Saturday, December 26, 2009

"I'll Be Home For Christmas"

The yearning to spend the Christmas season with family and loved ones has been recorded in many songs and stories. Yet, sometimes it isn’t possible to “be home,” and especially when it happens for the first time, there is often a struggle to find the familiar in a strange setting.

In this excerpt from my novel, Heather is eighteen, a Canadian student attending university in England in 1957, and she has never before been away from home at Christmas. Her friend and travel companion, Shelley, has contacted a relative who invited both girls to spend Christmas at her home in the English countryside.

The train trip from London took less than an hour, and on the way they watched the landscape roll swiftly by. It was brownish green. Pleasant, but not white. Part of the adventure, Heather reminded herself. An elderly woman with iron grey hair waited on the station platform. As they stepped down from their compartment, each lugging a large suitcase, she approached without hesitation.

“You must be Shelley?” she asked, with a twinkle in her eye. “You look Canadian.”

“Aunt Margaret, this is my friend, Heather.”

“How do you do, Miss Williams.” Heather felt the grip of a strong, calloused hand.
“You may call me Aunt Margaret, too.”

She led the way to the lane at the side of the station. “I hope you don’t mind a short walk. I don’t have a motorcar, because I don’t go anywhere that I can’t get to on my bicycle. Of course, I don’t carry large suitcases with me. I could get my neighbour, Arthur, to come round with his dray to get them later.” She didn’t stop for an answer.

Shelley and Heather looked at each other, shrugged, shifted hands on their suitcase handles, and followed along. “How far is it?” Shelley asked.

“Just over this little hill. My cottage is on the main road.”

They arrived at Williams Cottage, breathing heavily after struggling to keep up with the seventy-year old legs of Aunt Margaret. The narrow lane that could be mistaken for a bike path was, in fact, the main road. They had seen one other person. An elderly man riding a bicycle had raised his hat, with a hearty “Good afternoon, Margaret. I see your company has arrived,” as he overtook the strange little cavalcade.

“My other neighbour, George.” Margaret said, holding the gate open.

“This cottage is picturesque!” Heather said. Margaret had showed them to their room, then left to put on the kettle for tea.

“It’s homey,” Shelley said, looking around the room. “I’m sure we’ll get all the rest we need for four days.” She ran her hand over the bed covering, a thick quilt with an embroidered top sheet over it.

“And I’m ready for it.” Heather dug in her suitcase for her slippers.

Their feeling of tranquility persisted as they visited with Shelley’s great-aunt, telling her about their travels, the university, and news of Shelley’s family in Canada. She served generous portions of buttered bread, cold meat, and fruit preserves, accompanied by strong, hot tea. Light was fading when they rose to wash up the dishes. Margaret lit a lamp with a large candle in it and placed it on the table.

“Oh, I do have electricity,” she said, when she saw their surprised expressions. “But I try to save wherever I can. And it is my Christmas tradition to use candlelight.”

As soon as the dishes were put away, Margaret said to her visitors. “I am an early riser, so I go to bed early. But you are welcome to sit up as late as you please. I sleep like a log, so I won’t hear you. Goodnight, dearies.”

Heather and Shelley decided to turn in early as well, not sure what there was to do in a room illuminated by a candle. They awoke early in the morning to the sound of pans banging in the pantry, and the clink of dishes being placed on the table.

“Welcome to the house of England’s earliest riser,” Shelley muttered from her side of the bed. She drew the quilt up over her head, but at that moment there was a tap at the door.

Aunt Margaret’s voice broke cheerily through the gloom, “I brought your tea. And some fresh scones. I’ll have breakfast ready in a jiffy.”

Heather chuckled. “What will your mother say when you tell her you were served tea in bed?”

“She’d probably say I deserve being wakened so early, after all the late nights and sleep-ins I’ve had in my life up to now. Good thing we went to bed when she did.”

“And I was out like a ... out like the light we didn’t have to turn out.”

After the tea and scones, they put housecoats over their pyjamas and ventured out to the warm kitchen for the rest of their full English breakfast. Heather and Shelley looked at each other in alarm when Margaret produced a list of chores that she said might give them something to do. Some items on the list seemed to have been left over from spring cleaning – all the furniture was to be moved out from the walls of the sitting room so she could mop behind, and then it all had to be put back in place. There was some Christmas baking on the list, and some decorations to put up in the sitting room as well. Since it was now only two days before Christmas, these were more appealing tasks. However, they cheerfully took on the whole list, and found themselves singing Christmas carols while they worked.

Later, while they sat together for their evening meal, it struck Heather that there were probably few variations in Margaret’s routine. It was what she had been born into and, since she had never married, had no reason to change.

“Aunt Margaret, will you be putting up a tree?” Shelley asked as they sipped their tea, and ate the bread that was slathered with butter and topped with cheese that had appeared for today’s version of the meal.

“I hadn’t planned ... that is, I don’t usually bother.” The expression on Margaret’s face was a mixture of defiance and forlorn regret. “I’m usually alone, you know.”

It had never occurred to either Shelley or Heather that they might have to celebrate Christmas, far from their families for the first time, without a Christmas tree to decorate and enjoy. Shelley seemed determined to address this as quickly as possible.

“Where would you get a tree around here? Does anybody sell them?”

“Oh, no. If you want a tree, you have to go to the village office for a permit, and then you can cut one down from William’s Forest, which is two miles over on the other side of the village. But you must get the permit two weeks before Christmas. The office isn’t even open now.” She furrowed her brow.

“Did you say William’s Forest? Does it, or did it, belong to your family?” Shelley sounded hopeful that she might have found a way around the rules.

“No, no. It was William Buckley who farmed the land, and so naturally it was known as William’s forest. He planted fir trees nearly a hundred years ago, and there are still young saplings taking root every year. They only allow a few to be cut. I’m sorry, dear, I don’t think there is any way we can get a tree. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it.” Margaret sounded dismayed.

“Heather, did you notice the trees along the road yesterday?” Shelley wasn’t letting this one go without a struggle. “Weren’t they fir trees?”

“I can’t remember exactly. I know there were some tall ones of some kind, but we only need a little tree. Is it allowed? To cut trees down along a public road?” She looked at Margaret.

“Oh, no. Of course not.” Margaret shook her head vigorously.

“What if no one saw us,” Shelley said.

That evening after it was completely dark, and Margaret had lit the candle in the lamp, Shelley came into the sitting room with their coats. “Heather, let’s go for a walk. It’s such a nice evening, it will be good for us. Aunt Margaret, would you have a hatchet that we could take along with us?”

“Shelley!” Heather couldn’t believe her ears.

“Yes, dear, I have a hatchet. And you’ll need a torch – to see where you’re going.”

Margaret emerged from the back entry, woollen cap on her head and warm jacket buttoned up. She carried a hatchet and an object that Heather recognised as a flashlight. She handed them to Shelley, then stooped by the front door to put on her outside shoes, then pulled on a pair of mittens. “Let’s go,” she said.

Stifling giggles, Heather and Shelley slipped out the door behind Margaret. They strolled along the road until they reached a spot where there were no houses nearby. There was nobody else about, but at that moment a vehicle flashed its headlamps some distance away. “Get down,” Shelley said. She turned off the light and crouched in the sloping ditch by the side of the road. Heather and Margaret followed suit. After the small automobile passed by, they stood up again.

“I think there is a small tree right here beside us,” Shelley announced.

They gathered around and felt the branches and in the uncertain torchlight tried to judge its height. “I think it would do. Stand back while I give it a whack.”

The first blow of the hatchet glanced off the slender trunk. Heather grabbed hold to steady the little tree. The next time Shelley’s swing met the mark perfectly. The tree was neatly severed, close to ground level. Shelley scuffed her shoes around the spot, attempting to hide the little stump that remained.

“Okay,” she said. “Now we just have to get back without being seen.”

No one else stirred in the darkness, window shades were drawn in the few houses they passed on the way back to the cottage, and no vehicles with headlamps 5travelled the road. They even entered by the back door to avoid the possibility that anyone wandering by might witness the unusual sight of three skulking figures, variously clutching instruments of criminal intent and the booty of the expedition, a small tree no taller than any of then, but not easy to hide just the same.

“Decorations!” Shelley said, breathless with excitement. The offending tree was leaning in the back entry, out of sight. “What can we use to decorate the tree?”

“Well, you won’t be surprised that I don’t have many,” Margaret said with a smile. “I do have a small box of ornaments that I was left when Mother passed on. We used to have a tree when I was a child. Lit with candles. But I don’t think we’ll do that,” she said hastily.

“We can make paper chains from coloured paper or newspaper,” Heather suggested. “And snowflakes, cut from white notepaper. It’ll be cool.”

So they gathered up odds and ends, and mixed up flour and water paste. Margaret found a piece of cardboard, and drew the shape of a star. Being the tallest, Shelley had the honour of attaching it to the top branch, its crowning glory.

Feeling quite exhilarated, they stood around their creation. Heather picked up a flat needle that had fallen off the tree, rubbed it between her fingers and sniffed. She examined the branches. “This doesn’t look like any fir tree I’ve ever seen. The needles are flat and the branches are droopy,” she said.

Margaret peered at the tree, indistinct in the dimly lit room. “It’s a yew tree” she said. “It is an evergreen, but you’re right. It’s not a fir.”

“Definitely not a spruce or pine,” Shelley said. “It’s not exactly what we went looking for, but it is a Christmas tree.”

The candle flickered, and suddenly the little tree seemed to glow. “It’s perfect,” Heather said. They sat in silence, watching light dance on the cardboard star and the paper chains that had transformed their Christmas.

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Janet said...

What a wonderful story, Helena. I love the fact Aunt Margaret was game for pinching a tree from the side of the road.

I remember my first Christmas away from home. Now there have been so many, but there's always a little piece of my heart that remembers fondly the traditions of my childhood.

Merry Christmas, Helena :)

Anne Germaine said...

Thanks for the Christmas story Helena! Merry Christmas!

Anita Mae Draper said...

I really liked your story, Helena. And I agree with Janet about including Aunt Margaret in the tree search. Nice touch. She might have put the girls to work but she really wanted them to have a good Christmas. Thank you for this story.

Karyn Good said...

Delightful story, Helena. I love how Aunt Margaret is having as much fun as the girls making an away from home Christmas very special.

Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing. Blessings.

Kammie said...

I can relate to this story. I have one of those little "Charlie Brown" trees with not many branches and it tilts a wee bit to the side, but I just love it. lol Thanks for posting. kammie2u at ameritech dot net

DebH said...

oh, i enjoyed this story!
I like how Aunt Margaret joined in on the less than legal aquisition of the tree.

i really got sucked into who the characters are and want to know more about them.

nm8r67 at hotmail dot com

Silver James said...

Helena, this was delightful! I love Aunt Margaret. What a wonderful character and I'm betting the girls had a terrific Christmas with her, not to mention her with them!

silverjames AT swbellDOTnet

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I'm just catching up with my Christmas reading and I absolutely love this story. Aunt Margaret is a delightful character and like some of the others have said, I love that she takes part in the "crime". If this is part of your story I can hardly wait to read the rest.