So much seemed to be happening at once now. Ralph had moved in and was trying to sell his old caravan to a builder who needed a temporary home on a new building site. Daniel had returned from his holiday and Ralph was taking her to see him the next weekend. She had been promoted, had taken her first driving lesson, and if she passed her driving test, would be parking a brand new company car outside her house. She had spoken to Daniel on the telephone, a conversation that had taken an hour, and he had told her about all the amazing places he had seen and he said that Jonathon's dad had taken lots of photos and he had some copies for her. By a stroke of luck (something she thought she was getting rather a lot of lately), Ralph got a fair price for his caravan within a few days of putting the word around that it was for sale. Now he had made a very serious commitment to Mary - her home was his home, but he just knew that it was the right thing to do, that it was somehow meant to be.
Her second week as branch manager ended and she was looking forward to seeing Daniel again. She no longer had to wait for Ralph to pick her up, all she had to do was to give him breakfast, which she did, very early. It was the first week of September and England was enjoying the start of an ‘Indian Summer', with clear blue skies and a warm sun. Ralph drove along the drive to the Manor House and Mary noticed a helicopter on the heli-pad. To her it looked like the one that Jonathon's dad flew, but she wasn't much for aircraft types, or different car models for that matter. Ralph pulled up at the steps and Paul Steele walked down them, catching Mary's eye. ‘Ah', she thought, ‘it is his helicopter then'. As he approached the car Ralph automatically fell into his deferential chauffeur persona, it wasn't intentional, it was simply what he did and he got out saying, "good morning Lord Steele, sir".
"Hello Ralph. Save the chauffeur bit for the city eh ?", he said with a warm smile of assurance, "hello Mary! My you look wonderful!". She blushed hotly at his compliment.
"Thank you", she said.
"I wanted to catch you before I go because I will be a bit busy for some time now ?"
"Oh ? Is something the matter ?", she asked with real concern apparent.
"No, far from it. I wanted to invite you and Daniel to spend Christmas with us."
"Christmas! Its a bit far away, I mean I haven't really thought about it to be honest, and I have Ralph too. I do appreciate it, but really, I couldn't."
"You're a hard woman", he smiled, "the thing is Jonathon is like a different child when he is with Daniel - they play, they get up to all sorts or mischief too, like boys should. .Jonathon can be so serious and yet, with your son, to see the two of them just being boys. You have no idea how wonderful that is. So you see, my invitation is in fact selfish because I want it for my son, and Daniel too - they seem more like brothers these days. You mentioned Ralph and I gather you two have got together, about time too I say, good for you. So why don't you both come ?"
"But....my Lord...I...I am just a driver, my Lord. I couldn't...I mean, well I would be so out of place, the way I speak, I haven't been anywhere to talk of and, well its a different world. Its okay for the boys, at their age they don't see it the same, but, well...", Ralph was embarrassed and flustered. How could he ever share a table with a Lord for god's sake !
"Ralph, I do understand how you feel, really I do. I sometimes wonder of the whole idea of titles really has a place in our modern world. The only guests we hope to have are you and Daniel. Nobody else at all. It will be all very relaxed, nothing formal - I plan to wear Jeans and a sweater as much as I can! How about this, come and join us and if, if you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable after one day, I will bring you straight back home. The boys will love it you know. There is another reason I want you to share my Christmas, but I expect you know all about that by now ?"
He looked at their blank faces, "Daniel hasn't told you, has he ?"
"Told us what?", asked Mary.
"What happened off Sardinia ?"
"No. What did happen ?", Mary said, still puzzled.
"Oh dear. Seems he wants to keep it a secret. Look, I'll tell you but don't let him know that you found out, okay ?"
She was beginning to get just a little bit angry now, "found out what exactly?"
"Jonathon got into difficulties in the water when we were moored of the island. Daniel saw him struggling in the water and jumped right in, and managed to get him to the surface, where a crew member pulled him out. Daniel had only been swimming for two weeks but he jumped right in without a second thought, and saved my son, for the second time. If it was not for Daniel I would not have been celebrating Christmas at all. Now, will you come ?"
Mary was speechless. Her Daniel, a hero all over again, what could she say?
"We would be thrilled to come", she said.
"That's settled then, thank you both so much. I'll let you know a date as soon as I get it confirmed. Is that okay ?"
"Lovely. Thank you".
"Ah, there are the boys! I wondered where they had got to. I'll let you tell then about Christmas. I must be going."
"Is that Daniel, wearing that hat ?"
"Oh yes. I'll let him tell you about his hat. Bye now", said Paul and he ran down to his helicopter, waving to the boys who were cycling up from the woods.
The late summer continued into the start of October and then the leaves all took on their autumn colours. Mary was completely settled into her new position and enjoying the extra money that she was earning. Several times Ralph had tried to give her his next egg because he felt he might be thought to be taking advantage of her, but she told him not to be so silly, and to hang onto it for a rainy day. At the beginning of November a new development at the school began to take place. That is was another of Paul Steele's machinations they would never know. As he would, when he could, Paul pushed the hand of chance a little bit in their direction - enough to make a difference when he knew that a big fat cheque would offend Mary more than possibly he could understand. The school was now running four cars for various reasons and were planning on another two. The idea was floated at a school board meeting that maybe they could use a transport manager to take charge of all matters related to transport, and perhaps there could be some tax benefits if the main board members were provided with their cars, through its own fleet. The proposal was agreed which was when Paul put forward the suggestion that Ralph Jennings was a particularly conscientious employee, smart, diligent, reliable, intelligent - well why not promote from within, offer Jennings the job and replace him with a driver. That proposal was also agreed and the terms of the position were being drafted.
It took most of November to finish off deciding how the transport manager's position was to be defined - not because it was a deeply complex task but because one decision always seemed to need agreement from another and so on, so meeting followed meeting until finally all the fine pints were agreed. From the moment that he had proposed Ralph, Paul had made no further input, that was the whole point, a nudge here, a door opened there. On the 8th of December 1980 three very different events took place.
In New York at eleven ‘o' clock, John Lennon was shot four times in the back, outside his Manhattan apartment block, by a twenty-five year old Texan named Mark Chapman. He died in the ambulance that was taking him to hospital, and the world cried for him. A few hours earlier, at six ‘o' clock in the evening, Ralph Jennings returned from work and opened a letter that offered him the new position of Transport Manager for The Ashwood Foundation. The third event happened an hour later over dinner - it was a Shepherd's pie, when Mary accepted Ralph's proposal of marriage.
When Ralph opened his letter and read the contents he was thrilled to be offered the job because it was a big jump forward in his career and it also meant that he would be able to contribute a lot more to the cost of running the home - it meant that he and Mary could afford more treats in the future, another holiday, and to get married of course. A Shepherd's pie was probably the least romantic meal in the world so to Ralph's sometimes whacky sense of humour, his proposal seemed quite original. They decided to marry as soon as possible, seeing no reason to delay. The next day he called the registry office and found that the next available date was not until after Christmas, which was a bit of a blow because he so wanted to be married to Mary for Christmas but it was not to be and so he made a booking for the first Saturday in the new year, which was the sixth of January.
That evening Mary said to Ralph, "have you thought of anything we can take as a Christmas present, I mean, how on earth do you buy a gift for somebody who has everything you can ever dream of ?"
"Well I did have one idea".
"What was that ?"
"Why don't we take up a Monopoly game ? There may well be one tucked away somewhere in his house, more like a mansion I imagine, but playing with both the boys could make it a bit of fun, do you think ?"
"That's not a bad idea you know. He does seem to be a very ordinary man at heart, despite his title and money. Have you ever met his wife ? What is she like? Do you realise I still don't know her name, and she wasn't in any of the photos that Daniel has from his amazing holiday."
"I met her once, at the school. Her name is Alexandra. She is blonde, very beautiful, present company excepted", he added with a wink "and she is very much like him, likes to be called ‘Alex' in private, very easy going. Sometimes I noticed her accent slip just a tiny bit so there may be more to her than meets the eye, all the same she was very nice."
"Well that's a relief! I had visions of some very hoity toity madam looking down her nose and I couldn't put up with that!"
"Oh no, she's nothing like that at all. Look, about the wedding ?"
"Yes, let's keep it very simple, just you and me, my mum and dad, if that's okay with you darling."
Early on when they used to chat on the trips to and from the school , even before Mary moved from the back seat to the front passenger seat, she had learned that Ralph was given up for adoption on the day he was born. The shame and stigma attached to an unmarried mother was too much to bear in the 1950's and as a result his first home had been an orphanage. He was fostered once to a kind couple who treated him as they did their own children. When the daughter of his foster parents married and emigrated to Australia, they decided to go with her and at seventeen, Ralph was alone and begun to build his life.
"Of course I don't mind. I didn't want some big fancy do in any case."
"I'll call them from work tomorrow.", said Mary.
"I had better let them know at work too."
"Didn't you say anything yesterday ?"
He looked a bit guilty now and replied," it wasn't that I forget to - I mean how could I, but what with the new job..."
"Oh that's okay, I know how you must have felt - when I started as Manager I was petrified at first, but you'll soon settle in."
"I Hope so. Who'd have thought it eh, me, Transport Manager."
"With your knack for getting things done you'll be a very god one, I'm sure."
"Why thank you ma'am", said Ralph smiling.
A few days later, with Christmas drawing still closer, a letter in an envelope that bore a family coat-of-arms, arrived in the post for Mary and Ralph. It was a note to tell them that if Ralph could take Mary to the school on Thursday 19th December, they would be picked up there together with Daniel and Jonathon for their Christmas break - and pack some warm jumpers, it said. Mary still had no ides where they were going, but it was cold outside so she hardly needed to be reminded to wrap up warm. The clock was ticking and the days flying by. Mary felt she had a hundred and one things to do before they went away, although in truth she only needed to pack a suitcase. They had to buy something for Daniel but with two good salaries now, this Christmas could be a bit special, as indeed it was, and so Mary purchased one of the new home computers that had begun to come into the shops. Compared with other years it was a very extravagant gift, but this year she could at last afford to treat Daniel and when she wrapped the box up she knew he was going to love it. She had to buy something for Ralph too and since this would be their first Christmas as a couple she wanted it to be special, so she bought him a set of power tools - he was quite handy when it came to DIY and had often said that he wanted to get and electric saw, a new drill and so on, so Mary purchased the whole lot. It made for a heavy present which see saw no point in taking away with them so she opened each box and took out the instructions, which she then enclosed with his Christmas card. At last she was ready.
They arrived at the school, wrapped up as the letter had suggested, although it actually said the bring some warm clothes, not really to wrap up warmly as they had done. Paul and Alexandra Steele was already there and so were the boys. He greeted Mary and Ralph, embarrassing Ralph by insisting on helping with their bags. Alexandra was introduced and became Alex, and with great nervousness, wondering if they had done the right thing, Mary and Ralph followed Paul to the heli-pad. There was a different machine standing there this time, with a pilot at the controls. It was bigger than the one Paul owned and he had hired it as most people would hail a taxi, to take them all to the private airfield where his Lear Jet was based. Ralph loved the ride in the helicopter, but Mary was not so sure. She had laughed when Daniel appeared wearing his trademark Fedora that was now a familiar sight around the school, but her laugher changed to a distinct expression of unease, until they landed.
Climbing the steps of the Lear, Mary and Ralph felt a little bit silly in their layers of warm clothes, but once inside, once they overcame the same amazement that Daniel had felt when he first climbed the steps, they were able to unwrap and their coats and jumpers were hung up in a small closet. Seated in the cream leather seats it all seemed a bit surreal as the pilot - the same man who had flown the helicopter, ran through his final pre-flight checks, and then they were airborne. Ralph reckoned they were heading North, which was correct.
"I can understand how nervous you must feel", said Alex, "so I am going to let you into a little secret that I hope helps you feel more at ease", she began. "My name really is Alexandra, and married to Paul makes me ‘Lady Alexandra' too," then suddenly as if throwing a light switch her accent changed to a broad Lancashire dialect "but chuck, I come from a council estate in Oldham, me, so relax and ‘ave a laugh with us."
Mary's jaw would have hit the floor if it could and she was as speechless as Ralph, so Alex pressed on in her ‘normal' Lancashire accent, "I were a model, nothing dirty mind - none of that ‘glamour' work or owt like that, I only did catwalk. Any road up, I were doin' a shoot in Cannes and that's where I met Paul. ‘Is family were right mortified when ‘e took me home fer first time, but once we got to know each other they were okay. So that's me."
"I would never have guessed", said Mary.
"No, I hope not", replied Alex, now Lady Alexandra again, "so please relax. We don't bite".
"Where are we going, if you don't mind me asking ?", said Ralph.
"Bloody Nora!", exclaimed Alex the Lancashire Lass, "will you stop sounding like you have to apologise every time you open your mouth Ralph ? Have you any idea how much I am looking forward to a Christmas with honest down to earth people like you for a change, like me for that matter ? We have a place in Scotland and where else is better for Christmas ?"
"Scotland! How lovely!", exclaimed Mary.
The flight took about an hour and they landed at Glasgow, marshalled to a private hard standing where they transferred to another helicopter which this time, Paul flew. They were only in the air for thirty minutes when they passed low over an old castle that stood on a hill, surrounded by forest. The snow had already begun to fall in the highlands and the trees were coated in white, looking like frosted decorations on a cake. At the back of the Castle there was a big loch, and looking down from the helicopter they could see a motor cruiser moored at a short jetty. They made a full circuit of the castle and then began to go down into the keep which was when Mary realised that this was ‘the little place in Scotland' where they were to spend Christmas.
Although the outside of the Castle was as old and it looked, inside was very different. It was as if a whole new building had been constructed inside, but not at the expense of its original grandeur. The rooms that Ralph and Mary were show to - rooms because they had a suite of three, contained every possible luxury. Mary could not imagine how much it must cost just to heat the place although she had no doubt that Daniel could easily work it out for her if she really wanted to know. Paul and Alex had an odd kind of expression Mary had thought, as if they knew something that she didn't, and they did not want to tell her what it was. In that thought her feminine intuition was correct as she and Ralph soon discovered. They changed their clothes for something a bit easier to wear, surprised at the warmth and assuming that the warm clothes they had been advised to bring were for when they went outside. Once Mary was happy with her hair, she and Ralph found their way back down the wide stone stairs where everybody else seemed to be waiting for them.
"I thought you might like a quick tour of the Castle said Paul" taking Mary's arm, "do you mind my escorting your fianc Ralph ?", he added but still with that sort of half grin expression that was puzzling Mary. She assumed that Paul knew of their planned wedding from the school, or the boys. Paul led the way and paused at a large oak door.
"We have a Chapel that is a part of the Castle, it is through this door. It is still a consecrated Chapel and there is even a local Priest who calls from time to time." He opened the door and led Mary and the others inside.
The first thing that Mary noticed were the flowers that seemed to fill the tiny Chapel. Their scent made the air smell more like an English Summer garden than a cold and windy Scottish castle, but no sooner had she taken that in than her eyes rested on the figure of the smiling Priest who stood before a modest altar. She wondered what he was doing there as she carried on turning her head to take in a complete panorama, but she stopped dead and did open her mouth in surprise when she saw her mother and father standing behind a pew. It was then that a Piper wearing a kilt and all its accessories, walked in from another side door and began to play. Mary's father came forward and took her arm from Ralph saying, "hello poppet. Mind if your old dad gives you away ?", and it was then that the penny finally dropped.
After the wedding ceremony she learned that her mother and father had flown up the day before by a scheduled airline, using tickets sent by Paul. A car had collected them from their home and taken them to the airport, and a helicopter had, as usual completed their journey to the castle. After Christmas they would all be returning in the Lear. "But mum, your presents are all at home! I had no idea", she said.
"No matter, we'll have them when we get home", her mum said with tears in her eyes seeing her daughter so very happy again.
If there was ever a Christmas to be remembered it was that one, of 1980. She was Mrs Jennings now and so very, very happy. The days she spent at the Castle were wonderful days and she did go outside with Ralph where the two boys built huge snowmen, and a snowball fight followed. Mary made lots of apologies about trying to find a Christmas present but Paul ‘schhhed' her as he and Alex opened it. They both thought it was a great idea and played a game immediately, which Daniel won with some ease. Mary's parents fell asleep on two settees, the boys were engrossed with Daniel's computer (which he loved), and the four remaining adults drank just enough to become very silly, but not so drunk as to spoil the fun.
Ralph had given Mary one more surprise when he gave her the Christmas present that he had bought her. She opened the package to find the culture pearl necklace that she had admired when they were on holiday in Majorca - he had purchased it while she used the ‘Ladies', and had managed to keep it hidden from her until it was time. Sadly it was all over much too soon and it was time to go home again. Mary's parents had taken their first ever ride in a helicopter and were looking forward to a ride in a private jet, "just like film stars", said her mum.
The snows of the Scottish highlands didn't make it all the way to the south of England which stayed unseasonably warm that winter. As soon as they got back home Ralph cancelled the booking at the registry office, explaining that they had married in a small Scottish chapel. The past year set a kind of pattern since when summer came around again, Daniel was asked to go on holiday with Daniel. Mary and Ralph were quite happy about that because they had decided to move to a three bedroom semi-detached in a better part of town, now that they earned a good income between them. The completion of the house purchase came through for mid-August, when Daniel was going to be away, so everything fitted in nicely.
As things always go when moving house there was an eleventh hour hitch, something to do with one of the solicitors in the chain of buyers that were involved failing to make a proper search in relation to title deeds. By the time he had done the job that he was supposed to have done in the first place, another week had passed and so it was almost the end of the month when at last they collected the keys to their new home. Because of the delays and confusion they had found it difficult to fix a moving date very far in advance. There was not a lot to be moved - Mary's house was too small to contain a lot in any case, so they decided to hire a van and do it themselves. When at last they got a firm date, Ralph rang around the usual hire centres but they had nothing available. He told Mary of the problem and then went out. Half an hour later he was back, driving a big box body van, Ralph had done what he always did and solved the problem.
For such a small house there was an amazing amount to move when it actually came to taking everything out, and it took two trips across town in the end to move it all. By late afternoon it was all done and the van returned to whatever mysterious place it had been conjured from. Mary and Ralph sat on a wooden tea chest each ( another magical find by Ralph). They were dirty, sweating and tired, but as happy as the day they had decided to get married.
"Well, that's that then. I don't fancy doing that again for a while", said Ralph.
"I didn't realise I had so much junk tucked away in my house".
"Well we have an empty one now so I suppose we can start filling it with our junk."
She looked at the collection of cardboard boxes and tea chests, "and yet when you look at this lot it doesn't really look like much."
"I'm going to find the kettle and make a cup of tea Mrs Jennings", said Ralph.
"I'll see if I can find the curtains for our bedroom so that I can put them up", Mary replied and began to rummage among the cardboard boxes, knowing that the curtains were in one of them.
"You better dig out your Highway Code while you're at it", Ralph called from the kitchen.
"Oh Damn! It just slipped my mind. My driving test - its on Monday."
"I know!", shouted Ralph, "once we get sorted out I'll test you if you like".
"Fine, but not today" said Mary, "ah here they are", she added finding the box of curtains.
She need not have worried so much, although she said that she was a bag of nerves at the time because Mary took her driving test on the Monday, and passed first time. The next day at work she was so excited when she called the Fleet Manager and ordered her new company car. It had been taken her longer than normal to be ready for her test, not because she was a bad learner but because with so much happening at home and at work her lessons had to be cancelled frequently, That was all behind her now but again she couldn't help but remember Philip when he had come home and told her about his new company car. Still, that was all before and she left it as warm and fond memories in her old house. She was starting over with Ralph and she thought how lucky she was to have found not one wonderful man to love, but to get a second chance.
Daniel was shooting up now. He seemed to have grown more every time she saw him. His fascination with numbers was only getting stronger as new concepts were shown to him and he delighted in writing some simple programs for his computer, that were designed to help solve some of the more complex calculations that he needed to do. He could easily do these himself but now he had a tool for the job he thought it was a waste of his time and much more fun to get the computer to do it instead. He had no time for playing games on the machine other than a passing interest in how they were programmed. His growing skill with the computer reminded Mary again of Philip and the reason he had gone to America, but it was a fond memory of him that passed as quickly as it came.