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Authors: Trisha Ashley

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The Magic of Christmas

BOOK: The Magic of Christmas
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Trisha Ashley

The Magic of Christmas

Dedication

For my son, Robin Ashley,

with love.

The Magic of Christmas
is loosely based on one of my earlier novels,
Sweet Nothings
, with the addition of a lot of new material. I felt there was so much more to say about the village of Middlemoss and all the characters who live there, especially Lizzy and her friends in the Christmas Pudding Circle, the annual Boxing Day Mystery Play and the vanishing squirrels!

Prologue: December 2005, Winter of Discontent

The venue for the last Middlemoss Christmas Pudding Circle meeting of the year (which was usually more of an excuse for a party) had been switched to Perseverance Cottage because Lizzy’s thirteen-year-old son had come down with what she’d thought was flu and she wanted to keep an eye on him.

Later, looking back on the events of that day, it seemed to Lizzy that one minute she’d been sitting at the big pine table in her kitchen, wearing a paper hat and happily debating the rival merits of fondant icing over royal with the other four members of the CPC, and the next she was frantically snatching at the card listing the symptoms of meningitis, which she kept pinned to her notice board, and shouting to Annie, her best friend, to ring for an ambulance.

At the hospital, Jasper changed frighteningly fast from a big, gruff teenager to a pale, sick child, and Lizzy tried urgently to contact her husband, Tom, who was away on one of his alleged business trips. But as usual he didn’t answer his mobile and was nowhere to be found, so all she could do was leave messages in the usual places … and several unusual ones.

The hospital radio was softly warbling on about decking the halls with boughs of holly, but Lizzy, filled with a volatile mixture of desperate maternal fear and anger, wanted to deck her selfish, unreliable husband.

It was just as well that Annie was such a tower of strength in an emergency! During that first long day while Lizzy anxiously waited for the antibiotics to kick in, her friend popped in and out between jobs for the pet-sitting agency she ran, visited Perseverance Cottage to feed the poultry and let out Lizzy’s dog, and reassured Tom’s elderly relatives up at the Hall that she would keep them updated with every change in Jasper’s condition.

Then in the evening she returned to the hospital and she and Lizzy spent the long night watches sitting together while Jasper slept, reminiscing in hushed voices about when they first met and became best friends at boarding school. Lizzy had begun spending the holidays with Annie’s family in the vicarage at Middlemoss, where she was quickly absorbed into the Vane household, much to the relief of the elderly bachelor uncle who was her guardian — and it was also in Middlemoss that she’d met Tom and Nick Pharamond, cousins who were often farmed out with relatives up at the Hall in the school holidays.

Nick was the eldest: quiet, serious and appearing to prefer the company of the cook at Pharamond Hall to anyone else’s. Tom, who was really only nominally a Pharamond, his mother having married into the family, was the opposite: mercurial, charming and gregarious, though he’d had a quick temper and a sharp tongue, even then …

Nick was the first to fly the nest. Having inherited the Pharamond cooking gene in spades, it wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone except his staid stockbroker father when he took off around the world at eighteen, tastebuds and recipe notebook at the ready. Now he was chief cookery writer for a leading Sunday newspaper and author of numerous books and articles, while Tom, in contrast, had dropped out of university and gravitated down to the part of Cornwall where many of his more useless friends had also ended up.

When he set eyes on Lizzy again after a long interval, it was across a buffet table at a large party in London, where he was a guest, and where she and Annie, who’d done a French cookery course after school, were helping with the catering. He fell suddenly in love with her, a passion that also embraced her rose-tinted dreams of a self-sufficient existence in the country.

Somehow she’d forgotten about his dark good looks, his overwhelming charm and his quirky sense of humour … Before she’d had time to think — or to remember his quick temper, occasional sarcasms and how short-lived his enthusiasms had been in the past — he’d swept her off her feet, into a registry office and down to the isolated hovel he was renting in Cornwall.

‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure,’ she said to Annie, as Jasper stirred restlessly in his hospital bed. ‘You tried your best to warn me not to rush into it.’

‘You fell in love and so did Tom: there was no stopping you,’ Annie said. ‘Besides, you were addicted to all those books about living in Cornish cottages, with donkeys and daffodils and stuff.’

‘True,’ Lizzy agreed wryly, ‘and it
was
blissful that first summer — until the reality of living in a dank, dilapidated cottage in winter with a newborn baby set in, especially after Tom started vanishing for days on end without telling me when and where he was going.’

‘He was worse after Jasper was born, wasn’t he? I think he resented not being the centre of attention,’ Annie said.

‘He still does, though how you can be jealous of your own son, goodness knows! Anyway, it was like living with a handsome but unreliable tomcat … and nothing much has changed, has it?’ Lizzy asked bitterly.

‘Perhaps not, but at least
two
good things came out of your marriage,’ Annie pointed out, being a resolutely glass-half-full person: ‘Jasper and your books about life in Perseverance Cottage.’

‘True, and it was thanks to your telling Roly how cold and damp the cottage was, after you visited us, that he offered us a house on the estate rent free, so that actually makes
three
good things.’

‘Oh, yes — and it was
marvellous
when you came back to Middlemoss to live,’ Annie agreed fervently. ‘I’d missed you so much!’

Her voice had risen slightly and Jasper woke up and grumpily demanded why they were muttering over him like two witches. Then he complained that the dim light hurt his eyes, and a nurse appeared and firmly ushered them out of the room for a while.

The following morning it was clear that the antibiotics were working. Great-uncle Roly visited Jasper in the afternoon and by evening he was so obviously on the mend that Lizzy managed to persuade Annie, who’d brought sandwiches and a flask of soup ready to share a second night’s vigil with her, to go home instead and get some sleep.

Lizzy herself intended spending a second night there, of course: by Jasper’s bedside when allowed, or in the stark waiting room, with its grey plastic-covered chairs and stained brown cord carpet.

It was in the latter room that Tom’s cousin Nick Pharamond found her, having driven non-stop halfway across Europe since Roly had given him the news about Jasper. His brow was furrowed with added frown lines from tiredness, and the dark stubble and rumpled black hair didn’t do much to lighten his usual taciturn expression. Lizzy always imagined that Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester would have been
exactly
like Nick, but she was still both delighted and relieved to see him because, unlike Tom, you could
always
rely on him to turn up in an emergency.

Although she wasn’t normally a weepy sort of person, she instantly burst into tears all over his broad chest, while he patted her back in a strangely soothing way. Then he made her drink the hot soup Annie had left and eat a sandwich she didn’t want: he was forceful as well as reliable.

The only downside to his presence during the rest of that long night was that Lizzy became so spaced out with shock and exhaustion that something unstoppable took over her mouth. She could hear her own voice droning on and on for hours, telling Nick a whole lot of really personal stuff about the last few years that she’d only previously confided to Annie, like how bad relations had become between her and Tom, especially since she found out about his latest affair.

‘I don’t know who this one is, but she’s been having a really bad influence on him. He’s played away before, of course, but it was never
serious
. He says it’s
my
fault anyway, for being so wrapped up in the cottage, the garden and Jasper — and perhaps it is.’

‘That’s totally ridiculous, Lizzy: of course it isn’t your fault!’ Nick said. ‘He should grow up!’

Filled with gratitude at his understanding, she’d fished out a petrol receipt from the bottom of her handbag and on the back of it feverishly scribbled down her cherished recipe for mashed potato fudge, a creation she’d first invented while trying to cook up some comfort from limited ingredients down in Cornwall (and which was much later to be christened Spudge by Jasper).

In return Nick, who was normally pretty tight-lipped on anything personal, divulged that Leila (his wife) refused all his suggestions that they both cut down their working hours to spend more time together, so they seemed to be seeing less and less of each other. This was
really
letting his guard down, so the night-watch effect must have been getting to him, too.

‘Do you think everything will be all right with me and Tom once Jasper’s off to university in a few years and I’m not so tied to Middlemoss and the school run?’ she asked Nick, optimistically. ‘I could even go with him on some of his business trips to Cornwall.’

‘I honestly don’t know, Lizzy, but it won’t be your fault if it isn’t,’ Nick said, and gave her a big, wonderfully comforting hug.

Then something made her look up and over his shoulder she caught sight of Tom standing in the doorway staring at them.

‘Oh, Tom, where have you
been
?’ she cried, releasing herself from Nick’s arms. ‘Still, never mind — you’re here now, that’s the main thing.’

Tom ignored her, instead demanding suspiciously of Nick, ‘What are
you
doing here, that’s what I want to know?’

He was still looking from one to the other of them as if he’d had an extremely odd idea, which it emerged later he had — one that would finally turn what had already become a very sour-sweet cocktail of a marriage into a poisoned chalice.

But at the time, all Lizzy registered was that his first words were not an urgent enquiry about his only child and, in one split second, not only did the last vestiges of her love for Tom entirely vanish, but they took even the exasperated tolerance of the previous years with them, so there was absolutely no hope of resuscitating their marriage.

If Tom had ever possessed the core of feckless sweetness she’d believed in, then some wicked Snow Queen had blown on his heart and frozen it to solid ice.

Chapter 1: Old Prune

Here in Middlemoss Christmas preparations start very early — in mid-August, in fact, when the five members of the Christmas Pudding Circle bulk-order the ingredients for mincemeat and cakes from a nearby wholefood cooperative. Once that has arrived and been divided up between us, things slowly start to rev up again. It always reminds me of a bobsleigh race: one minute we’re all pushing ideas to and fro to loosen the runners and then the next we’ve jumped on board and are hurtling, faster and faster, towards Christmas!

The Perseverance Chronicles: A Life in Recipes

The members of the Christmas Pudding Circle were sitting round my long, scrubbed-pine kitchen table for the first meeting of the year. It was a hot, mid-August morning, so the door was open onto the sunlit cobbled courtyard in order to let some cooling air (and the occasional brazen hen) into the room.

I poured iced home-made lemonade into tumblers, then passed round the dish of macaroons, thinking how lovely it was to have all my friends together again. Apart from my very best friend Annie Vane, there was Marian Potter who ran the Middlemoss Post Office, Faye Sykes from Old Barn Farm and Miss Pym, the infants’ schoolteacher. The latter is a tall, upright woman with iron-grey hair in a neat chignon, who commands such respect that she’s never addressed by her Christian name of Geraldine, even by her friends.

‘Oh, I do miss our CPC meetings after Christmas each year,’ Annie said, beaming, her round freckled face framed in an unbecoming pudding-bowl bob of coppery hair. ‘I know we see each other all the time, but it isn’t the same.’

BOOK: The Magic of Christmas
6.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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