A little something for Christmas

The tinkle of distant bells, a thump, and someone swearing. Loudly but… oddly squeakily. James started in his chair. He’d been wrapping Christmas presents and, possibly, there had been one too many mugs of mulled wine. He was sure he’d only sat down for a moment.

“Bugger,” said a voice from the direction of the fireplace.

James blinked. Hang on, he thought, we haven’t got a fireplace.

“Hey, what happened to the TV? And who the hell are you? What the hell are you?” he asked, pushing himself out of his armchair. The space on the wall where the flat-screen TV had been had, indeed, turned into a large grate. Complete with the charcoaled remains of a log, a sprinkling of ashes, and a rather nice cast-iron surround with twiddley bits. The whole thing was three and a half feet off the ground.

On the floor underneath, brushing dust from her clothes, was a small creature wearing a long, yellow coat and a hat with a large needle pushed through it. There was something that looked like a brush stuffed through her belt, and strips of brightly-coloured cloth poked out of her pockets.

“All right, all right, keep yer hair on,” said the creature. “I’m just helping out. S’all hands on deck these days. The Big Man can’t get to every house with kiddies in it on Christmas Eve. He has to del’gate. Not just elves these days, neither. Us brownies get collared, too. Even the tooth fairies has to help out. Mind you,” she added, “that works out quite well. They bring presents for all the kiddies wot asks for money to save up for stuff.”

“Oh,” said James, looking suspiciously at his empty mulled wine mug. “That… makes sense, I suppose.”

The brownie nodded and rummaged around in the sack. She pulled out two boxes wrapped in red and green paper and peered at the labels. “Mabel and Maria,” she read, “they’re yours, right?”

James’s eyes drifted to the framed family photo on the wall. It was slightly crooked. No matter what he did, it always ended up hanging slightly crooked. He thought of the girls asleep upstairs. It would be their first Christmas without their mother. He’d been determined to make everything perfect. But now there were scraps of wrapping paper all over the table, bits of sticky tape on every surface, and he didn’t even want to think about the mess in the kitchen. He wriggled his big toe which was sticking painfully through a hole in his sock. Amelia would’ve bought him new socks. It had been a sort of joke between them. Socks as a present, always: birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, she’d even given him a new pair as a wedding gift. He sat back down in his chair, pulled off the offending sock and threw it on the floor.

“Yes,” he said.

The brownie had followed his gaze to the photo on the wall. “S’a lot to do at Christmas,” she said softly, turning back and studying him.

James nodded. It had been busy enough with two of them, in the years before. Now the mountain of jobs seemed un-scalable. “I meant to clean up,” he said, waving a hand tiredly around the room, “and maybe make some cookies. My wife always used to make cookies at Christmas.” He pulled off the other sock.

The brownie pushed Mable and Maria’s presents under the tree. “Got any milk?” she asked, thoughtfully.

“Oh, yes, I did manage milk!” said James ruefully. “Over there.” His daughter Maria had been very insistent that they had to leave a glass of milk for Santa. James had suggested that he might prefer a nice brandy, but his older daughter, Mable, had said firmly that even Santa shouldn’t drink and drive.

The brownie trotted over to the glass, sniffed it cautiously, then picked it up and downed it.

“Yum,” she said, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. “Right-ho, I’d better get going, lots more deliveries to do this evening. Y’know how it is. You get to bed. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

“Will it?”

“We-ell, maybe not all right,” she conceded, looking at him again. She had the eyes of a Labrador, full of warm intelligence. “That ain’t possible, really. Nothing’s perfect. And you can’t just replace wot’s missing. But people appreciate a bit of effort. There’ll be more smiles than tears, and who can ask for more than that, eh?”

James smiled, blinking away blurriness.

“Go on, now,” said the brownie, nodding at the door to the stairs. “Those girls’ll have you up early in the morning, if I’m any judge.”

“But I have to…” James looked at the paper-strewn table.

The brownie put the empty milk glass down. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “They’ll only see the tree. And then there’ll be paper everywhere anyway, right?”

James chuckled. “Right.” He looked at the wall and thought of something. “Um, you are going to fix the TV, aren’t you? I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I don’t think I’ll manage to sort out lunch without some sort of support from Pixar.”

The brownie waved a hand airily. “Don’t you worry. S’magic innit. All back to normal once I’m gone. It’s only cos you ain’t got a chimney. It was a good idea, a few years ago, using TV screens,” she added darkly, looking up at the wall, “before people started putting the bloody things half-way up the wall.”

“Sorry.”

“Oh, you weren’t to know. Right, go on, off with you to bed,” she said, making a shooing motion.

James turned obediently and put his hand on the door handle. He looked over his shoulder to see the brownie standing there, eyes twinkling in the dim light of the Christmas tree lights. She made the shooing motion again. Shaking his head, James opened the door and trudged up the stairs.

***

“Daddy, dadddeeeee!” The bedroom was dark, but for every bit of missing light there were seven doses of extra noise. “Dadddddeeee, it’s Christmas!” squealed Maria, jumping on the bed and landing heavily on James’s chest.

“Ooff! Be careful!”

“It’s Christmas it’s Christmas it’s Christmas get up, Daddy! There are presents! Father Christmas has been!”

“All right, all right,” said James, pulling his daughter’s unruly hair away from her face where it had become stuck to a small patch of snot. “You’ll have to get off me though, sweetie.”

“Okay,” she said obediently, rolling off and accidentally kneeing him in the side.

James swung his legs out of bed before there was any more damage. He reached for his dressing gown. “Where’s Mable?”

“She went downstairs. Hey, Daddy, did you bake cookies last night?”

James pulled on his dressing gown and headed for the stairs. “I was going to, but I ran out of time. We’ll make some lat–” he opened the kitchen door and stopped, staring. There was a huge plate of cookies on the worktop, beautifully iced with snowflake and Christmas tree patterns. Not only that, the dirty dishes he was sure he’d left in the sink had disappeared. The floor looked spotless. The stainless-steel sink gleamed. There were no crumbs anywhere.

“Good cookies, Dad,” said Mable, from behind him. She crunched. “Just like the ones Mum used to make.”

James nodded slowly and walked into the living room. Maria had darted down the stairs and was now sorting through an artfully arranged pile of presents under the tree, which looked rather more symmetrical than it had last night. The carpet looked better than it had in years, the table was clean and, when James ran his fingers over it, the wood actually smelt faintly of polish. He looked at the wall. The family photo still hung at its familiar, slightly crooked angle, and the television was where it had always been.

“Daddy, there’s a Christmas card in with the presents!” said Maria, handing him a white envelope. James turned it over. There was nothing written on the outside, but he could just make out a jolly, red Santa printed on the cardboard through the white paper. He tore it open.

Inside was printed the usual “Merry Christmas” greeting and, underneath in irregular, smudgy letters, another message.

Thanks fer the milk. I dun yer socks.

James looked down. Lying neatly over the arm of his chair were his socks, perfectly darned. He picked them up and smiled.

Somewhere, in the distance, there was a faint tinkling of bells.


Merry Christmas! xxx

© Kat Day 2017

 

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dinosaurWhen he looked, it wasn’t there.

The plastic hangers in Olly’s wardrobe squeaked along the metal rail as he pushed them back and forth.

He screwed up his nose. In amongst the usual smells of pinewood and clean laundry was something else. It reminded him of the greenhouse on a hot day, and honey, and dust.

‘Mum! MUM!’

She appeared in the doorway. ‘What’s the matter, Olly?’

‘I can’t find my red t-shirt!’

‘Oh,’ she touched her face, eyes darting upwards. ‘Isn’t it in the wardrobe?’

‘No!’

She chewed her lip. ‘I’ll look in the airing cupboard.’

He watched her head up the stairs to the top floor. He picked up his T-Rex and stomped it around his room for a few minutes, then followed.

‘No, I haven’t.’

Mum was talking on her phone. He sat down on the stairs just out of sight. His fingers caressed the bumpy surface of the small, plastic dinosaur.

‘He might’ve said something to Peter–’

Below, the front door clattered. Olly dropped the toy and hurtled down the one and a half flights of stairs to the hallway. ‘Dad! You’re home early!’

His father slipped his mobile into his pocket, then swept Olly into his arms. His breath was thick and sweet. ‘Where’s Mummy, sport?’

‘She’s upstairs, looking for my t-shirt.’

‘Okay, kiddo. Go and find that book we were reading yesterday. I’ll be down in a bit.’

He put his son back on his feet and started up the stairs.

Olly walked into the front room. He heard his mother say ‘Peter!’ and someone must’ve dropped something, because there was a thump. It probably wasn’t anything important though, because he didn’t hear anything else. Olly thought about the book. He was sure they’d left it on the coffee table.

But when he looked, it wasn’t there.


Author’s notes
This was written in response to a challenge to write a 300-word story that both started, and ended, with the words “when he looked, it wasn’t there”. I came up with the idea of a parent ‘putting something away’ while their child wasn’t there (as I was tidying some old bits of artwork ‘away’ in the bin) and then asked myself for a more dramatic reason for a child’s things to be packed away.


© Kat Day 2016

WALY

WALY image          “Time for elevenses!” said Gran, reaching for the battered, silver jubilee biscuit tin. The image of that blue and red tin is lodged in my memory, because when Gran took the lid off there, taped to the inside, was a little piece of paper saying WALY. It was the first time I remember seeing those letters.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing.

She smiled and stuffed the piece of paper in the front pocket of her daisy-covered apron. “Never you mind,” she said, waving the tin under my nose.

The next time I was in the garage with Granddad. He’d built it himself; the dusty concrete floor had a slightly uneven texture and every wall and surface was decorated with things that might ‘come in handy’. Rays of bright sunshine crept in from the open doors and scattered off millions of tiny dust motes. I played with a bit of blue nylon rope attached to one of the metal beams, watching Granddad as he tucked a pencil stub behind his ear and unfolded his wooden workbench.

There it was, written on the surface in chalk. WALY.

“I saw that in the biscuit tin!” I said.

He just laughed, picked up a cloth and rubbed it out.

#

         I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, especially after my parents divorced. Over the years I saw WALY in all kinds of places. Written on a bathroom mirror so that it appeared when the room filled with steam, drawn with a finger in the mud on the back of Granddad’s car and once, memorably, actually mown into the large lawn, in front of the old summer house.

“Mum, what does WALY mean?” I asked one day. The question was fresh in my mind; I’d spotted the letters on a piece of paper tucked into the band of Granddad’s brown trilby just as I was leaving.

She’d picked me up in her white Peugeot. It smelled faintly of petrol, and the windscreen wipers squeaked rhythmically as they wiped away fresh batches of late summer raindrops.

“Wally?” she asked, her eyes fixed on the road.

“No, the letters, W A L Y. I’ve seen them lots at Gran and Granddad’s, but when I ask them what they mean, they never answer.”

“I’ve no idea.” She wiped the corner of her eye as she stopped at a junction, the indicator ticking loudly.

“But–”

“Shhh, I’m trying to concentrate,” she said, her head turning right and left, searching for a gap. A battered transit van let us out. She waved a hand at the driver. “Shall we get Chinese for tea?” she asked. The thought of sweet and sour pork balls instantly replaced all thoughts of WALY in my mind. I didn’t ask again.

#

         The wind grew chillier and the sunlight dwindled as that year trundled on. I sat on the overstuffed brown sofa in Gran and Granddad’s front room one evening, feet curled under me, staring at the battered paperback that I was supposed to be reading for school. The words danced in front of my eyes and stubbornly refused to move into my brain; instead I found myself hypnotised by Gran’s knitting needles, clacking together and jiggling the pink wool that hung from them. Granddad had folded his newspaper into a square and was sucking on a pen.

“Three down: 1974 song by Dolly Parton,” he said.

Gran smiled. I could never work out the crossword clues, but she always could. I wasn’t sure if it just happened that she knew all the clues he didn’t, or whether he deliberately saved some for her to answer.

“More than one word, is it?” she asked.

“Five, the first one is ‘I’.”

“Get away with you.”

Granddad chuckled, and then started to cough; a nasty, wet, hacking sound.

“You need to give up that pipe,” said Gran, knitting needles falling silent. I never saw Granddad smoking, but his clothes often had the sweet smell of pipe smoke.

“Don’t–” he coughed again. “Don’t fuss.”

“I will fuss,” she said, pushing herself out of her chair and heading for the kitchen. “Have you made that doctor’s appointment?”

He shook his head, the light glinting off his bald patch.

She handed him a glass of water, her blue eyes fixed on his. “Do it tomorrow, please. Do it for me.”

#

         Christmas came. Mum and I went to Gran and Granddad’s. I sat at the table, wondering if I could possibly squeeze another After Eight in on top of the huge lunch of turkey and roast potatoes. I looked across at Granddad. It suddenly struck me how different he looked to everyone else. While we were all red-cheeked and overfed, his red jumper hung loose on his frame and the dark circles under his eyes looked almost like bruises. He said he’d do the washing up. Gran told him to sit down. I watched him write WALY in the gravy on his plate with his finger.

#

         January bought scatterings of snow, enough one day to close my school. After a morning of building a rather skinny snowman, Mum called me back in and gave me some steaming soup. She looked at me across the kitchen table, chewing her bottom lip.

“I have to tell you something,” she said with too-bright eyes. “Granddad might not be with us for much longer. He loves us, though.” She took a deep breath. “He’ll always love us.”

#

         Leaves began to reappear on the trees, and the frozen air was gradually softened by hints of grass. I got off the bus that I’d caught from school, and stared at the daffodils growing in the verge. Behind them, the imposing grey walls of the hospital reached up into the sky.

I walked though long corridors, full of the sounds of rattling trolleys and the smells of plastic and disinfectant, and arrived at Granddad’s bed to find him writing furiously.

“Where’s Gran?” I asked.

“I sent her to the coffee machine,” he said, “shh, I’m writing a letter. I don’t want her to see it.” I watched him write ALY at the bottom.

“Where’s the ‘W’?” I asked.

He just folded the paper up and asked me what I’d been doing at school.

#

         He died three weeks later. Mum helped with everything that needed to be done. I stayed out of the way, feeling numb. I can’t remember exactly when it was that I found Gran reading the letter, but it had been a while. She wasn’t crying. Maybe the tears had run out by then.

I didn’t know what to say or what to do.

“Gran, what’s WALY?” I blurted, “and why did Granddad only put ALY on that letter?”

She gave me a fierce smile. “Have you never worked it out?”

“No,” I admitted.

She smiled again, gentler this time. “He always loved me,” she said.


Author’s Notes:
This started out as a 500-word piece of flash fiction, which was later expanded into something a little more substantial. It’s not my usual fantasy/sci-fi theme, but I was rather pleased with the way I’ve (I hope) conveyed the emotions. 


© Kat Day 2016