Grace was determined that everyone would look on the bright side this Christmas . . .
ASTRAY snowflake melted on Grace’s warm cheek as she stepped on to Market Street that morning.
Was that snow? She looked up, blinking with delight into another little flurry of flakes. It was!
The snow increased steadily as she crossed the road and turned off down Paradise Lane.
The children will be pleased, she thought.
As she walked along, Grace thought about children.
Not only her daughter, Sheila, now in her thirties and with children of her own, but all the other children. The hundreds she’d looked after over the years of her long career as a headteacher, and the new little ones she met in the playground whenever she collected her grandson, Rudy.
They would all love a white Christmas.
Sheila had asked her to collect Rudy that afternoon, which explained the iced bun she’d made sure of buying in the baker’s. It nestled in her bag alongside some crusty rolls.
Grace smiled to herself. Rudy was always hungry, bless him. In her experience, children usually were.
The crusty rolls were for Barry, her neighbour.
Barry Matthews had himself been a teacher, though not at the same school as Grace.
He had taught at the local grammar school, and over the years he and Grace had met often on various courses.
Grace wasn’t sure who was the more surprised when she retired to the little bungalow in Mount Close and found Barry living just a few hundred yards away.
They became good friends and often popped in to each other for a cup of tea, but this week Grace was doing all the visiting. A fall from his bicycle had left Barry with a sprained ankle.
In between hobbling about with a stick, he’d been sitting staring morosely at the floor, getting depressed.
Today, in an effort to cheer him up, Grace planned to surprise him with lunch.
“Only me,” she called, letting herself in.
“Morning, pet,” he replied.
He often called her that, and though she pretended she didn’t like it, she actually found it rather endearing.
He sounded positive, at least, Grace thought, as she turned into the kitchen and switched on the kettle.
“How’s the foot?” she called.
Barry was sitting by the fire, looking dejected. So much for positive.
“Not too bad,” he said wearily.
He gave a long sigh. “It’s not,” he said. “I’ve just got to face facts, Grace. I’m getting old.”
His shoulders lifted in a heavy shrug.
“I don’t know what I was thinking of, putting my name down for that half marathon.”
Grace made no comment about his entering a half marathon at the age of seventy. Seventy was the new sixty, wasn’t it? Or was that fifty? Pity no-one had told her hips.
Barry kept himself very fit. Grace had no doubt he would not only finish, but also finish in good time.
“It’s only December,” she said. “You’re not running it until spring. Plenty of time for your ankle to mend.” He shook his head. “There’s something else. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but I promised I’d play Santa for the little ones at the playgroup.”
“Really?” She fixed her gaze on his stubbly chin. “That’s very nice of you, Barry. You’ve certainly got the hair for it.”
His hair was thick and wavy, and completely white. He ran a hand through it, laughing.
“I have, haven’t I? That’s what Mrs Jeffries at the playgroup said. I’d hired myself a beard and everything. Not that it matters now.”
He sighed again. Grace closed her eyes. This defeatist attitude was so unlike him.
“I can’t help you there, I’m afraid, Barry. The kids wouldn’t be happy with Mrs Claus.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He smiled at her. “I think you’d make a very fetching Mrs Claus.”
“Praise indeed.” She laughed. “Eat up your lunch.”
“Yes, that’s right, Mrs Graham.”
Grace looked at Rudy’s teacher. Miss Clovelly was young and progressive, with a pink streak in her hair and the sort of earrings that would have been strictly off limits in days gone by.
But Grace knew a good teacher when she saw one, and the children clearly adored her.
“Oh, I see,” Grace said. “I wasn’t sure Rudy had it right when he told me he was a cloud in the nativity play. He’s a little disappointed.”
Miss Clovelly crouched down to
talk to Rudy.
“It’s an incredibly important part. There weren’t only kings and shepherds and animals to worship at the birth of baby Jesus.
“There were trees and flowers, birds and clouds in the sky. The clouds were right next to the Star of Bethlehem!”
Rudy brightened a little. Standing up, Miss Clovelly leaned closer to Grace.
“We have rather a large intake this year.”
Grace nodded. If anyone knew about Christmas plays, she did. “I understand.” Taking Rudy by the hand, she walked away.
She did understand, and if the positions were reversed, she’d be reassuring Miss Clovelly in just the same way. Still, Rudy was downcast.
“It’ll be fun,” Grace said as they walked home. “Clouds are very important. Without clouds, we wouldn’t have rain, and then where would we be?”
“I know,” he said. “But I wanted a shiny crown like Jake and Russell. And all the girls have got sparkly wings. It’s not fair.”
Slipping a hand into her bag, Grace pulled out the iced bun and passed it to him.
“Never mind, love,” she said. “We’ll make you a nice costume.”
At home, Rudy stomped across her lawn making first footprints and they spent a happy time building snowmen before going in for dinner.
“It’s snowing again, Nan!” Rudy was at the window, nose pressed against the pane, watching as the flakes fluttered down.
“When I was a child,” Grace said, “I used to love looking up into the snowflakes.”
Rudy rushed for his boots.
“Let’s do that, Nan!” Grace just had time to slip on his coat and a coat of her own before he darted out into the back garden. The snowfall was steady now in thick, heavy flakes.
She and Rudy managed to keep their eyes open long enough to stare up into the downpour. Flakes fluttered prettily on to their faces and they felt drawn upwards, almost lifted into the sky.
Grace felt full of wonder. How beautiful it was . . .
“Oh, my goodness, of course!” she said suddenly. “The very thing!”
Later that evening, when the house was still, Grace sat cutting and sticking, sewing and trimming, until a cloud was born.
The following morning, she popped in to see Barry, who was still in the doldrums.
“You were really looking forward to playing Santa, weren’t you?”
“D’you know, I was,” he said. “Truth is, I miss the kids. But with this ankle and now this lot . . .”
He nodded his head towards the carpet of snow outside.
“Lovely for the kids, I know, but there’s no way I can get about in it.” Grace shook her head. “You’re so right, Barry,” she said brightly. “You can’t be too careful at your age. You’d better stay indoors.”
She passed him some tea very gingerly, as though the cup were made of glass.
“Careful now.” Barry looked at her steadily, then laughed.
“Point taken. But what am I going to do about the kids, Grace?”
He glanced out of the window.
“I’d have made a great Santa, as well. Look at those clouds; there’s more on the way.”
“We’ve seen worse snow. That’s just a dusting.” She squeezed his arm.
“Come on, Barry, it’s not like you to give up. My Sheila’s offered to drive you. Santa arriving in the snow? The kids will love it!
“Then we can pick you up later and take you to Rudy’s rehearsal with us.”
“Really?” Barry’s face lit up. “That’s good of her. Of course, all the kids will ask about my ankle.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something. We’ll put a Christmas sock on it. And we can decorate your walking stick.”
Barry leaned across and kissed her cheek.
“You’re an angel.”
Later that afternoon, Grace sat between Barry and Sheila in the hall at Rudy’s school. Barry was in a comfortable seat on the end of the row, with his foot propped on a cushion.
“I forgot to ask,” Grace whispered as the children filed in. “What did you tell the kids about your ankle?”
“That’s the funny thing,” he whispered back. “When I first hobbled in they were all terribly shy. I don’t think Santa is supposed to have a bandaged foot and a walking stick!
“Then I told them the story of how Rudolph was trying to help and accidentally trod on my toes as I was putting the presents in the sleigh. They absolutely loved it!”
A hush fell over the hall as the dress rehearsal got underway and the children gathered around the edge of the stage, waiting for their cue.
Fidgety kings tugged at their crowns and mingled with the shepherds, while Joseph and Mary squabbled over which of them should hold baby Jesus.
Behind them, two fluffy sheep bobbed up and down, waving wildly at the audience.
The donkey, already perched on the stage, swung its hooves steadily back and forth.
Nothing changes, Grace thought, chuckling. She turned her attention to the back of the stage, where an excited Rudy had already taken his place, standing between two other clouds on a wooden block.
So far, so good: there were no leaking joints or wayward seams. All was well with the costume, Grace noted with relief.
She’d had a quiet word with Miss Clovelly when they’d arrived and hopefully it would be OK, but nothing was certain.
The hall buzzed with excitement and the story of Christmas began.
Halfway through the rehearsal, a burst of heavenly choral music filled the air, and down the centre aisle several beautiful angels shuffled their way forward, pulling nervously at their costumes and waving shyly at their parents.
They clambered on to the stage and kneeled down, jostling with each other for room.
Grace waited with bated breath.
The music rose, and then, as the angels shone in all their glory, Rudy pulled on a tape, releasing a little piece of the cardboard costume which
“I wanted a shiny crown like Jake and Russell”
flew open, sending a cascade of silver stars fluttering on to the scene below.
The children squealed in delight at the unexpected shower, and it was several moments before they could restore order.
Grace glanced rather sheepishly at Miss Clovelly.
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” she said.
Miss Clovelly smiled. “It was a lovely idea. A shower of stars to celebrate the infant’s birth –wonderful! Now, how quickly can you make two more?” ■
The children gathered around the stage, waiting for their cue