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Nancy Atherton is the author of six Aunt Dimity novels: Aunt Dimity’s Death, Aunt Dimity and the Duke, Aunt Dimity’s Good Deed, Aunt Dimity Digs In, Aunt Dimity’s Christmas, and Aunt Dimity Beats the Devil (all available from Penguin). She lives next to a cornfield in central Illinois.
The holidays nearly killed me. While my clever lawer husband used work as an excuse to avoid all but the most pressing social engagements, I flung myself at Christmas with the carefree abandon of a lemming rushing headlong toward a cliff.
While Bill barricaded himself behind legal files in our honey-colored cottage, I volunteered for every committee and attended every party given in or near Finch, the tiny English village we'd called home for the past six years. I adorned St. George's Church with evergreen boughs, warbled carols on a multitude of unsuspecting doorsteps, constructed scenery for the nativity play, prepared our four-year-old twin sons for their stage debuts as singing shepherds, baked enough angel cookies to choke a reindeer, and gave nearly as many parties for children as well as adults as I attended.
Even when the holidays were over, even when we flew to Boston in January for our annual visit with Bill's family, I couldn't shake the tinsel from my hair. While Bill spent his days enjoying cozy chats before the fire with his delightful father, I took the twins sledding and skating and sleigh-riding and compounded my folly by whisking Bill off on sentimental journeys to revisit old friends and dine out in favorite restaurants every evening.
By the time we returned to the cottage in mid-February, I was a burnt-out husk of my formerly jolly self. I winced when our sons burst into song, my gorge rose at the thought of nibbling another angel cookie, and I could scarcely bring myself to repack our Christmas decorations because the mere sight of them made my head throb. I was, in short, the pitiful victim of a self-induced holiday hangover.
Emma Harris had no trouble diagnosing my condition. As my closest neighbor and dearest friend in England she'd seen it all before, and when she found me lying listlessly on the bamboo chaise longue beneath the apple tree in my back garden, she knew exactly what had happened.
Appearances notwithstanding, I wasn't merely lounging. Since Bill was catching up on paperwork at his office in Finch, and Annelise, the twins' saintly nanny, was spending the afternoon with her mother on the family farm, I'd retired to the back garden to keep a sleepy eye on Will and Rob, who were busily building highways in the well-mulched vegetable patch.
Although I wasn't prepared to receive visitors, I was always glad to see Emma, who'd strolled over from her manor house to welcome me home and bring me up to date on local gossip. As she called a cheery hello to Will and Rob and seated herself on the deck chair opposite mine, I found myself envying her vitality. It was a gorgeous day, unseasonably warm and sunny, but I could barely summon the energy to acknowledge her arrival.
Emma surveyed me critically before commenting, "You've been burning the yule log at both ends. Again.
I hung my head, knowing what she would say next.
"What happened to the simple family Christmas you raved about?" she asked, right on cue. "What happened to staying at home and making angel cookies"
"Please don't mention angel cookies," I muttered as my stomach whimpered.
"and singing carols around your own hearth?" Emma went on. "What happened to a simple Christmas in the cottage with Bill and the boys?"
"Bill stayed in the cottage," I reminded her, "but the boys and I kind of didn't." I held a hand out to her pleadingly. "I can't help it, Emma. I'm addicted to holly. When sleigh bells ring I lose my head. I can't keep myself from hopping up next to Santa and grabbing the reins. It's a fun ride, truly it is, and Will and Rob loved every minute of it."
"I'm sure they did," said Emma. "But you're a wreck."
"I'm not the perkiest elf on the block," I admitted.
"You're about as perky as a tree stump." Emma pursed her lips and gazed thoughtfully toward the meadow beyond the garden wall. A pleasant silence ensued, a silence that was suddenly shattered by the sharp snap of her fingers as she exclaimed, "I know what'll pull you out of your funk!"
"A large box of chocolates?" I murmured.
"No. Not chocolates." Emma got to her feet, took two paces, and turned to face me. "You're going for a walk."
I sank deeper into the cushioned chaise longue. "I'd prefer the chocolates."
Emma shook her head decisively. "You have to give energy to get energy," she said. "I'm not talking about running a marathon, Lori. I'm talking about a stroll through some lovely countryside. Solitude, fresh air, and communion with nature that's what you need."
I gazed pointedly at the apple tree's bare branches. "Not much nature to commune with, this time of year."
"You'd be surprised," said Emma. "If you're lucky you'll see rabbits, deer, woodpeckers, owls maybe even a few foxes. And the early lambing is underway." She took an invigorating breath and let it out in a whoosh. "There's nothing like the sight of a gamboling lamb to refresh the spirits."
"Do lambs gambol in snow?" I inquired dryly. "I mean, Emma, it's February. Last I heard, February wasn't considered the balmiest month of the year in jolly old En<\h>gland."
"It hasn't been so bad this year." Emma swept a hand toward the clear blue sky. "We haven't had a drop of rain or a flake of snow since December, and the meteorologists predict that the fine weather will last till the end of the month."
"I can't disappear for the rest of the month," I protested.
"How about one day, then?" Emma proposed. "Surely you can manage to escape for one day. Bill won't mind, and Annelise is more than capable of looking after the boys while you're gone."
"Let me think about it," I said, nestling my head into the cushions.
Emma regarded me sternly. "You're not doing the twins any good, sitting there like a lump."
I knew that my best friend was taking advantage of my tender maternal instincts by inserting the boys into the conversation, but I also knew that she was telling the truth. Will and Rob deserved a wide-awake and active mummy, a mummy who would get down in the dirt and play trucks with them, not a Drowsy Drusilla, yawning at them from the sidelines. Perhaps a walk would wake me up. Perhaps the sight of gamboling lambs would refresh my spirits. If nothing else, it would get me off of the chaise longue.
Emma must have sensed an opening in my defenses because she began to press her case. "I've got the perfect trail for you. I hiked it last summer. It's easy terrain, the path's well-marked, and it's not far from here. You can stop along the way for a picnic lunch. I'll drop you off at the trail head and be waiting for you when you reach the other end."
"Why don't you come along?" I suggested.
"Because you need peace and quiet, that's why." Emma resumed her seat. "We've hiked together before, Lori. I know what you're like on the trail. Talk, talk, talk, from beginning to end. You need a break from people, and that includes me."
I was forced to admit that she had a point. Emma and I had much in commonlike me, she was a transplanted Yank with two children but there were differences as well. Emma's husband was English, for one thing, while Bill was American. Her children were nearly grown, whereas mine weren't quite finished being babies. She weighed every decision carefully, while I tended to be a bit impulsive. And although we were the best of friends, we weren't the best of hiking companions.
To me, a hike was a chance to release the mind and engage the senses. I loved to ramble aimlessly, savoring whatever surprises nature had in store for me along the way. I believed that lost was a relative term because all trails led somewhere, particularly in England,which was, after all, a very crowded little island where you could scarcely walk ten steps without tripping over a pub, a farmhouse, or a charming village. I'd gotten lost so often that Emma had, only half-jokingly, offered to attach a homing device to my day pack, but I'd refused. Getting lost on a beautiful spring day was, for me, part of the fun.
Emma, on the other hand, belonged to the map-and-compass crowd. She owned a veritable library of Ordnance Survey maps and never left home without a half dozen in her day pack. To Emma, hiking was an intellectual activity, a mission to be accomplished, a puzzle to be solved. While on the trail, she seemed to spend more time studying maps than gazing upon the natural beauty surrounding her. If she got lost which she did, even when I wasn't around to distract her with talk, talk, talk she felt she'd failed. It seemed to me that the only advantage her method of navigation had over mine was that, at the end of the day, she could figure out exactly where she'd gone wrong.
The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Emma: If the proposed walk was to have any beneficial effects, it would best be taken without her company.
"How long is this trail of yours?" I asked.
"Nine miles, give or take a few hundred yards," Emma replied. "You'll be able to manage it in five hours, six at the most. I'll pack your lunch for you," she offered. "I'll even pack your day pack."
I smiled. "Be sure to tuck in a few hundred maps, will you? In case I end up in Borneo or Venezuela"
"I'll put in a map of the trail." Emma leaned forward and patted my arm. "But I promise you, you won't get lost this time. Honestly, it's a simple, straightforward route. I'll show it to you on the map. There's only one turning, and," she sailed on, blithely uttering the curse that had doomed travelers for centuries, "you can't miss it."
Her enthusiasm was so infectious that the curse drifted past me, unnoticed, and in all innocence I agreed to spend a day hiking her straightforward trail, providing Bill agreed that he could live without me for five hours (six at the most). I paid no attention whatsoever to the tiny voice screaming in the back of my mind, warning me that a simple walk could be every bit as treacherous as a simple Christmas.
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