No one was waiting for her at the train station. Anna Holley knew she shouldn’t feel disappointed; she hadn’t said what train she’d be able to get from Manchester, only that it would be in the early evening. And the vicarage was a five-minute walk from the station, so it wasn’t as if she needed a lift.
Still, she felt it, the self-pitying flicker of disappointment that was so annoying because it was silly. With a sigh, she hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder and started down the platform. An icy wind funnelling through the fells cut straight through her parka and scarf, stinging her cheeks and making her eyes water. Welcome to Cumbria. At least it wasn’t raining.
Four days before Christmas, and in the starless darkness of an early evening, the village of Thornthwaite was nothing more than shadowy buildings huddled against the darker humps of the fells that cut a jagged line out of the horizon. Anna hadn’t been back to Cumbria for three years, and she was amazed at how she’d forgotten how the fells made her feel, the way they rose up and surrounded her. Trapped, that was how she felt. The only way out of Thornthwaite was a single-track road that was often clogged with sheep. One had to drive on it for six painstaking, winding miles before they hit the A66, and then it was another twenty minutes to Keswick, and they were still pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Still, it was beautiful, if you liked hills and isolation. No one else had got off at Thornthwaite—surprise, surprise—and so Anna walked down the platform alone, turning left over the little stone bridge that spanned St John’s Beck, little more than an ambitious trickle as it wound its way through the village. She then started walking towards St Andrew’s Church, the squat, square Norman tower lit up with Christmas lights at this time of year.
For a second, as she paused at the top of the lane that led to the church and the vicarage beyond, homesickness swamped her—a longing not just for the place, but also a time, when life had seemed simple and easy, and happiness was a foregone conclusion instead of something that always seemed to slip out of her grasp. Feeling that way seemed like a very long time ago now, not that anyone else in her family would share her sentiment. As far as Anna could see, everyone else was busy bustling around, seeming very happy indeed.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and started up the lane. The stained glass windows of the church were lit from within and, as she walked by, the strains of a choir-led Christmas carol drifted out. It took Anna a moment to recognize it—“In the Bleak Midwinter”. Yes, that summed her mood up quite well. Not that the weather was much nicer back in Manchester, but at least in Manchester there were lights and people and noise, and it was so wonderfully easy to be anonymous.
Here, in a village of two thousand, when your father had been the vicar of the only church for over twenty years, it was a little less so.
The vicarage loomed up ahead of her, an imposing square house with gabled windows on both storeys, the top decorated with sandstone crenulations. It had been built two hundred years ago, had eight bedrooms and eleven fireplaces, and it was freezing in both summer and winter. It was the only home Anna had known besides the boxy flat she shared with Helen, a woman she hardly ever saw or spoke to, and, looking it at now, she felt a rush of emotions she couldn’t begin to untangle—hope and fear, love and dread.
She stood by the wide, worn steps leading up to the front door with its shiny black paint and ornate gold knob and knocker and wondered what she was waiting for. A welcoming committee? The courage to step into the happy chaos that had always been her home, while she drifted around its edges?
A shiver went through her as the wind continued to blow. She’d forgotten her gloves and her hands were icy, numb at the tip. Taking another deep breath, Anna marched up the steps and opened the door.
The Victorian-tiled porch looked as it always did, vast and lovably shabby, with a clutter of shoes in a basket by the door, another, bigger clutter of mud-spattered wellies on the other side, as well as an old church pew piled with post and church bulletins, plus the latest packet of parish magazines, wrapped in twine. Everything looked achingly familiar, as if she’d only been gone for a few days instead of years.
Anna opened the glass-fronted door and stepped into the downstairs hallway. Doors led off to her father’s study, the living room and dining room and downstairs loo, and a wide, shallow staircase led up to the landing with its towering bookshelf filled with tattered paperbacks. How many times had she and her sisters bumped down the stairs on a pillow or blanket, squealing with both laughter and terror? How many times had Jamie—
But she wouldn’t think about Jamie right now.
“Hello?” Anna called. She could hear Radio Four from the kitchen in the back of the house and Christmas music from the living room. She closed the door behind her to cut off the draught. “Hello?”
“Hello?” Her mother’s musical voice came from the kitchen. “Eileen?” she called, referring to one of the church wardens who always seemed to be stopping for a cup of tea and a natter. “Has the service finished?” Her mother came around the corner, followed by their ancient, grey-muzzled lab, Charlie, and then down the hallway towards Anna, and then she stopped short. Charlie trotted forward, wagging his tail, and nosed Anna’s knees.
“Anna.” Within seconds Anna was enveloped in a floury hug. She put her arms around her mother, breathing in the scent of cinnamon and cloves. “I’ve just been making yet another batch of mince pies. We’re having the choir over for mulled wine and mince pies after the Service of Lessons and Carols.” Her mother stepped back to scrutinize her, eyebrows drawn together. “You look pale—”
“I’m cold,” Anna said lightly. “It’s freezing out there. And in here.”
“Come in the kitchen. You know it’s always warm in there. Esther and Rachel are coming over in a few minutes, for the choir party. We’re going to decorate the tree tomorrow night, when everyone’s here, even the new curate. He couldn’t come until December—something to do with the new bishop. I can’t keep track of it all.” Nor could Anna, but before she could offer a reply, not that she would, her mother continued, “Rachel’s got out all the decorations. We were looking at the ones you all made in nursery—pine cones and glitter galore. I was covered in gold dust as soon as I opened the box.”
Anna had followed her mother back to the kitchen which was as cosy as she’d promised, the rumbling, red Aga emitting a wonderful warmth. Charlie flopped in front of it as Ruth Holley bustled around, spooning homemade mince into pastry cases, occasionally glancing at the Aga or the clock. “They should be coming over here in twenty minutes or so and I’m covered in flour… Anna, darling, can you stir the mulled wine? I’m afraid it’s going to burn.”
Anna went over to the Aga, stepping over Charlie’s inert form, and stirred the vat of mulled wine simmering on its hot plate. It smelled deliciously Christmassy, of orange and spices and rich, red wine.
“So, how are you?” Ruth asked as she put a star-shaped piece of pastry over each mince pie, her fingers flying. “I feel as if I haven’t talked to you in properly in months. You’re always so busy.”
“Work,” Anna offered, half-heartedly. She wasn’t that busy, but she wasn’t very good about calling home.
“Do you know, even after four years, I’m not exactly sure what it is you do? Legal librarian.” Ruth shook her head, marvelling. “I’d never even heard of such a thing until you got the job. Do you know Edith Mitchell researched it and wrote it up for the parish magazine? Everyone wanted to know what it is you’re doing. We’re all so proud of you.”
“Thanks,” Anna murmured. She leaned over the big pot of mulled wine and breathed in its comforting scents. She could do with a glass or two.
“I’ve kept the magazine for you. I’m not sure where…”
“It’s fine.” Anna straightened.
The kitchen looked as lovably messy as it always had, with the colourful jumble of mismatched pottery visible in the pantry, whose door had been taken off to be sanded down some twenty-odd years ago and never been put back on. The chairs around the big, rectangular table didn’t match either; when one broke, her parents had bought another from a charity shop, or someone gave them a cast-off, and so now six entirely mismatched chairs, some tall-backed, some spindle-legged, gathered around the table of old, weathered oak.
Ruth opened the Aga and banged in two pristine trays of star-topped mince pies. Her mother was messy and always flying about, doing a dozen things at once, but she was an astonishingly good cook.
“So.” Ruth stood up, brushing a wisp of grey hair out of her eyes and planting her hands on her hips as she gave her third daughter a good, long look. “You haven’t told me how you are yet.”
“I’m fine,” Anna began, and before she could say more, not that she had anything planned, her mother was off again.
“I gave your bedroom a quick tidy. Daddy laid a fire but I think some birds must have nested in the chimney because it smoked dreadfully, so make sure you have a hot water bottle to take to bed with you.”
“Okay.” Anna had a sudden, piercing memory of the five of them lined up in the kitchen while her mother handed them each a fleece-covered hot water bottle. Everyone had a different colour; hers had been purple.
“Why don’t you take a moment to freshen up? Trains always make me feel so dirty. The choir will be arriving soon, and I know everyone is desperate to see you—”
“Oh, Mum.” Anna’s heart flip-flopped at the thought of being put on inspection practically the moment she arrived. “I’m really rather tired…”
“Oh, but, Anna, we’ve told everyone you’re coming and you haven’t been back in years.” Her mother’s face crumpled a bit, and Anna bit her lip.
She knew she’d hurt her parents by staying away. Weekends in Manchester weren’t the same. Her parents always made the effort to visit for a weekend every few months, and her sisters had come down a couple of times as well. Anna was the one who tried to avoid going home. In a way, she was surprised her mother noticed.
“I know you’re busy,” Ruth continued hurriedly. “I’m not saying you aren’t, darling. It’s just everyone really would like to see you.”
Would they? Anna wondered. Would they really?
Ruth gave her another quick hug and then turned her around to aim her towards the door. “Go have a moment to relax. Shall I make you a cup of tea?”
The kitchen was still a disaster zone, and her mother had guests coming in about ten minutes. Yet she would gladly make Anna a cup of tea and bring it upstairs on a saucer with a homemade piece of shortbread if Anna said yes.
“I’m fine, Mum,” she said. “I’ll have a glass of wine when everyone comes.”
Ruth brightened. “Lovely. I’ll pour yours first.”
Anna grabbed her bag from the hall and headed upstairs. The house smelled of the fresh evergreen that was looped around the banister, as it had been every Christmas that Anna could remember, tied to the burnished wood with little velvet bows.
Her bedroom was the small one over the kitchen; when she’d been about seven, she, Esther, and Rachel had all drawn straws to see who got the biggest bedroom at the front of the house, opposite their parents. Esther had, and Rachel had taken the second biggest by the stairs, and Anna had gone to this bedroom, a comfortable little square, warmed by the Aga below, its sashed windows overlooking the back courtyard with the old oil tank and the clothesline.
Anna didn’t mind the lack of view; she’d always liked her room. She’d preferred it to the far grander bedrooms with their gabled windows and ornate fireplace surrounds. This room was warm and cosy and small and a little bit forgotten, tucked away by the corridor to the bathroom. Kind of like her.
It felt strange to step into it now; the air smelled of coal smoke, from her father’s aborted fire, as well as her mother’s lavender cleaning polish. The duvet cover was new, a blue plaid that was pretty enough but not the one from Anna’s childhood, which had been grey and purple stripes. All her things were gone save for a few Famous Five books from her childhood, and a dusty blue ribbon for winning the high jump at her school’s field day when she was thirteen that still hung from the mirror.
Anna put down her bag and then went to the bathroom with its ancient and enormous claw footed tub and pipes that squeaked and moaned when she turned the hot water tap; the water didn’t heat up for a good five minutes. Ah, home.
She’d just come out of the bathroom, having washed her hands and face, when she heard an explosion of chatter downstairs, and a half-hearted bark from Charlie, who clearly wanted to get in on the action. Male laughter, and then the thunder of feet up the stairs.
“Anna!” Rachel catapulted herself towards Anna, hugging her tightly and making her stagger. “It’s so good to see you.”
Esther stood behind her, hands on her hips, smiling in a stern sort of way. “It’s only been three years, after all.”
“I saw you in August,” Anna protested as Rachel gave her one final squeeze and then stepped back.
“But you haven’t been back to Thornthwaite in three years,” Esther remarked, typically. She’d probably been tracking everyone’s movements on a spreadsheet.
“Well, I’m here now,” Anna said as lightly as she could. She was battling a weird mix of dread and deep happiness, the two emotions so closely twined it was hard to separate one from the other. But this was always how she’d felt about home. About family.
“Come downstairs,” Rachel said, tugging on her hand. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Anna already knows him, Rachel,” Esther said, rolling her eyes.
“Knows who?” Anna said with a flare of alarm.
She was not good about meeting new people. She wasn’t even good at meeting people she already knew. Chitchat was her absolute nemesis.
“You’ll see, you’ll see,” Rachel said, her feet practically dancing as she tugged Anna along. “It’s all happened so fast… and I haven’t talked to you in ages.”
“True.” Anna knew Esther and Rachel saw each other all the time, since they both lived in Thornthwaite. She was the odd one out, and always had been. Their younger sister Miriam was such a free spirit, as well as the baby of the family, and so even though she was in Thornthwaite even less than Anna, she had a place. A role. Neither of which Anna had ever felt she’d had… but that was probably her fault. “Who am I meeting, exactly?” she asked as she followed Rachel down the stairs, feeling apprehensive.
She’d really been hoping to hide in her bedroom while the choir came in, but perhaps she could still do that. She’d meet whoever it was Rachel wanted to meet, and then hightail it upstairs before the party got started. She was no good at parties.
“Rachel’s latest,” Esther said, following them down the stairs, and Rachel made a sound of protest.
“You make it sound like I’ve had a string of guys, and you know that’s not true.”
Esther didn’t reply and Anna’s steps slowed as she saw who was standing at the bottom of the stairs. Dan Wells. She took in the slow smile meant for Rachel, the warm hazel eyes, and her stomach plunged like a lift headed straight for the basement.
“Anna, you know Dan, of course,” Rachel said, her voice ringing with the pride of a new girlfriend. “And, Dan, you know Anna…”
“We’ve met once or twice.”
Anna forced a smile. She’d never been friends with Dan, although he’d been three years ahead of her in school, in Rachel’s year, and of course she’d known him as the local vet. He’d given Charlie all his jabs and he’d also put down their beloved cat, Felix, when he’d been suffering and in pain a few years ago. He’d been Thornthwaite’s only vet, having taken over the practice from his father, since he’d qualified five years ago. And before that…
Before that he’d been her secret and overwhelming teenaged crush. But thankfully no one knew that but Anna herself.
End of Excerpt