The Last Christmas Tree (6)
When Annie had made the tea, they settled down again in the lowering light. Jem pulled her legs up onto the chair and rested her chin on her knees, while Annie made a lap for a more-than-grateful Tipsy.
“Well, like I said,” Annie began. “Memory Cross is where I was born and where my family had always lived. My parents, their parents before them, and way on back as far as you care to go. Been a Puddicombe at Memory Cross probably since the time it was named. Probably a Puddicombe named it, for all anyone knows. And I was the last. There weren’t any following me. My father was a labourer at the old Penscove Farm. Mother worked there, too, sometimes. Hay harvest, mainly. This was back in the days when it was done in bales, not them huge big rolls they have now, big as a barn itself. The cottage we had, the one in that picture, was tied to the farm, and my father took it over from his father, who worked the farm, too. I went to school in the village. One of only a dozen, I was. Only had one teacher, taught us everything. After I left school I got a job down the creamery in Setton. I used to come in every day on the bus, and go back again on the bus. Stayed with mother and father. Couldn’t really afford not to – at least until I was married. Which didn’t happen. I had one or two love interests, but never anything special. I always thought I was saving myself for Jack, you see – even though he’d left the village and gone down to Cornwall to work soon as he was out of school. Never expected him to come back, really – but you never know. Besides that, living in the village didn’t give you much chance to meet up with men. And by the time I was starting to feel Jack wouldn’t come back, most of the fellers around was already wed anyway. So I stayed at home. I stayed and stayed.”
Annie looked across to see if Jem was still with her, thinking she might have dozed off or something. But she was sitting as she had been, eyes gazing into the fire, unmoving.
“Well, the years went by and father and mother were both coming up for retiring, and I was up around thirty-five and still there with ‘em. I was getting to be a bit of an old maid, as they called ‘em. Left in the closet. Unwanted. It’s different nowadays, of course, for young women. But back then, well… wouldn’t have been so many years earlier they’d have put me in the ducking stool, I shouldn’t wonder.”
She grinned, and so did Jem.
“I’d have gone the same way,” Jem said. “Especially as I’m interested in the old religion.” She nodded at Tipsy. “And there’s you now, too, living alone with a cat.”
As if on cue, Tipsy got up, turned himself around in Annie’s lap, then curled himself up again in exactly the same position he’d been in before. The two women laughed.
“Well, there you are,” said Annie. “How much proof do you need?”
They sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the settling of the coals.
Jem shifted her feet. “So… what happened?”
“Nothing short of a miracle,” said Annie. “Just as father was retiring, Jack returned. He’d been working in the tin mines, and had decided he’d had enough of being underground for a living. He was a man made to be in the open air, anyway. So he came back on a visit to his family that Christmas, just as the position on the farm was coming up. He’d met someone down there, but it hadn’t worked out. I think that was part of his coming back, too. So there he was – all of him. Jack Hannaford. Come to sweep this old maid up ‘fore it got too late. Which he did. Saw something in me that he hadn’t seen before, anyhow – though that’s not how he told it. He said he’d always seen something, just been too shy to show it. Now, would you believe that? Well, anyhow… he gets the job and we start going together. Within six months, we’re wed. Just like that. He married me on my thirty-seventh birthday, and we took over the old cottage once mother and father had got themselves sorted. They’d put up a few council houses in the village by then, so they had one of those. It couldn’t have worked out more perfect if you’d tried. There was just one thing that was needed to make it complete. And that was the one thing that wouldn’t happen, no matter what.” She ran her fingers over the back of Tipsy’s head, making him flick his ears. “Five years we were together. That’s all. Not long, but worth every moment. And we tried and tried for children. But it never happened. We had tests and were both healthy enough. But something wasn’t right somewhere. Jack was so understanding about it. Said it didn’t matter, because we had each other. But I know, deep down, he was disappointed. And so was I. Heartbroken. He’d have made such a wonderful father, too. He’d such a lot of patience, as you can see with those carvings of his. He cared.”
Annie stared down into the flames again.
“And then suddenly, during that last summer, another miracle seemed to happen. I finally fell pregnant. Near forty-two years old I was, and long past any hope. Well, we just couldn’t believe it. Jack was like a dog with three tails. It was the happiest, he said, he’d ever been in his life, next to marrying me. And you could see it. It was wonderful. I’m just so grateful he had that time.”
She put a finger to the corner of her eye. Jem sat forward and touched her arm.
“You don’t have to go on if you don’t want to, Annie,” she said.
But Annie put her hand up. “It’s okay. I’ve started now. Better out than in.” She drank the last drop of her tea. “It was like with your chap, you know. An accident. It was late October time, coming up for the apple pounding – always Jack’s favourite time of year, the cider-making. Anyhow, he took a tractor and trailer up one of the orchards one morning to collect some sacks of apples. Up top of a steep field this orchard was. He never liked going up there, especially on a wet morning like that. You had to be so careful – which he always was, of course. A very careful man. That’s why they don’t really know what happened. Most likely thing was the tractor had skidded somehow coming down – the apples making the trailer unstable or something. Whatever, he lost control of it. The tractor jack-knifed and went over. Was an old one, too. Old Fordson. Didn’t have a roll bar on it. And… that was that.” She looked up at Jem, whose face was like stone in the firelight. “And I was like you. I knew. I felt something. Before even Sally Edgcumbe came dashing up from the farm to tell me, I knew something terrible had happened. But the other thing was, I never believed it for one minute. I waited for him to step in the door. I waited and waited. I never believed that he wasn’t coming back to me – not before he’d had chance to see our child. And that was my only consolation, in the end – that at least he knew. That it had made him happier than a man could ever be in the time he had left.”
Annie caught the look of sorrow in Jem’s eyes – a reflection of her own. Jem didn’t need to speak. Annie could tell she knew.
“Anyhow,” Annie went on. “That was what kept me going. I decided there and then, hard though it was going to be on my own, and at the age I was too, that I was going to have that child. I was going to have it for Jack. I almost did, too. Near six months I carried it. But then…. that wasn’t to be either. Combination of things, probably. The shock of Jack’s death, the age I was. And it was the hardest winter we’d had up there for years. Village was cut off at Christmas.” She looked up at Jem again then. “Little girl, she was. Wouldn’t have been much older than you now. Twenty-eight years ago I lost her. Twenty-eight years ago… today.”
Jem came and knelt by the side of Annie’s chair and put her arm around her shoulders. The two women stayed like that for a time in the half-light, not speaking, just listening to the quiet sounds of the room, and of their own breathing.
“Mother Night,” Jem whispered, at last.
Annie turned her head. “What’s that?”
“Mother Night, Annie. That’s what tonight is. The Long Night Moon. The beginning of Yuletide in the old tradition. The night before Winter Solstice. The pagans celebrated it as the time when the new year is born, when the spell of winter is broken by the return of the light. It’s sacred to the Norse goddess, Frigga. Her name means ‘beloved one’.”
Jem gave Annie’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. Then she sat down again and looked into the fire.
“She was supposed to be very beautiful. The goddess of love and marriage, and motherhood… and of the dead. In the old myths, her main function was as a wife and mother and housekeeper. But she also had the power to prophesize, though she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what she could foresee. There’s a famous story about her. She had a son called Baldr, whom she loved very much. He had a dream in which he saw his own death, and when he told her about it she set about doing all she could to protect him – even though she knew, through her own foresight, that he was probably doomed. But she thought she would try to change his fate anyway. She got promises from everything on earth – every animal, plant and flower – not to harm him. The only thing she didn’t get the promise from, though, was mistletoe. The mischievous gods used to throw things at him, amused at the way they bounced off without hurting him at all. But then one of the gods had an arrow made of mistletoe. He fired it at Baldr… and, of course, it hit him and killed him. Afterwards, mistletoe is supposed to have become sacred to Frigga, because it failed to make the promise to her. And Mother Night has become her night. A night to celebrate this mother who lost her child, despite everything she could do. Myth has it that the dewdrops on the grass in the early morning are the tears Frigga sheds in mourning her loss.”
Annie smiled. “We all bear our losses in our own ways,” she said. “It’s such a long time ago, now. It never leaves you, though. It never goes away. But that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that story. I won’t forget it. Thank you for telling me, Jem.”
“That’s alright,” Jem said. “Thank you for telling me yours. They’re not happy stories. But then, not all stories are.” She raised her hands then and opened her arms, as if to welcome something in. “But there’s Winter Solstice coming up. And that’s sacred to Freyr – and he’s supposed to bestow peace and pleasure on we mortals. And then Christmas, too. So that’s hopeful, at least.”
“Yes,” said Annie. “That’s right. We have to have hope. Without that, we’re lost.”
“I’m always hopeful,” said Jem. “I hope for all sorts of things. Things that’ll put the world to rights.”
“And what about for yourself?”
Jem put her chin in the cup of her hand. “For myself? Well… I hope I’ll meet a good man one day – a man like Charlie, or your Jack. And I hope to have children, too. But I’ll need to be settled somewhere first, so that’s not going to happen for a bit. One day, though.”
“You’ve plenty of time for those things, anyway,” said Annie.
Jem gave a small nod. “I suppose the main thing I hope for for myself, though, is happiness in whatever I do. I don’t ever want to feel hopeless again, like I did when I was younger. I’ve had enough of that. But what about you, Annie? What do you hope for now?”
Annie thought about that one for a few moments. What did she hope for? What was it that kept her going?
“Well… I suppose I hope for happiness, too. But many of the things I used to hope for, the sorts of things that you’ve mentioned, have already gone by me.” She put her hand down and ran her fingers through Tipsy’s fur, waking him out of his dream. “I suppose I just hope, no matter what happens, that Jack’ll always be there waiting for me.”
“You needn’t worry about that,” said Jem. “He will be. They all are. Charlie, Jack… they’re all waiting.”
The two women sat quietly again then, looking at the tree. It was dark outside by then, so the tree seemed to glow more brightly. It made such a difference, Annie thought. Just this tiny tree, her first in all those years, and it was so brightening and cheering. And she was also beginning to feel… she wasn’t quite sure how to put it. As if she was no longer alone. Which is when something else occurred to her. If it hadn’t been for Jem, she’d never have found the tree. And if she hadn’t found the tree, she might never have met Jem. But who was to know any of these things for sure?
As if on cue with her thoughts, Tipsy jumped down and went over to the tree. He sat in front of it, his tail looping out behind him, and looked up intently into the branches, tipping his head one way, then the other – his eyes fixed, round as saucers. Annie chuckled.
“What is it with that cat?” she said. “He does that all the time. Just sits and stares at something – just like someone looking at a television. Sometimes it might even be just a blank wall.”
Jem sat forward. “Ah, they’re clever creatures,” she said. “They have a special sense, you know. They’re supposed to be able to see things that we can’t. Spirits and things.” She went and knelt beside him. “What is it that you’re seeing, little man?”
It was then that Annie saw something, too – or, at least, thought she did. Just a glimpse of something, like a trick of the light – the way the lights and decorations were arranged, the looping of the tinsel, the shape of the shadows. A fleeting thing, like the way she sometimes saw shapes emerging from clouds, or the arrangement of patterns on wallpaper. But as soon as she saw it, she froze. There, in the depths of the tree, she thought she could see… she thought she could make out a face. She jerked forwards, like she did when she was coming out of a dream…
…and then it was gone, and she felt Jem’s hand on her arm again. She turned to Jem, who was gazing intently into her eyes. She expected Jem to be surprised, but she wasn’t. She looked perfectly calm.
“What was it, Annie?” she said. “What did you see?”
But the words tumbling around in Annie’s head just couldn’t find an order, couldn’t find a way to her lips. She looked at the tree again. But whatever it was she’d seen had gone, and it was just as it was, this wonderful thing she’d brought into her life that day, beaming brighter than ever.
“It’s alright,” Jem said then. “I think I know.”
(to be continued)