by Laura Goodfellow
cinnamon spiced hot chocolate
Clare caught her breath and tugged her hat down over her ears as she closed the door behind her. The east wind that had been threatening snow for the last couple of days had well and truly delivered. Now a deep white carpet lay over her garden in soft, smooth mounds, transforming the bushes into oversized meringues which glistened in the mellow pink light of late afternoon.
‘Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,’ she half-laughed, looking at her friend, Liz, who was standing on her doorstep rubbing her gloved hands together.
‘Nah, we’ll be fine. Are you ready? It’s our tenth anniversary, you know.’ Liz replied, smiling, as she linked her arm through Clare’s.
As they set off on the short walk to the village green, Clare asked, 'Is it really ten years ago? It doesn't seem like that long ago.’
‘Yep. If you think about it, your Stephen was what, twelve, the first time?’ Liz explained, ‘He’s nearly twenty-three now, so it has to be. I was thinking about it as I walked to yours. Who’d have thought our trip to the Christmas market would become a tradition.’
'Just the two of us now, though,’ Clare replied, ‘gone are the days of the kids running around excitedly.’
‘Exactly.’ ‘Liz laughed, ‘much less stressful and peaceful. And now the men choose to go to the pub instead, even better. Talking of Stephen, has he let you know if they’re coming for Christmas yet?
Clare shrugged her shoulders as she replied,
‘No, not yet. He doesn’t know if he’s working yet. Lucy is off, but she'll take James to her mum's if he is.’
'That's a shame. They're leaving it a bit late to let him know,’ Liz paused for a moment before continuing,
‘Have you got Hugh anything yet? I guess it’ll be socks and whisky for Jack again,’
‘No, not yet. I was hoping I might find something for him at the market tonight. I want to get him something a bit different this year,’ Clare replied thoughtfully, 'there's only so many ….'
'Oh, that's nice, Mrs. Jones has had some new lights this year, don't they look pretty,' Liz's voice interrupted. She was pointing at a small red brick house under a slate roof that now had a riot of multicoloured lights chasing up and down the front.
‘They’re ok, I guess, not really my cup of tea,’ Clare sighed. The big plastic Santa in the garden and the lights seemed tacky, but she resisted saying anymore. Liz’s front garden resembled a scene from a shop window, with moving reindeer, bright lights, and a sleigh full of presents, Clare’s own decorations were much more subdued.
Hugh had tried to persuade her to have some new lights this year, but she had resisted.
‘Shall we get some of those icicle lights for outside?’ he had asked, ‘I thought they’d brighten up the old brickwork. Just some plain white ones, though. A bit of Christmas cheer and all that,' he’d continued looking hopeful, but Clare had just shaken her head, and he'd not asked again.
Maybe next year, she'd think about it, but not this year. This would be her first Christmas without her mum, and she was dreading the upcoming festivities. Boxing Day had always been a family day at her parent's home, a chance for Clare, her sisters, and their families to all meet up. Last year hadn’t been easy; her dad had died in the August, but she’d still had her mum then. Now, she was gone too.
A few days later, Hugh had gently put his arm around her shoulder as she stood at the kitchen sink, watching the bubbles pop as her salty tears dripped onto them.
‘Penny for them?’ Hugh asked.
'I can't go, you know, to the market, I can't face it, Hugh, really I can't,' Clare spluttered as she turned and nestled into his shoulder, sobbing, ‘I miss her so much.’
‘I know you do, love,’ Hugh replied, stroking the top of her head, ‘I miss her too.’ Clare heard Hugh swallow hard as he held her tightly.
‘I know, I just feel so lost, so, so,’ Clare took a deep breath, ‘so alone.’
Hugh gently pushed her away from his body and put his hands on her shoulders. He leaned down and gazed into her puffy red eyes,
‘I understand, but you’re not,’ he said, as his fingertips brushed the tears from her cheeks, ‘And your mum would be the first to tell you that you can’t stop living your life.’
‘I know, she’d be cross with me, understanding but cross. What with Dad dying last year and now Mum,’ Clare paused and rubbed her eyes hard, ‘Oh! I don’t know, Hugh, it’s all just, just, just too much.’
In the end, Clare had decided that Hugh should go to the pub with Jack as usual and that she would walk as far as the market with Liz and then if she didn’t want to go in, she would simply go back home.
‘Clare, are you ok?’ Liz’s voice drifted into Clare’s mind, jolting her from her thoughts.
‘Wh…what? Yes. Sorry, I was miles away.’ Clare replied as she forced a thin smile.
‘You’re sure?’ Liz pressed, ‘we can go home if you want?’
Clare hesitated for a moment before answering,
'I'll be fine, honestly. We’re nearly there anyway.’
A few minutes later, the two friends approached the entrance to the market. Clare stopped under the holy laden arch and looked around. In front of her was the familiar sight of four rows of stalls, bustling with the sounds of excited children and Christmas shoppers. A sudden wave of sadness filled her and she clasped Liz’s arm tightly,
‘Shall we start gently and go and grab a hot chocolate and just sit for a bit?’ Liz asked gently. Clare smiled at her friend and nodded.
‘You go and find a seat,’ Liz continued, ‘I’ll bring it over.’
Clare nodded and started to make her way towards a group food stalls, set out in a rough circle around a tall Christmas tree; resplendent in reds and golds with flickering candle lights at the end of each branch.
It’s a shame they don’t use real candles anymore, Clare thought. Instantly she thought she heard her mum’s laughing voice, saying,
‘You know why they don’t - it’s because it’s against elf and safety’.
Clare couldn’t help smiling to herself at the memory of her mum’s awful Christmas jokes as she made her way to one of the empty tables arranged around the tree. The fragrant aroma of woodsmoke floated in the air, as logs spat and crackled in braziers dotted around the circle. As she waited for Liz, Clare looked around; the market looked the same as it always had. All the stalls were lit with bright fairy lights, that twinkled in the gathering twilight. Boughs of holly, ivy and fir were festooned all around and strains of Silent Night began to fill the air, as a group of carol singers gathered around the Christmas tree. Clare shivered and reached for the complementary thick red blanket, which she wrapped around her shoulders. Yes, it looked the same, but it felt so different to her.
Clare waved as she saw Liz approaching, balancing two blue mugs in one hand and two plates in the other.
‘There you go, that’ll warm you up nicely. I grabbed some mince pies too,' Liz laughed as she passed a mug and plate to Clare and sat next to her.
‘Thank you,’ Clare smiled, feeling herself relax, as she wrapped her hands around the warm mug and breathed in the spicy aroma of chocolate and cinnamon.
‘I’m glad I came, thanks, Liz,' Clare said as she reached for a mince pie, 'Oh, these are good,' she continued savouring the crumbling pastry and brandy-soaked fruit.
‘No thanks needed. I’m glad you came too,’ Liz replied, leaning her head against Clare’s shoulder, 'Now pass me a mince pie before you eat the lot.' For the next hour, they sat and chatted until Liz finally said,
‘Shall we go and have a wander around then?’ Clare felt her body tense up, but she nodded and stood up.
'Jams and chutneys first?' Clare asked as she folded the red blanket and put it back on the empty chair. Liz nodded, and they made their way down to the busy market stalls.
The jam and chutney stall was one of their favourites. They always stopped there to buy a few jars to have with leftovers and cheeses over Christmas. Clare lent forward to look through the jars, wondering what new combinations they had this year. Rowanberry jelly, blackberry jam, autumn chutney, Clare’s hand trembled as she paused over a jar, “Onion- free chutney," the bright label stated. That would have been perfect for mum, Clare thought. Her mum hadn’t liked onions, or rather as her mum put it, they didn’t like her. Clare hastily turned away, feeling her face reddening, as she felt the rush of emotions welling up inside her again.
Clare drifted away from the stall, leaving Liz sampling its wares. She wandered around the bustling stalls. One was surrounded by bright-eyed children pointing to wooden trains and animals; another displayed colorful arrays of knitted hats scarves until she came to the last stall in the row. She stopped and looked; it must be new, she thought, as she hadn’t seen it before.
The was decorated with garlands of evergreens adorned with red ribbons, pinecones, and silver bells which were jingling in the breeze, like notes on a tiny magical flute. Clare found herself mesmerized by the sound coming from them.
‘Anything I can help you with?’ the stall keeper asked. ‘Looking for something special, are you?’
'What, sorry, what did you say?' Clare finally said, tearing her ears away from the hypnotic sound of the bells. 'I was just listening to your bells. They have such a sweet sound,' she continued, 'I was miles away, I'm sorry.'
'Of course, you were. Everyone is when they really hear them. Too many don’t stop, they’re too busy dashing past, but those that stop and listen will hear the magic,’ he said, his face set with a serious expression.
Clare turned and looked properly at the man; he wasn’t tall, but he wasn't short either. His face was long and thin, ending in a sharply pointed chin. His ruddy skin appeared rough and timeworn. Broad wrinkles spread from the corners of his deep-set eyes, which were overhung by thick unruly eyebrows. He was dressed strangely, wearing a long black woollen cloak, muddied, and ragged from where it scraped along the ground. Whisps of grey hairs poked from a dark brown leather cap, which sat at an awkward angle on his head.
‘So, are you looking for something special?’ he queried again, looking at her from under his bushy eyebrows.
‘Yes,’ she replied hesitantly, 'but I'm not sure what.' She felt strangely intrigued by the man.
'Well, you've come to the right place,' he said. 'Here…' he paused, gesturing to the brimming tables behind him, 'here, the right gift will find you. Although it may not be for who you planned,' he continued, ending with a curious little bow.
Clare felt a little confused, not for who I planned. What does he mean by that? she thought before deciding it was just part of his sales pitch.
Clare walked around the stall. There were four tables stacked with a plethora of bewitching objects. Tiny glass fairies were seated on the brightly coloured horses of two intricately carved wooden carousels. Little stars that seemed to sparkle sat atop brightly coloured boxes. Pretty gems of purple, pink and red were scattered over the tables, and all around were the soft jingling bells she’d seen outside.
'It's all so beautiful,' she said to the man, 'but it's not what I'm looking for. Thank you anyway,' she continued and went to walk away. As she did, a small silver box caught her eye. It was decorated with orange and yellow enameled daisies and bright green leaves. Clare bent down and picked it up. It felt unbelievably light, huh cheap tat she thought. Her fingers trembled as she opened the box, and the familiar tune of Danny Boy filled her ears. Immediately, Clare felt her shoulders starting to shake, but as she tried to swallow the lump in her throat, tears began to slide down her face. It had been her mum's favourite song. She tried to focus on the box; inside was the tiniest music box mechanism Clare had ever seen; it couldn’t have been more than a couple of centimetres long. It seemed impossible that it could produce the song that she was now hearing.
‘Ah see, what did I tell you?’ the man exclaimed. ‘Always the right gift finds its way to the right person.’
Clare closed the lid and held the box in her hand. A feeling of warmth rose in her, and she almost felt the hug of her mum as she clasped it tightly.
'I'll take it,' she said, reaching in her pocket for her purse. 'How much do I owe you?'
'Nothing,' he replied.
'Nothing?' she asked, suddenly feeling disappointed. Maybe it wasn’t for sale after all.
‘The right gift finds the right person, he repeated. ‘That box has been there for years, just waiting for the right person to come along and find in it the magic that it holds. Take it.’
‘But surely I must owe you something?’ she asked again.
He shook his head and turned away.
'Thank you, it's truly kind of you if, you're sure?' she said.
‘I’m certain, now go find your friend. She’is probably looking for you,' he replied, raising his hand in a small wave, signalling the end of the conversation,
'Thank you again, I'll treasure it,' Clare replied, and putting the box gently in her pocket, she started she set off to find Liz. She hadn’t gone more than a few yards when she suddenly wondered how the man had known she’d had come with a friend, let alone that Liz might be looking for her.
Clare stopped and turned around, about to ask him, but the stall and the man had disappeared. There was nobody there and no sign of the stall that had just been there. Clare was shocked. She had only had her back turned for two or three minutes, there was no way the man could have packed his stall up so quickly. I must be going crazy, grief can do funny things, perhaps I should go home, Clare thought,
As she headed back down the row, to look for Liz, Clare put her hand into her pocket to pull out her gloves. Clare felt a shiver run down her spine, as her hand brushed against something hard and metallic. She twisted and turned the object in her hand for a few moments before she pulled it out. Clare stopped and gasped when she saw the little music box in her hand. She stood staring at it for a few moments, before opening it again. The hustle and bustle of the market stopped around her as the sound of Danny Boy softly floated up from the box again.
Clare felt tears begin to roll down her cheeks, as she looked up towards the Christmas tree. Above it, twinkling and shining in the dark sky, was the brightest star Clare had ever seen. ‘
Thank you, Mum,’ Clare said silently, clasping the box tightly in her hand, ‘and a Happy Christmas to you and Dad.’
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