Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Christmas shelter

A seasonal short story of nostalgia and bright new beginnings

Written by Fay Knowles
That Christmas, when Tessa returned to the small town where her great-aunt and uncle had spent most of their lives, the rooftops were white with snow. Shop windows glinted with decorations of reds and greens and golds and silvers. A Christmas tree with twinkling lights, shimmering garlands and a flashing star on top stood beside the town-hall entrance.

Outside, huddled together on the pavement, a small group of warmly wrapped people sang old, familiar carols. But for Tessa it would be a bleak Christmas. Her dear Aunt Harriet had recently died, less than a year after her Uncle Leo passed away. Tessa felt as though the bottom had fallen out of her life.

Growing up, Tessa visited her elderly aunt and uncle whenever her widowed mother could afford the bus fare. Her mother had struggled since her father died and she was happy to send Tessa off to his relatives at every opportunity. Aunt Harriet and Uncle Leo were Tessa’s shelter from the storm.

Her aunt and uncle had lived in a house called Sunnyside. They never had any children, but they did have a tan Pekinese dog named Max, who rarely left Aunt Harriet’s side. They also owned a piano, which Tessa’s aunt taught her to play.

Ivy covered the walls of Sunnyside and rhododendrons lined the driveway. Tessa loved Sunnyside’s large, rambling garden, with its apple orchard and the air-raid shelter built in the Second World War. Uncle Leo had used the shelter for storage. And while he pottered around in his vegetable patch, Tessa would sit on the shelter’s steps and read a book.

In winter the holly trees with their bright red berries looked like a snapshot from a Christmas card. After a snowfall, Max would plough through the drifts with his short little legs, his long fluffy coat getting soggy and his black nose and mouth a stark contrast to the dazzling white landscape.

When spring arrived, the wide kitchen window would suck in the sweet scent of blossoms from the garden. Aunt Harriet spent a lot of time in her kitchen, baking cakes, scones and pies that would challenge even those of a master chef. The local church fetes were never without some of Harriet’s goodies.

While Aunt Harriet churned the cake mixture with a wooden spoon, Tessa would wait for her to empty the large willow-patterned bowl, so she could scrape out what was left and lick the spoon.

They had breakfast in the kitchen, with Aunt Harriet heaping toast on the silver toast rack and serving homemade jam. Lunch at Sunnyside took place in the dining room, darkened by the monkey-puzzle tree, which peered through the window at them. Tea was on a trolley in the Indian-carpeted sitting room.

Tessa’s uncle sometimes let her ride his old bicycle. She’d wobble along to the end of a narrow walled lane where a boy named Jimmy lived. He was the usual type of boy – hair unbrushed, grubby nails. Sometimes his rabbit escaped from behind the high stone wall and she’d help him find it.

‘Hey, thanks,’ he’d say. ‘You want to see my hedgehog?’ He’d pull the prickly creature out of his grey jumper. She and Jimmy would often play in the shelter, pretending it was a fort or a pirate ship. Once they became teenagers, they would sit on the shelter’s steps and chatter about everything young people chat about.

But Tessa grew up and enrolled in culinary school, so visits to her aunt and uncle became less frequent. Jimmy had gone away, to college, someone said. Tessa wished he was there, with his hedgehog and rabbit.

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After Uncle Leo died peacefully in his sleep, Tessa attended the funeral, but she didn’t see Jimmy.

The next time she stayed with Aunt Harriet, Max the Pekinese had become rather bad-tempered.

‘He won’t bite you, dear,’ her aunt laughed. ‘Take him for a walk.’

Tessa led the crusty animal speedily, and at arm’s length, up the lane and back.

That was her last holiday at Sunnyside. Aunt Harriet had a heart attack. A close relative inherited the house, the orchard and the airraid shelter. However, the old lady left Tessa a generous sum of money. Tessa would now be able to help her mother. Harriet also willed the piano to her great-niece. Again, Tessa didn’t see Jimmy at the funeral.

On Tessa’s return to the town, she found Aunt Harriet had made special provisions in her will for Max’s care. ‘Your aunt thought so much of you, Tessa,’ the solicitor said, ‘that she left you the thing she cherished most – her dog Max.’

Poor Max, Tessa thought: he must really be missing Aunt Harriet.

‘You can pick the dog up from the kennels down the road,’ the solicitor directed. ‘I’ll have the piano shipped to you next week.’

The kennels had exiled Max far beyond the other dogs.

‘You came for that Pekinese, miss?’ the manager asked Tessa. ‘Here’s his kennel and lead. Can’t say we’ll miss him!’

The Peke gave Tessa a little bark of recognition. His big, round eyes begged her to take him, and her heart melted. Max went quite happily into the kennel placed in her car.

Before leaving town, she drove towards Sunnyside. One more look, she thought. She parked outside on the road and, leaving Max protesting loudly in the car, she crunched up the icy gravel driveway towards the monkey puzzle, which bent under the weight of snow trapped on its branches. Red berries dotted the familiar holly trees.

The curtains downstairs were closed. Feeling like an intruder, she tiptoed to the back of the house. Peering through the kitchen window, everything seemed the same, except dear Aunt Harriet wasn’t there with her mixing bowl.

Tessa walked across the lawn to the barren and neglected orchard. A mistletoe plant grew on one of the bare apple trees.

She sat on the steps of the shelter, reminiscing. She jumped as she suddenly heard a voice. ‘What’s a nice girl doing in a place like this?’

It was ‘the boy’, now a handsome young man, with sparkling blue eyes and carefully combed hair.

‘Jimmy!’ she exclaimed.

‘Sorry to startle you. I saw Max in the car and thought you were probably at the house.’

He offered her his hand and she stood up.

‘It’s really good to see you again,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry about your aunt and uncle.’

‘Thanks,’ she replied. She should have brushed her hair and put on some lipstick.

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‘I couldn’t go to their funerals,’ he told her. ‘I was away both times.’

‘I do miss them.’

‘They were a nice old couple,’ he said.

They walked towards the front of the house, chatting as if the years had never come between them.

Tessa said she was now a pastry chef. Jimmy had opened his own pet shop.

As they approached Tessa’s car, Max growled at Jimmy. She swung open the car door and the Pekinese whimpered.

‘He’s become quite a miserable old mutt. I don’t know what to do with him really.’

Jimmy smiled. ‘I think he needs a walk. Let’s take him down the lane.’

She opened the kennel door. Jimmy clipped the lead onto the dog’s collar and lifted him wriggling onto the frosty ground. He crouched beside the quivering animal and stroked his ears. ‘Good boy, Max.’ The dog’s tail wagged.

‘You do have a way with animals.’

‘You have to get down to their level,’ he said, handing her the lead.

She knelt close to Jimmy and the dog. ‘All he needs is love, like the rest of us.’ He winked at her.

Tessa stroked Max’s ears and the tail wagged again. Snow started to fall. Max sniffed at the flakes landing on his nose and shook his long hair to remove the white particles.

Jimmy took Tessa’s hand and helped her up. The second time, she thought.

‘You know,’ he teased, ‘I used to think of you as “just the girl down the lane”!’

‘And I thought of you as “just the boy down the lane”!’ Tessa laughed.

They set off on their walk, with Max pushing his way through the snowdrifts on the side of the lane. The snow fell more heavily, getting caught in Tessa’s hair and feeling like cold little paws on her face. ‘Just a minute,’ Jimmy said, taking her arm and stopping her from going any further. He gently brushed the snow from her hair with his hand. Smiling, he pulled something from his pocket. It was a piece of mistletoe. He held it over her head.

‘I still believe in old traditions – don’t you?’ he asked. He drew her close and they kissed.

Max barked sharply at them, jumping up and down in the snow with excitement.

Tessa had someone new to shelter her now, just in time for Christmas.


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