The Christmas holiday was fast approaching and Penny felt like she was part of the Donaldson family. It amazed her that she had only known them for a term, maybe ten weeks. When Jane asked Penny what she was doing for Christmas Penny recalled that she had not been in touch with her Aunt Geraldine, nor had her Aunt invited her to go to Marlow. When Jane found that Penny had no plans she insisted immediately that Penny should stay with them in Lincoln.
‘Peter and I and Dan and Agie will love having you, and Jo’s looking forward to meeting you and Charles too.’ Penny was overwhelmed by their kindness to her and was much too pleased with the idea to dissemble.
The following week was the end of term for Penny in Lincoln and for Joanne in Bedford. Charles would be a couple of days later returning as he was singing in a Cambridge carol concert before returning to take up his old place in the Lincoln choir for their carol service. The Donaldson family were much in demand for their musical skills.
Jo and Penny hit it off immediately comparing notes on their teacher training courses and college in general. There were a couple of girls from Jo’s old school in Penny’s college group of whom Penny was able to give Jo an update. The two younger children were really excited to see their sister again and the whole house was now buzzing with expectation of Charles’s return and all the looming Christmas festivities.
Over an animated family supper Jo and Penny decided that they would spend the following day decorating the large Christmas tree that was currently in the garden.
‘We always have it in the hall at the bottom of the staircase because it’s so tall’ Jo told Penny, ‘we leave the sitting and dining room doors open so that you can see it from every room.’
‘Letting all the heat escape and costing me a fortune’ grumbled Peter with a smile. ‘Then after we’ve done the tree we can put all the holly and ivy up the stairs and over
the mantles and make streamers and string the cards, and…’ Jo continued ignoring her father’s interjection. Penny could tell that Jo was perfect for an infant teacher, she was so full of enthusiasm as she organised everyone. ‘Agie, you can string some cards on some pretty red ribbon I got specially; Dan, you can carry all the presents down and help us put them under the tree, but you mustn’t prod, shake or sniff anything!’
By Friday morning, when Charles was expected, the house on the Cathedral Close was looking like a picture on a Christmas card. Daniel and Agnes were breaking up from school in the afternoon and they were both taking part in the end of term nativity play and school concert. Jo and Penny would take the car down to the station to collect Charles and then come on to the school in time for the performance.
Penny hung back outside the station letting Jo race up to her brother and watched her hurl herself on him with hugs and kisses and exclamations of happiness. From her vantage point Penny saw a tall, strongly built young man with a mop of blond hair that fell over his forehead and into his eyes. Hair that he now pushed back with a careless gesture as he walked forward to meet Penny with his hand held out and a wide smile spreading across his angelic features. Penny felt a bolt like electricity leap through her as their hands touched and when she smiled shyly up at him her eyes met and locked with his in an immediate connection.
The three joined with the parents to applaud Agnes’s solemn performance as a wise man and Dan’s totally un-self conscious rendition of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ as he and three other shepherds herded some smaller children in the guise of sheep. The evening was spent convivially as they all ate together, their idle conversation interspersed with easy banter and unanimous laughter at some family anecdotes. To Penny the atmosphere of the large and happy family was the stuff of dreams. She knew that this was what she had always longed for, this sense of belonging. She wondered if it were possible to be any happier or luckier than she felt in the midst of the Donaldson clan.
The next morning at breakfast Charles announced his plan to do some last minute shopping in Lincoln and asked if anyone would like to accompany him. It was soon decided that Penny and Jo would, with a list of errands from her mother. They all wrapped up in coats and scarves and gloves before embarking, as the air was chill. As they walked down the hill Charles linked his arms through the girls’ and they chatted and browsed their way companionably until they split up to undertake their respective purchases.
Charles shopped thoughtfully and had soon filled the gaps in his present list, but what for Penny he wondered. He had known instinctively that she was the girl for him. He had wondered if she just liked him because of his family but sensed that there was something deeper than that between them. Could he ask her to spend her life as a clergyman’s wife though? He shook his head and smiled to himself, you only met yesterday he reminded. His feet carried him into one of the many bookshops that lined the narrow streets of Lincoln’s backwaters. After browsing for a while he hit on exactly the right purchase for Penny. Pleased with himself he walked briskly up the hill humming carols looking forward to the lunch that he knew his mother would have ready for the returning hoards. He almost cannoned into Penny as he turned the corner into the close. Penny was standing stock still staring up at the cathedral spire silhouetted by the darkening sky. Tiny flakes of snow drifted across the close as she held her breath in awe. Charles stood next to her and watched her delighted face as the snowfall quickened. They smiled at each other and turning towards the house their hands un-consciously joined.
‘We’re going to have a white Christmas! Look outside Ma, Dan, Agie, it’s snowing! Is Jo back?’ The children ran to the window to look out and they heard the front door slam as Jo burst in, cheeks rosy from the walk. She capered around the hall laughing,
‘There’s no business like snow business!’
‘What’s all the noise about’ called their father in mock rage, emerging from his study. ‘Snow!’
‘Come and look’,
‘A white Christmas Pa’,
‘It looks so beautiful’ they all cried in unison.
It was indeed beautiful. The snow continued to fall thick and fast so after a lunch of shepherd’s pie the youngsters shrugged their coats on and wrapped scarves around their faces pulled on warm gloves and descended on the back garden to begin the serious business of building a snowman, interrupted periodically by a cheerful snowball fight.
Tired out with their fingers tingling they invaded the kitchen and congregated by the Aga for warmth. Jane handed out mugs of mulled wine from a huge jam kettle warming in readiness for the carol singers who would call this evening on their way around the Close.
‘Beware the Donaldson Christmas intake of grog’ intoned Charles with mock seriousness to Penny, taking a glug of the wine, ‘our parents who survive the year on a sip or two of communion wine, provide us with enough wine to drink to flatten a rugby team! Not to mention the brandy in mince-pies, Christmas cake and Christmas pudding, Oh and if you ever think to be sober again, approach the trifle with utmost caution’. They all laughed and Jo provided a mock ‘hic’ to underline his point. They all laced their fingers around the steaming mugs and sipped the warming liquor gratefully, nevertheless.
After super the ‘boys’ went out into the cold, crisp night air and crunched their way across the snow to join the Cathedral Close carol singers. The girls busied themselves with clearing up and warming mince pies for the annual ritual of hosting the Close carol singers who sung on each of the doorsteps, followed by drinks and mince pies in several of the houses culminating at the Donaldson’s. The evening was great fun and Penny went to bed that night thinking that life could not be more perfect.
Christmas Eve heralded the main Christmas Carol Concert in the Cathedral. Peter, Charles and Daniel were all to sing in the choir, Dan taking the solo in ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, so departed early to prepare. Jane, Jo and Penny followed soon after dressed in their best warm winter clothing looking incongruous with their wellington boots proof against the six inches of snow. The Cloisters held a magic of their own; the women’s footfalls echoing the steps of bygone years that had worn the paving stones to a soft patina. Entering the Cathedral was magical, the whole vast vaulted place seemingly lowered and focussed around the soft glow of candle light that lit the choir stalls and the altar beyond.
Penny unsure of her Christian faith was at that moment filled with belief she had not yet experienced in her young life. Jane’s heart was suffused with pride when her youngest child stood alone in the vast cathedral and lifted his angelic voice to fill the air with the sweetest purest voice that any person could imagine. All the sweeter she thought with the poignancy that it would not last for much longer. The girls smiled at each other and at her, all feeling pride and some relief when the swell of a thousand voices joined and drowned Daniel’s solo.
Christmas day dawned clear and cold. Penny woke to the sound of muffled footsteps, giggles and voices shushing each other. The younger children, too excited to sleep, were up and about playing with the Christmas stocking gifts that Santa had kindly distributed in the night. Penny was astonished to find that she too had received an overnight delivery. An over-stuffed sock had mysteriously appeared at the bottom of her bed. She couldn’t remember ever having had a stocking before and felt rather emotional as she retrieved and un-wrapped an array of small gifts from a bean-stuffed frog to a bar of chocolate. Hearing the increasing crescendos of a wakening house Penny jumped out of bed eager to join the fun. The whole family were up and congregated in the kitchen admiring each other’s spoils.
Breakfast over, the boys prepared to go to Matins while Jane, Jo and Penny were to get the turkey in the oven and prepare the vegetables for Christmas lunch. Presents would be opened after church. With most of the preparations complete, Jo and Penny persuaded Jane to take Agie and go to join the morning service, which was a very social family time, they would take care that the turkey didn’t spoil. The cathedral goers returned with a couple of friends invited for a glass of sherry and a mince pie. Festive greetings were given and received repeatedly. Their visitors removed to their own home for lunch, Peter donned a Father Christmas hat and announced the names of the recipients as he passed parcels from under the tree.
Penny was amazed and delighted to have so many brightly coloured parcels accumulating in her pile as she watched everyone stockpiling their own. Then to a chorus of ‘Happy Christmas’, everyone was ripping off the paper and squealing with surprise and gratification as they opened their gifts. Hugs, kisses and thanks were exchanged throughout. Jane had knitted for Penny a roll neck jumper in a soft pink angora and Jo had bought a bobble hat and mittens in a pink and white snowflake pattern, collusion apparent in the perfect match. Amidst the sea of noise Penny opened her last present, a book. She knew it was from Charles. She unwrapped it very carefully and found inside an old leather bound copy of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ magically illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Penny opened the book to see that he had written on the flyleaf ‘Christmas 1971. To Penny with love from Charles on our first Christmas,’ Penny felt tears prickle the back of her eyes as she rose to thank him. Neither of them noticed the smiling glance exchanged between Jane and Peter as they hugged each other and Penny breathed her ‘thank you’ into Charles’s neck.