Thursday 24 December 2020

Our Last Story - A (prequel) 'Sophie Sayers' Story by Debbie Young


Read the Story
Guess the Song...
(here's a clue...)

“Christmas tree, May Sayers?” Billy wrapped his arms across his chest for warmth as he stood on my doorstep. “I’ve just got one littl’un left that’s a steal at twenty quid.”
   At the far end of my front path, his handcart of festive evergreens was blocking the pavement, its load much depleted since his visit the previous week. His assistant, a scruffy teenage boy, was nowhere to be seen, but that was not surprising as it was Christmas Eve. 
   Billy began to stamp his feet to boost his circulation. “I can bring it in and help you set it up, if you like, May.” 
   It had been decades since I decorated a Christmas tree. In my younger days, I left it to my parents. Since retiring from my peripatetic career as a travel writer, I’ve spent my Christmases with my nephew and his family in Inverness. By the time I arrive there, his wife and daughter Sophie have already set their tree up. But this year, for the first time ever, a snowstorm in Scotland had scuppered my plans and I’d be spending Christmas alone in my cottage. 
   “Well, why not, Billy? It would give me something to do. I think my mother’s old box of baubles is still in the cupboard under the stairs. While you bring the tree in, I’ll put the kettle on. You look like you could do with a cup of tea to warm you up.”
   “Shall I add some mistletoe to your order?” Billy gave me a cheeky wink.   “You never know when you might get lucky.” 
  I fixed him with an old-fashioned look. “I’ll give the mistletoe a miss, thank you, Billy.” 
   Like me, Billy had never married. As he’d lived all his life in the village, the local girls of our vintage saw him more as a brotherly type than as husband material, and a naughty little brother at that. What miles I had put between us, pursuing my career far away from Wendlebury Barrow since we were at school together. 
    Once Billy had heaved the tree into my parlour, he set it up in front of the window. My wastepaper basket provided a makeshift pot, and he wedged it into position with a few bits of kindling from the hearth. I rewarded him with a cup of tea and a slice of the Christmas cake I’d bought from Carol at the village shop the previous afternoon, when I’d realised I’d be spending the festive period at home.
     “I thought you finished selling your Christmas trees a week ago, Billy.”
     He replied through a mouthful of crumbs. “Aye, but I didn’t have enough mistletoe to go round last week, so I’m dropping off some orders before I packs up for the season. I had just one little tree left over needing a good home. Then when I stopped in the village shop just now for a box of matches, Carol Barker told me your trip up north was off, so I thought I’d bring it down to you. You must be put out, now you won’t be seeing that little cutie of yours.”
    As I stirred my tea, watching the whirlpool I’d created, I pictured the River Ness, feeling the pull of its waters as they rushed out to the Moray Firth on their way to the North Sea. When Sophie was little, I’d hold her hand on our riverside walks, nervous of her stumbling into currents that could so easily bear her away from me. I confess I was afraid of a British river – I, who had stood beneath the spray of the Niagara Falls, crossed the Zambezi on a rickety rope bridge, paddled down the Amazon in a canoe, all without a thought for my own safety. On my last few trips to Scotland, Sophie had felt too old to hold my hand, looping her arm companionably through mine instead.
    “What’s her name again? Suki, isn’t it? Or Susie?” Billy was saying. Sophie had been spending her summer holidays with me since she became old enough to stay away from her parents for any length of time, so he’d seen her about the village. “What’s up, you two fallen out?”
     “You mean Sophie. And no, it’s the weather that’s keeping us apart, Billy. Inverness Airport is snowed in and unlikely to reopen for days.”
   “Why don’t you just drive up there? Save all that hanging around at airports.”

Snowy Scotland
(image: Pixabay)

I sighed. He meant well. 
    “I’m afraid I don’t have the stamina for such a long drive these days. It’s the best part of a day’s journey by car even in midsummer. Besides, if the airport’s closed, it’s likely the A9 will be impassable.”
    Billy looked blank. 
   “Why, do they park the planes on it when they’re not using them?”
  As Billy seldom leaves the parish and doesn’t drive, he has only the haziest idea about long-distance road travel. Even locally, he refers to roads by their traditional names rather than the official road numbers: the Fosse Way, the Bath Road, the old London Road. 
    “The A9 would be the final part of my journey by car, heading north from Central Scotland. It runs all the way from Falkirk to Scrabster Harbour on the north coast. It’s a high road, very exposed, so prone to snowdrifts. At the roadside, there are poles to indicate the depth of the snow. Once it reaches a certain height, they close the snow gates until it’s safe to drive again.”
    When Billy held out his empty cup in the direction of the teapot, I took the hint and refilled it. 
   “It’s not like you to be so defeatist, May Sayers. What’s wrong with the train? You’re not short of a bob or two. Why don’t you spend some of your money on a train ticket? You can get a train almost all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats. I’ve seen it on the telly.”
     My lips twitched into my first smile of the day. “And get stuck in a train in a snowdrift? Have you never read Murder on the Orient Express?”
   Billy chortled. “No, but I seen the film. So Hercule Poirot’s not your type?” He leaned forward to prod my knee with a grubby forefinger. “But we all know who is, don’t we?”
     My cheeks began to burn, and not from the fire.
  “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Billy, that was decades ago, when he and I were both young, free and single.”
   He drained his cup and set it in its saucer on the coffee table with a clatter. “Well, now you’re both old, free and single. You sure I can’t interest you in a bit of mistletoe just in case? I ain’t got much left to get rid of before I can get home to my fireside.”
    I fished my purse out of my handbag and found a twenty-pound note to pay him for the tree. 
  “Well, if you hadn’t stopped for tea, cake and gossip with every delivery, you’d have got home a lot quicker.”
   As he pocketed my payment, he frowned. “What sort of a scrounger do you take me for? I haven’t had tea and cake at every stop. I had a smoked salmon sandwich at the vicarage, and very nice it was too.”
   He patted his round tummy before buttoning his ancient tweed jacket across it and rising to his feet.
  “Why aren’t you wearing an overcoat, Billy? Or at least a scarf, hat and gloves. You want to wrap up warmer at your age.”
    He guffawed. “You mean our age.”
    I followed him to the hall. As he opened the front door, a gust of icy wind made us catch our breath.
  Billy braced himself to step out into the cold. “We’ll be having snow ourselves before too long, you mark my words.”
   I took down from the hallstand a colourful stripey scarf, woven by an old Turkish lady in a tiny, rough cottage where I’d once spent the night. I wasn’t keen on the colours, but I’d bought it to supplement the paltry fee she was charging for my accommodation. The scarf had hung on the hallstand ever since I’d brought it home, reminding me every day of the contrast between her home and mine. 
    As Billy turned to say goodbye, I looped the Turkish scarf about his neck.
“Merry Christmas, Billy.” I stepped quickly back inside before he could get the wrong idea. He’d never caught me at kiss-chase in the playground, and I wasn’t about to let him start now.
    His face lit up in delighted surprise. “Why, thank you very much, May Sayers, that’s most kind.”
   Tucking its ends inside his jacket, he bustled down my front path to retrieve his cart. As he headed off to finish his mistletoe rounds, he was still smiling.
   And so was I. It was the first time all day that I’d heard someone say my name.

©Margaret Burnett

As soon as I’d closed the front door, I dragged my mother’s old box of Christmas decorations out from the cupboard under the stairs. I’d have decorated my little tree faster if I hadn’t stopped to reminisce about the origin of each bauble as I took it from the box.
    These days, people think nothing of buying new decorations each year. I swear Sophie’s mother throws hers out come January, because I’ve never seen their Christmas trees look the same twice. My parents kept every single bauble from year to year, protecting the wafer-thin glass with layer upon layer of newspaper. Unwrapping them now was like playing the children’s party game of Pass the Parcel. Just like Mother used to do, I flattened each piece of newspaper as I took it off. At the end of the process, just as she did, I laid the pile of sheets back in the box, ready to receive the baubles back again on Twelfth Night.
     Some of the newspapers dated back to the Second World War and were frailer than the decorations. A few of them were in foreign languages. I recognised the Egyptian newspaper in which I’d wrapped a ceramic ashtray I’d brought my parents from Cairo. 
   When I came home that Christmas, Mother and Father had been expecting me to settle down and marry Joshua, the boy next door – now the elderly gentleman next door. As I smoothed out the last piece of newspaper, I noticed the skin on the back of my hands was papery too. Back then, Joshua had beautiful hands, supple and bronzed from his active outdoor life. These days, they’d probably be as delicate as mine. But they’d still be Joshua’s hands.
    I’d had to break it to all three of them that my return was only temporary. Straight after New Year, I was due to take up a part-time office job at the British Embassy in Cairo. The post came with a nice bedsitting room in a safe compound, where I could spend my free time writing. But the biggest perk of my new job had come the following March, when, serving drinks to guests at an Embassy reception, I got chatting to the visiting features editor of a British newspaper. Taking a shine to me, he commissioned my first column, which turned into a monthly spot. After a year, my track record with the newspaper made it relatively easy for me to secure a publishing contract for my first book. Its title was simply 'Cairo'. It did very well and was to become the first in a series about ancient capital cities.
    Meanwhile, Joshua continued to write me long and frequent letters, full of love and hope and expectation. To my shame, I replied sporadically and only by postcard, too caught up in my new career to think far beyond the vibrant, bustling city that was flooding my senses. 
    While I went on to travel the world, ever thirsty for new places and fresh faces, Joshua stayed in Wendlebury in the house where he’d been born. Before long, Edith, the pretty new barmaid at The Blackbird, caught his eye – and the rest of him followed. When Mother wrote to tell me ruefully they planned to marry, I dismissed the news. A whirlwind romance on the rebound wouldn’t last five minutes. I hadn’t been gone that long. How could he have found a replacement for me so quickly? 
     Eventually, I realised time passes more slowly in Wendlebury Barrow. But by then, I had lost him forever. 
   After I’d hung the last bauble on the tree, I placed the Egyptian newspaper on top of the pile in the box. The Arabic characters conjured up the scents and sounds of Cairo, the adrenalin that fuelled my solo outings, and the strange new tastes and textures I encountered in the local cafés and bars. I’ve long since forgotten any Arabic I once knew, but the shapes of the words were familiar old friends. I had plenty of memories from my travels to treasure besides those of my lost love.
    If I couldn’t be in Scotland for Christmas, I could journey there in my head as easily as I could to Cairo, to Athens, to Patagonia, and everywhere else I’d ever travelled for my career. All over the house, souvenirs prompted memories of my many destinations. A watercolour of feluccas on the Nile hung just inside my front door; blue and white Chinese plates were displayed above the stairs; and the handwoven Persian rug I’d bought from its maker nestled beneath my feet in the front parlour. In my kitchen, I could sip mint tea from jewel-bright Moroccan tea-glasses and imagine myself back in the souks of Marrakech. Snacking on tapas from my Spanish pottery platter, bright with primary colours, I’d hear classical guitar tunes playing in my head.
     One day soon, I must catalogue all of these things, so that when I’m no longer here to explain their origin and value, they’ll still be understood and treasured. Sophie is to have my cottage when I’m gone. Not that I’m letting on, as I want her to go out and make her own way in the world first, but when it’s hers, I’d like her to know what’s what. 
      The same goes for my garden. Not that I brought many plants back from abroad – import and export laws are too restrictive. Most of my plants have come from the nearest garden centre at Slate Green. But after I inherited my cottage from my parents, I planted something to reflect every trip I’d made, from a Japanese flowering cherry to an Australian eucalyptus. It was how I made the garden my own. 
    Now, before I did anything else, I needed to clear away the tea things from Billy’s visit. As I set the tray on the draining board in the kitchen, I lingered by the window for a moment, admiring my imaginative planting scheme. In my parents’ day, the garden had been an uncluttered rectangle divided into strips for growing vegetables, framed like a sampler by the original dry stone walls. Now very little of the walls could be seen behind my flourishing trees, shrubs and perennials. I hoped they were holding up against the weather. Cotswold stone wicks up rainwater like a sponge, and in a cold snap, ice forms inside it. As the ice expands, it shatters the stone from within. 

Cotswold stone wall
photo © Debbie Young

As far as I could see now, the walls were still intact, even the weaker patch where there had once stood a gate between our garden and Joshua’s. When Edith married him, she made him block it up, because that was where he and I used to meet in our teens. We’d spend the lazy hours of our summers lying on our backs in his garden or mine, in the shadow of our raspberry canes or his apple trees, cloud-gazing by day, watching for shooting stars at night. At least, that’s what we told our parents.
     The first time I came home after their wedding, the fresh blond stone plugging the gap had seemed unnecessary and a little spiteful. When I complained to my father, he gave a wry smile, quoting Robert Frost: 
“Good fences make good neighbours”. 
     Little did I know then that for years to come, Joshua would blow a kiss to every passing plane, just in case it was the one bearing me home. It didn’t matter that I was always more likely to travel by train and ferry; it was his way of reaching out for me. 
     Those blond stones soon weathered to match the older part of the wall, thanks to Wendlebury’s exposed position high on the rolling Cotswold hills. “When it’s jacket weather down in Slate Green, it’s overcoat weather up in Wendlebury Barrow,” my father used to say. But I can still tell where the gate once was, even if no-one else can.
      Not that it matters to Edith anymore, as she’d died the previous summer from a sudden heart attack. According to Carol, she fell to the floor like a domino as she was clearing away her tea things. She was gone before the ambulance arrived. 
   Now Joshua would be spending his first Christmas alone. Well, not entirely alone. Although he and Edith had not been blessed with children, since his parents died, his kind nephew had always invited the two of them for Christmas. At least Joshua could still get to his nephew’s. There were no snowdrifts between Wendlebury and Bristol. 
     Closing the wooden shutters, I returned to the parlour to give myself a firm talking-to. I had plenty of food and drink in the house, and the radio, television and books to keep me amused. There was a great stack of logs and a wicker basket overflowing with kindling on the hearth. The fire in the wood-burner was glowing cheerfully, reflected many times over in the pretty baubles on my tree. 

image: Pixabay

Of course, there were no presents under the tree. Mine would be under Sophie’s tree right now, awaiting my arrival. I’d packed my gifts to her family in my suitcase three days ago, and there they would stay, waiting for when my flight could be rebooked. Fortunately, my nomadic career has equipped me with a useful knack for turning disrupted plans into opportunities. Some of my best reports sprang from serendipitous events rather than from carefully choreographed journeys. My story on the great Kefalonian earthquake of 1953 came about only because my ferry to Patras had been cancelled, leaving me wandering the streets in the wake of this terrible natural disaster. As I stayed longer, exploring the island and beyond, I wrote about a community abandoning its village, which had been damaged beyond repair. The article was syndicated around the world. 
    Half a century later, it had another lease of life in a follow-up piece. When I returned to light a candle in what I presumed to be the abandoned tiny Greek Orthodox Church in the ruined village, I found a lantern still burning. Someone returns each day to keep the flame alight, and I tracked them down. Their simple faith boosted mine.
     Now I switched on the radio to listen to the traditional Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Singing along, I decided to do something constructive to lift my spirits. Whenever my travel plans were disrupted, I used to find it helpful to restore order to my immediate surroundings, perhaps by repacking my bag with immaculate precision, or by dusting my hotel room. As a traveller rather than a holidaymaker, I’ve stayed in plenty of places that had never seen a duster until I got there. I never packed a duster in my luggage, instead improvising with a headscarf. But I did always carry a candle and matches. Sometimes we have to ignite our own hope.

Mulled Wine
(image: Pixabay)

So, this Christmas Eve, I set about dusting. Before getting stuck in, I set up a reward for my labours: I poured half a bottle of red wine into my jam kettle, dropped in some slices of orange and lemon studded with cloves, stirred it with a cinnamon stick and sprinkled on dried ginger. After I’d set it on top of the wood-burner to warm, with duster in hand, I began to work my way through the house. Every time I finished a room, I topped up my cheery hand-painted Spanish mug, chosen for its festive reds and greens. I didn’t dare risk the heat of mulled wine in my favourite violet Bohemian crystal wine goblet, even though it would have looked spectacular.
      No-one has a cottage quite like mine. They’re all different in these parts, built to suit the whim and the budget of whoever was first to live in them. Nor does anyone have the same vast collection of souvenirs of globetrotting scattered about the house. In the days when I made my living mostly from travel journalism rather than book commissions and royalties, other hacks on the circuit were dismissive of my penchant for souvenir-hunting. They thought it made me less professional. They took home only items that could be bought from airport duty-free shops. There was a saying among them, massacring Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum on London, that if a man was tired of duty free, he was tired of travel writing. Perhaps they were right. None of my immediate peers stayed the course in travel journalism, nor did they graduate into writing books. I was glad to separate myself from that pack as soon as I was able to pay my own way to wherever I wanted to write about. 
       I pitied their wives (in those days the hacks were mostly men) and their children, who might reasonably expect gifts from wherever their daddy had been on his latest facility visit – those thinly veiled bribes to write reports on hotels and resorts. Some of the men sneaked in last-minute gifts at the airport alongside the endless bottles of Calvados or ouzo or sake. Toblerones, the equivalent of fuel-station flowers in the gift stakes, don’t count as thoughtful presents unless you’re travelling from Switzerland. 
     I prided myself on never resorting to airport presents. The gifts I brought my parents, and later my nephew, then Sophie, were always carefully chosen from local craftsmen or women. Choosing Sophie’s presents was fun – a pretty Black Forest dirndl; wooden clogs in the right shoe size from Amsterdam; a traditional hand-painted wooden Swedish Dala horse, as unique as a fingerprint. But I bought far more for myself than for anyone else.
     “More to dust!” my mother would mutter at every new item I brought home. My parents’ cottage was always my base, as I never had a permanent home abroad. In those days, Mother was the one who did the dusting. Now I have to do it myself, I never mind. As I run the duster over each item, I admire it afresh, remembering with perfect clarity the moment and the place of acquisition. Some items need more delicate handling than others, such as an ornamental clamshell from Hong Kong, in whose open jaws lies a miniature carved landscape as creamy as the shell, complete with a lake, a river, a house and tiny Chinese people amid foliage daubed red and green. It’s far too small for my duster, so I just blow it to dislodge any debris. Then the working water wheel dips into its painted river, spinning as if in a storm surge.

Chinese clam shell
© Laura Young

I can be as heavy handed as I like with my chunky wooden carvings from the Caribbean. As bright as tropical fish, they look out of place in the pallid English light, but I love them all the same. Polishing my cobalt wooden parrot, I feel Bahamian sunshine burnishing my face.

Wooden parrot
© Laura Young

Other items have been thoughtfully fortified by their makers against careless cleaners, dipped in resin or drenched in varnish. It’s ironic that someone felt the need to embed my piece of Berlin Wall in protective plastic. And yes, it is genuine. I was there when the Wall came down. I stayed on in the aftermath, helping enterprising souls from both sides to collect fragments of communist concrete, as in their enthusiasm they prised it apart with penknives, hammers and bare hands.
   “Good fences make good neighbours?” I murmured now, slipping the piece of Berlin Wall into my pocket. “I don’t think so.”

The Berlin Wall
image: Pixabay

When I returned to the parlour, both the fire and the mulled wine were low. The heavy scent of spices and citrus hung in the air, melding with the sharp bite of pine. My hand slipped as I topped the jam kettle up from the rest of the bottle I’d left breathing on the hearth. I didn’t mean to empty it, but why not? 
© Laura Young

I raised my next glass to the angel on top of the Christmas tree. Decades before, on a pavement in Durban, I’d watched a local boy with skin as dark as the sun was bright, conjure up this concoction of red and white beads. Cleverly twisting them into shape on fine wire, he was so intent on his craft that he seemed oblivious to the seductive view of the Indian Ocean across the promenade. I wondered what had become of him. 
    Then my focus slid sideways from my South African angel to its backdrop. Night had fallen while I’d been dusting. I’d closed the upstairs shutters as I’d left each room, but not the ones downstairs. I’ve always liked the Dutch custom of leaving your front curtains or shutters open after lighting-up time to share the warmth of your home with passers-by. Now a very gentle rain was drifting slowly down behind my tree-top angel, turned into flecks of glitter by the streetlight across the road. Except the flecks were falling too slowly for rain. 
Those sparkly flakes were very definitely snow. 

Cotswold Cottages
(apologies - I couldn't find one with snow!)
image: Pixabay

On the radio, the carol service had long since finished, and now I caught a snatch of the weather forecast: “In the south-west of England, all non-essential travel should be avoided.” There was a note of apology in the weatherman’s voice. Perhaps he felt guilty at wrecking people’s holiday plans. “Treacherous conditions… warnings of ice…” I wondered whether he’d obey his own instructions. 
      Would Joshua have arrived safely at his nephew’s? Stepping over to the window, I pulled aside just enough branches of my Christmas tree to peer beyond my front path and around to Joshua’s garden. The pool of light on his frosty lawn told me he hadn’t gone away after all. He was holed up in his parlour, same as me, with only his memories for company. 
    My close proximity to the astringent scent of the pine needles was starting to make my eyes water, so I let the branches spring back into place. Then I opened the wood-burner to fling another log inside, refilled my tea glass, and settled down in my fireside chair to think.

image: Pixabay
In our childhood days, Billy had been notorious for playing Knock Down Ginger. In this silly, selfish game, youngsters think it the height of wit to rap at an innocent neighbour’s door and run away. Then they hide, staying just close enough to witness their victim’s puzzlement on opening the door to Mr Nobody. Did the latest generation of tearaways still play that game? I’d seen no evidence. Doubtless they’re too busy playing with their electronic gadgets to find such foolishness entertaining. 
     So I wondered whether, when Joshua heard a knock on his front door late on Christmas Eve, his first thought would be of Billy. Except Billy never left presents on people’s doorsteps. Especially presents wrapped in vintage Egyptian newspaper...
    Before Joshua could answer the knock, I darted back inside my house and closed my door as quietly as I could. The sharp trill of the telephone diverted me from ascertaining Joshua’s reaction. As I picked up the receiver, I was still catching my breath.
     “Merry Christmas Eve, Auntie May!” Sophie’s sweet smile warmed her voice as she regaled me with the fun she and her friends were having in the snow. I was glad she didn’t yet consider herself too old to build a snowman. Then she outlined the family’s plans for Hogmanay. The New Year celebrations are so much more exciting in Scotland than they are south of the border in England, even if the revellers do need an extra public holiday on 2 January to get over them.
     “She’ll be writing to you in between times, May,” I heard her mother call in the background. 
     “I’ll look forward to that, my dear,” I replied, though I knew full well that as the child was growing up, her letters were getting shorter and less frequent. Soon I’d be lucky to get so much as a postcard, but that’s OK. Hadn’t I done exactly the same in response to Joshua’s letters?
     Sophie’s father was next on the line. “You will come as soon as you can, won’t you, May?” Beneath his gruff voice, I could detect the plaintive plea of the little boy he’d once been. “And you can stay as long as you like now that you’re retired.”
    “Yes, yes, of course, dear. Your delicious Highland air is just the tonic I need.” 
       And to see their dear faces, of course. 
    “I’m saving a drop of my best Highland whisky to share with you, May. But hang on, is that your doorbell?” He sounded miffed to have a rival for my attention. Frankly, I was as surprised as he was. 
     “Indeed it is. I had better attend to it. I’ll call you tomorrow, dear. Merry Christmas.”
     I set the receiver back in its cradle. As I made my way through to the hall, I steadied myself on the doorhandle. Through the small stained-glass window set into the front door, I could just make out a tall figure, slightly stooped. 
      My hands were shaking as I opened the door. To Joshua. As he raised his cap and gave me a slight bow, a shy smile played beneath his still handsome moustache.
      “Miss Sayers, may I wish you a merry Christmas?”
      He didn’t need to ask my permission. As I stepped back and motioned to him to come in, I saw that in his other hand, he was clutching the Egyptian newspaper in which I’d wrapped my symbolic gift to him: my piece of the fallen Berlin Wall. The package was no longer a flat slab, but chunky and round. At least he wasn’t returning my gift unopened. But what had he wrapped in the paper for me?
    He stamped the snow off his stout shoes and hung his cap on my hallstand before following me into the parlour, where he offered me the package. My hand dropped slightly as I took it. It was much heavier than it looked. 
     “I hear recycled wrapping paper is all the rage these days, May.” The familiar twinkle hadn’t left his eyes. “You may open it now. I won’t make you wait until after church on Christmas morning.” Trying hard to sound casual, he seemed as nervous as I felt.
     I sat down heavily in my fireside chair and set the package on my lap. Joshua remained standing in front of me. I tried to contain my emotions as I peeled back the newspaper to reveal a lump of honey-coloured Cotswold stone, cold and rimy. When I gazed up at him for an explanation, he just smiled.
    “The first of many stones I plan to remove to restore the dear old gate between our gardens.” His eyes locked onto mine. “We can never go back to where we left off, May, but I believe it’s not yet too late for us to harvest a little more precious time together. I do hope you agree.”
       I clapped my hand to my mouth, covering a smile broad enough to hurt my cheeks. I don’t know why I, the unshockable seasoned traveller, said what I said next: 
     “Well yes, of course, but whatever will the neighbours think?”
   Joshua threw back his head and laughed, slapping his tweed-covered thighs. “Oh, my dear May, does it really matter what anyone else thinks? Just allow me to assure you that your closest neighbour,” – he tapped his chest – “deems your consent cause for celebration.” He pulled a small glass flask of sloe gin from the sagging pocket of his trousers. “And tomorrow, let’s spend Christmas Day together. The first of many special days that we might share.”
     As I nodded, loneliness slid from my shoulders like the snow from an Alpine chalet roof. I set his stone gently on the hearth, where it still lies today.
     When he reached out his hands to pull me up from my armchair to face him, I wished I’d bought some of Billy’s mistletoe after all.

© Matt Seymour

And here's the song 
to go with the story!

David Bowie's Heroes

"...Though nothing will keep us together
We could steal time just for one day"

About Debbie

Debbie's 'Agatha Christie' look!

Debbie Young loves writing seasonal stories, and there's a Christmas-themed  novel in each of her two series: Murder in the Manger, the third in her Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and Stranger at St Bride's, the second in her St Bride's School Stories for Grown-ups. Both series are lighthearted, gentle mysteries set in the beautiful Cotswold countryside, where Debbie has lived and worked for the last 30 years. All her novels are standalone books, so can be read in any order, as can her series of quick-read short novellas, Tales from Wendlebury Barrow, set in the same parish as her novels. Join her Readers' Club via her website to find out more about her books and her writing life, and you'll receive a free ebook, The Pride of Peacocks, as a welcome gift. 

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  1. Oh how beautiful! I think many of us feel much the same in this strangest Christmas of all. Never had a chance with the song, which is a great one. And may I wish a very Happy Christmas to you, to Helen and to all the wonderful contributors this year ....

    1. Thank you very much, Richard, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. David Bowie's song has been constantly on my mind in this extraordinary year when so many ordinary people have shown such heroism. I wish you a peaceful and restorative Christmas, which I've decided is what we all need this particular year!

  2. Posted on behalf of Marina Osipova: "What a lovely and nostalgia evoking story! Beautiful, poetic prose. I’ve got goosebumps while reading about Joshua’s … love? Lifelong dedication? Anyway, his suppressed feelings that kept kindling the affection in his heart touched me to my core. The end of the story brought tears to my eyes. A good tale (of hope) for this Christmas evening. “Sometimes we have to ignite our own hope.” How rightly said. Thank you, Debbie."

    1. I 100% agree - and thank you Marina for following every story!

    2. What wonderful feedback, Marina, thank you so much, and thanks to Helen for sharing Marina's comment. I'm so glad you enjoyed my story. And this won't be the end of May and Joshua's romance - Helen's wonderful blog initiative has inspired me to write two more to make up a trilogy. I'm looking forward to spending more time with this delightful elderly couple. Marina and Helen, I wish you a Christmas and New Year filled with hope and love too.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Helen, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Wishing you as wonderful a Christmas as May and Joshua's!

  4. What a delight, Debbie! The perfect Christmas story.

    1. Thank you so much, Clare, I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. And although it obviously isn't about Covid, it just felt right writing about loneliness at Christmas this year - and sharing a message of hope.

  5. Thank you, Debbie. A lovely story for this somewhat lonely Christmas Eve day. And how nice to hear May's voice and learn about her from her own words.

    1. Thank you, Janice. I was so pleased to have this opportunity to bring her back to life (!) and I'm really looking forward to writing two more stories about May very soon. I think I love May as much as Sophie does!

  6. A lovely Christmas tale. Read it while listening to the King's College carols. 😁🍷

  7. The ideal background music for it, Jayne - I'm sure May Sayers would approve! Merry Christmas to you!

    1. Oh - I wish I'd thought of that! Thanks Jayne!

  8. Thank you for sharing this lovely story. Perfect reading for this Christmas Eve.

  9. Thank you Debbie for the delightful story. I needed, and you provided a smile at the best time. I lost my husband last June ,19 days short of our fiftieth anniversary. With the world turned upside down and i am trying hard to get thru 1 day at a time, and to test us once more my daughter in law suffered a stroke yesterday morning. It will be a long recovery but is the only good news we have had today. Sorry I ramble but as alone as Mae was before Joshua visit,that's me. I have enjoyed several of your books and will continue to.
    God bless. Mary Utsinger

  10. Dear Mary, I am so glad my story made you smile and brought you some comfort at such a difficult time. 50 years of marriage (all but s few days) is an amazing achievement and you must have so many precious memories to relive and to cherish.I was widowed myself after just ten years of marriage, 10 days after the turn of the millennium, so I know a little of what you are going through now. One day at a time is a very good policy. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was look for things to do that you might not have done with your husband. I send you my very best wishes for your daughter-in-law's recovery. It sounds as if she has been treated very quickly which I understand is a really important factor in the speed of recovery so that is good news.

    I will be writing two more stories about May and Joshua in the new year which I hope you will also enjoy. In the meantime my heart goes out to you as you begin the new year and I wish you a 2021 full of hope and courage and love and joy. Debbiexx

    1. Oh Mary - my heart goes out to you too. I echo what Debbie has said - take one day at a time. I also know several people who have had strokes - if treated quickly complete, or almost complete, recovery can be made.

      Stay safe - take care, and sending you a virtual hug!

  11. Let me add some praise for the presentation to all the nice things that have been said about the story ... Well done! The text is beautifully set out and I love the pictures. Presentation makes such a difference to the reader. Thank you!

  12. Yes, all credit to Helen Hollick for the time and trouble she takes to collect and collate these stories and to present them so beautifully. I sent her some of the photos, but she's added more for that extra bit of polish! (One reason I'm always so pleased to write stories for Helen's blog - she really does them proud!)


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