On the shortest day of the year, Laura heaved her carpet bag into Rosemary's living room and flopped onto the sofa - which was squishier than it looked, leading her to believe for a confused moment that she was being swallowed by it. She closed her eyes: if the sofa wanted to eat her, it could jolly well try. There was a small clink as Rosemary put a reviving cup of tea on the table at her elbow.
Laura cracked open an eye.
"So what are the sleeping arrangements?"
"Well, since you refused to put me out of my own bed at Christmas, you're in the study. The sofa folds out into a bed." Rosemary must have seen her dubious face. "Oh, it's quite comfy, I promise."
"How would you know? You can sleep on anything." The memories of their brief camping excursion still sent a shiver up Laura's spine. She closed her eyes again. The sofa was wonderfully comfortable, and the living room held the faint perfume of lavender.
"Did I tell you some friends of mine have invited us over for dinner tomorrow night?" Rosemary's voice came from the chair opposite.
"No, I don't think so. Though I might have been too busy wondering whether the pipes will freeze." Laura had a key to Matthew's flat so she could stay in his spare room when not away on gardening jobs; though if she were honest, she'd probably still be worried about his pipes freezing even if she didn't.
"Oh Laura, I sincerely doubt it'll even snow in London before the new year. Anyway, Natalie and Emilia are having us for dinner. They're very nice, you'll like them. Natalie's very sensible, and Emilia's a real card. They both seemed very keen to meet you."
"They're not academics, are they?" Laura asked suspiciously, opening her eyes again. "Never again, Rosemary, never again." That dinner with Rosemary's former colleagues had left scars on her psyche.
"It wasn't that bad, was it?" She saw Laura's face. "Alright, it was pretty awful for the layman. But no, they're not academics, though I did meet Natalie through her uncle who's a Fellow in Biomedical Sciences at Warwick. They're not scientists, either, so you won't be subjected to shop talk."
"Thank God," said Laura, and put her head back.
They sat in silence for a while, letting the sun warm their faces through the window, drinking their tea. Laura's was just how she liked it. It had taken Rosemary ages to work it out.
"I'm making beef stew for dinner, so I'd better get on with it if I'm to get it in the oven on time," Rosemary announced. Laura made a vague noise of acknowledgement. Ordinarily she'd be in the kitchen directing and 'getting in the way' (as Rosemary liked to phrase it): but it was so good to have someone else cook for her that she was content to let Rosemary go it alone.
She sat there for a while, relaxing her neck and shoulders like the books told her to do, smelling Rosemary sweating the onions and browning the meat in the kitchen. There was a metallic noise, and a hiss - Rosemary shared Laura's opinion that stew was always enlivened by a generous glug of cooking wine.
Feeling a little less like she'd been run over, Laura got up and went to the window, peering out at Rosemary's garden in the low winter sun, about to sink below the horizon.
The garden was beautiful, of course. Pansies, that stalwart of winter bedding, were everywhere. Sweet William, polyanthus, Forget-me-not...There were several climbers with white or yellow flowers - white forsythia and something she recognised but couldn't name. Several would be fragrant if she stepped outside to smell them.
At her back was the roaring fire and comfortable furniture and Rosemary cutting up vegetables in the kitchen. I could live here, Laura thought. In this cozy little three-bed cottage on the outskirts of Malmesbury, with its old furniture that used to belong to Rosemary's parents and botanical journals in the downstairs loo and on top of the breadbin.
She didn't miss Gary any more: white-hot rage (with a side of humiliation) had burnt up any lingering tender feelings she might have nursed. But she missed marriage, being married; and she missed her own house, and her own lovingly-tended garden. And she wanted somewhere she could do Christmas as a host, rather than the eternal guest.
To be honest, she'd like to just stay right here: move in, do all the cooking, live the village life. But she couldn't just invite herself, and Rosemary would never go for it. Rosemary could never share space with other people for too long: she'd once told Laura it was the main reason she'd never married.
"My problem is Bertie Wooster's problem," she'd told Laura, pouring her another generous glass of red. "You may like a man very much, but are you really prepared to face him across the breakfast table every day for the rest of your life?"
Laura had admitted that it was a question that many a young hopeful had had to consider.
That said, now she thought about it, she wouldn't mind seeing Rosemary's face over the breakfast table every morning - hell, they practically did that anyway.
But that wasn't talk that got the dog fed, as her Mum had used to say. She turned from the dark window to see if Rosemary wanted any vegetables chopping; and to make sure she added enough Worcester Sauce.
"Wow. What does your friend Natalie do, exactly?" The Land Rover had turned off the narrow country road into a driveway, and Rosemary and Laura were greeted by a scene that belonged on a Christmas card. A big Georgian house with cream walls and a grey slate roof, a wreath on the door and lights in the trees. All it needed was half a foot of snow.
"She's a teacher; they both are." Rosemary caught Laura's dubious look. "I think there's family money," she added as she parked the Land Rover in the carport.
As they got out, the front door was flung open and a woman appeared. She was tall, with dark hair in a neat bob, and wore a grey woollen dress that managed to be both forgiving and stylish.
"Rosemary! Come in quick, it's perishing out here!" Rosemary and Laura hurried towards her - she was quite correct about the temperature. The door shut firmly behind them, they found themselves in a large porch. Through a doorway at the end of the corridor, Laura could glimpse a very festively-decorated table.
"Natalie!" Rosemary embraced her old friend and was warmly received. "Oh, it's been ages."
"And you must be Laura, yes?" Having extricated herself, Natalie turned to Laura with a smile. Up close, she had a long face with a thin, slightly aquiline nose, and bright blue eyes.
"Laura Thyme: nice to meet you." Natalie's hand was warm and soft-skinned, despite her long bony fingers, and she looked sincerely into Laura's eyes: Laura, who secretly judged new acquaintances on their handshakes, was immediately charmed.
Natalie whipped their coats off them. "Dreadful weather," she was saying, "honestly, all this cold and no snow. What's the point, I ask you? Here, come through, come through. Emmy's just standing guard over the oven." Natalie led the way into the house proper, down the long corridor - but she took them not to the dining room at the end, but past it down another corridor to the left, which led to the kitchen.
The air in the kitchen was even warmer than the rest of the house, and perfumed with curry spices. The counters were covered in chopping boards, and on the hob was a pan which must be cooking the rice. A short redheaded woman was watching the grill with a look of fierce concentration.
"Emmy, here they are!" Natalie presented her guests with a flourish. 'Emmy' turned at once and beamed at them.
"Rosemary," she said warmly, "how lovely to see you again. And you've brought a companion!" She turned her gaze to Laura. "I'm sorry," she said with a confidential air, "but I'm beggared if I can remember your name, though I know I was told it."
"I'm Laura Thyme," said Laura, considering the woman before her - heart-shaped face, not quite plump but rather cuddly, and a rosebud mouth. Very different from her friend, but they had some similar quality to them - a kind of breeziness found in those brought up to privilege.
"Emilia," said the woman, putting her head to one side. "It's so nice to meet a friend of Rosemary's." This was a perfectly innocuous statement, delivered in a perfectly friendly manner: but there was something about Emilia that suggested that she was looking not directly at you, but into your soul. Laura recalled that she was a teacher: it must come in handy.
"Likewise," said Laura. "Rosemary tells me you both teach. What subject?"
"Maths," said Natalie, "and Emmy does French and German." Emilia looked neither surprised nor displeased to be spoken for. "And in the new year she's starting up a Russian club!" They both looked very proud of this. Laura, whose foreign language skill was limited to schoolgirl French, was appropriately impressed.
"Russian, my word!" she interjected admiringly.
"Oh, how wonderful! I remember you said you were holidaying in St. Petersburg. So what are we having for dinner? You just said 'curry' on the phone." Rosemary was eyeing the oven with interest, which made Laura feel a bit better about her own. Rosemary had promised that they'd be fed well.
"Chicken Jalfrezi and Lamb Achari, all made by our very own chef." Natalie indicated Emilia, who beamed.
"We've got rice, naan, and all the - oh no, the bhajis!" She leapt for the grill - at the same moment as the oven timer went off.
"Got it," said Natalie, in the voice of one commanding a military operation, and she turned off the alarm while Emilia scooped the bhajis and samosas onto a plate, looking none the worse for wear for her inattention. Natalie was waiting with the oven gloves to leap in and open the door - only a crack at first, to sensibly let the steam escape upwards rather than having it billow in her face, Laura noted approvingly.
"Sit down, sit down!" Natalie cried as Rosemary tried to offer to take a dish. "Both of you are forbidden to help, I insist." Chastened, they left the kitchen and went to sit at the dining table, which bore no tablecloth but was crowned with a centerpiece made of holly and oranges. Someone clearly had a taste for interior decoration - and read the same magazines as Laura. Rosemary, who had been subjected to Laura reading out some choice quotes from said magazines, caught her eye and pressed her lips together.
The curry was, as promised, delicious, and effectively reduced them to silence for several minutes while the company shoveled it into their mouths. It was served in great cast-iron dishes, with rice garnished generously with fresh coriander - and the bhajis, though a touch black around the edges, were satisfyingly juicy.
"Thank you," said Emilia cheerfully when this was mentioned (Rosemary having come up from the trough for air), "I should jolly well hope so given they're M and S's finest." This led to some good-natured ribbing on the theme that if the bhajis were store-bought, how could they be sure that nothing else was? It ended with Emilia confessing with great solemnity that she had not, in fact, killed the chicken herself.
The conversation was light and easy, and the meal flew by. Emilia turned out to have a very loud, infectious laugh, while the more restrained Natalie expressed her mirth in complete silence, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth. Natalie had the light conviviality of a woman brought up at her parents' dinner parties; Emilia on the other hand confessed brightly that her parents had used to say that while God was handing out tact, she must have been in the bathroom - but she was a great raconteuse.
It hardly occurred to Laura to wonder what Emilia was doing in Natalie's house - they were both old friends of Rosemary's, it was hardly surprising that they would also be friends themselves - until they had all finished and were leaning back in their chairs and contemplating pudding.
In the process of telling an anecdote about a pupil she had had in her earliest years of teaching, Emilia adopted an expression of total innocence, clasping her hands, raising her eyes to heaven and endeavouring to give the impression that butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. Her hair had been steadily escaping from its bun over the course of the meal, giving her something of a halo.
"And he said - pitch-perfect delivery, I tell you - "Miss, it wasn't me though. I know it usually is me, but this time it wasn't."
Natalie laughed her warm, silent laugh, and her hand briefly covered Emilia's. Something clicked in Laura's head.
Story finished, Emilia got up and started clearing away the plates, humming under her breath - surprisingly tunefully, though Laura had initially pegged her as the type who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. After a moment, she recognised it as the thoroughly appropriate O Little Town of Bethlehem.
"Here," said Rosemary, also leaping up, "let me help - these plates are heavy." Laura, pleasantly full of curry, did not echo her.
"I'd say something like 'Oh, please don't trouble yourself' - but you're quite right, and knowing me I'm likely to drop them. You're a much safer pair of hands."
So, each laden with two plates and several serving dishes, Emilia led the way into the kitchen.
"Emilia gets far more satisfaction out of clearing things away than anyone else I know," remarked Natalie fondly.
"Better than never doing it! My ex could be relied on to stack the dishwasher, but Matthew and Helena..." Laura adopted a despairing expression. Natalie laughed obligingly.
"So how long have you been together?" Laura went straight for it.
"We only got together - by which I mean I only screwed up the courage - a couple of years ago, but we've known each other since school. Emmy was always getting into trouble for being disorganised, and I was a Prefect. You see how little things have changed!" Her eyes creased fondly. Now that Laura had realised, she had to wonder how she hadn't seen it: Natalie was a woman very much in love.
"But you'd know all about that, of course, with Rosemary." Natalie said it so casually that it took Laura a moment to realise what she was implying.
"Rosemary? I-" but her denial was cut off by Rosemary and Emilia's re-entry to the dining room, bearing kulfi and something that Laura learnt was called something like 'goolab jam': semolina balls in rosewater syrup. Emilia seemed to enjoy it, at any rate, and she graciously allowed Rosemary one off her plate. Rosemary's eyes widened, then closed with pleasure as she chewed. Laura still politely declined, focussing instead on demolishing her ice cream.
The mix-up had happened a few times before, of course. But for some reason, coming from an actual - what was the accepted term now, gay woman? - made it stick in Laura's mind all through pudding and all through coffee, accompanied by lychees (quoth Emilia: "And before you ask, I didn't grow these!").
They did, she supposed, have a very close relationship. They not only worked together, they effectively lived together most of the time. In this liberated age, it wasn't an unreasonable assumption to make, and a few people had made it before the actual situation was explained to them.
She considered the couple across the table. Did she and Rosemary look like Natalie and Emilia? Laura knew what made people look like a couple: the body language, the instinctive bendng and gravitating towards one another. Did they do that?
She was still thinking about it as Rosemary put the Land Rover into reverse (loudly, though that was more due to the Land Rover than her driving) and swung out of the drive, letting Laura wave to Natalie and Emilia as they left. Natalie had her arm wrapped around Emilia, and backlit by the warm yellow light of the hall they looked deeply content. She'd probably looked like that with Gary, once upon a time. She was pretty sure she'd actually liked him at some point.
That night, with both of them wrapped in their dressing gowns and getting ready for bed, Laura broached the subject.
"I'm getting old and unobservant," she said, squeezing some Sensodyne onto her toothbrush. "It took me forever to realise that your friends were a couple."
"Oh, don't feel bad - when it happened a few years ago I didn't pick up on it until they actually held hands in front of me. I really should have noticed: they'd been dancing around each other for ages." This was all said around a toothbrush, but after two children and a long friendship with Rosemary Laura was adept at deciphering toothbrush-ese.
"They do seem very happy together. Very well suited." Laura stuck her toothbrush in her mouth to begin her own ablutions.
"Oh yes, yes they are." Rosemary bent over the sink and spat. "It was why Emilia and I never worked out - I'm not sensible enough."
Laura's response was limited by her toothbrush to "WHAAGGHH?", but Rosemary got the gist.
"Yes, we had a fling for a few months in the nineties. We both knew it was nothing serious, and we decided to have a cracking time while we could. Have I really never told you?" Rosemary took a gulp of water and swilled it round her mouth.
Laura brushed her teeth furiously, determined to be able to question Rosemary properly. Rosemary had the knack of doing that: of making provocative statements or asking you difficult questions just at the moment when you'd eaten a sticky toffee or otherwise occupied your mouth.
"No!" she said once she'd managed to rid her mouth of toothpaste. "No, I would have remembered that!"
"Well, it was a long time ago." Rosemary was aggravatingly calm as she applied moisturiser. "I still think of it fondly, though - it was great fun."
"She's half your age! Was it...? I mean, did you...?" Unable to find the right phrasing, Laura trailed off significantly.
"Oh yes, it was moderately scandalous at the time," said Rosemary cheerfully. "And yes. Oh yes, I learnt things off Emilia I'd never realised were possible. It gave me higher standards for men, I can tell you." And with a significant look, she left Laura to wash her face in perplexity.
"Why would you leave it this late?" Laura hissed, eyeballing the crammed supermarket.
"I've been busy!" Rosemary defended herself. "Old Fungi Ferguson sent me her new book for review."
"And you couldn't spare a moment to buy sprouts until the last possible moment?"
"It was extremely diverting! She's described a new Chaetomium species, and if she plays her cards right she might get it named after her." Rosemary looked about the shop with a slightly disgruntled air. "I never got a species named after me."
"Not a bad Christmas present, I suppose, to have a new species named after you. Though I might not go for a mushroom, myself." Laura took hold of the end of the trolley and guided it and Rosemary through the fruit and vegetable section, calling on her experience in the police to stride through the crowds in an authoritative manner, garnering a few dirty looks in the process.
"Courgette, carrots...sprouts," she read on the labels. She looked down.
There were no sprouts.
"Rosemary Boxer, what a surprise!" Laura and Rosemary turned as one to find a small, genial-looking man with a receding hairline and a dog-collar beaming at them.
"Reverend, so good to see you again!" Rosemary handed off the trolley to Laura and stepped forward to vigorously shake his hand. "Reverend Blythe, this is Laura Thyme."
"How do you do," he said as he shook Laura's hand, still smiling, with that way some vicars had of making you feel as if they cared about you, personally, despite you having only just met. Laura, diverted from impending sproutless doom, smiled back.
"Reverend Blythe here was ever so kind to me when I first moved to Malmesbury," Rosemary explained. "A pastor to all his flock - even those who don't believe and only go to church once a year!"
"It's nice to preach to a full house sometimes," replied the vicar affably. "And you do sing a lovely alto line in the church choir."
Rosemary looked suitably charmed at this flattery.
"Yes, I remember you mentioning how much you enjoyed that," said Laura. She couldn't have said why, but at that moment she very much wanted Rosemary's attention to be on her, not the vicar.
"I very much hope to see you both at Midnight Mass - practically the whole town attends. So what are you picking up last minute? For me it's oranges," - he hefted his basket - "to put in the kids' stockings. They've managed to eat the lot I bought before I could sneak them away!"
"At least they won't get scurvy," said Laura cheerfully, "which you do sometimes worry about, especially when they turn into teenagers. We're on the hunt for sprouts, but I'm afraid there are no sprouts to be found!" She indicated the empty tray before them.
"That is terribly unfortunate, especially since just about everybody claims not even to like them. But I would expect there to be some going at the market - farmers wanting to get rid of the last of them before Christmas is over and nobody can bear to look at them until next December." Reverend Blythe raised his eyebows. "And I can see Ms. Thyme here is on the warpath for sprouts, so I shall let you get on."
"It's not Christmas without them," said Laura firmly, as Rosemary smirked. "Come on, Rosemary - to the market!"
The market was, unsurprisingly, just as rammed as the supermarket. There were white canvas tents set up everywhere on the cobbled streets, their owners selling all manner of things that could mainly be divided into the categories of 'food' or 'last-minute gift'. Or both. Laura was briefly diverted from her quest for sprouts by a glimpse of some cheese-stuffed dates - her great Christmas weakness.
"It's criminal," she said with her mouth full of one, "that they don't do these at other times of year. What am I meant to do if I get a craving for them in August?"
"Make your own, I suppose." Rosemary caught sight of her chewing and wrestled the box away from her. "Laura, they're supposed to be for Christmas!"
"It's near enough, isn't it? Look, sprouts!" She strode towards the stall in question, employing the same tactics as she had in the supermarket. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, Rosemary hurrying in her wake.
"A stick - stick? branch? whatever it is - of sprouts, if you please!" She might have said that a bit loudly. The silver-mustachioed stall-keeper raised his eyebrows.
"A fan, are you?" he asked, reaching for a whatever-it-was of sprouts. "Or just cutting it close?"
"My fault," said Rosemary, already drawing a fiver out of her purse. "I completely forgot about the sprouts, and Laura took it personally."
"They're an essential part of Christmas dinner," Laura insisted. "You do them with some little silverskin onions and bacon bits, and they're just perfect. Just like Dad used to make."
"Excellent: then you can be in charge of them when the time comes." Rosemary handed over the note and received the sprouts, neatly wrapped in a bag. Laura spared a moment to look around the market square, now that she was no longer focussed on an urgent task.
On the other side of the street was a man with white-blond hair and a supercillious expression. She recognised him, though she couldn't say from where.
Then he turned to his companion - an elegantly turned-out woman looking less impressed with him by the second - and Laura realised: Julian!
She nearly pointed him out to Rosemary, then thought better of it. It had been extremely satisfying to watch her sock him right in the jaw, but it was probably best not repeated at 11am at the local Christmas market several years later.
"Here you go," said Rosemary, and Laura took the bag that was handed her. "You like 'em so much, you carry them." Laura dropped them into her woven shopper with great satisfaction.
"Ooh, look at that," she said, indicating a stall displaying Christmas tree ornaments some ten feet away - and in the opposite direction from the one Julian was walking in. Now she thought about it, most of Rosemary's old flames tended to be entirely unsuitable at best, and criminals at worst.
Not Emilia, though, she thought. Emilia was a definite bright spot in Rosemary's romantic history.
"Sparkly," said Rosemary, approvingly. "Let's see what they've got." So they went and perused the spectacularly tacky ornaments on offer for a few minutes. Laura's favourite was a polar bear with a Santa hat - which would have been quite acceptable had it not also been covered with glitter.
While Rosemary was diverted by a musical arctic rabbit (it played 'Santa Baby' - why?), Laura sidled to a stall on the opposite side of the narrow path. She picked up an orange, slid thirty pence across the table to the shopkeeper with a finger to her lips and an exaggerated wink, and was back at Rosemary's side with the fruit safely stowed in her bag before her friend could notice she was gone. Very smooth, if she did say so herself.
"Oof, it's too cold to be out here for long," Rosemary moaned.
"You've not got enough insulation," Laura told her. "It's like I was always telling Helena when she complained about being cold - you just need to put on a bit of weight and you'll have no trouble."
"Mm. I bet she didn't listen to you either."
"Unrepeatable," Laura confirmed. "Honestly, I don't know where she picked up that sort of language."
Rosemary, who was not averse to vulgarity when she felt the situation demanded it, just looked amused. "Not from you, I'm sure."
"Definitely not," Laura confirmed. "Now let's get you warm again - can't have you getting frostbite at Christmas!"
So they returned home at a brisk clip, breath coming in white clouds. Laura kept an eye on Rosemary as they walked: by the time they got back she'd been smiling slightly for the whole walk.
"What's tickling you?" Laura asked her as they hung up their coats and scarves and hats.
"Oh, nothing," said Rosemary, smiling wider.
It plainly wasn't nothing, but if it was important she'd find out soon enough. Rosemary went to curl up in an armchair with Professor Ferguson's new article again, pen in hand, and Laura went to the kitchen to make them both a cup of tea.
While she was pouring the correct amount of milk into each one (weak for her, strong for Rosemary), a thought struck her.
"Rosemary, do you mind if I borrow your laptop?" she asked as she set down the mug on the end table.
"Mm-hm," said Rosemary vaguely, glasses on, deep in consideration of mushroom species.
It didn't take her too long to boot up the laptop, log into her e-mail and search the University of Warwick site for Professor Anna Ferguson's details.
She laboured hard for ten minutes to produce a suitable paragraph, read it twice, and sent it off with a decisive stab at the mouse. She just hoped that Professor Ferguson was the type to check her work e-mail over the holidays.
Christmas Eve dawned bright and frosty. Not enough so that they'd have a white Christmas, probably, but enough that Laura's breath made white clouds in the morning air as she trudged through the fields. She'd left Rosemary coming to leisurely over strong tea and toast, pulling on her wellies and announcing that she was 'off to get some fresh air'.
It was a still white morning, the only sounds Laura's boots crunching in the frosty grass and the occasional call of a bird. Their nests were revealed by the denuded branches. She came to a muddy bit between one field and the next and thought she recognised the prints of a fox.
Malmesbury was quiet, with most places closed for Christmas. There was one teashop with its billboard outside pronouncing it OPEN (the word surrounded by chalk drawings of holly and bells), and Laura made for it. She wanted a warming cup of tea before she walked back.
Right in the window was a familiar figure with a great quantity of auburn hair bent over a teacup. It was Emilia. Laura paused outside the shop, hand on the latch - and then Emilia swivelled in her seat, saw Laura, and beamed excitedly. Compelled, Laura pushed open the door and entered the well-heated shop.
Emilia was indicating the seat opposite her. Under normal circumstances Laura would have tried to avoid it, have been darting her eyes about the room in search of a waitress to show her to her own table where she could be left in peace - but her morning walk had left a great quietness in her, and she felt light in spirit as she joined Emilia at her table.
"So, how are things?" asked Emilia, clearing away a novel with a French title (and presumably French contents) and a pocket dictionary. "Household harmony prevailing?"
"Oh yes, everything's just fine so far. Boiler working, larder groaning, inhabitants speaking..."
"A good start; better than many." Emilia waved to the waitress behind the counter. "In our house it was always the boiler that gave out. I'm having Earl Grey. Same for you, or just ordinary?"
"Earl Grey, please." Laura hung her coat on the back of her chair and stretched out her legs briefly, watching Emilia pantomime the request for another pot. The teashop had the same sort of violently-patterned carpet as she'd had in her hallway back in the seventies.
She looked across the table at Emilia and thought, This is the woman Rosemary had a 'fling' with. She wasn't a bad looking woman - there was something of a medieval saint about her, with her long curling red hair - but more than that there was a liveliness to her, a sense that she'd be great fun to talk to.
"I realise this is a bit abrupt," said Emilia as she examined the colour of her tea with a critical eye and added a single drop of milk, "but if you're planning on tying the knot any time soon, can I be a bridesmaid? I never got to do it, you see."
"I - well, I don't object to you being a bridesmaid, but Rosemary and I...don't actually have that kind of relationship."
"No? Oh goodness, how silly of me - I was so sure!" Laura's tea arrived at this point, saving her from having to answer immediately. Emilia drank her own tea and looked out of the window as Laura poured from teapot to cup and watched steam curl off the liquid.
"You're not the first person to make the assumption," she admitted. "Natalie did too, when we came over for dinner. And some other people, over the years. But I was wondering - what makes you think that? I mean, some people just assume because we're always together, but you...you'd know, wouldn't you?"
"Well," said Emilia, "for a start, you're always together." She grinned at Laura over her teacup; Laura had to smile back. "You're so comfortable with each other, you know, in that way you only get when you've known each other for ages. And as far as I can tell, you basically live together most of the year anyway. Same room and everything."
"Well, I - well, you're not wrong." Laura busied herself adding a splash of milk to her Earl Grey and stirring it. "It's...a bit more complicated than that, I'm afraid. We've ended up sharing a room most of the time on jobs ever since we started, but I've only just realised over the past couple of days that I wouldn't mind us sharing a bed." It was easy to say that here, to Emilia with her Madonna face, in a silent teashop which held the air of the confessional.
"A big step," said Emilia solemnly. "She kicks, you know."
"I know. I wouldn't even mind if she did kick me," said Laura mournfully.
"Oh dear," said Emilia, tossing her hair and laughing. "That is love!"
"Yes," said Laura gloomily, "I suppose it is."
At this point, Emilia thankfully changed the subject and Laura got to hear all about Natalie's sister's new Border Collie puppies, born just in time for Christmas. There were even photos on her phone to coo over, little black and white sausages with their eyes still closed cuddled up to mum.
When Laura was a girl, they'd had a dog: a completely untrainable Westie called Coco who'd lived a long and pampered life. She hadn't had animals in the house since - the hair got everywhere, and Gary was allergic besides - but looking at the slightly grainy digital photos she could imagine the sleekness of the puppies' fur under her fingers, the quick animal heartbeat, the rise and fall of tiny ribcages.
"You didn't think we were contemplating matrimony at all, did you?" she asked Emilia. Emilia smiled - with a touch of wickedness.
"If I'd asked straight out what was going on between you, you'd probably have told me it was none of my business. But if you appear to assume information that is in fact false, people will leap to correct you." She took a nonchalant sip of tea. "My parents used to try it on me all the time. Good bit of psychological know-how, that."
She looked so pleased with herself that Laura had to laugh.
By the time she'd left Emilia's company and walked back to Rosemary's house, it was getting on for lunchtime and some more people were venturing outside. She thought she glimpsed the vicar at one point, but was too far away to call out to him.
She found Rosemary in the kitchen, chopping up vegetables for salad.
"Here, I'll do that," said Laura, whisking the knife out of her hand. "The hostess can't do all the work." She set to chopping carrots with vigour before Rosemary could protest. "I bumped into Emilia, earlier."
"Did you? Where?" Fended off by Laura's elbows, Rosemary took a seat on a kitchen chair.
"In that little teashop - The Calla Lily, or whatever it's called. Nice-looking cakes, hideous carpet? By the cobbler's? Pretty much the only place open on Christmas Eve."
"Oh yes, I know the place you mean. I think she likes it because it serves about thirty different types of tea. Natalie's probably stressed about having the family over and Emilia's left her to it." She leaned her chin on her hand. "You must have had a long chat."
"Oh yes, we nattered on and on. You know, I've decided you're right, Rosemary: companionship with another woman would be very nice." She focussed on chopping the carrots with slightly more concentration than they strictly warranted.
"I've thought that for ages. It was so nice with Emilia, you know: companionship is just the word. We knew we had the same priorities, I think. There was a sense of understanding that I don't think you get with men. Or maybe that's just me and the men I keep picking."
"Mm. The older I get, the less sure I am that men and women are ever on the same page." But Laura was thinking of something else, recalling something she had quite forgotten. She thought about it all the way through Carols From King's, as she cooed with Rosemary over the angelic-looking choristers on the telly.
"I bet they're all complete horrors off-camera, though," said Rosemary during one of the readings.
"At their age? Definitely. Oh, that one looks like Matthew when he was young."
"We used to listen to this on the radio when I was a little girl," said Rosemary, two readings later. "We'd all get round the kitchen table and listen, breathless." She stretched her legs out. "It always made Christmas for me."
"Yes, carols have always put me in the Christmas spirit more than anything." The reader praised God. "Well, buying the turkey helps too. And eating it."
"Soon, Laura, soon."
Midnight Mass was held at the Abbey itself; or at least the non-ruined bit, which was now the parish church.
"God, it's been ages since I've been to a church," Rosemary hissed to her as they joined the crowd making their way up the hill. "What if I do something I shouldn't?"
"You were in the choir for ages, weren't you? You'll be fine; it's more than I have, at any rate. And if you're not, we'll just blame it on you having had too much communion wine." She got a smack on the arm for that.
The abbey was silhouetted against the night sky like something out of a horror novel; but as they drew closer, Laura could see lights burning inside, welcoming them.
Inside, it was High Anglican: 'bells and smells' as her mother used to call it. The incense had always made Laura think of frankfurter sausages cooking on a grill; she had shared this with their parish priest as a child and watched him go red in the face with laughter.
Reverend Blythe began the service and Laura found she couldn't think at all. She was half concentrating on what he was saying, and half chasing her thoughts round and round in her mind. Rosemary was warm next to her, and instinctively Laura found that she subtly angled her body towards her friend. She'd been doing it for years.
The choir's voices seemed to spiral up into the rafters and higher, as if they must surely set the bells to ringing. Laura closed her eyes.
She revived for the congregational carols: 'It Came Upon The Midnight Clear' was the first one, and she was ready to belt it out. She could feel Rosemary shaking with suppressed laughter next to her.
"I was a policewoman with two kids!" she whispered when they sat down, prompting another round of silent giggles.
It was only when the Reverend Blythe got up that she realised that there would be a sermon. Oh no, she thought, remembering the interminable sermons of her childhood, please don't lecture me on Christ's redeeming love - but Reverend Blythe did nothing of the sort. His sermon linked the story of the Christ-child with the current plight of refugees - a daring suggestion, Laura thought, given that she'd pegged almost the entire congregation as Tories.
Once the service had concluded with O Come All Ye Faithful, Laura was feeling much more like herself, and gladly partook of the mince pies and sherry in the church hall - dinner had been hours ago.
"Good idea to come?" Rosemary asked, dropping mince pie crumbs down her front.
"Great idea," said Laura fervently, eyeballing the stack and wondering if she could get away with taking another one. Then she saw the Reverend Blythe pour himself a second glass of sherry, and felt justified.
They left before he could get round to them, making their way very gingerly down the steps in the dark. Rosemary's phone turned out to have a torch thingy, so they didn't break their necks. Behind them, the church blazed with light and rang with voices; before them, the town sparkled.
"Well, now I feel properly in the Christmas spirit," Laura announced as Rosemary got the door open on the second try.
"Nothing quite like it, is there?" They both flung off their coats and scarves and hats and without saying anything went to sit by the unlit fire, flopping back onto the sofa. Laura couldn't tell if there was something in the air, or if she was just tipsy.
"Now, Laura," and Laura knew there was something, "something's been on your mind ever since lunch. And if you go to sleep still ruminating, it'll spoil your appetite for Christmas Lunch: and that would never do." Rosemary turned in her seat, curling her legs under her, to look Laura in the eye with that teasing expression - big eyes, mouth curling up at the corners.
"When Gary and I were on the rocks," said Laura - so easily, when she'd never told anyone this before - "I had a friend at the station called Jill. She was nice, was Jill; had a real eye for style, too. And I would talk to her about Gary, and about the kids, and about other stuff. All the stuff that bothered me. If I had to make a decision, I wouldn't ask Gary - I'd ask Jill, and we'd decide together. We got on so well, you see." Laura looked away, over Rosemary's shoulder at the fireplace. They'd have to rake that out.
"If I was upset, or vulnerable, or just wanted to have a conversation, I'd go to Jill. She knew my secrets, and I knew hers. I used to spend time getting ready before going to lunch or coffee with her. I'd feel excited when I got a telephone call from her." Laura licked her lips and took a deep breath. It sounded so much more incriminating when she laid it out like this. Illicit. It hadn't seemed that way at the time.
"It never got any more - intimate than that, physically: just a few hugs. But it was an affair, wasn't it? I didn't know how to say it at the time, didn't realise it, but I did want it to be more...I used to feel so safe when she hugged me. I always hoped she'd do it more often. I never hugged her first: I think I wanted her to initiate so I couldn't be 'blamed'." She couldn't look Rosemary in the eye. She tried to control her breathing.
"I don't know how to...Look, if you think I've finally cracked we can blame it on the sherry and never speak of it again, but -" Laura's voice cracked. She had to lick her lips again and swallow. The blood was rushing in her ears.
"I think it's a marvellous idea," said Rosemary. "Honestly, I was wondering when you were going to notice that we were basically married." She opened her arms wide. "Come on, stop looking like you've seen the ghost of your aunt and come here."
"Oh, Rosemary." Laura did.
There was silence for some time.
"Do you mean to say," Laura said eventually, "that all this time I've been chewing it over, this way and that, losing sleep, and you could have put me out of my misery and snogged me over a counter?"
"I wanted you to come to your own conclusions!" Rosemary kept working Laura's hair loose from its clip. "You can't rush these things. And I had no idea about you and Jill. What happened to her, anyway?"
"We've kept in contact, though a bit intermittently because of all the travelling. She married a woman two years ago - sent photos of the wedding. I should have known then, really."
"Mm." Rosemary started to finger-comb the tangles out of her hair. Laura closed her eyes.
"You're smiling," she said at last. "I can tell."
"Mm." She was still smiling. "Just thinking how nice it'll be to have somebody to kiss at the stroke of midnight at New Year's. That was going to be my next gambit if you hadn't come to the realisation yourself."
"Well," said Laura, "I suppose I could pretend to be very surprised..."
And after that, there was nothing else to say.