Welcome to my last blog for 2016.
I have a short Christmas story in an anthology called Festive Treats. Mary’s Christmas is about an old lady who stoically prepares for spending Christmas Day on her own. But a drop too much wine, a TV on the blink, and badly placed rug mean that, despite all her efforts, it is going to end badly. Until, that is, an unexpected visitor arrives.
Read on if you want to find out what happens next.
Mary McCarthy reached down by the side of her bed, picked up her stick and used it to poke the switch on her electric fan heater. She never used the timer on her central heating as she was careful with the bills. But some days, like today, it was too cold to get up in an unheated bedroom. Besides, today was Christmas Eve, and her eighty-fifth birthday, and if that wasn’t an excuse to pamper yourself a little then what was?
She smiled to herself as she stretched and shook first one leg, then the other, then both arms – just as the doctor had ordered to get her circulation going before getting up. She had a busy day ahead, so couldn’t hang about in bed too long. Still, it was lovely to wake in the morning with a sense of purpose.
Feeling the air in the room was now less raw, she pushed back the covers, propelled herself into a sitting position and put on her slippers. Then she took her dressing gown off the bed and put it on over her winceyette nightie. Feeling quite warm from all her exertions, she used her stick again to switch off her heater and shuffled into the kitchen-living room of her tiny flat to click the thermostat up to eighteen. She had agreed with the doctor that she would always put it to twenty-one.
“At your age Mrs M, you can’t be too careful,” he had told her.
But on her little pension she couldn’t afford to be anything else. After all, if it was very cold, she could always put her dressing gown on again over her clothes. Anyway, today she was going to be out and about, so eighteen whilst she dressed and had her breakfast, was just fine.
Mary examined again her Christmas card collection on the mantelpiece as she waited for the kettle and the toaster. There was, she felt, quite a bonanza of cards this year. One from her bank as one of their “esteemed” customers – they’d been sending her once since her eightieth birthday, so she felt “esteemed” must mean old; it certainly had nothing to do with the amount of money she had in her account. But it was a handsome card, even if no one had signed it. One was from the day centre she went to once a week, and all the staff had signed it, though she didn’t recognise more than two of the names. She had one from the Salvation Army too. It hadn’t exactly been sent to her personally, as it had come in an envelope with an open letter asking for a donation. She had sent them five pounds, and felt the card was a little reward to her for this. There was a lovely card from Jane who, she thought, must be the pleasant young lady who lived nearby and always smiled and said hello if she passed with her children when Mary was waiting for the bus. It was a pretty card – “With love from Jane and all the family at number six” it said inside. Mary was touched. Jane must have worked out where she lived and pushed it through the door yesterday. She would get a card to send her, and sign it “from Mary at number 22a.” Then Jane would know her name too. So nice to have neighbours that cared about you.
Mary came to the last card on her mantelpiece. It was large, and a bit crumpled as it had come all the way from Australia.
“To Mum from Sally, with love,” it read. “PS: And Happy Birthday, if this gets to you in time. PPS: Hope to see you in the summer.”
So Sally was OK. That was a Christmas present in itself. Inside the card was a photo of a couple; the woman was definitely Sally, though older-looking than Mary remembered her from her last visit. The other was a man called Jason according to Sally’s note on the back. Nothing more – and by now the kettle had boiled and the toast had popped up so there was no time to speculate. She was going to have to put her skates on if she was to have her breakfast, dress, and be down at the stop in time for the eleven-thirty bus into town.
She remembered to take her shopping list with her – no good relying on her memory these days – and once the bus stopped in the town centre she headed straight for Marks and Spencer’s. She didn’t normally shop there, too expensive, but today was her special treat. In the store she fumbled in her pocket and took out her list. Most of what she wanted was in the chilled section.
It was rather crowded and she worried a little about being knocked over in the crush. She worried too that, with all these people ahead of her, they might have sold out, even though it was only just gone midday. But no: there was still quite a pile of microwave Christmas dinners for one. She spent several minutes debating whether to have the one with cranberry, or the one with bread sauce. Cranberry sauce won and she slipped it into her basket and moved onto the pudding section. And yes, still plenty of Christmas puddings! She took the single one with plain white sauce as she was afraid the rum or brandy butter flavoured ones might disagree with her. Finally she went to the cheese section and selected a small platter with biscuits. It was a bit expensive and she hesitated to pick it up but then thought, why ever not? It is an extravagance, but Christmas only comes once a year, and she’d never eat it all tomorrow so it would see her through Boxing Day as well.
Mary queued patiently at the till, and surveyed the chocolates and nuts put there to tempt the customers. And she was tempted! Not nuts, they got behind her dental plate and were a devil to shift. But chocolate – when had she last had a bar of chocolate? Feeling like a naughty schoolgirl, she slipped a small milk chocolate bar into her basket. She looked then at the little bottles of wine next to the till. Why hadn’t she spotted these in previous years? She never bought wine; it didn’t agree with her medication and, even if she did feel like a glass, she’d never get through a whole bottle. But these little ones – she could have one of those over Christmas, surely, without coming to any harm. She looked at the price and winced. They were not, she thought, very good value compared with the big bottles. But she couldn’t remember when she had last had a drop of decent wine, and M&S would only stock a good one.
“Go on, treat yourself.” The young man behind her in the queue smiled at her and winked. “I can see you want to.”
She really did giggle out loud then, and blushed too. She added the bottle to her basket and had no time to change her mind as it was her turn to check out her goods. Oh my, Mary McCarthy, she said to herself, what are you coming to in your old age? Glutton and dipsomaniac!
The store assistant helped her pack her shopping away, and wished her a “Merry Christmas.”
“The same to you, my dear,” she replied, and meant it.
“And you,” she turned to the young man behind her.
“You too,” he smiled. “Not too merry mind!” he went on, and winked again, pointing at the bottle of wine.
Her shopping bag felt satisfyingly heavy as she left the store and headed for the market. Here she knew there was a stall that sold Christmas cards singly so she could get a nice one for her neighbour. It wasn’t far from the bus stop either, which was a good thing as she was beginning to feel tired and a little cold. She would write the card on the bus, then pop it in through Jane’s letter box as she passed. After that she would be glad to get back into her own home and put her feet up with a nice cup of tea and a digestive biscuit, her usual lunch.
Mary let herself back into her flat and clicked her thermostat back up to eighteen before she sat down to get her breath back. She’d feel better once she’d had her heart tablet, and she’d keep her coat on till the room warmed up a bit. In the meantime she opened her shopping bag and took out each of her purchases. They’d come to more than she’d expected, but she wasn’t sorry when she looked at them. All top quality, she thought. She couldn’t wait for Christmas Day.
She woke up on Christmas Day with a lively sense of anticipation. She went through her usual routine to get up and out of bed in one piece and made her way through to the living room to turn up the thermostat so the radiator would come on. She looked with delight onto a snowy vista. A white Christmas! Even the grubby terraces and the derelict garages at the end of the road looked enchanting under a thin coat of snow. She was glad she didn’t have to go out and cope with it being slippery underfoot, even with her stick. No doubt it would be gone by lunchtime, she could see it was melting off the roof tops already, but for now it made the street look so Christmassy.
She dressed in a clean skirt and jumper and put on the sequined cardigan Sally had bought her many Christmases ago. She wore it so little it still looked smart. It was a bit big for her now – “I must be shrinking,” she thought. “And no bad thing, I’ve always been a bit broad in the beam, it would be nice to be slim for once in my life – even if I’m too old for anyone else to appreciate it.” She checked her outfit in the freckled mirror over the mantelpiece, combed her hair and put on a dab of face powder. Just one slice of toast this morning, she decided. After all, she had a big dinner planned for later.
Mary finished her breakfast, poured herself an extra cup of tea, took her first round of tablets for the day (heart, stomach, blood pressure, joints – not much of her now that was working properly) and settled down to listen to the carol service on the radio. She joined in all the carols, and nodded in agreement to the sentiments of the bishop – she didn’t catch which one, but liked to think it was the main one, the Canterbury fellow – as he gave his sermon. She listened attentively to the readings, which she almost knew by heart. After eighty-five years, most of which had included regular church attendance, especially around Christmas, this was hardly surprising.
She switched off her radio once the service was over and got up to look again at her Christmas cards. She was pleased with herself that she had managed to post one to Jane. Such a thoughtful neighbour to give her address. Not like Sally whose card told her nothing about her current whereabouts. But still, it did say she will be coming over in the summer. Might be anyway. Maybe she’d bring her new man friend, this Jason fellow.
Mary looked more closely at the photo. Nice looking man in that big boned, bronzed, sun-bleached-hair-way these Aussies have, she thought. He looked younger than Sally. Quite a bit younger, though Sally herself was looking quite smart in the picture. Longer hair than when she was last in England, and blonder too. With whiter teeth and browner limbs, she looked the picture of middle-aged health to her mother. But that was just it. Jason was young – thirty-five, tops. Mary knew exactly how old her daughter was, and she hadn’t seen her thirties for well over a decade. She could dye her hair, bleach her teeth, and tan her legs, but her neck still gave her age away. Still, if Jason wasn’t bothered, why should she be? Sally was her father’s daughter, through and through. Chasing younger partners hadn’t done him any good, and he’d died of a heart attack trying to keep up. That was over ten years ago now. If this Jason chap was making Sally happy – then Mary was happy too. And if she saw him as well as Sally in the summer, then that would be something extra to look forward to.
Mary was still thinking about Sally when the phone rang.
“Hello, Sally?” she responded automatically as she lifted the receiver. A bluff male voice soon put her right.
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry. I was just thinking of my daughter when the phone rang… Wrong number you say? No problem, easy mistake to make… You have a lot of calls to make? Well I mustn’t keep you… Thank you… You have a good Christmas too… Enjoy your meal… We’re about to eat too.” She put the phone down. Such a kind man! And so nice to hear a human voice on Christmas Day. Sally would have probably ended up arguing with her about something or other if it had been her.
She took her meal out of her tiny fridge, slipped off the cardboard sleeve and pierced the plastic film. Then she placed it in the microwave, set the timer and sat back down to enjoy the smell of the meal as it warmed up. It was one thing M&S still got right… Their underwear might have become a little skimpy for her taste these days, but they could definitely make an appetising meal. Once ready, she took it carefully out of the microwave and transferred it to a plate. No eating from the tray – she was going to dine in style today. Then she unscrewed her wine bottle and poured over half into a glass. She sat back down to enjoy her meal with the radio for company.
Mary scraped the last of the gravy from her plate and licked her fork. She drained the last drop from her glass. The meal had been delicious, even better than she remembered from last year. They must have done something different with the gravy. She got up a little unsteadily and realised she wasn’t used to alcohol these days. Must be the new tablets, she decided. Still she’d better take her second heart one as usual – the Christmas pud would help it go down. She put her plate in the sink, and her pudding in the microwave.
Again delicious Christmas smells filled the flat as she removed the pudding and turned it out into a bowl. She looked at her wine bottle. Still nearly a whole glassful left. She probably shouldn’t, not with the instructions with her medication saying, in capitals AVOID ALCOHOL. But it was Christmas, no one would see if she got a bit tipsy, and if she stayed sitting down after her meal, she’d be fine. She planned to watch a bit of TV once she’d eaten anyway, so if she put the remote within reach she wouldn’t have to move for hours.
Mary enjoyed her pudding and savoured the last few drops of wine. Pleasantly woozy she picked up her remote and pressed the “on” button. The TV screen flickered, flashed, and died. Oh no! What a terrible day for the telly to go on the blink. She struggled to get up and see if the time-old remedy of switching it off and on again at the wall would fix it.
Her foot caught in the rug in front of her chair. She stumbled and fell forward, her head only just missing the little table the TV was sitting on. She tried to get up, but felt too giddy.
“It’s the wages of sin, old girl,” she said to herself. “I’ll just lie here a bit, till I sober up.” And with that she fell into a deep sleep.
She was still fast asleep on the rug when there was a knock on the door. She slept on through several knocks and didn’t hear a woman open the door and call out: “Hallo, any one at home?” She wasn’t aware of the light being switched on and the horrified gasp as the woman rushed across the room, knelt down beside her, and gave her a small shake. She opened her eyes and looked up into the frightened face of a youngish woman she slowly realised was her neighbour – Jane, was it?
She tried to sit up, but Jane told her to stay still till she came to properly.
“I’m so glad you’re OK,” said Jane. “I thought I’d bring you a couple of mince pies whilst they were still warm, but when I saw your lights weren’t on and you didn’t answer your door, I got worried. And even more worried when I saw you on the floor. Are you sure you are all right?” she added as Mary struggled into a sitting position.
Mary smiled at her young neighbour. “Perfectly my dear. Just a bit embarrassed. You see I had a drop of wine with my lunch – more than a drop actually, and I’m not used to it. Then my telly went on the blink and I got up to try and fix it. I’m Mary, by the way. Mary McCarthy.”
“And I’m Jane Baker. Pleased to meet you Mrs McCarthy.”
“Please, call me Mary. And can I call you Jane?”
Jane nodded and helped Mary into her chair.
“At least there are no bones broken. Did you manage to fix your TV?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t get that far. Oh, dear me what a silly-billy I’ve been!”
“Nonsense. Here let me have a go.”
Jane fiddled with the remote, she twiddled the switches on the TV, and she tried unplugging it and plugging it back in again. It was dead.
“Oh bother, I was looking forward to the Christmas shows. And watching whilst I munched one of your lovely mince pies would have been have been a real treat.” It was the first real disappointment Mary had felt that day.
Jane looked around the little flat: the clean but sparse and shabby furniture, the small display of cards on the mantelpiece, the remains of the microwaved Christmas pudding still on the little table, the plate from the M&S microwave Christmas meal for one soaking in the sink, the empty wine glass and the tiny (empty) bottle beside it. She looked at her old neighbour who was doing her best to hide her disappointment.
“Never mind,” said Mary after a pause. “I still have my radio. There’s always something good to listen to.”
“No!” said Jane. “You must come with me. We’re going to watch a film. That Richard Attenborough one, you know – Miracle on 34th Street. The children love it so we watch it every Christmas. It’s one of our family traditions. Do please come back home with me.”
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to be a nuisance.” Mary couldn’t remember when she had last been to someone’s house, and tried not to sound wistful.
“But you must!” Jane had already found Mary’s coat, and was holding it out to her. “The children will think you are an extra present from Santa. Yes, really! My grandma passed away in the summer, and they’ve been missing her all Christmas. She was such a lovely lady. Please, please come! Unless you feel too poorly, that is.”
No, Mary didn’t feel at all poorly. Just a little shaky from her fall. She allowed her new friend to help her into her coat, and they set off together for the short walk down the road and into Jane’s cheerful, noisy, home. The children were a little shy at first, but soon warmed to her when she told them that Miracle on 34th Street was her favourite Christmas film too.
Jane’s husband roared with laughter when she told him she had fallen flat on her face after she’d drunk too much. He tried to make her drink a glass of port to see if she’d do it again, but she refused. Jane told him off and brought her a cup of tea instead. Then they watched the film and had more tea and a piece of home-made Christmas cake before Jane’s husband and all the children escorted her back home, singing “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer” at the top of their voices.
“Thank you for coming,” Jane had said as she helped her into her coat in their cosy living room, and kissed her good-bye.
“No. Thank you. Thank you so much, my dear, for inviting me,” she had replied. “It has been the most wonderful Christmas I’ve had in years. And don’t forget – I’m always around to baby sit, any time you need a granny.”
Mary never spent Christmas day on her own again.
If you enjoyed this story, you may like to download the whole anthology which is full of stories by authors loosely connected to the Birmingham UK area. There are some great yarns in there. What’s more, the anthology is FREE!
Festive Treats http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01LW1YITM
Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Yeat