An Unmerry Christmas Book.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

Actually, for many, it absolutely ISN’T. I’m not a fan of Christmas; I don’t get starry-eyed and enthusiastic about getting the tree up. I get quite morose about it all. And if life is distinctly unwonderful anyway, the whole Christmas thing is often a way to just rub it in.

Anyway, if you feel anything like I do, you may need an antidote to the sugary, sentimental side to the festive season. I’ve dropped a quid off the price of my own favourite novel, The Bet. Here’s a nicely gloomy extract to whet your appetite.

“In the days after the funerals, Greville worried endlessly about his assistant. The Christmas season seemed indecent with its tinselly colour and insincerity, and the old man’s heart contracted with pity watching the boy decorating the foyer, and to see him arrive every morning on time and go through each day like a man sleepwalking. He watched him working with school children on educational visits, wanted to applaud him for sheer determination when he saw him speaking with a shadow of his old energy. He found him asleep in the midst of the basement chaos, or head pillowed on arms on his desk, or once, sitting on the stairs, resting his head on his knees. Greville touched his shoulder to wake him.

Sorry,” he said, scrambling to his feet. “I just sat down for a moment because I couldn’t remember what I was going downstairs for.” He stopped a few steps down. “I still can’t.”

Doesn’t matter, whatever it was. Go and make us some coffee, boy.”

Ashurst turned on the stairs and headed back up to the tiny kitchen, Greville following. He stood behind him while he filled the kettle, washed out the cafetière and mugs.

Not sleeping, eh?”

Not much, no. I usually get to sleep around three, if I’m lucky.” He didn’t sound as if he were complaining. “I’m sorry I’ve been dropping off here. I do try not to.”

Couldn’t sleep for weeks and weeks after my wife died,” Greville said awkwardly. “It does stop in the end, the insomnia.”

The boy didn’t say anything; he’d been very economical with his speech lately, none of the impertinence that Greville had been used to and had grown to enjoy. He made the coffee with almost exaggerated care; Greville had noticed his hands shaking any time he’d actually got him to talk, even a bit. He was stirring the coffee now, slowly, as if he were counting how many times the spoon went round.

I keep remembering,” he said softly.

That’s good. That’s important. We all need to remember,” Greville said, putting an awkward arm around him briefly.

You don’t know what I’m remembering,” Ashurst said, and walked out.

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Chloe’s Christmas Presents

Chloe’s Christmas Presents

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.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Fifteen

Day Fifteen

Evergreens

On a bright day in winter, a full grown holly tree can seem almost dazzling. Each shiny leaf reflects the light so that the entire tree seems to glitter. It’s no wonder that even without the symbolism, holly and ivy were brought inside during the Christmas festivities during the many centuries before tinsel took the place of more natural decorations. Holly and Ivy were seen as representatives of the two polarities one male, one female.

Mistletoe is a strange thing, a greenly growth amid the sleeping trees. Contrary to popular belief, it grows very rarely on the oak tree (and was therefore much prized by druids if it was found on an oak) but prefers apple trees. As a parasitic plant, it weakens the tree it uses as host, so introduce it to your orchard with caution. Linked to Norse myth, mistletoe was the instrument of death (in the form of a dart) for Baldur the Beautiful, but we associate it now (yawn) with the romantic practice of kissing under it. Traditionally you are meant to remove a single berry for each kiss, but no one ever seems to. The plant is being researched extensively for potential cancer-fighting properties; it has been used in herbal medicine for a long time, though it is actually quite toxic. Like yew (used in medicines for breast cancer) some of these mysterious evergreens contain more than just the symbolism of life and death; they may actually hold the key to them.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twelve

Day Twelve

Birds in the garden

As winter arrives a variety of migrant birds arrive in Britain; not just the overwintering geese for whom our climate is like a spa holiday compared to their usual honking grounds, but familiar birds like blackbirds, robins and starlings, come from continental Europe and beyond to take advantage of our milder weather and our love of feeding the wild birds. Blackbirds from the continent can be recognised by their brighter yellow beaks. Murmurations of starlings coming to roost make winter evenings spectaculr events. The robins’ song is a challenge to a death match, fighting over good territory.

But it’s a simple and beautiful thing to watch visiting birds feeding on a bird table; after pairing off for breeding, goldfinches and other small birds now group together in flocks. Many will huddle together in great roosts, hidden away in your shrubbery, sharing body heat like minute, temperate penguins.

The robin has featured on British Christmas cards for a long time, but despite folklore linking the robin to Christ on the cross, the reason for their link to Christmas is more prosaic and amusing. Originally the first postal delivery men in this country wore bright red coats, and became known as Robin Redbreasts, and since greetings cards for Christmas were delivered by Robins, it soon became a jokey theme to use the birds on the cards. As a child I remember a book called The Christmas Robin about a little bird who ended up in a house and perched on the top of the tree and sang on Christmas day; the connection has now become so strong that the robin is the quintessential Christmas bird.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Eleven

Day Eleven

Getting greetings from old friends

The traditional Christmas card is a strange thing. I send fewer than I did and often send e-greetings instead, but when ones from old friends pop through the letter box or into my in-box, it gladdens by heart. We made it through another year, more or less. It’s a tiny moment of recognition that our relationship still matters, even though life has been frantic, busy, overwhelming and exhausting.

I see the words on an envelope and my heart lifts when I think, “Oh that’s So-and-so’s handwriting!”. Sometimes there’s a letter, often the round-robin newsletter, but I read with interest. I resolve, next year we’ll try and stay in touch better, and sometimes I do.

Sometimes gifts arrive as well. Because of all sorts of regulations, ones from the USA cannot be fully gift wrapped (in case customs open the parcel) so I am aware of the contents. One much beloved friend has sent me some truly beautiful Christmas ornaments over the years; tree baubles shaped like hedgehogs for example. It brings out the child in me, to open parcels with glee and anticipation. I’ve learned to have a sneaky peek at ones from that friend, because they’re usually items that enhance the home specially at Christmas, so I open those and put them out once the decorations and the tree go up.

There is something magical to realise that someone, somewhere, often continents away, has thought of you, and thought kindly, at this time of year.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Two.

Day Two:

Being safe from the storms.

There’s rain lashing against the windows, pouring in torrents off the roof, and the wind is howling like a banshee, whistling through every crack and crevice. The house is cosy, warm and a haven from the storm. I have sufficient food to last days without needing to go out. I can wrap myself up in a soft blanket and doze quietly, or read, or listen to music or watch television. I am safe from the storms.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day One

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day One

As a form of gentle preparation for Christmas, I hope to post a short piece daily, either prose, poetry, a picture or possibly a story. They might be deep, they might be light, funny or even shallow (at first glance)

Day One:

Simple things:

Little oranges, easy-peelers, satsumas, clementines, mandarins.

I’ve never been able to peel oranges. Each time I try, it separates nail from nail bed and I end up with sore fingers. But the little citrus fruits that appear in the shops during late November and into December are a boon. Each perfect sphere is filled with zest and juice and I can actually get into them. The spurt of essential oils fills the room with bright, vibrant scent that up lifts and cheers; the taste, tangy and sharp but sweet and refreshing at the same time. Once so expensive they were the fruit only royalty could afford, I can buy them by the box load and eat five or six at a sitting. Once, when we had a wood-burning stove, I would dry the peel on the step of the stove and the fragrance of toasting orange peel filled the house. In a few days it was dry and brittle but still packed with volatile oils, it acted as a natural fire-lighter when I came to get the fire lit of a winter evening. We take them for granted now, but to find one at the end of a Christmas stocking was a joy to many in the past. There’s usually a huge bowl of them in my living room over the festive season, complete with their deep green leaves, the sheen disappearing as they dry out. An orange is used to symbolise the world in the lovely Christingle services: a red satin ribbon around the middle, a candle in the top and the fruit itself studded with small sweets, raisins and sometimes monkey nuts.