Celia Evans looked at her ever growing list of “Before Christmas To-Do” jobs and wondered how she was going to get it all done with four young children and a husband who had announced last night that he needed to go to series of meetings in the City and would be away at least a week.
“Mummy, Mummy, the mailman’s been!” Celia’s daughter’s cry distracted her. Jane was jumping up and down with excitement; one never knew what delights the mailman would bring.
“Right then,” Celia turned to look Jane’s eager face, “on with your coat and let’s see what today’s mail brings.” Jane rushed to the cupboard next to the front door, dragging her coat from the hook set at just the right height for a four-year old. By the time mother and daughter had walked down the path to the letter box, the postman had turned at the end of their street, two doors up, and was making his way down the other side. “Morning Celia,” he called, tipping his postman’s cap as he always did. “Morning Tommy, thanks for the mail,” she replied.Celia bent to pick up Jane so she could reach into the letter box. “Ooh, there’s a lot today, Mummy.” As Celia put Jane down, the front door swung open vigorously and Colin and Stevie bowled out, almost tripping over each other in their eagerness to be outside. “Chores done, Mum” cried Colin as they sped by. “Be back in time for lunch” called Celia to her swiftly retreating sons and received a wave in reply. Celia and Jane walked back into the house, divesting themselves of their coats before Jane ran with the mail to the kitchen and Celia checked on her youngest child, Tess, who was sleeping peacefully in her cot.
As mother and daughter started to sort the mail, cards to be opened, parcels to go under the Christmas tree, window envelopes left for Dad, the phone rang.
“It’s me, Celia. Are you busy?” the voice on the telephone asked.
“Just sorting the mail, Em. How are you?” Celia asked her younger sister.
“In need of a change of scenery. Can I come and stay?” Emma asked
“Of course! When would you like to come?” Celia hoped it would be soon as Emma would be a great help in getting That List under control.
“Tomorrow?” Emma suggested tentatively. “ Perfect!” her sister replied, “What time train will you arrive on?”
“The four o’clock. Edmund won’t mind?”, referring to her brother-in-law.
“Not at all. There’s a big restructure happening at the main office and he has to attend a series of meetings in the City. Why it has to happen just before Christmas though, I don’t know.”
“Oh good, I’ll be company for you. Is it snowing there?”
Celia laughed. ”This is Christmas Village, Emma, when is it not snowing?”
After hanging up, Celia called to Jane and together they went up to prepare the guest room for their visitor. Celia knew Jane would want to “help” get the room ready and she was pleasantly surprised that her daughter fetched and carried as requested so eagerly and the “helping” turned out to be very helpful indeed.
Celia was not surprised that Emma wanted to visit; she imagined the atmosphere at her parents’ home would be a little fraught by now. Emma had been involved in a serious accident some months earlier necessitating a long stay in hospital and an even longer convalescence. Their mother was a bit of a worrier and would be constantly asking Emma if she was hot enough/cool enough/needing a cushion and stating that she shouldn’t be in a draft/ walking so fast/should rest more. Now that Emma was back on her feet their mother’s ministrations would be irksome. To make matters worse, Emma had had to give up her position as a lawyer’s clerk as the City firm of solicitors where she had worked were too busy to be a man down, so to speak. They had paid her out generously, but Celia knew this keen, intelligent sister of hers would be itching to use her brain again.
The next morning the family saw Edmund off to the City, then traipsed back to the station late afternoon to collect Auntie Emma. The children scanned the alighting travellers, keen to be the first to spot her. “There!” cried eagle eyed Colin and the three older children raced past a passenger laden with bags, nearly knocking her off her feet. Celia raced up to her, apologising profusely for her offspring’s exuberance. The young woman laughed good naturedly and assured Celia she was fine, looking to where the children were hugging Emma and the boys were arguing over who was to carry her cases. “It’s lovely to see the children so excited. I’m guessing that’s a special visitor?”
“Their aunt, my sister” explained Celia.
“Then I shall leave you to greet her,” said the stranger and swiftly walked away before Celia had time to introduce herself or, indeed, find out who she was.
Over a cup of hot chocolate that evening Celia outlined her plans for the next few days. “I promised the children a visit to the Christmas Shoppe, then Willow will meet us there and she will bring the children home and mind them until you and I get back.
“Willow? But Willow doesn’t like children.”
Celia laughed. “Willow doesn’t like babies.”
“Babies?” queried Emma, cocking her head at the sleeping Tessa.
“Let me rephrase that. Willow doesn’t like babies, but for some inexplicable reason she loves our Tess.”
Emma nodded her head, not quite believing that the Willow she knew had changed so much. As a frequent visitor to the Evans household, Emma had come to know many of the villagers and they her. She was sought out by the younger women as a friend and was a keen child minder for the mothers in the village, her delightful personality endearing her to all she met.
“But before that there’s the Christmas Party at The Manor.”
The Manor Christmas Party, hosted by the current incumbent and direct descendant of Sir Isaac, Sir Thornbury and his wife Lady Mavis was a much anticipated annual event to which all the villagers attended at some stage during the evening.
Philip Wagstaff had been invited by his patron Reverend Jenkin to whom he knew he owed a debt of gratitude for taking him on, nevertheless he was there begrudgingly. Social occasions were not his thing; he felt awkward and had no real conversation. Still, he’d thought practically, it was another day off the calendar, another day nearer the end of his tenure, and a day closer to leaving the village and going back to the real world to pursue his career. He stood looking out the window with his drink in hand, not seeing the magic of the household lights reflected in the snowy garden. Running the afternoon’s choir practice through his head he’d worked out that it was Tommy the Postman who had been half a bar ahead on the rushed run through of the last carol, and made a mental note to pick him up on it at the next practice. That problem sorted, he was next contemplating a tricky arpeggio in the new music he was composing, not realising his face was screwed up into a scowl of concentration.
He was only dimly aware of a change of atmosphere in the room when the popular Celia and Emma entered along with Celia’s children. Emma spotted Philip and was about to ask who the man was with the frown on his face when there were squeals of delight from the parson’s children. Will and Kate hurtled toward their favourite pseudo aunt, knocking into Philip and spilling his drink as they passed.
Philip looked to where the children had dashed, annoyed at having his drink thrown over his suit only to find he was looking at the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
“Close your mouth, Mr Wagstaff.” Mrs Watson dug him painfully in the ribs, “It’s most unseemly for the Choirmaster to be gawping at a fellow guest.”
Philip did as the retired school ma’am bade, but couldn’t keep his eyes away from Emma, watching as she glided from group to group, receiving warm welcomes from each. Finally they were headed his way and Celia performed the introductions. Philip stumbled over a hello-how-are-you-pleased-to-meet-you and too soon Emma had moved on. Still his eyes followed her, all thoughts of music banished from his head. Thunderstruck would be an apt description, the shrewd Mrs Watson decided.
“Ah, my dear Emma,” said Mr Sylvester as she and Celia approached, “how delightful to see you. And how goes your position with the solicitors in the City?”
“Regrettably, I’m no longer employed there… the accident?”
“Yes, I see. Most unfortunate for you. Hmmm.” The solicitor turned aside, “I don’t believe either of you have met my nephew, Matthew. Matthew this is Emma and Celia.” They murmured greetings. “Matthew recently joined our partnership having returned from a stint overseas.” The conversation turned to travel and jobs. Philip watched as people drifted in and out of groups, half hearing conversations and all the while admiring the ease at which Emma moved and conversed with the villagers.
At the end of the evening Mr Sylvester came to say his goodbyes to Celia and Emma. As he shook Emma’s hand he said, “Come and see me in the morning, my dear. My office, 10am.” Mr Sylvester put his hat on his head and walked out the door followed closely by Matthew. “Interesting,” commented Celia with raised eyebrows.
Philip spent a restless night with visions of the beautiful Emma filling his head every time he closed his eyes. What was happening to him? No woman had ever had this effect on him before. He just didn’t understand how he could be so distracted.
He’d woken bleary eyed and had convinced himself that Emma was not as beautiful or alluring as he imagined and it must have been the drink that influenced his thinking, ignoring that fact that he’d only had two drinks and one of those had been spilt down his suit. But as he walked out the door of his lodgings he saw Emma, Celia and the children on their way to the main street and seeing Emma again made him stop in his tracks. He listened intently as Emma’s bright laugh tinkled across the crisp air. The sisters turned the corner, the spell was broken. Philip found he’d actually stopped breathing so he took a deep gulp of air and shook his head. This couldn’t go on!
“Right, here’s our plan,” Celia brandished her list. “You go and see Mr Sylvester and I’ll take the children to the Christmas Shoppe, and I’ll meet you there, or at…..” Celia pointed to the name Toy Palace on the list so that the little ears accompanying them didn’t hear. The sisters parted company, Emma turning toward the business end of the village and Celia wheeling the pram and the children up the hill to the shops.
After her interesting meeting with Mr Sylvester and Matthew, Emma joined Celia just as Willow and the children were leaving the Christmas Shoppe.
“Toy Palace next?” asked Emma once the children were out of earshot. The sisters spent the next few hours choosing presents for the children at Toy Palace and White Rabbit Book Store reviving themselves with a coffee and treat at Lucy’s Chocolate Shop before finishing off at Stocking Stuffers Gift Shop. Laden with parcels, they made their way home.
In the afternoon, the boys went out to play and Emma offered to take Jane for a walk so that Celia could start wrapping the presents. Emma and Jane headed back up the hill as Emma had spotted a book for Edmund at White Rabbit Book Store and she knew she could find something for Celia at Red Thimble Quilt Shop. In Red Thimble Emma found a beautiful set of fat quarters for Celia in her favourite colours. At the bookshop the owner, Mr Lapin, greeted Emma. “Back again? What did you forget, Emma?” She asked about the book she’d seen earlier and Mr Lapin explained that it was one of a series and would definitely be to Edmund’s taste. She decided to buy the series. Expensive gifts, but she wanted to thank her sister and brother-in-law for welcoming her into their home.
Emma hadn’t seen Philip who had been perusing the music section, but Philip became instantly aware of Emma the moment she walked into the store.
“I hear you may be gracing us with your presence for quite some time, “commented Mr Lapin as he wrapped Edmund’s gift in bright Christmas paper. Astonished at the swiftness of the village grapevine, Emma wasn’t sure how to reply. Philip waited with bated breath.
“I….umm….er,” Emma stumbled to reply.
“Sorry,” said Mr Lapin, “Not common knowledge yet?” Emma shook her head. “Your secret is safe with me,” he added with a wink.
Emma smiled, picked up the parcel and taking Jane by the hand left the shop.
Frustrated at not knowing what was happening, Philip approached Mr Lapin with a book on Mozart in his hand.
“A present or for you, Mr Wagstaff?”
“I…er, a present,” Philip replied distractedly, but realising he might have more chance of finding out about Emma while Mr Lapin wrapped the book.
“The, er, the young lady who was just in. Emma, is it?” he asked
“Lovely young lady, sister to Celia Evans, visits often and could be staying on if things go according to plan. Not that I’m saying anymore, mind. Probably said too much as it is.”
“Oh well, as I don’t know the lady in question, I won’t tell anyone.” Philip hoped this might elicit the information he wanted.
Mr Lapin looked around the empty shop and leaned forward conspiratorially, “Just between us then, Miss Emma’s been offered a position as a law clerk with Sylvester and Sylvester and I’m betting she’ll take it. Fits in here in the village and we’d all love to have her stay.”
Philip spent the afternoon valiantly trying to wrest his mind away from Emma and back to his music. Then a strange thought entered his head. Initially he dismissed it as ridiculous, but being an intelligent man he mulled it over, viewing it from all angles and finally realising its truth. For the first time in his life, Philip was in love. He sighed with relief at the realisation, but then shivered as his next thought was that he had no idea where to go from here.
Emma walked through the twilight on her way to picking up Colin and Stevie from choir practice enjoying the solitude after being in the noisy Evans household; she loved her extended family but it was nice to be in the quiet streets. She silently entered the church, walked down the aisle and sat in a pew. Emma watched as Philip took the choir through a carol, asking just the tenors to sing their part and gently pointing out to Tommy the postman where he was coming in early. Tommy nodded in understanding and whole choir sang the carol through once more, Tommy beaming as he joined his voice with the others at the correct place.
He really was a nice man Emma decided realising that Philip’s scowl was just the look of his face in concentration. Choir practice came to a close, Philip thanked the members for their efforts and reminded them of the early start for next practice, and the choristers left their stalls and headed out the church door.
At Colin and Stevie’s hello to their aunt, Philip turned to see Emma smiling – at him! Philip’s heart started racing and that gave him the impetus to move forward and greet her. He arranged to walk all three home and met them outside the church after turning off the lights and locking the door. The boys walked ahead, and to Philip’s amazement the conversation flowed easily between him and Emma. Too quickly for Philip they arrived at the Evans’ house.
Philip hesitated, but only briefly not wanting to lose the momentum. “Would you care to have lunch with me tomorrow?” he asked his heart in his hand. “That,” replied Emma with a brilliant smile, “would be lovely.”
And there it was. Philip’s heart soared; now he had a reason to stay in the village, a reason to enjoy staying in the village.