“Oh, Joey! Really?” Jack Maynard regarded his young wife with consternation, and ran his hands through his short blond hair, making it stand on end in hedgehog-fashion. “Darling, do be reasonable.”
“But I want a tree! Oh, Jack, it’s our first Christmas together and I do so want it to be perfect.”
“I don’t see the point. We’re at Pretty Maids the week before and then we’re going over to Bonne Maison straight after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and won’t be back here until the 28th. It really doesn’t seem worth it. Besides, it was all well and good at the Tiernsee with pine trees galore and no-one to fuss about taking one down, but here it means sourcing one and buying it and no doubt getting it delivered at extra cost... And we have no decorations unless you intend to beg some from Madge.”
“I can make decorations,” Joey replied. “I know money is a little tight.”
“Look, how about a compromise? Chester tells me that the Guernsey tradition is to have what the French would call a ‘Bûche de Noël’ – you know, a big log to burn on the fire through the festive period. That’s easy enough to arrange and you’ve always been a great one for following local traditions...”
“That would be even more pointless than having a tree,” his wife said, decidedly tersely. “As you have just pointed out, we are not here for most of the time.”
“Joey, we are not having a tree, and that’s it.”
She gave him an inscrutable look and then stalked out of the sitting room.
Jack remained there for some minutes, pondering on the general unreasonableness of women until he heard the front door slam and realised that Joey had gone to walk off her frustration.
“How childish,” he muttered to himself, but then stopped to think.
She was not much older than a child, really, for all that she had been a married woman for these past ten weeks. She had had to grow up so quickly though in the past year, with all they had gone through with the increasing tensions in Austria. Then came the run-ins which they had had with the Gestapo leading to their final dramatic flight across the mountains to the Swiss border, the long journey to safety in Guernsey and preparations for their wedding.
He chewed on the end of his unlit pipe for a moment and then a new resolve set in and he went to make a phone call.
Joey took the path which led up and over the headland, desperately missing her St Bernard, Rufus, who would have cheered her up no end had he been bounding along with her. She had donned her overcoat and scarf and had pulled on her rubber boots, but for all that it was early December, it was a remarkably warm day and she was not cold. This time last year, as in previous years, she would have been knee-deep in snow if she had attempted a walk in the Tyrol and, although the climate here was not so far removed from that of her early childhood Christmases in Cornish Taverton, it still did not seem right without ‘proper’ winter weather.
I’m homesick for the mountains, she thought to herself. And I just want something to remind me of how things were. She knew that Jack had a valid point or two. Although Madge and Jem had paid for her wedding, Jack had had to lay out a considerable sum on the house. They were renting Les Rosiers and it came part-furnished, but there had still been many household items and other furniture which they had had to buy and not all of Jack’s money had yet been transferred from his Austrian bank account, leaving her juggling a somewhat slim purse to pay the housekeeping. Besides, there were no large areas of woodland on the island and she could not recall seeing any pine trees at all. She had seen some for sale in the market down at Peterport but suspected that they had been brought by boat across from one of the other Channel Islands and although she had not enquired the price at the time, she considered that it would require an extravagant outlay which she knew would be hard to justify.
The path arrived at the cliff edge and she took the steps down to the small cove as the tide was out. There was a shingly shelf of a beach when it was not covered by the sea and she enjoyed strolling along it most days. That was one thing which she hadn’t had in Austria, she thought. No sea, no salt air, no seagulls sashaying on the breeze.
The last high tide had deposited the usual piles of detritus to mark the extent of its encroachment onto the land: dulse, which the locals sometimes gathered to put in salads, great lengths of kelp and other seaweeds, known here as vraic and gathered from the larger beaches to be spread on the lands as a fertiliser, driftwood and general flotsam and jetsam. As she passed one of these scattered piles, a shape caught her eye and she stopped, bent over, and picked it up. It was a piece of wood, mottled grey and bleached pale-yellow, rubbed smooth generally, but with a ridged effect caused by constant turning in the waves and battering against stones and sand on the seabed. It had perhaps been round, originally, a perfect disc made for practical or decorative use on board some ship which had long since foundered or been overcome by winter storms in the Atlantic or English Channel, but now its shape was altered and Joey took off her woollen mitten to trace its outline with a bare finger, wondering at her find.
It was a sign, she told herself, lifting her head again to take in a deep breath of the wonderful sea air before heading for the steps up to the path home.
“Jack! I’m home! And you should see what I’ve found!”
Her cry rang round the hallway as she hung up her coat and kicked off her boots. She heard her husband’s footsteps coming down the stairs and turned to meet him, her find clutched firmly in her hand.
“You’ve been gone ages! A good hour and a half!” Jack said, although his tone was one of slight concern and greater excitement rather than one of admonition.
Joey opened her mouth to say something but Jack lay a finger to her lips.
“Hush. Come with me. I’ve got something to show you!”
He took her by the hand and drew her after himself into the sitting room. There, on the small table in front of the French windows, stood a Christmas tree. It was, it had to be said, quite the smallest one which she had ever seen, little more than a foot high and planted inside a plain terracotta flower pot.
“Oh, Jack!” She turned to him with eyes glistening with joy and – perhaps – an unshed tear or two. “Where did you get it?”
“From Bonne Maison, as it happens. I rang Jem to ask if he knew where I could get hold of a small tree and he laughingly offered me this. It’s actually the top of their tree. He bought one down in Peterport yesterday as a surprise for Madge but forgot to measure it and as it’s too high for their ceilings he had to take this piece off. I took the car over and picked it up. What do you think?”
“It’s perfect! Bless you, Jack, it’s absolutely perfect! And look...” She opened her hand to show him her find from the beach. “I’ve got the perfect decoration to go on it.”
Jack took the piece of driftwood in his hands, turning it over and over and marvelling, as she had, at the way it looked and felt. “If I drill a small hole here,“ he said, “it should fit perfectly on top.”
“Oh yes,” she breathed, and looked up at him with love shining from her face. “It’s a little irregular in shape, but otherwise it’s wonderful. A star for the top of our first Christmas tree...”