“I’m not a believer, any more than you are.”
I looked up, startled. The garden had seemed deserted. How did this man know we were English when Guernsey seemed to be full of French-speakers? I carried on peeling the orange, which was half of our Christmas lunch. The other half was a piece of cake, which had looked good in the shop but turned out to be rather dry.
“So?” I immediately regretted my belligerent tone, this being the season of goodwill to all men, whether of not you were a believer, whatever that meant.
“I just thought you might need some help,” said the stranger.
Michael started hissing in my left ear and I thought suddenly of the Garden of Eden, though then I remembered that it was an apple, not an orange, that had caused the trouble there.
“Yes, it is like the Garden of Eden here, isn’t it,” said the man, gesturing round at the trees.
For the first time I noticed one with golden-orange fruit, and no leaves. It was as if the tree had been festooned with Christmas lights.
The man followed my gaze. “The golden apples of Christmas,” he said. “Actually they’re persimmons, the fruit of the gods.”
“Good for Christmas lunch, are they?” I asked sarcastically, waving my arm, which caught our open bottle. Michael lunged but was too slow to stop it falling. The three of us watched the precious wine glug-glug out of the bottle and trickle down between the stones of the wall.
“Now look what you’ve made me do!” I screamed. “That was our wine,” I added, unnecessarily.
The man held up his arms. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
I’m not sure of the sequence of events after that. I know that I started shouting and that Michael started walking away, which made me shout louder, and that I was shouting both at him and at the unknown man. I don’t have any idea what I was saying. I do, however, remember that at some point the man pulled a large bottle of mineral water out from inside his coat and placed it on the bench.
Then he made a little bow and turned away. I didn’t watch him go. I put my head in my hands and wept. It wasn’t meant to be like this, not on Christmas Day. It had sounded so good when we talked about it at home.
“Let’s go to the south of France. Get away from all the commercialism,” Michael had said. It was ridiculous, no way could we afford to go there, but somehow we’d got ourselves to Guernsey, a little bit of France in the English Channel.
“Hey, it’s not so bad.” Michael was whispering in my ear now. “Look what he’s left us.”
I looked. There was a bottle of champagne on the bench. Not a bottle of water. I blinked and it was still champagne. We drank it, with the dry cake, and the sun came out and shone on the golden apples. We smiled at them, and at one another, and the garden felt like the very best place in the world to be on Christmas Day.