You think Christmas is only for children That's what old Jim Hadfield thought too and as he was to discover, it is simply a matter of never losing sight of what Christmas intrinsically means and what magic exists still, in those remote places holed-up between fantasy and reality, hope and disillusionment.
* * * * * * *
Jim dreamed - just like everyone else. He dreamed of bygone days when he would leap from his bed Christmas mornings, a flushed and excited eight-year old, taking the stairs two at a time on his descent to the lounge-room. Pushing wide the door respectfully, a trait often exhibited by only-children, you could have lit-up a thousand cities from the glow on the youngster's face as he gazed in awe at the presents piled up around the tree.
Jim's parents had never been what you might call well-heeled, yet they had ensured that at whatever cost, their little boy would remember the happiest of childhoods, most especially during the Yuletide season. Their efforts had paid-off handsomely.
Marrying in his mid-twenties "for better or for worse," it had proven most definitely the less desirable of those two options. Cathy, fundamentally was a bitch. He remembered back, not long before his mother's death in fact and how she had more or less laid that particular fact out for him. His father had died years earlier and had been spared the worry of his son's great unhappiness. All Jim had ever done was to love his wife unconditionally and in doing so, managing somehow to overlook her complete selfishness, emotional detachment and cruel insensitivity. For thirty-four years Cathy drove, while he sat out life in the back-seat!
Bereft of meaning, the marriage had produced two daughters equally bereft of paternal interest and consideration. Perhaps genetically influenced, both girls from their teenage years onwards found a plethora of reasons not to be home, staying either with girlfriends or maternal relatives. Of little concern to Cathy, it simply afforded her more time to spend in front of the television. The few times Jim tried to talk to either girl about their school-work, their futures, even the most mundane of topics...it was obvious, they had little need for his input into their lives....that having ended one might conclude, with Cathy's abrupt announcement of her subsequent pregnancies. After a while he left them to their own intractable devices. Both girls left home soon after completing school and their finding local employment. He saw them perhaps once a fortnight, usually when they came to visit their mother.
Jim would console himself some nights recalling the Christmases when they were yet children and the pleasure he had gotten in recreating for them what still stood-out so vividly from his own past. How had everything gone so wrong he mused. All he had ever wanted was to love...and be loved!
Many years passed. Cathy had died of kidney disease, his daughters had married and moved away to the north of England. A postcard from Marion in the late eighties had put him on notice that he was now officially a grandfather. He had seen the lad but half a dozen times since, the last being when his daughter called in at the local hospital briefly following his triple-bypass .
He was in his sixty-fourth year now and living alone in a shabby semi in Portsmouth, the area's solitude matching his own bleak and wind-swept life. Still, he took pleasure in wrapping-up during the wintry months and spending hours on the seafront, looking out at the gray Atlantic, perhaps sensing in the uncompromising and harsh environment, a kinship somehow with his own unstinting tidal existence.
The one thing that adverse circumstance had failed miserably in trying to dull or nullify in Jim's life however, was December the 25th. Each year he would decorate the little tree using the same tinsel and colored balls he had so religiously protected and stored away following his parental loss. Within the limitations of his meagre savings, he would even buy himself a few presents to be religiously wrapped and placed beneath the tree on Christmas Eve.
To the outside world that year, it was an elderly and rather melancholy-looking gentleman that took his time wandering around the stores, picking up and studying the latest toys, deriving tactile pleasure from simply holding the many items that represented those seasonal childhood yearnings. Occasionally he would smile as he held aloft a doll or a farm animal. Mothers would glance at him warily and shepherd their youngsters into the adjoining aisle. They could not know that inside that tattered old coat and scarf, an eight-year old child looked out at his beloved world of remembrances.
In Brackensfield's, one of the largest Department stores on the east-side, the newly installed Santa was entertaining a long line of expectant children as their mothers jostled for the dubious privilege of parting with six pounds 75p in exchange for an instant photo of their loved one/s posed on the man in red's knee. No-one noticed the lonely old figure standing alongside the racks of games nearby, watching the awe-struck children as they progressed excitedly along the queue. The moment they had to relinquish their mom's hand and take that last step up to that lofty perch. The encouragement to smile for the camera and then finally those few words with Santa himself. Unseen also, the occasional yet involuntary tear trickling down the man's cheeks.
He stayed until the last child had scampered back to his mother and the helpers were hanging up the sign which read "Santa has gone to feed his reindeer and will be back at 6 p.m."
For a moment he was lost in his own thoughts.
"It means a lot to you doesn't it"
The words jolted him upright. Kindly eyes considerably older than his own even, looked down at him.
"I was just remembering," he half-stammered and feeling not a little embarrassed.
The eyes smiled. "Ah, the memory of happier times perhaps" Then after the briefest of pauses, "And what then would you wish for yourself on this cold Christmas Eve" came the question from deep beneath the bushy beard.
"That's easy, " Jim responded. "I'd wish that for just a few hours even, I could spend time with a young lady who might love me for simply myself. Someone I wished I could have met when I was young and had a future."
The hand caressed the white moustache. "All of us have a future my friend. It's just a matter of recognising when it actually started! We must enjoy the opportunities that come along and for some of us," he looked at Jim almost sympathetically, "such times may be of regrettably brief duration."
Smiling now, he took Jim's hand. "Well, a very merry Christmas to you Sir. I must be going now. Those reindeer of mine are eating me out of house and home."
Jim watched as the tall figure disappeared around the sporting aisle and decided to head home. Although not snowing, it was icy cold outside and he was looking forward to the familiarity of the snug confines of his little home. Perhaps he would indulge himself with a small bottle of brandy, after all, Christmas was but once a year.
Entering the small latched gate that opened upon the narrow crazy-paving pathway that led to his front door, he felt upon his forehead first one, then another touch of crystalised cold. He looked up. The weather bureau had been right for once. For only the eleventh time since the turn of the previous century, a genuine white Christmas had been predicted for the south of England. He watched for a few moments, the sporadic flakes as they eddied silently downwards, not yet in sufficient a flurry to lay the groundwork for their heavier relatives.
The front door closed behind him, sealing off once more his own little eco-system from the withering elements. Everything was as he had left it. The tree over by the small French doors, those ancient but so well-loved glass balls reflecting the small lights as they winked on and off - tiny beacons of cheer in a room of such gentility and misplaced affection.
Beneath the lower branches upon the threadbare carpet, four neatly-wrapped presents lay clustered there. So sad their message of loneliness, yet so inspiring a tradition of hope and goodwill. Jim knelt down and re-arranged them as he liked to do occasionally. He had long since put out of his mind what they contained and was rather looking forward to the morning's discoveries. He allowed his fingers contact with some of the long strands of tinsel. It took no effort on his part to recall his mother kneeling there beside him, showing an eager son how to hang them properly. Closing his eyes, it was her fingertips he now felt, her breath that perceptibly disturbed the symmetry of those lower branches.
The plummeting outside temperature was more than enough reason to light the fire in the open hearth that he had earlier prepared. He knelt there watching as the embryonic flames consumed the kindling, giving them sustenance to take-on the challenges of the thicker wood above. Within ten minutes the hearth was ablaze with pyrotechnic good cheer and Jim began to set strategically in place layers of coal that would keep the entire house warm during the night. There is something intrinsically magnetic about an open fire. A lifetime's thoughts and recollections can pass in an instant watching those glowing embers, the small pockets of gas igniting within the lumps of coal and the curious behavior of those tiny flame-creatures as they scurry along the base of the conflagrated logs.
Jim walked over to the small but serviceable kitchenette and cooked himself a couple of pork sausages with potatoes and mixed vegetables and with the small room at its optimum temperature now, he watched on television, as he had done every successive Christmas for as far back as he could remember - Miracle on 34th Street. Some years it was A Christmas Carol, but always one or the other. The brandy saw admirably well, to his transition from well-fed comfort to yawning tiredness. The last thing he did was to lay out a final layer of coal before drawing the fireguard across in front of the hearth.
He was aware of the old clock in the lounge-room striking, having listened to its comforting message of hourly regularity since he was a small child. Subconsciously he realised it was midnight. It was the other sound however that had him struggling between wakefulness and confused unreality.
It's repetition brought him fully awake. Someone at the front door...his front door It was only the lightest of knocks.
It would have been hard to tell what shocked him more. The inbound blast of freezing air with not a few flurries of heavy snow or the young girl standing on his doorstep shivering there, in just a thin dress.
"Could I come in for a few moments please, I'm lost." was all she was able to mutter.
The girl was in the last stages of hypothermia to judge by her color and aggravated shaking. Flakes of snow covered her shoulders and long brown hair. He did not fail to notice how pretty she was either and the likelihood that she was surely no more than seventeen or eighteen. He pulled her gently inside and closed the door.
"Good heavens child," he said, propelling her gently towards the fireplace. "What on earth are you doing walking around the streets at this time of night...and with no warm clothes."
"I...I don't remember," she said, crouching down near the hearth spreading her small hands before the resuscitating heat. "Something happened and I had to leave....that's all I recall. I don't even know this place!"
Jim selected a few small logs from the pile nearby and tossed them on the fire ahead of some more coal to bring up the level of flame.
"Are you hungry missy" he asked. The girl looked-up at him and nodded shyly.
"Well you just stay there love - get yourself nice and warm and I'll fetch you something to eat," he said to her.
As he pottered about in his little kitchen alcove tossing some bacon and eggs into a frying pan, and a couple of pieces of bread into the toaster, he looked back at the girl. Obviously benefiting greatly from the warmth of the fire, she looked back at him once or twice, smiling and quite obviously at ease in his presence. Looking at her delicately formed body hunched up there on the floor, he realised he wasn't yet too old to recognise the physical attraction of one so young, despite the obvious futility of such recognition.
"What about a mug of hot chocolate to be going on with love" he enquired, turning the eggs as he did so.
"Oh, yes please," she answered gratefully, hugging herself around the knees as she sat there, seemingly entranced by the flames. Little wispy clouds of steam were rising from the sleeves of her dress and he realised that besides being half-frozen to death she must have been soaked through from the melting snow-flakes. She sipped her hot chocolate delicately.
By the time he took out the tray of hot food to her, the color was back in her cheeks and she was altogether a healthier-looking proposition to the freezing and bedraggled young thing that he had first ushered across his minimally populated threshold.
He had wanted to ask her all sorts of questions but thought better of it, preferring to watch as she relished the simple but satisfying meal he had brought her.
"What's your name miss" he found the courage to ask her.
"Cassandra," she replied, but most people call me "Cass, or Cassie." she added, looking up at him between mouthfuls.
"Well, I like Cassandra," he told her, "If you don't mind I'll call you that - it's a lovely name....for a lovely young lady, if you don't mind me saying so." he blushed at his own words and she caught the color rising in his cheeks.
"You're a little shy with girls aren't you" she asked. "Oh, and you haven't told me your name either, have you"
"Ohh, sorry...no I forgot," he said to her. "I'm Jim...just old Jim!"
"You're not that old," she observed with a commendable degree of tact.
"Ah, but I am Cassandra," he smiled at her wistfully. "Way too old I'm afraid."
"You're a very kind person, I know that much," she smiled up at him. "A girl knows instinctively who she's safe with and who she can trust."
He was watching her now, noticing just how young she was, the beautiful unlined face, blemish-free skin, girlish figure that promised more than he dared remember. He wondered how he must look to her Never realistically having been even "handsome" in his youth, his skin was old and sagging in places now - all the wrong places at that! Beneath his eyes, his jowls, around his considerably expanded and flabby waistline, even the tops of his gnarled old hands were wrinkly, the veins standing out like speed-humps gone feral. Liver-spots were starting to make their presence known and to describe his hairline as receding, would not begin to recount the cranial carnage wreaked over the past twenty years. Reduced to a few white hairs, those currently on-site presented themselves as little more than a ruffled patchwork at the best of times. As if subconsciously aware of his hirsute shortcomings, he ran his hand across his head suddenly, flattening a few rogue strands.
"Well to me you're not old Jim....just a really nice man," she smiled up at him sweetly as she finished her food, offering him up the tray.
Her words touched him and quite without any logical reason, he wanted to put his arms around her and hold her tight....the daughter he had never had... the wife he had never known....the lover he had so futilely longed for. Instead however, he simply took the tray and trudged back to the kitchen, aware for the first time since he had let her in, how additionally grotty he must appear to her in those tatty old pyjamas and dressing-gown he was wearing.
Seemingly reading his mind, she called out to him,
"Jim, come and sit beside me in front of the fire for a while."
Not even questioning why she would ask such a thing of him, he shuffled back to the fireplace and eased himself down beside her. For a while they both stared into the dwindling flames. He noticed now the little silver chain around her neck and the tiny locket that she seemed to be holding for comfort as she sat there.
"That's a very pretty little treasure," he said to her.
Looking at it for just a few moments she smiled back at him. "Yes, it was given to me by a very dear person. It means everything to me."
Now her immediacy was affecting his judgment and he took her hand in his. "May I please" he asked, looking at her delicately shaped hand resident now in his own palm, "Only for a moment Cassandra.....I just want to remember what it feels like..it's been such a long time."
Whatever response he had been expecting, he was not prepared for that which he received, as she leaned across and kissed him softly on the lips. It was not a long kiss but in the three or four seconds contact he was treated to a kaleidoscope of emotions. Shock, pleasure, embarrassment, disorientation and not the least - arousal!
Pulling back, but still holding the girl's hand, which for some reason was recalling impossible memories, he was momentarily lost for words.
"You....you shouldn't be doing that," he stuttered.
"Why not" she said, looking as cute as a button, "I wanted to! Didn't you like it" she teased, then looking serious for a moment. "You have been very kind to me...I just wanted you to know I really appreciate it.
As she was speaking, he found himself studying her closely once more. The little wisps of brown hair curling around her earlobes, the almost unkempt locks that fell across her forehead and which jiggled as she emphasised her point. Her pretty and expressive little face without a trace of make-up, not that any could possibly improve on what nature had already set in place. Despite her youth, something about her was bordering on the old-fashioned. Perhaps it was the dress. Although well fitting - especially so he noted, in areas he hardly dared contemplate - the hemline was longer than girls her age tended to wear and certainly was without any mainstream appeal so far as he could judge. On her though it looked perfect and he found himself wishing he could hold and caress something other than her hand.
A log suddenly crackled and the girl started in surprise. He took the opportunity to put his arm around her shoulders hoping against hope she would not react unfavorably. How he wished it was a young arm and not that of an old man that carried now the fully unrealistic hopes of its owner.
Far from rejecting the gesture though, Cassandra snuggled in to him.
"You make me feel safe and protected," she whispered, turning her head slightly. The movement caused her dress to gape slightly at the front and for a moment he saw the onset of the downward curve of her cleavage. She had fairly small breasts he had determined and again inexplicably, something of a hazy remembrance came to him. She was saying something to him. It surely couldn't be what his mind was hearing
"Kiss me again Jim.....please,"
In that instant he fell apart emotionally. With what would appear to any onlooker to be the sad, if not pathetic spectacle of an old man trying to resurrect his forgotten romantic habits, he pulled her back until she lay in his arms and lowered his mouth to hers. Soft, gentle and confidently pliant lips met their coarse, trembling and long-since used partner's. As both the beauty and hideous reality of the interaction washed over him, he was unable to prevent the tears building up.
"I'm so sorry Cassandra," he cried. "I don't know what's come over me. I'm just a really lonely old man and...and well, you're just so pretty." He was wracked in an agony of despair.
She smiled at him.
"You're not an old man Jim....you never were.....Look, see!" So saying, she held his hands up before him.
Unable to accept what his eyes would have him believe, he stared at the strong and well-shaped hands. No hint of a wrinkle. Wide wrists heralded the onset of muscular arms that disappeared up beneath the sleeves of his old pyjamas. He had no need of a mirror, he knew his face was that of a young man. He could feel the weight of thick and luxuriant hair which even now curled almost to the nape of his neck.
He sought not to question this miracle, merely to address its purpose.
Carrying her to his bedroom later, where neither the crumpled bed linen, nor the faded and decrepit wallpaper held sway any longer, he laid Cassandra on the top sheet. Turning away from him she sat up and raised her arms. Gently he unzipped the dress and watched as she pulled it over her head. She wore nothing beneath.
Her needs mirrored his own and he found himself kneeling beside her on the bed, caressing her hair, her shoulders. She raised her arms above her head needing his full complicity in what ultimately was to follow.
He found disrobing in front of her, an act easily effected without the slightest inhibition. He remembered then, how it was something neither he nor Cathy had ever been comfortable with. He couldn't recall ever actually seeing her fully naked - nor having the desire to!
After their frenetic early needs subsided, Jim lay down behind her, pulled her close to him and tugged the bedclothes up over them. Cassandra with her back to him, pulled his arms tightly around her and lay still, listening to their respiratory rates even out. She didn't want to think about having to leave, or about what she knew had shortly to be.
All Jim was able to think about was by whatever miracle, an angel had been delivered to his door this night. He would worry about an explanation in the morning. God willing he should never lose her again, yet somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind he knew he had experienced these thoughts some time in the past.
An old man awoke Christmas morning. His cries of anguish at his loss would have melted the heart of the least compassionate of men.
"How could a dream be so real" "How could any God be so cruel" were just two of the questions he suspected he was never likely to be receiving an answer to. Determined however that nothing would ever undermine his love of the festive season, he decided he would first make himself a pot of tea and entering the tiny kitchen he had to grasp a hold of the door-frame to steady his nerves...if not his sanity. Sitting there on the bench was the tray, containing one dirty plate with traces still of bacon rind and a small yellowish stain.
Struggling to make sense of the non-sensical, the only rational explanation in his view was that whilst in a semi-delusional state, quite obviously brought on by the brandy, he had actually cooked that meal last night....and presumably eaten it. He made his pot of tea and whilst waiting for it to draw, went to the front door and opened it. Snow must have been falling all night. The front path, grass and flowerbeds were now but a uniform white blanket, the trees - icy sculptured sentinels. All around, picturesque serenity, a silent white matte-work.
Returning to the living room, he went across to the little tree - and stared! Five presents now sat in a cluster-pattern beneath those lower branches, one far smaller than the rest, slightly away to the right. The wrapping looked faded but again, somehow familiar. As he picked it up he felt a decided chill.
His hands trembled as the little heart-shaped box was exposed. It looked quite old. Removing the lid, he saw what was inside and his world spun away. With shaking fingers, he opened the tiny silver locket, then with tears of passion raking both cheeks, he read what he already knew was so minutely inscribed there.
"To Cassandra from your loving husband Jim. Christmas 1832" (c) Courtesy of the anthology "Imagine For a Moment" Peter_Pan 2006 (Lulu Publishing Inc Morrisville NC) www.lulu.com/content/69187
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