‘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.