New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve was the only day of the year on which Mrs. Adie really unbent. Christmas she held to be of little account, though she cooked the turkey and the mince-pies faithfully enough and took a benign interest in the children's presents. Boxing Day made her, if anything, more tight-lipped than usual, for on that day the Minivers were in the habit of eating a "June dinner " as a respite from Christmas food: a practice which Mrs. Adie looked upon as unnatural and faintly sacrilegious. There was a no-good-can-come-of-this expression on her face as she served up the clear soup, the fish mayonnaise, and the summer pudding (made of bottled currants and raspberries); but up till now nobody had so much as choked on a fish-bone.

On New Year's Eve, however, Mrs. Adie always invited the whole family into the kitchen for a Hogmanay tea. There were scones and oatcakes and shortbread and rowan jelly; and a Melrose sponge-cake sent down by her brother, and a Selkirk bannock sent down by her sister ; and in addition to all these she managed to provide a constant supply of fresh drop-scones all through the meal. She let the children take turns in pouring spoonfuls of batter on to the hot girdle, and in watching each little sizzling yellow pool go beautifully brown round the edges. She even let Gladys make a few, on condition that she gave up her regrettable Sassenach habit of calling them "flapjacks."

After tea came an even greater treat -- the fortune-telling. Clem and Vin pushed the table back, and they all settled down round the kitchen fire. while Mrs. Adie produced a large iron saucepan, seven bowls of cold water, and a box full of pieces of lead which she had somehow collected during the past twelve months from various sources, such as plumbers and roof-menders. (At this time of year Vin always took care to lock up the cupboard in which his sea-fishing tackle was kept: he was afraid that Mrs. Adie might have her eye on the weights.)

While the lead was still melting in the saucepan the children were allowed to peer over it and watch. But when all the dull grey lumps had dissolved into a pool of liquid silver Mrs. Adie made everybody move back to a safe distance. Then she arranged the seven bowls of water in a row on the hearth, pulled on a pair of old leather gauntlets, lifted the pan off the fire, and poured a generous dollop of lead into each bowl. The noise it made as it entered the water was peculiar, and rather frightening -- something between the crack of a pistol-shot and the hiss of an angry swan. Toby always blocked his cars and stood very close to Clem; and Gladys, who was new to this ceremony. gave a shrill "Oo!" and retreated into the scullery.

"C'm mout o' there," said Mrs. Adie contemptuously. "It'll not hurt you. If you run from your lead you'll run from your luck."

Obedient to the power of rhythm and alliteration, Gladys came back. Marvellous, thought Mrs. Miniver, the way almost any Scot, in almost any situation, can coin a phrase which has the authentic ring and cogency of an ancient proverb.

And now Mrs. Adie knelt down on the hearth, took off her gloves, fished the bright silvery "fortunes" out of the water, and began to interpret them. The lead had hardened into the most fantastic shapes: shapes like groups of statuary, like fern-fronds, like intricate machinery, like outstretched wings, like gnarled olive-trees. To the uninitiated, they might have meant anything or nothing; but Mrs. Adie -- helped, it is true, by a pretty close knowledge of her hearers -- contrived to give each of them a detailed and appropriate meaning.

"My word now!" she would say, speaking to Judy but at Clem, because it was easier that way, "look at all these fine new houses your daddy's going to be architecting. And one of them's got a terrible tall tower to it -- aye, it'll be a kirk he's to build next, sure enough." And then, to Vin: "Here's you with a fishing-rod in your hand and a great big fish on the other end of it and a wheen more o' them lying round about your feet. Oh, it's going to be a grand year for the fishing, and no mistake." And to Toby: "Now there's two wee wheels in this one, as plain as plain. That’ll be that bicycle you're wanting for your birthday, my lamb. . . . And whatever's this I can see in yours, Nannie? My lands! I believe it's a wedding-cake!"

"It's no such thing," said Nannie primly. It's a nice big new work-basket, that's what it is. Just the thing I need, with the amount of stockings they all manage to wear out down here."

"Well, well, we'll see," said Mrs. Adie darkly. "Wedding-cake or work-basket, what will be will be, and one thing leads to another."

There she goes again, thought Mrs. Miniver with an inward chuckle. Rhythm and alliteration: the phrase-makers always get the last word. She herself was sitting in a big wicker armchair at one side of the range. She had drawn back a little because of the heat, and from where she sat, half in shadow, the scene looked wonderfully theatrical. Mrs. Adie, with a flush on her high cheek-bones and her usually neat hair quite dishevelled, was reaching forward to fish out Judy’s "fortune"; and, opposite, the six fire-fit faces were awaiting, with varying degrees of credulity, her next pronouncement. It didn't much matter, after all, whether the fortunes came true, or whether anybody believed in them; what mattered was that here at least was one small roomful of warmth and happiness, shut in by frail window-panes from a freezing, harsh, and inexplicable world. All one could do was to be thankful for moments like these. During the next twelve months, perhaps, the remaining odds and ends of their civilization would have been tipped into the melting-pot; and not even Mrs. Adie --

But she became aware that her own fortune had just been told out of the seventh bowl and that she had not heard a word of it.

"Thank you so much, Mrs. Adie," she said with a smile, taking the cold, queer-shaped lump of metal on to her palm. So far as she could remember, it was almost exactly the same shape as the one she had had last year. So that was all right: for herself, she could think of nothing better.

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Internet Edition 2001 The Estate of Jan Struther