I can’t remember when I first started to watch the new people. I had heard Mummy say to Daddy, “I see that house is occupied again. Let’s hope these folks are better than the last lot.”
“Well, they can’t be much worse,” Daddy had said.
I knew they meant the house at the bottom of our garden. The end of our garden met its garden, and Mummy was always complaining about “the neighbors’ weeds.” Daddy had planted bushes and trees to block the view from our house. But in winter, when the branches of the trees stood bleak and bare against the gray sky, it was like looking in through prison bars to the cold, untidy place beyond.
I could see it all from my bedroom window, but I scarcely ever looked. My room was warm and pretty with Goldilocks and Teddy sitting on my bed and Baby Doll’s cot in the corner by the rocking chair.
Then, one day I started to watch the new people. It must have been late autumn, after the leaves had fallen, because I remember first seeing them around their bonfire when I went to bed on Guy Fawkes Night. Mummy had drawn the curtains, but after she had gone and the light was out, I crept to the window and sat perched on the sill for a long time watching the fireworks.
Perhaps we could get to know the new family soon, I thought. They had been living there some weeks now, and Mummy was always talking about how nice it was to make new friends. Sometimes, in the daytime, I saw children playing in the garden and the mother hanging out clothes on the washing line. At night I could see the glow from their windows and the smoke curling up from their chimney.
It was Christmas Eve before I found out any more than that about the new people. Mummy had gone to the hairdresser, and Grandma, who had come to stay for the holiday, was peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink.
“Why, there’s a little dog, Susie,” she cried. “I wonder where he came from?”
I pulled a stool to the window and stood on it to look out. A little shaggy dog was scampering all over the lawns and in and out of the newly tidied flower beds. Soil was flying everywhere as he ran in excited circles. Every few minutes he stopped to look up in the direction of the garden fence; then he would dash off again, digging up the neat surface.
This went on for some time before the front doorbell rang. I followed Grandma to answer it. A boy of about eleven stood on the porch with a girl about my age.
“Can we come and get Frisky, please? He won’t come back through the hole in the fence.”
“Is that your puppy in our garden?” Grandma asked.
“Yes, he’s being naughty this morning. Just because we’re getting ready for Christmas.”
“Oh, dear. That’s always the way things happen, isn’t it,” said Grandma. “Yes, come along and catch him.”
The boy and girl came through the hall and Grandma took them into the back garden. But Frisky ran away from them, and Grandma had to fetch a tidbit of food before he would come to the boy.
After the dog was safely on his lead, Grandma took us all into the house for chocolate biscuits and fizzy lemonade.
“And what are your names?” Grandma asked.
“I’m Peter,” said the boy, “and this is my sister Pat. She’s really Patricia, but that’s too long.”
“It’s Tricia, not Pat,” said the girl.
“She thinks that’s prettier,” explained Peter.
“Can I go and play with Tricia? Please, Grandma?” I asked.
Grandma looked uncertain for a moment. She glanced at the clock. “As long as you only stay an hour and provided Peter’s mother doesn’t mind.”
“Mom won’t mind,” said Peter. “One more won’t make any difference to her.”
The new people’s home was marvelous. It wasn’t smart and tidy like ours, but it was comfy. Peter had another sister who was older than Tricia, and a baby brother too. His mother was very busy. She was making apple tarts, mince pies, and trifles. She looked hot and tired, but she was smiling all the time.
“Better fetch the greenery in now, Peter,” she said, when we had all met each other. “Tricia, you and Susie can fetch the toy farmyard animals from the cupboard and put them with the créche in the living room.” Then she turned to the other sister. “Kathy, you can start to place the Christmas cards around the room.”
Tricia and I ran up the stairs to the bedroom that she shared with Kathy. It was cold up there, not a bit like my room, but we quickly found the animals and hurried back to the warm living room to place the cows, sheep, and ducks by a little model of the stable where the baby Jesus lay in the manger.
“We’re having our family home night later on,” explained Tricia. “We shall sing carols around the fire and tell stories and play games. It’s beautiful. My friend Jenny is coming too, because her mother is too busy to have one at their home. Do you have a carol night?”
I shook my head. Tricia’s home was different from ours.
Peter made a terrible mess on the floor with the evergreens, but his mother didn’t grumble. She told him what a good job he was making of the decorations and told him to wrap the leftover bits in a newspaper before taking them out. And Peter did just that. He didn’t stamp his foot and say “Shan’t!” like my cousin who was about his age.
There was a lovely smell of dinner coming from the kitchen. Peter brought out a red and white cloth, which he spread over the table. Then we put the knives and forks around.
“Are you going to stay and have some stew with us, Susie?” Tricia asked as she fetched plates from a cupboard.
“I think I have to go now.”
“But she can come tonight, can’t she, Mummy?” asked Tricia.
“Of course, if her parents will let her.”
“Everybody can come to our carol night,” said Peter.
I wanted so much to stay and eat some of their stew. It must be lovely to sit around a big table with lots of brothers and sisters and eat food prepared by a beautiful mother with a smiling face.
There was a sharp knock at the door, and when Peter returned from answering it, Mummy was with him.
“We wondered wherever you had got to,” she said, with the sort of smile she puts on especially for new people. “I do hope she hasn’t been a nuisance, Mrs.—?”
“Mason,” said Tricia’s mother, coming forward with the baby in her arms. “She’s been no trouble at all. On the contrary, she’s been a wonderful help.”
My mother looked puzzled for a minute, but she didn’t say anything except “Well, thank you for having her.”
“Mummy, can I come to the home night later on to sing carols with Tricia and all of them? Please?”
“Ssh. You mustn’t invite yourself like that.” She spoke quietly with an edge to her voice, which meant that she wasn’t pleased.
“She is very welcome to come,” said Mrs. Mason, “but I expect you have made your own arrangements.”
“We’ll see,” said my mother, which meant she would conveniently forget about it.
It was just then that Peter shouted, “Look! It’s snowing!”
It was true. It had never snowed at Christmas as far as I could remember, and I’d always wanted it to. Now big white flakes were falling fast. On the other side of the Masons’ living room window we saw a dreamworld. Their Christmas tree was standing by the window, and the whole thing was like a picture I had seen in one of my books at home. Even the children in their bright woolies looked the same as the ones in my picture, with smiles all over their faces.
We all ran outside and laughed and screamed and held our hands out at arms’ length to catch the gossamer flakes.
“Look! Here’s Daddy!” shouted Tricia, and all the children ran to the front gate through which a man was hurrying. He seemed to grab them all up together with one scoop of his arms, and all the family were laughing and squealing and kissing each other.
Mummy had come to collect me in her car, and soon I was eating my lunch and telling Grandma all about the Masons.
“Can we have a carol night, Mummy?” I asked.
“Now, Susie, you know that Daddy and I have promised to have dinner with Auntie Jean and Uncle Ted tonight. Daddy will just have time to change when he arrives home and we shall leave about seven o’clock. You and Grandma can watch television. That will be nice. You can sing carols too, if you wish.”
I looked at Grandma and sought her eyes, but suddenly she seemed interested in the little bit of food left on her plate.
When Daddy came home, he was in a happy mood. He often looked sad and worried, but he always smiled at me and sometimes laughed with me too. Tonight he picked me up and lifted my face to his. He gave me a huge kiss and said, “There’s a big Christmas Eve kiss for my little girl.” But then his face went sad again, and I saw something shining in the corners of his eyes. They couldn’t have been tears; men never cry.
He looked a bit frightened when he opened the letter that had come for him that day with all the pretty cards. He whispered a word that sounded something like “overdrawn,” but I didn’t know what that meant.
I crept into Mummy’s room to watch her finish getting ready. She looked very beautiful. She was wearing a new dress, and her fur coat lay on the bed. She smelled lovely too, and she gave me a little of her perfume to put on.
“You look like a snow queen,” I said.
She was pleased and gave me a hug and a little peck of a kiss on the top of my head.
“Susie can stay up a little later than usual,” she told Grandma.
Grandma looked very knowing, and I half expected her to wink at me, but she didn’t. If Mummy only knew! She was always telling Grandma that she spoiled me, but I think that Grandma is just very understanding.
When we were by ourselves, Grandma said, “First we’ll make everything shipshape and Bristol fashion. Then we can have a lovely evening together. You can decide what we do.”
I knew she was trying to make up for the carol night, and I held her hand tight as we went upstairs to clear the powder and flutters away in the bathroom and Mummy’s bedroom.
“Can I come in your bed tomorrow morning, Grandma?”
“Of course, I shall expect you.”
While Grandma was busy, I went into my room. The curtains were still open, and I could see the snow all dazzling and untouched in the garden and the stars glistening overhead. Across the fence the lights of the Mason house glowed with welcome. They would be having their special night, all together.
“Ah, well,” I sighed heavily.
I felt Grandma’s hand on my shoulder and her nose by my ear as she kissed my cheek. Grandma’s kisses were comforting. She seemed to tut-tut softly as she placed her lips ever so gently against my face.
“We’ll have a nice time too,” she whispered.
We were going downstairs when the doorbell rang. Peter had come to fetch me!
“That’s if it’s convenient and if she still wants to,” he said.
My eyes met Grandma’s. “You must come too,” I said.
The Masons’ house looked like a fairyland. As we went in out of the snow, we could see lighted candles everywhere and everybody sitting around a blazing fire. There were a few people I didn’t know, but they turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Mason’s parents. And the funny thing was that Grandma knew Mr. Mason’s mother.
“We used to live quite near, didn’t we?” I heard her say to Grandma.
We played games and sang carols in the candlelight, and I gripped Tricia’s hand as her daddy started to tell the story of Jesus being born in the manger at Bethlehem. He held up some beautiful pictures for us to look at while he talked, and it made the story come to life. I looked toward the little crèche that we had set out that morning, and I thought my heart would burst, I was so happy. If only Mummy and Daddy were here too!
Then suddenly I saw that they were there, standing in the shadows by the hall door and listening to the story. I looked toward them from where I sat on the hearthrug with the other children, and Daddy made a little wave in my direction. I sent a little wave back.
As the story came to a close, the Mason children gathered around their father and sang the first verse of “Away in a Manger,” and then we all joined in the rest of the carol. It was like being part of a story. I couldn’t believe I was really there.
Afterwards we all knelt on the floor while one of the grandfathers prayed. They called it family prayer. We had never prayed like that at home. Not all together.
Then we went into the kitchen for refreshments. It didn’t look a bit like it had that morning when everyone was working. Everything had been made to look just like a fairy tale. Mummy and Daddy came to me then.
“We couldn’t get through to meet Auntie Jean,” they said. “The snow is so deep. We guessed you would be here.”
Mr. Mason was calling Daddy “Bill,” and it turned out that they had been boys together at school. I’d never seen Daddy look so gay before. He surprised me. And Mummy’s voice was different too.
We stayed really late while the grown-ups talked and talked. Even after Tricia was ready for bed and all the children had hung up their stockings for Santa Claus, they were still talking about something called the gospel. I thought they were going to stay all night.
I knew we would be visiting the Masons again, because when Mummy came to kiss me good night as I lay in bed, I whispered, “It’s lovely to make new friends, isn’t it?”
“Did you like the home night, Mummy?”
“It’s the loveliest time I’ve ever had.”
“Can we have one next year?”
“I think we shall have many nights at home, all together, my darling. Even in the summer too.”
I felt warm and sleepy. The last thing I remembered was seeing Mummy and Daddy standing on the landing, just outside my door. Mummy was saying would Daddy forgive her, and Daddy was saying, “Poor Susie, we’ve neglected her so much.” I didn’t know what he meant because Mummy had shown me pictures of what she called neglected children. I didn’t think I looked like that.
They were hugging each other tightly. Mummy was crying softly on Daddy’s shoulder. But what surprised me most was that Daddy was crying too!