Christmas in Cornwall: A Novel

( 1 )

Overview

The tender story of a boy, his father, his grandmother, and the bond they form over Christmas—an instant holiday classic

 

As Christmas approaches, Clem and his five-year-old son, Jakey, move to be closer to Clem's mother, Dossie, in Cornwall. Clem realizes that he has to be strong to keep his family together. Forming a slightly unconventional family setup with Dossie, Jakey, and Clem are the jovial nuns of the local convent. But when an unexpected event...

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Christmas in Cornwall: A Novel

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Overview

The tender story of a boy, his father, his grandmother, and the bond they form over Christmas—an instant holiday classic

 

As Christmas approaches, Clem and his five-year-old son, Jakey, move to be closer to Clem's mother, Dossie, in Cornwall. Clem realizes that he has to be strong to keep his family together. Forming a slightly unconventional family setup with Dossie, Jakey, and Clem are the jovial nuns of the local convent. But when an unexpected event threatens to destroy the nuns' way of life, will everyone still be together next Christmas? Beloved novelist Marcia Willett's gentle and compassionate holiday tale will touch the hearts of parents and grandparents everywhere.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Following his wife’s death, Clem and his young son, Jakey, move to Cornwall, England, to be closer to Clem’s mother, Dossie. Clem finds work as a groundskeeper at a nearby convent where the elderly nuns become a surrogate family. But when a mysterious stranger arrives in town, Clem and the nuns’ peaceful existence is threatened. Now they’ll need some heavenly inspiration to contemplate a new future if they’re going to spend another Christmas together. VERDICT Willett (The Summer House; A Week in Winter) deftly portrays all of the characters in this touching multigenerational story of love and family. [Library marketing.]—Melissa DeWild, Collection Development Manager, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, M

(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
A widower and his young son find a new life in a convent community of elderly nuns, which is close to the estate that's been in their family for generations and is still home to his mother and her parents. The book begins on Epiphany and ends the following Christmas, spanning a tumultuous year in which a tiny community of nuns hopes to be spiritually guided toward the right choices for their future, and the futures of the laypeople who are like family to them. Clem is their helper and jack-of-all-trades, and Janna is the commitment-phobic wanderer who's found an unexpected home in the community, while Jakey, Clem's 5-year-old son, adds a generous helping of childlike wonder to the elderly women and their resident priest. Nearby, Clem's mother, Dossie, and his aging grandparents, Pa and Mo, live at The Court, an estate that's been in the family for generations and has, until recently, been run as a B&B. The book opens with threats to the convent from shady developers who hope to play some legal tricks on the nuns to gain control of the property without compensating its residents; and to The Court, when Dossie's brother and his grasping girlfriend put pressure on Mo and Pa to sell the property and split the proceeds. Dossie, who has a history of bad luck in romance, becomes involved with a new, mysterious man, Rupert, throwing a wrench in Mo and Pa's plans to have Dossie restart the B&B business and keep the property self-sustaining, intact and in the family. Over the course of the book, we see relationships tighten and mature, and hinted truths come out in both expected and unexpected ways. While the book is classified as a romance, nothing is completely settled in the end as far as the real and potential romances in the book go, and the slow pace and overt spiritual slant to the plot will leave many modern romance readers dissatisfied. For the right reader, this book has charm, appealing characterization and a sprawling, unhurried storytelling style--though Willett's present-tense writing and occasional head-hopping may be distracting. For most contemporary romance fans, the lack of a convincing happily-ever-after ending and the not-quite-concrete plot wrap-up that speaks to more spiritually decisive conclusions, rather than romantic ones, will likely make them feel disappointed and misled by the romance designation. Overall, a quiet, sweet, slow-building story of spirit, faith, family, and community and the love that binds them--but not really a romance.
From the Publisher
Praise for Marcia Willett

“Like Rosamunde Pilcher and Maeve Binchy, Willett creates such fully dimensional characters that readers feel as if they should phone or e-mail them to keep in touch.”

—-Rocky Mountain News on A Week in Winter

“Tender and moving, Willet's tale expertly weaves a family's past and present together to illustrate the strength of familial bonds. A memorable and emotional read to be savored.”

—-RT Book Reviews on The Children's Hour

“Readers will enjoy the heartwarming ending, vibrant characters, and the excellent depiction of the English countryside.”

—-Booklist (starred review) on A Summer in the Country

“Thoroughly engrossing, with richly drawn characters, a mysterious locale, and a beautifully crafted plot.”

—-The Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) on A Week in Winter

"A domestic novel of quiet yearning, haunting memories and onerous guilt. The friendships at the novel's heart are believable and warming."

 —-Publishers Weekly on The Way We Were

"Wonderfully, fully-developed protagonists...fans will be pleased with this strong family drama."

—-Midwest Book Review on The Birdcage

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250003706
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 962,655
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Christmas in Cornwall is MARCIA WILLETT’s thirteenth novel to be published in the U.S. Her novels are available in seventeen countries around the world. She lives in Devon, England.

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Read an Excerpt

CHRISTMAS IN CORNWALL (Epiphany)

The Holy Family live in an old linen shoebag. The bag is dark brown, with a name-tape sewn just below its gathered neck where a stout cord pulls it tight, and each year on Christmas Eve the bag is opened and the Family, along with its attendant Wise Men, shepherds, an angel with a broken halo and various animals, are set out on a table beside the Christmas tree. They have their own stable, a wooden, open-fronted building, which has once been part of a smart toy farm, and they fit perfectly into it: the golden angel standing devoutly behind the small manger in which the tiny Holy Child lies, swaddled in white. His mother, all in blue, kneels at the head, opposite a shepherd who has fallen to his knees at the foot of the crib, his arms stretched wide in joyful worship. Joseph, in his red cloak, with a second shepherd - carrying a lamb around his neck as if it were a fur collar - stand slightly to one side, watching. A black and white cow is curled sleepily in one corner near to the grey donkey, which stands with its head slightly bowed. And here, just outside this homely scene, come the Wise Men in gaudy flowing robes, pacing in file, reverentially bearing gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Jakey stands close to the table, gazing at the figures, his eyes just level with them. Occasionally he might pick up one of the figures in order to study it more closely: the angel's broken halo; the lamb curled so peacefully around the shepherd's neck; the tiny caskets carried by the Wise Men. Once he'd dropped the Holy Child, who rolled under the sofa. Oh, the terror of that moment: lying flat on his face, scrabbling beneath the heavy chair, hot with the frustration of being unable to move it - and the huge relief when his fingers had closed over the little figure, and he'd drawn out the Baby unharmed and placed Him back in His blue-lined crib.

Now, as he stands by the crib, Jakey grows slowly aware of the sounds around him: the clock ticking weightily, its pendulum a crossly wagging finger; the sigh and rustle of ashy logs collapsing together in the grate; his father talking on the telephone next door in the kitchen and the monotonous quacking of the radio turned down low. Today the decorations must be taken down because it is Twelfth Night: the last day of Christmas.

Jakey begins to sing softly to himself: '"Five go-hold lings. Fo-our calling birds, thlee Flench hens, two-hoo turtle doves, and a partdlige in a pear tlee".'

He feels restless; sad that the tiny, sparkling lights and the pretty tree will no longer be there to brighten the short dark winter days. Still singing just below his breath, he climbs onto the sofa and tries to balance on his head on the cushions, his legs propped against its back, until he falls sideways and tips slowly onto the floor. He lies with his feet still on the sofa, his head turned sideways on the rug, and regards Auntie Gabriel who stands on the bookcase presiding over the Christmas festivities. The angel is nearly two foot tall with clumsy wooden shoes, a white papier-mâché dress and golden padded wings. Her hair is made of string but her scarlet, uptilted thread of a smile is compassionate; joyful. The clumpy feet might be set square and firm on the ground but when the golden wire crown is placed upon the tow-coloured head then there is something unearthly about her. Held lightly between her hands is a red satin heart: a symbol of love, perhaps?

There are several other, smaller, angels strung from convenient hooks about the room; but none has the status of Auntie Gabriel. Not as fierce and cold and glorious as the Archangel himself, flying in from heaven in all his power and majesty, and trailing clouds of glory; she is, nevertheless, a distant relation: the human, fallible face of love.

With a mighty heave, Jakey rolls head over heels and stands up. He goes over to the bookcase and stares up at Auntie Gabriel, who beams sweetly at him with her lop-sided silk-thread smile. He doesn't want her to be packed away in the soft roll of material that protects her fragile dress and padded wings, her gold crown wrapped separately, before they are all put into a large carrier bag and tucked into the drawer in the old merchant's chest. He doesn't want Christmas to be over. Jakey is utterly miserable. Deliberately he kicks out and stubs his toe in its soft leather slipper against the corner of the bookcase, hurting himself, and his mouth turns down at the corners. He decides to let himself cry; he's just going to, even though he knows that he's a big boy now; that next birthday he will be five. He experiments with a sob, listens to it with interest, and squeezes his eyes shut to force out a tear.

Clem watches his small son from the doorway, his heart twisting with a mix of compassion and amusement.

'Listen,' he says. 'Guess who that was on the phone.' And at the sound of his voice, Jakey jumps and turns quickly. 'It was Dossie,' Clem says. 'She's on her way over and she's bringing something special with her.'

Jakey hesitates, head down, his lower lip still protruding, not quite willing yet to be jollied out of his self-pity.

'What?' he asks, pretending not to care much. 'What is she blinging?'

'It's a secret.' Clem sits down and scoops a long-eared, long-legged brightly knitted rabbit onto his knee. 'Isn't it, Stripey Bunny? It's a Twelfth Night present. Something you have when all the decorations have been taken down.'

Jakey looks around the room: at the Holy Family; at the glittering tree; at Auntie Gabriel. He hesitates, debating with himself, but Clem senses signs of weakening and blesses his mother for the idea.

'He's utterly miserable,' he told her on the phone. 'He can't bear the thought of Christmas being over and I can't really explain to him why we have to take all the decorations down. It's going to be a bad evening.'

'Poor darling,' she said. 'I couldn't sympathize more. I hate it too. Now here's a plan. Why don't I bring over the chocolate cake I made this morning and something out of my present drawer? I've got one of those Thomas the Tank Engine thingies. James, I think it is. Or is it Edward? Jakey will know. We were reading a story about them all.'

Clem hesitated. 'He's had so much for Christmas, Dossie. I don't want to spoil him.'

'Oh, darling. One little truck. Remember how you used to feel? Anyway, we couldn't spoil Jakey. He's much too balanced. A Twelfth Night present. What d'you think?'

'OK. Why not? Do I get one too?'

'Certainly not. You're not nearly as balanced as Jakey is and I can't risk spoiling you at this late date. But you shall have some cake. See you soon.'

Now, Jakey wanders over and leans against Clem's knee. He twiddles Stripey Bunny's long soft ears and allows himself to give in.

'When will Dossie be here?'

'Soon.' Clem glances up at the clock: the drive from St Endellion to Peneglos should take about half an hour. 'Let's have a quick walk before it gets dark and you can ride your new bike. Stripey Bunny can go in the back.'

Jakey runs shouting to the door, high spirits restored.

'Boots on,' calls Clem. 'And your coat. Wait, Jakey. I said, Wait...'

Presently they go out together into the wintry sunset.

Frost lies thick in the ditches, crisping the bramble leaves, scarlet, yellow and purple, that trail over the bleached, bent grass and frozen earth. Dossie drives carefully in the winding lane, watching for icy patches unthawed by the day's sunshine. A flock of starlings rise from a field beyond the bare thorn hedge; they swoop and dive, as sleek as a shoal of fish swimming in the cold blue air, settling randomly on the telephone wires like notes of music scribbled on a score.

At the A39 she turns westwards towards Wadebridge. She is filled with joy at the glory of the sunset - gold and crimson clouds streaming out across the rosy sky - and at the sight of a half-moon, already well risen, trailed by one great star. She hopes that Jakey can see the star; he loves the firmament at night. At this time of the year they are able to star-watch together before his bedtime; and she made him a stargazy pie for his fourth birthday. The memory of his expression at the sight of all the little pilchards staring skywards makes her smile, but with the smile comes the familiar twist of pain. How sad it is - how cruelly sad - that fate should repeat her wicked little trick, so that, just as Clem never knew his father, so Jakey's mother died of post-partum haemorrhage just hours after his birth. Dossie heaves a great sighing breath: oh, the shock and the pain of it, still fresh. At the time she tried so hard to persuade Clem not to give up his theological training, just begun at St Stephen's House in Oxford, offering to make a home there for all of them until he was ordained, pleading with him to allow her to look after Jakey, either in Oxford or at the family home in Cornwall.

'Mo and Pa would love to help,' she said. 'He's their great-grandson, after all, Clem. They helped me bring you up; now they could do the same for Jakey.'

It was quite useless. Politely but steadfastly he refused to listen to his tutors and his spiritual advisers, who tried to convince him of his vocation, telling him that his grief was blinding him to his true calling. He returned to his lucrative job in IT in London, working from their little flat whilst paying for a nanny to take care of Jakey, and doing as much as he could for his baby son.

Dossie knew very well that Clem hadn't wanted her to give up her own work as a self-employed caterer or to lose the contacts and reputation she'd spent so many years cultivating on this high windswept Atlantic coast; and Mo and Pa were no longer young. He must fend for himself and for Jakey, he said. But she knew he hated returning to that place where first he'd felt what he'd once described, with a kind of disbelieving awe, as 'the pressing in of God'.

Now, ahead, Dossie can see the New Bridge striding across the River Camel. The tide is out and only a silver trickle marks the water's course. Little boats lie lifeless at their moorings on the pale shining mud, waiting for the sea's pulse to lift them again into life. She drives across the bridge, past Wadebridge and the old bridge upstream, turning off the A39, taking the road towards Padstow, remembering Clem's phone call just over a year ago.

'There's this job advertised in the Church Times,' he said. 'It's somewhere near you at a place called Peneglos. It says: "Strong person required to work six acres of grounds plus some house maintenance. Small salary but a three-bedroom lodge house comes free with the post." It's an Anglican convent.'

His voice, abrupt but oddly eager, almost daring her to comment, silenced her for a moment. She had no idea that he still read the Church Times.

'That must be Chi-Meur,' she said lightly. 'It's a lovely old place. A little Elizabethan manor house that was given to the nuns by an elderly spinster of the Bosanko family who owned it at the time. And Peneglos is the tiny village running down to the sea between Stepper Point and Trevose Head. The convent sits up above it in the valley.'

She waited; the silence stretched interminably between them.

'I'm thinking of going for it,' he said at last, challengingly. 'I can sell the flat and invest the money and then see how we get on. After all, Mo always used to make me work like a slave in the garden and Pa made sure that I'm no stranger to a paintbrush.'

Dossie's excitement was so intense she hardly dared to breathe.

'Sounds great,' she said casually. 'Nothing you couldn't handle, I'm sure, and fantastic for Jakey. A perfect place for a little boy to grow up, so close to the sea.'

Once again she waited: she would not question him or ask how he'd manage with Jakey while he was working.

'I'll have to find out about childcare,' he was saying. 'It'll be easier when he starts school, of course, but there should be a nursery in Padstow. And you're not far away.'

'Half an hour at the most, I should say. We can all help till you're settled.'

'OK.' He sounded excited; hopeful. 'If they give me an interview we could stay at The Court for a few days. That'd be OK, wouldn't it?'

She laughed then. 'Of course it would. Let me know what happens.'

'"Ch'Muir?"' Clem repeated thoughtfully. 'Is that how you pronounce it?'

'More or less,' she replied. 'It's Cornish for "the big house". Something like that.'

'Sounds good. There was suddenly a wistful longing in his voice.

Dossie saw in her mind's eye his tall, lean form; the silvery-gilt blond hair, the same colour as her own, cropped close to his head. She remembered how happy he'd been in the discovery of his vocation, in the love of his pretty French wife and the prospect of their baby, and her heart ached for him. No point in asking if he found his present work empty; she knew the answer.

'If it's right then it will happen,' she said, suddenly cheerful; some sixth sense prompting her to confidence.

And it had happened. The Sisters of Christ the King at Chi-Meur Convent and their chaplain and warden, Father Pascal, had taken Clem and Jakey to their hearts and Clem was offered the post and the sturdy little lodge house with it.

Now, as Dossie turns into the lane towards Peneglos, her heart is glad with gratitude. Clem is healing, and Jakey is growing - and they are happy. She passes in through the convent gates and there is the Lodge, light streaming out across the drive, and Jakey at the window, waiting for her.

'I was wondering,' says Clem, watching as Dossie puts the remains of the cake back into its Raymond Briggs Father Christmas tin, 'whether to leave the decorations until he's gone to bed. You know? Do them when he's asleep.'

They had tea in the big, square, cheerful kitchen and now Jakey is next door in the sitting-room watching a DVD: Shaun the Sheep. With Stripey Bunny curled under his arm he is engrossed by the flock of amiable sheep and the antics of the idiotic sheepdog.

'No, no.' Dossie is very firm. 'He'll enjoy it in an odd kind of way. It's important, isn't it, to learn to finish things as well as to begin them? It'd be a terrible anticlimax for him to wake up to find it all packed away. It's like grieving. It has its own pace and its own rituals. He was too little last year to do much but this year he can be helpful. He'll like that.' She glances at Clem. 'Am I being bossy, darling? You must do what you think is best.'

'I expect you're right.'

He turns away and stands for a moment, leaning against the sink, staring out into the darkness. The convent lights shine out between the bare branches of the trees but Dossie knows that he is thinking of Madeleine; of how Jakey's mother might have dealt with the situation. She reflects that there isn't much that Clem doesn't know about grieving.

'He can pack up Auntie Gabriel,' Dossie says cheerfully, hiding her own anguish. 'He loves Auntie Gabriel. And the Holy Family. He can be responsible for them. And afterwards he can have his present and we'll play with the trains before he has his bath. What d'you think?'

Clem turns back and smiles at her. His smile frightens her; there is an empty quality about it, a determined stoicism. She wants to put her arms round him but she knows that her desire to comfort will merely be a burden to him; he'd be obliged to bury his pain more deeply in order not to worry her.

Jakey comes into the kitchen with Stripey Bunny still under his arm.

'Shaun's finished,' he says. 'Are we going to take the decolations down now?'

He is still slightly reluctant to abandon his air of sadness, which has so far earned him a big slice of cake and the present to come, and Dossie watches him, amused. Showing great restraint, he hasn't asked about his Twelfth Night present but clearly he guesses that it is contingent upon the decorations being packed away and is now quite ready for this next step. She raises her eyebrows at Clem, who nods.

'Could you deal with Auntie Gabriel? And the Holy Family? The tree takes a bit of time so it would be a great help if you could manage them.'

Jakey's eyes open wide with importance; he grows visibly. He nods. 'But I can't leach Auntie Gabriel unless I stand on a chair.'

'I'll come and help,' says Dossie. 'I'll do the tree and then Daddy can take it out.'

They go together into the sitting-room and she opens the heavy bottom drawer of the merchant's chest. Out come the empty boxes and bags and she puts them on the sofa. Jakey seizes the linen shoebag and studies the name-tape with its red stitched letters: C PARDOE. He knows that the letters spell Daddy's name and his own name, and that the shoebag belonged to Daddy when he was little and at school. He opens the neck of the bag as wide as he can and carries it over to the low table beside the tree.

Which to take first? He puts the cow in, and then the donkey, laying them right down into the bottom of the bag, and then peeps in at them to see if they are all right. They look quite happy, resting in the slightly musty interior. Next come the kneeling shepherd, arms stretched wide, and the Wise Men: one, two, three. Once again he peers into the bag where they all loll together.

'They're having a lest,' he tells Dossie. 'They like it.'

'Of course they do. They've been standing or kneeling there for twelve days. You'd need a rest if you'd stood up for twelve days.'

Jakey reaches for the second shepherd and Joseph, feeling happier. Joseph settles comfortably at the bottom of the bag, and he puts Mary beside him. The angel Gabriel, staring loftily at nothing, wings unfurled, halo broken, goes in next and, last of all, the little crib and the Holy Child. He puts the manger in but continues to hold the sleeping baby.

'Baby Jesus doesn't need a lest,' he says, almost to himself. 'He's been lesting all the time.'

'But he wants to be with his family,' answers Dossie. 'He'd miss them otherwise.'

Briefly he wonders whether to make a little fuss, to argue, but then he thinks about the present to come and decides not to. 'OK,' he says cheerfully.

He puts the Holy Child into the shoebag, takes one last look at them all, and with some difficulty pulls the draw-string tight.

'Well done,' says Dossie. 'We'll put the stable in the drawer separately. Now can you pack up Auntie Gabriel?'

She takes the large bulky figure from the bookcase and props her against the cushions on the sofa beside the soft wrappings. Jakey studies her regretfully: he'll miss her smile and the comforting feeling that she is watching over him. A memory of a dream he's had several times flickers in his mind: the still, silent figure, wrapped in pale shawls, standing amongst the trees across the drive from the Lodge, watching. Jakey can't remember now whether he's actually climbed out of bed and seen the figure from his window, or merely dreamed it. He fingers the heavy blocks on Auntie Gabriel's feet and the soft padded wings, and touches the red satin heart, which she holds between her pudgy hands.

'Don't forget to take her crown off,' says Dossie, 'and wrap it separately. Poor old Auntie Gabriel. Now she really needs a rest. She'll be all ready, then, to come out again next Christmas.'

Reverently, Jakey takes the gold wire crown from the thick string hair; he bends forward so that his mouth is close to the silk thread of a smile.

'See you next Chlistmas,' he whispers. 'Have a good lest.'

He lays her on the soft piece of material and wraps her in it as if it were a shawl. He doesn't want to cover her face so that she can't breathe. He puts her very carefully into the big carrier bag and then wraps some tissue paper round the crown and puts it in after her. All at once the sadness overcomes him again: he hates to see Auntie Gabriel hidden in a bag as if she were some ordinary old shopping. Before he can speak, however, Dossie is talking to him.

'Could you help me, darling?' she says. 'I've been so silly. I've taken these things down and I can't find the box they go in. Is it there on the sofa? Oh, yes. That's the one. Come and see these little figures, Jakey. Daddy loved these when he was your age.'

And he goes to look at the little carved wooden figures - a drummer boy, a snowman and a small boy with a lantern - and helps Dossie to put them into their little green box; she shows him the fragile glass baubles, an owl, and a clock and a bell, and the moment passes.

That night he has the dream again of the figure, wrapped in pale clothing, standing amongst the trees, watching. But he isn't afraid: he knows now that it is Auntie Gabriel.

The drive passes in front of the house, with its stone-mullioned windows and stout oaken door, and curves round to the open-fronted stables, which are used as a garage, and to the Coach House. This has been converted to a guesthouse for those small groups of retreatants who prefer to cater for themselves, rather than stay in the house and eat in the guests' dining-room, and who like to walk the coastal footpath and visit Padstow, as well as attending some of the Daily Offices in the chapel. It's an attractive building looking north-west across the Atlantic coast to the sea and south-east towards the orchard where the caravan stands amongst the apple trees.

Once the caravan was a hermit nun's refuge: now it is Janna's home. She comes down the steps, tying a bright silk scarf over her lion's-mane hair, bracing herself against the cold air. Inside, with the low winter sun streaming in through the caravan's windows, it's cosily warm; the dazzling light shining on her few precious belongings, glinting on the little silver vase that Clem and Jakey gave her for Christmas. She's found some pale, green-veined snowdrops under the trees to put into it and she looks at the fragile blooms with pleasure when she sits at the small table each morning to eat her breakfast.

The vase is real silver, and she was both shocked and gratified by this expensive token of their affection for her. She opened the present carefully, aware of Jakey's excitement and Clem's faint anxiety. Her delight pleased them both and they exchanged a man-to-man look of relief, which amused her.

'I love it,' she said. ''Tis really beautiful,' and she stood it on the table, tracing the swirling chasings with a finger, and then hugged Jakey. She didn't hug Clem: Clem isn't the sort of person you could hug just casually; not like his mum, Dossie, or like Sister Emily, for instance. Clem is very tall, for one thing, and very lean, and there is an austerity about him - Dossie said that once, used that word: 'Old Clem's a touch austere, isn't he?' - which is rather like Father Pascal. She loves Father Pascal because he never questions her or judges her, and so, after a while, she's told him things: things like her dad disappearing before she was born and her mum being barely more than a child herself. About being on the road, and then, later, being fostered because her mum drank too much and how she'd kept running away from her foster homes trying to find her mum.

'We missed the travelling,' she told him. 'Always being on the move. Going places. She couldn't bear it at the end when she was in a wheelchair. I'm the same. "Trains and Boats and Planes..."' She hummed the tune. 'Don't know why.'

'We're all pilgrims,' Father Pascal said thoughtfully. 'One way and another, aren't we? Always searching for something.'

Janna finishes tying the scarf at the nape of her neck and pauses to do homage to the large pot of winter pansies that stands beside the steps: creamy white and gold and purple, they turn their pretty silken faces to the wintry sunshine. She shivers, wrapping her warm woollen jacket more closely round her. Dossie gave her the jacket. It is almost knee length, soft damson-coloured wool, and elegant, but oh! so warm. This time, when she opened her present, she was unable to hide her emotion, and she and Dossie hugged each other, and Dossie's eyes shone too, with tears. It was what she calls 'having a moment'; but Dossie has many such moments: having chocolate cake with your coffee might be having a moment: or dashing into Padstow for an hour in the sunshine and then eating fish and chips by the sea wall: 'I think we need a moment, darling.' She celebrates life with these moments and Janna accepts them with joy: she understands this. She, too, has a passion for picnics, for impromptu meals and sudden journeys.

Her Christmas gifts to them were much more simple: a Thomas the Tank Engine colouring book for Jakey; two spotted handkerchiefs for Clem; a piece of pretty china from the market for Dossie. Janna's work is not highly paid, though her caravan is rent-free, but she eats well in the convent kitchen and counts herself lucky: much better than working the pubs in the summer season and taking anything she can find during the winter months. She heard about this job when she was working down in Padstow at the end of the season and she wandered up from Trevone one windy afternoon, leaving the surfers she was hanging out with down on the beach, walking over the cliffs in the late September sunshine. She came by the cliff path with the gulls screaming above the ebbing tide and the wind at her back.

'Blown in on a westerly,' Sister Emily says, beaming, 'and what a wonderful day for us it was.'

It's odd, thinks Janna, how quickly she felt at home. Even as she walked between the two great granite pillars, passing the little lodge house and wandering along the drive, she was aware of a sense of homecoming. The granite manor, set amongst its fields, looking away to the west, with its gardens and orchard surrounding it, was so beautiful, so peaceful. Yet even with the warm welcome she had, and that strange sense of belonging, nevertheless she chose the caravan in the orchard rather than the comfortable bed-sitting-room in the house that they offered her. The caravan is separate; it offers privacy and independence.

'It reminds me of when I was a kid,' she told the kindly Sisters, eager to welcome her and to make her feel at home, 'when we were on the road.'

If they were surprised they showed no sign of it. Warmly, courteously, they gave her the freedom of the caravan and outlined her duties, which are simple: to keep the house clean and the washing and ironing done; and, if necessary, to sit with Sister Nichola who, at ninety-two, is failing.

'We used to be completely self-sufficient,' Mother Magda told Janna rather sadly. 'Inside and out. But there were many more of us then, and we were young. We always had a couple in the Lodge that helped us, but the husband died and his wife went to live with her daughter. Now we have Clem, who is a true blessing.'

'And Jakey,' Sister Emily added, twinkling.

'I'm not certain,' Sister Ruth said, rather coolly, 'that Jakey is a great help to us.'

'He makes us feel young again.' Mother Magda spoke firmly. 'And he understands reverence.'

Now, Janna passes beneath the apple trees and crosses the yard, the pretty little bantams, soft grey and warm gold, scattering and running before her. The Coach House is empty; no guests this week. She is glad. It is good just to be themselves. She loves it when they are just family; the family for which she's always longed. Mother Magda, Father Pascal, Sisters Emily, Ruth and Nichola; and Clem and Jakey and Dossie. How strange it is to find them here, unexpectedly, in this high, tiny valley that tips and tumbles its way down to the sea. She goes in through the back door and into the kitchen.

In the chapel the Sisters are at Morning Prayer. Sister Nichola sits with her eyes fixed on the mullioned window and the bare, frost-rimed branches of the lilac tree beyond it. Her thoughts are not always clear and she fancies that if she were to breathe in she might smell the heady scent of the lilac blossom drifting in through the open window; and she will hear the blackbird's song as he perches amongst its branches. This morning the window is closed against the winter's chill and the spring is yet some way off. Beside her, Sister Ruth stands up to go out to the lectern; Sister Nichola watches the tall, spare figure, trying to remember her name. She looks around the chapel, seeing long-gone faces and quiet, attentive forms sitting in the empty stalls, observing Mother Magda's thin, fine-drawn face and serene blue eyes, and Sister Emily's intelligent, direct look and her half-smiling mouth. They are watching Sister Ruth - yes; that's her name; Sister Nichola gives a delighted little nod as she remembers it - who is now opening the Bible and is beginning to read.

'"Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you."'

Isaiah: Epiphany. The familiarity of the Church year, turning and turning in its endless dance, comforts Sister Nichola. This remains whilst so many other things fall away from her. Her head droops a little but she does not sleep.

Clem arrives in the kitchen before Janna, emptying some vegetables from a basket onto a newspaper on the big, scrubbed table. A pan containing stock simmers on the Aga but there is no sign of Penny, who comes up from the village to cook. Janna and Clem smile at one another. In the few months that she's been at the convent Janna has learned to move softly, to speak very quietly: the nuns value silence although here, in the kitchen, quiet conversation is allowed. To Clem silence comes naturally. She and Penny, however, often have to muffle cries of irritation or bursts of laughter as they prepare and cook food, getting in each other's way, burning a saucepan or dropping a plate. Often Sister Emily, gliding in behind them, smiles but Sister Ruth is less sympathetic to such outbursts. Her pale, level glance restores them to order very quickly, whilst Emily's dark eyes crinkle with fellow feeling.

On her afternoons off, Sister Emily often makes her way through the orchard to the caravan for a cup of tea. Janna loves these 'moments'; for they are of that order of celebration of which Dossie approves. Sister Emily has a passion for life that, at eighty-two, is unexpected: her brown eyes sparkling at the sight of a special cake or at the variety of Janna's fruit teas.

'Echinacea and raspberry,' she murmurs. 'Camomile and lemon and mint. How delicious. Now which shall I choose?'

For the first time for years Janna is living among women who own even less than she does: she no longer needs to justify her lack of belongings. It even seems to be a virtue. She showed Sister Emily her small store of treasures: the Peter Rabbit mug and the Roger Hargreaves Little Miss Sunshine book, and the threadbare Indian silk shawl.

'My mum gave them to me when I was little,' she said almost defensively. 'She loved me, see, even if she had to give me up. She bought me stuff; called me her Little Miss Sunshine. She didn't want to let me go but she was really ill.'

The older woman looked at the treasures, nodding her understanding, her eyes thoughtful. Then she smiled at Janna.

'When you no longer need them, then you will be free,' she said. She said it encouragingly, almost exultantly, as if it were towards this exciting and rewarding goal that Janna must naturally be working, and the words took her by surprise. She was used to people being gently consoling, telling her they could believe how important these symbols were, but Sister Emily seems to be travelling a different road. Janna thinks about it quite often. Sister Emily's responses are often unexpected.

Clem is drawing her attention to a small piece of paper lying on the bread board. A note. Janna smiles involuntarily: the Sisters use notes to communicate so many things. Small hoarded pieces of paper torn from letters, backs of used envelopes, receipts; nothing is wasted: folded messages pushed under doors, left on beds and in stalls in the chapel. They read the note together, Clem peering over her shoulder.

'Penny is unwell,' is written in Mother Magda's scrawling handwriting. 'I have started the soup. Can you possibly manage, Janna dear?'

It must be hard, reflects Janna, to be so dependent where once they were so self-sufficient.

'Vegetable soup?' murmurs Clem in her ear, nodding towards his offerings: carrots, onions, potatoes, some leeks.

She nods, smiling her thanks, and he goes back to his work whilst she carries the vegetables to the sink and begins to wash them under the tap.

A week later, out in the Western Approaches, heavy grey clouds begin to pile and mass. Towering and spilling, they race in towards the coast, driven by wild winds that batter the peninsula. Ice melts, turns to water and begins to drip. The sun grows pale, a lemon disc behind the advancing veils of thin cloud, and is quenched at last. Deeply rutted tracks, which have been hard as concrete, quickly soften into thick, heavy mud; rivers and streams fill, roaring and rushing in their rocky beds.

The windows of the Lodge rattle in the gale and the trees creak and toss, bending bare wintry branches above its chimneypots. Jakey, eating his tea at the kitchen table, looks out into the dark, drenched garden. The curtains are not yet drawn and the bright scene within is reflected in the streaming black glass. He feels safe and warm, here in the kitchen, with Daddy sitting at the other end of the table with his laptop open.

Jakey carefully balances some more baked beans onto his fork and puts them into his mouth: Stripey Bunny sits beside his plate in attendance. Sometimes Daddy raises his head and says, 'OK, Jakes?' and he nods; he likes these times when Daddy is with him but busy with something else, and Stripey Bunny is just within reach. He feels safe but free, too; free to think about things and to listen to the sounds. There are lots of sounds: long fingers of rain drumming on the window; the low hum of the laptop; the droning of the fridge; the gurgle in the radiator.

In a minute Daddy will stand up and take the plates to put in the dishwasher. He'll open the big heavy door and the dishwasher's bad breath will belch out into the kitchen. Dossie says that Daddy ought to rinse the plates first, especially if they're fishy, and Daddy says that if he were to do that, then having a dishwasher would be utterly pointless. Then Dossie rolls her eyes and gives a big sigh and Daddy simply carries on with what he is doing with a particular look on his face. Jakey picks up a piece of toast and wipes it round his plate in the beans' thick tomatoey juice, thinking about that look. It's the look Daddy has sometimes when he, Jakey, is being naughty and Daddy says, 'Don't push it, Jakes,' and then it's best to stop being silly. Jakey eats his toast happily, wondering what he might be allowed as a pudding if he eats everything on his plate.

Clem closes his laptop.

'All finished?' he asks. 'Well done.' He takes Jakey's plate and puts it in the dishwasher. 'Now what about a Petits Filous? Would you like one of those? Or some grapes?'

'Petits Filous and glapes,' Jakey says firmly. 'And a biscuit.'

'We'll see about the biscuit,' says Clem. Dossie, and the nanny who looked after Jakey in London, have trained him well in the matter of his small son's diet though sometimes he allows the rules to be bent a little. He reaches across the sink to draw the curtains. Janna has bought pots of cyclamen, which stand on the white-painted sill. Unobtrusively she introduces pretty, quirky, gentler things into their masculine world and Clem is grateful for it. He and she have quickly fallen into an easy, undemanding relationship; her naturalness infiltrates and warms his austerity. She makes him laugh, and Jakey loves her.

'We're the two Jays,' she says to him. 'We're a team: high five, partner,' and Jakey stands on tiptoe, reaching up high to strike his small palm against Janna's.

Even as Clem thinks about her, there is a quick little tattoo on the door and she comes in, scattering raindrops, her face screwed up against the wind and rain.

'Yeuch!' she exclaims. 'What a night! Nice and warm in here, though. Shopping!' She heaves two large bags onto the table and Jakey pushes himself up higher in his chair to peer inside.

'Thanks, Janna.' Clem takes a Petits Filous from the fridge and gives it to Jakey. 'Honestly, I'm really grateful.'

'I was going anyway. I just hope I remembered everything.'

Clem begins to take out packages: fish fingers, sausages, yoghurt.

'Good job your mum's a cook and stocks the freezer up for you with proper food,' observes Janna.

'I can cook,' says Clem, unperturbed. 'Jakey and I happen to like sausages and fish fingers.'

'I love sausages,' announces Jakey. 'Sausages are my favoulites.' He bounces in his chair, beaming at Janna, flourishing his spoon, showing off.

Clem puts a small bowl of grapes in front of him. 'Eat properly or you'll get a tummy-ache. Tea, Janna?'

'Love some.' She sits down beside Jakey. Clem switches on the kettle and begins to pile the tins and packets into the cupboard. Janna looks at Jakey; gives him a tiny wink.

'So what have you had for supper, my lover?' she asks. 'Don't tell me. Beans on toast with sausage.'

'He likes beans on toast with sausage.' Clem shuts the cupboard door. 'It's very nourishing. He gets a good lunch at school and Dossie's here often enough to make sure he has a balanced diet.'

Jakey knows that Janna is teasing Daddy and that Daddy doesn't mind; he's smiling as he puts a tea bag into the mug. Jakey eats some grapes. He wrinkles his nose and wriggles. He is deciding whether to demand Janna's attention: ask her to play with him or read him a story. But a bit of him knows that when other people come and talk to Daddy, then this is a good time to ask if he can watch the television. Usually, he'll be allowed some extra watching time while the grownups talk. He finishes his grapes and picks up Stripey Bunny.

'Can I get down, Daddy? Can I watch television?'

'"May I get down?" OK, yes. Just for a bit. Hang on a sec; let me wipe your face.' The kettle boils. Clem makes Janna's tea, puts the mug beside her and goes with Jakey into the sitting-room. She can hear them arguing about who should press which buttons, and what and for how long Jakey will be allowed to watch. Presently Clem comes back and sits down at the table. He pushes the laptop to one side and picks up his half-drunk, nearly cold coffee.

'It's keeping one step ahead that's so exhausting,' he says. 'I had no idea that the mind of a four-year-old was so devious. He can argue for hours and the scary thing is that his arguments are very logical. I get to a point where I want to shout, "Just because I say so!" but I'd feel he'd outwitted me. It's like living with Henry Kissinger. Dossie's better at reasoning with him than I am.'

'She had all those years of practice with you. Anyway, she's a woman. She's more devious than Jakey can ever hope to be.'

They sit together companionably, talking over the day. Janna has a second mug of tea.

'There was a chap round earlier,' she says. 'Funny bloke. Just wandering about. Did you see him?'

Clem shakes his head. 'I've been decorating the little West Room. No chance of getting anything done outside this last couple of days, and there are no guests in at the moment. When you say "funny" what do you mean exactly?'

Janna frowns. 'He seemed a bit shifty when he saw me. I was going down to the village the back way and he must have come up that way because he was round the back of the Coach House, just peering around. So I asked if he wanted anything and he said no, and that he hadn't realized that the lane led straight into the grounds. "So this is the convent?" he said, all bright and interested. And I said that it was. And he said something about it being rather smart having your own private road into the village. Then he said, "But then, of course, they owned the village too in the old days, didn't they?" After he'd said that he looked awkward and I didn't know what he was talking about so I just left him to it. I didn't want to walk down with him, see. I felt uncomfortable with him. Afterwards I wondered if it had been right to leave him but he didn't look rough or anything like that. He was quite smartly dressed. What did he mean about owning the village?'

'Before it became a convent, Chi-Meur and Peneglos, the church and all the farmland around here belonged to the Bosanko family. When Elizabeth Bosanko willed Chi-Meur to a small community of nuns, the village and most of the farms were sold off. Obviously this fellow has been studying the local history but even so I'd have thought he would've seen the notice at the back entrance that says "Private".'

'That's what I thought, but I didn't quite like to be rude. You know - he might've been a visitor that the sisters were expecting. After all, we do get some odd people turning up.'

Clem shrugs. 'Well, he clearly knew the history of the place. Perhaps he was just a nosy visitor staying down in the village.'

Janna finishes her tea, glances at the clock. 'I'd better dash. Vespers will be over in ten minutes and Sister Ruth'll be needing help with supper. I've left your change on the table. Thanks for the tea.'

'Thanks for the shopping,' Clem answers.

He pockets the pile of loose change, scrumples the till receipt and puts it in the bin. Part of him wishes that he'd asked Janna to come back later and have supper with him, but he knows that once he's finished Jakey's bath-and-bed routine he'll be quite happy simply to slump in front of the television with a sandwich. It's hard physical labour, keeping the grounds and the house maintained, as well as making certain that Jakey's needs are answered. Dossie and Janna are a terrific help, but the aching emptiness remains: he misses Madeleine, and he misses the peace he once knew: the deep-down peace of recognizing his vocation and committing to it.

He stands beside the table, hands in his pockets, head bent. The shock of Madeleine's death threw him off track. He utterly lost his bearings. A few things were clear: she'd want his first care to be for their child and he couldn't possibly have managed that at Oxford. Her parents lived and worked in France and so were unable to be of any great help to him, and although Dossie offered, even begged him to allow her to move to Oxford to make a home for them, he couldn't have been responsible for the fact that the move would be such an upheaval for her. After all, she went through all this before: the loss of her beloved young husband in a car smash and the prospect of bringing up their child without him. Back then, she was in the last year at catering college and she used all her new-learned skills to start up a business immediately so as to earn a living whilst looking after her baby. How could he possibly have asked her to give up her clients, her contacts and all her other commitments? Impossible. Clem shakes his head. The other alternative, of Dossie taking Jakey back to Cornwall while he continued his studies in Oxford for the next three years, was also out of the question. Jakey had lost his mother; he needed his father. Back in London Clem could earn good money to pay for a full-time nanny and he'd have the network of his friends to support him. The prospect was a bleak one in contrast to all that he'd looked forward to but, anyway, how could he trust that his sense of vocation was a true one? Why should this tragedy have happened within the first few months of his training if he had indeed been called to the priesthood? For a long while he railed against God: angry, despairing, in pain.

In retrospect, he sees that all his decisions were driven by guilt and grief - and yet, three years later, he found his way to Chi-Meur. And now there is a sense of healing and a measure of peace to be found working in this magical place so close to the sea, or slipping into the chapel for the Eucharist at midday, or to listen to Terce or Vespers or Compline. And talking to Father Pascal in his tiny cottage down in the village.

Slowly, reluctantly at first, Clem talked to the old priest about his confusion and his anger: how he believed that finding the job at Chi-Meur and the kindness of the Sisters, as well as Janna's friendship, were healing him. But to what purpose? What of the future?

'Signposts?' Father Pascal suggested on one of these occasions. 'The generosity of strangers, the love of friends. Don't you think that these might be signposts on the road to God? The promises of God, who is on the road ahead of you. He will meet you there.'

'Where?' Clem asked wearily. 'I thought I'd already got started on that road and then it blew up in front of me.'

'But you found Chi-Meur. You are on the road again, perhaps even a little further on. But the initiative is with God.'

Now, Clem takes his hands out of his pockets and glances at his watch: nearly bath-time; and Jakey has been watching television for much longer than his usual allowance and won't want to stop. Clem breathes deeply and braces himself for battle.

In his bedroom in a farmhouse further along the coast, Janna's stranger crouches over his mobile.

'It's all in pretty good shape,' he's saying. 'Lovely house. Young feller in the lodge house looking after the grounds. He's got his work cut out. And a girl in a caravan. Chief cook and bottle-washer, I should say. Bit of a looker...No, no. Don't get out of your pram. There's nothing like that going on. But I'm picking up information in the village. Four nuns. Sisters, they call them. Elderly. One of them a bit ga-ga. Can't see how they can hope to carry on myself, though they're very popular with the locals...No, I'm not staying in the village. I'm at a bed and breakfast up the coast a bit. It's a farm. Nice and quiet. Pretty basic, touch of the Worzels, but it suits. I've told them I'm writing a book about the north Cornish coast and its history. They're thrilled about it...

'So we put in our offer and wait? And, if they accept, then it can be proved that the house is no longer going to be run as a convent and you can appear waving your bit of paper and say that, under the terms of the old will drawn up hundreds of years ago, you, as the last descendant of these particular Bosankos, are entitled to inherit...Yeah, I know that's a bit garbled but that's where we are. Right?...No, nobody can hear me. Don't be so twitchy. I told you, the dit is I'm researching a book. It might be televised. I've dropped a few well-known names and the locals can't wait to be in it. Everyone wants to have a say. I've got Phil Brewster lined up, ready to go when you say the word...OK, I'll have another look around. Same time tomorrow? OK.'

He switches off and stares around the tidy, comfortable room and then out into the wet, dark night. There is no sound, no streetlights. He shivers, makes a face, wonders how people can stand living in all this quiet. He drags the curtains across and stands for a minute, thinking. Seems a crazy scheme, this one, but Tommy's got them through a few deals, right on the edge, bit dodgy, but lucrative. He's a bright boy, is Tommy; old school tie with a lot of upmarket contacts, but he keeps you on your toes, chin on shoulder. He was excited at that last meeting, really buzzing with it.

'Now listen,' he said. 'A friend of mine down in Truro, a lawyer, has turned up something rather interesting on the old family estate. I want you to go down and have a look around. It's been a convent for nearly two hundred years but if we can get proof that it is no longer viable then, according to this document, it reverts to any surviving descendant of this particular branch of the family. We've checked it out and that's me. Seems there's only a couple of the nuns left and they might be thinking of joining other larger communities. Now we don't want to alert them, d'you see? We're working on the fact that nobody's been looking at the small print. Just get down there and check it out.'

'I don't get it. If it's yours by right anyway—'

'Look, old chap,' Tommy let him see he was being patient with him, 'you discover that the old dears are thinking of moving on. You give the OK to Phil Brewster. He does his hotelier act and puts in a very nice offer, which they'll imagine tucking into the coffers of their religious society to secure their futures. "Oh, yes," they say. "Thank you very much." He gets some positive proof of their intention to accept the offer, passes it on to you and then - wham, I turn up with a copy of the old will. Deal falls through, the place is mine. I know someone who would pay very, very serious money for a place just there.'

'But what do they get out of it?'

Tommy laughed then; really laughed. 'You just don't get it, do you?' he said. 'They don't get anything. I get the ancestral home back and sell it to the highest bidder and they have their treasure in Heaven where moth and rust don't get a look in. Now, you get the proof and I move in. Usual pay and expenses.'

Caine raises his head. The wind is rising and the rain slaps against the window. He's been offered supper and he's accepted gratefully. He'll spin a story about the book, talk about a television series and mention a few names: Simon Schama, Dan Cruikshank. What's the name of that bird who does Wainwright Walks?

He hears a noise. The farmer's wife is on the stairs and he goes out quickly to meet her, shutting his door behind him so that the sharp black eyes can see nothing in his room.

Nosy cow, he thinks, but he smiles at her, turning on the charm.

'Is that supper ready, Mrs Trembath? Goodness, I'm hungry after being out all day.'

''Tis all waiting, Mr Caine,' she says, and he follows her down the stairs.

Dossie puts down the telephone and makes a few notes on her laptop. She's working in the kitchen this morning, it being a much warmer room than her tiny, north-facing study upstairs; but at least, these days, she has a study all to herself. Things have changed since she came back home all those years ago as a very young widow, to have her baby and try to make a career. It was her parents who, in between running their own rather off-the-wall bed-and-breakfast business, looked after Clem whilst she organized lunches and dinners, cooking up special-occasion feasts in other people's kitchens.

'Of course we can manage, darling,' her mother said. 'And we know lots of people who will simply leap at the chance of having you catering for their parties.'

She was right. Her parents had a great many connections all over the peninsula who were very willing to help out the widowed daughter of their friends. Gradually she built up a very solid client base and, with Pa and Mo as resident baby-sitters, she travelled the length of the county from Launceston to Penzance, and from Falmouth to St Ives. Sometimes, now, Dossie wonders whether it was fair to allow herself and Clem to be a burden to two middle-aged people who were trying to earn their own living. Yet, somehow she didn't think about it quite like that. Pa and Mo were so all-embracing; so capable and so laid-back. Their guests, mainly friends of friends and parents of friends, who all seemed to become dear old chums after the first visit, would arrive with dogs - or even with a grandchild - in tow and the elegant grey stone house - The Court - was always full of people. She'd come in from doing a lunch in Truro to find two old fellows having a quick pre-dinner drink with Pa in the drawing-room before they set out for the pub, their wives chatting to Mo in the kitchen whilst they ordered breakfast. A dog or two might be stretched out in the hall or in the little television parlour where someone would be catching the news.

Clem loved it. They brought him little presents when he was small, agonized with him through GCSEs and A levels, cheered him on to university, whilst Pa and Mo gave him exactly the kind of loving neglect that worked so well for his independent character. And now she is able to make some kind of return for all that love and generosity. The roles are reversed, and she can support them as once they supported her and Clem. It took Pa's stroke, collapsing all among the debris of the full English breakfast, to persuade them both that perhaps they should give up their 'B and B-ers', as they called them, but she still has a few of the specials to stay. Pa and Mo still behave like the good old-fashioned hosts that they were, and everyone has a lot of fun.

Dossie makes some notes on the big calendar on the fridge so that Pa and Mo will know where she'll be and what is happening workwise. When it comes to a social life not much is going on at the moment. There have been relationships, of course, one or two more serious than others, but some of the men involved were rather cautious about taking on a young boy, as well as the possibility of Pa and Mo at a future date.

'You're crazy,' her younger brother, Adam, would say. 'Get a life. You're still young and they'll manage perfectly well on their own. They're indestructible. I don't know how you bear it. I couldn't get out quick enough.'

Just recently, since he's moved in with Natasha and her two teenage daughters, Adam's words have changed. 'They should have downsized ages ago when the market was still strong. You shouldn't have encouraged them to stay on. What are you going to do when The Court has to be sold and they go into a home?'

Dossie always feels a little chill of fear at these words. She can't quite imagine herself anywhere else but in this pretty, gracious Georgian house, with its elegant sash windows and perfect proportions, which has been in the family for generations. Even worse, she can't picture Pa and Mo in sheltered accommodation amongst strangers. After all, they are still quite fit even if Pa tires very quickly since his stroke and Mo struggles with arthritis and is rather deaf. And, oh, how they'd miss the dogs if they were to be separated from them.

'Are they crazy?' Adam demands, when Pa and Mo adopt a Norfolk terrier as a companion to their old black Labrador. 'How old is it? They're far too tottery to be having puppies around.'

'Wolfie is six,' Dossie answers. 'He's not a puppy. His owner died very suddenly. He was one of Pa's old mining friends. Wolfie's an utter sweetie and no trouble at all, and John the Baptist loves having him around. He lets Wolfie share his basket and he's got a new lease of life.'

'And if they have to go into a home? Pa and Mo, I mean. Are you going to be able to afford a place where you can have two dogs and keep working? Especially an elderly lab with a predilection to submerge himself in any kind of water at every opportunity. Try to think ahead, for God's sake!'

'Is it permissible to dislike one's brother?' she asked Clem furiously, later that afternoon at the Lodge. 'He is just so bloody selfish! He's so afraid that I might think that I can stay on at The Court when Pa and Mo have to leave it.'

She didn't want to use the word 'die' but she saw that Clem understood her. His half-smiling, half-frowning expression was a familiar one: compassion mixed with an instinctive need to keep a balance, which was oddly comforting. If he'd raged with her she'd have contrarily felt obliged to be reasonable. Clem's calm but sympathetic response always gives her full scope for her fury when she feels like it: he is on her side.

'It's not just Adam, is it?' he answered. 'Natasha eggs him on. She sees The Court as a nice little pension plan for them both. After all, Adam didn't have much left after his divorce, did he? It was Maryanne who brought the money with her, and the flat, wasn't it?' He hesitated a little. 'If it came to it, you and the dogs could always come here. You could cook for the Sisters. Think what a treat it would be for them. We'd manage somehow.'

She wanted to cry, then. Instead she put her arms round him and hugged him tightly; and he patted her shoulder blades comfortingly, which is as close as Clem comes to the act of hugging.

Now, Dossie thinks about the recent phone call. A party of people coming down for a week to one of the self-catering cottages at Penharrow, near Port Isaac, have asked her if she would prepare some meals for them to put into the freezer. This is her new project. Friends and clients with holiday cottages are recommending her in their brochures and on their websites to self-catering holiday-makers who can't afford to eat out all the time but don't want the bother of cooking for themselves; it's picking up very well. She sits down, studies the notes she's made about possible menus and begins to make lists. The telephone rings.

'Hello?' A man's voice. 'I wonder if I could speak to Dossie Pardoe?'

'That's me.'

'Oh, great. You don't know me at all but I've been given your number by the people who own the holiday complex at Port Isaac...'

Dossie begins to laugh. 'What a coincidence. I've just been asked to supply a week's meals for one of their visitors.'

'Oh, well now.' His voice is eager. 'That's exactly it. It's an absolutely brilliant scheme and I wonder if I can join it. I've got quite a few holiday properties, though they're more to the south - on the Roseland Peninsula around St Mawes - but I'd like to offer a freezer full of food as an added attraction, if you're prepared to travel that far.'

'I can't see why not.' She likes the sound of him. 'I'm used to driving all over Cornwall.'

'Fantastic. So I can sign up for it, then? How do I start?'

'It's not particularly complicated but I usually like to check up a bit first.'

'Well, of course. How does it work? You could look at my website...' A hesitation. 'Or perhaps we could meet...?'

'We could.' She tries not to sound too keen. 'Look, give me your website details and then I'll phone you.'

'Fine. And you can check with Chris at Penharrow. I don't want to mislead you; he isn't a friend. I just know him slightly through the trade, but it's a reference of a kind.'

'I'll do that.'

'Right. Got a pencil...?'

As Dossie puts the phone down, Mo comes into the kitchen, a big black Labrador shouldering ahead of her. For once, John the Baptist is quite dry, and Dossie bends to caress him, murmuring approvingly to him.

'The rain has stopped at last,' Mo says. 'We've had a lovely walk across the fields. Pa's getting his boots off and giving Wolfie a good towelling. He found a badger's sett. You're looking very cheerful, darling.'

'I feel very cheerful. Looks like I've got a new contact, as well as an order for a week's meals at Penharrow.'

'That's wonderful.' Mo's ashy fair hair fluffs up like feathers around her head as she pulls off her fleecy hat. Even in her middle seventies she is a force; there is strength and determination in her small figure. She warms her hands on the closed lid of the range and smiles over her shoulder at her daughter. 'I think Jonno deserves a biscuit, don't you? He's been such a good fellow. He's resisted all sorts of watery temptation, haven't you, Jonno? I think he's feeling his age, and getting soaked to the skin doesn't appeal quite so much any more.'

The old dog presses close against her, settling down beside the range, and Dossie brings him a few biscuits, which he crunches gratefully. Wolfie bustles in importantly and hurries to see what goodies are being given out. Pa follows him. Hardly taller than Mo, upright, though slightly less brisk since the stroke, he sits down at the table looking rather strained and tired. Nobody except his doctor ever refers to the stroke. 'Don't mention the s-word' has become the family's motto.

'Dossie's got a new client,' Mo tells him. 'And another Fill the Freezer order. Isn't it great?'

They've dubbed Dossie's newest idea 'Fill the Freezer' although, as well as the week's food, she nearly always makes up a separate meal to be eaten on arrival: soup, a casserole, fresh rolls and fruit and cheese, depending on the client's requirements.

Pa beams his delight. 'It's a brilliant scheme. Just the thing now, with the credit crunch. Visitors can't afford to eat out all the time, and takeaways can be almost as expensive. You're onto a good thing, Doss.'

As usual, she is warmed by their response and encouragement. She knows that some of her friends find it extraordinary that she continues to stay with Pa and Mo, especially now Clem has grown up, but then she's never known an ordinary family life. Pa's expertise as a mining engineer meant that in the early years of her childhood they moved from one country to another, and then, after Pa's widowed mother died and they settled at The Court, there was the continual stream of 'B and B-ers'. She managed to have quite enough privacy, quite enough scope, to live her life very happily; and it was much better for Clem to be amongst this kind of extended family than in some tiny flat alone with her whilst she strived to earn their living. In an odd kind of way, Clem is repeating the pattern with Jakey, surrounded by the Sisters and Janna and Father Pascal.

Dossie knows that Pa and Mo miss the B and B-ers and she sometimes wonders how they'd manage if she ever decided to move away. Up until now, she's never met anyone about whom she's felt strongly enough to make the question a serious one. For some reason she finds herself thinking about the man who telephoned earlier. She picks up her laptop.

'I've got some work to do,' she tells them. 'I need to check out this new client. See you later.' And she goes out into the hall and up the stairs into her little study, and closes the door behind her.

CHRISTMAS IN CORNWALL. Copyright 2011 by Marcia Willett.

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