The Last Christmas Tree (1)
Yuletide came to Setton that year on the front of a spirited north-easterly. In from the far coast it blew, gathering strength as it crossed the moor before sweeping down the valley to the town – sending the last leaves of autumn scattering like frightened mice. A tricksy wind, the locals called it. Mischievous enough with its bustle and swirl – but carrying a sharp knife under its cloak. Winter’s here, was its tiding. Winter has come.
And so it made itself known, those late days of December. Indifferent as all winds are – jostling with the shoppers on Fore Street, pinching fingers and chafing faces and turning breath to smoke. Not that it made itself especially unwelcome. It was seasonal, after all, and freshened things up with its brightness and spirit. The air felt cleaner and sharper because of it. The Christmas lights along the street swung on their strings under its push. It slipped like a ghost around alleys and corners, fluttered through bunting, whipped through the branches of trees. It missed nothing – not even the things that were missed by everything else in the seasonal rush.
Like a Christmas tree, for instance – standing outside a greengrocer’s shop. The last Christmas tree left on the street, in fact. Five days it had been there – scraggly and ruffled in its tub. Not the best bargain in town. Not enough branches, really. Not the ideal shape, either. Most people had already bought theirs by then, anyway. With just five days to go, there were more pressing things to take their attention. So there it stayed, with just that roguish wind for company.
The wind with the steel at its heart.
Annie knew what was on that wind, too. She could feel it in her bones as soon as she got up that morning. Just as well, she thought, that she didn’t need to go out. There was enough in the cupboard and the fridge. The rest could wait until tomorrow. A day by the fire with a book or some sewing, Tipsy on her lap, tea in the pot – that was how she wanted it, that day of all days.
The 20th of December.
A day of quiet.
Which was how it went, at first. Until the accident. And that changed everything. Such a stupid thing, too – she could have kicked herself. After lunch, she’d taken Tipsy’s biscuits from the cupboard and put them on the draining board while she went to get his dish. And somehow or other – however these things happen – the packet had toppled into the washing-up water. She’d fished it out as soon as she’d realised, but it was too late by then. And Tipsy was already there waiting, rubbing around her legs, mewing loudly, eyes like alley marbles. Annie sighed, bending to pick him up.
“I’m sorry, old fellah. You’ll have to wait a bit longer… thanks to your daft old brush of a mother.”
She could guess how busy the town would be without needing to look out of the window. But there was nothing else for it now. She pulled on her boots and coat, and wrapped a scarf around her neck. Tipsy darted out of the kitchen, tail up straight, tipping his head at her in the way that had earned him his name. That puzzled look. Where are you going? it said. What about me?
She rubbed a finger across his head. “I’ll be back directly. Don’t let anyone in, now.”
It wasn’t as cold out as she’d first thought – more of a nibble than a bite at the moment. When she got to the bridge, though, the wind took a keener edge from the river, and she pulled the scarf up around her mouth. The sky was clear in the early afternoon, but the light had a soft quality to it. The snow light, she remembered Jack calling it. That special light that only came at that time of year, when the shadows were long all day. And tomorrow was the shortest day, too – and then the days would start to stretch out again, second by second, minute by minute. The shortest day, she thought, with a smile. Jack had always chuckled at that.
“They’m all the same length when you ‘ave to work ‘em,” he’d say, sitting by their fire at night, his whittling knife flashing in the lamplight as he worked on a piece. “Work still takes nine hours to do… an’ the alarm still goes off at half pas’ five.”
She could see his face now as he said it. Those high, narrow cheekbones. The jaw as firm as a vice. And, under his cap peak, those soft grey eyes. They were the first things she’d ever noticed about him. The way they gleamed. The way they smiled. The way they used to look at her as they did so.
At the centre of the bridge, she could see along the valley – way up past Tarrington, where the river curved off towards Memory Cross and the moor. All sorts of weather looked like it was gathering up there. She knew what that could be like. The moor had a weather system all of its own. One moment you could be walking in clear sunshine. The next, a mist would blow in and you wouldn’t be able to see ten feet ahead – just there, out of nowhere, like a cloud had dropped from the sky. Then the rain, too. The rain which, when it came, would pour and pour for days on end, coursing down the hillsides, turning the trickles to rivulets, the rivulets to streams, the streams to rivers. But the winter was the worst. The winter was something else entirely. Winters when Memory Cross could feel as cold and lonesome as the moon.
Winters like that one.
She stopped for a moment, her eyes fixed on that peculiar moorland sky – darkening up like a bruise. She felt a shudder suddenly go through her, and she gave the scarf another tweak. Then she turned her head and kept walking.
When she reached the other side of the bridge, she crossed over the Square towards Fore Street and stopped again. It was crammed with people, all the way along. At the lower end, in the pedestrian area, it looked like a carnival was taking place. The coloured lights were all on and a huge Christmas tree towered above the crowd. A juggler was in there somewhere – she could see the skittles looping through the air. There was also a Father Christmas on stilts, wading through the throng, stooping occasionally to hand out a balloon, then rising up again with a rich, deep laugh. There was music everywhere. The usual songs, filtering out from the shops. A barrel organ jangled somewhere, too – its tones muffled by jostling bodies. And rising above it all, the high, clear notes of a flute trilling: ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ – one of her favourite carols. Annie loved to hear the flute, and she stood for a few moments to listen, trying to see through the crowd to where it was coming from. She thought she could make out a figure sitting by the library steps: a young woman, it looked like. Flashes of her. A chunky, rainbow-coloured jumper. Green woolly tights pushed into boots. A swirl of red frizzy hair, swaying with her body as she piped her tune. But then one of the trader’s stalls trundled across her eye-line – Santa hats dangling from it like rows of red bunting – and the player was gone from view.
(to be continued)