The Last Christmas Tree (7)
Annie insisted that Jem stay for tea. Afterwards, they washed up and cleared away together. Then they both went and stood by the tree once more.
“Amazing,” said Annie. “When I saw that scruffy little thing outside that shop earlier…”
“Well, there you are,” Jem said. “You obviously saw something beyond that.”
“I must’ve,” said Annie. She touched one of the baubles, making it swing. “Of course, the only things really missing are gifts underneath – not that I’m too bothered about things like that, anyway.”
Jem tilted her head.
“Well… there’s one other thing we can do. We can each tie a wish to it. It’s another old custom. You write down what you wish for, then tie it to a branch of the tree. Maybe you could wish for a gift, Annie.”
Annie was delighted at the idea. “Well, maybe I could.”
Jem had a little notepad in her bag. She tore out two pages and gave one to Annie, and they sat at the table and wrote their wishes down. Then Annie found some red ribbon in a drawer and cut two lengths of it. They rolled their pieces of paper up, then tied them in place on the branches.
“You have to promise, though… no looking at mine,” said Jem. “They’re our secrets. Keep them on the tree. Then, on the night of Winter Solstice, take them off and put them on the fire.”
Jem turned and picked up her bag again then. “And now… I really ought to be moving along.”
Annie touched ones of the dangling bells. “You’d have been welcome to stop over, you know. There’s a spare room.”
Jem put her hand on Annie’s arm again. “Thank you, Annie. But… it’s alright. There’s somewhere I need to be tonight. Then I’m off up to Bristol for Christmas. Friends to catch up with.”
Annie bent to pick Tipsy up, and they both stroked his head.
“Cheerio, little man,” said Jem. “I’ll see you again sometime.”
“Is that a promise?” Annie asked.
Jem blinked her eyes.
“You never know.”
“I hope so,” said Annie. “You’ll have to drop me a line and let me know where you are.”
In the hall, Jem pulled on her coat and boots and shouldered her backpack. Then Annie saw her out to the doorstep, and Jem opened her arms and they gave each other a brief hug.
“Thank you,” said Annie. “You know what for.”
“You, too. For everything. And now, I wish you bright blessings, Annie, and love and light for Yuletide, and peace for Christmas.”
“You as well,” said Annie. “ Take care of yourself.”
Jem winked again. “Don’t worry. I’m used to doing that.”
Then she was off, trudging up the road towards where the station was, her bells jingling in the still winter air. Annie stood watching her all the way to the corner, where the streetlight picked her out from the shadows in clear relief. She stopped then, half turned and waved her hand.
“Love and light,” Annie whispered, waving back – the words rising from her like smoke in the air.
Then Jem was gone.
Annie did what Jem had said. She untied the wishes from the tree the next night and put them onto the fire. Then she sat with Tipsy and watched as they flared into life – the blackened pieces crumbling off and flying up the chimney into the long, dark night. She had no idea what Jem had wished for, but her own wish had needed no thought at all. She knew exactly what it would be. Not for money, or gifts, or anything like that. But for something far more important – and not just to her.
And, unlike just about every other wish ever made, Annie’s wish came true. On Twelfth Night, as she was taking the decorations off of the tree, she heard – in the distance – the jingling of tiny bells. She turned and looked out of the window, and there was Jem, walking down the hill towards her, waving.
Jem stayed with Annie that day. She helped her to plant the tree in the garden, in a sheltered corner Annie had chosen, where she could see it from her bedroom window.
“I hope it survives,” Annie said, as they finished.
Jem grinned at her, her face glowing in the bright air. “Don’t worry. It will.” Then she winked. “It’s got something protecting it, Annie.”
Jem’s return had been only a part of Annie’s wish, though. There was another bit – and time would have to tell with that. But things seemed promising. Jem stayed around for a while. She continued to go to the town of a day and play her flute, and she did well with it. She used Annie’s spare room while she did so. Until she decided what to do. Whether to stay, and to settle. She still went off now and then – but she always came back again. And her staying got longer each time.
As for Annie. At her time of life, she’d finally found someone whom she came to think of, in her own way, as a daughter – the one that she never had. She always believed that Jem had come to Setton, and that they’d found each other, for a reason – one that neither of them, nor anyone else, would ever be able to explain.
And the last Christmas tree? It took in Annie’s garden, and it thrived, and is there, where Annie can see it every day. It remained the last Christmas tree she ever bought. The last real one, at least. But then, as she said to Jem, she didn’t really need another one. Not after that one.
It had brought her all the gifts she could want now. Beauty and happiness, and friendship.
Most of all, love.