Sunday 31 December 2023

Christmas Crumbs by Mari Philips, a glass of milk

“You won’t forget the biscuits for Santa, will you mum?” Janey said. John sniffed and curled his lips. He was beyond all that rubbish. His mother flashed him that look. The don’t you dare look. He wandered off. Janey! Sisters! In fact, all girls. They were silly and believed in all sorts. John knew better. He was ready for big school.

On Christmas morning he lay still. Desperate to go downstairs and open his presents, but he really wanted Janey to go first. He waited until he heard the patter of her slippers on the stairs and crept quietly behind her. She ran to the table. There were dregs of milk in the glass and just a few crumbs left on the plate. He had considered leaving the biscuits uneaten, but he loved his sister.

 

About the author


Mari lives in Leeds, writes mostly flash fiction, with several published in CaféLit, and is working on a couple of ‘longer’ short stories. She also occasionally dabbles in poetry. She is a keen singer and sometime traveller. 

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Saturday 30 December 2023

A STRANGER IN THE FAMILY CEMETERY by Joe Stout, chai latte

Golden leaves drifted to the ground as my daughter and I walked through the family cemetery. I’d always loved coming up here, walking among the aging stones on the quiet hill overlooking our family farm. These stones had character, they told stories that I thought were missing at the modern cemetery out on the highway. Someday, I’d be buried here, as would Sadie and her children.

We stopped at the foot of a pile of dirt with dying flowers piled on top of it. Two weeks had passed since my mother’s death, but the metal marker left to temporarily mark her grave still hurt to read.

Billie Shea Moore, 1932-1997.

‘You were so young,’ I whispered.

Sadie squeezed my hand. ‘It’s okay, Daddy.’

‘I know. Let me just walk around some, I’ll be fine.’

‘I’m gonna stay with Mamaw.’

While Sadie sat on the bench I’d put by Mom’s grave, I walked through the cemetery, looking at names and remembering stories. A white marble marker stood for Great-Uncle Jack, a revenue agent during the prohibition. He’d been the only honest one in Appalachia if Uncle Mark was to be believed. Mark was here too, his bronze marker two rows down, next to Aunt Meredith.

Going further, I found the old Civil War graves, some Union, some Confederate. The stones were starting to fade and crumble. These were the grand monuments of previous generations, ornate obelisks and towering pillars that made old cemeteries like this unique. When I was little, Mom sent me up here with paper and pencil to make rubbings of these stones. They were still down in her house, waiting for my sisters to come help me clean it out.

I’d walked down the hill to a newer section of the cemetery when a small hand slipped into mine.

‘I’m ready, Daddy.’

I’d expected tears, but Sadie’s blue eyes were clear as the wind pushed her blonde hair around her head.

‘Okay,’ we climbed back up the hill and walked toward the gate, stopping along the way as Sadie sounded out the names on headstones.

‘Who is Suh-Mur,’ she asked, pointing at a headstone a row away.

‘Samir,’ I corrected automatically, leading her toward the stone.

‘I don’t remember anyone in our family named Samir,’ she said, looking down at the stone.

I squatted next to her. This was one more of those teaching moments you’re never really prepared for as a parent. There’d been a lot of them the last few weeks, as Mom faded to nothing, then as Sadie learned about loss and the emotions that came with it. ‘Well, he wasn’t in our family.’

Sadie looked confused. ‘But this is our cemetery! Why is someone else here with Mamaw and our relatives?’

She’d put emphasis on ‘our,’ making it clear she thought this grave was an invasion. Sometimes I wished the world was as black and white as it was through my daughter’s eyes. ‘Because Uncle Jim saw a chance to help someone in need.’

 

Uncle Jim ran the county’s only wrecker service, and I’d been working for him since I was tall enough to reach the pedals on the wrecker. I’d been on call that night, when the Highway Patrol reported a wreck out on the Bristol Highway. It ran through our county as a winding, two-lane mountain road, but the wreck had happened on a small straightaway.

I pulled onto the shoulder behind the Patrolman’s car, and walked to where he was talking to the fire chief.

‘Fool kids, racing on this road. Ned Wilson is lucky he didn’t go like this one,’ the trooper pointed to a car tangled in a barbed wire fence on the edge of the road.’

Ned had been in my high school class, and I wasn’t surprised to hear he’d been racing. ‘Who was in the wreck,’ I asked.

‘Some kid from the University, I think it’s an exchange student.’ The trooper walked away, leaving me with Chief Britton.

‘Bad way to go,’ the Chief said. ‘Ned’s all tore up about it, he’s the one who pushed the dead guy to race.’

I nodded. ‘What happened?’

Britton pointed at the hill behind me. ‘Ned said they came off the hill there dead even, but there was a truck coming up through here. He slowed down to give the victim room to get over, but Ned reckons he didn’t see the truck until it was too late and spun the wheel a little too hard. Went rolling down the shoulder until he stopped in Lee Anderson’s fence.’

‘Damn mess,’ I muttered, as the trooper whistled and gestured for me to bring my truck over.

 

I’d barely made it home when I got a call from Uncle Jim.

‘You get that car from out on Bristol Highway?’

‘Yes, sir, just finished putting it in the lot.’ I tossed my keys in the bowl as Connie appeared in the living room, rocking Sadie in her arms.

‘Need you to do something for me in the morning.’

‘Okay,’ I moved the phone away and kissed Connie, then Sadie.

‘Go up to our cemetery and dig a grave in my section. You know where that is, right?’

‘West side, near the pine trees.’

‘That’s right,’ he said, his southern drawl revealing nothing. ‘I been talking to the family of the boy that died in the wreck. He’s from Pakistan, and their religion says they got to bury him quick, no embalming or anything like that. They asked me to work with the funeral home to get him taken care of, and I told them I’d do what I could.’

I checked the clock on the wall. The sun would be up soon, in about as long as it would take me to brew a pot of coffee and grab my tools. ‘Alright. I’ll call you when I’m done.’

‘Thanks, son. Say, you know four or five boys could help us out as pallbearers?’

I knew of one for sure, and figured I could round up a few more. ‘I’ll get it taken care of, Uncle.’

‘Good, bud. We’ll see you in a bit.’

 

There were no Muslims in our area to conduct the funeral, but Uncle Jim did the best he could under the circumstances. He talked Mae Frazier into opening up the library, and came out with a copy of the Quran and a book on funeral practices of the world. Aunt Laura was soon missing three of her best bedsheets, and an hour later the old black hearse wound slowly up the gravel road to where I was waiting with Uncle Jim and the pallbearers.

Ned Wilson was the first to step to the back of the hearse. Since there was no casket, the undertaker had strapped the body to a plastic board to hold it steady and make it easier to carry. Four pallbearers carried it across the cemetery, to where uncle Jim was waiting by the grave I’d dug.

Two of us climbed down in the hole, and the others passed the body down to us. Laying him in the bottom, we climbed out and stood with the other pallbearers.

Uncle Jim stood at the head of the grave. ‘The book I found wasn’t very detailed about how the ceremony should be, but I reckon reading some scripture over the body would be appropriate.’ He opened the borrowed Quran, then shook his head. ‘Trust Ol’ Mae to give me a book in a language I cain't read. Well, boys, let’s all recite the twenty-third psalm, then I’ll close with a prayer. Reckon that’s appropriate enough, and our God and the Muslim God can sort out any errors in translation.’

 

Ned filled in the grave himself, his tears mixing with the dirt. Jim and I stood at the cemetery gate with the undertaker and watched. Finally, the old hearse rolled slowly away, and Uncle Jim clapped Ned on the shoulder.

‘It’s done, boy.’

He nodded, but the look in his eyes told another story. As Uncle Jim walked away, I stayed with Ned, guiding him to a nearby bench.

‘What happened, Ned?’

‘What do you mean?’ He looked scared, like talking about what happened would break him. I’d talked to his girlfriend when I’d called about him being a pallbearer, and she said he hadn’t slept all night, had sat out in his garage staring at his car. The breakfast she’d taken him was untouched, and I figured his lunch had been too.

‘I mean, you have to put it into words,’ I said. ‘Everyone in the world can tell you it’s not your fault, but until you actually tell your story and let people tell you why it isn’t your fault, you’ll never believe it yourself.’

He sighed, then nodded. ‘You’re right. Well, I was down at the county line, and this kid blew in with some other college folks, talking about his car. He bragged a while, and I finally got fed up and told him speed wasn’t worth a lick where I came from, you had to have skill.’

I nodded. ‘That’s true.’

‘Well, he didn’t like that too much, he said he had all the skill he needed and then some, so I challenged him to a race from the County Line to our courthouse. He accepted so fast, I didn’t know if he heard me right. We lined up and took off, and about the time we got to Connors Creek, I could tell he was out of his element. I eased off the gas so he didn’t have to run as fast, but he jumped ahead and took off.’ Ned shook his head. ‘Damn, that was hard to watch. His lines were all wrong,  he was using the wrong damn angles and approaches, I knew eventually he was going to wreck.’

I nodded. ‘Wasn’t anything you could have done. He got in over his head, you gave him a chance to back down, and he didn’t take it.’

Ned nodded, tears still falling. ‘I know you’re right, but it don’t feel like you’re right. I’d just caught up to him, was trying to signal to him to pull over when he flipped. As soon as I saw him rolling down the road, I knew he was gone.’

‘It still don’t mean it’s your fault, Ned. Pride goeth before a fall, and pride also goes before rolling down a highway shoulder because you get in over your head.’ I put my arm around Ned. ‘It sounds like you done everything you could to ease him back.’

He nodded. ‘I did. God, I wish I’d succeeded.’

‘Sometimes all you can do is try, and whatever happens is what’s meant to happen.’

‘You reckon that boy, his parents, they understand that?’ Ned looked at me, and I could tell this was the question he needed answered the most.

I thought for a minute. ‘I reckon there ain’t many that do, but if anyone does, it’s them.’

 

Silence fell as I finished the story. Sadie knelt next to the stone and ran her fingers over Samir’s name, thinking about what I’d told her. ‘I guess it’s okay he’s here, then,’ she finally said.

I smiled. She was so young, she acted like her approval was the final word on the matter. ‘I’m glad you think so.’

‘What’s this at the bottom?’ Sadie brushed away some fallen leaves, revealing an additional inscription.

‘Something his family said when they were talking to Uncle Jim. He thought it’d be a good addition to the marker.’

Sadie leaned over and slowly read, ‘Samir was never one to back down from a challenge.’

 

About the author

Joe Stout is an east Tennessee based writer. His work has been published by the Non-Binary Review and Literary Cocktail Magazine. When he’s not writing, he enjoys exploring the mountains and spending time with his children. You can follow him on Facebook at Joe Stout Writing or Instagram @joestoutwriting 

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Friday 29 December 2023

Mother Christmas Sally Angell, black coffee

The tree near the town clock twinkled. A figure, teatowel on head, and carrying a crook, hurried to his Christmas play. Red-nosed singers belted out carols on an icy street corner. And the delicious scent of cinnamon drifted from a hot mince pie stand. All the mood-boosting reminders of magical possibilities, in the run up to the big day.

     But Amy saw it all through a grey veil No magic, no joy. And the question circled endlessly in her mind.

      What am I going to do?

      The children were hyper. Bribed with sweets, they were sky-high on sugar. But she’d had to find a way of making them sit still in the depressing room they’d just come out of. The upset in Mia’s voice rang in her head.

      ‘I don’t like it in here, Mummy.’

      Me neither. Amy tried to shake off the last half hour. She just had to grab a few offers from the bargain store, and then face the walk home. No money for bus fare.She couldn’t wait to get away from the seasonal razzmatazz.

      The children spotted it first, were drawn like a magnet. Amy recognized the small building next to Card Factory. The Newborough Centre resented retail spaces left empty, so this was used as a hub for various purposes. Today’s was obvious, from the board outside; the manically beaming smile, red coat, beard, a sack of presents. Santa’s Grotto. A mother’s dread. Excited kids were trying to get in.

      Ignoring the howls, Amy marched her two past.

      ‘Not today.’

      Shit shit shit. Wilf was screwing up his face: I’m going to lie down on the floor and scream.

      Amy flinched at reactions from passing strangers. ‘These millennial mums,’ the smug looks said. ‘Can’t control their crotch fruit.’ Message received. Bad mother.

      ‘Excuse me, madam.’ A hand clamped her shoulder. A man’s voice. What now?

      Inside Santa’s abode it was cold and gloomy. On the wall someone had scratched out the last letter of Grotto and replaced it. And yes, this dive was indeed grotty. There was a tatty square of carpet on the floor, and some old-style lights drooped on a tree, although most of the bulbs weren’t working.

      ‘Santa’s had a stroke!’

      Amy’s ambusher had been in a panic. He needed someone to grotto-sit (you don’t mind do you?) while he checked on his pensioner employee (aka Santa), who’d been removed via the rear door, to an ambulance outside the Centre.

     Amy did mind. Not my monkey. Not my story. But he’d gone.

     A woman’s head poked in the back entrance of the grotto. The front door was fastened. The thumps from outside echoed painfully with each heartbeat. She wished she was anywhere else. A notice had been taped to the board outside. Santa gone to feed reindeer. Back soon.

      The woman came in, dragged by a small boy in reins.

      ‘I just need to sit down. Little bugger  refused to come out unless I promised Santa. I can’t go another step.’

      ‘I know.’ Amy sighed. I know.

      Mia and Wilf had pounced on the Lucky dip, and seized two packages. Oh can we open them. Can we?

      Well, why not?

      Opposite Santa’s stool, where Amy was perched, greetings cards were tacked to the wall, one a nativity scene. The usual players were gathered, and in the centre, the new mother. Mary sat there in her impossibly pristine sapphire blue dress, just after giving birth in an outbuilding, a stable. The straw was shiny and golden, the animals clean and beaming. Of course it was image, not reality. Amy knew that. Like the pretence mothers have to keep up. A secret club. Only we know what it’s really like.

      Amy gazed at Mary as if the radiant figure would give her an answer. A way out of her predicament.

      ‘You don’t look so good.’ She realized the woman with the boy was speaking.

      That did it. The whole drama replayed; the split from her partner a few weeks ago.. and her parents were living abroad so… the cost of the private rental…needing a job.

      A cough interrupted her flow. Grotto man again. How long had he been there, earwigging? Her confidante untied the boy’s reins, and charged out after him, with a thumbs up to Amy.

      Grotto man rubbed his face, leaving an angry mark. ‘Santa, I mean Brian, is being admitted for tests.’

      Amy almost envied Brian. What she wouldn’t give for a lie down. Her body thought she’d done a day’s work already. Don’t think about work. Her schoolboy job adviser hadn’t laughed when he asked about her employment history. But she wouldn’t have blamed him. This woman with egg down her coat didn’t look as if she could manage anything, never mind the sales department of a well-known store.

      Amy struggled up.

      ‘Wait,’ grotto man said awkwardly. ‘Thanks for stepping in. I owe you.’

      Amy shrugged.

      ‘The name’s Ben. Actually, I have a proposition for you.’

      Not likely. Amy got ready to tell him what to do with his suggestion. But why not? She’d be sitting down. And the children were happy, playing in a corner with a tall man in an Elf teeshirt.

      ‘Security.’ Ben tapped his nose. ‘From the office upstairs.’

      But why would they need someone for that? Oh! Anyone working with kiddies had to be supervised.

      ‘What a world we live in!’ Amy addressed Mary silently, mother to mother. And she would know about that, a young girl who had lived in uncertain times, her son’s very life in danger from a king who meant him harm. It put things in perspective. Amy made a decision.

      ‘Throw in coffee, hot chocolates, sandwiches, some paracetemol, and it’s a deal.’ She’d skipped breakfast. Not enough milk.

      Five minutes later Amy was climbing into a too-big red costume. The sleeves hung down over her wrists. Luckily the beard and the wig were separate, so the pile of white curls was plonked on her head. Best not to think who had worn it before.

      Was this a good idea? But cash in hand, he’d promised. It wouldn’t be much, but if she stuck it out, hopefully enough for a proper present for each of the children. And some festive treats. There was a quick debate about her role. Santa’s Missus? Ms Claus?

      The amended poster on the board outside now read:

      SPECIAL   MOTHER CHRISTMAS!  ONE DAY ONLY

      Elf was seated just inside the grotto, at a table, ready to take the three pounds each for the chance to see Mother Christmas, and a Lucky Dip present. Ben unlatched the door and the queue of eager mini-customers stampeded in. Amy swallowed a paracetemol, and forced her mouth into a toothpaste-advert smile. Deep breath. Now.

      ‘And what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?’

      A whisper and a grubby hand dived into the bucket.

      ‘And what do you want…?’

      Ben scrutinized for a minute, then left. He’d be back at Closing.

 

 ‘La – a – arst Christmas!’

      Amy and Elf screeched to canned music from outside, loud in the afternoon lull, and giggled. In Amy’s case, more of a struggle for air. Because it wasn’t funny. Last year. It seemed another world, a different planet. What had been and what is. Don’t think about it. Stay in the now.

      She had her children. They were what mattered. Wilf was asleep on the floor, Mia crayoning. Amy glanced over at the mother, father and baby on the card she’d been eyeballing all day to keep awake. There was trusty Joseph, keeping watch over his new family. And he wasn’t even the daddy.

      ‘Have you met modern man, Mary?’

      Amy had cancelled the date, arranged on an app in a bad moment when she’d wanted to remember what it felt like to be a woman, as well as a mum. But it wasn’t the right time.

       A vibration made her jump. She fished out her phone from under the red coat. An email: further to your interview today…… after time period…. sanctions..benefit reduced.

      No. that wasn’t correct. They hadn’t said that!

      How to keep going? But mothers had to. Even that innocent girl led into early parenthood, all those centuries ago.

      ‘Ready?’ Elf checked, gently, as he unlatched the door for another lot of parents and their offspring.  

They’d all gone. The grotto was quiet, just Amy and the children.  She needed to get them home. Elf had been summoned to the office. Criminal gangs were targeting the Centre, stealing the Christmas stock.

      She could just go too. The box with the day’s takings was on the table. Not a fortune, but enough to see her through, until she’d sorted something out

She could just tip the cash into her shopper. They’d blame the gangs.

      Amy walked over to the table. She saw her hand pick up the box. She paused. Don’t take anything that isn’t yours, she’d taught the children. But she herself had played by the book and look at that fiasco.

      Wilf woke up. Mia was staring at her with huge eyes.

      Amy slowly put the box down, just as Ben swung in, to close up. He looked at her steadily, and she got ready to leave.

      ‘Wait.’

      He sifted through the takings and handed over the amount agreed for the hours. And added another note. Something else. He had a shop on the High Street, staff vacancies for after the holiday. If she was interested?

      Another decision. A hundred difficulties. But Mia was down for pre-school in the New Year, a crèche might take Wilf. It was a start. An energy surged through Amy. Somehow she would cope, because that’s what mothers did. They came to the edge, they dug deep inside, and they found resources and a strength they didn’t know they had.

      As Amy left the grotto, the card on the wall tipped forward. The light caught Mary’s face. And could that be…? Amy was sure it was.

      A wink.

About the auhtor

Sally Angell has had her writing published in magazines and anthologies, and read on radio. She has run writing groups and been involved with writing activities in Northamptonshire. Living a quieter life now, Sally has time to observe life and write more stories. 

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.)