“Charlie, Gracie have you got your coats on?”
Kate could hear her children’s excited stomping – she’d heard them all morning.
It had been Robbie’s idea to take the kids out to do the Bensington Society Christmas Quiz.
Improvisations brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic had become part of village Christmas – the Star atop the tower of the parish church in Advent – the Bensington Society Christmas Quiz in the bulletin – the take-away Christmas lunches from the Crown and Three Horseshoes….
Kate pulled the Quiz from the Benson Bulletin and put it on the gleaming white kitchen worktop. Where were the Heritage Trail leaflets? Her thoughts were matched by her audible muttering
She ungraciously yanked open the bottom drawer of the dresser – a family piece that came from Robbie’s grandmother.
“It’s a family heirloom” – her mother-in-law opined as it was squeezed into Kate’s kitchen – as unwanted as most surprise gifts
“You should have kept it for yourself” Kate had said at the time.
“It wouldn’t go in my kitchen.” Robbie’s mum had offered airily. “Robbie loves it.” Kate forever found herself bumping into the bits of the dresser that stuck out…into her kitchen…into her marriage…into her life. Kate hated it.
She retrieved two more Heritage Trail leaflets and with a heavy sigh put them on the worktop. The quiz would keep them out of her way.
Her plan was to get on with some gift wrapping and make the American frosting for the Christmas cake.
The frosting recipe was something of a survival – on yellowing paper cut carefully a 1950s magazine by her grandmother. It was one of a life’s odd survivals long after the rest is lost in memory’s wintry mists. The recipe came with a few careworn decorations – a snowman; a Santa and a wobbly wren that had lost its leg.
Standing up Kate reached over and picked up a tiny battered box from next to the cake stand. Those precious remnants lived from year to year, from cake to cake in that old box.
She fondly caressed each of them in turn.
Kate loved these gems of Christmas past. There were tears in her eyes and she felt a dry lump in her throat. Battered and broken, in her mind’s eye, they shone like that brilliant star she’d once imagined had really led those three wise men to the stable at Bethlehem. Christmas had been so special then. What was it now?
In a firework-flash her precious memory was gone.
Gracie and Charlie ran noisily into the kitchen – wearing their signature duffle coats – Gracie’s deep pink and Charlie’s brilliant green.
Robbie ambled into the kitchen after the children. He always looked unhurried and un-hassled. It annoyed Kate.
“We’ll be an hour or so.”
“Be as long as you like.”
Her tone was sword-sharp; her words cut. Shamed and surprised, she pretended not to notice but everyone else had.
They left. It was then she wished she’d said sorry but now it was too late.
Her Christmas preparations were edged with regret.
Kate longed to recatch that perfect memory from only moments earlier. She closed her eyes and willed it back. It had turned its back on her. It was gone.
The house was quiet.
Suddenly Kate felt profoundly alone – bereft – it was silly. Silly or not she was in a flood of tears.
It had been one of those days – one of those weeks – one of those years. After the pandemic, work wasn’t straightforward; Robbie’s job had gone; money worries plagued their marriage with reproach; home worries came with Charlie’s bout of bad health; and then Kate’s mum had developed dementia.
Squally outbursts of tears were now a part of life, but Kate didn’t share them – neither with Robbie nor with Charlie and Gracie – instead she battled to protect them from her pain. But somehow the more she tried to manage things the more it all just seemed to drive little wedges of distrust between them.
Now, as Christmas loomed all those little things loomed larger.
She cried for a while before she heard a low meow. “Oh, Wi-li” her tears stopped. Wi-li, a blue point Siamese, had returned from his morning constitutional, which often included a bit of random bird slaying or shrew killing. He was empty mouthed. He talked to her in his feline way. Kate gave him some dried food. He purred. He ate. He wailed. It was his way.
Wi-li knew all her problems. With him she could share her loneliness and her worry and the very irrationality of sharing these secrets with a cat somehow put the irrationality of her feelings into some sort of perspective.
“I’ll make the frosting, Wi-li…”
He studied her with his sapphire blue eyes – sphinx-like – it was his way – somehow wise, somehow silent.
The eggs whites were thickening nicely over a saucepan of warm water when the doorbell rang.
Kate leaned back and strained to see to the glass front door. She could make out the silhouette of a man.
“Just a minute.”
The doorbell rang again.
“Hold-on for heaven’s sake.”
As she walked down the hall a shaft of sunlight pierced the front door’s frosted glass. There were three shadows – not one.
There had been talk of the “Northampton knockers” in the village…. young men apparently selling dishcloths and such but looking for a chance to case a house for valuables.
“I don’t want anything…I don’t buy at the door…I’m busy.”
Having committed herself both to words and action she now found she was, almost ludicrously, stranded sunlit on one side of the front door leaving the three strangers with a clear view.
She wished she’d just stayed mum in the kitchen and then scolded herself for speaking out. Speaking out – it was a family trait – Robbie always said that when they argued.
Recently they’d argued more than ever before.
She opened the door.
They smiled – all three together – synchronised smiles – like Cheshire cats. Kate smiled back.
“Honestly, I really don’t want anything. I’ve enough dish cloths for a year’s washing-up.”
Her last words trailed off because she could see they were not selling anything.
They looked rather – well, rather well dressed…perhaps they were Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses…she could not quite remember which was which any longer. Kate had long left religion behind although she’d been brought up a Catholic…well had gone to a Catholic school in any case.
One of them was very tall and had the most beautiful ebony skin and round brown eyes that almost seemed to sing with joy. The others looked Middle Eastern or maybe Arab – gentle eyes whose soft gaze comprehended more than sight can see – one a little shorter than the other. Perhaps they were sheiks.
Kate smiled back for what she felt was no good reason.
“We’ve come about the star…”
“Yes, the star”
The black man spoke quietly “Yes, we’ve lost sight of it you see”
The second “and we need your help to find it again.”
The third, “yes, because you caught sight of it a little while ago.”
“Me, I don’t think so.”
“You saw? How?”
Assuming they meant they saw her in the hall, she added “Oh, I see.”
The first, emphatically “Yes, you saw.”
“We are expected you see.”
“I think you’ve the wrong house.”
“Oh no, this is certainly the right house. We knew you’d help. You always help people. We know that too.”
“Who told you?”
Kate was about to close the door and then something came to mind,
“Oh, you must mean the star on the church.”
They didn’t reply.
“You must have come in from Ewelme. Yes, of course.”
She thought to herself they must be coming for the Nativity Play and Carol Concert.
“You just need to carry on straight, down the road…you’ll see the church near the war memorial…”
A crash from the kitchen – a loud meow and cat shriek…
Kate darted quickly back down the hall and into the kitchen and found the floor covered with congealed frosting swimming in a lake of boiling water.
Wily as his name suggested, Wi-li had disappeared.
She began to pick up the pieces when she remembered the three men. Seized by panic…would they be inside her house? She popped her head around the kitchen door and looked back into the hall.
The door was closed.
Cagily, she took a broom – it was the first thing she laid her hand to – and cautiously went through the house – room to room – checking the cupboards – and in the wardrobes – and under the beds – heavens under the beds – had she gone mad? – she thought.
There was no one there. She sat on Charlie’s bed. She’d sat there long lonely nights worrying about her little boy. She closed her eyes embracing both fear and pain.
The doorbell rang.
Kate opened her eyes. The ceiling came into focus. She was lying on the bed holding a broom in her arms.
The doorbell again.
She got up and then remembered the three strangers.
She walked back downstairs.
A shadow by the door.
Kate opened it brusquely, armed, and ready to defend her home.
“I forgot my key.”
“Mummy, mummy look what we’ve found…look.”
The children burst into the hall and ran towards the kitchen…
“No!” Kate almost screamed.
She rushed towards them and tried to block their way. Gracie and Charlie were already through the door but silent and awestruck.
Robbie, ‘how beautiful, Kate.”
Wi-li was sitting on the dresser washing himself unperturbed by the fracas.
The most perfectly frosted Christmas cake sat on a cake stand in the middle of the kitchen table. It had three wise men on it….
“I must put this on Instagram”
“Mum it is perfect.”
“It’s just lovely mum.” Charlie pulled close to her.
Kate looked in disbelief.: “where did they come from?”
Charlie, “they come from the Orient.”
“That’s very far away you know, mummy.” Gracie added as a grace note.
The afternoon at the church had been a bit chaotic. Everyone was in a bit of a to-do about the crib. Someone had put the three kings in the manger with shepherds and all.
“Who put those in there. The kings don’t arrive until Twelfth Night.”
The Rector was visibly annoyed. “Well, they’ve arrived early.” He winced.
The other problem was they were not the proper kings. “And They’re not our kings” Mrs Price-Leigh continued.
“I don’t care whose kings they are. They’ve got to go.”
The Rector’s mobile phone chimed in. He waved, “see to it will you?” He left communing with higher things.
Mrs Price-Leigh looked after him and tut-tutted.
Mrs Price-Leigh was not for lifting and carrying. She asked Mr Dodds to move the kings. Mr Dodds had asked Mrs Dodds and Mrs Dodds had asked Jane who was serving the teas before the Nativity play. Jane was busy and forgot.
The kings stayed put.
It had drizzled miserably for most of the afternoon.
“Will there be stars like for the baby Jesus?’ Gracie had asked Kate.
“Stars – no I don’t think so tonight, Gracie. I think that might need a miracle.”
“Won’t the stars come out for Jesus’s birthday, mummy?”
“Yes, they’ll come out, but we may not see them tonight.”
“Will they still be twinkling if we can’t see them?”
“Yes, but they’ll be hiding behind the clouds so maybe we’ll just have to imagine them twinkling instead. We can imagine them together.”
Gracie began singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.”
Looking at her daughter entranced by the prospect of stars and Christmas she could not help but recall her own wonder at the story of the star and the wise men. How long ago and how far away that felt from the chill mizzle of this December day.
Charlie stood, dressed for church, in the doorway of the kitchen. He fidgeted.
Kate looked up
“Mummy…I’ve done something bad.’
“How do you mean bad?”
“Well….” His voice trailed off.
She gradually coaxed the truth from him. He told her how had bumped into three men on the road who said they had something for him to give his mum. Charlie was worried because he’d been told not to take things from strangers. He showed them to Kate. They were three tiny, tiny toys. There was an ingot that looked like gold and two small jars. The jars had a strange but sweet exotic perfume.
He put them into Kate’s hands. She stared at them
“What are they mummy?”
“I don’t really know Charlie.’
“Because the tall man said you’d know what they were for…”
Kate, Robbie, Charlie, and Gracie got to church a little late. Mrs Price-Leigh rushed towards them:
“Is there something wrong, Elizabeth?”
“That man…that man I don’t know who he thinks he is. It’s not my fault. I didn’t put them there.”
“Put what, where?”
“Oh, the kings, dears, someone put a set of kings in the crib. The Rector is hopping mad.”
Kate gave her a strange look.
“I’ve not upset you Kate?”
“No. No, I’m fine…it’s just.”
She opened her purse and took out the three small toys Charlie had been given by the strangers. She told Mrs Price-Leigh the story of the day.
“Well, I never…’
“You don’t think…”
They all went into the church together to see the crib.
The three stranger-kings had stood their ground but were empty-handed. They bore no gifts.
Kate reached into her purse and the gold ingot fitted exactly into the hands of the black prince and the jars fitted exactly into the hands of the others. It was as if they had been especially made for them.
Ever since the pandemic the Davey Consort had sung at the carol concert. The choir was composed of some of the country’s finest musicians who just happened to live nearby. They sang most Sundays at the local Catholic church in Dorchester-on-Thames.
There was an expectant hush.
A fine unaccompanied rich bass sang:
“Three Kings for Persian lands afar……”
The sweet moment lost, shone more brightly than ever in Kate’s heart. Then she knew she would have the strength to get through.
As they left church after the carol concert. Kate linked arms with Robbie.
The moon shone bright in the clearest of clear skies bedecked by myriad stars that shone like diamonds. “Oh mummy, look at the stars. They’re so beautiful.”
Gracie looked up at her mother “the stars are out mummy, is that a miracle?”
“Well, yes, Gracie, I suppose it is….”