The holidays are a time for sharing and Sunday Writers’ Club got into the spirit of it. Our story share this year was about the unexpected, from visitors to gifts. And our writers sent some amazing stories, through the post, to friends near and far to celebrate the season. We thought we would share a few with you as the holidays wind down, hoping you can keep some of the spirit of sharing with you as we “slide into the new year”, as the Viennese would say.
By Eithne Bradley
The relief was a slow wash, a lightness through her.
Ben awoke upstairs. He wasn’t immediately sure where he was or why he was there. Was it a new girl’s place? Or was he crashing at a friend’s? He’d been to so many places over the past couple of months. Nobody was cool enough to let him crash more than a couple of weeks. You could definitely tell who your real friends were. When the going got tough. It was a learning opportunity, really. He rolled over and saw the poster for the band that had split up three years ago. Ah, so he was at home. Of course. It was Christmas and he had to do what he had to do. It would have been so much more beneficial for his personal growth to have been on a beach in Bali with a Christmas coconut cocktail. But the digital nomad life hadn’t really taken off yet. Matter of time. But until then, he was stuck in other people’s suburban houses where all youthful dreams died in a bath of magnolia paint. Hey, that was good. He stretched out an arm to his knapsack and extracted his Moleskine – nothing else would do for jotting – and began to write it down.
Linda surfaced from sleep with a feeling of unease. Then she remembered – the children had been fighting again. She had tried to smooth it over, tried to distract them, but nothing worked the way it had when they were little. Emma couldn’t take Ben’s jibing about her weight. Never had a sense of proportion, that one. And certainly not when it came to portion sizes. You couldn’t eat Christmas cake sandwiches every day for a week and expect to keep your figure. No, the girl was too sensitive, and so passive. She just got pushed around every which way and never took any responsibility for it herself. At least Ben had some drive. He was doing so well for himself, too – a writer, just imagine! She hadn’t really liked his essay that he’d made her read the night before. Too bleak and cynical, really, for her taste. But that was what sold these days, and really if that was the case, what could you do? She did wish he’d lay off Emma a little, though. It was really making things quite strained. And at Christmas.
Brian woke up, remembered it was Boxing Day so he could have a fry up. Brilliant. There were a few presents left under the tree. He supposed they should open them before all the relations started pouring in later. They’d all be a bit punch-drunk with presents and paper by that stage and had happily given up. Best get on with it after breakfast.
“Full English all right for you, love?” he said to Emma, who was still standing at the window. She hesitated, then nodded.
The diet can start tomorrow, she thought and took a seat at the table. The sizzling of bacon and the incredible smell of a Full English filled the kitchen. It was just like when she had been little and come home from swimming completely ravenous, to be greeted by bacon butties and lashings of ketchup. Nothing had ever tasted better than that. Oh, if only she could eat what she wanted and be thin.
“Janine went to India,” she said to her dad. “For two months. She lost four stone and I’ve never seen anyone so tanned.”
“Delhi belly, eh?”
Emma thought that would be perfect. You’d lose weight without even trying. She tried to imagine a slim and tanned version of herself. People would open doors for her. Men would be kind to her. As her dad tipped sausages onto her plate, her brother came in. Ben was her opposite in every way: whip-thin with a curated beard and tortoiseshell glasses. He looked down at her plate in disdain.
“Are you sure you need all that?” he asked, in his false concern voice.
Emma pulled the plate a little closer. She wanted the Full English, but she wanted Ben to stop judging her too. Because he was right. She picked up her fork and made little circles in the ketchup until the tears subsided.
“Because the key to nutrition is really knowing what your body needs-” Ben continued, which his dad interrupted, saying: “And what’s your body going to be having for its breakfast, then?”
“Just coffee. I can’t eat in the morning, it’s not good for my concentration.” He started taking the pieces of his cold-brew set down off the top of the fridge where Linda had lovingly stacked them after washing them the night before. He needed to have a word with her about it. Real aficionados didn’t wash their coffee pots. It ruined the taste. But here he was, stuck with philistines.
As he began to set up the chemistry set of glass tubes and vials, Emma wondered if he knew how much it looked like a bong.
“Got a few presents left under the tree,” said Brian. “Wonder what’s there.”
“Hopefully no surprises,” said Ben. “I made a very clear list.”
Emma wished, with a sudden passion that unnerved her a little, for a surprise.
When they were all fed and caffeinated and safely installed in Christmas jumpers on the sofa, Brian shuffled under the tree and began to fish out presents. He read out the labels like an MC, putting all his effort into “from Aunty Brenda, with all my love”. Ben stared at a patch on the ceiling. Emma giggled. Linda smiled indulgently.
The last thing under the tree was not a present, but a little white envelope.
“Looks like a bill, love,” Brian called, waving it in the air. “And it’s addressed to all of us. Maybe Santa’s decided to send us the invoice, eh?” He tore it open and pulled out the piece of paper inside.
He seemed to scan it for a long time. Linda leant forward.
“What does it say?”
“It’s a round trip voucher to some place called Antanananananana -”
“Antananarivo, Dad, it’s the capital of Madagascar,” Ben said, with scorn.
“All right, we can’t all be geography boffins like you-”
Ben got up and took the ticket out of his father’s hand. He scanned it while the others stared at him. Finally he said “Well, there’s nothing to say who sent it, but I’m assuming it’s for me.”
“Of course it is, dear,” said Linda, while Emma said, “Why? It’s addressed to all of us.”
“Yes, but obviously it’s meant for me,” he snapped at his sister. “Who else here would go to Madagascar?”
“I would,” said Emma.
There was a short silence.
“No you wouldn’t,” said Ben, “you never go anywhere, except to the corner shop for more sweets.”
Emma had a sudden vision of herself, slim and lovely, in her sarong on a white-sand beach. There wouldn’t be any sneaky vending machines there in paradise. Or any corner shops with the chocolate just at eye-height.
She squared up to her brother. Something unaccustomed was raging through her and she would not back down. Part of her knew it was strange. She always backed down. Smoothed things out. Not today. “I have always wanted to travel. I was just talking to Dad this morning about going to India.”
Brian nodded, stroking his chin.
“Really?” Ben raised an eyebrow. “Never heard you say anything like that before.”
“Well, you just don’t listen enough!”
“I listen far more than I should do to you,” Ben snapped. “This is obviously for me. It’ll be just the step up I need to take the digital dream online.”
Nobody else knew what he meant. Brian coughed, and reached out a hand for the ticket. Ben let him take it. His father scanned the text again, as if searching for a clue.
“Well, now, you see, your mum and I never did get a proper honeymoon,” he mused. “And I do like me a good curry. Maybe it’s from one of your batty great-aunts, Linda, wanting us to have a second bite at the cherry, eh? Antananananarivo. Great. Love the sound of it.”
The siblings stared at their father, aghast. He looked defensive.
“What? Seems like a good idea to me,” he said.
“It’s obviously for one of us,” said Emma, “not you, you’ve only ever been to Mallorca.”
“Well maybe I want to go a bit further, hey? Like you and your corner shop.”
“Sorry, love. But you two just jumped in there, making assumptions. I thought we oldies ought to get to make a few assumptions of our own.” He smiled at Linda, who looked alarmed, eyes flicking between her husband and her son. If she was the deciding factor, Ben would have been in a taxi to the airport already.
“But it’s not fair!” Emma wailed. That white-sand beach was slipping out of view. “We deserve it, we’ll make the most of it! We need to have all these experiences, when we’re young.”
“Deserve it?” Brian’s face darkened. “Doesn’t say anything here about deserving anything. And who’s to say you deserve it more than me and your mum, who’ve worked our fingers to the bone all our lives to make sure you had everything you needed? Hmm? Where’s a little bit of gratitude, hey?”
“But I just – I need it, I really need it!” Emma was almost crying with frustration.
“No, you don’t.” Ben’s tone was cutting. “You’re just like a kid, Emma – you’ve seen something someone else has and now you want it too, even though you won’t like it.”
“That’s not true! I will like it, I will, more than you anyway! You’re just pretending! Just pretending to, like, have all these experiences and be this big successful writer. But you don’t really like any of it.” She steeled herself, and threw out: “You’re actually useless. At least I have a real job. And a flat and everything -”
“Don’t you go hanging your bourgeois expectations on me,” Ben shot back, so smoothly that he must have rehearsed it in his head. “You stay in your cage if it makes you feel safe. But don’t go telling me that it’s better than my life.”
“At least I earn my keep! I’ve worked so hard – so hard -” those treacherous tears were surfacing “and nobody cares, and I deserve this, just this once, to see a bit of the world -”
“Calm down, everyone,” said Linda, and everyone ignored her.
“Look, I think it would be for the best if your mother and I took charge of these tickets, because you two are just going to fight -”
“No! No!” Both siblings turned to each other. “Cash it in, we’ll go somewhere cheaper,” said Ben, at the exact moment that Emma said: “We can toss a coin for it!”
“Oh, so now you want to share?” Brian waved the ticket in the air and in a moment of madness, Emma grabbed at it.
There was a sharp rip.
Emma was holding one side of the voucher, and her father the other.
“Oh, my God, how absolutely typical,” Ben spat. “You’ve gone and ruined everything, you stupid, fat-”
“I’m sorry!” Emma was really crying now. Her tears were falling on to the ticket and smearing the ink. Her white sand beach. Her lovely tan in that sarong. Broken. Gone forever. Ben snatched the fragment out of her hand.
“Maybe we could have saved it before you started blubbering all over it, but you can’t even read the numbers any more,” he announced.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” said Linda.
“Oh, do shut it,” said everybody else.
A Christmas Love Story + Ghost
By Jasmine Fassl
I left the city behind and was on my way to the little village in the countryside where Hannah and Colin had just bought an old, crumbling mansion house. The pictures looked like a fairytale, but you couldn’t see the draughty windows or the hole in the roof.
‘Still, ’It’s gorgeous here, you must come’, Hannah had gushed on the phone. ‘Come for Christmas. Phil is joining us too. I’m sure you two will get on really well.’
I wasn’t so sure. Phil was Colin’s younger brother. Single brother. It smelled like a set-up and I didn’t like it much.
However, without firm Christmas plans in place yet, I didn’t fancy going to my parents’ house – my younger sister and her perfect family would be there. They would certainly ask questions about my relationship status, or at least display a silent superiority in their happiness.
So I packed my bags, the presents for Hannah and Colin and a paperback copy of A Christmas Carol for Phil – I had no idea what he might enjoy, but at least it was seasonal. Together with a bag of foodie presents, the car was full. You can’t get Florentines or hot smoked salmon in a little village in the middle of nowhere, and I knew Hannah would appreciate them.
‘I’ll be at yours around 3pm’, I texted Hannah, after her reminder to not trust the satnav, but to rely on the directions she’d sent earlier. It was snowing lightly, white dusting the distant hills. The house wasn’t hard to find, sitting beautifully in a little dip in the valley. The forest was spreading its darker tendrils towards it, which you could see even under the snowy blanket.
It was wonderful to see Hannah and Colin again. They loved the bag with all the posh food most – Hannah didn’t even wait for the tea to brew to try a Florentine. I was awed by the house, the pictures hadn’t done it credit. The entrance hall with the sofas round an open fireplace with its blazing fire. The kitchen down the stone floored hall with an open range and a chunky, wooden table in the middle. The tour round the rest of the house took longer than expected, there was lots to show and much to explain about repairs and restoration plans. My guest bedroom on the first floor featured a four poster double bed, a little dresser with an ornamental bowl and jug on it. The wallpaper was old, stained and peeling in places. It was very vintage chic and charming.
While the three of us were cooking dinner, Phil arrived in a flurry of snowflakes.
‘The road will be impassable if the snow continues coming down like this’, he said, ‘it was a bit hairy coming down into the valley and my car is definitely not up for a return journey uphill today’. We had an awkward shaking hand/hugging moment, but the practicalities of getting him and his bags inside and out of the snow, took care of that quickly. He was also impressed by the hall and the open fire – city dwellers are easily pleased – and the conversation stayed on the house all through that first glass of wine of the evening. While Hannah and I finished cooking dinner, Colin showed his brother the house.
‘And – what do you think?’ Hannah asked when the men had left the kitchen.
‘Think about what?’ I asked back as I was rooting in the drawers for cutlery to set the table.
‘Phil, of course’, she answered with a grin on her face, ‘he’s nice, isn’t he?’
‘He seems it, though I’ve really just met him’, I said. ‘Where are your knives?’
‘In the drawer by the range’, Hannah pointed to the other side of the kitchen, ‘should be in there. We’ll eat in here tonight, but on Christmas Day we’ll set the big table in the dining room. Also, don’t dodge the issue.’
‘What issue? Please, let’s just have nice few days together, no need to be like my parents. If you just talk about relationships, I might as well have gone to my family – same pressures.’
I looked at her and she shrugged her shoulders, ‘sorry, I’ll not mention it again’.
‘No, listen, it’s nothing, I just don’t want to talk about it. He seems really nice. I look forward to spending the next few days with all of you,’ I said.
After dinner, we sat in the entrance hall, drinking one of the bottles of red that Phil had brought. It was warm and the fire created a cosy atmosphere. The wood smoke, the crackling and the occasional spark, paired with the wine after today’s long drive made me excuse myself quite early to go to bed.
Up in my room I got changed quickly. It was freezing here and I was glad of the long PJs and bedsocks I’d brought. I quickly glanced out of the window, drinking in the white landscape and few inches of snow which had already settled onto Phil’s and my cars. I fell asleep as soon as I settled into the unfamiliar bed.
I woke with a start. It was still dark. It was icy cold in my room, in fact, it felt much colder than it had before. I didn’t know what time it was, I’d left my phone downstairs. I turned round, trying to get comfortable again, but gave up after a few minutes. I got out of bed, put on my jumper and walked to the window. It was still dark, but the snow brought an eery light to the whole landscape. I let my eyes glide over the snowy hills, drinking it all in.
Then the breath caught in my throat and I felt the shock in the pit of my stomach. There, outside the front door, stood a lone figure. Just looking at the door, as if trying to figure out how to get in. A top hat and a cape round its shoulders, but I could only see an outline against the white snow. As I watched, it slowly raised its head and looked straight at me. I gave a start and took an involuntary step back, the curtain falling back into place, bathing the room in darkness once again. What had I seen? A face nearly white, dark eyes, framed by dark curly hair. I hugged my arms round me. What should I do? If there was somebody out in this weather, he needed help. I looked out again, and there he was, immobile, just looking up at me. Then he slowly raised his hand and waved once, his expression not changing. This was enough for me to spring into action. I turned and headed out the door and down the stairs. When I crossed the hall, there were only a few embers still glowing in the fire, the warmth had left the room, but a hint of the woodsmoke lingered. It was just enough light to fumble with the unfamiliar old-fashioned lock and turn the big key. I bravely swung the door open. There was nobody there.
The following morning, I told the tale of the strange figure outside the house to the others. Colin was laughing. Hannah raised her eyebrows. Even I could, in the bright morning light, see how odd it sounded. Maybe I’d dreamt it after all. But this uneasy feeling didn’t leave me. I felt invigorated by my act of bravery, of opening the door, of trying to help and not being overwhelmed by fear. But as the morning went on, the memory faded.
We spent an entertaining couple of hours together, decorating the Christmas tree in the living room.
‘We don’t spend much time in here, to be honest’, Hannah said, ‘it’s nice to use this room for a change’.
‘Not my favourite room in the house.’ Colin looked at Hannah, ‘Every time I look at those stained wallpaper patches, I think of all the work we still have to do’.
‘True’, she answered, ‘but the view is great, and once the fire is on and the lights are turned down, it’s cosy. And then you can’t see those patches.’
The conversation flowed easily between all four of us. Phil was funny and attentive. He must have had the same chat with his brother about me as I’ve had with Hannah. In the afternoon we headed out for a walk, playing in the snow like children. Throwing snowballs, making snow angels and returning to the house utterly soaked and happy.
We had dinner around the big kitchen table again, the range lit, roasting marshmallows for desert just because we could. The wine flowed freely and I caught Phil stealing glances in my direction and tried to keep my glances back at him to a minimum. I didn’t do too well though and when I caught Hannah looking at Colin with a nod in Phil and my direction, I got embarrassed and excused myself for the night. I didn’t come here to be set up, I just wanted a quiet few days away from it all.
As I crossed the hall, I heard a loud knock at the door.
‘There’s someone at the door’, I called back to the kitchen, ‘should I get it?’
Colin came up behind me and said ‘I’ll get it, thanks’.
He opened the door, ‘Hello? How – ‘
He took a step back. There, in the doorway stood the man I’d seen last night. Top hat, black cape round his shoulders. He didn’t speak, but took his hat off and inclined his head towards us all in greeting.
We were stunned. Nobody spoke for a minute. The door was still open, the room was getting cold with wind and snow being blown in. Hannah broke the spell.
‘Come in, let me close the door behind you. How did you even get here? Did you walk?’
‘You must be very cold’, Colin shook himself slightly, ‘please, let me take your coat’.
Finally, the stranger spoke.
‘You are very kind, thank you. It’s a cold night out there. I’ve been out there for a long time. I saw the light on and was hoping to rest for a while. I’m Matthew. Matthew Witherington’.
Introductions were made and we bustled the stranger into the warm kitchen and pressed a glass of red wine into his hands. Hannah offered him bread and cheese, put the plate with Florentines in front of him. He didn’t speak much but answered all our questions with quiet consideration. Still, some things remained a mystery – his top hat, his cape – and his white complexion didn’t change much after drinking wine and warming up by the range.
A few hours later, he wanted to leave again, but we convinced him to stay the night. Hannah and Colin made up a bed for him in one of the spare bedrooms.
‘Thank you for opening your home to me tonight, I’ll never forget your kindness’, Matthew said before leaving the kitchen to go upstairs.
We stayed a while in the kitchen, not quite sure what to make of the stranger. Not quite sure if we wanted to sleep in the house with him. But we’d all had a bit to drink, and we were all together. The mood was jolly and cheerful – it was Christmas Eve after all.
‘Your bedroom doors have locks, right?’ asked Phil.
Colin joked that they weren’t running a hotel here, and bedroom keys weren’t something they’d thought of before. Because though this Matthew was pleasant and polite, there was still an air of mystery around him. I didn’t fancy staying in my room by myself, so when Phil offered – slightly drunkenly – to protect me, I took him up on his offer.
On Christmas morning, we found the room empty. Nobody had slept in the bed. Matthew was gone.
We never searched for him, or reported his disappearance to the police. We seemed to collectively accept that our guest had only visited us for one night. We extended our hospitality to him, gave him wine, bread and friendship. Our Christmas present to a stranger who had been wandering outside for a very long time.
The following year I took Phil to spend Christmas with my family. Together.
The Forever Gift
By Keith Gray
At the grand-old age of eleven, Lucy reckoned she’d got ‘tradition’ all figured out. It was repetition, plain and simple. Stuff you did over and over again became traditional. But that stuff you did over and over again? Well, it could also be stuff you wished you didn’t have to do. And the last thing Lucy wanted to do every Christmas morning, over and over again, was visit her mother’s grave.
But Dad insisted.
It was going to be a wet, grey Christmas this year even if the forecasters had all claimed snow was on the way. Lucy was wearing two vests, two t-shirts and her thickest jumper underneath her coat but she could still feel the chill. She stamped her feet, wiggled her toes inside her boots and sighed enough times that surely even her father should be able to hear her impatience. Dad didn’t seem to feel the cold. He had his hands clasped in front of him and his head down as the wind whipped at what was left of his hair. Lucy knew he wasn’t praying – Dad didn’t believe in God. Last year she’d asked him what he was doing silently for so long when all she wanted to do was return to the warm car and get home to her tumbling pile of presents. And what he’d said was, ‘Remembering.’
Maybe that was why Lucy didn’t enjoy this particular Christmas tradition: she couldn’t remember Mama.
At least, not properly. Mama had died when Lucy was three and she thought she had memories of a woman with a wide smile who’d cuddled her, rocked her, sang to her. But that woman could easily have been Auntie Jemima, couldn’t it? And Auntie Jemima still did all of those things even now if Lucy was in the mood to let her.
She’d only ever seen a handful of photographs of the woman who was her Mama. Dad had them on display on the bookcase in his bedroom and Lucy used to look at them a lot when she was a little kid – examining them when Dad wasn’t around. They were wedding photos, so somehow didn’t feel quite real. And, being honest, Mama looked like Auntie Jemima in a posh frock. But nobody looked normal or really real in wedding photos anyway. Everybody was meant to look more than their normal selves, perfect, super-duper, brilliant and gorgeous. That was the whole point of wedding photos.
So she’d asked Auntie Jemima if there were any normal photos of Mama but Auntie Jemima had said Lucy should ask Dad those kind of questions. Which Lucy obviously never did. She was scared she’d upset him.
It was beginning to rain. Lucy huffed her displeasure in misty breath. Couldn’t they go now? She was excited for her presents. This year’s pile under the tree rose and peaked like a mini-Mount Everest. She just wanted to get home.
As was tradition, Dad stepped forward and touched Mama’s name on the gravestone. It was always the final act of this repetition. Dad would take off his glove, run his fingers over Mama’s engraved name, feeling every letter, and then he’d clasp Lucy’s hand and they’d trudge back to the car at the bottom of the hill. And, at long last, as was tradition, this is exactly what he repeated.
‘Will you always do this?’ Lucy asked as they climbed into the car. She sat on her hands in the passenger seat to help warm them up.
‘Visit your mother? Of course.’ Dad started the engine, put the car in gear and twisted in his seat to look back over his shoulder as he reversed out of the parking space. ‘You will too.’
Lucy shrugged and switched on the stereo. She wanted happy, jolly, silly Christmas tunes.
‘Why wouldn’t you?’ Dad asked.
Lucy shrugged again, turning the car’s heating up full-blast.
‘I want you to come with me,’ Dad said. ‘Every year.’
‘But I never knew her,’ Lucy said. ‘It could be anybody’s grave, couldn’t it?’
Dad was silent.
‘And it always makes Christmas morning start off so miserable.’ She dared to glance across at him out of the corner of her eye. ‘Christmas shouldn’t be sad.’
He stared at the road as he drove. He looked old, almost as grey as the weather. Lucy guessed she’d hurt his feelings but she was only telling the truth. And it had had to be said. But Dad never seemed to want to talk about Mama anyway. Lucy had stopped asking questions a long time ago because he never, ever gave proper answers and almost always changed the subject.
Lucy could see the glow and twinkle of the Christmas tree through their front window as they arrived home. And that made her feel better. She jumped out of the car even before Dad had pulled the key from the ignition. She still had to wait until Auntie Jemima and Uncle Doug arrived before she was allowed to actually open any of her presents but that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy looking at that tottering pile of wrapped surprises in anticipation. She knew one of them was a Nintendo Switch, and wondered which.
Their tree was a tradition too. It was always bought from the same man outside the Humberston Road Tube Station on the first Saturday in December. And they always decorated it that very night with their traditional lights and baubles. Dad would unwrap them from newspaper (smelling a little damp from 11 months up in the attic) and Lucy would hang them. Lucy loved the pewter bauble with her baby handprints on it. She loved the red-glass reindeer and the chubby-woolly Santa. These went on the most prominent branches. She thought the Jesus baubles Grandma had given them one year looked creepy so hid these at the back of the tree. And then there was the unopened present, or the Forever Gift as she called it.
It was a smallish, flattish square which wasn’t quite a box. It had been wrapped in crinkly, wrinkly red and gold with a saggy-ribbon bow. Although it was just another decoration it was too heavy to hang on the tree so she always leant it up against the trunk. Every year it was the first gift put under the tree and the last to be taken away. Never opened. And that’s why Lucy called it the Forever Gift. It always got pushed back and buried under the proper presents.
By the time Dad had made them both a cup of tea and joined her in the front room she had already sorted the parcels into separate piles. A few for Dad, a few for Auntie Jemima and Uncle Doug, loads for her.
‘How long before Auntie Jemima and Uncle Doug get here?’ she asked. She stayed sitting on the floor and leaned back against the settee as she slurped her hot tea, gazing at her gifts.
‘They’ll be here around about 12. Same as always.’
Lucy wished they could break tradition just once and get here earlier.
Dad sat in the armchair and sipped his own tea.
Lucy said: ‘We should put some Christmas songs on.’
And Dad asked: ‘Do you want to talk about Mama?’
The question shocked Lucy. She didn’t know how to answer. It was so unexpected. When she looked up at Dad she could see his eyes sparkle. The tears in them had caught the twinkling of the lights from the Christmas tree.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, truthfully.
‘You know it was Christmas Day when she died, don’t you?’ Dad said.
‘She left you a present.’ He crouched down in front of the tree and pulled out the unopened Forever Gift. Carefully, he added it to Lucy’s pile. ‘I’ve never known how to actually give it to you, and have always hoped I’d know the right time when it came. Maybe this Christmas can be the right time.’
Lucy stared at the old, rather tatty-looking gift. She didn’t dare touch it. ‘I didn’t know… I thought it was just something we always put out for Christmas.’
‘It is,’ Dad said. He sighed like he was carrying such a heavy weight. ‘But maybe this year you can open it.’
Her fingers tingled as she reached for it. ‘Can I…? Now…?’
‘Before Auntie Jemima…?’
He nodded again.
But she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Or if she could.
So she plucked just a little at one neatly creased corner. The paper was so old and flimsy it almost dissolved between her fingers – almost as if it was helping her. With care she tore back a long strip, and the sound of ripping was more like a soft whisper from so many years ago. Pulling away the rest of the paper she saw the leather cover of a small book. A photo album.
She looked at Dad. He smiled. But he also wiped a silver run of tear from one cheek.
There was a white label on the photo album’s front cover and in neat capital letters it read: ‘Although we had a short time together, let’s remember it forever.’
The first photo was of an exhausted but smiley woman (who looked a little like Auntie Jemima) in a hospital bed holding a pink baby in her arms.
‘Is that me?’
‘Is that Mama?’
He nodded again.
The next photo was of the same smiley woman and the tiny baby cuddled up and fast asleep on the very settee Lucy was right at that moment leaning against. And the next was of the same woman singing while the tiny baby grinned a massive, happy toothless grin.
‘These are all me? And Mama?’
Compared to the fake wedding photos, this Mama looked so true – really real.
Dad kissed the top of Lucy’s head because she couldn’t look up, what with her eyes being glued to the photos.
‘All you and Mama,’ Dad told her as he sat down beside to her. ‘Maybe one or two with me too, I guess.’
Lucy’s large pile of presents were forgotten. She knew, without being able to say it, that this gift would be the only one from the whole teetering stack that she’d keep forever. She sat there with Dad’s arm around her in the glow of the tree turning page after page after page, seeing her mother’s love for her repeated again and again and again, in photo after photo after photo.
The Unexpected Guest
By Connie Phlipot
“Hallo!” A man of about 25, less than half her age, stepped out on the stoop.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m late. Really, I should just go.”
“Hey, no problem. We really are just getting started. Did Michael or Diana invite you?”
“I don’t know. I mean the invitation didn’t have a name attached.”
He tilted his head like a pup wondering if a treat were forthcoming or not. “Do you usually go to parties randomly like that?”
“No, but, this was special.” How to explain the feeling of expectation she experienced when she opened the e-mailed invitation. Of course, she should have been suspicious, checked it out in advance. But really, how could some unknown assailant have known that she’d be at exactly this place, on this night, before this young man had come into the world?
“That’s cool, I guess.” He opened the door wide. A kaleidoscope of people dancing, twinkling Christmas lights making patterns on their faces. “So come on in. We’ve got lots of food and drink and it’s a real mixed age group crowd. Oh yeah, my name’s Brian.”
Sally took her coat upstairs as instructed and tossed it on the bed already heaped with an array of outer apparel that confirmed Brian’s description of the crowd’s age range. Short puffy jackets, balanced on top of purple fake fur coats alongside tweedy jackets and lined raincoats. She draped her black woolen coat over a striped, woven poncho.
“Hey, Michael did you invite this gorgeous young lady?” Brian put his arm around the shoulder of a heavy-set man in his late thirties or early forties.
“Well, if I didn’t I should have. Get you something to drink?”
A plastic cup of white wine in hand, Sally looked around the room. Hadn’t there been a fireplace over in the far corner where the flat screen TV was hanging? She slid through the crowd to look more closely. Poorly done spackling underneath the TV suggested that indeed a fireplace had been covered up. She remembered then that it was only one of those gas inserts, not a real fireplace at all. She headed toward the other corner where she thought there had been a kitchen. A tall woman carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres bumped into her.
“Sorry, ma’am. You want one of these? Super good. Gluten free to boot.”
Sally shook her head. The appetizers looked like too much like the kibble she had just fed her dog. Yes, the kitchen was right where she remembered it, but that really didn’t prove that this was house she remembered. This was a 1970;s model tract house. Everything in the same place.
“Hi!” A man of about her age touched her shoulder. “We met, maybe, somewhere?”
Pick-up or someone from the past? “I’m not sure. Are you from around here?”
Dark circles of sweat were forming under the sleeves of the man’s red flannel shirt. “Yes. Originally. Twenty years or so ago. Then I moved away.”
“Me too.” Sally was beginning to sweat as well. “How do you know Michael, Brian or what’s her name? Starts with a D.”
“No, I only met them this evening. I just got an anonymous invitation and I decided to come. I don’t usually do spontaneous things like this, but… I don’t know. I came.”
The sweat was now cold against Sally’s skin. “Well, that makes two of us. Although I still haven’t met the woman.” She extended her hand. “I’m Sally. You?”
He introduced himself as Jonathan and she ticked off the Jonathans, Johns, and Johnnies she knew. She couldn’t attach any of those names to someone from this neighborhood. They chatted about the weather, where they worked, went to school. Nothing in common. “I’m going to get another drink. Can I get you one?” She sidestepped away, looking through the blur of faces for someone familiar.
Of course, after all those years, who would she remember? Or maybe it was just a coincidence that she been invited back into this. In that case, there must be someone here she knew. Maybe a fellow student at the adult learning center. Yes, that must be it. After failing to learn how to repair their cars, the class had exchanged e-mails, promising to get in touch.
Sally grabbed a handful of hazelnuts from a pewter bowl on the coffee table. She had had one like that, bought it as a souvenir of Williamsburg. Had she lost it in a move? No, she’d given it to someone. Who? Why? She lifted it carefully to look for an identifying mark underneath.
Sally slammed the bowl down, hazelnuts sprayed across the table.
A young girl in patterned tights and short skirt knelt down and swept the nuts into the bowl. “It’s my mother’s. I was having a party after graduation and didn’t have anything to serve snacks in. She said a friend had given it to her. Someone who had disappeared a long time ago.”
“Sorry. About the nuts. And for being nosy. I had a bowl myself one like that. Same year, I think.“
“Yeh, Mom said that they were big at that time. A sort of pseudo handcraft movement or something.”
“What’s your mother’s name, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Of course, not. Julia. I’d introduce her to you, but she went home early. Said her throat hurt. And I’m Diana.”
Sally was at the Greyhound bus terminal, covering her nose with one hand against the stench of urine and body odor, gripping her bag tightly with the other.
A woman stood in the doorway, something silvery and bright in her hand. “Do you want it back?”
Sally shook her head, as the cross-country bus pulled into the bay. The woman waved, Sally smiled, but didn’t wave back.
There had been someone else there, too. A tall man in a red shirt. He put his arm around the woman with the pewter bowl and they hugged each other tightly as the bus departed.
“What was your father’s name?”
“I don’t know. I never met him.”
“Look Diana, at that man in the red flannel shirt. His name is Jonathan. I think he’s your father.”
“Oh, that’s impossible.” Diana stepped away from Sally, as if afraid to engage in a conversation with a crazy person on the street.
The party faces became distinct, as if Sally were wiping away the steam inside a window. They were waving at her, Thomas and Annette, Judith and Anneli, Roger and Anthony. The people she had left, that she wiped out of her memory, that she thought she would never see again. She poured another glass of wine and circulated among her old friends.
The First Gift
By Jennifer Cornick
She leaned the broom against the table and knelt down to pick up the little box. It was a gift, she realized. She’d never received a gift before. No one thought to give the spectre who disemboweled them for slovenliness a present. Not even the people that she gifted with good fortune thought to leave her anything in the years that followed. No birthday presents, not that she had a birthday. No nameday gifts. No Christmas stocking stuffers. Ever.
Well, to be frank, no one really even knew she existed. Gifts cannot be mailed to a specter or left at the door of someone with no address. And her work didn’t really lend itself to friends. People had to see a person in more than just their nightmares to know a person. She sighed, sitting back on her heels, holding up the box, pulling away a spruce needle that lodged itself in the blue ribbon.
She rose to her feet, her movements fluid and graceful as the day she was brought into being all those centuries ago. She could count on three fingers the people who knew of her. There was the saint, but he had snatched up a mortal wife last year by leaving her gifts on all twelve days of Christmas, adding one to the number of people who knew of her. “And they don’t seem the triad type,” she said to herself, holding the little box delicately, her thumbs and forefingers only touching the corners enough to prevent it from falling from her hands.
She wanted to enjoy opening this, her first gift. She looked around her home with its handmade pillows and much mended quilts. Her home was spartan by design, easier to keep neat and tidy, but it was comfortable. The furniture collected from across the centuries. She sat on the edge of the chaise longue nearest the fire and held the little box up in the dying light of the frosty day spilling in from the window and filtered through the lace sheers she used to keep the dust out in the summer.
The ribbon was silk, clinging to her skin as she turned it over, and rubbed it between her fingers. It was thin and delicate, her calluses caught at it, but strong, as the weave was never ruined. The bow was tied with extraordinary care, the trailing ends matched in length and the side. The loops were identical, and folded over themselves in the exact same way. She worked the ribbon around the corners of the box, refusing to untie the bow, wanting to keep it as part of the present. It slid off, she put it on the seat next to her, it was the exact same shade as the velvet cloak she wore when strolling the streets about her work. A faint smile starting. The gift was clearly from someone who had at least seen her on her rounds on the darkest of winter nights.
The paper wrapping was thick, like vellum, the kind chosen with care. White and silver pattern printed on the paper caught the light. The same colours as the brilliant and blinding dress she wore, the mantle of her office. It was folded in on itself, each crease in the paper part of a system to hold everything in place, without the need for tape. “Dirt and dust can’t stick to the edges of tape if there isn’t any,” she said with a little laugh. It sounded as she felt, light and airy.
She found where the folds ended, the carefully cut edge of the paper folded over itself one final time. She pulled it out, slowly, as much to savour it as to keep it. She worked her way back through every intricate gather, furrow, and crease. Each one a testament to the gift giver’s mastery of this art. “Such time and effort,” she said, barely a whisper over the susurration of the heavy paper. She bit her lip as she released the last fold. She smoothed the paper out on her lap with one hand, holding the box in the other.
She put the creased paper beside her, near the ribbon but not over it. Not wishing to hide any part of the gift. Her gift. She was left with a box. An old one. The blue silk covering slightly shredded with age and tension. The latch shone, as though it were recently polished. She ran her fingers lightly over the top, they trembled. She did not want to flip the latch up. This was the last part of the unopened gift. Her breath hitched. She did not want to know what was in the box, the joy of seeing her first present in all her long life was tempered by an upwelling of fear, that the person who took such care in wrapping it might not have chosen something she would like in the end.
“What an odd feeling,” she said, turning the box in her hands.
She wanted to open it, the urge was exquisite and overpowering, breaking past the barrier of her anxiety. Then ran her forefinger over the latch and then flicked it open with her thumb. She took a breath and opened the box.
A chatelaine. Brilliant poured silver, polished to such a high shine, even in the crevasses, it looked new even though it couldn’t be. There was an aquamarine set just over the hooks, its clarity startling, she saw her reflection in the facets. The center chains were heavy and grouped together, perfect for the weight of her silver shears. The others were almost gossamer. She ran her finger down one to its end, where she would attach her hooked needles.
“Marvelous,” she said, her finger hovering just above the silver, not willing to mar it with her finger prints.
It was a perfect replacement for the one which was damaged last year on Twelfth Night. When the sports fanatic who lived in his own litter tore at her as she sewed him shut once more, having stuffed him full of empty crisp packets and soda cans.
She cried as she left the sorry excuse for a home. Tears tracking down her cheeks as she looked at the broken chains. Irreplaceable. The chatelaine itself twisted from the force of the pull. Mother Holle presented it to Perchta when she took the role, the one who made sure chores were done, rewarding those who did them and punishing those who shucked them. She swiped at her cheeks as she heard the snow crunch behind her. She turned, only to see him there. A hulking, horned shadow growling in the night. Every child’s worst Christmas nightmare made manifest. Krampus.
He stalked forward, moving silently now, the crack in the ice crusted snow deliberate, to let her know he was there. “It is hard to let the relics go. They connect us to who we are and what we once were,” he said, his voice a rumble of thunder.
She wept in earnest then, turning into his shoulder as his great arms came up around her. Holding her, as though she were breakable and not an immortal capable of holding the strongest of men down while she tore out their innards.
The memory made her eyes sting a little. They had not seen each other since. She took the chatelaine from the box, she attached it to her sash, hooking it into the soft velvet at her waist. She stood and spun around, watching the glitter of the chains as they twirled with her. She laughed. Almost a giggle really, her hands coming up to cover her mouth. Her eyes were wide. She had never giggled before.
She very nearly skipped across the room, to the cabinet where she kept her shears and needles. She pulled out her great silver shears, holding them up in the daylight, pulling them open and snapping them shut. She looked at her reflection in the blade, patting down her white and silver hair, then twisting a lock around her finger. She hooked them in place, and they hung just above her knee, the fit perfect. She threaded her needles with the other chains. And everything chimed perfectly as she moved. She smiled at the music she made. The chains flowed with her while she walked.
It was nearly dark, that moment just before the gridelin of dusk turns to the violet of night. She swung her heavy velvet cloak around her shoulders. Today the dusky blue made her feel beautiful, noticeable for the first time. And she desperately hoped to be noticed on this night, when she started her work once more.
She opened her door, closing her eyes against the frigid blast of air.
“You look lovely,” a deep, thunderous rumble from her doorstep.
Her cheeks flushed, burning a little, even in the cold of the night. She opened her eyes to see Krampus standing there, his hand extended to her.
She smiled as she touched her fingers to his, his hand engulfing hers. “Thank you. My first gift, ever, and you made it perfect.”
I love all these stories – I feel in incredibly good company!