A Christmas Star

“Oh, you’ve brought an egg sandwich for lunch. I never bring egg sandwiches to work. They make the staff room smell so dreadfully.” Betty Reid looked as if some poor creature had crawled behind the photocopier to die.

Ellen James sighed inwardly. She didn’t often come into the staff room with its atmosphere of prissy spite. She much preferred eating in her classroom; working on a display, preparing resources for an activity or hearing children read.

“I love an egg sandwich, though…” she smiled, “one of my favourites.”

“Mmm…but not in the staff room perhaps.” Betty peeled and sliced her apple with delicate precision onto a bone china plate.

The action irritated Ellen. What was wrong with crunching your teeth deep into the flesh and letting the juice run down your chin? She imagined the look of horror on Betty’s face. Food was for enjoying, not an autopsy.

The reason Ellen had entered the room of doom this lunchtime was because she had been summoned. Betty, who happened to be Deputy Head due to retire at the end of the school year, wanted to discuss the Christmas performance.

“Well, if everyone is here and finished eating, I’ll begin…” Betty said. The staff room door opened and a thin woman with frizzy hair stumbled through and sat down with a mumbled apology. “Pamela, mmm…we are starting.” Betty stood up and straightened her A-line skirt so that it sat perfectly six inches below the knee. She looked around at the teachers gathered there.

All women, all middle-aged, apart from young Ellen in her second year of teaching, all tired and all enjoying a good gossip. Ellen often wondered whether a couple of male staff might improve the dynamic. There was Mr Brown of course, the Headteacher. In a profession dominated by women, in a school full of female staff, their reclusive Head was a man. He never entered the staff room at lunchtime – that was a women’s domain. He was rarely seen around the school, preferring the safety of his office, though he did have an uncanny way of appearing in the doorway of your classroom at the most inopportune moments. No wonder her colleagues were bitter.

“It’s the beginning of November all ready and we need to decide on our Christmas play.” Betty continued, “I think Pamela suggested we do a Nativity this year when we discussed this briefly at our last staff meeting.”

Pamela Gaunt gave a nervous nod, “Yes, well we haven’t done a Nativity for the last couple of years, have we? And I do love to see the story of the birth of our Lord at Christmas.”

Pamela Gaunt was in charge of Religious Education at the school. The most disorganised teacher Ellen had ever seen, her classroom was a shambles of scattered books, games and resources. Always late for meetings, she never had the right report or folder with her; her class never arrived on time at assembly or often turned up in the school hall on the wrong day. She didn’t seem to do any planning, rambling from one unfinished activity to the next. Much like her classroom, Pamela was a dishevelled mess. Her clothes looked like they had been pulled from straight the laundry basket each morning and she usually wore her cardigan inside out. Ellen liked Pamela Gaunt. She was kind and lacked confidence. The children loved her too, despite the chaos, or perhaps because of it. The rest of the staff were cruel about Pamela behind her back, tut tutting about the state of her attire and the tattered, dusty displays on the walls of her classroom.

“No, we haven’t Pamela, thank you. Any other ideas?” Betty gave a hopeful smile.

The other teachers shook their heads.

“What about asking the children?” Ellen suggested.

A bluster of disapproval travelled around the room.

“The children!” Anne Foster exclaimed. “What an idea. It would be a fiasco!”

Anne Foster was the Art Coordinator. She had been in the role for twenty years and had already stated she would be doing the scenery. This would involve drawing everything in outline for the children to fill in with paint – her speciality. Anne Foster was an imposing woman. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, heavy jawed and with hands that could crush a child’s skull to dust, few dared to argue with her. Not that Ellen was suggesting Anne had ever undertaken the crushing of a child’s head but there was still time…she had fifteen years until her retirement.

“What do you mean…a fiasco?” Ellen said.

“Children have no imagination these days.” said Carol Radford, Maths Coordinator. Carol had been Ellen’s mentor in her NQT year and she had the habit of surreptitiously altering the children’s work to make it look better than it actually was.

“Sorry? Surely…” Ellen tried to argue.

“It’ll be Barbie dolls and Action men.” interrupted Anne Foster.

“Or they’ll try and act a favourite film. Disney or Marvel or something awful like that…” said Liz Harris, PE Coordinator. Ellen had fallen out with Liz last summer when she remarked it might be good to try a non-competitive Sport’s Day, where the children worked as teams, rather than the usual races.

“The drivel they write for stories nowadays…all Harry Potter copies. It’s tiresome.” said Maggie Barker, English and Music Coordinator.

A flood of frustration engulfed Ellen. This always happened at staff meetings.

“Well, if there are no other ideas, a Nativity it is. Can I have a show of hands to ensure we are all agreed?” Betty said.

Everyone, except Ellen, raised their arms.

“Good, that’s pretty unanimous. Right, the bell will go shortly, so we must quickly decide who will be running this show. Anne has kindly offered to do her marvellous scenery again this year. Maggie will play the piano. We need someone to volunteer to sort out the play itself. It’s a demanding role but, I think, a rewarding one.” Betty eyed the room expectantly. Everyone avoided eye contact.

Finally, when Ellen could bear it no longer, she piped up, “I’ll do it if no one else wants to.”

“A little irregular for a teacher in only their second year to organise our special event.” Betty said shortly, “Anyone else?” The room was quiet. “Very well, Ellen it is, thank you.”

The bell rang out.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

During Circle Time, Ellen told her children about the Christmas performance and read them the Nativity story. Twenty-five upturned faces listened with wide-eyed concentration.

“Now Blue Class, I’ve said I will organise the show this year and I need your help.” Ellen said when she finished reading. Twenty-five mouths gasped in excitement, “Everyone in school will be in the play and we need to think about the different parts. I’m going to go around the circle and ask you one at a time for an idea about the people, animals and things we’ll need in the story. I’ll write your ideas on the whiteboard. Everyone will have a turn to say something and if you can’t think of anything, that is fine. All right?”

“Yes, Miss James.” the children chanted.

There was soon an impressive list on the whiteboard: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, angels, kings, sheep, cows, pigs, horses, camels, a donkey (‘Oh yes Olivia, we must sing Little Donkey,’ agreed Ellen), an innkeeper, a llama (that had been Ben’s idea and everyone laughed but Ellen said there were camels, so why not a llama too?), a stable, a manger, presents for Jesus (Ellen asked if anyone remembered what the three kings brought Jesus and received the confident answer of gold, Frankenstein and mirth from Chantelle), lambs, guests at the inn, a drummer boy (‘Another good song Dylan,’ Ellen smiled), costumes, crowns, angel wings and tinsel. Finally, Ellen got to Amy, who was sitting next to her feet, the last child in the circle. Amy had listened carefully to everyone’s ideas, occasionally standing up to excitedly repeat what her friends said. She liked to say and sign the words as she was developing her speech and Makaton sign language. Amy worked the hardest of all the children in Blue Class and was the most enthusiastic pupil in school. Everyone in class loved her and her teaching assistant, Miss Williams.

“Amy, can you think of anything?” Ellen signed the key words in her sentence.

Amy jumped up and down. “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” she signed and sang.

“Amy, that’s a good idea. The star that showed Jesus was born. We need a star.” Ellen wrote the word star on the board and drew a star next to it.

“Twinkle, twinkle little star…” Amy sang.

“Let’s all sing and sign ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’, Blue Class.”

Later, when the children were settled at their afternoon activities, Ellen went over to speak to Amy and Miss Williams who were busy making autumn leaf prints.

Ellen crouched down at the desk, “Amy, I think you would be a brilliant star. Would you like to sing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ in the play?”

Amy dipped her brush into the orange paint and laughed, “Yes.”

Suddenly it was nearly home time, the children bustled and chatted as they tidied away their things then gathered on the carpet for a story and goodbye song. After waving the children off homeward, Ellen and Miss Williams sorted out materials for a tie dying activity the next morning.

“It’s lovely you asked Amy to be the star, Ellen.” Karen Williams sliced a length of white cotton sheet into neat squares with pinking shears, “but are you sure? It won’t be popular.”

“Why shouldn’t Amy be the star?” Ellen said, “She’ll be great singing that song.”

Karen smiled, “I know that and you know that but I don’t think the rest of the staff will agree. For a start, it’s normally top class that take the main parts…”

“I’m running the show, Karen. They’ll just have to agree.” Ellen folded her arms in determination.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

A week later, the teachers were gathered in the staffroom again to discuss Ellen’s plans. They had to decide who in Anne Foster’s Red Class would be taking the lead roles and what the other classes would be doing. As usual, Maggie’s Green Class would be the choir. There was no negotiation on that.   

“Oranges have such a pungent smell and all that juice is dreadfully sticky.” Betty Reid wrinkled her nose as Ellen self-consciously stuck her thumb into the pitted peel.

“Lovely and fresh compared to eggs, though.” Ellen smiled. 

“Yes, well…we need to begin.” Betty wiped her hands clean of crumbs with a lace handkerchief, “Can we have quiet, please everybody? Ellen is starting.”

Ellen popped the orange in her lunchbox and picked up her papers, “With the help of my class, I have jotted down some plans. Red Class lead roles are: Mary, Joseph, two lead shepherds, three kings, the innkeeper, angel Gabrielle and a drummer boy. Then there are the animals: a donkey for Mary, three camels for the kings, then cows, pigs, horses and a llama…”

“A llama?” Anne interrupted, “Are we setting it in South America? I’ve never heard the like!”

“It was Ben Spencer’s idea and the other children laughed. I said we had camels, so why not?” Ellen smiled.

“Because it’s ridiculous, that’s why not. We’ll be a laughing stock. This is what happens when you insist on asking the children. What did we tell you at the last meeting? A fiasco!” Anne snorted so loudly she blew the froth from her cappuccino.

“Yes, scrap the llama Ellen. There are plenty of parts for Red Class without adding unnecessary animals.” Betty smoothed her skirt, “Go on to the next class.”

Ellen sighed, “Ben will be very disappointed. Anyway…Green Class are the choir. So, then we have Yellow Class. They will be the host of angels. They’ll come on and sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. Is that OK, Pamela?”

“Yes, lovely.” Pamela put her hands together as if in prayer, “I do love that hymn it’s…”

“I don’t think the boys in Pamela’s class will want to be angels.” Anne interrupted, “And the parents won’t like it.”

“Angels can be both sexes, Anne. The angel Gabrielle is a male.” Ellen said.

“I’m not giving a boy in my class the part of Gabrielle,” said Anne, “I have Hannah Evans in line for that. Such a beautiful child, with that mass of blonde curls.”

Ellen gritted her teeth.

Pamela said, “I think the boys in my class will be fine as angels when I explain the importance of them in the Nativity story.”

“Good, thank you Pamela.” said Ellen, “Next is Purple Class. They will be people in the town of Bethlehem and at the inn. They will perform ‘Rat at tat tat, there isn’t any room.’ Liz, are you happy with that?”

“Yes, sounds possible. I just hope you are providing directions and a script for this. We don’t want the children standing around like lemons. Christmas is a busy time…we can’t be expected to plan our own scenes.” Liz said.

“I have a script and stage directions in rough all ready. I thought each class could incorporate a simple dance into their songs too. I’ve got ideas written down for those. It’s all here.” Ellen tapped her folder, “You will have to spend time practising your scenes and dances in class though. There won’t be enough time to do it all in whole school rehearsals otherwise. Is that OK, Liz? You are PE Coordinator so I thought you’d be good with the dancing.”  

“Of course. Anyone would think we haven’t put on a play before.” Liz folded her arms.

“Orange Class next. I have you down for ‘While shepherds watched’. There will be shepherds, sheep and lambs. Is that fine for you, Carol?”

“Yes, perhaps Pamela and my class can join forces and if there are any boys who don’t want to be angels or girls that don’t want to be shepherds or sheep, we can swap around a bit?” Carol nodded at Pamela, “Makes sense, doesn’t it?”

Not this again, Ellen thought but said, “Then we come to your children Betty, Pink Class. I have you down for the Little Drummer Boy scene, like a marching band of soldiers come to pay respects to Baby Jesus.”

“I’m sure Mother Mary will be thrilled about that, when she’s just got the baby off to sleep.” Anne guffawed.

“What a brilliant idea, Anne. I’ll add that in as a joke.” Ellen scribbled in her folder.

“Interesting, something a bit different. Got to stop the parents falling asleep. They see a lot of Nativities over the years.” Betty said.

“I’m glad you like it, Betty. Finally, my children, Blue Class. We are going to be the stars in the bright sky. Anne, your class will do ‘Away in a Manger’ then my little ones come on as stars. Amy will be the main star singing and signing ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ then the whole class join in. Then on come the three kings guided by the star to ‘We Three Kings.’ That’s your class again, Anne.” Ellen blurted the information quickly in the hope no one would say anything. 

“Hold on a minute.” Anne said, “Did you say Amy will be the main star? Leading roles are for Red Class.”

“It’s not a leading role, Anne. There are no lines.” Ellen explained.

“And Amy? Do you mean Amy Mackenzie, the Down’s girl?” Anne said shortly.

“Yes, there is only one Amy in my class and she is not a Down’s girl, Anne. She has Down’s Syndrome but that is only a small part of Amy. She is a hardworking, enthusiastic and funny child who loves to sing and she will be brilliant in the play.”

“Is it really a good idea, Ellen? Amy can be emotional at times. If she feels anxious or under pressure on the day, she might not perform well. She might have a tantrum, or burst into tears, or make a mistake.” Betty said. The other teachers nodded in agreement.

“So might any of the children.” Ellen argued, “Last year, poor Jack wet himself on stage. He was so nervous, he forgot to go to the toilet before he put his Humpty Dumpty costume on.”

Anne chortled, “One shouldn’t chuckle but the egg filled up and he left a little trail everywhere he went!”

“So sad.” Tears shone in Pamela’s eyes, “We do expect a lot from them.”

“Exactly,” said Carol, “and perhaps you’re expecting too much from Amy, Ellen?”

“Karen and I know what she is capable of. She signs the song so well. Can we give her a chance?” Ellen looked around at every teacher in the room, “Please don’t write Amy off.”

“All right,” said Betty finally, “Amy can have a chance but any problems, that will be it. We can’t risk the show being spoilt.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

By the third week in November, Ellen had written up the scripts, stage directions and costume requirements, printed them out and given copies to the staff. Rehearsals were due to begin in classrooms the following week. From December 1st, there would be two or three whole school rehearsals weekly, depending on how things were going. Anne Foster had allocated the lead roles to favoured children in her class and begun drawing the scenery.

The first week of December arrived and classrooms filled with the busy hum of children making decorations, cards and calendars for Christmas. Shiny paper chains hung from every ceiling and cotton wool bedecked displays of Father Christmas and snowmen covered the walls. Glitter trailed along the corridors as if some disco snail had been having a party. As the time of the show got nearer, and every day there was another practise, the children got noisier and more excitable.

One afternoon, Ellen felt fed up of Christmas so she suggested her class go on a Bear Hunt around the classroom. The children liked this game. It was something they had done often. They especially enjoyed the bit where they crawled under the tables to get to the bear cave. This particular afternoon, they were impatient and over-tired. Underneath the tables, there was pushing and shoving.

“Careful children, we must be quiet or the bear will hear us!” Ellen said, “Sssh!”

They carried along, creeping on their knees, a little quieter this time when suddenly Amy cried, “Ow, ow, ow!”

Someone had knelt on her hand. She screamed and screamed. Miss Williams tried to calm her but she would not stop. She held up the inflamed fingers to inspect them, then lashed out with her foot at the boy in front who had inadvertently done the damage, catching him on the thigh. It was Daniel Matthews, a child with a tendency to weep at the slightest provocation. He began to wail in time with Amy.

“Whatever is going on in here, Blue Class?” Mr Brown’s voice boomed from the classroom door, “Where is your teacher? Get out from those tables immediately. What shocking behaviour!”

Ellen scrambled out from under the table, “It’s all right, Mr Brown. We were playing a game and someone trod on Amy’s fingers. That’s all. We’re sorting it.”

“Oh, Miss James, you are there. I thought from the noise, the children were unsupervised. I see you have everything under control. I’ll leave you to it.” Mr Brown turned and left.

Across the corridor, Anne Foster loomed in her doorway, a Big Unfriendly Giant.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

That evening, as Ellen was leaving school, Betty Reid called from her office door.

“One moment, Ellen. I hear you had an incident with Amy today. You don’t think she is becoming overwrought with these rehearsals, do you?”

“No, it was nothing to do with the play. A slight accident, that’s all.” Ellen said, “Amy is doing brilliantly. I’m really proud of her.”

“Well, if you’re sure but remember what we agreed. Any more episodes and we’ll have to reconsider.” Betty went back to her office.

Pamela Gaunt came out of her classroom and smiled, “Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing.”

“I bet that was Anne telling tales.” Ellen said, “It’s so annoying. The play is only next week, I don’t want Amy to have to stop now. She’s worked hard. She’s so excited, got her costume and everything.”

“It’s just jealousy, you know. The play is really good and you’re an excellent teacher. They can’t stand that. They think you make them look bad.”

“Thanks, Pamela. Why ever did I volunteer? I’ll be glad when it’s all over.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Finally, the day of the Christmas show arrived. Ellen’s stomach bubbled with anxiety and excitement. She had worked herself to near exhaustion for the last month, lost count of the number of times they had practised the play, knew all the lines backwards and dreamt every night of shepherds, angels, kings and stars. The hall was packed to brimming with parents, grandparents and carers. There were no seats left, many stood at the back and the warm air steamed as damp coats, hats and scarves dried on the back of chairs. A tattered velvet curtain hung across the stage, behind which teachers and classroom assistants bumped and scraped with props and scenery. Maggie Barker played a medley of carols on the clunky piano.

Mr Brown approached the front of the stage and performed a short welcome before hurriedly skulking off. The audience clapped, the lights went down, and there was silence. Everyone waited, nothing happened. Whispers began to travel around the hall. Someone was pulling at the curtain. It appeared to be stuck.

“Excuse me.” Ellen apologised, as she stepped onto the stage and gave the velvet a hefty tug. The curtains swept back to reveal Mary, Joseph and a donkey beginning the arduous journey to Bethlehem. Ellen scooted out of the way and Maggie began the intro to ‘Little Donkey’.

After the initial hold up, the performance went smoothly. The audience seemed to enjoy it. They ‘Aaahed’ to the choir’s beautiful voices. There was a rumble of laughter at the Innkeeper’s emphatic, “No, we have no room. Go to the stable!”. They weren’t concerned by female shepherds wearing tea towels and male angels wearing tinsel. There was a gasp as Gabrielle nearly toppled from her bench as she gave her declaration to the shepherds, and an audible “Phew!” when a fellow angel grabbed her wings to steady her. Mary picked Baby Jesus up by his legs on a number of occasions. Several of the shepherds sat picking their noses as they looked upon the stable scene. ‘Away in a Manger’ brought tears to many eyes. Then it was time for Blue Class. Ellen took a deep breath.

Out trotted twenty-five little stars and spread themselves around the stage. There was a puzzled murmur, as one of the stars appeared to be a llama. In the centre, stood Amy, the brightest, biggest star of all. The room went quiet, then Maggie began ‘Twinkle, twinkle’ and Amy started to sing and sign her song. She performed with gusto and, at the end, did a thumbs up and gave a huge grin. The whole class joined in, singing and signing the song. The audience clapped and cheered. Then Blue Class went off stage.

Amy returned leading the three kings to Baby Jesus. The play continued. Jesus was given Frankenstein as one of his presents. When the marching band woke the Baby and Mary was livid, there was much kind laughter from the crowd. Then the finale, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with not a dry eye to be seen in school. Even Anne Foster choked back a lump in her ample throat. Finally, each class entered the stage for their applause. Ellen couldn’t help but feel glowing pride when Amy and Blue Class received the loudest claps and cheers.

Then Mr Brown was back on stage calling up Ellen to receive her praise and a bunch of flowers. Anne Foster and Maggie Barker were thanked for their contribution too.

“Thank you so much.” Ellen said, “We couldn’t do it without the hard work of the children who were all wonderful. I’d like to give a special mention to Amy. She was a Christmas Star!”

Can you come out to play?

“Can you come out to play?” said the boy at the door.

Liv looked him over shyly. He didn’t seem threatening. He was small and pale, oddly old-fashioned in his grey school shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. His knees were muddy and his plimsoles scuffed. Mum had told her things would be different here. “In the countryside people won’t care what you look like. No one will tell you that you’re wearing the wrong trainers. They’ll probably be in wellies. We’ll be happy there.” she’d said.  

“Wait a minute, I’ll ask my Mum.” Liv pushed the door to and ran up the narrow hallway calling, “Mum, there’s a boy asking if I can go out to play with him.”

“A boy…who?” Mum came to the top of the stairs with Mrs Bevan, the landlady, waddling behind.

It was Mrs Bevan’s house they were moving into. Well, not her house exactly, she was renting Mrs Thomas’s house to them. Mrs Thomas was Mrs Bevan’s Mam who had lived in the house all her life until recently. Mrs Thomas had gone into a residential home after she fell down the stairs and they hadn’t found her for two hours. Liv tried not to imagine the old lady laying on the dark wooden floor, legs twisted underneath her, a livid bruise growing across her face.

She shrugged, “He didn’t say his name. Can I Mum? I’m bored. Please…”

“I expect that’s young Dylan, your nearest neighbour. Good boy, he is. Nice family. Struggling a bit, they are, you know. Father just lost his job.” Mrs Bevan said. “She’ll be fine playing with Dylan.”

Mum thought for a moment, then sighed, “I suppose it’s all right but stay in the garden. And only for an hour tops because you’ve still got to unpack your things.”

“Thanks Mum.” said Liv, scrambling to put on her shoes. She hurried down the hallway and flung open the door but no one was there.

“Dylan?” she called, wandering down to the front gate to see if he was in the lane. A startled blackbird flew up from the hedgerow but, other than that, it was deserted.

“You back already?” Mum said when she saw Liv sitting on the bottom stair struggling with her laces.

“He’d gone.” Liv replied.

“There’ll be plenty of chances to make friends with him, I’m sure.” Mum smiled sympathetically. “Mrs Bevan is leaving now. She’s shown me where everything is. We’ll go and have a cuppa and a sandwich then I’ll help you sort your bedroom out.”

——

Liv sipped her hot chocolate. It was strange sitting in a different kitchen, at an unfamiliar table, drinking from someone else’s mug, eating from someone else’s plate. She missed their kitchen with the shiny breakfast bar where she sat on the shiny stool swinging her feet.

“You okay, little dreamer?” Mum asked.

“Just thinking this kitchen looks very old.”

“Everything in this house is old, Liv. That’s why we got it for a good price but it’s clean and warm and furnished with the things we need.”

“It’s a shame we couldn’t bring our own things.” said Liv, then regretted it as Mum’s beautiful dark eyes clouded over. 

“I’m sorry we couldn’t too…” Mum reached for Liv’s hand, “but you know Dad needs them for his new family. You have your special things. And we’ve never had a garden before and now we have an enormous one. It’ll take all day to explore that tomorrow.”

“It’s okay Mum, it just feels weird.”

“We’ll get used to it.” Mum squeezed her hand, “Now eat up so we can get your room done before bedtime.”

——

The next morning after breakfast, there was a knock on the door.

“Can you answer it, please Liv?” Mum called from the small back room she had chosen for a study, “I’ve got to ring the solicitor.”

Liv skipped along the hall and opened the door. There was Dylan looking the same as yesterday.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“I’ll just tell my Mum.” Liv ran to the study, “Dylan’s here. We’re going to play in the garden.”

She tugged on her wellies and went to join Dylan outside. It was a bright day and the air felt crisp with breaths of Autumn.

“I’m Liv. Are you called Dylan?”

Dylan nodded then stood scraping at the fallen leaves with his damp shoe.

“What do you want to play?” asked Liv.

“Cowboys and Indians. You be an Indian and I’ll be a Cowboy. I’ll chase you, like this.” He trotted around as if he was riding a horse and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

Liv looked doubtful.

“You do the Indian cry.” He opened his mouth in a large o, moving his hand over it in an ululation.

“No, I don’t want to.” said Liv, “I don’t think that’s a nice game. The Native American Indians were driven off their lands by the settlers. It was horrible and sad.”

“Cops and Robbers then. You be a robber and I’ll be a cop. I’ll chase you, like this.” This time, he pretended to drive a car and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

“Another quite nasty game.” said Liv, “I’m not sure.”

“Can you hold your arms like this so it looks like a bag of swag?” Dylan mimed creeping around holding his loot over his shoulder.

Liv sighed, “I suppose I can.”

The two children chased around the garden, Liv exploring as she went, finding paths through the overgrown lawns, ducking under branches and jumping over old fallen walls. It was an amazing place to play in, left to decay and grow wild. When they grew fed up with chasing about, they kicked up piles of dead leaves gathered near the hedges and pulled moss off the crumbling stonework searching for woodlice.

“Let’s go to the stream.” Dylan said.

“I can’t. I mustn’t leave the garden.” replied Liv.

“It’s in the garden.” Dylan said, “At the bottom, then you cross the stream and you’re in the woods.”

Liv followed Dylan down a winding pathway, partially hidden with ferns turning shades of gold and brown. She could hear the stream before she could see it, a whispering, giggling sound like there were other children playing somewhere in the garden. They sat on the wet bank amongst the dying ferns and bracken, hidden from the view of anyone who might come walking, and watched the water hurry over rocks and stones.

“Sometimes I come here and hide.” Dylan said.

“Why?” asked Liv.

“When they laugh at me at school. When they point at my pumps and say we can’t afford proper shoes.”

“Mum told me it would be different here but I knew it wouldn’t. They laughed at me at my school too.” Liv said, “They didn’t like my trainers or my curly hair. And they called me dirty…because I’m mixed race.”

“Your hair is pretty.” Dylan turned his face away, “Sometimes I paddle across the stream and go into the woods and hide in the trees. When my Dad gets angry, when he shouts at me and my sister tells me to get outta the house before I get a good wallop.”

“Mrs Bevan said he lost his job.”

“My Dad don’t want me.” said Dylan.

“My Dad doesn’t want me either. That’s why we’ve moved here. He wants his skinny, blonde girlfriend and new baby. So, we’re the same, you and me.”

“We can be friends.” Dylan said.

“We are friends.” said Liv.

“Shake on it.” Dylan spat on his palm and held it out.

Liv spat on her palm and they shook.

——

At lunchtime, Liv told Mum about Dylan and what he had said down by the stream.

“That’s really sad, Liv.” Mum said, “I hope he’s all right. Perhaps we should call in and say hello to his family this afternoon when we go to post the documents for the solicitor.”

“Don’t say anything Mum, please. He’s my friend and he told me, not you.” Liv bit at her lip. She didn’t want Dylan to think she was a blabbermouth.

“I won’t Liv, but we need to check. This could be serious and we might not be able to keep this a secret. Okay?”

Liv nodded and picked at her cheese sandwich, dreading the walk to the Post Office.

——

On the way back from posting the letter, Mum stopped at the tiny cottage with the peeling front door at the corner of the lane. Their nearest neighbour. Liv stayed by the rusty iron gate.

“We’ll just say a quick hi,” Mum whispered as she rang the bell.

There were shouts and scuffles behind the door, a baby’s cry then a round, flustered face appeared at a grubby window. The face disappeared and a moment later the door opened.

“Oh hello, I thought you were the milkman come for his money. We’re a bit late paying, see.” said the round-faced woman.

“Hello, we’ve moved in next door and wanted to introduce ourselves. I’m Becca and this is Liv.” Becca smiled broadly.

“Oh, nice to meet you. I’m Sioned. I’d invite you in but you’ve caught me in a bit of a muddle, everything all over the place and the little one a bit agitated as you can hear…” she shrugged as another whining cry came from behind her.

“No, no, we wouldn’t expect that. We just wanted to say hello, and Mrs Bevan told me you’ve been having a hard time lately…with your husband losing his job. Just to let you know I work from home and I’m always around if you need anything.”

“I bet she told you, a right gossip that one!” Sioned snapped.

“No harm meant, sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned it…only we all have troubles, I’m going through a divorce now, that’s why we moved, so…” Becca said.

“Oh, no…it’s very kind of you to offer. It is a struggle, with four kids, see.”

“It must be difficult. Are your children all okay?”

Liv squeezed her hands tight in the pockets of her coat.

“Well, normally yes. We always put them first, see. Go without ourselves as long as they got what they need. But, oh they have been poorly, little loves, with this stomach bug going through school.”

“Your children are ill? That’s miserable.” Becca said, “What about Dylan? He’s managed to escape it then, has he?”

“Dylan? No! He’s been the worst of the lot. Got it bad, he have. Been in bed for three days. The washing I’ve had…” Sioned shook her head and the baby wailed again, “Look I gotta go sorry, nice of you to come round. When things are calmer, you’ll have to come for a cuppa. Tara!”

She shut the door and Becca gave Liv a bemused look, “There must be another Dylan in the village.”

——

That night, Liv lay awake as a seasonal wind blustered around the house. The large tree outside her window was scratching at the panes with finger-like branches. Mum had drawn the curtains back to show her there was nothing to be scared of but she felt uneasy. She regretted telling about Dylan. After they left Sioned’s house, Mum had asked lots of questions about him, trying to work out where he came from so she could help him if he was in danger. She wanted to know everything he’d said, what he looked like, what he was wearing, whether he wore the same school uniform as the one she’d bought for Liv (he didn’t; Liv’s polo shirt was a pretty royal blue.) Next time he visited, Mum said she would have a word with him. Liv thought herself a bad friend and decided, if Dylan came again, she wouldn’t let Mum know. She sat up, switched on her bedside lamp and reached for her book.

It was difficult to concentrate with the howling of the wind and the scraping of the branches. Liv lost her place on the page many times until she bumped the book back on the table in frustration. As she did so, she heard a tap on the window. It was a different sound to the rasping tree. She sat very still, listening. The tapping sounded again, a series of sharp, urgent raps on the glass. Someone was knocking on her window. Liv went cold. She lay still, uncertain what to do. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

Liv took a deep breath, then slowly, slid out of bed and padded across the chill floorboards on wobbly legs to the curtain. Once there, she froze, heartbeat pulsing. She took another breath and put out a shaky hand to lift the curtain. The branches scratched at the window. The wind roared. There was no one there. Liv turned the latch and opened the window. It pulled out of her hand with a crash and hung broken against the wall. She leaned out, peering into the darkness.

“Can you come out to play?” said a small voice.

“Dylan? Where are you?” Liv called.

“Here.”

Liv strained her eyes and saw his face, white in the rays from her lamp. He was sitting in the crook of a branch a little way from her window.

“What are you doing? In this wind? You’ll fall.”

“I’m a good climber.” Dylan started to shuffle along the branch towards her window.

“Dylan. No. Get down.”

“Can you come out to play?” his voice carried, clear and cold on the wind.

“It’s the middle of the night! My Mum would be angry if she knew you were here and so would yours. Go home to bed Dylan.” Liv tried to pull the window closed but it dangled on damaged hinges.

Dylan shuffled closer; his skin bruised in the shadowy light.

“Go home Dylan!” Liv shouted.

The wind tore at the broken window. Liv held on tight.

“What’s going on?” Mum shouted.

Liv turned and saw her Mum standing, hands on hips. She looked back at the tree. Dylan was gone.

“Whatever were you doing opening your window in this wind?” Mum struggled with the catch, “It won’t close properly. It’s broken. That will have to do for tonight.”

She took Liv’s hands, “What were you doing, love? I’m not cross, it’s all right…”

“I don’t know…I was scared…the tree.” Liv hugged her Mum.

“Well, you’d better come and sleep with me tonight. I’ll ring Mrs Bevan in the morning and explain about the window.”

——

Mum called Mrs Bevan early the next day. While she was on the phone, Dylan knocked on the door. Liv opened it angrily.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“Can I come out to play?” Liv spat. “What do you think you were doing coming round like that last night, Dylan? You could have got me in trouble. I broke the window. That’ll cost Mum money. You could have been killed.”

Dylan looked down at his plimsoles.

“I’m not sure I should play with you again.” Liv started to go inside.

“Can you come out to play?” said Dylan.

Liv sighed, “You’re hopeless…just let me tell my Mum I’m going outside.”

——

They sat by the stream. The water sparkled in the sunshine as it tripped over rocks. The air was at rest after the wild night. Liv had suggested they do something quiet after the adventures of the previous evening. She hadn’t told her Mum she was playing with Dylan and didn’t want her to hear them if she came out looking. They searched amongst the ferns for signs of insect life.

Liv pulled at a beautiful orange frond, “Where do you live, Dylan?”

“Here.” he said.

“I know you live in the village, but where?”

“Let’s go in the woods. I’ll show you my favourite tree. I’m a good climber.” said Dylan.

“I don’t think I should. Mum says to stay in the garden.”

“I’ll show you my favourite tree.”

Liv shook her head, “I don’t know…”

——

Becca put the kettle on to boil then searched in the cupboard for the bara brith. Mrs Bevan would want a cup of tea and she liked to have a little something with it. Becca hoped she wouldn’t stay too long. That woman knew how to talk. She’d been very understanding about the window though, offered to pop in on the way to the residential home. Becca didn’t know why Mrs Bevan had to see the damage; she could simply organise a carpenter, but it was her mother’s house after all.

“Hello…Becca?” Mrs Bevan called from the hall, “The front door was ajar so I came in, hope that’s all right? And I have Mam with me. She spent last night with us.”

“That’s fine.” Becca said as Mrs Bevan entered the kitchen with a small, frail old lady hanging onto her arm.

“Thought it might be nice for Mam to see her old home. There we go, Mam.” Mrs Bevan settled her mother on a chair. Then, as an aside to Becca said, “She’s getting a bit forgetful and I didn’t want to leave her in the car on her own.”

“Oh, of course.” Becca said, “Would you like some tea before we go upstairs?”

“Paned, mam? That’ll be lovely.” Mrs Bevan struggled to get her bulk out of her jacket, hung it on the back of a chair then sat next to her mother. “Where’s Liv then? I want her to know it doesn’t matter about the window, cariad.”

“She’s playing in the garden with that boy, you know, the one who came round the other day when you were here.  She thinks I didn’t see them creep off.” Becca put two cups of tea on the table, making sure to use the coasters. “I’ll let you do your own milk and sugar.”

“Thanks. Dylan, is it? From down the road. Here we go Mam, two sugars for you.”

“Well, he is a Dylan but not the one from down the road. To be honest, we don’t know who he is. Do you know any other Dylans in the village?”

“I can’t say I do. It’s not like the old days, see. I used to know everyone here but we’ve had so many incomers.” Mrs Bevan looked sheepish, “Sorry, not to mean anything by it but since they built that housing estate on the edge of the village, it’s not been the same.”

“Dylan? My Dylan is here.” the old lady said.

“No, Mam. The little girl has a friend called Dylan. Your Dylan isn’t here anymore, is he Mam? That was a long time ago.”

“Oh, you knew a Dylan too, did you Mrs Thomas?” Becca smiled at the tiny, wrinkled face peering at her with confusion.

“He was her brother, wasn’t he Mam?” Mrs Bevan patted her hand.

“Ssssh, quiet Dylan.” Mrs Thomas whispered urgently, “Dad’s coming and he’s angry with you. Run, Dylan, run away quickly. Hide. Hide. He’s got his belt.”

“Oh, mam. It’s all right. Dylan’s not here. That was when you were children. Drink your tea Mam, I need to go and see this window with Becca.” Mrs Bevan got up and beckoned Becca to follow.

Outside the kitchen door, she said in an undertone, “She’s getting worse, poor thing. Dementia.”

“I’m sorry.” said Becca.

“Sad story about her brother. Died when they were children. Only nine, he was. Mam doesn’t normally talk about him. Finds it upsetting. They were very close.”

“That’s terrible. How did he die?”

“He fell from a tree. In the woods behind here. There was lots of talk at the time, nasty gossip you know, can’t stand gossip. People in the village said their father was to blame.”

“Really? How awful.”

“Yes, he was known for his drinking and his temper, my grandfather. Some said he chased the poor boy into the woods to give him a beating.” Mrs Bevan sighed, “Terrible the things people say. It nearly destroyed Mam.”

Becca said, “Is your Mum okay, do you think? We better check on her.”

They went back into the kitchen. Mrs Thomas was fumbling with her handbag.

“What are you trying to do now, Mam?”

“My photo…Dylan.” the old lady said.

“Oh yes, in your purse. She has a photo of her and Dylan. Keeps it with her.” Mrs Bevan reached into her mother’s bag, pulled out the purse and retrieved the photo, “Here you are, Mam.”

Mrs Thomas touched the photo tenderly then held it out to Becca, “My Dylan.”

Becca saw a faded black and white picture of two children, about Liv’s age. A girl in pigtails and pinafore, arms locked with a pale boy in a grey shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. They both wore plimsoles.

“Are you all right, Becca? Your hands are shaking, bach.”

“It can’t be…” Becca dropped the photo and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Becca? Wait!” Mrs Bevan shouted.

——

Outside, Becca ran on to the lawn, calling wildly, “Liv! Liv!”

The grass was slick and she slid, twisting her ankle.

“Owww…Liv, Liv!”

She heard children’s voices, laughing and whispering, but when she limped towards them, she realised it was only the stream gurgling over the rocks.

“Liv, where are you?” she shouted. Her heart was beating hard in her chest. Her stomach gripped tight with panic.

Then, she heard the scream. The piercing cry of a terrified child. It was coming from the woods.

“Liv.”

Becca slipped and splashed across the slimy rocks, chill water seeping into her trainers. She hobbled through the undergrowth, frantically searching the trees, trying to locate the screaming. Up ahead, stood a grand old oak, its lower branches almost swept the ground. Liv sat slumped over one of the branches, howling pitifully.

“Liv, Liv, it’s all right, I’m here.” Becca scrambled up the tree, grazing her elbow on the rough bark.

“He fell, Mum. He fell. He’s dead.”

Becca pulled Liv her into her arms in an embrace, “I know.”

They both looked down at the leafy floor but no one lay there.

Just walking the dog

This little tale popped into my head while I was out exercising my two furry friends the other morning.

———————————————————————————

“Where do you go every day, bach?”

“What do you mean, where do I go every day? You know where I go…I take the dog for a walk.”

“But where do you go?”

“You know where I go. Down through the cemetery, into the woods, to the stream. You know Buster likes to splash around in there. Proper water baby he is…Then home the other way, through the village and up the hill.”

“But why are you gone so long?”

“What do you mean, why am I gone so long? He has to have a decent play, dun he? Sometimes, on the way back, we stop and chat to the old girl, you know, the one on the corner. She’s usually pottering about in her garden. Likes to chat she do…bit lonely I think.”

“You see why I’m worried, doctor?” Mrs Thomas pinched her lips into a small o with pale fingers.

Doctor Williams sighed, “I’m sorry Mrs Thomas, I don’t understand…”

“It’s the old girl, see. Mrs Jones. She died last year…” Mrs Thomas clenched her hands together, squeezing out any remaining blood.

Doctor Williams leaned towards Mr Thomas sympathetically, “I’m sure there must be an explanation, Mr Thomas? Perhaps you are getting this Mrs Jones confused with somebody else? Maybe the new owner of the house?”

Mr Thomas stared back blankly at the doctor.

“No one has moved in, doctor.” Mrs Thomas explained, her forehead furrowing into deep gashes, “They’ve had a muddle. The family are squabbling over everything. No will, see.”

“Oh. Well…perhaps you are getting your times confused Mr Thomas?” Doctor Williams looked at his patient hopefully, “Is that the problem? You’re thinking about conversations that happened some time ago…something you haven’t done in a while?”

Mr Thomas looked through the doctor.

Shaking her head, Mrs Thomas said, “No doctor, he told me just this last Friday he’d had a chat with her, see.”

“Mmm.” Doctor Williams leant back in his chair, pressing his palms together.

Mrs Thomas drew a deep breath, “The thing is, doctor. That’s not the biggest worry…”

“Then tell me, Mrs Thomas, what is the biggest worry?” Doctor Williams turned his chair to properly look at this small, anxious woman for the first time.

“Well doctor, the biggest worry is…we don’t have a dog.”

Home for Christmas

Charlotte woke clammy with sweat, her heart racing. The dream again. She squeezed her eyes tight to remove the pictures and screaming in her head, then lay quietly, waiting for the hammering of blood in her ears to stop. Her brothers’ whistling breaths alongside her showed they were undisturbed. In the weak yellow light of the streetlamp, illuminating the room through the thin curtains, she could just make out her shadowy surroundings. Turning her head slightly, she could see the hump of her Mum in the corner, huddled asleep under a pile of coats. She had stayed in the armchair again that night then, to give them more room in the bed. Charlotte sighed deeply. She wanted to pee but that would mean waking Mum up as she was not allowed to go to the bathroom alone. She slid soundlessly out from the covers and tiptoed across the cold floorboards to the window. Checking her brothers and Mum were still sleeping, she quickly popped her head under the curtain.

Outside, the sickly lamplight lit up an icy, deserted city street. Once grand houses lined up in shabby rows of bedsits and cheap rentals. In the boarded-up building opposite, steps led up to a wide, deep doorway guarded by two moulded pillars. Charlotte imagined posh ladies in beautiful ball gowns, returning from a night at the opera, stepping down from horse drawn carriages and trotting up the steps to enter the fancy house. Now, the doorway was dirty and dark but she could just make out the huddled figure folded against the wall, away from the wind’s chill fingers. He was still there. Charlotte had watched the man move in a week or so ago; making a bed for himself out of cardboard and setting out his meagre possessions – a carrier bag, a rucksack, a blanket. Every day when she passed him on the way to school, she gave him a smile and a little wave, her Mum hurrying her along the street.

“Come on Charlotte, don’t drag your feet, we’ll be late!” Mum was always hurrying them. She said they mustn’t be late but Charlotte knew it wasn’t that. She knew Mum was afraid. Afraid to be out of the bedsit, afraid to be on the street, afraid in case Dad found them. The man in the doorway never smiled or waved back at Charlotte. He just looked at her with his sad, shiny brown eyes. He was afraid too. Charlotte saw that look in her Mum’s eyes. She saw that look in her brothers’ eyes. She saw that look whenever she caught her face in the cracked mirror hanging in the grubby bathroom they shared with three other families.

A freezing draught cut through Charlotte’s fleecy onesie and she shivered. The bedsit was so cold she could see her breath like smoke rising from a dragon’s nostrils. Imagine how much colder it must be for him, sleeping outside in the filthy doorway. Charlotte wondered who the man was and where he had come from. He was not old but his face was not young. It was hollowed out and lined with tiredness and worry. He was straight and tall, though he bent his body away from the biting cold. His hair was glossy black and his skin reminded her of an olive her Grandma had once given her to try. She had spat it onto her hand as it tasted so yucky and Dad slapped her arm, telling her not to be rude and disgusting. Charlotte thought the man might be a Prince who had run away from an evil King who wanted to murder him.

“Charlotte, what are you doing?” Mum’s voice hissed in her ear, “Get back to bed, you’ll freeze!”

“He’s still there.” Charlotte whispered back.

“Who’s still there?” Mum asked.

“The man living in the doorway. Will he live there forever, Mum?”

“I don’t know. Depends why he’s homeless…he might be an old drunk or on drugs…” Mum’s head joined Charlotte’s under the curtain.

“He isn’t old or drunk. He’s just thin and tired.” Charlotte explained sadly.

“I expect someone from the local church will help him soon. They help homeless people, especially at Christmas.” Mum put her arm around Charlotte, “Get back to bed. Stop worrying yourself.”

“Will they find him a home, like us?”

“Oh Charlotte, call this a home!” Mum kissed her head.

“Are we homeless, mum?” Jack’s sleepy voice came from the bed, “Dylan at school said we’re smelly old tramps because we haven’t got a home and we go to the food bank instead of Tesco.”

“Well, Dylan sounds like a very naughty boy who Santa won’t be visiting this year!” Mum snapped, then said more gently, “Of course, we’re not homeless Jack. This is temporary. We won’t be here forever. Just until I’m back on my feet. Just until the court case is over, then we can get the old house sold…we’ll have money.”

“We have a roof over our heads, Jack.” Charlotte cuddled up to her brother, “It’s dry and we have a bed. That poor man is out in the rain and wind and cold. And he only has cardboard to sleep on. We are much luckier than him.”

“Oh Charlie, only you could say we are lucky!” Mum shook her head in disbelief.

“I feel sad about that man!” Jack began to sniffle, waking up little Lewis who joined in.

“Now look what you’ve started.” Mum sighed gathering all three of her children in a big embrace. “I think that man looks like he’s from Syria or somewhere. One of those refugees. The Government has got enough to do looking after its own, let alone people coming from abroad.”

“But that’s not fair, Mum. Mrs Thomas told us that refugees are running away from war. He couldn’t stay in his country or he would die!”

“I know Charlotte, it’s sad and unfair but there’s nothing we can do about it. Look at us. If I can’t get this sorted, we’ll be joining him!”

“Are we leaving here?” Jack’s brow furrowed with worry.

“Do we have to live on the street?” Lewis wailed.

“No, no, not at all…” Mum soothed, “Don’t you worry. I told you. Our house will be sold and Mummy will buy us a new one. No more talking about homeless people and refugees, Charlie…it upsets everyone.”

 

The next day, the family were up early to get ready for school. Sharing a bathroom with three families meant it could be quite a wait for your turn. Mum needed to spend extra time doing Charlotte’s hair in a French plait, twisted with tinsel, as she was Angel Gabrielle in the nativity play that afternoon; her first time with a speaking role. Mum had managed to make her costume from an old party dress she found in a charity shop and Charlotte was proud of it.  Her brothers were both sheep and had made masks in school from cotton wool and cereal boxes. The three children had only been at the school for a term and Mum was especially pleased they were in the play.

Before leaving the bedsit, Charlotte grabbed her cuddly pony. She never went anywhere without Dobbin. He was the only toy she had managed to fit in the small suitcase the day they had run from home. Although he was not her favourite cuddly, he had become very special to her. He was soft with a velvety muzzle she liked to rub between her fingers and he smelt of her old room. Then, they were out in the icy cold wind and Mum was rushing them along the street. Charlotte looked across at the doorway, ready to wave and smile but the man was not there.

“Come on Charlotte, no dawdling, we haven’t got time.” Mum pulled at her hand.

Charlotte dragged along after her, anxious about where the man could be. She wondered if the evil King had found him and taken him back to his castle. He might be lying in a damp dungeon. She did not think about or look where she was going. All she could see was the man in chains sitting in a dark, miserable prison.

“Charlotte, watch out!” Mum shouted, but it was too late, Charlotte collided with somebody and fell on her bottom with a bump.

“Ow, ow…” Charlotte began to cry.

“I am so sorry.” said a soft, rich voice, “I did not mean…”

Charlotte looked up into two shiny, sad brown eyes. It was the man. She smiled at him, quickly wiping away her tears, “It’s all right, I’m OK.”

“Just an accident.” Mum said, helping her up and brushing her down. “No worry. We need to be going.”

As Mum hurried them on, the man called out, “One moment please, you forgot this.”

He handed Dobbin to Charlotte.

“Thank you.” Charlotte tucked him in her rucksack as Mum pulled her away again.

The man turned and walked on to his doorway.

 

After the nativity play, Mum explained they had to visit the food bank to get their Christmas shopping.

“I was so proud of you all!” Mum said as they walked to the community centre, “You were brilliant. I could hear every word you said Charlie. I think Santa might have left some special things for you at the food bank today because you are such good children.”

“Has Santa left us a present?” Lewis skipped along in excitement.

“We might not get presents this year,” Charlotte warned.

“Is it because he doesn’t know where we live?” Jack asked.

“Of course you’ll get presents this year.” Mum said, “I just told you. He’s left you all something at the food bank. He told me himself. You have all been really good this year, he said, and deserve a present.”

“You talked to Santa?” Lewis exclaimed in surprise.

“Yes, he rang me up this afternoon.”

“How did he get your number?” Jack asked.

“Santa is magic. He knows everyone’s numbers!” Mum said.

They entered the community centre in a state of anticipation. Mum led the way to the food bank at the back of the building, fumbling in her bag for the vouchers she used to buy items they needed.

“Wow!” Charlotte said.

She could not believe the change in the food bank. It was decorated with tinsel and twinkling lights, Christmas music played from a CD player in the corner, the volunteers all wore Santa hats and Christmas jumpers and were singing along merrily. In one corner, there were big sacks full of wrapped presents. The sacks were labelled Boy or Girl and with different ages.

“Look what Santa has brought!” Jack shouted.

“Shall we do food or presents first?” Mum asked.

“Presents!” the three children agreed at once.

Charlotte chose a present from the sack which said ‘Girl aged 7-10 years’. Her brothers had presents from the sack which said ‘Boy aged 4-7 years’. She wondered if Santa really left gifts at the food bank or whether it was kind people who felt sorry for them at Christmas. Surely, if Santa was real, he would bring presents to them at the bedsit. He was magic and would always know where they lived. Her brothers seemed convinced though, and even if it wasn’t Santa, Charlotte thought those people were very kind indeed. She told them thank you in her head.

After the present choosing, Mum took them over to the food.

“I’ve saved extra vouchers so we can treat ourselves.” she explained.

They all enjoyed picking out Christmas treats. There were mince pies, a Christmas cake, a box of chocolates and a multi-pack of crisps to go with the usual essentials.

As they were leaving, one of the volunteer ladies called out, “Wait a minute, me dears!” she ran over with three selection boxes for the children and a box of Christmas crackers, “Merry Christmas!”

 

On Christmas Eve, Charlotte looked out of the window at the man huddled in the doorway. It was bitterly cold. The weather woman on the radio said it might snow that night.

“He’s still there,” Charlotte said, “he hasn’t gone to the church, Mum.”

“Oh Charlie, what did I say to you, please? It’s not helpful and it upsets everyone. Come on now, it’s Christmas Eve and we’ve got to decorate the room.”

Mum had been to the charity shop again and found some tinsel and a Christmas angel. All four of them helped stick the tinsel around the walls with Sellotape. Mum put the angel on top of the chest of drawers. Charlotte and her brothers arranged the crackers around the room and stuck them with tape too. Then they put out their treats and presents on the shelf next to the bed.

That night, Mum said they could eat later, listening to Christmas carols on the radio. She heated up tinned tomato soup in the microwave and served it with slices of bread and cheese. For a special pudding, they had a mince pie and a chocolate each.

“What’s Dad doing for Christmas?” Lewis asked out of the blue.

Charlotte noticed her Mum’s face go pale, “I don’t know, lovely.”

“Probably in the pub…” Charlotte said.

“He won’t ever find us, will he?” Jack asked.

“No, now stop worrying about things like that! It’s Christmas!” Mum smiled, “Let’s sing some Christmas songs, come on, what shall we start with?”

 

Later, Charlotte lay awake thinking about Dad and whether he would ever find them. He had shouted at Mum that she could never leave him. Charlotte tried not to think about the night they left the house, but the image of Dad dragging Mum by the hair out of the room was stuck in her brain. She and her brothers hammered on the door but Dad had locked it. They couldn’t help Mum. All they could do was listen to the smashing and banging and screaming. Charlotte knew she couldn’t go to sleep because she would have the dream again and she didn’t want the dream on Christmas Eve. She thought about the man in the doorway instead and how it was horrible for him to spend Christmas outside and alone. They were luckier than him. They had a home and each other. They had presents and food to eat. He had no one and nothing. They had left their old house but he had left his country. Then, Charlotte knew what to do. Carefully, she crept out of bed and put on her coat and boots, checking every so often that everyone was sound asleep. She picked her selection box from the shelf, unpeeled a cracker from the wall and removed a mince pie, slowly and gently from its wrapper. She bundled them in her scarf, picked up Dobbin and went to the door. Checking again that nobody was stirring, she opened it soundlessly, setting the catch so she could get back in.

On the landing, it was pitch black. The bulb has blown weeks ago and the landlord never replaced it. Charlotte felt her way along the wall to the stairs, then edged her way down one at a time. It was a bit brighter in the hall, a blood red pooled on the floor where the streetlight shone through the stained glass above the front door. She put down her parcel to struggle with the old, stiff door handle, then pulled back the door with all her strength. Picking up her things, she went out into the night. The weather woman was right. It had snowed. A thick carpet, golden under the artificial lights, shone untouched and pure. The grim city street had been transformed into a fairy-tale land. Charlotte looked across at the imposing house opposite. The wide doorway was in shadow but she could just see the outline of a blanketed figure tucked into a corner. Bravely, Charlotte crossed the street and began to climb the steps up to the homeless man. Her feet scuffed the snow.

“Who’s there, please?” the soft, rich voice called, afraid.

“Hello,” said Charlotte, “It’s OK. It’s me, Charlotte, I live over the street. I’ve brought you something for Christmas.”

The man stood up and walked out of his dark corner, “It’s you, the little girl who fell in the street. I have seen you in the window. Go home, it is not safe for you out here at night. Your mother will be worried.”

“I want to give you this then I’ll go home.” Charlotte held out her bundle.

“I cannot take this from you.” said the man, “It is not right. You do not have much. I see. You and your family are struggling.”

“Please.” Charlotte said and their eyes met under the yellow streetlight. The man saw the pain in Charlotte’s eyes and Charlotte saw the pain in the man’s eyes.

He took the gift, “Thank you.”

Charlotte cuddled her Dobbin and walked back home. The man watched her until she was safely inside.

 

The next morning, the boys woke early, excited about Christmas presents. Charlotte was groggy from a sleepless night. They sat on the bed as Mum gave out their parcels. Jack had a Lego tractor. Lewis had play dough. Charlotte had a sketchpad, paints and watercolour pencils. Mum said they could finish the mince pies for breakfast.

“One’s missing!” she exclaimed when she opened the box.

“Sorry Mum, I ate mine in the night. I got hungry.” Charlotte apologised.

“Oh well, you’ll have to have a satsuma.” Mum smiled. It was Christmas after all and she wouldn’t get cross with them today.

“A selection box has gone too…” Jack piped up. Charlotte gave him a stern look.

“Charlotte, you didn’t pig out on all your chocolate?” Mum raised her eyebrows.

“I wonder if it’s been snowing?” Charlotte changed the subject. The brothers ran to the window and pulled the curtain back.

“It has!”

Mum and Charlotte joined them at the window. It looked beautiful outside, crisp and clean and bright.

“He’s not there.” Charlotte said, “He’s gone. Everything’s gone. Even his cardboard bed.”

“I told you the local church would come and get him. They’ll see he’s all right for Christmas,” Mum gave her a hug.

 

After breakfast, it was time to go to the bathroom to get ready for the day. They always went together because Mum didn’t like them being alone in the bedsit.

“Oh, your scarf is lying out here, Charlotte. You must have dropped it yesterday.” Mum said when she opened the door. She picked it up, “There’s something in it.”

“What is it Mum?” Charlotte took the scarf and unwrapped it. Inside, there was a piece of cardboard. On the cardboard was a beautiful drawing. It showed Charlotte riding a glossy horse with a velvety muzzle. She was dressed in a flowing gown with tinsel in her hair.

“That’s wonderful.” Mum said.

“I look like a Princess.” Charlotte smiled.

“There’s writing on the back.” Mum said.

Charlotte turned the drawing over. She read out, “Dear Charlotte, thank you for being my only friend in this strange, grey land. Once, in my own country, I had friends and family. I had a job, a home and money. I had a life. Last night, you made me see I can have friends here too. I can be brave, like you, and go and make a new life for myself. Goodbye, little Princess. Karam.”

“Last night?” Mum raised her eyebrows.

Charlotte looked apologetic, “Well, I can explain everything Mum but, just remember, it’s Christmas…”

 

 

If you would like to support refugees or food banks this Christmas, then here are two great charities:

Refugee Action

The Trussell Trust

A very Merry Christmas to you all!

Christmas is a drag

“Nadolig Llawen!” the chubby chip shop lady called as Jon left the steamy atmosphere and went out into the crisp, wet darkness of a typical December in West Wales. He didn’t reply. Christmas was not on his agenda this year. Having lost his job and the love of his life, his Spotify had been playing Joni Mitchell’s River on repeat for the last fortnight.

Jon splashed through puddles slick with oily rainbows reflecting twinkling lights from the bedecked terraced houses. He arrived at his grey, unlit door and fumbled with his keys. There were advantages to adorning your home with glowing decorations, he thought as he struggled to find the lock. The door swung open and he entered his cold, bare hallway. Since losing his job, he had skimped on the heating. The last thing he needed was an enormous bill this quarter. Lying on the mat, Jon noticed four envelopes stamped with his muddy boot prints. He picked them up and put them in the bin. His mood was too low for jolly, holly seasonal messages.

Jon sat at the kitchen table munching salty, soggy chips and sipping a large glass of brandy. A steady rain pattered the skylight above. He pulled his jacket closer. This had to be the worst Christmas Eve ever. His friends would be out by now, doing the rounds of the village pubs, laughing, hugging, sharing bad festive jokes, gathering later at Twm’s house for the party, cheering and kissing at midnight to welcome in the big day. Jon shivered and pushed the thoughts from his head. He didn’t want to think about Twm. His tinkling laugh, like sleigh bells on a wintry night. His bright eyes, as dazzling as a string of fairy lights.

Jon’s mobile phone vibrated on the worktop. He glanced at the screen; a bad habit he was trying to resolve. He wanted to ignore the messages but read every one despite himself. WHERE R U? WE MISS U. FIND US IN THE 3 COMPASSES. ROB X. What was Rob thinking? He couldn’t go to the pub. Twm would be there. He could not face Twm yet. Not tonight. Not at Christmas, a time for being with loved ones. Twm had made it perfectly clear he didn’t love Jon. Better to forget Christmas this year. To hide away at home. To climb under the duvet and stay there until it was all over. He had his bottle of brandy, another couple of glasses should put him to sleep for a while.

The phone hummed again. Before Jon could stop himself, he looked at the screen. ARE YOU COMING TO THE PARTY LATER? YOU DON’T NEED TO STAY AWAY. I’VE GOT SOMETHING TO TELL YOU. TWM X. Jon shook his head in disbelief. How could Twm torture him like this? Surely, he understood how much hurt he’d caused? Three years they had been together. Three happy years, Jon thought they were. Running a business together and being in love wasn’t always easy. There had been stresses, disagreements and rows. Bound to be with a passionate man like Twm. His temper was fiery at times but it was his energy and life that had drawn Jon. Twm was the complete opposite of him. Jon’s quiet and thoughtful personality settled Twm down. Everyone said they complimented each other perfectly. The vegan café was becoming a success. The TripAdvisor reviews were fantastic. Everything had been going great. Or so Jon believed. But he’d been mistaken. Absolutely wrong. He’d made a fool of himself or Twm had made a fool of him.

 

Jon snuggled into the pillows and pulled the covers up over his head. The brandy had left a warm, soothing glow over his body and his lids were heavy. He closed his eyes and was soon deep in sleep. A glimmer of light played on the ceiling and a faint beat of disco music hung in the air. Jon stirred awake, rubbed his eyes and slowly sat up. He glanced at the alarm clock. Midnight. He’d been asleep for three hours or so. He scratched his head. For a moment, he couldn’t think where the light and sound were coming from, then he realised there must be a party going on across the street. He clambered out of bed to the window and pulled back the curtains.

Outside, every Christmas light and street lamp had gone out. His terrace was silent and black, as if in a power cut, but his clock clearly shone the time. And the room still filled with twinkling light, getting brighter by the second. Jon rubbed his eyes again. This was a hangover of monumental proportions. He started towards the door to fetch a paracetamol but a blazing flash and a deafening bang stopped him. Jon steadied himself against the wall as a glamorous woman materialised in the middle of the room. She was dressed in figure-hugging pink satin with platinum blonde hair piled up in curls and a diamante tiara placed precariously on top.

“What the…” Jon stuttered.

“Do not be afraid. My name is Letitia Splenditia and I am your magical Fairy Drag Queen, Girl.” She sashayed forward, placing a shapely leg in thigh-high silver stiletto boots upon Jon’s bedroom chair, “I’ve been watching you and I know how sad you are tonight. Nobody should be sad at Christmas so I’m here to help.”

John stared aghast at the apparition that had appeared on his cream carpet, “How did you get in here?”

Letitia smiled, showing large white teeth in her lovely, perfectly made-up face, marred only slightly by a shadow of stubble, “Now, now, you don’t need to worry your pretty head with things like that, darling.” She pointed a glossy, manicured fingernail at Jon, “I’m going to mend your little broken heart.”

“That’s impossible.” Jon pouted and folded his arms.

“Oh Girl, never say impossible to a Fairy Drag Queen. I know how much you are hurting. That naughty Twm did a silly thing but you can find it in your heart to forgive him. He wants you to go to the party tonight. And so, you will.”

“A silly thing, that’s what you call it, is it? A fling with his ex? I call it unfaithfulness…disloyalty…betrayal…” Jon’s voice cracked.

“He made a mistake. He was stupid. He drank too much and allowed himself to be flattered by that sweet-talking charmer,” Letitia put her arms around Jon and squeezed him tight. He was engulfed in voluminous bosom and heady fragrance, “but he is sorry. He is heartbroken like you. This party is an attempt to make things better. To put things right. He is waiting for you to turn up.”

Jon shook his head, “Well, he’ll be disappointed then. Anyway, I don’t believe you.”

“Take a look at your phone, Girl. You’ll find many messages there.”

Jon took his mobile from the bedside cabinet. Sure enough, Twm had sent text after text, each one more pleading than the last. The final message read: PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE COME. I MISS YOU. TWM X.

Jon sighed, “I don’t know…He’s hurt me so badly.”

“I know he has, darling. But you love him, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then I will sort everything. You shall go to the party!” Letitia squealed in delight.

“Oh yes, and just how can you do that? I’m a mess. I’ve let myself go these last few weeks. I look and smell awful…” Jon shuddered at his reflection in the mirror.

“Girl, I’m a magical Fairy Drag Queen, how can you even ask?” Letitia twirled her wand and, with another flash and bang, Jon was standing in a sharp suit, hair cut and styled to perfection, swathed in the fresh tang of citrus cologne and mint toothpaste.

“Your carriage awaits…” Letitia pointed to the window.

Under a single street lamp, Jon saw a taxi cab, clouds of exhaust fumes billowing. The driver leant against the bonnet, puffing on a quick cigarette.

“Go slay him, Girl!” Letitia winked, blew a kiss and disappeared.

Jon took a deep breath, appraised himself with pride in the mirror and skipped downstairs.

 

Twm’s house throbbed with loud music and lights pulsed in every window. Jon thanked the taxi driver and climbed out onto the shiny, wet pavement. With a pop, the cab disappeared. Jon pinched himself to check he was awake then darted inside the house, out of the rain. Everywhere he looked, people were dancing, cuddling or snogging in the warm radiance. Drink and food flowed in greedy Christmas excess. Jon searched each room for Twm but no one had seen him.

“That’s great.” Jon said to himself, “All this effort and he’s not even here.”

“Jon, is that you mate?” Rob came bowling out of the downstairs loo, followed by an attractive dark-haired woman Jon recognised as a nurse from the hospital where Rob portered, “Brilliant you turned up! Are you looking for Twm?”

“Yeah but it seems he’s cleared off.” Jon shrugged.

“He’s in the garden. Been there hours in the freezing, bloody rain. Tried to get him in but he said he’s in no mood for a party.” Rob shook his head as the dark-haired woman pulled him back towards the loo, “Sorry mate, things to do. Good luck!”

Outside, the rain fell heavier than ever. Twm hunched on a bench, a coat pulled up around his ears, his normally soft, curly hair plastered to his skull and dripping.

“What are you doing out here? You’ll catch your death.” Jon said.

Twm looked up, “Jon, you came after all.”

“Looks like I did. In the nick of time. Come on, let’s go in and get a drink. Warm you up. It’s Christmas.”

“One moment.” Twm looked serious, “Please sit down. I want to tell you something.”

“It’s wet and cold.” Jon shuddered.

Twm took Jon’s hand, “That doesn’t matter. You’re here. I’m here. We’re together again. Please sit.”

Jon sat on the sopping seat. Water seeped into his smart new trousers.

“You look beautiful.” Twm smiled sadly, “You always do. I’m so sorry I hurt you, Jon. I was a drunken fool. I behaved appallingly. I…I don’t deserve your forgiveness but…I really want it because…I love you so much and I don’t think I can carry on without you. Nothing is the same. I’ve been so miserable…I shut up the café…I haven’t seen anyone until tonight. I only agreed to the party because I…I hoped you’d show up and maybe it would be all right again. Things are bad, Jon. They’re really bad without you.”

Jon held both of Twm’s hands, “I know Twm. I’ve been miserable too. Things are bad without you.”

Twm looked into Jon’s eyes. Jon thought Twm’s eyes were dazzling, bright as a string of fairy lights, though a little fogged with tears.

“Can you ever forgive me?” Twm bit his lip with anxiety.

“I think so…” Jon said, “I’m going to try.”

Twm smiled, “Thank you. That’s the best Christmas present I could wish for.”

Jon pulled Twm closer and kissed him tenderly on his cold lips, “Now let’s go inside, you idiot, before we die out here in this rain!”

Twm laughed, like sleigh bells on a wintry night, “Yes, let’s.”

Jon heard the faint sound of disco music and caught a whiff of heady fragrance on the wind.

 

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone who reads my blog.

Enjoy this night

 

Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.

Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.

Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.

Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.

Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.

“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.

“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.

“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.”  He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”

She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.

Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.

 

Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.

A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.

“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.

Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.

“Nat?”

“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.

“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.

Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.

“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”

She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.

As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.

“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”

“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”

From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.

“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.

“Daughter…” Nat repeated.

“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”

“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.

Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”

He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.

“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”

“An angel.” he said.

“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”

“An angel…” he said again.

“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.

“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”

She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.

“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.

“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”

Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.

“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”

She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.

“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”

When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.

“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”

Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.

 

The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.

Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.

Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.

“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”

There was a brisk knock at the door.

“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”

Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.

Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.

Happily ever after

“Mummy.” Emily’s voice was urgent as I bent to switch off the bedside lamp, “Please leave the light on. I’m scared of the fairies.”

“The fairies?” I sat back down on the bed, “You don’t need to be frightened of fairies. They’re sweet little creatures that grant you wishes and leave a pound coin under your pillow when you lose a tooth.”

“Not these fairies.” Emily opened her eyes wide in fear and gripped me round the shoulders, pulling me close.

“They live in the walls…” she whispered close to my ear. Hot tears trickled down my neck.

“Oh, darling.” I kissed her damp cheek, “Have you been having bad dreams?”

“It’s not dreams, Mummy. I hear them scratching and laughing behind the headboard. They hate me. They say I’m ugly. They want to…kill…me.” The last words disintegrated into violent blubbing.

I scooped her into my arms, breathed in her clean just-bathed skin, “It’s all right, my love. Mummy’s got you. I think you can hear the mice. It’s an old house and there are loads about.”

“Mice don’t talk, Mummy.” she spluttered.

“The light can stay on, darling, and I’ll lie with you until you’re asleep.”

We snuggled under the covers and I put my arm around Emily, held her tight, felt the shock-waves of her sobs through my jumper. With my free hand, I stroked her soft hair, golden in the lamplight.

“Sing me the lamb one, Mummy.” she said, when her crying finally subsided.

By the time I finished my rendition of The Skye Boat song, Emily was asleep, her little body exhausted. I stayed where I was, not wanting to disturb her. It worried me to see her so afraid. I wondered if she was being bullied at school. It had been a tough move for her, dragging her away from her Grandparents and friends, from the bright modern nursery class, to this remote old place in the middle of nowhere, with its austere grey primary school. The house was full of groans and creaks in the night. Many times, I had heard scuttling behind the skirting while I lay in bed. I told Phil we needed to get some traps. “And you a vegetarian,” he had laughed.

With great care, I extricated myself from the warm, sleeping bundle and crept out into the hall and downstairs.

“That took a long while. Everything OK?” Phil looked up from his book, concerned lines across his dark eyebrows.

“Emily was terrified tonight. She said there are fairies living in the walls. They hate her and want to kill her.” I sat down on the sofa, next to him.

He put his book down and cuddled me close. It was reassuring to feel his warmth seep into my skin and the weight of his arm across my shoulders.

“Just dreams, I expect,” he said. “Fairies are pretty bloody scary though, if you ask me. It’s all the fairy tales you read her. Those Brothers Grimm were a right pair of miserable bastards.”

“Thanks for that. I told her it’s probably the mice.”

“I know, I know. I haven’t got on with getting the traps yet. I’ll sort it tomorrow, I promise.” Phil kissed me on the forehead, “Don’t worry. Kids do get scared, you know. It’s part of growing up.”

“But what if it’s school?” I said, “She might be being bullied and this is her way of telling us. It’s been a big change.”

“For all of us.” Phil smiled, “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Jess. Give it some time. See how things go.”

“I suppose…” I sighed, “I just want Emily to be happy here.”

“That’s what we both want. Look, I’ll pour us a glass of wine and we’ll settle down in front of that sloppy film you’ve been trying to persuade me to watch.”

The next morning, we went for a lovely family walk along the river in the crisp autumn sunshine. Emily kicked up mounds of brilliant jewelled leaves, filling her wellies until they overflowed and she collapsed in a giggling heap. I pulled them off her and snuck up behind Phil, emptying them over his head. Emily burst into raucous laughter as he chased me down the path.

Walking back towards her, Phil took my hand and whispered, “She seems fine today.”

On the way home, we stopped at the farm store to buy mouse traps.

“Will they hurt the mice, Daddy?” Emily asked as we returned to the car.

“Well, my lovely, I’m afraid they will kill the mice but it will be quick, so it won’t hurt them at all.” Phil reassured her, “We can’t have mice running around the house scaring my little girl, can we?”

“It’s not…” Emily began but Phil lifted her up over his shoulders and the rest was lost in hysterical screeches.

Back home, we set traps all over the house. Emily helped cut cubes of cheese.

“The mice will go after the cheese, won’t they Mummy, and the trap will come down…snap.” She clapped her hands. “Daddy says it won’t hurt the mice.”

“No, it will be fast.” I agreed, surprised at her apparent change of heart.

“Do fairies like cheese, Mummy?” she asked, a hopeful expression on her pretty, round face.

“I’m not sure. I expect they might.”

She clenched her fists, “I hope so.”

“Let’s take Daddy the cheese, then.” I said, passing Emily the bowl.

Over the next few days, every piece of cheese disappeared but not one mouse was found dead. We refilled the traps, all the cheese went, still no mouse got caught. Every night, I lay listening to scrabbling behind the walls. The mice seemed to be taunting us. Phil joked we must have the most well-fed rodents in the country. Emily became more restless in bed, waking up three or four times a night; wet with sweat and shaking in fear. Her light had to stay on; the bedroom door open. She grew pale and ill-looking; her eyes ringed with dark circles. Even Phil failed to bring a smile to her thin, sad lips.

“The fairies don’t like cheese, Mummy…” she whispered at bedtime on the third night, “They are angry about the traps.”

I slept with her that night, holding her until her breath relaxed and slowed. Then the scampering and scuttling began; movement right behind my head. I tensed, trying to work out where the mice were coming from and going to. They seemed to be running up and down the walls, crossing the ceiling, then returning back behind the headboard. I banged the wall with my fist and the noise stopped.  Emily stirred beside me.

“Sssh, it’s all right.” I soothed.

I started awake. My heart beat against my rib cage, so loud I worried it might wake Emily. Something had woken me. I listened hard. In the black stillness, I thought I heard sniggering.

“Don’t be stupid, Jess.” I said, rubbing my eyes, “Wake up, you’re dreaming.”

“It’s the fairies.” Emily grasped my hand.

We lay together as the scurrying began again.

“Try to sleep, Emily.” I said, “It’s only the mice. Tomorrow, I’m getting a cat. That will fix them.”

After dropping Emily at school, I set off on the thirty-mile trek, down a series of narrow winding lanes, to the nearest animal sanctuary. During breakfast, I had completed a frantic google search and found the perfect place. Emily cheered up as I showed her photos of the fluffy felines in need of forever homes.

“I like that one, Mummy,” she said, pointing to a large ginger tom. “He looks brave.”

“He does look a big, strong cat, doesn’t he?” I agreed. “Well, I can’t promise he’ll be the one we get but I’ll do my best.”

It was good to leave Emily at school looking bright and happy.

I spent an hour chatting to the sanctuary owner about our needs and examining the different cats on show. It was a difficult decision choosing which puss to take away. I felt guilty thinking about the ones left behind, who would still be without a loving family. Finally, I settled on a pretty black and white female with a silky coat, pale green eyes and thick, lush tail. She had an intelligent face and attacked her toy mouse with agility and gusto. I thought Emily would enjoy stroking and brushing her. She would be a lovely pet as well as a rodent murderer.

Emily was thrilled with the cat when she got home.

“What’s her name?” she asked as the cat rubbed against her legs.

“I thought that could be your job.” I said.

“Princess.” Emily bent down and ran her hand along the cat’s back. “You like that, don’t you? You are a beautiful Princess.”

“Oh,” said Phil, “I thought we’d call her Killer.”

Emily laughed for the first time in days.

Within a week, Princess got down to work, leaving several bloody parcels on the kitchen floor for us to find at breakfast time.

“Good cat.” Emily cuddled Princess before going to school.

She had slept peacefully the last few nights with Princess at her feet. The walls had gone quiet. The mice were retreating; escaping from the sharp claws of our clever new pet.

On Sunday, we decided to celebrate our success with a long, late lunch at the local pub, an hour’s stroll through the woods. Emily kissed Princess and settled her in the cat basket near the kitchen Rayburn.

“I love you.” she whispered.

Phil and I smiled at each other, relieved to get our happy, little girl back.

“Come on, monkey.” Phil said picking Emily up, “You can ride on my back some of the way, if you like.”

“Yes.” Emily squealed. “And can I have chips and ice-cream at the pub?”

“What, both together? You’ll be sick.” Phil joked.

After a relaxing meal, we headed home, taking the long walk slowly, our tummies full and legs sleepy with all the food we had enjoyed. The sun was sinking behind fluffy, grey clouds as we reached the house. In the gloomy light, it looked forlorn and unfriendly.

“I think we’ll need a fire tonight.” Phil shivered, “It’s getting chilly.”

Inside, the rooms felt icy and musty. Our high spirits dampened.

“Princess!” Emily called, “Where is she, Mummy? She’s not in her bed.”

“Give her a chance, I expect she’s hunting mice upstairs.” I said.

Emily took the stairs two at a time calling for her cat as she went. Phil began to make the fire and I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. A piercing scream sent us both racing to find Emily. She was kneeling on her bedroom floor, violent sobs wracking her small body. In her arms she held something limp, like a furry rag doll. It took me a moment to realize it was Princess.

“Emily, let me see, darling,” I knelt beside her.

She clung to the cat, her face buried in the dark hair.

“Emily…” I put my arms around her, “Let me see Princess.”

“They killed her…” the words burst from her trembling lips.

I took the cat and placed her gently on the floor in front of my knees. She was frigid; her unseeing eyes glazed wide open. She must have been dead for a while.

“I’m so sorry, my love.” I cuddled Emily, pulled her onto my lap.

Phil bent down and picked up Princess.

“Daddy will take her and wrap her in a blanket. Tomorrow, we can bury her in the garden. OK Emily?”

Emily nodded and began to sob again.

I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth on her bedroom floor, until she cried herself to sleep. Then I placed her carefully in her bed and covered her with the duvet.

Downstairs, Phil was in the kitchen. He had wrapped Princess in a blanket and put her in the cat bed.

“This is a nightmare…” I said, “I can’t believe it. She loved that cat. What are we going to do, Phil?”

“We could get another cat…I don’t know.” Phil shrugged his shoulders.

“Why did she have to go and die? She seemed so fit and healthy.”

Phil sighed, “I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s the oddest thing.”

“What is?” I did not like the look on his face.

“I checked her over, just now, to see if I could find out what killed her. I noticed her mouth, it was gaping…so I looked closer and…” he hesitated.

“And what? Tell me, Phil.”

“I could see something stuck in there, in her mouth. I put my finger in a bit to see what it was. Her whole mouth was gummed up…I could tell her throat was stuffed full too. It was horrible.”

“Stuffed full of what?” I asked, an uneasy feeling rose in my stomach.

“Cheese, Jess. Cubes of moulding cheese.” He shook his head.

“Cheese? The cheese we cut up and put in the traps?” A finger of fear ran along my spine, “But how can that be possible?”

“I suppose Princess found the place where the mice store their food. Perhaps they collected it up for the winter. She must have been too greedy, she ate it all and choked on it.”

“Do mice do that…store food?” The pulse in my temples throbbed.

“Well, they must do, Jess, because that’s how Princess died.”

“But it seems so implausible. Emily said the fairies were angry. They hated the traps and the cheese. She said they killed Princess. The fairies…”

“And that’s a far more plausible explanation, of course. For Christ’s sake Jess, talk sense. Emily was upset, that’s all.”

“I don’t know how she’ll get over this.” I said.

“Kids do get over things but we don’t mention the cheese.” Phil gave me a warning stare.

“What do you think I am?” I said, “We’ll explain Princess had an illness the sanctuary didn’t know about.”

Phil booked the morning off work and we buried Princess under Emily’s favourite rosebush. The one with the sweet-scented, blush-pink flowers she had enjoyed picking in the summer when we first moved in. That seemed an age ago, when Emily was a different child. Now she was pale and silent. Not a word had passed her lips since the previous evening. She communicated with barely perceptible nods and shakes of the head. She refused to eat breakfast. After the burial, she sat on the sofa, staring at the wall with blank eyes.

“Emily needs some time away from here.” I told Phil that evening when he returned from work.

“What about school?”

“She’s in no state for school, Phil. She’s miserable. She won’t speak or eat. If we don’t do something she’ll be a very ill little girl. I’m frightened, Phil. I think she should go and stay with my mum. Have a holiday.”

“Maybe.” Phil said.

“She misses her Grandma. It will do her good.” I insisted, “I’m driving her there tomorrow.”

“Well, thanks a lot for arranging it all without me.” Phil stormed out of the room.

That night, I lay beside Emily while she slept, listening to the scratching in the walls, louder and more insistent now Princess was gone. I prayed Emily would be all right.

When I got back from my mum’s, Phil was making dinner.

“You OK?” he asked sheepishly.

“Yeah, bit tired. The motorway was jam-packed. Five hours in slow traffic’s not much fun…”

“Poor love.” He pulled me close, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just…well, Emily’s my daughter too. I do care about her.”

“I know.”

“How was she when you left?”

“Still quiet but I think she was relieved to be away.” I shrugged, “Phil, do you think we made a mistake coming here?”

“No, I don’t. This is our dream. A lovely old house in the country. Peace and quiet. Home-grown veg and a few chickens. It’s bliss.”

“I’m not so sure. If Emily’s going to be unhappy…”

“It’ll be fine. Everything will settle. We’ve gone through a rough patch, that’s all.”

I chewed my lip, “I’m thinking perhaps we should sell up, move away.”

“Sell up? Jesus Jess, because we have a mouse problem and our cat died? Bit extreme, don’t you think?” Phil kissed me on the top of my head, “Anyway, I’ve thought of a solution. While you were away today, I booked a pest control man. He’s busy until next week but he reckons he’ll soon finish the buggers. Now, sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Dinner’s nearly ready. Try to relax, love. We’ll sort this, I promise.”

The blankets grew heavy on my restless legs. Blood gushed in my ears. A pinprick of pain pulsed behind my eyes. I looked at the bedside clock; quarter past one. Phil snuffled deep in sleep beside me. The room seemed unusually quiet, no scuffling came from inside the walls. I got out of bed and edged my way through the darkness to the door. On the landing, the moon shone a guiding beam of light. I made my way to the bathroom for a paracetamol and glass of water.

On the return journey, I stopped at Emily’s room. A faint scrambling came from behind the door. I opened it and switched on the light, scanning the floor for evidence of mice. In the sudden glare, the room looked unreal and exposed. I went and sat on Emily’s bed, smoothed her pillows, bent down and breathed in her smell. Around me, the scratching started up again.

I stood up and put my ear to the cool wall. It sounded like an army of mice on patrol in there. I tapped my fingers and the noise stopped for a moment, then carried on as before. Above my hand, I noticed a dark, bulging patch. I prodded it and my finger nail sank into soft, damp plaster. I pushed deeper, causing a large piece to flake off. I picked away at the indentation until a small hole formed. It was too high for me to examine easily, so I searched for something to stand on. My eye found the toy box standing at the bottom of Emily’s bed. It was heavy but, little by little, I pushed and pulled it into position. Standing on the box, I put my eye to the hole. It was too dark and tiny to see anything. I set to work picking at the plaster. I needed to see what was making all the noise; to know what was upsetting Emily.

It took some time to make a decent-sized opening. When it was about the size of my fist, I stopped and put my ear to the gap. The walls had fallen silent. Emily kept a torch in her bedside drawer. I went to collect it. Shining the beam into the hole, I peered in. I could see a space between two layers of stonework. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. A stale, clinging smell filled my nostrils. I waited noiselessly for the mice to appear. I waited for a long time, fingers and toes turning numb. Eventually, I heard a faint scuffling and murmuring, to my sleep-deprived brain like distant voices speaking a strange, foreign language. The scratching and shuffling grew nearer, the whispering sound got louder. Furious, guttural voices, cursing and mocking, gathering at some point in the wall then moving on towards the gap where I waited. A shadow began to form at the edge of the torchlight, stretching and growing on the stony surface. A clawed shape, elongated out, gnarled and bony, like fingers reaching from the darkness. I sensed hatred, a malevolent force, directed at me. My heart tightened and blood throbbed under my ribs.

“Jess, what the fuck are you doing?”

The torch fell with a clatter and banged my knee as I stumbled in shock. Phil grabbed my arm to steady me.

“You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”

“Your hands…they’re bleeding. It’s all over the wall…” Phil lifted me down from the toy box.

I looked at my fingers, the skin red and raw, the nails ragged and bloody, “I didn’t feel it.”

“What the hell were doing? You’ve made a big hole…”

“I was looking for the mice, Phil. I heard them…but it sounded like talking.”

“Christ Almighty Jess, let me get you cleaned up. I think you must have had a nightmare, or something. Maybe you were sleep walking.”

A sudden swimming in my brain caused me to totter against Phil, “I don’t know…perhaps it was a dream.”

“Let’s get you back to bed.” Phil took my arm and led me out of Emily’s room.

The next morning, I slept late. When I woke, my head was heavy, like it was squashed into an enormous helmet. My fingertips were sore and bruised. I looked at them in disbelief; what had I been thinking last night? Phil had gone to work but a note was posted on the fridge: ‘Take it easy today. I’ll ring at lunchtime. Love you.’ I didn’t feel hungry so I made a pot of tea and rang to check on Emily. It was good to hear she was eating breakfast and chatting to mum’s dogs.

After the phone call, I went up to Emily’s room to survey the mess. The hole was bigger than I remembered; the size of my head, smeared with dry, rust-coloured blood. I picked up the torch from where I had dropped it, stood on the toy box and examined the opening. The fetid smell reached my nostrils again. Somewhere in the depths, I heard a scraping and chattering. The mice never seemed to rest, roll on next week and the exterminator’s visit.

When Phil came home, I was sitting at my sewing machine, busy at work in Emily’s bedroom.

“What are you up to in here?” he asked, “Did you not hear the phone when I rang earlier? I thought I told you to take it easy today.”

“I’m fine.” I said, “I’m feeling much better.”

“Thank goodness. I won’t pretend that I haven’t been worried.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, “The fairies say everything will be all right now.”

“The fairies? What are you going on about, Jess? Don’t mess about, I’m not in the mood.” Phil came to take a closer look at my sewing.

“I’ve seen them today, Phil. Emily was right. They were very angry with us for moving here, disturbing them, setting traps and bringing in a cat.  They thought we wanted to harm them. But I can make everything better. They are naked Phil, and cold. They need clothes and I am making them. Then they will be warm for the winter. Then they will be happy and they will let us live here in peace.”

“Jess, please, stop this. You’re scaring me. I think you are ill, love. You’ve been under a lot of stress, worried about Emily and stuff…”

“No, Phil. I’m not ill. I understand now, don’t you see? The fairies have explained everything. I have to do this so we can live happily ever after.”

“Jess, come with me. Let’s go downstairs. Sort this out. I can call the doctor, get you help.”

“Please don’t say things like that, Phil. You are making the fairies angry again. I think you better leave.” I stood up and pointed to the door.

Phil stayed where he was, “Jess…”

“Go now, Phil.”

“Christ Jess.” He ran his hands through his hair.

“Go.”

He left. I shut and locked the door behind him. There was a lot of sewing to do. I worked through the night, cutting and stitching, adding buttons and ribbons. Suit after suit, until I had enough for an army of fairies. By midnight, I was finished. I laid the outfits in neat rows on the floor, then collapsed on Emily’s bed exhausted.

After Jess slammed and locked the door on me, I paced the house, wringing my hands, uncertain what to do. I picked up the phone to ring the doctor but put it back in its cradle. I didn’t want her to be sectioned or carried off to some loony bin. As soon as I put the phone down, I lifted it again thinking I would ring her mum but decided she had enough on her plate looking after Emily for us. All the while I could hear the snip of scissors and the whir of the sewing machine. It went on hour, after hour, after hour. Eventually, I sat at the top of the stairs in anxious vigil, watching the door, gnawing at my finger nails, listening and waiting. Waiting for the morning. Hoping Jess would somehow be better by then. Hoping things wouldn’t seem so awful in the light of day.

Pale autumn sunshine woke me, slumped over the top step, aching and stiff. My watch showed seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Jess must have gone to sleep, thank God. I tried the bedroom door but it was still locked. I didn’t want to wake her, she needed rest. In films, whenever a character needs access to a locked room, they do a trick where they push the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper and slide it under the door so they can retrieve the key. I went to find some paper.

In the end, I broke the door down in fear and frustration. It was too quiet in that room. The sewing machine and materials were packed tidily away. There was no sign of the miniature clothes. Jess lay on the bed. Her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Her mouth drawn up in an uncanny grin.

“Jess love, are you OK?” I touched her hand and recoiled in terror. I fell to my knees; my stomach clenched convulsively and I retched. She was frozen, rigid, lifeless. My Jess, dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I took a deep breath and looked at her beautiful face, “What have they done to you?”

Across her eyelids and over her lips, pinning her features into gruesome shape, were rows of tiny, neat stitches. I put my head in my hands and screamed.

In the walls, a scratching, scrabbling sound began.

Memories of summer

This is my microfiction story Oxford Summer as featured in The Simple Things magazine in June 2018.

 

The long, hot summer before you left, days stretched like elastic; tense with waiting. Too tired to move, we lay naked on the floor; limbs outstretched, fingertips touching. Mouths parched, the awkward words stuck in our throats. Your bedsit tidied into neat boxes, there was nothing to drink. And I hated the tap water, stale on my tongue. We stole powdered milk; mixed it with guilt in the tiny kitchen. Barely palatable, we gulped it down along with our foreboding.

The last goodbye arrived; a hurried kiss under burning sun, engine running. And I noticed your hands were shaking.

 

The wardrobe

The wardrobe towered over the cheap hotel room; a citadel keeping watch on those below. Elaine felt uncomfortable under its scrutiny. A grand piece of furniture like that – imposing in its finery of polished walnut, carved lintels and shiny brass handles – had no place in such a small, shabby room; the best she could afford in her haste to escape their disapproving faces. She fidgeted on the pillows wondering how anyone managed to manoeuvre the wardrobe through the narrow doorway. It must have been an exhausting feat of strength and endurance. She was certain the wardrobe must have done its best to prevent its arrival into this unsavoury situation.

Now, it commandeered the back wall encroaching an intimidating distance across the drab and grubby carpet. Elaine could not settle under its reproachful gaze. The wardrobe stood, austere and unfriendly, in admonishment; it was clear it did not belong in that room. She, tiny and unimportant, fitted perfectly in the miserable gloom of the place but the wardrobe, oh no, it was too good for its surroundings; beautifully crafted, made for higher purpose.

Elaine turned her back to it and switched off the lamp. Sleep would be difficult with the monstrous wardrobe mocking her from the shadows. In the dim light, she was aware it looked down on her in a superior, knowing fashion. She closed her eyes tight, tried to forget its presence. The flesh on her back began to creep. It was worse with the huge thing leering behind her. Elaine turned again; she would meet it face to face. It would not beat her into supplication.

In the darkness, the wardrobe sneered. It recognized she was unworthy of its attention, a nothing, a disappointment. It knew everyone expected more and she had let them down. It was no surprise she had ended up in this dismal place. The wardrobe wanted nothing to do with her. To be crammed into a lowly hovel was insult enough, it would stoop no lower. It would not share space with a pathetic individual. The wardrobe seemed to grow larger. It pressed against the walls and ceiling. Elaine slid to the far side of the bed until she reached the cool, far edge. She pulled the covers tighter, making herself a small ball; giving the wardrobe further territory. It was going to crush her, suffocate her; it would be master.

In panic, Elaine lunged for the light switch. The wardrobe loomed above her in the dusty glow. Its polished surface reflected loathing and disgust. It knew she had failed. Failed to get a degree. Failed to be a good wife. Failed to make her parents proud. The wardrobe filled the room, squeezing out the air. Elaine’s chest constricted. She tried to catch her breath but only managed quick, rasping gasps. She could no longer bear to see the wardrobe; to feel the weight of its scorn. In desperation, she covered her face with shaking hands and submitted to the cold, hard wood, smooth against skin as it smothered her.

 

 

 

This story is what my imagination does when I spend the night in an unfamiliar room with a large piece of furniture! Have you ever slept in a room where you have felt unsettled?

 

 

 

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.