Authors: Trisha Ashley
Patronising git! I thought, on first reading this pompous little missive, though when I showed it to Harry he seemed unsurprised—even amused.
‘Typical of the Forces top brass, that is! You’ll not get anywhere with them, but I’m going to see if I can get the medal second-hand. Then I’ll weigh it, and file off the bit of it I’m not entitled to—seven days’ worth!’
‘No, don’t do that, Harry. Let me get you one for Christmas instead,’ I suggested. ‘I bet I can find one on the internet.’
‘Well, all right, so long as it’s not too dear.’
‘Oh, I’m rolling in filthy lucre these days—all these cake orders. And I’ll probably have so much money I won’t know what to do with it, if that TV series comes off,’ I reminded him, having told him all about it earlier, and he chuckled. He doesn’t think anyone would be interested in watching film of me digging the garden and making parsnip wine either!
I gave him a printout of the latest letter to show his cronies, together with a copy of my reply to the MOD, which I had dashed off immediately, in a froth of rage.
Dear Ronald Horeshay,
Having been brought up with a modicum of good manners, I tend to reply to all my correspondence whether
I have been asked a question or not. This was obviously an important issue on which I felt—and still feel—strongly, and which clearly merited an answer.
However, your reply is just the sort of idiotically jobsworthy one I was expecting. If the rules are so set in stone that someone who lacks even one single day’s service does not qualify, then clearly there is something wrong with the rules. 1948 is rather a long time ago and I don’t particularly care whether the then king approved them or not. The rules have become a moronic, moribund dinosaur and the sooner they are extinct the better. Where does common sense, compassion and intelligence impinge upon the ‘diligent’ scrutiny of medal applications?
What really upsets me is that clearly you have been sending out this sort of slap-in-the-face letter to many war veterans who, elderly and perhaps in poor health, have found their thoughts increasingly turning to the war years, to friends lost and all the old horrors. They will be wondering whether sacrificing so much was worth it, and there you are, telling them clearly it was not: they were weighed and found wanting. I expect many just turned their face to the wall at this point. Did you ever think of this as you sent out your brusque little dismissals?
And, as a taxpayer, I am colluding in this betrayal by helping to pay your wages. I don’t like that one bit.
My uncle, having a sense of humour, has framed your first letter of rejection in a nice gilt frame and given it pride of place on the wall. He is considering buying a secondhand medal and, having worked out exactly how much of it he is not entitled to, snipping the requisite bit of metal off and hanging that on the wall too. If that is a treasonable act and you want to shoot him, you had better move fast—he is 82 and has severe health problems. In fact, since
I will probably give him the medal for Christmas, you might have to shoot us both.
Your department has the facts already, but clearly your answer is already set in mud the consistency of concrete. To what would I appeal? Compassion? Justice? Good sense? Do they exist anywhere in the MOD? It certainly does not sound like it. The exercise would be pointless.
Never mind, I expect you were afraid that if you had quietly slipped my uncle his so obviously undeserved medal, you would have been crushed in a stampede of Ancient Mariners…if there are many left who would qualify. Not to mention all the other elderly ex-servicemen.
At least you had the grace to reply, even if you only trotted out a few lame phrases. You will observe that there are several questions in the above letter but I absolve you from any need to engage your brain further on the matter: let us draw a line for the moment underneath your whole sorry excuse for a department.
Even if I hadn’t actually expected to get Harry’s medal out of them, it was still a free country and I was entitled to express my opinion, and I had, forcefully. I hoped my emails at least rattled their cage a bit, though I doubted they would puncture their complacency.
The whole correspondence had at least amused Harry, his friends and most of the village, though, so that was a positive outcome.
Most of the Christmas presents I give are edible, from cakes to sweets and biscuits. Home-made
fudge and peppermint creams are always popular, though if you are going to post them, the weight can be an issue!
I always ask the recipients of the Christmas cakes to keep the decorations, so they can be reused the following year. Some that belonged to my grandmother are practically antiques…
‘Cakes and Ale’
I misjudged Rob Rafferty’s sticking power, because he turned up on my doorstep just as I was taking some cheese scones out of the oven and I was too flustered not to let him in.
But anyway, after he had eaten three scones liberally coated with melting butter, licking his fingers afterwards like a schoolboy, and got round to asking me to go out with him again, I’d made up my mind to be frank with him.
‘To be honest, Rob, apart from being really busy with my wedding cake business and helping Libby to set up Old Barn Receptions, I’ve only just broken up with my long-term partner and I’m not ready for any kind of relationship yet.’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know that,’ he said with easy sympathy. ‘But still, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be friends, is there?’
friends?’ I asked cautiously, opening the nearest cake tin and offering him a slice of Battenburg cake, since he was still
hungrily eyeing the remaining scones and I didn’t want to have to make a whole new batch.
‘If that’s what you want,’ he agreed through a mouthful of cake. ‘Or what you want right now, anyway. Who knows, maybe you’ll change your mind later. But meanwhile, there’s nothing to stop us going out for the occasional meal or drink, when you have time, is there? And now I know you can bake like this, you’ll probably find me on your doorstep more often than you want!’
I was so relieved I told him he could drop in whenever he felt like it, and actually I did enjoy his company once I’d relaxed my guard.
Libby said I was mad and it was like thinking I could be friends with a lion, but I’m positive she’s wrong—it’s my baking he’s now lusting after.
My phone line has suddenly gone all crackly, despite BT saying there is nothing wrong with it.
Could the MOD now be tapping my calls, because they have me down as some kind of subversive?
But if Big Brother is watching me, he isn’t going to find me terribly exciting, unless you count surfing the internet, looking for a minesweeping medal. And luckily, I found one, though it cost me a lot more than I would tell Harry it did!
Libby went to London to do her present shopping the week before Christmas and came back with Pia, which I knew because I happened to be outside when they were arriving, and Pia waved.
I’d been chasing Aggie round the Green again, with Violet on her trike trying to head her off on the other side. It was amazing how fast a hen could run when she put her mind to it, even a fat one. One minute she was ambling along aimlessly, and the next she was haring off like an Olympic sprinter.
But she was too plump to keep that pace up for long, so with a bit of help from Violet I finally caught her and went to try to
find how she’d got out of the run this time. I was starting to think she could materialise on the wrong side of the netting any time she liked, which is a trick I hope the local fox doesn’t learn.
A bit later Pia popped over to see me and said she thought she might stay at Blessings for all of Christmas and New Year.
This would be providing she didn’t fall out with Libby, of course—and they did seem to have been getting along together much better lately. Also, it sounded as though Pia intended spending all of her time over at Middlemoss with Jasper Pharamond. They’d been engaged in a long-distance courtship of texts and emails since they met, so she must have made quite an impression on him at the reception once she’d grasped that the way to get his attention was through our ancestors’ stomach contents.
I carried on working while she told me all about it with all the self-absorption of a teenager in love, and it was some time before she showed any interest in what I was making.
‘What are those?’ she asked finally.
‘Marzipan fruit and nut
, I said, stuffing a pecan into an oval of natural marzipan and then placing it in a recycled paper case (I mean that the cases are made of recycled paper, not that they have been used before. I draw the line there!). ‘I give them as Christmas gifts every year and sometimes I do fudge, rum truffles, or coconut ice too—all kinds of goodies. But because this year I’ve had a couple of rush wedding cake orders, I’m making only these.’
Pia ate a bit of marzipan. ‘I don’t think you’ve ever given me any, though there’s usually a sugar mouse and a chocolate watch in my parcel.’
‘You can have some this year if you like, and I suspect Father Christmas will still give you the mouse and chocolate watch, even if you’ll be nineteen by then,’ I assured her, and in fact, I’d already made the mouse and several watches, using my brown Bakelite mould.
‘I’ve always loved getting your presents, God-ma. I never know quite what to expect!’
‘I just collect bits and pieces I think you might like all through the year, so there’s usually a box full that I can divide up for your birthday and Christmas, in the hope there’ll be at least one or two things that you’ll really like.’
‘Oh, I’ve loved everything you’ve sent me, however weird,’ she assured me. I racked my brains, trying to think of anything particularly odd I’d sent her…Maybe it had been that dried scorpion trick, when she was eight?
‘This year it’s a bit different. You’ve got just one main birthday present,’ I said. Pia had so admired my rainbow knitted hoodie last time she was here that I’d got Pansy Grace to knit her one too. And she was getting the matching mittens, long scarf and Peruvian-style hat with earflaps for Christmas.
The kind of present
prefer is one that’s been made just for me, lovingly, even if it’s a peg bag or one of Pansy’s stranger knitted toilet roll cosies, so I hoped Pia would feel the same way.
‘Mum told me there might be a TV series about you doing gardening and stuff,’ she said. ‘Cool!’
‘Oh, I don’t think it will actually come to anything. I’m not that exciting.’
she said Rob Rafferty tracked you down and you went to a party with him!’
‘Just drinks in a wine bar. I didn’t want to, really, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Anyway, Claire Flowers, the woman who’s keen on doing the TV series, monopolised me and then drove me home after an hour or so. But Rob’s dropped in to see me since then, and after I told him about breaking up with Ben, he suggested we became just friends.’
She stared at me. ‘Well, be careful, God-ma!’
‘It’s all right, he’s only after my pastries.’
A likely story,’ she said, as disbelievingly as Libby, while making
inroads on the pistachio nuts. ‘Did Mum tell you Noah’s coming to Blessings for Christmas?’
?’ My hands stilled, I stared blankly at her.
‘Of course—how many other Noahs have you ever met? She saw him in London and invited him. I don’t think he usually does much at Christmas. I don’t mind, to be honest, because I’ll feel a bit of a gooseberry up at Blessings with the two lovebirds.’
‘You don’t sound as if you intend to actually be there very much,’ I pointed out.
‘No, well,’ she blushed. ‘I hope not, if things go OK with me and Jasper. I think he’s pretty convinced now that I’m not the empty-headed party girl he first thought me. He didn’t know I could cook, for a start, even if it’s only Italian cooking that Gina taught me.’
‘There’s more to you than meets the eye,’ I agreed solemnly, but inwardly I was digesting the news about Noah. I found I really, really didn’t want to see him ever again…Why on earth had Libby invited him?
‘When is Noah turning up?’ I asked casually, stuffing an almond into a date, and then encasing the date in marzipan. I’d have done more pistachio ones, but Pia had now finished them off. I pushed the hazelnuts nearer to her—at least they were cheaper, if she wanted to binge on something. ‘And, I mean, is he coming alone? Didn’t you tell me he was going out with someone?’
‘Oh, Uncle Noah’s always going out with somebody, but they never last long. Though, actually, come to think of it, I did see a magazine picture recently of him with that Anji, so she’s still around. But he’s definitely coming on his own and arriving on Saturday, my birthday—though I’ll probably be out, because I’m hoping Jasper will take me somewhere. He’s coming here tonight too, and then we’re going to the Griffin,’ she added dreamily.
I gave her the parcel containing her rainbow cardigan before
she left, telling her not to open it before her birthday, but it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least to hear she’d been seen wearing it ten minutes after she got back to Blessings.
Next morning I phoned Libby up to ask her why she had invited Noah.
‘He usually just goes to stay with a cousin and his family in Cornwall, but they couldn’t have him for some reason this year, so he was at a loose end,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t let him spend Christmas on his own, could I?’
‘He doesn’t seem the sort of man who’d have to spend
time alone, unless he wanted to,’ I pointed out. ‘Pia said she thought he was still going out with that model, the blonde one who was with him the first time he turned up here.’
‘I don’t know, but he certainly wasn’t expecting to spend Christmas with her.’
‘Just as well,’ I said, relieved. ‘I would feel terribly guilty if I met her. It’s going to be awkward enough if I run into Noah. I’ll have to try and stay out of his way.’
‘I think it would be better to do the opposite—get the meeting over with and carry on as though nothing had happened.’
‘Libs, it will be hideously embarrassing! Especially since
know.’ A thought struck me. ‘But does
know that you know?’
‘I think I’m losing the plot,’ Libby said. ‘I was going to tear him off a strip, but since you seemed perked up by the experience, I decided not to. So no, he doesn’t know that I know—I don’t think.’
I sighed. ‘Perhaps you’re right. He’s a friend of yours, so I’m bound to see him occasionally and I’ll just get it over and show him that I’ve forgotten all about getting peapodded with him. He’ll probably be relieved I don’t want to hang around his neck or make trouble with this Anji.’
‘His girlfriends are never serious; that’s why I warned you
about him,’ Libby said. ‘You were honoured if Pia came to visit you. I’ve hardly seen her since I brought her back. Jasper came and picked her up yesterday and she didn’t come home until late—though I suppose I should feel grateful that she came home at all. And this morning, when she finally showed up for breakfast, she said she was going to apply to study at Liverpool University, where Jasper is.’
‘She didn’t say. Art history, perhaps?’ she suggested doubtfully. ‘Don’t they all study something like that, if they don’t really know what to do? In our day, it was teaching or librarian-ship. But whatever it is, I suspect it’s only a ruse to stay near Jasper.’
‘But he must be more than halfway through his degree and she will just be starting, so isn’t it a doomed manoeuvre?’
‘No, he plans to do his masters there afterwards. She’s borrowed my car now and gone over to Middlemoss. Goodness knows when I’ll get it back.’
But she didn’t sound quite as frazzled as usual when Pia is about, so mother/daughter relations did seem to be improving. Maybe love had mellowed Libs a bit.
‘Did you ever phone Daisy?’ she asked casually now.
‘My sister—remember, you asked me for her number?’
‘Oh, yes, but then I forgot! I’ll do it after Christmas. I expect she’s busy.’
‘Yes, there’s always so much booze around at Christmas that she has her hands full with Mum,’ Libby agreed.
Ben’s poisonous mother rang and accused me of trying to ‘entice Ben back again’. She said if I hadn’t been pathetic and needy, so that he felt guilty about me, he would have fixed a date for the wedding with Olivia by now.
The only time I was ever pathetic and needy was just after
Granny died, so it seems that he has been telling the same lies about me to his mother that he told to Olivia.
You know, I think jealousy of my mother, combined with acute ingrowing snobbery and bile, has completely unhinged Nell Richards over the years, and she’s entirely lost her grip on reality.
‘Just leave him alone,’ she finished, after a stream of invective. ‘You were never good enough for him!’
‘I’m not trying to entice him back, and I don’t think it’s particularly me he’s missing, Mrs Richards,’ I said patiently. ‘He seems to find it difficult to create new work away from Neatslake. And
has been phoning
I haven’t called him once.’
‘That isn’t what he told me,’ she snapped, and put down the phone.
Perhaps Ben was trying to use me to get out of having to marry Olivia, which he clearly didn’t want to do. Who knew? And did I care?
The conversation left such a nasty taste in my mouth that I had to resort to damson wine to dispel it.
Violet had performed miracles by producing what seemed like hundreds of little icing cavalier spaniels within a few days, and I painted them in the various cavvy colours with natural food dye and stuck them all around Freddie’s cake.
The bridal pair for the top had come out magnificently, I thought. I’d given the groom spaniel a top hat, which sat jauntily over his long ears, and the bride a little tiara with a touch of net veiling (which I hoped no one would attempt to eat) and a bouquet of tiny flowers.
Well, I delivered that on the Friday before Christmas and Freddie loved it so much that she invited me to the wedding on Christmas Eve and the reception party at the Ponderosa Kennels afterwards (in the living room, not the actual dog runs).
After that I loaded up and delivered the Christmas cakes to
the Graces, Dorrie and Libby (I had already given Harry his little one), and then drove out to give Mark and Stella theirs, as usual. They’d been a bit strange since Ben moved out, considering we’d been friends for such a long time, but perhaps they didn’t know quite how to talk to me any more. Or perhaps, like Mary, they’d decided they could give allegiance only to one side, and it wasn’t mine.