Daisy’s warrior genny had been the first to meld love with my lust.
Two fiddles, a squeezebox, a drummer, and half a dozen singers filled the village street with a lively – if slightly off-key – rendition of the old carol: Dress the Sun in Skirts of Satin. Girls danced – their brightly coloured skirts and headscarves underscoring the lyric. Chill breezes blew, tossing the beech forest into motion. A few brown leaves still clung to the upper twigs.
Their flutter put me in mind of bunting: perhaps a belated celebration of the long departed summer. The crimson sun, low upon the wooded skyline, did little to warm the air. Another icy blast assailed me, fiercer than the preceding gusts. Wrapping my cloak tighter about my person, I leant forward to pat my horse’s neck.
A few days remained until Solstice of Year Twenty-Six.
Roasting chestnuts perfumed the cold air. Reaching into my purse, I flung a couple of coins into the musicians’ hat. The singers waved, smiled and launched into Let Bridness Bear the Newborn Sun: their rendition further off-key than before, but it didn’t seem to matter. Our horses stepped slowly through the crowd – seemingly the entire population making merry.
My scarf having worked loose, I coiled it more tightly about my mouth. As I did so, I recalled the summer of twenty-one years earlier. Now, yellow wool encircled my neck – worked with stylised equestriennes, in red. Then, turquoise chiffon formed the errant folds. The recollection brought tears to my eyes, or perhaps it was merely the wintry wind. That moment bore a cousin’s relationship to the start of my first book – notably dissimilar, but bearing a curious family resemblance. That evening, I knew, I’d attempt to set this moment into writing. My feeling was that it would prove yet another stillborn start to a projected book.
“There’s something magic,” I said, shifting the brightly coloured scarf from my mouth, “about the last week before Solstice.”
“Thank Bridness,” Nicola replied, “that our Solstice shopping is done.”
“My second book sold well this year. It’s allowed us to be a little more generous than usual.”
“To the carol singers?”
“I was thinking of presents for the girls.”
“Extra money is a mixed blessing, when it comes to coping with Lee Broadway at this time of year.”
“Maybe, but I’m specially pleased to have picked up something nice for Daisy.”
“You’ve got a soft spot for her, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. It’s not the same thing as our twelve daughters, of course, but…”
“Six from my womb, half a dozen from yours.”
“It’s been good, on the whole, these last few years, hasn’t it? Maybe I’ve been too happy to write another book.”
“You should try, though, if you want to continue your generosity through future Solstices.”
“I will. In fact, something just came to me. I don’t suppose it’ll amount to anything, but…”
“You should be more positive, Jane – the Solstice spirit, and suchlike.”
“I like that! You were thanking Bridness, just now…”
“We should all thank Bridness for our Solstice cheer.”
“It wasn’t cheer, quite the…” I laughed. “Oh, whatever! Never mind.”
“Riders! Coming from the west. Do you think…?”
Sure enough, a couple of dozen equestriennes approached from the direction of Ray Lee. Four days before, Betty, Estelle, Briony and Rona had set off for Berenice, each of them leading five extra horses. Their object had been to fetch the daughters of the house, and Daisy, from the Imperial University. Carriage services are always overstretched in the run up to Solstice, with so many people wishing to be home for the festivities. How everyone is shifted remains an abiding mystery. We’d helped lighten the burden on public transport, a little, in using our own mares. Isobel’s status, as founder of the university, had ensured that room would be made to stable our animals.
“The girls are back!” I said
“Unless it’s the cavalry.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Nicola, that’s Betty at the head of the column, and Margaret, and Pandora… and further back, only Hazel would wear that appalling purple hat.”
“I think it rather suits her.”
“Do you really think so, Nicola?”
“Of course not, but a mother has to defend her daughter from a genny’s harsh words. If only Willow wasn’t so sensible…”
“You could have retaliated with a cutting remark about her style?”
“Is it so very wrong for Hazel to seem more mine than Willow?”
“No, of course not, my love. Nothing can top carrying her for nine months.”
Betty, and the other forward riders, waved to us – as they turned right into the Belle House Road. Nicola and I paused on the corner, waiting for our daughters, not far from the rear. We exchanged brief greetings with a dozen or more girls, filing past. Willow and Hazel approaching at last, I thought that they were a little thinner than when I’d last seen them. Perhaps the fare in the university refectory discouraged youngsters from eating more than the bare minimum. Whether or not they’d really lost weight, both had tanned faces, and appeared well.
“Hi mum, genny,” they chorused.
“Had a good journey?” Nicola asked, joining the column at Hazel’s side.
“I suppose so,” Hazel replied, “tiring, though.”