Comfort and Joy by C. J. Richardson 2015
The alarm buzzes loudly in her ear. Mary opens her eyes and reaches out to nudge Jim as she has done for the last forty-nine years. The cotton sheet is cold against her hand. There’s no-one there. He must have gone down to put the kettle on, she thinks, as she smiles and turns to look at the clock. Then she remembers. She slides over to his side of the bed and presses the off button.
The date on the calendar is 24th December. Mary drags herself out of bed and sits at her dressing table. The tickets for the Golden Anniversary trip on the Orient Express next April are still propped up against the oval mirror, next to their wedding photograph. She might ring and cancel today. From the depths of the mirror, an old lady looks back at her. She hardly recognises the pale, wrinkled face and the unkempt, steel coloured hair. Her eyes are no longer the vibrant blue of a summer sky; they're sunken and misty like a foggy day in November.
Mary goes downstairs and puts the kettle on. She takes two cups from the cupboard, remembers again, and puts one back. She takes the last slice of bread and puts it in the toaster, resolving to get dressed and go to the shops this morning.
The town is so busy. High above the shoppers, Christmas lights hang in lines, flashing red, silver and blue. Every shop is crowded. Every till ringing its way greedily through the long queues. It doesn’t bother her; she can lose herself in the mêlée. She pulls her red woollen scarf over her head and ties it tightly under her chin. The Salvation Army band is playing Christmas carols, and she stops to put some money in the tin. People are standing around to listen for a while; rich brass notes vibrating through their bodies. Collars pulled up against the icy wind, red cheeks and plumes of steaming breath everywhere as they sing along. The familiar rich, sweet aroma of roasted chestnuts fills the air. She’s thinking about a time, long ago, when her son David clutched her hand on this same street, on this same corner.
‘Why do we sing Christmas carols, Mummy?’
‘To celebrate the birth of Jesus.’ replies a deep warm voice, interrupting her memories.
She turns to see a destitute man sitting on the pavement, holding a battered old hat out to a little boy. The boy is clinging onto his mother’s hand and has just asked the exact same question David asked her all those years ago.
Mary puts her hand into her purse and drops a pound coin into the man’s hat.
‘God bless you, Missus,’ he says without looking up. There was a familiar ring to his voice. Almost sounds like my Jim, she thinks. She turns away and heads up the street to Rodgers baker’s shop. The words “God Bless you Missus” echo around her head. He does sound like my Jim.
He is still sitting there as she makes her way back. His hair is matted, and his face is covered by a thick knotted moustache and beard. The sleeping bag covering his legs is black with grease and filth. How old is he? David would be about his age now.
‘Spare a copper for a cup of tea Missus?’ he asks, thrusting the hat towards her. She stands and stares at him. That voice again. He looks up briefly then puts his head down, sheltering his face against the sharp knife of the wind.
‘David? David? Is it you?’
The man looks up again, ‘Sorry Missus. You’ve got the wrong person.’
He stands and rolls the sleeping bag before tying it with string. Slinging it over his shoulder, he picks up the bottle that is half hidden in a brown paper bag and limps away.
‘Wait! Please wait.’ Sudden panic forces the uncharacteristic action. ‘Let me buy you a cup of tea. It’s warm in the cafe across the road. Please?’
Mary waits, and the man eventually steps off the kerb and walks across to the cafe. She follows him in, and they sit at a table near the window. The waitress comes over.
‘I’m sorry, but he’ll have to go,’ she says, putting her hand over her mouth and nose.
‘And I’m sorry for your poor manners. C’mon David, we’ll take our custom elsewhere.’ Mary ushers him out of the cafe and back to the crowded street. ‘Come back to my house. It s nice and warm, and I think you'll find the service is much better.’
‘It’s okay Missus. I need to be somewhere else.’
Touching his arm she smiles. ‘Please come home with me. You’ll make an old lady very happy. Please, David.’
‘I’m not Dav... Okay, but I can’t stay long. ‘
Mary puts the kettle on. She takes two cups from the cupboard and smiles, confident that it’s her David. Jim has sent him to me, she thinks. He knew that I needed him to come home now. Christmas will be special again.
‘Here you are, David. A nice cup of tea and some biscuits. Make yourself at home. There’s plenty of hot water so you can have a bath. I’ll find some clean clothes for you.’
Upstairs, David’s room is exactly as he left it, waiting to be woken from its long sleep. She changes the bedding and looks in the once-fashionable pine chest of drawers for some suitable clothing. The torn T-shirts and studded belt bring back memories of Jim shouting, "You’re an embarrassment. You disgust me. You look like a tramp." The word tramp gnaws away inside her head as she thinks of the man downstairs.
She slams the drawer shut and looks in the wardrobe. School uniform and narrow-legged black jeans look a bit too young for the David who has come home. She finds a sweater, a pair of thick cord trousers and some clean underwear from Jim’s wardrobe.
There is a look of surprise as she passes the clothes to him.
‘Your father’s things. You don’t mind, do you? I thought they would be more appropriate.’ She pauses before continuing. ‘I’m sorry David, but he passed away in July. Heart problems. He would have been thrilled to have you home again.’ she waits for the response, but there isn’t one. ‘He wasn’t a bad man. He just...couldn't understand... all that punk thing... all that rebelling...’
They sit and drink tea. Mary tries to make polite conversation as the man slurps noisily, gorging on dunked gingersnaps and custard creams. A little later, Mary puts her coat on again.
‘I’ll go and get some more shopping in. We’ll need enough food for tomorrow and Boxing Day...maybe I could get some cans of beer and some wine.’ She sees the spark of life flash in his eyes. Eyes as blue as hers were once. ‘We have a lot of catching up to do. You can tell me what you’ve been doing since you left. I won’t be long.’
He picks up the clothes and goes upstairs.
It’s late when Mary climbs out of the taxi. The driver helps her with all the bags.
‘David! I’m home. I’ve had such a lovely time. There was so much to buy.’
He’s lying on the sofa, fast asleep. His long hair, still damp and tangled, frames his unruly moustache and beard. There are a few streaks of silver in them now. She takes the fringed rug from Jim’s fireside chair and covers him, gently touching his cheek. The clean smell of soap helps mask his stale, sweaty undertone. All those years wasted. We could have been so close. Never mind, you're here now, that’s all that matters, she tells herself.
She gathers all her Christmas goodies from the hall and takes them through to the kitchen.
The alarm buzzes loudly in her ear. Mary opens her eyes and reaches out for Jim as she has done for the last forty-nine years. The cotton sheet is cold against her hand. There’s no-one there. He must have gone down to put the kettle on she thinks as she smiles and turns to look at the clock. Then she remembers, and the unspent tears fall again.
She sits upright as she realises she is not alone in the house. David is home, and it’s Christmas day. Turning the alarm off, she slides out of bed, slips on her dressing gown and hurries downstairs. David is still on the sofa. There are several empty beer cans on the floor beside him, and he is drinking from another. He's probably cold, she thinks. She slides past him, bends down and turns on the gas fire. The rapid click of the starter switch is followed by a small explosion as the gas ignites. He looks up through red rimmed eyes.
‘Morning Missus. Thanks for letting me stay. It was kind of you.’ He stands up and wobbles towards the hall door. ‘I’ll just get my things and be out of your way.’
‘No. No. I’m going to make us a Christmas lunch. It’s Christmas day. We’re going to celebrate you coming home. You can tell me what you’ve been doing. This is your home, David.’ Her eyes are filling up and spilling over as the panic rises in her chest.
‘I’m not David. I’m Jack, but I’ll stay for dinner if it makes you feel better. I’ll have to go after that.’ He stumbles back to the sofa.
‘Okay. That's fine. Let’s just enjoy today. Tea or coffee? Would you like some toast? Or bacon? I've got some bacon in. I remembered how much you like it' A grunt from the sofa signifies that bacon would be well-received. She hurries into the kitchen holding her chest. The pain is sharp, and it hurts to breathe. Must slow down...
She takes two cups from the cupboard and counts to ten, breathing slowly and deeply. He’ll stay once he sees how comfortable his life can be here, she tells herself.
Laying the table for two reminds her of Jim again. How many mornings had they sat here listening to the radio, Jim's face hidden by the newspaper, she putting everything to hand as he felt his way around for the butter dish, the marmalade or the box of cereal.
She could hear herself saying, "If you'd take your head out of the paper, you'd be able to see where everything is."
He'd peep over the top and grin at her, "Then you'd have nothing to complain about, and you know how much you like doing that."
Mary stares at the empty chair and sighs.
Now then, she says to herself, no time for being sad. David's home and you're going to have breakfast with him. Turning the radio on for the first time in six months, she hums along to the music as she lays out the butter dish along with honey and strawberry jam. The bacon is sizzling under the grill, and she scrambles a couple of eggs.
'David,' she calls. 'Breakfast's ready.' Her voice catches in her throat as she wishes Jim were here and able to share this wonderful moment.
'David' helps himself to everything on the table while Mary tells him how she and his father had spent weeks searching for him.
'The police said you were an adult at eighteen and wouldn't class you as a missing person. We didn't know where to turn. We talked to some of your friends in the sixth form, you know, Gary Baker and ...what was he called...Lewis something, I think...I can't remember.' She looks for confirmation from David, but he doesn't pause from eating or even look up.
'They said they hadn't known any of the new friends you seemed to have made in the months before you disappeared. Someone said they thought you were squatting in a house on Beaumont Road but there was no-one there when we went to look.' Still no response. She tries to pour herself a refill and finds the teapot empty. She gets up from the table to make more.
'We walked the streets, every evening and weekend, putting posters up...' Mary doesn't push this man -her son- for answers about where he has been. She just wants him to know they hadn't washed their hands of him the minute he went.
They are sitting at the dining table finishing their Christmas pudding. Mary is looking at the photograph of the three of them on the mantelpiece. She is trying to remember how old David was when it was taken. About six, she thinks. They are on the beach at Filey, and David is pouring water over Jim's head and laughing. Jim is buried up to his waist in sand and feigning shock as the water hits him. Her mum had taken the picture. She had pretended to do it several times. "We'll have to do it again. I don't think I quite caught the moment," she had said, knowing how much David enjoyed doing it over and over again. Jim, throwing her a mock frown as if he disapproved. She can relive it if she closes her eyes. She takes a sip of wine and looks at the middle-aged man across the table. David is on his fourth large glass.
‘This is great. I haven’t had a meal like this for...oh... it must be ...’ He stands and belches loudly then staggers across to the sofa holding his glass in one hand and a half-empty bottle of wine in the other.
‘It certainly has been lovely,' says Mary, ‘I’ve bought you some presents.’
‘I can’t take gifts from you,' he slurs. 'You’ve done enough for me already.’
‘I wanted to.’ She hands him the first package. He opens it to find a thick knitted scarf and a pair of gloves.
‘Thank you. You’re so kind.’ His voice cracks. The second package contains a black woollen overcoat. His face crumples.
‘I don t deserve this. I don’t deserve your kindness.’ He splutters and sniffs, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. He loses control and wails drunken tears as Mary sits beside him. She reaches over to the box on the small, oval coffee table and passes him a tissue before putting an arm around his broad shoulders.
‘Of course, you do. You’re my son, and you’ve come home.’ Mary pulls his head to her breast and rocks him gently in her arms.
He tells her how he lost his job on the counter at the bank.
'The manager got fed up with me always being late. Mainly on a Monday. Lots of nights out with the lads.'
Her chest swells. A banker. See Jim, he went to University after all.
'Jenny...the wife...she was fed up of being left on her own to deal with everything. The kids...you know. Losing my job was the last straw. I haven't seen them for nearly ten years. Katy'll be fifteen now, and it's Robbie's eleventh...no twelfth birthday next month.' he starts to sniffle again, and she passes the box of tissues to him.
Grandchildren. Mary is floating on air. How wonderful. Her heart begins to race. Thank you for sending him home Jim.
'It's all going to be alright,' she says. 'Things will be different from now on.'
Mary leaves him for a moment and goes upstairs. When she returns, he is more composed.
'This is for you and Jenny,' She hands him the golden envelope. 'It won't cost much to get the names changed. Go and see her. It'll be a new start for both of you.'
Mary opens her eyes and smiles. David slept in his own room last night. I must get up and make him a cup of tea, she thinks as she slips out of bed. She creeps past his bedroom door and goes downstairs.
Mary puts the kettle on. She takes two cups from the cupboard and sees the piece of paper on the table. Underneath it is the golden envelope.
Thank you for being so good to me. Thank you for the food and all the clothes. They will keep me so much warmer than the clothes I had. It has been such a long time since anyone treated me with such kindness and I will never forget it.
You should spoil yourself and go on that trip. Find someone more deserving than me to go with.
Maybe I can call in to see you again next Christmas?
I’m sorry that I’m not your son.
'You never could spell sincerely, could you David?' she reminds herself as she folds the note. She’ll correct him when he comes again. Tears spill over one more time as she puts one cup back and places the last slice of bread in the toaster.