It was just about dusk on Christmas Eve when an army of cleaners, decorators and caterers moved out of the old farmhouse on the edge of Exmoor. They piled into their respective vans and headed home. As it turned out, they were not a moment too early. The nose of a silver Bentley poked its way onto the slightly rutted drive as the last white Ford Transit pulled out.
The woman in the passenger seat of the big car pulled a sour face.
‘I hope that was the last of them, they had strict instructions to be gone before we were due to arrive.’
Her companion patted her leg. ‘We are early, darling’ he said consolingly.
She shut her mouth with a snap, and anyone less infatuated might have seen a resemblance to a rat trap in the way her even white teeth closed together.
The Bentley rounded a bend in the drive and the occupants could see the long, low house. Every window was picked out with lights, a big tree in the front garden stood garlanded with sparkling icicles, and the smoking chimneys betokened traditional welcome. The driver held his breath for a second, before his passenger made a small sound of satisfaction rather like a pleased cat.
‘Oh yes’ she purred ‘it’s perfect isn’t it. Our American friends will be so impressed, won’t they?’
The man was bright enough to recognise a rhetorical question when he heard one, and contented himself with a covert study of her perfect profile.
As the car slid to a halt, the woman leapt out tripped up the steps, and put her hand on the big oak front door. She pushed it wide and walked into a massive flagstoned entrance hall. Inhaling deeply, she could smell cloves, cinnamon, ginger and the subtle scent of the evergreen garlands twined around the beams. She turned to face her husband as he came into the house.
‘Aren’t I a clever girl’ she gloated.
‘Oh. You are. Shall we look at the rest of the place?’
They wandered from room to room, admiring the decorations and the carefully prepared welcome. If the man swallowed uncomfortably when he saw his ex-wife’s treasured family heirlooms tastefully arranged on the huge Christmas tree, he said nothing.
As the house came without staff, the kitchen had to be visited – fortunately all was carefully arranged in readiness, even down to a punchbowl and glasses, which awaited the mulled wine sitting warming gently on the back of the Aga, and a folder of neatly typed instructions ensured that all would go without a hitch.
The man’s phone bleeped and his companion removed it from his pocket. She looked at the readout, and deleted the call with a flick of one perfectly manicured finger. He wondered briefly who he wasn’t to be allowed to speak to, but his young wife inhaled deeply and the creamy slopes of her breasts distracted his attention. He put a hand on her ass, and she smacked it away pettishly.
‘Not now….’ Her phone jingled festively and she looked at the screen.
‘Our guests have left Exeter. They will be here in just over an hour.’
She smiled, a smile of completely self-absorbed satisfaction, before turning her attention back to her spouse. He didn’t smile back, resentful that she had slapped away his questing hand. Catching on quickly, she patted his jowly and slightly pouting face before running the tip of a pink tongue over a pair of plump and glossy lips.
‘That gives us just enough time…’ she breathed.
Taking the end of his tie in one dainty hand, she led him towards the master bedroom: a fatuously smiling lamb to the slaughter.
By the time a luxurious minibus full of American visitors rolled up the drive it was full dark, and every window of the long low house blazed a welcome. The front door stood open, and the six occupants of the bus climbed out onto the centuries old cobbles.
One of the women spoke. ‘Gee, this is some place.’
‘Ain’t it just, honey.’
Their hostess came down the two worn steps to greet them.
‘Come in. Come in. We have mulled wine and mince pies to thaw you out.’
The Americans dropped their coats on an oak settle in the passage and followed their hostess’ undulating buttocks into a sitting room where a log fire blazed in an enormous inglenook fireplace and a sparkling Christmas tree reached to the ceiling.
‘Oh, isn’t this just quaint.’
The sound of wheels on flagstones announced the arrival of their host, pushing a trolley with a bowl of steaming mulled wine and a big dish of mince pies. When everyone was served, the men took station in front of the big log fire while the women poked around the room. The quartet stopped in front of the Christmas tree.
‘Gee. Those trimmings are real unusual.’
‘They are mostly Victorian, heirlooms in my husband’s family. We treasure them. The string of soldiers is handmade from wooden clothespins, the baubles are all hand-blown glass, the silver bird candle holders came from Asprey’s just before the turn of the century, and the angel has a porcelain head, and real feather wings.’
‘Isn’t that just lovely.’
As the women wandered back towards the fire, anyone who was bothering to notice might have seen that their host suddenly looked uncomfortable and shuffled his feet. But nobody looked, and nobody cared. A fat man in his middle fifties who actually marries the twenty-three-year-old ‘glamour model’ who has been warming his bed forfeits the right to be noticed – except as an object of derision.
An hour later hunger called, and the members of the house party were all bundled into coats and boots, and ready to tramp along the footpath leading to the village with its welcoming pub. Behind them the farmhouse remained ablaze with festive lights.
In the sitting room a gruff voice spoke from somewhere in the vicinity of the Christmas tree. It was one of the clothespin soldiers.
‘It ain’t right.’
‘What ain’t right?’ His left-hand neighbour asked.
‘Heirlooms in my husband’s family’ the voice was scornful. ‘Since when did we belong to that fat bastard or the overpainted tart?’
The soldiers grumbled amongst themselves for some time before they were interrupted by an ice-cold cut-glass voice from the apex of the tree.
‘This place displeases me. Why are we here?’
Nobody spoke for a while, then one of the silver birds found its voice. ‘We awoke once, to find ourselves lifted in the claws of that female. We thought she was about to dash us to the ground when another human spoke. It told her we were too valuable to destroy. Then it said if she wanted to cause hurt to our own lady she should keep us.’
There was another silence then a strangely echoing voice piped in.
‘Permission to speak ma’am?’
‘We do not know your voice. Who are you?’
‘We are the silver stars around your feet. We have seen this before. The fat male has repudiated your lady and taken the plastic one as his mate. In this world they call it a divorce.’
The angel hissed.
‘This is unsupportable.’
‘It is, ma’am’ the others spoke as one.
‘What are we prepared to do about it?’
‘Whatever it takes.’
‘Be silent then, and let me think.’
There was a pregnant silence, then the angel spoke again.
‘Are there candles in your claws, silver birds?’
‘Yes ma’am. There are.’
‘Very well. Wait.’
It was late, exceedingly late, when eight humans, in various states of inebriation, returned to the old house and rolled into bed. Nobody switched out the Christmas lights, and nobody bothered to put a guard around the blazing logs in the inglenook.
In a very short time the household was silent once more, except for a couple of very sonorous snores. Outside, the frost sparkled on the grass and the house lights blazed against the dark sky.
The cold cut-glass tones from the treetop spoke one word and the soldiers set to work.
Three hours later the frost still sparkled on the grass, but the lights that blazed against the sky now were the blue flashing lights on the roofs of fire engines.
A man in a yellow helmet shook his head sorrowfully.
His colleague nodded.
Those with very sharp ears, and open minds, might have heard derisive laughter in crystal clear tones, high, wild bird song, and marching feet in perfect unison. But the firefighters were too busy to hear, and nobody else cared…
© jane jago 2016