I was wondering what I could write that would have some relation to Christmas, and suddenly thought of "the Christmas oranges" piece from Chapter 8 of my book-in-progress - provisionally entitled Pendipper (although the title could change, I haven't decided for sure).
The story begins in 1941 when Jean Swallow leaves London to work as a land girl at Pendipper, a farm near St Noyes* in Cornwall owned by the Tillyman family. The various relationships that she builds with each member of this family forge connections that remains strong, and have a powerful influence on the rest of her life. Although Jean eventually returns to London, and decades pass by, the link with the Tillymans, and Pendipper is never broken.
Jean marries Will, one of the Tillyman sons, but her friendship with Lilian, Will's sister, is equally as significant, despite the fact that the two women have utterly different personalities: Jean, bright and easy-going, Lilian, proud and intolerant. And it is this arrogant pigheadedness that will not allow Lilian to forgive her other brother and their uncle, when their collusion means that the family farm has to be sold.
This is a compelling tale of a family unfolding over the years. Of wartime struggles. Of life on a Cornish farm and life in London. Of two women's friendship. Of unforgiveness that turns into bitterness and resentment. Of tragedy. Of love.
Here's "the Christmas oranges" extract.
…after the King’s speech was over, Lilian went out to the scullery and came back with two oranges.
‘Lilian!’ exclaimed Jean gleefully. ‘Where the heck did you get hold of those? Blimey, I can’t remember when I last saw an orange!’
‘They had some in the market when we went up to Plymouth last week,’ said Lilian. ‘There weren’t many and we were only allowed two each. The lady behind me in the queue had the last of them, so I was only just in time. I didn’t even know what I was queueing for to start with, but I guessed it was something good.’
‘You clever girl,’ said Evalina. ‘What a lovely surprise.’
‘Ooh, smell that smell,’ Jean purred ecstatically, as she began peeling one of the oranges and a fine spray of citrusy fragrance hit her nostrils. ‘All we want now is a few bananas and we’ll be well away.’
‘They’re those long, yellow things, aren’t they?’ joked Samuel. There had been no bananas in the shops for years, and although he knew he’d recognise one if he saw it, Samuel was hard put to remember exactly what one tasted like.
After the oranges had been peeled and divided up, and Aunt Ellen had reminded Lilian to keep the peel to grate and put into a pudding, all the segments were laid out onto a plate. There were three pieces each, with two left over.
‘You and Raymond have the extra,’ said Evalina. ‘You deserve it, Lilian, for all the work you’ve done. That dinner was delicious.’
‘No,’ said Lilian decisively. ‘I think we should keep them for Will and John.’
‘But Lilian, dear…’ Evalina began.
‘I know,’ Lilian interrupted. ‘They might not be back for ages. But it’ll be a symbol. I know it might sound stupid, but when they’re home we can give them their pieces of orange and we’ll be able to look back on today and be thankful it’s all over and…well…just be thankful.’
Jean leaned across and gave Lilian a warm kiss. ‘That is a flipping brilliant idea,’ she said. 'You're more sentimental than you make out, Lilian.'
The oranges, in some unfathomable way, had managed to dispel the undercurrent of sadness that had been rippling quietly amongst the family all day long. And the feelings of anger that had been gnawing at Jean – mostly directed towards the War, but also, unfairly, at Will himself for not being there to share the twins’ first Christmas – had shrivelled up and gone. Lilian was right: the oranges were a symbol; a representation of faith that one day, in the hopefully not too faraway future, normality would return, the family would be complete, and there would be icing on the Christmas cake.
As Jean ate her orange segments, savouring each tiny mouthful, she remembered how her brother had once told her that if she wanted something strongly enough, and if she truly believed she’d get it, then she would do. It had been on a Christmas Eve when they were children, and they had been talking about the presents they were hoping to receive. Eric had been desperately hoping for a bicycle, and although his father had explained that there wasn’t enough money for bicycles, Eric had gone on believing that on Christmas Day, his hope would be fulfilled. And, miracle of miracles, it had been!
Jean had been thrilled for her brother, and awestruck that his trust in the power of unshakeable belief had been confirmed. But she could also remember thinking, “What about all the other children who were hoping and wishing for things and then didn’t get them?” Was it because they hadn’t believed hard enough, or was it simply that, however hard you tried, sometimes believing didn’t work?
When it comes down to it, Jean thought, her tongue sucking into the tangy sweetness of the orange, all you can do is hope for the best. I want my husband back, and Susie and Tony their father, and Evalina and Samuel their sons, and Ellen her nephews and Lilian her brothers – the same as hundreds and thousands of others do. Everyone is hoping for the best, and believing as hard as they can. And everyone is waiting, because that’s all they can do.
And waiting, thought Jean, is the hardest bloody part of all.
* St Noyes doesn't actually exist, but I visualise it as being on the edge of Bodmin Moor, somewhere between Liskeard and Launceston.
Wishing everyone a peaceful
and happy Christmas
and all you wish for in 2014
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