Thursday, 17 December 2015

An English/Scottish Christmas

I don't know if you have ever heard of the Susan books. They're English, oh so very English and the first I ever read was Susan at School at the house of my music teacher. She gave me a book to read, instead of a music lesson (which was fine by me, because she was one of the most violent teachers I have ever had in my life, and that is saying something) and naturally I fell in love with Susan, who is one of the nicest, most helpful heroines in history. Except that her help often lands whoever she is helping into deeper doo doo. Susan is Susan Lyle. Her parents have gone off to South Africa because father got some contract, and she is staying with her cousins, Charlotte, Margery and Bill Carmichael in London. The Carmichaels have a father who is a doctor and they are taken care off by their father's sister (who is also Susan's mother's sister) as their mother died when they were quite young. And the children privately refer to Miss Pershore as Miss Plum amongst themselves because plums are from Pershore.

But that's beside the point. Today, I wanted to feature a chapter on Christmas in the first of the Susan books, Susan Pulls the Strings. These books were out of print for a long time...and they recently came back into print (in case you're thinking of buying one) and you can order them on

But of course he did go to sleep eventually and so, eventually did the girls, and Christmas morning came at last, and the bells in the school chapel opposite the house were ringing, and their stockings were filled with delightful little oddments and, of course, an orange and an apple and a new half-crown in each toe.

After breakfast the whole family went into the drawing-room where Aunt Lucy had a wonderful fire blazing, to get their proper presents which were lying in large and exciting piles round the Christmas tree. Susan had kept most of her presents unopened, so she had a good big pile too. There was a cable from her mother and father from the ship, and a camera from them; there were books from Charlotte and Midge and Bill, and from Aunt Lucy and Uncle Charles -- oh, wonder of wonders! -- the neatest little watch. Susan was quite speechless with delight. Midge had a watch too, hers was round and Susan's was square. Charlotte had a most sumptuous new paint-box from Aunt Lucy and a writing-case from her father. Bill had opened all his other presents -- and exclaimed happily over a little engine, which would drive his meccano models, from his sisters, and a very elaborate set of railway signals from Susan which she had bought the day before -- and kept until the end a large and exciting-looking box which he just knew had an electric train in it -- a goods one, he hoped -- and rails and the transformer and ...But when he opened it, and removed some tissue paper and there were four little dolls with dangling heads and comical faces in the box.

"They're puppets!" cried Bill.

Aunt Lucy hung over the box, loving them. "I do hope you like them, Bill," she said. "Miss Pershore made them specially for you. We thought that you would make a good thing of them, being so good with your hands -- you know, make a little stage for them, with footlights and everything."

Bill bent over the box and drew one of then little puppets; he unwound the strings and over the control a little -- immediately the little figure -- it was a clown, with a clown's sad face -- danced into life, tapped his feet and waved his hands. Bill still kept his head bent down, but he couldn't help smiling at the little clown, although Susan knew that he was getting a very misty view of it, because she was too. But Bill managed to mumble, "Oh, thank you, Aunt Lucy, they're smashing. I'll go out to the garage now and see if there's any wood for my stage." And still carrying the puppet-clown, he dashed from the room.

Susan blinked hard, the girls glanced at each other and at Aunt Lucy, but apparently Aunt Lucy had realised nothing of Bill's bitter disappointment; and in a little Bill came back, everything under control, and before the family set off for church he had rigged up a temporary stage, with a bed-table and a clothes-horse, and was planning something better, and Charlotte had promised to design him a curtain, and Midge and Susan promised to write a play for his puppets.

The Carmichaels went to the Scots Church in Pont Street, and that was a thrill for Susan too, because she had often read about it in books. They went by car, and when they came back lots of friends of Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucy came on, and their children too, who were friends of Charlotte and Midge and Bill, and the puppets were very much admired, which was encouraging for Bill, the girls felt, because he had really behaved very well over them. Susan thought that the puppets were fascinating, and longed to work them herself. Bill let her try them all in turn, and Susan began devising wild schemes of buying an electric train with her own money and swopping it with Bill for the puppets. She whispered to Midge, "How much are electric trains?"

"The cheapest is about eight pounds," Midge whispered back.

"Oh, help," said Susan. "And besides," she thought, "it's not the thing to go swopping Christmas presents. Aunt Lucy would be cut to the quick. Especially when her dearest friend has made the puppets."

And at this moment, to everyone's relief -- for they were all exceedingly hungry and Bill had reported from the kitchen that Mrs Taylor was worrying about the bird getting overcooked, and that Chang was sitting by the oven door, howling -- at this moment the dearest friend arrived.

Miss Pershore was small and very slim and elegant. Even Susan could tell that her black dress was beautifully cut and must have cost about as much as all Aunt Lucy's dresses put together, and that her pearls were real because they had a little safety-chain at the clasp. But her hair was blue.

Susan was terribly distressed for her. Surely there was something she could do? She whispered to Charlotte under cover of a general move to the dining-room. "Poor soul! It's terrible! Can't we tell her? She could put on a scarf, or something. We must tell her!"

"Tell who what?" said Charlotte.

"Sh, she'll hear you. Miss Pershore, of course. She has spilt something on her hair. It's blue."

Charlotte began to giggle. "Miss Plum won't thank you to tell her to tie up her elegant coiffure in a hanky. It's meant to be like that."

"Meant to be like that?" Susan couldn't believe her ears. Really the things that went on in Lodnon!

"Of course. That's a blue rinse," Charlotte told her, "very smart for grey hair. Although I must admit," she added looking critically at Miss Pershore, "I must admit that it's a bit over-done this time."

Well, of course, if Charlotte said so, it must be all right for Miss Pershore to go about with blue hair, but Susan thought that it was very peculiar indeed, and often afterwards, looking back on the events of this holiday, Susan felt that the reason she never quite took to Miss Pershore was because she had blue hair.

But at that moment she hadn't much time to worry about Miss Pershore's odd taste. The dinner-table was a dream. In the centre of the table was a tiny, real Christmas tree with miniature decorations and candles and crackers and even parcels on it; trails of holly led from the tree to little golden angels (which had been painted by Charlotte and cut out by Bill on his fretsaw) holding up red candles. There were crackers piled round the foot of the tree and they were gold and green and red too. And after they had finished eating the delicious Christmas food, there was a present for everyone off the little tree -- a cigar for Uncle Charles, a china model, no more than an inch long, of a Siamese cat for Susan, a tiny compass for Bill, very pretty little hair-slides for Charlotte and Midge, and the smallest possible bottles of scent for Miss Pershore and Aunt Lucy.

In the drawing-room after dinner Miss Pershore gave Uncle Charles and Aunt Lucy their presents and gave the family a large and luscious box of French chocolates. They made appreciative exclamations and thanked her.

"Oh, this isn't your real present," said Miss Pershore. "I was going to tell you about that. You know this exhibition of toy theatres and puppets which is running in town just now? -- well, there are some charming sketches, the original designs by Anna Ferdinand for the sets and characters in a toy theatre play -- and she is a very well-known scene designer -- and I have bought one for each of you. But of course, my pets, they're still in the exhibition~ So I couldn't bring them today~ But if you're not doing anything tomorrow morning I want you to come with me and look at them and see if you like them -- or if there's another drawing you like better --"

Susan felt quite dizzy. Actually, she couldn't quite make out what the exhibition and all that was about, Midge would have to explain that to her, but the most important thing seemed to be that she, Susan, was about to own an original drawing by a famous artist!

"I think this is the most wonderful Christmas that I've ever had," said Susan, as they went to the kitchen to help Mrs Taylor with the washing-up, "if Mummy and Daddy had been her, that is--"

"This washing-up and going out for walks while the grown-ups have forty winks rather takes the gilt off the gingerbread," murmured Midge, but nobody took any notice of her. And Chang went with them for the walk which made it more interesting, for they kept on having to rescue him from trees or dogs and other people's gardens, and consequently could go neither fast nor far. In the end, even Midge admitted that the walk was a good idea for otherwise she shouldn't have been able to eat any Christmas cake when they got home. Susan said that she had been prepared to enjoy the Christmas cake anyway, but that of course it was all the better to have an appetite for it.

After tea, Miss Pershore went off to prepare for her own party. To Bill's intense satisfaction, it was to be a real evening party, going on till all hours, he told Susan. Susan couldn't get quite the same pleasure out of this information because she trembled at the thought of the dreadful and complex pencil games that the clever Miss Pershore would have thought up for the clever Carmichaels. She went off to consult Aunt Lucy about the clothes question -- did Aunt Lucy think that her blue velvet -- this one that she was wearing -- would be all right; or should she change into the white net. Aunt Lucy thought the white net."You'll love Miss Pershore's party," said Aunt Lucy. "She's good at parties."

Susan smiled in a rather sickly way and said politely and without much conviction that she was sure Miss Pershore was, and went off to dress.

It surprised Susan very much, but Aunt Lucy was quite right -- Miss Pershore was good at parties, although at first Susan was so frightened that she fell sick and that made her more frightened than ever, for it would be more than awkward if she were sick the minute she was inside the door. The door, incidentally, was opened by a most smart parlourmaid, and that was unnerving enough because none of Susan's mother's friends had proper maids anymore, only helps or an old nanny left over or nobody at all -- even Aunt Lucy had to manage that big house with Mrs Taylor coming daily and Uncle Charles's secretary to let in the patients. And then, once they were inside, the house! It was like one of those places you see photographed in magazines as she told Midge afterwards. You walked on priceless antique rugs and brushed past priceless antique furniture, and held your breath in case you knocked over a priceless piece of old china. Everything that could be polished was polished, every bit of silver shone. But in spite of all this magnificence, Miss Pershore was good at parties. There were about five or six other young people there - Daphne and John Greenwood and the Vernon boys and a girl called Jennifer and another girl whose name Susan didn't catch -- all of whom the Carmichaels knew, and there were one or two grown-ups who didn't get in the way. They began by guessing advertisements pinned round the drawing-room and Susan won that; she always won that advertisement game because she liked reading advertisements, and always believed them too. So that very much restored her self-confidence. Then they played beetle and then they had supper -- with wonderful food -- and after that they played really good games like sardines, and murder and hide-and-seek in the dark. Susan always loved hide-and-seek in the dark, although she trembled for Miss Pershore's priceless ornaments. She needn't have worried because Miss Pershore had carefully put away her real treasures before the party began, but as Susan didn't know this she admired Miss Pershore's apparent casualness.

"Go where you like," said Miss Pershore, "under the beds, if you like -- only not on the top floor if you don't mind because you might wander into my workroom by mistake and get paint or something on those heavenly dresses -- "

She switched off the lights and the company crept off. Susan "he," much to her trepidation. She in any case always managed to work herself into a frenzy at hide-and-seek in the dark, creeping about in a state of delicious terror; to be "he" increased her terror. However, she successfully sought out the others, except the girl whose name she didn't know. Midge was "he" next time and Susan went off to hide in peace. She giggled a little with Bill, knocked into, she thought, Charlottle and went upstairs. However, the excitement or something must have gone to her head because without thinking, indeed without realising, she crept up the second flight of stairs, and hid behind the first open door she found. There was absolute stillness round her -- at first; and she began to hear little rustlings, creaks and murmurings; her heart began again to go thump, thump. Far away downstairs she could hear the comfortable sound of the telephone ringing; she heard a muffled shrief and a rather hysterical giggle, quickly stilled and again there was silence. Then she heard the sound she was dreading -- soft, footsteps coming upstairs. She flattened herself against the wall, trembling. The footsteps came nearer -- the door was suddenly pushed against her, she choked back a yell -- and to her astonishment, the light snapped on. From behind the door she saw Miss Pershore walk across the room. Susan was opening her mouth to speak to her when Miss Pershore opened the door of a big cupboard and stepped inside.

Susan grinned to herself. "Very sporting of Miss Plum to join the game," she thought, "but for goodness' sake, why did she put the light on?"

She was just going to nip out from behind her door to put it out, when a call came from below, "Come out, come out, wherever you be --"

"Oh, good," thought Susan, "I wasn't found...Miss Pershore!" she called. "You can come out, Midge hasn't found us." There was no reply. Rather puzzled, she walked over to the cupboard. Without it making any impression on her, she half-noticed that she was in a sort of workroom fitted up with a carpenter's bench and with puppets in various stages of completion hanging here and there. She opened the cupboard door. "Miss Pershore--" she began, and stopped, amazed. The cupboard was empty. "Oh, help," thought Susan. "I'm going dotty." and she quickly shut the cupboard door and ran downstairs.

The party was gathered in the dining-room having ices and jellies and trifles and lemonade. "Come on, Susie," said Midge, as Susan came in, "not like you to be late for food. Where were you hiding? You were the only one I didn't find. Don't be too long; Miss Pershore's going to give us a puppet show -- she's getting the puppets ready now. What d'you want -- an ice?"

Susan took the ice from Midge, who was too busy helping to hand round the food to notice Susan's unusual silence. Susan wondered a little if she would manage to eat an ice, because she was feeling extremely queer. Was she seeing things? How did Miss Plum manage to disappear like that? However, as the ice rapidly disappeared too Susan felt that there couldn't be much the matter with her. And after she had watched Miss Plum's marvellous skill in manipulating the puppets in a little play of Hansel and Gretel, she felt that nothing was beyond Miss Plum's powers. Disappearing in a cupboard would be child's play for her, Susan thought, and wouldn't have been surprised if she had disappeared in a cloud of smoke before the very eyes of the assembled company.

"Besides," she said to herself, coming back to earth slightly, "she probably slipped out again when I wasn't looking."

All the same, when the goodbyes were being said and everyone was exclaiming what a marvellous party it had been, some niggle of curiosity made Susan say, "Thank you very much for having me, Miss Pershore, it was the best party I've ever been at, and Midge didn't find you at hide-and-seek."

Miss Pershore said in her charming way, "Was Midge looking for me in the dark? I wasn't playing."

"Oh weren't you? I thought I saw you going into a press to hide," said Susan.

"Into a press?" said Miss Pershore, bewildered.

"She means a cupboard, Miss Pershore," translated Midge. "Scots people call a cupboard a press, you know."

Susan was wishing ardently that there was a convenient press into which she could disappear. Miss Pershore gave her a look which sent shivers up and down her back. Then Miss Pershore smiled and said lightly, "All those games must have inflamed your imagination, Susan," and she turned away and was busy shaking hands with her other departing guests.

"What inflamed your imagination, Susan?" said Bill, who didn't miss much, as they ran home to their own house.

"Ugh, nothing," said Susan, who was feeling a little uncomfortable. "Sometimes I think I'm slightly potty."

"I'd be the last to deny that," said Midge. "And you do rather suffer from an inflamed imagination."

"Inflamed imagination!" thought Susan. "She did go into that press -- cupboard." But as Susan had by this time realised that she herself had been out-of-bounds, she felt the less said about cupboards ad workrooms and hide-and-seek in the dark the better. So she didn't mention it to the rest of the family as they climbed upstairs to bed, yawning.

"I do think it's sad when Christmas Day is over," said Midge. "and Boxing Day is always such an anti-climax."

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