Although she'd put another coin in the meter not that long ago, the old gas fire, which did little to dispel the chill that had crept into every corner of Bessie's living-room, hissed and popped as if it might be going out. That McGregor woman who had been in earlier - her from the Welfare, barely out of school, always fussing and busy-bodying around - had put down a fifty pence piece on the table before she'd left, almost sly like, making Bessie promise to put it in the meter later.
She'd been asking Bessie all sorts of questions about how Bessie would be spending Christmas. Bessie had told her that she would be spending Christmas with Gwennie, her niece, thank you very much. That they would be round to fetch her in the car later on, and they would bring her home later tomorrow, on Christmas day.
Jean McGregor, happy to hear this, had picked up her shoulder-bag and went on her way.
Now Bessie wrapped the rug around her more closely, and settled down into the broken seat of the shabby armchair to make the best of it. For she hadn't actually said she was going to Gwennie's today, had she? Oh, sure, she'd been invited, but she'd told Gwennie she wouldn't come until after tea tomorrow when the boys would be in bed. As much as she loved them, three rowdy, rumbustious little boys were altogether too much for Bessie now, and she would rather just enjoy a quiet hour or two with Gwennie and her husband when the boys were tucked in upstairs.
As for her own dinner tonight, well, it certainly wasn't the roast turkey that Gwennie and her family would be having next day. But she liked baked beans, and the packet mashed potatoes would save cooking. Wonderful what you could do with these convenience foods!
But Christmas wasn't the same, was it? Something was missing - a warmth, a feeling of expectation, a sense of togetherness. Everyone driving their own cart, going their own way, that was how Bessie saw it. And it was nothing to do with how much you had.
She remembered Christmas with the family, as a child. So poor they'd been, so very poor, borrowing each other's boot when they had to go out, running barefoot in the farm cottage at other times. There were six children, far too many to keep on the farm-labourers money, yet they were kept somehow, and they played and quarrelled and fought like children the world over, but there was this loving closeness that made life infinitely secure and happy.
Christmas mornings back then were exciting. There were no presents, of course, but there was always this special treat - a fresh brown farm egg for breakfast instead of the usual salted porridge. Christmas or not, Dad still had the cows to milk, so after breakfast out they all trooped with him, each gathering an armful of firewood on the way to keep the stove burning until bedtime. And, if the duck pond was frozen over, the lucky ones who had a pair of boots would have a slide over the ice while the others watched, until their sharpened appetites send them home for dinner.
And what a dinner! Not turkey, or Christmas pudding - not one of them dared look for that - but the cook up at the big house always sent over giblet pie, and there were potatoes baked in the farm own butter and tender vegetables from the cottage garden. After that came a fine bread pudding, stuffed with plums, just the thing to fill six hungry stomachs.
And after dinner, while their parents dozed, came another treat. Their father had made friends with the nanny up at the hall, and at Christmas nearly always managed to coax her into giving him one of the young master's old jigsaw puzzles. What did it matter if a piece or two were missing? Bessie remembered the pictures when they were put together: horses one year, ships and trains and other. All six children gathered about the puzzle spread over the brick floor of the kitchen, and it kept them engrossed until nearly bedtime. Those were good times! Bessie sighed at the memory. Good times which had lasted until Bessie went into service at the big house and met William.
The old woman smiled ruefully as she thought about William, the red-headed under-gardener who had captured her heart. Not for long, though. She hadn't asked much of life, just a cottage like her parents', a place to look after her William, to rear their children, to be a good wife and mother and enjoy a quiet country life.
A glint of amusement came into the old, faded eyes as she thought about it, for a quiet life was just what it hadn't been. Four she had quickly discovered that her gardener-husband had a temper to match her own. Goodness, how they had quarrelled, that is, when he had been at home. Most times he was spending his wages down at the Swan and in the end he had a run off with the barmaid their, and if neither of them had been seen from that day to this.
But it had not all been a dead loss, because there had been Philip, her baby born six months later. Not red-headed like his father nor dark like Bessie herself, but a radiant golden haired boy such as she never expected.
At this point, Bessie's memory came to a sudden stop. To continue the thread of recollection was two painful. Two recall her boy's growing up, the childish games and fun they'd both enjoyed, the good obedient lad growing up into a fine man, and then be cruel freak accident which had taken him from her, well it was too much to be borne.
It had been a struggle, bringing him up, certainly with no turkey for Christmas during those early years, but the struggle would have been infinitely worthwhile if the boy had own lived. But Bessie had to admit, the accident was no one's fault, and the burst tyre which had made the car skid across the road and into the bike Philip had been riding, injuring the boy fatally, could not have been foreseen.
After Philip's death it seemed to Bessie that everything came to a full stop. She seems to be facing a grim, stone wall. On one side warmth and love and sunshine and all things living and growing, and on the other side, her side, nothing but blankness and emptiness. Nothing could ever matter any more.
In that, however, she was absolutely wrong. She had barely recovered from Philip's death when, one day in the spring of 1942 a stranger called of the cottage.
"Good morning, Mrs. Price. I'm trying to get some of our young evacuees fixed up. Can you spare us a room?"
Bessie look at the group of children dubiously, and the young man in charge of them. It was beginning to rain and they all looked cold and forlorn.
"Come in," she said at last. The young man shepherded the children into the cottage parlour where of bright fire was burning. They sat down gratefully.
Bessie listened while the children's officer explained. The three default boys -he indicated their dark heads-had just lost their parents in the Blitz. It was just a question of looking after them for a few weeks, six at most he said, until a suitable foster parent could be found.
So Bessie began caring for David and Peter and Michael for the six appointed weeks, and the weeks grew into months, and the months into years, and when they got to be big lads another three came along to fill the gap in Bessie's life -three girls this time, and Gwennie was one of them. Not a proper niece of course, but then they all called her Auntie, so Gwennie was as much a niece as one could ever be, even Gwennie's lads calling Bessie Grandma.
With a quiet pop that made Bessie stir from her reverie the gas fire went out. It soon began to get colder in the darkening flat, and she pulled her rug around her. The meter needed another coin. Presently she would get up and put one in, but her hands got so stiff and cold this weather that it was difficult to manage it. In a minute.
Bessie's head sank as she dozed. A sweet peacefulness was creeping over her. She nodded gently and slipped into dreams. A light shone, growing brighter and brighter, and a stranger was coming towards her. He stretched out his hand to her.
"Bessie, it's my birthday today. We want you at the feast." Bessie felt a surge of childish happiness. A feast!
"Will there be turkey for dinner?" she asked.
The stranger nodded, smiling.
"And wine?" (Bessie remembered the Mission Hall's Christmas spread. One thing had spoiled it: it had been strictly teetotal.)
"No lack of wine, I shall see to it personally."
A twinkle came to his eye, as though he were remembering another feast in a far off day and time.
Something crossed Bessie's mind, draining the happiness from her face. "I can't sir. I have a grave to attend, my son's grave. There is weeds and grass...."
"Philip is not there, Bessie. He is here, waiting for you. He's waiting for you at the feast."
She could hear them now in her little room: Gwennie, that McGregor woman, and...Dr Pearce?
"Hypothermia," Dr Pearce said. She could hear his words quite distinctly, but muffled. "Nothing to be done now. I ought to have seen her yesterday."
"It's disgraceful that old people shouldn't have enough money to keep themselves alive and warm." Gwennie said indignantly. Her voice seemed a long way off.
Ms. McGregor was sobbing...that slip of a girl....
"Poor old Auntie." said Gwennie. "You know, it's strange, but she looks happy. Gwennie picked up Bessie's ice cold hand and kissed it.
But Bessie wasn't letting on. She just went on smiling. Smiling away to herself in the old armchair.
She walked with the stranger, and soon they came in view of the feast, and she could smell the delicious arom aof roast turkey. And a tall, handsome man stood up from the table, and he opened his arms towards her.