Sunday, 15 December 2019


by Hannah Retallick

alcohol-free mulled wine

We must ask her where she’s from. Kevin’s certain it must be somewhere exotic. That skin, that hair, more Spanish than British, he says. We tut-tut. Everyone comes from everywhere these days, Kev – you can’t possibly tell. We’re all thinking it though.
The chapel is dark today. It’s raining hard outside. Kevin suddenly remembers something and off he goes, scatty as ever. We wind lights around our tree at the front by the alter, decorate each window sill, removing the cobwebs as we go, and try to find the tall candles from last year. It’s always us who does these jobs. Our hands are busy, but our minds are free to wander – our thoughts rest on the new girl, whom we’ve only met once but she was keen to help. She’s bent over a box of decorations, hitching up her grey jeans and pulling down her red jumper to cover the gap, takes out some gold glittery baubles, and eyes up the table with the hymn books near the entrance. We don’t decorate that. Someone should tell her.
We know her name; Seren. We had to lean in to catch the word. Welsh for star, apparently. Similar to ‘seven’ but an ‘r’ instead of a ‘v’, she told us that first Sunday morning.
Maybe she’s just Welsh then, Deborah says. Welsh Celts can be dark, you know, just like us Cornish. Have I ever told you that my great-grandfather was Welsh? Yes, Deborah, you have. Many times. You’re not Cornish though. Neither are we.
I’m going to ask her, says Carol, dropping the end of the tinsel that Deborah’s wrapping around our tree. Carol walks up to Seren, who has finished placing clusters of baubles on the table (not a bad idea really) and is now balancing on a step ladder – that girl is a brisk completer-finisher. Kevin hands down the giant nativity figures to her, which are for our outdoor crib. We usually leave that job to the men, most of whom are unblocking drains and putting up the outdoor lights. Deborah claims that heavy lifting and standing in the rain aren’t jobs for women because we’re too delicate. Speak for yourself, we murmur. She’s only Delicate Deborah when it suits her…
The nativity figures are rather heavy though. The Virgin Mary has a cracked nose from when she was dropped last year. They ought to be kept on the ground floor, we always say; it’s ridiculous to have to lug them up and down. And yet they’re always returned to the heavens in January.
We’re done with decorating, so we all drift towards the ladder too, encircling Seren. The Virgin Mary is safely on the ground, thank goodness, and Joseph is being placed into careful arms. Seren squats to the floor to put down the figure. Carol judges this a good, safe moment to say: Good job, lass. Where you from?
Abrupt as ever.
Seren laughs, passing the back of her wrist across her face, smudging a fallen speck of mascara into her cheek. Hmm, good question, she says. Difficult answer.
Where were you born? we ask.
Wales, she says; I’ve lived there all my life.
We smile and say, Well, then, you’re Welsh!
She frowns a little, wobbling on the ladder. Well, I’m only a quarter Welsh by blood – Mum’s mother was from South Wales, Mum’s from London, as is my Dad, but Dad’s father is from Devon and his mother from Cornwall.
We’re sorry we asked.
Kevin hands Jesus to Seren. Done. They both seem relieved to return to the ground. Kettle on? says Carol, trotting off to the kitchen before we can reply. Deborah delegated the window displays to Carol but is now rearranging the holly in her absence, because it was wonky. And now it’s getting wonkier. There’s no use saying anything.
The men return to the safety of the chapel, dripping wet. The Reverend Michael flicks soggy hair off his forehead. He’s Cornish. As Cornish as pasties and jam-before-cream teas, from St Ives. Right, he says; carols. Yes? says Carol, suddenly appearing in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the frame. She loves saying that. Every single year.
Rev shakes water off his hood and manages a smile, trooper that he is. Which carol do ‘ee want? She can never think. The rest of us put in our bids; Silent Night, Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald…Falalalalaaalalalala.
            Rev nods and makes notes on a soggy-edged notebook, too big to be fully protected by his raincoat pocket. Right, he says, We be alright for they now. And finish as usual?
            We nod. Seren looks puzzled.
We always sing We Wish You a Merry Christmas at the end, says Deborah, but in Cornish.
Oh! How does that go? she asks.
It sounds like Welsh, she says. Only pronounced wrong.
Rev draws himself upright. Excuse me, the Cornish is the proper version. It’s the Welsh that’s pronounced wrong!
No, she says, crossing her arms.
Yes, says Rev.
See, you are Welsh, Seren! Deborah announces. Completely Welsh. Just like my great-grandfather!
Seren smiles.
Tea or coffee? Carol asks her. She doesn’t need to ask the rest of us – that woman is more gifted in the memory department than in Christmas creativity. She returns with a tray of mugs and mince pies.
We should practice Re bo dhywgh Nadelik Lowen, says Rev. Quick run-through, else it could be embarrassing in the service – not everyone do know it.
Mugs gripped between our hands to make up for the limited heaters, we begin. We still trip over the tricky words. Seren joins in, sounding as if she’s singing a slightly different language, but we don’t mind. It’s Christmas.
            Re bo dhywgh Nadelik Lowen
            Re bo dhywgh Nadelik Lowen
            Re bo dhywgh Nadelik Lowen
            Ha bledhen nowydh da.
Seren is from Anglesey, Wales. Kevin is from Edinburgh, Scotland. Carol is from Yorkshire, England. Deborah is from goodness-knows-where, England – but her great-grandfather was Welsh don’t you forget. The Reverend Michael is from St Ives, Cornwall. The baby Jesus lies on a blue chair, born in Bethlehem, displaced. We are from everywhere. And while the singing goes on, we are all natives.

About the author

Hannah Retallick is a twenty-five-year-old from Anglesey, North Wales. She was home educated and then studied with the Open University, graduating with a First-class honours degree, BA in Humanities with Creative Writing and Music, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. She is working on her second novel and writes short stories and a blog. She was shortlisted in the Writing Awards at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2019, the Cambridge Short Story Prize, and the Henshaw Short Story Competition June 2019.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Tiny Tears

by Dawn de Braal

 home-made lemonade

We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. My dad was a police officer and my mother a stay at home mom with five children ten years between the oldest to the youngest. I think I understood, even at five years old that we didn’t have a lot of money, but the television droned on about a Tiny Tears doll that cried and wet her pants. She even came with a bottle. Oh, how I wanted that doll. I could taste it.
I remember it like it was yesterday, figuring out how I could get that doll for Christmas. I told my parents to buy me the doll, when I grew up and became an actress, I would pay them back. They must have thought that was the cutest thing, because Tiny Tears was under the Christmas tree.
I didn’t realize when she wet, it meant that you filled the doll with water and it went through her and got on everything, and I don’t remember her crying, you probably had to lay her down and squeeze her. I had a bottle with pretend milk that seemed to disappear when you tipped it over, and the added bonus, Tiny Tears did not wet on you!
I lived next door to my great-grandparents. They were retired but worked as missionaries on an Indian Reservation. My grandmother's eyes were bad, so for her to ask me to thread the needle on her treadle sewing machine, I felt very important. I was able to get the thread through the needle. We spent the day making clothes for Tiny Tears. She even let me sew a little. That’s the wonderful thing about great -grandmothers  - they forget how clumsy little kids can be and that they could sew their fingers to a doll dress. But we had some clothes made by the end of the day. Great-Grandma told me about the Indian children and how they had no toys to play with. She would gather old dolls, cleaning them up making them clothes and give them to the little girls that had no toys.
I felt so sorry. I had other dolls and somehow found myself giving Tiny Tears over to my grandmother to give to the poor children who had nothing. I felt very grown-up when I left her house that day and walked across the yard. I threaded her needle a few times when the thread broke, I’d made some doll clothes, and I gave a doll, and clothes to a poor child who had nothing.
A few days later the good feeling rubbed off. A few days without my doll, I decided I would find a different doll to give the poor girls. I ran across the lawn to my great grandmother’s house and told her I wanted to give this doll instead of Tiny Tears. She pointed up to the shelf where she kept the toys they repaired. There were no dolls or toy. They had brought them to the Mission a few days ago.
I was devastated. Suddenly that moment of wanting to help turned into a moment of selfishness.
I never did get famous, but I used the money I made singing at a supper club to buy a gift for my parents. They didn’t remember me saying that when I grew up and became an actress, I’d pay them back. I never forgot, and I never forgot Tiny Tears, and the tears she brought to me. I hope the little girl who got her loved her as much as I did.

Friday, 13 December 2019

The Christmas Present

by Morna Sullivan 

hot chocolate

“You’re best staying put. We’ll miss you. Stay safe and keep warm. Bye.” Mum put the phone down.

“Bad news. Gran and Granda are snowed in.”

“Aaw no! We’ll not get their presents!”

“Jack! You’ll get their presents when the snow melts and Gran and Granda can travel. It just won’t be on Christmas Day this year,” said Mum.

“I’ll miss them…. I mean I’ll miss Gran and Granda,” said Ellie.

“We all will. But we’ll phone them tomorrow to wish them Happy Christmas. We’ll see them soon. We’ll celebrate again in a few days’ time when they arrive. Now, who’s going to help me clear this table?”

“When will Dad be home?” Ellie moved away from the window to help Mum.

“Soon, I hope. The snow’s not getting any lighter.” Mum lifted the toys and magazines from the table.

“Why’s their tree not up? It’s Christmas Eve. Santa can’t come if your tree’s not up!” Jack peered through the window at the house across the lane.

“They maybe don’t celebrate Christmas like us. Not everyone does,” said Mum.

“Do they not believe in Santa?” asked Jack. “How awful for Luka! I’d hate Christmas without presents.”

“It must be very difficult for them, moving to a new country. They’ve left their family and friends behind. They don’t know the customs or language here,” said Ellie.

“If you’re not going to help me, go over and see Luka. He’s probably never seen snow before,” said Mum.

“I don’t want to go outside,” said Jack.

“I’m sure he’d like someone to play with. He seems lonely. Go on over. Ask him to help you build a snowman – or else, come and help me in the kitchen.”

Reluctantly Jack pulled on his blue woolly coat and red scarf, hat and gloves. He slammed the front door behind him. Mum and Ellie watched him cross the narrow lane and ring the doorbell on the green door. A lady wearing a flowing purple robe with a long blue flowery scarf draped over her head opened the door. Soon Luka appeared wearing his thin black nylon coat and came out to play in the snow with Jack.

“He must be freezing Mum. His coat’s so flimsy. He’s not wearing a hat or gloves,” said Ellie.
Ellie kept working to clear the table. Every so often she went into the kitchen to check the simmering vegetable soup. Every so often she came back to the window to watch the boys building their snowman. It was growing bigger and bigger by the minute.

“Found it! It’s as good as new.” Mum carried a bright green padded coat down the stairs. “Jack’s grown out of it. I’m sure it will fit Luka.”

“Luka’s fingers must be freezing playing in the snow,” said Ellie. “Do you think Auntie Noreen would mind if I gave him the scarf, hat and gloves she sent me for Christmas? He mustn’t have any – or else he’d be wearing them.”

“I’m sure Auntie Noreen would be very proud of you if you did that. It’s very kind. Now, I think some hot chocolate would be a good idea, what do you think?”

“Yes, I’d love that.”

“Go and ask the boys to come in. It’ll warm them up.”

Ellie pulled her coat on and ran outside to bring Jack and Luka in. They all sat round the table eating chocolate biscuits and drinking hot chocolate with melted swirling marshmallows.

“Lovely. Thank you, Mrs Meadows.” Luka smiled.

“What a fantastic snowman you’ve built together, but it’s too cold to stay outside for long today.”

“Our snowman needs a hat and scarf,” said Jack.

“Would you like to give him one of yours?” asked Mum.

“No!” Jack shook his head.

“Do you know what we do at Christmas in this country Luka?” asked Mum.

“No.” Luka shook his head.

“We like to give our new friends presents. We thought you could use these.” Ellie handed Luka a large parcel.

“What’s in that? What’s he getting?” asked Jack.

“Something he needs more than you do,” said Mum. “Open it Luka.”

Luka carefully tore open the green paper patterned with red-nosed reindeer.

Jack’s cheeks glowed, matching the reindeer’s noses on the Christmas paper.

“Wow! ” Luka beamed. He tried on the coat, hat, gloves and scarf. “I love Christmas in this country!”

The back door opened.

“Are you having a party?” Dad asked.

“We’re starting our Christmas celebrations early,” said Mum. “Meet Luka, Jack’s new friend. He lives across the lane.”

“Hello Luka. Merry Christmas,” said Dad, setting down a huge turkey on the table. He shook Luka’s hand. “I’m not sure what you’re plans are for tomorrow, but if you’re not doing anything special, you and your family are very welcome to join us for dinner.”

“Thank you, Mr Meadows. I ask Mum. Thank you for presents. I go now. Bye.” Luka hugged everyone. He ran home wearing his Christmas present.

“I’m glad you’re home safe Dad. We’ll miss Gran and Granda tomorrow but if Luka and his Mum and Dad come for dinner it will be a really special Christmas. I’m happy Luka likes his new scarf, hat and gloves I gave him.”

“I’m glad he likes my old coat,” said Jack.

“You’ve made his first Christmas in this country really special,” said Mum. 

“Luka seems very nice, Jack,” said Dad. “He’s very happy to have made a new friend.”

“It’s good making new friends, especially at Christmas,” said Jack.

“It’s not just good for Luka – it’s good for all of us,” said Ellie. 

“We’re usually giving everyone else presents at Christmas, so it’s good to give yourself something,” said Dad.

“What do you mean?” asked Jack.

“A friend is a present you give yourself,” smiled Mum, “and one that can be for life – not just for Christmas.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that. But when you put it like that, it’s probably the best present I’ll get this Christmas,” said Jack.

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Looking for Graceland

by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

festive milkshake with extra whipped cream

 I used to think Mum was abducted by aliens.
            I’m standing outside Harrods, clutching shopping bags and my bright pink brolly that’s turned itself inside out, and I’m wondering if knock-off Ugg boots are waterproof, when I see it. It’s a crack: a crack in the pavement, no more than a centimetre wide. Then some fella brushes past me with a six foot tree and near sends me face down into a puddle. Never even says sorry – miserable git. Happy Christmas to you too.
            I stop myself from falling by wrapping my fingers over the handles of the bags like that’s gonna keep me upright, act as ballast. Weird thing is – it does. So here I am standing outside Harrods looking at a crack in the pavement and thinking maybe I’m as crazy as her, when I take another step. So now I’m standing right on the crack. I hear Mum’s voice in my head, “Picture it, Keira, say it out loud.” I close my eyes, whisper “Narnia” and wait for everything to disappear.

Mum was always disappearing. But back then when Mum disappeared, she always came back.
One time they found her in Sainsbury’s car park wearing nothing but a sombrero she’d picked out of Mr Singh’s dustbin (don’t ask) singing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, her ode to The King who she said she was gonna marry till Dad asked her. “Besides,” she said “Memphis is a lot further than Southend-On-Sea.”
 “Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes,” she sang and she was still singing it when the plod brought her home to twitching curtains and tut-tut-tuts from nosey neighbours and Mr Singh standing in the middle of the drive saying, “My rubbish – not yours.” At least Mum knew how to have fun. But later when she was playing ‘Love Me Tender’ (she always played the slow ones when she was sad) I remember thinking I wish I knew how to keep her safe.  Dad said that was his job.
And I remember looking down at her feet as she stood there, wrapped in a navy towel the police must have given her, singing: “Don’t you, don’t you – step on my blue suede shoes.” That’s when I realised she wasn’t only wearing a sombrero, she was wearing flip flops. Yellow ones.
“Your mum has issues,” Nan would say.
“What’s issues?”
“Nothing,” she said.

“Do you think she can hear us?”
            “Maybe she’s got a condition – you know like epilepsy?”
            “Hello? Anyone in there?”
            “Someone take her bags, don’t let her fall.”
            Words. Swirling around me like glitter in the snow globe Mum gave me. I’m the little Elvis glued inside under the Graceland sign – fixed to the same spot.
When I open my eyes there’s some fella looking at me like I’m an alien. I suppose that’s better than being invisible.
            Mum said she’d seen aliens. It was that time she disappeared for a couple of days and the plod were out looking for her. And Nan kept saying, “She can’t ’ave gone far, Gary.” And Dad kept saying, “Shut up, Brenda.”
            They found her on the high street in her lilac dressing gown and Dad’s Big Foot slippers. That time she was clutching a stack of Elvis CDs she’d robbed from the Red Cross shop. The manager chased her to the corner of the high street telling her she was stealing from them poor starving folks in Africa and she told him, “There’s one thing you should know.”
“What?” he’d said.
“I’m having Elvis’s baby.”
When they brought her home and we asked where she’d been for two days she said, "Abducted.”          
Then she’d lifted her sleeve, “See.”
She showed us what she said was where the aliens pinned her down so they could take samples. It was a bright pink graze on her wrist, like a bracelet.
            “Elvis was there,” she said.
            “Last time you said he was still alive and living in Vegas,” I said.
            “Oh yeah,” she said. “I forgot.”
            It was only after, when I thought about it, the graze looked just like the ones she said she got from walking Aslan, our golden retriever, when he pulled too hard, only when I walked Aslan and he pulled too hard, I never got lines on my wrist like that.
            I supposed that’s when I started to realise.
            But I never said.

“Here, come and sit down.” I feel someone pulling on my arm. I’m thinking it ought to be snowing not raining. When they went to Narnia it was. Thick snow. And the lamppost. I can see that, just in front of me.        
            “P’raps someone ought to phone for an ambulance.”
            “No. No one official, not yet.” It’s what Dad said. It was when Mum disappeared that last time, two weeks before my thirteenth birthday, Christmas Eve. Maybe Dad thought someone would phone and say Mum was roller-blading dressed as Mother Christmas at the precinct again, or in the post office telling ’em she wanted a one-way ticket to Graceland. People knew who she was; Dad left our phone number everywhere.
            “You’ll have to keep her in,” Nan used to say. “Don’t let her out on her own.”
            “Easier said than done,” Dad said.
            “Like Aslan?” I said. “We keep him in.”
            Dad laughed then, not that it was funny. “Get her a lead,” he said. Even Nan laughed, before she cried.
            I try not to think about that.
I try not to think about lots of things. But trying not to think about something is the same thing as thinking about it.  Like trying to think about what Dad told me: that Mum had something wrong with her brain: “A chemical imbalance,” he said. “She can take pills for it,” he said. “She’ll get better,” he said.
Thing is – she never did.

Someone takes my bags and now the crack in the pavement outside Harrods disappears and I’m being shunted, like a train carriage. I can hear music coming from a car stereo. I think for a second it might be Elvis but it’s not. It’s Eminem.
‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ was playing, or maybe it was ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love.’ I don’t know when, sometime in the summer before Mum disappeared. After two years the details fade. I’m afraid the same thing will happen with her. I do remember the song was playing on a loop; I counted to thirty-seven before I went in the kitchen for a Pot Noodle.  I found Mum on the sofa squeezing a tissue until it disappeared. “Will you look something up for me?” she said. “On the interweb? Will you Google trains to Narnia?
Then she said it was an early birthday and Christmas pressie because she knew how much I loved the books. She said if you booked early it was sure to be cheaper. “Like on a supersaver,” she said.
            “But it’s not a real place,” I told her.
 “Oh yeah,” she said. “I forgot.”
            She was wearing the jumper, the one Dad bought her the Christmas before, shipped all the way from America, from the Elvis store, but she’d said she didn’t like the colour. She only wore it when she was sad. She had her hair pulled back off her face. She put her hands over mine and she had the distant look she’d get sometimes. Like before she shut herself in her bedroom. I used to think she was never gonna come out.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I close my eyes and pretend I’m somewhere else.”
 “Like Romford?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“What about Next when the sales are on and you can get fake Ugg boots for half price?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Knightsbridge then? Window shopping, like you used to do with Dad?”
 “Mum,” I said and I felt her hand tighten over mine. “Where is it you pretend to be?”
That’s when she closed her eyes and started to sing. She sang ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ all the way through.  Dad came home, watched us from the doorway. He looked almost as sad as her but he never said anything. I heard him in the kitchen then, clinking his spoon against the side of a cup faster and faster and then he stopped again on his way past. “Someday we’ll meet up yonder, we’ll stroll hand in hand again …”
It was the first time I saw him cry. But he still never said a word. I always wished he would. I still do.
I used to hear snatches of conversation muffled by closed doors. Nan saying: “But if she won’t take her pills what are we supposed to do? Force feed her?”
And I remember thinking how much I missed the fun Mum; the one who cycled to town dressed as Cleopatra and had picnics in the middle of the shopping centre. The fun Mum who made me stay home so we could play Twister and only eat things that were yellow. And the fun Mum who made me skip up and down Romford High Street because she said you should never step on the cracks in the pavement. She said if you did, you would disappear.  

The miserable git who almost knocked me over with the Christmas tree is now holding my arm and leading me towards the entrance of Harrods. I hear him telling some woman to look after his Norwegian Spruce while he finds somewhere for me to sit down. People are gawping at me the way they used to look at Mum so I close my eyes and imagine I’m wearing ruby slippers.
It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, our last Christmas, when Mum made us watch the Wizard of Oz because she said they never showed it anymore. “Remember how you used to think there are magical lands everywhere?” She was perched on the edge of the sofa, pulling the sleeves of her cardigan down over her wrists.
            “Yeah,” I said. “Like Kansas?”
            “Yeah like that.”
            “And at the back of the wardrobe.”
            “Yes. And remember what I told you?”
            “That you can find magical lands just by closing your eyes.”
            “Yeah,” she said. “Just making sure you remember.”  Then she added: “But don’t be invisible.”
 “Is that how you feel, Mum?”
She never answered because we got to the bit where the Wicked Witch was melting and we liked the way her hat looked like it was sinking into the floor.
            But later Mum told me that’s how she went to Graceland, I don’t mean sinking into the floor, I mean by closing her eyes. That’s when she gave me her snow globe. “I want you to have this,” she said. I watched her tip it up, let the glitter settle. “I’m not the one’s that’s invisible,” I heard her say; when she thought I wasn’t listening.

I think about Graceland now. I used to think all we had to do was go to Memphis and somewhere in one of them cafés we’d find her – singing and laughing. I still do sometimes. I’d ask why she never sends me any signs. Or maybe she does.
Of course they never found Mum in Memphis. They found what was left of her on the train tracks near Romford on Boxing Day.
Dad never talks about what happened.
Or about Mum.
            And I never cry.
            “You alright, Love?”
            I open my eyes and think I see him: Mr Tumnus carrying an umbrella. I look down to inspect his hooves and realise it’s not Mr Tumnus but a man in shiny shoes, standing in the doorway at Harrods. But he is holding a brolly, a pink one turned inside out and he’s got my shopping bags. They were selling off Elvis memorabilia at the tube, two quid a piece; I bought it all. It’s like I forget she’s not coming back.
            “You look all shook up” Mr Tumnus says.
            I turn and look at him and before I know it I’m laughing. I can’t stop but I can’t tell him why.
Is that my sign? All Shook Up?
Now Mr Tumnus and Miserable Git are staring at me like I’m insane. But I’m not. I’m really not.
             I look back along the street.
            “Miss? Your stuff?”
“Keep it,” I say and before either of them speaks I step back onto the pavement.
I scroll through the names in my phone, stop at D.
“Hey,” Dad answers.
 “Don’t step on the cracks.”
 “And don’t be invisible, Dad.”
            I hear a car stereo and this time it is an Elvis song, but it’s not Elvis singing. It’s ‘Blue Christmas.’ Ours won’t be blue, not anymore.
            “It’s time to talk,” I say, “about Mum.” 
            Then I hang up.
And right there, standing on the crack in the pavement outside Harrods, I know.
I know it’s finally okay to cry.           

About the author

Winner Bath Short Story Award 2013

Shortlisted in Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013

Debut Novel While No One Was Watching published by Parthian Books