The velvet jacket lay on the bed, gold thread encircling deep purple and blue flowers glittering in the harsh electric light
"Very seasonal!" Hugh's words lingered in her mind. At the time, his approval of her expensive Christmas purchase made her glow, but now she could hardly bear to look at it.
"Come on, Sally!" her mother called up the stairs. "If we don't go now, we'll be late and that dreadful Mrs Pringle will sit in our pew. She always does if we're not there first!"
"All right, mother, I'm coming." Sally sighed and pulled on the jacket, trying not to notice the soft velour as it fitted snugly round her. She could almost feel Hugh's arms encircling her, stroking the velvet pile. It was too cruel he wasn't here to share her Christmas!
It was October when she first invited him to join her in spending Christmas with her mother in the small Cotswold village where she lived. They’d spent many happy weekends as visitors, being plied with home cooked food and strolling along country lanes breathing lots of fresh air.
Hugh had struck up a relationship with Oswald Prenderghast, the emaciated organist at St Mary’s church. He offered Hugh the opportunity to try out the small pipe organ and Hugh surprised everyone with the beautiful music he created from the moth-eaten instrument.
Sally arranged to collect him from the upstairs flat above the greengrocer’s shop in the High Street of the busy market town where they both worked. Hugh’s job was only a mile away from where he lived, so he walked or used his bicycle. Sally was the car owner, spending an hour each day commuting.
Everything seemed set, but they forgot to agree a time. Things were so rushed at work Sally didn’t contact Hugh until just before she left. There was no answer from his darkened flat, his mobile was on voicemail and when she stopped by the Observatory where Hugh spent his days analysing computer data from distant stars, the security man told her all the staff were gone.
Perhaps he had forgotten their plans. Hugh spent so much of life with his eyes on the stars; it was difficult to keep him focused on practical things. He must have gone to stay with his sister in Kent without telling her. Unsure what to do for the best and with time running out, Sally decided to drive home without him. She had to be back in time for the Christmas Eve service.
Sally grabbed her fur hat from the top of the wardrobe and pulled it tightly down over her curls. It was always cold in church. Even more so on Christmas Eve. David, Lower Trumpton's hard-pressed vicar, was sure to have forgotten to put the heating on until tea-time, when he knew it needed all day if the ancient stones were going to warm up and release the frost.
Finding her boots by the front door, Sally put them on and fiddled with her gloves as her mother fussed around her until they were both safely outside in the dark night. It was only a short distance up the hill to the church, so it was silly to take the car.
Arm in arm, they climbed the steep road, stopping half way to get their breath. Sally looked around at the silent village. The lights were still on in the hotel and she doubted the landlord of The Golden Ball was calling "Time!" yet, although some of his customers were already making their way up the hill for their annual visit to Church.
Frost made the road surface twinkle, reflecting the bright stars above. Sally could see the Plough standing on its nose behind bare thorn trees by the village hall, but the moon was not high enough to be seen against the black sky. It wasn't really dark at all, Sally thought. Soon they reached the black railings of the churchyard. Someone had hung coloured lights around the two yew trees, so their way was lit to the old oak door.
Carefully minding the step down into the Norman nave, Sally's mother smiled brightly at Mr Culpepper who was giving out carol sheets, whilst looking anxiously over his shoulder to see if "their pew" was still unoccupied. It was and Sally heard her give a sigh of relief. Together they walked up the aisle admiring the holly in the deep window ledges and the large Christmas tree Mr Watson from the Gas Houses had borrowed from the local Garage for the Christmas services.
Sally sank down onto her blue, embroidered kneeler trying not to think of Hugh’s absence. The pews looked much brighter since the ladies of the Mothers Union finished their mammoth task of re-stuffing all the church’s kneelers and embroidering scenes to commemorate village history as part of the Millennium celebrations.
She let her gaze drift towards the lady chapel with its beautifully carved stone arch adorned with animals and birds from the medieval bestiary. In front of the small altar stood the green man chair. The smiling face usually lifted her spirits, but tonight he seemed to be mocking her for thinking she would be able to share her simple village Christmas with Hugh.
The organ was playing a quiet medley of mediaeval carols. Hugh loved early music. It deepened her sadness to think he wasn't there to hear them.
David came out of the vestry. Everyone stood up and the service began. Sally sang the well-known carols, but her mind was elsewhere. She hardly heard David's usual thoughtful sermon, interspersed with well-worn anecdotes. Before she knew it, the organ was thundering out "We wish you a Merry Christmas" followed by a raucous rendition of The Boar's Head Carol and everyone was going home.
“Coming for a sherry, Sally?” Her mother always joined Mrs Dorncliffe, their nearest neighbour, for a festive tipple after the service.
“I’ll be along in a minute.” Sally indicated the mess of carol sheets strewn all over the sandstone floor by the wind whistling in through the open door. David had already rushed off to celebrate the Midnight Service with his other parish five miles away and old Mr Culpepper was busy counting offerings in the vestry.
Up in the nave, the organist was locking up the organ and switching off lights. She heard the clink of keys being dropped in their usual hiding place behind the memorial stone to Edward Palmer, Esquire, the 17th century church benefactor, then footsteps came down the flagstones towards her.
"I like your jacket," said a familiar voice, "very seasonal!"
“Hugh!” Sally gasped, dropping the carol sheets again in her surprise.
"I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to phone you before you left," Hugh knelt beside her, gathering up errant carols sheets into a tidy pile. "I had to finish my calculations on Ursa Major at the observatory before I could leave. I fell asleep under the telescope and you'd already gone by the time I got back to the flat.
“Luckily, the greengrocer was coming down here to make a delivery to The Golden Ball, so I hitched a lift. I knew Mr Prendeghast is always busy tonight with three services to play for on Christmas Eve, so I offered to deputise for him the last time we came down. My mobile had no battery left and there wasn’t time to come and tell you before the service. I hope you’re not too cross with me?"
Sally looked at the earnest young man in front of her and her heart melted. There was no point telling him how miserable she’d been without him. He was here now and they had the whole of Christmas to spend together. She smiled. The carol sheets lay forgotten as Hugh enfolded her in his arms. Christmas was complete and the gold thread in her special Christmas jacket sparkled in the light.