Hilda blinked, still half asleep, wondering what had woken her. Had Nell said something? A quick look showed that if she had, she must have been talking in her sleep. Perhaps it had been the wind that was still howling outside… Setting the question aside, Hilda lifted her head to look at her clock, but the room was still too dark to make out the hands. What time was sunrise these days? Around eight o’clock, she thought - there might still be time for her to get a little more sleep in, though it was odd her partner hadn’t woken yet.
‘Let sleeping Nells lie’, she thought with a grin, dropping her head back to her pillow and closing her eyes. A bare five seconds later, they flew wide open again as the date suddenly returned to her mind. Christmas Day! She wondered about trying to sneak the shoes she had prepared out of the wardrobe before Nell woke, but decided against it, remembering what a light sleeper she was. It would be much easier to get them while Nell was bathing. Even if it did go against the tradition of finding them outside the door, that was better than being caught taking them from their hiding-place.
Reaching out, she turned on her bedside lamp, shivering a little as the cool air struck her outstretched arm. Then she rolled over and propped herself up on one elbow, gazing at her lover. Nell’s clever, mobile face looked oddly gentle in her sleep, despite the darkening bruises that marked it, and Hilda felt suddenly reluctant to disturb her rest. ‘Though I don’t know why I shouldn’t, after all the times she’s woken me at ridiculous hours!’
The decision, however, was taken out of her hands. Perhaps it was the lamplight, perhaps Hilda’s movements were to blame, or perhaps it was simply Nell’s own body deciding she’d had enough sleep; whatever the cause, her eyelids fluttered open. As she saw Hilda above her, her lips curved into a smile.
“Good morning, love”, she said, her voice still sleepy, then her expression changed as realisation struck her. “Oh! Merry Christmas!” she exclaimed.
“Merry Christmas, darling,” Hilda replied, bending down to kiss her. Straightening again, she added with a teasing smile, “I’m glad you’re finally awake; I thought you were going to sleep all morning.”
Nell wrinkled her nose. “This is why I try to wake up first! You’re always so unbearably smug when you manage it.”
Hilda elected not to answer that, since she had to admit to herself that there was more than a little truth in it. Instead, she said, “since you are awake, shall we get up?”
“Why don’t you get up first? After all, you’ve been awake for hours,” Nell replied, smirking.
Hilda hesitated. This didn’t fit in with her plans for her surprise, but she was afraid a prolonged argument would make Nell suspicious. Deciding it didn’t really make much difference, she acquiesced, albeit with a great show of reluctance as she pulled on her slippers and kimono. She hoped her slowness might irritate her impatient friend into getting up; Nell seemed unperturbed by it, however, lying back comfortably and grinning as she watched her.
Eventually, she made her way to the door. The sight her eyes met as she pulled it open suddenly enlightened her as to why Nell had been content to wait; standing in the corridor were both their right boots, apparently filled with chocolates and nuts, and a gaily-wrapped little parcel sat on the top of hers.
Carefully picking them up, she returned to the bed, smiling broadly. “When did you find the time to do this? I’m sure you can’t have done it yesterday!”
“In the middle of the night, of course. Lucky for me you sleep like a log!” Nell replied with cheerful insult, taking her boot and pulling out a chocolate.
Hilda snorted, setting her own boot down and heading for the wardrobe. “Luckily for you, it’s Christmas,” she retorted as she reached in and pulled out the shoes she had hidden the night before. “Otherwise I’d not give you this, to teach you a lesson!”
“You don’t mean to say you prepared these last night, too?” Nell asked, laughing as she saw what was in Hilda’s hands.
“I did it while you were in the bathroom,” Hilda said, handing Nell her shoe. “That’s why I wanted you to go first, so I could sneak them out; and now I see why my slowness didn’t exasperate you to the point of going ahead.”
“I did wonder why you were delaying so much,” Nell owned. “I’m sorry I spoiled your surprise, but I was looking forward to seeing your reaction when you found mine! Clearly great minds think alike.” She smirked as she spoke, wondering how her friend would react to the mix of compliment and cliché.
“What’s happened to your trumpeter?” Hilda retorted immediately, and Nell chuckled.
“I might have known you wouldn’t be caught so easily.” She picked up the little parcel placed on top of her bonbons at the same time Hilda reached out for hers, and they both laughed.
“You go first,” Hilda said, letting her hand fall again. They always took turns opening presents on such occasions; half the joy, for both of them, came from seeing the other’s reactions.
“I suppose that’s only fair, after I made you get up first,” Nell agreed, and began to pull the paper off. As it fell away, she looked at the round metal case revealed in some surprise. Why was Hilda giving her a pocket watch? It was lovely, certainly, but hardly as practical as her wristwatch…
“Open it!” Her friend urged, laughter in her voice.
Nell pressed the release, and it popped open to reveal “A pocket compass! Hilda, it’s wonderful! Thank you.”
“I knew you’d smashed your old one, and when I spotted this one I thought you’d like it,” Hilda replied, well pleased with the success of her gift.
“Like it? I love it! My old one was nowhere near as nice as this.” Nell kissed her partner in thanks, then added mischievously, “You know, with a compass, I’m sure I could navigate to Freudesheim...”
She had to stop there, for the look of sheer unmitigated horror on Hilda’s face proved too much for her self control, and she burst out laughing.
“Don’t look like that! I’m not going anywhere, I promise. Yesterday’s experience was quite enough for me. So take that worried look off your face - it doesn’t suit you in the least, my dear.”
Hilda shook her head, laughing ruefully. “You’re an absolute wretch sometimes, Nell Wilson.”
“You flatter me,” Nell said, grinning.
Hilda pulled a face at her, then picked up her own present and began to unwrap it. Nell popped one of her bonbons into her mouth and watched her friend eagerly, suppressing her impatience at Hilda’s careful unwrapping. She did usually try to get the paper off without tearing it herself, but there were limits! At last the contents of the parcel were revealed, and Nell had her reward in the way Hilda’s face lit up when she saw the little photograph in its pretty frame.
“Oh, Nell, it’s beautiful,” Hilda said softly. Her partner had taken several photos of them together during the summer holidays, making the most of her new camera’s self-timer, and this was clearly one of them… struck by a sudden thought, she asked mock-severely, “I thought you said you hadn’t developed these photos yet?”
“No, I said they weren’t ready,” Nell pointed out. “Which I am perfectly aware was prevaricating, before you say anything, but I did want to surprise you when I saw how well they’d come out. The rest are still at St Mildred’s, I’m afraid. I didn’t think we’d have the time or the privacy to look them over, so I didn’t bring them, but I thought this one was respectable enough you wouldn’t complain.”
Her eyes twinkled as she said the last sentence, for she had been at her most mischievous while taking the first snaps, until Hilda had plaintively complained that she’d like at least one photograph were they looked half-way respectable! The one in the frame certainly fulfilled that condition, for they were sitting demurely side by side on the sofa of Nell’s cottage.
“Laugh all you like, but now I have an excellent picture of us that I can proudly display - which I doubt would have been the case if I hadn’t said anything!” Hilda retorted.
Suiting actions to words, she jumped up and placed it on her dressing table, moving back an old family picture to make room. Nell rose too, and came to stand behind her, wrapping her arms around Hilda’s waist. Hilda turned in the embrace and kissed her.
“Thank you, darling. I love it.”