The Christmas Box
Soft flakes of white snow were beginning to float glistening and glinting past the window pane as Kate looked out from her hot steamy kitchen into the garden. The bird table was dusted with a fine white frosting and as she opened the window to let out some of the steam escaping from the fruity pudding on the stove she could sense the other worldliness that is evoked by falling snow. She liked the way a snowy scape seems to change the parameters of sound; a bit like being under water in a swimming pool and just catching the muffled voices above. Kate was reminded of a fragment from a Christmas poem that she had learnt when she was a child:
The sunset sky like a rose aglow
The earth a vision of stainless snow
Three little angels hand in hand
Wandering over the silent land
* * *
It was the week before Christmas and Kate was preparing for the imminence of her families arrival on Christmas Eve. Somehow they always came to her and Phil’s. This was fine as Phil enjoyed the entertaining bit and of course she loved to cook and to look after everyone even if Auntie May could be a bit abrasive at times. Perhaps this year Christmas would be different.
Not intrinsically different she hoped, as what with the usually drunken but fortunately hilarious antics of her sister Ruby and her husband Tom and Aunt May’s increasingly bizarre yet endearing observations and running critique of proceedings, they did have fun.
Then there was the music with Phil getting out his guitar and accompanying everyone
Christmas Time, Mistletoe and Wine…
* * *
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose…
Well definitely this year the latter might well be true and the bets were on for a white Christmas in the south-east of England.. Then there was the dancing and the little shows that the children put on for them; especially young Zelda who at 9 hoped one day to go on the X Factor. The Board games and the charades, not to mention the Christmas telly…all had their part to play in the panorama that was the family Christmas.
It was as a rule all quite convivial starting with a fish supper on Christmas eve followed by a little bit of television then off to the church for the thankfully short sermon and Christmas message given by the Reverend Dodd along with Christmas Carols galore.
“Well we might as well take the kids as they are not going to sleep much anyway”.
Then after a fitful night and a speedy breakfast, it was the grand ritual of the opening of the presents first thing on Christmas morning over a glass of bucks fizz for the adults and sodas for the children.
Hadn’t she given that to Ruby two Christmases before, Kate had thought last year as she clutched the diamanté embossed compact; Estée Lauder if you please. It had been a ‘Midnight in Paris’ moment all over again, with the bottle of perfume that never went away and the parade of eternal gifts that seemed to do the rounds over the years to be wrapped, presented, re-wrapped and re-presented. A family tradition in itself. Perhaps a lot of families did that. The present that keeps on giving… Certainly Auntie May had a present cupboard in her bathroom full of gifts that over the years she had received from various friends and members of the family. Kate had opened it a couple of times and was actually quite shocked at the extent of the presents that she recognised.
Following the pre-Christmas lunch walk with the dogs and a dive into the Blue Bell Inn – not that she ever went with them – she was far too busy making sure that all was ready for a 2 O’ clock Christmas spread..they all trooped back in. One year – and not to be repeated – she had gone on the walk to the pub and my goodness the lateness of sitting down to the Christmas lunch knew no bounds which included a tray of rather over done roasted veggies and people pretending how delicious it all was.
She usually found that for her it was quite difficult to eat much as she had put her heart and soul into the preparations of everything and consequently she seemed by the time Christmas Day arrived to have hardly any appetite at all. She had after all been dreaming of creating the perfect roast potatoes, chestnut stuffing, Christmas puddings, tarts and cakes for months. She still had not bought the Christmas Crackers or decided on the cheese board though she had ordered a Stilton cheese from Devonshire’s.
Just one year though she reflected as she rubbed the butter into the flour and ground almonds, it might be nice to do something different. Such as go and stay in an ice palace in Iceland she thought as she wiped the trickle of sweat from her brow. Boy it was hot in that kitchen, she had better turn down the heating.
A sudden “rat a tat tat” sharp knock and “ring, ring, ring” of the door bell made her start and led Kate to remove her hands quickly from the cinnamon dough that was destined to form the mince pies. A rinse under the hot tap, removing as much of the sticky gloop as she could, followed by a quick wipe on the chequered cloth and she ran to the front door where upon opening she found herself staring up into a pair of the brightest of blue eyes belonging to a rather on the stubbly “I could do with a shave” kind of face.. Well at least in her opinion he needed one. Perhaps he was an inspirational hipster…His auburn hair tied back in a ponytail suggested that he might be
He did look familiar to her, though she was not sure why and could not place him. He was probably local and she had seen him in the Blue Bell on a Friday night, or passed him in the village high street…
He was rather nice looking though..If she were only ten years younger she mused, or more like 20 years younger she corrected herself. Not that she had ever been a flirt or subject to picking up strangers in bars let alone on her own doorstep, but he did look rather as if he knew how to enjoy life and give a girl a good time even if he were unshaven and standing in her doorway looking pensive and kind of professional in his dark blue suit the shoulders of which wore a dusting of snow. Not your average looking courier she surmised.
“Special Christmas delivery Madame; Could you sign here please.”
Rather odd she thought to be presented with a red, leather bound ledger, but she could see clearly listed other names. Some of the signatures seemed familiar.
In addition the flourish of an identity card indicated to her that this was a legitimate company called “Sapphire Deliveries, Great Britain, Europe and the World”. It all sounded plausible even if it were not a firm that was known to her and so she signed with the proffered pen.
“I thought you guys were all electronic these days” she suggested.
“We like a more traditional approach”, he informed her as he passed over what was actually a very large parcel.
That told her.
Quite unpredictably she asked him “Would you like..”; somehow she could not stop her lips from moving and expressing the thought:
“to come in for a sherry?”
She remembered how years ago; a life time really, how her Mother used to invite tradesmen in – and back in the 1960s/70s they would have been just that – tradesmen, for the odd Christmas bevy by way of a thank you for all their hard work and dedication throughout the past year. Each year Jack the milkman, was not only offered a glass of sherry, but also got a Christmas card with a fiver in it.
Even the local Bobby PC Bull was not immune from her Mother’s generosity. Trooping up the garden path on Christmas Eve and enjoying a small toddy over the hatched-back door..he never actually came in. How things had changed, she thought….You were lucky these days if you had a milk delivery service and she did not even know who her local ‘bobby’ as such was. The idea of a local policeman or woman standing outside the old post office for most of the day hadn’t happened for many years. Mind you with the post office not even being there any more he or she would be hard pressed to do so. PC Bull and his family had even had a Police owned house in the village with its own little police station and cell. Not that she had experienced the latter, but rumour had it…..
Snapped back to the present she heard the young courier announce:
“Love to really, I would…it smells like Christmas here… Better not though as there are lots more parcels to deliver, and the governor might not be best pleased with me if I dilly dally”
and with that he wished her a very merry Christmas but not before he had planted a big and not entirely innocent kiss on her floury cheek. She flushed and blushed something chronic, but before she could remonstrate or even reciprocate (however unlikely on her part that was) he had disappeared down the path in a flurry of snowflakes.
Joni Mitchell’s It’s coming on Christmas was playing on the radio as she stepped back into the kitchen with the parcel.
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
……A river to skate away on thought Kate anticipating the next line as she placed the parcel on the only part of the kitchen table that was not covered in flour. She used to love that song.
I really must stop feeling so maudlin, she reminded herself, harking after the past. Somehow Christmas made her feel a bit like that. She part loved it, but partly it reminded her of how her life seemed to be escaping her… as if suddenly everything was on fast forward. This time feeling this way was probably because this was a song from Blue an album that she had loved so much in her late teens and one that she had shared with Patrick oh so many years ago…
Hang on a minute, maybe it was Hejira with Patrick that she had enjoyed so much and Blue with Phil all round the wrong way time wise, but Phil had liked a lot of Mitchell’s older stuff. Poor Joni Mitchell, she recalled now had Alzheimer’s. Life could be very cruel, Kate reflected. and what was kind of frightening was that suddenly she could not remember which album which of her loves had liked, Patrick or Phil? Blue or Hejira maybe both….Phil was overall more of a rock and roll man; a one band in himself she liked that about him .
But Patrick, my goodness whatever happened to Patrick? She had met him at a party; at Christmas time in fact and discovered that they were at college on the same campus. She at the College of Technology and he was at the Art College. She had wished that she had studied art, but her parents had persuaded her to pursue “a more practical, business oriented course” so she had taken the pre-professional course which also included learning to type…no bad thing for the future as it happened. She had gone on to have a very successful career as a lecturer in business studies at the University of Kent.
She had hit it off with Patrick immediately and they quickly discovered that they liked a lot of the same things……books, visiting galleries, going to concerts; rock and classical. Lots of famous bands and musicians played at the art college in those days from Rory Gallagher to Fairport Convention to Barclay James Harvest…Mocking Bird, she wondered who today would remember that haunting melody?
One of the first things he told her was that she had a Pre-Raphaelite neck….Laughing she had rolled her eyes and had wondered if that were a compliment or not. He liked to recite from Keats “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. As she thought of it now it all seemed a bit pretentious but they had been young and it was the 1970s. Patrick wore cravats for goodness sake!
She had not thought of him for a very long time…something about the playing of that song on the radio and the young delivery man had brought him to mind. Perhaps it was the auburn hair. She was reminded of the ghosts of Christmas past.
Kate recalled the day that she and Patrick had made love in the cornfield at the end of her parent’s garden. It was edged with cornflowers. He had called her his Cornflower Girl and yet the relationship had not ended well.
After the break up she had for a while retreated into herself and become more introverted. Then she had met Philip at work and he seemed much more grounded. He liked the Rolling Stones and Hawkwind. She did too, but it was different after Patrick and in a way softer as Patrick was so very intense it had made her feel as if she had been like an elastic band wound round a catapult waiting to be shot. Phil was exactly what she had needed. He had become her rock. He had anchored her…Not that she was not capable of holding her own, it was just that she needed someone who was a bit more rooted in reality with a sense of loyalty and not nearly so dramatic.
If truth be told Phil still was her rock..even if he did have somewhat of a bizarre sense of humour. Patrick although adorable in so many ways had not been loyal and never could be; at least to her. It had unbalanced her. Perhaps only for a while, but it had led to her feeling an element of distrust about relationships and the capacity for them to be just when you thought that things were going swimmingly you discovered a betrayal of trust. What was that music Aunt May liked? Gershwin and Girl Crazy…well that was definitely him though she had not realised it when they got together. She had heard afterwards through a mutual friend that he regretted the break up, but she had believed in commitment and he at least at that time had not. She really had not thought of him for years.
Play something a bit more raucous please she shouted at the impervious DJ on the Radio. She got her wish as Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone hit the air.
Kate looked at the package again; it was addressed to her and covered in brown paper with golden stars stamped all around its circumference. There was no address for the sender which seemed a bit odd. Still a parcel at Christmas time was always welcome and one addressed exclusively to her was rare. It wasn’t an especially heavy parcel and when she shook it she could hear the sounds of what she thought were individual packages within. There was a faint tinkling sound of bells as she rattled it….Perhaps an ornament of some kind or a piece of ethnic jewellery?
There was also a strange lingering scent about the package; a musky fragrance laced with a fruity smell…Perhaps it was her hands from the spiced pastry mix though the scent was more like Patchouli oil then cinnamon or maybe it was the rum infused mince meat that she had made earlier permeating the hot air of the kitchen….
Paranoia began to get the better of her and abruptly putting the package down she asked herself:
“What if it is is full of Anthrax?
You do hear of such things”
Not recently though she had to admit feeling rather silly even if she was alone and with this realisation and telling herself to get a grip.
Kate anyway began carefully to tear off the paper whereupon she found within a somewhat antiquated looking box, subtly embossed at the edges with tiny roses with a center that was engraved with the words:
The love that is rooted in Memories
Good Lord what on earth is this about? Is this some practical joke? She wondered if this was Phil up to his old tricks again. April 1st was a particular nightmare with Kate never knowing what was going to happen next..one of the dining room chairs with a loose bottom? Something to collect from the paper shop except there wasn’t. When she got back home the sitting room was full of what seemed to her like hundreds of daffodils in vases with Happy April Fool emblazoned across the back wall. She could hardly be cross.
She looked closely at the box which was painted gold with three little faded angels painted on the top. In fact it was a very beautiful object in its own right and would be lovely to keep as a jewellery box. Making the overall decision that there was nothing sinister looking about the box and demonstrating to herself some restraint she decided not to open the lid. Instead she re-wrapped it and placed the package under the Christmas tree in the corner of the dining room. It would be something to look forward to opening on Christmas morning. There were quite a few presents already under the tree as she had made sure with her check list that all the presents were bought and wrapped and placed under the tree well in advance.
The latter was so that she did not have to worry that someone had been forgotten. She remembered the year that she had actually forgotten to get something for young Flynn…..True he was only a baby at the time and she and Phil had gone mad on his present for his Blessing which had only been a couple of weeks before. Still she did not wish to encounter the undercurrent of pure wrath that was her sister Ruby’s who despite protestations of “Oh it doesn’t matter” and irrespective of Kate announcing that she was planning to get something in the sales for the little one, was in a bad mood for most of that Christmas.
Phil usually bought her something that at best was a kitchen utensil and at worst some flimsy excuse for a piece of underwear which was almost invariably returned to from whence it came; or if not too risqué was re-wrapped and given to another family member sometime down the line of Christmases to come…Of course she was lucky to get anything, but for once it would be nice to be really excited about the possibility of what might be in her Christmas Box. She placed the package behind the tree and tried not to think about as the lead up to Christmas unfolded. She would open it late Christmas Eve.
Mulled wine on the stove at the ready; hot chocolates for the children, everyone had arrived on Christmas Eve in high spirits ready for a modest fish supper and an ice cream dessert. Leaving for the Christmas Service replete, suited and booted they delighted in the silent world of snow outside…There was something about the crunch underfoot of boots on snow that was very satisfying as they followed the huge illuminated star on the church steeple.
Then Flynn landed a huge snowball rather more strategically then his sister Zelda would have liked and she collapsed in a heap on a mound of snow refusing to get up until a threat of Father Christmas not being very impressed by such behaviour led Flynn to help his sister up and for the group to proceed further. Arriving at church to the accompaniment of Hark the Herald Angels Sing – they were a bit late and very cold but soon warmed up through the energy of singing lots of rousing carols and with the heat of the congregation.
With everyone fast asleep or so it appeared…..Kate never could sleep as a child and rather suspected that her own niece and nephew found it as difficult at such exciting times as she had. She and Phil had never had children…somehow it never happened and they were both so caught up with their careers – Phil was a music teacher. Hearing enough faint snores to confirm that she alone was awake, she wandered downstairs to find her package from if not Patrick then someone related to him. Feeling a mounting level of excitement she fumbled around the tree only to discover that it was in actual fact not there…….it had simply vanished….”Oh my god…..”, she whispered, “where is it?”.
Her eyes welling up with tears, she took every blasted package from around the tree and found that yes it was true it was simply not there! Short of stomping upstairs and accusing anyone and everyone of stealing it she had by now convinced herself that she had dreamt the whole episode of the enigmatic courier and of Sapphire Services full stop. Of late she had found it difficult to differentiate certain dreams from reality. She crawled back into bed and allowed the comforting warmth of Phil next to her and her own extreme tiredness to envelope her into a dreamless sleep.
Next thing Kate knew the children were racing about and squealing like maniacs; trying to pull them all out of their beds!
“Breakfast first you Scallywags”
she said as she got them to whip up the scrambled eggs and for her to make the toast. Phil made a huge jug of hot chocolate and Ruby and Tom having taken the dogs out across the fields were back in no time.
Later with the sitting room floor like some bizarre paper installation, Kate passed round more fizz and home made chocolate fudge. Not too much or there would not be enough room for Christmas lunch.
As she cleared up the paper deluge she felt suddenly alone….the others had gone off to watch television with the children. A nice Christmassy film..not White Christmas again…she hardly felt like watching it again so she stayed staring at the tree….She had had some nice presents this year really she had, what with the ‘smellies’ and the sparkly tops. Nothing from Phil though which seemed a bit odd even if his gifts were of the predictable variety she usually had from him at least one.
She had given him a divers watch as he wanted in the new year to learn to sea dive. She had also booked him some lessons at the local diving aquarium in readiness for the sea adventures that he had informed her that they must, as they approached their third age, have. If it meant traveling to some exotic location she was up for that! No present but Phil had given her a huge wink and a kiss and a hug as he left the room.
Suddenly he was back round the tree again whereupon he placed a large brown paper package with golden stars round its circumference.
“Happy Christmas my Darling”
“You..? It was from you? I had wondered but I wasn’t sure….”.
“Yes of course” he replied “Who else did you think it was from? I thought that you deserved a more imaginative approach this year”, he winked.
All the things that she thought might be in the package in fact were…..all wrapped in the beautiful soft tissue paper, all sapphire blue in colour; the earrings, the necklace, the ornate silver filigree blue glass bottle filled with a Patchouli based fragrance and there at the very bottom of the box a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, all as it happened from her Rock.
* * *
Happy Christmas Everyone!