It was lucky that it was a hired car (paid for by the school) that was taking Daniel home for Christmas. Had his mother been driving she would have been unable to cope with the excitement of her son. She had started to learn how to drive when they had the old Austin Cambridge, before she lost Philip. Since his death she had neither the time nor the money to resume her lessons, and in any event she was quite happy not to bother now. Despite the fact that she saw Daniel without fail on every other Saturday since he joined the school he was still full of so much that he wanted to talk about. The journey from the city to the school was really quite pleasant and she was always able to eat a nice meal with the boys and girls in the dining room, so from Mary's point of view, a visit to the school was more like a day out.
"Did you see that helicopter mum ?", were his first excited words to her.
"You mean the one that was taking off when I arrived ?"
"Yes. It was Jonathon's dad! He came to pick him up in his own helicopter ! They must be so rich !"
"I would think they must be to be able to do that", she agreed. Mary had seen Jonathon almost as many times as her own son because whenever she visited the school the two of them always seemed to be together. She was both glad and relieved that Daniel had settled in so easily although she could never tell him how much she missed having him at home. She could see changes in him already and he had only been there since August. He had definitely put on a little bit of weight and he had grown taller - he was always growing taller. He looked so very healthy with red rosy cheeks and the last traces of something she had never seen on him before; the remains of a tan. ‘He must spend as much time outside now as he used to spend cooped up at home', she thought to herself. Difficult though it had been to send him to Ashwood in the first place and even more difficult now to see him growing up, away from home, she knew what a wonderful chance it had been and how right they had both been in him going there. All the same, she was his mother and he was all she had left, ‘but cheer up Mary' she chided herself, ‘its Christmas now and you have Daniel right through until the new year.'
Daniel would be ten years old next birthday but Christmas presents for him were still difficult to find. The usual toys that a nine and a half year old might want were of no interest at all to him. It was rare in fact that he ever just ‘played' with something - he was always doing, or investigating or examining but never just playing, well not at home at any rate. In the end she had to settle on some of the books he had told her he wanted (although he hadn't said that he could see them anytime in the school library), a few items of clothing that he had to have (and yes, how kids hate clothes as presents), and something that he really was hoping for - a scientific calculator. Daniel received a small allowance from the school which he carefully saved up. At the beginning of December a Master took him into the nearby town so that he could buy a Christmas present for his mother. He settled on a handsome photo frame in which the shop mounted a picture of himself that was specially taken that day. He had wrapped it up carefully and had also bought a card that he had written. When Christmas morning came and he gave his mother her gift it was the hardest thing she had ever done since Philip's funeral, not to cry in front of her son - this time for joy rather than sorrow. She was so very proud.
The winter that year was bitterly cold with heavy white frosts that left long icy fingers hanging from the gutters and patterned the windows with its calling card. The roads were treacherous and icy and the cold wind made people catch their breath that plumed out of their mouths in great cloudy swirls. It was a winter of building up the fire and staying snug and warm inside. Both of Mary's in-laws came around to see Daniel and ask how he was getting on and Mary took him by Bus (which was freezing with its broken heater), to see her mother and father on boxing day. She loved having him home and spoiling him, but even at his tender age she could see him growing up now and knew that the time would come much too soon when she might have to let go altogether. Every day he seemed to grow more like his father, like Philip. Before she really noticed it, Christmas had been and gone leaving her with a carpet full of pine needles and enough cold turkey still to feed the whole street. She shed a small tear in secret when the car came back for Daniel. She knew that he had loved being at home but she also knew that he was now torn between that and wanting to be back at Ashwood. He had said that he was happy to go back with the driver on his own and since it was always the same man, and she had got to know him quite well by now, she agreed. She saw him off into the car, making sure that he had everything and promising that she would come the very next week, and then he was gone.
The car driver was retained by the School and made a number of runs to different parents and for other occasions such as transporting a visiting Master. He was about the same age as Mary and over the course of the past few months they had embarked on a careful exchange of conversation. It was funny really because Mary was being careful because of her memories of Philip and it turned out that Ralph (the driver) was being cautious because his wife (now divorced), had run off with his brother a year after they had married. When Ralph had begun to arrive on alternate Saturdays for the round trip to the school, Mary had sat in the back of the car and the conversation had been more or less the same as any conversation with a cab driver. After a few visits she was feeling more relaxed and, as is the nature of a conversation that develops between two people over a period of time, they had learned a few things about each other. She then decided to travel to the school in the front of the car although she always sat in the back with Daniel for the drive home. They chatted a lot more about each other as time passed and nearing Christmas Mary was sure that Ralph was building up the courage to ask her out.
The prospect of a romantic liaison alarmed Mary at first. It was nearly nine years since Philip had died and she still missed him every day. A part of her said that it would be wrong to move her affections on to somebody else, but another inner voice told her that Philip would want her to be happy. Whatever happened in her life she would never forget him and what was so wrong in seeking happiness once more ? She did not want to spend the rest of her life alone and with the certainty now that Daniel would be away more and more, she was lonely, she admitted. Daniel was growing up fast and when his education was complete she knew he would not be home for long, if at all. In the end she decided that if Ralph asked her then she would go out with him, to see how things developed. Christmas came and went and she found herself annoyed that he had said nothing. ‘Was it her?', she wondered, ‘was she sending out some subconscious signal that said, stay away'? ‘Had she totally misjudged the situation, after all, it was nearly a decade since she had been the slightest bit interested in a man. Oh well, she had missed her chance this time by letting Daniel go back to school on his own, so maybe next time, with any luck'.
Mary was right about one thing, Daniel was very excited to be going back to school again and getting back with Jonathon. In particular he was aching to ask him about that helicopter and to find out why he had said nothing. There had been a light dusting of snow, hardly enough to make a decent snowball, but the low temperature was stopping it from thawing. Everything was covered in a white blanket and as the car turned into the driveway of the school Daniel lowered his window to breathe in the crisp clean air. The first thing he had noticed when he sent home was the tainted smell of the air. He had never noticed it before because it was the same every day. He could smell car exhausts, smoking chimneys, refuse rotting in dustbins, dogs that fouled the paths - it times it was almost as if he could taste the air and he missed the clean pure air of the school straightaway. When he awoke after his first night back home it was to the sound of horns beeping, a Police (or was it an Ambulance) siren in the distance, a shop alarm somewhere in the high street, car engines revving in the street. There was a whole cacophony of discordant noises and he wondered how he had ever slept at all. How different it was to the almost serene silence of the school where the loudest noise was birdsong. Sometimes he heard the strange barking sound of a Fox and once, from somewhere very far away, he had heard a cockerel crowing. They were the sounds he wanted to wake up and hear, to be able to throw open his window and look out upon glorious countryside, just glad to be alive. The Manor House came into view and all those emotions flooded back to Daniel. He did miss his mother, but here at Ashwood again, he felt at home.
A great deal of work had been carried out over the Christmas break, renovations that were difficult and dangerous to do when all the pupils were there. A small team of workmen were trying to finish some repairs on the roof of the portico but it was proving very difficult because the freezing weather kept freezing the mortar mix. Because of this they were a few days behind schedule, repairing the crumbling masonry of the low wall that ran around the edge of the roof. It was built from a long row of small stone pillars with capping stones that linked it all together. The whole section along the top of the portico had been carefully disassembled, and then one column at a time, replaced with fresh mortar. There were a half dozen columns left to be replaced, and the crew expected to finish that day.
Harry was on hand as usual and when Daniel got out of the car, struggling with two heavy cases (when he had only left the school with one), Harry greeted him cheerily with, "happy new year young master Daniel. Let me take those cases up for you. Brought some nice presents back have you lad ?"
"Yes. I got lots of things. Did you have a nice Christmas Harry ?"
"Yes I did, and I got a lot of jobs done here while you scamps were all away", he laughed.
"What, you stayed here ?", said Daniel with surprise.
"Bless you lad! I live here, I thought you would have found that out by now."
"No Harry, I didn't know. Where do you live ?"
"I have a flat in the lodge where some of the masters live. You and your friend Jonathon must drop by one Sunday for tea and cakes."
"Oh yes, we'd like that!", replied Daniel enthusiastically, "has Jonathon come back yet ?"
"No, not yet awhiles. I think he is due back sometime this afternoon. Anyway, I mustn't stand her all day jawing. I've got too much to do. I'll get rid of these bags for you", said Harry and he went off into the house.
It may have been another bitterly cold day but that did not deter Daniel. He went straight to the cycle shed and picked out his favourite bicycle. Harry had just returned from delivering his cases in time to see Daniel whiz away down the icy path towards the frozen woods. A couple of times along the path Daniel nearly fell off as the wheels hit a patch of ice that was hidden beneath the snow dust. He looked back over his shoulder to see the single track in the snow that his wheels had made. The trees looked magical. They looked at though each one had been decked out in tinsel with long thin icicles hanging from their boughs and a frosting of snow along the top of the branches. The fir trees wore white overcoats where the thin snow lay on its needles. Daniel could hear only the snow crunching beneath his tyres, and the wind blowing into his face. His hot breath left a vapour trail that floated lazily on the still air and his cheeks were a bright red by the time he stopped in the clearing. He loved this place of solitude and had done since the very first day when Jonathon had showed it to him. Daniel was so immersed in just being there again, tasting the air as if for the first time, that he did not feel the cold at all or even notice the passage of time. It seemed to him that he had only been back for five minutes when he heard the helicopter again.
(continues to part 2 of 2 )