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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