Christmas morning, 1963
Nanna Bird has been on her knees so long, they hurt. It’s been worth it though for the look on Baxter’s face every time his car slaloms through the Scalextric chicane and flashes past the finishing line while hers goes careering off at the first bend.
It’s been worth it too for a morning of rare smiles from Megan as she’s played her records on her new Dansette record player. She can’t remember her looking so happy.
Nanna didn’t have a clue which records to buy to go with the player. Her choice would have been Glenn Miller or Joe Loss; proper music you can dance all night to. But she’d got talking to an assistant in Woolworths – a nice girl, despite all the mascara and a skirt so short it barely covered her embarrassment – and she said the best thing would be to buy the top three in the Singles Chart.
She’d pointed to a poster behind the counter.
And Nanna, still not absolutely sure what a Singles Chart was, had nodded.
But the girl had been right: it turns out Megan loves all three. So much so, that since unwrapping them this morning, she’s played them over and over, one after another, again and again.
Nanna is word perfect now.
‘You were made for me,’ she sings, still kneeling on the carpet, her arm tight around Megan, bobbing her from side to side, laughing. ‘Everybody tells me so …’
Megan and Baxter have been up since before dawn – and Nanna not long after. Their whispered voices had woken her where she slept on the sofa and she’d decided at once that if she were to get up with them, their mother would be able to sleep in for a while with the baby.
It would do Christie good, she doesn’t get much of a chance to rest: that’s what Nanna had told herself. But really, she was very nearly as excited as the children.
She’d carried a cup of tea through to the bedroom, just to be there, to be part of it, to see their faces. Only to discover that Christie hadn’t had a lie-in: she was there already, excitement in her eyes too.
It hadn’t taken Megan and Baxter long to open their presents, of course: however much Nanna and Christie had tried to bulk their Christmas stockings out with oranges, nuts and Pick ‘n’ Mix, they didn’t amount to much.
But it hadn’t mattered – not once they had led them from their bedroom to the Christmas tree and they’d torn off the paper from the boxes to reveal the Scalextric and record player.
There had been hugs and shrieks of laughter and delight – and both Megan and Baxter had immediately forgotten everything they’d asked for in the letters they’d painstakingly written to Santa.
Weeks before, those letters had nearly broken Nanna’s heart; Christie’s too, of course. Knowing that money was tight, the children had asked for so little – but even that little was far more than they could possibly afford.
Nanna and Christie had sat at the table that night in the cold of the kitchen with their coats on: it’s what they always did, there was no point in wasting money on heating once the children were in bed.
‘I don’t know what we’re going to do,’ Christie said.
‘We’ll manage somehow,’ Nanna said, reaching across, patting her hand. ‘We always do.’
It’s what she says every week – when the two of them count the money out: Christie’s meagre wages, Nanna’s pension, the Family Allowance. Never enough.
‘Engaging and gentle. A real delight.’
Christie had read through the letters again.
‘We can probably manage to buy a few of the small things – but, if there’s any money spare, I’ve got to get them clothes. They’re desperate.’
They’d sat in silence; Nanna picturing the brave disappointed faces on Christmas morning.
Finally though, she had decided.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It won’t do.’
‘Won’t do?’ Christie said, not understanding.
‘One way or another,’ she said. ‘They’re going to have a Christmas to remember.’
She’d made her mind up. And now she’d spoken the words, somehow she was determined to make it happen.
‘If you buy clothes,’ she said. ‘I’ll get them one special present each. We can say it’s from both of us.’
Christie shook her head.
‘But how, Nanna? You can’t afford to—’
Nanna stopped her.
‘Where there’s a will there’s a way,’ she said, biting her lip, not knowing what the way could possibly be.
‘No buts, Christie love,’ Nanna said. ‘Life’s too short for buts.’
They’d turned up on her doorstep just four months before. Unannounced.
She’d had no idea who they were.
Suddenly, in front of her, there had been this stranger, this woman – Christie – telling her about her children.
‘This is Megan, who’s nine,’ she’d said. ‘And this is Baxter, and he’s eight. And the baby is—’
Nanna had stood there in her apron and carpet slippers clinging to the doorframe, leaning in to it for support, gripping hard, trying to make sense of what she was being told.
Until that moment, she’d had no idea that she had grandchildren, a daughter-in-law.
‘But my son isn’t married,’ she’d said, shaken, her voice small.
Over the years, she’d seen him rarely – and usually only when he wanted money. He’d always told her he’d never found the right girl.
‘We’ve been married ten years,’ Christie said, quietly, almost apologetically.
‘But how can that be?’ Nanna said, bewildered, defeated.
Now she knows, of course.
Knows that whenever he had turned up, he’d told her nothing but lies. It had suited him to keep her in the dark about his life: made it easier for him to steal from her and cheat on Christie.
Nanna still doesn’t understand how he can have treated his own mother like that. How he can have been like that to his wife and children.
And she doesn’t understand how she could have raised a son like him.
On the doorstep, Christie had told her everything.
He’d lied, cheated – and then he’d left her and the children with no roof over their heads and nothing but a suitcase of clothes.
Nanna had listened, her heart aching, her mind racing.
What was she to do? They were strangers to her, she didn’t know how they could possibly live together; the flat was too small, there was no room for them; she had nothing but her pension to live on, it was barely enough to keep herself.
But what ese could she do?
She’d opened the door wider, invited them in.
It was the best thing that had ever happened in her life.
LIKE TO READ MORE?
To see all Mark’s free short stories, please ‘LIKE’ his Facebook page
[facebook-page-plugin href=”MarkHaysomAuthorUK/” cover=”false” facepile=”false” tabs=”” cta=”false” small=”false” adapt=”true” link=”true” linktext=”” ]
Finally up from the floor, off her knees, Nanna snuggles into the sofa with Baxter to one side, Megan to the other. Christie sits in the chair near the fire with the baby in her arms.
Nanna and Christie exchange smiles. The morning has been so much better than they dared hope.
‘Shall we play another game?’ Baxter says.
They have already exhausted the compendium of games that Christie had bought at the second-hand shop – snakes and ladder, Ludo, bingo, rummy, old maid.
‘If you like,’ Nanna says, cheerfully, despite the distant nag of a tired headache.
While Megan and Baxter argue quietly about what to play, she glances around the room and remembers her previous Christmas in this flat, and all the Christmases since she’s been there.
Alone, not even bothering with a tree or a bit of tinsel, a few cards from neighbours on the window sill: that’s what she’d allowed her Christmases to become. And she’d always loved Christmas before.
This year though, Christmas is the way it’s meant to be.
The children have made paper chains that loop crookedly across the ceiling and around the walls. A Christmas tree stands proudly in the corner, swathed in tinsel, draped in lametta, and decorated with lights and baubles – all retrieved from a box that had been at the back of the hall cupboard ever since she’d moved in. A fairy with a broken wing that she remembers from her own childhood perches a little precariously at the top. She too had been buried in the box.
That’s what had happened, Nanna thinks.
As soon as she was left on her own – her husband long gone, her son never at home – she put Christmas away in that box and tried to forget about it.
And it wasn’t just Christmas.
In truth, she’d done much the same with the rest of her life. She’d spent so long on her own, with nothing much to look forward to: she’d just been seeing out her days. Her life in a box-like flat.
But look at her now! Just look at all of them! Here. Together.
It hasn’t been easy, of course. There’s never enough money to stretch through the week; she and Christie have to go without, the children sometimes as well. The flat is too small, just as she knew it would be. They’re on top of each other all the time and tempers sometimes fray; the sleeping arrangements are far from perfect – Christie with the baby in one bedroom, the children in the other, Nanna on the sofa.
And the children have found it so hard to settle.
Despite everything he did to them, Megan is missing her father; Baxter is still having the nightmares that Christie says he’s always had. He’s only just beginning to come out of his shell, find some confidence.
Nanna and Christie have spent hours every night worrying about them, discussing everything. How they’re going to feed them, clothe them; how they’re getting on at school; whether they’re making friends.
No, it hasn’t been easy. But Nanna wouldn’t have missed a moment of it.
And despite everything, somehow they’ve managed to come through. She’s right to feel proud. Of all of them.
A tug at her sleeve interrupts her thoughts. The children have changed their minds: they don’t want to play a game.
‘Tell us a story, Nanna. Please,’ Megan says.
Christie tries to intervene.
‘No, Megan. You’ll wear poor Nanna out!’
Nanna laughs. She knows she can never disappoint Megan: she’d do anything for these children. Anything.
‘It’s OK, Christie love,’ she says.
Christie shakes her head, smiles.
‘You spoil them,’ she says,
‘Nonsense,’ Nanna says, putting her arms around Megan and Baxter, hugging them, pulling them close, tickling them. ‘It’s our first Christmas!’
Megan playfully pushes Nanna’s tickling hand away.
‘Which story, Nanna?’ she says.
‘You’ll see,’ Nanna says.
She’s knows that Megan will want it to be one of her favourites –Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. But perhaps she could tell A Christmas Carol: her father had always told it to her on Christmas morning when she was a girl.
Yes, that’s what she’ll do.
‘Once upon a time and long ago…’ she begins.
Then she stops.
Surprised by the sudden tears coming to her eyes.
And she knows.
There is only one story she can tell this Christmas morning. His story.
Once upon a time and long, long ago there was a small boy who didn’t know what Christmas was.
It was a time of horse-drawn carriages and flickering candlelight; of cobbled streets echoing with street sellers’ cries: of top hats and long crinoline dresses; when a great queen, Victoria, still sat upon the throne.
But even though it was long ago, one thing was as true then as it is now: as each December day passed, as the nights grew longer and Christmas approached, children everywhere became ever more excited. They longed for Christmas Eve, for Christmas morning; for sweetmeats and turkey dinners, presents by the tree.
It was the same for all the children throughout the land.
Except for one.
He was the boy who didn’t know what Christmas was.
And his name was George Horscroft.
George was seven years old and he’d seen Christmas, of course. He’d seen it in the way shopkeepers decorated their stores with evergreen branches, boughs of red-berried holly, fat bunches of mistletoe. He’d seen it in the foggy London streets as husbands hurried home to their wives and children with parcels in their hands. He’d seen it through the frosty windows of houses: Christmas trees weighed down with ribbons and glass baubles, wrapped presents stacked high beneath. And he’d seen it on Christmas morning as children played in the parks with their new hoops and skipping ropes, spinning tops and clockwork soldiers.
He’d been told about it too: the goose or the turkey roasting, the Christmas pudding with its silver sixpences, the mulled wine drunk by the fire.
But seeing and being told didn’t make it real.
Until George had a Christmas for himself, he couldn’t know how it felt, didn’t know what it meant, what it truly was.
To see all Mark’s free short stories, please ‘LIKE’ his Facebook page
[facebook-page-plugin href=”MarkHaysomAuthorUK/” cover=”false” facepile=”false” tabs=”” cta=”false” small=”false” adapt=”true” link=”true” linktext=”” ]
Life had been hard from the beginning for George.
Almost from the time he could first stand, he’d been left at the stables behind the zinc smelting furnace where his grandfather worked. He was alone every day from shortly after dawn to long after dusk,
His food was a hunk of grey bread; there was water from the pump in the yard. And his only company were the horses – apart from William, the stable boy, who would visit from time to time to check on him.
It was William who told him one dark cold morning that it was Christmas Eve.
He’d stood in the doorway, lit by the lantern he was carrying.
‘What will you do this Christmas, George?’ he said. ‘What treats and presents do you think they’ll be?’
George shook his head; didn’t reply, didn’t know what to say. He’d never known a treat, never had a present.
But it was then that he decided that he had to ask his grandfather.
He had to know.
Would this be the year when Christmas would come for him?
All afternoon he thought about it, fretted about it. Did he dare ask? He’d always been frightened of his grandfather, would keep quiet, keep his distance whenever he was with him – but there was no one else he could ask, he was the only family he had.
It was shadowy dark beneath the gas lamp of the stable yard when his grandfather came to collect him at the end of the day. There was steam coming from him as the heat of the furnace leached from his clothes into the night air. There was steam from his breath too as he stood by the stable door, jerked his grizzled head and shouted.
He never called him by his name.
George had buried himself deep in the stable straw for warmth. As the light had faded, he’d become sleepy, he was slow to move. It was only when the shout came angrily again – ‘BOY!’ – that he leapt to his feet and hurried to the door.
As he emerged from the stables, he saw his grandfather had already started to stride into the distance. Trailing behind, struggling to keep up, following his grandfather home, George finally found the courage to ask.
‘Grandad?’ he called.
His grandfather swung round, irritated to be stopped.
‘What now?’ he said.
George saw at once it was a mistake to have begun. But it was too late now.
‘Grandad,’ he said, his voice faltering, ‘will there be … will there be Christmas this year?’
He got his answer at once.
His grandfather took three loping steps towards him, grabbed him by the collar with one hand, cuffed him on the head with the other.
‘Christmas only comes to them that’s good,’ he said.
It’s what he’d told George every year.
‘But I am good,’ George managed to say, struggling for breath in the grip of his hand. ‘I’m always good.’
Grandad let him drop, walked away.
‘Not good enough,’ he said.
Megan shifts restlessly beside Nanna Bird, frowning, trying to make sense of it.
‘Is it going to be a story about a proper Christmas for George?’ she says.
Nanna gives her a squeeze.
‘You’ll see,’ she says.
Megan isn’t satisfied.
‘It’s a very sad story,’ she says. ‘Will it be sad at the end?’
‘You’ll see,’ Nanna said.
She couldn’t, of course, tell the children the truth of it. That George was born illegitimate, didn’t know his father. That he was abandoned by his laundry maid mother when he was two years old; taken in reluctantly by his grandfather.
‘I don’t want your bastard here!’ he’d yelled after her.
But she’d just walked away, left the boy behind.
Nor could Nanna begin to describe to them the daily life of that small boy in two cold bare rooms at the top of a tenement in Kentish Town: the hunger, the beatings, the loneliness.
‘OK to go on?’ she says.
That Christmas Day for George was like any other day spent at home. There was no coal on the fire; only one guttering tallow candle to light the room; the food was the same thin stew.
He spent the morning peering out of the window, watching children playing with their new toys in the street below. During the afternoon, his grandfather went out: he came back late, as he often did, stumbling up the stairs.
Every year after that was the same.
Christmas came, Christmas went. But not for George.
As the years went by, his life changed a little. He went to school – briefly – loved his lessons, learned to read and write, he was happy there. But when he was just eleven he had to leave. His grandfather wanted him earning and George found himself back in the stable doing the job that William, the stable boy, had done before; looking after the horses who had been his friends for so long.
A few years later, he left the stables behind and became apprenticed to a builder. Fetching and carrying in the builder’s yard, he grew taller, he grew stronger,
And still Christmases came, Christmases went.
But George never asked his grandfather about a Christmas for him again.
He’d become resigned to it. He would never know what Christmas was.
It’s Baxter’s turn to interrupt.
‘But Christmas always happens!’ he says. ‘It happens every year! For everyone.’
Christie and Nanna exchange quick glances: Nanna knows they are both thinking the same.
It very nearly didn’t happen for them this year.
Despite the daily cruelty of his life, George grew up to be a fine, honourable and gentle man.
And one day, when he was twenty-one years old and was walking back from the builder’s yard to the rooms at the top of the tenement in Kentish Town, something happened that changed his life forever.
He met a girl. And fell in love.
More than that.
He fell head-over-heels; heart-pounding, dumbstruck in love.
She was carrying a bag, heavy with vegetables from the market: he managed to untie his tongue enough to offer to help.
She was a seamstress, she said shyly, as they walked side by side; her name was Edith Ann Constant and her family had recently moved nearby.
The following day, George waited for her; carried her bag again. She asked about him, who he was, where he lived – and, over the weeks and months that followed, as he walked her home each night, he told her a little of the story of his life.
He spoke hesitantly, reluctantly. He told her about the long days alone in the stables when he was two years old; the grey stale bread, the water from the pump, the horses for company.
When he was done, she wiped away a tear, shook her head, stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.
After that, George couldn’t stop thinking about her.
It was as if he carried her inside him, with him at all times; his every waking moment was full of her; he knew he couldn’t live without her.
He worked harder, saved every penny he could, hoping that one day they would be together, that she would be his. Finally, one November day, he summoned all his courage to ask her to be his wife.
They were walking through a park on a late autumn evening: he went down on one knee on the cold, wet grass, took her hand in his. He didn’t care what anyone thought, what anyone said. Only Edith.
‘I know I’m not much of a catch right now,’ he said. ‘I’ve not got much in the world – just enough to buy you a ring and get us started with a few sticks of furniture for a home.
‘But, I promise you this, Edith Constant, I’ll work night and day to make a life for you. I’ll take such care of you. By God, I will.’
It was the longest speech he’d ever made.
Edith’s response was tears; tears and laughter.
‘I thought you’d never ask, George Horscroft,’ she said. ‘And I don’t care about money. I just want you for my husband.’
That night he hurried home to break the news to his grandfather.
‘So, I’ll be leaving, Grandad,’ he said to him with a smile, ‘In a few months’ time, when Edith and me can afford to be wed, we’ll be finding a place of our own.’
His grandfather was an old man now – but time had not softened him.
And then took all of George’s money – and threw him out on the street.
‘If you’re going,’ he shouted after him, ‘go now. I’ll be glad to see the back of thee.’
With nowhere else to go, George returned to the park where he’d gone down on one knee, and slept that frosty night beneath the stars.
Nanna pauses, closes her eyes.
‘Are you OK, Nanna?’ Christie says, concerned.
Nanna answers with a quick reassuring smile. She just needs a moment to gather herself. She’d tell Christie later what had really happened.
That the old man had listened to George’s news – and then aimed a flailing punch at his head.
‘Ungrateful bastard!’ he’d spat. ‘But for me, you’d be in the poorhouse.’
George was taller than his grandfather now; years spent carrying bricks for the builder, had made him strong. He could have picked the old man up with one hand and sent him crashing against the wall.
He didn’t: he merely took the blow and bowed his head.
He didn’t understand his grandfather’s anger. But it was true: despite the way he’d always treated him, he had taken him in and saved him from the workhouse. The least George could do was hold his tongue, let the old man have this final rant.
But his grandfather wasn’t done.
‘So you owe me! Hard cash. Nineteen years of board and keep,’ he said.
He thrust out his hand. Demanding.
George tried to reason with him.
‘But, Grandad, I’m to be wed and—’
But the old man wouldn’t listen wouldn’t yield.
And finally, to be free of any debt or obligation to him, George turned out his pockets, put all the money he had in the world on the table – everything he’d saved for Edith’s ring, the little he had to set up home – and walked away.
Early the next morning, after a night of little sleep in the unforgiving cold on the hard ground of the park, George sought Edith out. The wedding would have to be postponed, he explained, shivering. He was penniless, homeless.
In truth, he feared that he would lose her.
But he needn’t have been afraid.
Edith wouldn’t hear of any delay.
She didn’t care about a ring, she said. Nor did she care that all George would be able to afford on his weekly wage was a single rented room.
All she wanted was to be with him.
And anyway, she said, taking his hands in hers, rubbing them against the cold, she was used to doing without. Growing up, she’d been one of ten hungry mouths to feed. Her father had been run over by a cart when he was just a boy; he’d lost a leg and had always struggled to find work.
She emptied her purse, gave George the few shillings she had. It would be enough to put a roof over his head and feed him until he was paid again.
He took it reluctantly. He was a proud man – but he had no choice.
‘I’ll pay you back, Edith,’ he said. ‘Every penny.’
She shook her head.
‘You’ll do no such thing, George Horscroft,’ she said. ‘There’s no debts between man and wife. Only love.’
And far from delaying the wedding, she said, they would do the opposite. They would bring it forward and marry as soon as possible. If life was to be a struggle through the next few years, they would make that struggle together.
She took George’s breath away. For so long, he’d felt alone. She now filled his life.
Later that day, they walked to nearby St Luke’s Church. There they discovered that. for the banns to be read three times, the soonest they could be married was in one month.
On the day after Christmas.
On the way back from the church, Edith skipped playfully ahead; she’d never been so happy. In just a month, they would be married. What a Christmas to remember this would be!
She turned to George, suddenly serious. The change in her face made him smile.
‘We’ll have some small special Christmas treats, of course,’ she said. ‘But we must save all we can from your wages – so no spoiling me with any presents this year. Promise me that, George Horscroft.’
George stopped walking; his smile fell away.
Presents? Treats? He knew nothing of such things. He felt inadequate, ashamed, panicked. Christmas would come and he wouldn’t know what to do, what was expected of him. He would let her down; she would be disappointed in him.
There was nothing for it. He would have to tell her.
‘Edith?’ he said. ‘About Christmas …’
And then slowly, haltingly, he began to explain to her.
That all his life he’d known that Christmas only came to children who were good enough.
And because he never was.
He’d never known what Christmas was.
They saw each other every day that week. George found a place to live: they planned their wedding day.
But then they decided that the next time they would meet would be outside St Luke’s on Boxing Day morning. Edith would bring two of her sisters to act as witnesses. George would come alone.
In the meantime he would try to earn some extra money, work all the hours he could for a few shillings more to help put a home together, to see them through.
And that was why, when Christmas morning came, George was alone in the bare-boarded, rickety, single rented room he’d found for them above a tanner’s yard.
Since he was saving every farthing, the fire was unlit and the room was cold enough for frost to pattern the inside of the glass of the window.
The only furniture he had was a bed against the wall. With no chair to sit on, he huddled on the floor in a corner, wearing very nearly all of the few clothes he owned, warming himself with his thoughts about the wedding on the following day.
That she would be his: he could scarcely believe. That they would have a life together was more than he’d ever dreamed possible. Tomorrow they would walk back down the aisle, man and wife.
It would not be, though, the wedding for her that he would have wished, that she deserved – not the homecoming either.
It hadn’t been possible for him to save the money, to do the longer hours he’d hoped: the winter freeze had stopped all building work. In desperation, he’d tramped the streets looking for employment: he was prepared to turn his hand to anything. He’d earned a few coppers humping crates of fish at dawn at Billingsgate; he’d cleared a path of snow outside a grand house in Chelsea; he’d unloaded a coal barge at Camden Lock; he’d swept the bloodied floor at Smithfield after the meat market was done.
Thanks to this, he had enough money to feed them until the great freeze relented and he could work again. But nothing else. Just this bare room. It broke his heart to think of it.
He rubbed his hands; blew on them.
From somewhere in the rooms below there was the smell of a turkey roasting; outside there were children’s voices laughing; in the distance church bells were ringing to proclaim Christmas Day.
George tried to put it all from his mind: it was another Christmas. Like all those that had gone before.
He closed his eyes – only to open them at once at the sound of footsteps on the stairs approaching, the creak of the landing.
No one but him ever came this high up the house: he waited for the footsteps to retreat.
Instead, there was a knock at the door.
George ignored it.
In the weeks that he’d lived there, no one had ever knocked, ever visited. It must be a mistake, he reasoned. Whoever it was would go away soon enough.
The knock came louder.
George was hungry, cold, he didn’t want to move – but he would have to answer, send them on their way.
He pulled himself to his feet; went to the door.
Pulling it open, his heart leapt.
It was Edith.
She had come to him.
‘Edith?’ he said. ‘But I thought that—’
He stopped. He had never seen her so beautiful. She was breathless and flushed from the climb up the stairs, her eyes sparkled.
He bent, held her, kissed her.
‘But I thought—’ he tried again.
She quietened him with a finger to his lips.
‘Life’s too short for buts,’ she told him. ‘Are you going to invite me in?’
He stepped back – and it was only then he saw that, on her arm, she was carrying a large wicker basket, covered by a white cloth.
Rushing to take it from her, he was surprised by its weight.
She answered the question in his eyes.
‘It’s from my mother’s table. She’s made us up a Christmas spread,’ she said with a wide delighted grin.
‘Christmas?’ George said, surprised by thickness of his voice, the sudden heaviness in his chest. ‘But I don’t—’
Again Edith stopped him. This time with a smile.
‘This is the year, George Horscroft,’ she said, ‘that you’re going to find out what Christmas is.’
Edith had thought her heart would break when he’d told her about all his Christmases as a boy. She’d known then what she would do.
There’d been little enough at home but her mother had shared it without question; carving slices from the chicken – they couldn’t afford a turkey – wrapping them with ham and sausages, Christmas pudding and mince pies; pouring mulled wine into a stoneware bottle.
‘Well, it’s Christmas,’ she’d said. ‘And Christmas is for sharing.’
In the room above the tanner’s yard, there wasn’t a table for them to eat from. Edith spread a cloth on the floor and unpacked her mother’s food from the wicker basket. In the centre of the cloth, she carefully arranged a sprig of holly in a glass vase, decorated it with a string of small wooden toys.
‘Our first Christmas tree,’ she said, proudly.
George fought a lump in his throat, a tightness in his chest. He could hardly speak.
‘Is this what Christmas is?’ he said.
Edith didn’t answer, instead she reached deeper into the wicker basket and retrieved a run of paper streamers. She looked around the cracked walls of the bare room, found two protruding nails to string the streamers from.
She stepped back, admired her work.
George wanted to say something: didn’t trust himself to speak. His heart was racing. He’d never known such feelings.
She stopped him by reaching into the pocket of her coat and pulling out an envelope.
‘For you,’ she said.
He took the envelope with a shaking hand. Inside was a card. On the front of the card was drawn a Christmas tree, parcels piled beneath.
‘I made it myself,’ she said.
Inside, she said she loved him.
George fought to stop his tears.
She saw his eyes fill. Spoke quickly.
‘No tears,’ she said, wiping away her own. ‘I have one more thing for you.’
Once more, she reached into the basket and, from beneath another cloth, she produced a parcel, carefully wrapped and tied with a ribboned bow. The parcel was square, the width of one of George’s hands and of nearly equal height.
She held it out towards him.
He shook his head.
‘I can’t, Edith,’ he said. ‘I can’t possibly.’
He had nothing for her. How could he accept her gift?
‘You will, George Horscroft!’ she said, smiling, her eyes alive with excitement, determination.
He took it from her. Uncertain what to do next.
‘Well, open it then!’ she said, laughing.
He did so, carefully, trying not to disturb the bow or tear the paper.
Finally it was undone.
And he thought he had never seen anything more beautiful. He’d certainly never held anything as beautiful.
It was a box, the smallest coffer chest, made of burnished sandalwood and ebony, inlaid with ivory flowers. It was like a jewel, he thought.
‘It was my granddad’s,’ Edith said proudly. ‘He was in the army in India. He bought it back with him and I played with it when I was a child. He left it to me in his will.’
George nursed it in his hands, ran his fingers across it’s perfect polished surfaces. He felt it’s weight, admired the craftsmanship, the skilled hands that had made this perfect thing. Somehow, holding it made his heart ache. Apart from the clothes that he stood up in, he’d never owned anything for himself.
But he knew he couldn’t accept it.
He made to hand it back to her.
‘It’s yours, Edith,’ he said. ‘I can’t take this from you.’
Edith shook her head.
‘On a soldier’s pay, it can’t have cost my granddad much,’ she said. ‘But it’s the most precious thing I have – and now it’s yours.’
‘No,’ George said, trying again.
‘Yes,’ Edith said, gently, insistently. ‘I want this to be the first Christmas gift you’ve ever had.’
George had never been one for tears. But he couldn’t stop them now. His chest heaved. It was as if all the years of hurt were coming out of him.
He held her. For a long time, he held her.
And, as he did, he looked around the room – at the paper streamer on the wall, the spread on the cloth on the floor, the card she had made that he’d put carefully on the window ledge; the holly sprig with its string of wooden toys.
And then finally, when he was able to do so without his voice breaking, he spoke to her, his voice a whisper in her ear.
‘I think I know now what Christmas is,’ he said to her.
She looked up at him, met his eyes.
‘Tell me?’ she said.
He held her tighter. As if he’d never let her go.
‘Love,’ he said. ‘Christmas is love.’
Christie is in tears. She’d hung on Nanna’s every word. The children are crying too, although they don’t quite understand why.
But they will one day, Nanna thinks.
And perhaps one day they’ll work out who George Horscroft was. Her father. Their great grandfather. The finest man she’d ever known.
‘Did George and Edith live happily ever after?’ Megan says.
‘They did,’ Nanna said, smiling, remembering the way they were together, right to the end, still holding hands on the High Street, like young lovers.
Remembering too the Christmases. There never was anyone who could do Christmas quite like her father. The warm house full of people, surprises, treats, laughter, music. The tree groaning with crystal baubles; the presents stacked high.
‘And was George always poor?’ Baxter says.
Nanna shakes her head.
‘No,’ she says. ‘He did just what he said he’d do. He worked hard and gave Edith the wonderful life he’d promised her.’
After a few years, he started his own building firm. It was difficult to begin with, money was tight, there were times when he thought the business would fail, that he wouldn’t be able to go on. But he persevered and he prospered: there were houses all around now that George Horscroft built.
‘What happened to the special box, Nanna?’ Megan says. ‘Did George keep it forever?’
‘He did,’ Nanna said.
He kept it on the sideboard, next to his chair in the living room. Every day of his life, he would hold it, run his hands over its polished surfaces, trace the pattern of the ivory inlay with his fingertips. To make sure he never forgot.
Nanna can remember how he let her hold it when she was a child, play with it.
Her mother had always told her to take care. Pride and love in her voice she’d say: ‘It may not be worth much, that old box of his. But it’s the most precious thing your daddy has.’
And she’d tell the story again.
Of how she came to him on Christmas morning: to the boy who didn’t know what Christmas was.
Nanna fights back the tears.
When her father handed her the box in the weeks before he died, it was with the promise that she would take good care of it, never part with it.
‘You know what it’s meant to me,’ he said, reluctant to let it go.
She’d nodded. Promised.
‘Cross my heart,’ she’d said, trying to make it easier for him, to make a joke of it.
But she’d meant it, every word. And she had kept it safe, all these long years.
But he would have understood, wouldn’t he?
He would have understood that she’d had no choice.
She had only known it was worth something when the first antique dealer had lied to her.
‘I’ll help you out, love. Give you a couple of quid. Can’t say fairer than that, can I?’
By the time she’d walked away, walked to the door, he’d offered her double, treble. She kept on walking. And then she went to every antique shop she could find, her heart almost breaking, until she got the best price for it she could.
Yes, he would have understood that it was the only thing of value she had. That without it she couldn’t make it a Christmas to remember for Megan and Baxter. That she wouldn’t have had the money for the Scalextric, the record player, the turkey, the tree.
Of course he would have understood.
Because he of all people knew what Christmas was.
And that’s what she reminded him as she walked away from the last antique shop.
That’s what she told him. Blinded by tears. Money in hand.
‘It’s for love, Dad. For love.’