Tuesday, 18 December 2018

God Works in Mysterious Ways Especially at Christmas

by Robin Wrigley
mulled wine

In 1973 I was working on the fringes of the Sahara in Algeria. We were camped less than an hour’s drive south from the small town of Messaad, east of the main provincial town Laghouat. It was necessary to pass through Messaad to access the main road to either Laghouat or Algiers.
     It wasn’t long before we discovered that a group from the British charity ‘Save the Children’ were based in an old French fort in the town and we went to visit them and say hello. The manager was a retired army officer and the medical staff comprised of two mid-wives and a lady doctor. We quickly established a friendship and always called in whenever we had occasion to pass by. The staff liked to see fellow countrymen dropping in and we became very useful to the group in being able take mail for them or help out with supplies. For us it was a welcome watering point on journeys out of the desert, especially if it coincided with a meal time.
 A few weeks before Christmas that year I was scheduled to make a two weeks break in England. On my way up to Algiers I called in at the charity and collected their Christmas cards and wish lists to buy for them in London. It was arranged I would make various purchases and also contact the doctor’s sister to collect her presents to carry back.
     Little did I know what I was letting myself in for with this offer, now becoming purchaser and carrier. Most of the items requested were from Marks and Spenser’s ladies underwear department! The doctor’s sister’s gifts took up a quarter of my suitcase and the various purchase items another quarter. The other half was filled with various Christmas goodies such as mince pies, Christmas cake and pudding. Thankfully I did not need much room for my own personal effects.
     The next hurdle was the Algerian custom’s authorities at Algiers airport. The country was still coming to terms with the dreadful and prolonged war of independence and the treatment of foreigners was not very friendly. Baggage searches were very thorough and nit-picking. Magazines zealously scrutinized for any racy photos or anything likely to offend good Moslem conduct. Advertisements for ladies underwear would result in the page being ripped out or the magazine completely confiscated.
     The large amount of ladies underwear in my bag caused considerable concern but I lied explaining it was for members of my family. The rest of the presents and Christmas goodies survived the check.
On Christmas day the five of us who were left on the crew arranged a ‘service day’ and finished around midday, washed, changed into our best available clothes and headed north to Messaad. Their manager was not present having arranged to go home to England for the holiday but the doctor and midwives had entered into the spirit with decorations, mince pies and mulled wine.
     They had also wrapped presents for each of us and although the gifts were simple and really no more than tokens we made a big scene of opening each one with cries of surprise followed by much applause. My present was a pair of M & S socks. Sad to say it was the sum total of my Christmas presents that year.
     We then retired to the dining table where a fine seasonal feast had been laid out; what with that and the local wine we wanted for nothing even though we were far from our homeland.
     After the meal we played the usual silly games, sang Christmas carols and generally chatted and reminisced about our lives and our families. Later in the evening after another snacking type meal we bade our hosts farewell and set off into a cold but clear Saharan night on our journey back to our camp.
      Our camp life continued much the same as ever until three days before New Year I received instructions from Algiers head office that we should strike camp and head to a new concession further south and then east near the town of Touggourt and on to a camp site in El Oued, a date growing area. The preparations for the move made it impossible to bid farewell to the charity. It wasn’t until after the dust settled and the camp reorganised that I discovered my Christmas present of the socks was missing, presumed stolen.
     Not long after this move I became disenchanted with the new area, the company management, the flies in the date growing oasis and life in general and I resigned and returned to London.

Since my time in Algeria I have worked and lived in many countries worldwide but at this time of the year I often reflect on the loss of those socks. Did the thief enjoy them? I consoled myself with the thought that he probably needed them more than I did.

A few weeks before Christmas in 2017 a package arrived for me from a company called ‘Bamboo’ of whom I had never heard of before. Inside the package was a very nice pair of blue-striped socks, just my size.
     This year the same thing happened again! God really does move in mysterious ways.

Monday, 17 December 2018


by Roger Noons

a glass of port wine.

‘It was when I read cleavage, good to perfect that I thought of you.’
    She frowned.
    ‘It’s a description of Turquoise, a blue-green mineral, prized as a gemstone and when you said your birthday is in December, I had to buy it.’
    ‘It’s beautiful.’
    ‘Shall I put it on you?’
    Grinning, she nodded. He walked around behind her, moved her hair onto one shoulder and lowered the pendant to an inch above the neckline of her dress. He fastened the clasp allowing his fingertips to brush the back of her neck.
    She shivered, jumped up and rushed to the mirror.
    ‘If you don’t like it, they will change—’
    ‘Jon, it’s beautiful, I’m sure I’ll not do it justice.’
    ‘But you will my darling. A beautiful object for a beautiful girl.’

Marie studied the pendant, smiled into her dressing table mirror. Apart from when he was away, representing King and Country, he had told her every day that she was beautiful. She would wear it tonight, she decided; her fiftieth birthday, their thirtieth wedding anniversary. She would give him her hand mirror so that he could see it as she wheeled him into the restaurant.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Alternative Christmas

by Janet Howson

Two Cobras

It seemed a good idea at the time. I knew we would not be arriving back from New Zealand until the morning of Christmas Eve with the almost certainty of jet lag, a case full of clothes needing to be washed and piles of Christmas cards to be opened and arrayed around the room. I resolved not to put up a tree and had, previous to the holiday, just displayed the minimum of Christmas decorations that appeared annually. So, the thought of cooking a turkey with all the trimmings appalled me and probably would have ruined my time in New Zealand. I told myself I did it year after year, for my family, my mother, my brother his children and ‘the dog’. I was due a rest.
I congratulated myself on my decision as we arrived back in the UK to be met by snow piled on top of our car that we had left in a friend’s drive who lived conveniently close to the station. The house was of arctic temperature and I spent the night wrapped in my dressing gown in bed unable to sleep both because of the time difference and my freezing feet, hands and nose. Thank goodness I did not have to tackle all the cooking and preparations the following day.
The alarm went off and I extracted myself from my cocoon and got up to find the central heating had not come on. I groaned. Better check the thermostat before going into a wild panic. I put on my slipper boots and descended the stairs. The thermostat was on but on checking the timer I realised we had not altered it from the holiday setting which did not include an early start. I sighed a breath of relief and reset it. Problem one solved.
Problem two soon raised its head. I had forgotten in my state of exhaustion last night, to take the bread and milk out of the freezer. The bread could be toasted in its frozen state but I wasn’t too sure about milk. Oh well, toast, marmalade and green tea.
I knew that Catherine and Christopher would not be arriving until midday, if that. Neither of them are known to be particularly punctual. My brother would arrive at the same time with our mother and his children would meet us at the venue at 1pm. That all seemed quite simple.
I decided not to wake my husband who, going by the snoring, had slept soundly. Instead I tackled the opening of the cards as I drank my tea, sorting them into size as to where I would position them in my lounge. This done I picked up my e mails that had grown to mammoth proportions, reviewed my face book and checked the photos of our holiday had all been successfully posted. I then took all the washing out of the suitcases we had discarded at the bottom of the stairs and put it into the machine. It wouldn’t all fit in so I made a ceremonious pile in the kitchen to be put on later.
Problem three soon became evident as I attempted to have a power shower which always revived me and woke me up. The water continued to run cold. I had reset the heating but not the water. Silently cursing myself I reset it and counted in my head when it would be ready for me to use. I would use the time to unpack the rest of the case and sort out the various Christmas presents I had bought in New Zealand.
I was sorting out the presents into piles in the front room when I heard the torrential rain. Wonderful, I thought, all we need with four of the guests driving miles. The remaining snow will turn into mush and because it was so cold, it may end up as treacherous black ice. I just had to hope they all drove carefully and that there was no accident on the notorious M25 that would hold them all up.
The noise of the rain woke my husband who appeared, weary eyed complaining of feeling a headache coming on. I administered a paracetamol, explained about the shower and lack of milk and then finished off unpacking completely.
An hour later we were showered, dressed and waiting for my brother and mother to arrive. It seemed an age before the doorbell went and I answered it to let in my brother pulling two suitcases and my mother clutching a Sainsbury’s Christmas cake with a box of crackers balanced precariously on the top. My brother had to revisit the car three times to bring in the presents, the alcohol (his contribution to Christmas) and last and not least ‘the dog’.
I explained that Christopher and Catherine were still to arrive, but shouldn’t be long and as by cue my mobile burst into action and I discovered a text from Catherine saying they had left late and to go ahead without them and they would get there a.s.a.p. My brother then chipped in with the fact that his children had texted him separately saying they couldn’t make it as the car had failed its MOT and couldn’t be driven and of course there were no trains on Christmas day.
So reduced to the four of us and ‘the dog’ who was in a state of constant movement, his tail wagging furiously and slobbering slightly, we decided to position all the presents under the tree to be opened later when we were all together and make our way out to the restaurant and hopefully the other two would arrive shortly. My husband asked me for the hundredth time if I was sure I had checked dogs were allowed and I reassured him I had. We took the Christmas Crackers with us as I had been told that none would be provided. “Strange,” my mother had remarked, “no crackers in a restaurant at Christmas?” I told her all would be clear when we got there.
We parked easily as most of the population were ensconced in their houses or pubs in walking distance. It was very cold and we all had wrapped up in thick coats and scarves. It looked very much as if rain or snow or worse was about to happen, so umbrellas were at the ready.
On entering the restaurant the first thing that hit us was the absence of any other bookings. One table at the end of the room had been set up with a crisp white cloth, cutlery and napkins. No Christmas decorations at all. It had been set up for eight people. I realised I should have phoned ahead to cancel two places. Our coats were taken and we led to the table and a lot of fuss was made as two settings were removed. ‘The dog’ was ensconced under the table and secured to a leg with his lead. I immediately regretted allowing my coat to have been taken as the cold hit me. My husband said I was making a fuss as it was perfectly warm enough and he was fine in a short -sleeved shirt. My mother backed me up and my brother said it was a bit chilly so out voted my husband enquired if the heating could be turned on to be told they could not do that as it had not been working for a week but they would bring in a blow heater.
Settled in with the blow heater, warming our feet but not a lot else, we looked at the menu, which was fairly limited, my mother asked if she could have a children’s menu and they said were there children coming and she said no it was for her as she didn’t eat as much as she did due to indigestion and her false teeth plate having a crack in it. “We only allow children our children’s menu,” the waiter replied. My mother sniffed disapprovingly probably making a mental note not to tip him. ‘The dog’ was being placated with biscuits that my brother was feeding him but the waiters were eyeing him suspiciously and giving the table a wide birth.
After twenty minutes my husband said we should order and Catherine and Christopher would have to order when they arrived. We ordered two cobras a gin and tonic with ice and lemon and the same with no gin, “It gives me reflux,” my mother informed us all, and a bowl of water for ‘the dog’. We then put in our order for food and sat back contemplating whether we ought to wait for the other two before pulling the crackers. It all seemed very quiet and the only other people we saw were a couple who entered and left quickly having collected a take away. I asked if we could have some music on but they said their player had broken down on Christmas Eve but one of the staff did a very good Ed Sheeren impression and was willing to sing but we declined the offer as none of us could remember him doing any Christmas songs.
The food arrived and still no sign of Catherine and Christopher despite various texts and calls on my part. The table looked particularly sad with two places missing, no Christmas decorations and ‘the dog’ had already pulled down the tinsel that I had thought to bring at the last minute to put round the edge of the table.
The food wasn’t particularly hot and mum didn’t like hers and was still sulking at the refusal of a child’s meal. The waiters hovered, whipping away any empty dish obviously intent on getting us to leave as quickly as possible so they could enjoy the rest of Christmas day at home. Then suddenly ‘the dog’ lurched forward still tied to a table leg, in obvious pursuit of something not obvious to any of us. The table toppled over with my brother attempting a rugby tackle on ‘the dog’ whose progress had been hampered by the trailing table. Mum screamed for help, my husband was too shocked to move and I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or take a photo on my phone for facebook. The result was a writhing heap of man, dog half empty dishes, glasses and the remains of the crackers. The waiters rushed forward to assist and between all of them the table was righted, ‘the dog’ and mum calmed and my husband regained his power of speech. He apologised profusely and my brother offered to pay for any damage.
Things moved very quickly. The bill was brought with undue haste and it was paid with undue haste and our coats were extracted from the hooks and helped on, then offered a dubious looking mint from a none too clean glass jar. Mum took three due to her indigestion, saving two for later. ‘The dog’ was dragged out completely oblivious of the disgrace he had brought on the family, no amount of tail wagging and doleful eyes could win us round.
The children were at home when we arrived back. Dispirited and glad to be home we recounted our experience. Both of them thought it was highly amusing ruing the fact they had missed it all.
Catherine wiped away the tears of laughter. “Well, what can you expect mum if you book up an Indian restaurant on Christmas day.”
Needless to say they did not open the following year and we had Christmas at home as usual.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

The Untrodden Snow

by Paula R C Readman

stale wine

‘Please, Megan I need more time.’ I shouted down the phone even though I’d promised myself I wouldn’t.
‘Mum, we’ve already talked this over. I need to get my life back on track. It’s a great opportunity for me. One, I’m sure, Dad would’ve wanted me to take. I need you to be pleased for me.’
‘I am. Of course, I am,’ I lied.
‘It’s been five years, Mum. We agreed that I would help run the business until you were back on your feet again, but if an opportunity arose then I had to take it.’
‘I know, but I thought you would’ve waited until I’m…’ I paused, not trusting myself.

 Five years ago, my world fell apart when Laurence left. No, not just my world, but Megan’s too. I couldn’t really expect her to put her life on hold forever. It’s supposed to get easier, but it doesn’t. All it does is turn you into a hard-headed dragon that roars selfishly at everyone around you.
I wanted Megan at home because she reminded me so much of her father, not just her looks, but her strength too. Oh, she’s right, I needed to regain my independence, but America. It’s too far away.  
‘Look Mum,’ she said, her voice cracking. ‘Once I’ve found a place of my own, you’ll be able to join me.’
I knew she didn’t want to upset me, but I couldn’t stop the feeling that she was deserting me too.  I wanted to say I’m stronger now, but I didn’t feel it in my heart.
I heard her exhale, and felt her trepidation, but I held back not wanting the selfish dragon to scream down the line, ‘it’s all right for you, but ‘what about me?’
‘Mum, think about it. A change of scenery will do you good.’ Her voice lightened. ‘You can come and stay for as long as you want. When the time is right, maybe you could sell up and join me here. Anyway, at least think about it. I know it has been hard on you, but Dad would’ve wanted you to enjoy your life.  Please remember Mum, I miss him too.’
‘I know, Love.’
Her voice softened. ‘Mum, you really need to start thinking about yourself. You’re still young.’
‘Old head on young shoulders,’ I muttered.
‘What? What did you say, Mum, I couldn’t hear you?’
‘Nothing darling,’ I said brightly, not wishing her to feel guilty about leaving.
‘Mum, they’re calling my plane. I’ve got to go now.’
‘Promise, you’ll call me as soon as you touch down.’ I said mustering a cheerful voice, wanting to give her something positive.
‘Of course I will. I love you, Mum.’

Normally the ‘Rambler’s Rest,’ would’ve been fully booked in the winter, just as it was in the summer months, but I wanted Christmas alone, so I allowed the bookings to dwindle.  It surprised Laurence and I just how many people wanted to escape Christmas, so they booked a holiday away from it all.
For the first time I understood their need to be on their own. I hoped the time I spent alone would allow me to start planning a new future. As I stood by the French windows, at the back of the property, wine glass in hand, staring at the vast, empty moorland, I found myself watching the first snowfall of the season. As the imperfections of the world disappeared under a white quilt, the snowflakes became a flood blocking out even the pale light of the full moon.
 I found comfort in knowing that no two flakes were alike. Their uniqueness mirrored my own situation. I wondered if Laurence was still out there. Was he watching the snowflakes falling too? Had it really been five years since our last hurried goodbye and his promised return?
‘Time changes everything,’ I muttered, drawing the curtains, shutting out the coldness before crossing to the fireplace, and adding another log to the dying embers.

As the fire erupted back into life, the log spat a spray of red and yellow sparks into the dimly lit room, reminding me that another Christmas had passed with no words from him.  I poured another drink, and stretched out on the sofa, offering up a toast to my past.
Megan was right; I couldn’t expect her to stay forever.
I sipped the wine, not really tasting it and watched the small dancing flames reinventing themselves, flaring up and then dying back. I tried recalling the sound of Laurence’s voice, the touch of his lips and warmth of his embrace.

With a sudden shudder, I woke.  The early morning sun leaked through a gap in the curtains, revealing the neglect that surrounded me. Among the detritus of discarded rubbish, dirty plates, and cold cups of tea that littered the dusty surfaces, my eyes settled on the collection of Christmas cards.  They reminded me how much love there was still in my life.   
I ran my tongue around my mouth trying to free it from the stale taste of the wine before I sat up.  Aware for the first time, I was still on the sofa. I rubbed my forehead and tried to remember the last time I had given the place a damn good clean.
A little unsteady, I stood, and kicked the empty wine bottle away. It rolled under the sofa as if it too was ashamed of what it had done. I staggered to the bathroom and splashed cold water onto my face. As I patted it dry with a musty smelling towel, I looked up.
The mirror above the sink revealed another unwelcome friend. She stared back at me with questioning grey eyes.
‘I know,’ I answered her. ‘I’ll take a shower.’
Stripping off, I stepped under the shower. The force of hot water took me back to the long hot summer when Laurence and I first met.  

I’d just turned sixteen and was on my first holiday without my parents. Tall, lanky, and unsure of myself, I stayed with my widowed, Aunt Iris. She belonged to a ramblers club.
One day as we waited outside a pub on the moors for the rest of the group to arrive, a tall, suntanned lad with fair hair and the brightest sky-blue eyes I had ever seen, joined us. As Laurence’s parents and my Aunt chatted together, he strode happily along beside me.
During that time, I learnt how passionate Laurence was about the untamed moors and the natural world around us.
‘Oh Sally, this landscape is so beautiful,’ he said as we followed the footpath ahead of the others. He would point out things of interest to me, from butterflies to flowers, stone circles, to circling buzzards.  Soon I realised I had a rival for his love, but I understood why he loved her so. 
I couldn’t compete with her wild beauty, but I acknowledged his passion. She wasn’t a selfish lover, sharing a deep sense of freedom with all who travelled her many footpaths and bridleways under a clear blue sky where the only sound heard was that of a skylark descending, with nothing around for miles, but a sea of grasses, heathers, gorse, and of course the sheep.
‘Never be deceived by her gentle beauty,’ Laurence warned me as we wandered along hand in hand.  ‘There’s many hidden dangers among her dips and hollows.’

After stepping out of the shower, I rubbed my hair dry and smirked into the mirror asking, ‘Why must all good things come to an end?’
It would’ve been far easier if he’d fallen sick and died, or even divorced me, but the sense of loss I suffered is too hard to bear.  Death is final. There are no ifs or buts. And, divorce, at least you can shout at them. With Laurence’s disappearance, there’s no body, no one to shout at, just many unanswered questions.

For years, Laurence and I had promised ourselves a winter holiday at the ‘Rambler’s Rest’ in Yorkshire, where our love first began. On Christmas morning, Laurence teased me awake. 
‘Are you awake, Sally?’ he whispered, running his fingertips down my chin, neck and between my breasts.
‘Please, Laurence,’ I mumbled sleepily, ‘allow me time to wake up first, my darling.’
He kissed my lips, parting them with his tongue.
‘Not that, my sweet, as nice as it is.’ He laughed and kissed me again. ‘Let’s go for an early morning walk.’

We wrapped up warm against the bitter, cutting winds and headed out.  Our footsteps the first to break the virginal snow as we set off as soon as it was light enough to see. By midday, we headed back.  The wind had dropped and the sun, though cold, was bright.
As we removed our boots in the utility room, Mrs Williamson popped her head round the door. ‘When you’re ready, please will you join me in my private dining room for Christmas dinner?”
‘Of course, we’d love too.’  After showering, Laurence and I got dressed up for the occasion. As I dried my hair, my husband commented on the falling snow.  
‘We got back just in time,’ he said as the snow obscured our footprints. 
‘Thank you for allowing us to join you,’ I said as Annie showed us to our seats.  
‘It’s my pleasure. So nice to share my last Christmas here with you both, especially as I’ve known you two for such a long time,’ she chuckled.
‘Your last Christmas?’ Laurence said, his fork hovering in midair.
‘Yes, since my husband passed away, my son suggested now would be a good time to put ‘Rambler’s Rest’ up for sale. The time has come for me to do something else. Travel maybe. ’
Laurence’s face lit up, and I knew what he was thinking.
‘I’m sure it’s a lot of hard work on your own.’ he said, putting down his fork.’
‘Oh it’s been worth it. I’ve enjoyed every day and will miss waking up to the wonderful views, and of course all my lovely guests. I hope whoever buys it enjoys the same life I’ve had living here.’  

No sooner than we had climbed into bed that night, Laurence hugged me tightly. ‘I’ve been thinking, Sally, isn’t it about time we followed our hearts and…’
I placed a finger on his lips. ‘I knew it…you want to take over ‘Rambler’s Rest’?’
He nodded, and kissed my fingertips. ‘Downsizing and escape city living will do us both the world of good and our daughter too.’ 
Before Annie handed over the keys to us, she explained, ‘being so isolated here, anyone caught out in bad weather finds out quickly it’s an unforgiving place. Be prepared for every occasion. Keep plenty of stores in as you can be cut off for months.’

‘Rambler’s Rest’ became a real family affair and a Mecca too for the dedicated walkers, who stay every year. During the summer months, some of Megan’s university friends helped us out to earn extra pocket money.
After a few mild winters, Annie’s warnings seemed unfounded until one bitter cold morning five years ago. If anyone had warned me what would’ve happened that day, I wouldn’t have believed it.
By late afternoon, it had warmed slightly. Busy in the kitchen sorting out evening meals for our guests, I had the radio on, checking the weather forecast.
‘The weather’s on the turn. The sky’s full of it.  Laurence said, coming in with a bucket of coal and an arm full of logs. His blue eyes shone bright as his cheeks and nose from the cold outside. ‘Hmm, it smells lovely in here.  You’re making me feel hungry.’
‘Have the Highsmiths returned yet?’ I asked, peering through the serving hatch into the dining room.
‘I haven’t seen them. The Roberts are in the lounge reading, and the Longmans went to get ready for dinner.’ Laurence said as he added some coal and another log to the range before emptying the rest of the coal into the box beside the burner.
‘I’m worried about the Highsmiths.’ I checked on the turkey.
‘I’m sure they’ll be back soon.’ He looked out the window, at the gathering storm clouds crossing the pale grey horizon.
‘I just hope so. Anyone can see there’s bad weather on the way.’
He gave me a peck on the cheek. ‘Stop worrying. The smell of your food will have them rushing back,’
I began loading the dishwasher. ‘They arrived with no all-weathers-gear and went out this morning wearing designer trainers. Being Londoners, they might think it’s like a stroll in Hyde Park on a winter’s day.’
‘I’ll go and have a word with the others. They might have seen them. Hopefully they’re keeping to the main paths.’
Laurence returned just as I was emptying the dishwasher, his face ashen.
‘What is it, love?’
‘The Roberts said they had seen them up by the old alum works.’
‘No, what were they doing up there.’
‘The Roberts told them to start heading back, but they wanted to finish exploring the works. What a pair of idiots!’ Laurence snapped. ‘I’d best go and see if I can find them. To make matters worse it’s snowing now, Sally.’  
‘Laurence, you can’t go on your own. It’s a good hour’s walk from here.’ I followed him through to the utility room.  
‘Hopefully, they’re heading back. Call the rescue team, and warn them. Let’s hope we don’t need them.’ He pulled on his hiking boots, waterproofs, and an insulated jacket before grabbing a survival backpack. On opening the back door, a blast of cold wind hit us. ‘I’ll be back before you know it,’ he said and disappeared out into the swirling snowflakes.

With no last goodbye kiss, not even an ‘I love you.’ Laurence rushed off to look for the Highsmiths. I forced the door shut behind him, and hurried to make the call.
‘Roger, it’s Sally from Rambler’s Rest.  Laurence has gone to the old alum works to see if he can find two of our missing guests.  Yes, he knows the weather is closing in, but he didn’t want to leave them out there. Be careful Roger, I’ll see you soon.’  
After feeding the rest of guests and supplying hot drinks to some of the rescue party who arrived back tired, cold and unsuccessful in their search, I stood, by the window, hot chocolate in hand, as night drew in.  
Through the snow flurries, I saw a group of figures, little more than crude outlines, their heads down, battling against the wind, which was trying to erase them.  Once they crossed the threshold, I searched among the familiar faces unable to find Laurence.
The Highsmiths huddled together by a roaring fire, holding mugs of hot chocolate while through chattering teeth they thanked everyone for finding them. The rescuers stood round despondently, waiting for the storm to break so they could look for Laurence. After a week of searching, they finally had to call it off.  
After thanking them all, I went onto the snow driven moors and screamed out his name, begging for his return.

With Megan’s help, I focused on the business setting our loss to one side. With a bright smile, I sent my guests off hiking for the day, though secretly, I hoped that one of them would stumble upon Laurence’s backpack, mobile, or even a boot. Anything that would let us know what had become of him, but of course, they were here to enjoy their holidays, not to free me from my sadness.
The first winter without Laurence left me feeling like Catherine Ernshaw as I longed for the return of my Heathcliff. Sometimes, when I was preoccupied with cleaning, a flash of brilliant light would illuminate the room. Dashing to the window, I was sure I could see his familiar form striding across the flat, valley floor towards the stile that marked our boundary.
As he clambered over, he would give me a wave, his signal to have his glass of brandy ready by the roaring fire in the lounge to take the chill from his bones.
Now dressed, I jammed the wet towels in the washing machine, and noticed the calendar. Three months had passed since Megan went to America. She’s right about a change of scenery, though I’m not sure whether America is what I need right now.
 Outside, I hugged my coat to me. The sharp, cold air, takes my breath away as I stroll towards the stile. A sudden ‘kiew’ makes me look up.  Overhead a buzzard circles, soaring high against the white sky before disappearing from view.
‘Oh Laurence, my darling.’ I let my tears fall, knowing the time has come.
‘Kiew, Kiew,’ echoes across the icy landscape, pulling me out of my thoughts. Above the buzzard had returned, and with it, its mate.
As they circled, I acknowledged them, knowing that the moorland mistress has won. I whispered, ‘He’s yours to keep.’
I climb back over the stile, and see the signs of rebirth in the melting snow as blades of dull green with the drooping heads of snowdrops nodding gently in the cold breeze. They are the ones Laurence and I planted during our first spring here so long ago.
Maybe it was just my imagination, though I like to think its Laurence’s way of letting me know it is time for me to move on.
He may be lost to me, taken by the mistress of the moor, who has his heart, body and soul. Wherever Laurence’s final resting place is, he is not alone, with the buzzards, curlews, and the standing stones.
I hurry back to the warmth of the ‘Rambler’s Rest.’ Tomorrow, I shall wish Megan a happy New Year, and ask if she’s ready for a visit from her Mum.
Like snowflakes falling, I’ll take things one step at a time, and who knows where the future may lead me.   

Friday, 14 December 2018

Midnight Mass

by Geraldine McCarthy 

hot toddy

Fairy lights adorned the trees in the churchyard. They shone silver and white, like pearls on a thin piece of string.  Myself and Mick mounted the steps to the church door, sure-footed, despite the coffee-brandies we’d downed in Murray’s to fortify ourselves against the cold night air. Elderly neighbours murmured ‘Happy Christmas’, while teenagers skulked at a distance from their parents. It was too late for children to be out; bar one little girl, in a pink woollen coat, with rosy cheeks and an inquisitive turn of the head.
My heels clicked on the tiles as I made my way up the centre aisle.   I went half-way to the altar, before sliding into a seat. Mick followed, scowling. He was a back-of-the-church man, but made an exception for tonight. I sat on the hard pew and plunged my hands into the pockets of my faux-fur coat.  We weren’t weekly Mass-goers, or even monthly ones.  I clenched and unclenched my fists, while Mick fidgeted with his handkerchief.  
The choir started up ‘Away in a Manger’ and the priest glided onto the altar. We responded to the prayers on auto-pilot, years of childhood conditioning kicking in. The little girl in the pink coat squirmed between her parents three seats ahead of us, playing with a baby doll, giving her a bottle. If she were mine I would have had her tucked up in bed, waiting for Santy. 
The priest began the homily and I tried to clear my head of brandy fumes, and disappointments, and unease. He spoke of the Holy Family, of their unity, of the perfect love between them. My mind wandered to the party at Wilson’s afterwards, the hot whiskeys that would be drunk, the jokes that would be told. Myself and Mick could stay there until morning if we wanted. We had no one to rush home to.
We didn’t go to Communion. Mick jigged his right leg, gave a small sigh. At last the choir sang ‘Silent Night’ and we were free to go. As I genuflected at the end of the pew I noticed the small girl run to the crib with her parents, her right arm outstretched, pointing to the baby Jesus.  I turned around but Mick was gone for road. A tear ran down my cheek, and I followed in my husband’s wake, as I had done these past twenty years.  

About the author

Geraldine writes realistic flash fiction, fiction and short stories and occasionally YA. 

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Me Ilex, You ...

by Roger Noons

a  cup of mulled cider

All around the garden, we’re agreed. He shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a pair of secateurs; he’s a maniac. No idea of where or how to cut. If I could afford it, I’d hire a lawyer, take him to court, have an order made against him. Of course this time of year is the worst, thinks he’s got carte blanche to attack my missus and me. Encouraged by his wife, he ’s in the garden as soon as he’s finished his breakfast until she calls him for lunch.
    ‘I’ve promised next door they can have a goodly-sized bunch with lots of berries and Mother likes to have some for the hall.’ She tells him. ‘We could take any spare to church for the Christmas Fayre.’
    ‘Yes, dear, that’s a good idea.’
    Not that she ever ventures to our end, might muck up her fancy shoes, get dried leaves in her hair or mud on her skirt. Last year I tried to trick them into eating a few berries, shook some of my wife’s leaves over the herbs. You see our lovely, rosy drupes are poisonous to people, but those two are not quite that daft. Mind you he’s not very bright, went to the Garden Centre and asked the woman there if he could buy a mistletoe shrub. I bet she laughed. When we heard his wife telling the next door neighbour, we all had a titter.
    I think I might have got one across him this year though. We had a wet September, storms day after day were misery for birds. Our leaves are good at shedding water, we’re dry in no time. A pair of blackbirds had a second clutch late on, and when the weather was bad we provided shelter. Along with thrushes, they enjoy eating our berries and the bonus is they distribute our seeds. So we shall encourage them to visit us during the Festive Season. He’ll still come carolling along with his pruning tongs, but if there are no berries we’ll not suffer as much. I fear that will send him elsewhere for his crowns of thorns, but in this life it’s every tree for himself.

About the author

Roger is a regular contributor to Cafe Lit.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Secret Code

by Copper Rose

mulled wine

”What are you doing?”

“Packing my special case.”
“What for?”

“We’re heading out.”
“Where to?”

“You know.”

“No, I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Tommy winked at Dick. “Sure you do. They just gave us the secret code to head out.”

“Secret code?”

Tommy put his fingers to his lips. “Not so loud. Somebody’s going to hear you and blow our cover.”

“What cover?”

“We don’t want anyone to know where we’re going.”

“I don’t know where we’re going.”

“To get the drugs, you idiot.”

“Why are we going to get drugs?”

“Because of the secret code.”

“What secret code?”

“The trees are naked and ready to go,” Tommy whispered close to Dick’s ear.

Dick stared at Tommy. “That’s not a secret code to go and get drugs.”

”It’s not?” Tommy held a pair of socks in his hand above the open suitcase.”

“No, it means they’re having a Christmas tree decorating contest down at Elk’s Club.”

About the author

 Copper Rose perforates the edges of the page while writing unusual stories from the heart of Wisconsin. She also understands there really is something about pie.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Spiced Wine

by Lynn Clement

spiced wine 

 ‘T’was the night before Christmas, when after our dinner

Not a villain was stirring, not even one sinner,
The detective’s stocking was hung up with care,
In hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there,
The snow it lay softly on the footpath,
The copper’s wife was taking a bath,
The camera pans in on the tranquil scene,
Fooling us all, because then there’s a scream!
The Christmas murder has begun,
The nation tunes in for ghoulish fun,
Inspector’s phone rings by his bedside,
We know what is coming; he’s offered a ride,
Down to the village through the fake snow,
On the edge of our seats - we viewers go,
Will we see blood, or an axe, or a rope?
Maybe a bad man selling some dope,
The Christmas tree lights the village square,
But - by now we all know there’s a murder done there,
The body is laid in the Santa’s grotto,
Pinned on his shirt is a Christmas motto,
The detective will solve that; it’s a clue you see,
We puzzle to fathom it, you and me,
We’re gripped by the gruesome amidst fairy lights,
When in walks an elf in some lurid green tights,
‘It was you,’ says the copper pointing his way,
‘You done it and I can prove it today.’
The elf tried to run but was stopped when his bells,
Got caught in the doorway – we heard his yells!
‘You left this note on the victim’s chest,
I recognise your writing; it’s not the best,
You killed Santa here in this shed,
And pinned the note on his coat of red.
‘Elf and safety applies’, so it says,
‘There’s no way on earth I’m pulling your sleigh.
The reindeers have fled because you are cruel,
I’ll get revenge you big fat fool.’
Take him down and book him Jones,
I’ve had enough I’m going home.’
The Inspector trudges through wind and snow,
He pulls his coat to, his nose all aglow,
His wife is waiting with the red wine,
There’s no way a murder will stop her good time,
We watch fulfilled as he goes out of sight,
‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!’

Monday, 10 December 2018

A Song for Christmas

    by  Steve Carr  

                                                           hot chocolate                                                        

I was sixteen.
Ma’s upright piano stood against the wall in the dining room where it had been since Ma and Pa were married. It was Grandma's piano, but she gave it to my Ma as a wedding present. It was made of mahogany and Ma polished it almost every day. I was sitting at it just plucking randomly on the black keys when Ma placed a bright red runner across the top of the piano and a few minutes later placed the crèche on the runner. She arranged the figures of Mary and Joseph around the baby Jesus lying in a manger.
“You’re late puttin’ that out this year, Ma,” I said.
“Each year there are more and more boxes of Christmas decorations to sort through,” she said.
I strummed several keys with an unmelodic result and heaved a loud sigh.  
“Have you decided yet which song you’re going to do for the Christmas service?” she asked.
I rapidly tapped the D flat key three times, producing a discordant sound. “Not yet, Ma,” I said.
This was going to be my first solo in front of the congregation of the Piney Creek Baptist Church, and on Christmas morning to-boot, so I wanted it to be perfect, something that everyone would remember. 
“Christmas is only two days away,” she said.
“I know, Ma,” I said. I closed the cover over the keys and got up from the stool. “Where’s Pa?”
“He’s out in the barn gettin’ the wagon ready for tonight’s hayride,” she said. “If you’re not going to practice your music you should go help him.”
“Yes, Ma,” I said.
Sitting on the coffee table was the three-tiered candy dish that Ma set out every Christmas. It looked fancy, like it was made of etched glass, but it was plastic. Pa had given it to Ma their first Christmas together as a married couple, back when as Pa always liked to say, “They didn’t have two sticks to rub together to make a fire.” They still didn’t have much money, but me and my little sister, Kaylee, never went without. Starting on the twelfth day before Christmas, Ma loaded all three tiers of the candy dish with homemade chocolate fudge, sugar cookies topped with icing made from powdered sugar and colored with blue, green and red food dyes, and possibly every kind of nut known to mankind. I took a cookie from the top tier, stuck it between my teeth, and held it there while I put on my coat, hat and gloves.
I bit into the cookie as I opened the door. The front yard was covered with a light dusting of snow. On the other side of the road our corn fields looked bleak and barren, with broken, brown stalks sticking up here and there out of the frozen ground. I swallowed the piece of cookie and marveled at how the icing tasted like their color, although Ma never added flavoring to it. The red tasted like cherry, the green like mint, and the blue like berries.
I stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind me. As I ate the rest of the cookie I watched Canadian geese flying in a V formation as they crossed the sky. Kaylee came around the side of the house and ran up the porch steps. She had our pet Manx cat, Stinky, in her arms. Stinky was the same age as Kaylee, ten. Kaylee had tied a large silver bow to Stinky’s collar. The cat was used to being decorated for the Christmas holidays. Kaylee had been doing it to her since both of them were four.
“Pa says I can go on the hayride tonight,” she said excitedly. “If Ma says it’s okay.”
She nuzzled Stinky’s light gray fur. “Do you know what song you're going to sing?”
I brushed cookie crumbs from my coat front. “Not yet,” I said. “Why?”
“I like that song about the drummer boy,” she said. “Bum, bum, bumty, bum, bum,” she intoned. “That one.”
“Yeah, I know it,” I said. “I’ll think about it.” I started down the steps.
“Do you think Ma is going to say no?” she asked.
I looked over my shoulder at the worried, gloomy look on her face. “I’ll talk to her if she does,” I said.
“You’re the best brother ever,” she shouted. She went into the house loudly humming the tune to “The Little Drummer Boy”.
I walked around the house and to the barn. The ground crunched beneath the soles of my sneakers.  The warmth inside the barn enveloped me as I walked in and closed the door. Pa was up in the loft and pitching hay into the wagon that was positioned beneath the loft. He was wearing his favorite blue flannel shirt, the one Ma had given him two Christmases before.
“I’m here to help,” I yelled up to him.
He dumped a pitchfork full of hay into the wagon. “Shouldn’t you be workin’ on your song?” he asked.
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” I said. “I just have to decide which song I’m going to do.”
“I’ve always been partial to “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” he said as he leaned on the handle of the pitchfork.
“I can’t sing that in church,” I said.
“I guess not,” he said.
As Pa dropped hay into the wagon I spread it out, building a comfortable bed. Pa did the hayride during Easter and Christmas for the teenagers in Piney Creek. Being a small town, there was usually no more than twenty teenagers who participated. Pa started doing it when I turned thirteen and I suspected he enjoyed it more than I did.
Ann Chernay sat with me huddled under a quilt with cloth cut-outs of Christmas trees, candy canes and reindeer sewn onto the squares. She had her head on my shoulder and the coconut fragrance of her shampoo filled my senses. I was certain I was in love.
Between the clouds, bright stars glittered in the night sky. When the crescent moon appeared, its glow blanketed the fields in pale moonlight. The rhythmic clip-clop from the hooves of the horses was as relaxing as a lullaby. Pa had strung small, silver bells on the sides of the wagon. They tinkled gently as the wagon rocked and swayed.
We sang “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Kaylee sat on the seat next to Pa, snuggled against his side.
Ann didn’t attend Piney Creek Baptist Church. I don’t know how she found out that I was going to sing a solo in church, but she asked, “Are you nervous about singing at your church on Christmas?”
“I can’t decide what song to sing,” I said.
“Do you know “Ave Maria”?” she asked.
“That’s not a Christmas song.” I sighed. “I’m beginnin’ to wish I had never told Reverend Smith I’d do a song at all.”
When Pa pulled the wagon into our driveway, everyone quickly jumped down and rushed into the warmth of our house. Ma had placed trays of sandwiches, cookies in the shape of Christmas wreaths with green butter cream frosting, and chewy Rice Krispy Treats, on the dining room table. The entire house smelled like hot apple cider that Ma served to everyone in red plastic cups
When her parents arrived to take her home, Ann kissed me on the cheek before she went out the door. “I’ll be at your church Christmas morning just to hear what song you select,” she said.
“Oh, great,” I said. My stomach quickly tied itself into a knot.
The morning before Christmas day, Ma and Pa cleared the place in front of the living room window where the Christmas tree would go. Ma placed a white sheet on the floor and scattered silver glitter on it. Pa placed the tree stand in the center of the sheet and Ma bunched it up around the edges to give it the likeness of miniature snow drifts. Boxes of tree ornaments were stacked against the wall.
“You comin’ with me to get the tree or are you practicin’ your song?” Pa asked me.
I glanced at the piano and was overcome with a sense of dread. “I’ll go with you,” I answered.
I was happy that Ma didn’t insist that I practice my song, or any song for that matter.
Pa and I put on our boots, coats, hats, and gloves and went out the back door. The ice crystals on the frozen ground shimmered in the dull morning sunlight that was filtered through thin, wispy clouds. Inside the barn, Pa hitched our mare, Gertie, to the slay. Before leaving the barn Pa handed me the axe. He led Gertie down the driveway and into the woods while I walked alongside him. The runners of the sled glided easily over the icy ground. The air was heavily scented with pine.
“Your Ma says you’re still strugglin’ with findin’ the right song to sing,” he said.
I grunted. “Nothin’ I think of is what I want to sing,” I said.
“Nothin’ will gum up the works than over-thinkin’ somethin’,” he said. “Sing whatever you think the baby Jesus would want to hear. It’s his birthday, after all.”
We didn’t go very far into the woods before we found the right tree.
“It looks like it grew specially to stand in our living room,” Pa said.
For the second year in a row I cut down our Christmas tree. We tied it on the sled and Gertie pulled it back to the barn.
For Christmas Eve Ma fixed a ham topped with pineapple rings for dinner. Ma always said the Christmas Eve dinner was “light,” which it never was. Along with the ham it included mashed sweet potatoes topped with miniature marshmallows, steamed asparagus, homemade applesauce, yeast rolls, and for dessert a Yule log smothered with chocolate icing. She covered the table with the white lace tablecloth that my grandmother passed on to her, and set candles in silver candlesticks on each end of the table. Before dinner began I played “O Holy Night” on the piano while my family stood around me and we sang it.
Ma timed that we began decorating the tree at the same time the movie “White Christmas” started on the television. Pa strung the lights on the tree, and then Kaylee and Ma hung the strands of popcorn and cranberries. We all hung the ornaments while Stinky lurked about under the tree and swatted at the hanging bulbs. Kaylee had attached a large green bow to the cat’s collar. Pa put the antique golden angel on the top of the tree. It had a small key on the back that when turned the tune to the song “Angels We Have Heard on High” played.  He turned the tree lights on just as Bing Crosby sang “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”
Like every Christmas Eve, Ma and Pa brought out one gift for my sister and me. Kaylee tore apart the shiny blue paper that was wrapped around a large box that Pa had placed on her lap. When she opened the box she screamed with delight. She pulled out a large stuffed gorilla, the one she had seen in the window of Tiswell’s Department Store. As she hugged it, I said, “I thought you said you were getting too old for dolls.”
“This isn’t a doll,” she replied curtly.
Stinky hopped up onto the sofa, sniffed the gorilla, meowed softly, and then laid down against Kaylee’s leg.
For several minutes I stared at the flat package wrapped in red tissue paper that Ma had set on my knees before I opened it. It was a framed photograph of Grandma sitting at the piano. She was the first person to tell me I had musical talent.  The smile on her face in the photograph was inscrutable. There was an envelope attached to the back. The words “For Music School” were written on it. Inside there was a hundred dollar bill.
Before we went to bed we went out on the porch and watched as large snowflakes began to fall.
I awoke Christmas morning not thinking about the presents that would be under the tree, or the aroma wafting from the kitchen of Dutch baby pancakes, something Ma only made on Christmas mornings. Tunes of Christmas songs cluttered my brain. Most of the night my dreams had been filled with panicky scenarios where my voice was gone or I forgot how to play the piano. I climbed out of bed with a headache. I dressed in my best pants, put on the tie Pa had given me for my birthday, and joined the rest of my family in the kitchen. Ma had placed a large Dutch baby heavily sprinkled with powdered sugar on my plate. I sat down at the table, avoiding looking at anyone, although I could feel their eyes on me.
“Merry Christmas,” Ma said as she kissed me on the forehead. She put a glass of orange juice by my plate.
“Merry Christmas, Ma,” I said, staring at the puffed-up pancake in front of me.
Peripherally I could see Kaylee stuffing large forkfuls of her Dutch baby into her mouth, hoping to speed breakfast along in order to get to the business of tearing open the gifts.
“Don’t let this singin’ at the church ruin Christmas for you,” my Pa said to me after several minutes of silence from everyone.
It had been a long time since I had done it, but right there, while staring at my Dutch baby, I began to sob. It surprised my family as much as it surprised me. They affectionately huddled around me as if I had just told them I was dying from a terminal illness.
“Let’s go open the gifts,” Pa said. “That’ll make you feel a little better.”
“Yay!” Kaylee exclaimed as she ran from the kitchen.
In the living room, gifts had been placed under the tree during the night by Ma and Pa. Kaylee passed them out and as we opened them, for that little while, I forgot all about singing at the church service.
Afterward, leaving wrapping, ribbons, bows, and our gifts, strewn about the room, we put on our boots, coats, hats and gloves, and left the house. There was about a foot of soft snow on the ground and our boots sunk in it as we walked to the car. I helped Pa clear the snow from the windows and then got in the back seat with Kaylee.
“Here we go,” Pa said as he started the car.
Kaylee grabbed my hand and held it all the way to the church.
The pews were full as they always were for the Christmas service but we found a pew near the front of the church. Reverend Smith’s pulpit was wrapped in gold foil with a large red bow in the front.
Reverend Smith was a tall, lanky man, who moved very slowly despite not being very old. As he crossed the podium he glanced at me and smiled warmly. Once behind the pulpit he gazed out at the congregation. “This morning, instead of starting the service with a prayer, we’re going to begin it with a gift to our Lord and Savior. Someone most of you know has a song prepared for the occasion of the miracle of the Christ Child’s birth.” He nodded to me and then gestured for me to come up onto the podium.
My mouth was dry and the palms of my hands were sweaty. I could hear the thumping of my heart.
“Sing what your heart tells you to sing,” Pa whispered to me as I stood up.
I passed by the piano and walked up to the podium. I looked at the expectant expressions on Ma and Kaylee’s faces. And then I looked at Pa who winked at me. I heard his voice echoing in my head, “It’s his birthday, after all.”
I opened my mouth, and sang.
“Happy Birthday to you,
“Happy Birthday to you,
“Happy Birthday, dear Jesus,
“Happy Birthday to you.”

About the author

Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 230 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960.