This is a short(ish) tale that I began to write a couple of weeks ago and then spent some of the intervening time tidying up and adding to. Whilst fictional, elements of it have been inspired by people, places and events, true to me. “Ingrebourne”, for example, was the telephone exchange area for my late grandparents and they always answered the ‘phone by saying that word followed by their own number. Regrettably, I cannot remember their actual number so, instead, I made one up.
I hope that you enjoy reading it. So, why not make yourself a cuppa and grab yourself a festive nibble, and settle down for the next ten minutes or so?
Oh, and Merry Christmas everyone.
A noise, ugly and harsh, woke him. The sound dragging him reluctantly back from his dream. Back from her. From the woman holding tight against him as, together, they whirled round and around and around.
In his sleep they were younger versions of themselves, different people from a different time. Maybe, even, from a different world; a place of laughter and of expectation. A time of promise and of promises, of those made and of ones solemnly kept. Of nights spent dancing, madly and deliriously, to the music of a myriad new and exciting bands. Hectic, energetic, carefree and careless days where anything, and everything, had seemed possible.
She had never looked more beautiful to him than on that night; the very first night they met.
The sound came again, more persistent this time and increasingly insistent. Even as he surfaced from the sanctuary of slumber, he cursed the intrusion into his dreams. How he hated having to waken and, by doing so, deserting her, leaving her alone and lost within the vague shadows, with only half-remembered truths for her companions. He longed to hold tightly to her once more, to clasp her securely in his arms and to pull her back with him as he himself awoke, unwillingly, into his empty world. Or, and he dreamt of this with increasing regularity and with a growing and pressing desire, of the woman pulling him into the world that she now inhabited, delivering him from his tired existence in his. But, as with the fading recollections from those precious dreams, his grasp proved too weak and, with every waking, the woman slipped further from him.
The old man looked around him. Everything was dark. All except for a small glow in the corner of the room. A little red light that never went out, an Olympian flame forever burning. He hadn’t yet decided if the dot of illumination was reassuring to him or Orwellian; whatever its purpose, it was proving to be tenacious, a beacon in the gloom. Outside the windows, the dreary porridge coloured day had sunk predictably into night. It had been light when he sat to read his book. How long had he slept? An hour? Two, maybe? It could never be long enough; for it was only in dreaming that he was with her again. When not sleeping, the old man yearned for the comfort he found in his dream and he craved to remain in sleep’s sweet caress, aching to be reunited with her once more.
The old man sat up from where he had slouched and felt his book slide from his chest and drop to the floor. Reaching out his trembling hand, his fingers fumbled for the table lamp, finding and flicking the switch. Light eeked into the room, throwing a challenging to the red dot.
Again, that noise, urgent and unrelenting. A telephone demanding, unwilling be ignored.
He picked up the receiver and spoke, his voice still threaded with sleep. “Ingrebourne four six three nine.”
“Dad. Thank God! I thought you’d never answer; I was starting to get worried.”
“Izzy? Hello sweetheart. You sound so very close.”
“It’s a ‘phone, Dad. Everyone sounds close, wherever they’re calling from. Besides, I’m outside.”
“Outside where?” The question fell from him, his thoughts slow to clear, still clouded from his slumber, still trying to hold on to the dancing girl.
“Yours, Dad! I’m stood at your front door. Hurry up and let me in, will you? It’s freezing and I’m desperate for the loo.”
The old man pulled open the door, holding it firm against the wind, and there she was. Light came from over his shoulder, highlighting the woman standing shivering on the step as snow whipped jubilantly around her.
Dark hair spilled from inside her hood, contrasting with the gold coloured fur edging that flicked and tickled at the wind and which captured errant flakes of snow that dared, foolishly, to blow too close. The woman’s pretty face shone out at him from the depths of the coat, a gift from them to her that previous winter. She was so much like the woman in the old man’s dreams that a cry escaped from his lips and was immediately swept heaven bound by the icy winds.
“Izzy, sweetheart. Come in quick, you look absolutely frozen.”
Izzy ducked under the old man’s outstretched arm and hurried into the warm embrace of the hall. “Can you get that suitcase, Dad?” She put two plastic carrier bags by the foot of the stairs and perched on the bottom step, her fingers, stiff with cold, struggling to untie the laces of her heavy winter boots. “Come on. Come on, you buggers. I’m busting.”
“Leave them on. It’s alright, the carpet’s almost as old as I am.”
“You sure, Dad? Mum didn’t like us wearing shoes inside the house.”
“No, she didn’t. That’s partly why they’ve kept so well. But…” He paused, his breath catching inside him. “But, she’s not here anymore. Besides, if you’re not quick, you’ll be the cause of more damage than a few mucky marks from those boots.”
Laughing, Izzy darted up the stairs, wet prints blooming where her booted feet had kissed the carpet.
The old man called after her. “Cuppa?”
“Ta, I’d love one.” He heard her voice, muffled, from behind the bathroom door.
He turned to shut the front door. Then, spying a small red suitcase being buried by the snow, he pulled it inside and set it carefully on the mat. Snow wept down the surface of the case, darkening the coir matting on the carpet. The old man went into the kitchen and returned moments later with a newspaper that he unfolded and placed under the wet luggage.
“Doesn’t do to court more mess than necessary.” He muttered to himself.
“They say it’s going to be a bad few days, Dad, so I brought you some goodies.” Izzy entered the kitchen carrying the two carrier bags. “Just a few basics. Milk, bread, a dozen eggs. A block of that Extra Mature you like so much. It was BOGOF. So at least make you can make yourself some cheese on toast.”
The old man chuckled. “I reckon I can manage to make a couple of slices. BOGOF?”
“Buy One Get One Free. I needed cheese anyway and it was silly not to get the two. I’ll not eat both and the girls aren’t keen on it.” She set the bags onto the worktop and began emptying them, depositing the provisions into the cupboards around the kitchen. Knowing exactly where each item belonged.
“Ta, sweetheart. I was getting low on milk.” The old man looked up from where he was preparing two steaming mugs of tea and gestured to the inch or so of milk that remained in a pint bottle on the surface.
“I got you some Guinness, too.” She repositioned the contents of the fridge and slid the four pack into the space she had created.
“And look, I got these too.” Izzy pulled one final item out of the last bag with a theatrical flourish. “Ta-da!”
“Tunnocks!” The old man cried, delight in his voice.
“Same to you, Dad. With bells on.” Izzy laughed at the old joke, a silliness that the three of them had enjoyed ever since Izzy had been a child in this very house.
“Jingle bells, eh, Dad. Why don’t we have one with our tea?”
The old man nodded at her, his weathered face beaming. “My, don’t you look grand, Izzy?”
Izzy twirled around. Her dress, dark blue and covered in glistening sequins, shimmered under the strip lights in the ceiling. “Thanks, Dad. It’s new. I got it special for tonight.”
“Well, it’s a bit too short if you ask me. It hardly covers your bum. You don’t want folk thinking…”
Anger flared inside her. “Thinking what, Dad? That I’m a slapper? Is that it? I’m only thirty-six. Christ, I’m divorced, I’m not dead.” She saw the hurt in his eyes as the words fell from her but she couldn’t stop. “Mum used to wear shorter than this. I’ve seen your photos from the Sixties. You didn’t think anything wrong with her wearing them, did you? Short skirts are simply that, short skirts. And no, for the record, I didn’t ask you.”
The old man turned from her and looked out of the kitchen window. He busied himself with stirring his pot of tea though the drink had long ceased to need it. Snow was still falling outside. It looked like Izzy was right, it was going to settle and settle hard. He studied the aged face reflected in the darkened window. The features shifted, merging with the flakes that swirled and danced on the night air, before reshaping themselves to leave a younger man’s face staring defiantly back at him.
He remembered his wife, recollecting their first meeting. It had snowed that night too. She had looked so beautiful. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her, no-one at the dancehall had. He smiled to himself at the picture in his head. She had been wearing brown leather boots to her knees and a dark green skirt; it was what had initially attracted him to her in the first place. And that skirt had been very short.
“Besides, Dad.” Izzy’s anger was extinguished as quickly as it had ignited. Their disagreement disappearing like the steam from the kettle, hot and frantic, bubbling wildy, then dissolving swiftly into nothing, leaving no trace it had ever been. “She’s got legs. She knows how to use them.” She sang the words merrily, dancing over to her dad. The old man turned to face her, puzzled. “It’s from a song, Dad. ZZ Top?”
“Oh, is it? Right.” He seemed to be none the wiser. “I am sorry, Izzy. Truly. Anyway, sweetheart, what’s tonight?”
“The office Christmas do. I told you weeks ago.”
“Oh. Did you? I forgot.”
“You have been taking your tablets, haven’t you, Dad?”
“I have, Izzy.” He saw her eyeing him with that expression which indicated she didn’t entirely believe him. The same look that her mother had used on him. “Scouts honour.” Izzy seemed equally unconvinced by his Boy Scout salute and his earnest expression.
“I have, sweetheart. I swear, on your mum’s…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. Tears pricked his eyes.
“It’s okay, Dad. I do believe you.” Izzy hugged him close, holding and comforting him, allowing the old man a few moments to compose himself. And, so that she wouldn’t see her dad’s tears. Seeing him cry broke her heart.
His tears averted, he pulled away from her, holding his daughter at arm’s length.
“You do look like her, Izzy. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”
She smiled at him and pressed her nose against his.
“Thanks, Dad. Don’t make me cry as well. You’ll ruin my makeup.”
“Mind you, Izzy.” The old man said, pointing to the floor. “I still think that dress is very short. And, besides, you don’t half look a bugger wearing such a pretty frock with those hulking great boots on your feet!”
They sat together on the sofa, the earlier confrontation between them consigned to the past; forgotten and meaningless, just an insignificant blip in their road. Mugs of tea rested on coasters in front of them on the table, a plate of Tunnocks Teacakes and biscuits within easy reach. Two silver and red wrappers already lay discarded among the waiting treats.
Izzy sipped at her tea. “Ugh, Dad. It’s Earl Grey!”
“Sorry. It’s habit. Earl Grey for your mum, builders for me. Here, have mine.”
“You sure, Dad? I can make another.”
“Don’t be daft. Take this one. Your mum used to forget and make me one of hers from time to time. The odd one now and then won’t kill me.”
“You should throw that old tin out. I know you don’t really like them. And those bags will be past their best by now.”
The old man quickly switched drinks with his daughter, dunking a Hobnob into her mug so she wouldn’t change them back.
“Gross, Dad. If Mum saw you doing that!”
He smiled a sad and tender smile. “You’re just like her in so many ways. New ways that I keep discovering every time I look at you.”
He saw Izzy’s face begin to crumple.
“What’s with the suitcase? Coming to stay, are you? I’d like that.” He swiftly changed the subject.
“No, Dad. Sorry. The party’s at that new hotel near here. You know, The Willows? I’m staying there tonight. Work have booked us all rooms.”
“The Willows? Where the old indoor market used to be years ago?”
“That’s the one. They’ve done it up lovely. I went along to check it out when we were looking for venues. It’s got a restaurant and a dance floor. It’s all very posh. It’s even got a pool and a spa, so I packed my swimsuit!”
The old man dipped another biscuit into his drink, watching the excitement grow on Izzy’s face as she spoke.
“It’s way too pricey for me normally but work has done us a special deal, so I’ve booked Saturday night as well. Thought I’d make use of the facilities. What with the girls being away at Ben’s this weekend. Have myself a little pre-Christmas treat.”
“Sounds like a good plan, sweetheart. Be sure to have yourself a good time.”
Izzy’s eyes glowed and she smiled. “Don’t worry, Dad. I intend too.”
The old man bent and leaned forward, reaching for a piece of paper he’d spotted on the floor. It was an old photograph that had slipped from his book as he awoke. A narrow border, once white but now yellowed by time, framed the image that peeked out from beneath the coffee table. His gnarled fingers stretched for it, their tips scissoring together as they secured the treasure by one fragile corner. He carefully pulled it toward himself, freeing it from the cushion of dust and biscuit crumbs that had gathered under the table since he’d last thought to give the ancient Axminster a thorough going over with the vac.
His eyes lingered over the faded six by four black and white – his bride on their wedding day – before replacing the treasure carefully between the pages of his book.
“You and your mum used to go to that indoor market. Do you remember? Every Saturday you’d go and you’d always bring back me one of these.” He motioned to the book in his hand. “Each week, without fail, you’d bring me a new Loius L’Amour.”
“You still reading those old things? Didn’t think you’d kept them.”
“Oh, I kept them, alright. I loved those old Westerns. I had that many though, that your mum made me put them up in the loft. I fancied reading them again, so I went up and got some.”
”I’d forgotten about that second-hand bookstall. What was it called? Read something?” Izzy asked.
“Red Books. R. E. D. The colour, mind. Not, R. E. A. D., like in reading.”
“I didn’t know that. Mind I was just a kid.” Izzy’s hand hovered indecisively over the plate of biscuits before deciding on a Chocolate Bourbon.
“Actually,” the old man continued, warming to the memory. “Its proper name was Rouge Books. But Charles, the owner, was a Frenchman and thought the English red would be easier for the folk around here to get to grips with.”
“Really.” An astonished Izzy replied. “Rouge isn’t exactly the most difficult of foreign words, is it?”
“Remember this was not long after the war. Different times, Izzy, and a different sort of people too. Charles was a nice chap. Part of the Free French army during the war, helped to liberate Paris. I believe that was where he lost his arm.”
“Careless bugger!” Izzy quipped, licking a spot of chocolate from her tooth.
“Now, Isabelle. He was a grand old chap was Charles. Didn’t let on much about the war mind. There was one heck of a turnout for the old boy’s funeral, I’ll tell you. Made the national papers and everything. The French embassy even sent someone to say a few words.”
“He must have been someone pretty special for them do that, Dad.”
“Turned out Charles was quite the hero, decorated by de Gaulle himself. He was really called Simeon Charles. But I suppose, like with red and Rouge, he thought Charles would be easier, so he went by his middle name.”
“He was always nice to me, Dad. Used to slip a lollipop into my pocket when I paid for my comic. I couldn’t afford both with my pocket money. Although thinking about it now, I wonder if Mum didn’t give him the money for the lolly when she paid for your cowboy books.” Izzy grinned at her dad. “I kept telling you I needed a raise!”
The old man laughed. “A raise, indeed! You didn’t do too bad, did you? You got a free lolly every week. Your Mum always offered to pay but Charles wouldn’t let her. You two were a right couple of charmers!”
They sat in silence, both recalling those earlier days. Days when there had been three of them. When life had seemed simpler and less fraught with worries. When neither had known the pain of loss.
“What’s in the box?” Izzy held her mug of tea in both hands and glanced over to a cardboard box sitting on the floor beside a 60” widescreen television. His old set had finally given up the ghost and Izzy had bought him the new one as a surprise. She knew he would enjoy watching that summer’s World Cup on it.
“That? Decorations and cards. I saw a report on the news a few days ago about the number of posting days left before Christmas and thought I’d best get to writing some cards. Brought it down from the loft with me while I was getting those books down.”
“Have you written any yet?” Izzy looked around the room, unsurprised at the absence of any envelopes, addressed, stamped and ready for posting. “You haven’t, have you? It’s only just over a week to go. Christmas Day is a week on Tuesday.”
“No, sweetheart. I couldn’t bring myself to in the end. It’s just not the same without your mum here.”
“Dad.” Izzy began.
“I know I should, I know. I wanted to but…” The words drifted away from him. “You know your mum did all that. I only ever wrote a few cards. The ones to my favourite customers, a few old pals from my army days. And one for your mum, of course.”
“Anyway.” The old man said, desperate to end the topic. “Where’s your car? I didn’t see it in the drive when I brought your case in.”
“I got an Uber here.”
“An Uber? That’s a taxi, isn’t it?”
Izzy nodded. “Are you getting an Uber to your party then? I can run you there if you’d like. It’d be no problem, it’s not that far, Izzy.”
“It’s okay, Dad. The snow’s really starting to settle on the roads. I don’t want you out driving in it. Besides, I’m getting picked up at eight.” Izzy glanced at a delicate watch that hung from her wrist. ”Heck, in fifteen minutes.”
“Who’s picking you up? Someone from work?”
“Yeah” Izzy’s eyes sparked again.
“A fella, is it? Someone special?” The old man hadn’t failed to see his daughter’s face light up.
“I’m not telling you.” Izzy attempted to glare at the old man, her look of admonishment failing to take as, instead, a smile spread across her face.
“Only asking.’ He held his hands up in mock surrender. “It’s what us concerned dads do.”
The old man paused. “Nice is he? This chap that’s picking you up?”
“Dad, stop prying!” Izzy waited for a few heartbeats. “You’d like him, though, Dad.”
“Would I? That’s what you said about Ben. Look how he turned out.”
“No. You really would like him.” Izzy stood and moved to stand in front of the mirror hanging over the fireplace. She fussed with her hair, straightening and coaxing a stray curl back into place.
Izzy watched her dad through the mirror. “I know you’ll like him, Dad. I like him.” She hesitated. “A lot. And Gabby and Faith like him too. He likes the girls, wants to be part of our lives.”
Izzy turned to face the old man.
“Oh, Dad, I think tonight’s going to be really special.“
“So, it’s that serious, is it? What’s he called, then?”
“You’ll laugh, think his name funny.’
“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Tell me anyway.”
“He’s called Noel. Today’s his birthday.”
The old man looked into his daughter’s eyes and saw in them a future of hope and promise. He also saw a shadow, of anxiety and concern, that threatened to overpower the joy and passion that this new, tentative relationship so obviously brought her. He hated himself for being the cause, or even a small part, of her worries.
“Noel, eh? That’s quite a seasonal name. Very festive indeed.”
Izzy waited for the old man to continue.
“Unusual name, Noel. Think I’ve only ever met one before. Bill and Irene from the club had a boy by that name, their youngest. He was a nice lad too, always polite. Used to deliver our papers on a Sunday. You remember him, don’t you, Izzy?”
“Yes, Dad. I do.”
“He was a few years younger than you, wasn’t he? Didn’t he join up, enlist in the army? I recall Bill telling me he was in my old regiment, the Royal Signals.” The old man chuckled. “Bill knew that would tickle me.”
Izzy went to her dad and placed her hands on his cheeks. Her skin was warm, the heat from the fire transferring from daughter to father. Her smile was warmer and wider than the old man could ever remember seeing it.
“Said you’d like him, didn’t I, Dad?”
After she’d gone, after they had both gone, he had watched the late news. When it was finished, he sighed at the chaos of the world and stabbed at the remote. The huge screen faded into an empty blacky grey canvas. On its casing, that irritating red light still winked steadily.
The old man looked around as the room darkened. He picked up his paperback and opened its yellowing, brittle pages. He removed the photograph of his wife, now dead for almost a year. She had been so radiant on the day they were married; he had known himself to be the luckiest man in the world as he stood at the altar with his beautiful bride by his side.
Now here he sat, alone in the home they had shared since their wedding day. He looked at his book. “The Lonely Men”, one of L’Amour’s earlier novels. Why had he chosen that particular title from the dozens that were packed into the boxes in the loft? Was that what he had become now? A lonely man?
No, he wouldn’t allow himself to be lonely anymore. He owed it to his wife, and to Izzy, to wallow in sadness no longer. He tenderly kissed his wife’s lips and slid her picture back between the pages.
The old man groaned as he knelt on the floor, his knees aching their discomfort. He lifted the lid from the cardboard box and set it to one side. He removed several strings of lights and lengths of colourful, mismatched tinsel, leaving them piled on the floor beside him. Then, feeling for the packs of unwritten cards that he knew his wife had placed inside, he pulled them free from the box and set them on the coffee table. He stood, his knees again crying their displeasure at him and went to the bureau for a pen and the book in which, written in his wife’s neat and meticulous hand, were the names and addresses of decades of family and friends.
He moved into the kitchen to make a brew, his final cup of the day. The kettle boiled to a stop, the face of the younger man he had once been materialising from the steam as it cooled on the window. He watched as the youthful face grew more defined before, as the steam died away, its features faded, melting and dripping down the glass. The old man stood for a while, looking out into the wintry night. He studied the aged face that, trapped in the glass and superimposed on the settling snow, stared hauntingly back at him.
He took a dented container from one of the shelves and held it in his tired hands. He stroked the tin’s colourful surface, absently opening it and dropping a single teabag into a clean mug. Then, placing his foot on the pedal bin, he snapped the lid open and emptied the tin’s contents into the rubbish. Teabags tumbled and fell like the snow outside, coating the kitchen waste in an Earl Grey scented veneer.
Izzy had been right, he thought, rinsing the now empty tin under the tap and setting it upside down on the drainer. He did like him; Noel had been just as polite tonight when he’d picked Izzy up as he had been all those years ago when he’d delivered the Sunday papers. The old man had known immediately, instinctively, that Noel would be good for his daughter and for her daughters. He knew that his girl was going to be treated right, just like she deserved to be. For the first time that year, the old man looked forward to the coming day and to the festivities ahead.
Well, love. He spoke out loud, dispelling the silence of the empty kitchen and to the ghosts of his past as they listened on. Looks like it’s going to be a whiteout, just like that it was that first time. First thing in the morning, I think I’ll put those trimmings up.
As the old man went to switch off the light, he glimpsed a shape looking into the kitchen window, its form light against the pale winter night. It approached the glass, one frozen hand pressing against the pane. The figure regarded the old man intently for a while. It may have been for merely a few seconds that it held the old man’s gaze but, to him, those few brief moments carried the history, and the memories, of a lifetime.
The snow came faster then, each flake falling heavy and thick until all outside was shrouded in a curtain of white. The figure turned from the old man, spinning and whirling, its green skirt dancing into the December night.
The old man smiled. He stood in the darkness, the scent of Earl Grey rising from his mug and enveloping him. He watched until she faded into the snow and was gone.
And, I’ll get those cards written too.