It was too easy, but still fun! Merry Christmas!
At least there was no snow, just wind. But the wind was bitter.
How appropriate, I thought, bending my head against it. Pulling the hood down low on my face I mourned the loss of my Tom Baker umbrella, now a tangled metal mess abandoned in a ditch five yards from my front door. I didn’t want to think about the damage the puddles would be doing to my boots. I should have driven but I knew what a fuss she’d kick up about the environment, not to mention the idea of drink-driving. I knew it wasn’t worth the fight, but why on earth was she so insistent we meet at the Exchange? Could she not have just come to the house if she was that desperate to see me?
My cheeks stung with the chill. The puddles of orange street light blurred with my watering eyes and I cursed myself for not standing up to her. But then, I never could.
Did she have nothing better to do on Christmas Eve, seriously?
There wind dropped as I passed St. Nicholas’s and for a moment the echo of carols hung in the biting air. The windows of the little church were lit and there was fairy lights around the door. Voices rose and fell in unison and for the first time I could recollect it actually looked inviting, certainly more inviting than the pub across the road with its steamy windows and raucous clientele. There was a man huddled in the porch, blowing cigarette smoke out into the wind and shivering. He gave me a dirty look as I passed, as if the smoking ban had been my idea.
It was warm inside but damp and stuffy. There were people laughing too loudly and the bar staff had the same Now That’s What I Call Christmas album playing that they had the last Christmas and the one before that.
I knew where she would be sitting. I went straight to the bar and ordered a white wine, large, then elbowed my way to the corner table. I perched on a stool opposite her and she gave me a very obvious up-and-down.
“Hello,” she greeted me politely, taking a sip of her small white wine.
“Carol,” I muttered, taking a large swallow of my own. “Well, I’m here.”
“To the point these days, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer, sensing the argument forming in the air between us already. I took another mouthful, wincing as the opening bars of Do They Know it’s Christmas inevitably blared from the speakers.
“Well,” she said, softening. “How are you doing?”
“Very well. Very well indeed, in fact. Profits are up.”
“Yes I noticed that. No small achievement in a recession. So many companies in trouble and everything…”
“What are you driving at, Carol?”
“Nothing at all.” She gave an easy shrug and I couldn’t help but admire the smooth movement of her slim shoulders. Her face was still bright and open, with just the slightest hint of steeliness that hinted at the iron will within. “You always had an eye for business. These times seem to suit you.”
She took another little sip, her wide, dark eyes never leaving mine. I didn’t need to acknowledge the criticism. It hung in the air around her like candle smoke.
“What’s that?” I said, gesturing at a heavy silver chain around her neck. She never used to run to extravagant jewellery.
She fingered it idly, eyes still not leaving mine. “You gave it to me, don’t you remember?”
I shook my head, looked closer. It was made up of heavy chain links. Solid looking. Ugly. “No, I don’t.”
She shrugged again. “I thought it wasn’t to your usual taste. But then, you’ve changed since I knew you well.”
“Look,” I said, irritation reaching a peak. “Do you just want to spit it out? You’re obviously not keen on seeing me and to be perfectly honest the feeling is mutual. So do you just want to say whatever it is you’ve got to say so I can go home?”
She didn’t answer for so long that I looked up at her, expecting to see her fighting back the tears I felt prickling in my own eyes. But her face was clear, her eyes steady. The heavy chain rose and fell with her breathing and she lifted her glass once more with those steady, long-fingered hands and took a measured sip.
“Do you even remember why we used to come here?” she eventually asked, when a particularly vigorous bout of laughter from the bar had quieted.
“Quite frankly, no.”
The tiniest trace of a sad smile pulled at the edge of her mouth. “You used to enjoy it. We used to have a laugh, drink, sing along with the songs. Some of the best times we had together were here at Christmas time.”
“What can I say? I have different priorities now.”
“Yes, your business is doing well. And your new house is very nice. Do you live there alone?”
“You know I do.”
She nodded, looking away. She said the next words so quietly I almost missed them in the din, “A golden idol has replaced me. I just hope you’re happy in the life you have chosen.”
I opened my mouth to reply but no sound came out. She eventually lifted her eyes to mine again. She seemed suddenly very far away. In the next lull I heard my phone beeping in my pocket. She held my gaze calmly but looked down and pulled out my phone.
The text flashed across the screen. Mary wanted to meet me. Now. I felt a familiar rush of irritation. I thought I’d managed to end things with Mary. I thought she’d’ve realised by now we weren’t the same. Obviously she wasn’t the sort to take a hint. I’d have to meet her and spell it out.
“Carol,” I started, looking up, but she’d gone.
Good riddance, I thought, ignoring the cold realisation that it was probably the last time I would see her.
On the journey into town I had time to plan out what I was going to say. I had it all ready, but as soon as Mary saw me she began talking across me, like she always did.
“This way, over here. Wait until you see.”
There was a palpable buzz of excitement in the way she carried herself as she hurried me along. The exuberant part of her nature surfaced rarely but even that was too often. This whole set up was typical of her and the more I thought about it the more resolved I became.
My heart had sunk when I’d stepped out of the taxi into the town square where she’d insisted we meet and seen the local choir assembled under the lights of a large decorated tree that was swaying alarmingly in the wind. Despite the frigid air and the wet underfoot there was a crowd gathered and chattering. The choir launched into their first (out of tune) carol with nauseating gusto. A vendor with a portable heater full of mulled wine stood to one side and the spicy waft reached me and stirred my longing for the bottle of red I had on the counter and my deep armchair in front of the wide screen telly.
Thankfully Mary dragged me past the singers into a more empty corner of the square. I thought for a moment that she did actually understand me. But then I saw what it was that had made her smile. There was a poster pinned to the notice board advertising a theatre company that had come to do a Christmas production in the play house. I felt a scowl weight down my brow.
“Oh come on, I thought you’d be pleased.” Her habitual gravity was back in her voice now.
“There’s a reason my nephew and I haven’t spoken in years, Mary.”
“Well I think there’s a reason for his company coming here. He must want to see you.”
“I doubt he even knows I live here.”
“But it’s a fundraiser for your Robert’s little boy. They want to get him a motorised wheelchair.”
“Robert should be more careful with his money, then his family wouldn’t need charity.”
“Yes, well as generous as I’m sure you are with his wage, don’t you think a little extra couldn’t do any harm? Think of the boy.”
“Robert’s wage is ample, thank you very much,” I said, bristling. “Generous, even, I would say. He could work more hours if he were determined.”
“With all those children at home? How’s his wife supposed to work if she’s in with the children all day every day?”
“Well – ”
“So you won’t come and see it with me?” She crossed her arms, using her more usual voice, the voice she used on rival business associates. “The last night is tonight.”
I snorted and turned to leave. “I’m busy.”
I raised my voice over the wind and bad carols. “Doing anything else but.”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” she insisted. “This time should be spent with your family. And helping other people.”
“Let me keep Christmas in my own way, please.”
“Keep it?” she snapped. “You don’t keep it.”
“Let me leave it alone then.”
I thought she’d snap but she just stood and surveyed me calmly. Though I was roiling at the pity I could see in her dark eyes, I was struck again at by how attractive she could be. I thought again about how she looked like Carol. Older, more refined and with better clothes, a graver manner, but there was similarities in the determination of her dark eyes and in the confident way she held her shoulders. She also tended to temper determination with mercy and, whilst I had to admit this was sometimes an attractive quality, it just wasn’t working in the long term, either on a personal or a professional basis.
“Look, Mary,” I said, looking her in the eye and dredging up the well-practised speech. But she cut me off.
“You’re running out of chances, you know.” She didn’t explain what she meant and I didn’t ask. She turned away as snow started whirling down in the wind. The clock on the village hall struck eight and I watched her walk away through the gusting snow until she disappeared into the dark and the sound of her clicking heels was swallowed by the wind and singing.
I told myself I couldn’t care less if I never saw Carol or Mary again. I forced myself to think of my warm living room and the fully stocked wine rack. However, the pleasantness conjured by this thought immediately evaporated when I pulled out my phone to call a taxi to discover the battery was flat.
Cursing fluently I checked my purse but had no change for the payphone, that was even assuming the payphones on the square were still connected. I turned my collar up, tightened my scarf and, hunching my shoulders, set off back across the square, past the warbling choir and into the darkened side streets. The noise and the light faded. All I could hear was the rushing of my breath and the slushing of my Armani boots in the gathering snow. All I could see was fat flakes swirling in the air with mist from my mouth. The streets were remarkably quiet. All the shop and house windows were dark.
The air got darker and colder, the snow thicker. I went through a gate in the hedge around St. Nicholas’s to duck around the back of the church and across the field to my house, a route darker and muddier but quicker. The church windows were black now, the voices silent. Shadows nestled in hummocks of snow, clustered at in the roots of the yews and gathered themselves to the gravestones like masses of black moss. My boots crunched but the sound was swallowed in the vast silence.
I was within sight of the gate when I became aware that mine was no longer the only breathing I could hear. Every instinct told me to get out but instead I paused, trying to convince myself I imagined the sound. I stood still until I heard it again: a rattling, suffering breath, shuddering somewhere from the shadows ahead. I tried to move my feet but couldn’t. Slowly, I made out a shape. It was so twisted and bent I had thought it was part of the tree it crouched under.
It didn’t move. Its breath rasped and misted into the air. A slight breeze creaked in the branches above me, biting at my ears and cheeks. The clouds shifted and the cold light of the moon flooded the graveyard.
I swallowed a yell. The old woman stared at me calmly, though her laboured breath shook her frame. The shadows from strands of loose hair accentuated the deep lines in her face. Her eyes were bright, but cold, deep-set in a web of wrinkles. She was bent low over a stick. I felt control of my limbs return, but something about her gaze still fixated me. Something familiar.
“Can I help you?” I asked with as much brusqueness as I could muster. She didn’t move apart from her eyes that looked me up and down and then past me, over my shoulder. “Why are you out here alone?” I pressed, glancing around the snow-covered graves. She looked at me with something like pity in her eyes and slowly shook her head. I felt frustration mounting, smothering the chill that had gathered beneath my ribs.
“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I must go. I suggest you get home to your family.”
“I have none.” Her voice creaked like the branches above.
“Don’t be,” she said, in a surprisingly firm voice. “My circumstances are of my own making.”
The wind teased at the strands around her face. The wet from the snow chilled against my calves and a shiver run over my skin. Her eyes finally slid from mine and focussed on a spot over my shoulder again. Reluctantly, I turned. I knew it must have been a trick of the moonlight but one grave was illuminated so brightly that it gave the impression of not having been there a minute ago. The flat stone was new judging by the sharpness of the edges, making the shadows look keen as razors. A neat blanket of snow was gathering on its surface, even and crisp, slight indentations showing as grey smudges over the engraved words.
“Not long until my turn,” she said. “I hope there will be more flowers laid for me.”
I turned back, but she was gone. I rubbed my eyes. There were no tracks in the snow. I shook my head. I was obviously more tired than I thought. I wanted go home, lock all the doors, close all the curtains, disconnect the phone and spend the night and day sheltered with myself. With a pang I realised that being alone with my thoughts was not as welcome a prospect anymore as it had been even two hours ago.
The snow had stopped falling and once again the air was still and silent. No breathing shadows. No carols on the wind. I was utterly alone.
Turning back to the naked grave was something I did before I comprehended what I was doing. The surface was almost blinding with reflected moonlight. I told myself to dismiss my thoughts. I was obviously tired and frustrated with everything that had been said that night and my brain was playing tricks on me. If I just knelt and wiped the snow from the stone, the name would wash away all worries.
I took a hesitant step closer, boots crunching and blood pumping in my ears.
“Do it,” I heard myself in a voice that sounded unfamiliar in the dead air. “Just do it. It’ll be a Smith or a Jones from the village. Someone from the old folks’ home. Look at it, then you can go home and sleep and this night will finally be over.”
The snow was wet and cold on my knees as I knelt. My heart thudded against my ribs. I put out my gloved hand. It hovering over the unspoiled snow like a raven again a winter sky. I saw it trembling, cursed myself and angrily shoved the snow away.
CAROL MARY DICKENS
I covered my face with my hands. Icy slush pressed against my cheeks and eyes. I dug my knuckles so deep into my sockets that it hurt and I saw spots. I felt hot tears mingling with the melting snow against my skin. My breath caught in sobs and I couldn’t stop the tide of despair that washed over me, bringing with it ghosts of feelings I had long since thought buried: shame, fear, loneliness. And all my doing. The old lady was right. If there were no flowers on my grave at Christmas Eve when the time came it would be no one’s doing but my own.
I pulled my hands away, the freezing air like nails on the hot tear tracks. I blinked the blurriness away and looked down at the empty grass in front of me. The snow was scuffed with handprints. The stone was gone. The snow in my eyelashes and hair melted and ran down the sides of my face.
I got to my feet, stumbled, once, twice and hurried toward my house.
I locked my front door behind me and collapsed on the sofa, threw my arms over my face and saw no more.
The sound of bells woke me. I was stiff and cold and still wearing sodden boots, coat and gloves. I blinked up at the ceiling, listening to the bells. After a long moment, I stood stiffly and went to the window. I flung the panes open wide and breathed in the cool, bright air and drank in the sound. The chill breeze and the ringing bells cleared my head. My limbs were aching , my hair hung tangled around my shoulders and a glance at my reflection in the window showed my make up was smudged in black streaks down my face. But my mind felt more ordered and content than I realised it had felt in a long, long time.
I saw clearly. Everything was as clear-cut as the blankets of snow that lay on the windowsills, pavements and walls under the bright winter sunshine.
I left the window open and turned and hurried back into the room, reaching for my phone, hoping my nephew still had the same mobile number and that his theatre company would accept a late donation.