Angel Lights ~ a story for Christmas
“To have lived a hundred years is a remarkable thing,” Elspeth remarked to the girl who held her arm. “But it is a lonely thing, too. There is no one left who remembers me when I was young.”
The care assistant gave her arm a gentle squeeze for Elspeth was well-liked and as the oldest inhabitant in the home was cherished as much for her wisdom as for her venerable age.
“Is there no one coming to see you this Christmas?” the girl asked and Elspeth shook her head, though she smiled as she did so.
“No, they are all obeying my orders for once,” she said. “I said I did not wish them to disturb their day this time. So I have only myself to blame should I feel lonely today.”
The dining room had been decorated with so much tinsel and bright ornaments that Elspeth felt quite overwhelmed with the shining light that glimmered off every surface. The other residents were all seated, waiting for her as if she were the queen, and she was shown to her place and Christmas lunch began.
The merry atmosphere was added to by the playing of Christmas carols on the radio, and as she ate, slowly and carefully, she cast her mind back over her many Christmases. There was little to regret in a life as long as hers had been, but there were times, like today, when those who were gone, seemed to wave to her from her memories. She had outlived all but one of her own children, all her sisters, a beloved husband, dozens of dear friends and one grandchild. The friends she had today had never known her as a young woman, and there were times when that tugged at her heart. To be a hundred years old, and still mostly in possession of her wits and health was a gift she had never expected.
When lunch was done, she walked carefully back to her own room rather than go to the community room to watch television with the other residents. Inside, she could walk without the aid of a frame, using only a stick to steady her steps. Her room was a little oasis of treasures, the belongings she had chosen to accompany her to this home, and each held great meaning for her, for there was not a lot of room and they had been chosen with immense thought. There was a little fir tree in a decorated pot that her son (her youngest, and only surviving child) had brought for her, and around it were some packages in brilliant paper, decked with ribbons. The family brought small gifts in the week before Christmas, though the joke was often what do you buy for a woman who has seen as many Christmases as she had. She opened them carefully, gratefully, enjoying them. They were predicable, but well chosen: a lovely new nightdress, slippers, some books, some of her favourite soap. She smiled as she opened each, thinking of the donor.
One parcel had arrived on Christmas eve, hastily wrapped in stained brown paper and with an indecipherable post mark and a stamp that looked Arabic. She recognised the handwriting: her great granddaughter, not quite the black sheep but certainly the wandering one. Inside the parcel was a letter and two more roughly wrapped packages.
“Grand-mère,” she read. “I had hoped to be home to see you but I think my parcel will be there before I am. I saw them both in one of the bazaars and thought of you. I hope to be in Jerusalem for Christmas so I will light a candle there for you and I will visit as soon as I get back.”
The first of the packages was tiny, and proved to be a vial of dark, viscous liquid that proved to be perfume, woody and musky and exotic and entirely unlike anything you would expect a lady of Elspeth’s age to wear. She dabbed a few drops on wrist and neck and sighed with delight. The second parcel contained a heavy length of raw woven silk in a celestial blue shot through with dawn pink and threaded with fine gold wire. It smelled of incense and mystery, and she wrapped it round her whole body. It felt as if her great granddaughter had somehow caught a whiff of her young self and Elspeth felt her heart race with delight.
The daylight was fading fast, and she had one more Christmas ritual to perform. From the top drawer of her bureau she brought out a little cardboard box, and painstakingly she assembled the device inside. Made from silver-coloured metal, the angel light held a carousel of dancing angels that were suspended from a canopy of slats. The heat from a candle below would rise and set the angels spinning, and their shadows and the glancing lights would pattern the walls and ceiling with their dance.
But naked flames were banned here and though she brought it out every year, it had been many years since the angels had turned. She set it on the window ledge, where she spent many hours sitting at the table, reading or thinking. Every Christmas Day since she had come here, she had brought this little toy out and wished that she might light a single candle and see the light and the shadow angels spin and flicker.
Rule were rules, and given the age and sometimes infirmity of most of the residents this was a sensible rule, that kept them all safe from fire. But this one day, she always wished to break the rule and give the angels their annual dance.
She turned on some music and settled to read one of the new books, wrapped tightly in the beautiful shawl, feeling the balance between contentment and wistful longing see-sawing this way and that. Her mind wandered from her book, and she wondered if her great granddaughter had indeed made it to Jerusalem for Christmas. It had always been her habit to light candles, since she knew that it was not allowed to her great grandmother any more. One day, the angel lights would go to her, perhaps.
The sky beyond her window had darkened to indigo, and she could see that a single star shone high above. On impulse she turned out her reading lamp and gazed out. As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she saw more stars slowly appear. A golden glow was reflected off the window glass and she looked down to see that where a candle would fit in the angel light, there was a flickering globe of light, so unlike a candle, that brightened and grew. The tiny metal angels quivered and began to shift, slowly turning as the carousel they hung from rotated smoothly.
The shadows on the ceiling spun too, amid the flashing, glimmering of the magical light and as she watched, her mouth dropping open in wonder, the room filled with the scent of lilies and she felt the brush of soft feathers against her face. She closed her eyes, but the glory of light still filled her eyes, and she knew she was not alone.
When her care assistant came an hour later, she could see from Elspeth’s face that she was happy and not lonely at all as she had feared she might be.
“Is that one of your presents?” she asked, touching the shawl with tender fingers. “How lovely!”
“From Istanbul,” Elspeth said. “My great-granddaughter was on her way to Jerusalem and stopped there for a short while.”
“And some scent too,” said the girl, and picked up the bottle. She took a sniff of the contents and grimced. “Funny. This isn’t what I can smell. I’m sure I can smell flowers; this is musk and sandalwood, surely.”
Elspeth smiled at the girl.
“Heavenly, isn’t it?” she said.