THE PER­FECT PRESENT

A poignant mes­sage from long ago of­fers a whole new per­spec­tive for an anx­ious new­ly­wed host­ess…

My Weekly Special - - CHRISTMAS FICTION MINIMAG - By H John­son-Mack

The en­ve­lope lay un­opened in my palm, a curled and yel­low­ing square with all the fragility of win­ter’s breath. “What a place to put a let­ter,” I mused aloud, look­ing side­ways at the plain metal box where it had lain.

“You’d be sur­prised what some folk hide up chim­neys,” said the ex­pert I’d called in to clean the fire­place of our new home, cur­rently on his knees in the hearth, head cocked, as he re-hung a soot sheet across the cav­ern. I frowned. “Must have been some­thing im­por­tant, surely, to be in a fire­proof box.”

“Well, what­ever, it’s your property now, lass.” The sweep ges­tured to the neat vac­uum he was about to power up. “Cover your ears. This could get noisy.”

Set­ting the en­ve­lope back in its box, I turned to watch decades of soot and dust get sucked up from the hearth. Then I got down on the rug so the me­thod­i­cal Mr Mallard could show me how to lay kin­dling and wood (ap­ple, for that ex­tra-spe­cial smell), so that we’d get the best blaze for the rest of the win­ter.

Later, I stood back and watched flames lick at the logs with a glow of tri­umph. This was just what we’d wanted, Si­mon and me. This cosy, old­fash­ioned set­ting in a home of our own. It was why we’d saved so long and hard af­ter an ex­tremely small wed­ding, and lived in my par­ents’ car­a­van for months. But boy, it had been worth wait­ing for.

Now if only ev­ery­thing else could be as per­fect for our first Christ­mas to­gether as hus­band and wife, just two weeks away, life would be so sweet.

Un­for­tu­nately, there wasn’t a Mr Mallard round ev­ery cor­ner to help make that hap­pen.

Reluc­tantly, I left the golden hearth to go and fin­ish din­ner. Away from its warmth, I could feel a cold fin­ger of fear.

This was the first fes­tive sea­son Si­mon had spent away from his mother, a woman whose cook­ing and or­gan­i­sa­tional skills were the stuff a new wife’s night­mares were made of. I couldn’t bear it if all the while we were here in our love nest, Si­mon was wish­ing he was at his par­ents’, fill­ing up on his mother’s tur­key.

Be­sides the crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment I’d feel, there’d be the ques­tion of whether I could ever live up to expectations, and the mar­riage would be doomed.

I wasn’t about to let that hap­pen; I loved Si­mon so much. So I had to find a way to im­prove my lim­ited skills in the kitchen and cre­ate a fes­tive am­bi­ence wor­thy of Charles Dick­ens. Oh – and buy my hus­band the per­fect present to be wait­ing un­der the tree on Christ­mas morn­ing, all in two weeks.

Noth­ing too chal­leng­ing, then.

It was not un­til I was hud­dled up with Si­mon and a glass of Shi­raz on the sofa af­ter din­ner, dream­ily watch­ing the flames fi­nally fade to grey, that I re­mem­bered the let­ter in the box.

“Open it up,” Si­mon urged. “Let’s see.”

With due rev­er­ence to its age, I peeled back the flap and drew forth a note writ­ten in a neat, youth­ful hand.

“DearFatherChrist­mas,sir,” I read aloud. “Thisyear,Idon’task­for­doll­sor anewskip­pin­grope.Al­lIre­al­ly­wan­tis Bar­tie.If youcouldfind­hi­mand­send himhome,it­would­bethebest Christ­masp­re­sen­tever.

“Ido­hopethattheNorthPoleis not­toochilly. “Yours­faith­fully, Ce­ci­lyAn­nDent.” “Well, look at that,” Si­mon mur­mured. “A note to Fa­ther Christ­mas, stuck up the chim­ney. Clever girl, know­ing he’d find it on his way down! Is there any­thing you might fancy for a gift your­self, by the way?”

“I was about to ask you the same

“I won­der if Fa­ther Christ­mas really did ex­ist for her that year”

thing,” I said ab­stract­edly. I couldn’t drag my eyes from the care­fully formed let­ters, now faded a lit­tle with the pas­sage of time.

I could pic­ture the young Miss Dent – in ringlets and starched apron, I imag­ined – writ­ing her re­quest in this very par­lour one Christ­mas past.

“I won­der how old this note is, and who Bar­tie was.”

“A trea­sured teddy bear, per­haps,” Si­mon sug­gested as he set me gen­tly aside to head for the kitchen. “Or a lost dog, maybe. As to age, it could be any time this past cen­tury, I’d say. Do you fancy a cup of tea while you won­der?”

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