It was Christmas Eve afternoon, just one more sleep until Christmas. The weather was mild and the sky shone a clear pale blue over the Staffordshire village of Oxley. Sophie Ashton negotiated the potholes of the church drive, accompanied by Henry, aged two and a half, in his smart outfit, new shoes polished. Sophie was feeling remarkably relaxed. Presents were wrapped, seasonal thank-you gifts (a nice bottle of red) had been distributed to the ‘official’ church helpers, the vicarage was as clean and tidy as it was going to be, the larder was stocked and all was well… for the moment. Audrey, chief of the flower ladies and self-appointed chief of the church kitchen, was bearing down on her from behind.
‘Hello, Sophie, dear. Are you all set?’
‘Yes, I think so, thank you,’ said Sophie, just as Henry pulled his hand from hers and began running towards the church doors. Sophie turned around just in time to see one of his new shoes disappear into one of the larger potholes and sink into a couple of inches of mud. ‘Oh no! Henry! Stop.’ But it was too late. Henry had tripped and was sprawling in a large muddy puddle. ‘Well, I was all set,’ said Sophie sadly, as she bent to pick up a wailing Henry. ‘I wish we could get this drive fixed, to be honest. It’s a bit of a hazard for everyone, especially the older members of the congregation.’
‘Ah, well. This happens every year, you know. I think they’re all used to it by now. Besides, it would be far too expensive to fix.’ With that, Audrey expertly circumnavigated the remaining potholes and disappeared quickly into the church, leaving Sophie to struggle with the muddy Henry. She carried him into the church porch and got to work on him with a packet of wet wipes.
Once inside the church, Sophie spotted Dominic, her husband and the vicar of All Saints, putting the finishing touches to his well-planned children’s service. The older members of the congregation liked the more established midnight communion service, which was to take place later, but Dominic had wanted to have something for younger people on Christmas Eve. The service had been advertised at the village school and the local toddler group, but one could never be sure whether people would come or not.
Sophie walked towards Dominic, still holding Henry firmly by the hand. Audrey appeared from the church kitchen and overtook them in the centre aisle. ‘Ah, Audrey,’ said Dominic, ‘I’ve made a backdrop for the stable scene at the front of church, but I need some drawing pins to secure it to the pinboard. I thought there were some in the vestry, but I can’t seem to locate them. Any ideas? Otherwise I’ll just pop home and get some.’
‘No need to use drawing pins. I’ve got something better. I put the drawing pins away so no one would use them on the new board.’
‘But it’s a pinboard,’ said Dominic, looking puzzled. ‘It’s meant to have drawing pins stuck into it.’
‘Yes, but we don’t want to damage it. It is new and it was quite expensive, you know.’ Audrey disappeared into the vestry and reappeared with a small envelope. ‘Now, put these pieces of sticky-backed Velcro onto the back of whatever it is you want to stick on the board,’ she said, offering the envelope to Dominic, ‘and they will stick to the soft side of the pinboard.’
‘OK, are you sure they will stick?’ asked Dominic, doubtfully, taking the small Velcro pieces out of the envelope.
‘Yes, they’ll be fine,’ Audrey reassured him, and then took them back out of his hand. ‘Now, to be more economical, we cut them into quarters. There we are.’ She snipped them into small pieces with a large pair of scissors and handed them back. ‘We must be frugal. It’s the church’s money, after all!’ She whizzed past him back into the vestry with the scissors, leaving him with the tiny Velcro quarters in his hand.
Dominic, looking dubious, placed them in the corners of his painted stable scene and pressed it onto the newly acquired pinboard.
‘How are you doing?’ Sophie asked him.
‘Not too bad, stable scene constructed, hope it stays in place. Manger full of straw, star attached to fishing rod, costumes ready for children. No actual children yet, but I’m sure they’ll be along soon. The music group sound good. Hayley has been very organised.’ He paused. ‘I thought Hayley looked a bit down, though.’
‘Oh,’ said Sophie, turning to look for her friend. Hayley McDurney was sitting at the piano, deep in conversation with Mike, the guitarist. She had her back to Sophie, her long blonde hair cascading over her shoulders. Sophie remembered that Hayley had hinted about an important appointment with the doctor that week with Paul, her husband. Hayley, the secretary at the village primary school, was very good at publicising church events with families, and the headmistress was very friendly towards the church.
Sophie decided to speak to Hayley at the end of the service. ‘What needs doing?’ she asked Dominic.
‘I think it’s just a question of catching the parents of the children taking part in the nativity, getting them into costume and making sure they sit near the front,’ said Dominic. ‘Ah, here come the Hendersons.’
John and Belinda Henderson with their three boys, Noah, Jonah and Boaz, were a new family at church. They had lived in the village for some years, but had been travelling eight miles into Stafford every Sunday in order to attend one of the churches there. It was unfortunate for All Saints that many of the younger churchgoing families in the village chose to drive past the village church on a Sunday morning to go to one of the bigger churches in town. Most of them did it because they wanted to take their children to a church with plenty of young people. It was immensely frustrating, thought Sophie. If some of them would just join them, then others would find it much more inviting! With a few more families they could do so much more. Dominic often said that churches were like parties that people only wanted to come to after they had warmed up, but no one actually wanted to do the warming up.
When John and Belinda had walked through the door one Sunday morning, halfway through November, Sophie and Dominic had hardly been able to believe their good fortune. True, the Hendersons had said that they wanted to ‘try the church out’ for the moment, but six weeks later they were still coming. Three more children in the Sunday school doubled their numbers. This afternoon Noah, aged eight, was to be Joseph, Jonah, aged six, a wise man and Boaz, aged four, a shepherd. The rest of the parts were to be played by children and grandchildren of members of the congregation, and it was hoped that children from the village would come and join in with the singing. Dominic and Sophie had briefly toyed with the idea of including Henry in the nativity, but decided he was a bit too young and unpredictable. There would be other years.
Sophie walked back up the aisle, smiling. She felt a little in awe of Belinda Henderson – her children were so well behaved. Today, though, she was feeling more confident and excited about the service. She greeted the family and invited them to come to the front, showing them the costumes that had been laid across the pew.
Gradually more families began to arrive. The church had been beautifully decorated by members of the congregation. Holly and candles adorned the high windowsills that sat beneath the stained-glass windows, the wooden pew-ends had been hung with arrangements of red velvet roses, and a large pine tree in the corner sparkled with tinsel, coloured baubles and fairy lights. The under-pew heaters that had been installed a few years previously were keeping the ancient church warm and, that afternoon, it felt alive and full of excitement. All the children were given a musical instrument to ‘play’, and seasonal refreshments were being prepared in the kitchen for after the service by Audrey’s team. Sophie went to sit near the back, her usual place of safety, with Henry, who liked to shout a lot during quiet parts of church services and normally needed to be removed quickly.
Dominic welcomed everyone and the service began. Sophie knew Dominic would lead everyone through the nativity well, and she was right. Dominic loved Christmas, despite the long hours and lack of sleep it entailed for a vicar. He guided the children expertly through the story of the Saviour’s birth, while their delighted parents looked on. Each scene was interspersed with a carol, led by Hayley and Mike, and everyone joined in. There was so much noise and jollity that even Henry managed to stay engaged and Sophie didn’t feel the need to rush him out to the back room. The only slight hitch was when Jonah Henderson, resplendent in his wise man outfit, came forward to say his line, ‘We bring him gifts of gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.’ There was a kind of strangled noise, as every adult in the church tried very hard not to laugh, while all the children remained oblivious. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, at that moment the backdrop to the stable scene released itself from the pinboard, the tiny Velcro pieces able to hold on no longer, and floated gracefully down over the heads of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Dominic rushed to stick it back up, apologising profusely, and the congregation were able to laugh to release the tension.
At the end of the service there were mince pies for the adults, Christmas cookies for the children and copious amounts of orange squash. Sophie was encouraged to see some of the children from the toddler group, which met in the village hall. She managed to get Dominic to hold Henry at his station by the door, while she went to chat with some of the parents. She hoped there would be some among them who might feel encouraged to try church on a Sunday.
Dominic and Sophie’s prayer for All Saints was that they would be able to bring more young people into the congregation. They knew that if they did not, there was a chance that the church would eventually die out and close altogether – their greatest fear. Then there would be no Christian presence in the village at all.
Half an hour later, church was emptying. Sophie checked Dominic was still managing Henry. They both seemed fine. Dominic was chatting with John Henderson and Henry seemed happy being held in his arms. She turned and walked back down the aisle to the front of church, where Hayley was sitting on the piano stool, looking downcast.
‘Thanks, Hayley. You and Mike did a splendid job this afternoon.’
‘Thank you,’ said Hayley. ‘Paul didn’t come, though. He said he would, but he didn’t.’
‘Oh,’ said Sophie. ‘That’s disappointing.’
‘That’s not the only thing,’ Hayley went on. ‘Our appointment with Dr Payne didn’t go very well.’
‘What did he say?’
Sophie’s felt a twinge of anxiety. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Dr Payne said…’ Hayley took a deep breath. ‘He said that it isn’t impossible for us to have a baby naturally, but it’s highly unlikely.’
‘Oh, Hayley, I’m so sorry.’
‘I know. We both feel really upset about it, but Paul has taken it very badly. He doesn’t want anyone to know… well… I can tell you and Dominic, of course. He’s taking it very personally, almost like a personal insult. We had a row before I came out, actually. It’s as if he thinks it affects him more than it affects me, but it doesn’t. I mean, I know it’s not Paul’s fault, but it’s me that can’t have a baby, not him. He needs to understand that.’ Hayley had tears in her eyes.
Sophie knew how Hayley felt, having been in the same position herself. She gave Hayley a hug as she measured her words carefully. ‘I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. I do know how hard it is, you know I do.’ Hayley nodded. ‘But I’m sure Paul will be struggling with this hugely. I know Dominic did. It wasn’t just that we couldn’t have a baby; obviously we were both really sad about that. But it was more than that for Dominic – it was as if it emasculated him somehow. Do you see what I mean?’
Before Hayley had a chance to answer, her mobile started buzzing on top of the piano. She picked it up and read a text message. ‘Paul,’ she said. ‘I’d better go.’
‘Let’s meet up for coffee soon.’
‘Yes,’ said Hayley, gratefully. ‘That would be nice. We can talk properly then. I’ll see you in the morning, though. Paul said he would come in the morning.’
‘OK,’ replied Sophie, thinking she would believe it when she saw it.
Hayley and Paul lived in one of the flats in the newer part of the village. Paul’s parents lived in Oxley and Hayley’s parents lived in a neighbouring village, in a house they had shared with Hayley’s grandparents since Hayley and her sister had moved out. Paul and Hayley had been married four years earlier at All Saints, by the previous vicar. Sophie had suspected for a while that they might have been trying for a baby, but she hadn’t liked to assume. Then, six months ago, when Sophie and Dominic had adopted Henry, Hayley had mentioned that she and Paul had been hoping for a baby too. It seemed to Sophie that Paul loved Hayley very much, but he wasn’t a Christian and Hayley seemed to be in constant battle with him over his church attendance.
Eventually the church emptied of all but Dominic, Sophie and Henry. ‘Well done, darling,’ said Sophie. ‘You did well.’
‘God’s work,’ said Dominic. ‘I do feel quite tired, though.’
‘Three more services and then you’ve done it.’
Dominic shut the heavy, wooden church door. Henry couldn’t escape now, so it didn’t matter if he ran around the church – after all, none of the older people was there to complain. As Dominic began to tidy the manger away, Sophie got to work on the biscuit crumbs with the vacuum cleaner. Twenty minutes later they were walking back to the vicarage for tea.
When tea was finished and the kitchen tidied, Henry bathed and put to bed, Sophie and Dominic sat down with a cup of tea. This was the difficult bit. Apart from arranging the presents under the tree and preparing the vegetables for the next day, there wasn’t a lot to do and Dominic needed to stay awake in order to go back over to church at eleven o’clock, for midnight communion.
‘It’s awfully quiet,’ remarked Dominic. ‘Do you mind?’
‘What? Oh, you mean do I mind that Mum and Dad have gone to my brother’s for Christmas? No, they came to us last year and it’s their first Christmas with the new baby.’
‘It’s our first Christmas with Henry too!’
‘Well, maybe it’s nice that it’s just the three of us this year. We’ve waited a long time to do this. Anyway, when we go down on Friday we’ll see everybody, won’t we? Do you mind that your parents aren’t here?’
‘No, they always want to drive and, if the weather’s bad, it’s such a long way to travel from that part of France. I’d much rather see them in the spring or summer, when we can spend a bit more time with them. Nicholas will be home from university, so they’re not alone.’
‘I had a good chat with John Henderson at the end of the service.’ Dominic smiled slightly.
‘Go on,’ said Sophie, hopefully.
‘They’ve decided that they want to join All Saints and support us in our work here. John said that they felt things were going well and they really wanted to be part of their local church. Belinda has been chatting to mums in the school playground and she feels it would be so much easier to invite them here than to a church eight miles away. They like the way we’re doing things here and they want to commit. He said whatever we decide to do, they will be behind us. How about that for a Christmas present?’ He was grinning broadly now and Sophie had the impression he had been bursting to tell her this for some time but had been waiting for the right moment.
‘I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that! That really is a wonderful Christmas present.’ Her heart, already light from the afternoon service, soared. John and Belinda’s presence would certainly help attract other young families. Maybe God was answering their prayers!
She took the empty cups out to the kitchen and returned with her arms full of presents. ‘He’s asleep,’ she said. ‘Let’s put these under the tree and then I’ll sort the veg out for tomorrow.’ A few minutes later she sat down with a tray of vegetables and a peeler. ‘I wanted to talk to you about Hayley. I know why she looked upset.’
‘Don’t tell me – Paul said he would come to church and then he didn’t?’
‘No… Actually, they went to see Dr Payne this week. It looks as if they have a similar problem to us. About having a baby… They probably can’t.’
‘Oh no, that’s sad. Is it, you know… Do they know why?’
‘Yes, same as us. We didn’t have long to talk, so we said we’d catch up properly after Christmas. It might be good for you to talk to him when he’s ready. I think it’s all a bit new right now. They’re probably still in shock.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Dominic. ‘Poor chap. Well, poor both of them.’
‘A bit of me wonders if Henry might not be the only adopted child in our church in the future.’
‘Let’s not jump to conclusions. Adoption isn’t the right thing for every couple who can’t conceive naturally. You know that.’
‘I do,’ said Sophie. ‘Let’s just try to be there for them.’
Just before eleven o’clock Dominic got up to go back over to church. ‘I hope it isn’t raining.’
‘I’ll have a look.’ Sophie pulled back the thick curtain that covered the front door and peered outside. There was very little street lighting in Oxley, but the moon was bright and she could make out the shape of the fourteenth-century church in the darkness. The church sat on one side of the village and was so close to the vicarage that it was almost impossible to tell where the front garden ended and the ancient graveyard began. ‘No, not raining.’
‘Good, it puts people off coming if it’s raining.’
‘You don’t mind if I go to bed, do you?’ asked Sophie.
‘Of course not.’
‘Thank you. I promise that you can put your feet up tomorrow lunchtime and not have to do another thing all day.’
‘Then I definitely don’t mind if you go to bed,’ he said, opening the door and walking out into the darkness of the cold, crisp night. Sophie closed the front door and shivered. She picked up her tray of prepared vegetables and took it out to the kitchen.
The vicarage kitchen felt chilly. In keeping with the rest of the house, it was large and old, but had a rather solid feel about it. The house was brick-built and had five bedrooms, but seemed to have got stuck in a time warp around the 1960s. Sophie kept it clean and tidy, and they had decorated most of the rooms when they had moved in the previous January, before Henry came to live with them that summer. However, the old-fashioned kitchen with its painted wooden cabinets remained, along with the antiquated bathroom with the old enamel bath. There was even a small, damp cellar, accessed from a door in the kitchen. A previous vicar had kept paperwork down there, but it had been ruined by mould. Audrey had once suggested putting a table tennis table there: ‘It might encourage young people to join the church, dear,’ but Sophie and Dominic had kept the door firmly locked.
Sophie put the vegetables into the fridge, switched off the kitchen light and climbed the stairs. She was vaguely aware of Dominic crawling into bed at one o’clock.
‘How did it go?’ she mumbled.
‘Fine, go back to sleep,’ he whispered.
The next morning Sophie woke to the sound of Henry shouting, ‘Out, out, out.’ She groaned and stretched and looked at the clock. Half past six; it could have been worse.
‘Coming,’ she called. Slowly she got out of bed and put her dressing gown on, then went to Henry’s room, checking the doors and the safety gate at the top of the stairs on the way. Henry loved to slam doors. The vicarage doors had very high handles, well out of Henry’s reach, so as long as they were shut, he couldn’t slam. ‘Happy Christmas, Henry,’ she said, as she lifted him out of the cot.
‘Happy Christmas, both of you,’ came Dominic’s slightly gravelly voice behind her.
‘Happy Christmas, darling. I thought you were still asleep.’
‘Too much adrenaline,’ said Dominic, ‘and I’m starting to lose my voice. I’ve been talking too much and I’ve still got two more services to go.’
Sophie decided talking should wait until lunchtime in order to save Dominic’s voice for as long as possible, and busied herself changing Henry’s nappy and dressing him. Dominic went out for the early morning communion service and Sophie went to have her shower, leaving Henry on the landing with all but his own bedroom door shut. He could come to no harm there.
By the time Dominic returned from the early service, Sophie and Henry were sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, Henry in the highchair. A fresh cup of coffee had been poured for Dominic.
‘How did it go?’ asked Sophie, as he joined them. ‘Just the usual two customers?’
‘Just the one, actually,’ Dominic replied. His voice seemed to have recovered a little. ‘Only Will… Florence has gone to her daughter in Leicester for Christmas.’
‘How about last night?’
‘Last night… I thought it went well, but Geoffrey seemed disgruntled. He said that numbers were much lower than last year.’
‘Did you tell him about yesterday afternoon? Audrey was there – I would have thought she’d have told him that it went well. I mean, they are married, you would think they talk to each other!’
‘I did mention it, but he didn’t seem interested.’
‘Never mind, it’s just Geoffrey being Geoffrey. He always seems disgruntled about something. I’ve forgotten his background. Wasn’t he in the army before he retired?’
‘Yes, I think he was quite high ranking. He retired early, though. Audrey told me once that retirement hadn’t suited Geoffrey and he needed a new challenge. Audrey, apparently, came up with the idea that retirement might be a good time for them to join the church. They both joined the choir and then, twenty years ago, he became churchwarden because nobody else wanted the job. He’s been running the show ever since!’
‘Running the show?’
‘Well, he certainly seems to think he’s in charge!’
‘I think Audrey could give him a run for his money.’
‘What, as chief of the flower ladies?’
‘She not just the flower chief, you want to try being in the church kitchen with her! Woe betide you if you put too much water in the kettle or a spoon goes missing.’
‘Let’s not be horrible about Audrey and Geoffrey. They do an awful lot for the church and we must remember that. Anyway, it’s Christmas!’
Henry had finished his breakfast and was squirming in the highchair. After wiping him down, Sophie lifted him out. ‘Shall we go over to church?’ she said. She knew Henry was still too young to really know what was going on, but she had been looking forward to their first Christmas as a family for a long time. Her plan was that after church they would all go into the living room together to see whether Father Christmas had been. She needed to get Henry out of the house before he wandered in by himself.
‘Let’s go,’ said Dominic.
The Christmas morning service was a very happy one. Dominic’s voice held out and he gave a short message. Mrs Fowler-Watt, the organist, did a great job with the carols, the church was full and there was a buzz.
We have much to be thankful for, Sophie thought, as she looked around at the congregation. She spotted Robert and Catherine. Robert Watson was a retired vicar from a nearby village. He and his wife, Catherine, had moved to Oxley for their retirement and were very supportive towards Dominic and Sophie. They had offered to lead the services on the Sunday after Christmas, so Dominic and Sophie could have some time away to visit family. Then Sophie spotted Lucy Shackleton, a young physiotherapist who worked in Stafford. Lucy was sitting with her parents. She looked tired, but happy. However, Sophie couldn’t help noticing that neither Paul nor Hayley had made it to church that morning and she made a mental note to message Hayley later.
Lucy caught Sophie in the church doorway, just as she was leaving. ‘Can we have coffee together sometime soon?’
‘Yes, of course.’ Sophie thought of Hayley and instantly felt a prickle of alarm. Had something happened to Lucy too? ‘Are you OK?’ she asked.
‘Yes, I’m fine,’ Lucy smiled. ‘I just wanted to see you.’
‘Great,’ said Sophie, relieved. ‘We have some days away after Christmas, but let’s get together when we get back.’
When Sophie and Dominic, each holding one of Henry’s hands, walked back to the vicarage, they felt positive about the coming year, despite their worry for Hayley and Paul. A full church on Christmas Eve afternoon and on Christmas Day and a new family ready to join them. Dominic opened the vicarage door. ‘Let’s see if Father Christmas has been,’ he said.
The rest of Christmas Day turned out to be everything that Sophie had hoped for. Henry had the attention of one of his parents all of the time and both of them most of the time. He didn’t seem to want to play with any of his presents, but he showed great enthusiasm for ripping off the paper.
In the afternoon Sophie sent Hayley a message: ‘Happy Christmas to you both. Missed you this morning, but hope to catch up soon. You are in our prayers.’
A little later Sophie’s phone buzzed. She picked it up and looked at the message. ‘Hayley,’ she said. ‘She says they were sorry they weren’t there this morning and thanks for our prayers. Then she says that she won’t be in church on Sunday, but Mike’s happy to lead the music on the guitar and she’s told Robert and Catherine.
‘I know why she can’t come to church on Sunday,’ said Sophie, suddenly. ‘Paul’s work Christmas party is always on the Saturday after Christmas and they’re staying in a hotel in town on Saturday night. She won’t want to get up on Sunday morning and rush back to church.’
‘That’s a very odd day to have your work Christmas party!’
‘I know, that’s what I said. Apparently, years ago someone didn’t manage to book a venue before Christmas, so they were offered the Saturday after Christmas at a cheaper rate. Everyone loved it because it wasn’t part of the mad pre-Christmas rush, so they’ve done it like that ever since.’
The day after Boxing Day, Dominic, Sophie and Henry set off in the car to Eastbourne, to spend a few days with Sophie’s parents. It took a while to pack the cases (Henry kept taking things out) and a bit longer to get everything into the car. They put Henry in his car seat first, to stop him escaping, and then piled the cases, travel cot, highchair and pushchair in around him. Gone were the days of a quick getaway.
Sophie felt excited. She hadn’t seen her family for a couple of months. It was too far to go for a day trip. Their last visit was when her brother Steve’s girlfriend, Jane, had given birth to Freya. That visit had been a little fraught. It was the first time they had taken Henry away overnight, and Sophie was very aware that seeing her brother’s first baby was going to make her feel wistful about the baby she had so wished for herself. Seeing Freya and holding her in her arms had brought a lump to Sophie’s throat, but she had been determined to contain her emotions, so as not to spoil the excitement for everyone else.
That visit was also the first time that Steve and Jane had seen Henry. They were, understandably, a little apprehensive. Adopted children often came from quite difficult backgrounds, and Henry was no exception. His behaviour could be a challenge, but Sophie and Dominic had managed to keep him well under control and the visit had gone reasonably smoothly. Steve and Jane, although not really engaging with Henry, had gradually learned to relax around him.
This time, Sophie didn’t feel so emotional about seeing Freya. Henry was quiet in the back of the car, looking out of the window, and Sophie and Dominic chatted happily. Dominic mentioned that John Henderson wanted to discuss some ideas he had for church when they got back. It pleased Sophie to hear how encouraged Dominic sounded about this.
As it was a long journey, they stopped for lunch at a service station just outside Oxford.
‘I ought to get some flowers for Mum before we go,’ said Sophie. ‘I just need to pop to the loo too.’
‘You go to the ladies and I’ll get the flowers with Henry, and meet you back at the car.’
However, when Sophie arrived back at the car, Dominic and Henry were nowhere to be seen. It was cold and she didn’t have the car keys. She started to walk slowly back towards the service station entrance. Once inside she looked around but couldn’t see them, so she walked to the car again. After a few more minutes of waiting, she spotted Dominic coming towards her, looking red in the face, Henry over one shoulder and a squashed-looking bunch of flowers in the other hand.
‘All right?’ she asked.
‘Kind of,’ Dominic replied. ‘Let’s get back into the car and I’ll tell you.’ Sophie took the flowers from him to allow him to strap Henry back into his car seat.
‘Go on then,’ Sophie prompted, as they drove away.
‘He got away from me,’ Dominic began, quietly. He clearly didn’t want Henry to hear what he was saying. ‘I was looking for a nice bunch of flowers, which wasn’t easy because of the time of year, I suppose. He kept grabbing at everything in sight.’
‘You know the golden rule,’ Sophie reminded him in a hushed voice. ‘Never let him get within an arm’s reach of anything on the shelves. The best way is to have him secured at all times. Move him directly from seat to seat – car seat to shopping trolley, pushchair back to car seat, etc, etc. Always, always keep him contained. Anyway, carry on.’
‘So, I picked him up and carried him to the checkout. But then I had to put him down to get my wallet out and he gave me the look. You know, the look?’
‘Oh, I do know the look.’
‘I asked him to stand still for a moment while I paid for the flowers, but he made a run for it. I had to chase him right out of the shop and through the service station. I left the flowers on the counter and had to go back for them. The lady obviously thought I had no control over my child… because I didn’t. It was so embarrassing. I’m sure he would have run straight out into the car park if he could have got to the doors before I caught him.’
‘He has no idea about safety. I’m a bit worried about how he’s going to behave at Mum and Dad’s. There are no safety gates around the stairs or kitchen. I did mention maybe bringing something with us, but they were very dismissive. Mum just said that she hadn’t needed anything like that when we were little. We’re just going to have to follow him everywhere. He burned his fingers on the oven door the other day, you know.’
‘You didn’t say.’
‘Sorry, I meant to. I probably forgot because it wasn’t too bad in the end. He managed to get his arm through the bars of the gate across the kitchen doorway, while I was taking a cake out of the oven. I told him not to touch, that it was very hot and would hurt him, but his desire to defy was too strong. He managed to touch the edge of the oven door. I held his fingers under the cold tap until he stopped crying and there was no visible damage. I shouldn’t think he’ll try that again, but I still wouldn’t trust him not to try to touch the iron or run into the road.’ Sophie turned round to look at Henry. ‘He’s asleep now.’
‘Do you think there’s something wrong with him?’
‘I don’t know. He doesn’t behave like other children. Perhaps it’s us. Is it me?’
‘I’m sure it isn’t us. No, you’re great with him.’ Dominic thought for a while. ‘He just seems to look for naughty things to do. Like when people come to the house and we have to keep reminding them not to put things down because Henry will grab and throw anything he can.’
‘Or when the postman comes and he wants to stuff the letters back out of the letterbox before we can get to them.’
‘And in the bathroom, when he wants to turn all the taps on and keep flushing the toilet.’
‘A lot of it is just toddler behaviour. It’s just that Henry’s kind of toddler plus, if you know what I mean,’ said Sophie.
‘I certainly do know what you mean.’
Eventually they arrived and parked on the drive of the semi-detached house in which Sophie had grown up. Glenda, Sophie’s mother, had obviously heard the car and opened the front door before they had even got out. ‘Hello, darling,’ she said, embracing Sophie. ‘How’s my favourite grandson?’
‘Your only grandson is just waking up,’ said Sophie, ‘so he’s a bit grumpy.’
‘Hello, Dominic, how was Christmas?’
‘Fine, thanks, Glenda.’ Henry was crying, with his head on Dominic’s shoulder. Dominic was rubbing his back. ‘Sorry, he doesn’t like being woken up.’
‘Patrick’s in the kitchen. Steve and Jane are coming over for lunch tomorrow. I’m doing a Christmas dinner for all of us then, as we’ll all be together. Oh, here comes Dad.’
‘Happy Christmas, Sophie, darling. Bit late I know, but here you all are. Hello, Dominic, how was the journey?’
‘Not too bad – five hours including a stop for lunch.’
They went into the living room and sat down. Moments later Patrick appeared with a tea tray. Henry stopped crying and sat on Dominic’s knee, watching the adults chat for a moment. He looked around the room at the many ornaments and framed photographs on the shelves and tables. There were a few new ones: one of himself, one of Freya with Grandma and one of Freya with Grandad. Glenda and Patrick were, quite rightly, delighted with their new granddaughter. Sophie couldn’t help noticing that with the arrival of the baby, her parents had clearly cast off their previous feelings of indignation about their son and his girlfriend living together unmarried.
Henry slipped off Dominic’s knee and toddled across the room. He picked up a frame containing a photograph of Sophie in her wedding dress. Glenda jumped up from the sofa. ‘No, Henry, give that to Grandma.’ But Henry had seen her coming and, with a glint in his eye, he threw the photo on the floor. Glenda picked it up and replaced it, but Henry was going for a crystal swan on an occasional table in the corner, a grin on his face. Sophie and Dominic both jumped up. Sophie made a lunge for the swan and Dominic grabbed Henry and sat back down with him clamped securely on his lap.
‘I’ll just move a few of these,’ said Sophie, swiftly clearing the shelves and tables and putting the delicate objects onto higher shelves out of Henry’s reach.
‘You could just tell him not to touch things,’ said Glenda, reprovingly.
‘Children do need discipline, you know,’ added Patrick.
‘Saying no doesn’t work with Henry,’ said Sophie. ‘If you tell him not to do something, you’ve set him a challenge.’
Grandma and Grandad’s house may not be so well adapted for Henry as the vicarage, but at least, Sophie thought, she would be sharing the burden with Dominic.
The rest of the afternoon and evening passed with Sophie and Dominic taking it in turns to follow Henry round the house, closing doors to avoid slamming and taking things out of his hands, while the other one chatted with Glenda and Patrick. Dominic emptied the car and took the luggage upstairs. Sophie and Dominic would be sleeping in Sophie’s old room and Dominic put the travel cot together in Steve’s childhood bedroom. He wouldn’t be able to escape from that.
After tea, when Henry had been bathed and put to bed, the four adults sat down together.
‘Jane and Steve will come over just before lunch tomorrow,’ Glenda reminded them. ‘Freya is just adorable at the moment. She’s such a good baby. She’s sleeping through the night already. I think she looks like Steve, but Dad thinks she looks like Jane. It will be lovely for you to see her again.’
‘Yes, I’m looking forward to it,’ said Sophie, truthfully.
Her mother thought for a moment, then said, ‘Jane was quite worried, you know, when she became pregnant. She was frightened of telling you. I think she thought it might upset you, but I told her you would be fine. I told her that you had got over not having a baby and that you’re quite happy the way you are now, with Henry.’
Sophie glanced at Dominic, feeling a mixture of surprise and hurt. She wondered whether her mother really thought she had got over her sadness or whether she had just been trying to make Jane feel better. She didn’t say anything, but she wished her mother would sometimes ask her how she felt instead of telling her.
The following morning Henry woke up bright and early. The weather was cold but dry and, in order to avoid chasing Henry round the house all day, Sophie and Dominic put Henry in the pushchair after breakfast and took him for a walk, while Glenda and Patrick made preparations for dinner.
Steve, Jane and Freya arrived just in time for lunch. The table was beautifully set and the food cooked to perfection. During the meal Henry sat in the highchair between Dominic and Sophie. Eating wasn’t one of Henry’s challenges; it was something he thoroughly enjoyed. Sophie sometimes worried that he didn’t seem to ‘do full’, but on this occasion it was very helpful that he sat and ate quietly and continuously. It allowed everyone else to linger over their meals and enjoy each other’s company. Freya was passed between the adults, so everyone had the opportunity both to hold her and to eat.
After lunch Glenda ushered everyone into the living room to sit down, and said that she and Patrick would clear away.
Dominic took the first shift looking after Henry. Jane passed Sophie a bottle of milk, so she could feed Freya. After Freya had been winded, Jane picked her up and placed her in her crib and she drifted off to sleep. Steve picked up the paper and Jane sat back in her chair.
‘How’s it going with your new job?’ Jane asked Sophie.
‘New job?’ asked Sophie, unsure whether she was referring to being Henry’s mum or something else.
‘Yes, I mean, I know the vicar’s wife runs the WI and the Mothers’ Union…’
Sophie was momentarily speechless. ‘Which novel from the 1950s are you getting that information from?’ she managed to say, after a pause.
‘Oh, isn’t that what you do? My mum said that that was what vicars’ wives did.’
‘Not really,’ said Sophie. ‘The WI isn’t part of the church, although some of the ladies at church are members. We don’t have a Mothers’ Union in Oxley.’
‘Oh,’ said Jane, looking confused. ‘Maybe Mum got it wrong, then.’
‘Actually, a lot of people in my position have jobs outside the church. I chose not to have a paid job in order to work alongside Dominic, but since Henry arrived I’ve had to stop doing quite a lot at church. I used to lead some of the Bible studies at the women’s group we have on Thursday mornings. There were some people I used to visit and study with one to one, because they found it easier that way, and others that I just used to visit. Now I spend most of my time looking after Henry. I still go to the Thursday morning group, but now I sit in the crèche. Henry can be a bit tricky sometimes; I’m not quite ready to leave him with someone else yet.’
‘I love being a mum,’ said Jane, curling her legs up underneath her. ‘Are you enjoying it?’
Sophie thought about the many coping strategies that filled her days. ‘Well, I’m doing it,’ she said. ‘If I’m honest, I find it quite a challenge, but I have come in straight at the terrible twos, I suppose.’
At that moment, Glenda came into the room with a tray full of cups of coffee. ‘You see, Sophie,’ she said, ‘a little baby like Freya is very hard work.’
Sophie stood up. ‘I’ll just go and relieve Dominic,’ she said, ‘so he can come and drink his coffee.’
The next day was Sunday and their last day in Eastbourne before the journey back to Staffordshire that evening. Feeling somewhat guilty, Sophie decided not to go to church. In many ways it would have been nice to visit the church where, as a teenager, she had joined the youth club and discovered her faith. She knew there would be people there who remembered her from all those years ago. Maybe, she thought to herself ruefully, it would have been different if Henry had been… well… different. She realised that she simply couldn’t face the Sunday routine of sitting down, waiting for Henry to scream. Then she wondered whether that was a problem for young families visiting All Saints, Oxley, and what they could do about it. Really, Henry saw church as another opportunity to be naughty. He had learned very early on that the quickest way to be taken out of the church service and into the back room was to start shouting as soon as the service started.
In the end, Sophie took Henry for another walk in the pushchair and Dominic went to church alone. Sophie knew that he really appreciated the opportunity to simply be part of a congregation sometimes, rather than always having to lead one. She wanted him to have that special time. She took Henry to the park and arranged to pass by the church on the way back, so they could walk back to the house together.
They opened the front door in time to hear a lot of shouting coming from the living room. Going in, they found Glenda and Patrick watching Countdown on the television, both holding pens and pads of paper. ‘Is that on now?’ asked Dominic, sounding surprised.
‘No, no,’ said Patrick, not looking up from the television. ‘We recorded it.’
Sophie smiled to herself and made a mental note to speak to Dominic later about her parents’ Countdown habit.
After lunch, Sophie suggested that they all go for a walk together. Dominic put Henry on reins for safety, hoping he would walk some of the way with them, while Sophie pushed the empty pushchair. They all wrapped up and took a walk towards the beach, enjoying the breeze and the salty air. After a few yards Henry laid himself down on the pavement and wouldn’t get up, so he ended up back in the pushchair again.
‘You’re very lucky that Henry is such an easy child to look after,’ said Glenda.
How could her mother be so lacking in observation? ‘I do find him quite hard work, you know.’
‘But he eats everything,’ said Glenda, as if that settled the matter.
‘He does eat everything,’ agreed Sophie, ‘but I find him hard in other ways. He seems to be looking for the next naughty thing to do all day long.’
‘Oh, he’s just a normal little boy, with lots of energy,’ said Glenda.
‘He just needs discipline, that’s all,’ Patrick added.
Perhaps he was just a normal little boy who needed discipline, thought Sophie. Perhaps she just wasn’t very good at coping. Other mums seemed to manage a lot more easily.
After tea, they packed the car, put Henry into his pyjamas with his coat on top, secured him in his car seat and said their goodbyes.
‘Thank you so much,’ said Sophie. ‘It’s been lovely and you’ve looked after us so well. I hope we haven’t exhausted you too much.’
‘Thank you,’ said Dominic. ‘Do come and visit us when you can. You’re always welcome.’
‘I’ll ring you tomorrow when we get back from Bridge Club,’ said Glenda, ‘to check how the journey went.’
They began the long journey home. Henry dropped off to sleep quickly, leaving them to talk.
‘It was lovely and I love them very much,’ said Sophie, ‘but they can be a bit funny sometimes.’
‘Seem pretty regular to me,’ said Dominic. ‘They like looking after their family, playing bridge and then rushing home to watch Countdown.’
‘Ooh, that reminds me, I must tell you about Countdown later. No, what I mean is, my mother doesn’t always use her eyes. Or, come to think of it, her ears. You weren’t there, but she told me she thought a small baby was hard work. I don’t doubt that Freya can be hard work, but we spent the whole time we were there taking it in turns to stop Henry demolishing the house. And then she told me what an easy child Henry was, because he eats everything.’
‘Well,’ said Dominic, thoughtfully, ‘she thinks Henry is easy because, let’s be honest, your mother’s mission in life is to feed people. As for the other things she said, she’s your mother and she loves you. She wants to think you’re happy. Thinking that Henry is an easy child and that you don’t mind about not being able to have a baby any more means that she can think you’re happy and content with the way things have turned out. In her own funny way, she’s trying to make it true by telling you it’s true.’
‘I suppose,’ said Sophie. ‘I suppose it’s a bit like when I first took Henry to the toddler group. It was horrible, because Henry didn’t want to play with any of the toys and kept trying to escape out of the door to make me chase him. All the other mothers kept looking at me, but pretending they weren’t looking at me. Anyway, I said that we were adopting him and one lady said I was lucky, because I didn’t have to go through pregnancy and labour. I wanted to scream at her, “No, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not lucky,” but I couldn’t because I’m the vicar’s wife and I have to be nice to everyone.’
‘No, you’re a Christian and you have to be nice to everyone.’
‘OK, fair point. But what I was trying to say was that the lady at the toddler group was trying to make not being able to have a baby into a good thing, to make me feel better. She wasn’t saying it to be unkind.’
‘Exactly. Lots of funny things people say are kindly meant. Anyway, tell me about Countdown.’
‘Oh, it’s only funny because they record it so they can cheat. They’ve always done it. They record it and play it back, so they can pause it and give themselves time to work out the answers. Then they compete with each other to see who can work it out first. That was what all the shouting was about.’