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The snow which blanketed the rolling moors and fields surrounding the small Yorkshire village of Garnham lay white and crisp beneath the stormy grey of the leaden sky above. In the cobbled main street of the village itself, it had been trodden to brown slush by the steady stream of villagers that were hurrying to and fro, anxious to complete their various errands before a fresh flurry began. The old-fashioned streetlamps were still unlit after four years of blackout, and it was growing steadily darker as the afternoon progressed and the sky seemed to press ever closer.

In a small stone cottage set in a row of others exactly like it behind the old village church, thirteen year old Reg Entwistle was squatting on the floor of his small bedroom, carving a pair of wooden bookends into the shape of cats, which were to be his Christmas present to the great-aunt who had been his guardian since the age of seven. As his hands worked mechanically, his mind was elsewhere, turning over the incredible events of the past few months.

He’d never in his wildest dreams imagined when he had first peeped through the front hedge of Many Bushes at the new tenants of The Witchens that summer that they would change everything he knew so dramatically. It was thanks to them that he had just finished a successful first term at Polgarth School, a minor public school on the other side of the moors. Thanks to them his dream of becoming a doctor was no longer just a dream, but a definite possibility.

No, not a possibility, he corrected himself. A certainty. He was going to do it all right, no matter what it took, no matter how hard he had to work. He would make sure the Maynards never for a moment regretted investing in him and his future. Yet he knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially after spending so many years in a tiny village school that had been completely unmotivating from his point of view. Polgarth had been a real shock to the system at first; the lessons and teaching style were totally different to anything he had known before, but he had revelled in being properly challenged after years of boredom, and the masters had been pleased with his progress. Things had been promising outside of lessons, too. The other boys hadn’t sneered at his broad Yorkshire accent and working-class upbringing as he had secretly dreaded, but had accepted him into their midst quite cheerfully. Indeed, his talents with a pocket knife and a piece of wood had soon made him the envy of the class in woodwork lessons, and he had been bombarded with requests to make wooden whistles, boats, planes and other toys in exchange for sweets, loans of books and games, and various other favours. He’d even been given a singing solo in the end-of-term Christmas play; the singing master had pounced with delight on the new boy’s clear, steady treble voice and church choir experience, and Reg himself had thoroughly enjoyed the experience of singing in a much larger choir than the tiny one boasted by Garnham’s village church. Even the play itself, which had been a very typical school affair and nothing spectacular in the way of theatrics, had been a novelty to him, for he had never been involved in such a thing before.

The faint crunch of feet on the snow in the street outside roused him from his reverie, and he suddenly realised that it was almost completely dark outside now. He sprang up and went to close the blackout curtains before turning on his bedroom light, just as he heard the letterbox clatter below.

‘Reg!’ his great-aunt bellowed up the stairs a minute later. ‘Letter for you in the afternoon post.’

‘Coming!’ called Reg. He carefully stowed his bookends in a safe hiding place where he knew his aunt would not come across them while cleaning, then dashed out onto the landing and leapt down the narrow stairs two at a time to where his great-aunt was standing in the front hall.

‘Who’s it from?’ he asked, accepting the thick packet she was holding out.

‘Your pals down south,’ she replied, pointing at the return address, which read Plas Gwyn, Armishire.

‘Excellent!’ Feeling cheered, he went back upstairs to his bedroom and sprawled himself comfortably on his bed before opening the packet to reveal a letter, six Christmas cards and a postal order for ten shillings.

‘Coo!’ he exclaimed in wonder. He opened the Christmas cards first in turn. There was one from Jo and Jack Maynard and their young son Steve, and another, brightly-coloured and drawn by childish hands, which was signed by their four year old triplet daughters Len, Con and Margot. Three of the other cards had been signed by Simone, Marie and Frieda and their children, and the sixth by his own great friend Phoebe and her new husband Frank. He arranged them all carefully on top of his chest of drawers and looked at them with pride for a moment, then sighed rather wistfully before taking up the letter.

Dear Reg,

I spoke to the others and we thought we’d send you all our Christmas cards in one envelope to save postage, and we each contributed towards your present, also enclosed. Spend it wisely!

I do hope you’ve had a good term at Polgarth and haven’t felt too much at sea, I know it must have been a pretty big change for you going from your tiny village school to a huge place like that, but I’m sure you handled it splendidly. We’d love for you to come down for a visit before the new term and tell us all about how you got on. I’ll write separately to your great-aunt and see if she’s amenable to sparing you to us for a few days.

Things have been pretty hectic here in the run-up to Christmas; we had our annual Nativity Play at the Chalet School last week, and as I did the honours of writing the thing, you can imagine I was right in the thick of it from beginning to end. But it’s over now and the school broke up a few days ago, so I’m busy preparing for Christmas itself, getting in what food and presents I can manage for the children. The triplets, by the way, insisted on making you a separate Christmas card just from them, which I’ve enclosed along with the rest. I think they’ve grown very fond of you; Len especially keeps asking when we’re next going to stay at Garnham so that you can come and play. It won’t be these holidays, I’m afraid, and I shall be very busy over Easter and the late spring, but hopefully we’ll manage to come for a good few weeks in the summer holidays. In the meantime, I certainly hope you’ll be able to come and stay with one or other of us whenever it’s possible.

My best wishes to your great-aunt, and I hope you both have a very merry Christmas. I hope we’ll see you soon.

Jo Maynard

Reg read the letter through twice more, feeling happier each time. Christmas suddenly seemed much brighter, knowing that he was in the thoughts of his friends.

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