Chapter 1: 1/2/3/4 (Tis the season/ Bells/ Chilly/ Deck the Halls)
December 1917 – Somewhere in France
The War went on. As simple as that, as if it had gained a will of its own. There was no end to it in sight and no true progress from either side. By then, one would be tempted to believe it would probably go on forever.
They had their training together – at last, they had been considered old enough to train – and they had been posted together. Since their arrival they had developed the habit of arriving at the hospital some time before their shift. The sleeping quarters provided little room for anything but actually sleeping. So, on that Sunday, the 23rd December, Kitty had a letter to write and Violet wanted to decorate the nurses’ hall to make it at least a little festive.
Kitty felt a bit under the weather. It had been raining for days, a persistent drizzle that made everything damp and sticky and had a negative impact on everyone’s morale. Matron was sterner than ever, the patients were sad and gloomy, even the food didn’t taste as it should. For the first time since joining the VAD, more than a year ago, Kitty felt she had bitten off more than she could chew. She was writing a letter home, but every sentence sounded false and silly and she was on the verge of throwing the whole thing into the fire.
«If only the rain would stop! God knows we could all do with a couple on sunny days.» - she felt despondent and almost angry, though she couldn’t explain exactly why or at what.
Violet entered the room carrying some green boughs. An old grey apron, several times mended, covered her grey blue uniform, and her hair was damp from the chilly mist outside, curling around her pretty face. She had left her wellingtons by the door and had changed into the rubber soled and comfortable shoes that were part of the uniform. She sat by the dying fire, carefully put her armful of thin pine branches on the floor and started weaving a garland with the help of some red cotton ribbon, while softly singing.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa lalalala lala lala, ‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa lalalala lala lala
Kitty looked up, frowning, from the letter she was writing and managed to smile through her frown:
- I envy you sometimes, Vi. How can you find it in you to sing Christmas carols in here…? It’s all so sad and dreary!
They were in the nurses’ hall of the improvised hospital near the front where both girls had been assigned. It occupied a side wing of a country chateau, and the nurses’ hall was a small windowless room at the middle of two rows of rooms, where nurses could sit for a while, to rest, have a cup of tea or doze off for a while in one of the old leather armchairs. It had a fireplace and an iron woodstove, a few rickety tables and mismatched chairs, and a small cupboard that held the teapots and pans, the plates and cups, the tea and sugar tins as well as a few books and magazines. The ensemble had a dismal look at its best, and in the cold grey light of the December early morning, with the gloomy sound of the wind outside and the unrelenting drizzle that had been going on for days, was the unlikeliest of places to induce carol singing.
Violet smiled at her. Her smile was warm and genuine, and put dimples on her face and a light in her eyes.
- I like singing. When I’m singing, I forget about the War, about the wounded men and the condensed milk – she made a long face here as they both hated having condensed milk with their tea – the smoking fireplace, all the dreary aspects of life…
Kitty liked music but she lacked Violet’s passion. She sighed. She couldn’t remember anything that had the power to make her forget.
- You are lucky, Vi. I wish I could say the same…
- Do you know what I really miss out here, more than anything?
- Besides fresh milk?
- Yes, besides that. I miss my piano.
Kitty supressed another sigh. She had been writing to her married sister Ada, who was expecting her third chid and taking care of two small children, her husband away at the front. She had been trying to sound cheerful in her letter, God knew poor Ada well needed some cheerfulness, but she was tired of it all. Everything seemed so bleak. «Damn the War!», she thought for the one thousandth time.
Violet had resumed both her singing and her garland weaving. She had already made the patients infirmaries gain a Christmassy tone with some pine branches interspersed with paper lace garlands. Kitty had even heard her scheming with the cook and Madame Daumier, their neighbouring farmer’s wife, about chicken soup for the wounded men, and maybe some brioche.
«She’s got such energy, Violet. I do admire her so…», she thought to herself, as she finished her letter. The kettle she had put on the stove began to whistle as she was addressing the envelope.
- Madame Daumier has promised to teach me her recipe for chicken soup.
The garland was ready, and Violet had hanged it over the fireplace. Amazingly, it seemed to change the bleak little room, giving it some warmth and a slightly more comfortable look.
- Red is an amazing colour, isn’t it?
Violet was now pinning red paper bows on the leftover pine branches and arranging them around the mantlepiece. She gave a look round the room to appreciate the effect before taking off the grey apron and putting on the white one, with the red cross, starched and immaculate. Then she stood in front of the small mirror, brushing her slightly damp hair, and pinning her veil.
Two other girls entered the room. Nurses on a welcome break from ward work.
- Well, I say, who made the decorations? It’s beautiful, makes the room look nice and welcoming. Who would believe it was possible?
Violet made a mock curtsy and Kitty poured four cups of tea. Gladys brought out the detested condensed milk.
- There’s still some bread. No butter though, only apricot jam.
Margaret spread a spoonful of jam on her bread.
- I keep telling myself it’s Christmas, but …
- I know, it’s hard to believe isn’t it? It doesn’t look like Christmas; it doesn’t feel like Christmas.
Violet poured herself a second cup of tea and cut a few more slices of bread. Thanks to the farm just close by, they had fresh bread every week, even if Madame Daumier was frequently forced to add boiled chestnuts or potatos to the flour. The resulting bread was still very good if a bit more compact than normal bread.
- I’m doing all I can to make it at least look like Christmas! Come on, girls, cheer up! Try to get in the spirit. Think of our wounded soldiers, they need a bit of joy right now…! – and she hummed her Christmas carol yet again – We’ll have Madame Daumier’s chicken soup and homemade brioche for their Christmas dinner. And for our Christmas dinner as well. Think about that!
Two other nurses came in from outside, bringing a gush of cold air and their woollen capes beaded with raindrops.
- Oh, how wonderful, there’s tea.
- And Christmas decorations as well! Why, it almost feels like home.
- Hang your capes here to dry. Kitty is making some toast and there’s jam. Tuck in before work, it’s so cold one needs something hot to start the engines running, so to speak.
That evening, as they were ending their work, cleaning the nurses’ hall for the following shift, the wind brought the clear sound of bells, maybe church bells from some village. Violet stopped mopping the stone floor.
- Listen, Kitty! Bells! Now if that doesn’t give you a Christmassy feeling, nothing will. – she mopped the last bit and pirouetted on the wet floor.
Kitty listened attentively. Bells, yes. Violet brough both capes from the hooks.
– Are you ready? All cups dry and stored? Maybe tomorrow morning we can get some fresh milk on the way…
The crystal sound of the bells made her homesick, but it was a welcome sound, and Kitty was resolved to do her best. Violet deserved it; she was such a brick. There she was, still humming her carol as they walked through the drizzle, arm in arm, heads down against the wind, to their sleeping quarters.
Chapter 2: 5/6/7/8 Shepherd/ Joy/ Blankets/ O Christmas tree
Another place, different characters, same War.
December 1917 – Somewhere in Malta
Maurice was sitting alone at a table in the nurses’ common room, his hands around a warm cup of tea. Christmas was approaching, but he felt as far from the desired Christmas spirit as it could be. For one thing, winter in Malta didn’t feel real: it was too warm and mild. Then they were too often separate, working on different shifts and, most important, on different kinds of work. Alec assisted surgeries almost every other day and worked mostly in intensive care and post-surgery wards, while Maurice worked in physiotherapy. So, although they shared quarters, they sometimes wouldn’t see each other for days, or would only meet briefly for tea breaks.
Maurice’s plan to make them much more valuable out of the Army than in had worked beautifully. It wasn’t common to have young men wanting to train as nurses but it wasn’t unheard of either. After all it was War work as well, and the nursing corps could use a few male nurses where physical strength was needed. Since the first week of their training, where everyone knew them as brothers, it had been obvious that brothers they might be, but they were as different from each other as two men could. Both were clever and willing, both had a natural talent for nursing work but where Alec was gentle, supporting and all practical, Maurice was blunt, hardworking, and inventive.
Still, that day his shift had just ended and, for some lucky chance Alec’s shift was about to end as well, and they had arranged to meet in the common room to walk home together. The hospital had rented a couple of rooms in a nearby house («You see, boys, I cannot put you in the girls’ sleeping quarters…», Matron had told to the four young men under her supervision). The place belonged to a young couple with two small boys and another child on the way. The husband was serving in the Navy and the young woman had welcomed the chance of having paying guests, saying that as she was on her fourth month of pregnancy, a house full of nurses might just come in handy.
He almost jumped. He had been so deeply lost in thoughts he hadn’t seen Alec approaching, a big smile on his face.
- Sorry, I was thinking…
- Oh, you know, this and that…
Out in the street there was a light wind and the last rays of a winter sunny day were still enough to warm them a bit.
- You’ve been a bit glum lately, haven’t you? – Alec asked.
- It’s the War. One cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Even here, all we see is wounded soldiers arriving, as if there was an endless supply of men to go and get themselves blown to bits. – he stopped at a sheltered corner to light a cigarette – Today we had a new patient in physio, a young chap who’s had his right hand in plaster for a month and a half and now can hardly hold anything. He’ll have to work hard to regain his hand’s finer functions, to do such simple things as button his shirt, hold a pencil, use a spoon or a knife… He spent a whole hour trying, just trying, to flex his fingers, one at a time. The therapy is so painful he had tears in his eyes.
Alec dealt with a good deal of horror in his work, assisting complicated surgeries, dealing with terrible wounds and quite a few deaths, but Maurice had no easier task, since he dealt with the consequences of the wounds – men who had to relearn actions they had taken for granted all their adult lives, like walking or using a spoon or a pencil.
- I know. It’s hard, isn’t it? But we must remember we are doing our best and the War will have to end someday…
They passed a small niche with a Nativity scene. It was usually closed but it was close to Christmas and it was now open, lit with candles and lavishly decorated with fresh flowers and green boughs. The clay figurines were no bigger than a hand, the Holy Family surrounded by shepherds bringing gifts, and the Three Wise Men far in the background, descending from the mountains riding horses or camels.
- The other thing is I miss home – Maurice went on as they walked.
- Not Alfriston Gardens, mind you. I miss our life before the War, us being together most of the time.
- Well, I miss that too, but one must live with what one’s got, right? And make the best of the actual situation… For the time being, Giovanna’s place is our home, and we manage to spend an evening or a morning together now and then. We’re still better than most.
Giovanna, their young landlady, had a delicious tuna casserole for dinner, a most noisy and animated meal, with the two little boys demanding dinner time stories, something that both Maurice and Alec were glad to supply. That night Maurice told them the tale of the Three Little Pigs complete with different voices, background noises made by Alec and the terrifying sound of the wolf blowing away the stick and straw houses provided by James, the youngest of the other two male nurses who had the second rented room. Three-year-old Angelo and two-year-old Mario listened to the tale completely enraptured, as their mother deftly spooned the soup into their opened mouths.
There were Christmas decorations around the dining room, golden paper stars and angels, and a small Christmas tree, not an actual tree as there are precious few trees in Malta, but a rosemary bush in a clay pot, fresh, plump, and fragrant, decorated as a Christmas tree, with red and golden glass baules and paper garlands, a golden paper star at the top. The kids had told the guests how, on Christmas night, Father Christmas would leave each of them a present by the tree, Angelo doing most of the talk and Mario babbling a few words in between.
At eight o’clock, when the children’s bedtime arrived, Angelo demanded that Maurice was the one to put them to bed.
- Don’t be silly, Angelo. Maurice is our guest.
- It’s alright, Giovanna, I’ll put the little mites to bed. I kind of enjoy it. You rest a bit, you've been on your feet all afternoon. Come on, boys…
Alec closed the little procession. Together they helped the kids out of their day clothes and into their pyjamas, supervised and helped with the face washing and the teeth brushing, listened very seriously to the night prayers, and tucked them in their beds, carefully pulling up their blankets. Both little boys fell asleep almost instantly.
- Thank you, Maurice, but you mustn’t give in to all their little whims, or they’ll get completely spoiled, with Salvatore away and a group of men ready to wait on them hand and foot – said Giovanna when they returned to the dining room – Oh, and by the way, boys, I put an extra blanket on each of your beds. I know, I know, winter here isn’t a real winter, but it is still rather cold, and I don’t want you coming down with anything or Matron will have my head on a plate.
Later that night, as they were retiring to sleep, Alec asked, after having studied Maurice for a while:
- You’d like to have kids, wouldn’t you? You really are wonderful with kids, you know? There’s no doubt in my mind you would make a wonderful father.
Maurice answered at once, no hesitation, as if the subject were one he had lengthily thought about, which it was, and had the answer ready, which he had. He had actually given the subject a good deal of consideration and phrased the answer in his mind over and over more than once.
- I do believe children are a great source of joy, and yes, I would like to have children. Had my life taken a different path and children might have turned out to be my only real joy. But, and of this I am certain, I would never trade you and our life together for a wife and children.
Hearing him say those words, sounding so precise, Alec felt there could be no better Christmas present than such a declaration.
Chapter 3: 9/10/11/12 Making a list/ Candle/ Dashing through the snow/ Visiting
1930 has been quite a year, and not in the best sense. Kitty and Violet felt the impact of the Great Depression in their lives, just like anyone else. But Christmas is near and they aren't letting anything spoil it.
December 1930, London
Christmas week had just begun, and Kitty sat at her desk, in the little Bloomsbury flat she shared with Violet, her pen in her hand, preparing to make a list. Her thoughts were running away with her: what was she going to list first?
Christmas presents? Not really, she had them already, wrapped up and everything. Books for the children, good books thanks to her friends in literary circles, a beautiful collar for Ada, in white linen embroidered with poppies and cornflowers, that had taken her two months of patient needlework to finish, and a silk necktie for Arthur. A very pretty silver filigree bracelet for Violet for which she had saved and paid instalments for six months. There was no need to make a list for that, then.
That year of 1930? She might as well list all the cuts that had been made to their income and all the efforts they had made to get it back. Her classes at the Women’s Institute had been reduced and she had struggled to find some extra paid work. She was now coaching two small groups of girls in French and German, and managed to make ends meet quite handsomely, but was frequently exhausted by the end of the day. Violet had lost some of her students, and the ones she had now, mostly upper class, didn’t come to Bloomsbury to have piano lessons, she went to their homes instead and therefore spent most of her days hoping from omnibus to omnibus, or in and out of the tube.
By chance, Ada’s income had not been touched, thanks to Grandfather Grace’s wise and diverse investments. Still, with three school fees to pay and three growing children who needed new clothes and shoes every six months, the Chapmans too were being careful with their spending. And, although Arthur’s lawyer work hadn’t been reduced – quite the opposite – it was now harder than ever, with bankruptcies and foreclosures every other day, and poor Arthur was frequently in a wretched mood when he arrived home. That year had been kind to no one.
Would she need to list what they could do together? That was the last day before school holidays, so both her and Violet would be free until after the New Year, a few days to rest. What could they do? Go to the theatre maybe, there were one or two plays she’d like to see. A tour of the bookshops might be agreeable, and at least one morning at one of the Museums – Violet loved that. A few cosy afternoons at home, just the two of them.
She put down her pen with a sigh and a half smile. There was no real need for a list, she knew exactly what she had to do. First, the Christmas decorations around the flat. A pretty centrepiece for the table, with a candle, some golden painted pinecones, a bit of holly and green ivy and a red silk ribbon. A pine garland for the front door, with two shining little brass bells and a bow. And that was all, since they would be spending Christmas Eve, Christmas day and New Year with the Chapmans, as usual.
Then there was the basic shopping to do. They always gave their maid Betty the Christmas week out and they’d have to buy bread and milk, eggs, bacon, cheese, cake, and fruit for their breakfasts and suppers, and order a couple of lunches at their neighbouring restaurant. Well, at least she’d have to make the shopping list, something to list after all. She was just about to finish it when Violet arrived.
- What a day! Overheated rooms, overcrowded tube, and over gloomy people everywhere. – she kissed Kitty and took off her coat and hat – On the bright side, I’m free till after New Year so I propose we spend tomorrow’s morning at the British Museum and have lunch out. What do you say?
- I say it’s a splendid idea! I was planning something of the sort…
Those few days were their Christmas holidays, and they cherished them. They had their morning at the Museum, slowly walking around the rooms and looking at their favourite pieces, and a good lunch out, a treat they offered themselves before all the hustle and bustle of Christmas.
Together, they did what was needed around the house. Violet took care of the garland and the table centrepiece, as she was far better than Kitty with her hands. Kitty did the shopping, going out in the morning to buy the groceries and the fruit. The afternoons, they spent them reading, talking, writing Christmas cards, and even having a small tea party with their friends. They went out one night, to the theatre.
On Christmas Eve they left the flat at around three, right after exchanging their presents: Violet loved Kitty’s filigree bracelet and immediately put the little box in her overnight bag to wear it that night at dinner, and Kitty wore right away the beautiful silk scarf Violet gave her.
Outside it was cold and windy and they were both glad that they didn’t have to wait long for the omnibus. Some light snow had begun to fall when they arrived and they both ran through the snow, laughing, to the Chapmans’ doorstep.
The children, who had been looking out of the living room window, opened the door themselves.
- Auntie Kitty! Auntie Violet! Oh, do come in, we were expecting you.
They surrounded their aunts, eager to tell them the news. Morrie, now thirteen (and a half, as he insisted to remind everyone), was as tall as Tilly and almost as tall as Chrissy, and rather better behaved. He was full of funny stories from school and very proud of his good report. Chrissy had spent the last week rehearsing a piano piece to play after dinner and Tilly had handwritten and painted all the name cards on the table.
- Children, let your aunts take off their coats and hats! – Ada commanded, coming out of the room – Merry Christmas, girls, and don’t let them assault like that. Morrie, you’re too old to jump around like that!
The children backed off a bit, and as they were giving their coats and hats to Smith, Ada called:
- Arthur, dear, Kitty and Violet have just arrived. Smith see that these bags are put in the guest room, please. Do come into the living room, get warm by the fire, you must be freezing.
Chapter 4: 13/ 14/ 15/ 16 Storm/ Hope/ Jolly/ Twinkling
In Malta, the Depression hasn't really touched Maurice's business, and Christmas dinner is Christmas dinner, of course. But still they decide to be careful and take the opprtunity to further educate ten-year-old Julie.
December 1930, Malta
That Christmas Eve day, Alec walked home in the cold sunny mid-morning, thinking. He had his hands deep in his pockets and kept a steady pace, while revising in his head that year about to end.
Maurice had seen it coming the day he had read about the New York Stock Exchange in the papers. «This is going to be a big storm.», he had predicted and he had been right. «It won’t affect us much. The people I do business with always bounce back and land on their feet, you know…». Alec had frowned and grumbled something about scoundrels and crooks always doing that, and of course Maurice had laughed, but a storm it had proven to be: less ships coming in, unemployment at the docks, some smaller businesses closing. As Maurice had anticipated, they hadn’t been much disturbed. The clinic had kept all its staff, and the only difference was that Maurice now travelled instead of just waiting for the ships to arrive. He had been to the Continent thrice during the year and twice Alec had accompanied him.
They had lived quite frugally until then and hadn’t changed much. What really mattered, the love and the family feeling was too powerful to be touched by something so distant as a crash in the New York Stock Exchange. And both men had lived with so much less! Yet, they weren't blind to the world around, and had made all the necessary cuts. The children had been warned that there were to be no needless expenses, and Christmas presents would be slightly reduced that year. Maurice had gathered them in the kitchen one Sunday afternoon and given them a profoundly serious little speech:
- You are old enough to understand that so many people lost so much, it wouldn’t be right to just flaunt our good fortune in their faces, would it?
All four kids agreed it wouldn’t be right nor fair.
- That is why Alec and I have decided to give part of the money we had destined for Christmas to the soup kitchen in the church, and Giovanna has been going there often to help, and you’ll have simpler presents.
The four had understood perfectly, and nodded, proud of being spoken to as if they were already grown up.
«Let’s hope for the best.», he thought, trying to keep his spirit up, «As Maurice is always saying, this too will pass.»
At home, there was the usual hubbub of special days: a delicious smell was coming from the kitchen; Angela, in a flowery apron, ran up the stairs carrying a big plate full of fresh gingerbread biscuits; Mario was screaming something to his mother about napkins, and some music was coming out of the first floor where Maurice was looking down at him with a smile.
- Hello! Are you done with that infernal clinic?
- Free as a bird until after tomorrow.
- Good, good. Go wash that Hospital smell out of you and come down, I’ll need your expertise for the mulled wine.
Half an hour later, Alec was in the kitchen grating nutmeg (a pinch of nutmeg was his own special secret) and adding sugar to the mixture. There was a pie cooling on the table and the goose was in the oven and smelled wonderfully. The mashed potatoes had been beaten to the fluffiest perfection with melted butter and hot milk, and required just the seasoning, once the goose was nearly finished, carrots were already glazed, brussels sprouts needed only their butter and lemon sauce.
Julie and the boys were upstairs, in the dinning room, preparing the table. They had changed into their very best winter clothes, the boys with blue neckties and their hair perfectly brushed and Julie in a red and blue plaid dress and her plaits tied up, like two elongated biscuits, with blue bows.
The table looked very inviting, with a snow-white cloth inlaid and trimmed with bobbin lace, and the best china and glassware twinkling in the light. The sideboard was covered in another spotless white cloth and laden with plates: the gingerbread biscuits, the honey cake, the bowl of deep red mulled wine, the oranges and the pineapple, and the caramel covered panna cotta Giovanna was so proud of. Everything in the room seemed festive and sensuous and spoke of a solid comfort and a jolly family life.
When they sat at the table, Julie looked around, encompassing the comfortable room with a good fire burning, the yellowish electric light shining on every ornament and glass and summed up everybody’s feelings:
- Who cares about presents? We’re lucky to have all this, and to have each other, aren’t we Da?
Alec smiled, proud of their girl. How sensible she was for a ten-year-old!
- We most certainly are, my dear, we most certainly are.
Chapter 5: 17/ 18/ 19/ 20 Let nothing you dismay/ Gifts/ Faith/ Sweets
First Christmas during WWII. Kitty and Violet have a lovely tea party for two, building up good memories to help them face what's ahead. And a surprise peep into the last chapter.
December 1939, London
There was a war on. Again. Another war, so much for the talk of «peace in our time». Kitty couldn’t help thinking that over and over, as she knitted by the fire in her living room. Violet was away, on her piano lessons, and wouldn’t be home before six.
«Let nothing you dismay», she hummed under her breath
The Women’s Institute was working in full vigour, but she had managed the Christmas week out. She was using most of her time to knit; she had always made most of her Christmas presents herself but this year it felt even more important to do so. She had already knitted a chocolate brown cardigan for Arthur, and a lavender blue scarf for Vi, and was working now on a red jumper for Tilly. She had a new book for Morrie, the most passionate reader of the three, which had already been packed together with a collective letter, a warm jumper and two pairs of warm woollen socks and sent. She had a pretty new hat for her sister and Violet had got some exciting new scores for Chrissy, thanks to one of her musician friends, dance music and some songs she’d like to teach her students to sing.
There would be no decorations on the flat. There was no need for it, they would be spending most of the time at Ada’s. She was remembering her mother’s old sayings «Waste not, want not.» And after New Year, they would be heading for the country, to stay at Maurice’s. That had been the greatest surprise of that year!
In July they had had a letter from Maurice, announcing that both men were returning to England.
«There is going to be a War and Malta won’t be safe. Julie is already there, at school and I’ve had a friend looking for a house for us in the country. After living for twenty years in a city the size of a pocket handkerchief, none of us is willing to live in London. He found us a small farm, some ten acres, a couple of cows and a pig, some chickens… The house is in good repair. The tenant died, his wife moved to the nearby village to stay with her married daughter and the local squire decided to sell rather than find a new tenant.
Alec is excited about going back to the country. He made me write a second letter to my friend asking about technical details such as barns and tractors, horses and stables, hedge rows and fences. I’ll be ready to learn what I can. One is never too old to learn, right?»
They had arrived in the first days of August and both her and Violet had joined them for a couple of weeks, to help them settle. The farm was quite nice, and the house was big, more than enough for the men and Julie. There were still two spare bedrooms. When Kitty had remarked they would have a lot of space, even more than they needed, Maurice had said:
- Well, if there is a war, as it is bound to be, you can leave London and come stay with us. We have a piano in the living room for Violet to play, maybe the squire’s children will want piano lessons, and you can find occupation at the local Women’s Institute. Julie will love having you here, I bet! She’ll soon get fed up with being alone with us…
And now it was all settled, they were going to live in country for the duration. Violet had agreed - «I can give piano lessons anywhere as long as there are children.» - and Kitty had been feeling restless lately: Ada wouldn’t need her, with all her children away (hardly children anymore, Kitty noted, now that Morrie, the youngest, had recently turned twenty-one). Chrissy was teaching school somewhere in the country, and her young husband was in the Army, Tilly was still at home, getting a little income from a few articles she wrote for women’s magazines and newspapers, her young man in his final year at medical school, and of course, Morrie somewhere in France. Maurice was in far more need of help and Kitty longed to feel useful again.
«And the country will do the world of good to Vi, she’s been looking so tired lately. I’m sure we’ll be very happy there; the farm is lovely and both Maurice and Alec are really nice. It’s amazing how Maurice has changed over the years, and for the better too.»
The light was going down quickly, and Violet would be home soon. She put down her knitting – the collar was nearly ready – and got up to fix the things for tea. Since the Government had already announced there would be rationing come January, she had decided to have one good Christmas before. She had baked a walnut cake that would keep for some days and made crème brulé according to Violet’s mother’s recipe. There were currant buns, jam, and butter, and she had even bought Orange Pekoe tea, Vi’s favourite.
The sound of the key turning preceded Violet’s voice:
- Oh, I say, is that Orange Pekoe I smell? And cake? Are we giving a tea party?
- No party, it’s just the two of us.
- How extravagant…!
Violet held out both hands to greet her, a merry twinkle in her eyes.
- I believe we deserve a treat. There’s a war on, who’s to know how long it will last. Let’s provide ourselves with a few good things to remember. It will be our private Christmas party.
Chapter 6: 21 /22/ 23/ 24 Darkness/ Friends and family/ Love/ Merry Christmas
Back in England, Maurice, Alec and Julie are preparing for their first Christmas without their maltese friends. There's a bit of sadness, but they are ready to face the future.
December 1939, somewhere in the English countryside
Though he was still excited about the farm, the animals, living in the country again, relearning the rhythm of nature that had once been second nature to him, Alec’s heart still had a small but persistent spot of darkness. Giovanna and her boys had stayed behind. Alec’s home would always be where Maurice was, but Giovanna held a big chunk of his heart as well and it hurt.
Maurice hadn’t been happy to leave her, but he knew it couldn’t be forced. From the day he had decided they would go back to England; she had made clear she would stay.
- This is my home, Maurice. I know my father was English but remember, my mother was Italian, and my husband was Maltese. I was born here, I grew up here, I married a local man, and my children and grand children were born here. This is where I belong.
And there was no amount of reasoning that could move her. Maurice understood, of course he did, but he had the burning desire to put all his loved ones in a safe place, preferably under his personal protection, because that was his way, he was a natural protector. To make matters worse, Angela was about to get married and would be staying on as well. Alec had to keep telling him the obvious:
- Maurice, do rest. You cannot take care, personally, of everyone you know.
Around the end of the winter before, they had had a good talk, more of a heated argument really, about the move, because Alec had his doubts about the whole thing.
- Are you sure we must go back? I thought we had kind of settled that long ago…
- There’s going to be war, Alec. It won’t be like the last war, you know. There are aeroplanes now, and we are too close to Germany to be safe. This is an island!
- May I point out that we will be moving to another island?
- A slightly bigger island, Alec! Slightly bigger.
In the end, Alec had been seduced with the idea of moving into a small farm. The one thing he had been missing during all their years in Malta was country life. A part of him had always longed to go back to the country. He had never completely given up on his youth dream of a cottage, a couple of chickens and maybe a pig.
- And what about your business, the HMS Scoundrels and all? – he had asked.
Maurice had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes when he answered back.
- Believe or not, I can retire from that. Rest your soul in that aspect, we are quite rich fellows, my dear. I’ll have other things to do from now on. I can read, I can learn new things… If we are going to live in the country, I’ll have at the very least to be able to tend for the kitchen garden, right? And the chickens, and the pig... Remember I started my working years as a stockbroker, and even if all that is now in the distant past, it’ll take all your persuasive powers to make a passable country fellow out of me, my dear.
Now they were all settled and if it wasn’t for the war Alec would say their life was as near to perfection as it could be. Sill, putting up with the War Ag. demands was the added bit of challenge he liked. They had hired a couple of men to help around, as soon as they had arrived, and by the end of summer they had made and baled the hay, made and cured some cheese, stocked the larder with enough provisions for the coming winter, and Maurice, helped by Julie, had prepared all the preserves and jams they might be needing for quite some time. As the preparations for Christmas began, Alec looked at the full shelves and thought how all that food would be welcome come January and the rationing.
They were sitting by the fire in their big kitchen that doubled as a living room, all the daily chores done: cows milked (both Julie and Maurice had learned to milk in a jiffy), chickens, both cows and pig fed, wood box full, and a bacon and leek pie in the oven for dinner. They could all take a good rest and sit, making their plans for Christmas. For the first time, they would not be having a Christmas gathering, it would be just the three of them. No big dinner, no noisy meal, just a quiet affair, Maurice, Alec, and Julie.
- Let’s keep it simple – Julie suggested – A nice bit of pork to roast, a chicken pie that will keep for a couple of days to eat cold, vegetables on the side, and gingerbread cake. We have those wonderful apples as well and Christmas is the perfect occasion to open one of those wine bottles we brought from Malta.
Alec heard this with a smile.
- What are you smiling at, Da?
- You, really. It’s fun, and endearing too, to hear you take care of things like this, all grown up. What do you say, Maurice? We’re getting old, hey?
Maurice put down the newspaper he had been reading with a growing frown and enveloped both Alec and Julie in a loving gaze. He would love having Kitty and Violet around in the near future, with the war on and all the work that would be needed, but for now he was completely happy with the little household.
- You speak for yourself, sir, I don’t feel old!
- Well, we’ve a grown-up daughter… That’s something to make one old.
- No way! We’re young parents, Alec. What’s your opinion on this, Julie?
Julie held out both her hands for her fathers.
- Yes, young parents. Please, never change.
- I don’t intend to change, love.
- Good! Let’s enjoy our Christmas together, while remembering those who are far away.
Alec thought it was the right time to put in some good common sense:
- Remember there’s a war on, girl. Who knows how long it’s going to last! In our vast experience, Maurice, we’ve got years of it ahead, right?
Maurice’s smile nearly died out. But Julie wasn’t hearing of sad things while planning for Christmas. She jumped from her chair and turned on the spot with a laughter.
- We can take it. We are strong! We’ll be together! Let’s concentrate on Christmas. A merry Christmas to us!