Christmas at the Farmhouse - Rebecca Boxall
Boxing Day 1969
‘You need to hand me the baby now, dear,’ said the nun, her voice steely. ‘I knew it was a mistake to say your goodbyes.’
‘Just one more minute,’ I begged. I held the baby to me, all wrapped up in the shawl I’d spent the last few months knitting. The smell of the child’s downy head was intoxicating.
‘Come now,’ the nun said brusquely, grabbing the bundle from me. She left, slamming the door behind her, and I heard the wailing begin. The baby’s first, then my own.
Some time later the door opened again and another nun knelt in front of me – the kind one this time, with the soft brown eyes.
‘There, there,’ she said, offering me a lavender-scented handkerchief. ‘We’re going to sing some Christmas carols now in the rec room. Why don’t you come and join us till your parents get here?’
But I shook my head. If there was one thing I was certain of, it was that I never, ever wanted to hear another Christmas carol – not for as long as I lived.
Christmas Day 1968
‘You’re a good girl,’ Mother said to me as I helped her dish up the Christmas lunch. And I was. Well, you wouldn’t dare be anything else with my father. That was how it was back then. You toed the line. You were helpful and dutiful and, of course, chaste.
Back and forth I went from the dingy little kitchen to the icy dining room, ferrying the various dishes – all served up on the ancient wedding service. By the time Mother and I sat down, the meal was barely warm, but it was tasty nonetheless. Father didn’t remark on it. He consumed it like he did every other meal, without any comment – whether complimentary or critical.
It was just the three of us for Christmas, as it always was. Mother and Father were from small families and they didn’t like to entertain or be entertained. They had their traditions, limited though they were, and they stuck to them. Unlike my friend Penny’s family, Father hadn’t yet splashed out on a colour television, so we watched the Queen’s Speech in black and white after Mother and I cleared the plates. Penny invited me for Christmas every year and I longed to join her noisy, enormous family on their farm down the road, but I never had the brass to suggest it to my parents. Anyway, I’d have felt too bad for Mother, who tried her best in the circumstances.
That Christmas was my first since I’d left school at sixteen, after taking my CSEs and GCEs at the Secondary Modern in Silverhurst, a Sussex market town close enough to the sea for Sunday visits when Father would treat Mother and I to an ice cream in a cornet each; we always used to eat them sitting in the Ford Cortina, looking out at the iron-grey sea. Since leaving school I’d been working at Downley’s, the baker’s, and, in truth, my life was not in the least bit exciting.
I’m telling you this so you’ll understand how everything began with Mr Jenners. He’d been my English teacher in my final year at school and I’d always liked him because he’d paid me special attention, which no-one ever had before – and they certainly hadn’t done since. When he came into the shop the first time, in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year, I remember he asked for a Bloomer before being tempted by the iced buns.
‘They look good,’ he said, smiling. When he smiled the skin around his eyes creased up and yet, despite that, he didn’t seem all that old. Nothing like as old as my parents, anyway. ‘I’ll take three of those and the bread, please,’ he said.
I busied myself wrapping the loaf and then shovelling the iced buns into a crisp paper bag. I was about to put the third one in when he stopped me.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘You have that one.’
‘Oh,’ I said, my cheeks burning. ‘I can’t do that.’
I thought about it. ‘It’s probably against the rules.’
Mr Jenners smiled again. ‘You always were a rule-abider. I remember that about you. Always gave your homework in on time. Come on – live a little. I insist.’
I didn’t seem to have much choice and I didn’t want to appear rude or ungrateful. I carefully hid the iced bun under the counter and Mr Jenners handed over his pennies, looking pleased.
‘My son and I have just moved to