IT WAS the scent of mulled wine and roasting chestnuts that finally drew Jonah out of the cathedral library. The smell wasn’t constant, of course, not in this climate-controlled environment, but every time the doors opened to let in another group of tourists, he caught a faint whiff of it, along with the sound of the choristers practicing, their young voices clear and sweet. This close to Christmas, their lives would be all music, from the moment the boarding bell rang to wake them for morning practice until evensong or the special services. He smiled a little at the memory, some combination of the sound and smell lifting his heart so that he felt ten years younger. It was a week until Christmas, and suddenly, out of nowhere, he was excited in a way he hadn’t been since he got old enough to be cynical.
Then the door opened again, bringing with it the tang of cinnamon and cloves, and he asked impulsively, “Where is that smell coming from?”
Janice, the archivist working with him, looked up with an amused smile. “It’s the Christmas market in the close. You must have walked past it on the way in.”
He’d been so lost in memories that he hadn’t really been paying attention to anything other than the cathedral itself. Shrugging, he asked, “Is it still going? I went to the first one.”
“From strength to strength,” she said, looking a little curious. “You a local boy, then?”
“Not really,” Jonah said, ducking his head down to adjust the scanner. Then he remembered this was one of the few places where it wouldn’t be seen as weird, and added, “I was a chorister.”
She nodded in recognition. “Jonah… Jonah Lennox, was it? You were Bishop’s Chorister—ten years ago?”
“It was the year I first started. Lovely voice, you had. Do you still sing?”
“Not properly,” he said, shrugging, and waved at the manuscripts of old music they were scanning in to be digitized. “I got into the history and traditions more, after my voice broke.”
“Our gain and music’s loss,” Janice said, and leaned back, rolling her shoulders out with a groan. “Ready for a lunch stop? My back’s killing me, and you’ve got me thinking about food now. Did they have a food court in the market in your day?”
“Just a couple of stalls. More the last few years, but it was never huge. They’ve become a bit more of a craze recently, I think.”
“Go and enjoy yourself, then,” she said. “Done your Christmas shopping yet?”
“It’s only the eighteenth,” he protested, and then added awkwardly, “I know, typical bloke.”
“Doesn’t matter how well educated you are,” she joked, wrapping the manuscript up with gentle hands.
After a morning in the dim, curtained alcove they were using to scan the manuscripts, even the shady main library made him blink. There was a small group of tourists in there, gathered around the cathedral’s prized copy of the Piae Cantiones, listening to a volunteer explain how Victorian carol writers had recycled the medieval tunes to create what were now seen as the “traditional” English Christmas carols.
“Are any of the original versions still sung?” someone asked.
“Some are certainly sung here in Latin, and some of the English lyrics are close in meaning. ‘Unto us is born a son’ is a direct translation. Others are very different—our ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is actually set to a springtime carol. The only one commonly still sung in Latin, which many of you will know, especially if you can remember the seventies, is ‘Gaudete’….”
“I always liked that one,” Jonah remarked to Janice as they headed down the ornate wooden stairs into the main cathedral.
“Me, I like ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.’ Nice and jolly.”
“So’s ‘Gaudete,’ if you speak Latin.”
She laughed at him and paused before they left the transept. “I need to drop some paperwork off. Meet you back in the library at one?”
“I’ll see you then,” Jonah agreed, and headed along the nave. The choir was still rehearsing, and he breathed in softly and let the singing flow through him, tracing every rise and fall of the music, following each intricate, intertwining line, and smiling with rueful sympathy when somebody’s high note wobbled slightly. None of the wandering tourists had noticed, but he knew, and the singer would too.
As the singing stopped, the intercoms crackled, and the duty preacher announced the hour and asked for quiet for a prayer. Jonah sat down, hooking his hands over his knees, and looked up at the soaring columns of Purbeck marble that supported the vaulted roof, and the thin pointed arches of the windows where the light fell through in sweeps of color to illuminate the polished floors. He had put his faith aside, with other childish things, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the beautiful things men had made to glorify God.
When he finally stepped out into the cathedral close, the cold and the noise took his breath away. He pulled his scarf higher and pushed his glasses up his nose to stare at the spectacle before him. The ice rink installed on the cathedral green was the same, but there had only been twenty temporary chalets put up for the market in 2002, the last time he’d been here. Now there were a good two hundred, in aisles around the edge of the green and along the close, all bedecked in plastic greenery and strings of lights. Christmas music was playing cheerfully and the crowd seemed to be growing by the minute, everyone wrapped warmly as they shuffled from stand to stand. Even from here, he could see ten varieties of Christmas ornaments, three types of handmade jewelry, four soap stalls, six canework reindeer, two Gluhwein stands, and, quite possibly, a partridge in a pear tree. Determinedly quirky hand-painted signs directed him to the food court and the local craft market.
He couldn’t see the roast chestnuts, but he could smell them, and he kept scanning the crowd hopefully, that sweet, elusive sense of Christmas past settling into his heart. It was only after a moment that he realized who he was looking for. Christmas meant carols, the cathedral, and Callum.
Which was really rather silly, after eleven years away.
Callum had only come here to help out his mum, after all, and even if he was still hanging around, they’d both grown up, and there was no reason he’d even remember Jonah. The only reason he’d come to mind was because Jonah was back here in Aylminster, and Callum had been so important to Christmas here when they were kids. He probably wouldn’t find Callum himself, but maybe Callum’s mum was still selling chestnuts and he could persuade her to tell him Callum’s surname (which hadn’t mattered in the least when they were ten, but was a rather vital bit of information now), and Jonah could look him up on Facebook just to satisfy his own curiosity.
With that in mind, he plunged into the crowd, tucking his elbows in and murmuring apologies every time he jostled someone. It was a bright, cold day, and everyone was wrapped up in heavy coats and hefting bags of shopping. He had to slow down to the speed of the crowd, which was easier said than done when he was a good few inches taller than most of them and kept stumbling over his own feet trying to keep his strides short.
The smell of food was getting stronger, and he could hear the sizzle of sausages even above the contented hum of the crowd. Then, inevitably, everyone seemed to surge back toward him, and he almost fell over a waist-high wooden duck. He dodged it but stumbled into the path of a town crier in full Victorian costume (Dear Lord, why?), lunged back out of the way, almost drop-kicking a stray toddler, and then finally lost his balance just in time to go crashing down toward a rack of fresh, glossy, and horribly overpriced mistletoe.
Someone caught him, firm hands warm on his arms, and a kind voice said, “Steady on, mate. Alright there?”
“Yes, er, thank you,” Jonah managed, feeling his cheeks go scarlet. “Sorry.” He looked up, but the words dried up in his throat and he could only blush more. His rescuer was exactly the sort of gorgeous Jonah never had the courage to approach: laughing brown eyes and dark curls pulled back into a ponytail, and was that actually a rainbow-striped plug in his earlobe? It certainly looked like one, and even Jonah’s crappy gaydar couldn’t misread that, unless it was just a statement of solidarity or a fashion statement, or maybe this was just a chap who liked rainbows, and oh God, he really, really needed to stop staring now.
But Mr. Gorgeous was staring back, his eyes wide and a little amazed. Just as Jonah was starting to wonder why, he said, that warm voice suddenly uncertain, “Joe? Jonah? Is that you?”
Jonah gaped at him. Now that he could see past the initial rush of attraction, the guy did look familiar. It was in the brightness of his smile and the way he hunched his left shoulder in uncertainty. If you trimmed his hair down to an even inch and stripped off a foot of height and ten years of age….
The way the corners of his mouth turned down in disappointment sealed it. “Dude, I’m sorry. I thought you were an old friend….”
“Callum,” Jonah breathed, and smiled.