Home For Christmas (original fiction by ThereWolf)
Firelight danced a jitterbug on high buff walls decked in tinsel and strings of greeting cards. A real, 8-foot tall pine tree (of course, save the planet and all that - and next year chuffing Greenpeace or whoever can come and wrestle the bastard through the door) in the corner twinkled ice blue with pinhead LED bulbs. Outside, beyond the leaded window the snow fell steadily through the trees, the dormant garden smothered beneath the purest white and bathed in the glow of the external halogen lamps. With the room lights dimmed, Angela stood beside the log pile, leaning on the mantelpiece above the open fireplace as the wood popped and crackled, gazing upon her very own living Christmas card. Her hands were wrapped around a mug of steaming chilli vanilla chocolate and she was wary to the point of paranoia regarding spillage. She had managed to squeeze in a shampoo job on the russet Aztec patterned carpet the day before, along with the pale burgundy suite - so much fannying around, all in preparation for one single sodding day! Ah, but it was worth the hassle just for this moment etched in memory. Such a peaceful, homely image, one that she wished to have personalised and printed, sent to family and friends as a festive holographic card. It was a 'Look, I'm OK!' picture. The perfect image of Christmas Eve. Except it wasn't quite perfect, not this year and not for any year after.
Upstairs, a worn hinge creaked a short and sturdy fart. With a glance over her shoulder and a furrowed brow she turned and walked to the angled staircase leading up to the landing where a chaise longue bowed under the weight of every animal imaginable (and some wildly fantastical!) cunningly rendered in the form of a cuddly toy. With a grin, Angie noted the kids' bedroom door ever so slightly ajar. She could just about make out a small face peeking through the crack and the sound of hushed voices.
"Thomas? I hope you're not still awake." She heard footfalls padding hurriedly away. Angie set down her mug and climbed the stairs lightly to the alcove room, pushing through the door.
"What's going on in here?"
"Mummy, Thomas won't go to sleep and he's keeping me awake."
"Thomas?" Angie said with mock annoyance. Well, how can you get angry with kids on Christmas Eve? Plus, hadn't she got up to the same sneaky-peeky tricks at their age. Who, me...?
"Oh!" Four year old Thomas pushed back the blanket and glared at his big sister. Teresa was older by four years. "You're not fair."
"And he talks in his sleep."
"Yes you do!"
"Oi, that will do," Angie warned. "Settle down, the pair of you. Thank you... Thomas, I've told you, Father Christmas won't come if you're awake."
"I'm nearly asleep," Thomas insisted.
"Oh, I see, nearly asleep - standing at the bedroom door."
"I was just..."
"You were just?" Advancing now.
"I was just seeing if..."
"You were 'just' nothing," Angie told her son, perching on his bed and folding the sheet back up to his chin, giving his nose a pinch between her fingers. "Now go to sleep."
"I want to hear Santa's sleigh!"
This was bloody Miriam's fault. Aunty Miriam, her best friend. All day long she had regaled Thomas with tales of whooshing reindeer, a secret North Pole base where all the toys are made by elves (and Aunty Miriam can explain to him why all the packaging says 'Made In China'), fat Santa's chimney-busting exploits and an actual Santa sighting as he flew in silhouette across the moon. That's the only time he's accidentally visible, see and only the very luckiest little boys and girls get to see that. But if you can't see him then you can certainly hear him coming - those distinctive sleigh bells ringing. Are you listening?
"Maybe you will. You can tell me all about it in the morning. Now toddle off to dream land, my young Padawan." She could see the tiredness in her son's eyes. Miri had done a sterling job giving him the run around, wearing his long-life batteries down, speeding him around the lanes of Bowness on his own little wooden sled, chasing both him and Teresa across the frozen Solway marshes. All while Angie got the last of her shopping in and paid several local friends a pre-Christmas visit, dropping off cards and presents. Many of them would be coming for dinner tomorrow, a proper full house. Nobody was allowing Angie to spend this season alone, they were rallying round. But this was a beautiful place to live, Bowness was so small that everybody knew everybody else and their cat! She had popped into the King's Arms dozens of times since March and never once had to buy a drink. Good people. So, Christmas morning only, a few hours of solitude. Just her, Thomas and Teresa...
"Do they have Kiss-mass where Daddy is in Heaven?" Thomas fixed her with those huge dark unblinking eyes - his Dad's eyes. God, she loved the way he said 'Christmas,' wished that he would never grow out of it.
Angie couldn't answer straight away. Her throat clicked with a dry swallow. She heard Teresa snuffle quietly, a terrible sound of sorrow.
"Yes, they do. It's Christmas every day in Heaven."
Thomas contemplated that, his eyes growing heavy. "I want to go."
Angie leaned forward and kissed his forehead, unable to stop the tears blurring her eyes. "You will, one day, but not for a very, very long time."
"Does he get presents?"
"Of course he does, sweetheart..."
"Can we send him a present?"
"Well, he's a long way away. It wouldn't get there in time."
"Shush now, Thomas. Time to sleep, little monkey-man."
His eyes were closed, lips still parted with a never-asked question. Angie stood and went across to Teresa. Mother and daughter shared a crushing, silent embrace. Teresa wiped at her mother's tears rather than her own. Angie tucked her in and kissed her goodnight. She left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. She leaned there for awhile, collecting herself, wiping her cheeks. They told her the first Christmas was the worst, after that it got easier. Liars. If she didn't have Thomas and Teresa, Angie knew she'd just walk out into the Solway and let the unpredictable tides take her till she turned up drowned and tangled in a Haaf net fisherman's catch. And okay, yes, she thought about doing it now as well. The pressure of being both mother and father to them, knowing she couldn't be both, was killing her by the day.
Angie went back downstairs and regarded the mug of chocolate.
"Ah, ballsacks," she muttered and picked up a nearby bottle, sploshing a hefty Jack Daniels into a tumbler. She hated the stuff (reserved for visitors usually) but it was great for chasing off the melancholy.
She picked up the framed photograph of Terry and herself, taken in Belize on their honeymoon. Another photo depicted Terry and his two Royal Marine mates, in uniform but on some well earned downtime, arms around each others' shoulders, laughing, taken somewhere in dusty, windy Afghanistan.
All three Solway boys were killed last March. Their Jackal 4x4 weapons mounted patrol vehicle was hit twice by RPG-7 fire wielded expertly by Taliban guerrillas. Ian, on the rear deck manning the .50 calibre 12.7mm heavy machine gun, was killed instantly. Both Terry and Chris died from "extensive injuries" soon after being pulled clear of the burning wreckage.
He wasn't far away, laid to rest in the grounds of St. Michael's, the picturesque church around the corner. The church of the missing bells; the ancient Scots had nipped across the Solway (in the days when there was a bridge) and stole them! But during the return to Annan, the cheeky blighters dropped and lost the bells in the Solway waters by accident. Enraged Bowness villagers raided the Scottish side of the Solway and nicked two of their bells in retaliation. It had become tradition that one of the first duties of each new vicar inducted to the church in Annan was to formally request the return of their bells. A request that Bowness took great delight in refusing...
There had been a dignified public funeral procession through Carlisle, where strangers came together, where young men and girlfriends linked arms and wept for a lost friend. Where old veterans from another conflict stood at their side and saluted. Carlisle had come to a standstill. The church ceremony was altogether a more private affair for close family and friends which the press and media respected. As per their wishes - "If we die together, we get buried together." Ian was from Easton, Chris from Anthorn. Terry was Bowness-born. It was the bells story that swung it, they all loved the tale of the bells, it seemed to epitomise the English side of the Solway. So, the lads had decided on St. Michael's as their choice of rest.
A pal of Terry's from his school days and a fellow pub crawler had recorded a few contemporary songs to be played at the service; she remembered being gut punched first by Jeff Buckley's version of 'Hallelujah' and in closing, 'Doo-Wop In Harlem' by the ludicrously named Prefab Sprout. She had never seen so much emotional destruction among so few people. Gary, Terry's school pal had presented the disc to her as a gift at the end of the service. She couldn't play it, couldn't ever hear those songs again...
The front door bell rang. Angie cursed under her breath. That's gonna disturb the pups again. She put her drink down - well, it was unladylike answering the door to neighbours juggling a glass of booze. She went through into the anteroom and opened the big old oak door. Of all the sights she expected to see, a postman wasn't one of them.
"Hiya. I have a parcel for Mrs. Angela Hopkins."
"Errr... Yeah. That's me."
"If you could sign here and print here, please..."
Angie took the proffered card and duly squiggled. She decided she would pretty much do anything that voice asked of her, the tone was full of empathy and compassion. Was he foreign? Recently, there had been a large number of immigrant workers coming into the region. Put it this way, he wasn't Cumbrian. Something about his voice made her ears ring, too, like a higher frequency only an animal can pick up.
The postman then handed her a box wrapped in brown paper with her name and address neatly printed on the top. Hard to believe it was hand-written, actually, so exquisite was the lettering.
"Wow," she commented. "They've got you working late for a Christmas Eve."
"Oh, this is normal for us," he smiled.
Dazzling. His eyes were a piercing shade of sky blue. Yes, he was a man but he looked kind of feminine as well. Okay, okay, admittedly attractive but not really fanciable to her. She couldn't put an age on him; he was like the handwriting, unblemished and immaculate as the snow. Angie noted his uniform. Not Royal Mail issue. Either black or very dark blue. So he must work for a courier company. He touched the peak of his cap with his fingers.
"All the best for Christmas. Bye now." He set off back toward the gate. The tumbling flakes didn't seem to touch him.
She shook herself out of a trance. "And a Merry Christmas to you. Thank you!"
The postman turned at the gate, smiled and waved before continuing on. Angie closed the door and passed back into the warmth of the lounge. Frowning, she considered that she had seen neither a vehicle or so much as a bicycle - not that he would be daft enough to use a bike in a blizzard. She put the parcel down, went back into the anteroom and put on a pair of boots from the shoe rack, leaving them unlaced. She unlatched the door again and went outside. There were only two directions for him to go and he hadn't set off in the direction of the village which meant he would still be in sight going up the sloping lane out of Bowness. It made no sense him parking up there, though.
The postman, however, was nowhere in sight. He might have gone off to pee, ducking along a farmer's track where the cover afforded a degree of decorum. But as she considered the explanation she saw something rather more difficult to explain. There were no tracks in the snow from the gate to the door and back again. Sure, it was snowing hard but not enough to cover tracks so quickly and completely.
(You can hear me)
"Hello? Excuse me!" Angie called but not too loudly, feeling stupid.
No reply. Just a plaintive 'kee-yick' from a female Tawny owl. The snow crunched under her boots as Angie walked all the way to the road, looking one way then the other. No tyre tracks either.
(You know me)
"You don't need to, y'know... You can use the loo inside." She laughed to herself.
(Don't be afraid)
She shook her head sharply. Her ears were tickling. For some reason, Angie thought she was hearing the echo of a voice she couldn't hear before. Her conscience was given to disconnected phrases from time to time, telling her to laugh when she knew she shouldn't, to say things that would be hurtful to someone. She shuffled on the spot, turning a full circle, straining to hear more.
(I'm with you)
She listened. But for the intermittent call of the owl there was silence, not even the muted roar of distant, incessant traffic. The nearest town, Carlisle, lay 17 miles away. There were no main roads out here, no 'hoodies' hanging with their mobiles parping out choons, no dogs yapping or alarms blaring. Even the lonely curlew had done with their background burbling for the night. Angie blew out a cold misting breath, hissed 'silly woman' to herself and trudged back to the house, telling the 'yicking' owl to 'shut yer beak' along the way. The warmth embraced her once again like a long lost friend and she pulled off her boots and placed them back on the rack next to a dozen other pairs of varying size and description - the pink wellies emblazoned with nodding daisies were particularly fetching and belonged to Teresa.
"So, what have we here?" A postal - or courier - delivery at 8 o'clock on a Christmas Eve. The box was real even if the postie wasn't! No weight to the package at all and she wondered if the bloody thing was actually empty. M-T. Angie smiled, recalling Thomas and Teresa's hysterics when asked by Mum to spell out a hungry horse. H-U-N... No! Try again. H-U-N... No! Completely wrong. It is! It is how you spell it - H-U-N... No! How do you spell it then? M-T-G-G. Geddit? It felt so good, so wonderful, the three of them, rolling around the floor just laughing and laughing.
Angie studied the printing. Done by an artist, had to be.
"Mummy, who was it?" Teresa whispered from up on the landing.
Angie went to the stairs. "Only Mike," she whispered back. Mike was a neighbour, easier to explain than a postman with wraithlike qualities. "Go back to bed."
"Thomas is asleep."
"Good. Your turn."
"I'm too excited."
"Terri..." A mild warning tone.
Teresa tiptoed back to the bedroom chunnering to herself. Angie grinned and shook her head.
Okay. Parcel. Concentrate. No stamps, no frank imprint of any kind. Flic had been going on about party poppers, maybe she sent some over. What, rather than just bring them tomorrow? Stoopido. Not her writing anyway - never seen her hubby Adam's writing so maybe it was in his hand. Angie held the box to her ear and jiggled it gently. There came a soft whispery sound - paper packing? Come on... it's a traditional Christmas surprise. Everybody was looking out for her, trying to make this first Terry-less Christmas nice, bristling with mystery gifts.
"Tell you what, Ange, why don't you just open the damn thing," she told herself. Angie's fingers picked open the parcel paper fully expecting to see festive wrapping beneath - another present for under the tree. Instead it was a plain brown box, barely sealed. "It's not even a pigging present," she grumbled.
Intrigued, Angie lifted the top flaps to peer inside. She smelled burning, felt the sun baking her skin, then deep penetrating cold, gone in an instant but for a second she saw herself standing in a bleak wilderness surrounded by mountains and so far from home. Then she saw the twisted packing paper and tucked in the centre, a flower that couldn't possibly be real. It was about the size of a rose in bloom with thick, pear-shaped crimson petals.
Angie reached in to remove the flower. The purple-green stem disappeared into a small cloth pouch, discoloured by a pinkish blemish. She pressed the pouch gingerly with her fingers... warm. Didn't feel moist, had the consistency of compressed sand. Surely it would need water. When she drew her hand away some of the pink remained on her fingertips. Angie gave them a quick sniff - vaguely metallic, probably a clever wire gadget thingy to keep the stem adjustable.
Yep, some kind of decoration for the tree, that was it. But who sent it and why, I mean, totally unnecessary really. She did what one generally does when faced with a superbly crafted artificial flower; she brought the rubber-like petals to her nose and inhaled. Coppery...
Very slowly, barely noticeable, the pigmentation began to bleed away to its natural colour. Only a desert flower, stained in the blood of battle.
Angie put the flower back in the box and placed the box on the cabinet beside her. She went to the window and watched the rippling veil of snow for awhile. Might need a shovel to dig a way out of the house by morning. She closed her eyes, turned and took a deep breath. Angie opened her eyes and let the room inside her. Over there, the parlour where they took their meals - a bright and cheerful room, particularly on a beautiful morning. On the other side of the display cabinet, the entrance to the kitchen and pantry, the source of frequent lip-smacking culinary concoctions. Nearest to her, the small study, a good reading room and also excellent for spying the garden wildlife, indeed there was a Leica spotting scope set up on a tripod in there. On the other side of the fireplace, tucked out of view, the tiny den. Her gaze drifted up to the triple sconce uplighters hanging from the ceiling, two sets, both now dressed in skirts of holly.
She moved to the Christmas tree and ran her hand over the pine needles. They felt like a breeze blowing across her skin. Angie moved through the room picking up trinkets and ornaments, books, papers and letters, smelling the air as she made her way to the den. Terry's den, his escape route. She grasped the rounded door handle and twisted. Locked. Since March, to be precise. Angie put her ear to the wood; unchanged in there, exactly as Terry left it. A PC plus assorted hardware, CD's, DVD's, magazines and documents stacked haphazardly. A corner of chaos in a house of order. She smiled against the door.
To the staircase. The boards groaned beneath her feet. Angie trailed her fingers along the varnished dark wood bannister. Then she paused to look at pictures hung on the wall - pictures of Bowness during a Roman-style pageant, views along the Solway, of last year's heavy snow and the kids hugging a carrot-conk snowman. A mother, a father and their two children posing amidst a winter wonderland. Ageless, eternal...
Angie gained the landing and loitered by the cuddly toy posse, laying hands on the head of a baby seal, a lamb, a tiger cub - always careful not to dislodge any from their precarious positions. Because woe betide any tails or tentacles going back in the wrong place, though there was no apparent rhyme or reason the kids would spot the difference in a flash - then you'd be sent to the doghouse without any supper. Angie moved on to the kids' bedroom and let herself in. She stood in the doorway for a long moment, smelling clean soapy skin, a hint of strawberry candy, then a blast of cinnamon from a bedside pot pourri. The wallpaper of lilac and pink stripes contained a variety of kittens climbing, playing or peeping between the bold patterns. Pooh Bear was eating honey on the light shade. Nemo, found at last, reclined on a little wooden chair. From the floor, Wall-E regarded her with an oddly affecting balance of sadness and hope. A big red stocking was hung at the end of each bed, waiting to be filled with goodies. A tidy room, the only day of the year it ever was because they were on their best Christmas behaviour.
And the flower - orange now, but fading still. Time, passing as petals in an hourglass...
She settled gently onto Thomas's bed and brushed the hair from his forehead. He stirred fitfully in his sleep, she could see his eyes roving under closed lids - dreaming of jingling bells and flying reindeer. She planted a kiss high on his cheek, breathed in the smell of his hair, a lemon tang from his mother's choice of shampoo.
Then Angie crossed to Teresa's bed and perched on the edge, going through the same ritual, maybe delaying just a little longer with Daddy's girl. Teresa had taken the news hard, she was knowledgeable and aware whereas Thomas did not yet comprehend the reason why a parent had been taken from him. Teresa watched and understood the news reports of war and violence in distant countries, no matter how much Angie tried to shield her children from the dreadful possibilities of such actions. "That might happen to Daddy," Teresa had matter-of-factly commented to Angie one evening after another report of a roadside bomb obliterating two soldiers and their transport. She had wanted to reply 'No, of course it won't happen to Daddy' but the words remained unsaid. There was no point in lying. Teresa knew, a chunk of 8 year old innocence already gone. Would she still believe in Father Christmas next year?
Angie got up gently and with painful regret. She made her way to the door, framed against the snow pelting past the bedroom window and looked back once. Quietly, she closed the door and went back downstairs.
She went past the parcel, the wrinkling flower within now drained to a washed-out orange, walked by the entrance to the parlour and on to the wall where a mirror hung. Angie looked at herself, her cheeks wet with tears and her eyes, usually the shade of hazel were the colour of a late November night. She reached out to touch the glass with her fingertips.
Then she spotted the semi-acoustic guitar propped up beside the window, partly hidden by couch and tartan patterned curtain. Angie sat down on the arm of the couch and picked up the Fender Teleacoustic. Brian, Flic's other half kept the guitar tuned but never played it. Angie herself couldn't play it either, her nails were too long for a start. Terry... he had played really well. He had often picked away, singing her songs and it was very romantic. But Angie, she was tone deaf, fat-fingered and cack-handed.
Nevertheless, she played a few bars of 'their' song - 'A Guy Like Me And A Girl Like You.' Her fingers knew where to go, measured and practised.
The flower briefly found strength in the music, then began to wither more rapidly, as if that rebellious show of strength had used up its remaining life force in one burst.
Upstairs, Teresa frowned and blinked open her eyes. After an initial rush of burgeoning excitement she saw the glowing numerals of her Nemo clock and the disappointment made the inside of her tummy tie knots. Only asleep for half an hour! She heard music and at first assumed it was coming from the hi-fi. But she knew the sound of live strings. She also recognised Mummy and Daddy's special song that they got all gooey to. She knew the style of the hand that played it too. Teresa eased herself out of bed and crept to the door. As she opened up a notch she heard Thomas mutter in his sleep.
"Daddy got his present..."
Teresa, on her hands and knees, snuck up to the bannister rails. She saw her mother strumming the guitar, her head drooping lower and lower as if she was falling asleep. Her hands stopped moving, the notes faded away. From out of the box came a puff of dust, sparkling silver in the air for a few seconds.
Teresa drew in a quivering breath. Angie looked up, with hazel eyes once more, and saw the face peering at her through the posts. She looked at the guitar in her hands. Then she beckoned her daughter to come down.
Teresa ran all the way and crumpled in Angie's arms. In between sobs, she heard Teresa say; "I heard Daddy - Daddy came home..."
Maybe next Christmas Eve, the postman would bring them another parcel.