Like strangers do

This quirky piece of flash fiction is loosely based on a true story.

 

“Well, you know what men are like.” Mum turned to me, broad smile on her wrinkled face.

After half an hour of silence, the remark made me slurp my tea. Somewhat bemused, I scratched at my greying beard, “Do I?”

She nodded knowingly, “Yes, of course you do. They have needs…”

“Mum.” I put my cup down, picked up a newspaper from the shiny coffee table, flicked through it trying to think of a response.

“Take my Tom…” she giggled, eyes twinkling with mischief.

“What…Dad?” I squeaked in surprise.

“My Tom, I said.” Mum’s eyebrows knitted in exasperation, “He has needs…”

“I really don’t think…” I breathed deeply, taking the smell of wax polish into my lungs.

She leaned towards me conspiratorially, “He always likes me to tie his hands together. You know, when we’re in bed.”

The walls of the communal lounge crowded inwards. The chatter of other residents and their visitors hushed. My neck flushed with heat.

“What are you saying, Mum? You’re not talking about Dad, are you?” I saw my father sitting at the kitchen table, balding and plump, working on The Times crossword puzzle, “He’s not here anymore, is he? You must be confused.”

“I’m fed up of people telling me I’m confused. I know what I’m talking about.” Mum shouted, “Who are you to say I don’t?”

She pushed her cup of tea away, milky brown liquid slopping onto the saucer and perfectly vacuumed floral carpet. Embarrassed, I looked down, noticed the pale band of skin on my newly naked ring finger.

“It’s all right, Mum. Don’t get upset.” I reached across to pat her veined hand but she withdrew it in disgust.

“Don’t touch me…” she spat, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s strangers touching me.”

“I know, Mum.”

I sipped at my cold tea. Perhaps I should shave this beard off, I thought, it might make me look younger.

 

 

Chick mother II

Walking down the street in my local town, happy in the company of my daughter just returned from university for the summer, we spotted a baby crow precariously hopping about on the edge of the pavement. Our hearts jumped into our throats as it skittered into the path of an oncoming builder’s van. Helpless at the side of the road, we watched it miraculously dodge vehicle after vehicle. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, we saw a lorry run over the wobbly creature.

“That’s it.” I said sadly, only to see it emerge unharmed the other side.

We tried hopelessly to cross the road to rescue the bird but the normally quiet street had an unexpected rush of traffic. Finally, a car hit the little thing and catapulted it back onto the pavement. My daughter rushed forward and scooped it up. She held it gently in her hands where it looked about, dazed and confused, but seemingly unhurt.

“We can’t leave it here.” she said.

For a few seconds, we stood uncertain where to go, passers-by looking at us as if we were mad. Then, I had a brainwave.

“We’ll take it to the churchyard, it’s only around the corner, perhaps its parents will find it there.”

My daughter looked doubtful.

“It’ll be safe there,” I said, “It’s quiet and there are lots of bushes to hide in.”

We made our way to the churchyard; the baby crow apparently happy in my daughter’s grasp. In a shady corner of the cemetery, close to a protective hedge, we deposited the little bird. It sat on the grass, still a bit dazed. Crows cawed noisily in the trees above and flapped from rooftop to chimney pot.

“Maybe that’s its parents.” I said.

“Mmmm, maybe…” my daughter replied.

There were chores to do in town, so with a backward glance and a quiet good luck, we left the baby crow.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the cemetery. Our chores completed, we had both looked at each other and said, “Do you think we better check it’s all right?”

The baby crow squatted on the grass, a few hops away from where we’d placed it, pathetic and vulnerable.

My daughter looked at me pleadingly, “It’s going to die, Mum. It’s too young to look after itself, probably fell out of the nest. We have to take it home.”

“It might manage…” I said, unconvinced, “They advise you to leave baby birds.”

“Mum, we’ve already moved it because it got hit by a car. Now we have to look after it.”

I sighed. I had known the moment we rescued the bird that it would end up coming home with us.

“You stay here and hold it while I pop in the pet shop to see if they have a spare box.”

The lady in the pet shop was very kind, finding me an empty dog biscuit box and filling it with straw for the crow to sit on.

When I returned, my daughter was sitting on a bench, with the crow quite comfortable in one hand, expertly thumbing through internet information with the other. She had found out what to feed baby crows and how to care for them.

“They tame very easily and are pretty much impossible to release into the wild once rescued.” she added.

“Great.” I said. I didn’t really want to add a pet crow to our menagerie.

The baby bird flapped anxiously when we put it in the box but settled once the lid was firmly closed. I drove the car round to the churchyard so that we didn’t bump the box too much. We went to collect my son from his piano lesson.

“We rescued a baby crow. It got hit by a car. It’s OK, just dazed…” my daughter told him excitedly when he climbed into the back of the car, “It’s in a box in the boot. We’re taking it home.”

“Great!” my son said. Crows are one of his favourite birds.

All the way home, my daughter and son provided crow facts.

“Ring your father and tell him to get the spare chicken coop ready in the barn for our new visitor.” I said.

My husband had made the coop comfortable, so we transferred the baby crow straight into its new home as soon as we got back. It sat on the floor, purple-black feathers a bit crumpled and piercing blue eyes surveying us with interest. We gave it some water and left it to calm down and settle in. Birds are highly sensitive and can die easily from stress.

A couple of hours later, I took the crow its first meal – tinned dog food. I had brought up a baby bird once before, so I knew that a good way to feed it was to use a cocktail stick. The crow snapped its beak hungrily at the smelly meat and was soon gobbling it up. After its meal, it helped itself to water from the pot we had given it and gave itself a good preen. This little crow was a fledgling, far more developed than little Chickpea had been, but still not quite ready to manage alone. It stretched and beat it wings to exercise them and hopped about clumsily. It jumped onto its perch and wobbled there for a while. I estimated it would need another week or two to learn how to use those wings properly and fly.

The next two weeks involved regular feeding of dog food, grains and peas. There was also exercise time; the baby crow learning to hop from my arm up to the top of the coop. A few times, I took the crow into the paddock to encourage it to fly, hoping it would join the cackling crow family that roosted amongst the trees, but it gripped my arm tightly refusing to leave me or climbing onto my shoulder. I wanted to be able to successfully release the crow back into the wild but it looked more and more like the bird was becoming tame. It called for me whenever it heard me outside the barn and when I came in, it fluffed up hoping for a scratch.

The crow was growing bigger and stronger. It no longer wobbled and could fly with confidence from perch to perch. Its feathers were beautiful and sleek. Its eyes still a piercing blue. We had decided it was a jackdaw because of the eye colour and size. Although all adolescent crows have blue eyes, our crow would keep this colour. Jackdaws have pale blue eyes; bright eyes to frighten off competitors.

My dilemma was how we were going to continue to look after this lovely bird. It was able to feed itself happily from a dish and would catch live insects it found on its travels around the barn. However, it wouldn’t leave me or fly away. My nephew came to the rescue. An avid bird lover and keeper of many different species in large cages and aviaries, he agreed to take the young crow.

We were sad to see it go after two weeks under our care and attention but we knew we had found the ideal solution. We would be able to visit whenever we liked and the crow would be able to live amongst other birds in a more natural environment.

One week later, I am happy to say that the crow is settled and enjoying its new home. It roosts every night on a perch with its bird buddies. I feel privileged to have had another close encounter with a wild animal but I hope I’m not needed as a chick mother again any time soon.

Chick mother II

Somehow, I managed to lose this post from my page after putting it up earlier today, which means I’ve also lost comments from my readers. Sorry about that – I’m still not an expert at blogging – but here it is again!

 

Walking down the street in my local town, happy in the company of my daughter just returned from university for the summer, we spotted a baby crow precariously hopping about on the edge of the pavement. Our hearts jumped into our throats as it skittered into the path of an oncoming builder’s van. Helpless at the side of the road, we watched it miraculously dodge vehicle after vehicle. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, we saw a lorry run over the wobbly creature.

“That’s it.” I said sadly, only to see it emerge unharmed the other side.

We tried hopelessly to cross the road to rescue the bird but the normally quiet street had an unexpected rush of traffic. Finally, a car hit the little thing and catapulted it back onto the pavement. My daughter rushed forward and scooped it up. She held it gently in her hands where it looked about, dazed and confused, but seemingly unhurt.

“We can’t leave it here.” she said.

For a few seconds, we stood uncertain where to go, passers-by looking at us as if we were mad. Then, I had a brainwave.

“We’ll take it to the churchyard, it’s only around the corner, perhaps its parents will find it there.”

My daughter looked doubtful.

“It’ll be safe,” I said, “It’s quiet and there are lots of bushes to hide in.”

We made our way to the churchyard; the baby crow apparently happy in my daughter’s grasp. In a shady corner of the cemetery, close to a protective hedge, we deposited the little bird. It sat on the grass, still a bit dazed. Crows cawed noisily in the trees above and flapped from rooftop to chimney pot.

“Maybe that’s its parents.” I said.

“Mmmm, maybe…” my daughter replied.

There were chores to do in town, so with a backward glance and a quiet good luck, we left the baby crow.

Fifteen minutes later, we were back in the cemetery. Our chores completed, we had both looked at each other and said, “Do you think we better check it’s all right?”

The baby crow squatted on the grass, a few hops away from where we’d placed it, pathetic and vulnerable.

My daughter looked at me pleadingly, “It’s going to die, Mum. It’s too young to look after itself, probably fell out of the nest. We have to take it home.”

“It might manage…” I said, unconvinced, “They advise you to leave baby birds.”

“Mum, we’ve already moved it because it got hit by a car. Now we have to look after it.”

I sighed. I had known the moment we rescued the bird that it would end up coming home with us.

“You stay here and hold it while I pop in the pet shop to see if they have a spare box.”

The lady in the pet shop was very kind, finding me an empty dog biscuit box and filling it with straw for the crow to sit on.

When I returned, my daughter was sitting on a bench, with the crow quite comfortable in one hand, expertly thumbing through internet information with the other. She had found out what to feed baby crows and how to care for them.

“They tame very easily and are pretty much impossible to release into the wild once rescued.” she added.

“Great…” I said. I didn’t really want to add a pet crow to our menagerie.

The baby bird flapped anxiously when we put it in the box but settled once the lid was firmly closed. I drove the car round to the churchyard so that we didn’t bump the box too much. We went to collect my son from his piano lesson.

“We rescued a baby crow. It got hit by a car. It’s OK, just dazed…” my daughter told him excitedly when he climbed into the back of the car, “It’s in a box in the boot. We’re taking it home.”

“Great!” my son said. Crows are one of his favourite birds.

All the way home, my daughter and son provided crow facts.

“Ring your father and tell him to get the spare chicken coop ready in the barn for our new visitor.” I said.

My husband had made the coop comfortable, so we transferred the baby crow straight into its new home as soon as we got back. It sat on the floor, purple-black feathers a bit crumpled and piercing blue eyes surveying us with interest. We gave it some water and left it to calm down and settle in. Birds are highly sensitive and can die easily from stress.

A couple of hours later, I took the crow its first meal – tinned dog food. I had brought up a baby bird once before, so I knew that a good way to feed it was to use a cocktail stick. The crow snapped its beak hungrily at the smelly meat and was soon gobbling it up. After its meal, it helped itself to water from the pot we had given it and gave itself a good preen. This little crow was a fledgling, far more developed than Chickpea had been, but still not quite ready to manage alone. It stretched and beat its wings to exercise them and hopped about clumsily. It jumped onto its perch and wobbled there for a while. I estimated it would need another week or two to learn how to use those wings properly and fly.

The next two weeks involved regular feeding of dog food, grains and peas. There was also exercise time; the baby crow learning to hop from my arm up to the top of the coop. A few times, I took the crow into the paddock to encourage it to fly, hoping it would join the cackling crow family that roosted amongst the trees, but it gripped my arm tightly refusing to leave me or climbed onto my shoulder. I wanted to be able to successfully release the crow back into the wild but it looked more and more like the bird was becoming tame. It called for me whenever it heard me outside the barn and when I came in, it fluffed up hoping for a scratch.

The crow was growing bigger and stronger. It no longer wobbled and could fly with confidence from perch to perch. Its feathers were beautiful and sleek. Its eyes still a piercing blue. We had decided it was a jackdaw because of the eye colour and size. Although all adolescent crows have blue eyes, our crow would keep this colour. Jackdaws have pale blue eyes; bright eyes to frighten off competitors.

My dilemma was how we were going to continue to look after this lovely bird. It was able to feed itself happily from a dish and would catch live insects it found on its travels around the barn. However, it wouldn’t leave me or fly away. My nephew came to the rescue. An avid bird lover and keeper of many different species in large cages and aviaries, he agreed to take the young crow.

We were sad to see it go after two weeks under our care and attention but we knew we had found the ideal solution. We would be able to visit whenever we liked and the crow would be able to live amongst other birds in a more natural environment.

One week later, I am happy to say that the crow is settled and enjoying its new home. It roosts every night on a perch with its bird buddies. I feel privileged to have had another close encounter with a wild animal but I hope I’m not needed as a chick mother again any time soon.

Twenty-four hours from Tumble

His hands slide around my waist…

Don’t. Don’t think about it…concentrate on driving. Hands gripping steering wheel, foot on accelerator, wipers cutting through rain thick like treacle down glass.

His skin smells bitter-sweet in my hair, on my body; cologne and sweat…

Rhys will notice. Shower soon as I’m home. Pizza night. Half an hour with a gin and tonic selecting toppings…another half hour deciding which film to watch.

His voice whispers in my ear, lips touching lobe, tingle reaching to toes…

Think about mundane stuff. Rubbish needs putting out. Is it black bag week? Rotten job in this weather. Do it before my shower…bound to get drips down back of my neck…bloody trees. Still waiting for Rhys to get his chainsaw out.

P1010328

It’s hammering down…curtain of rain hiding the road…What’s he playing at? Idiot! Showing off in his fancy car. Overtaking in this…must have a death wish. Rhys will be worrying. Long drive in a downpour. Not used to me being away…coping alone. Hope he managed to feed himself. Did I remind him to defrost his lasagne? Must have…gave him a list as long as his arm.

‘You’re beautiful…don’t go home yet.’

Don’t want to go home. To face Rhys with this knowledge festering away inside me like a wound…What’s going on? Bright lights a few cars behind me. Pulling over…let it come past. Flashing, piercing blue…that noise goes right through me…pounding behind my eyes. Giving me a headache. Guilt that is. Deserve a headache…gut-wrenching, vomit-inducing migraine.

Wonder what poor bugger needs an ambulance? Maybe that guy in the sports car…that nightmare junction up ahead. There’ll be a hold up if it’s an accident. Must get in the shower before Rhys gets home. Put my clothes on a hot wash. Get rid of this stink.

Rhys was so pleased for me. Getting my place on the conference…posh hotel in Cardiff…encouraged me to go. Something I’d always wanted to do. This is your time, he said, all those years looking after me and Eleri. You go for it. One trip, one flattering remark and my head turns. From faithful wife to push-over fling in the time it took to down two bottles of wine. Nasty crossroad’s just coming up now…no ambulance, no hold up. Not far to go…I’ll be in good time.

Rhys will know. Never could hide a thing from him. Can read you like a book, he says. He saw through me when I pretended some fool had backed into the car while I did the weekly shop. How can I hide an enormous betrayal like this? It’ll be a cancer eating me away.

His kisses burn on my neck…

Heart’s escaping through my throat. Only a couple of miles to go…Think I’m going to be sick. Find a lay-by. Got to park up. Get out of this car…need air…Breathe. Like when I was giving birth. Deep breaths in, count to ten, slowly breathe out. I’m shaking…knees turned to liquid.

Eleri was such a sweet baby. Round and cuddly. I just watched her…sleeping…couldn’t take my eyes off her. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done. So proud of her…getting her place at Oxford. Never imagined she’d grow up to be a mathematician. Rhys’s influence. I’m all airy-fairy natural therapies and herbal remedies. Old hippy, he calls me. Don’t half miss her…her easy conversation and funny ways. It’s like I’ve had an arm cut off…no longer complete. Lost my purpose, I suppose. This was the beginning of my new life; career as an alternative practitioner. What a joke…me helping others find peace amongst the chaos of their lives…can’t even keep my own life in order.

His eyes take a last, longing look…

Stop. Just stop…Haven’t felt longed for in ages…not desired or wanted. I’ve felt comfortable and safe. Nothing wrong with that. We’re happy. Our silver wedding last summer. Barbeque and drinks in the garden. Friends and family, presents and laughter. Lovely day amongst the pretty flower borders. Spent years nurturing those.

Rhys made me promise, we’d never keep secrets. Father was a serial adulterer…watched it destroy his Mam. We agreed we’d always be honest. Well, if we felt the need for an affair, something was seriously wrong with our marriage. Except, it wasn’t…isn’t. We’re doing fine. So, why spend the night with a stranger? Why derail our marriage, send my cosy existence hurtling down some unknown path? Risk everything for a moment of…what…passion or madness? Stupid fool.

He smiles; lopsided like some cad in a Victorian melodrama…

I can’t act as if everything’s normal. As if nothing’s happened. Won’t be able to live happily with a lie between us. I’ll have to tell him. Before he realizes for himself. God…oh, God…just this corner and I’m home. Skull’s squeezing my brain…I’m going to pass out. I can’t do this…This will be the end. Rhys will never forgive me. I’ll turn around…drive away…keep going and never come back.

What’s this now? People in the road…gathered round…the ambulance is here. Not poor Mrs Thomas again, I hope. Another stroke would be the end of her. No…not her…I think…no, it can’t be…the ambulance…it’s outside our house…

Death by chocolate

Some time ago, I wrote this odd little story for a competition in a local free paper. We had to include three random words: dream, chocolate and glasses. The competition was cancelled, so I thought I’d share it here:

 

Two glasses sat smeared and grimy on the coffee table; dregs of cheap red wine congealing. Greasy entrails of foil tubs spilt over the chipped woodwork. Stale aromas of spice mingled with cigarette smoke. An alcoholic fug filled the room. Weak sunlight struggled to reach dusty corners. A low moan rumbled from the tatty sofa.

‘Oh…’ a deep voice rasped,’…my head…’

A shadowy hump rose slowly from its resting place.

‘What a night…think we overdid it…’ the hump said staggering across the floor transforming into a man.

The man stared into a smudgy mirror. He rubbed his stubbly cheeks vigorously.

‘Ugh…’ he said to his dishevelled reflection.

He looked around the unkempt room.

‘Sandy!’ he called gruffly. No reply. Where was his wife?

The man picked his way gingerly out of the lounge, through the cluttered hallway and into the musty, dark bedroom. Sandy liked a lay-in on Saturdays. Her only chance for one. The rumpled bed was empty. He sat heavily on the lumpy mattress. Was Sandy there last night? It wasn’t her late shift at the factory. Yes, he remembered her coming home from her cleaning job at the hospital. She’d found him asleep in the kitchen. He’d woken with a start when she banged her bag down on the table. She’d glared with contempt at the sink full of oily dishes, the grubby work surfaces and basket of dirty laundry sitting shamefully by the washing machine. All as she had left them.

‘I see you’ve been busy,’ she’d said; voice quiet and hard.

He hadn’t been shopping or prepared the evening meal either. Since being made redundant two years ago, a dull laziness had seeped into his bones. Lethargy he could not shift.

‘Sorry love…’ he’d simpered, ‘We can go to the supermarket now…get some bottles…a takeaway…treat for you…’

Sandy had driven them to the supermarket. She’d tutted as he put two extra wine bottles in the trolley. They had picked up a Chinese then come back to the flat in bitter silence. The rest of the evening was blurred.

The man rubbed his hands over his distended stomach. His skin taut, firm and tender to the touch. They – well he – had overdone it last night. He let out a bilious belch which left a bitter sweet tang at the back of his throat. Chocolate; rich and dark. The sensation relit a memory. Something odd. A dream. Last night…

He was sitting on the sofa with Sandy. She was quiet; still angry with him. The air simmered with rage. He turned to speak to her, to apologize. He couldn’t bear the atmosphere any longer. Sandy sat immobile. Glossy, brilliantly tempered. A perfect impression made from delicious, luscious chocolate. He touched her gently. She felt cool and smooth. He breathed in the exotic, sweet smell. His mouth watered, taste buds tingling. He put out his tongue and licked her statuesque face. She tasted good. A high quality chocolate from a posh shop. He wondered if he could risk a nibble. A small bite. Of her ear. He couldn’t resist. The flavour was divine. He began to gobble greedily. Gorging himself on the chocolate. It melted and dripped from his lips. Soon he had devoured his wife with big, hungry mouthfuls. He felt a sickly burn in his throat. His stomach felt swollen and sore. He slept.

The man looked down at his enormous belly.

‘Oh my God…’ he moaned, panic fluttering in his chest, ’I can’t have…it’s not possible…’

He rose from the bed and stumbled into the hall. Frantically, he began to search the house. Pushing, smashing and renting furniture, ornaments and clothing as he went. He shouted and wailed for his wife, his voice tense and hoarse. He tore at his hair in desperation. Silence surrounded him. Fear filling his lungs so he could hardly breath, he surveyed the wreckage of his home. He collapsed on a kitchen chair and swept the table free of clutter in frustration. Putting his head in his hands, he sobbed convulsively.

‘No…What have I done?’ he wept.

Underneath the table, hidden amongst the carnage, sat a pristine square of paper. On it, in neat script, was written:

Dear Rob,

I can’t stand living like this any longer. I want something better and I’ve gone to find it. I’m sorry.

Goodbye,

Sandra

 

 

 

‘Tis better to have loved…

“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H, spoke from the heart about the loss of his friend and the grief he felt.

On Boxing Day, we had a car accident in a surprise snowfall. My husband lost control, despite driving at a sensible speed for the inclement weather, and the car skidded. As we danced a graceful pirouette, a full 360 degrees across to the opposite side of the country lane, time seemed to elongate. I watched in horror, completely powerless; thoughts of dread that my son or daughter might be injured or killed filled my mind. “It’s all right…Hold on everyone!” I said aimlessly. I braced myself against the seat as the car returned to the correct side of the road and landed with a gentle bump against a fence post. When we stopped, the relief that everyone had escaped without harm was immense. Walking the three miles home through freezing sleet, feet slopping and slipping on the wet snow, I felt protective of my two children and husband. I led the way, torch in hand, fussing about our insufficient coats and footwear. I needed to regain some sense of control. It felt as if I had nearly lost everything that mattered to me, everything that I loved, and that shook me far more than the accident.

When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare. I stood watching as my parents and brother descended an escalator straight into a sheet of plate glass. Every time I had this dream, I would awake crying and shaking, believing that it had happened. I was alone; I had lost everything. Since having my children, I regularly experience anxious dreams. A multitude of horrible images where they have been maimed or killed in all number of horrific incidents. When they were babies, I would imagine falling down the stairs with them in my arms. These nightmares leave me feeling drained and afraid. There is nothing I can do. I have opened myself up to this vulnerability; I have no control over what may (or may not) happen to my children. I love them and this involves the risk of getting hurt.

A few days ago, my lovely old dog had a funny turn. My husband and I returned home from searching for a replacement car and he ran excitedly to greet us, then collapsed trembling and letting out a long stream of urine over the carpet.  As we bent down to help him, he looked up at us with confused, frightened eyes and we both burst into tears. We thought it was the end for him. He is nearly sixteen; his weak heart makes him pant continuously and he stands on shaky legs, often falling over. Miraculously, it was not the end and he recovered, carrying on much the same as before. I realize this cannot continue forever, of course. Every day, week, month spent with him is a bonus.  Soon, we will have to face the heartache of losing him. We made the decision to get a dog; to let him become part of our family. We allowed ourselves to love him and must suffer the pain that is to come.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why choose to have partners and children and bring pets into our homes? Why do we allow ourselves to love when we know it will mean pain and loss at some point? Would it be better to protect ourselves from this pain; to avoid love?

Quite simply, to love is to live. Life is about having relationships with others; to make connections. I have had many moments of fun and laughter with my dog. My children have enriched my life and made it more worthwhile. If we do not allow ourselves to love through the fear of being hurt, then we do not truly live our lives. Having relationships and loving others helps us to grow and learn. It gives us meaning and purpose. There will be times when it brings us pain and loss, but living a life alone and afraid would be unbearable. Life is difficult, we must share it with others – family, friends, neighbours, pets.

I have found somebody who explains it more eloquently than I am able:

“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.
Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”    Henri J M Nouwen

A little Christmas magic

Claire never forgave me for spoiling Christmas. When she got to eleven years old and still believed in Santa Claus, I told her the truth.

“You said it was wrong to tell a lie…but you’ve been lying all this time!”

“It’s part of making Christmas magical…” I tried to explain.

“You’re just a liar!”

She ran up to her room, slamming the door, making the light fittings rattle. I sat, shaken and bereft, thinking I was a terrible mother.

Christmas was never the same after that. Claire never looked forward to it with the excitement and wonder of before. She never put the tinsel fairy on the tree or licked the paper strips for the bright chains to hang around the ceilings. She never joined in with carol singing or stirring the pudding. If I suggested a trip to see Santa’s Grotto at the local shopping centre, she would storm off in tears of frustrated rage. Christmas became a low-key event with little preparation or fuss. The presents under the tree seemed pointless and shallow. The magic had gone.

I waited for the time when Claire had children of her own. I hoped that with grandchildren things would be different.

“Don’t think I’ll lie to my kids like you did to me.” Claire said when this thought popped out of my mouth the day she told me she was expecting.

“Well you know, Christmas isn’t the same for children without Santa.”

Claire tutted and the conversation ended. In my heart though, I hoped she would soften once the baby was old enough to understand about Christmas.

 

It was Christmas Eve. I bubbled with excitement because Claire and her family were coming to stay. I couldn’t wait to see little George. When Claire explained they were moving to the Scottish Highlands, I was upset at the thought of rarely seeing my grandson. It had been over a year since I had visited them in their new home. He had grown into a happy, curious four-year-old. This was our first Christmas together so I had made enormous effort. I didn’t care whether George believed in Santa Claus or not, I wanted it to be special.

The doorbell rang just as I took the final batch of mince pies from the oven. The house filled with their sweet, spicy scent.

“Merry Christmas!” I said as I opened the door.

“Grandma, Merry Christmas!” George replied; his voice musical with its Scottish lilt.

“Hi, Mum.” Claire looked flustered from the journey. She held out a bag of presents, as if it contained something distasteful. “Dan’s got the luggage.”

We settled down to a pot of tea and mince pies in front of the fire. George looked around, admiring the decorations. He stood by the Christmas tree; the twinkling lights cast patterns on his smooth cheeks.

“It’s pretty, Grandma. Mummy doesn’t decorate our house.” George shrugged his shoulders in disappointment.

“You know what I’ve told you, George. Christmas is an old-fashioned tradition. Not everyone celebrates it. We don’t.” Claire said patiently.

“But we are this year, aren’t we Grandma?” George hopped up and down in excitement.

 

That evening, after a warming meal of squash soup and crusty home-made bread, George helped me put the presents under the tree. He jumped with joy and satisfaction as he carefully placed each gift.

“This one’s important, Grandma…” he said putting it at the front, “It’s for you.”

“Oh, thank you George. I look forward to opening that tomorrow.”

I passed him another present, “Where shall we put this one?”

“Who’s it for?” George asked, his brow furrowing in concentration.

“Oh…I don’t know. The label’s fallen off.” I said.

“That one must be from Santa Claus, then. I’ll put it next to yours ‘cos it’s special.”

“From Santa Claus?” I said.

“Yes, he never puts a label on.” George stated, in a matter-of-fact manner.

“So, you believe in Santa Clause then?” I asked, a slight flutter in my stomach.

George looked towards the kitchen, where Claire and Dan chattered happily as they did the washing up. “Yes, I do…but don’t tell Mummy. It’s a secret. She doesn’t believe in Santa Clause, you know.”

I gave George a hug.

“You’re a good little helper.” I smiled.

The magic had returned.

 

 

I hope you have enjoyed my Christmas stories. Thank you to everyone who has read my blog this year. Have a very, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

Miracles can happen at Christmas

Once upon a time, in the Land of Dolls, there lived a ragdoll called Rosie. She was a grubby, tatty little thing as she loved to play outside in the cool, fresh air. Her calico body was covered in darnings and mendings where it had been torn by branches, worn on rocks and caught on fences during her many explorations of the trees, insects and animals in her world. Her red woolly hair was tangled with leaves and twigs. Her plain dungarees were covered in many patches, obscuring the original pattern.

“Oh, Rosie, why can’t you be a bit more lady-like?” sighed her mother as she sewed another split in Rosie’s arm with her needle and thread.

But Rosie ignored her mother. She did not care about such things. After she completed her daily chores, she would escape from the house. She wanted to be out of doors under the wide, blue sky where she could breathe and dream. She wanted to sit beneath the pale moon, where she could think and wish. She wanted to lay her head on the dusty earth and listen to the beating pulse of living things. For Rosie had a secret desire, hidden deep within her heart. Rosie wanted, more than anything in her world, to be a real girl.

 

A sharp north wind blew across the Land of Dolls, the weather was turning cold. Soon, it would be Christmas. Preparations were taking place in Rosie’s home for the special day. Rosie worked hard alongside her mother and brothers to make the house clean and tidy. She swept the floors, dusted the corners and polished the furniture. She helped with baking the rich, fruity cake and sweet, sticky pies, without once licking the spoon or smearing batter down her front. She went out with her brothers to find the biggest, bushiest fir tree in the woods. She cut holly boughs to decorate the mantelpiece and put candles in every window to welcome visitors with their warm glow.

Rosie worked hard for a purpose. In fact, she had worked hard and without complaint all the past year. This was because at Christmas in the Land of Dolls, a miracle might take place. On Christmas Eve at midnight, the Spirit of Christmas would look down upon the Land of Dolls. The Spirit of Christmas would gaze on every doll asleep in bed, or lying awake in anxious anticipation, and make a judgement. The Spirit of Christmas would decide which doll deserved the reward of becoming real. No doll really knew for certain how or why the Spirit of Christmas made the decision but the story was that, sometimes, a doll would disappear into the Land of the Living. In a puff of smoke, or flutter of stars, or flash of light, a doll known to be of hard-working character and high morals, vanished. Rosie hoped this year she would be that doll.

 

On Christmas Eve, after a pleasant family meal and songs around the fire, Rosie and her family climbed the narrow stairs to bed. They hugged each other tight and said a fond good night as it was possible this was the last time they would see their loved ones. With her tummy bubbling with excited nerves, Rosie snuggled under the covers and waited. She whispered a prayer to the Spirit of Christmas as she lay alert and apprehensive on the pillows.

“Dear Spirit of Christmas, please pick me this year. I am a doll of good morals and diligent nature. I have happily completed my chores all year. I am kind and caring. I love to be out of doors with the living things. I wish I was alive too.”

Rosie listened to the gentle patter of new snow beginning to fall on the roof. She could hear no other sound. The night felt interminably long. It seemed eerily silent and dark and empty. Eventually, her eyelids grew heavy and she fell asleep.

 

Back in the Land of the Living, Helen sat at the breakfast bar eating another mince pie. Whenever she felt depressed or unhappy, she turned to food. It was a source of comfort to her. What did it matter if she got fat now anyway? There was no baby. There would be no baby. She need not worry about her health. The results had come that morning. Another failure. Their third round of IVF treatment and their last. They could not afford any more attempts. She and Tom had agreed that three was the limit. Now they would have to consider adoption or forget about having children altogether. A miserable time to find out. Christmas Eve. Helen wished that Christmas was over and done with. She did not feel like celebrating; did not want to pretend that everything was good and she was happy and having fun.

Tom had asked her yesterday what she would like for Christmas. He was off buying her a present now. Last minute as usual. He seemed to think a present would make a difference. She wanted a baby for Christmas. She wanted a baby all the time. Helen wanted, more than anything in her world, to have a baby. The longing gnawed at her stomach, a great emptiness waiting to be filled. She bit into a fourth mince pie as if to plug the hole. She understood that there were lots of wonderful children out there deserving a home and parents. But why couldn’t she have a baby of her own? Other women were allowed to get pregnant, feel their babies kick and grow inside them, have their babies suckling at their breasts. She wanted those things too. Some of those women didn’t even want to be mothers. She wanted to be a mother. She was a good person, she had worked hard, got qualifications, made a career as a teacher. A popular, successful teacher. She had spent too long looking after other people’s children, that was the problem. Now it was time for her to have a child of her own and it was too late.

She heard Tom’s key jiggling in the lock and he came bustling into the kitchen, arms full of bags.

“Went a bit mad, I’m afraid.” He shrugged. “Shall I put the kettle on or pour us a glass of wine? Christmas begins now!”

Poor Tom. He was trying hard to be cheerful, to make things right. Helen felt guilty. It was difficult for him as well. He wanted to be a father. She had to make an effort. She forced a smile.

“I hope you bought some more mince pies.”

 

After dinner, they wrapped presents and put them under the tree, then sat together on the sofa sipping mulled wine and watching cheesy Christmas films on the telly. Helen’s mobile buzzed. She picked it up from the coffee table, looked at the screen, switched it off and stuffed it down the cushions beside her.

“What was that all about?” Tom asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Just Mum. I don’t want to deal with it now. Not at Christmas.” Helen’s eyes misted. Tom took her hand in his, entwined fingers and squeezed.

“Shall I get the scrabble out? We’ve got a few hours yet to wait up if we’re going to see Christmas in.”

Helen yawned. “To be honest Tom, I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go to bed.”

They switched off the twinkling lights and climbed the carpeted stairs to bed. Tom held Helen close under the covers and kissed her good night.

“I love you, darling.” he said, “Let’s just have a really good Christmas.”

“Love you. Night, Tom.”

Helen turned away from him to attempt sleep. She did not want to hurt Tom. She would try to have a good Christmas, whatever that was supposed to mean. She would try not to think about the constant yearning inside her, tearing at her heart and mind. She would try to hide the constant pain. She whispered a prayer to whomever was listening on this magical night, this time of miracles, as she lay alert and apprehensive on the pillows.

“Please let me have a baby of my own. I’m a kind and caring person with good morals. I would be a good mum.”

She listened to the gentle patter of new snow beginning to fall on the roof. Other than Tom’s gentle breathing, she could hear no other sound; the traffic and city noises were subdued. The night felt interminably long. It seemed eerily silent and dark and empty. Eventually, her eyelids grew heavy and she fell asleep.

 

The Spirit of Christmas looked down upon her lands that Christmas Eve. She gazed on every doll and every human asleep in bed, or lying awake in anxious anticipation. She heard the prayers of dolls wishing to be real. She heard the prayers of humans in need. She had difficult judgements to make. There were many, many dolls in the Land of Dolls that were kind and good and hard-working. There were many, many humans in the Land of the Living that suffered. The Spirit of Christmas had to find ways to connect the souls of these dolls and these humans. To find balance. To create happy endings.

The Spirit of Christmas looked down upon the soul of Rosie the ragdoll who was desperate to be a real girl. The Spirit of Christmas looked down upon the soul of Helen who was desperate to be a mother.

“I wonder…” said The Spirit of Christmas.

 

Tom wiped the sweat from Helen’s brow and kissed her on the forehead.

“I’m so proud of you darling.” he said.

It had been a long, difficult birth but Helen felt elated as she snuggled the tiny girl. She studied the unexpected fuzz of red hair and the strange birth marks, a maze of lines, on her baby’s arms and legs. Where had they come from? She and Tom had ordinary brown hair and not a birthmark on them. Tom said they must both have recessive ginger genes and the doctor had reassured them the marks would fade with time. Helen did not care. She finally had the child she wanted. A healthy, beautiful girl.

“She’s amazing.” Tom smiled, “And a tough little thing. She didn’t give up through all that and neither did you. I was scared once or twice, I must admit.”

“We’re fine, Tom. I’m so happy. I can’t believe she’s ours.” Helen whispered, “We did it. We actually did it.”

“What are we going to call her?” Tom gently stroked the baby’s head.

“You know, I think there’s only one name that suits her.” Helen said, “It popped into my mind the moment she was born.”

“What’s that?” Tom asked.

“Rosie.”

Christmas sickness

This time of year is one of mixed emotions for me.

In many ways, I love Christmas. I enjoy the traditional activities: bringing out the advent calendar; making and choosing gifts; filling the house with pretty ornaments we’ve collected over the years; brightening the dark days of winter with carols and shining lights; finding a tree to decorate; baking the naughtily alcoholic cake and mince pies. It is not a religious festival in our house but a special time to spend together; playing games without the everyday rushes and having to be elsewhere. A chance to say thank you to loved ones at the end of the year.

The difficulty for me is that Christmas is also a time of greed on a massive scale. It brings out the very worst of consumerism. The shops are brimming with cheap, useless trinkets that nobody really needs. The adverts encourage us to spend, spend, spend. People get themselves into debt to provide the perfect Christmas for their families. In my nearest large town, a Hawkin’s Bazaar has just opened selling ready-filled stockings – the epitome of thoughtless excess.  Many of the presents bought at Christmas will end up at the rubbish dump. Food will rot and go to waste.

A few years ago, I found the experience of doing my Christmas shop at the supermarket – where I saw a family with three trollies of food, one of which overflowed with sliced bread – so overwhelming that it left me feeling sick and dizzy. We are using up the planet’s resources at a shocking rate to make this throw-away stuff. It may please for a short time but, a few days after Christmas, it will be forgotten and discarded. What has brought us to this? We have become disconnected from what is important, from the message of sharing love and caring for others at Christmas. We have lost our way. Something needs to change. We must stop buying stuff and be more satisfied with what we have.

Although I have always tried to do a small-scale Christmas, we still have far more than we actually need. We end up on Christmas Day bloated on delicious food and wine. We are spoilt for choice. So, Christmas is a time when I feel sick with guilt too.  I am lucky to have done well in the lottery of life; of being born in a country with a democracy, safe from war and famine. At Christmas, I think of the many people with nothing – the homeless, the refugees, those living in war-torn countries like Syria and the Yemen. So many with far too little whilst the rest of us have far too much.

This is a time of year when I can feel despairing, so we try as a family to contribute in a positive way. We choose various charities to support at Christmas. We have given up buying lots of presents and sending out cards in an effort to be less wasteful. Money saved goes to those who need it more than us. We show our love by selecting or making one or two special, useful gifts, something genuinely wanted. We plan what we will eat so there is no food thrown away. We take part in community events. It seems inadequate; I would like to contribute more and in the new year I want to explore what else I can do.

Last year, I wrote this poem to express how Christmas can make me feel.

 

Christmas sickness

 

I’ve got Christmas sickness,

guilty, weeping conscience

pressing on my chest,

heart about to burst.

 

So, what

do I do about it?

 

Engulfed by greedy consumerism,

frenzied buying madness, I

hang twinkling lights while

Aleppo burns,

engorge cupboards with festive feasts while

Yemen children starve,

stuff stockings with unwanted gifts while a

refugee child dreams of tomatoes.

 

Bury my head in the sand of Bethlehem.

 

 

 

How do you cope with Christmas excess? Are you trying to buy less and get back to the true meaning of Christmas?

A meeting in the garden

Recently, I have returned to a childhood favourite, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My copy is tatty and falling to pieces as I’ve read it many, many times over the years. I remember receiving it for Christmas when I was ten, and being very excited. It was my best present that year. As a child, I devoured books and was always in need of something new to read. Both my children enjoyed the book as their bedtime story when they were small, so it is special to me and my family.

Revisiting The Secret Garden is like being wrapped in a warm blanket. I know the story so well I can relax completely into it; comforted in the familiar. I meet up with old friends and reacquaint myself with their personalities. There is Mary, spoilt and selfish, with a tragic past. There is Martha, with her sunny disposition and optimistic outlook. There is Ben Weatherstaff, grumpy and cross, with a hidden, soft heart. There is Colin, crippled by his heart-broken father’s rejection. There is the bright, beady-eyed robin, intelligent and all-seeing. Finally, there is Dickon, a breath of fresh, untamed air, bringing nature and wild things with him.

For an ordinary girl, living on a dreary council estate in the 1970s, an isolated manor house set on a beautiful, unpredictable moor provided the perfect backdrop for the story. The idea of a secret, walled garden opened exciting, romantic possibilities. My own life, with worries about school and growing up, could be forgotten for a while. I think I fell a little bit in love with Dickon.

Now, turning the yellow pages of my ageing book, I am reminded of days sitting reading for hours, immersed deeply in the story, unaware of anything going on around me. Although I still read as much as possible and get lost in other worlds, it is rare for me to abandon reality in the carefree way I did as a child.

 

Which old favourites from childhood do you enjoy revisiting? Do they stir any memories?