Friends

20 December 2014

AWAY AT CHRISTMAS (repeat)

The magnolia-painted window-sill in the hotel bedroom was wide enough for Hilary Barnes to sit with her legs drawn to her chest, arms encircling her knees in a pose reminiscent of dreamy childhood days. The room itself possessed a charm that reminded her of the house she grew up in, but the view through the window was as bleak as her state of mind. It was Ted's idea to come away for Christmas, declaring that their house would be lonely and far too depressing. She was equally depressed here, even the virgin snow shrouding the fields and hanging from the branches of an elderly oak did nothing to cheer her. It only served to remind her of Greg's childhood love of coasting down the road on a makeshift sledge, annoying neighbours with his spirited yells of pure joy.
           
‘I'll be home before you know it,’ he said when he rang to break the news.
           
Would he? Or would he be maimed or killed.
           
She stared through the window, looking beyond her own reflection at the white hedgerow where houses now glowed, transformed by fairy lights twinkling in the descending gloom.

Christmas Eve. It wasn't a time for sadness, but how could she not be sad when Greg's regiment was this very day flying to war zones, where God only knew what might transpire. She ran a finger over a slat in the wooden shutter, suddenly driven to check the whole thing for dust as though some sort of action would make things right.

Then, for the first time, anger swelled within her and she pounded the shutter with her fist. How dare they whisk a young man into danger without any regard for his tender age. She sucked her knuckle, grateful for the hurt yet moderately stronger for having released some of her fury. In the corridor, the maid loaded her trolley with discarded glasses; remnants of celebrations. Hilary wiped her hand on her plaid skirt. Maybe tomorrow would be better, by then Greg would be installed in new barracks. However, no matter how long he was to serve there, she would never become accustomed to her teenage son being in the firing line.

The snow fell steadily during the night and by morning the landscape was an unsullied wonderland. Christmas Day. A day of celebration. A day to give thanks for life's blessings.

Hilary contemplated the white world, seeing a young couple trudging arm-in-arm along the lane, heading towards the church, two enthusiastic little girls following behind, slipping and sliding in fur-topped boots, their laughter-lit faces encompassed by red-striped pompom hats, matching scarves taking wing as they scampered in the drifts. As she watched, she had an urge to attend a Christmas service, to sing carols with Ted at her side, to pray for Greg and plead for his safekeeping.
           
Ted needed no persuading. As soon as she mentioned her intention, he opened the wardrobe and took out their coats. 'Let's get there early,' he said as he helped her into the yellow sheepskin. Understanding her need he made no mention of her customary absence of spiritual leanings.
           
Outside the hotel, Ted took her arm, guided her down the drive, circling the frozen fish pond and passing between barricades of newly-cleared snow until they reached a pair of wrought-iron gates. Five minutes later they walked into the ancient parish church. It was alive with the atmosphere of Christmas. The grey stone walls were festooned with holly, an elaborately-carved pulpit decorated with berry-laden foliage. A colossal Christmas tree dominated one corner, adorned with gold and silver baubles, shimmering tinsel, and a gold star at the top. Hilary could smell the pine even from where she stood. To the right of the tree, reverent children viewed a glorious nativity display, quietly uttering ooh's and ah's as each one pointed to something of note.
           
Hilary and Ted slid into a side pew behind the buzzing congregation. Hilary breathed in, enjoying the sting of cool air entering her lungs, for her insides were aglow with the character of her surroundings, and she wondered why her inaugural Christmas Day worship had taken so long to achieve.

During the ceremony she joined in the carols and intently listened to sermons and messages. She prayed with others for compassion, for liberation, and good will, as well as for Greg and his colleagues somewhere in a distant war-torn country.
           
With the closing carol sung, she felt in her pocket for her sheepskin gloves. A few couples rose to depart, but the minister held up his hand and they sat down again.

A small group advanced towards the altar as the minister announced that a christening was to take place; he invited the congregation to attend. Hilary nudged Ted and looked at him enquiringly. He nodded and smiled, and squeezed her hand.
           
The christening was soon over, a quiet service which could barely be heard at the back. After a final hymn, the minister toured the entire church with the child in his arms, her fingers clutching the stole around his neck, her shawl draping the front of his surplice, her residence in his arms making him beam with pride as he introduced her to everyone as Christine Beverley Anne.
           
'How do you do,' Hilary said, when it was her turn to be presented, automatically reaching out to move the dribble-damp shawl from the baby's chin. Christine Beverley Anne transferred her grip to the minister's immaculate surplice and, as the baby gurgled, Hilary began privately to celebrate Christ's birth, as they were glorying in the birth of this baby, as she and Ted did at the christening of their only child. In that instant she knew that Greg would return unharmed. Through this small being Jesus had decreed that it would be so.

Blindly, as the baby was carried away, charged with a sense of supreme well-being Hilary groped for Ted's hand. 'All will be well,' she whispered as a quivering smile crept over her face.
           
Ted put his arm around her shoulders. 'He'll be home soon, like he promised.' And with that he gently hauled her to her feet. 'Lunch calls,' he said. 'Presents to open.'
           
For the first time since Greg's worrying phone call, she felt happy. Not only that, she was suddenly hungry for the Christmas festivities, the repast which the hotel predicted would be the best ever tasted, the Queen's speech, a quiz before tea, and, later on, a fancy-dress ball. Leaning sideways, she kissed Ted's cheek. 'Merry Christmas, my dear. And to Greg, too.'


18 December 2014

For cat lovers everywhere....

I think he liked being scratched. 
Not surprising when the scratching was on his sensual area ... at least that's what a vet once told me.


Oh - by the way


16 December 2014

Shopping at Christmas

 

I can’t go into a store lately without buying something, and by something I mean items of clothing. Blame it on the fact that I feel the cold now and my normal winter woollies irritate the skin something awful. Because of this I am looking round for tops that won’t cause great uncontrollable itches. I’m now into long sleeved SILK vests which are not only warm but comfortable too. I’m wondering why I didn’t think of them before.



Our tiny mall looks very festive. There is music in most of the stores but outside musicians play for money. Years ago they played for a penny-in-the-hat but we have to remember inflation! Today there was a young man playing an accordion, Christmassy stuff that had some passers-by dancing. Not me, these days I don’t dance in streets (or anywhere else, for that matter) but I did do a sort of on-the-spot jig as I approached him. He grinned when I dropped some coins in the hat and upped the tempo so that a few younger folk joined in. It was nice to think I’d started something. They all yelled Merry Christmas as I walked away, including the accordionist.

The grotto was less 'babyish' this year. Not sure I liked it!
Would you believe the only pictures I got were of the children’s grotto. Well, can you blame me when I was loaded up with parcels? But I did get two new tops which is what I went shopping for.


To make up for the lack of personally taken pictures, I’ve included a selection taken by news reporters when the area had a ‘switching on’ ceremony.

Why walk through the mall when you can grab a train ride?


13 December 2014

THE ANNUAL CHECK-UP (repeat)


‘Have you ever had an operation, dearie?’ croaked the old woman, her wizened fingers meddling with a black chiffon scarf.
               
Annabel looked at her in astonishment, more for her boldness in speaking to a stranger than the question itself.
               
The woman inched along the green bench until Annabel felt her bony elbows touching hers. She could smell her age, that fusty smell of old bones and looming death. The colourless, egg-shaped face, framed by silver-white hair, was strangely familiar.
               
‘I’d like to hear about your operation,’ the woman said.
               
Had she to have one herself? wondered Annabel. Was she het up because of it? Idly, she surveyed her surroundings. Two bowler-hatted men strode towards the reception desk. A nurse with a clipboard escorted a man on crutches. On the benches, injured toddlers whimpered into the comforting breasts of anxious mothers, and not much braver adults sat in stony silence, waiting. The woman’s question was probably fairly normal, considering where they were.
               
It would be something to do while she waited and it might be amusing to humour her and list her medical experiences. Like the one where that brute of a doctor dug out an ingrowing toenail, or the harrowing extraction of her third wisdom tooth which had wrapped its roots around its neighbouring molar, necessitating a drilling process guaranteed to put her off dentists for life. Then there was that glorious out-of-body experience when she gave birth to Kim, whose foot was wedged in her ribcage and caused such excruciating pain that she fled her physical form entirely unaided for half an hour.
               
Annabel studied the old woman sitting beside her. A harridan of minute proportions, craggy chin, heavily lined brow, and intensely blue eyes which seemed capable of scanning a body like an X-ray machine. Perhaps she was an x-ray machine. Perhaps she had grown a heart overnight and been cast out of the department as useless. Given the sack, so to speak. Whatever she was, she was uncannily familiar.
               
A man in a white coat pushed an empty gurney through the rubber flaps which served as doors. A stethoscope hung from his top pocket. Annabel’s nose wrinkled as the smell of ether wafted in her direction. Quite like old times, she thought, evoking the event which had the most impact on her life.

*****

Now that she had decided to relate her story, Annabel was tempted to ask the woman’s name, but in the end she felt perhaps it was better not to know.
               
Examining her fingernails, she speculated about where to begin. Her tale could be classed as an accidental incident rather than one of a medical nature, although a surgical procedure might well have been carried out had there been enough time. The action took place this very day, long ago. It was enough to say it occurred on her fortieth birthday. The year was irrelevant.
               
Andrew had taken her to a bell-ringing contest to celebrate. Celebrate! There was nothing to celebrate in that dismal hall with those disgracefully ragged drapes covering the windows and teams of bell-ringers incessantly brandishing brassy bells by their wooden handles, coloured streamers fluttering in their wake. Up and down, up and tediously down.
               
Annabel shuddered as she remembered the rancour which flooded through her and the accusation she was tempted to fling at him: If you thought this was my idea of fun, you were sadly mistaken. Fortunately, Andrew sensed her disquiet and suggested they leave. Thank God, she mutely cried, not really wanting to upset he who had not yet produced her birthday present and who must, for the time being be kept sweet.
               
Kim was waiting outside, leaning against the wooden panels from which the cheerless hut was constructed. Annabel had been surprised to see her daughter dressed in her best blue trouser-suit, wearing the lovely perfume Andrew bought at Christmas. Gardenia, she thought. These days Annabel had difficulty remembering precise details like which scent it was, though she did recall that Kim’s blonde hair was swept into a French pleat with not a single securing pin in sight. Kim was very clever at disguising things. Even her love was hard to find. Annabel sniffed and swallowed hard, knowing she would never find it now.
               
Kim was idly swinging a set of keys which glinted in the light of the hut’s swaying lantern. Annabel briefly wondered why her daughter was dangling them in front of her when they were not her keys.
               
‘Your car, Madam,’ Andrew proudly announced.
               
Annabel remembered those words as if they had been uttered only yesterday and she recollected the joy she felt when she saw the bright orange Beetle parked at the kerb. Beetles were her favourite cars in all the world, prompting thoughts of Howard, that wonderful man who took her virginity on the leather-covered back seat.
               
‘It’s yours,’ Andrew said, tossing back a wayward lock of mousy-brown hair. Taking the keys from Kim, he placed them in Annabel’s hand and curled her fingers over them. ‘Happy birthday, darling.’
               
*****

She vowed the driving seat had been moulded especially for her, though the pedals were a distance away. She strained her slender ankles to reach them, smiling at Andrew who sat in the passenger seat. Kim had by that time gone home.
               
Pausing briefly to brush her dark fringe from her brow, Annabel imperceptibly shook her head at the crystal-clear image of that night. She moistened her dry lips so that she could continue.
               
She had driven Andrew to the restaurant where they were to have dinner and where they imbibed much champagne. It was, after all, a celebration of her forthieth birthday. Afterwards she drove home in the rain, the pair of them singing country and western songs as loudly as they could. Annabel got so carried away she let go the wheel and waved her arms above her head.
               
The car skidded on the greasy road and careered into a telegraph pole. Momentarily, she saw a woman’s face through the window, timeworn and ashen with fear, her mouth widening into a scream. Her black scarf fluttered as the screen abruptly shattered into a fog of tiny fractures. The image had tormented her ever since.

It took two hours to release her broken body from the tangled wreck. Andrew was lucky to have been thrown clear. Long after he and the elderly victim had been carted off to hospital, firemen worked steadily and untiringly to free her from what remained of the birthday gift, operating their cutting equipment proficiently and with no time to lose. Even in her distressing incapacitation she could not help being impressed by their strength. She felt comforted by the efficient way they worked and watched trance-like as they carefully removed the metal covering and exposed her body to the rain.

*****

‘A disastrous end to your birthday, ‘ observed the old woman.
               
‘It certainly was,’ replied Annabel, looking round on the off-chance she might see Andrew or Kim.
               
‘I imagine you were glad when it was all over.’
               
Annabel laughed. ‘You could say that.’
               
The woman knowingly nodded. She adjusted the bag on her lap and hooked a hand through the strap. Then her brow puckered and she inclined her head to one side. ‘But wasn’t there an operation?’ she asked.
               
Annabel’s reply was gruff. ‘It wasn’t necessary.’
               
‘As with me.’ Easing herself to the edge of the bench, the woman struggled to her feet. tottering slightly with the exertion.
               
Annabel shot up in order to steady her, cautioning her to be careful not to fall. An appreciative expression was etched on the pallid, elliptical face.
               
Flattening her copious grey skirts to her side, the woman gave Annabel a toothy grin. ‘I’m glad you told me ,’ she said, and went on to ask if Annabel was waiting for someone.
               
‘Not really,’ Annabel remarked. ‘I come once a year to make sure nothing was overlooked. An annual check-up, you might say.’
               
Livid weals appeared on the woman’s face as she scratched the diaphanous skin with grimy nails, giving the appearance of having been slashed by something sharp, like a knife or a piece of glass. ‘Strange I haven’t seen you before,’ she said. She began to fidget, her arms restless at her side, fingers meddling with her skirt. An agonised frown etched her forehead,  yet when she spoke again her voice was calm. ‘My mission has long been the search for truth.’ Laying a gnarled hand on Annabel’s shoulder, she added, ‘Now that I have it I am grateful, though gratitude is perhaps an ill-suited sentiment in view of that you did.’
               
So it was her, thought Annabel, the unknown casualty. All these years being haunted by that anaemic countenance, yet she failed to recognise it when they met. What on earth could she say? Was an apology enough? Indeed would an apology be accepted? She was about to attempt some kind of justification for what happened that night when the old woman spoke again.
               
‘Don’t fret about the accident. You did me a great service, as it transpired, since the cancer would have been a sight more painful.’ Fiddling with the ragged scarf, she peered at the clock on the magnolia painted wall. Bustling clerks and nurses tidied the place ready for the next day’s batch of emergency patients. Gripping her capacious black bag, the old lady stepped away from the hospital bench.
               
Annabel queried if she was leaving.
               
‘As soon as my hearse arrives. It’s late, as usual.’
               
‘You can share mine,’ offered Annabel. ‘Mine’s invariably early.’

THE END