Their journey from London went well and the two women arrived at the pretty village of Northbrook in Suffolk and started up the hill towards the castle.
‘Look, you can see it now through the gloom.’ Daisy took her hand off the steering wheel and gestured ahead, making the car lurch and Anna blanch.
Above them the grey mass of Northbrook Castle blended into the wide East Anglian sky and Anna wondered if she really did want to stay here for Christmas after all. What if it rained all the time they were here? But she couldn’t forget her son Freddie’s parting words as he left for school this morning, ‘Please say yes, Mum. A castle for Christmas, it will be great.’
This was something she could do for him; they had not made any concrete plans for Christmas yet apart from probably staying at home. It was such an emotive time of the year, especially after losing Gary, her husband and Freddie’s father, such an important person in their lives, making her determined to give Freddie the best time she could.
They reached the top of the hill, the castle looming in front of them. Daisy slowed down before they crossed the drawbridge ahead.
‘We’re here now, we can’t turn back,’ Anna said, ‘and Freddie would be devastated if I refused. Let’s see though.’ She’d make a decision when she’d seen the setup.
The car clattered over the drawbridge through a short, stone passage and out into the quadrangle, a sort of courtyard, encircled by the castle. Small dark doors and windows faced a bedraggled lawn in the centre of the quadrangle and a strip of tarmac surrounded that. It did not look very welcoming in the teeming rain, grey on grey, but it might be fun and surely the rain would stop, it might even snow.
‘Freddie would love it, being able to run about in the fresh air away from London streets,’ Daisy said, ‘though it doesn’t look at its best today. But think if it snowed.’ She stopped the car outside a door at one end of the castle. ‘That would be something special.’
‘Of course, it would be magical, but it probably won’t.’ Anna agreed.
To her surprise the door in the castle opened and a man came out holding a large, red umbrella.
‘No, I didn’t.’ Anna felt a surge of excitement – to actually live in the castle was incredible and would give Freddie a Christmas he’d never forget.
‘Oh, dear Uncle Sidney, he must have been watching for us,’ Daisy said as he approached them, a heavyset man, his head hidden under the umbrella, which he lifted as he reached the car, revealing a friendly smile and faded blue eyes.
‘Welcome.’ His voice rich and warm. ‘Sorry it’s such a pig of a day, hardly tempting you to stay here.’
‘It is December, we can’t expect it to be warm,’ Anna smiled.
‘You go first, Anna. I’ll run for it,’ Daisy said.
‘I think there’s room for all of us,’ Sidney suggested, holding the large umbrella first over Anna, then going round to the other side of the car to collect Daisy, and they splashed their way into the flat.
Aunt Philly, a slight woman in jeans, a thick jersey and a friendly smile, welcomed them in.
‘I do hope you haven’t had this rain all the way,’ she said anxiously. ‘It’s been raining here for days.’
‘No, only the last half-hour.’ Daisy introduced Anna to them both; Sidney remained on the doormat in his coat and boots muttering something about heading straight out again and how he hoped to see them before they left.
‘Well, come in out of the wet, lunch is ready when you want it,’ Philly said. ‘It’s so good to see you, Daisy, seems ages, and to bring Anna. But don’t,’ she laid her hand on Anna’s arm, ‘take this on if you don’t want to. You may find it too much and I’ll quite understand.’ She led the way into the living room and an open fire dancing in the grate.
‘You’ve got your tickets so you’re both going to see Gerald in Boston. Sidney hasn’t seen his father for ages and you are fond of him. You’ll both have a great time and come back refreshed,’ Daisy said firmly, going to stand closer to the fire. ‘If Anna can’t do it, I will.’
Philly smiled, ‘But you don’t want to miss your holiday at that fabulous-sounding hotel, Daisy. And, correct me if I’m wrong but I had the feeling it was the people, or perhaps one person who interested you most.’ She finished, her eyes twinkling with laughter.
‘Maybe… but there will be other times. It’s just a group of us from work; busman’s holiday really, being surrounded by stunning pictures in a hotel that was once a stately home. But there are lovely treasures here at the castle I could drool over, if I stay here,’ Daisy said cheerfully, though Anna knew she’d rather be with her workmates, or rather one of them. She’d gone on enough about him, but then, Daisy was always falling in love, but somehow her love affairs never lasted for long.
Anna looked round the living room, the stone walls were rather severe but the cherry pink curtains and colourful pictures hanging from a rail brought the place to life. There was a cosiness about the room, which Anna would not have guessed from seeing the austere walls outside.
Daisy had told Anna that the main body of the castle was more lustrous, with huge, sumptuous pictures and gleaming furniture in a long gallery, with beautiful rooms leading off it, where events were held.
‘So good of you both to come, it’s quite a trek from London,’ Philly said. ‘Which part do you live in, Anna?’
‘Hammersmith, and it’s not too bad a drive,’ Anna replied. ‘But I wasn’t expecting to be actually in the castle.’
‘I hope you don’t find it too daunting. The castle is vast, as you saw when you arrived, but this flat is perfect for us and we like being part of it.’
Anna found she was starving after their long drive from London and was grateful when Philly took them into the kitchen where she’d made a delicious coq au vin followed by plum crumble made from plums from the garden.
‘We had a bumper crop this year and I bottled masses, they taste much nicer than if you freeze them,’ Philly said. ‘I’ll give you both some to take home.’
‘Thanks. Freddie, my son, loves fruit.’ Anna felt comfortable here, but then she wasn’t alone, with Daisy and her warm-hearted aunt here for company. What would it be like just her and Freddie in this vast castle in the winter darkness?
As if she’d guessed her feelings, Philly said, ‘There are lots of other people working on the estate and easily contactable by mobile, but only us actually living in the castle. We had everything all set up, this lovely couple were longing to come here for the month while we are away, then he had a dreadful accident, he’s a builder and fell off a roof and is still in hospital. And understandably his girlfriend would rather stay with him.’
‘It’s awful. Daisy told me, I do hope he gets better,’ Anna said.
‘I think it will take a long time, but we were left with this dilemma. We’d paid for the tickets and were so looking forward to going to Boston, as we haven’t seen Gerald, Sidney’s father for ages. Everyone was kind, saying they’d rally round, though no one could commit to staying here for the whole time, especially over Christmas. It’s often such a busy period for those who work here and really the only time most of them can take a break. Also it would be a muddle to keep chopping and changing house-sitters, and they have to be people we can trust.’
‘I hope you can trust me even though you don’t know me,’ Anna said.
‘You’re a friend of Daisy’s and that’s good enough for us.’ Philly smiled at her, ‘But if you and Freddie can’t stay the whole month, I can come back early,’ she said, though Anna sensed a reluctance in her voice. Philly went on, ‘There’s not much for you to do, just be here as a sort of presence. Christmas is our quietest time of the year as the castle is closed to the public – apart from the occasional wedding or use as a film set – so the staff here take the chance to go away or commit to other things. It’s all hands to the wheel come March, the month before we open everything up again.’
‘Freddie is longing to come and… it does seem a lovely place to be,’ Anna said, realising how much Philly wanted to go on their trip. ‘So when do you leave?’ Anna asked her. The rain seemed to have stopped now and, looking out, she could see a thin ray of sun catching the windows of the castle on the other side of the quadrangle. She leant back in her chair feeling warm and comfortable, the whole set-up luring her in.
‘Hopefully in two weeks, the 19th December,’ Aunt Philly answered, ‘just before the real Christmas rush and we’d be back on January 18th. Would that suit, what about your job and your little boy’s school?’
Anna considered staying the whole month. After all, Freddie would love the freedom of the country and she didn’t really have anything to go back home to. After Christmas and New Year, people hunkered down waiting for better weather. A month in the country would be a good break for them both.
‘It would be fine as long as I explained it to them and said we’d be a week or so late back,’ Anna said. Freddie was due back at school on the 10th of January, and the school where she worked, the day after, and there was a weekend in between. They could probably cope as she only worked part-time and she could easily catch up with her private coaching, though she’d better check first to be sure.
There was a ring on the bell and Philly said, ‘That will be Luke and Cathie, I asked them to call round for you to meet them so you wouldn’t… if you decide to come that is… feel you don’t know anyone.’
She went into the hall and opened the door and they could hear her greeting them. A few moments later a tall blond young man with a cheerful smile and a young woman raking her fingers through her hair, which had been scrunched under a hat, came into the kitchen in their stockinged feet.
‘Oh, Luke, lovely to see you,’ Daisy greeted him, getting up to hug him.
‘Great to see you again, Daisy, and this is Cathie, who works with us.’ He gestured towards the young woman.
Luke sat beside Anna, his face reddened from the weather. He was friendly and open, his hair flopping over his eyes. He said, ‘You’ll find this very different from London, much freer I’d have thought, and your boy will love it, all this space to run around.’
‘So will you come too, Daisy?’ Luke asked. ‘Or have you something more exciting to do?’
‘I’ll come if Anna can’t do it, though I’ll have to get time off work if it’s for a whole month, but I’d planned to go to Yorkshire to stay in a Victorian-themed hotel with my workmates over Christmas,’ Daisy explained.
‘I know, Philly showed it all to me when she first came here. You must go and see the castle treasures, Anna, if you stay. You won’t believe how sumptuous the main rooms are. It’s worth coming here just to see them.’
‘We’re a friendly crowd working on the estate,’ Luke went on, ‘and there are lots of Christmas celebrations, and you and your son would be welcome. We like new faces, get a bit bored of our own,’ he joked, winking at Cathie, who seemed to be looking more and more morose. ‘There’s Christmas lunch laid on at the Partridge in the village for all the workers and that would include you,’ he grinned, ‘and Freddie, there’s other children there.’
‘Yes, most people go to that and there’s always some of us working in the gardens or around, so if you need any help, day or night, you can get us on our mobiles,’ Luke finished with enthusiasm.
‘Remember, I’m the person who’s making the decision,’ Anna laughed, ‘and I think we will take you up on your offer,’ Anna felt suddenly happy. Freddie wanted to come here and she wouldn’t disappoint him.
Later, after tea, the castle glowing in the dark, lit by cleverly concealed lights, Anna and Daisy rattled back over the drawbridge to return to London.
Anna thought back to the lunch she, Freddie and his three godmothers had shared last week that had started this idea of caretaking the castle over Christmas. Daisy, Francy and Grania who lived in various parts of the country always tried to meet up around Christmas.
Grania had said jokily to Freddie, ‘so what would you like from us for Christmas, Freddie? Some socks, new under pants, something for school?’
There was a moment of shock; everyone had expected him to mention some computer game, Lego, or something new for his train set.
Even recalling the scene now caused Anna pain.
‘I’ve told you many times, Freddie, that you have a lovely Dad, but sadly he’s not with us any more’. Her voice had petered out, how difficult it was for him being only seven to accept that his father had died before either of them had known he was on the way. There was nothing but a stack of photographs of him. Gary was with his mates in a taxi with a drunken driver while on a stag do in Ibiza, he’d been killed outright, the others badly injured.
‘I know, but he’s not here. I want one to do things with, like my friends do,’ Freddie had protested, as if a father could be bought from a shop or ordered online from Amazon. ‘I want to see him, play football with him,’ Freddie went on. ‘Charlie at school has two daddies, he said I could have one of his, but I want one all of my own.’
Her heart ached as she remembered his wish. He’d be so excited to come here and that was something she could do for him, spend Christmas in the castle.