In mid-December Owen and Wendy and I played a Saturday night concert together at the ‘Plough and Lantern’. Bill Prentiss was retiring at the end of the year, and he had decided to spend the autumn bringing in some of his favourite amateur musicians from the thirty years he had been hosting live music at the ‘Plough’. Wendy had taken a little persuading, especially as the date for the concert was only a couple of weeks after our wedding. We had decided to wait until after Christmas to go away for a honeymoon, but still she dragged her feet about the concert for a long time, and before she finally agreed to it she extracted a solemn promise from Owen and Bill that there would be no public mention of the fact that she and I were newlyweds.
It was Wendy’s idea to make the occasion a Christmas concert, and this meant that the three of us had to do a lot of learning and rehearsing of songs, as we had never had much Christmas material in our repertoire. Once we started, though, we discovered that there was a lot of traditional Christmas music we all liked, and we enjoyed creating new arrangements, learning harmonies, and weaving in the instruments Owen had learned to play over the years, including the cittern and the octave mandolin. Wendy also had the idea of making the occasion a fundraiser for the Oxford Gatehouse, and Bill readily agreed to put out a donation box.
Wendy and I arrived at the ‘Plough’ around seven o’clock in the evening; Owen was already there setting up the sound equipment, and he gave us a cheery wave from the small stage as we came in. The place was about half full, and behind the hum of conversation I could hear Christmas music playing in the background. Bill came out from behind the bar and greeted us with warm handshakes. “Congratulations!” he said with a wide grin; “I hear the wedding went well?”
“It was lovely, thank you, Bill”, Wendy replied.
“You’re not going away yet, though, I hear?”
“No, we’re going to Ireland for a week after Christmas. Actually, we’ve been spending a lot of time this past couple of weeks fixing up our new house”.
“Ah, so you got the new place, did you?”
“My house was a bit small for five people”, Wendy explained, “so we bought a slightly larger one up in Marston, not far from Tom and Emma’s old house”.
“And it’s been plenty of work for you, no doubt?”
“Well, it helps that Wendy’s son Colin is an enthusiastic carpenter”, I replied; “He built all our kitchen cabinets for us, and he and my daughter Emma have been helping us out with the painting and decorating”.
“Is your son in school?” Bill asked Wendy.
“He started a carpentry apprenticeship program in September. And Emma started her nursing degree at the same time, so they’ve been working on the house with us in their time off”.
Owen had stepped down from the stage and threaded his way between the tables toward us. He greeted Wendy with a hug and a kiss, clapped me on the back with a grin, and said, “You look outrageously happy; married life obviously agrees with you!”
“I think so; I think I might just have beaten the odds and gotten lucky twice in a row!”
We all laughed, and Wendy took my arm and said, “You keep forgetting that I’m the lucky one here”.
“It’s our only argument so far”, I said to Owen with a grin, “and she just won’t admit that she’s lost it!”
“That’s because I haven’t!” she replied mischievously.
“See?” I said; “If this keeps up, we’re going to need marriage counseling!”
Bill laughed; “Well, it’s good to see you two looking so happy”, he said. “Would either of you like anything from the bar to be going along with?”
“Maybe a bit later”, I replied; “I think we should get busy with the sound checks now”.
We had wanted to be married before Christmas, and our window of opportunity turned out to be quite small; Rick had been released from prison two weeks before, and we had not wanted to leave it much later because of the busy time around the Christmas holidays. So we had settled on the last Saturday in November.
Stephen Jeffreys had been delighted to officiate at our wedding, although he had taken me to task light-heartedly for stealing Wendy from his congregation and making an Anabaptist of her. He had been very happy to have Rees participate with him in the service. Wendy’s parents were there, of course, looking quite frail, but obviously very happy about our marriage. All the members of my immediate family were there, including Sarah in her wheelchair, and Joe and Ellie had come from Meadowvale, along with Will and Sally. Merton College hosted the reception; Owen had been the master of ceremonies, and of course he had roasted us enthusiastically, regaling the guests with stories about me going all the way back to the first day we met. Afterwards Wendy and I had slipped away to a nearby hotel for the rest of the weekend before driving back in to work on Monday morning.
Early in the planning process my mother had asked us why we wanted to get married in late November, when neither of us could take the time to have a proper honeymoon. “Why not have the wedding after Christmas?” she asked, “and then you could go straight off afterwards”.
Wendy shook her head and said, “The thing is, Irene, we want to have this Christmas together, as a family. We don’t want to have to wait until next year for that”.
I saw the understanding in my mother’s eyes, and she reached out to give Wendy a warm hug. She had been doing a lot of hugging since my father died; we had all noticed that she had abandoned some of the reserve that had characterized her for as long as I could remember. At the wedding, before Wendy and I slipped away, she held us both close with tears in her eyes, whispering in my ear, “I only wish your Dad could have lived to see this”.
Mike and Becca brought my mother to the concert, arriving at about a quarter to eight. Becca had an engagement ring on her finger now; the day after our return from Canada she and Mike had come to visit us and tell us the news, and she had been delighted to discover that Wendy and I were also engaged. She and Mike were planning a summer wedding; they had bought a small house in Oxford, and while they fixed it up they were staying out at Northwood with my mother. My little sister had an air of contentment about her that I had not seen in years.
I saw them coming in as Owen and I finished a final tuning of the instruments on the little stage: our two guitars, and Owen’s cittern and octave mandolin. My mother and Mike waved as they found a seat at a table toward the middle of the room, and Becca came over to the stage to chat for a minute. “All ready, then?” she asked me.
“Are you nervous?” she asked Wendy.
“Just a bit!”
“I don’t know why”, Owen said with a smile; “She knows the songs well, and her voice is as gorgeous as ever”.
“Of course it is”, Becca replied, “and you three sound better than you’ve ever sounded before”. We had done some of our practicing out at my mother’s home, in the big piano room, and Becca had listened in on a couple of our rehearsals.
At that moment I saw Emma, Lisa and Colin coming in; Emma had spent the afternoon with Sarah, including supper with the family, and she had then driven back to Marston to pick Lisa and Colin up. A young man of about Emma’s age was with them; his name was Andy Gates, and he was a student of Wendy’s at Merton. He had been coming to our little church since early September, and he and Emma had been seeing quite a lot of each other lately.
Emma had started her nursing degree in the Fall, and it was obvious to me that she was loving every minute of it. Her course load was heavy, and she often sat up late at night studying; she also continued to spend a lot of time with Sarah, and she went out to visit my mother at least once a week. I had no idea how she and Andy were finding the time to date; I had asked him about this once, not long after they started going out, and he had smiled and said to me, “I’m as busy as she is, Tom, but at least we can sit together at church!”
“Excuse me a minute”, I said to Wendy and Owen, and I stepped down from the stage and went over to greet our children. Lisa had a backpack full of books and papers slung over her shoulder; she was in the final year of her degree program now, and the workload was punishing. “You brought some work with you, I see?” I observed.
“Hope you don’t mind”, she replied apologetically; “I’ve got that paper due on Monday”.
“Of course not; hopefully we don’t distract you too much! How are you, Andy?”
“I’m okay, thanks, Tom; hoping to get a few extra marks for coming to watch my tutor sing!”
I put my arm around Emma; “Is Sarah all right?” I asked her.
“She’s fine; Uncle Rick and Auntie Alyson are coming in a few minutes”.
“Oh, good – I didn’t know if they’d be able to”.
Wendy appeared quietly at my shoulder; she handed me a bottle of water and said, “Something to drink before we start?”
“This must be so weird for you three, playing here again”, Emma observed; “Do you feel as if you’ve stepped into a time warp or something?”
Wendy smiled at me before replying. “I can close my eyes up there and imagine we’re all three students here again”, she said, “except that your Dad and Owen never played this well when they were students!”
“It’s the instruments”, I said with a grin; “We were trying to play on crappy guitars in those days!”
We all laughed, and Wendy took my arm and said, “No, you’re a much better player now than you were then, and so is Owen”.
“Well, I suppose there’s no substitute for twenty more years of practice”.
“I’m just going to step outside for a minute of fresh air before things get going here”, said Wendy.
“Maybe I’ll come with you”.
Outside, the December air was cold. There was a small patio area in front of the pub, with steps leading down to Walton Street. We walked hand in hand down to the street, the wind lifting Wendy’s hair from her shoulders. “What about you?” she asked as we rested our backs against the low patio wall; “Are you nervous?”
“No, not really”.
She moved a little closer, and I put my arm around her. “How are you doing tonight, Mrs. Masefield?” I asked.
She turned her head and looked up at me, and after a moment she reached up and touched my cheek with her fingers. “I like the sound of that name”, she whispered; “I like it a lot”.
I bent and kissed her lightly on the lips; “I’m glad”, I replied.
She leaned back a little, looking at me with a sudden intensity in her eyes. “What?” I asked.
She shook her head; “I’m just trying to work out what exactly I did to deserve you”, she replied. “I can’t, though. I never expected to get a second chance; I expected to be alone for the rest of my life”.
I drew her close again; “Me too”, I whispered.
We stood there quietly for a few minutes, watching the cars go by on Walton Street; I recognized my brother’s car and waved as he turned off toward the car park around the back of the pub. Eventually I said, “Well, shall we go in and do our stuff?”
“It’s about that time, is it?”
“I think so”.
“Well, lead the way, my man”.
Back in the pub I saw Owen chatting with Lorraine beside the stage. Bill Prentiss was standing just inside the door looking at his watch, and when he saw us coming in he smiled and said, “About ready, then?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be”, I replied.
The bar was almost full now, and we threaded our way between the tables to where Owen and Lorraine were standing; I saw Rick and Alyson sitting with my mother and Mike and Becca, and I greeted them with a wave. Owen smiled at us and said, “Ready then?”
“Let’s do it”, I replied.
He led us up onto the little stage; we sat down on high stools as the people in the pub applauded, and Owen and I picked up our instruments and plugged in our patch cords. Owen looked questioningly at Bill Prentiss, wondering if he was going to introduce us, but Bill smiled and gestured for him to continue. Owen leaned toward his microphone, his octave mandolin in his hands, and said, “Welcome to the last of Bill’s nostalgia concerts”.
Everyone in the pub laughed, and he continued, “How about a big round of applause for Bill?
He’s been a loyal supporter of live folk music in Oxford for over thirty years, and there must be hundreds of people in that time who got their first taste of performing here at the Plough. Bill Prentiss, everyone!”
There was a tremendous outburst of applause, cheers and whistles, and Bill smiled and waved from behind the bar. When the noise died down, Owen spoke into his microphone again. “The three of us sang together on this stage back in the spring when the Ferrymen played a gig here”, he said, “but we haven’t actually had a gig by ourselves since the spring of 1982, when we all had a lot less grey hair”. He waved his hand toward Wendy and me; “This is Tom and Wendy Masefield”, he said with a mischievous grin, “and I’m Owen Foster, and for tonight, we’re Lincoln Green”. He leaned back from the mike and nodded at me; I played a single chord on my guitar, Owen counted us in, and the three of us began to sing simultaneously:
“God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day,
To save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray –
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy”.