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Christmas was going to be strangely quiet this year, thought Madge. No Jo, no Jack and none of her Maynard nieces and nephews: they’d all be spending the festive season eight hundred miles away in Switzerland. No Daisy or Primula, now settled down in Devon with Lawrie. No Robin, who’d be marking Christmas in her convent on the other side of the Atlantic. And it still seemed strange to be without Peggy, Rix, Bride and Jackie, whom she and Jem had brought up almost from babyhood.

Her musings were rudely interrupted by a howl from upstairs, followed barely a moment later by a second one, and she smiled ruefully. A quiet Christmas? With twin two-year-olds in the house? Not likely! They were supposed to be having an afternoon nap, but clearly they were no longer doing anything of the sort; and Rosa was in the kitchen, helping Marie with the preparations for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner. Ailie had excitedly insisted that she wanted to help as well, but David had solved that particular problem by suggesting that she join him in going out to gather some holly with which to complete the decorations in the dining room. Josette, meanwhile, was over at Carn Beg, exchanging presents with Mary-Lou and Verity-Anne.

She headed for the nursery, but, by the time she’d made her way up the stairs, she found that her eldest daughter had beaten her to it. Sybil was sitting in a chair by the window, a small brother on each knee and a skein of thread trailing merrily across the floor. “I was embroidering some extra hankies for Josette when I heard them yelling, and I ran in here with the thread still in my hand. Kevin made a grab for it when I picked him up, and then Kester did the same,” she explained. “I’m not sure it’ll be an awful lot of use now, but I’ve got some more the same colour so it doesn’t really matter. Isn’t it awful the way they always copy each other? Auntie Joey says that Felix and Felicity are the same, and that sometimes both of them copy Mike and he’s enough of a terror on his own!”

Madge laughed. “Your aunt might have a total of eight now, but she should try having seven children all aged under five in the nursery at once, not to mention Robin and Daisy around the place and Stacie Benson recovering from her accident. And Jo herself was sometimes as much trouble as any of you even after she’d left school. I certainly never had any time to myself on Christmas Eve on those days!

“And speaking of trouble - come on now, you two, back to bed. We don’t want you tired out for tomorrow, do we?” She lifted Kester up and placed him back in his cot, whilst Sybil put Kevin back in his. Kester settled fairly quickly, Kevin wasn’t far behind him, and soon mother and daughter were turning off the light and tiptoeing out of the room and along the landing.

“Why don’t you bring the hankies downstairs and work on them there, Sybs?” she suggested, when they were safely out of earshot of the sleeping children. “I’m on my own in the sitting room, and … well, it’s not often it’s just us, is it? Especially at Christmastime. The house is usually so full.”

She paused, trying to find the right words. Time alone with Sybil was so rare and so precious. When Sybil had been younger, it had been virtually non-existent ... and now the girl was in her mid-teens, her childhood very nearly over.

“You know, it’s been a whole new experience for me, having Kevin and Kester,” she began. “Even though there are two of them, I’ve been able to spend far more time with them than I ever did with any of my other babies. Even when David first came, I had Jo and Robin to look after, and Juliet in those days, and my work with the school as well. And by the time you came along I had Peggy and Rix too. Then Josette was born … do you remember that Christmas, Sybs? When Josette was a new baby?”

Sybil nodded. “We’d just moved to Guernsey, after all that horrible business in Austria. Poor Auntie Margot was so ill. Auntie Jo and Uncle Jack had just got married. Everything was changing and I was so frightened and confused.” She blushed. “And the last thing I wanted was another kid in the house, taking up everyone’s attention. Even before then, I used to tell Rix and the others that they were only cousins and that David and I were the only ones who belonged. I was a rotten little brat, wasn’t I? I don’t know how you all put up with me.”

Madge shook her head. “You were just a little girl, Sybs. A little girl who needed reassurance … and I should have made more time for you. I was so busy trying to be fair to all of you and to make sure that none of your cousins felt that they were missing out on anything by not having their own parents there … I tried, but we get it wrong sometimes, Sybs, however much we try to do what we think is right. And then we had to go off to Canada, and I really didn’t intend for us to be away so long but then I found out that the twins were on the way, and after the bad time I’d had with David and both you and Ailie coming early I was advised not to travel, so we had to stay.” She sighed. “And now you’re in Switzerland during term time, and before I know it you’ll be all grown up and off and leaving us for good.

“You’re not children any more, you and David. I was just thinking earlier, in fact - once David’s doing his hospital training, who knows whether or not he’ll be able to come home for Christmas. There might not be too many family Christmases for us… and in a way this is the first one we’ve ever really had, isn’t it? When it’s been just us. Just the Russells.

“I love all your cousins dearly, Sybil, and I love your aunts and uncles dearly too, but you children and your father … you come first with me. And I’m sorry if I haven’t always shown you that, but you do. And I’m so proud of you, Sybil. I know it hasn’t always been easy for you, but you’ve come through it all – and look at you know! My beautiful baby girl, almost a woman, always ready to help anyone, and so talented! It’s Christmas, and it’s a time for families, and I’m glad that this year it’s going to be just us. Just our very own family.”

Impulsively, Sybil hugged her mother. “I’m glad too, Mummy. There’s a time when I wouldn’t have hesitated to say that, if I’d had the chance, and a time when I wouldn’t have dared to say it, but now – well, you’ve made it all right now, to say that I’m glad. And I am glad, and I’m glad that you’re glad too. I’ll just go and get my embroidery. And I’ll bring it downstairs.”

Madge nodded. “And I’ll get us some tea and mince pies from the kitchen, and we’ll sit together. And think about Christmas. Our family Christmas.”



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