Swylce

Short fiction and serialised novellas of GJ Fairlamb

Savage Writing: Elephants and Mice

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This week’s topic was “Make me laugh.”

___

Just as his hands brushed the safe – click.

Light beamed on him from his right. Tommy span on his heels.

A second click.

‘Stay where you are.’

Sweat dripped down the back of his neck. Slowly, he turned, raising his hand to ward off the glare from the lamp.

A woman sat on the reading chair, hand holding the lampshade at an angle, directing its full force to him. In her other hand she held a revolver. She was in her thirties, curled brown hair, long-sleeved burgundy shirt cinched in by a wide tan belt, knee-length green skirt (her colouring fit right in with the rest of the study). Pencilled eyebrows. An amused smile on her lips.

Maggie. The lady of the house.

She let go of the lamp and it swung, back and forth, wobbled, settled. Still the eye of her revolver stared at him, black and merciless.

‘Good evening, Tommy,’ she said. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’

Tommy didn’t raise his hands. He’d do that when he had to. Part of him doubted Maggie had the guts to pull the trigger, but the bigger part of him remembered when her horse broke its leg last fall. He remembered the grim determination she had held as she strode through the crowd – past the veterinarian, past her injured daughter – and put a bullet right in the old thing’s head.

‘You gonna call the cops, ma’am?’

‘Perhaps I will,’ she said, still smirking. ‘Or perhaps I’ll let you off easy. Lord knows you’ve done a good turn or two here.’

He ordered the burst of hope in him to pipe down. No point trusting her.

‘All depends on whether you can do what I ask you,’ she continued.

‘And what’s that, ma’am?’

She flicked the edge of the lamp, and sent its halo of light circling, hula-ing around its base.

‘Make me laugh.’

A cold chill ran down him.

‘Laugh?’

‘Make me laugh. Go on, a good joke, a fine tale, make me laugh and I might think twice about getting those nice boys down here.’

I’m a goner, Tommy thought. He remembered the days at school, sitting with Pete Mason as he heckled everyone going by. He had never hoped to match that kind of wit so he’d protected himself by laughing with him instead. He thought of his lame lines on girls, their confusion, their withering looks as they walked away, how loudly they would mock him as they linked arms with their girl friends. He couldn’t make anyone laugh at even the best of times – how was he to do it now, with a gun winking at him?

‘Go on,’ Maggie said. ‘I’m waiting.’

‘Ah – uh – uh – wh – what d’you call a, um, uh – wh – what, say, does a, uh, elephant have in common with, a, uh, mouse?’

He didn’t know what an elephant had in common with a mouse. The words had juttered out of his mouth before he could stop them.

Maggie raised an eyebrow.

‘I have no idea. Tell me.’

Tommy cursed in his head and wondered which was worse: jail, or having to endure her eyes on him as he ransacked his mind for possible answers. Everything he seemed to light upon vanished the second he grasped it.

‘Well, go on.’

No, it was gone, all gone, hopeless. Would she shoot him if he turned and ran now? Probably. Her smiled faded and her lips pulled down into a scowl.

‘Tommy…’

She raised the revolver a half-inch. Tommy jumped and blurted:

‘They don’t talk!’

‘…excuse me?’

Tommy felt his face burning. Light-fingered Tommy, best long-con there was, never a safe he couldn’t crack – now blushing with his eyes down like a five-year-old.

‘They don’t talk. Elephants and mice. They…don’t talk.’

He winced and closed his eyes, half-expecting her to shoot him in disgust.

Maggie burst out laughing.

‘They don’t – they don’t talk! They don’t talk! Well, damn if you’re not right, Tommy – they sure don’t talk!’

She continued to cackle. Tommy looked up. She was leaning forward, gun dangling to the floor, elbows on knees, laughing as if he’d told the best joke in the world.

‘They don’t talk,’ she said, as if to herself. ‘Hoo-ee.’

She stood up from her chair and walked towards him. As she approached the safe, she waved the gun at him, gesturing for him to stand aside.

‘You win, Tommy. Now, I’m going to show you something that always makes me laugh. My best joke.’

She turned the safe combination. Tommy watched her, instinctively memorising it, wondering what she was going to do.

The door swung open. Again she waved the gun, gesturing him closer to her. He stepped around the safe door, and looked inside.

It was empty.

‘The Hodgeson fortune,’ Maggie said. ‘Prettiest gold in the world, don’t you think? Never seen so many rubies in my life. Ha! Oh, you should’ve seen Abe’s face when I asked him to put a safe in here. “We’ll have every thief in the state trying to work here and sneak a way in.” “All the better that it’s empty, then” I said. Nice little mousetrap, isn’t it?’

Tommy didn’t speak.

‘It’s a shame, Robert – do you mind if I call you by your real name? – a real shame. A man with your history really could’ve made something, with the amount we pretend is in here. Maybe you could’ve gotten away from your past entirely.’

She shut the safe door and turned to him, the revolver an intermediary between them.

Tommy’s dreams fluttered away like startled doves. The solid heat of humiliation was all that remained.

‘You gonna call the cops, ma’am?’ he asked.

‘We made a bargain, didn’t we?’ Maggie said. The smirk grew on her lips. ‘And besides, I think it’s time that Houseman Thomas went back to his bed. He has a lot of work to do tomorrow, I wager, and after that, and the day after that, if he’s a good boy. And maybe,’ – and here her smile grew – ‘he should think a little about his favourite joke. Fine animals, elephants and mice. Elephants don’t forget. Elephants crush mice. But neither of them…’

She paused, and rolled the word around her tongue.

‘…talk.’

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Written by G.J.

25/06/2015 at 7:42 am

Complacency (poetry is always indulgence)

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I leave no stain on the world.

No more than the usual first-worlder.

Only plastics, carbon dioxide,

and wasted water.

I make no claim on the world.

I have struggled and found Enough.

Safety. Security.

And why not rejoice?

People would die, have died,

for Enough.

My pen lies empty.

I make no stand.

I once had plans

that washed through my fingers

and when I stood and looked again

my juniors walked ahead,

a mile away, ahead.

They speak their ambition in light tongues.

‘I might, I might.’

You will, for you are not me.

Nails crush into palm.

My pen lies empty.

I dabble in the shallows of my authorial plans.

Always Someday, Someday, Someday…

My pen lies empty.

How dare I do?

How dare I not do?

I said I would.

I said I would, but…

I have built this Enough

on this bones of my broken dreams.

I have calm.

For the first, I have calm.

And yet, O Muse, you haunt me.

Restless ambition.

Fool human condition.

This Enough is no longer Enough.

I leave no stain?

How dare I.

How dare I.

I make no claim?

How can I?

May I?

To make a stand?

I will break, as breaking does.

(How many times before I convince myself

that I am not brittle?)

How dare.

Still.

Ceaseless pen.

You urge me to write.

World.

Indulge me, please,

this once.

Allow my selfishness.

Please.

Dead conscious safety or reckless living vanity.

Either way, please indulge–

(No, only one way)

(Ever only one way)

Ever only one way.

So it is.

I write.

Urge.

I have no complacency with you here.

Written by G.J.

29/04/2015 at 11:11 pm

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Savage Writing: Maisie’s Sister

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This week’s topic was “Unbelievable.” I reread The Dream of the Rood and wrote this. Everyone said they expected this to be the start of a longer piece, which surprised me. I don’t plan to do anything more with this – I don’t see any way it can go without devolving into cliche.

__

Maisie was cracked. That was for sure. She was four days back from her latest “fallaway”, as she called it. The police had found her wandering around an old estate five miles away, in loose-fitting pyjama bottoms and a grey fleece, clutching a pillow to her chest like it was her favourite teddy bear. She was very quiet when they brought her in, but she gave her sister the biggest, most worrying grin she had ever seen as they took her upstairs.

The police stayed a while. Had some tea. Maisie’s mum forced biscuits upon them to hide her shattered pride. The girl was twenty-one years old, for goodness sake. If she was well enough to dye her hair red as she did, then she was well enough to stay put and not be an embarrassment – that’s what Maisie’s mum said to the police, when the police recommended she take her to the doctors and get more medicine.

‘When I was younger, the doctors wouldn’t have let my mother order medicines for me,’ she said. ‘Not when I was a grown woman.’

The female police officer gave her number and details to Maisie’s sister for this reason. Maisie’s sister missed them the second they were gone.

But this was four days after that. Maisie and her sister were alone at home. And with a creak and a shuffle and a creak, Maisie came down the stairs for the first time since she fellaway.

She had that big, beautiful grin set on her face.

‘Lise,’ she said. She spoke as if she expected a sound effects expert to put a reverberation on her voice: deep, pulsing, dreamlike. ‘Lise. I have…to tell you…the most wondrous…thing.’

Maisie’s sister did not wish to hear the wondrous thing, but she was trapped by love and politeness to the couch.

Maisie saw her sister was listening. The light in her eyes flashed once in excitement, and then she spoke. Not as slow, but not fast, beating rhythmic like a drum or a poem:

‘I have to tell you the most wondrous thing,

it came to me in the middle of the night.

See, I was in bed, and the stars were out, shining,

and I thought I’d see them far better down t’ street,

they looked like gems all sparkling, sparkling,

embedded in the sky like some upside-down mine

so I went outside and I looked up and up

and I looked so hard that I fell the way wrong,

and I floated among them for a days and days

but they sent me home ’cause I said I missed you,

I missed you Lise, and I could’ve been a star.

I’d’ve shone in the night and died in the day

and nothing would have bothered me

nothing

nothing at all.’

And here Maisie kept grinning, and she looked at her sister as if she’d just won a prize, and she said….

.’Well?’

‘It’s…a pretty story?’

Maisie scowled.

‘I knew it,’ she said, all cadence lost from her voice. ‘I knew I made the wrong decision. It was hard, you know. I told myself it was one of those tests, those trials of fortitude in stories, where the naked woman comes out the mirror or lake and shows you everything you’ve ever wanted if only you’ll stay with her, and you’re tempted but then you remember your family and remember to do the right thing. But I came back, and as soon as I saw mum’s face, I thought, this is Cinderella going back to the coals. I have no family. Not the loving, die-for-you, miss-you-forever kind. I should’ve stayed with the stars.’

So Maisie returned to the stairs, and thudded her way up them, and shut her door with a half-hearted slam.

And Maisie’s sister looked up the contacts on her phone. She’d kept the policewoman’s number. Not far underneath it, was a contact she called “CM.” The contact had once read “For Crazy Maisie”, on her old phone, but Maisie had found it and thrown it onto the kitchen floor and bye-bye-phone. So instead the contact was CM. She had Maisie in her phone already, of course, its picture was a selfie of them both in Tenerife on their last family holiday, before she got bad again.

Maisie’s sister dialled CM, and the familiar number came up.

A voice answered. It was Scott. Maisie’s sister knew them all by the way they said “Hello” by now.

‘Hi Scott,’ she said.

‘How are things today, Lisa? How’s Maisie?’

‘Mum’s out,’ Lisa said. ‘I cleaned the kitchen. Maisie said she’d wished she’d stayed out in the stars, that she has no real family.’

Scott started to say something and Maisie’s sister burst out over him:

‘It’s like a lady came from a lake and showed your greatest desire. Mum not so angry, everything quiet, not needing to worry every time there’s a noise upstairs, not needing to worry every time I go by her room that one day she won’t be moving when I look in. But then I remember that I have to do the right thing. I do, don’t I? I have to keep looking after her. It’s only right.’

Scott comforted her. She hung up, fix granted. Maisie’s sister looked up at the ceiling, and began to speak-chant:

‘Let me tell you the most wondrous thing,

Maisie’s sister, she does the right thing…’

Written by G.J.

20/03/2015 at 1:27 pm

Ghoul

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Katie’s husband shot himself in the head. He locked himself in the bathroom. Katie sat outside, screaming at the door, begging him not to do it.

She sent an e-mail round to her close friends and family afterwards. That’s how they know what happened. She sent it to my sister Anna, and Anna told me the night after I was introduced to Katie, and that’s how I know what happened.

She heard him pull the trigger.

He knew you all loved him, she wrote in the e-mail, apparently. I told him how much everyone loved him.

I try to imagine yelling past a wooden door. It’s so faceless, unyielding, lacks any passion or emotion. Imagine only facing that, knowing that the person you love most is going to turn their brains to goo.

Worse, I try to imagine when the door was opened afterwards. I think the police did it. She didn’t have time to call emergency services between him grabbing his gun and the deed. I mean, in that case you’d assume that you can convince them better yourselves, right? Of course you’d assume that your husband would listen to your pleas more than a policeman’s.

But imagine: shot. Loud. Then absolute silence. She calls for him again. She sobs down the phone – or talks down the phone, quiet monotone, numb and unable to process. Waits. Then they come and talk through the wood block door, stern solid words to coax him out, nothing in response. They kick down the door.

Did she shrink back? Did she peer in, despite knowing what she would see?

And what did she see?

I can’t imagine what a person looks like with their head shot through. I mean, I’ve seen it in films, but you never know how realistic they are, do you? And it’s a world of difference, I suppose, between seeing some unknown actor playing an expendable mook get his skull blown through, and seeing the man you’ve slept with for ten years with a head like a smashed egg.

God. I just can’t imagine it.

What that would do to a person. To your mind. To your perception of the world.

The first time I met Katie, she was normal. A little quiet. It happened last year, you see. I don’t know how long it takes these things to process, but I feel a year is a little too short. She mentioned she works in IT support, we joked about the kind of people you have to deal with and the nonsense you constantly put up with. She’s small. Pretty. Brown hair. Thin. Looks young for her age. Not the sort of person you’d think would have seen gore first-hand.

When I met her again, because I knew, I wanted her to look different. I tried to find signs that she was traumatised in some way, but came up with nothing concrete. I mean, everyone gets tired and down sometimes, no matter how good your life is – and she wasn’t even depressed-looking that day. She looked a normal level of tired. I wondered how she looked the days following her husband’s death. When Anna made a joke and we laughed, I wondered how long it took her after Neil’s death before she smiled again.

‘Does she ever talk about what happened?’

‘She misses him a lot,’ Anna replied, like the question glanced off of her.

‘No, I mean, has she ever told you what it was like?’

‘God no,’ she said, giving me the look that all siblings have perfected – the “what the fuck is wrong with you, you inferior being” look. ‘I wouldn’t do that. I don’t want to bring it up again.’

I wonder if it makes Katie felt better or worse, that no-one will bring it up.

‘I’m doing a half-marathon,’ she said, the third time we met.

‘Good for you.’

‘It’s for a mental health charity.’

I hesitated.

‘Oh, that’s good.’

‘I’m doing it in Neil’s memory,’ she said, eyes on the floor, no other sign of distress.

Was that a cry for help? A sign that she wanted to open up? Or was it nothing at all? What was I to make of that? Words hovered over my lips, but in the end the easy, cowardly, gentle way won out.

‘Yeah…good for you. I mean, that’s good. I’m sure you’ll do well. How much are you asking for sponsorship?’

Not what I wanted to say.

What I want to say, and what I’ve always wanted to do, is corner her one evening, get her alone, and ask her what it’s like to face mortality up close. To hear the man you love die. To see his blood. To know he chose his broken mind over your wellbeing (and wouldn’t that make you doubt how much he loved you?). I’m not sure she could answer this, but I wonder how the grief compares to other, less dramatic, more normal grief. Like, on a scale of grandma-dies-in-sleep to child-is-murdered, how fucking awful is it? I imagine it’s one of the most awful things in the world. And yet she looks normal. I don’t get it. How can you look normal, after that?

I’ll never ask her about it, of course. It’s not done, and Anna would kill me besides. Might trigger some grief relapse or something. It’s one of those things you just don’t do.

But I wonder. Every time I see Katie, I wonder. And I imagine.

Written by G.J.

22/02/2015 at 1:23 pm

Savage Writing: Jacob Wrestling

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One of the pictures we were to use for inspiration this week was quite demonic, and that and the musculature reminded me of a Biblical story. Hence, this.

_________________________________________

There is a painting above her bed: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Alexander Louis Leloir. Dark-haired Jacob, his red cloak flying behind him, grasps the angel around the waist. His face shows no strain, and his black eyes stare out of a passionless face, as if he is a teacher waiting for an answer from a pupil who should know better. The angel’s face is obscured by his shoulder as he tries to push away from Jacob’s grip. The muscles in his calves, thighs and forearms are taut with effort. At this moment, captured in the stillness of oil on canvas, Jacob is winning.

This is my favourite painting in our home. Man goes against what is much stronger than him, and more than holds his own: in this painting, he is winning.

Of course, in the story, the angel – or rather, God in the form of an angel – wins because he dislocates Jacob’s hip with one touch, because God can do that, and if God is anything, he is a dirty, rotten cheat.

It was gone, you know. We went out to dinner to celebrate. Mum doesn’t drink, but this once she ordered red wine, and I knew it was a victory for her because when I toasted her, she raised her glass to herself. You see, at every birthday and anniversary and event where glasses were raised to her, she would sit, mouth set in a barely-smiling line, elbows on the table and eyes firm, as if praise was something one had to endure and never accept. But yes, that night she raised her glass of wine and took a full-mouthed glug. She didn’t even flinch at the unfamiliar tannin taste. And I mentioned the irony to her later, between main course and dessert, that after years of not drinking when she could, she would now imbibe when the doctors advised against it.

‘Life’s a bitch, Rosie,’ she said.

I laughed, because what else could I do, seeing my short-haired, five-foot-one, gentle-genteel mother swear in front of me?

Her eyes were sad. I remember that. She had looked exhausted for months, of course – chemo is poison, after all – but she looked like she had come to the end of a marathon, and found no ribbon, no medal, no crowd. Only a thin, wobbling line, drawn in chalk on the tarmac, and a rat scuttling down the nearest drain.

It was gone. But turns out that it was the kind of gone that never leaves forever, like rain or winter or hiccups. They’ll always come back, no matter how glad you are to see the back of them. I wonder if she knew that, or suspected it. I never considered it. I refused to believe she would ever die, right from the start. Cancer? It’s only small, surely? Early stage? Of course it is. Late stage death cancer only happens to other people. It’s just a little scare life has put in to wake you up. Doctors, hospital, surgery, chemo, bam, done, happily ever after, back to normal. And look! We were so close! That dinner was supposed to be it: done, done, it’s over, The End, no more.

It’s the end of January and it feels like winter has been here forever. I’ll get to a sunny day at the end of February and then I’ll shout to the heavens HA! Take that! No more cold! No more ice, not ever! Only warmth and green buds for the rest of my days! Next winter, what next winter? Never. It’ll never happen. Cold is impossible to imagine in the middle of July, right? It’ll never come back.

It came back. That’s the way this illness works. The more new cells are made, the more likely that over time they’ll get a bit tired, a bit senile, forget to stop growing, forget that they depend on you to exist and that you shouldn’t hurt the ones that made you. And even if you stop them with the strongest poison and warnings, it’s as if, it’s like they still might walk into the same place a few months or years later and look around and vaguely remember it and say “yes, that was it, continued growth, shutting down the essential life systems, yes, that’s familiar, yes, let’s try that again. Mm-hmm.”

She was fighting. Everyone’s a fighter with this, I suppose – because what else do you do? She fought as hard as the rest, through the pain, discomfort, helplessness.

It was Boxing Day. Everyone else had gone home. She had a glass of wine, and I joked that at this rate she’d become an alcoholic.

‘Life’s too short,’ she said.

Not yours, I thought. You’ll live until you’re a hundred and eight. You’ll see great-grandkids. You have to, because I’ve decided you have to, because I won’t let fate do any different, it has to bend to my decision. You’ve hiked all the mountains in the UK and you’ve never smoked and you’ve eaten fish and salad instead of pie and chips and that means you’re immortal now, everyone agrees on it, you’ve cracked the formula for living forever and never dying before you’re a hundred and eight and in your own bed asleep.

It was Boxing Day. It was only a month ago. Why didn’t she tell me that she thought it had come back? Was she trying to keep Christmas special, like how she pretended Santa existed even years after we’d figured out the truth? I’m an adult now, even if I don’t quite feel like it. I can handle a bad Christmas!

I don’t understand it. She was winning. She had won.

There’s a painting above her bed, of Jacob wrestling God and he looks like he’s winning. And underneath the painting, there’s an empty bed with clean neutral linen, as she left it the day she went to hospital. It stills smell of her perfume. And did she look at that painting every day? Every day, see Jacob winning, though she knew how the story ends?

Dirty, rotten cheat of a sickness, pretending to leave, then coming back for an encore.

She was winning.

Written by G.J.

05/02/2015 at 6:58 pm

Savage Writing: Brenndur

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This week’s topic was “feed my habit.” I misread it as “fix my habit.” Either works, I suppose!

____

‘Do you weep, Skapheđinn?’

‘No…but it may be that my eyes are smarting.’

At these lines, Stina’s heart swelled close to bursting, and a squeal erupted up her throat. Though she pressed her lips tight, the noise rang between her teeth. She gripped the book binding tight in her fingers, struggling hard to contain her emotions as she forced her eyes to read on.

Skarpheđinn and Grim held one another by the hand and walked through the fire; but when they came to the middle of the hall Grim fell down dead. Skarpheđinn continued alone to the end of the house. There was a great crash. Down came the roof. Skarpheđinn could not move.

…and that was all. The scene changed to other characters discussing the burning. Please, Stina pleaded with the words on the page. Please!

‘Here have died Njal, and Bergthora, and all their sons.’

No! Another squeal bubbled in Stina’s lungs.

‘What did Kari say of Skarpheđinn?’

‘He said he and Grim were alive when he escaped. Now, they must be dead.’

The high-pitched moan seeped out of her lips before she could control it.

‘Mmmmmmmnnnnooooooo…..!’

‘Sister Stina!’

The unexpected voice tore her out of time. Stina jumped and looked up from her seat. Sister Kornelia was in the library doorway, hands on her hips. Her image seemed unreal; certainly less real than the image of Skarpheđinn looking back through the flames as the roof timbers rained down upon him…

‘What are you doing here? It is nearly time for Lauds!’

Stina glanced to the windows behind her. The sky was grey-blue, where it had been black a seeming minute before. She had only meant to read a little after Matins…

‘And what on earth could cause you to make such awful noises?’ Sister Kornelia continued, as she strode towards Stina’s table. Before Stina could protest, the older lady swept the book up in her hands.

‘Please, sister, I’m so close to the end!’ Stina said, feeling as if her heart had been pulled away.

‘“The Saga of Burnt Njall.”’ Kornelia said, reading the spine. ‘Another frivolous romance, Stina?’

‘Oh no, no, Sister, it’s historical – it’s about a feud between families –’

‘A pagan folk tale?’ Kornelia sniffed.

‘No, no – it takes place not long after the country’s conversion–’

Kornelia slammed the book on the table.

‘Enough, Sister! This night-reading habit of yours has to stop. It is interfering with all of your duties, and your devotion. I must speak with Sacrist Varđa and tell her to limit your visits here. It cannot be good for your mind, reading such things.’

Had Stina’s heart not been raw with grief for her imagined friends – had she not been awake for nearly a full day – she may have done something other than cry. As it was, her tears felt as inevitable as Njal’s tragically foreseen death.

‘For goodness’s sake, Sister, calm yourself!’

‘F-forgive me…’ Stina said. She wanted to add that she would be good and only read during the day, that she would work harder and longer than anyone else if only she could keep coming here – but she worried that if she spoke, she would only cry: “They’re dead! It’s not fair! How can the world continue as usual, when they’re dead?”

‘Yes, I will tell Varđa that you must not read these foolish books any more. They are certainly no good for you.’

‘Oh no,’ Stina cried, ‘no, please, let me read more! I know I’m crying, but, see, I hate feeling like this, but I love it as well…surely there’s no harm…and there’s so many more books to read…’

‘You are such a childish girl,’ Kornelia said, taking Njals Saga in her hands again.

‘Please, at least let me finish this one!’ Stina cried, but it was too late: the fate of Kari, and his vengeance against Skarphedinn’s killers, was already retreating, closed shut, now back on the shelf.

‘Get to bed,’ Kornelia said. ‘You will better see what is best for yourself after you’ve had some rest.’

‘Please, Sister, I’m begging you…’

Kornelia sighed and sat beside the younger girl. She took Stina’s hand and patted it gently.

‘Varđa says how passionate you are,’ she said. ‘But don’t you see? The passion you have should be directed to a better channel than these imaginary tales. It doesn’t become a pious young woman such as yourself to care so deeply about such frivolous things, when your own soul and devotion must be attended to.’

‘I can care about both,’ Stina said, trying (and failing) to force herself to be calm. ‘It – it doesn’t take away from my love for God, to love reading…’

Kornelia patted her hand again and sighed.

‘Perhaps you would do better to be less passionate. Calm and content – that is what we all must strive to be, my dear. No fires or rages or tears! Come now, wipe your face.’

Stina sniffed and wiped her face.

‘There. Now, go to your bed, and sleep until Lauds. I don’t want to see you in here again.’

Stina intended to force her expression into a semblance of calm. Instead, she burst into tears anew as she left the library for the last time.

No rest was had before Lauds. No calmness could be found as she lay in her pallet. The prospect of contentedness was abhorrent. For who would want a life without rages, tears, and fire? Who would want a life apart from the delicious agony she felt from those pages?

At Lauds, her face was white and drawn, eyelids red, mouth firm-set. In her mind’s eye, the roof of the convent fell crashing upon every head. Here died her love of prayer, worship, and her life’s purpose.

‘Sister,’ asked Sister Hudris, once service was over. ‘Have you been crying?’

Stina grinned: a bared-teeth, wolfish smile. The smile of a burned, savage man.

‘No,’ she said. ‘But it may be that my eyes are smarting.’

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.

Written by G.J.

23/12/2014 at 5:56 pm