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Christmas was forced. But then, Rhyll wondered in indifferent silence, when was Christmas ever not forced?

She had spent much of that first week of the holidays unobtrusively taking care of the jobs around the house which now lay beyond her parents' comfort; she worked silently and out of sight as far as possible, wanting to avoid offending her father's pride or inflaming her mother's eternal disappointment in having a daughter who could cheerfully carry the coal and shovel the snow from the front path with such ease. Some people might think that fortunate, Rhyll retorted in her mind, seeing as I'm the only one here to do it. The observation was made with more amusement than resentment: who would ever have predicted that she would be the sole Christmas visitor, year after year? And how could that stinking disappointment - disappointment which was supposed to be her fault, her wrong clothes, wrong hair, wrong attitude, her persistent lack of any husband - be squared with these demonstrable benefits all her uncompromising wrongness provided? Who would now be clearing the path and excavating the attic if she, too, had been hundreds of miles away, fully - daintily - occupied with a family of her own?

Nobody tells you how the echoes of happy childhood will deafen you when everyone else is gone, when no other children arrive to take their place. It is an odd beast, this adult family Christmas when reminiscence is too delicate to attempt; when none of the indelicate next generation huddle nearby, clamouring too noisily for attention to permit their parents and grandparents enough time to notice that the transient closeness of their own childhood has passed and all that remains is a disparate collection of people who no longer know each other. She sat politely to be shown what seemed like an endless collection of photographs of cousins, second cousins, their spouses and their children: children she had known vaguely as friends once, but not given any thought to in years. There were no photographs of her, she knew that much for certain, but did she at least get a mention? No pretty pictures of chubby toddlers smiling shyly at the camera, granted; no uniformed portrait, a smart cap perched above a rakish grin, no reverent whisper of chief engineer, you know. Head gardener, had that counted for something? Did schoolmistress make for a respectable improvement or a pragmatic compromise of some sort? Best not to know.

Rhyll and her mother prepared the Christmas dinner together, Rhyll doubting that such effort for the three of them could truly be worth it and wondering whether her mother secretly entertained the same doubt. What she lacked in a certain daughterly femininity she knew her mother still coveted, she made up for in industriousness, scrubbing and peeling and remembering not to swear over the temperamental gas cooker. She permitted herself a small reminiscent smile at this, choosing to reflect on the noisy familial impatience with disobedient household objects - a habit she recognised in almost all of her immediate family, could have filled an album with similar moments from Everett Christmases through the years - rather than on the double standards which held her expressions of irritation as less permissible than those of her father or brothers.

"Might I copy down the address for Julian later?" she asked nonchalantly, her back towards her mother as she wiped down the kitchen table. "I think I'd like to write to him soon."

Had she turned around, she would have seen Mrs Everett's eyebrows fly upwards in surprise, followed by a creeping curiosity. As it was, she heard only the careful restraint of her mother's voice matching her own. "Of course you can. I'll fetch it out after dinner. You know it can take quite a time to hear back, naturally."

Rhyll nodded briskly, returning the washcloth to the big cast-iron sink by the window. "I shouldn't wonder it does. Thank you, I appreciate it."

Something about the request, she suspected, had eased her mother's mood - opening up the possibility, perhaps, that she might yet at least get both her youngest back for one future Christmas. Perhaps Julian's presence might even overcome the emptiness of these austere occasions, bowing under years of unspoken regret and disappointment. Probably it would, in fact: Julian had the goodwill and vivacity for it, or at least he had done once. Whatever the cause, Christmas day was the most relaxed day since Rhyll's arrival a week earlier. Dinner was quietly acknowledged by all three to be a great success, and after it had all been cleared away they reconvened in the sitting room, where Rhyll curled up in her armchair with a light novel, politely resisting the urge to jump up to help her father who was fiddling with the radio and muttering crossly under his breath.

As if she had been waiting for this distraction, Mrs Everett laid down her knitting and leaned forward to pass Rhyll a torn piece of note-paper. "There you are. You may as well keep that for yourself, Betty - I have it written down in the address book in any case," she hesitated for a moment, seeming to want to add more, but then sat back, as if she had decided against it.

"Thank you," Rhyll murmured, glancing down at the address before folding it neatly and tucking it safely between the pages of her book. A burst of music from the radio announced the victor of that particular battle, and Mr Everett stood back in satisfaction so pronounced it was all she could do to suppress a grin. The interruption cemented the end of any discussion with her mother, and this too pleased her; whether, what and when she planned to write to her brother was something she was still debating with herself, and she had no intention of committing to any of it by talking about it, even if it concerned subjects she could broach with her parents - which it didn't.

The year which was ending had been, for the most part, an unexceptional one; but the year stretching out ahead held far greater promise. It felt at least as auspicious a time as any other to try mending bridges. She began another two letters to Julian after retiring to the bedroom they had once shared that evening, before sighing and folding them over and over, compact little rectangles as small as she could make them, kept carefully by her pillow until she could discreetly drop them in the blazing fire downstairs the next day. Three attempts - even more hesitantly begun - addressed to Peggy Burnett met the same fate, and Rhyll was by this time cold and fed up; taking it as a sign, she gave it up for the day and extinguished her lamp before getting into bed. Christmas was over, and her duty here all but done. In another two days, she would be off and away again, taking some much-needed time by herself, and maybe then she would be able to think more clearly.




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