Mr. Miller had placed the invitation on the mantelpiece, lest Mrs Walker forget. She didn’t like parties and Christmas parties were something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
Colonel Shipton’s Christmas bash had been cleverly avoided the last two years, thanks to a suspected broken ankle (the doctor had assured Mrs Walker it was fine, but she knew better) and a sudden bout of rather convenient food poisoning. This year however, thanks to Mr Miller’s meddling, there was no escaping.
The heavy snow that had been her last hope had, unfortunately, abated and Mrs Walker peered out of the window toward the big house at the top of the hill. The carriage clock on the mantelpiece chimed seven and Mrs Walker pushed herself out of her chair to go and get ready. Upstairs, she flung open the wardrobe doors and amongst her normal uniform of comfortable sweaters and heavy trousers, found clothes from her time as headmistress of St Madeleine’s School for Girls.
Whilst there, she had been required to dress smartly for the big assemblies at the start and end of the school year, and wear elegant evening dress for various Christmas plays and summer concerts. She cast her eye over the little used rail, settling on a beautiful long black dress that hung at the end. Mrs Walker inspected it. The sequins on the neckline were still intact and the soft fabric, with its slight sparkle, would show off her blue eyes.
She caressed the gown in her fingers. She’d last worn it at the final Christmas concert, over five years ago when Professor George Sanders, the distinguished English teacher, had taken her hand, complimented her and suggested that they finally—she shook her head. Never mind, these things were better forgotten.
Mrs Walker brushed her bobbed hair and applied a little make-up to give her some colour. Winter always turned her skin a dull greyish colour. She changed into her smart gold-rimmed spectacles, gathered her shoes and a small black clutch bag, finally descending the stairs, to a firm knock on the door.
“Come in, Mr Miller.”
He opened it and walked in. His long woollen coat hung open revealing smart evening dress and he had brought his walking stick with the silver top. A retired Chief Inspector, he still had a policeman’s bearing but age had softened him and his appearance.
Mrs Walker smiled. “You look very dapper this evening.”
“And you, Mrs Walker, look quite stunning,” he said with a smile, his grey moustache trimmed and brushed down. “The Colonel sent his staff out to clear as many roads to the house as possible, so I think we’ll be quite safe to walk, if you fancy some fresh air?”
Perhaps a stroll up the hill would put her in the spirit. After all, she might actually break her ankle on some ice and avoid the party altogether. Mrs Walker pondered how bad a broken ankle could be at her age and grabbed her long black coat. “Do we require a hip flask for the jaunt?”
“I have mine.” Mr Miller declared, removing it from the inside pocket of his coat and brandishing it in the air.
Mrs Walker paused. “What’s in it?”
“Whisky. Single malt. Just right for an evening walk.”
She considered. “I’ll just fill mine with some brandy to keep the chill off.” Once full, she placed the flask in her bag and they left the warmth of her cottage.
The cold, crisp winter air refreshed her skin and breathed life back into her old bones. Christmas trees decorated with coloured lights brightened the windows of houses they passed and ghastly inflatable Santa’s loomed out of front gardens. Higgledy-piggledy strings of fairy lights hung on bushes and trees, making strange yet cheerful shapes in the darkness.
Mrs Walker had always enjoyed Christmas time at the school, where the girls who remained behind, their parents away, were looked after by a small staff. The grounds were walked daily come rain or shine, and carols were sung by the piano. But since retiring and moving back to the village, each Christmas was greeted with a twinge of sadness and, she hated to admit it, loneliness.
They continued on in companionable silence until they reached the long gravel drive leading to the manor house. Bordered on either side by tall birch trees, the light dusting of snow made the gravel and trees almost silver in the moonlight.
“How long have you known Colonel Shipton?” asked Mrs Walker, pulling the neckline of her coat tighter.
“Oh, forty years, or so, I should say,” replied Mr Miller, seemingly impervious to the cold.