“Well,” Dereck remarked, waving a telegram. “The Carlie family arrive on the 23rd. Now then, what shall we do about the tree? I vote we have it all set up and ready, in fact, everything decorated before they come. It’ll be such a scramble otherwise.”
The Christmas tree in its tub was rolled into the sitting room and the box full of decorations unearthed and opened on the dining room table. Juli brought the paper streamers which Marina and Tishy had made with such dedicated effort, and excitement ran high. Dereck, who had spent four very quiet Christmases with Lena, found the noise and bustle awakened in him memories which he preferred to remain buried.
Phyllis seemed to be everywhere he looked. In the cards on the mantelpiece; the green and red paper streamers hung up round the fireplace; the arrangement of cones and leaves, some sprayed with silver or gold paint in the fireplace, product of Juli’s industry; the tree with its familiar star, tinsel, candles, and coloured baubles, the first parcels already in place under it.
Suddenly it all became too much for him and he grabbed the keys of the pick-up and left the house. He drove quickly, blindly, knowing where he was heading and yet not admitting it to himself. In the hushed evening light the little garden by the chapel was an oasis of peace. All about it the pale sandy soil and ochre grasses seemed drier than ever, after the searing afternoon sunshine. He unlocked the door of the chapel and entered staring up at the picture he had bought … for her … for her birthday.
“Oh Phyllis,” he breathed. “My little, passionate, laughing Phyllis. I loved you so much … why did you have to do it?”
He sat by her grave until it was almost dark, then he made a fresh arrangement of roses and took them to the altar. Unable to think of anything else to do, he stood before it and crossed himself.
“She would have loved me to become a Catholic,” he reflected. “But I just couldn’t.”
His heart was more peaceful when he returned to the homestead.
“Where have you been?” Lena asked. “You just disappeared.”
“I suddenly remembered I had to check some fences which Elizondo had mentioned to me. You all seemed wildly entertained so I didn’t think you’d miss me.”
“It’s all too much like your old Christmases, isn’t it darling?” Lena murmured. “Juli is the same age as Rowena. I and the children don’t really belong.”
“Don’t talk balls, Lena!” Dereck declared drawing her to him gently. “I love you my dear. I’m just longing to come back and sleep here. I’m missing you terribly all those miles away at the other end of the house.”
“Toffy’s much better. He only woke once last night.”
“Is that so? I’ll move back tomorrow then.”
He kissed her tenderly and she slid her arms about his neck and held him close.
At dinner that night he was at his best, laughing, joking, serving them all too much wine. “Come on,” he cried. “Let’s sing some carols!”
Lena found the music and adjusted the stool. They stood round the piano behind her, leaning forward to try and follow the words and singing la-la-la lustily when they couldn’t read them, until they collapsed with laughter onto the sofa.
“How awful,” Lena exclaimed. “I must practice!”
“We’ll have to make some copies of the words Juli, it’s impossible this way,” Gavin grinned.
Josefina and Marta, who had been peeping through the door to the passage, retired laughing and Josifina thought, “He has been with the Señora Lena. Now things will be better.”
As they were going to bed Gavin said quietly to Juli, “Come and join me for a midnight swim. It’s too nice to go swimming alone. I promise I won’t rape you!”
“I’ll see,” she replied uncertainly. He bowed and disappeared down the passage to his room.
Half an hour later, overcoming her misgivings, Juli donned a chaste one-piece bathing suit and walked silently over the moonlit lawn to the pool. Gavin was already there.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said softly. “Come … it’ simply lovely in the water.”
She slid silently into the warm water with its chilly silvery surface and swam over to him.
“I used to come with Rowena,” Gavin reminisced. “Mums had forbidden us to, because of snakes and things. Dad caught us once. Was he mad! But he never told Mums. We were quite little then, I was about ten I suppose. Think of it, Rowena is shivering away in Calgary under six metres of snow and here we are…”
“Yes, I was thinking of my family, too. Dad and Paula and the little ones. My sister Ann and her John. All so cold. What’s the time? What time is it in England?
Gavin lifted his arm out of the water and looked at his watch. “Midnight,” he said. “That’ll be five a.m. there.”
“They’re all fast asleep.”
“And they’re five hours into our brand new day!”
“True. I’m going to get out now.”
They sat quietly under the moon on the garden chairs and Juli leaned back and gazed up at the stars, wondering where Peter was and if perhaps he too were looking at the stars at that very moment. The flash of his cigarette lighter illumined Gavin’s face for a moment and at once the darkness returned, seeming darker than before. He inhaled and Juli saw the tip of his cigarette glow, then a sweet familiar scent made her sit up with a start.
“Gavin!” she gasped. “What are you smoking?”
“Why? I’ve been smoking them for ages.”
“You’ll … They’ll …”
“Take it easy Chèrie. I’m not an addict, this means no more to me than a glass of wine. Good wine.”
“But Peter …”
“What about him?”
“Don’t you know? Didn’t your father tell you?”
“Oh, God,” Juli exclaimed bitterly. “This is crazy. Peter is a fugitive of the law … for smoking marihuana. No one knows where he is and he has no documents. Marion’s had a nervous breakdown, the whole family has almost disintegrated and you … you …”
“Calm down Juli and tell me. I had no idea. I went straight from Ezeiza to Aeroparque and flew down to Sta. Rosa. I never even spoke to the Carlies on the phone.”
Juli brushed the tears from her face and told Gavin the whole story, including the letter from Miguel Ordep Licar.
“Will you show me the letter tomorrow?” Gavin asked seriously.
“Of course. But it’s only a photocopy. I think so often of Peter. I wonder where he is,
you know … how he is.”
“It may be the making of him.”
“Or the ruin.”
“Hush, don’t be so pessimistic.”
“Not pessimistic. Realistic. Why do you smoke that stuff, Gavin? One day it’ll get you. It’s like a cat with a mouse. It’s playing with you now, making you think you’re on top, in control, that if you want to you can stop smoking any time, give it up any time … and then whap! Down comes the paw with the claws and you’ve had it.”
“You’re very melodramatic Chèrie,” Gavin replied mildly and Juli understood then why he was always so gentle, so mild, so seemingly above all the little petty everyday affairs. That was why he had been able to come back here this Christmas, despite his feelings towards Dereck. He wasn’t facing anything. He was sliding past it!
She stood up and said, “I’m going to bed. Good night.”
“Good night Juli,” Gavin replied equably. “Thanks for coming.” As she walked away she heard his lighter click behind her.
It was a long time before she could sleep, and try as she might she could not quite encompass the almost kafkian situation. Peter, who had perhaps smoked only a few times, certainly not for more than a month or so, on the run, hiding somewhere from the authorities; his life ruined, his mother suffering the consequences of her nervous breakdown which naturally affected Arthur and the rest of the family ; while his first cousin, Gavin, calmly smoked his reefers and went about looking down from his Olympian heights of un-involvement on the petty comings and goings of man, free, un-judged, loved and accepted by his family. Would Marion, Juli wondered, ever be able to accept Peter after all she had been through? Knowing Marion it was very unlikely. She would surely always hold against him the shattering of her ‘image’.
‘It may have been the making of him’. Gavin’s words returned and she pressed her hands to her heart and prayed.
“Oh, God. Please may it be the making of him. Please don’t let it ruin his whole life … like Dino’s father.”
“And Gavin?” she thought afterwards. “Is he ruining his whole life? Subtly, slowly, … corroding all his strength of will, his capacity to judge. He said to be free meant, for him, to be free to choose, to be able to see everything from all angles and then decide on that basis what one wants to… or should … do. Does smoking marihuana help him to see his problems from all angles? Does it help him, for instance, to chose objectively whether to go on smoking or not?”
“There they are! Come here Marina, your dress is all caught up at the back. Tishikins, let me brush your hair again. Now … come on.”
The barking dogs and honking horn had announced the arrival of the Carlies. Juli, slim and graceful in her white jeans and scarlet sleeveless T-shirt, cast a glance at herself in the mirror before she followed the children through the gaily decorated living room to the hall. Living under the same roof with someone like Lena had had its effect and Juli was far more fashion conscious than when she had first arrived. She even used a little lip stick now and again when the occasion demanded, as at that moment.
Presents were piled high round the foot of the Christmas tree, for Dereck flatly refused ‘all that nonsense about Father Christmas and his sledge and reindeers!’ “A trineo and guanacos it should be in this country,” he had said with a laugh. “No, no. We all give each other presents and no silly false father christmases all over the place.”
“When one thinks of the situation the country is in,” Gavin had remarked, adding more parcels to the pile. “All this extravaganza seems very unnecessary.”
But Juli had refused to be drawn. She contemplated the tree and the presents happily and thought, “Having all this for various days in advance certainly helps to make the idea of Christmas more real in this heat.”
The hall was already full of Carlies, conversation and chatter. Pamela saw Juli and squealed with excitement, running to her and hugging her fiercely. Tishy looked up at her, her glasses glinting, and smiled a sweet welcome. Pamela caught her breath and exclaimed, “Tishy, you’re wearing spectacles! How you’ve grown!”
“Yes,” Tishy replied shyly. “I can see you now.”
Juli picked her up, afraid that the child might get bumped or jostled in all the excitement and Pamela kissed her rosy cheek. “I know, Juli wrote and told me. Now you will be able to see the present I brought you too.!
Tony came in carrying his mother’s vanity case as Marion and Arthur greeted Juli and Tishy with the usual kisses. Despite the long hot journey he looked as if he had just stepped out of a men’s outfitters in Buenos Aires. Juli inspected Marion covertly as they moved into the living room. She was much thinner and there was a gaunt, rather haunted look about her eyes, but her hair was beautifully coiffured and her flowered summer dress attractive and elegant.
“Ooh Mummy, look at the Christmas tree,” Pamela cried as Marina grabbed her hand, dragging her over to the fire-place to show off her paper decorations and all the cards.
“We have one hundred and forty,” she announced, quite unworried by the obvious disparity between her statement and the actual number of cards.
Lena, tall and cool in a simple white dress which deepened her light tan, smiled and nodded, but did not join in the general hubbub for Dereck was beside himself with delight at having his sister and brother-in-law to stay after so many years, laughing uproariously, cracking jokes and offering drinks all in the same breath.
Gavin appeared and the Carlies greeted him joyfully.
“Gavin, how you’ve changed!”
“How do you find Argentina?”
“You’re so like your mother!”
“How are you old chap?”
The servants carried the luggage to the guest wing and when the newly arrived had washed and brushed up, Dereck served drinks. They all went to sit on the veranda in order to enjoy the last evening rays of sunshine powdering the fields and trees with gold.
Tony, Gavin and Juli sat together. Tishy sat on her father’s lap observing the guests quietly from the haven of his strong comforting arms. Marina and Pamela went off to explore the garden and to visit the swimming pool. Juli found it almost impossible to hold back the question burning on her lips and at last, taking advantage of a burst of laughter amongst the older members of the group asked Tony quickly,” Peter?”
Tony shook his head and glanced across at his mother.
“Long time no see, Gavin” he said. “Or hear either for that matter. But no news is good news they always say.” He looked at Juli to see if she had caught his meaning, and she nodded slightly. “Good to see you. Did you bring any wine from your vin-yards in France?”
“I wish they were mine! Yes, I brought some champagne. We’re having it tomorrow.”
“Great. Hey, it’s wonderful here isn’t it? What a fantastic quality of light, don’t you agree mother dear?”
Juli looked at him in surprise. For some reason she had not expected Tony to be very sensitive to such things. Pamela came running up to ask if she could go for a swim.
“We’re having dinner in a minute or two,” Lena said a little anxiously and Marion turned to Pamela quickly and said, “Not this evening dear. You can swim all day tomorrow if you like.”
“I want to ride tomorrow.”
“We go riding very early because later it gets too hot,” Juli said.
“What time?” Pamela asked.
“D’you want to go riding too, Tony?” Dereck asked.
“Sure.” Tony nodded.
Gavin had taken to sleeping in in the mornings but he nodded too, smiling, and Dereck sent Marina to call Hernán.
The boy, his thick black hair neatly combed, an eager and intelligent look in his dark brown eyes, appeared at once. His white shirt made his skin look very dark. Looking at him, Gavin felt a sudden and unaccountable sense of familiarity, something much deeper than the usual feeling engendered by years of proximity. He wondered at it, and finally put it down to the holiday when Hernán had joined Rowena and himself so often on their camping trips. He had been a large-eyed silent little fellow then, given to bursts of laughter only when Gavin played football with him.
Dereck told him to go and advise Don Elizondo to have several horses ready early the following morning and Hernán hurried off.
“Nice looking boy,” Arthur said.
“And his mother is a superb cook,” Dereck added. Josefina and Hernán were the only links with Phyllis which Lena had permitted and that because Dereck had been quite adamant. Good cooks were simply not to be had in the Pampa, and Josefina was a luxury which could not be foregone.
Josefina, with patient forbearance, had put up with Lena’s initial aggressiveness and had finally won her approval. She had known enough to keep Hernán as much out of sight as possible and to teach him to be helpful and polite but very reserved.
Juli put the little girls to bed and joined the family for dinner. The mahogany table glowed warmly reflecting the crystal glasses, silver cutlery, wine decanters filled with red and white wine respectively and the centre-piece of roses.
“Outdoing the Carlies,” Juli reflected, remembering the meals at their house and María’s quiet efficient presence. Marta, in a brand new uniform, one or two bought during the last couple of weeks, served as best she could and did very well. Lena sat at the head of the table, tense and anxious, giving her quiet directions when the poor woman began to look flustered.
Arthur, large and expansive, looked relaxed and ready to enjoy every moment. Marion hardly ate anything and was given to lapsing into long silences during which she remained totally disconnected with all the conversation flowing round the table. Gavin and Tony talked about France, Pamela yawned so often she was sent to bed. Dereck and Arthur discussed farming, economics, and, inevitably, the government. Juli listened and thought of her family in England and suddenly she felt very homesick.
“If I were at the Carlie’s I could have ‘phoned Dad,” she thought, and wondered what he and Paula had decided to give the children as presents. “Perhaps I can go and phone from Santa Rosa sometime next week.”
The thought of considering driving fifty kilometres to make a ‘phone call with such nonchalance amused her, it was almost like driving from London to Dover. No one thought anything of it here in the Pampa, Dereck even had his hair cut in Santa Rosa.
The following day dawned cloudy so riding started a little later. Juki regarded the sky somewhat anxiously and said, “I hope it doesn’t rain, there are over seventy people coming on Saturday for the barbeque, I mean the asado.”
“Oh, not to worry,” Gavin said as Tony and Pamela looked up at the woolly grey clouds. “It wouldn’t be the first time that we have had to set up the tables in one of the barns. But it has a habit of getting really threatening and then blowing quite away in these parts; ergo La Pampa seca, the dry Pampa. Come on, let’s get started.”
No sooner had they left the homestead behind them than Gavin and Juli began to ply Tony with questions about Peter and Marion.
Tony replied carefully. “No news at all from Peter, not a word … we just couldn’t understand why he hasn’t got in touch during these days, it being Christmas and all that.”
“And Mummy’s started drinking,” Pamela stated.
“Pamela!” Tony snapped angrily.
“But it’s true. Why keep it a secret from Juli and Gavin? I found a bottle of whisky half empty in my cupboard three days ago.”
“Does your father know?” Juli asked.
“Yes, he knows,” Tony said wearily.
Gavin shook his head and asked, “Has it been officially confirmed that Peter had been taking drugs?”
“He was with a group who did. He was a friend of the fellow who provided the drugs, I think.”
“Have they caught him yet?”
“No, no trace.”
“I don’t see how someone can disappear like that,” Juli said. “ The police must be quite useless.”
“Or bribed. They earn practically nothing you know.”
“What … what’s going to happen with regard to your mother?”
“She’ll have to go to some home for more treatment, I suppose. Dad was hoping that we’d hear something this Christmas, but there was nothing up to the time we left.”
“Did she want to come?”
“Not a bit. We had the most awful time persuading her. In fact it was only because I said I was very tired from studying and needed the break and so one that she agreed at all. I’ve missed two exams which I’ll have to take in April … damn nuisance.”
“I passed all mine,” Pamela remarked suddenly. “So you won’t have to hang me upside down on the tree in our garden Juli!”
Juli laughed and said,” Good for you, Pamma! That means you go into …?”
“Segundo Año, second year in secondary school.”
Kicking her horse, Pamela galloped away, disturbed by the conversation about her mother. She found it so difficult to understand. How could someone so efficient and down to earth as her mother become so weak and wishy washy? Dino had tried to explain. He had spent a long time talking to her about his own father and how it was possible to accept, and even love, and not merely judge, a person with such an unhappy secret. But Pamela was ashamed and it made her feel guilty and angry.
When they returned, Arthur, who was sitting reading a book in the living room, handed Juli a typed envelope with Brazilian stamps. “This came for you a couple of days ago, dear,” he said. “I’m sorry I forgot to give it to you last night.”
Juli studied the envelope in surprise, “It must be from a friend of my sister. Ann told me he was going to Brazil for a holiday, maybe he’s thinking of coming to Argentina as well. Thank you Arthur.”
She turned the bulky envelope over curiously but there was no sender’s address, shrugged with a grin and thanked Arthur again before going to the nursery. Once there she tore open the envelope and pulled out several pages folded separately. Each page had a name printed on it; TONY, PAMELA, JULI, MUM & DAD ….. Hardly able to breathe, Juli gazed down at the closely written sheets in her hands and whispered, “He has written, he didn’t forget.”
Just as she was about to rush back to Arthur and hand him their letter she checked herself and went instead to find three envelopes. With trembling fingers she pushed the folded sheets into them and wrote the respective names on each one, decorating them with sketches of a Christmas tree and a golden star.
“His Christmas present to us,” she thought fondly. “Typical of him, what luck the Carlies came here for Christmas!” There was also a Christmas card for her personally together with the letter.
“Can we go and bathe now?” Marina shouted, bursting into the nursery. Juli put a finger to her lips as she glanced rapidly over the contents of her letter and said, “O.K. I suppose it’s hot enough despite the clouds, but first …”
“It’s boiling outside.”
“All right. But first recite the poem to me one last time so that tonight you won’t make any mistakes.”
Marina, impatient with so many rehearsals, rattled the poem off at breakneck speed, hopping all the while from one foot to the other. Juli controlled herself with difficulty and managed to say enthusiastically,” Wonderful Marina, you remembered every word. But of course tonight you’re going to say it nice and slowly and stand still all the way through, aren’t you?”
“Are we going to sing too?” Marina asked by way of an answer.
“Yes,” Juli sighed as she helped Tishy take off her sandals. She was burning to read her letter from Peter properly, but with the children impatiently waiting she decided to read it later.
Gavin noticed her excitement at once. “Well, well Chèrie,” he said teasingly. “You look as if you’d swallowed two dozen sparklers and they were all alight inside you. What’s up?”
Juli, glowing with the ferment she was hardly able to control, stuck her tongue out at him and said, “It’s Christmas Eve, isn’t it?”
“Juli, look, I’m going to do a long dive, can you measure me?” Pamela called.
“Go ahead, I’m watching,” she replied walking away from Gavin to the edge of the pool. Gavin looked after her and shook his head. Leaning back and looking at the sky he let his mind hover gently about her and felt that only some last minute news about Peter could transform her in such a way, but that seemed impossible.
At lunch she sat in silence, almost as if in a trance. She ate nothing and only just managed to answer when spoken to. Even Lena said, “Are you feeling alright Juli?”
“Oh, yes, thank you,” she replied smiling and her eyes shone with such blazing radiance that everyone looked at her. In the tiny silence that followed Marina knocked over her glass of water and the mopping up operation steered the conversation into other channels.
“So she has a boyfriend after all,” Arthur mused, thinking if the letter he had given her that morning. “I’m not surprised. She’s too sweet a little person not to have left someone in love with her behind in England.”
After lunch Juli marched the children off to the nursery and made them lie down, issuing threats of such unthinkable punishments if they so much as moved a finger that they both fell asleep at once. She grabbed her letter, sat down on the sofa and began to read.
Since it is Christmas I have finally decided to write to everyone and set their minds at peace. I am sending all the letters to you to deliver when you think best as I can’t remember Uncle Dereck’s exact address I’m sending this home and they’ll send it on to you. I still feel that the police are breathing down my neck and that all my parents’ letters are being opened, which can hardly be true but…..
As you see by the stamps I am in Brazil and am travelling all over the country working for a fellow who makes special T.V. documentaries (Don’t laugh) as his chief assistant, looking after all the equipment, lighting, sound, cameras, the lot.
You must be wondering how I got here. Well. On that fateful day I had found an anorak in the train which some young chap must have forgotten. In San Fernando when Paco suddenly said “Come,” I had it in my hand and I got up and followed him into the kitchen where he said “Quick the canas(cops) are coming!” and ran out of the back door and down to the end of the garden. As you can imagine I followed him like a bolt of lightning. I don’t know how he knew, but he has a 6th sense about many things. Anyway, even as we flung ourselves flat we saw a man come round the corner of the house and in minutes the place was surrounded. We got over the fence and into the next garden and from there out into the street. Then we walked about three blocks and hid in another garden until dawn and then we went to a bar near the port. It was freezing cold and I only had on my pullover so I was damn glad I had the anorak. As you can imagine I was pretty much in a state of shock. I realized I had left all my money and documents in the house and that I couldn’t go home. I just didn’t know what to do. We had a coffee and then Paco got up and handed me some money and said, “you’ll have to look after yourself, chico, I can’t help you. Chau. Suerte.” and with that he walked calmly out of the bar, took a bus and disappeared. I really felt in that moment that about the only thing I could do was to commit suicide. I was absolutely numb. At last I paid for the coffee and put the rest of the money into the inner pocket of the anorak and there I found the owner had also left his identity card.
The photo of him was enough like me to be able to use it and my mind began to function again. I decided to go to Tigre and take a boat to Uruguay, which is what I did and it all went fine and by early afternoon I was in Colonia and SAFE. No problems, no questions, nothing.
There I took a room and practised the fellow’s signature until it was almost exact . From Colonia I went into the interior of Uruguay and worked at all sorts of jobs. I sent a letter in a silly sort of code to Rita and Quique which I don’t suppose they could make head or tail of, with a chap who was going to B.A. and then I hitch-hiked to Brazil to be further away. There I landed this job. The fellow’s assistant had gone down with hepatitis and he needed someone urgently. My Portuguese is improving daily despite the fact that I talk in English with my boss, because he is German and his Portuguese is so awful none of the Brasileiros can understand half of what he says, so I often act as interpreter as well!
I’m telling you all this but don’t show it to my parents. I don’t want them trying to track me down, I just want them to know that I’m OK earning good money and plan to stay in Brazil for the time being. That is why I enclose the Xmas card for you to show around, I’m sure they will simply crowd you out with questions. I don’t dare give you my new name and address because I’m still scared. I got a helluva fright I can tell you and I can also tell you that it cured me from all the drug business for life.
Rita, Quique and Sandy I leave to your discretion, OK? I think of you often Juli, and all the things you said to me. You helped me a lot, and when I was in Uruguay learning to get along on my own I’d think of you, coming out to South America alone, not knowing a word of Spanish and going to work for strangers and that helped me a lot. I’d say to myself ‘If she can I can.’ I’d love to hear from you but, for the moment, I’ll have to wait. Lots of love and don’t worry. I’ve found my wings. Peter.
Juli sat back with a long sigh and stared at the arrangement of dried grasses and twigs in the fireplace. He was all right. He was working. The experience had, after all, not ruined him but seemed to have been the making of him. Gavin had been right. Everything was O.K. A great sense of relief and joy flooded her as she picked up the letter once more and read it through slowly and carefully for a second time and then for a third. At last she put it away under her T-shirts in the cupboard and read the Christmas card. It was brief and fond and it made her think of Gavin.
She wondered if the habit of smoking marihuana would get a greater grip on him, if the passing years and the difficulties of life would eventually push him into escaping more and more by taking drugs. He was such a fun person, it was sad to think he might be jeopardizing his future … but who was she to judge? Many people smoked reefers and didn’t become addicts. Not all people who drank became alcoholics. In the end it depended on the person. But she felt that Gavin was not as strong as he thought he was.
After tea she remained quietly in the nursery, knowing full well that if Gavin got hold of her she would never be able to keep her secret. He had almost a sixth sense when it came to divining one’s thoughts. She laid out the children’s identical little blue and white flowered smocked dresses, their white socks and sandals, and blue ribbons for their hair. Then she spent a long time trying to decide which dress she would put on, finally choosing a pale pink cotton frock, adding a white bead necklace and her white sandals. The children trotted in and out of the nursery agog not to miss anything and finding all the grownups unusually quiet and absorbed in their own affairs. Only Pamela paid any attention to them. After a while Juli took up her guitar and began to practice the songs she was planning to sing that evening.
“You do sing well,” Pamela remarked, full of admiration.
Juli shrugged. “One is either born with a voice or not,” she said. “I can’t very well say it’s something I’ve worked on to acquire. And it’s not a very big voice, but it’s O.K. for small gatherings and things like that; camp fires, children’s parties; you know.”
At last it was time to change and Pamela hurried off. Juli dressed the children, fussing over their hair until even Tishy complained, then she changed and they went to join the family on the veranda.
“Oh don’t they look sweet!” Marion exclaimed waving her whisky glass in the direction of Marina and Tishy. “Really Dereck, they are much prettier than Rowena was.”
Gavin and Juli’s glances flicked towards Lena and they saw her preen a little with pride. Dereck looked at his small daughters and then at Juli herding them onto their stools and handing each of them half a glass of coke. He realized that he had only Juli to thank for that delightful scene, as well as the family party, and wondered briefly how it was that Lena, such a loving and concerned mother as she was, had failed to realize that Tishy needed glasses. Marina too had changed so much, she was quieter, more self controlled and much less spoilt. However, despite all those changes for the good, Juli’s presence irritated him. He had made his peace with Phyllis, thank God, but all the same … he glanced at Lena fondly, she was so elegant, such a pleasure to the eye.
It had been decided to have dinner earlier because of the two little girls. The table was covered with a crisp white Irish linen cloth and stiff white linen serviettes folded into tall tulip shapes graced each plate. A fresh bunch of roses blazed at the centre of the table and four red candles in silver candlesticks flickered softly in the warm air.
Marta brought in individual helpings of vegetables in aspic and later they ate roast duck with orange sauce and finished off with ice-cream à-la-charlotte.
“What a marvellous meal,” Arthur exclaimed. “You really are lucky to have such a good cook, way out here in the middle of the Pampa too! She’s almost as good as you are Marion dear.”
“Mummy’s a fantastic cook,” Pamela informed Lena proudly.
Marion laughed, raised her glass and said cheerfully, “Oh, my goodness. So much family apsh … appreciation, I’ll get a big head!”
“Now what?” Dereck asked as everyone rose and settled in the sofa and armchairs to drink their coffee while Marta cleared the table. He had been told by Lena that there would be a small entertainment. Juli, a little shyly, fetched her guitar and the servants were called in. She sang several songs, then handed the guitar to Hernán and they sang three more together. After that she called Tishy and strummed gently one of the children’s songs which she and Tishy always sang together when riding on horseback. She began to sing very softly and Tishy joined in, her voice so tiny yet so true that even Tony felt a lump in his throat. Josefina and Marta mopped their eyes with the corners of their aprons while Arthur quite openly blew his nose and wiped his eyes with a large white handkerchief
“Now Marina,” Juli smiled encouragingly, once Tishy had been roundly applauded and kissed. “Say it slowly,” she added. “No hurry.”
Marina stood up and walked stiffly over to the fireplace, facing the family. She stood still and straight, her arms pressed to her sides, her eyes burning with blue intensity, and recited:
Great Wide Beautiful World by W.B.Rands
Great wide beautiful wonderful world,
With wonderful water round you curled,
And the wonderful grass upon your breast,
World, you are beautifully drest.
The wonderful air is over me
And the wonderful wind is shaking the tree.
It walks on the water, and whirls the mills
And talks to itself on the tops of the hills.
Ah, you are so great and I am so small,
I tremble to think of you, World, at all;
And yet when I said my prayers today
A whisper inside me seemed to say,
You are more than the earth though you are such a dot;
You can love and think and the Earth cannot!
She only had to be prompted once and when she had finished Dereck shouted “Bravo!” and clapped his hands, truly impressed that Marina should have been capable of reciting such a long poem. Her face suffused and pink from the effort, she rushed into her father’s outstretched arms, he hugged her tightly and then she ran round receiving a congratulatory kiss from everyone.
“Now you Tony, please sing us some of your songs dear,” cried Marion and Tony with a small grimace, took the guitar and sang song after song. His voice was light and did not have the resonance that Quique’s had, but it was good and made an excellent finish to the improvised concert.
The servants returned to the kitchen to wash up and Dereck, his eyes on the Christmas tree, was about to suggest that they open their parcels when Gavin said, “ It being Christmas Eve perhaps we should read the Bible before … well, giving out the presents.” His eyes met Dereck’s and for both of them the memory of Phyllis reading the Bible on Christmas Eve hung vividly in the familiar room,
“I’ll get a Bible,” Juli said, and hurried to the nursery to fetch the Bible from the bookcase there. It slipped from her fingers as she pulled it out and several sheets of paper spilled out of it onto the floor. Juli gathered them quickly, laid them on the bookcase and returned to the living room.
Gavin paled slightly when he took it from her, for it was his mother’s, the same one from which she had read at all his childhood Christmases. Slowly he opened it at St Matthew’s Gospel and began to read. The familiar story fell gently upon the ears of each member of the small gathering, and they sat quietly, half listening, half steeped in their own thoughts. Gavin himself felt very moved for he kept thinking of Christopher asleep in his cot and the Bible story became poignantly alive for him. He felt an extraordinary attachment to Toffy, quite unusual for him, for until that moment very small babies had meant nothing at all to him.
“Now,” Lena said when he had finished. “Pamela and Marina can light the candles on the tree.”
While Pamela lit the higher ones and Marina the lower ones Tishy sidled over to her mother and whispered,” Tishy too, Mummy?”
At once Lena rose, helped Tishy strike a match and light a candle. The little girl blew out the match and gazed up at the tree, her glowing eyes reflecting the flames of the candles as they flickered and wavered softly.
“Toffy’s crying,” Marina announced and Lena straightened abruptly glancing at her watch.
“Bring him here, Lena,” Gavin said. “I’ll hold him. Poor fellow, he doesn’t want to miss the family party.”
“Pause for drinks,” Dereck said cheerfully, getting to his feet. Lena, followed by Pamela, went through to her bedroom and picked up the crying baby.
“You should be sleeping,” she chided gently and changed him, then she unbuttoned her dress and fed him. Pamela watched intrigued, feeling her own adolescent breasts ache a little as she wondered what it would be like to have a baby. Comfortable and content, Toffy burped enormously and looked up at his mother inquiringly. Lena succumbed and carried him into the living room wrapped in a light shawl.
“Let me have him,” Gavin said holding out his arms.
“No me,” Pamela cried. Gavin made a face at her and said, “But Pamela, you have to give out the presents now, don’t you?” For he knew full well that that would be an irresistible job for her. After a few moments hesitation Lena laid the baby in Gavin’s arms and went to sit by Dereck, laying a hand on his knee. He patted her hand fondly and nodded towards to glass of tonic water he had served her and which stood on a small table nearby. She smiled her thank you.
Pamela began at once to hand out the presents. “Marina from Mummy, Tony from Mum and Dad. Me from Juli, ooooh! …..” Bright wrapping papers and pretty bows and ribbons turned the floor into a rustling sea of colour. Books, clothes, an electric carving knife, table linen and toys surged to its surface and everyone kissed, embraced and laughed. Juli’s heart was thumping as she waited until the last of the presents had been opened before jumping to her feet and saying breathlessly, “There are three more, just a minute.”
From behind the Christmas cards on the mantle-piece she drew the three envelopes and handed one each to Marion, Pamela and Tony.
“What’s this?” Marion inquired tearing open her envelope curiously. She pulled out the sheets of airmail paper and opened them out. With something between a gasp and a sob she whispered, “It’s a letter from Peter. Oh, God. He’s written to us after all Arthur.”
Juli produced her card from Peter and handed it to Lena and Dereck so that they too should have something to read. They read it in silence and passed it to Gavin. Marion, Arthur, Tony and Pamela read and re-read their letters. Marion began to weep availing herself of one of six new handkerchiefs which Arthur had just received, and Pamela, deeply affected by her mother’s emotion started to cry as well. Arthur and Tony handed their letters to Dereck and Gavin respectively and Arthur picked up Pamela’s, all without saying a word.
Worried and anxious Marina leaned against Juli and said, “Why are they crying, Juli? Why are Aunty Marion and Pamela crying like that?”
“If I said it was because they are so happy, would you understand?” Juli asked her.
Marina shook her head vigorously.
“Well, but it is because they are happy, so don’t worry.”
“Well I’ll be blowed,” Dereck said explosively. “Fancy Peter being in Brazil! Did he put any address on the envelope?”
Juli shook her head.
“Was that the letter I brought you?” Arthur asked her. “Good Lord, if I had known …!”
“The champagne,” Gavin cried. “Dad, get the ‘champas’, if this isn’t reason enough for celebrating, nothing is!”
Dereck fetched the bottle from the fridge and they all watched him as he set about working the cork out, laughing and giving advice. At last with the ever familiar ‘pop’ the cork shot into the air and Tony held out a glass quickly as everyone cried out almost compulsively.
“To Peter,” Dereck announced, holding up his glass and they all chorused “To Peter” and sipped the sparkling wine appreciatively.
“To think he’s not in prison!” Marion exclaimed suddenly. “To think that he’s all right. Absolutely all right.”
“He’s never been in prison,” Tony said. “He’s been in Uruguay and Brazil. May I read your letter Mum? Here ‘s mine.”
“He says there are some wonderful stones in Brazil,” Pamela remarked. “Can I go and stay with him there, Daddy?”
“Certainly, if we only knew where to find him,” Arthur replied. “But Brazil is one of the biggest countries in the world you know, and he hasn’t given us any address, not even the name he’s known by there.”
“Oh,” Pamela looked crestfallen. “Can’t we write to him then?”
“No, not yet at least.”
“Are you going to try and find him?” Juli asked guardedly.
“No,” Arthur said firmly. “I feel this is a very good experience for Peter. He’s twenty four, a man, and he must learn to be a man. When he’s ready he will come back.”
“Why Arthur …” Marion protested, tears welling up in her eyes once more.
“For God’s sake, Marion,” Dereck exploded. “The boy is fine, he’s written you a long letter, what more do you want.”
Marion jumped to her feet and almost ran out of the room.
“Oh God,” Dereck groaned. “I’m sorry Arthur.”
“Don’t worry old chap,” Arthur said mildly. “It’s probably just what she needed.” He began to push himself out of his arm chair.
Tony stood up and said firmly, “You stay here Dad. I’ll go and talk to her.”
He followed his mother out of the room and Arthur sighed and leaned back wearily.
“Let’s sing carols,” Juli suggested. “We’ve been practising.”
“Oh yes,” Arthur agreed. “I love carols.”
“Let me put Christopher back in his cot first,” Lena said, lifting the sleeping baby out of Gavin’s arms.
Marion returned, steered gently but firmly by Tony, while the others were all singing carols lustily from the song sheets Juli had typed out the week before. Her fingers had felt stiff and unaccustomed on the keys and when she had finished she felt stiff all over. She wondered how she had ever been able to sit over a typewriter eight hours a day for years and survive.
Tony gave Marion some more champagne and joined in the singing. Marina, overcome by so much excitement, curled up in and armchair and fell asleep, but Tishy, safe and happy in the curve of her father’s arm, felt his voice reverberate through her body as he sang and listened to the music with wide-eyed enjoyment.
“What’s the score for tomorrow?” Arthur asked at last when the carols came to an end.
“Church,” Dereck said. “We usually go to the 11 a.m. mass. Otherwise late breakfast and the morning spent in the pool.”
“Have you become a Catholic then?” Marion asked. “I am surprised.”
Dereck laughed a little self-consciously and replied, “No Marion. I accompany Lena, that’s all. Any way as afar as the service is concerned, apart from deleting the Pope and the saints, the Anglican service is pretty much the same. By the way we’ve decided to have Toffy baptised on Sunday evening as you will all be here. Gavin has agreed to be Godfather and a friend of Lena’s in Victorica is to be Godmother.”
“This little holiday is turning out to be packed with incidents,” Arthur smiled. “Wonderful, I’m glad we’ll be here for the christening, eh Marion?”
“Yes, of course,” Marion nodded setting her glass down on the table with a little clatter.
Dereck set Tishy down; goodnights, thank-yous and happy Christmases were repeated cheerfully as Juli picked up the sleeping Marina and carried her to the nursery.
“Coming to swim?” Gavin asked, pausing outside the nursery door.
Juli shook her head.
“What did Peter say in his letter to you?”
“A little Christmas card with a few short sentences for you after sending you a letter in cipher is very unlikely ma Chèrie. Neither could it have made you shine so.”
“Couldn’t my happiness for the Carlies have had that effect, mon ami cynique?”
“Perhaps but I doubt it, somehow.”
“Oh, pooh … Good night.”
Lying in bed Juli thought over the events of the evening. Marion’s reaction, Arthur’s equanimity, Tony’s relief. Would Marion give up drinking now? Would she learn to forgive and to live again, or had it all gone too far? And how had Gavin guessed about Peter’s letter to herself? Had the others realized? Had she put him off? She doubted it and she began to think about Peter in Brazil.