I thought I’d entertain you with an excerpt from Square Peg, from the Christmas period.
On New Year’s Day, Cathy’s van pulled up outside their house, and by the time Chloe had got to the door, Cathy was on the doorstep. She looked pinched and blue with cold, her layers of brightly coloured clothes apparently inadequate. She ate a huge bowl of pasta, drank a pint of orange juice, spent an hour and a half in the bath and then went and slept for eighteen hours without stirring once. Chloe was starting to worry that she’d died in there when she finally emerged the following afternoon looking much better but still grey with tiredness.
“I don’t think you’re terribly well,” Chloe said, when her sister’s coughing fit came to an end.
“No, I’m not brilliant. Too much sea air,” Cathy said. “And before you ask, I don’t really smoke. Too expensive. I just have the occasional cig when I can. It’s just been so cold; I haven’t managed to shake this last cold off yet.”
“I got you a Christmas present,” Chloe said.
“Christ, I got you guys presents too,” Cathy said. “I totally forgot yesterday. They’re in the van. I’ll go and get them.”
Cathy was coughing again when she came in again.
“I don’t believe in wrapping paper,” she said, and handed them each a small parcel wrapped in brown paper.
Clifford opened his cautiously; the parcel smelled strongly of seaweed. It was a wooden cross, carved out of driftwood. There was no figure on the cross but there was a beautifully carved crown of thorns where the head of Christ would have been.
“This is beautiful,” he said. “Where on earth did you get it?”
Cathy grinned at him.
“The beach,” she said, and it dawned on him that she had created this cross herself.
“It’s fantastic,” he said.
“Not bad for a few evenings with a pocket knife,” Cathy grudgingly admitted. “Go on Chloe, open yours.”
Chloe unwrapped the paper. Inside was a piece of crystal wound around with silver wire so it could be worn as a pendant. At first she thought the crystal was clear quartz, then she saw that there seemed to be another quartz point inside it. She looked at her sister.
“It’s lovely,” she said. “What is it inside it?”
“Itself,” Cathy said. “It’s what they call phantom quartz. The crystal grows; sometimes it stops growing for thousands of years and then starts again. When it starts again, the original point still shows inside the new point. I think tiny specks of dust show where the first point was. I found it in a gift shop; you know, they often have displays of crystals, lots of them in boxes. If you’re patient enough to go through them all, you can sometimes find unusual ones. I was lucky that time. So then I did the wire myself, so you can wear it as a necklace.”
“It’s fantastic,” Chloe said. “Wait a minute while I get a chain and then I can put it on.”
She ran upstairs to their room and brought down a silver chain and threaded the stone onto that, and fastened the necklace round her throat.
“This is for you,” she said, bringing out a big parcel from behind their rather forlorn Christmas tree.
Cathy undid the paper, smoothing it out as she did so. Chloe had gone to the camping supplies shop and bought the best sleeping bag they had, guaranteed to some unimaginably arctic temperature, and a fleece liner that was easy to wash and quick to dry.
“Cor,” breathed Cathy. “I could go to the Antarctic with this. Ta ever so. You’ve no idea how cold I’ve been lately.”
But Chloe had some idea when she saw Cathy’s existing sleeping bag, the following day when Cathy brought it in to put in the washing machine. It had been an excellent bag once, but that was years ago, and it was probably only any use now as a summer bag. She’d been intrigued by Cathy’s van, when Cathy agreed to show her it. It was very neat and clean, but very sparse. Cathy kept her belongings in a series of boxes that she admitted were actually old army ammunition boxes, which she could stack and fasten down in the back with a network of bungees. Her bed was a rolled up length of foam rubber, tied up during the day with another bungee. There were a number of old army blankets too, folded up and stored in one of the ammo boxes; that was obviously how Cathy hadn’t turned into a human ice lolly one of those freezing nights.
“Brilliant present,” Cathy said, stowing it away. “I get scared during the winter, you know, that one morning I won’t wake up.”
That shook Chloe; she hadn’t thought of such things before.
“I’m better off than many,” Cathy said, seeing Chloe’s look of horror. “I’ve got the van for starters. I’ve slept in the odd doorway in the past, but only once at the dead of winter and I was younger then and not on my own. Being homeless stinks in the winter.”
“You don’t have to be homeless,” Chloe said.
“I’m not. The van is my home,” Cathy said. “And I took you at your word about coming here when I needed to. And you’d even got me the best Christmas present I think I’ve had for more years than I can remember, so I know you did really mean it. But you must know I don’t want to settle down, not when there’s so much I can do. This will make life more comfortable,” and she patted the box with the sleeping bag and liner in it. “And I do appreciate your offer, believe me I do. I thought about you two quite a lot recently. That’s why I made the presents.”
“They’re marvellous,” Chloe said, touching the crystal at her throat. “That cross you did for Clifford, you know you’re really talented. Was it you who painted the van?”
Cathy nodded, and then shut the van door on her tiny home.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“It’s amazing,” Chloe said. “I think it’s lovely. You really are good at art, you know.”
Cathy flushed with pleasure, and then shook her head.
“It’s something I enjoy doing, that’s all,” she said.
“I think you’re brilliant at it,” Chloe said.
There was a brief moment of discomfort between them, until Cathy patted the side of the van, fondly.
“Yeah,” she said. “With this thing, I can never forget where I’ve parked.”
“It’s the first time I’ve ever considered a Transit van as art,” Chloe said. “When we were in Wales in the summer, there was a family turned up at the campsite we were at in two white Transit vans. We called them the White Van Clan, but not where they could hear us. Imagine White Van Man with a family; that was proof positive that the gene pool has a shallow end.”
from Square Peg available in all Amazon stores.