A CHRISTMAS TALE
“Come on Dad, you can’t stay there all night”
The café proprietor pushed a cheese roll that had seen better times across the counter.
“Here, for God’s sake, take this and go find yourself a place to settle for the rest of the night.”
It was Christmas Eve and so, perhaps, unwittingly, the gift of a stale cheese roll really was for God’s sake thought the old man. But he doubted it. However, he rose slowly and unsteadily to his feet, and shambled over to the counter where he picked up the offering and stuffed it into his over-coat pocket.
With a grunt that could have been interpreted as thank you, or sod you, he made his way out into the cold, bleak, night.
The wind cut through his thin coat like shards of ice, even though he’d tied a length of rope around his waist in an effort to keep it out. His feet were wrapped in old newspapers and stuffed into boots that were too large, and did little to keep him warm. Clutching a black plastic bin liner containing all his worldly goods, he shuffled along the street looking for a likely doorway to shelter in.
He must find somewhere soon. He was so tired, and his chest was playing him up again. Each breath he took rasped in his throat and then wheezed out again on a cloud of steam.
He recalled that around the next corner was an old disused entrance to a London Underground station. He’d once shared a bottle of dubious alcohol with an old tramp at that very spot. He wondered where the old fellow was now. How terrible it was, to be a tramp at Christmas time. Of course, he wasn’t a tramp, just a traveller temporarily down on his luck. Still, he knew what it was like to be without a bed or a good meal.
The railway entrance suddenly loomed up from the frosty darkness and thankfully ‘the traveller’ made his way to the back of it and huddled as deeply as he could into the corner. An old newspaper that had blown in on the wind was soon tucked around his legs.
He reached into the depths of his coat pocket and, rummaging for several seconds, finally pulled out the stale, and somewhat fluffy, cheese roll, which he proceeded to devour with much grunting and lip smacking. When the last crumb had been wiped from his lips he gave a long agonising sigh, and rested his head against the wall.
His mind began to wander as he tried to remember when life had been good. Back in his childhood days it had been very good.
Tom, (how long it had been since anyone had called him Tom), and his elder brother Will had lived with their parents Sarah and James, in a stone-built cottage on the Cornish coast. Such happy days! Will had been gone many years now. The war had changed their lives and broken his mother’s heart. But before that time there had been, oh, so many days of wine and roses.
Christmas was the best time of all. There would be a huge wood fire in the open hearth, and the logs would sing and spit as they burned and glowed in the candlelit room. The tree would have been dragged into the cottage on Christmas Eve by his father and, when Tom awoke on Christmas morning, there it would stand in all its glory. Tinsel and candles and chocolate shapes, sticks of striped candy-canes and glass baubles all a gleaming. Tom’s young hands trembled with excitement.
The wind changed direction and came whipping and whistling into the doorway where Tom lay. He was so deep in his dreams that he hardly noticed it. He stretched out his cold trembling hands to warm them at his imaginary fire.
There were many festive traditions in Sarah’s house, but the most important to Tom was the tradition of pulling the first cracker to welcome in the turkey. Each year it would be James’ task as man of the house, to carry the large turkey surrounded with roast potatoes into the dining room, but not before the given signal!
All Christmas morning Tom would eagerly await the removal of the first Christmas cracker from the box that stood on the sideboard. Every year it was the same. His mother would snip the string holding the crackers in place and remove just one.
“Come along Tom, time for you to herald the start of our feast. This is a very important job for a very important lad”.
So saying she would hold out the first cracker of the season and they would pull it together. As the cracker exploded, Tom’s father would strut through the door holding the turkey aloft, and they would all cheer.
In his dreams Tom could feel the soft crepe paper of the cracker in his hand. He looked up into his mother’s beautiful smiling face and knew he could never be this happy again. He pulled on the cracker; saw his father coming towards him. His mother took his other hand in hers as they waited for the joyous Christmas happening.
In the cold crisp light of Christmas morning, Constable Blakely walked his beat. A few homeless souls still snoozed in their cardboard boxes, but most had already made their way to the ‘Sally Army’ hostel to hopefully cadge a Christmas dinner. He spotted Tom still curled up in the corner of the old Underground station doorway.
“Wakey, wakey! Dad, it’s Christmas day.”
Tom didn’t stir. Constable Blakley leaned over him and carefully nudged him with the toe of his shoe.
“Poor devil, he’s dead! What a miserable and cold way to go.”
The newspaper had blown onto Tom’s face during the night, and as PC Blakely gently removed it he was amazed to see a serene smile on the old man’s lips. One of the old man’s hands was stretched out; palm uppermost, and clutched in Tom’s other hand was half of a pulled Christmas cracker.
A very merry Christmas and a truly happy, healthy, and peaceful 2009 to all my blogger friends