Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for December 2014

A Pinwheel Christmas

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December 23rd, 2007

Combe Down, Bath

Tessa giggles into her fourth mulled wine.

‘Put on Bodysnatchers!’

George is crouched at his laptop, and his laptop is on a coffee table that is too low and far from the sofa to be practical. He glances at Tessa, and when he turns back to his screen he is half-smiling.

‘No.’

‘It’s the only good song on the whole fucking album! Put on Bodysnatchers!’

‘No. We’re going to listen to it in order, all the way through, as albums were intended to be listened to.’

‘You are such a music snob.’

He turns and prods her foot.

‘And you are drunk.’

‘Am not. I’ve only had two.’

‘Then why is the whole bottle gone?’

Tessa giggles again. When George sits down beside her, she flings both legs over his lap before he can reach for the Xbox controller.

‘…do you mind?’ he says, smiling.

‘Nope!’

He stretches over her shins and grabs the controller. As the console boots up, Tessa looks at him, and from him into the sweet purple liquid, and as he loads up his game, a sombre thought comes streaming into her mind, unbidden, and soon it has ruined the carpet and is threatening to flood her happy little scene.

‘I wonder where Alice is right now.’

George’s eyes are fixed on the screen, mind occupied with less earthly matters.

‘She could be literally anywhere in the world in any time period. Why bother wondering?’

‘No, I mean…I wonder if she’ll spend this Christmas alone.’ Tessa takes a gulp of wine and relishes the warmth in her gullet. ‘I hated the Christmases I spent alone.’

George takes a second to pat her leg, but he cannot divert his eyes or hands from the screen for long.

‘She doesn’t need to have a Christmas ever again if she doesn’t want to. She can skip December 25th every year for the rest of her life, if she wants.’

‘But that’s shit, isn’t it? Even shittier, never having Christmas again.’

George shrugs as he shoots aliens in the face.

‘It’s just another day.’

‘It is not!’ Tessa says, flaring with heat though she doesn’t know why. ‘It’s a special holiday! It’s, it’s traditional, and historical, and magical! Time to stay with family, and friends, and loved ones you n-never see!’

‘It’s an excuse for everyone to get the day off work and drink,’ George says. ‘And even that doesn’t happen for everyone.’

Why does she feel so strongly about this? Well, nevertheless, his lack of caring is like an assault – and worst thing is, he must know it.

‘God, you are a total scrooge.’

George shrugs again and enters his spaceship. Tessa watches the screen for a few seconds, blinking away her drunken tears.

‘…I hope Alice is okay.’

George’s character comes to a stop in an empty, stainless steel corridor. George turns and takes the glass out of his girlfriend’s hand.

‘Me too,’ he says, and pulls her close to him.

~*~*~

December 4th, 2008

Madison Avenue, New York

Grace quickly shuts her e-mails tab as she hears someone walk up to her desk.

‘Grace, hey,’ Josh says. ‘You got a minute?’

‘What’s wrong?’ she asks, turning around. Josh turns his palms to the ceiling and gives a reassuring grin.

‘Nothing wrong, don’t worry, see, but the thing is, we’ve got this new programmer in – guy from Japan – and he’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, he’s perfect, but is English iiiiis a little creaky, if you know what I’m saying?’

‘And?’

‘Aaaaaand I was hoping you could go over some of the important docs with him, make sure he understands it all before it gets put into HR, know what I mean?’

‘I don’t have time to babysit your programmers,’ she says. She learnt, soon after coming to America, that her Nigerian accent is often perceived as stern. She uses this to her utmost advantage at work, where it seems people on every level are complicit in walking all over everybody’s else’s time and commitments, all with a broad smile on their face, while those walked over agree to it with a mirroring, terrified grin.

‘Hey, come on, Grace – just this once, today, I promise. You can kick my ass if I ask you again.’

Well, Grace is going to need to call in some favours in at Christmas. Might as well get as many people in her debt as she can.

‘I will hold you to that,’ she says, standing up. ‘You are lucky I’m not as busy as I normally am.’

‘Great, great,’ Josh says, leading her out to the door. A man is waiting for them.

‘Hey, Sosuke, thanks for waiting – Grace, this is Sosuke Ito, Sosuke, this is Grace Abani, she’ll be making sure your files, paperwork, are all understood and in top shape. If you need anything, just ask – she’s a great girl! Anyways, I’ve gotta run to a meeting, so, make sure everything’s alright by four, okay Grace?’

Josh leaves as swiftly as he arrived, before Grace can make any protest or further snarky remarks.

Sosuke is maybe a few years younger than her, though it’s hard to tell. He has a shaggy-haired, meek dog look to him that’s rather appealing. When she turns to him, he jerks his gaze to the carpet.

‘Ito-san, was it?’ she asks, in Japanese.

He looks up, surprised and relieved to hear someone speaking his native tongue, and the second his eyes are on her face again, they stick there. She has the strange sensation that she has met him before, though she can’t imagine where. Must look like someone I saw on TV once, she decides.

As they walk back to his office, she continues the conversation.

‘Have you been in New York long, Ito-san?’

‘Not long,’ he says. Then, with what appears to be burst of bravery, he adds: ‘But I spent a long time preparing to come here. Though I know I still need to improve my English…’

His eyes keep catching on her before he drags them to the floor.

‘Preparing to come to America?’

‘Yes, and New York. I wanted to come to New York.’

‘Why?’

He doesn’t reply for a moment, and she repeats the question.

‘Why-‘

‘I felt I had to,’ he rushes out. ‘I felt something drawing me here. I’m sorry, it’s strange.’

Her laugh catches in her chest before she forces it out.

‘No, I understand. I felt the same. Something called me to America, and New York.’

How strange, she thinks. I wonder if Onyeka would call me fanciful for wondering if it is only coincidence. The myth around this city is strong, she would say. Delusions.

Sosuke looks at her again, longer this time.

‘You are…not American?’

‘I am African. Nigerian.’

‘Ah. You…you speak Japanese very well.’

Truthfully, Grace feels her Japanese is rusty, after so long focusing on Mandarin and Hindi. Still, they work through his documents, she clarifies important legalese for him, and she tries to ignore how he keeps staring at her.

She finishes her explanation. She turns to him suddenly, and – mid-stare – he jumps. She says, in English:

‘Do you have any questions?’

‘Ah, uh, no, it is, uh…’

He pauses, and then – in another rush – he says in Japanese:

‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but you look very familiar to me, and I am trying to understand why, because I did not know any people l-like you, back in Tokyo, and I haven’t been in New York long. I cannot remember where I’ve seen you before.’

Grace feels a prickle at her skin. Her head throbs.

‘I don’t think we have met,’ she says. ‘Perhaps it is your mind playing tricks.’

‘Must be,’ he says. He repeats it in a mumble: ‘Must be.’

Grace gladly leaves him and returns to her desk. Double checking that no-one is behind her, she opens her e-mails again, and looks at the message from her sister:

Have booked the plane. I arrive late on the 24th. Details attached. Can’t wait to see you. Onyeka.

Grace reads it three times to wash out the unease in her mind. Coincidences. Tricks of the mind. Onyeka will say all these things to her to explain what just happened, and they will make her feel safe and certain…until the talk of physics and the tininess of their place in the universe begins again.

Still, Grace thinks, at least my sister wasn’t complicit in creating a black hole in the middle of Europe and destroying us all.

Three months after the first run on the Large Hadron Collider, the idea is hysterical.

~*~*~

December 24th, 1931

Sixth Avenue, New York

The store is sparkling with tinsel, lights, and pictures and figures of ruddy-cheeks Santas – just as Sam likes to see it. John shuts the door behind him, and flips the sign to “Closed.”

‘Helluva day,’ John says. His eyes are shining, despite the tired slump in his shoulders. ‘They just kept coming, and coming, and coming.’

Sam goes to the counter and opens the till.

‘You know how folks are with their – Jesus Christ!’

The machine is spilling with notes. They threaten to jump out at him.

‘Sorry, boss,’ John says. (He would never admit it, but he likes calling Sam “boss.” It’s a small token of the immense gratitude he has for the man.) ‘Didn’t have time to take it to the safe after five.’

‘This is just this evening?’

John nods, cheeks pink with pride.

‘Jee-zus,’ Sam says, with a happy shake of the head. ‘I swear, it’s like this stuff is attracted to you.’ Happy shake of a fist holding a hundred bucks.

John laughs. He stands taller, since he started working here. Or maybe it’s that he’s filling out, not so scrawny as he once was. Or maybe it’s the clothes, or the tidy hair. Maybe it’s his smile. Either way, whenever Sam gives him fifty bucks, he comes back looking a hundred better.

They count out the money, bag it up. On the way to the back safe, John says:

‘Should be enough here to keep you ‘n Marge happy tomorrow.’

‘We’ll see,’ says Sam. ‘We’ll see.’

His mind whirs at this reminder. He has been considering something whenever he mentions the store to his new wife. Christmas is for family, it’s said, and Lord knows he’s got plenty of ’em, even without considering Marge’s side. But peace upon earth and goodwill to fellow men and charity in the snow comes with it all. When he lies in bed at night, sometimes he still hears the sound of an angel-light step upon the stair, and a weeping blonde figure, begging him for forgiveness, begging him to makes things right. They said, a way back, an English woman in Brooklyn inherited a whole fortune and gave damn near the whole thing away. I couldn’t be as good as that, he’s said. But when he looks at this scrawny kid, and how good he’s turning out, all on account of the money Sam gave him – then he thinks, maybe, maybe I could try.

They tidy the last parts away, cover what’s needed. Sam stands at the back door, watching John turn out the lights, and he thinks that he has to try.

‘You seeing any of your family tomorrow?’ he asks, as John reaches him.

‘What family?’ John says.

The self-conscious turn of his head – the hint of darkness in his tone – the attempt to cover it with a breath-laugh – tell everything. Al really was the last of the dead, imprisoned, estranged lot. Sam’s heart twinges.

‘You got anybody to see tomorrow?’

‘Priest, maybe, if I don’t go to midnight mass.’

If you were ten years younger, Sam thinks, you’d be the lead in a Christmas sob-story, a seasonal fairy tale about the orphan boy with no-one in the world to care for him. Make it right, the angel said. Make it right.

Sam locks the back door and speaks.

‘What d’you say to coming round to mine tomorrow?’

White mist spurts out of John in his surprise.

‘Y-your place?’

‘It’ll be busy, but I’m sure we can squeeze one more your size in.’

Another burst of clouded breath, then another, like a steam train.

‘I – I can’t, boss, I can’t – I can’t barge in like that –’

With each stammer and refusal, Sam becomes more and more certain.

‘It’s no intrusion if I’m inviting you. In fact, I’m telling you: you’re coming tomorrow. I ain’t gonna have you sitting home by yourself all day.’

‘Ah – well uh – gee – yeah, yeah, I’ll come – if it’s fine by you.’

Sam claps him on the shoulder, and all doubt has fled his mind. Funny, how virtue always seems so obvious, so simple, so satisfying, after the fact.

‘We’ll be happier for having you. I gotta warn you, though, my ma – she’ll see the size of you and she’ll want to stuff you til you burst! And my kid cousins, you’ll be tearing your hair out…’

They walk off down the street, and John smiles at all the warnings and tales of Sam’s family, until he feels he knows and is part of them already. A further warmth bursts in his heart as he considers the kindness he has received, the luck he has gathered, and the hopeful future that waits for him. He knows better than to hope too far ahead, but that night he intuits the wonderful truth:

He will never spend another Christmas alone, or cold, or unhappy.

~*~*~

December 23rd, 1928

Fort Greene, New York

Alice wakes with Personent Hodie ringing through her head. The sky is dark outside, though the street lamps still shine through the night. It feels a long time since she saw true darkness. True midwinter.

She curls in her thick duvet, and remembers her grandmother and grandfather singing hymns together by the fire, waiting for wassailers that never came. Only a few years ago, in her life, but to the world she is living in, it is hundreds of years, a time passed and forgotten and mysterious. The weight of those years crushes her. All she knows and could tell, but cannot tell and cannot say she knows. All that has passed her by, that she must learn or pretend to know. A lifetime of hiding truth, hiding herself, never ending. She curls tight into a ball and remembers her dead family and dead past, and for two minutes continuing to exist seems an impossible task, like she has been sentenced to wade endlessly in a thick mud bog that stretches as far as she can see.

Then, through the folds, comes the sound of singing:

‘O, holy night, the stars are brightly shining…’

She takes the covers away from her head.

‘It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth…’

It is coming from the living room. Funny. She didn’t hear him come in.

‘Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, ’til he appeared, and the soul felt its worth…’

The soft tenor of his voice weaves through the walls of the apartment like a delicious smell. She sits up and the covers fall away from her, push her forward towards the sound:

‘A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices…’

His outline comes into view through the doorway: crouched before a pine tree, fiddling with something on the floor. He is still in his clothes from last night. Likely he hasn’t slept yet.

‘For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…’

With the press of a button, the tree blooms into light, as if a hundred stars have fallen from the sky to sit in its boughs. Bertram sits back on his heels and sings out:

‘Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices! Oh night divine! Oh night, when Christ was born…’

He turns and sees her standing behind him, and smiles.

‘Sorry, did I wake you?’

Alice cannot speak. In all her life, in all the years dragged to church, she has never felt the chills of her spirit lifting to heaven as she does now, seeing those lights, and hearing that song.

Bertram stands, and gestures to the fir.

‘I finally got us a tree. And look! Electric lights, instead of candles. I thought I’d surprise you with them when you woke up. Cost me a bunch, but it looks swell, doesn’t it? ‘

She feels she could stare at it all day. But now her soul is settling back into her body, she cannot deny the question:

‘But why take a whole tree inside?’

Bertram gives her a puzzled look.

‘Why? It’s just what we do. You mean you didn’t have Christmas trees back then?’

Her emotions are too raw to cope with even an innocent question. The smell of pine from the tree reminds her of home and the hot prick comes into her eyes again.

‘We hung wreaths, and branches of holly and ivy,’ she says. ‘And we roasted apples on the fire. And we sang.’

‘Roasted apples? Never done that. We can if you want, though,’ he adds quickly. He must have caught the weakness in her: he has a supportive look, as if he expects her to break apart any moment. She despises it.

Alice pulls herself straight and commands the tears to die.

‘What was that song?’

‘That? Oh, just an old carol. It was the first that came to mind. I suppose you won’t know the last century ones, will you?’

‘Please,’ she says. ‘Teach me them. That was beautiful.’

He sings her O Holy Night, and Silent Night, and Away in a Manger, and when he tries to teach her the cheerier songs such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Ding Dong Merrily on High, she stops him. The sun has not yet risen, and she prefers to keep the calm stillness in her heart, while she has both him and twinkling lights in the dark.

‘There are still a few hours until sunrise,’ he says, looking at the clock. ‘I suppose I should back to bed and try to sleep at least a little. It’s gonna be a busy few days.’

She agrees they should. She is exhausted.

At her bedroom door, they pause and look at each other.

‘Merry Christmas, Alice,’ Bertram says.

‘Merry Christmas,’ she whispers, and watches his bedroom door close.

Back in her bed, she stares at the ceiling, and – so softly she can barely hear herself – she whisper-sings:

‘O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…’

*~*~*

December 24th, 2008

Times Square, New York

Grace watches the ice skaters and the lights on the trees, trying to remain happy as she waits. And waits. In the cold.

‘A-Abani-san?’

She turns. She shouldn’t be surprised – Times Square isn’t far from work, and work only ended an hour ago. But she feels that, in a city with eight million people, she should not be able to turn around and see Sosuke Ito standing in the street behind her.

‘Hi,’ she says, switching on her Japanese brain. She resumes leaning on the side of the rink.

‘Are you going ice-skating?’ he asks.

‘No. I’m waiting.’

‘Ah.’

He hesitates before asking his next question.

‘Waiting for a friend? Or a date – am I interrupting?’

‘No, no,’ she says, smiling. Most of the people at work find his awkwardness irritating. She can’t admit she finds it sweet. ‘I am waiting to go to the airport. My sister is arriving tonight, but her flight is late, so I’m waiting until traffic is quieter before I go to the airport to meet her.’

‘Ah.’

Sosuke stands beside her, and in silence they look around.

‘It’s pretty, isn’t it?’ he says.

Thousands of lights, from tiny white to palm-sized red orbs, strung up all over the trees both real and fake – a complement to the thousands of lights in the windows and billboards of the city. Even more explosions of colour, for the biggest holiday in the year.

‘Do you and your sister celebrate Christmas?’ Sosuke asks.

‘Yes. We are Christians.’

‘Ah.’

To his credit, he doesn’t look as surprised as many Americans do when she tells them that.

In the pause that follows, Grace watches the couples holding each other up on the rink, and a thought occurs to her.

‘Is it true that Christmas Eve is a romantic night for couples, in Japan?’

‘Yes,’ he says, then adds with a mumble: ‘Not that I’ve ever celebrated it…’

‘So you won’t be celebrating tomorrow either?’

‘I’m happy to have a day off to play some video games,’ he says.

Grace laughs, and the laugh gives her energy. She straightens, and says to him:

‘Let’s look around, while we wait. Are you busy?’

‘No,’ he says, with the face of a child who has just seen Santa. ‘No, I’m not busy. I…’

He blurts out:

‘I’ll wait with you until your sister comes, if you want.’

‘I think I would like that,’ Grace says.

And so they walk around Manhattan, pointing out the giant decorations, the toys in the windows, the billboards and advertisements, and gradually Grace tempts him to converse in English for practice, and before either knows what has happened, Sosuke is talking about movies, and as he speaks he trips over his words and his hands gesture so wide that he nearly hits the glaring pedestrians passing by.

‘And he has, uh, can, that shoot steam, and when they are in space, she flies but he use the can to move, and he shoot around space like “Shuuuuu, shuuuu…”’

Grace laughs as he gestures spraying a fire extinguisher around him.

‘That sounds fun.’

‘It is,’ he says, as they stop at a food truck. ‘But is also, uh…’

He pauses as he buys them both a warm waffle, smothered in chocolate.

‘Is sweet,’ he says. ‘The movie, it is romantic.’

Grace takes her first bite of the waffle and the syrup swells over her tongue, delicious warmth seeping into her hands and mouth. Sweet. It’s a Christmas Eve date, she realises, but without plan or title. And she likes it. Sweet.

They sit on a nearby bench and eat their waffles. Sosuke finishes his first and as he waits, he watches the people pass by.

‘I…this is strange. For me.’

‘It takes time to get used to New York,’ she replies, licking her fingers.

‘No, uhh, what I mean is…I made a decision. Three years ago. Before, I sat in my room, felt bad, did nothing. One day, I made a decision: I would go to New York. I sell everything, I take lessons, I work hard. Now, I am in New York, and I think: what do I do now?’

He looks at the sky and chuckles.

She doesn’t know how to reply to such things, so she says:

‘That was well said. Your English is not bad.’

‘Still,’ he mutters, in Japanese, ‘I feel better for meeting you – even if I’m going crazy and we haven’t met before.’

She smiles and pretends she hasn’t heard him.

They walk around for a little longer, and finally she looks at her phone and realises it is time.

‘I should go. Thanks for hanging out with me.’

‘You’re welcome,’ he says. His eyes scan her face again, and he seems to see something important as he does. He smiles.

‘Apartments in New York are very small, aren’t they?’ he mumbles, in Japanese.

‘What?’ she says, taken aback.

In English, clear as day:

‘I make a new decision: I will get bigger apartment. More money, bigger apartment. Big so I can have a girlfriend, and her friends and family to visit next Christmas.’

A sudden flush of jealousy for this imaginary woman and her imaginary, perfect family. Sosuke’s eyes are filled with determination, and at once Grace has no doubt that he will get exactly what he wants. Penthouse, blonde wife, corporate glory. After all, if he took himself out of Japan just like that…

Stubbornness digs its heels into her thoughts. No. I want to be part of that. I want to walk around Manhattan with him again. I want to watch movies with him and see him explain them to other people at work with the same enthusiasm. I want to know more.

‘Sosuke,’ she says, ‘let’s go see a movie next week. After my sister is gone. On the last day of the year. Let’s meet here, at this time, and go see a movie.’

He does not celebrate Christmas, but he grins as if he has been given the present he always wanted.

‘Hai – yes, yes. I will. Thank you, Abani-san.’

‘Call me Grace,’ she says. ‘In English and Japanese. Call me Grace.’

He blushes and nods his head, still grinning.

‘Yes…Grace.’

She checks her phone again. She needs to run.

‘Merry Christmas, Sosuke. I’ll see you on the thirty-first!’

‘M-merry Christmas…Grace.’

She turns and runs and looks back and waves and runs and wonders what just happened, but nevertheless she smiles and the people on the subway around her glare at her for smiling so publicly.

When Onyeka comes through the gate an hour later, Grace rushes into her arms.

‘I missed you!’

‘I missed you too!’ Onyeka says, hugging her tight. ‘Though I cannot believe you convinced me to come to America for Christmas. It is so cold! Next year, we are going back to Lagos with the rest of the family, hear me?’

Grace laughs.

‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘Or maybe they will come here.’

‘Here? No! If we bring them anywhere cold, it will be Switzerland. It is far more beautiful than New York in winter.’

‘I don’t know, nnwanne,’ Grace says, as they exit the building and the lights of the city descend around them. ‘I think there is magic here, in winter. Magic that can make strange things happen in New York at Christmas.’

Onyeka rolls her eyes.

‘You and your superstitions. Let’s go – I am freezing!’

Grace smiles to herself as they enter the airport train. She keeps her Christmas secret warm in her chest.

~*~*~

December 25th, 2007

Combe Down, Bath

There are four presents under the tree. One each from George’s parents – away on a cruise, as they do every year – and one to each other. The real present, of course, is Tessa’s happiness. She pops open the tin of chocolates she bought for herself and sweeps one into her mouth with a flamboyant gesture.

‘Ha! It’s the one day of the year you can’t have a go at me for eating chocolate for breakfast!’ she says, thickly.

‘So where’s my morning beer, then?’

‘In the fridge, where you left it,’ she says. ‘Hurry up, I wanna start!’

After George gets his beer, he fiddles with his laptop for a few minutes and drinks in Tessa’s exasperation as he puts on the same album he’s been playing for days.

‘Bodysnatchers,’ she requests.

‘Hurry up, then, open something,’ he replies as he sits at the tree. She hits him with a cushion.

Five minutes later, it’s done. Socks and perfume, and a new dress for Tessa. Socks, a body wash set, and three second-hand comedy DVDs for George.

‘Do your parents think we stink or something?’

‘And that we can’t afford to heat the house.’

‘It’s really sad that I’m actually glad to have socks. My child self would kill me.’

‘I’m guessing your child self also pulled the heads off of all new her Barbies by Christmas dinner, so I wouldn’t care what she thinks.’

Tessa crawls up to him and kisses him softly.

‘You know me too well.’

There is a slight twinge of disgust in her as she tastes the beer on his lips, but her happiness is still the most warming, rich meal. His own, personal Christmas dinner.

Three hours later, they have watched all the DVDs. Tessa is sweet-sick and George is groggy from beer and eating too much happiness.

‘Well, that’s Christmas over,’ Tessa says. Her disappointment is light grey, near-tasteless gruel. ‘Might go back to bed.’

George, not thinking what else to do, turns on the Xbox.

‘Let me know when you want dinner put in the oven. I’m stuffed.’

They have oven-roast ready meals prepared for their Christmas meal. No point putting in a lot of effort for just the two of them.

He hears something over the start-up sound. He pauses, and listens. Nothing.

Tessa yawns loudly, and he hears it again.

‘Did you hear that?’

‘Hm?’

They listen, and it comes a third time: a soft rapping at the front door.

A glance at each other – who would come visit them on Christmas Day? – and Tessa springs up and out to the hallway, George scrambling after her.

The door is thrown open, and Tessa screams in delight:

‘ALICE!’

Alice smiles, parcel held out in her hands.

‘Merry Christmas,’ she says

Tessa takes the parcel, tosses it into George’s arms, and throws herself on the woman.

‘I missed you! I was worried about you! Oh, thank God you’re okay! I’m so happy you’re here!’

She all but drags her inside. Door is kicked shut, cheeks are kissed. George places the parcel on the hall table and envelops them both.

‘Merry Christmas, Alice,’ he says, into their heads.

When they break apart, he takes a second look at their guest. Alice is older. Hard to tell how old, but she looks more adult than she used to. Her hair is long and tied loosely at the nape. She is wearing modern clothes: jeans, Christmas jumper with a snowman on the front. And her eyes…they show lifetimes of sadness, regret, resignation. Yet when she meets his look, she exudes only a calm determination. At least, that is the only emotion he can taste in her.

‘How are you?’ he asks.

‘Better than I was,’ she says.

‘We haven’t got you a present!’ Tessa cries. Alice laughs and her entire demeanour changes, warms.

‘Of course you haven’t – you weren’t expecting me!’

‘Or any real Christmas dinner,’ Tessa continues. ‘I’m sorry!’

Alice takes Tessa’s hands in her own and squeezes them.

‘I didn’t come for dinner or gifts,’ she says. ‘I came to see you.’

Tessa doesn’t reply. Her face flares red. Her lips tremble. Like an avil from the sky, George sees the emotions fall heavy from nowhere.

She bursts into tears.

‘Ah…ah…fuck, sorry,’ she says, frantically wiping her face and sniffing. ‘It’s just…I…I missed you. I missed…I miss people.’

George panics – he did not see this coming at all. But Alice embraces Tessa and pulls him into the hug and the three of them embrace hold each other for a long time.

As Tessa runs upstairs to reapply her makeup, George looks again at Alice, and wonders at the continued calm in her.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Everywhere,’ she says, with her enigmatic half-smile. ‘But let’s not talk of that. What matters is…I didn’t want you two to be alone today.’

‘We’re not alone,’ George says. ‘We’ve got each other.’

She gives him a knowing look and walks into the living room.

Tessa reappears later, bouncing and smiling and bright. That is all he recognises, but he knows that surely some lingering remnant of what caused her tears must be left in her heart, even if he can’t detect it.

And for the first time in his life, George wonders if there are depths of emotions he cannot fathom, feelings that even he cannot discover, feelings that burst and rage and disappear to their hidden spaces just as quickly as they came. Hurts that lie low, never addressed and never noticed, until suddenly they are exposed. He has never considered himself or Tessa lonely, but the swell of bittersweet sadness that spiked in his girlfriend just now speaks otherwise.

His ignorance breaks in his face like an icy wave, and he is confused yet invigorated. Acres of the unknown within the human mind open up to him, and like a child he goggles at this new, unexplored land.

That realisation is what Alice gives him for Christmas.

Tessa, ever simpler, receives an understanding and loving soul beside her for that day. It is all she wants. The number of those who care about her has doubled. That is all that is needed.

.

The afternoon whiles away. They watch TV together. They play board games. They argue over things to do. Around six o’clock, Alice excuses herself for a moment, and when she returns, she says:

‘Come through to the kitchen. I have a surprise.’

Intrigued, they walk through – and gasp. The kitchen is decorated with tinsel and streamers, and a full Christmas dinner sits steaming on the covered table.

‘How…’ George begins, then stops and laughs. ‘Where did you get this from?’

‘I ordered it from various places and times,’ Alice says. ‘I took me a while. I’m glad to be back.’

Tessa gives her a bear hug in response.

Once dessert is over, they sit back in their chairs, stuffed. Tessa sinks, sadness creeping into her again.

‘Will you be leaving soon?’ she asks.

‘I’m afraid so,’ Alice says. ‘It’s been a long day, and I have many places to be.’

‘Surely you don’t have to be anywhere?’ George says. ‘You’re the most free person alive.’

Alice looks at him knowingly. Sits up straighter. Regains her regal bearing. From pain upon hurt, she has burst forth the strongest. Confidence fills her completely.

‘I have plans,’ she said. ‘A great many. And much work to do.’

‘But, surely if you can see and go to the future, you know how futile your efforts are,’ George says. Despite Tessa’s glare, he is unwilling to let this slide. ‘What work can you possibly do that makes such a difference?’

Alice smiles, like she is looking upon a toddler.

‘I have changed things,’ she says. ‘I have made happiness where there should have been despair. I have fostered love where there would have been isolation. Your gaze is not so wide that you can see all I have done…but I have made, and continue to make, a difference, in a hundred tiny ways. And though it will never be recognised by the wider story of time…’

She looks to the ceiling, to sky, to heaven.

‘I know in my heart I am doing the right thing.’

.

Tessa cries again when she leaves. Only once they turn away from the door do they remember the parcel she brought for them, left on the hallway table. Alice didn’t mention it once.

It contains two wrapped presents of odd shape. Tessa rips her open first.

There are three gorgeous designer dresses, all folded strangely around each other like cloth origami. In their centre are two CDs of broadway musical recordings. And between the CD cases is a Christmas card. A kitten in a Santa hat sits on the front of the card. When Tessa opens it, two sheets of paper flutter out. Plane tickets.

There is a man named Geiri Sigurmonsson who lives in Selfoss in Iceland. He is a dream-eater, and he once knew your grandfather. He can’t wait to meet you.

‘Oh, Alice!’ Tessa says, near tears again. ‘Shit, why did she have to leave before I opened this?’

George’s parcel contains a new coat, wrapped around a book about travelling. More plane tickets fall out. Round the world tickets.

‘Looks like she wants us to be as well-travelled as she is,’ he says, picking them up from the floor.

‘That’s not a ticket,’ Tessa says, pointing to one blue slip.

They look at it, then each other, then both shake their heads and laugh at their friend and her ways.

It is a cheque for a hundred and fifty-five thousand pounds. Written along the bottom, it says: To do with as you please.

You’re awful, Alice, he thinks. What else can we do with this now – after what you said earlier – but spend it on other people?

Late that night, entwined in bed, Tessa says to the dark:

‘We’re going to be okay, now.’

‘We were always going to be okay,’ he replies, with the certainty of a man who has never known destitution.

‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘But we have no excuse to not believe it now.’

There is a pause, then she says:

‘I’m happy. I’m so happy. Not for us, but for her. I know she’s okay now. She’ll always be okay, as long as she keeps doing what she loves. I hope she only ever has happiness. I know,’ she says, before George can open his mouth, ‘it’s not realistic or possible or whatever. But I hope it anyway. I wish it.’

He holds her close, thinks of the opening future, and he wishes it as well.

~*~*~

December 25th, 2014

Central Park, New York

Her hands are still cold, though hours have passed since she tidied up his grave. Fresh red roses for a man eighty years dead. Such strangeness doesn’t both her any more.

My Bertram, she thinks. You always refused to look forward instead of back. And the future is where the good promises are. I have so many plans. So many, and not enough time in my life to do them all.

A couple walks into view of her bench. An East-Asian man and a black woman two inches taller than him, out for a Christmas Day stroll. He speaks softly, but intensely. She laughs loudly in response. They pause, and turn to look behind them.

A small girl toddles unsteadily up to them. She has a pink coat, a cloud of black hair, and a grin a mile wide as she barges between her parents and puts her hands in theirs. They lift her up, legs swinging, and the three walk on. A family. A stable unit. A home burrowed in one place and time.

Alice watches them, heart burning.

Magnetism, whispers a ghost from another life.

Enough, she thinks, loud enough to drown out the self-pity. She pulls out the spokewheel necklace from around her neck.

I have work to do.

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Written by G.J.

23/12/2014 at 5:56 pm

Winter Wonderland

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‘Kate. Kate. Ka-ate. Kaaaay-teeee. KATE.’

‘What?!’

‘Look!’

She twisted in her seat and pushed aside the curtains. Dancing white dots swirled through the black-and-orange night.

‘Is that snow?’

‘Fuck yeah, it is!’ Alex said, grinning.

‘Oh bollocks, I’d better not be snowed in tomorrow.’

She turned back to her laptop and he flopped down on the couch beside her.

‘Spoilsport. Anyway, it’s not like you’ve got anywhere to go. You should relish in the snow! Frolick in it like a child! Be free, Kate, won’t you be freeeeeeee?’

She smiled and gave him a small shove.

‘Shut up.’

The next morning, her car was snowed in. The next morning, the world glistened white and quiet. The next morning, she needed surprisingly little convincing from Alex to put on her wellies and crunch out into the new land before them, and she didn’t complain about being snowed in at all as they walked to the edge of the village, down the farmer’s path, crossed the turnstile, and hiked out into the empty fields.

At the top of the hill, the valley stretched before them, and what had been a patchwork of greens, browns and beiges lay uniform and tranquil. Quite art deco, she thought. Clean black hedge lines blocking out white shapes.

‘We need a dog.’

‘We do not need a dog, Al.’

‘We totally need a dog. They’d love it on a day like this. Have you ever seen a cocker spaniel with snow in its ears? All the fur clogs up until it’s got two icy wrecking balls on each side.’

Kate laughed.

‘So now we specifically need a cocker spaniel?’

‘Well, any spaniel, really,’ he said, as he walked ahead. ‘I’m not fussy.’

He was asking for a snowball, of course.

They pelted each other and screamed and missed and apologised when they hit each other too hard. They never threw any gentler for that, though. Across the whole field, they fought, until Kate begged for no more.

‘Ah, started what you can’t finish, eh?’ Alex said, raising his arm as if to smash the snowball into her head. She squealed, but found herself swung around in his arms, face pressed against the cold wet of his coat. His snowball had rejoined the trenched snow by their boots.

They laughed, and continued walking. Wet clothes were mentioned. Hot chocolate was hypothesised. They turned and began to make their way back.

On the way down the hill, on a nearly-level field whose snow had barely been touched, Alex stopped.

‘Kate. Ka-ate.’

‘What?’

‘Let’s build a snowman!’

‘Now? But I’m freezing!’

‘Come on, it’ll warm you up!’

‘It’ll take forever, and we haven’t got any carrots or anything! I don’t even think there are any stones about for his eyes or whatever.’

‘Psh, loser talk. I’ll find some stones and things, don’t you worry.’

She protested, but he was already bent over and rolling up the first ball.

Green grass sprung up in the trenches they made. Once the first ball was in place, they started on the second, and Kate resisted the urge to stuff snow down Alex’s exposed collar.

‘Can tell you’ve really grown up since you started living with me,’ she said.

‘What d’you mean?’

‘If this was a few years ago, you’d be making a massive snow cock instead of a snow man.’

‘I considered it,’ he replied with a cheeky look. ‘But I reckon I’ve made some pretty majestic snow cocks in my time. I think I’ll retire from it, and let some other up-and-comer become the snow cock master.’

Kate snorted and Alex threw a handful of powder at her and for a few moments the snowball fight threatened to begin again. Truce was made, though, for the sake of their creation.

‘I’d forgotten how much work this is,’ Alex said, grunting as he pushed the third ball.

‘Can’t wuss out now, I won’t let you.’

‘Don’t worry, I won’t.’

They piled up the three parts of the snowman, and then Kate put her hands on her hips.

‘There, see? It’s just a pile of balls until we find some sticks.’

‘Heh heh, balls,’ Alex said. ‘Just give me a minute,’ he added, as he walked away to the nearby gate. When he returned a few moments later, he had three large stones and two mediocre sticks.

‘I suppose that’ll do,’ Kate said with a smile, unable to admit she was impressed with his speed.

The shoulders threatened to cave, even with the small sticks, and the snowman’s face had to be rebuilt multiple times before it would accept his new eyes and nose. At the end, the pair stood back and admired their handiwork: a small, lump, leaning snowman, with shrunken arms and an annoyed expression.

‘His nose looks more like a tiny mouth.’

‘Yeah, he looks kind of grumpy. Like he’s pouting.’

‘Oh my God, you know who he reminds me of?’ Alex said, jumping up to their Frankenstein. ‘He looks just like the grumpy old reverend they used to have come to my primary school! His mouth looked really high up because he had three chins and no neck, and the weird thing was he wasn’t even that fat – just his neck. God, he was a grumpy bastard.’

‘I take it he didn’t like you, then?’ Kate said, as she rubbed her hands together for warmth. Alex put his arm gently around the snowman’s shoulder.

‘God no, he hated me. Thought I was gay for some reason, and was surprisingly open about this even though I was like, nine, and had barely started looking at boobs yet. But look at me now, Rev Bailey!’ He turned and addressed the snowman like an old friend. ‘I’ve got an actual real breathing human woman, right here! All your worries were unfounded – it was spotty old Ben Hargreaves who you should have worried about the whole time, didn’t you know?’

Kate raised an eyebrow and tried not to giggle.

‘A real human woman, huh? As opposed to a goat?’

‘That would probably surprise him less. I bet he – and a few other of my teachers, maybe! – would be happy if I got myself a nice good-looking goat. As long as we weren’t living in sin, of course,’ he added with a twinkle.

‘You sod! You’d defend the honour of a goat, but you make me live in shame?’ Kate said, palm to her chest in faux-horror.

‘Oh, forgive me, fair damsel! Forgive me, Reverend Bailey!’ Alex said, bowing before the snowman’s uneven – yet still stern – gaze.

‘Well, I think Reverend Bailey won’t forgive you so easily!’ Kate said, walking to the other side of the snowman. ‘Listen to him! “Oh, Alexander, you disgraceful, fey child! You have not married this woman and you are living in SIN!”’

She roared the last word in her deepest, Orson Welles-iest tone. Alex, fully lost in the theatre, dropped to his knees, an inch deep in the soggy white ground.

‘Forgive me, Reverend Bailey! I swear, I will marry this young lady forthwith! Indeed, you may do the deed at your next convenience, good sir! You will do the job yourself, I swear it – I WILL marry her!’

He paused, one hand on his heart, the other gesturing up in a Shakespearean manner. His eyes turned from the snowman’s unfeeling visage, to Kate, stood in front of him. He was on his knees.

Their hearts trembled as their eyes met.

‘Ha,’ Kate said, in a breathy laugh. Hope danced in little sparks in her irises. A smile flickered on, then off. Disbelief.

Alex lowered his arm, but stayed kneeling. Layer upon layer of humour drained out of him, until an exposed sincerity was all that remained.

‘…I would, y’know,’ he said.

He did not disguise the overtone of fear in his voice.

Kate smiled and all fear was banished.

‘I would,’ she replied. ‘Say yes to it, I mean.’

Alex jumped to his feet.

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

They both gazed into each other’s eyes, and laughed: nervous, disbelieving, joyous.

Then she grabbed his coat and kissed him, and put her arms around his neck and kissed him, and they kissed and laughed until a shout came from the gate and a huffly breath and wet nose intruded onto their legs.

‘Sorry!’ came a shout behind them. A woman with a lead, tromping after the springer spaniel that was snuffling around Kate and Alex’s legs. The bottom of its ears was loaded with snow.

‘It’s okay,’ Kate called over, breaking the embrace to bend over and cuddle the excited creature.

‘You so want a dog,’ Alex said in her ear.

‘Shut up.’

They had a brief chat with the dog’s owner about the snow and state of the roads out the village, and then they walked off hand-in-gloved-hand, ignoring the singing of their hearts and instead talking about warm clothes and warmer drink.

Once they were home and changed, Kate flopped onto the couch and reached for her laptop.

‘Nuh-uh,’ Alex said as he entered the room. ‘Not yet.’

‘Not yet?’

He sat down beside her, and pulled her close to him, resting his cheek against her head.

‘I meant what I said, earlier,’ he said.

‘I know you did,’ Kate said, snuggling into his chest.

‘You’re okay with it?’

‘I’m more than okay.’

‘I can’t get you a ring or anything yet–’

‘I don’t care,’ she said. ‘I said I would, and I mean it, no matter how long it takes you to ask it.’

‘Awesome,’ he said. ‘Take that, Reverend Bailey!’

‘Tsh, look at you, total conformer, getting married to please old fuddy-duddies,’ she teased.

‘Yeah, well, I can’t be mega-cool all the time.’

They kissed, and after a few more seconds grinning at each other, they broke apart. Kate grabbed her laptop. Alex turned on the TV.

Bing Crosby was singing Christmas songs.

Written by G.J.

18/12/2014 at 7:35 pm