20 miles inland from Sharpington-By-Sea, equidistant between Finchbottom and Pepperstock Green was the sprawling village of Denmead and it was Christmas day.
Nick Waterfield was at his parents’ house for the big day and it was heaving with all of his happy semi intoxicated relatives, his Mum and Dad, his kid brother, two older sisters, aunts, uncles and numerous cousins and Nick was glad they were all happy even if he wasn’t.
He just wished they would take their festive happiness elsewhere as he had no need of it even if he was the main reason the entire Waterfield clan had assembled in Denmead that day.
It was his well-meaning mother’s idea to invite everyone and his dog in order to make Christmas, noisy, happy and jolly to keep Nick distracted.
His mother, Jeanette, was the matriarch of the clan and was something of a force of nature so when she “invited” you, it was generally accepted to be an order, she meant well of course.
He thought Christmas Dinner was tolerable enough, the jollity was blissfully muted when they had their mouths full of his mums excellent cooking but then as soon as the last spoonful of Christmas Pud had been consumed it all ramped up again.
Jeanette Waterfield organized the girls in the kitchen and his Dad got everyone else clearing away in preparation for an afternoon of fun and frivolity.
Nick took that as his cue and retreated to the hall and got his coat on, the last thing he needed was fun.
“Where are you going Nick?” his mum asked
“I just need to walk my dinner off” he replied patting his stomach.
She nodded her understanding and knew it was nothing to do with needing a constitutional.
“Do you want some company?” she asked
“No mum I’ll be fine, I won’t be long”
“You’ll need your hat and scarf” she insisted and draped a scarf around his neck and pulled his woolen hat on his head, then she put a hand on each cheek and kissed him like she did when he was just a boy and he smiled a weak smile in response.
“You’ll need gloves as well” she said “its bitter cold out there”
Her voice cracked as she said it and she walked quickly back into the kitchen to energize the labour force.
He wished for her sake that he could hide his sadness, it had almost been as difficult a year for her as it had for him.
“I'll be fine mum,” he said to himself “I just need time”
He braced himself as he opened the front door and then walked outside and saw it was still snowing.
Nick reached the end of the path and turned back to look at the Waterfield house where he had spent such a happy childhood.
And it really was happy, his parents made sure of that and he and his siblings had everything they could need, he heartily wished he could have just a spoonful of the happiness he felt in his youth to ease the pain that he felt at that moment.
It was midafternoon when Nick left his parents’ house and stepped out into the snow and it was already getting dark so he decided to stick to the main road until his eyes became accustomed to the gloom.
It had been years since he had seen a white Christmas, it was a shame he wasn’t in a better frame of mind to enjoy it.
Even in the semi darkness there was clear evidence the village children had been out in force.
There was no sign of them as the light began to fail he assumed they were probably lured back indoors with mugs of hot chocolate by their concerned families but the evidence of their play was evident.
As he made his way up the hill towards St Jane’s church the snow started to fall harder and as he trudged through the deepening snow he looked at the houses as he passed them with their coloured lights resplendent and he wondered about what sadness lurked in their homes behind the happy facade and then he chastised himself, not for the first time, for his self-pity.
He had tried to lift himself from the black mire which surrounded him but try as he might he just kept being sucked back in.
That Christmas had been a big downer for him, it was just that he had had such high hopes for that Christmas, it had held so much promise for him, them.
Nick was an engineer by profession and he had started a new job in Abbottsford the previous February and as every other new hire would, he got the full first day office tour, and in his case it was conducted by his new boss Gary Ash.
After shaking hands with an indeterminate number of employees he began to understand what the Queen had to contend with.
“This is the procurement department” Gary said and half a dozen heads turned around to greet their progress and one smartly dressed young woman stepped out of a corner office.
“Ah Gina” Gary called “This is Nick Waterfield the new head of Engineering”
Gina smiled and reached out her hand which he took and shook warmly.
“Gina Davies” she said and that was that, from that very first moment she had him hook line and sinker, and she was equally bowled over.
So they had their first date that Friday, which was the first of many in their whirlwind romance and they were engaged by Easter and married in June.
And while they honeymooned when they had their whole lives ahead of them they made plans upon plans.
Of course what they had never planned for was for a drunk driver to cross the central reservation on the Pepperstock Express Way and hit her head on as she drove home on the day before Halloween.
Nick should have been with her, they always drove home together but at the last minute he had to go to Nettlefield on an emergency call out, so she died alone.
He wished he’d been in the car with her, he wished he’d died with her so he didn’t have to feel so shit.
The snow was falling thick and fast and the wind was blowing it straight at him as he trudged up the hill, so discretion being the better part of valour, he decided to take refuge in the Church of Saint Jane Frances de Chantal.
He hadn’t set foot in a church since the funeral, he and God had not been on speaking terms since he took Gina, he was still angry.
He didn’t plan to go in on that day either, he just intended taking shelter in the porch until the snow eased off a bit, and then he would set off again but the door suddenly opened.
“What on earth are you doing out here?” said a voice behind him so he turned around to see that the voice belonged to Charli Newcombe.
He and Charli had gone to school together and they had even dated briefly on two separate occasions.
Once when they were still at secondary school and again when he returned from University but it just never seemed to happen for them.
“Hey Charli” he said “I was just out for a walk.”
“What in this?” she said
“I needed to walk off my dinner” he pointed out
“Yes but in this?” she repeated
“Well it wasn’t this bad when I left home”
“So what are you really doing out here?” she asked
“Trivial Pursuits” Nick replied
“The family are all playing Trivial Pursuits, I really didn’t fancy it” he said
“Oh I see”
“Anyway it’s Christmas Day” he retorted “Shouldn't you be at home watching The Sound of Music?”
“You’d think so wouldn’t you” Charli said “My folks are both asleep in front of the TV and I had sole control of the remote, and I suddenly got the notion I should come and get the church ready for tomorrows service”
Even she seemed surprised by her answer and wore a quizzical expression.
Apart from running the General Store and Post Office, Charli was also the church warden and her late husband Tony had been the Vicar of St Jane’s.
Charli was the same age as him, give or take a month or two, he was thirty and she was a month short of that milestone and like him she was born and bred in the village.
She had married Tony shortly after he got the appointment as the Vicar of St Jane’s he was quite a few years older than her but she loved him to distraction, and you can’t argue with love.
She was devastated when he had a heart attack in Church one day before matins and died.
That was shortly after he had performed the wedding ceremony for Gina and Nick.
He had seen a lot of her since he came back to stay with his parents in the village.
He had sought her out because of their history together and he knew she would understand how it felt to lose someone you loved and maybe help him come to terms with the grief.
They had talked it through endlessly and had burnt the midnight oil on many occasions and as a result some of the old feelings for her had come to the surface, for which he felt immensely guilty and completely disloyal to Gina’s memory.
Nick and Charli were standing in the porch of Saint Jane Frances de Chantal as the snow continued to fall.
“You look like you could do with a hot drink” she said opening the door
“No I won’t come in thanks” he said
“It’s Christmas, I’m sure you could call a truce for the sake of the day at least”
“Oh ok” he relented and hesitantly followed her through the door into the church and the most overwhelming feeling washed over him and the moment he crossed the threshold into the sanctuary of the church he’d felt a weight lift from him.
The overwhelming feeling he felt was one of great happiness as he remembered that wonderful day in June when Gina and he were married.
He would have expected to feel deep sorrow at the memory but it was actually pure joy that he felt combined with immense pride.
He took off his hat, scarf and gloves as he stood at the back of the church.
Charli had gone into a side room and switched on the light but he found he was walking down the aisle towards the altar where he paused briefly before an effigy of the Saint and then sat down on the front pew.
When he got up from his seat on the front pew he found all the anger and resentment that had plagued him had washed away and he felt more positive than he had in weeks and he even felt he could look forward.
Nick stood up and smiled at St Jane and then went in search of the drink he was offered.
He found Charli in the little kitchen sat at a small table and she looked up at him and smiled and as he walked in and he returned her smile.
“Is this mine?” he asked pointing at a mug by the kettle.
“Yes” she replied “but I’ll make you a fresh one”
“No this will be fine” he said and took a sip “urgh”
“I told you” Charli said laughing
“How long was I sitting out there?” he asked her and she checked her watch
“About forty minutes”
“You’re kidding, how long was it really?”
“About forty minutes”
“I’m sorry” he said “it only seemed like only two or three”
“So how do you feel?” she enquired
“Surprisingly good” he replied and sat down “St Jane was very helpful”
“Yes she is isn’t she” Charli said as she re-boiled the kettle
“I’m still angry that I didn’t get to say goodbye to her” he admitted
“I know that feeling” Charli retorted
“We had such a short time together, we should have had decades, and instead we only had months” And then he surprised himself when he smiled at her and added
“But those months were so special and so filled with joy that the time we had together was priceless”
“Amen to that” Charli said
“Which is precisely what you’ve been telling me all these weeks” he confessed
“Uh huh” she responded
Nick and Charli were sitting in the kitchen of Saint Jane Frances de Chantal Church and they sat and drank their coffee in a comfortable silence when Charli’s suddenly flicked her eyes upwards and caused him to do the same and he saw the mistletoe hanging above the table and then she leant across the table and kissed him and after the kiss it was Nick who broke the silence.
“So do you have someone special in your life?”
“Do you mean a boyfriend?” she replied
“Yes” said Nick
“I was kind of hoping you might want the job” Charli said
“I rather think that I would” he said and reached across the table and took hold of her hand.
“If you’ll have me”
She leant across the table and kissed him again only this time it was a long and lingering sensual kiss.
“Are we allowed to do that in church?” he asked
“Only on Christmas Day” she replied and kissed him again.
Charli locked up the Church and they stepped out from the shelter of the porch and the heavy snow had abated but it was still falling and he smiled as it accumulated on top of her hat.
He offered her his hand which she accepted gladly and then he walked her home and they trudged hand in hand through the snow.
Her parents’ house was only two doors down the lane from the Waterfield’s so walking her home wasn’t out of the way, not that it would have made any difference if she had lived on the other side of the village he would still have walked with her.
They stopped by the front gate and stood facing each other and he leant in and kissed her, and her response was immediate and yielding.
It was a long purposeful kiss full of tenderness and hope for the future.
When he reluctantly broke away he said
“I’ll see you tomorrow then?”
“Yes” Charli replied and went up the path, pausing at the door to turn and wave before she went inside.
“Are you alright dear?” Mum asked with concern as he walked through the front door.
“Yes” he said and smiled “I rather think I am”
And the effect on her was instant as the worry and anxiety she had been feeling melted away and she looked five years younger in that instant.
“I’m so glad” she said and rushed forward to hug him.
Over the months that followed he gave a good deal of reflective thought about exactly what happened that snowy Christmas Day afternoon.
Was it coincidence that he chose to walk in the direction of St Jane’s Church, when he could have gone in any direction or that he needed to take shelter precisely as he passed its sanctuary, or that Charli would open the church door to leave just as he stood sheltering beneath the porch?
And what compelled Charli to leave the warmth and comfort of her parent’s cozy fireside on a snowy Christmas Day and yield sole control of the remote in order to tidy a cold and draughty Church.
But only nick Waterfield knew exactly what transpired between him and the Saint as he sat on that Church pew and that secret remained between him, St Jane and God.