The Path From Tree Hill (2/5)
Continued from Part 1: The Path From Tree Hill (1/5) | ABCtales
She started up the stairs. ‘I mean, not that it matters much these days, there’s enough rooms to go round, but it’s right opposite the second bathroom, so I thought that would be handy for the duration.’ She glanced back. ‘Are you coming?’
I followed her, past the bend in the stairs under the stained glass window that took up half the wall. Lena’s grandparents added it to the house. It was a riot of incomprehensible stems, petals, thorns, bees and butterflies, and confused me when I was a child. Stained glass was for churches, not houses. I used to sit on the galleried landing, my legs dangling between the newel posts, looking at the window until I was sure I could see the butterflies move and hear the bees buzz.
I’d almost forgotten that.
Lena turned left and walked past two bedroom doors, stopping at the third. ‘Here we are.’
The walls were now painted cream, instead of papered in gold and crimson stripes. The single wooden bedstead, the brown lino and the flowered rugs had been removed, and a double divan, with duvet, stood on a light grey fitted carpet. What looked like IKEA units stood where the heavy dark chest of drawers, wardrobe and writing table had been.
Lena smiled. ‘I know. A bit different. It makes it easier with the guests. I can’t be doing with scrubbing and polishing these days, and neither can the woman who comes to help. I’ve been told I could charge more if it was all olde worlde, and if I made the rooms ensuite, which isn’t very olde worlde. But not more enough to make either of those worth the hassle.’ I remembered then. Since her mother died, Lena has started letting out rooms, with breakfast, over the summer. She describes this as taking in paying guests, rather than running a B&B.
She put down my holdall. ‘I’ll leave you to sort out. Supper in about half an hour. I thought we’d have the Christmas Eve thing.’ The dimples crinkled again and she looked pleased with herself.
I had to think for a minute. The Christmas Eve thing was a stew her mother used to make in the old days, which could be heated up on the stove if visitors arrived late. It was a fixture, like the walk on Christmas morning before lunch, or the afternoon game of Charades.
After she’d gone I unpacked and got out my two presents for Lena, ready to take down with me and put under the Christmas tree. I assumed there would be a tree, as we seemed to be doing the full Christmas Eve ritual. I caught a vague, unconvincing smell of roses, and traced it to a plastic pod on the windowsill. There had always been a scent of the outside in this room, muddy knees and damp jumpers blended, in winter, with the smokiness of a puttering fire behind brass mesh. One of the IKEA units now stood where the fireplace had been, but an outline of painted plasterboard peeked out from either side of it. The fireplace had been masked rather than removed.
I walked over to the window and lowered the cream fabric blind that had replaced the curtains. Even if I couldn’t see it, I knew the tree was there, solid on top of the hill.
In the sitting room was a six foot spruce, laden with the baubles and tinsel of my childhood.
‘I had a chap bring it over from the place by the ring road,’ said Lena. ‘He put it up for me and I got all the old ornaments down from the attic. Look, even those ones we made when we were little. That’s yours, that lantern thing with the cardboard candle in it, and that’s my reindeer, and there’s Kit’s sleigh. Do you remember us making them? I think I was only about six or seven, so Kit must have been eight or nine, and you nine or ten. It rained all the time that year, so we couldn’t go outside, and we spent all Christmas Eve afternoon doing them. Do you remember?’
‘I remember us making them. Not all the details, though.’
‘I expect it’ll come back to you,’ said Lena. ‘Would you like a sherry?’
We ate at the big refectory table in the kitchen, as we did on those childhood Christmas Eves, the dining room being kept for the main feast the next day. Built-in units and appliances had replaced the old dressers and shelves. The floor was the same, the red stone tiles still gleaming, but the table itself was different, and the Butler sink looked newish. The Ascot water heater that once reached its spindly arm over the draining board had been replaced by streamlined mixer taps.
The blind over the window was still up. Like the bedrooms, the kitchen looked towards the hill.
The stew was nice, although I couldn’t have said whether it resembled the original. Lena produced a decent Pinot Noir to go with it, and a port for the cheeseboard afterwards. I recalled that this, too, was part of Christmas Eve tradition, on the grounds that there would be ‘enough sweet stuff’ tomorrow. We children had fresh fruit for our pudding, with possibly a small piece of Cheddar. Any more, the adults used to say gravely, as they helped themselves to Stilton, would give us nightmares.
We took our coffee into the sitting room, me in one of the wing armchairs, Lena tucked in to the cushions on the Chesterfield.
‘I really do appreciate this,’ I said. ‘You’ve gone to so much trouble.’
‘Such a shame you can’t see your girls for Christmas,’ said Lena. ‘Are they still in California?’
‘And their father?’
I sipped my coffee. ‘As far as I know.’
She frowned. ‘It’s none of my business, Jill, obviously, but surely he couldn’t object to you having a Christmas with them. It’s been such a long time.’
I returned my cup to the saucer on the occasional table beside me. ‘It’s a long way to travel, at my age. Expensive, too.’
‘But surely they could help you with that?’ She leaned forward. ‘I will confess, I looked him up on the computer. He did very well with that business of his, didn’t he? And the girls. They run it now, don’t they?’
‘I believe so.’
‘And they have children, don’t they?’
‘When was the last time you saw your grandchildren? Do you do the video call thing?’
I looked at the Christmas tree, so resplendent with the baubles and tinsel and our childish creations. ‘I’m not very good with the computer. Can I help with the dishes?’
Lena laughed. ‘Don’t be silly. That’s what dishwashers are for, now nobody can afford proper staff.’
‘I think I’ll turn in then, if you don’t mind. That train journey’s done for me.’
She looked disappointed. ‘Oh. I thought we might do the Christmas Eve ghost story thing.’
Another ritual, not one I ever found enjoyable. I produced a yawn. ‘I’m sorry, you’ve fed and watered me too well. If I don’t go to bed now I’ll be fit for nothing tomorrow!’
After I’d undressed and taken off my make-up I went across to the bathroom. The walls still had the same thick white tiles, with the band of rich emerald green running at about shoulder height, but the bath was modern, with an electric shower fitted over it, and the old lavatory with the high cistern and wooden handled pull chain had been replaced by a modern unit. There was a new mirror above the sink, and unlike the slightly tarnished one I remembered, it held an old woman’s reflection. Apart from the eyes. The eyes looked at me from fifty-five years ago.
The double divan was a bit chilly, and I felt marooned in it. I haven’t slept in a double bed since the girls’ father took them to California. Of course, you can fit two people on a single bed, if you have to.
I lay looking into the darkness and thought about Maisie Leatherwick. Lena was right, it was starting to come back to me. Tall and skinny, with the freckles and large brown eyes. I only ever saw her in the summer, when she did indeed hang around the Manor a lot. Presumably her own family took priority at Christmas. Had she and Kit had a crush on each other? I couldn’t remember that. Do thirteen and fourteen year olds have crushes? I suppose they do now, they do everything earlier. I don’t remember having crushes. I’m not sure I ever had them. It’s such a funny word. Who is the one being crushed? You or the object of your supposed affection?
I sat up and put the lamp on. Having coffee after supper was stupid, when sleep was difficult enough. I got out of bed and went to the door, wondering if Lena had retired yet.
The landing was cold, and the carpet runner rough on my bare feet. Lena was obviously as frugal about heating the place as her mother had been. I leaned over the landing rail. I could hear movement downstairs, and I tried to remember if Lena was someone who always went to bed late, but then I heard the sound of the kitchen door closing, and footsteps moving towards the stairs.
I scurried back to bed with a vague feeling she might come to check on me. There never had been a lock on the door.