Not the official Twelve Days of Christmas, of course, but a nice festive run up to the big day itself (you’re welcome!). Today’s seasonal offering is a short story by Sue Marlow, getting our annual project off to a fine start…
Ringing the Changes
Everything starts somewhere although many physicists disagree. For James it all began as the clock struck eleven one Christmas morning. It was the ninth year on his own, caught in the expanse of solitude that arcs between Christmas and New Year. James’ friends all had family and were collected by their fractious and overworked sons or daughters, whisked away to an unfamiliar location and placed in an armchair in the corner of the room with a cracker, mince pie and the TV. They accepted it all with good humour and gratitude, not wishing to upset anyone but secretly longing to return to their homes and independence. But for those without family this seasonal paradox of good will often abandons people at their loneliest.
James and Mary had not been blessed with children and neither of them had siblings. They had been everything to each other and it was at Christmas that James felt his loss most deeply. He knew it was time for action and as the clock chimed eleven on that grey Christmas morning he decided that he was going to ‘hit the bottle’. It was Mary who had discovered Whitstable Bay beer when they had popped into the local Co-Op together for a cream slice to accompany their Sunday afternoon tea. She had liked the design on the label and the beer itself had become James’ favourite. But a pint at home in the evening or an occasional cream slice at tea time were no longer pleasures without Mary to share in them.
James spent that Christmas afternoon calculating how much beer he would need to consume to achieve his objective and when the local Co-Op opened for a few hours on Boxing Day he picked up the first two pints. As the New Year progressed and spring opened its doors to summer James’ purchases continued at an unfaltering pace.
The next Christmas was causing the bookie’s last minute concern due to an unaccustomed threat of significant snow. Dressed in a thick coat James opened his front door at half past ten on Christmas morning but quickly closed it again and went in search of another jumper. The terraced house had a small front garden with a low brick wall and throughout the summer James had been pruning and transplanting. Hence the trestle table, with which he returned, fitted perfectly and allowed him just the right amount of space to stand behind. The table top was marked out with rows of neatly drawn circles, each with a number and letter. He then brought out trays of bottles all labelled and filled with liquid to different levels. He placed them within the circles. At precisely eleven o’clock James lifted an old school bell and rang out the hour. In the cold crispness of the waiting morning the chimes reverberated in the air with a beautiful clarity. James then took two small beaters in his gloved hands and began to gently hit the bottles. The notes leapt from the glass and danced along the street, piquing and pirouetting in the stillness. By the time James reached the ninth bar of ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ people had gathered on the pavement. The little girl from the house opposite watched every motion of the beaters, her eyes full of wonderment. On the final bar the first snowflakes began to fall, elegantly skating down the necks of the bottles in a finale flourish.
That afternoon James joined the little girl and her family for tea, mince pies and the Queen’s speech although he didn’t hear much of it over the chatter. He was easily persuaded to promise to teach Jingle Bells to the little girl and her friend for next year’s performance! On Boxing Day James was invited to help Mrs Green and her visiting brother finish the turkey. Mrs Green told him she had a fondness for Whitstable Bay. It was where she and her late husband had honeymooned. James admitted he hadn’t been there for years but would very much like to see it again. ‘Why don’t we go together in the spring?’ asked Mrs Green and James agreed that was a lovely idea.