Excerpt for Anna Partridge in a Pear Tree by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Anna Partridge in a Pear Tree

by Stephanie J Dagg

Anna Partridge in a Pear Tree

Copyright Stephanie J Dagg 2017

Published by Stephanie Dagg at Smashwords

This edition first published in 2017.

The right of Stephanie Dagg to be identified as the author oof the work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright Acts. All rights reserved.

Cover artwork by editing.zone using image ‘Partridge in a pear tree on red’ copyright Ponytail1414 / Dreamstime com

Editing, layout and formatting by editing.zone

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal use only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book but didn’t purchase it, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.

Disclaimer

This book is a work of fiction. Resemblances to actual persons living or dead are entirely coincidental.

Preface

I’m going with the usual tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas starting on Boxing Day, 26th December. Some argue that the period starts on Christmas Day itself, but I prefer to follow the medieval approach. As Christmas Day was a holy day, there’d be no partying that day so the fun part of Christmas started with Boxing Day.

So please bear with me, even if you disagree, and enjoy this festive, feel-good story.



Dedication

To Mum





Anna Partridge in a Pear Tree

Anna groaned. What had she been thinking when she’d volunteered to house-sit for her Aunt Rose? Not that it was Aunt Rose’s house she was looking after. No, Anna was doing the favour her aunt was meant to be doing. Rose had volunteered to spend a fortnight in a friend’s cottage in France, starting a few days before Christmas. Her neighbours, Pat and Ron, had bought the place eighteen months ago as a holiday home for the summertime, but last winter all the pipes had frozen and it had cost them a fortune to get everything repaired. They’d been going to come down themselves this year, to check that the new central heating system was working properly, but then Pat fell and broke her hip. Nasty. Aunt Rose leapt into the breach – for all of two days before she got an invite from an old flame, recently divorced, to join him Down Under on his cattle ranch over the festive season. Just to see how things might develop… She was desperate to go but couldn’t let her friends down. Then she thought of Anna.

And who was Anna to deprive Aunt Rose to get her chance at happiness? Or, if she was anything like her niece, her chance to have her heart broken and trampled on by some miserable, self-centred, duplicitous bastard who oozed charm and swore love and loyalty but in reality chased after anything in a skirt, but preferably tight jeans, and was a cheat and a liar and a low-life. Perhaps, Anna reflected, she was letting recent experiences jaundice her view a little. She hoped things would work out for her aunt.

Christmas in France had sounded so exotic, so enticing, that being in-between jobs and getting herself back together after a stressful break-up Anna had jumped at the offer. She merrily mentally glossed over the part about Central France being a little chilly, which was pretty dumb of her since that was the reason she was going to be there at all - to make sure things didn’t freeze solid. So when she arrived to a foot of snow and temperatures well below freezing, it came as something of a shock. She hadn’t expected it to be that cold.

Or that dead. Everyone had hunkered down to eat and drink themselves into a stupor over the festive season in the warmth and comfort of their own homes. Anna had hardly seen a soul since she’d arrived three days ago. To be fair, tatty notices stuck up outside the local Mairie informed her that she’d missed a Marché de Noël and Soirée Choucroute the previous weekend — the former would have been nice, but she most definitely couldn’t see the appeal of the latter, a cabbage-based supper — but nothing whatsoever appeared to be happening for the foreseeable future. Anna had been to the village shop for supplies a couple of times, but been the only customer on each occasion. During her many short and extremely brisk walks – she was a bit of a fitness fanatic - she hadn’t encountered anyone. Hardly surprising really, since there were only a couple of small, sleepy villages and a plethora of long-deserted, tumbledown houses in the walkable vicinity. She’d somehow anticipated that there would a lot more of, well, everything around Aunt Rose’s friends’ house.

Christmas Day had been… lonely. She’d confidently expected that a family-free yuletide would be delightful, but she missed her mum working herself up into a furious frenzy trying to do too much but refusing to let anyone help her, her dad and grandad bickering over what to watch on TV, her nan snoring through the boring films that were on for the umpteenth time and her brother winding her up at every opportunity. She never thought she would, not in a million years, but she did. Anna hadn’t missed a Christmas at home before. Despite good and independent intentions, she always eventually succumbed to being blackmailed into coming home with her mother’s muttered warnings that it could be Nan’s or Grandad’s last Christmas, although, happily, it never was. However, Anna had always been reluctant, her erstwhile fiancée even more so, and so Christmases for the last three years hadn’t been the happiest she’d ever had. But compared to this one, they’d been brilliant.

The cold, lonely dismalness of this Christmas Day wasn’t helped by a power cut that lasted all morning and into the afternoon. It had snowed a lot on Christmas Eve and she guessed that must have brought down a power line somewhere. Also, there wasn’t any internet access at the house, so she felt very cut off and bored. Anna walked more than usual, although it was difficult through the snow, texted the family and read, but largely just sat there feeling sorry for herself. Pathetic or what?

The evening was slightly better once electricity returned. There were a couple of incomprehensible – to her at least – and decidedly bizarre programmes on French TV which were quite entertaining, although that may have had something to do with the three glasses of mulled wine she got through. She wasn’t really a drinker and half a glass was usually her limit, but bother it, it was Christmas. Her mother had packed some mince pies and chocolate-covered Brazil nuts, together with a generous stash of teabags, long-life milk, custard powder and peanut butter, these latter four items being staples of her family’s diet. So she’d accompanied the wine with several mince pies and a large bowl of custard and life felt quite good again.

Anna beamed as she sat there alone, snuggled up in a blanket. She smiled at the photos of Pat and Ron’s grandchildren on the mantelpiece and admired the painting that Ron, a talented artist, had done of their house on a sunny day. Its rustic beauty shone warm. The grass was green, the flowerbeds rainbow-bright. The large tree in the front garden, currently bare apart from snow balancing on every branch and twig, was in leafy luxuriousness. It was covered in some sort of yellow blobby fruit. Ron had something of an impressionist style. She frowned at the picture for a minute or two before deciding the blobs were pears rather than greengages or apples. Yes, it was definitely a pear tree.

She turned the television off and played a CD of carols on her computer until she could hardly keep her eyes open and so was forced to brave the icy-cold get-ready-for-bed routine in the under-insulated upper floor of the house. Her head spinning slightly, Anna dived under all the duvets in the house, which she had heaped onto her bed during her first night here, and fell asleep just as soon as her feet stopped aching with the cold.

Boxing Day dawned annoyingly sunny and bright, given her headachey, hungover state, and horrendously chilly. She hadn’t been able to override the extremely low setting the heating system was on, despite plenty of attempts since her arrival. Ron had got it so it would, in theory, stop things freezing, but only just. As a consequence Anna had tepid water and lukewarm radiators. And, stupidly, she hadn’t thought to get either his or Pat’s mobile phone numbers. She didn’t like to ring Aunt Rose to ask her, in case she interrupted a promising moment. Plus it would cost a fortune to phone Australia and she could never remember what the time difference was between the two continents anyway. She’d also been too lazy and laid back the previous evening, due to her mulled wine haze, to make a final visit to the wood store to bring in extra logs to bank up the fire in the kitchen-cum-living room overnight. Consequently the fire had died. Anna grumbled crossly. It usually took her at least half a box of matches and the best part of an hour to get the darned thing going away. She couldn’t face it just yet so she added a few more layers and slurped a lot of sweet, steaming tea, adding her own large clouds of swirling breath to the frozen air every time she opened her mouth. Her headache slowly eased and Anna began to cheer up.

It wasn’t a public holiday here on the 26th so Anna thought she’d trudge down to the village. It was likely she’d be the only person other than its owner at the boulangerie again, but at least she’d have some human interaction. The exercise would thaw her out temporarily and give her time to gird her loins for the next marathon fire-lighting session.

Anna was just winding a second scarf, taken from Pat and Ron’s stored clothes, around her own when there was an almighty bang right outside the house. She jumped out of her skin and shrieked in alarm too. Heart thumping and muscles primed for fight or flight – although the latter was far more appealing – she galloped downstairs and peered out of the window. The upstairs windows were all skylights set very high up in the roof so impossible for petite Anna to look out from. To her horror she saw that a large bird had fallen into the pear tree’s tangle of branches where it was flapping manically and seemed to be stuck. It was a shocking sight. She worked out in a flash that the bang must have been a gunshot, and the gun had been aimed at this fabulous, colourful male pheasant. She knew it was hypocritical of her since she was an enthusiastic meat eater, but she felt outraged that someone could shoot this magnificent creature. And at Christmas time. The French hunted, she knew that, and they only did so to eat as opposed to merely for fun, but that didn’t make this any easier for her.

The bird was still flapping. Oh dear, this was rather horrid. He didn’t deserve a long drawn-out death. Tears prickled in Anna’s eyes.

Anna could hear a dog barking fairly nearby so presumably the hunter and his master were on their way to claim their quarry. Humph. Not if she got it first. It looked like fight had won out after all. And moreover, she was going to have words with the hunter in question. In which language, though, was a matter for debate. She’d done French to GCSE level but, lamentably, her teacher hadn’t covered insults, or how to express righteous indignation, so those holes in her already-patchy vocabulary would have to be filled with furious English.

She bundled outside and jogged for the tree, although the knee-deep snow reduced progress to walking pace, but at least it helped burn off some of the adrenaline coursing round her veins. The bird was still flapping, and now that she looked at it properly, it seemed very much alive and in one piece. She could make out a tiny drop of blood on one wing tip, but that was the only damage she could see. Thank goodness, he was all right. Although most definitely stuck.

The proximity of a human sent the bird into another fit of struggling and dollops of snow and hoar frost rained down on Anna. She squinted up through it and could now see that there was some string wrapped around a couple of the tree’s branches, and that was what the pheasant was tangled in. She thought she could see a few scraps of nylon or fabric too that had previously been hidden by snow. It looked like the remnants of a long-lost kite, most likely steered there by accident by one of Pat and Ron’s grandkids, and too high up to be rescued.

Too high up… Uh oh, how was she going to get up there to free the bird? He must be what, four or five metres up? This was a huge tree. Of course, she’d get the hunter to help her. It was the least he could do. Mind you, he was taking his time to get here to claim his quarry. Surely he couldn’t have been shooting from very far away, not judging by the noise the gunshot made. Anna didn’t know the ins and outs of French legislation but she somehow doubted he should have been shooting quite so close to the house at all. Possibly he thought it was unoccupied, and it was true that there was no smoke coming from the chimney to make him think otherwise. But all the same, it was rather risky, surely.

The pheasant gave a pitiful squawk. She scanned around but there was no one to be seen. She was beginning to suspect that the hunter had spotted her waiting for him and done a runner. Drat, she couldn’t wait any longer. She was going to have to try and rescue the poor bird herself.

There had to be a ladder somewhere so she began to yomp her way towards the barn-slash-garage next to the cottage. It occurred to her en route it would be locked, and so she diverted to the cottage to rummage for keys in the kitchen drawer. That wasn’t easy with mittens on but she wasn’t going to take them off. They were a bit tight and took a lot of effort to put on and remove. She thus clumsily scooped a load of the drawer’s contents onto the floor, which revealed a large clump of keys on a chain with a bright pink metallic Eiffel Tower at the other end. There was a pair of small scissors too so she shoved those into her pocket.

She was off again, stopping only to dig through the deep snow when she dropped the keys. Twice. Mittens now sopping wet, she finally reached the garage and picked the most likely-looking key from the bunch. Naturally it wasn’t the one she needed, and she tried another three before one fitted. Anna glanced back at the upside-down pheasant. He caught her gaze. Get a flipping move on, those eyes said, and she was sure she saw them roll.

“I’m doing my best!” she protested.

Sure you are.

“Get a grip,” she muttered to herself. “You don’t have conversations with birds.”

She slowly got the garage door open, inch by inch. She had to keep stopping to kick snow out of its way. As soon as it was wide enough to squeeze through, she wriggled in. A couple of small, high windows and the narrow opening behind her let in enough light to see, but barely. Anna peered around for a moment, letting her eyes adjust. The black cavernous space gradually morphed into a large gloomy room with piles of dust-covered junk everywhere. She groaned. She’d never find a ladder in all this. But then she caught a glimpse of the shape she was looking for, propped up against the far wall.

Anna shuffled her way around empty oil drums, bits of bedstead, full black plastic sacks of all shapes and sizes, boxes of newspapers, bikes, and a good chunk of a very old wooden cart, and squeezed through a DIY section of paint pots, offcuts of plasterboard, planks, rolls of wallpaper, a bath and several stacks of floor tiles. She tripped a few times on small, lurking items and whacked her knee on something very hard before finally getting to the ladder.

She’d optimistically hoped for a modern, lightweight aluminium ladder but this was wood, solid and worryingly decrepit-looking. She pulled it gingerly upright to gauge its weight. As she stepped back to brace herself in order to be able to steady it, she caught her left heel on an object she hadn’t noticed before, a brick or something, and stumbled back. She regained her balance almost instantly, but that wasn’t soon enough. The ladder was starting to fall. She shoved it hard towards the wall, hoping to stop it, but she was holding it well below its centre of gravity. All she succeeded in doing was helping it on its way since her shove had lifted its feet off the ground. The thing was now crashing down, and she was underneath it. Anna crouched down, threw her arms over her head and braced for impact.

None came, although there was an almighty clanging thud and a huge cloud of dust. Coughing and spluttering she stood up, eyes closed, and knocked into the now-horizontal ladder. She blinked her eyes carefully open, squinting against the airborne grit and grime. The ladder was resting across the pile of clutter, the bottom metre or so of it just over where she’d been cowering. Fortunately for Anna there’d been a substantial wooden crate behind her which had kept the ladder off her head.

Shakily she crawled out of her place of refuge and picked her way back to the door. The top of the ladder was nearly touching it. She stuck her head outside to breathe in some fresh air and glanced up at the tree. Had the commotion been enough to panic the pheasant into making a supreme effort to successfully free itself? Nope. There it still was, looking even more resigned than ever.

Trust me to land in the idiot’s tree. I’m done for.

“I’ll get you down, just be patient,” she replied in reassurance to this imaginary criticism and despair. “It’s going to take a bit longer than I thought,” she added.

Why was she still talking, let alone apologising, to this bird?

For the next quarter of an hour she wrestled with the ladder, finally succeeding in dragging it out through the door. It was big and awkward and kept catching on the various objects in the garage, some of which she suspected were now broken objects. She would have to be sneaky and return the ladder to its post-fall resting place and deny all knowledge of how it happened to get there. She was trying to save a bird’s life. It was for the greater good.

Once outside, the heavy ladder sunk into the snow. Anna dragged it towards the tree, a few paces at a time since it was so frustratingly heavy. It was then she discovered that Ron, or possibly Pat, or maybe both of them, had a bit of a thing for garden ornaments. She ignored the first clunk, but when there was a second almost immediately afterwards, felt compelled to investigate. Two brightly-painted, smiling concrete faces with concrete hats, now separated from brightly-painted concrete bodies, revealed that she’d been guilty of gnome decapitation by ladder. Tutting crossly she kicked around in the snow to see what else she could locate before she damaged it. Thus three more gnomes got to keep their heads, as did a concrete fawn, a concrete fox and a concrete hedgehog.

The way forward now mapped, she slowly lugged the ladder along an obstacle-avoiding zigzag path all the way to the pear tree. That had been tricky and tiring, but now came the really difficult bit of raising the ladder. This would involve a lot of guesswork since Anna wasn’t too hot on angles of elevation or the physics of levers. She would have to roughly assess where to position the ladder so that when she ‘walked’ it upright, rung by rung, and eventually let it drop forward into place, it would come to rest on the correct branch. Ideally without making painful or fatal contact with the pheasant.

As had been apparent in Ron’s painting, the pear tree had many, many branches. It took Anna a good ten minutes to work out how and where to get her ladder against the tree in order to reach the dangling bird. She heaved the ladder around a good bit until she judged that it was lined up correctly, and now it was proof-of-the-pudding time. She gripped the top of the ladder, the end lying in the snow closest to her feet, and heaved it upwards. She raised it as high as she could above her head, and then slipped her hands down onto the topmost rung. Then she began to walk her hands down the rungs, pushing each one upwards as far as she could before moving to the next one. In this way the ladder gradually wobbled and lurched its way upright. Anna’s muscles were burning and she was the hottest she’d been since she’d arrived in France, but she kept going determinedly. One more rung should do it.

Momentarily she felt the weight lift from her hands as the ladder began to teeter towards the tree and away from her. It seemed to hover, reaching straight up into the white, snow-filled sky, before it again tottered away from her. Learning from the garage debacle, she quickly got a foot on the bottom rung, half buried in snow, to act as ballast at the base. The top of the ladder began to fall towards the branch with the tangled pheasant. For a fraction of a second Anna’s eyes widened in horror as she worried that she’d miscalculated her ladder positioning and would end up clobbering the poor bird. The pheasant clearly shared the same sentiment as it began to flutter futilely but energetically, causing it to spin.

“Stop!” Anna cried, to both bird and ladder, but neither listened. The pheasant continued to struggle and the top of the ladder continued, slowly and sedately, to describe an arc. It began to gather momentum and then, thunk! It crunched onto the correct limb, fortunately missing the trapped bird in the process. The branch creaked and shook, depositing a snowman’s worth of snow onto the ground. Anna had realised this was a likely outcome and had sensibly kept out of the way.

She smiled up at the pheasant.

“Ladder in position – phase one complete!” she announced.

Just get the heck on with phase two, pleaded the bird silently.

Anna checked the scissors were still in her coat pocket, which they were, and got ready to climb. She grasped the ladder firmly and gave it an exploratory shake, or at least tried to. It didn’t budge, although some vibrations must have travelled up it as some more snow fell from the branch. This time it landed on her and immediately worked its way inside her scarves and down the back of her neck. She flinched at the sudden icy coldness on her hot skin, but welcomed it too. She was boiling.

She gingerly began her ascent. Anna wasn’t afraid of heights, and whenever she’d come across a tower on holiday either abroad or at home, she’d happily gone to the top of it to take photos. She loved looking out of the window when she was flying and gazing in wonder at the earth so many thousands of feet below her. But, somehow, ascending a dubiously old ladder was a completely different ball game. Her stomach clenched and her throat became dry. She paused at the halfway point.

“You wuss!” she berated herself in a croak.

She wouldn’t hurt herself, at least not seriously, probably, if she fell off the ladder into the snow from this point. It would cushion her fall and give her a nice soft landing. Unless, of course, there was an army of spear-carrying concrete gnomes lurking beneath the snow. She mentally kicked herself for not checking for hidden, very solid garden ornaments around the base of the tree. She could nip back down and check now, she supposed. Actually no, she couldn’t. She was pretty sure that if she got her feet back on the ground she’d want to keep them there. She had to keep going. Upwards.

Another realisation hit her as she reluctantly continued her climb. The ladder was a goodish way from the pheasant, a metre or so. There was no way she’d be able to perform the string cutting ceremony from the ladder. Uh oh, she’d have to shin along the branch to do that. She felt sick and stopped, but at that moment there was a cracking sound and the rung beneath her right foot gave way. Instinctively, Anna threw all her weight onto her left foot, which was on the rung above the broken one. As she did so, however, she felt that one go too. This time there was no dramatic noise, it just silently died. Terrified, and without thinking, Anna scrabbled upwards. Another rung went beneath her but she lunged upwards and got her arms over the branch. She managed to get just enough leverage under her feet to kick upwards and heave her whole body onto the tree limb. There she lay, panting and panicking, tears in her eyes. She glanced down, first at the four broken rungs closest to her, then at the unreachable fifth rung, and then at the distant ground.

“Not good!” she sighed.

Understatement of the year, observed the bird, his bright eye fixed on this totally incompetent human. Now we’re both stuck up here, probably forever.

“Oh, shut up!” snapped Anna, fixing a glare on him. “At least I tried to rescue you. You should be grateful.”

Whatever.

Human and bird glowered at each other for a few more moments. It stopped Anna thinking about the hopelessness of her situation, but not for long. With a sigh she realised she was really in trouble.

“Well, I can at least set you free,” she told the pheasant. “I guess it would be too much to expect for you to go and get help for me though?”

It would. In case you hadn’t noticed, people have been shooting at me. It’s what they tend to do to game birds in the hunting season. I don’t go near humans by choice.

Anna shook herself, carefully. She really, really had to stop having imaginary conversations with dumb creatures.

“Here goes.”

Gripping onto it as tightly as she could, she cautiously began to inch her way along the branch towards the bird. The branch felt comfortingly large and strong, but Anna knew she was being foolhardy. Her mother would have fifty fits if she knew what her only daughter was doing right now. And were she not having to cling on for dear life, Anna would be having fifty fits too.

She fought desperately to keep her eyes fixed on the pheasant, but they insisted on rebelling and staring at the ground. It seemed so far away.

“It’s a long way down!” she gasped.

The bird gave her a scathing look. It would have gone pfft and shrugged Gallicly if it could.

“Well, it is if you haven’t got wings,” Anna reminded it. “And it’s all your fault I’m up here in the first place.”

The pheasant now looked hurt.

“OK, the hunter’s fault too. And whoever’s bit of kite string this is. And yes, mine too. I volunteered for this crazy mission and stupidly used an ancient ladder without thinking to check if it was still in good nick. And didn’t bring my phone.” Anna’s voice was getting a little shrill as her situation fully hit her. “And no one knows I’m up here. And… and…” Tears threatened but she swallowed them back.

If she’d expected sympathy from the bird, none was forthcoming.

Stop feeling pathetically sorry for yourself, and get me out of here.

She sighed and carried on with the rescue. The branch was thinner now but it still felt sturdy. She wondered how old this tree was. Surely several hundred years, at the very least. It must have withstood many gales and storms in that time, and this branch hadn’t broken off. And every year there must be a hundred thousand leaves on the smaller twigs and branchlets that grew from it. Okay, an individual leaf didn’t weigh much, but when you got that many of them that must amount to something fairly impressive. Hopefully more than she weighed.

Another couple of ungainly wriggles and she reached the point where the kite string was tangled around the limb of the tree and now also one limb of the pheasant. He flapped feebly and briefly in response to Anna’s proximity.

“Hang in there,” said Anna soothingly, “I’ll soon cut you free. And please forgive the pun,” she added with a grin, suddenly realising what she’d said.

Very funny. You try hanging upside-down by one leg and then see if you feel like making jokes about it.

“Sorry,” muttered Anna. “Right, a quick snip with the scissors and you’re free to go.”

That sounded so simple, but it wasn’t going to be. Currently both arms were tightly around the branch. She was lying squarely on top of it and so was firmly positioned. Gradually she loosened her grip with her right arm, at the same time tightening her hold with her left as a counter measure.

“Gently does it,” she murmured to herself.

Now to get the scissors. She gingerly slid her right arm down and probed for the pocket. Because of the way she was laying, most of the opening of it was squashed beneath her, leaving only a small slit for her to get a mittened hand in. No way was she prepared to try and sit up so she could tug her coat to the right and make the pocket more accessible. She would definitely fall off if she tried such a manoeuvre. The glove was going to have to come off. She moved her hand along and beneath the branch until it was next to her left hand, and attempted to pull the glove off. However, her movements were severely restricted by the continued need to hang onto the branch as tightly as possible. On top of that, the mittens were nylon and quite slippery and she couldn’t get a proper grip, one on the other.

She muttered a few choice swearwords and moved on to Plan B – removing the glove with her teeth. She pulled a face as she bit onto the cold, soggy glove that was coated with decades-old gritty dust from the barn. She tugged hard, but the mitten hardly moved. Drat the wretched thing for being so tight. Since pulling from the top wasn’t going to work, she changed tactics and began to pull at the base of the glove against her wrist. Millimetre by millimetre, alternating between the front and back, she worked the item up her hand. Her mouth was full of dust and her teeth aching from the cold by the time she finally got the glove off. She tucked it carefully under her chest to keep it safe. Her bare hand was already white with the cold, and Anna was sure there were blue tinges under her nails.

“Be quick,” she told herself.

I don’t think you can do ‘quick’, just slow, painfully slow, and excruciatingly slow.

“No one asked your opinion,” she snapped.

Just saying.

“Well, don’t.”

Anna blew on her fingers in vain to warm them and then wiggled her numb, clumsy hand into her pocket. She felt the freezing cold of the metal scissors with relief, pushed finger and thumb into the handles and, as carefully as she could, pulled them out.

“Aha!” she gloated, triumphantly.

The pheasant didn’t appear to share her optimism.

You’ll drop them, I know it.

“No, I won’t.”

Bet you will. And even if you don’t, they look a bit puny. Are you sure they’re up to the job?

Anna had actually been thinking the exact same thing. They were very small, thin scissors, not robust at all. In her haste to get out and help the poor pheasant, she hadn’t examined them that closely before. But they were all she had and they were better than nothing.

She began to snip at the string, but quickly discovered the ends of the scissor blades were blunt and made no impact whatsoever on it. She next tried to wriggle the bottom blade under the string but found that it was very tightly wound around the branch, cutting into the bark.

“Come on, come on,” she muttered, digging harder with the scissors. Then, “Yes!” she grinned, as at long last she got the scissors positioned as she wanted them. She began to snip, but the two strands of string she was attacking proved to be too much for the inadequate implement. The little bolt on which the scissor blades pivoted sprang off and disappeared into the snow on the ground, quickly followed by the top half of the scissors, which had been on her thumb.

Told you you’d drop them.

“I didn’t!” protested Anna in response to this silent accusation. “They broke. That’s different. And I only dropped half anyway.”

She brandished the remaining blade.

“Actually, it’ll be easier this way,” she acknowledged as she began to saw through the surprisingly tough string.

Strand by strand she worked on. The blunt blade squashed the string to start with, then, infuriatingly slowly, actually began to slice through the fibres. The string was looped round the branch a half dozen times. Anna hoped each time that she was now cutting through the key loop – the one that, once severed, would give the pheasant his freedom back. However, that didn’t happen and it took about ten minutes’ work until she reached the last wrapped-round strand.

“It has to be this one!” she cried.

Like duh.

But the scissor blade had no edge left on it. What little it did have to start with had been ground away on hard tree bark and resistant nylon line.

Anna’s only option now was to tease the string free with her clumsy, numb fingers.

“Nearly there,” she told the bird after about another twenty minutes of picking and tugging at the string, but it was mainly to encourage herself. “You’ll be free any minute now.”

I’ll believe it when it happens.

By now Anna had taken hold of the kite line hanging down from the tree, and in which the pheasant’s leg was tangled, with her left, gloved hand. She’d wound it round her mitten to be sure to have a firm grip on it. Her plan was that once the last bit of string was dealt with, she’d then pull the bird towards her and attempt to untangle his leg next. But, when the crucial moment arrived, the pheasant proved to be a lot heavier than she anticipated. It all happened in an instant. With an indignant squawk the pheasant plummeted towards the ground, taking her glove with him, tight as it was on her hand. Anna realised how lucky she was that it had been pulled off otherwise she’d have gone down with the pheasant.

Somehow Anna had imagined that once he was free, the bird would simply fly gracefully off after a quick twist to get into the right position. She now realised that pheasants were too heavy for that sort of aerobatic manoeuvre.

In a clumsy jumble of flapping wings and flailing limbs the pheasant dropped like a stone into the snow. Anna gasped, sure he’d have hurt himself. But seconds later, clattering crossly to himself and hurling insults at his inept rescuer, he gave a good shake and then a few awkward jumps through the deep snow until finally he managed to get airborne. Anna watched in relief as he gained height, and then smiled as the piece of string came loose from around his leg and fell to the ground.

“Mission accomplished,” she congratulated herself once he’d gone from sight. “Well, kind of,” her inner critic made her add. Yes, she’d freed the pheasant but now she was stuck up the tree. “You could have said ‘thanks’,” she called after the ungrateful rescuee.

She wriggled in reverse back to the base of the branch, where she felt a lot safer, to have a think but mainly to shiver. She was frozen through by now and had one very blue hand and one still just about pink, but very pale. She’d forgotten about the glove she’d tucked under herself, so when she’d begun to edge back down the branch it had come loose and flumped into the snow. She tucked each hand into the opposite sleeve and huddled up.

So, how to get down without breaking anything? Could she cling to the trunk tightly with hands and feet and lower herself carefully and in a controlled fashion onto the first available whole rung, about halfway down the ladder? In a word, no. That was a recipe for disaster. She could easily lose her grip before reaching the ladder and who knew which part of her would make contact with the ground first. Maybe hang from this branch by her hands and drop the remaining three or four metres? No, that would be majorly bad news for her ankles.

“Grrrrr!” she exclaimed, crossly.

She surveyed the silent, white wonderland around her. There was no sign of movement. The little lane that Pat and Ron’s house stood on was deserted. Since she’d arrived there she’d only seen two or three cars and one tractor go by in total. And now that it was filled with snow it was unlikely anyone would venture along it today.

But it was still worth shouting, she reckoned. The trigger-happy, cowardly hunter may still be somewhere within hearing range and feeling guilty. He was her best bet and this area wasn’t exactly alive with joggers and alpenstock-wielding walkers.

Feeling rather daft, she uttered a “Hello-oooo!” followed by a “Coooeeee! Anyone there?”

Ah, she should probably switch to French.

“Bonjooouuuur! On est, um, là?”

Then, as the vocabulary floated from the depths to the accessible parts of her brain, she added, “Au secours! J’ai besoin d’aide.”

She shouted on and off for a good ten minutes. The only result was that her throat started to hurt. She opted to take a break and slumped on her branch, eyes closed, in denial. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. She was too young to freeze to death in a pear tree, on Boxing Day of all days.

For a quarter of an hour she just lay there. She knew she should be planning and plotting and finding a solution to this colossally stupid predicament she was in. But she couldn’t seem to focus and she started feeling sleepy…

She pulled herself upright sharply. “Get a grip, girl!” She realised with alarm that she was starting to succumb to the cold. She wiggled her feet and bashed her hands together to warm them up.

“Okay,” she told herself firmly. “Ten more minutes of shouting then I’ll just have to try the shin-down-the-tree-trunk thing, and hope for the best.”

Even with a broken ankle, or possibly two… She gulped. Even then she was sure she could somehow drag herself into the house and call for help on her phone. Unless she knocked herself out when she fell. Yes, but she’d come round eventually, and then she could do the crawling bit. But what if she broke her back, and couldn’t move at all, but just lay there until eventually…

“Au secours! Au secours!” she bellowed, to stop herself thinking. “Mayday! SOS!”

She paused to draw breath, and as she did so she heard something. A voice! Someone was shouting back to her!

Relief gushed through her and she felt almost giddy. Thank heavens.

She heard the voice again. She couldn’t make out any words though.

“Over here. Er, ici! Ici! Dans un arbre. Au secours. Coooooeeeeee!”

She scanned around and caught sight of a dark figure rounding the bend in the lane and hurrying in her direction. It didn’t appear to have a gun slung over its shoulder or a dog at it heels. It made life so much easier if it wasn’t the hunter who rescued her because her principles wouldn’t be put under pressure. Magnanimously accepting help from the irresponsible moron who’d got her into this situation – admittedly with a little help from another moron, namely herself – would have required oodles of self-control which she possibly didn’t have.

“I’m here. Ici!”

She risked waving an arm as her rescuer drew near. He – she could now see it was a young man – waved back before hurrying some more and then stopping in the lane, opposite her tree.

Words presumably failed him as he just stood there, staring. Anna stared back, a feeling of pessimism creeping through her. She’d rather hoped for a sturdy, practical-looking farmer who was used to tackling tricky problems, such as cows down a well or sheep up a chimney, and solving them with a few flexes of his muscles. Her knight in shining armour looked altogether too shining. He had to be Parisian. He was slim, good looking and fashionably dressed in one of those short trench coats Frenchmen loved, with his scarf knotted just so around his neck. Even his wellies looked posh. He didn’t look at all hands-on. The only action he seemed capable of would be pushing the buttons on his mobile phone to summon the fire brigade. They’d take ages to get here and Anna was freezing. And by now she really needed the loo too. But beggars couldn’t be choosers, she knew that. She should be grateful for any help. Talking of which…

“Um, au secours?” she prompted him, hopefully.

He launched into a long and baffled sentence that began, “Qu’est-ce que vous faites là…“ but that was the only bit of it Anna could understand. However, it was enough. What was she doing there? Where to start?

In English, of course.

“There was this bird up the tree.” That sounded like the start to a sexist joke, but too bad. “Il y a… avait… um, oiseau in… dans arbre.”

He nodded, the hint of a smile on his face.

“Generally it is OK for birds to be in trees.”

Thank goodness, he had good English. Certainly good enough to stretch to mild sarcasm, which Anna ignored.

“This one had been shot at and it got tangled up in some string in this tree. It was a pheasant.”

Did a look of horror flicker briefly across his face? Anna wasn’t sure.

“You’re… not a hunter, are you?” She had to know.

“You zink I look like one?” he replied with a defensive shrug.

“No, of course not,” said Anna quickly. It wouldn’t do to insult the only prospective rescuer she was likely to encounter today. She’d already ruffled enough feathers one way or another. “Sorry. Anyway, the bird was hanging upside down off this branch, completely stuck, so I rescued it.”

“And ze bird is now free but you are stuck, non?” That hint of a smile returned.

“Non, I mean, oui. Oui, je suis… stuck.”

He nodded again.

For whatever reason, Anna suddenly felt introductions were in order.

“I’m Anna,” she piped up. “Anna Partridge.”

A broad smile now creased his handsome face into an even more handsome face.

“And zis tree, eet eez a pear tree, yes?”

What the heck difference did that make? She was stuck in it, whatever type it was. However, she nodded patiently.

“Yes. It’s a pear tree.”

“So, you are like ze Christmas carol zen.”

Anna stared at him blankly. What carol was he on about? Why couldn’t he just pick up the dratted ladder so she could get down from her freezing cold perch?

“You must know eet, ze one about ze Twelve Days of Christmas, non?” he teased.

Suddenly she cottoned on to his meaning. She’d always thought French people had no sense of humour. Or was that the Germans? Either way, she hadn’t expected to hear a witticism in someone’s second language. Despite the cold, her numb bum, hands and feet and dangerously-close-to-exploding bladder, she grinned.

“You are ze last line of every verse—” he was starting to explain but she interrupted him.

“Anna Partridge in a pear tree!” she announced triumphantly.

“Voilà!” he chuckled.

She laughed too.

“Technically, it’s ‘And a partridge in a pear tree’,” she pointed out. “And only ‘A partridge in a pear tree’ in the first verse.”

“Ah pfft,” he shrugged. “I always zink eet eez a silly song, but now eet ‘as come true. But, I expect you would prefer to be ze Anna Partridge not in a pear tree.”

“I would. I really, really would,” she confirmed, nodding hard to reinforce the desperation in her voice.

“OK, I ‘elp you now. Oh, and I am Rafael Dubois,” he enlightened her. “I don’t think zat name features in any Christmas carols.”

“I don’t zink… think so either.” Bother, but that accent was contagious.

Rafael hopped over the garden wall, landing in a deep snowdrift that came over his knees and must have sent snow into his boots. However, he didn’t flinch. Maybe he was made of sterner stuff than Anna had given him credit for. He strode over to the tree, studied the broken ladder and tutted.

“I don’t suppose zere is anuzzer ladder anywhere?” he asked, patently over-optimistically.

“Not that I could see,” she replied.

“OK, I will ‘ave to turn zis one around zen.” He rattled the remaining rungs. “Yes, zese look strong enough. You can drop the last couple of metres.”

Six foot? Of course she could, couldn’t she?

Rafael saw her doubtful expression.

“I will catch you,” he promised.

But would he? Anna frowned slightly. Didn’t all French people secretly hate British people? Especially after all the Brexit, anti-European palave. He’d quite likely accidentally-on-purpose let her fall in the snow.

“I promise,” he said, with a smile and his hand on his heart, as if reading her thoughts.

It wasn’t like Anna had any choice. “Thank you,” she said nobly. “I appreciate that, Rafael.”

In a miniscule fraction of the time it had taken Anna to get the ladder into position, Rafael had taken it down, turned it round and erected it again. She smiled gratefully and awkwardly manoeuvred herself into position for descending. Every part of her body was either numb with cold or stiff from clinging so tightly to the branch for so long, but most of them were both. She nearly lost her grip at one point and shrieked with alarm before steadying herself again.

“Eez okay. I am ‘ere. You are doing good,” Rafael encouraged her from below.

She probed with one freezing foot for a convenient ladder rung. She could have laughed and cried at the same time with relief when she felt it. The other foot quickly joined it and Anna shifted her barely-functioning hands to the top of the ladder. Slowly and clumsily she descended, a rung at a time, until they ran out. She glanced over one shoulder at Rafael, who was steadying the ladder. Her feet were just above his head height.

“Crouch down and put your ‘ands on ze rung just above your feet, zen slide zem off so you are ‘anging,” he instructed.

Anna had begun the slow process of working that out for herself, but given how sluggish she was, body and mind, it would have taken her another ten minutes to reach that decision. So she obediently did as told. As her feet left the rung, there was a horrible, momentary sensation of falling, but then she felt arms round her waist. She let go of the ladder and Rafael landed her safely.

“Oh wow, I could kneel down and kiss the ground. It’s so good to be on it again,” she laughed weakly. “Thank you so much, Rafael. I thought… I thought I’d never…” To her horror, tears started trickling down her freezing cold cheeks.

“Come on, you are frozed and ‘ave ‘ad a nasty experience. We need to warm you up and get you a ‘ot drink. You will feel better zen.”

He kept an arm around her waist and helped her across the lawn. She was shaking with the cold so much she could barely move. But they made slow and steady progress. Suddenly he stumbled and fell, but at least he had the thoughtfulness to let go of Anna so he didn’t take her with him. He stood up, shaking snow off, and kicked at the snow to reveal the obstacle that had floored. A beaming concrete face greeted him.

“What ze… ‘eck is zat?” he frowned.

“Oh, a garden gnome. Sorry, I didn’t zi… think to warn you. The lawn’s swarming with them.”

Rafael muttered something that sounded remarkably like “Merde!” under his breath, then nobly, after rubbing a sore knee, went back to his escorting duties.

They reached the house. Rafael pushed the door open and half-carried Anna inside. He sat her on the armchair nearest the fire. Which, since Anna hadn’t made it yet, was out.

“Zut alors!” he exclaimed. “I zink eet eez even colder in ‘ere zan out zere!”

Anna sighed heavily. “I haven’t been able to get the central heating going properly, and I suck at making fires.” Tears threatened again. Self-pity mode had resumed with a vengeance. “I’ll get some wood in a minute.”

“Eez okay, I do it. But first, where is ze bedroom? Upstairs, non?” He peered up at the ceiling.

Anna’s eyes flew open wide. Surely he wasn’t…

“I will fetch for you your duvet,” explained Rafael, striding off.

Fortunately he hadn’t seen her over-reaction. She would have blushed at her stupidity if her blood vessels hadn’t still been so firmly clamped shut trying to retain warmth.

She heard him clomping about upstairs in the bedroom, no doubt sniggering at her cosy flannelette pyjamas with kittens on them. Frenchwomen, she was sure, only ever wore Chanel no. 5 and a few centimetres of black lace in bed, whatever time of year it was. Then, a few minutes later, he was back with the duvet and her bright pink, white-spotted fleece dressing gown. Almost as embarrassing as her pyjamas.

“Take off you wet zings and put zis on.” He managed to keep a straight face as he handed her the gown. “Zen wrap yourself up in ze duvet. I will get wood and zen I will see if I can get ze ‘eating to work.”

“The wood’s in the first stable you come to,” she told him.

He disappeared and she found the energy to make it to the bathroom, where she slowly peeled off her wet coat and trousers with hands that tried but largely failed to co-operate with her wishes. Her body warmth, such as it was, had melted the snow and ice on the tree that she’d been in contact with, thus turning her clothes sopping wet. She hadn’t fully realised till now.

With perfect timing, he returned just as she was back downstairs burrowing into the depths of the duvet. She watched in silent admiration as Rafael conjured up a roaring fire in less than a minute. She zoned out temporarily, gazing at the fierce, dancing flames and gradually feeling their heat reach her, and only snapped out of her reverie when she felt a cup placed gently in her right hand. A wondrously hot cup.

“Coffee wiz sugar to perk you up. Now, where eez ze ‘eating control?”

Anna took a sip of the thick, spoon-wielding black coffee that had to be equal parts water, instant coffee and sugar. Exactly as she didn’t like it. She was a flat-white-no-sugar kind of girl. But today, once she’d poked the spoon to one side so that it didn’t spear her eyeball, this concoction tasted delicious. She felt the heat of it burn its way to her stomach whilst the caffeine and sugar shot in the opposite direction to her brain. She blinked as her alertness began to return.

“It’s in the utility room, there.” She pointed at the small wooden door in the far wall. This led into a tiny downstairs bathroom with a washing machine and tumble dryer stacked precariously in one corner, and the boiler in another. There was barely room to move in there, but it lived up to its name of being full of useful objects.

Rafael strode off again. Anna heard a bit of muttering and then a pleasing whooommf as the pilot light ignited a decent amount of gas to get the heating going properly. Why hadn’t she been able to do that?

Rafael emerged, looking pleased with himself. He picked up his cup of coffee from the kitchen table and sat on the armchair across from her.

“Thank you,” smiled Anna, gratefully. “It’ll nice to be warm after so many days of shivering. You’re a real handyman.”

“’Andyman?”

“Yes, you know, someone who’s good at practical things like, well, lighting fires and coaxing reluctant heating systems into action, not to mention rescuing damsels in distress out of trees!”

“Zank you.” He smiled too. “I ‘aven’t ‘ad much experience of ze damsels in trees before, but I am quite ‘andy around ze ‘ouse, eet eez true.”

That typical French lack of modesty.

“My muzzer and farzer run a small ‘otel and some ‘oliday cottages. Zings are always going wrong and getting broked in zem. So I learn from my farzer ‘ow to fix zem,” he explained with a shrug.

“It must be an interesting business to be in, the hospitality trade,” observed Anna. “Meeting lots of interesting people from all the world.”

Rafael snorted loudly. “Pffffttt. I wish, but eet eez ‘orrid.”

Anna felt suitably chastened.

“Ze guests are ‘orrible and rude and never ‘appy. Zey break zis and zey destroy zat and say eet eez not zem zat do it! Zis is why I am go to Paris to work.”

“Oh.” Anna tried again. “Well, it must be nice to be in Paris. It’s such a beautiful city.”

“Yes, ze city she is very belle wiz ze buildings and parks and statues, but she is also noisy and dirty and crazy busy. And eet eez so expensive. And ze people, zey also are rude and ‘orrid.”

Bit of a misanthropist, our Rafael, decided Anna.

“What do you do in Paris?” she probed conversationally. Apart from be miserable, she added silently.

“I work in a maison d’édition. ‘Ow to say in Eengleesh? We make ze books.”

“Oh, a publisher.”

“Yes, a publeesher. We make ze ‘istory books. I ‘ave a degree in ‘istory so I zink zis would be a good place to work for me,” he shrugged.

How did French people manage to shrug so much?

“Now that does sound interesting,” said Anna. “I love history. That’s what I’d have studied at university, if I’d gone.”

“Yes, I ‘ear eet eez too expensive for most people to go to university in Eengland now. Zat eez crazy.”

“Yes, zat e… that is. But in my case the main reason I didn’t go was because I wasn’t what our teachers called ‘university material’,” she explained with a wry smile.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, such as getting stuck up a tree and being useless at keeping a house warm, Rafael nobly said, “But you seem very smart to me.”

“Thank you!” Anna laughed. “I’ve always been hopeless at exams. I get in a total tizz and then either go completely blank or get everything muddled up. Stuff I know really well, too.” She sighed. “But, it hasn’t worked out too badly. For my eighteenth birthday Mum and Dad paid for me to do some courses. I did typing and shorthand, computing and bookkeeping, and I’ve been working in various offices as a temp since I was nineteen.”

“A temp?”

“Someone who fills in for someone else while they’re off on a long holiday somewhere or on maternity leave or something,” she explained, perhaps not very clearly with rather to many ‘somes’.

“OK,” nodded Rafael. “You work in different places all ze time.”

“Yes, so if an office isn’t very nice or the work’s really boring, it doesn’t matter that much because I’ll be off somewhere else soon. And it pays quite well. Most of my friends who went to uni are back at home with their parents and unemployed, but I’ve got my own flat and my own car.” Both were tiny and past their best, it was true, but they were hers.

“Bravo. Good for you,” approved Rafael. “Very resourceful.”

The sugar and caffeine were making her talkative.

“I’ve got another job lined up from mid-January until Easter, and then I’m going to start up my own business as a virtual assistant,” she announced, unable to keep the pride out of her voice.

“Virtual assistant?” echoed Rafael, puzzled. “Virtual means almost, non? So you are… almost ze assistant?”

Anna laughed again. Rafael decided she had a lovely laugh, and a very sweet smile.


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