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Spring Tidings – a Christmas Story

I

must run now, I can’t be late or everything will be late.

“Take out the trash,” mum calls, as I run downstairs – two steps at a time – and jump for the back door.

“Damn it!”

“Just get it done,” shouts dad.

Great. I haul the trash out into the snow, startling a few birds pecking at the fat on the bird feeder.

The neighbour’s cat swings by, peculiarly fluffy and black against the snow. “Leave those birds alone,” I growl. The cat is in a mad, springy mood, though, and hops off, appearing and vanishing, in drifts up to its ears.

Trash stored, I get the key for grandma’s house. The slender iron is freezing cold, where it hangs on the hook by the stairs. For its wards, a heart is cut through the bit.

I get my bag of cereal and cans from the washroom and then head down the wynd.

Why is it that wellies are so crap on snow? Dad’s car has carved the lane into awkward tracks and humps. I think I’ve jolted everything by the time I get to that tree-lined, ivy-shrouded, tunnel that leads up to grandma’s house.

My carrier bag hangs low, clunking against every stick, branch and mound of snow. My nose is running. Grandma would have something to say about that. Grandma was never late, never untidy, always had a good word to say about everybody; liked to keep me sorted, though. I think half the village was at her funeral – mums, dads, small kids; some of the farmers from one parish over. I found it really sad, but mum said, don’t worry: everything comes around.

“What do you want for Christmas?” was the next thing she said, staring at the rectangle of fresh sod, in the copse, where we’d planted grandma. We had to break the ground with a pickaxe.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe, maybe I don’t know.”

“That’s fine. You’ll think of something,” and she squeezed my arm.

The cottage is low and white and sits back in the trees, against an immaculate lawn, now sleeping beneath a deep, duvet of snow. A trellis, border plants, the old garage, stand darkly.

There has been so much snow, I’m dragging a furrow up to the front door.

Nobody else has been here. Once, I’d meet all sorts up here, asking grandma – old Mrs. Salter – for one of her ‘ha’penny cures’ as she put it, or a little, ‘silvery curse,’ that wasn’t so bad. Grandma didn’t do the bad stuff – she liked everyone too much.

The ice is riming everything, getting in under the eaves and the guttering. The outer surface of the snow is crunchy; the inner, soft and yielding, like marshmallow.

I practically have to break into grandma’s garage, even though I have the key – the snow is so insistent. Old tools, the smell of damp. A drip from my nose lands on the saw, creating a darker spot of rust.  I dab it with my gloved hand, without thinking, and end up with a rusty glove. Bright, Suzy, bright.

More wading in my rubbish boots – toes cold as elbows – and some sawing at an evergreen in grandma’s garden. I don’t know if it has to come from here, but I think it probably does.

What is it? I hear grandma ask.

I dunno… birch?

Gods. No. Got your head on back to front? That’s holly, child.

They all used to look the same to me. I have the twig – dark, succulent, still with some green growth in it – and jumpity-runny-hop-drag myself to the front door.

Head down, watch the lintel. Grandma was tiny. Watch the little hawthorn men; the scratchy pictograms in charcoal, crumbly on the flaking white paint; the horseshoe nailed firmly upright, in a two-pronged salute to luck. To the left of the portico is the name of the cottage – ‘Dun Roamin’; grandma’s little joke.

Bang the door shut – sticking now. Flick the calendar to the 23rd, one page over: an awesome winter scene of muntjac deer grazing by Woburn Abbey.

I love the smell in here: wood smoke and age. I feel the damp coldness of an abandoned house. Grandma’s things are still here, though. I don’t feel sad, really.

I fire up the wood-burning stove, remind myself to pick up more logs, pull open the curtains – feel that wall of cold, from behind the window glass – and get to hanging that sprig over the fireplace.

I tie on the bells, salute the cardinal points, say the rhyme – I even rap a bit of it, ala Jay-Z (my own invention; it seems to work. Just don’t tell grandma) – and finally tack the thing above the hearth with a silver nail. There are plenty of holes here already.

Silver nails… tricky to get hold of now grandma’s not around. This is mum’s – a bit rough, a bit bendy. “I’m definitely not my mother,” she said, shaking her head. “I think you got the craft. It jumped over me like a forest jack.”

Mum says that quite often.

Buckled, or no, the nail holds.

Just to see what I’ve got, I drop a few crumbs of chocolate on the mantel and go crouch behind the sofa. The material is an old patchwork, re-sewn, and carefully re-mended. Feels like luxurious sail cloth.

Grandma is a shadow in a hospital bed. She has a two-pronged tube up her nose. She says, “You got to stay with them over Christmas, Suzie. And let them out on the twelfth day after.”

“Of course,” I say, crying even though I don’t want to – Salter women don’t cry. “What happens if you forget?”

“Nothing. Winter lasts forever.”

“Oh.” Are you joking? I wondered. But no, there was only a fierce grandma Salter staring back at me with that level expression of hers. Some kind of bellows was hissing up and down, keeping her breathing.

There is scratching on the mantelpiece – rats you might think – or noisy mice with clogs on, until you hear the tittering. You don’t see anything, but you feel it. Nom. Nom. One chocolate flake, then the next vanishes.

The sprig rustles once more with a jingle of bells and everything goes quiet. Just the pop and soft roar of the burner; a drop of snow, falling from a bush outside.

“Keep it warm, Suzy-girl. You’ll do it proud. But don’t forget – it has to sling its hook on the twelfth.”

“I got it.”

“Blessed Be.”

She is quiet for a moment. Then a hand, cold as old bone, touches my arm.

“Oh, and take chocolate. They bloody love chocolate.”

I stoke the fire some more, keeping us all warm for the winter. I can’t get what I really want for Christmas – that part has gone now – but a spring thaw will be just fine. Fine enough, I guess.

16 comments

1 J. M. Strother { 12.11.10 at 3:07 pm }

Nicely done. I like how this plays out slowly, like the opening of a spring bud. It flows every well. Glad she has the gift. I don’t fancy eternal winter.
~jon

2 Stephen Hewitt { 12.11.10 at 5:20 pm }

Hi there Jon – thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you like the flow – I’m never quite sure how these things read to other people. I try to go with my ‘first thought’, read them aloud to myself, revise like crazy, and hope that means that things work out. Much appreciated. Stephen.

3 ~Tim { 12.12.10 at 3:02 am }

I like this a lot. You have several lovely and descriptive phrases. And I agree it flows well. [I like to read my work out loud as I revise too. I find that it helps the flow and in keeping the voices of the characters consistent.]

4 Stephen Hewitt { 12.12.10 at 10:31 am }

Hi Tim – thanks for reading and commenting; very much appreciated. I’m glad you liked the story. I have an image of plenty of writers sitting in cafés, or at their keyboards ‘chunnering’ just under their breath, as they read through. Meanwhile social services are getting ready to break down the door and cart them off… lol. Surely this is the first sign of madness? It’s so darned useful, though 😉

5 Harry B. Sanderford { 12.12.10 at 5:56 pm }

What a wonderful Christmas story! Some sadness but also some humor and some hope. Great job!

6 Stephen Hewitt { 12.13.10 at 8:29 pm }

Thanks Harry. I’m glad you liked this slightly unusual Christmas tale and I’m a happy I got some emotion across. 🙂

7 Aidan Fritz { 12.12.10 at 6:25 pm }

You create some nice tension with her need to get to her Grandma’s place. I liked her voice; the ending fits well with its note of resignation while keeping a hint of hope for the future.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 12.13.10 at 8:51 pm }

Thanks for commenting Aidan. I’m glad you liked the ending: I was kind of lucky; sometimes it’s a nightmare, but this time it just sort of popped out, and for once I had the presence of mind to stop right there.

9 ganymeder { 12.13.10 at 1:57 am }

This was so beautiful. I completely loved this. Thank you.

10 Stephen Hewitt { 12.13.10 at 10:05 pm }

Thank you very much Catherine. I’m really glad you enjoyed it and thanks for popping back for more. 🙂

11 Rachel Blackbirdsong { 12.13.10 at 9:25 am }

Beautifully told tale, Stephen. I love way this story enfolds until the ending. About the reading out loud while revising, I find that is the best way to check flow and find typos. I can’t tell you how many time I’ve done it, only to find some mistake that I missed while reading.

12 Stephen Hewitt { 12.13.10 at 10:26 pm }

Hi there Rachel – thanks for reading and commenting. I’m really glad you enjoyed the story. Yeah, I also find the amount of stuff I pick up while reading aloud is always surprising, going on slightly horrific. Not to mention, I’ll be reading aloud and realise that my music has stopped and there’s footsteps coming down the stairs past my flat, and there’s a pause, and I’m thinking: Hello, somebody just heard me chatting to myself again…

13 Joan { 12.20.10 at 7:23 pm }

Yes, it’s a lovely build-up to this ending – we were talking about detail and setting before, and it depends on the story, I think, how much is right. Loved some details of this particularly – ‘toes cold as elbows’, and the wall of cold when Suzy opens the curtain (just like in ‘real life’) – nice also the way she touches the wet rust, and uses her own name for herself, so we know it by the time we get up to the grandma bit – that’s unexpected enough – the way we meet grandma – but we know Suzy’s name before grandma says it – something we know helps ground what would otherwise be more difficult to take, if you see what I mean.

I had to read it twice to get it – but I am often slow with stories. There are still questions about it that I have – but this probably leaves something open for interpretation. Which I like. Yes, it reads as though this story was sort of ‘there’. Sometimes, when you write, it does seem like you’re picking a story out of the ether – it was there all the time. I read aloud my stuff, also. Must be a common trait for writers. Used to play music to cover up what I was saying. Then felt if I ever sold the story or book, I would need to give away free CDs of what I’d been listening to during the writing – otherwise the reader would never ‘get it’!

14 Stephen Hewitt { 12.20.10 at 9:05 pm }

Hi there Joan – glad you liked the build up to the ending. And yes, I think you’re right that the amount of detail should be specific to the individual story – using it (or not) for particular effect. I was pleased by some of the things that cropped up, detail-wise, like the stuff with the rust.

Your reading the story twice may be partially to do with my writing: I do tend to pack quite a lot in, and the punctuation can start to build up.

I like that idea of picking stories out of the either – I certainly find some just arrive whole (like this one) others, are fragmentary and annoying and are kind of pieced together. Never sure if that latter type makes a good story in the end.

I also like the idea of the authorial sound track. To a certain extent that was what happened with Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight series – best enjoyed listening to Muse. Of course, with the films, you actually do get to listen to a chunk of her writing soundtrack.

I guess the secret for talking to yourself as a writer, is to get one of those hands free earpieces for a phone and then you can just chat away regardless. Or just occasionally streak down the street so that folk think that talking to yourself is the least of your problems. lol.

15 Joan { 01.05.11 at 11:37 am }

Thanks Stephen for that last comment there – it made me laugh. It’s good to find, though, when you read comments from other people that you’re not the only one with eccentric habits.

16 Stephen Hewitt { 01.08.11 at 6:34 pm }

Hi there Joan – you’re welcome. There’s so many people out there with eccentric habits that I’m beginning to think that’s normal 😉

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