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Twelve Days of Christmas

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Even now, the extraordinary beauty of white Tyrolean winter takes her breath away.

She rests her hand absently on her middle, warm and rich with possibilities, inward secrets down the ages: how little, really, has changed since that very first Christmas.

Watching the falling snow through her window, she thinks of the cosy household beyond this room: her loving husband; her darling son; fast-growing Jo; and all the other welcome and beloved members of this family she has founded on the banks of the Tiernsee.

"Ready, darling?" A voice from the doorway.

Madge nods, smiles. "Aren't we so lucky, Jem?"

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Her baby daughter has that look on her face again; something about it twists in her, a knife in her stomach.

The softened edges of the previous week have vanished as she sits near the tree, flickering candlelight reflected in her shining eyes, gazing adoringly at her brother, just as she always has done.

A son is a son no matter what; and this son is only an angry young man, in the wrong place and at the wrong time - handsome, scowling, nursing a grievance which was never his to hold. Christmas opulence turns brass. She can only pray.

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"Our first Christmas," Con murmured sentimentally, throwing a handful of brushwood into the grate.
 
Nell paused to watch her, lit from within as much as from the warm glow of the fire. "Blithering romantic."
 
"Our last too, if you're not careful!" But the blue eyes danced merrily beneath affected outrage. Rising from where she knelt and dusting herself down, she freed both glasses from her lover's hands, placing them down safely before slipping her arms around the now-familiar waist.
 
"I'm so glad you could be here." Nell whispered into rubicund hair.
 
"I wouldn't be anywhere else."

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She scowls over the pudding, earning herself a reproachful look from her elder sister. Too pi to live! Surely even she yearns for a little light relief at Christmas?

Her scowl blackens as she adds 'feeling misunderstood' to her list of grievances: Christmas in this Basle hotel, instead of their own home; treated like a baby; that contemptuous nurse; leaving her friends.

She does not see the identical wan expressions on faces she knows too well to look at properly now: the girl scared, the woman anxious, barely disguising a heart which is breaking for the promise of more Christmases.

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This is the real Christmas: these early moments while the rest of the household still slumbers.

She awakens early, as usual; lies still, feeling her husband beside her; knows without asking that he, too, is awake. Silence is golden. When they can luxuriate no longer they dress swiftly, chatting affectionately, laughing softly in the cold air before separating to their own morning tasks.

This is the real Christmas: she slips into the nursery, gently rouses her sister. She sits plaiting the girl's hair, bedclothes tucked around them. The baby kicks, as if for attention, and Rosa chuckles: "Merry Christmas, leibling."

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"Ivy! You should have written." If her mother's words are chiding, her beaming face is not - and her smile is as nothing compared to the boy's own. This, of course, is why she has not written.

Outwardly, she shrugs: "I've not long known. A letter wouldn't have arrived much before me. You looked pleased, Alec."

He nods, enthusiastic, dumb; receives his own scolding - "thank your sister properly!"

She demurs awkwardly, but it is not 'nothing' as she protests: he will go to the big public school after all, thanks to money from her extra coaching. A Christmas present.

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Only two daughters return home for Christmas this year.

The firstborn, a child almost from the cradle destined for scholarship, has no need to return - she has been here all along. New rapidly became normal: the boys look instinctively to her now, for permission to leave the table, the mediation of some quarrel.

No trace of resentment or self-pity. A good girl - a strong, helpful woman.

The Sorbonne can wait, says her father. Maybe only two years.

Maybe not Paris, she says. Oxford would be nearer. I want to be able to help. Nonchalant.

She wishes for Paris.

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This is nothing like last Christmas.

She mutters it to herself, fiercely, wordlessly; pulls the baby closer and holds the bigger girl's hand tightly in the dark, remembering. The lack of money, the forced jollity, the drink with Christmas dinner segueing into the drink with Christmas supper, had ended in the only way possible and there she had lain, barricaded in her daughter's bedroom, only her children's fears keeping her own in check.

For him I gave up my family.

For him I gave up my sons.

She thanks God for her friend, the nurse; but she cannot feel happy.

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Madame had been gentler even than usual, and Stacie realised it was in acknowledgement of the time of year. It was a kind gesture, not strictly necessary: her father had rarely known one day of the week from another, and certainly they had never engaged in anything so frivolous as celebrating Christmas. Stacie could observe these beliefs now with a degree of wry detachment.

The outgoing year had been a hard one, and a corresponding softer girl emerged. The meditation of enforced bed-rest had facilitated learning years of book-study could not. Everything seemed possible: she hoped to walk in January.

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Some years, it seems as though very little has happened; others, such seismic shifts take place that it is only the calendar which persuades us that it really was only one year.

This year had been decidedly the latter: the move from Austria to England; the wedding; her mother's ill health, and recovery; the move from England to New Zealand. Whole worlds had passed between this Christmas and the previous one.

"Well, I think we've made a decent fist of it," Alistair remarks, and she revels in that moment, in the comfort and assurance of silently shared thoughts and dreams.

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This, Grizel decides, is the way that her household will be when she is married. She will be like Madge, smiling warmth, always ready to spare a moment for any child, guest, relative. How wonderful to be here this Christmas, rather than sulking unwelcome at her stepmother's table.

Madame was three years teaching before turning her hand to this household instead. Juliet, too, anticipates three years. How long for Grizel? She darts a speculative glance along the table at Dr Jack.

Austria, for always? She is unsure. Being near Madge and Jo feels important, familial. Nobody awaits her in England.

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She is in her element among the adoring small folk. They rush to surround her as she enters the nursery, the Robin's small hand clutched in hers.

Cheeks flushed, black eyes shining, she drops into a chair, grins fondly at the adopted sister who sits obediently beside her: "Like a story, Robinette?"

The younger girl nods, solemn. "If you please, Joey, I would like the story of the first Christmas."

The twins instantly settle themselves at the girls' feet to listen, and Jo pulls David onto her lap. This is Christmas, she muses: family and smiles and love and warmth.