It was ten o’clock on Christmas morning. Thin, crisp frost, rested on the railings, the top of the post-box by the old people’s flats opposite, the War Memorial and the battered school sign two doors down. It lay cold and snug on the roofs of the spectral parked cars. It hung about a peppering of brisk dog-walkers, headed in hats and scarves, wellingtons and woollen gloves, up the pavements towards the Downs path, breathing ghosts –
“Morning, Mrs Cox”
“Are you away to see your sister…?”
Behind the windows of the flats, old women who smelt of mothballs and dust, in thick rimmed glasses with kirby gripped hair, shuffled to the glass alone and with nothing but a kettle boiling, watched the morning pass in its sharp stillness.
In one of the top flats, a woman picked up a telephone:
“Are you there Arthur?”
I’m always here dear.
The same to you darling.
“You still sound like you did the day you died…”
I know dear; I know…
In one arctic kitchen, a radio babbled far off:
“Thousands Are Dead.”
At a sink, on the bottom floor, a bald man, his skin mapped with blue tattoos from every port in the world, sang carols with the television, doing his breakfast washing up in the warm.
A thick, long cat, pottered, in its black coat, bell ringing, up a passageway, beneath a rusty lawnmower, a bike with a thousand punctures and a tall ladder for the top windows, then darted into a porch, staring up at the leafless, birdless tree in the front with disappointment etched deeply into its ever green emerald eyes…
It was the coldest, quitest Christmas morning I had ever known.
I stood in the sitting room, leaning on the radiator, flicking the light switch that didn’t have a light, and had never had, on and off, staring at the Christmas Tree and its half burnt down candles, and homemade decorations from the loft. I was twelve and my sister was seven. I had my hair like an exploded bomb and wore funeral black. My sister dressed in purple and blue woollen stripes in a riding hood red coat, and was putting her shoes on in the hall. Mum stepped out of the steaming kitchen and yelled with potato peeler in hand :
‘Get a move on.’
‘Do we have to?’ I said.
‘Have you got the gift?’ my Mum said.
‘Take the card,’ my sister said.
‘Hurry up!’ my Mum said.
‘Oh, alright!’ I said, and we headed for the door.
Out into the crisp cold, the door rattled shut, left off the latch, behind us. The cold bit into our faces as we stood on the porch, the frost on the empty milk bottles, the concrete bird bath in next door’s wall frozen and the panels of our already frosted glass glittering. We walked across the broken cement path of our front, our feet stepping on the cement paw prints of long dead cats, dating back into the Egyptian pasts of before we were born… We stepped out of our gate-less gate, melted down for ammunition, never replaced and walking a single pace, we opened the rattling, squeaking, rusty gate of Mrs Peach’s house.
Her end of terrace with its plant pots and levelled front garden, littered with a myriad of plaster gnomes in a plethora of poses, was net curtained against the cold. We stepped down the steps, my sister carrying the wrapped up parcel of Terry’s chocolates and I the homemade card of a snowbound scene, because Mum thought the bought ones common and expensive…
“How old is she?” my sister said.
“In cat years or human?” I said.
“She used to watch the bombers fly over,” my sister said.
“She was born here, married and widowed,” I said.
“Do you think they’ll ever put her in a home?” my sister said.
“No. And she has no central heating,” I said.
As we neared the bottom of the steps, a hush came upon us like we were entering a church. The coal black coal bunker, full of shadows cast a darkness into the covered porch and the silhouettes of the gnomes with their backs to us, fishing, digging and wheelbarrowing in stony cold still silence as they had done as far back as I could remember, grew ominous and strange. I rubbed my hands and my sister bit her lip.
“You knock,” she said.
“No you,” I said.
“I’m holding the present,” she said.
“I’ve got the card,” I said.
“Hurry up, it’s freezing,” she said.
“It’s colder than freezing,” I said and stepped into the porch.
In the gloom, the deep sea blue door, with its dark wreath hung around the large knocker, loomed like a door from a fairytale; like the paperback ones we had on the shelf by my brother’s room. The numbers 128 in fierce black font, the panels of thick glass so frosted and deep, as deep as Mrs Peach’s glasses, only giving a faint, distant suggestion that somewhere in the two-up two down, though inhabited now only by one, there was any life at all. I pressed my face up to the cold glass, but it made no difference; I couldn’t make out a single thing but a feeble glimmer of something almost not darkness at the end of the hall. I put my ear to the icy door and heard nothing at all but my own breathing.
“What if she’s still asleep?” my sister whispered.
“What if she’s dead?” I said.
“People don’t die at Christmas,” my sister said.
“I suppose not,” I said.
Slowly I lifted the cold black knocker and… thud; thud; brought it down on the painted wooden door. For a moment nothing happened. Nothing moved in the dark or passed on the street above. Nothing twitched at the curtains or blew down the chimney. Nothing made a noise behind the glass. There was nothing stirring in the passageway nothing heard from Cline Road far below. Nothing whistled through the branches of trees that bordered the now bare fields at the top of the road. Nothing at all but me and my sister on Christmas morning, waiting, breathing, looking at the frosted glass of the fairytale door in Mrs Peach’s porch. And then…
“Here she comes,” my sister said.
“Make sure you smile,” I said.
“Give her the card first,” she said.
“Shhh,” I said.
A light flickered on in the hall behind the glass and in our half-numb silence we heard the slow shuffling of slippered feet on lino and a wheezing, coughing half only just about breathing breath.The rattling of the safety lock and the turning of the key. We saw now behind the glass the outline of Mrs Peach herself, as if only now she was becoming a reality; as if only now with the knocking of the door she had been conjured into existence at all, summoned from some subterranean netherworld. The door rattled and shook and trembled and shuddered and opened, revealing…
“Merry Christmas,” we said.
“Well…happy Christmas…to you…dears,” she said.
“We brought you this,” I said.
“And this,” my sister said.
“Well, how lovely,” she said.
Mrs Peach stood smiling, bent crooked like a mouse, with streaked, straggling black and silver hair, half uncurled beneath a green head-scarf. Her eyes were two rusted coins at the bottom of the wishing wells of her milk bottle thick glasses, still sparkling somewhere in the deep below. She wore a thick knitted navy cardi and rough blue skirt and tights, half covered by a blue and white chequered apron. She beamed and twinkled and gasped and shuffled before us, like a spirit come back into the land of the living from somewhere altogether far away.
“Well dears, are you going to your Gran’s for Christmas?” she asked.
“Have you seen the cats this morning?” she gurgled.
“What did you get in your stocking?” she said.
And we told her, and she smiled and nodded and twinkled and smiled again.
“Well…I have something for you dears,” she said and disappeared into the hallway again.
“It’ll be biscuits,” I whispered.
“Don’t be rude,” my sister said.
“I’m not,” I said.
“Shsh…she’s coming back,” she said.
Mrs Peach tottered before us with a tin wrapped in holly and ivy paper, and a shop bought card in an envelope with ‘The Harveys’ written on it in an icicle thin, jagged hand. As I took the tin, it felt like some kind of exchange at a border checkpoint; an armistice between two opposing forces in a strange, cold, war.
“Well happy Christmas again,” she said.
“Thankyou for the present and the card,” we said.
“Have a lovely day,” she said and she was gone.
Back into the dark, coal fire smelling hall. Back into the empty house with her card and her chocolates and her cats. Back into her quiet, ancient, coal fire-lit lonely Christmas.
Me and my sister, turned out of the porch, past the gaggle of grinning gnomes and the soot black, black as the night cats coal cellar and the passageway whistling with the wind and the squeaky, rattling gate and the old people's flats opposite, the post box, parked cars and the War Memorial coated in a layer of glittering white. We stepped back through our gateless gate, under the leafless tree over the cement paw prints of long dead cats and back into our own porch.
“Poor Mrs Peach,” said my sister.
“She’s nice really,” I said.
“I wonder what she’ll do all day,”my sister said.
“Sing carols to the cats,” I said.
We took our shoes and coats off on the mat and shut the door. There was brass music on the radio in the kitchen and the smell of spuds, and the candles had been lit again on the tree. The cards hung in battalions over the mantelpiece and the fire blazed in the grate. Dad was eating pickled onions and Mum was worrying about the turkey. My eldest brother was in the bathroom and my other brother was still in bed.
I said to my sister:
“It only really seems like Christmas, after we’ve been to see Mrs Peach.”
We sat in the sitting room and pulled off the wrapping and it was biscuits like it always was but I didn’t mind. I always liked Mrs Peach’s biscuits. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.