The Last Christmas Tree (3)
After Jim Irish had dropped her off – carrying the tree in for her and putting it on a table in the bay window, where it could be seen outside – and after she’d given Tipsy his belated lunch, Annie stood by the tree and looked it over again properly. She straightened up a few of the branches as best she could, being careful not to snap anything off. It certainly wasn’t the perfect example – though she’d never been a believer in perfection anyway. She remembered her mother always saying
“The only perfect thing is peace – and even that’s a racket most of the time.”
But she thought she could do something with it. She hadn’t used the decorations for a long time, but she still had them.
She went up to her bedroom and unlocked the door of the closet. It was a small square room, barely bigger than a broom cupboard, where she kept all her odds and ends: things she no longer used, but couldn’t bear to part with. Spare curtains, old books, photograph albums, her mother’s old bible and psalter. On a high shelf was a large brown suitcase with locked catches. Though she tried not to, she looked at it. It hadn’t been opened for years. Not since just after it happened: that day when everything in life had changed so suddenly and horribly.
She touched the catches of the case. She knew precisely what was in there. Every last item. Jack’s wedding suit – the only suit he’d ever owned, and which she’d only seen him in that once. He just wasn’t a man to feel comfortable in a suit. Then there was the shirt and tie he’d worn, and his shoes. Her wedding outfit was in there, too, and the flowers they’d both worn and always kept. Her mother had sprinkled something on them – some special stuff she’d cooked up in the back scullery on the night before the wedding. Whatever it was, it had worked. The flowers had lost their colour, but had otherwise stayed intact – though they’d always looked as if they might crumble at the slightest touch. But they never had, and didn’t even when Annie finally laid them in a shoe box, in a nest of tissue paper, and put them in the case. The figures from their wedding cake were also in there. The bride and groom, whittled by Jack from some pieces of apple wood. He’d even given the figures faces – tiny noses and eyes and lips. The bride had her arm hooked open to take the groom’s, and their heads had been cocked towards one another – as they still were now, wrapped in a cotton handkerchief that Annie had made herself for Jack’s suit pocket.
She felt something beginning to well up inside her. She took a deep breath, then moved her eyes away from the case, down to the shelf below. There was what she’d come to get: an old square biscuit tin. She bent down and lifted it up into the light. It was edged in dark blue, but was covered with scenes from around the world, made to look like postcards that had been pasted on. The Grand Canal in Venice, with a gondola moving across and the Rialto Bridge in the background. The Pyramids of Egypt, a camel train passing by. The Eiffel Tower in Paris. New York Harbour, with a huge passenger ship passing under the gaze of Liberty, and the skyscrapers looking like mountain peaks. On the lid, though, was the biggest picture of all: a London skyline from the river, with the dome of St Paul’s rising above everything – looking, Annie had always fancied, like a huge egg sitting in its cup, waiting for a big spoon to come down from the sky and slice its top off. The lettering on the lid said ‘Peek Freans Special Assortment’, and there were tiny pictures, between the cards, showing samples of the biscuits: the round ones with jam in the middle, the long chocolate ones, the pink wafers, the knobbly coconut ones that looked like the surface of the moon. Annie remembered when the tin was new. Her father had got it one year as a Christmas present from the farmer he worked for. She could still remember, too, when the box had been opened on Christmas afternoon, and she’d been allowed the first choice. Always the round one with the jam. That had always been her favourite. She could taste it now.
She’d always been fascinated by the box after that. All those foreign places she might visit one day, when she was older. Italy, France, America, Egypt. London, even – the nearest of them all to her, yet it might just as well have been on the moon. Names and places that she’d played with in her head at night as the candle flickered against the wall. She used to pretend she was in those places – that her room was on that ship in the harbour, or behind one of the balconied windows of the buildings along the edge of the Canal. Imagine, she’d thought, opening your window in the morning and instead of looking out over lanes and fields, you had water. It would be just like living on a boat. She could jump in and swim to school.
She gave the tin a quick shake, then pulled at the corner of the lid. This was another thing that hadn’t been opened for years. As soon as the lid came off, though, there was the piney smell of old Christmas trees. Of old Christmases. Everything was in there. The red and green and gold baubles. The silver snakes of tinsel – looking a bit tarnished and threadbare, but probably sufficient. The string of tiny fairy lights – each bulb no bigger than an apple stalk, nestling in its petalled holder. Also in the tin, wrapped in tissue paper, were Jack’s decorations – the wooden ones which, like the bride and groom, he’d whittled and carved: a toboggan, a star, a child in a cradle, a snowman, an angel, and – the masterpiece – a Father Christmas figure with a long gown. At his feet, a bulging sack of toys on one side, a smiling child on the other. She pushed the lid back on. Then she closed the closet door and went back downstairs.
She put the tin on the sitting room table, then went to put some coal on the fire. Tipsy came in and joined her, jumping up by the tree and poking his nose cautiously around it. Once he was satisfied, though, he rubbed his face against the lower branches.
“You watch it, sir,” Annie snapped. “Don’t want any more damage.”
He winked disdainfully at her, then leapt up onto the window ledge and sat looking out into the street, curling his tail around him. The light was beginning to fade outside now, and Annie could see – down over the bridge – the roisterous glow of Fore Street. She preferred to see it at this distance, she thought. From here it looked much more festive and friendly.
“Right,” she said. “Let’s see what we can do, then.”
She took the string of fairy lights from the tin and tested them, not ever expecting them to work, but clucking with satisfaction when they did. Then she looped them carefully around the tree, starting at the top and working her way downwards, spreading them out as evenly as possible. She plugged them in again – and the tree suddenly burst into life. The branches, though bare and spindly in places, seemed to thicken with the glow and the cast of shadows. With a couple of adjustments, it looked just right. Tipsy turned his head and looked, and the lights sparkled in his eyes.
“How about that, maister?” Annie said.
He turned back to the window suddenly, tipping his head and mewing. Annie heard the sound of tiny bells jingling outside, and she stepped around behind Tipsy to look.
“What’s got your gander?” she said, twitching the curtain aside. Then she started back. Outside on the pavement, grinning at Tipsy – her eyes also glinting in the light from the tree – was the flute-player. She had a dark woollen cloak on now, as thick as a blanket, which covered her up from her head to her boots. The red frizzy hair, though, was unmistakeable – corkscrewing out in bunches from the sides of her hood.
Seeing Annie, she put her hand up to her mouth and continued to walk by, the bells jingling again as she went. Annie rushed through and out to the front door just as she was passing.
“Hello,” Annie called.
The woman stopped and glanced at her, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t being nosey. It was just your beautiful Christmas tree. And your beautiful cat, of course.”
“Oh, don’t apologise, dear,” said Annie. “I’m just so pleased to see you.”
The woman gave her a puzzled look. She shuffled her backpack, which looked bulky and awkward. She was also carrying a large woollen shoulder bag with dangling tassels, on the ends of which were the bells. Annie could see the end of the flute poking out at the top.
“I heard you playing when I was down the town. It was lovely.”
The woman smiled then. “Thank you.”
“You played a particular tune. I tried to find you to find out what it was, but you’d gone.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “Probably when I popped in the library to warm up. Sorry I missed you.”
Though the shawl was thick and bulky, Annie could see from the woman’s face that there wasn’t much of her. She guessed she couldn’t be much more than about twenty-five.
“You look cold now,” said Annie.
The woman shrugged. “Not bad. I’ll be alright once I get going.”
They stood looking at one another for a moment. The woman rocked from foot to foot, making the bells jingle.
“Listen,” said Annie. “I’m just about to brew up a pot of tea. You’d be welcome to come in and join me.”
The woman’s eyes widened. But she shook her head. “That’s very kind of you. But I wouldn’t want to trouble you like that.”
“Not a bit of it. You could have a proper look at the tree. And I need to know what that tune is, too. Anyway… you look about as froze as Dan Dammeral’s duck pond.”
Annie grinned. “Just an old saying. I’ve got a nice fire going.”
The woman hunched her shoulders against the cold and glanced up along the street. Then she turned back to Annie.
“Well… only if you’re sure.”
“Good,” said Annie, stepping back in and holding the door open.
(to be continued)