Coming Home for Christmas
© Helen Pryke 2018
Cover by Francesco Valla
It feels strange being back here after all this time. The house is empty and silent, they must have gone out for some fresh air and last-minute celebrations. An old trick we used to use on small, hyperactive kids when Christmas Eve got too overwhelming for everyone.
I wander from room to room, my fingers trailing over surfaces I’ve polished too many times to remember. It’s somehow satisfying to see that everything is still in its place, exactly where it’s been for so many years. I had half-feared finding the place different, my things gone or moved about in an attempt to get rid of heart-wrenching memories.
The only thing that’s different is the Christmas tree, or lack of one. There’s a long rectangular cardboard box leaning against the kitchen counter, which could be holding an artificial one, I suppose. The open box of Christmas decorations is on the kitchen table, the cheap baubles and home-made ornaments glittering in the moonlight streaming through the window. I dip my hands inside once more, and yet again the tinsel slips through my fingers as hot, angry tears roll down my cheeks.
The card lies open before me, some stray glitter twinkling like multicoloured stars dotted across its surface. I’d bought it in last year’s post-Christmas sales, before… well, enough of that. I’d hidden it below the tinsel and decorations, and it had taken all my energy tonight to take it out of the box. I see the biro in its usual place beside the shopping list notepad and concentrate really hard, determined to pick it up.
It takes me a while, but at last I manage to scrawl a message below the cheerful Christmas greetings printed on the inside. I look at it, not really seeing the words I’ve written there, as my mind wanders and I become lost in the past. Those three little words that would mean so much to Will. ‘Merry Christmas, sweetie.’
We loved Christmas and always went overboard with decorations and food. The kids loved it when they were young, but as the years passed and they turned into rebellious teenagers, they would groan at the sight of us lugging the box down from the loft at the beginning of December. The front room became Santa’s grotto, every surface filled with decorations and cards, the enormous pine tree dominating the scene.
We progressed from seventies-style gaudy handmade paper chains and brightly coloured foil decorations strung across the walls and ceiling to sedate, elegant garlands with festive bows and pinecones draped over the mantelpiece and windowsills. Each decade brought a new look, and we updated our decorations accordingly. We never threw anything away, though, and the box of decorations was a shrine to every Christmas we’d spent together.
Christmas Eve was our special day. The day of our first official date, forty-one years earlier, at the small café in the high street. The day we’d conceived Jodie, our eldest daughter, and the day John had told us we were to become grandparents. It was also the day, just a year before, when our lives had fallen apart.
Forty years of marriage. I fell in love with Will the first time I saw him outside the sweet shop with his parents, a bulging bag of sweets clasped in his outstretched hand as he offered me one. My mum encouraged me to take one as I clung to her skirt, too shy to step forward. At eight years old, I was a quiet, timid child who hadn’t yet learned to stand up for herself. Mum struck up a conversation with his parents and they ignored us while they talked.
“Go on, take one. I haven’t licked them, promise!” Will thrust the paper bag under my nose.
I giggled. “Mum says I shouldn’t take sweets off strangers.”
He poked his tongue out at me. “I’m not strange. And your mum’s talking to my mum, so that must mean it’s OK.”
I shrugged and put my hand in the bag. Toffees… I can still remember the taste of them now. That cloying, sickly sweet flavour that made me want to spit it out, but I didn’t want to offend him or upset Mum, so I chewed it as fast as I could and swallowed it down.
He grinned at me and glanced at his parents, making sure they were still talking. “I lied about not licking them,” he murmured.
I got told off for punching him, but it felt good. That was the day I learned to stand up for myself. I never ate another toffee again, but Will and I became friends from then on. And that was the last time he ever licked any sweets he offered me.
Will and Esther. Childhood sweethearts. We were meant to be, it couldn’t have been any other way. We stuck together through all our school years, sitting next to each other in class and at lunchtimes. We did our homework together and even got ill together, our mums taking it in turn to look after us. We even got our first jobs in the same factory – Will in the warehouse, me as a secretary.
We married as soon as we could, impatient to start our life together as a family. I can’t remember which one of us first started calling the other sweetie, or when, but it stuck and we used it all our adult life. Good morning, sweetie; happy birthday, sweetie; merry Christmas, sweetie – always followed by a kiss… sometimes by something more!
Our children came along soon after. Jodie, our eldest, beautiful, independent, and full of life, and John, the more serious one, married to Annalise, who was Swedish or Norwegian, I never could remember. They have two children, Michael and Gracie, with their third about to arrive any day soon. Tears come to my eyes as I think how much Will would have loved to share grandparent duties with me.
I became a stay-at-home mum, while Will climbed the career ladder and made his way to the top, working his way through the ranks to eventually become a director. He was dedicated to his job, but always made sure he was home in time for tea with us and kept his weekends free. He often said that work was important, but his family was everything. We got through the traumatic toddler years, and even more traumatic teenage years, with all the love and support we could give each other. “Home is where I can love and be loved,” he always used to say. We made plans for his upcoming retirement, sticking pins in maps, eager to travel to exotic destinations by ourselves for once.
Then, five years ago, it began. They say that your world crashes around you – I never understood the meaning of that until it happened to us. In and out of hospital, operations, treatments, our hopes raised only to have them dashed during the final appointment with the doctor. One look at his face and we knew. It was terminal and there were no more options. We went home in shock, and decided that we would make the most of our time left together. We called Jodie and John and told them there would be no more hospital appointments, no more medicines, no more doctors. Just lots of love and happiness, right until the end. We wanted to spend the rest of our life together as we’d started it. Surprisingly, they didn’t argue. They just hugged us and said they’d be there for us, whatever we needed.
Appropriately, the end came on Christmas Eve, exactly one year ago. Jodie and John held Will’s hand as the four of us waited in silence, rattling breaths becoming more irregular, until that one final gasp, and it was over. I heard their desperate sobs as I fell unconscious, overcome with grief.
I give up trying to hold the decorations, sit down at the table, and wait. Wait for just one last chance to see his face, his beautiful blue eyes sparkling as he looks at me with that loving expression he uses only for me, his incredible smile that says how much he loves me. The others told me I only have the one chance to see him again, so I must use it well. But I feel so tired already. Writing the Christmas card took a lot of energy, and all this waiting is using up what little I have left. I must persevere, I can’t waste this one opportunity. It can only happen on the first anniversary of my death, this is the last time we can be together again. For the moment, anyway.
All of a sudden, I hear a key in the front door and turn my head. Jodie steps through first, switching on the hall light, then shakes flakes of snow off her coat and stomps her feet. I smile as I look at her, an opinionated, fiery ball of vitality who’s still as beautiful as ever. John follows her, frowning at the pile of snow she’s left on the hall carpet. He doesn’t say anything, having learned during the years to keep his thoughts to himself rather than risk a barrage of verbal abuse from his sister. He’s already kicked the snow off his shoes outside, and now he hangs his coat up on its usual hook. Annalise waddles through the door, her enormous belly preceding her, huffing at the effort. Jodie helps her with her coat and puts an arm around her shoulders, laughing as two well-wrapped bundles charge into the house, whooping in delight.
And then I see him. Will, his hair a bit whiter than last year, a few more wrinkles around his mouth and eyes, but still the handsome man I fell in love with all those years ago.
“Here, Dad, let me help you with that,” Jodie says as he shrugs his coat off his shoulders. He lets her do it without protesting, which makes me think his arthritis must be bad again. “Now, you go in the front room and sit down while I make us a cup of tea.”
“No, you’re in my house now. I’ll make the tea.” He glares at her, daring her to say something. And he used to wonder where Jodie got her stubbornness from.
She smiles and pats his shoulder. “Two sugars for me, Dad.”
“There’s no Christmas tree, Grandad.” Michael runs out into the hallway, almost crashing into Will. “How’s Santa going to bring you presents if there’s no tree?”
“I’ve got an artificial one in the kitchen, I was waiting for you lot to come and help me set it up.” He grimaces. “I got the decorations out of the loft too, just in case we felt like putting them up.”
Jodie nods, and squeezes his arm. She knows how difficult it is for him this year, the first one without me.
“Come, let’s have a tea first, then you and Gracie can help Grandad decorate the tree. How does that sound?” She takes Michael by the hand as he jumps around excitedly, and they go to join the others.
Will walks down the hall, his shuffling gait showing how much he has aged over the last months. The hall light creates strange shadows in the dark kitchen and I wonder if he will notice me. I remember what the others told me and concentrate on creating a blue aura around my body, hoping with all my heart that he can see. He does. His eyes widen and he takes a faltering step towards me.
“Esther?” he murmurs. “Is that you?”
I nod. I’m too tired to say anything, it takes all my energy just to move my head, but I do it. I want to tell him I came back for him, I want to tell him how much it’s costing me just to be here, but my energy is finished. I hope that he knows all of this, that he understands why I can’t do more.
He takes a step towards me and smiles, his beautiful smile that says so much. “Esther, I’ve missed you. I… It’s so hard without you, some days I don’t know how to go on. The kids help, they miss you too. Gracie still wants a biscuit for her nana when she comes round.”
He seems to realise that time is short, I can see the panic in his eyes. Is my aura fading already?
“I love you, Esther,” he says earnestly. “I know you know that, but I just want to say it one last time. I love you.”
I raise my hand to my mouth, as if to blow him a kiss, but it’s too late, I can’t do it. I feel myself fading and concentrate on looking at his face for one final moment. A feeling of serenity fills me, and I know I’ve achieved what I came to do. I’ve given Will hope for the future. A blinding white light encompasses me as I make the journey one final time.
“Dad?” Jodie touches her father’s shoulder, making him jump. “Is everything OK? I came to see what was taking so long, we’re all gasping for a cuppa. And the kids want to get cracking on the tree.” She switches the kitchen light on. “Dad? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“I-I think I have,” he replies, watching as the shimmering blue light slowly fades away until nothing is left. He points at the card on the kitchen table.
“What the…?” Jodie says, picking it up. “Shall I read it?”
But Will already knows what’s written on it, there’s only one phrase it can possibly be. “Merry Christmas, sweetie,” he murmurs.
Helen Pryke is a British author who has been living in the north of Italy for almost 30 years, learning everything about Italians, their culture, and their way of life. She now considers herself more Italian than British, even though she has never lost her British accent. Addicted to coffee and chocolate, she has also developed a passion for good food, having married an Italian who is a wonderful cook!
Helen writes emotional women’s fiction set in Italy that deals with the difficult subject of abuse in a sensitive way. She also writes middle grade fiction under the pen name, Julia E. Clements. When she’s not writing, she works as a proofreader for indie authors and a translator (from Italian to English). She loves reading, and will read anything and everything.
See Helen’s Author Page here.