In Time for Christmas


I say goodbye, secure my scarf, slip my woolly hat onto my head and fasten the coat. I slip my third-hand and rather battered iPhone into the little forearm pocket that Winnie showed me, zipping it shut as I step outside, pulling on my gloves. The snow, though only thin, is at least deep enough to give a slight but satisfying crunch beneath my feet as I walk across the grass to the little gate at the side of the garden.

The sky is a featureless pale grey and the air cold, especially when the wind gusts. I've never really considered walking or hiking for pleasure but somehow I find the thought of finding my way to Brichester is appealing and with my body snug and feet secure in Winnie's loaned coat and boots, I feel like some intrepid explorer. Perhaps I should buy a Christmas present for Winnie when I'm in town, just to say thanks for helping me escape. A scarf or scented candle, perhaps.

Beyond the gate is an open field that slopes uphill in a wide, white plain to a line of trees that stand against the winter sky like dark, jagged scratches. My breath steams in the air as I set off, leaving distinct footprints as my boots sink through the snow into the grass below. Either the hill is steeper than it looks or walking across this soft grass and snow is harder than I expected because by the time I near the trees I'm breathing heavily and I feel a trickle of sweat run down the crease of my spine beneath my bra strap. The trees belong to a well-tended hedgerow that I walk alongside until I find a wooden stile that I can use to cross into the next field.

This field climbs a little higher but is even harder work as there are the furrows of its ploughed surface to deal with, the snow blown from the ridges to collect in the hollows. I walk on to reach the brow of the hill and look out across the snowy landscape. It is quiet, with just the sound of the wind and the occasional harsh cawing of crows. A movement catches my eye and down in the valley to the right I see a train making its way slowly along the hidden tracks.

I take a moment to work out where to go, recalling Winnie's directions. Yes; across this field, which now starts to fall gently downwards, are more trees, much more extensive than the hedgerow I just passed through, which must be Long Acre Coppice. There should be a footpath there, leading me through the woods and then onwards on the other side to Brichester, about a mile so further.

Walking on, the wind seems to be picking up and there is the odd snowflake carried past; hopefully, the trees will offer some shelter because the wind-chill is decidedly uncomfortable. Actually, it's bloody freezing so I stuff my gloved hands into my coat pockets and do my best to burrow my nose into the folds of my scarf. Nearing the trees I can see the Coppice is edged with bushes and hedges. Most of them I probably wouldn't recognise even if they weren't bare, though I can identify the holly bushes and what I suspect are the tangled clumps of bramble. However, even the bare branches are dense enough -- and in quite a few instances, thorny enough -- to deter trying to push through them.

As with the hedgerow, I walk along, looking for the footpath. Ah, what's this? Yes, a narrow opening in the bushes where the smooth, level snow suggests the trampled flatness of a footpath. Some kind of signpost would be nice but there doesn't seem to be anything to indicate the way. Oh well, intrepid explorers don't need signposts!

The wind is gentler under the trees, as I'd hoped. However, as I walk on it feels just as cold, perhaps even colder. Maybe this is one of those 'cold fronts' they talk about on weather forecasts. There is little snow here and I can now see the narrow path of bare earth, which I follow as it continues downhill. The path twists a little, weaving its way past some large and obviously very old trees. There is the sound of wind in the branches above me, the occasional snap or crack, a flurry of unseen wings and the echoing caws of crows.

Ahead, I see that the ground drops sharply and, as a wide gap opens in the branches above, more snow so that the path is hidden in a layer of untrodden white. As I approach the slope, there is the sound of water. Looking down I see a stream, the flowing water some three metres wide and running briskly. Spanning the gully are two broad snow-dusted planks that form a rudimentary bridge while the footpath continues beyond. The dark sides of the planks are uneven, gnarled, weathered and moss-covered.

Tentatively, I step into the bridge, my feet either side of the somewhat disconcerting gap between the planks. However, it seems solid enough and I take a careful step forward and then another, my confidence building.

Suddenly, my left foot slips where it finds a snow-hidden slope that's slick with moss or ice. I stumble forwards, trying to regain my balance and my right foot comes down precariously close to the edge of the plank that, sickeningly, gives way as the rotten edge sheers off under my weight. ."Shit!" There is nothing I can do except try to stay upright, my arms flailing, and I experience the horrible sensation of falling for just a moment before my feet I hit the water. Cold engulfs my legs, making me gasp and I stagger when my feet hit the uneven riverbed. I grab desperately at the treacherous bridge to stop myself from falling. I manage to keep my footing and, terrified, half turn to throw my dripping arms onto the bridge and hook my fingers into the gap between the planks while the icy current drags at my quickly numbing legs. "Fuck!" I pant and try to calm myself.

"Oh heavens, are you alright?" a voice calls from above and I look up to see a figure, dark against the sky, standing at the far end of the bridge. The figure steps forward, one foot onto the bridge and leans down, arm outstretched. "Here, I shall help you up."

"N-no," I manage through the shivers that make my teeth chatter. "That b-b-bridge is dangerous."

"Really? Well, can you make it to the bank? I shall be able to you up from there." It is a woman's voice with an accent that's public school to the point of old-fashioned: precise, clipped and efficient. I nod and begin shuffling along, never letting go of the bridge. The water becomes deeper, up to my waist, but I am now mid-stream and so hopefully this is as deep as it gets. I continue slowly and the water does become shallower but not much; by the time I can touch the bank it is still well above my knees.

The woman has moved and is standing precariously just below the top of the bank. "Look, there are roots in the bank," she points out, "Can you get your foot on that one there? Try to climb up and I shall help you."

I look and there are indeed roots of various thicknesses protruding. I see the one she pointed to -- a thick, knobbly arc that curves out and back into the earth -- but it's a big step up. I grasp another root to steady myself and to pull on. No, my left foot resting on the root is too high; I'm not going to be able to do this. "Oh fuck!" I curse. I can barely feel my legs in the cold water.

"Come on, girl, give it some welly!" the woman commands loudly.

I change position to alter my footing, placing my right foot on the root instead, and take a deep breath. I flex my left leg, dipping down so I can thrust upward. I haul with my right hand and lever myself up as my left-hand flails for a second handhold No, this is not going to be enough and I feel myself about to topple backwards. Something grasps my left forearm and pulls hard; the woman is hauling on me with both hands and I start to rise. Finally, my right leg can begin to get some leverage and I power myself up.

A breathless moment later and we're both on the bank in a heap, with me lying on the woman where she has fallen backwards. "Thank you, thank you," I pant in desperate relief. She reaches up and pulls down the scarf covering her mouth and nose. To my surprise, she is young, definitely no more than twenty or so.

"You're very welcome," she replies. "Rather fortunate, my happening along, what? You were definitely in a bit of a pickle and no mistake." She smiles, her blue eyes sparkling. She is very pretty; the tops her cheeks rosy from the cold or her exertions or both, her mouth full and soft-looking while auburn curls peep out from under the red and black tartan scarf she has wrapped around her head. Our eyes are locked, our noses almost touching and I can feel the warmth of her breath on my lips and chin as she gives a little sigh. A gust of wind shakes a dusting of snow from the branches above and I'm suddenly very conscious that I'm on top of this attractive girl and also that I'm very wet and getting chilled.

"I'm sorry, I'm m-making you all wet," I stammer and clamber to one side so I can stand shakily. The young woman also stands. She is wearing a long, olive coloured Barbour jacket, well-worn with the waxed cotton showing signs of fading in places and one or two frayed patches. On her legs are loose-fitting trousers of some dull, dark and slightly velvet-looking fabric, tucked into socks that protrude above her Wellington boots. I'm not sure whether the mismatch of her outfit is a fashion statement or she's just wearing whatever came to hand as she dressed.

"I don't think we've met before," she says, thrusting out her hand, "I'm Freddie, Freddie Ryder. You can call me Fred if you like; all my chums do."

"Oh, er, hi, F-Freddie. I'm Amy M-Matthews." I shake her woollen-gloved hand, awkward at the sudden formality and a little disappointed after the intimate moment I thought we'd just shared.

"Oh, what a thoughtless girl you must think me: you must be chilled to your bones. Come, my home is just across the field," she gestures along the path in the direction I was heading. I want to argue but the truth is, cold as I may be, I'm intrigued by this girl and, yes, attracted to her too.

"I'm f-fucking freezing!" I confirm and I see a look of shock on Freddie's face. "What?"

"You said the eff word! Mama says that only sailors use that word," she says.

"N-no shit? Your M-Mama n-needs to get out more," I tell her, "take a bus sometime."

"You are funny!" she laughs, "and very naughty to tease me so. Come on." She takes my arm, to guide and support me as we start walking. My jeans cling heavy and wet to my legs, weighing down my steps that squelch along in my waterlogged boots.

"I s-should phone my M-Mum," I say.

"Oh, that should be no problem; we have a telephone at home."

"No, I've one here," I tell her, clumsily pulling off one wet glove with the other. The air instantly chills my bare, damp finger and fumble to pull the zip on the arm-pocket of my coat. Taking the phone out I press the button on the side to wake the screen but nothing happens. I press harder... still nothing. A little bead of water drips from the edge of the phone into my palm. It's only then I recall my hands and arms plunging into the water as I fell from the bridge. "Oh, shitting, fucking hell!" I curse.

"What is that? It looks like a piece of black glass," Freddie asks, intrigued.

"It's my phone. It's just an old iPhone 5," I reply sadly, "but M-Mum gave it me for my sixteenth birthday and now it's busted." I hold it out to show her and she takes it, turning it over as she examines it.

"A phone? As in a telephone? Don't be silly, it is much too small and there's no dial or handset to hold! And how could it possibly work? There's no wire." She looks at the back. "I like the little picture on the back; is it supposed to be an apple?"

"Of course it is, it's an Apple iPhone. Come on, F-Freddie; you must have seen a m-mobile phone, even here in the sticks," I tell her as I take the useless phone back

"No. I say, do you think that you might have hit your head as you fell? I believe that a concussed person can be confused."

"No, I'm p-pretty sure I di-didn't and anyway, I'm n-not confused... oh wow!" I gasp. We are emerging from the trees and ahead is another field but the covering of snow is definitely deeper here. We turn right and follow the tree line a little way until I see footprints heading out across the otherwise unblemished snow. I'm not surprised when we follow them. My feet plunge into the snow which comes up past the top of my boots; it really is a lot deeper than back at Winnie's house.

"I like walking, especially in the snow," Freddie says, just by way of something to say, I suspect.

"Me too. Well, I d-did; I'm not such a fan right now. I wish I'd worn Wellies like you."

"Your boots look warmer than my Wellies. In truth, I've not met many girls who wear trousers. Mama hates me doing so; says I look like a hoyden and that no man will ever find me attractive and then I shall never find a husband, but, do you know..."

"You don't reckon you want a husband?" I hazard. "I g-get that."

"You do? I cannot imagine the appeal of becoming some man's... chattel! Yet so many of the girls at school seem to lack any ambitions for the future but love and marriage."

"Yeah, the girl's at college can be like that; not like the m-marriage so much but, like, 'I gotta have a boyfriend' or, 'D'you reckon Dan fancies me?' that sort of stuff. Even the g-girls on my football team; it's depressing."

"You play football? Honestly?" she asks and I nod. "I play hockey at school, of course, and netball but I've never heard of girls playing football. How fabulous."

The walk is hard work but the movement is helping keep me warm, a little anyway, though my fingers and toes are numb. At least the shivering has eased a little.

The prints lead us up to the crown of a low hill and then down the other side. Off to the right, I have a view similar to the one I had before entering the Coppice: the wide vista of the valley. A plume of smoke catches my eye and it takes a moment before I recognise it as a train, "Hey, Freddie, is that a steam train down there?"

"Yes, of course." We begin the descent of the hill. Ahead I can see the roof of a house above some trees and I hope that is our destination. "They opened Halford Halt station a year and a half ago... are you new here?"

"Yes, I arrived the day before yesterday. Mum and I are visiting my Great Aunt for Christmas."

"Oh, so you're not going to be staying here then?"

"No. I mean, it's nice here, I'm sure, but I've gotta go back to college, you know?"

"I say, you are not from America, are you?" she asks with sudden interest.

"What? No, we live in Kent."

"I see. I am sorry, but the way you talk sometimes reminds me of the Americans in movies. Look, we're nearly home."

The trail of Freddie's prints veers left through a gate. Beneath the snow, there are deep ruts, wheel tracks in the mud that have frozen, possibly, but they make me stagger and lurch; the lack of feeling in my feet is not helping my balance. Freddie slips her arm around me, keeping me upright and steadying me.

Beyond the gate is a narrow lane and there, after a hundred metres or so, is a large house in honey-coloured stone. "Wow, is that your house?" I ask.

"Yes. Welcome to Halbrook Lodge." I look up as we draw nearer and it is three stories tall and must be at least five bedrooms, maybe more.

"So is it just you and your parents living here?" I ask as we make our way round to a door at the side of the house.

"Well, there's my little sister too and there's the housekeeper, Mrs Brownlow, and Hackett, he's the gardener and does odd jobs, but he doesn't live here, of course. We had a maid, Mary, but she left in the summer and Mama and Papa haven't been able to find a replacement."

"What happened, did Mary find a better job?" I ask, wondering just how wealthy her family must be to afford a housekeeper, maid and gardener.

"No..." Freddie pulls off her gloves and fumbles in the pocket of her coat. "I think that she was pregnant. Mama wouldn't say so, not in so many words. All she would say was that Mary 'had been conducting herself in ways unbecoming to a respectable household.' I tried to see what Mrs Brownlow knew but all she would say is that she hoped Mary hadn't given away for free what should be bought with a ring. Here..." she finishes unlocking the door and pushes it open. "We wouldn't normally have it locked but Mama and Issy are in London to do some Christmas shopping and to meet Papa; he's been away in Singapore for his company, of course, but he's come back for a month or two. Mrs Brownlow has gone for the day to visit her sister so it's just me here -- and you too now, of course," she adds a little shyly.

I look around as we pass through some kind of utility room with a large, white sink that reminds me of the one in the art class at school, a large wooden tub and several buckets are stacked in one corner and. "Freddie, is that a mangle, you know, for squeezing clothes dry?"

"Yes," she replies as if it's an odd question. Perhaps if you're rich enough to have servants you don't talk about antique domestic appliances. Maybe her parents -- her 'Mama and Papa' -- deal in antiques. "Come on, let's get you out of those wet clothes." She takes my hand and leads me into a warm but old-fashioned kitchen.

There is a large, white enamelled cooker-like thing with what seems to be a fire in the middle of it. "Here, take your boots off and put them in front of the range," she gestures towards the cooker-thing, "and your coat too; hang it on the back of that chair," she orders as she lifts some kind of lid above the fire in the, what did she call it, the range. She scoops a little shovelful of coal into the opening from a nearby bucket.

I take my coat off as instructed, and place it, along with my hat, scarf and gloves, on the chair and begin unlacing my boots -- or trying to; my fingers are numb and the laces clogged with melting snow are uncooperative. Freddie's hands appear, pushing mine aside gently as she deftly unties the knots and helps ease the boots off. She stands, her coat and boots also removed, I notice, and takes my hand again to lead me quickly into a large hallway. The colours of the walls and paintwork are dark and muted but there's no time to look as she pulls me along to climb the stairs. In truth, it will be good to be rid of these sopping clothes and to get dry and warm.

"Is this your room?" I ask as we enter a bedroom.

"Yes. Now come on, take the rest of those wet things off and I'll get the fire going." She turns away and I watch as she goes over to, yes, an actual open fire. There is a pile of little sticks in the grate which she lights with a match from the box on the mantelpiece.

My sweatshirt is wet all the way up to the level of my boobs and I haul it slowly over my head, dragging the tee shirt beneath with it. It's not as cold as outside but it's nothing like as warm as the kitchen either; in fact, the air in the room is chilly and I discover that though my clothes were wet, they at least trapped some of my body heat. I step forward, fumbling with the button of my jeans, looking for some heat by the fire. There are small, yellow tongues of flame crackling through the pieces of wood but almost zero heat that I can feel. I watch as Freddie adds some slightly larger bits of wood and then uses a pair of tongs to carefully place a couple of pieces of coal from the scuttle onto the burning heap.

"It will take a little while to get going," she says, turning to see me trying to warm my chilled fingers, "this fireplace doesn't draw terribly well, I'm afraid." I nod, as I try again to unbutton my jeans. "Here, let me help," she offers, standing. I feel the pleasant warmth of the backs of her hands as they brush against my tummy. "Oh goodness, you are cold! Here, let's get you undressed and into bed; that should help you warm up."

"I'm freezing," I agree as she unbuttons the jeans and begins pushing them down. The idea of a warm bed is massively appealing and I just want to be out of cold, clammy clothes so I reach back to unclasp my bra as Freddie squats to work the tight, wet denim down my legs. "I don't think I have ever seen such a tight-fitting pair of trousers," she observes as my bra joins my sweatshirt. She looks up and her eyes widen as she sees my naked boobs.

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byScattySue© 63 comments/ 92618 views/ 97 favorites

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