Serena sunk down onto the soft cushions of her sofa and sipped her wine. Idly, she picked up the remote and started flicking through channels, relishing the fact that she could watch what she wanted with no interruptions from the kids. Even so, she paused for a while on the channel showing one of Jason’s quiz shows. Having watched them with him for so many years, there was a lovely familiarity in seeing the same format repeated each week. She supposed that this was one of the things Jason liked about them.
A knock at the door made her jump and she nearly spilled her wine. Groaning, she glanced at her watch wondering who would be calling round. Ellie and Jason had gone to the cinema with Evie and Mikey and weren’t due back for ages. Raf and Fletch had said earlier that they were busy tonight when she had mentioned the free house this evening. From the looks they were shooting each other, she didn’t wonder too much about the nature of their plans.
She pulled herself to her feet, placing the wine glass on the coffee table, and padded down the hallway to the door. She swung it open, desperately hoping it wasn’t a salesman or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and almost shut the door again. Because this was almost worse than a salesman. Bernie was stood there on her doorstep.
“Serena,” Bernie muttered, not daring to glance up at her.
Serena swayed in the doorway while she tried to figure out what to do. She opened and closed her mouth a few times but nothing came out. Had Bernie come here to apologise again? It wasn’t like her to just turn up on the doorstep without warning.
“What are you doing here?” she managed to say eventually.
“Mo asked…” Bernie began, her voice trailing off when Serena still looked confused, “Didn’t she ring you? She said she was going to…”
Serena creased her forehead. “I don’t understand.”
Bernie blushed bright red. “Oh. Well. I’m not sure I’m the best person…”
She was saved at that moment by the sound of a car pulling up outside the house. Serena peered over Bernie’s shoulder and saw Mo climbing out.
“Serena!” she cried as she marched up the path, “Why aren’t you answering your mobile?”
Mo greeted Bernie and pushed past Serena into the house, Bernie following on behind.
“The others will be here any moment,” Mo said as she slipped off her shoes and coat and walked into the sitting room, Serena gaping at her.
Shaking herself, Serena headed into the sitting room and sat down on the sofa next to Mo. Bernie hovered in the doorway for a moment before sitting down on the edge of one of the chairs.
“Right. Care to tell me why I’m being invaded this evening?” Serena asked Mo.
“Of course. Well it’s a bit of a long story. You see me and Bernie were sorting through some of the old files in the church attic earlier today…”
She broke off as Serena’s doorbell went again. Serena sighed and pushed herself to her feet.
Mo tried multiple times to start the story but was repeatedly interrupted by the front door. Eventually, just as Serena had decided there was no more room in the living room for another person, Mo looked around and announced that everyone was here. Serena breathed a sigh of relief perched on the edge of the sofa she was sharing with Ric and Mo. Sacha and Essie were squished into one arm chair, Essie half on Sacha’s knee. Bernie had the other chair to herself and Dom, Morven, Ollie and Zosia were sat on the floor.
“Right Mo, I think it’s time you told me why I have half the parish in my living room?” Serena said.
“Just one second, I’ve forgotten a couple,” Mo said. Serena groaned by Mo pulled a laptop out of her bag and set it up on the coffee table. Soon the smiling faces of Raf and Fletch were visible on the screen.
“Sorry guys, we would join you but it was a bit short notice for a babysitter. We’re only next door though so if you shout loud enough we’ll probably hear you anyway.”
“Ok then since I think we now have everyone here, I’ll fill you in,” Mo said. “So this morning me and Bernie were sorting through the rubbish in the church attic and trying to figure out whether anything in there was at all worth keeping.”
“Most of it wasn’t,” Bernie put in, the first words she’d spoken since she’d sat down.
Mo snorted, “You’re not wrong! But while we were filling the black bin liners, we came across some old orders of service from Christmas services held between the wars.”
“Shows how long it is since anyone bothered tidying up there,” Ric said.
“Exactly, but that wasn’t the interesting thing. The interesting thing was what the orders of service actually said. Because we read them, and in fact I have some with me,” Mo continued. She reached into her back and pulled out a file filled with yellowing sheets of paper. “You see it looks like there was a tradition at Christmas time that was repeated throughout the interwar years, and probably before that. It seems to have died out during World War Two, possibly due to the fact that, as we know, the Holby regiment lost such a large proportion of its soldiers. Maybe there was too much grief afterwards; maybe key people died or moved away; maybe they wanted to make new traditions with less painful memories. We don’t know the reasons but what we do know is that we fancied reviving the traditions this year.”
“Reverend Hanssen has been briefed and he is fully on board with our plans,” Bernie said, “Under normal circumstances I would have just brought it up at the church committee meeting.” At this point her gaze met Serena’s and she paused for a moment.
Serena coughed and looked away and Bernie continued. “But the committee has been difficult recently, vetoing any decision that goes against what they know.”
“But this is history and tradition!” Morven said, “Surely they would like that.”
Bernie shrugged. “I thought it was too big a risk to take. So instead me and Mo figured we’d set up our own church committee.”
“Ooh a shadow committee!” Dom said, his eyes shining with glee.
Bernie raised her eyebrows but Dom just wiggled his and she broke down. “Fine. You are all now members of the shadow church committee. Our plan is to recreate the old traditions as best we can in secret. The whole congregation will be invited in the end but only at the last possible moment so as to avoid anything getting sabotaged. We all know what happened with Sacha’s painting. We don’t want a repeat of that.”
“And Reverend Hanssen is fine about this?” Essie questioned.
Mo nodded. “Yes. He trusts Bernie, and us.”
Essie smiled. “Then I’m in.”
There were a series of affirmations from around the room until only Serena hadn’t spoken. Everyone looked at her expectantly.
“Well I would say I’m in but I’m a bit concerned about what I’m letting myself in for. You haven’t told us anything about the actual traditions. I’m not down for midnight skinny dipping in the river or anything like that!”
Bernie’s face turned red as a tomato and Mo just let out a huge guffaw. She passed the file of papers to Serena.
“Take a look at these. I promise you we are not signing you up to anything like that. Although now you mention it, anyone up for a New Year’s dip? Skinny dipping optional of course!”
It had been late before Serena had managed to clear her house of all her guests. They’d spent the whole evening making plans, figuring out what needed to be done, deciding who was going to do what and when, and also drinking copious amounts of tea. Jason and Ellie had reappeared at some point and both of them had joined in too.
Once the front door was firmly closed and the key turned in the lock, Serena sank down into the sofa and closed her eyes.
“Okay mum?” Ellie asked.
Serena groaned. “So much for my quiet night in with the two of you out of the way. How long is it going to be before I get the chance for another one?”
Ellie patted her arm. “Nice to know how much you love us!”
“Oh Ellie, you know I love you, both of you, but I do, just occasionally, like to have a little time to myself to fully appreciate a nice glass of Shiraz.”
Ellie grinned. “I know mum. And we love you too. And as it happens, I had a text message tonight from dad. Liberty wants to have another go at this “family meal” thing.” She made air quotes with her fingers.
Serena sat up straight. “Another go! Another go at upsetting Jason!”
“I know mum. I haven’t said yes yet. I wanted to talk it through before I said anything.”
“Does Jason know?”
“Not yet but if I decide it is a good idea, then I will ask his opinion.”
Serena nodded. “So go on then, tell me what your dad said.”
Ellie picked up Serena’s arm and wrapped it around her shoulders, snuggling close. “Well apparently Liberty understands what she did wrong last time and she wants to make amends. Apparently dad is going to check over all her plans before they go ahead.”
“Hmm. I really would like Jason to maintain some kind of a relationship with his uncle, whatever happens.”
Serena paused, thinking it through. She didn’t want Jason to be hurt again like last time. But she knew that she couldn’t just cut him off from the world, and certainly not from his family, to save him from that.
“When do they want to do this meal?” she asked.
“Soon I think. Before Christmas.”
Serena nodded. “Well it’s up to you darling, but I do think it might be a good idea. As long as Liberty knows how to behave.”
“I’ll keep her and dad in check,” Ellie promised.
“Oh and speaking of Christmas, what are your plans for the day?” Serena asked. Her heart was in her mouth even though she kept her voice calm. Because what if Ellie didn’t want to spend Christmas with her? What if she wanted to spend it in Liberty’s soulless flat instead?
Ellie just wrapped one arm around Serena’s waist. “I’ll be here mum. With you and Jason. Just like always.”
Serena relaxed and tilted her head to kiss her daughter’s brow. “I’m glad Ellie. So glad.”
A thick frost covered the ground the following morning. Serena shivered in her winter coat as they all walked to church. She especially loved church services this time of year; the carols, the advent candle, the tree, the hopeful passages from the Bible all came together to make such a lovely atmosphere. Ellie skipped off to join the rest of the choir when they arrived and Serena and Jason took up their usual pew. Jason picked up the hymnal and began putting bookmarks in for the carols they were singing that day. Serena nodded hellos to various members of the congregation.
They all fell silent as Bernie climbed up onto the pulpit. Despite herself, Serena’s eyes ran over Bernie’s figure, stood there in her cassock and surplice, tippet over her shoulders. It had been months now since Bernie had started at the church and though she usually just helped Reverend Hanssen and gave a few readings, she always dressed properly and smartly. Even her hair was less of a mess on Sundays than on other days. Serena felt slightly wrong admiring the way Bernie looked in her vestments but she couldn’t help it.
And as Bernie welcomed everyone to the service and asked them to stand for the first hymn, Serena found her anger at Bernie wafting away. She still didn’t know what was going on with Bernie and Liberty. She still didn’t know what Bernie felt about her. But there, with Bernie leading them all in song (although Serena was fairly certain that she was just mouthing along), in the candlelit church during Advent, she found she just couldn’t be angry any more. There was too much anger in the rest of the world to allow herself to be angry with this beautiful, kind woman any longer.
Liberty approached Serena as she was manning the coffee machine after church. The café was doing a thriving business and with the donated cakes and biscuits that arrived every day from various members of the congregation, there was plenty of food to go round.
“Hi Serena,” Liberty began, a wide smile on her face as though she was addressing a small child who needed to be kept appeased.
“Hello Liberty.” Serena groaned internally wondering what Liberty wanted now.
“Can I have your tuna bake recipe?”
Serena started. That really wasn’t what she expected Liberty to say. “Umm. Why?”
“Well Ellie tells me that tuna bake is what Jason likes to eat on Mondays and tomorrow is Monday.”
Serena tried to catch up with what Liberty was implying. “Is Jason having dinner at yours tomorrow?”
Liberty grinned. “Yes. Isn’t it wonderful? And I want everything to be right this time so I thought I’d ask you for the recipe.”
“Oh. Of course. I mean I don’t have a recipe as such but I can write down what I usually do.”
“Thank you Serena! That’s so good of you. I want this to be a lovely family meal.” Liberty was practically bouncing.
Serena raised an eyebrow. “If you hang around, I’ll write it down once I’m done with the café.”
“Of course! Eddie is sorting through the choir music so he won’t mind waiting for me!”
Serena faked a smile hoping that Liberty would get the message and leave her alone now. But no such luck.
“Hey, Serena, why don’t you join us tomorrow? Then it really will be one big happy family meal.”
Serena’s hand involuntarily clenched into a fist. She took a deep breath before speaking. “Liberty, I really don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“You really have no idea what you are doing do you?” Serena said, her voice wavering as she fought to stay calm.
Liberty was about to answer when a hand fell on her shoulder.
“I think it’s time you let Serena get on with serving the other customers now don’t you?” Bernie said.
Serena jumped. She hadn’t noticed Bernie approaching. Bernie smiled at her and then turned back to Liberty.
Liberty muttered something under her breath and then walked away clearly heading off to find Edward.
“Thanks,” Serena said as Bernie took a step closer to the counter. “How much did you hear?”
Bernie grimaced. “I mainly just caught the bit where she wanted you to play happy families with her and Edward.”
“I’m sorry. Liberty’s never been known for her tact.” Bernie said.
Serena was about to be brave and just ask Bernie about her relationship with Liberty when Reverend Hanssen appeared wanting a word with Bernie.
“See you later?” she said instead and was gratified to see Bernie’s eyes crinkle into a smile.
“Yes. Later,” Bernie replied. She reached out a hand towards Serena and, despite herself, Serena found herself reaching across the counter to squeeze Bernie’s hand. It was only a moment but it was the most contact they had had since the competition and it felt like a step in the right direction.