Having taken early retirement at 42 from a dazzling career in finance, swiftly followed by a move to Little Uddington, Stella Harrington imagined that life would be all lunches at Soho Farmhouse and DPs with MPs. She failed to see any reason why she shouldn’t be as successful at rural living as she had been at international banking. Urged on by her husband Rory, who had social notions and political aspirations, she signed up for a Seasonal Wreath Crafting Workshop with Flora Fairchild, flaxen-haired darling of the country set. There, her mission was to make a diverse guest list of friends to invite to the inaugural Christmas Eve drinks party at The Old Rectory.
But when Stella arrived three minutes late at the local farm shop (she hadn’t yet got the hang of country lanes in the 4x4) the workbench had already been stripped of its winter abundance by the floral-sprigged local mafia who were proprietorially nursing small mountains of evergreen foliage. All that remained were a few twigs and some beleaguered eucalyptus. Stella slid into the one seat left at the Siberian end of the barn.
“Excuse me, do you have any materials left?” she asked anybody who might be listening. Rather than a proffering of smiles and dried kumquats, her plea met with a collective tightening of tennis-toned arms around every last leaf and berry.
“Have some of my ivy,” Flora smiled as she dropped a handful of greenery in front of Stella. The women gazed at Flora with bovine adoration, while alternately darting envious, vituperative glares in Stella’s direction.
At lunch, as Stella piled towards the women with her best How to Win Friends and Influence People smile, they seamlessly formed an impenetrable knot around the purple carrot salad. The country, it seemed, was not as easy to infiltrate as the City. By the end of the workshop, she had only a spindly, unusable circle of wicker and no new friends to show for six hours at the brutal coalface of winter floristry.
Undeterred, she joined the “Forage Your Own Christmas Garland” class at Uddington Hall the following week, being careful not to be late. On arrival, she smiled at the tweedy but trendy posse waiting outside. But again was frozen out.
“Fine,” she muttered as she slid her newly sharpened secateurs from her bag. “If that’s how you want it…” Breaking from the pack, she darted towards the immaculately tended “cuttings garden” and filled her trug to brimming – no finer feelings or sentimentality to stand in the way of her decorative supremacy now.
Her fellow pupils trailing in her wake, Stella bagsied herself a seat under Lady Binfield’s nose and helped herself to the lion’s share of raffia and cinnamon bundles. Who cared what her furious cohort thought? The gardening gloves were off and Stella’s wreath was going to be the largest and most verdant.
Heaving under the weight of her garland at the end of the day, Stella staggered triumphantly to her car, only to overhear a blonde in a Moncler parka telling Lady Binfield she found Stella’s offering “vulgar and utterly lacking in artistry”. “Indeed,” replied Lady Binfield, throwing Stella an icy glance, “I doubt the blue spruce will ever be quite the same again.” To Stella, though, this was less a putdown than a call to arms – she vowed that, come Christmas, the naysayers would have to admit hers was the most magnificent wreath in the village.
On Christmas Eve, Stella arrived home from her final workshop at Lachaume in Paris. Rory greeted her in the porch, which was littered with wreaths.
“It’s like Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph,” he remarked, wearily.
“I’ve done it.” Stella ceremoniously placed a vast hula hoop of dahlias and tulips on the door. “This isn’t an ordinary wreath. It’s a still life. A visual feast inspired by the Dutch masters. There is no way any woman in the village is outperforming that.”
“Wonderful,” Rory smiled indulgently. “And when will our guests be arriving to admire this work of genius?”
Stella tenderly spritzed her arrangement with a silver atomiser, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, darling. I’ve rather had to revise down my forecasts about making new friends. Only the vicar has said he’ll come. But in the words of Warren Buffett, ‘The first rule is not to lose, the second rule is not to forget the first rule.’” She glanced out into the cold, empty dusk, then back to her work of art. “And as you can see, I win!”