Christmas Day in Beulah was magical, like a childhood dream, full of mystery and wonder. The outside world had receded altogether, as if there were nothing in the universe beyond the soft, rolling whiteness that now held the Minnis in its gentle folds.
The snow had stopped just as the occupants of Priory House were beginning to stir for breakfast. By the time the coffee and croissants were cleared from the big pine table, a bright, cheerful sun had risen and the sky was utterly cloudless, a pale, pure cerulean translucence that sat above the hilltop village, unsullied even by the contrail of a passing airliner.
The fall was so thick it was hard to recognise any individual part of the vast, sprawling Minnis. The cricket pavilion looked like a confection in sugar, perched on a birthday cake cooked for the offspring of a giant. The tall, sprawling hawthorn bushes at the edge of the pitch now resembled small, glistening peaks from a surrealist landscape. On the far side of the common, one of the local horsy types had dragged out a dark, muscular mount, tethered an ancient sledge to its rear, and was slowly parading over the pitch with three squealing children clinging loosely to the contraption. They made slow progress. The snow was deep and thick and very, very soft. Alison briefly wondered how Sara would ever make it the half mile from Crabtree Cottage, across this plashy sea of white. Miles, solid, reliable Miles, would find a way.
The Beulah snow was quite unlike any she had ever seen. In the house in Boston’s Back Bay, when she was a child, snow possessed a fleeting, pristine beauty, before the pressing population ruined it with muddy footprints and motor vehicles that turned everything, all too soon, to mucky, vile slush. In Manhattan, the transformation occurred even before the flakes hit the ground. Blackness and dirt were everywhere in the city, ingrained deep in the snow as it fell. What charm a blizzard had in the city was gone by six in the morning when the commuter flood began to trickle out onto the streets.
Beulah was altogether different. The snow fell pure white and remained that way, a virgin blanket on the ground, save for the tell-tale marks that told of another population, of fur and feather, unseen for the most part, but always active. Sparrow tracks skittered across the flat, perfect plain in front of the window. Blackbirds had brushed through the powdery surface making long, random lines. There were bigger footprints too — a badger, perhaps, or a fox. And a curious, geometric trail that might have marked the loping gait of a hare.
They lost track of the time as they stood together at the window, rapt in this scene. Then, she shivered, and Miles walked over to the slumbering embers of the big log fire, rattled them with a poker, and threw on another piece of wood. Sparks rose out of the ashes, followed by flames. A soft, living heat worked its way out from the Adam fireplace into the room, and with it a delicious organic log fire smell. Miles tentatively stroked her hair. Some kind of peace was being made, on both sides, she thought. And it felt right, for the moment. This was no time for war, above or below ground.
Arnold, dressed in a somewhat ridiculous purple cardigan and loud green trousers, shuffled into the room, was about to speak, and, with a rapidity which, for him, was surprising, took in what was happening. He gave them a sly, foxy look then joined them at the window.
“Missing Godalming, Dad?” she asked.
Arnold grunted, not unpleasantly, and stared at the tracks outside the window. “Not at all, my dear. But please no carols yet. I am still adapting. We never did come here when Emily was alive, you know.”
“What was she like?”
“Emily?” Arnold grimaced. “Wish I could answer that question. Daughter of my uncle Bernard, one of many Fenway family strands, none of them interlinked, sadly. Family battles. Saw her once, when she was fifteen or so. Gangly thing but not unattractive. She never married and she was Bernard’s only child. I imagine she had no-one else to turn to with this place.”
“Still,” Arnold said, “you deserved some luck.” He peered out of the window at the filigree of tiny footmarks in the snow. “Goodness me. A stoat.”
Alison blinked at him. “You’re kidding me. Mr Suburbia knows about animal tracks?”
He gave her a frank look and she realised that, even after all these years, there were things she had not begun to know or understand about Miles’ father. “I recognise a stoat trail when I see one. Lovely creatures. Keep down the mice and rats. And why shouldn’t I? They sent me to a farm, during the war. Evacuation. Down near Cirencester.”
Miles looked as surprised as she did. “You never mentioned that, Dad?”
“No,” he replied, trying not to make it sound sour. “Some things you don’t talk about, do you?”
Alison could feel some turning point in the relationship between the three of them.
“I liked it there,” he said. “I had a girl…”
Alison blurted it out, before she could think. “Where didn’t you, Dad?”
For once, Arnold did look offended. “She was the first, dear. The first one I ever loved. That does matter, you know. Even for someone like me. Although,” he added dreamily, “I suppose I wasn’t that me back then.”
“And?” she asked, knowing he expected it.
Arnold gazed at her with those big, rheumy eyes, and she realised, with a sudden chilly grief, how much he hated being old. “When the war was over, so were we. I hated the country after that. Never went back. Not if I could help it.”
“Well you’re back now,” she said.
“Yes.” He appraised them frankly. “And seeing you here together, I realise what a stupid old man I’ve been. It’s home, isn’t it?”
She put an arm around his Arnold. The old man nearly jumped out of his skin. “We all do stupid things, Dad,” Alison said. “We’re only human.”
“I know,” Arnold replied quietly. “It’s the best excuse in the business.”
“Can we have a pact? With each other?” And with ourselves? she wondered.
“Pact,” Arnold said quietly. Then hugged her, quite tightly too. “You’re a hell of a girl, you know. Miles is a bloody lucky man. I never told you that before. I should have done.”
“And after that,” Arnold said, taking hold of her arm, “I would care to be introduced to your vintage port.”
Drinks followed — for her, a little red wine with Badoit — and then the Fenways’ first Christmas in Beulah began in earnest. Miles was transformed into a man of action. He brought out the little tractor from the old barn at the back of the garden and, finally, Alison realised its worth. A small tow-truck went on the back in place of the grass cutting gear. Methodically, he transferred logs from the wood store into the truck and ferried them through the snow to the back door. Then he fired up the generator, checked the system, measured the fuel in the storage tank and worked out they could spend a good four days in comfortable isolation, even if the power from the outside world disappeared entirely.
After that, there was another change of gear on the back of the machine. The tractor swept the drive clear of snow, right down to the public road that ran by the side of the green. Miles even made a space in front of the house, though quite why Alison didn’t know. Not a car moved in Beulah that day, and it wasn’t just because of the snow, which had already blocked the hill down to Wye to everything but the most serious of four by fours. The village had become a world of its own. If you walked too far from the gigantic white prairie of the Minnis, Alison mused, you might just fall off the edge.
At eleven, Miles ventured across the green on the tractor and fetched Sara in the re-attached tow-truck. The two women clucked and fussed in the kitchen, with Arnold watching them. Miles, with no protests, made an excuse, put on a pair of wellies and disappeared to the Green Man where, legend had it, Norman would stand a single free drink for every regular who made an appearance.
Arnold watched him go, a little wistfully, Alison thought. “We can get you there if you want,” she offered. “It’s a tough couple of hundred yards on foot. Or, if you can stand the shame, I’ll drive you there on the back of the tractor.”
The old man burst out laughing, and Alison was astonished. This was a sound she had never truly heard in all the years she had known him.
“What would an old sod like me want with a pub?”
Sara wielded a professional looking knife at some parsnips. “Oh come, Mr Fenway. Male companionship. Ribald chatter. The freedom to fart at will.”
Arnold chuckled again. “Hah! You think I haven’t had enough of that for one lifetime? And it’s Arnold, by the way. You must always follow the general convention of addressing the very old in the same way you speak to the very young.”
“Quite so,” Sara said, and actually patted him on the head. The mass of white shaggy hair shook with mirth. “Now can we get you anything, Arnold? Or do you need a nap?”
The old man positively roared and Sara followed suit.
Alison quartered a potato while watching them. “I can see you two are going to get on like a house on fire.”
“God,” Arnold exclaimed. “Women today. You know what I hate most about being old? It’s not being able to chase you lot around. The percentage of interesting women in the world has increased parabolically since I was a lad. Most of them then were just… plain boring I’m afraid.”
“Is that why you needed so many?” Alison wondered aloud.
He shrugged, taking it in his stride. “Not really. I can’t blame them. It was me entirely.”
He watched her finish the last of the potatoes and throw them into the pan then asked, “You don’t mind me saying something, do you?”
Alison stared at the chopped vegetables in front of her, wondering what to do next. The beef was settling into a nice cruise in the Aga. The smell wafting out of the oven was wonderful. “Of course not.”
He stood up, and made his way over to the table. “You really shouldn’t roast potatoes in corn oil, Alison. It’s nasty stuff only fit for pigs.”
“So,” she asked, “what would you suggest? I am not aware of seeing you cook anything except frozen Waitrose dinners this last decade?”
“Nobody cooks for themselves, dear. One day you may find that out. But there was a time when I cooked for others, and very successfully too.”
“I’ll bet,” Sara grinned.
“When I was in the Perigord I preferred to roast potatoes in duck or goose fat,” Arnold continued.
“Shit,” Alison said icily. “I knew there was something I forgot in Sainsbury’s.”
“Well…” He glanced around the kitchen. It was remarkably well equipped and provisioned. “Good beef lard — and I mean good — or a decent virgin olive oil.”
Alison opened a cupboard and pulled out a litre of supermarket finest. Arnold opened the bottle, sniffed, then poured a smear onto a wrinkled finger and tasted it.
“Hmm. Surprisingly good. Italian, of course, but it’ll do.”
“Pleased to hear it,” Alison said with a forced smile. “Anything else?”
“Yes, the parsnips. What do you propose?”
She gave him a cold look. “An ancient technique I learned from the English. You boil them in water until the buggers become edible.”
Alison could not believe it. Arnold and Sara quite clearly exchanged a look of concern right in front of her eyes.
“Seems a waste of a parsnip,” Sara noted.
“I do apologise. I wasn’t aware I was feeding two leading lights from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Root Vegetables.”
“Waste of an Aga, too,” Arnold added, ignoring the sarcasm. “Boiling is an English culinary vice, best used sparingly. I’d just spread them with butter, sling them in to roast fifteen minutes after the potatoes. They should toffee up quite nicely.”
“Sounds good to me,” Sara concurred.
“Whose side are you on?” Alison murmured between gritted teeth.
“And…” Now there was a true note of approbation in Arnold’s face. “What, pray tell, is that?”
He pointed a long, wizened finger at the offending object. It stood immobile on the work surface next to the Aga. Alison swore inwardly. She had meant to hide the thing. “Red wine gravy. In a packet.”
Arnold actually shivered.
“Dad,” she said, “I cannot, for the life of me, make gra…”
“Don’t even use that word,” he interrupted. “It has such… connotations.”
Arnold rifled through the contents of the spice shelf. In under a minute he had found some herbs and a packet of dried Italian mushrooms. “Shallots?” he asked.
“That I do have,” Alison said, and quietly dumped the offending plastic pack of gravy in the bin.
“Good.” He gave her the mushrooms and ordered her to soak them in boiling water. “Leave the sauce — note that word, daughter-in-law — to me, please. An old man must make some contribution.”
“Some contribution?” Alison answered back. “You’ve just about commandeered the entire meal.”
Arnold kissed her sloppily on the cheek and grinned.
“Oh dear.” She could only laugh. “You’re still just an old rake at heart. Winning women through their stomachs. Where did all this sudden charm come from?”
“You lot,” Arnold announced. “And thank you kindly. I could take a sherry by now. Will you join me?”
Alison shook her head and caught his canny eyes.
“I’ll get your drink,” Sara said. “And put on some tea for us.”
She walked over to the far side of the kitchen and made herself busy in the freezer.
Arnold watched her go. Eventually, when Sara was out of earshot, he asked Alison the inevitable. “You haven’t told Miles? He ought to know.”
She shook her head. “What a cunning, old rake you are. Just because I don’t drink it doesn’t mean…”
He looked faintly insulted.
“There’s nothing to know, Dad. Really. It’s just female intuition. And after the last disaster I want to be so certain. For both our sakes.”
“For all our sakes,” he corrected her.
“Quite. So not a word.”
Arnold beamed. “Of course.”
Sara returned with the sherry.
“To motherhood,” Arnold said, and shakily raised his drink.
(C) David Hewson 2012