Apparently feeling that she’d sorted matters out to her own satisfaction, Clara levered herself out of the sofa’s clutches and shook out her cape.
‘That’s that, then, and you can stay with us as long as you need to, Meg. I suppose it depends how quickly you work.’
‘Actually, very quickly, once I’ve made the preliminary sketches: often only one or two sittings for the face. Then I use photographs on my iPad to put the finishing touches to portraits in my studio,’ I replied automatically, while gathering my resources to persuade her that what she was asking me was quite impossible right now. ‘But at the moment I can’t—’
‘I’m sure you’d much prefer to work entirely from life and since there’s a studio at the Red House, there’s no reason why not.’
I remembered earlier wishing the vital spark to paint would return and I reflected you should always be careful what you wish for, because now, despite my resistance, I’d begun to really want to paint Clara. Also, I’d realized that Henry Doome was the famous but reclusive poet, who, judging from his photographs, would also make an arresting subject . . . only not right now, when I’d just got home and was at such a low ebb.
I summoned up the dregs of my willpower and said resolutely, ‘Professor Mayhem Doome, I’d be delighted to accept the commission and I’m sure we can come to some arrangement for early next year, but you must see that it’s quite impossible before that.’
She gazed at me in surprise. ‘I fail to see any difficulties. In fact, everything seems to have fallen into place most serendipitously.’
‘Not really, because it’s less than three weeks before Meg comes home again for the Winter Solstice ceremony and the Yule feasting. She’s only here now because she had a lot of business to sort out,’ River said. ‘Nor should she be travelling up and down the country in the middle of winter so soon after her illness,’ he added, entirely discounting the endurance test I’d already been subjected to in the old Land Rover.
Clara was looking speculatively from me to River. ‘Did you say the Winter Solstice? Do you then celebrate the shortest day of the year and Yule at your farm, rather than Christmas?’
‘We do indeed, and have a special ceremony in a sacred spot nearby, followed by a week of feasting and celebration. Meg always comes home for that.’
Well, I’d always at least made it for the ceremony, though the feasting could last even longer than a week, with much consumption of River’s home-made mead, which always made the holiday memorable . . . or rather, unmemorable, since it was strong enough to fell hard-drinking men like ninepins.
‘What a coincidence! We also have a ceremony every year at Starstone Edge, on the night of the Winter Solstice,’ she said. ‘Meg could go to that instead.’
‘Starstone?’ said River eagerly. ‘I’ve heard rumours of the Starstone ceremony, and that it’s based on a very old ritual!’ Then he added wistfully, ‘I’d like to see that myself.’
‘Then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. You can stay with us; there’s plenty of room,’ she offered. ‘You’ll be able to see how Meg’s portraits are coming along, too.’
I opened my mouth to remind her that I hadn’t agreed to start on the commission before the following January, but only a croak came out.
She’d certainly pressed the right buttons with River, how- ever, because he was looking very tempted. ‘That’s extremely kind of you, but I’m never away from the Farm for the important ceremonies of the year, especially this one.’
I didn’t see why he should deny himself this treat, whether I was there or not. ‘But you said yourself last year that the climb up the mountain to ignite the bonfire was getting a bit much and you were going to hand over the ceremonial staff to Oshan,’ I pointed out. ‘He’s perfectly capable of managing it on his own. You could still get home after this Starstone ceremony in time for the feasting.’
‘I suppose I could . . .’ he agreed, mulling it over. ‘It’s extremely kind of you to invite me, Professor Mayhem Doome.’ ‘Call me Clara, both of you. The rest of it makes me sound like a firm of dodgy solicitors. And I’m so glad you feel able to come.’
‘If Meg’s finished the portraits by then, she can return to the Farm with me after the Solstice,’ River suggested.
I stared speechlessly at them both, for there seemed to have been a sudden seismic shift and it appeared now to be taken for
granted that I was going to Starstone as Clara decreed.
‘I’m sure she’ll need a little longer than that to paint both of us,’ Clara said. ‘In fact, I hope she’ll stay on and celebrate Christmas with us, and then she can complete both portraits afterwards, at her leisure.’
‘But I’ve never celebrated Christmas,’ I objected, last ditch, because although I was perfectly capable of turning the suggestion down, the growing desire to paint Clara was sapping my will to resist any further. ‘If I do begin the portraits before Christmas, then I’ll go to the Farm after the Solstice and complete them in the studio.’
‘Nonsense! Everyone should experience a proper family Christmas at least once in their lives,’ she said. ‘There’ll be a house full, I expect, and Henry loves the traditions, so we’ll have the tree, the stockings, the giant plum pudding . . . the even more gigantic cake, the—’
‘I’m afraid I’m vegetarian, so I’d be a nuisance,’ I interrupted hastily, though there was a certain fascination about the prospect offered. A proper family Christmas . . . what would that be like?
‘No problem at all,’ Clara said airily. ‘So are we all at the Red House, in a manner of speaking. It’s because of Henry: he’s vegetarian most of the time, though he eats a small amount of fish and seafood too.’
‘Pescetarian?’ suggested River helpfully. ‘But so are Meg and I – what a coincidence!’
‘Perfect!’ Clara beamed at us and gave a deep sigh of satisfaction. ‘There we are then, that’s all settled. Now, what time shall I collect you tomorrow, Meg?’
‘I’m afraid that would be impossible, because I really do have things to arrange first,’ I told her. ‘Besides, I’d prefer to drive up in my own van.’
‘You have a van?’
‘A small camper van. I keep it on my friends’ smallholding near St Albans and they drop it off here when I need it.’
That wasn’t very often, and Freddie and Joe had the use of it the rest of the time, so the arrangement worked well. It wasn’t as if it was a romantic old vintage Dormobile or any- thing like that, but a more modern small vehicle, narrow but tall, and containing only the modicum of living facilities. I could get all my painting gear in it and also safely trans- port tacky canvases, so I’d found it useful to camp in it when it was inconvenient to stay with my sitters. In fact, I often much preferred to do that, though in this case, it wouldn’t be an option up on the Lancashire moors in the middle of winter.
Clara, having attained her main objective, conceded the point. ‘In that case, you can follow me up to Starstone Edge as soon as you’re ready.’ She turned that force-field smile on me again. ‘If you do decide to stay on over Christmas, Henry would be so delighted to introduce you to all the festive manifestations of the season.’
That all sounded a bit Jacob Marley.
‘Most of the Christmas traditions are actually a late Victorian embroidering of old pagan rites,’ River said.
‘That’s true, which makes them very suited to the Red House, which is Victorian Gothic of the most overblown kind. I let Henry have full rein over the celebrations: it’s the high- light of his year, especially the tree. He always chooses one so tall, we have to decorate half of it from the stairs or using a stepladder.’
At the farm, we also had a pine tree, a small one, which was hung upside down in the hall and decorated with corn dollies, nuts, sprigs of holly, mistletoe and other symbolic odds and ends.
Christmas at the Red House sounded so interestingly different from anything I’d known, and it was tempting. But then, I’d only just escaped from one house full of people, so did I want to be pitchforked into a party of strangers?
I needn’t decide now, I reasoned. I’d go there and begin the portraits, and then, if it was all too much, escape with River back to the Farm after the Solstice.
Clara, mission accomplished, removed herself and the force- field of her personality back to the club she was staying at, leaving only a large dent in the sofa cushion to show she’d ever been there.
I think she’d used up most of the oxygen in the room, because I barely had the energy to eat the takeaway when it arrived.
When I woke late next morning, River had already set off for home. He’d left a pebble on the coverlet of the bed in the spare room, inscribed in pencil with the message, ‘See you on the 21st!’
When I turned it over, I saw he’d added, ‘May the Goddess bless you!’
But I think she already had, even though it might well turn out to be a blessing of the mixed kind.