Here’s wishing you Season’s Greetings and a Happy New Year.
I’m posting here a short story which I hope you enjoy. It’s bitter-sweet, and based on fact.
Margaret, Frank and the two boys moved into their new house in the week before Christmas. It was everything Margaret had ever wanted: a living room with kitchen large enough to eat in, bathroom and separate toilet and three bedrooms so Neil and Robert could have a bedroom each. Best of all, the living room had two windows. From one window Margaret could glimpse the Downs billowing like a green ocean. From the other she could see a real sea, a stretch of silver coast with busy boats dashing here, there and everywhere.
‘It’s lovely isn’t it Frank,’ she said.
‘If you say so,’ answered Frank.
After tea, Neil retreated to his room and put on his record-player. He was fourteen and from that day on the rest of the family rarely saw him. Robert, who was eight, bubbled with excitement and took a lot of persuading to go to bed. He did so eventually and Margaret went to his room to say goodnight. She sat on his bed and looked around. His bedroom was tiny, little more than a box. It was filled almost entirely by his bed.
‘What do you think of your room?’ she asked anxiously.
‘I love it, Mum.’
‘You love it?’
‘It’s fantastic. It’s like a space-ship. Everything’s close to hand and safe but when I land in the morning I’ll be on a new world.’
Margaret smoothed the wayward hair from his eyes and kissed him goodnight. ‘I’m glad you like it,’ she said softly. For she loved the house every bit as much.
The next day, with the sound of Neil’s music humming in the background and Robert out exploring the neighbourhood, Margaret made a well-deserved cup of tea and settled into her armchair. She gazed out of the window at the boats skimming along and gave a sigh of deep content. ‘This is perfect,’ she murmured.
‘If you say so,’ said Frank.
The door opened and a strange man walked in. Margaret sat bolt upright and stared at him suspiciously.
‘Can I help you?’ she said in an icy tone.
The man smiled and drew up a chair. He was in his sixties, short and a little overweight, bald except for a small line of greying hair.
‘I’ve come to see how you’re settling in,’ he said.
Margaret’s eyes narrowed dangerously. ‘We’re settling in very nicely, thank you,’ she said. ‘If it’s any business of yours.’
She glanced at Frank, hoping he would say something. He remained silent.
The stranger smiled again. ‘Well, I’m glad you like it.’
An uncomfortable silence filled the room. At last, unable to bear it any longer, Margaret waved at the window. ‘It’s a lovely view,’ she said. ‘I love the sea and the boats and ships.’
The man glanced out and for a moment looked puzzled. Then he murmured, ‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.’
‘Must you?’ asked Margaret. Then she frowned, for his words invoked a memory which she almost grasped but in the end proved elusive.
The man stood up. ‘I’ll let you settle in peace,’ he said. ‘But I’ll come again tomorrow.’
‘That’s very nice of you,’ said Margaret although she was horrified at the thought.
The man left and Margaret rounded on her husband. ‘You should have said something to him, barging in here like that. A stranger. You should have said something.’
‘If you say so,’ said Frank.
The next day, after lunch, Margaret and Frank were chatting about the boys and at how well they had settled into the new house when the door opened and the bald man came into the room.
He drew up a chair. He beamed at Margaret and placed a box of chocolates on her lap. She stared at them nervously. Why was he giving her chocolates?
‘They’re your favourites,’ he said. ‘A little moving-in gift.’
Margaret did not answer. In truth, she was affronted at the temerity of the stranger. He walked in to her house without a by-your-leave, sat himself in one of her chairs and now presumed to give her chocolates. She shot a glance at Frank who, as usual, did not respond.
The stranger began to hum a little tune to himself. She eyed the chocolates greedily. He was right, she thought, they were her favourites.
The man followed her gaze and held out his hand for the chocolates. ‘Shall I open them for you?’ he asked pleasantly.
‘I’ll have them later.’ She paused and licked her lips. ‘Thank you very much.’
The stranger half rose from his chair and peered out of the window. ‘You’ve got a lovely view,’ he said. ‘Lots of trees and flowers.’
‘It’s the sea I like best,’ Margaret answered. ‘I’ve always loved the sea.’
The man did not answer for a moment, as if he was considering her words deeply.
‘It’s a good job you like the sea considering you were a Wren,’ he said at last. ‘All the ships you must have been on in your time. It’s a bit more peaceful now. No Luftwaffe attacks, no bombings.’
Oh no, thought Margaret, another war bore. It was bad enough living with Frank and his endless tales. She had done her bit as a young girl but she rarely spoke about it to anyone.
She looked at the man. She found it hard to imagine him acting in any military capacity with his chubby frame and bald head. But perhaps he looked different in his youth. She tried to visualise him as a young man in uniform but failed to conjure up any image.
‘Were you in the Forces?’ she asked at last, more out of politeness than any real interest. ‘In the War?’
‘Of course not,’ he said.
Margaret sniffed. Probably a conscientious objector or someone who worked in munitions. Then she did a quick calculation and became a little more forgiving. ‘Maybe you were too old for active service.’
‘Maybe,’ answered the stranger enigmatically.
Another silence fell. ‘Don’t let us keep you,’ Margaret said at last. ‘I’m sure you’ve lots to do.’
‘I expect you’re tired,’ said the man. ‘I’ll be back on the big day.’
He got up and bent towards her. She raised her hand to ward him off. He shook his head, smiled and kissed her hand very gently.
‘The cheek of it,’ she fumed once he had left. She flung the chocolates at Frank. ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you say something? It’s always the same with you.’
‘If you say so,’ said Frank.
The next day was Christmas. Once the stockings were opened, Margaret prepared the dinner. Neil moaned about having to eat while Top of the Pops was on but Margaret insisted. Robert, on the other hand, tucked in to his dinner with his usual gusto. I must watch him, thought Margaret, he’s a bit greedy and he could easily run to fat. They watched the Queen’s speech and then came the big moment, the lengthy ritual of opening presents.
At that precise moment, the stranger walked in, laden down with presents and accompanied by a woman of about his age.
Margaret was furious. How dare he intrude on such an occasion? This was a time for family and nobody else. She meant to say something, to tell him to leave. Yet there was something in his eyes, some gleam of kindly enthusiasm which persuaded her to remain silent.
The stranger and the woman drew up two chairs and pushed gift after gift upon Margaret. She was astonished. Eventually she was prevailed upon to open a few of them. There was a lovely silk scarf and a beautiful bottle of perfume. ‘It’s your favourite,’ said the bald man, ‘spray some on.’
Reluctantly at first, Margaret sprayed a little on her neck. Then she caught the lovely scent; it was indeed her favourite. Delighted, she began to spray herself with wild abandon. The two strangers smiled as they watched and then, chuckling slightly, the bald man leant over and took the bottle gently from her.
‘Have you got anything for him?’ Margaret asked, nodding towards Frank.
The stranger looked pained, presumably at forgetting, and did not answer.
‘Well he can have some of mine,’ said Margaret, passing some gifts to her husband.
A carol service started on the television. The stranger laughed a little and pulled his chair close to Margaret. She looked at him askance but, as it was Christmas, decided to let it go.
They watched as the choristers sang joyously. Then, the strains of ‘Away in a Manger,’ began and the stranger cried with delight and began to sing along with the words.
‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head.’
Margaret turned towards him in astonishment. His voice was familiar but she could not place it. It was high-pitched and unmelodious but somehow it stirred her heart. She had heard it before somewhere, she was certain of it, but she could not recall where.
‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,’ the stranger continued.
Then he turned to Margaret and with increasing volume sang: ‘And little Lord Jesus eats all of the cakes.’
Margaret blinked. Her fingers touched her lips. A naughty boy made those words up and always made her laugh by singing them to her. A naughty boy. She frowned, trying to trap the memory which darted like a running hare in front of her.
Then she turned towards the stranger. ‘You’re my son,’ she said.
Robert reached out for the hand of his mother. It was soft and frail yet she squeezed his with a fierce pressure which surprised him.
‘You used to be young,’ she said. ‘What’s happened to you?’
‘I’ve got a bit older.’
Margaret glanced round her little nursing home room, at the bed with safety rails, at the one window with a view not of the sea but of a garden, at the empty space where she believed Frank, long deceased, still sat beside her. And she smiled.
‘I love you, Robert,’ she said.
‘I love you too, Mum,’ he said.