to spend Christmas in England so that they could all be together. There was no-one on the Platz of Len’s age any more. All her friends were gone. At the moment she still saw Ted fairly often - although they were at different colleges in Oxford - and they’d managed to meet up with Ros, Ricki and Sue a couple of times during the term just gone, but once she’d graduated and moved back to the Platz she wondered just how often she’d get to see any of them, or even Con or Margot.
She sighed deeply, and Cecil looked up. “What’s the matter, Len?”
“What? Oh … nothing,” Len said hurriedly. “Just … er, wondering where Reg has got to.” She looked at her watch. As it so happened, she’d expected him to be here by now: he’d promised to call in so that they could open their presents to each other before the house got too crowded with the many people Joey and Jack had invited to join them for Christmas dinner.
Cecil gasped. “Oh, Len … I’m frightfully sorry. The phone went whilst you were in the kitchen with Anna, and I answered it … and it was Reg to say that he wasn’t going to be able to get here until after church. I think he had to go to the San. I’m sorry: I meant to tell you but then it was my turn to go in the bath and I just forgot. I’m really sorry. He said he’d be here in time for dinner, though.”
So would everyone else, Len thought resignedly. Auntie Hilda, Auntie Nell, Auntie Rosalie and Matey, all of whom were staying at the school over the holidays. Not to mention Uncle Frank, Auntie Phoebe and their two children. Then her mother had invited the Sheppards, the Courvoisiers and the Graveses to call in for a mince pie and a slice of Yule log later on! And it wasn’t even as if she’d see Reg at church: she and her family would be attending the Catholic service and he’d be going to the Protestant one.
She shook her head. She’d have to get used to this: it wasn’t as if she didn’t know what having a doctor in the family was like. If Reg had to go to the San then he had to go to the San, and she’d just have to get on with it. Like she’d just have to get on with looking after her brothers and sisters and being the one to give Anna a hand: she was the eldest of the family and that brought responsibilities with it and she’d always known that. As for all the hordes of people who’d be coming round later on, it wasn’t as if everyone living in everyone else’s pockets at the Gornetz Platz was anything new, and it wasn’t as if she didn’t get on with them all … which was a good job, really, as she was going to have to get used to not having Con, Margot or any of her friends anywhere nearby.
She sighed again, but before anyone could say anything a series of loud barks were heard from outside the window, where Bruno was waiting impatiently in the garden for Jack to return from the San and take him for a walk. “I don’t know why the boys couldn’t have taken him with them,” she muttered, as Anna came rushing in to see if anything were wrong. “Anna, would you mind taking over here for a few minutes? I’d better just go and check that Bruno hasn’t either hurt himself or unearthed anything horrendous! I won’t be a minute.”
It didn’t take her a minute to slip her boots and coat on and then she was outside in the garden, if truth be told glad to get out of the house. She’d just ascertained that Bruno, although something had certainly got his attention, didn’t seem to be injured in any way when she heard a noise in the bushes. She stood still for a moment, uncertain what to do, and then before she knew anything else there were footsteps behind her and then a pair of hands covered her eyes and she screamed.
“Well, I can’t say that was quite the reaction I was expecting,” a Yorkshire-accented voice remarked. The hands were removed from her eyes, and she turned round to see before her a tall figure clad in a red Father Christmas outfit, with a large white beard of cotton wool attached to his chin; and she burst out laughing.
“Reg Entwistle! What on earth are you playing at? You gave me a right fright, lurking in the bushes like that and then sneaking up on me … and do you mind telling me exactly why you’re dressed up like that? And, incidentally, aren’t you supposed to be at the San?”
“I’ve just come from the San.” He pulled the beard off his face. “That’s better: it was itching like mad! Er, I sort of volunteered to play Father Christmas on the children’s ward, but then we had an emergency with one of the older patients, and she’s going to be fine but it meant that we ended up running very late. And I didn’t think I was going to have chance to get here until after church, but I walked as quickly as I could … and here I am.”
He looked a little sheepish. “I just haven’t had time to get changed yet. I didn’t really want you to see me in this get-up, but … well, I wanted to see you, and when I saw you coming outside I couldn’t pass up the chance of a couple of minutes on our own, so I … er, went and hid behind the bush instead of coming round to the door! I’m afraid Santa’s sack is empty – I didn’t have time to go home and get your presents, so I’ll have to bring those later, but I did manage to bring this.” He reached into the pocket of his red robe, pulled out a sprig of mistletoe, and held it over Len’s head. “May I?”
“Of course you may, you idiot,” she muttered, blushing. She lifted her face for his Christmas kiss, and all of a sudden the Saal and the kitchen and everything that she’d been rushing about doing all morning seemed a very long way away. “Thank you … thank you so much for coming over. I’ve been missing Con and Margot, and it’s like a madhouse in there and I’ve been rushed off my feet all morning, and we’ve got so many people coming round later on and although it’s going to be lovely to see them all it’s just a bit …”
“I know.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “It’s just a bit much. But it won’t always be like this, Len. After we’re married we’ll have a home of our own, and then you – we – ‘ll be able to see as much of your family as you like but without being in the same house as them all the time. And I know that Con and Margot and all your friends from school won’t be here, but that’s the way life goes for a lot of people. You’ve got friends here – Daisy, and Biddy, and all the others. And we’ll meet new people too: I won’t be at the San all the time, and you won’t be at the School all the time either – although we both know that you’re going to make a wonderful teacher - and neither of us’ll have to spend all our free time on the Platz just seeing the same old faces day after day.” He looked at her anxiously. “Are you all right? When you came outside you looked as if you had all the worries of the world on your shoulders.”
“Whereas you just had Father Christmas’s empty sack on yours,” she giggled. “I’m absolutely fine, Reg. Just for a few minutes, I’d forgotten all the reasons I couldn’t wait to come back here for Christmas … and all the reasons I’m going to come back after I’ve got my degree. But you’ve just reminded me of them.” She took the mistletoe out of his hand and reached up to try to hold it over his head. “Just so I don’t forget, do you think you might like to remind me again?”
It was the first time that Con Maynard had spent Christmas away from her parents and siblings, and doing so had been a difficult decision for her to make. Instead of returning to Switzerland with Len when term had ended, she’d remained behind in Oxford: she was working on an article which she hoped very much would become her first contribution to the college magazine, and she was also hard at work on a synopsis for what might, one day, become her first novel. She was eager to make as much progress with both as she could during the holidays, as her university work and the social life upon which she’d tentatively embarked gave her few free hours during term time, and really it would be difficult for her to get much done on the Gornetz Platz where she’d be wholly without access to the sort of reference material she needed. Her family had been upset when she’d told them what she’d decided, but they’d understood. You had to make the most of your opportunities when you could, her father had told her: they’d look forward to seeing her at Easter.
Truth be told, it wasn’t just her writing that had stopped her from going home. In Oxford, she was Con Maynard. At the Gornetz Platz, she was the middle triplet, one of Joey’s brood, the dreamy one, the sleepwalker, the one who’d made a silly remark about Daniel biting the lions and, most of all, she was still a child, because the people who lived there had only ever known her as a schoolgirl and thought of her that way still. She wasn’t ready to go back to that yet. It was too soon: she was still getting used to being an adult – a young adult, true, but still something very different to being a Chalet School girl – and to being her own person rather than just one of the Maynards.
It wasn’t even only that. Everyone at Freudesheim, and all the many friends who lived close by, would be interested in what she was doing: in their own way, they meant well, she knew, and she didn’t mean to be ungrateful for their interest, but sooner or later someone would coax her into showing them what she’d written so far and she was afraid of their reaction. She’d had stories and poems printed in The Chaletian, of course, and people had been kind enough to praise them; but writing for the school magazine, proud though all the girls and staff were of it, was hardly on the same level as what she was hoping to achieve now. She’d heard stories of how Matey had pulled her mother’s first attempts at a novel to pieces, and her mother was far more talented than she was … she must be, or else how could she have achieved such phenomenal success? She knew that she was going to have to learn to accept criticism and indeed rejection, but somehow she felt that it would be easier to take it from a faceless publisher or editor than from someone she knew. And being damned with faint or insincere praise might be even worse.
So here she was. Not in Oxford today, though, but in Devon, at the home of her Uncle Dick and Auntie Mollie. They’d insisted that she must come to them for Christmas Day and she’d been quite glad to agree: it wasn’t as if the libraries would be open today anyway, and she hadn’t been anxious to spend the special day on her own. It was quite a gathering of the clans, because Auntie Madge and Uncle Jem and their four younger children had travelled down from their home in the Welsh mountains for the occasion, Bride and her husband Simon had come from their home in Hertfordshire, Rix and David had both managed to get the day off work and had driven over from London in the early hours of the morning, and Peggy, her husband Giles and their two young children were visiting from the West Indies, Giles being on leave from his ship.
Con had had little chance to see or speak to any of them yet. It had been very late when she’d arrived last night: her train from Oxford had been delayed and she’d missed her connection and had to wait some time for another one. Everything had been rather manic this morning as everyone had vied for use of the bathrooms, and then the rest of the party had departed for the Anglican service whilst she’d gone to the nearest Catholic church alone. She’d arrived back a few minutes ago but there was no sign of the others yet: they must have stopped to chat to some of the Bettanys’ neighbours.
She was beginning to feel a little uneasy now. It was stupid to feel like that, she chided herself: they were her own relations, when all was said and done. But she hadn’t seen either Peggy or Bride for so long, and they both seemed far removed from her now, married women with their own homes and, in Peggy’s case, children. She didn’t even know Rix or David that well, cousins or no, and what could a nineteen-year-old girl with little experience of life beyond the schoolroom possibly have to say to two busy doctors used to life in the metropolis?
Even Maurice and Maeve seemed so much older than she was: Maeve was working for a travel firm now and Maurice helped to manage his father’s estate, and they both seemed so grown-up and sure of themselves. Maeve had looked impossibly glamorous in the pretty blue dress she’d put on for Christmas Day and with her hair and make-up immaculate, and Con, though only a year younger, felt more on a par with Ailie than with their sophisticated Bettany cousin. They probably all still thought of her as a little girl. And her writing was probably still that of a little girl as well. So it was with some trepidation that she heard the door open and everyone come trooping in, the air ringing with their chatter.
“Oh Con, I’m so sorry,” Auntie Mollie cried. “Sure, I’ve hardly had chance to speak to you at all and there you are sitting all on your own! The vicar’s wife was busy admiring the little ones and we just couldn’t get away! A very merry Christmas to you! But now, if you’ll excuse us, Bridgie,” – she smiled at her sister – “and I’ll be away to the kitchen. No, Madge: you’re a guest, sit down and rest yourself. Dick, how about pouring everyone a drink? Rix, give your father a hand!”
Much to Con’s surprise, a moment later her tall dark cousin was at her side, asking if she’d like a glass of sherry. “Not for you, Ailie,” he laughed as the young lady in question looked at him eagerly. “Not in front of Uncle Jem and Auntie Madge, anyway! Will you have one, though, Con?” He smiled at her. “It doesn’t half make me feel old, seeing you and Maeve and Maurice all grown up! You look great, Con. In fact, I hardly recognised you.”
David, who was standing close enough to hear this comment, burst out laughing. “You really know how to compliment a lady, Rix, don’t you? Just ignore that last sentence of his, Con – but the rest of it was right! You do look great. And how’s life in Oxford? I must try to get up there some time: a pal of mine from Winchester lives there and it’s a lovely city.”
Simon Carrington, who’d been at Oxford himself, joined in the conversation, and soon they were all chatting away about Oxford and about university life in general, and Bride reminisced about her youthful ambitions of working in the Bodleian Library and asked Con if she spent much time in there.
Before anyone could say anything else, the doorbell rang. Dick Bettany went to answer it and, moments later, Giles Winterton’s father, stepmother and two half-sisters were walking into the room and cries of “Merry Christmas, everyone,” were filling the air again.
“Have you brought us any presents?” young Alan Winterton demanded. Peggy and Giles hushed him apologetically, but everyone else just laughed and Dick asked the new arrivals if he could get any of them a drink. Polly and Lala, each having accepted a glass of sherry, gravitated over to the group around Con; and Bride, once she’d greeted them both, repeated her question about the library.
“I’ve been in there quite a lot these holidays, actually,” Con found herself saying. “I’m … er, trying to write something for the college magazine and maybe make a start on a book.” She stopped, surprised at herself. And then she surprised herself even more. She turned to Lala. “Lala … you work for a newspaper, don’t you? Do you think that … if you get time, at all, you could have a look at what I’ve written and let me know what you think. If you think it’s a load of rubbish then let me know, but … well, I’d be glad of someone else’s honest opinion.”
The sherry must have loosened her tongue, she thought! She certainly hadn’t meant to say so much. But no, it wasn’t just the sherry. It was all of it. She wasn’t a schoolgirl any more. She’d lived away from the watchful eye of parents, mistresses and Matron for a full term now. She’d managed to get from Oxford to Devon on her own despite all the trials of delayed trains and missed connections. She’d taken herself to church this morning when she hadn’t known anyone else who’d be attending the service. Her older cousins had made it quite clear that she wasn’t regarded as a little girl any more, and she’d been able to hold her own in a conversation with them. She wasn’t just the dreamy one of Joey Maynard’s triplets: she was Con Maynard, student and hopeful author. And she could take whatever Lala might have to say. And if these early efforts weren’t any good then she’d just keep on trying. She was an adult now, and she was ready to take on the real world.
“I’d love to!” Lala said. “I don’t imagine for a minute that anything you’ve written would be a load of rubbish, but I’ll be straight with you, I promise!” She grinned, and clinked her glass against Con’s. “This is a lot better than those big mugs of milk we used to get to warm us up in our younger days, isn’t it? Come on, Rix, pour us all another glass! Merry Christmas, everyone!”
“Merry Christmas, everyone,” Con echoed. “Merry Christmas!”
Margot Maynard was also spending Christmas away from her family for the first time, but it was something that she knew she was going to have to used to should her hopes of entering the Order of the Blue Nuns and becoming a medical missionary come to fruition. Her studies at Edinburgh University were progressing well – although not someone who’d always found it easy to knuckle down to sustained hard work, she’d really made a huge effort all term and had been rewarded with some excellent marks and words of praise from her tutors – and, although she was still only at the start of a long road, she was hopeful that, all being well, she would indeed be able to follow in her father’s footsteps and qualify as a doctor. The other part of her plan for the future was troubling her, though.
She’d struggled long and hard before finally accepting that her destiny lay in taking the vows of a nun, and even now she was experiencing some doubts that she’d be able to accept all the requirements of the religious life. All her life, she’d had difficulties controlling her temper and obeying orders; and it was that, rather than anything else, which was causing her to experience doubts that she’d be able fulfil what she truly felt to be her calling.
She’d had a long conversation on the subject with the Catholic chaplain at the university, and had tentatively asked him if he thought it might be possible for her to spend some time with a community of nuns, to see how she coped. Although keen to help, he’d been somewhat flummoxed by her request: convents were hardly the sorts of places which took students on work experience, after all. In the end, it had been her mother who, inadvertently, had given her the answer without ever being asked the question.
Joey had sent Margot a long letter which had included the details of that year’s Chalet School Christmas play, and had made reference in it to the Innsbruck parish to which she would be taking the proceeds of the play, along with various garments sewn by the girls over the course of the year, some time in January. Austria had enjoyed a considerable economic upturn in recent years, she’d added, but Vater Stefan’s last letter had made it clear just how important the Chalet School’s continuing help was to the parish in which he worked. There were still many who were struggling, and the clothes and financial assistance were particularly welcomed by the nuns and their charges at a children’s home with which he was involved.
Margot had read the letter over several times, and then taken up her pen – which was well-chewed by the time she’d finished – to write a letter of her own. And so it had been arranged: she was to travel to Tyrol in time for Christmas Eve and remain there until the second week of the new year. She’d had offers of accommodation from Sophie Hamel, an old schoolfriend of Joey’s, and from the elderly parents of Frieda von Ahlen, but Vater Stefan had arranged for her to stay at the children’s home itself, in the quarters inhabited by a number of lay workers who were amongst the staff there, and that was where she was waking up on Christmas Day morning.
In Austria, the major celebrations of the season took place on December 24th, Christmas Eve, and Margot had gone to great lengths to familiarise herself therewith, writing to Anna Pfeifen, to Frieda von Ahlen, to Marie von und zu Wertheim and to Maria Maclaren to beg them to tell her everything that they could about what she might expect. Thus she’d arrived in Tyrol very well-prepared for the event. Or so she’d thought.
She’d envisioned herself helping to escort the children to church to attend the special service which she knew Vater Stefan would be conducting towards the end of the afternoon, and joining in the singing of carols there, giving all the encouragement she could to any child who was too shy to join in. Then they’d all return to the children’s home, and later on they’d light candles – this would have to be supervised very carefully, of course, as it was all too easy for mishaps to happen where flames were concerned. And then, after that, the children would see the Christmas tree for the first time. She hadn’t known what sort of decorations the home would have, but she’d offer to help dress the tree, and given time and opportunity maybe she could even make some additional decorations for it herself. And they’d open their presents, because she knew that Vater Stefan and the nuns saw to it that they all had a gift to open on Christmas Eve.
Thinking of the many presents which she and her brothers and sisters always received at Christmas, and of the brightly-decorated tree which always stood in the Saal at Freudesheim at this time of year, she’d felt humbled; and she’d vowed that she’d do all she could to ensure that these young people had a truly “Frohliche Weihnachtsfest”.
Those had been Margot’s good intentions.
However, it hadn’t quite worked out like that. On arriving at the home, she’d been welcomed warmly enough, and thanked for giving her time … and then she’d been told that they were short-staffed in the kitchen as two members of staff had begged for time off to go and spend the festive season with their families, and asked if she’d mind lending some assistance in preparing the Christmas Eve meal. Her visions of the joyous faces of young children before a glittering tree disintegrating before she’d even had time to unpack, she’d spent most of December 24th in the kitchen, and she felt that she’d never get the smell of baked carp out from under her fingernails. Mindful of Frau Mieders’s training, she’d thrown herself into her tasks wholeheartedly and done her best to do a good job, but it had hardly been in keeping with all her high hopes about helping to make a real difference to the Christmas celebrations of those so much less fortunate than herself.
She’d enjoyed Midnight Mass, true, but she’d set her heart on singing carols with the children, and seeing the people of the parish greet each other joyously and wish each other well hadn’t been much fun when she hadn’t known any of them. Now she had to get up to help prepare breakfast for everyone, and she understood that later on she’d be communing with several geese, a large quantity of ham and some chocolate mousse. And then there’d be all the clearing up to do. In the meantime, Len and the others would be getting ready to open their presents at Freudesheim now, and Con would be having a jolly time with the Bettanys and the Russells at The Quadrant. As for Emmy, she was probably lapping up some late afternoon sun on the beach!
Oh well, she too could have chosen to spend Christmas celebrating with family and friends, but she hadn’t done. She’d felt that the right thing to do was to spend it here, and if that meant starting the day by dishing up a load of breakfasts then starting the day by dishing up a load of breakfasts was what she’d do. And do it she did, and she didn’t leave that kitchen until every last item of cutlery and crockery was washed, dried and put away. The only problem was that then left her with very little time in which to get ready for church and, after looking at her watch in horror, she rushed through the corridors towards her room so quickly that she didn’t see Sister Berta, the superintendent of the home, coming the other way until she’d all but collided with her.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she gasped. “I shouldn’t have been haring about like that, but I need to have a wash and get changed before church. I’ve been in the kitchen all morning.”
“So I believe,” Sister Berta said with a smile. “I’m glad I’ve seen you, as it so happens: I wanted to say that it was very good of you to help out with making the meals. I don’t suppose it was exactly what you had in mind when you volunteered to work here over Christmas?”
“It wasn’t really,” Margot admitted. “I … well, I’d sort of imagined singing carols with the children, and helping to decorate the tree.” Realising that that hadn’t sounded very good, she hastened to try to explain herself more clearly. “I don’t mean that I came here expecting it to be some sort of party. I just wanted to help them to have a good Christmas.”
“But you have.” Margot looked surprised, but Sister Berta nodded. “Of course you have. We can all manage very well without singing and trees and presents, but none of us would get very far without food, would we?”
She looked at Margot intently, so intently that Margot felt her colour rise as she tried desperately to think what it was that she was expected to say in response. There was no need to say anything, it transpired, for the nun began to speak again a moment later. “Be careful of pride, Margot. I understand that your intentions were good, and they do you credit, but remember that we aren’t always granted the satisfaction of being able to see the fruits of our labours. Sometimes, they might seem so mundane that they don’t even seem to exist, in fact. But they do. They always do.”
Seeing Margot open her mouth to speak, she held up her hand. “But you’ll learn those lessons, Margot. You’re very young yet, and you’ve got a lot to learn … but I think you accept that, don’t you? And you’ve done well here. In all honestly, we were half-expecting you to say that you hadn’t come here to work in the kitchen and that you wanted to be wrapping presents and organising party games. But you didn’t, did you? You took on the tasks we asked of you, and you’ve worked hard at them, and you kept a smile on your face and not once lost your patience or complained. And you were under no obligation to do any of that.”
“But I was!” Margot exclaimed. “I was. I didn’t quite realise it before, but … I was. And I didn’t know if I would be. But now I do.” She looked at the older woman, pausing for a moment to collect her thoughts. “And that’s what Christmas is all about, really, isn’t it? It isn’t about presents, or trees, or singing … or even food! It’s about learning.
“It’s about a light coming into the world. It’s about being shown the way. And it’s about following that way.”
And Len and Con, had they been able to hear Margot’s words on that Christmas Day when all three of them were looking towards their own futures, would have echoed her sentiments exactly.