Let Your Heart Be Light
Summary: A Christmas story: Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow …
Author's Notes: Here I am, borrowing those lovely Adventure-Series-Characters for my own entertainment again :) only this one will be not too adventurous … sorry! This will be all about Christmas, and the things that I find important about Christmas: being together with the ones you love, relax, get stuffed on very good food, recover from the year that lies behind you … and let your heart be light :)
As you may have guessed, the title and summary are lines taken from the song Have yourself a merry little Christmas – I always found the lyrics of it very touching. It might benefit to the story if you put it on in the background!
This is set a little while before my other Adventure-Series-Stories, but it's part of the same 'extended universe' I created. It might be seen as some sort of connection between the books and my other stories. It's un-betaed, sorry about that, but I've been practicing my English a lot lately. Hope it'll do!
Disclaimer: The mentioned characters (in order of appearance: Allie, Bill, Jack, Philip, Dinah and Lucy-Ann) aren't my own. But I love them as if they were my own :)
I might have added a little bit to their characterisation and physical description, but all of it should have been already hinted at in the original books, or at least my ideas should not be in contradiction to what Enid Blyton herself wrote. I want this to be an addition to her works! If there's anything amiss, do let me know!
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be miles away
The English countryside looked quite beautiful all covered up in a sheet of innocently white snow. So did the small street where Mr and Mrs Cunningham lived, in their house which used to be too small – at least with the children back from school during the holidays – but felt way too big now.
Too big and too quiet.
Not tonight, though, Allie thought to herself. Tonight the house would be filled with life and laughter and generally with lots of noise. The children were coming home for Christmas!
Only – they weren't children anymore.
For the umpteenth time Allie went through the house, checking if the preparations were on track. The turkey was in the oven. Good. The fireplace was lit and the fire crackled joyfully. Good. The tree was decorated, too. Very good. Everything was in order!
"Do take a seat and get some rest already, Allie," said Bill as he stuck his head into the room. "You must be exhausted after all the preparations you've made."
Allie smiled, thinking how dear he looked, still wearing her apron after preparing the side dishes for Christmas dinner and making heaps of biscuits. The light of the fire was reflected warmly by the large bald spot on top of his head. His grin was infectious.
"I'm a little excited," she said to him. "It's been so long since we were all together. In fact, I haven't seen much of the children all year!"
"That's because they are children no longer, Allie," said Bill, coming into the room and putting his arm around her. "They're leading busy lives now, just like you once used to do, remember? Besides, Lucy-Ann drops by once a week, doesn't she?"
"Oh yes." At the thought of her fosterling's warm and affectionate nature, Allie felt her cheeks glow. "She's such a dear, isn't she? To think she takes on the long way here so often just to make me happy while Philip just lives five minutes down the street and I haven't seen hide nor hair of him all month."
"Oh Allie, you mustn't blame him," said Bill as he guided her to the sofa and made her sit by the fire with him holding her in his arms. "Don't forget he works for a grim old man who chases him around and has him do two thirds or more of the calls that veterinary clinic gets."
"You're right of course, Bill" admitted Allie and with a sigh she leaned into his embrace, not minding that he was covered in flour from making the biscuits. "I do wish he wouldn't work so much, though. He's bound to run himself into the ground sooner or later."
Bill chuckled and shook her a little, though very gently. "Well, I am afraid he's taken you as an example. You ran yourself into the ground trying to make ends meet more times than your children could count and they had to stand by and watch. They were bound to end up doing the same to themselves one day."
His words made Allie think of Dinah as well, who was scheduled to arrive at the train station an hour from now – home from university for Christmas. "That reminds me, will you pick up Dinah at the train station later, Bill? I don't know if there'll be a bus going, but probably not in this weather I should think. I can't bear the thought of her standing there and waiting, out in the cold."
Grinning all over his ruddy face, Bill reassured her, "now, now, don't you worry. Of course I'll pick her up."
"Good," said Allie, relieved. "Oh, I do hope she won't be looking as awful as she did the last time I saw her. One might believe that there's nothing to eat at university; she's gone so thin!"
"Even if so, she'll be just fine after Christmas, love," said Bill encouragingly. "You'll make sure of that." He took a look at his watch. "What about Jack? What time is he due to arrive from London?"
"Lucy-Ann said his flight from God-Knows-Where arrived there yesterday. He probably took a train right away and spent the night at Philip's." Allie shook her head. "But you never know with Jack these days, he changes plans as regurlarly as other people change their underwear."
Bill nudged her very gently. "You still haven't fully forgiven him, have you, Allie?"
"For dropping out of school? And in his graduation year as well? No, I haven't," said Allie determinedly. "And I shan't. And he knew I wouldn't, when he made that decision. I do understand how much his love for birds means to him, but he's such a clever boy really. If only he had made an effort at his schoolwork he would have made it through the exams just fine."
"He seems to be getting along just as well. He really made a name for himself as photographer for nature magazines." Bill glanced at his watch once more. "I ought to leave, I promised Lucy-Ann to pick her up as well. She called on the phone this morning saying that she didn't want to drive in this weather. And while I'm at it, I might just as well drop by Philip's place and pick the boys up too."
He disentangled himself from his snug position on the sofa with his wife in his arms, and went to fetch his overcoat. Allie chuckled and reminded him to take off the apron he was still wearing. She also added that he mustn't forget to put a hat on, to make up for the missing hair as protection against the freezing cold outside.
After freeing the car from ice and snow Bill drove the short way down the street to where Philip lived in a tiny cottage – so like the one Lucy-Ann had just moved into a in the next town. Only Lucy-Ann's house was cosily furnished, with family pictures all over the place, and Christmas decorations to remind of the festivity of the season. Philip's place on the other hand was equipped a lot more practical; and it always reminded Bill of a kind of veterinary clinic itself; there were always hurt or ill wild animals – be it young squirrels or hedgehogs or whatever else – that Philip had found and gained trust of and kept to nurse back to health – if possible.
Bill smiled to himself, thinking that good old Dinah probably had never set foot into her brother's house, and maybe never even would.
When Bill pulled into Philip's driveway, he was glad to see the light on in the house and Philip's car parked in front of the garage – which was nearly inaccessible because it was occupied with boxes of outdated stuff Philip would always take home from the clinic to use, such as disinfection and bandages. There also was an odd collection of empty cages.
After getting out of the car Bill very nearly slipped on the icy ground and dropped onto his backside. Carefully he balanced his way to the front door and knocked gently. Nothing happened.
Bill knocked again, and harder this time. The door flew open a second later and a well-known voice came to Bill's ears, calling out loudly, "I say, Phil, are we expecting anybody to ... – oh it's you, Bill." Jack stood in the doorway, giving Bill a broad grin. "Golly, isn't it good to see you! What are you doing here?"
They shook hands enthusiastically and Bill couldn't help pulling Jack into a short hug, patting his back amicably. "Picking you boys up for Christmas dinner. Are you ready yet?"
"Not quite," said Jack, pointing down himself. He was wearing sweatpants and an oversized woolen jumper. "I ought to get changed first, I should think!"
"Shut the door!" came a voice from the open kitchen door and out sidled Kiki – right onto Bill's shoulder. "Don't sniff! Where's your handkerchief," she scolded – not minding that Bill hadn't sniffed at all! She began nibbling Bill's ear for a bit and then she babbled on cheerfully, "and how many times have I told you to wipe your feet!"
"Hello Kiki," said Bill. "My word, you haven't changed, have you?"
Jack laughed. "You had better listen to what she said, Bill," he pointed out, indicating Bill's boots, which were covered in mud and half-melted snow.
Bill followed his advice and wiped his feet on the mat. Then he gave Jack a good examination, although he did try to be unobtrusive about it. He was getting as bad as Allie was about making sure the children were doing alright!
Not children, not anymore, he reminded himself silently; indeed, Jack stood taller than Bill himself these days, and he was nearly as broad around the shoulders, though slimmer around the middle. He was also healthily tanned, his freckles a few shades darker than usually at this time of year. All in all he looked as if he had seen a lot of sunny weather lately. The only thing Bill didn't like was the touch of dark shadows underneath Jack's eyes, as if he lacked sleep.
He was about to ask him about it, when they were interrupted by Philip, who was bolting down the stairs from the first floor in a haste, making Kiki give a screech and scatter off Bill's shoulder in shock. She fluttered about for a moment, telling Philip blow his nose and find his handkerchief in a most indignant voice, before settling down again, this time on Jack's shoulder.
Philip didn't take much notice of Kiki's antics. "Sorry old thing," he said, then he nudged Bill heartily. "Bill, whatever are you doing here? Everythilng alright? Don't say something is wrong with Mother –"
Bill gave him a encouraging grin. "No need to be concerned, Philip, your mother is just fine." Before he could stop himself, he added, "very much looking forward to seeing you, by the way." He hadn't meant to make it sound like a reproach, but obviously Philip took it that way. He looked a little abashed.
"I know, I've made myself scarce lately. I'm dreadfully sorry, Bill, if Mother's been worried. I've been working a few overtime hours, I'm afraid."
"So I thought," said Bill and pulled him into a short, manly hug as well. After that Bill gave Philip the same surreptitious examination as he had given Jack only minutes before, thinking that he was a little paler than he should be. He was also in need of a shave. The dark stubble was in sharp contrast to the pallor of his skin and the combination gave him a bit of a haggard look.
But there was no time for Bill to put up a fuss – and he mustn't, he reminded himself – for the boys needed to get changed and into Bill's car as quickly as possible.
"Come on you two," he urged them. „It's time to leave – we ought to pick up Dinah at the train station, and then we'll go and get Lucy-Ann as well. But put on some clean shirts before we go – Allie'll want you to look nice tonight. Oh, and make sure you don't forget your scarves – it's frightfully cold out!"
Soon all three of them plus Kiki were in the car, holding onto the handles tightly as the car skidded down the slippery road. The boys were very cheerful; joined by Kiki the two of them gave off their very own interpretation of some silly old Christmas song. It was dreadful, but funny all the same – and Bill enjoyed their lively company immensely.
"My word, I can't believe we haven't all been together since Easter," said Jack suddenly, finally stopping to sing at last (Bill felt relieved). "I bet Aunt Allie is all excited to see us."
"I bet she's run herself ragged, trying to get everything ready for tonight – hasn't she, Bill?" said Philip, sounding a little tense at the thought.
"She's got me, so she's perfectly fine," said Bill. "Hallo – there's Dinah over there, see? She's at the bus station already."
The car came to a hold at the bus station and they all hopped out, shouting loudly at Dinah – and giving her a shock!
"How grand you've all come to pick me up!" she exclaimed happily after she had got over the shock. She gave Bill a hug, and he held on to her tightly.
She wasn't much shorter than the boys these days; very tall for a woman. That combined with her lean and tough built gave her something of a boyish look, and Bill knew that she suffered from not being easily noticed by young men. She did have a pretty face, but was lacking the curves that many fellows liked on a girl. On top of that she was still often prickly and short-tempered, and altogether came across as very self-confident and independent.
To cheer her up, Jack kept saying that he thought she'd make a good doctor one day – at least she possessed the right amount of assertiveness! "Most men are intimidated by a fierce woman such as you," he often told her, and it would not be without a noticeable amount of admiration. "But not all of them despise that!"
Holding Dinah at armth length, Bill wondered if Allie would be very satisfied with her appearance. She seemed leaner than ever, but other than that she was lively and there was a healthy color in her cheeks.
After Bill let go of her, she turned to Jack and hugged him, too.
"Wherever have you been this time?" she enquired. "You're all tanned!"
"Ecuador," said Jack and laughed at her excited gasp, "we were hunting colibris – with our cameras of course." He grinned.
"Colibri!" repeated Kiki excitedly and bopped up and down on Jack's shoulder. "Colibri! Send for the doctor – Polly's got a colibri!"
Dinah laughed heartily. "I do wonder how you get to make pictures of wild birds without having Kiki chase them away with her antics long before you even got your camera focused."
"So do I," admitted Jack and put his hand up to scratch Kiki's head. At once she started chatting softly into his ear.
Dinah turned to greet Philip as well, but she refrained from hugging him, most likely uneasy about what kind of creature he might be carrying around – for there was always something. She did nudge him with her elbow, though, saying, "hello Philip! It's good to see you, too. But I say, have you lost your shaver?"
Philip grinned at her. "Shut up," he said and nudged her back. "If you came home from university just to get on my nerves you can turn back at once because I can jolly well do without it."
"If you two make any attempt at quarreling tonight you can stay where you are and I shall have a lovely Christmas Eve with your mother, Jack and Lucy-Ann," said Bill. "Now get in the car everyone – we'll have to pick up your sister, Jack!"
Dinah hesitated getting onto the backseat of Bill's car next to Philip. She would have preferred sitting as far away from him as possible, for she still hadn't found out what kind of creature might be hovering about underneath his coat. She was sure, though, that there had to be some kind of animal.
But she didn't protest against letting Jack occupy the front seat next to Bill. He was tallest of them all and he probably would have had the most trouble fitting in his long legs behind the front seats. Secretly Dinah wondered at how he managed spending as much time on aeroplanes as he did.
There had been a time when they had all fit into Bill's car easily, even with Mother added to the lot. Now it was rather a tight squeeze, and Bill seemed slightly impatient with the boys as they both fought for space, their height getting in the way of their comfort. It didn't help, of course, that Bill and Mother had bought a new car a while ago – one that was much smaller than those Bill used to drive. After all, it was meant to carry only the two of them most of the time!
Jack was complaining the loudest despite having the best spot for himself. "I say, Tufty – do stop poking your knees into the backrest or we'll have to stop the car and have you swap seats with Dinah. I can feel every movement of your legs against my back!"
"Well, I can't help it, you know," said Philip impatiently. "Next time I reckon I shall get to sit up front, seeing as I am hardly two inches shorter than you are."
"I wouldn't mind," said Dinah at once.
Philip gave her a disapproving look. "You just don't want to make an acquaintance with old Fergusson. My word Dinah, you're still as silly as ever."
Dinah gave a short squeal, wondering what kind of creature they were talking about and fearing the worst. She was repeated by Kiki at once, of course.
Philip shook his head at her reaction, and announced, "I wonder how you make through studying human medicine and pluck apart dead human bodies - and be afraid of a baby squirrel at the same time!"
"Oh, a squirrel," Dinah said, feeling indeed a little relieved. "How was I to know it's just a squirrel you're keeping these days? Anyway, not that that makes it any better," she pointed out, adding, "squirrels are dirty, Philip, it's highly unhygienic, to carry them around."
"You're such a fathead, Dinah," said Philip, and she was sure he would have had more to say about it, but Bill stopped him before he could.
"Shut up, you two, or you shall walk to your mother's house." He sighed. "To think I said to your mother you're not children anymore – just an hour ago! You jolly well behave like children!"
That shut them both up sufficiently.
They drove down the main street and out of town, passing fields and woods and frozen lakes, all covered in a layer of snow. The ride to the next town, where Lucy-Ann had just moved to, normally took about fifteen minutes. But the road was slippery and frozen and Bill had to go slowly or they would have ended up skidding off over the side and into the fields.
Lucy-Ann was already waiting for them to arrive. They could see her face, freckled nose pressed up against the glass, in the light shining out of her kitchen window, as she looked out for Bill's car. The moment they rounded the corner, she began to wave excitedly.
While Bill pulled into the driveway Lucy-Ann came rushing out the front door – and slipped and plunked right into the a heap of snow on the side of her driveway. But she scrambled to her feet again and ran on to throw herself at Jack who just had got out of the car. She all but bowled him over, sending Kiki into the air with an enormous screech, and the two both tumbled against the backdoor of Bill's car, effectively hindering Philip from getting out.
Dinah watched, half-amused, as Lucy-Ann pulled her brother tightly against herself in a hug, overjoyed at seeing him. It was actually funny to watch, especially since she was such a small person in comparison to the rest of them. What love must she have for him to gather up enough energy to nearly wipe him off his feet when he stood more than six inches taller and outweighed her by forty pounds!
It was Jack who made the first attempt to wriggle out of the embrace. He wasn't nearly as fond of prolonged hugs as she was, although he didn't mind her being affectionate towards him, either. He kissed her cheek with a laugh, but grabbed her wrists at the same time to disentangle her arms from around his middle.
Meanwhile Lucy-Ann still glowed with pleasure. "Oh Jack! Kiki! How I missed you both! How was it in Ecuador? I can't believe that you've been that far away again! Do tell me all about it, Jack – I want every detail!"
"I shall," said Jack. "But not just yet. I want to get to Aunt Allie's first. I bet she'd like to hear all about it as well."
"I wouldn't bet on it – Mother will never quite agree with your choice of career, that's for sure," said Philip, who had finally managed to climb out of the car and was putting an arm around Lucy-Ann's shoulders in greeting. "Hello, Lucy-Ann! I say, aren't you excited!"
Jack gave Philip a dark look. "Well, at least I am my own boss, and I don't work for a slave driver like your boss, who uses your popularity with his clients and your love for animals as excuse for his own laziness!" he retorted.
"Is it still so bad?" asked Lucy-Ann, nestling into Philip's amicable embrace and putting her arm around his waist in return.
"Good gracious, nothing is bad," said Philip at once and, after giving Lucy-Ann a little encouraging shake, he smoothly wound himself out of her hold. "I just have taken on a few more appointments than fit into my regular working hours, that's all. It's not my fault, is it? I mean, however am I supposed to choose where to go and where not, when there are animals in need?"
"And I bet, their owners always ask for you to come instead of your boss, sullen old fellow that he is," said Jack.
"At least his boss doesn't carry squirrels and mice and rats around with him," said Dinah from where she was standing on the other side of the car wondering about Lucy-Ann again. She barely understood how she could harbor such admiration for her own brother, but for Dinah's as well? It was beyond her!
"Don't start again, Dinah," said Bill, shaking his head. He ushered them all into the car. "We need to get going, or we'll be late for Christmas dinner. Allie's got the turkey on, and we shan't risk letting her wait, or dinner might be ruined!"
"Can't let that happen," said Philip and slipped into the front seat on the passenger side before Jack could even utter a word.
Bill got behind the wheel and the rest of them squeezed onto the backseat with Jack in the middle where he could position his knees between the two front seats. He didn't complain about the awkward position, and Dinah didn't complain about being squeezed up against him. His body felt nicely warm and solid against hers, and actually he smelled nice, too. And with him being a safe barrier between her and her brother she relaxed herself for the first time since she got into Bill's car that evening.
Up front in the passenger seat Philip relaxed as well, doing his best to not fall asleep. The car rocked about gently, passing over ice and snow and making him sleepy. There was a solemn silence inside the car; everyone else seemed tired as well.
After his trip to Ecuador Jack was still having trouble figuring out a regular day-and-night rhythm, and Dinah was probably spending her nights up, trying to learn human anatomy by heart. Lucy-Ann was surrounded by screaming kids every day. Mind, not today, but enough days of the year to make her exhausted alright.
Kiki was unusually subdued as well. She perched on Jack's knees, her crest down, and chatted softly – words that sounded like nonsense to Philip, but could just as well have been Spanish, picked up on her latest journey.
It was only when Bill pulled the car into the driveway of their old home that Philip realised that he had fallen asleep after all. And he wasn't the only one! Jack was slumped forward in the backseat, breathing deeply, and Dinah was dozing with her head on his shoulder.
Lucy-Ann on the other hand was quite awake, grinning at Philip. "You must all be getting old," she announced. "I can't remember you sleeping in the car like this when we were younger!"
The front door of the house opened and Mother stood in the doorway, looking excited. She had always seemed more fragile than a mother should be to Philip, but now she made a happy and very healthy impression. Life with Bill and without having to work overtime hours frequently was doing her a world of good.
Bill got out of the car and with Lucy-Ann's help he woke up the two sleepy-heads on the backseat. Meanwhile Philip went to greet his mother, ready for the reproach she probably had in store for him for not dropping by regularly. Rightfully so, he thought. After all, he didn't have an excuse; no trip to South America and no university classes to attend to four hours away by train.
But as it turned out, Philip was spared of complaints about his lack of visits. His mother merely hugged him and ran her eyes over him as if to check whether he looked well. She did the same with Dinah and Jack, who arrived at the door next. There was a short hesitation, though, before she greeted Jack. The long and tiring argument they had had going on and off about Jack's decision to leave school in favor of traveling around the world some years ago still seemed to be standing between them.
The house smelled magnificently; the turkey must be ready, and there was also the smell of roast potatoes and the sweet savour of pudding in the air mixing with the scent of the Christmas tree, and the burning fire in the sitting room. It was almost too much to take it all in at once.
While Bill carried in Dinah's heavy trunk, Mother helped them all out of their overcoats. She was obviously torn between the pleasure of having them all around her and keeping herself from putting up a fuss over them. She did drop a hint here and there, anyway.
"Lucy-Ann, your teeth are chattering and your cheeks are quite red from the cold, do go and get yourself warmed up at the fireplace. – Dinah, just look at you, you really must eat more at university. Don't you know that men like a little meat on a woman? – Philip, good gracious, you're looking unkempt! Do go upstairs and find Bill's shaver and get rid of that awful stubble! It doesn't suit you. – Jack, when did you last get a full night's sleep? You've got rings under your eyes. At least you've also got a bit of a tan to help covering them up!"
Philip grinned, kissed his mother on the cheek and wordlessly went to do as he had been told.
They were all gathered around the table ten minutes later. The turkey sat in the middle, looking magnificent. Everyone had a mug of steaming hot cider beside their plate and candles were lit all about the room. Soon everyone was tucking in as if they hadn't eaten in a week, even Mother – and she rarely ever had much of an appetite!
Kiki was munching away happily on tinned fruit; and even baby squirrel Fergusson was thought of, nibbling on some nuts Mother had produced from somewhere. She had protested at first but when she had seen the tiny creature she had warmed to him at once.
They all ate until their stomachs began to hurt. Feeling only a mouthful away from bursting, Philip finally let himself sink even more into his chair and pushed his empty plate away with a satisfied groan. Across the table the girls were huffing and puffing, holding their stomachs, and Bill's bald head gleamed with sweat as always when he was stuffed to the point of bursting. Mother, too, was leaning back looking exhausted, only Jack seemed ready to down another bite – not too unusual an occurrence; the amount of food he could put away in one sitting was amazing even to someone with as healthy an appetite as Philip usually had.
"How can you?" asked Dinah, staring at Jack. "You've already eaten more than any of us. You're a greedy pig, Jack!"
But Jack merely grinned. He gave the waistband of his trousers a little tug as if to demonstrate that there was still room, and replied cheerfully, "I've got eight weeks of Ecuador to make up for! We stayed out in the middle of nowhere and survived on funny tasting protein bars and on dry bread – I can do with gaining a few pounds."
"Eat as much as you like," said Mother kindly. "There's enough left of the turkey – keep tucking in. And do tell us about Ecuador! It must be warm there at this time of the year."
"It's on the equator, it's always warm there," said Jack. And he told them about his chase for colibris. "Those are awfully difficult to take pictures of, for they're so quick! But I think I have managed to get a few awfully lovely shots!"
"You're a genius, Jack," cheered his sister, her eyes shining.
Dinah grinned. "I'll never get why you would worship your brother the way you do! I wonder how come he hasn't become a total fathead over it. Just fancy how full of himself Philip would be if I were to put him on a pedestal the way you do with Jack!" At the thought she looked quite horrified!
Feeling tired and lazy after eating way too much Philip gave her merely a half-hearted glare in response. He had just realised with some surprise that he was immensely sleepy once again. Mother seemed to have noticed it as well.
"You really ought to get some rest, Philip, you look tired out," she told him, and – much to his dismay – she added, "my word, you are pale, too. You're not coming down with something, are you?"
"No, Mother, I'm just short on sleep these days," said Philip and suppressed a yawn. "I think I shall do nothing but lazing around and stuffing myself this year on Christmas!"
"You do that, it'll do you good," replied his mother, giving him a fond look. He was glad that she left it at that. If there was one thing he really didn't enjoy, it was being fussed over by his mother – and especially not in front of the others!
They sat round at the fireplace together, nibbling on biscuits and listening to the wireless playing softly swinging Christmas songs. The flames danced merrily, giving a off a beautiful, smoky smell.
Lucy-Ann felt too glad for words looking at the scene. Uncle Bill and Aunt Allie were cuddled up on one sofa. Jack sat on the other sofa with Kiki on his shoulder and Lucy-Ann's own legs stretched out across his. Dinah was sitting cross-legged in one of the two armchairs they had moved over to the fireplace; she was deeply engaged into reading a book. Philip was half-asleep in the other armchair with Fergusson the baby squirrel on his shoulder, dozing as well. Lucy-Ann watched them both for a while, thinking they made a lovely picture.
It was nice to have a family like this, Lucy-Ann thought, even if except for Jack none of the others were blood-related with her. But Aunt Allie was the closest to a mother she ever remembered having – and the same was true for Bill as a replacement father.
Back at school, the other girls had never made a secret of the fact that they found Dinah's and Lucy-Ann's family situation very peculiar indeed!
Come to think of it, so had the boys at Jack's and Philip's school – if Jack's tales were to be believed! According to those there had even been a fight over this every now and then, for although Philip might not be quite as quick-tempered as his younger sister, he could become fiercely angry when provoked – and he was keenly protective over his family. He wouldn't let the others boys get away with their rude comments!
At the girls' school things had never gone that far. Most of the other girls knew too well not to provoke Dina. And Lucy-Ann herself had just tried not listened to anyone's teasing. But school was part of the past, anyway – nowadays she didn't have to worry about classmates and their opinions anymore.
"I'm so glad it's Christmas," she suddenly felt like saying into the calm silence that had settled between them all. "It was high time for me to get a little time off, you know? I've had quite enough of screeching children over the past few weeks – I can do with a little peace and quiet until after New Year's!"
Jack grinned at her. "Reminds me that I better had never visit you at work when I've got Kiki with me. Gosh, just fancy the noises she'd make afterwards!"
Dinah put her book aside and added, "I bet it would be worse than anything she does yet. Small children make such noise! I don't know how you do it, Lucy-Ann!"
"Neither do I," said Lucy-Ann, chuckling. "But plucking apart dead bodies for studying human medicine? I don't know how you do that, Dinah!"
"You're quite tough, Dinah," said Jack, admiringly. "I bet there aren't many girls who are getting through this, are there?"
"I really don't know why Philip thinks it necessary to say that all the time," said Dinah slightly irritatedly, glancing at her brother. "Mostly I'm really just studying anatomy, physiology and pathology by the means of books."
"Sounds boring if you put it like that," said Philip idly and yawned. He put up a hand to pick up Fergusson from his shoulder, and got to his feet a little awkwardly. "I think I shall get home, it's getting late. Coming, Jack?"
"It's not that late," replied Jack, shaking his head. "It's barely half past nine, really. I'd like to stay for a little while longer."
"Whatever," said Philip, with a light shrug. "You've the spare key with you, so you'll get in. Just be sure to not make a wreckage when you arrive!"
"You don't have to go home," said Aunt Allie, and Bill nodded eagerly in agreement. "I'd much rather you all stay overnight. It's frightfully cold out and I have two perfectly warmed-up rooms with two made beds in each room ready for you. You've all stayed over at Christmas every year so far, haven't you?"
"That's because I didn't have my own place in town until a few months ago," replied Philip, but when he saw his mother's pleading face he relented. "Alright then, I'll stay! We'll all stay, won't we?"
"Of course we will, Aunt Allie," said Lucy-Ann eagerly. "It'll be lovely."
Aunt Allie gave her a grateful smile, and Lucy-Ann smiled back, thinking, poor Aunt Allie, she must be missing having us around.
How difficult it must be for her, not having them there as often as she used to – back in the times when they attended boarding school and always came home for the hols! Nowadays Dinah had a lot of extra work to attend to for her studies of human medicine which were keeping her busy all the time! And Philip may be living very close, but what use was it for his mother if she didn't get to spend time with him because his job kept him busy ten hours a day or more and left him too tired out in the evening to drop by?
And then there was Jack, of course! He was actually the one who had spent the most time here with Aunt Allie and Uncle Bill since leaving school, always sleeping in the boys' bedroom in between his journeys. He had helped a lot around the house in return each time, but there was always a little bit of an uncomfortable tension between him and Aunt Allie.
Lucy-Ann wasn't happy, either, that her brother spent eighty percent of his time somewhere far away from them all but as long as he came home in one piece and was happy, she would support him. However, the way he had left that very first time – telling no one but Philip until he was well out of the country – that had been hurtful indeed! And not just for his sister, but most of all, it seemed, for Aunt Allie.
Lucy-Ann glanced over at her again. She must be glad, having them all there, even if it was just for the night!
Lucy-Ann made up her mind to ask her if she could stay over until after New Year's. Dinah would be staying as well, and it would be fun to share a room again for so long! Prickly and mean though Dinah could be at times, she still was Lucy-Ann's best friend and her most important confident.
It's a pity, she thought, that we can't all stay for so long.
But Philip had to get back to work just after Christmas, and Jack would probably prefer to stay at his place until he flew off to somewhere again.
After Philip had gone upstairs Aunt Allie looked a little alarmed. "I do hope he's alright," she said. "It's not like him to be the first off to bed."
"Good gracious, you really mustn't worry about him," said Dinah. "Maybe he's just excused himself to run off secretly and see a girl. Maybe he's just now climbing out of the boys' room's window and down that old tree …" She giggled.
Her mother looked surprised. "Oh, but he'd not have to be secret about that. I didn't know he was seeing someone, though."
Jack rolled his eyes. "He's not. I'd know if he was. Dinah's just winding you up, Aunt Allie." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Come to think of it, I reckon that there was a girl, just before I left for South America, but I don't suppose it got very serious."
Dinah grinned while Aunt Allie looked slightly disappointed. "I do wish that at least one of you would commit themselves to marriage some time soon," she said. "Mind, you're all too busy proably, aren't you? Maybe you, Lucy-Ann, shall be the first one to make that step."
Lucy-Ann felt the color creep into her cheeks. "Hardly," she said. "I haven't dated anyone in a while." She scrunched up her nose. "I don't know why, really. But it seems as if all the men I meet are so full of themselves, I simply can't bear it."
Everyone laughed at that, but it was true! There were regular attempts of young men, trying to catch her attention, but most of them seemed to think the world of themselves, and they seemed to think that a girl like Lucy-Ann had spent all her life waiting only for them to arrive and marry her and free her from the awful fate of being an unmarried woman who had to go and earn money for herself. It was so silly, really!
It was late when he retired but Jack couldn't help feeling wide awake all of a sudden. Strange, because hadn't he been very tired just an hour ago? It must be because of his journey to Ecuador, his sense of timing was still all messed up! In fact, he was quite suddenly itching to get some exercise. Maybe he could go out for a little walk?
He crept quietly out of the boys' old bedroom, down the stairs and into the hall where he was surprised to find that the light was still on in the sitting room. The door was left slightly ajar. Cautiously, Jack peaked around the corner to see who else was still up and about.
It wasn't Bill, as Jack had first expected, but Aunt Allie, sitting by the fire, a woollen blanket around her slim shoulders. The lenses of her small reading glasses were reflecting the firelight as she had buried herself in a book. She didn't seem to have noticed his presence.
She looked pretty and very petite, and Jack had to grin, thinking how tiny she was next to her children these days. They both had inherited her stubborn dark hair – and the distinctive way it rose up above the forehead – and her finely chiseled features, too. But they must be taking after their deceased father when it came to their built, as they were both, even Dinah, towering over her by several inches.
Her voice suddenly cut into the silence, interrupting Jack's thoughts unexpectedly. "Jack! You startled me! What are you doing here? Aren't you asleep yet?"
"No, Aunt Allie. Actually, I was quite tired just a moment ago, but now I'm not. It must be the time shift. I always have trouble sleeping after I've just come back from as far away as I just did."
"Well, you chose that kind of a life, didn't you? Hence, don't complain!" she said.
Jack went into the room to sit down on the sofa, right next to her. "I don't regret my choice," he said calmly. "And I'm not complaining, either. You asked why I wasn't sleeping. I told you. That's all."
Aunt Allie shook her head and took off her reading glasses to massage the bridge of her nose tiredly. "Well, if you say so."
Jack sighed. "I know you disagree with my lifestyle," he said. "But can't you at least try to accept it?"
"It's not your current lifestyle I disagree with," she replied. "It's the way you started it – and you jolly well know it."
Jack sighed again, more deeply this time, and replied, "well, whatever can I say? You know I'm sorry. I was sorry – even then. But I simply couldn't refuse that offer."
Aunt Allie shook her head. "Remember, what you said to me at the beginning of your graduation year?"
He didn't reply and she continued, "you said that you would make an effort to get well through your exams and get a diploma! You promised me, Jack! And then next thing I know you are phoning me from an airport somewhere in the Middle East saying you're on your way to New Zealand with some journalist from that nature magazine who contacted you – three months before the exams. What was I supposed to think about that?"
"The offer came in just before the Easter hols, I had no idea about it, when I made that promise to you!" Jack defended himself, adding, "and let's face it, Aunt Allie; I was bottom at all subjects. I'd never have gotten a diploma."
"So that makes everything alright, then?" she snapped.
"Well –" he began, but was cut off by her.
"Did you actually know I had a big row with Philip because of you? Just after I found out that he knew about your plans and he never said a word to me?"
"Oh bother," said Jack, "I had no idea."
"See, that's where it gets complicated, Jack," she lectured him. "It's not all just about you. I know you've spent half your life with an uncle who didn't care what you did or where you went. But that was before you became a member of my family. Because I do care, see? And just think about your sister! Did you know that she cried her eyes out after you decided to disappear just like that? She was so worried, and of course she wondered why you didn't tell her anything beforehand."
"Blow," said Jack, and this time he really felt alarmed; pulling Philip into this was one thing; he could take care of himself. But hurting Lucy-Ann was quite another thing altogether! "I didn't know that either."
For an endless seeming moment Aunt Allie didn't speak at all. She just sat there and looked at him. He felt immensely guilty. But it was no use dwelling on it. He couldn't change the past!
"Aunt Allie, I really am sorry. What else can I say? I know I've been selfish."
"Yes, you have been selfish, Jack. Very selfish indeed!" she snapped and glared at him.
Jack, even-tempered though he was, was feeling increasingly impatient with her accusations – and he snapped back this time, saying, "I bet you are quite glad that I am the only one of us who's been selfish, aren't you?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked coldly.
"I means," said Jack, "that I am really the only one out of the four of us who didn't at least consider putting your desires over their own."
Looking a little taken aback, Aunt Allie waited for him to explain.
"Take Philip for example. He graduated from university with top references – and is it any wonder? No one can handle animals like he can! He could have taken any job! The zoos in the big cities would have taken him with open arms – but instead he chose becoming the assistant of a grim old countryside veterinary. And why? Because he wants to be close – in case you might need him at some point."
"Well, I never thought about that," Aunt Allie said quietly – and for a split second Jack felt satisfied, knowing that he had hit a weak spot. Next, though, he just felt guilty once more; he hadn't really meant to reproach her in return, especially not by pulling Philip into that as well. But for one thing he had felt cornered by her – and he didn't like being cornered – and secondly, it was all true what he had said. And she had better be aware of it!
Aunt Allie must have realised it. She looked no longer irritated. Instead she sighed, seeming tired and hurt. "I think you're right about Philip," she admitted, sounding very exhausted all of a sudden. "He shouldn't have chosen this terrible job when he could have had a much more promising career. And all because of me, too!"
"Sorry, Aunt Allie, I didn't mean for you to feel guilty about it," Jack said, feeling a sudden need to cheer her up again. "You oughtn't give it too much thought, though. Philip knows what he's doing. So do I." He offered her a cheeky grin. "Most of the time, anyway."
"I do hope so," she replied. "Sometimes I'm quite honestly afraid that one day you might not come back – some of the places you go to are quite dangerous, and you're bound to attract a lot of attention – what with that red hair of yours, and of course by bringing Kiki, too!"
Jack grinned broadly now and shrugged. "You oughtn't worry! I'm like a bad penny, I always turn up again." He moved closer and put his arm around her. "Really, Aunt Allie. I'll be alright!"
There was a small smile tugging on Aunt Allie's lips now but as she didn't utter a word Jack went on, saying, "I'm not bad off either; some pictures I took have earned me a small fortune already! I think I might even be able to sock away some money and give it to Philip later on, help him buy the veterinary clinic when his boss gets too old to keep it. And I can also give you a bit of money too … – golly, I really ought to! You let me stay here so many times between my journeys … I must owe you a fortune!"
Now she smiled. "Oh no, you don't! You've been an angel every time you stayed here; doing so many repairing jobs for me all the time."
Jack grinned. "Bill still never has time for those, does he? … But I say, Aunt Allie, I do hope everything is alright between us now! It's always been giving me a little bit of a headache, not knowing if you'll ever forgive me."
"There was never a good time to talk about it," admitted Aunt Allie. "It was time for us to get this out of the way, though. You're all getting older and older, soon you'll all find someone to marry and have children of your own! How will you make time for me then?"
"Oh, we'll always make time to see you!" said Jack at once. He tightened his arm around her and gave her a little encouraging shake. She hugged him back.
The morning of Christmas Day was too beautiful for words. Allie had woken up with a feeling of joy and happiness like she hadn't had in a long while. The sun shone in through the parting between the window curtains, shining in from a clear blue sky and promising a dry, but very cold day.
After enjoying it for a moment Allie finally got up and dressed, meaning to prepare her family a most generous breakfast. She had slept very well after her conversation with Jack, and she hadn't even woken when Bill had got up.
It was ten o'clock already when she made her way into the kitchen – and found that everything was being done already: Bill was wearing the apron again and was at the stove, frying eggs in a pig pan. Lucy-Ann was making lemonade from fresh lemons she had taken from a net, hung up in the kitchen corner. Dinah was setting the table.
"Good morning, Mother," she said smiling warmly. "You're almost just in time for breakfast! Have a seat – we're getting everything ready just now!"
Allie smiled back. "Looks wonderful," she said, "but I can't just sit and wait around can I?"
"Of course you can," chimed in Lucy-Ann. "Just do it! You've outdone yourself yesterday. Now it's time for us to return the favor."
"Let me at least light the candles, will you?" asked Allie, and did as she had said before receiving an answer. "Where are the boys?"
"Outdoors, getting a little exercise and bringing in firewood. Hallo, here they come – listen!"
The front door was being unlocked and a voice yelled cheerfully, "wipe your feet! Pop goes the colibri!"
A moment later Philip stuck in his head in through the kitchen door. He was still wearing his hat and scarf – Fergusson the squirrel was clinging to one loose end of it – and his cheeks were colored red from the cold weather outside. He was grinning cheerfully from ear to ear. "I say, Mother! There you are finally! Slept well?"
His mother laughed. "Very well," she told him. "Go, put away your winter gear and get your hands washed. Both of you," she added when Jack's face appeared in the doorway as well and Kiki came fluttering in in search for some food. "We've got everything ready for breakfast!"
She needn't tell them twice! Soon they all sat round are hearty looking breakfast; boiled eggs and fried eggs, bacon, toast, cheese, tomatoes, jam – and more!
"To think we got so stuffed yesterday and now we're hungry again," said Dinah, chewing.
"It's doing you good," said her mother. "You probably won't get to eat like this when you're back at university!"
"I'm not in danger of dying of starvation, Mother, if that's what you're afraid of," replied Dinah. "I've learned to turn a few scraps of food into a perfectly fine meal! So's Lucy-Ann! It's the boys I'd be worried about, if I were you!"
"Not me," said Philip, shaking his head and patting his middle. "I'm certainly not going hungry – quite the opposite, actually! I'll be in need of some new clothes very soon if I don't watch it."
"Don't tell me that you've learned how to cook, all of a sudden," said Allie.
"No," said Philip, grinning. "But don't forget I'm visiting a lot of farmers these days – and most of the farmers have wives. And they cook very well." He winked at his mother.
She shot him a curious glance. "Don't say your clients invite you in for meals! Gracious, considering your appetite that must mean some heavy expenses for them!"
Chuckling, Philip waved off his mother's argument. "Oh, don't worry about that! I'm leaving them a little money for it alright."
"Really Allie, you've educated them all well enough," said Bill and changed the subject. "What shall we do, today? I suppose you're all too old to help me make a snowman, but I found a few sleighs in the shed! It snowed some more overnight, so is any of you in the mood to go over to the hillside?"
"Oh yes, that would be grand!" cheered everyone and Allie laughed at the four beaming faces. All of a sudden they didn't seem so grown-up anymore!
Allie smiled contently at the way they all started talking nineteen to the dozen, and she watched them for a little while. Weren't they all lucky to be able to spend Christmas together another year?
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now