Christmas at Collers
In this lost Noel Streatfeild story from 1960, the author of ‘Ballet Shoes’ sends four little city slickers to Devon
Only two weeks to Christmas. The children came rushing home from school, bursting with news. “Mum,” said George, the eldest, who was 14, “If it doesn’t rain, will you come and see the Regent Street decorations on Saturday? Everybody says they’re terrific this year.” Pauline, who was 12, looked up at her mother with bright eyes. “It’s so gay out today, Mum. The sun shining on the shop Christmas trees makes them look as if it was real frost.” “And there’s simply thousands of people shopping,” Alistair, who was 10, added. “Heaps of them come to London just to look. Lucky us to live here.”
Sandra, the baby of the family, was eight. She was so excited her feet danced while she tried to make herself heard. “Mum!
Mum! Mum! I’ve been asked to two more parties, that’s six already and…”
The children’s mother had been kneeling on the floor, packing what her family supposed was a Christmas present. Now she got up and they saw it was not a present she was packing, but her own clothes. She was a person who hated beating about the bush. “I’m sorry, George, Regent Street is out this year, and so are your parties, Sandra. We’re going away.”
“Going away!” Eight astonished eyes looked up at her. The children had been born in their London home and had only left it for a fortnight each summer. “Going where?” Pauline asked.
Their mother sat on her bed and patted it to invite the children to sit too. Pauline and Alistair sat beside her, George and Sandra faced them on their father’s bed. “It’s Granny. As you know, she’s been alone since Grandfather died, and now she’s had a fall.”
Of course the children knew about Granny. They had never seen her, for she and Grandfather only had a cottage without room in it for grandchildren, but they received little presents for birthdays and Christmas, and at Christmas sent small gifts in return, usually made by themselves. When Grandfather had died, they were sorry because their mother was sad and because she went away for the funeral.
But what happened to Granny and Grandfather was like something happening to people in a book; it was quite different from what happened to Dadsmum and Dadsdad. They lived in London, and at least once in each month either came to tea in Hammersmith or invited the family to tea in St John’s Wood with them.
It was thinking of Dadsmum and Dadsdad that first pulled George out of the daze his mother’s news had thrown him into. “But what about Dadsdad and Dadsmum? Where will they eat their turkey and plum pudding if they don’t come here?” Their mother made a sympathetic face. “I’ve thought of that. But they’ll understand. They’ve had us every year and they’ve got each other, but Granny’s all alone, in a very lonely place.”
It was when their mother said those last words that the full awfulness of what was to happen to them hit the children. They had heard a lot about Colerton, locally called Collers, where their mother had lived when she was a child. It was near Exmoor. Collers had been quite a village, but now people had moved away and there were only about 10 inhabited cottages left, of which Granny’s was one.
The children’s father, who was as completely a Londoner as they were, had often made them laugh describing how, when he was engaged to their mother, the woman in the only shop had said to him, “Oh my dear soul, you’ll be the foreigner that’s marrying our Anne.”
Pauline did not mean to sound angry, but she did. “Not
Christmas, Mum! If Granny wants to see you, see her after the holidays. She couldn’t want us to miss the pantomime, the parties and… well, just all Christmas.”
Their mother looked despairing. “Miss all Christmas indeed! What dreadfully town children I’ve got. To tell you the truth, I’ve never thought Christmas in London was proper Christmas. Anyway, we’re going, so the sooner you make up your minds to it, the better.”
The children looked as disgusted as they felt. “When?” Alistair asked. “The day after school breaks up.”
“We can’t go then,” George said, “Dad’ll still be working.”
“I know that,” his mother agreed. “But he’ll be with us on Christmas Eve.”
Pauline knew she was behaving badly, but she could not stop herself. “You haven’t told us yet why we have to go.”
“I did. Granny has had a fall and can’t get around. She’s been in hospital but she’ll be home next week. We can’t have her hobbling about alone, can we?”
As far as the children were concerned, their unknown Granny was welcome to hobble alone, but they could not say that.
“Where are we going to sleep?” George asked. “You said there were only two bedrooms.”
Their mother smiled, hoping at last she had something to tell them which would please them. “You are being lent the rectory. You’ll eat in Granny’s cottage, but for the rest of the time you’ll be on your own. Don’t you think that will be fun?”
Fun! The children could hardly believe what they had heard. Sleeping by themselves! No father and mother within call! It might be all right in summer in a nice place with plenty to do, but not at Christmas in Collers.
“Perhaps there’s a telephone,” Alistair suggested, “so we can ring you up if we want you.”
Sandra was fond of her food. “I suppose there’ll be things to eat in it. I mean, in case we’re hungry in the middle of the night.”
Their mother felt she must have brought up her children badly. “Oh dear, and I thought you’d be pleased. As a small girl the rectory seemed enormous to me after our cottage. There was a big hall, I remember, where there were Christmas parties. There won’t be a telephone, Alistair, I think nobody has the telephone in Collers. They use the telephone box. I can’t have you starving, Sandra, so I’ll put in some cocoa and biscuits.”
Their mother seemed so certain the children ought to find living alone in a rectory fun that even Sandra did not say what they were all thinking – which was that it sounded uncomfortable, if not frightening. While their mother was cooking supper, Alistair heard their father come in and went into the hall to meet him. “It’s awful, isn’t it, Dad?” he whispered.
Pauline tucked an arm into one of his. “Why can’t Granny come here for Christmas? She could be pushed in one of those station chairs up the platform.”
Her father pulled her ponytail. “Just out of hospital! What an idea!”
“Well, an ambulance, then,”
‘There won’t be a telephone, Alistair, I think nobody has the telephone in Collers’