I’ll be home for Christmas

High Country New Zealand - pg208I’ve joined a Facebook event called A Story for Christmas, and I thought you might enjoy the story I’m telling there. It is set at the other end of the 19th Century, and on the other side of the world to my novella and current WIPs. Here’s the first excerpt.

“I’ll be home for Christmas.” That’s what Rick had said, three months ago when he’d left their farm up in the high country. Since then, all Molly had had of him had been his letters. He wrote faithfully every day, and she wrote back, adding to each letter until they ran to pages and pages, and saving them until her monthly trips down into town, when she could collect his fat package and send her own.

Then she would drive the 15 miles home, and–between guiding the tired horse and refereeing the tired squabbling children in the cart behind her–sneak peeks at his precious words.

Sarah, Michael, and Charlotte missed their Papa, but not as much as she did.

“I’ll be home for Christmas,” he finished the entry for each day, as if it was a mantra that, repeated often enough, would come true.

Molly couldn’t understand the goings on in far off Auckland, where lawyers squabbled over which of the competing heirs owned the estate left by Rick’s distant cousin.

“It would be a good thing for us,” Rick insisted. “We could afford servants to help you with the work. We could even move into Christchurch, where you could be near your family.”

She had shaken her head at that. She loved their land. She loved the high still bowl of plains, ringed by mountains with their caps of snow even now as summer crept over the land. Here, sitting on their front verandah on the morning before Christmas, she could look out over the nearby fields where the grain ripened. She couldn’t see the braided river that snaked through the valley, but she could hear it. In Spring, when the snow melted, it roared, but today it used its summer voice, chuckling over the stones.

Their grain. Their hens in the yard, their cows in the small field behind the house with the patient horses, and their sheep dotting the mountainsides all the way up to the snowline.

She couldn’t imagine exchanging the peace of their own farm for the leafy suburbs of Christchurch and the pleasures of colonial society. And she knew Rick loved this farm even more than she.

Inside the house, she could hear the children talking from their bed. She tucked the doll’s dress she was making back into her sewing basket. Time to serve breakfast. As she stood, she looked once more down the valley to where the road came over the pass. And stopped. There, just cresting the hill, was a far off figure.

Molly had laid the table after milking the cow, so there was little to do but ladle out bowls of porridge for the children. She set the rack of sliced bread onto the hot plate to grill. In between spooning mouthfuls of porridge into Charlotte, and batting Michael’s hands away from his bowl when he tried to use them instead of his spoon, she ran three times to the front door to see the traveller, who was closer each time.

Whoever it was–and she’d quickly realised it wasn’t Rick–he was walking. She didn’t think it was one of the Johnson men, either. The figure was not as thick-set, as the neighbours Rick had commissioned to help her with the heavy work and to check on her and the children every few days. And the Johnsons rode across the hill that separated their valley from hers and Rick’s. They didn’t walk.

On her third trip, she watched the traveller disappear below the grain, out of her sight. He would be on her doorstep within ten minutes. She buttered toast for the children, and spread it with jam, listening for the knock on the door.

When it came, it was soft, almost deferential. Even so, a dozen frightening scenarios flitted through her mind as she went to the door. Usually, she was too practical and too busy to worry about being here alone. But she couldn’t remember last time a stranger had come to her door. She opened it wide enough to see the stranger, but kept her hand in place to slam the door if she needed to.

He was thin to the point of gauntness, and his clothes were patched, faded, and frayed at the     edges. A swagman. One of the army of unemployed who walked the roads looking for work, though he was older than most who pursued that life.

“Merry Christmas to the house, Mistress,” he said, with an elegant bow that would not have been out of place at the Mayor’s mansion  in far off Christchurch. His voice, too, surprised. Quiet and husky, with a refined accent directly from Mayfair.

 

Lofty, the drifter, ate with intense concentration, as if he hadn’t seen breakfast in half a lifetime. Then he chopped wood with the same focus, quickly filling the wood stand near the kitchen lean-to.  By the time Molly came to find him for lunch, he had chopped sufficient wood for another month of cooking.

He shook off Molly’s thanks, but she was grateful, anyway. For days, she’d been chopping just enough for each day, waiting for one of the Johnson men to turn up and replenish the wood pile as they’d been promising every time they rode over.

Perhaps he would consider mending the fence that she’d patched? If Daisy the house cow was not such a calm beast, she’d have been out of the field and up into the hills long since. And Daisy’s growing calf was a far less tractable animal. The Johnsons had promised to fix the fence and neuter the bull calf, but always on their next visit, never the current one.

Before long, Lofty was whittling the end of a new fence paling to form a peg that would fit into the post. The two older children were sitting on the rung he’d already finished, listening awestruck to the story he was telling about Christmases he remembered from far away England.

Molly sat within earshot on the verandah. There, she could keep an eye on the children and Charlotte, who was asleep on a blanket at her feet, continue her sewing, and watch the road over the hill for Rick. Surely he would come today?

She was as fascinated as her children by Lofty’s stories. The childhood he remembered was one of privilege and plenty. What path brought him penniless to her door at the other end of his life on the far side of the world?

The Johnson men came thundering down from the hilltop, leaping the fence into the home paddock and out again perilously close to the children.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs Berringshaw,” shouted Mike Johnson, the oldest, his voice startling Charlotte awake. “We just came to see if your husband was home yet.”

“Not yet,” Molly told them. “I expect him today.” Then, to Charlotte, who was inclined to be fretful when woken, “Hush, baby. It is only some horses.”

The three brothers swung down from their horses, Jake and Zeke going to talk to Lofty while Mike came up onto the verandah.

“Mama says you’d better come over for Christmas tomorrow. Looks like your man isn’t going to make it,” Mike said.

“Thank your Mama for me,” Molly told him, firmly. “But the children and I will be having Christmas here. And Rick will be home. He promised.”

I’ll post the next excerpt once I’ve written it.

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