Wednesday, 7 December 2022

Surviving Christmas by Jenny Palmer, mulled wine

 I like autumn. There’s nothing better than to go out on a misty, November day with the sun low in the sky, casting shadows across the fields. Or to wander along country lanes and observe the winter retreat of wildlife. The sycamore and oak trees have shed their leaves and cut majestic figures in the sky. The beech, ash and hazel have retained theirs. Their green and yellow leaves serve as a reminder of spring.  You’ll see blackbirds and wood pigeons flitting about in the hedgerows, feasting on late berries and insects brought on by the warm weather.  There will be squirrels hopping from tree to tree in search of nuts and acorns to stash away, while sheep graze, oblivious.   

When the clocks go back, the nights start drawing in. Halloween and Bonfire Night come and go. Mice start coming into the kitchen - a sure sign that it’s getting colder, and winter is on the way. Next thing you know it’ll be Christmas. They’ll have been advertising it in the shops for months. Soon they’ll start on the Christmas jingles, that you can’t get out of your head, whether you like it or not, like It's the season to be jolly. Tra-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, or even worse I wish it could be Christmas every day.    

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas.  We didn’t have electricity in those days so there were very few distractions. Christmas was a time for the gathering of the clan. A succession of aunts and uncles bearing gifts, would drop in throughout the festive season. I liked the slow build-up beforehand and the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning, to see what delights Santa had put in our stockings: an orange, a sugar mouse, chocolate money. We lived on a farm and the animals still had to be fed and watered. The day itself was like any other, except there was an air of cheerfulness in the house. Religion didn’t feature in my life then, apart from the nativity play at primary school.

 By the time I left home, Christmas had become a commercial enterprise and I wanted no part of it.  Rather than go home to celebrate with my parents, I took to travelling abroad for the festive season, the further away the better. One year might find me lying in a hammock on a Caribbean Island, off Belize City. Another I’d be in a secluded Andean community, having crossed the Bolivian altiplano on the back of a freezing lorry, or staying with friends in an African village in South Sudan, where they didn’t celebrate Christmas at all.  

These days I try not to succumb to all the hype. I refuse to make any plans or take practical decisions until December.  You never know what’s going to happen when you live out in the sticks. Last November we were beset by the Beast from the East, which devasted swathes of trees and brought down power lines, leaving us without electricity for four days. The phones were off so we couldn’t get updates on how the work was progressing and were completely in the hands of the power company. I heard later they had to import engineers from abroad due to a shortage of labour.  But we were left floundering around the house in the dark, searching for candles and batteries for the radio. People resorted to boiling water and heating soup on multifuel burners if they had them.

The episode reminded me of my childhood days, only back in the 1950s we weren’t dependent on electrical appliances and our parents were more resilient anyway. Last year I felt bereft without my broadband and streaming services. Sitting in the dark, listening to the radio on a cold winter’s night, with the food going off in the fridge, was no joke. I will be better prepared this year. I have bought a head torch, replaced the radio batteries and the gas canister and stocked up with canned soup. What can possibly go wrong?

When I get round to it, I’ll probably abandon the lifetime habit of sending of cards. It’s high time and anyway the cost of postage stamps it exorbitant and there will most likely be a postal strike. It’s a pity because I like receiving them and they come in handy as replacement decorations.  I have never in my life bought a tree. I prefer to hang my lights on one of the indoor plants, which has grown to a great height. Searching for the perfect gift for the family is a fruitless task and bound to fail.  It's better to save yourself the trouble and buy gift tokens or books, which can be dispatched direct to front doors. It avoids buying wrapping paper and the family will be the happier for it. Alternatively, give them a treat: a meal out or a cinema experience if you want to be different.

Social arrangements can be very tricky at this time of year. People tend to go a bit mad. They rush around trying to see all their friends beforehand, as if the world were about to end. All being well and it doesn’t, there should be opportunity to catch up with people in the New Year. It’s important not to accept invitations for every event.  Going to three carol services is a row, because you don’t know how to say No, is not advisable. Believe me. This year the festive season is likely to be more frenetic than usual, despite the cost-of-living crisis, simply because for two years we’ve been under Covid restrictions. It’s better not to go to an event than to attend just out of politeness. If you can’t find a good excuse for getting out of it, you can always lie. No one will argue with you if you have double-booked or are coming down with something.

As the day approaches, make sure you are celebrating it the way you want to. It may be the season of good will, but there is nothing worse than having to endure hours of false jollity. For me that includes taking part in games and charades and being in such company where it is required.  Christmas is a perfect time for reflection, so I like to set aside time on my own. I make sure I have a stock of seasonal foods in the house, such as dates, oranges, chestnuts, mince pies or stollen and an ample supply of booze. Finally, I salve my conscience about the state of the world by donating to my favourite charity, then, taking a lesson from the animals, I hibernate. 

About the author 

Jenny Palmer writes short stories, poetry, memoir and family history. Her stories are on the Cafelit website. Her collection 'Keepsake and other stories,' published by Bridge House, 2018, is available on Amazon. Her latest book 'Witches, Quakers and Nonconformists,' 2022, is sold at the Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford. 

 

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Tuesday, 6 December 2022

A Word from the Big Guy by Fleur Lind, egg nog

 I think it’s time you and I had a talk.

Sure, you come and visit one of my many assistants each year when they are sitting in a big comfy red, velvet chair in a shopping centre or mall near you, but I need to have a word with you.

I’ve been in the business of delivering presents to you and yours for many, many years.   I’ve seen each new generation come along, grow, and evolve.  You have kept my elves very busy with your ever-changing Christmas list over the years, from the cuddly stuffed toys, building blocks, train sets, dolls, doll houses, books, play dough, skates, bikes, sports shoes,dress-up clothes, sailing ships for the bath, inflatable toys for the pool, trucks, remote control cars… (taking a breath as the list goes on…)

As you all grew, your 'wants' changed.  We stepped up a gear or two, maybe four, to more sophisticated things.

The elves weren’t happy about the racket that noisy muffler made for your car, and I had a heck of a job packing it in my big red Santa sack last year.

If I had a dollar for every high-tech, blue tooth-enabled gadget or phone that I see on your Christmas list each year, I’d be on a Santa Cruise somewhere.

The thing is – I’m not keeping up. Figuratively speaking, of course. We all know I am faster than a speeding bullet; as my good friend Superman, says.  He and I go way back.  We do laps around the Earth and other planets just for fun. And we can go further afield, or planet, as it were, now that I have had my mechanic install a turbojet that would make every petrolhead’s eyes water. It’s magnificent if I do say so myself.

As I had accumulated several million flybys points for the number of chimneys, front yards, balconies, patios, decking, park benches, shelters, and doorsteps I stop at each year on the 24 December…well of course I had to cash my flybys in. And in case you are wondering, the emissions from my turbojets meet all the safety standards. I won’t be causing any global warming with them; don’t you fret about that.  They meet with all the ‘Green Criteria’ in the handbook, which is updated every year up here at the ‘Pole.  The only meltdown that could possibly occur is if Rudolph doesn’t get enough carrots on the journey!

I digress. Back to Superman; he and I chase the Sun and dance around the Moon, just because we can. Mrs. Claus checks our time on each lap.  We are a sight to behold, better than a shooting star! We were even going to enter the Intergalactic Games, but Superman kept getting called away to save the world; it seems there is always something going on to pull him away. He’s such a busy fellow, but he takes it all calmly in his stride, and never ever has that boy got a hair out of place!  I’d love to know who is hairdresser is.  Mrs Claus thinks I need a trim.

Superman’s finger lights up too, so he’s a good stand-in when Rudolph is under the weather from too many carrots or indulging in my eggnog when my head is turned. Mrs. Claus has told him off a few times, but these young ones love to try it on. Thankfully we haven't been stopped by any speed cameras or RBT, it wouldn't be a good look to get a ticket if he was just over the limit. Heaven forbid!

On another note, with every household drop of presents I do, I am also giving you a complimentary bottle of 'Santatiser'…That's NOT a typo, it’s my own branded version. Mine smells far more pleasant than the sanitiser you buy in the stores.  My elves have been very inventive with the aromas; there is Frankincense, Mistletoe, Pine Tree, Fruitcake, and eggnog for the Northern part of the world, and for the good folk down under, we have done BBQ, Bubbly, Seafood, Sandcastles, and Sea Spray. I suggested Petrichor...that delightful smell of rain hitting the ground, given all the rain and floods in Eastern Australia, but the elves said you don't want to be reminded of it.

            Anyway.

            Back to your list this year.

I’ve been going to North Pole IT classes to try and find the fascination with the new phone you want. I still haven’t found it, but I get a lot of Christmas lists texted to me now. Also, my Facebook and Instagram pages are busy with requests, well wishes, images of your pets, and Christmas baking. I've also had a few requests for less rain along the East coast of Australia. Sadly, I can’t control that; I am amazing, and magic is my middle name, but I can’t tell the clouds and weather systems what to do. Believe me, I’ve tried, but it's a fail.

So long as I can get through on my big night without snow, a storm, strong winds, or heavy rain; that will be ideal. It’ll be disastrous if the heavens delivered all of the above. It is not a pretty sight when Dasher gets a lightning bolt tickling his tail! I will have to turn my turbojets off if that happens, or I will have finished my present deliveries before I've started!

But remember this when you are writing out those lists…or texting and posting them to me….

I miss the good ol’ days when you wanted books and blocks and trains or dolls and skates. There are so many good reads out there now; I know some great authors on a personal basis. and you should be outdoors more. Fresh air and exercise work wonders!

But I know I must move with the times, so text me and tell me what you’re leaving out for my supper this year.

I’m gluten-free now, and I’m trying to cut down on my sugar…so I’ll text you some menu ideas!

Stay safe my friends, and Merry Christmas!

Yours,

Santa.

About the author 

Fleur is a Kiwi, living in SE Queensland. She enjoys the fun, challenge, and possibilities of short stories. She is a member of the local writer's group - Rose City Writers in Warwick. For more of Fleur's work: fleursfabulousfables.wordpress.com 

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Monday, 5 December 2022

Away in a Manger by Anne Bright, a steaming mug of hot chocolate

 It was one of those typical midwinter days, when the Sun never quite seemed to rise. There was a light drizzle but it hadn’t deterred the people bustling from shop to shop. From where Bella sat she watched them go by, children dawdling to look up at the huge star on top of the Christmas tree in the middle of the town Square, being dragged along by busy parents. Bella had always loved this time of year.  But there have been no celebrations for her for the past three years. She usually got a warm meal but that was about it. 

 

She moved her feet closer towards her inside the sleeping bag to try and keep them dry.  She was wearing the thick winter coat the nice lady at the night shelter had given her, but the cold was starting to seep in from the pavement.  She pulled her scarf up from where she normally hid it under her coat to cover her chin.  She had very few possessions left and this scarf – red with a snowflake pattern – was precious to her. Her mum had knitted it and for a moment the sensation of it around her felt comforting like a hug.

 

To say that Bella was at rock bottom didn’t really come close to how she felt.  She had grown up the only child in a household full of love.  She was a diligent worker, a high achiever in anything she did.  But her upbringing had been strict, so when she discovered the freedoms of a life at university, she experimented – with boys, drink, drugs.  Soon recreational activities took priority and ashamed and addicted she dropped out of uni and of life.  Her parents hadn’t seen her since.  No phone calls, no letters or visits. They had no idea what had happened to her and now it was too late.

 

Bella picked up the polystyrene cup and counted the coins.  People were more generous at this time of year.

She stood up, folded her sleeping bag in her usual spot in the doorway of Poundland and set off through the town. In the midst of the season of joy and goodwill she realized she was invisible, a lonely stooped figure, everyone was so engrossed in their Christmas missions she slipped unseen between them. She thought no one would notice if she didn’t exist at all.  Passing a café she paused to peer through the steamed-up door.  The site of freshly baked bread, sticky buns and the deliciously warm smell of coffee made her mouth water, but she had something more important to spend her money on.  The door opened abruptly with a tinkle and her appearance and smell was written all over the face of a teenage girl in front of her. Embarrassed, Bella turned and hurried away.  The sounds of laughter of the girl and her friends followed her down the High Street.

 

In the same café, sitting alone with her back to the door, was a lady with grey hair, hands around a china teacup.  There was a half eaten mince pie on a matching plate.  She smiled to herself as she observed the people around her – high on Christmas cheer.  Families with shopping bags, excitable children drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows, such a lovely time of the year.  Seasonal music filtered between the voices, taking her back to happier times of Christmases past.  The little girl sat reading a book to her mummy reminded Judy of when her own little girl had been that age.  She had played a lamb in the nativity and stole the show when she sang a verse of Away in a Manger all on her own.

 

 

It had been three years since she had any contact with Bella.  So every Saturday she spent the day wandering the streets, hoping by some chance to spot her amongst the crowds.  Never giving up hope that she was out there somewhere.  She studied the faces of the young women she saw, working in shops, out with their friends.  Would she even recognise her now?

 

At a table in the corner sat two women, mum and daughter it seemed – the younger probably about Bella‘s age. With sadness Judy saw their closeness as they laughed at something together on a mobile phone. All they had ever wanted was to be parents and after a series of heartbreaks they were finally gifted with their precious Bella. They had been so protective of her, with hindsight maybe they had smothered her. If only she could get a chance to do it all again – maybe she wouldn’t have lost her. 

 

The clock on the wall told her it was time to leave.  She stood, placing her hat on her head and smoothing down her uniform.  The band would be starting to assemble now, so she left the café with a tinkle and went to join the other singers.

 

Bella’s warm glow was wearing off, her body crumpled in the sleeping bag. From within her shroud of numbness she was vaguely aware of the sounds around her.  Voices approaching and receding, someone dropped a turkey and stuffing sandwich at her feet. Merry Christmas she whispered as she slowly reached for it and pulled it towards her. From some distant place she heard a brass band playing, her subconscious identifying the music as a Christmas Carol, but she couldn’t think of the name. She swayed gently to the familiar tune.  There were people singing too, the sound penetrating the fog in her brain.  It started to rouse her as they next played a livelier tune.  Must be the Salvation Army she thought, as she raised her head. She saw them in a group in front of the Christmas tree in the town square,  musicians to either side, a group of singers in front – some holding lanterns.  People were gathering around them in groups, some joining in the singing, most throwing money into the buckets.  She looked in her polystyrene cup, there was a pound in there. She picked it out and held it tightly in her hand. Then came a tune she knew so well, her eyes filled with tears as they started to sing Away in a Manger – her favourite.  She felt like that five-year-old girl again – heart swelled with pride as she sang to her mummy and daddy in the audience. Bella stood as tears dropped gently onto her cheeks and she walked towards the singers.

 

Judy always found this a tricky song, so full of emotion.

Her voice broke as she looked around her at the children gathered with their families.  Something at the back of the crowd caught her eye.  A slight figure, hood up with a flash of red around its neck. It moved closer, head down and as it approached, Judy held her breath as she realized the red thing was a scarf with snowflakes on.  Her legs suddenly felt weak.  The little figure approached the collecting bucket, with a hand outstretched and dropped a coin in as Judy’s song sheet fluttered to the ground.  She stumbled over to the stranger and softly took hold of her shoulders.  Bella lifted her head as mother and daughter looked saw each other’s faces for the first time in three years.

 

They grabbed hold of each other and Bella allowed herself to be held up by the protective arms of her mum. There would be time for taking and listening, questions and answers, but for now they had found each other and that was enough.


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Sunday, 4 December 2022

December by Jim Bates, camomile tea

 

“Well, that’s it,” I said to Meg. “Done deal.”

She looked over my shoulder. “The purchase agreement?”

“Yep, signed, sealed, and delivered.”

She hugged me. “Great!

And with that, the circle had been completed. Our home in Minneapolis had been sold. Pretty easy all the way around.

My brother had been watching the house while we’d been renting our cabin in the small town of Esker. Every now and then a realtor would leave a card on the door asking him (or someone) to connect them. Just for fun, he started doing it. In September, I got a call from him.

“Lee. I’ve got to tell you. If you are thinking of selling, now’s the time.”

So, Meg and I talked about it. We’d already decided to stay in Esker. Now the decision even made more sense. Why rent for another year when we could use the proceeds from the sale and buy the cabin? The conversation didn’t take long. The Minneapolis house went on the market on November first, and five days later it sold for ten percent above the asking price. The realtor was happy. The new owners were happy. We, of course, we ecstatic.

“What’s next? Meg asked, referring to the sale. We were working together in the kitchen making dinner. I was doing the spaghetti and Meg was putting together a salad.

“Nothing, really. The paperwork is all done. We just need to go down to Minneapolis and pack up everything.”

Meg paused in cutting up some carrots. “What do we need?”

“What do mean?”
            “From the house. What do we need?”

“Well…” I started to say, but then I thought about it. She had a point.

“We’ve been living here for nearly a year. We’ve got everything that’s necessary, right? Even our photos and keepsakes and things like that.”
            I thought about it some more. She was correct. Everything we needed was right with us. “You’re right,” I said dumping the noodles into a colander in the sink. “What are you thinking?”

“I’ve looked into it online. We could hire a company to sell everything in the house and donate the rest. They can even clean it out for the new owners.”

“Wouldn’t that be expensive?”

“Sort of. But we can pay for it with the proceeds of the sale. Plus,” she added. “It might be hard. You know, emotionally, to go back.”

She had a good point. We hadn’t been to Minneapolis and our old house since we’d moved out last January. The longer we were away, the more our roots were spreading in the north county. Honestly, I felt the same way as Meg did.

The more we talked about it, the more it made sense to make a clean break. “Do you have a number to call?”

“Yep.”

“Let’s do it.”

Now, it really was a done deal.

Our landlady Gladys Hawkinson was as happy to sell the cabin as we were to buy. It’d been on the market when we contacted her last December in 2020 about renting, and it was still on market now. I gave her a call once we’d decided to sell just to make sure she was still keen to sell the cabin. So was. We put earnest money down and went ahead with the sale of the Minneapolis house. With that done and with the house taken care of the final step was to contact her and finalize the sale. I called her that night to set up a meeting.

“Okay,” I said, hanging up the phone. “All set.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow. Wednesday.”
            “Great.”

The next morning we loaded the kids in the car and left our little cabin. We followed a w well-known (to us, anyway) gravel road through the woods and dropped our daughter Allie off with our good friend Amber. “Good luck,” she said, coming out to meet us when we pulled up.  She was showing even more with the new baby. She gave us each a hug. “Take your time.” We waved her hand. “I’ll be right here. Good luck with the closing.”

Allie ran off to play with Willow who was building a snow fort near their barn. Over the year they’d become fast friends and it was good to see them getting along so well. We’d been getting snow off and on since before Thanksgiving and there was at least a foot of it on the ground. All the locals were saying it was not only going to be a white Christmas but one with a higher-than-average amount of snow.

“Thanks again,” Meg said. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

It started snowing as soon as we left Amber. Her and Arnie’s place was deep in the pine forest northwest of our cabin. I drove us five miles through the woods and out to the highway where I pointed us south to Park Rapids. By the time we dropped Andy off at school and made it to the office of Northwoods Reality where Gladys was meeting us, the roads were covered with an inch of snow and it was coming fast.

The wind was picking up, too, and we fought it getting from the Honda across the parking lot to the office. Sandy Bergeson, who was doing the closing met us.

“Cold out,” she said, holding the door for us. She’d been waiting. “Let’s get this deal done and then all of us should head home. The forecast is for a blizzard.”

Our first thought was Andy. “What about school?” Meg asked.

Sandy glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 9:45 am. “I heard they were going to be closing by noon.”

I looked at Meg. “Let’s get the papers signed and pick him up on the way home.”

“Absolutely.”

Gladys walked up and joined us from Sandy’s office in the back. She lived in Park Rapids and didn’t have far to drive. Still, she’d lived in the north country all her life and she knew a bad storm when she saw one.

“Let’s get going,” was all she said. “I want to get home.”

We sat around a conference table and got the papers signed and notarized (by Sandy) and in fifteen minutes we had ourselves our own new home.

“Congratulations,” Sandy said, after the last of the documents had been signed. She shook Meg’s hand and then mine. “Welcome to the north land.”

I have to say, it felt really good to hear her say that.

Gladys spoke up. “Okay, if that’s it, I’m going to get going.” She looked at Meg and me. “You two should, too.”

“That’s right,” Sandy said, organizing the papers. She put ours in a large envelope and gave it to us. “These are for you.”

Meg took the envelope and put it in her oversized shoulder bag. “That’s it?”

“Yep,” Sandy said. “That’s it.” Then she looked out through the front window of the office. “You guys better hit the road.”

I followed her sight line. The snow was falling so fast, I couldn’t see the car. “Come on, Meg.” I grabbed her hand. “Let’s get going.”

After one more round of quick handshakes, we left the office to get Andy. Or tried to. The school was only a few blocks from us but it took fifteen minutes. The snow was blowing so hard that it was impossible to see more than twenty feet. I drove slowly, the heater and defroster on full blast. It worked to melt the snow on the windshield but the temperature was dropping and some of the melted snow turned to ice making it hard to keep the windshield clear. Which, of course, made it hard to drive.

We picked up Andy and carefully drove through town back out to the highway and turned north. The snow was falling so fast and the wind was blowing so hard that traffic was crawling along at only about 30 miles per hour. Which was good, because I had no desire to drive faster. The road was icy, and the Honda even with front-wheel drive lost traction occasionally and slipped close to the shoulder. I tried not to think about what would happen if we spun off the road and ended up in the ditch. It could be hours before anyone found us.

Fortunately, there were also some cars and trucks out, probably heading home to beat the storm like we were, and there were a set of tire tracks in front of me that I could follow. Thank, god. It was slow going, but we eventually made it to Amber’s. It was what we call a white knuckle drive all the way, and my whole body was one tightly wound bundle of nerves when we got there.

Arnie’s truck was in the driveway. He’d been out already and plowed out a large parking area and that’s where we parked. Meg had texted Amber when we were close to their home and she and Arnie and Willow ran out to greet us when we pulled in.

“Thank goodness you’re safe,” Amber exclaimed, embracing Meg and Andy. Arnie came up and put his arm around me in a rare form of affection. “You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, taking Andy by the hand and stomping through at least 12 inches of snow to go inside and warm up. “It’s good to be here.”

Arnie brushed snow off the shoulders of his coat and grinned. “It’s good to have you.”

Half an hour later, after warming up, we secured Allie and Andy in the back seat, left our friends, and drove to our cabin. The snow was falling straight down but one of the county plows had been out and we made it home in good shape. I was able to park the Honda fairly close to the cabin and we tramped through the snow to the back door. I used a shovel to move the snow away and we went inside. “Our new home!” Andy called out as we all struggled out of our snowy clothes.

We all smiled. In spite of the drive through the blizzard, we’d made safely. That was the main thing. The only thing, frankly.

After dinner, we played Candyland and Shoots and Ladders with the kids and got them to bed. We tidied up the living room and stoked the fire in the stove and then sat on the couch to relax. Meg sipped her nightly glass of red wine and I had a cup of camomile tea.

She turned to me. “Well, Lee. What do you think?”
            I was still thinking about driving through the blizzard. I’d never experienced anything like that before in my life. I blinked to focus on what she was saying. “What do you mean?”

She set her glass down. “I mean about moving here. For good. You think we made the right decision?”

I thought about it. We’d moved up here to get away from the pandemic and give our kids a chance at not getting infected. Which had worked. They still hadn’t gotten Covid and that was a good thing. Andy was vaccinated and maybe next year Allie would be, too. But now there was a new variant in the mix, Omicron. People were still dying, mostly unvaccinated, but the point was that the pandemic was still with us. Probably for a long time. So moving north to escape the pandemic hadn’t worked. When all was said and done, we’d been incredibly naïve.

But we’d done what we thought was the best move at the time and that was the important thing. I’d lost my job and we’d taken our best shot, (sorry for the bad pun) and something wonderful had happened. Our lives had changed for the better. Andy was in school and was making friends. Allie and Willow and Sam were the best friends one could ever imagine. Meg’s daycare was going well and her job as an editor for Charlotte’s Press was going great. I was making some money for us at the gas station, and I loved volunteering at Andy’s school. So that was all well and good.

But the main thing was our newly formed relationships. In the city, neither Meg nor I had many friends. We were the kind of people who enjoyed time alone or with our little family; it was all we needed. But things had changed since we moved north. In a big way. We’d found friendship in the unlikeliest way, with Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber, four amazingly wonderful people. People who became our friends. People who, in the end, were the real reason we’d decided to stay.

I turned to Meg and said, “What do I think?” I grinned and hugged her. “I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.”

She smiled. “Well, maybe not the best thing. But right up there.”

Surprised, I looked at her. “What do mean? I thought you liked it here. You’re still on board with the move and everything? Right?”

She laughed. “Oh, I am. I definitely am.”

“What then?” In response, she took my hand and put it on her stomach. My eyes went wide. “Really? You’re pregnant?”

“Yep. I just found out. Baby’s due in August.”

I hugged her and we embraced for a long time. Our little family was getting bigger. I couldn’t think of a better place for that to happen.

“I’m super glad,” I told her.

She kissed me. “Me, too.” Then she looked at me. “Next year is going to be a great year.”

I hugged her. “It really is,” I said.

Then we kissed some more.

About the author 

 Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in nearly four hundred online and print publications. His first collection of short stories “Resilience” was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com. 

 

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Saturday, 3 December 2022

Saturday Sample: Evergreen

 

 

Introduction

For this year’s anthology we asked writers to consider the theme “evergreen”. Naturally that makes us think of the Christmas tree. There are indeed some stories that feature that wonderful entity. They all include a deeper understanding of what it means to be evergreen or even ever green.


We choose the stories anonymously. As we select, we have no idea who has written what. It’s always exciting putting the names to the texts.


All of what we read was of publishable quality so it was very difficult to have to reject some stories. Therefore  if your story hasn’t been selected, don’t be disheartened.


Again we are pleased to welcome several writers we have published previously and as well as some newcomers to our imprint.


Some of the stories have a Christmas theme, others tell about what is lasting and some deal with nature. Everything green is very important to all of us right now.


It is always a privilege to work with such talented writers. We hope you will enjoy this year’s selection.


Contributors

Sally Angell, Sheena Billett, Margaret  Bulleyment, Maxione Churchman, Elizabeth Cox, Jeanne Davies, Malina Douglas, Jo Fino, Linda Flynn, Russell Heidorn, Enna Horn, Clair Humphries, Sheelagh Mooney, Jan Moran Neil, Tony Oswick, Jenny Palmer, Hannah Retallick,  Chris Simpson, Jane Spirit, Dianne Stadhams,  Allison Symes, James Ward, Anne Wilson, Georgina Wright

 


Friday, 2 December 2022

While Shepherds Watched - Christmas 1917 by Penny Dale, well-brewed tea with milk and plenty of sugar

The dog growled, staring at the corner of the sheep fold. The shepherd peered through the driving rain, trying to see what was worrying Bob.

‘There’s nothing there. Leave it. We’ll be going home soon.’ Cyril added the last bit without any conviction. The lambing was not going well, too many stillbirths and weak lambs unable or unwilling to suckle. Cyril kept talking to his dog. ‘I’ll have to go and see Squire West in the morning. He needs to know the situation.’ It would be another blow to the man: in the last few months the farmer had lost two sons fighting on the Western Front. Two fine young men; Cyril had known them all their lives.  What a waste, and here he was trying to deal with a disastrous lambing in bad weather. He thought he could feel sleet in the driving rain; snow was the last thing he wanted.

            Briefly the wind abated, and from the village below the sheep field he heard church bells. He’d promised Ellen that he’d go to the midnight service with her this year.  She knew he would never make it and he knew he wouldn’t make the effort. Even without all the difficulties he was having with the sheep, Cyril was reluctant to go to church. He could never admit that he thought the whole thing about a loving god was rubbish. Everyone else he knew went along with it, and a humble shepherd was certainly not going to risk his livelihood and what respect he had by questioning the great and the good who believed in, and followed, God’s word.

            Cyril carried yet another orphaned lamb into his hut. In a normal year he might have two or three motherless lambs in the box of straw he kept for the purpose. But this year he’d already had more than a dozen, and many of these had died. He rubbed straw over the little body he was carrying, trying to encourage it. Again he thought of the villagers in the church. Was God having a night off? If he’d called shepherds to go to the stable in Bethlehem, surely he could have some compassion for him and his flock tonight?

            But he had too much to do to worry about such matters. Outside the hut, snow was starting to fall and the wind had picked up again. He could see Bob nosing about in the far corner of the fold. What was bothering the dog?

            At first Cyril thought he was dreaming: there on the other side of the pen was a boy with his hand on Bob’s head. That in itself was unusual; he was a one man dog and very suspicious of strangers. Cyril called out ‘Who are you, what’re you doing here?’

            The boy walked towards him. He was dressed in what looked like a multi-coloured sheet, no boots or coat, nothing to keep out the atrocious weather. Yet the lad was smiling, walking calmly through the muddy fold with Bob trotting along beside him.

            ‘What are you doing here?’ Cyril repeated his question, but realised that even asking it was pointless.  He guessed the boy was about eight years old; it was a job to tell in the dark.  As if in answer to Cyril’s question the wind abated and the snow stopped. The flock became calm; the ewes were calling to their lambs who in turn seemed to be bonding readily with their mothers. Cyril went into his hut and returned with the orphan lamb.  He handed it to the boy who rubbed it all over until it started to wriggle, then he carried it over to a ewe with one lamb. The boy picked up that lamb and held it close to the orphan, intertwining the two wriggling bodies. To the shepherd’s amazement the ewe didn’t object when the boy put both lambs back beside her. Cyril was sure the lad winked at him before turning to assist with another delivery.

 

‘Well blessed if I know who that was.’ Back home, washed and with clean clothes, the events of the previous night seemed a long way away. ‘Could’ve been one of them gypsies that are camped up on Long Hill; they can turn their hand to most animals.’ He recalled that years ago a ram had charged his dog and broken its leg. He thought he’d have to get the gamekeeper to shoot the dog, but on his way to find him he met a gypsy who splinted the broken leg. The dog always limped, but recovered well enough to work.

 Ellen was serving up a fine Christmas dinner of rabbit pie, boiled potatoes, mashed swede and winter kale. ‘Happen it was a miracle.’ She knew her husband’s view of Christmas but having heard the story she was convinced that divine intervention was at work. She put another piece of pie on Cyril’s plate. ‘I’ll take some of the spare meat and gravy out to Bob; he deserves it.’ She hurried out into the freezing yard, leaving her husband to clean his plate with a slice of bread.

He thought about his conversation this morning with Squire West. He’d been worried that the farmer would hold him responsible for the heavy losses sustained by the flock, but he’d found his employer in a sanguine frame of mind. ‘I’ve lost my two boys’ he’d explained. 'Losing a few sheep doesn’t come close.’ Cyril felt obliged to tell him about the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the strange boy. His employer had scratched his head and muttered ‘That was no gypsy boy. They don’t know anything about sheep. All they care about is horses. No I reckon it was a miracle; you had a visitation from the Christ child.’ The farmer crossed himself and pressed a one pound note into the shepherd’s hand. ‘Compliments of the season to you.’ Cyril had walked home in a daze. Who had he seen on the hillside last night?

 

Ellen came back in. ‘Would you like a cup of tea? My brother and his family will be round soon. I said we could have some of that cake I made and play some games before you go to check on the sheep.  Not if you’re too tired though.’

‘Cup of tea would be nice, and of course I’ll join in with the games for a bit before I go back up the hill.  Why not see if Granny Billings would like to come round? The more the merrier.’

Cyril poured his tea into the saucer and slurped up the dark brown liquid, adding an extra teaspoon of sugar to the cup.

‘I know, mebbe we could sing some carols. We could start off with While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night.’

 

That night on the icy hillside Cyril looked for the boy among the flock of contented ewes and healthy lambs. A thousand stars glittered in the frosty sky. In the shadow of his oil lamp he fancied he saw the boy winking at him. He shook himself and whistled for Bob to go home.

 

About the author

 Penny writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. She has been published in print and online. She is the reviews editor for SOUTH poetry magazine. 
 
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Thursday, 1 December 2022

Cookies Fit for the Magi by Mary Daurio, Earl Grey tea

 Twelve-year-old Gayle Middleton set a thin volume, Gift of the Magi, on the librarian’s returns counter.

 Gayle had read O. Henry’s tale for Mother, whose listless eyes brightened when the storybook husband secretly sold his watch to buy his wife a hair ornament. And she, all the while, was peddling her hair to purchase a watch fob for him—such selfless love.

It was a joy to get such books for free at the library, provided you brought them back on time. Gayle had no money to spare, nothing to waste on tardiness. Her books were never overdue, even now when she had more responsibility with Mother ill.

Gayle wished she had something to sell to give Mother a cheery Christmas. If she could pick out the Bethlehem star in the sky, she’d wish on it.

A soft voice drew Gayle from her reverie. ‘On time as always.’  It was Mrs. Lawrence, the village librarian and mother’s friend, who was like a plain brown wood thrush. And like a wood thrush, she went unnoticed until her voice sang out in beautiful music. ‘I’ve had requests for it, and it’s nice to know I can always count on you,’ she said in a tone Gayle had grown to love.

Mrs. Lawrence pointed to a new fountain pen in the glass display case beside the poster for the school story contest. ‘This award is for the winning writer when the judge picks on Christmas Eve. With your gift of storytelling, it could be you. I hope so.’  

 

‘Thank you.Gayle, a grade eight student, appreciated the sentiment. She’d entered a story called The Voice with no expectations, as high school students could also enter. But a fountain pen, how wonderful not to have soiled fingers from the inkpot.

  Gayle’s eyes travelled past Mrs. Lawrence to a large display of glossy-coloured baking magazines.

‘I’ll drop by for a visit with your mother. I hope she’s up and about soon.’

‘She’ll look forward to that.’ Mother would enjoy the company but out of bed soon—doubtful.

‘Don’t they look delicious?’ Mrs. Lawrence said, turning to the arrangement that had drawn Gayle’s attention. ‘I thought people might need to make their own treats since the bakery closed.’  She held up a baking journal. ‘Easy Peasy Christmas Cookie Recipes’ blazed in gold on the cover.

‘I’m sure you could make some of these.’ Mrs. Lawrence handed the magazine to Gayle.

That was it! Something to sell. Gayle’s mind raced. She could bake some cookies with ingredients already in the cupboards. Buy more fixings with the profits. Repeat as often as possible from now to the holidays.

Gayle practically skipped out of the library, the magazine tucked in her bookbag, dreaming of Christmas.

The Middleton house became a makeshift bakeshop. Gayle sold what she had prepared. Word of mouth spread throughout the village, and her gingerbread men practically walked away on their own.

 Gayle worried about Mother’s pale cheeks and bought meaty soup bones to simmer a hearty broth. Mother sat upright in bed and said between sips, ‘What a feast, my darling.’  

  Broth a feast? Gayle smiled at the thought of the Christmas celebration she was planning. She had enough for a small turkey and a gift, perhaps.

Her enterprise put Gayle in a festive mood. She brought evergreen branches from the yard and arranged them with ornaments around the mantle. Their fragrance filled the air with holiday cheer.

On mother’s bedside table, Gayle nestled the nativity scene. Her eyes often settled on the wise men in their colourful turbans.

 Christmas Eve Day, Gayle answered a knock on the door. Mrs. Lawrence said, entering, ‘Smells delightful. You did save some for me?’   

‘There’s a box on the counter.’ Gayle put her hand up as Mrs. Lawrence started digging in her purse. ‘They’re a Christmas Present.’

‘How generous.’ Mrs. Lawrence placed coins on the table. ‘For ingredients.’  She clasped Gayle’s hand and pressed an embossed bookmark into her palm. ‘For the runner-up. If I were judge, it would be the pen, but I love your smudged fingertips signalling a new story.’

Gayle ran her fingers over the raised Nativity scene on the slim but thick gold marker and smiled. ‘I’ll be inky soon.’

‘Is that you, Lydia?’ Mother called.

Mrs. Lawrence made her way to Mother’s room, and Gayle served the two women tea there. She turned the chipped creamer to the back of the tray to hide the flaw as best she could.

With Mother engaged, Gayle took this time as an opportunity to sneak out to buy groceries for Christmas, leaving the two women visiting. Happily walking along the sidewalk swinging her arms, she sang We Three Kings.

That night, after Gayle stowed her shopping away in the larder, unaccustomed to such wealth, she stood smiling, beholding the splendour of all the plenty. Her eyes twinkled as she wrapped a tiny rose-coloured cream pitcher in tissue, thinking of hairclips and watch fobs. No worry about the teapot and sugar bowl; they were home on the shelf, not sold.

 Later she sat with her mother and read the nativity story. She thought of the Magi’s gift.

 O. Henry’s ‘Gift of the Magi’ mirrored the Bethlehem Magi. Give your all, find love, and find salvation.

True wealth is love. In giving, we receive.

Christmas morning, she prepared her gift of a meal. It roasted, filling the whole house with the savoury odour of turkey and sage stuffing. 

Setting the table, Gayle heard a rustling. Mother was standing in her bedroom doorway.

 ‘You’re up!’  Gayle hastened to her side.

 Mother’s eyes shone as she passed a tiny package to Gayle. Through the tissue, Gayle felt ink nibs, the lovely long ones.

 Standing arm in arm, they turned to gaze at the nativity scene, and the spirit of Christmas enfolded them in its majestic mantle of love.

           About the author

 Mary Daurio is a grandmother who likes to fiddle with words when she isn’t playing her flute, walking the dog or spending time with family and friends. Her work has appeared in print and online, and she was surprised a friend found one of her stories by googling Mary’s name. 

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)