In Time for Christmas


"Merciful God in heaven!" The sudden, loud and unknown voice makes me jump, "Miss Winifred, what on earth..?" I sit up with a jerk as Freddie gives a cry of alarm and turn to see a late-middle-aged woman in the doorway wearing a dark coat, an ugly, beige hat and a horrified look on her careworn face. We are pinned momentarily by her stare, both naked and my face wet with our lovemaking. "A girl? Heaven preserve us!" she cries and steps back hurriedly, pulling the door closed as she leaves.

"Who the fuck was that?" I ask, in shock.

"Mrs Brownlow," she replies, tears filling her eyes.

"The, er, the housekeeper?" Freddie nods. "Oh, shit,"

"This is so dreadful," she sobs and I try to put my arms around her to give a hug but she shakes me off. "Do you not understand? Freddie asks plaintively. "She will tell Mama and Papa and they will think me sick or wicked and not let me return to university..."

I'm hurt by her rejection but try to remind myself that she's just upset and scared. "Oh, Freddie, you're not..." A knock on the door interrupts me.

"Miss Winifred?" Mrs Browlow's slightly muffled voice sounds through the closed door. "I want you and that... that girl out of there - dressed decently, mind -- in the next five minutes. I shall be in the kitchen."

"Very well, Mrs Brownlow," Freddie replies heavily and a moment later there is the faint creak of a floorboard as the Housekeeper moves away. "We had better do as she told us." I nod and we climb dejectedly from the bed. There is a tension between us as I begin to dress.

My panties and bra are dry and warm, as are my tee shirt and socks. The same is not true of my sweatshirt: the thicker, elasticated fabric of waistband and cuffs is still damp but I pull it on anyway. That just leaves my jeans which, while not actually wet, are still decidedly moist in places and I hesitate, reluctant to put them on.

Freddie notices my dithering. "I could lend you something to wear," she suggests. It is tempting, even if it seems her taste in clothes is wildly different to mine.

"No, best not," I decide. "We really don't want to do anything that might further upset Mrs Browncoat."

"Mrs Brownlow," she corrects. However, she is smiling and I feel some of the tension in the room ease. I sit on the chair and put the jeans on but with difficulty, as the fabric clings clammily to my skin.

We stand, both dressed once more, facing each other. I take her hands and lean in for a last kiss before we face the daunting homophobia of the housekeeper. Freddie kisses me back, but only briefly. "Perhaps you should wash your face, Amy; you are rather pungent. Sorry."

"True. It's a wonderful smell but I doubt it'll be appreciated when we go downstairs."

She leads me to a bathroom that's as old-fashioned as everything else in this house. On the wall behind the bath is a large, cylindrical, tank-like object with a spout that extends over the bath. I suspect it might be some kind of water heater, probably designed shortly after the start of the Industrial Revolution, possibly by James Watt himself. The water in the wash basin is cold and the hand towel scratchy but Freddie is right, I do need to stop smelling of her cunny.

We slowly make our way downstairs and as we descend I notice a positively prehistoric telephone on a table that I hadn't spotted before. I detour slightly for a better look and, yes, it even has the rotary dial thingy. "Does this thing actually work, Freddie?" I ask, pointing to the phone.

"The telephone? Yes, of course it does. Perhaps you can telephone your mother in a little while."

"Perhaps, if I can remember her number."

"I know. We were quite happy being Brichester-seven-nine-two but then they added another number and we became four-seven-nine-two. It is progress, I suppose, and Mama says it is most convenient now she is able to telephone some of the shops to place an order. She sometimes uses it to talk to her friends," Freddie adds as if this is the height of decadence. She's talking gibberish, which I suspect shows that Freddie is extremely stressed by the upcoming meeting. "Come on, we had better see Mrs B," she says heavily, which I think confirms my suspicions.

She leads the way, opening the solid, panelled door into the kitchen. I see that Mrs Brownlow has shed her coat and donned a white apron as she stands at the table that now bears several large potatoes, two leeks and a bunch of carrots; there is also a large plate with some dark red meat. She looks up as we enter and I feel like we're two naughty schoolgirls summoned by the headteacher.

"Mrs Brownlow..."

The housekeeper raises her hand cutting her off. "Miss Winifred, I don't know what that University place has been teaching you or what passes for acceptable behaviour for young women down there but I do know that you should be very glad it was me that opened that door and not your Mother."

"Yes, but Freddie wasn't..." I try to speak up but there is another silencing hand, this time accompanied by a very hard and disapproving stare.

"You can stay quiet, you can," she snaps. "It may surprise you to know, but I can guess very well what you two were up to, and I don't much care how you came to be here or who led who on. Miss Winifred was clearly a willing participant and my concern is for her, not you!"

"Amy fell into Halford Brook in Long Acre Coppice and I pulled her out. I brought her back because she was soaked, her clothes needed drying..."

Freddie is now the recipient of another hard stare, but this seems less disapproving and more thoughtful. Mrs Brownlow's gaze suddenly flicks to me. "So I suppose the coat and boots are yours?" she asks and I nod. "You share Winifred's odd taste for men's clothes then?" She gives Freddie -- Winifred -- a slightly wry look. "I did worry that I'd find you in bed with some man from the RAF station from the look of the boots and that blue coat."

"Better Amy than some man, surely, Mrs B?" Freddie protests.

"Why? At least if it was a man it would be natural. Your parents have tolerated your tomboy antics -- too much in my opinion -- but this... this Sapphism won't be condoned, I assure you."

"Are you going to tell them?" Freddie asks, real fear in her voice. Mrs Brownlow ponders for a moment and her face softens a little.

"No, not if this is just a foolish mistake. Young women do foolish things but I don't expect a repeat, is that clear? And I don't want to see you," she glares at me, "ever again. Understand?" I want to protest, to shout that Freddie is gay, like me; that she has no right to talk to Freddie in that spiteful, homophobic way... I glance at Freddie and see the sad resignation in her face as she nods, so I reluctantly let it pass.

"Can I get my coat and boots?" I ask and the housekeeper gives a terse nod.

"I shall walk Amy back to make sure she gets across the Brook safely," Freddie says and I wait for the Housekeeper to argue. However, the note of determination in her voice persuades Mrs B to concede.

"Just see you're back within the hour," she says, clearly worried that Freddie and I will be stripping off and getting it on in the first secluded snowdrift. Unseen, I roll my eyes at her stupidity as I perch on the front edge on the chair and start pulling my boots on: they're not completely dry but they are much less damp than I expected given their plunge in the river just a few hours ago.

With my laces tied I stand and something catches my eye -- the bottom half of a newspaper:


Sir John Anderson (Lord Privy Seal) yesterday outlined to Parliament yesterday proposals to provide protective air-raid shelters for some ten-million persons as part of on-going Civil Defense works...

When did air-raid shelters start getting discussed in Parliament? Has something terrible happened in the last twenty-four hours? "What is this?" I ask, worried, as I reach for the paper.

"That? That's the London newspaper that came yesterday," Mrs Brownlow answers, clearly thinking that I'm just delaying things. I flip the paper over.

"'The Daily Sketch'?" I read, confused, and then notice the date below the title: 22nd December 1938. "What the fu..?" I glance around the room -- the old-fashioned and appliance-free kitchen and recall the bathroom, the telephone and Freddie's daft comment about four-digit phone numbers... I turn to face the two of them. "Look, what is this? Are you part of some 'Living in the 1930s' reality TV show?"

"What's the matter, Amy?" Freddie asks. The confusion on her face seems genuine and is probably a mirror of that showing on mine.

"All... this," I say, gesturing around the room, "all this pretending it's 1938 bullshit! It's no excuse for the homophobic crap you've been spouting, Brownlow," I tell her, my voice rising with anger.

"Miss Winifred, I suggest you get this foul-mouthed trollop out of here right now," she says firmly and Freddie steps forward and takes my arm to pull me hurriedly from the kitchen so that I only just manage to grab my coat, hat, scarf and gloves from the chair.

She keeps moving, back out through the utility room, dragging me with her until we're back out in the cold. "Okay, okay..." I say, pulling my arm away and planting my feet firmly. "We're out, so now maybe I can get my stuff on before I get as cold as I was before..." I see tears forming in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Freddie."

"I need to go and get my coat," she says sadly. "I shall see you in a minute."

While she's gone, I don the hat, scarf and coat before taking my phone from my jeans pocket. In the vague hope that the warmth of the fire has dried it and it'll work, I press the power button, once, twice... I give the phone a shake and try again. Nope, it's as dead as a doornail. I hear the door open and Freddie reappears, all wrapped up. "Are you still playing with your apple thing?" she asks.

"Yeah. Freddie, what is going on here? All this 'let's pretend it's 1938' stuff; what gives?"

"But it is 1938," she insists, "I was born on the first of February nineteen-twenty and I'm eighteen, you see?"

"No, it's twenty-fifteen and..." I stop. "The first of February? And your actual name is... Winifred?"

"Yes, but I hate it. I much prefer Freddie, though..."

"Your little sister: Issy you called her?" I ask.

"Yes. Her name is really Iris, but when she was a baby all she could say was 'Iss-iss', so I started calling her Issy, you see?" Iris, my Grandmother's name...

"Oh fuck, this can't be true," I groan. The girl before me -- the girl I kissed and whose cunny I fingered and licked -- this girl cannot be my Great Aunt aged eighteen. This cannot be 1938. "I've got to get home," I say, suddenly very scared. "I've got to go right now!"

"Amy, I'm sorry; what is the matter?"

"I... I shouldn't be here. I need to get home, to see if I can get home." I turn and begin walking and Freddie quick catches me up and, without a word, takes my hand and begins leading the way.

The brief winter day is already waning, the grey, cloud-covered sky is darkening from silver to slate. The threat of having to find my way home in the dark is one more anxiety to add to the mix. I see Freddie look up.

"Perhaps I should have brought a torch," she muses. "Is your house far from the Long Acre Coppice?"

"I'm not sure. Twenty minutes, half an hour maybe," I reply and she bites her lip.

"In that case, we should hasten." We do our best but the snow and the long climb makes it hard work and far from being cold, I am actually sweating as we make it to the top of the hill. The valley is in deepening shadow as I slow down to look for a moment. "I did see a steam train down there earlier, didn't I?"

"What other types of train are there?" she asks as we come to a halt. "There are the electric London Tube trains, I suppose."

"Yeah, maybe that's it," I tell her, not knowing what else to say. "We better get on," I suggest and start moving again. She releases my hand but only to slip her arm through mine and pull us closer together as we begin the descent towards the woods.

In less than ten minutes we are at the edge of the trees. Freddie is still leading the way; I could probably manage -- our earlier footprints remain visible in places -- but Freddie's confidence allows us better speed in the waning daylight. A short way on we turn left, following the path as it heads into the trees. The path twists through the trees and I begin to wonder if we have gone astray; the soft sound of running water is both a relief and a worry.

"Freddie, I'm scared," I admit. "I really don't want to end up in that freezing water again." It's not my only fear, of course, but it is certainly the most pressing one right now. "That bridge is... dangerous."

"Nonsense! I have crossed it dozens of times without any problem," she assures me. "You must simply have been unlucky." Looking at the bridge it looks less worn and rickety than I remember. "Come on," she says, grasping my hands once more and takes a step towards the bridge.

"No," I pull her back. "We should cross one at a time."

"Hmm, very well, I suppose that makes sense. Oh, you poor thing!" she says, seeing my anxiety. "Here," she says, reaching behind her neck. She lifts her hands, tipping her head back and there is the glint of silver as the little round silver pendant -- the one that I'd noticed when she undressed -- slips from under her clothes. "You should wear this; it is my lucky silver sixpence and it will keep you safe."

"Freddie, I can't take this," I protest. In the dim light, I can see the glitter of a coin about the size of a 5p piece, hung from a chain by a little ring fitted through a tiny hole. It twists in the breeze for a moment before she reaches around my neck, fastening the pendant in place, and kissing my lips softly.

"You are not taking it, I'm lending it to you; when we are both safely across, you can give it back, yes?"

"Okay, yes." Curiously, though I've never considered myself superstitious, I do feel safer. Perhaps it's just that I feel she cares for me, even after the unpleasantness of Mrs Bloody Brownlow. Maybe the medal really is magical and that thought makes me smile. "Thank you, Freddie. I'll go first if that's okay? The sooner I get this over with the better."

"Nach dir, liebes Mädchen," she says in what sounds like German. "After you, dear girl," she translates. I take a deep breath and step up to the edge of the two wooden planks that form the rudimentary bridge. They definitely look sturdier and less decrepit than I recall. Perhaps the fall has skewed my memories. With a last smiling glance over my shoulder, I step forward.

One step, two, three, all keeping carefully away from the edge which gave way, causing my fall. I begin to feel foolish for being so scared. Five steps, six. This is easy, I can... There are the harsh voices of crows and a sharp judder under my feet, making me look down as I stumble. The snow has almost gone and I can see the mossy, decaying wood of the bridge splitting and cracking beneath me. The far bank is so close and I lunge, taking two desperate strides as I fling myself forward, desperate to avoid the water again.

I land, sprawling in the damp, slushy snow, panting in fear. I take a moment to reassure myself that I am on solid ground before climbing, rather shaken, to my feet and turn towards to the brook. I give a gasp: the bridge has gone! I look across, raising my hand to wave at Freddie, to reassure that I'm okay but I cannot see her. "Freddie?" I call. "Freddie, where are you?" Oh shit, had she been following me, on the bridge behind me when it broke? "Freddie!" I yell, stepping as close to the lip of the bank as I dare to look down into the running water. The broken remains of the bridge are there but she is not. "Freddie! Fuck, where are you?"

I look again at the far bank. She is still not there. "What?" I mutter, confused: where are the footprints that should, I pretty sure, be visible in the snow over there? I look to the left. That must be roughly the place where Freddie pulled me from the water but there too, the snow looks smooth and undisturbed.

I walk downstream a little way, calling Freddie's name, but there is no sign of her. It is as if she never existed.

Or... she existed seventy-something years ago... which is just too bonkers to be true, so I have to do something.

I become aware of how much the light is failing and make a hugely difficult decision. I need to get back to Violet Cottage. At least there I can call the emergency services.

I walk, sometimes jogging, back along the path through the Coppice. Out of the trees, it seems a little brighter, but not much. The snow is definitely melting, the fine, drizzling rain that I feel against my skin as the wind shifts no doubt to blame.

I set off across the field. I try to hurry but the ridges and furrows of the ploughing make it difficult. I cannot see my tracks; of course, I had to walk along the edge of the Coppice to find the path, so I shouldn't have headed straight across this field. Too late now to go back, I'll just have to push on, up the hill.

The rain is becoming heavier and just when the white of the snow would be really helpful, it seems to be dissolving as I watch.

I reach the top of the slope and there is the dark line of the hedgerow. I need to find the stile, but which way, right or left. I try to think: I should have gone to the right when I left the Coppice, so... yes, if I go right now, that should be correct.

My calculation proves correct when, after fifty metres or so, I see the wooden stile. I climb quickly across and I'm about to start a gentle jog down the grassy slope when I notice pale snow in the lee of the hedgerow; snow in which the darker ovals of footprints are visible. "Oh shit, yes," I sigh, recalling my journey out and realizing that, as I should have back at the Coppice, I now need to turn right again.

I hurry. The light is almost gone, like the snow, as I struggle to see where to turn and head across the field. At that holly tree? Maybe a bit further. I look across the field and there is the pale yellow gleam of a window; that's got to be Violet Cottage, surely? I strike out across the grass, down the hill. I can barely see my feet in the dark and the rain is still getting heavier. Typical bloody British Christmas weather! However, the light flickering between the tree branches is like a beacon, guiding me onward.

I reach the hedge and follow it round to the gate and then, tired but relieved, I finally push my way through the back door into the welcoming warmth of central heating. "Hello?" I call out as I begin unlacing the muddy boots.

There is a moment's silence before I hear Mum's clearly angry voice: "Where the bloody hell have you been, Amy? You've been gone for hours! Why didn't you call?" Mum's voice is growing louder as she approaches and I stand, bracing myself. "The only reason I haven't called the police already is that Winnie kept telling me to wait. My god, look at the state of you!"

I glance down: I am mud-spattered, stained and generally dishevelled; basically, I'm a bit of a mess. However, I need to do something about Freddie's sudden disappearance. "Yeah, Mum listen, I..."

"Goodness, Amy, you look like you fell into a river and were dragged out again," Winnie's voice comes from the hallway where she is stood, hand resting on the doorframe and she looks past Mum towards me. There is a knowing smile on her face as, most unexpectedly, she gives me a wink. "I think you would probably like a nice, hot shower."

"Um, yes, that would be really nice... Winifred." I manage.

"It's Winnie," Mum corrects me.

"Yes, it is. Although, I did like being called Freddie when I was younger," she smiles and turns away. "I shall put the pie in the oven. Dinner in forty minutes; if you could give me a helping hand, Jane?" Mum opens her mouth to speak. "Now, Jane, if you would." To my surprise, and relief, Mum obeys.

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byScattySue© 64 comments/ 94091 views/ 101 favorites

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