(A Christmas Story)
Book Five in the Batch Magna series.
A work in progress.
It’s Christmas in Batch Magna and there are other presents perhaps in the air. Love coming round again for Miss Harriet Wyndham, village spinster, after the long years with only her cats to come home to. And for a cleaned-up Rupert, a gentleman of the road and the object of Miss Wyndham new-found passion, a welcome back into the society he had long ago walked away from, and kept on walking, until Miss Wyndham and feelings he had long forgotten, of love and thoughts of hearth and home, and someone waiting for him there. Then a valuable pearl necklace goes missing and Rupert is accused of stealing it. It is up to Miss Wyndham, amateur sleuth, to save Christmas for them both.
Sir Humphrey Strange – Humph – also has a problem, and a new-found passion: church bell ringing.
The bells of St Swithin’s, carrying on their ancient sides saints and merchants, squires and parsons, rhymes and prayers, rang out over Batch Magna, their peal of eight tumbling from a tower of Norman stone, falling in an avalanche of iron across fields smelling of dusk and winter, until lost among the stripped wooded hills of its valley.
The present squire, Sir Humphrey Franklin T. Strange, 9th baronet of his line, in a Yankees baseball cap and a shirt with parrots on it, was putting his heart and his considerable weight into it, the rope with its woollen sally coloured like seaside rock leaping in his meaty grip, the shadows of the ringers under a naked overhead light rising and falling on the lime-washed stone of the ringing chamber.
Humphrey was on the other end of the tenor bell, the heaviest and loudest of them, giving voice with it as if it were something he’d simply been bursting to say but hadn’t the words for. The Tower Captain, a retired headmistress and committee member of the WI, led the dance with the lightest bell, the treble, calling out the ringing changes in tones made for corridors and playgrounds, handstroke and backstroke, forward and back, bell after bell, their iron tongues speaking over and over, the language of faith and mathematics.
When the bells were silent again and their ropes tied the narrow spiral stairway out of the tower echoed with the ringers’ shared pleasure and a job well done. The stone of the stairs shaped by the centuries, the passage of fellow ringers who had felt the same, and who had made the same journey afterwards to a village pub within singing distance of its church.
They used the bigger of the pub’s two bars, a room of worn Welsh slate flagstones and high-backed settles under beams of oak, the ceiling varnished a yellow-orange with the smoke of the years, the air scented with apple logs burning in a fireplace big enough to stable a pony. Bill Sikes, Phineas Cook’s dog, dozed in front of it, sharing it with the pub’s two dogs.
His owner was sitting at the bar when Humphrey arrived.
“Ah, Humph,” he said. “Now you’ve finished drowning out sin, or at least deafening it, with your well-tuned cymbals, have a pint.”
“No, thanks, Phin. I’m just having a quick half with the team here, and then getting back. Hey! I didn’t tell ya – we’ve found a Santa Claus outfit.”
“Ah, good. Where did you – “
“I didn’t. Clem did. After phoning round half the day she found this costumier’s in Oswestry. I’ve got to have a fitting tomorrow.” Humphrey patted his front and chuckled. “You know?”
“Be good casting, Humph. You’re just the right size for bringing good cheer.”
“Yeah, well, anyway, they donated it for free when she told them what it was for. How about that?”
“She can be very persuasive, that Clem.”
“You’re telling me.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Father Christmas arriving on a paddle steamer.”
Humphrey embraced the thought with a slow, wide grin. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”
He joined the other ringers with his drink, sitting with them at one of the tables, a tribe apart. The language of the changes, of Kent trebles and the Queen’s change, holt’s singles, royals and weasels, and grandsire triples, a shared secret, the key to that other world they were taken to, as if hypnotised, or drugged, standing in a circle as if in obeisance under the clamour of a full peal.
A world reached not down a rabbit hole but found up in the air, where arithmetic becomes mystery and the sound of bells running seemingly pell-mell through their endless changes had for them its own logic, made its own sense, like that of a dream.
Another world to where Humphrey, for one, could briefly escape from his current problem in this one.
Things were fine – or as fine as they got at Batch Hall – until the boiler finally needed replacing. Before that happened, when discussing with the matron of Kingham General his proposed visit as Santa Claus to the children’s ward, he’d offered, with an impulsive, generous sweep of his large hand, to make a contribution of a sackful of toys.
He had no idea what a sackful of toys might cost, but whatever it was they couldn’t now afford it, a situation unlikely to change in the few weeks to Christmas. When the family booked in for the weekend to attend a local twentieth-first birthday party left on Monday, the Hall would be empty of paying guests, and no advance bookings. The profit from the pre-Christmas pheasant shoot had already been spent, and apart from things such as the weekly village bingo sessions in the servants’ hall and the sandwich runs to local businesses, there was nothing else in the diary. And not much more than that in the bank.
Now all he had to do was to tell Clem. And then, worse, the matron of Kingham General. Her face when he’d made the offer a nagging rebuke to him, the starched politeness thawing instantly into a smile that turned her young again, as if Father Christmas really were sitting across the desk from her.
The End - for now.