The magnolia-painted window-sill in the hotel bedroom was wide enough for Hilary Barnes to sit with her legs drawn to her chest, arms encircling her knees in a pose reminiscent of dreamy childhood days. The room itself possessed a charm that reminded her of the house she grew up in, but the view through the window was as bleak as her state of mind. It was Ted's idea to come away for Christmas, declaring that their house would be lonely and far too depressing. She was equally depressed here, even the virgin snow shrouding the fields and hanging from the branches of an elderly oak did nothing to cheer her. It only served to remind her of Greg's childhood love of coasting down the road on a makeshift sledge, annoying neighbours with his spirited yells of pure joy.
‘I'll be home before you know it,’ he said when he rang to break the news.
Would he? Or would he be maimed or killed.
She stared through the window, looking beyond her own reflection at the white hedgerow where houses now glowed, transformed by fairy lights twinkling in the descending gloom.
Christmas Eve. It wasn't a time for sadness, but how could she not be sad when Greg's regiment was this very day flying to war zones, where God only knew what might transpire. She ran a finger over a slat in the wooden shutter, suddenly driven to check the whole thing for dust as though some sort of action would make things right.
Then, for the first time, anger swelled within her and she pounded the shutter with her fist. How dare they whisk a young man into danger without any regard for his tender age. She sucked her knuckle, grateful for the hurt yet moderately stronger for having released some of her fury. In the corridor, the maid loaded her trolley with discarded glasses; remnants of celebrations. Hilary wiped her hand on her plaid skirt. Maybe tomorrow would be better, by then Greg would be installed in new barracks. However, no matter how long he was to serve there, she would never become accustomed to her teenage son being in the firing line.
The snow fell steadily during the night and by morning the landscape was an unsullied wonderland. Christmas Day. A day of celebration. A day to give thanks for life's blessings.
Hilary contemplated the white world, seeing a young couple trudging arm-in-arm along the lane, heading towards the church, two enthusiastic little girls following behind, slipping and sliding in fur-topped boots, their laughter-lit faces encompassed by red-striped pompom hats, matching scarves taking wing as they scampered in the drifts. As she watched, she had an urge to attend a Christmas service, to sing carols with Ted at her side, to pray for Greg and plead for his safekeeping.
Ted needed no persuading. As soon as she mentioned her intention, he opened the wardrobe and took out their coats. 'Let's get there early,' he said as he helped her into the yellow sheepskin. Understanding her need he made no mention of her customary absence of spiritual leanings.
Outside the hotel, Ted took her arm, guided her down the drive, circling the frozen fishpond and passing between barricades of newly-cleared snow until they reached the wrought-iron gates. Five minutes later they walked into the ancient parish church. It was alive with the atmosphere of Christmas. The grey stone walls were festooned with holly, an elaborately-carved pulpit decorated with berry-laden foliage. A colossal Christmas tree dominated one corner, adorned with gold and silver baubles, shimmering tinsel, and a gold star at the top. Hilary could smell the pine even from where she stood. To the right of the tree, reverent children viewed a glorious nativity display, quietly uttering ooh's and ah's as each one pointed to something of note.
Hilary and Ted slid into a side pew behind the buzzing congregation. Hilary breathed in, enjoying the sting of cool air entering her lungs, for her insides were aglow with the character of her surroundings, and she wondered why her inaugural Christmas Day worship had taken so long to achieve.
During the ceremony she joined in the carols and intently listened to sermons and messages. She prayed with others for compassion, for liberation, and good will, as well as for Greg and his colleagues somewhere in a distant war-torn country.
With the closing carol sung, she felt in her pocket for her sheepskin gloves. A few couples rose to depart, but the minister held up his hand and they sat down again.
A small group advanced towards the altar as the minister announced that a christening was to take place; he invited the congregation to attend. Hilary nudged Ted and looked at him enquiringly. He nodded and smiled, and squeezed her hand.
The christening was soon over, a quiet service which could barely be heard at the back. After a final hymn, the minister toured the entire church with the child in his arms, her fingers clutching the stole around his neck, her shawl draping the front of his surplice, her residence in his arms making him beam with pride as he introduced her to everyone as Christine Beverley Anne.
Hungry for the Christmas festivities, the repast which the hotel predicted would be the best ever tasted, the Queen's speech, a quiz before tea, and, later on, a fancy-dress ball. Leaning sideways, she kissed Ted's cheek. 'Merry Christmas, my dear. And to Greg, too.'