The Last Christmas Tree (4)
The woman stepped up into the hall and slipped her backpack down. Annie could smell the coldness on her.
“Sorry to clutter you up with all this.”
“Don’t worry,” said Annie. She shut the door. “Just leave your stuff there and come in and warm yourself.”
The woman took her shawl and boots off, then followed Annie through to the living room with her bag, rubbing her hands together.
“Ahh,” she said, delightedly. “A proper fire. Didn’t think anyone had them now.”
Annie went over and gave the coal a poke. “It’s hard work, but I don’t mind. I’ve always preferred it. That’s growing up in the country for you. Now, let’s get that tea brewing.”
Annie stepped through into the kitchen as the woman went and crouched by the fire. From the door, Annie could see her holding her hands out to the flames. The firelight flickered in her hair, making it shine like burnished copper. The kettle began to come to the boil on the stove. Annie put cups and saucers on a tray, then the milk jug and sugar bowl.
“I haven’t seen you in town before,” Annie called through. “Do you play down there often?”
“I only got here yesterday,” the woman replied. “Just passing through, really. Been in Cornwall for a bit. I travel around, working here, playing there. Following my nose.”
The thought of travelling around right now made Annie shudder – though she knew the cold well enough herself.
“Bit bleak at this time of year, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I find a way,” said the woman. “I always have.”
Annie rinsed out the pot and filled it. Then she put the cosy over and carried the tray through. Tipsy had jumped down from the window and was rubbing around the woman’s legs. She ran a hand sleekly along his back and his tail.
“He’ll have any amount of that,” Annie said. “Though he don’t usually take to strangers. You must have the touch.”
“I’ve been around animals most of my life, on and off,” the woman said. “I think they know who they can trust. It’s like an instinct. He’s gorgeous. What’s his name?”
“Well, Tipsy. I think you’re very special.”
“So does he,” Annie chuckled. “And what should I call you, dear?”
The woman stood up and smiled.
“Jem,” she said. “Short for Jemima, but no one’s ever called me that.”
“Well, I’m Annie and always have been. It’s lovely to make your acquaintance, Jem.”
Jem took Annie’s hand.
“The same, Annie.”
Jem looked at the tray and her eyes widened. Annie poured out the tea.
“Help yourself to biscuits,” she said. “There’s plenty more.” She took her own cup and sat in her armchair.
Jem put a couple of biscuits in her saucer, then sat on the end of the sofa, close to Annie. “This is a treat,” she said. “I usually use busted mugs. Don’t see cups and saucers much now.”
“My mother’s old china,” said Annie. “Don’t ask how old it is, but it’s never lost its colour.”
“Aren’t you scared of breaking it?”
Annie shook her head. “No use in having nice things if you don’t use them, I always say. Anyway… tea always tastes better in a china cup.”
Jem grinned broadly. “I completely agree.”
“And apart from that,” said Annie. “It’s nice to have company. I don’t get much nowadays.”
Jem sipped her tea, looking at the tree.
“I’m sure I know that tree. Did you get it today?”
“I did,” said Annie. “From the greengrocer’s.”
“That’s it. I noticed it had gone when I went past. I thought some kind person had taken pity on it. I’d have had it myself if I’d had somewhere to put it.”
Annie gave her tea a stir. “I don’t usually have one any more. But when I saw it, I thought perhaps I could offer it a home. It’s got its root, anyway, so I’ll try planting it in the garden after.”
“Good,” said Jem. “I think it’s such a sad thing. They bring such happiness for a week or two, then they’re just put out with the rest of the rubbish. I know they get pulped and made into other things, but… well, I just prefer to see them growing. Being used again that way.”
“Me, too,” said Annie.
Jem swung her head, sweeping her hair back over her shoulders. “A few years ago, when I was a teenager, I got involved in road protesting. You know… camping up in woods that were threatened, trying to stop it. Never managed to, but we held it off sometimes.”
She turned suddenly and glanced at Annie, as if afraid she’d said more than she should. Annie winked at her, though.
“Well done,” she said. “If I’d had chance to do something like that, I probably would have, too.”
Jem winked back. “I just think trees are such beautiful things.”
“And so do I,” said Annie.
They sat quietly for a moment and Jem seemed to relax a bit. Tipsy spread himself out on the carpet in front of her and she rubbed his stomach with her foot. Annie looked at her again over the edge of her cup. There was something about her face in the light now, she saw, that seemed familiar – though what it was, she couldn’t say. It was a kind face, but one that looked like it had seen more than its share of bad things in her few years. Care worn, she thought. Maybe the protesting had been something to do with it. Living rough at a young age and being exposed to the elements. All the travelling around, too. The uncertainty of things. It had to leave its mark somewhere. All these things left their mark, as she knew herself only too well.
“Where abouts do you come from originally, Jem? It doesn’t sound like it’s the West Country.”
Jem dipped a biscuit in her tea and took a bite. “No,” she said. “But then, not many people around here sound like they do, either. I think yours is one of the first local voices I’ve heard since I’ve been here, Annie.”
Annie chuckled. “Oh, there’s still a few of us about. Old ‘uns, mainly. Few old hens still pecking around the yard, as they say.”
“Good,” said Jem. “And I hope there always will be. As for me, well…” She stared into the fire again. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t really come from anywhere, Annie.”
Annie gave her a sideways look.
“Sorry… that sounds a bit mysterious, I know. What I mean is… I don’t have a base. You know, somewhere I call home. I’ve never been in one place long enough for that. I moved around a lot as a child. And I’ve just sort of grown up moving around, like I said. Travelling here and there. Different protest sites. Going abroad for long periods. So home’s always just been where I’ve happened to be at any particular time. Wherever I’ve found myself.”
Annie could see what it was in Jem now. The restless spirit. Almost a fear, perhaps, of ever wanting to stop anywhere, or be anywhere long enough to become settled. In some ways, Annie felt envious of that. Though she wondered if there was something behind it. Something Jem was running away from.
“Have you travelled to many places?”
Jem closed her eyes for a moment, as if the very thought of it wearied her.
“Yes,” she said. “Many places. America, India. China, Australia, a few countries in Africa. All over Europe.” Then, with a wry grin, “But then Cornwall, too. And Devon’s probably favourite. I especially like Setton, what I’ve seen of it. Very much.”
“What about your family? Are your parents still around?”
Jem’s face dropped slightly.
“I don’t know,” she said, quietly. “I never knew them. They’ve never been a part of my life.”
Annie reached her hand over and touched Jem on the arm.
“I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean…”
“It’s alright.” She patted Annie’s hand. “It’s like they say, isn’t it. What you’ve never had, you never miss.”
Annie could see the look in her eyes, though. A longing there, whatever she might have said. She thought back to her own father – the number of times she’d heard him say exactly the same thing. He was a man who had always seemed entirely and genuinely content with things, happy in his work, with no desire for any other kind of life. In many ways, Annie felt that she agreed with the sentiment. But what of those things that you want – know, deep in your heart, that you want – and can’t have? Not things that were difficult to obtain, like lots of money. Simpler things, that anyone might expect to be able to have in their life. A loving partner, for instance. Someone to share your life with you – give you their love and take yours in return. Give you everything to make your life complete. Give you the child you both so want. Give you that. So, while she agreed with one part of it – the part her father had meant – there was another part of it that she doubted. But as for parents and a family, well… if you’d never had them, could you miss them? If you’d never known the experience, could you miss it? Looking at Jem, she wondered. And she wondered if that was why Jem kept on the move.
“Well,” Annie said, getting up. “It sounds to me like you’ve lived an interesting life, anyway. I always wanted to travel, you know. Always had the urge.” She went to the table and picked up the old biscuit tin. “When I was a child, I used to look at these pictures and wonder what it would be like to go to those places one day. I used to dream about them and make up stories of my travels. That’s all they ever were, though. Dreams and stories.”
Jem took the tin from her. She turned it around in her hands, looking at the old pictures, scratched and fading now.
“Travel’s wonderful,” she said. “You see things you’d never otherwise see, meet people you’d never know, experience so much about cultures and customs. In the end, though…” She bit on her lower lip. “It’s just that sometimes I feel it would be nice to have something to come back to.”
She looked inside the tin at the tinsel and decorations lying there.
“I suppose I should put the rest of those things on,” said Annie. “I’d just started when I saw you.”
Jem looked at the tree again, glowing against the window.
“Would you mind if I helped you?” she said. “I haven’t dressed a Christmas tree for years.”
Annie’s face cracked in a broad smile. “Of course. I’d be pleased if you would – though don’t let me hold you up.”
“Come on,” Jem said. “Then I’ll see if I can play that tune for you again.”
(to be continued)