Hermione Price-Jones was one of those innately annoying people who fell asleep as soon as her large head of grey and white speckled hair landed on her pillow. Should anything have occurred throughout that particular day to irk, irritate or worry Mrs Price-Jones, the very thought of it would seemingly exit its way out the top of her head as soon as she was horizontal. Being a lady in her late 60’s of rather large proportions, the very act of lying down caused all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds to emanate from her body; hence the reason why her husband took residence in one of the bedrooms down the hall. As much as she was completely unaware of anything during the course of a night’s sleep, her husband was unfortunately acutely conscious of every squeak, squawk and snore that arose from her. He often joked to her that an aeroplane could land in their bedroom and she would be none the wiser.
Some would argue, however, that there wasn’t much to cause vexation in Mrs Price-Jones’ life that would result in lost sleep. The local squire’s wife, she and her husband Henry resided at Lower Grange in the quaint little village of Falthom on the Water. A sleepy picturesque parish, the main events of the year could be marked by the seasons. The Spring Festival, organised by the Church, which featured a competitive race around the town for the more agile of the villagers and an Easter Egg hunt for the younger generation which habitually resulted in sticky fingers and tears before bedtime. The Summer Fete was run by the Historical Society and boasted a local celebrity to open proceedings, who was feverishly pursued and courted by Mrs Price-Jones the Society Secretary, at least six months prior. Tea tents, a ‘Best Garden’ competition and a treasure hunt, the fete always took place in the gardens of Lower Grange. Mrs Price-Jones relished in the entertainment not least because she got to show off her large acreage and conducted tours of their imposing Georgian mansion taking care to point out the historical artefacts in her husband’s collection and most importantly, the value of said items. Autumn brought the Harvest festival and again Mrs Price-Jones played her part by organising the teas after the church service. Whilst her son Roger teased her in his letters that Falthom on the Water would surely become a destitute, forgotten village without her valuable tea-making and organisational skills, Hermione knew how fundamental she was to the efficient running of village events and how much people relied on her, particularly the Vicar. Indeed as the Squire’s wife, she took her role in all village proceedings very seriously. People looked up to her to set the standard of how things should be done, and she took great care to always remember this when she was in public. Roger lived in South Africa now and hadn’t been home for years. He really had no idea the great part she played in village life.
This was especially true in the Winter season when the village delighted at the looming Christmas season. In charge of the village decorating committee, Mrs Price-Jones was responsible each year for delegating certain tasks to her group of eager parishioners to ensure the village was adequately festooned with twinkly lights, ornaments and wreaths. She especially took great pride in the large Christmas tree that was the focal point in the village square, annually being harnessed into Farmer Smith’s cherry picker to adorn the top of the tree with the Christmas Angel herself; which she and Henry had donated to the village many years previously. She loved the Angel; it was cream-coloured with pink wings, beautiful sparkly blue eyes and a silver halo that seemed to hover over her head. The best thing about the Angel however was her lopsided smile. Mrs Price-Jones always felt as though she was smiling right at her; as though she was pleased to be the Angel in that village out of all the villages in the land. And it was Mrs Price-Jones who had brought her there. She loved that moment of elation when she placed angel onto the highest branch and the crowd below cheered. She always felt in that moment that the village were lucky to have her; really, she herself could be viewed as the angel of Falthom on the Water.
Little did Hermione Price-Jones know how despised she really was. Brash, bossy and always showing off her wealth, the villagers loathed her. Each year she did all she could to insert herself into every activity or event, constantly referring to her ‘position’ as the Squire’s wife. Nothing was ever good enough for her, from the children making too much noise at the Easter Egg hunt, to the correct way of making tea after Church services. She viewed all the other villagers as beneath her and never missed an opportunity to remind them of her fortunate way of life, particularly when showcasing her abundance of property during the Summer fete. The people of Falthom on the Water only put up with her because the Squire really was a decent sort of man. Quiet and unassuming, one wonders whether he had always been that way, or whether the years of never getting a word in edge wise, constantly spoken over or chastised for saying the wrong thing, had so rendered him unwilling to attempt much of the spoken word. Browbeaten. That was the word best used to describe his demeanour. What had made him marry her? The residents of Falthom on the Water had been asking that question for years. It was often hard for them to bite their tongues; to continually accede to her plentiful demands, her schooling of the best way to fill a teapot or her sardonic comments regarding ones attire. But they did it, because standing behind her, gazing just over her left shoulder-padded frame, was always the Squire, with a look of pleading on his face, silently acknowledging their frustration, but quietly pleading for their compliance. What a terrible life he must have endured with her.
This particular Christmas was no different than any that had gone before it. The 1st of the month saw the annual meeting of the decorating committee. Mrs Price-Jones was in fine fettle as usual, full of her own importance and relishing the opportunity to once more issue instructions to her aggravated disciples. Over the next couple of weeks the village turned into a veritable winter wonderland; light up white snowflakes and yellow stars adorned the lampposts, the village hall featured twinkly lights weaved in and out of its rooftop, the town hall featured a huge festive wreath on the large oak double door and of course, the piéce de résistance, the large spruce in the centre of the square. It was hard for the villagers not to get swept up in the Christmas spirit. Every year they dreaded the onslaught of repetitive rhetoric from Mrs Price-Jones and every year at least 90% of the volunteers declared they would withdraw from the committee, but the thought of the guaranteed rapping at their front door like a woodpecker searching for its dinner and the torturous inquisition that would follow was a thought vastly more terrible than tolerating her for another year.
As usual, on the day of the Christmas light switch-on, Farmer Smith backed his cherry picker into the square and Mrs Price-Jones beamed with her usual conceit as she ascended to place the Christmas Angel onto the top branch. The villagers did their best enthusiastic cheer and gritted their teeth as Mrs Price-Jones slowly made her way back down in the basket waving at them in an over the top regal fashion. She then proceeded to make her way round them all accepting praise as though she was an actress who had just starred in a hit Broadway musical. As was the custom, after the tree-lighting ceremony, all the villagers made their way across the square to the Rose and Crown, the village pub, to celebrate the Christmas season with a glass or two of mulled wine. It was the only time throughout the year that Mrs Price-Jones crossed the threshold of the Rose and Crown and she made it clear with the way her top lip curled up into a semi-sneer that she felt it was many levels below her station in life. But for once the residents didn’t care; they toasted their friends and family and relished in the joy of the season, all the time ignoring the metaphorical lump of coal in the corner that sipped on a small glass of sherry. Conversely, in the Rose and Crown, the Squire came alive. He talked more than he did all year and made merry with the locals. They in turn bought him pints of beer and thanked him profusely for the many contributions he had made throughout the course of the year to the Girl Guide fund, the renewal of the playgroup toys, the new equipment for the doctor’s surgery and the roof repairs at the Church. He really was a very decent chap.
At midnight, the revellers made their way home, through the Square where the Christmas tree shone like a beacon to ignite Falthom on the Water into the Christmas ether. Nobody even thought to look up at the top of the tree where the Christmas Angel should have been, looking down on them, guiding them home to their warm beds….
That night Mrs Price-Jones slept as soundly as every other night. Indeed it wasn’t until the Squire stood over her shaking her arm that she came to with a start, her brain full of fog, still half in and half out of her subconscious mind. He shook her some more and her mind began to snap into reality. The Squire seemed to be telling her there was someone at the front door. She sat up and turned to look at the bedroom door and noticed Randall their butler, standing just at the entrance. He had obviously been woken from his slumber by the visitor as his dressing gown was roughly tied and his hair wildly unruly. Everything was in darkness save for the bedside light that had been switched on. It must be the middle of the night, she thought as she shook her sleep from her head and turned to face her husband.
“Henry, for goodness sake, what has happened, what time is it?”, Mrs Price-Jones threw her hand across to her nightstand to locate her glasses. Having fixed them on her large purple nose she peered up at Henry.
“It’s just after 5am dear. It’s Lionel Tomlin at the door”, Henry replied, sitting on the edge of the bed ready to impart his news.
“The milkman?” Mrs Price-Jones asked incredulously, “What on earth does he want? Has the milk not been delivered from town?”.
“No, no Hermione, it’s nothing like that”. Henry took hold of her hand which she shook off as she tutted her lips. “It’s the Christmas Angel love; Lionel says it’s missing”.
“The Christmas Angel? MISSING? MY CHRISTMAS ANGEL???” Mrs Price-Jones threw back her covers, almost knocking the Squire onto the floor with her force. She stuck her feet into her slippers, threw on her pink dressing gown and without waiting for her husband, flew down the stairs, through the hall and came face to face with a very red-cheeked Lionel Tomlin standing on the large 3-tiered doorstep. She heard Randall and the Squire follow her down but they stood well back, as if expecting some sort of explosion.
“What on earth are you jabbering about you stupid man? You come here at 5 O’clock in the morning to tell me that my Christmas Angel has gone missing? Have you lost your senses? It’s impossible. I placed it there myself last night. When did you last get your eyes tested you silly oaf, you really should take more care”.
“I do beg your pardon Mrs Price-Jones”, Lionel stammered whilst looking down at this feet, “I wouldn’t have come unless I thought it was important. I swear to you it’s not there. I looked up for it as soon as I drew my van into the square. I look at it every morning during the Christmas period as my little Evie, she does so love that Angel and remarks on it every time Martha and I walk through the square with her. At first I thought it had maybe fallen backwards and was hanging down the back of the tree but I went round the whole tree several times and as far as I can see it’s not there at all. I’m ever so sorry it looks as though it’s been stolen”.
Mrs Price-Jones felt the anger grow inside of her, starting down at her slippered feet and festering and maturing until she thought she might implode.
“STOLEN? STOLEN? Who on earth would steal a Christmas Angel? There must be some mistake. You’ve got it wrong Lionel. Sorry for saying so but you never were the brightest tool in the shed now were you. The Squire and I will come down presently and sort this all out. You get on with your round and leave this all to me.”
And with that she shut the door in his face and went to dress and instruct the Squire, who was hovering at the bottom of the staircase with Randall, to get the car ready.
“Well who on earth would do a thing like that?” the Squire asked as he and Mrs Price-Jones stared up at the Christmas tree in the centre of the square, dumbstruck. The milkman had been right, the Angel was gone. The cold December wind cast an icy wave over their bodies. The place was deathly silent, with just the howl of the wind for company.
Mrs Price-Jones just couldn’t believe her eyes. After everything she did for this ungrateful village, this was how they repaid her.
“I bet you it was those Tavestock children”, she seethed through gritted teeth, “Just dragged up by that mother of theirs. She tries to look the part, by helping with the Church teas and volunteering for the decoration committee, but I can see through her, oh yes I tell you, nothing but common muck. No control over those children and they always look filthy. Yes, you mark my words, it’ll have been them all right”.
“My dear, how can you say that?”, the Squire said reproachfully. “You know perfectly well her husband died 2 years ago and she’s been coping all by herself since then, with only one wage to bring up 5 children. They may be a little wild but they’re harmless souls. I’m quite fond of them really”,
“Oh Henry, you really are a little wimp of a man; always seeing the good in people even when the truth is staring you hard in the face”. Mrs Price-Jones turned to look at her husband who had gone a rather purple shade, and shook her head at him with a groan under her breath. “What kind of life would you have without me to keep you in the right I shouldn’t like to wonder. People would be taking advantage of you right left and centre. You already do far too much for them as it is, just so you can relish in their gratitude in the Rose and Crown. You really are pathetic Henry.”
Henry considered his answer for a moment, before murmuring “Yes dear”.
Mrs Price-Jones gave a great big sigh and pulled the ends of her head scarf tighter under her chin. It was biting cold, but she was grateful in a way that she had been alerted to the theft so early in the morning when no one was around to witness her shame. What would the Vicar say? Or the members of the historical society if they heard about this? What would they think of her? She was supposed to be the shining example of everything good and proper; how would it look if they knew there was a thief in her village? No, she must do something.
“Henry, go home at once and get the Angel from the top of our Christmas tree in the drawing room”, she barked out the order. With such a large house Mrs Price-Jones always made sure she had several Christmas trees. She knew she wouldn’t miss the Angel from one of them. This was much more important. “It’s not as big and it’s white instead of cream, but it will have to do. I can’t have the tree sitting there with no angel on top. I must get another one back on before the village wakes up”.
Ten minutes later Henry was back with the Angel. He handed it across to his wife who examined it rather impatiently.
“Oh really, this isn’t at all like the other one. The halo is falling to pieces and she’s not even smiling. Never mind, it’ll have to do. Now Henry, do you know how to operate Farmer Smith’s cherry picker?”
The cherry picker was still sitting in the square from the previous night owing to the fact that Farmer Smith also liked to join in the celebrations at the Rose and Crown. His custom had always been to come back for it the following day. Under her breath Mrs Price-Jones said a small thanks for Farmer Smith’s partiality to one too many whisky’s.
“Well I’ve never done it before but I dare say it’ll be easy enough” the Squire said, making his way across to where the contraption sat. He examined the buttons which all seemed self-explanatory and gave his wife a reassuring nod. He had been an engineer in a former life, and knew pretty much everything there was to know about machinery.
Mrs Price-Jones got into the cherry picker basket and shut the door all the time clasping the new angel. She couldn’t help thinking to herself what a damn nuisance this all was. Once Christmas was over she would have to call a meeting about this and demand that the culprit come forward. She simply refused to live in a village with a thief. Didn’t people have any respect for her? This village would be nothing without her; her generosity, her time, her giving nature. Really, what was the world coming to when a Christmas Angel was stolen?
As she got nearer to the top of the tree the wind seemed to increase ten-fold. Her face felt almost numb with the cold, but she reassured herself it was all in a good cause. The cherry picker felt very jerky as the Squire got her nearer and nearer to the top of the tree. To be expected, she thought, this was Henry’s first time operating the thing after all. But she just hoped he would be able to hold it still while she placed the new angel atop. It might be trickier given that this Angel was a good deal smaller. How she was going to explain the new angel to the villagers she had no idea. She would just have to hope that no one noticed. She would have to make sure that Lionel Tomlin held his tongue. She would get the Squire to give him a Christmas bonus in return for his silence.
She came level with the top of the tree and looked down at Henry to give him the thumbs up, signalling stop. He returned the gesture and removed his hands from the levers. Mrs Price-Jones then leaned over to place the Angel on the highest branch. It was then that she realised she’d forgotten to harness herself in. Oh well, she thought, she would only be a minute and time was of the essence. As she leaned forward, the cherry picker suddenly gave a great lurch forward, causing the door to swing open. She tried to look down at Henry to ascertain what on earth was going on, but she lost her balance and felt herself staggering towards the open door. She tried to use her arm to pull herself up but the carriage was careering as though it was a fairground ride. Another lurch came and suddenly she was out of the cherry picker and falling through the sky, the great December wind carrying her through the branches of the Christmas tree. Her guttural screams filled the air of Falthom on the Water and she landed with a great thud at the bottom of the tree, with the angel on top of her mop of curly grey and white hair.
A week later the Squire sat at his desk in the library at Lower Grange, looking at his wedding photograph which had occupied that spot on the desk for 50 years. He was still staring at it when his Butler Randall appeared with the mornings post on a silver tray.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking Squire, but how are you feeling?” Randall had always respected his Master a great deal, and he feared the tragedy of his wife’s death would be the end of him too.
“Why I’m fine Randall, thank you for asking, just reminiscing you know”. The Squire looked up at his Butler and continued, “It’s been a long week that’s all, what with the inquest on Monday and then the funeral yesterday. It’ll be good to get back to some normality”.
“Yes of course Sir. Such a tragedy for the poor mistress. A malfunction of the cherry picker, who would have thought? What a terrible case of bad luck. Still, at least that removes Farmer Smith from any negligence, he’s been so worried Sir.”
“Oh of course, no one’s fault at all; these things can’t be helped. Unfortunately equipment does fail from time to time”. The Squire looked back down at his wedding photograph and Randall started to take his leave. Before he left he said “Shall you dine at the usual time tonight Squire?”
The Squire looked up and seemed to shake himself; “Yes Randall, thank you. Oh and Randall? I thought about having a few people round for drinks on Friday night? Just some of the villagers who worked so tirelessly with the mistress on the various events throughout the year. A sort of celebration in her honour. Why don’t you issue a general invitation to the village and we’ll see how many accept”.
Randall stared incredulously at his Master. Apart from the summer fete where guests were escorted round the most impressive facets of the house in an orderly fashion by Mrs Price-Jones herself, the Squire and his wife never entertained.
“Yes Sir, as you wish Sir”, he replied.
Randall left the room and the Squire breathed a heavy sigh. He looked down to his right-hand side at the set of 4 drawers there and slowly leaning down, he opened the bottom drawer. There staring up at him was a white body with pink wings, a silver halo, blue sparkly eye and a lop-sided smile. The Squire smiled back at it then shut and locked the drawer, popping the key inside his safe.
He got up from behind his desk and looked out at the glorious winter’s day that stood before him. A stroll around the grounds was what was required, he thought to himself. And with that, he left the house and made his way to his beautiful garden sparkling with frost as though everything had been touched by magic, all the while humming a lively tune.