The last of our three short Christmas stories comes from the Author of Where Angels Tread, a debut novella I reviewed here in May 2014.
A Very Special Christmas
by Loretta Livingstone
Anisha wept with frustration, as she tried to wrench the ring off her finger. Jayesh watched, eyes wide with disbelief.
“Because you disrespect me. You imagine just because I am wearing your ring, you can sleep with me? You think you own me? You knew I wouldn’t do this. You disrespect me, and you disrespect my parents.”
Jayesh glared. “Think you’re so special, do you? Well, you’re nothing! And the ring is nothing. Keep it! I’ll find a girl who loves me properly!”
“I don’t want your ring!” She tore at it with her teeth and finally managed to drag it over her knuckle. The skin beneath had turned green.
“You’re right! It was nothing! Cheap! And so are you. But I’m not. I will be respected.” She threw the ring across the room so hard that it cracked the mirror behind his head.
Turning on her heel, she slammed out of the front door leaving Jayesh seething. All the money he’d spent wooing her, and she wouldn’t let him anywhere near her. Too precious. Proper little princess. Well, that was it! The last time he’d waste his cash on a girl from her type of background.
Anisha stormed down the road, fury battling with humiliation. Did Jayesh truly think just because he had put his ring – his cheap ring – on her finger, she’d be prepared to share his bed, when he knew, he knew she wasn’t that type of girl? Anisha was a modern girl; she believed in women having careers, but she had a deep faith, and she wasn’t going to compromise it – especially to someone who held her so cheap.
“Cheap!” She ground the word out between her teeth! He couldn’t even buy her a decent ring. Not an expensive one, but this – this was a joke. She rubbed at the green stain.
“Cheer up, darlin’. It might never happen.” The stallholder she was passing gave her a wink.
“Stupid man! You are all stupid!”
“Oi. Miss High-and-Mighty. Who yanked your chain?”
She gave him a last searing glare as she swept past, head held high. He grinned. “Proper little spitfire, ain’t yer.”
Reaching the sanctuary of her shabby flat, she slammed the door behind her and threw herself onto the bed. Reaction set in, and her face crumpled. How she missed her mother. “Oh, Ama! Ama! I wish you were here,” she wailed. She couldn’t call. They couldn’t afford it. Anisha was over here to study and bring honour to the family. She hadn’t even told them about Jayesh. She’d been waiting to introduce the subject once she was engaged. They would be thrilled – she had hoped. After all, he was a medical student. And her parents weren’t old-fashioned. He was of the same faith – or so he had said. Obviously, it didn’t mean much to him. She gave her finger one more despairing rub – it was starting to itch now – and hid her face in her pillow, shaking with sobs. So near Christmas. She had been looking forward to sharing it with Jayesh’s family. He was going to tell his mother, he’d said. But who knew. Maybe she was his dirty little secret. At this, she wept even harder. How could she tell Ama and Daddy? She was such a stupid fool.
University had broken up for the Christmas holidays. Anisha had been so besotted with Jayesh, she hadn’t made any friends yet. He had spotted her standing shyly near the entrance three days after she had arrived and taken her under his wing. Flattered and grateful, she had been only too happy to spend all her spare time with him, sharing her dreams, her ambitions. She knew the other students by sight, smiling shyly at them as she attended lectures, but Jayesh was always at her shoulder as soon as they were over. Come to that, why had he always been hanging around outside her lectures? Realisation was finally sinking in for Anisha. Jayesh was a fraud. Maybe he wasn’t even studying, let alone doing medicine.
She shivered and put the kettle on. It was freezing. She couldn’t turn the heating up, not enough money. A hot water bottle would have to do. Thank goodness Jen had told her about them; they were wonderful. She filled two and snuggled under the duvet with them. She was so lonely. Was Jen busy, she wondered? Did she dare go down the hall and knock on her door? Wrapping the duvet round her, hot water bottles tucked under each arm, she left her flat and shuffled down the corridor. Tapping on the door, she waited nervously. A passing girl stopped. “You wanting Jen? She’s away for the holidays, hun. Back in the New Year.”
Well, that was that then; she would be alone over Christmas. She shuffled back to her tiny apartment, recklessly put some more coins in the meter and turned on the TV, wiping the tears from her eyes with a determined small hand. She would shut Jayesh from her mind. He didn’t exist.
Next day, still heartsore, she went to the market to see if she could find something nice to cook – something to remind her of home. The Christmas lights twinkled. Families thronged the stalls. Anisha watched the cheerful scene dismally. If only, oh if only her parents had suggested she study at Karunya University. Or Madras. Anywhere but England. At least she would have been warm, and she could have called them. She would have Skyped her family, but they had such an old computer; it didn’t work very well. She would have to content herself with writing to them. They would be putting their own decorations up, and the crib would be up at the large Catholic Church they went to. She paused. She would do that. She would go to church. Then, she would feel nearer to them. But first, she headed to a stall which sold all the spices she needed. Fingering bright red chillies and knobbly ginger, she breathed in the fragrance of the heady spices which filled the air. It wasn’t quite the same as home. The smells were weaker; the air was colder, and they didn’t make her mouth water like they did at home, but they would do. Then she went to the large old Parish Church.
Anisha slipped in between the large studded oak doors. Just think. This had been here for hundreds of years. She put out her hand and touched the smooth walls, imagining all the generations of people who had been here before her. The church was hushed; the fragrance of incense lingering, the nativity scene laid out at the front. She moved forward, covering her head respectfully, and knelt in one of the pews, looking up at the large cross which dominated the front of the Church.
The holy stillness soothed her like balm. She didn’t know how long she sat there lost in contemplation. Time seemed to have stood still. But it was cold here too. Oh! This country! Would she ever feel warm again? She shivered and got to her feet, suddenly aware of a pair of cheerful green eyes upon her. She blushed and dipped her head, but curiosity got the better of her, and she peeked up again shyly. A man, she couldn’t guess his age, with dull blond hair curled in the neck of a sweater that had seen better days, smiled at her. Oh my goodness. She felt flustered. He came towards her, holding out his hand. She couldn’t very well back away, so she took it reluctantly. She was not going to get involved again. And not with an English person. How could he ever really understand her? She was going to stay away from men until she finished her studies and went home. Ama and Daddy could find her someone suitable. She had had enough of being a modern woman.
His outstretched hand was still in front of her, and, despite her intentions to the contrary, she found she had grasped it with her small one. She felt warmth running through her; suddenly, it didn’t seem so cold.
“Hello,” he said. “My name’s Mike. Are you new here? I haven’t seen you before.”
“Y…yes,” she stammered, blushing to the roots of her hair and pulling her dupatta round her face. “I’ve come to England to study.”
“Have you made many friends yet?”
She dipped her head in shame. “Only one. And he…,” she tailed off. Then, emboldened, “Are you the minister?”
Mike threw back his head and chuckled quietly. “Not me. Poor Reverend Walker. I don’t think I’m his idea of any kind of minister. But I do sort of minister in my own way. Why not come for a coffee with me, and I’ll tell you all about it? Maybe introduce you to some people?”
She shouldn’t. She really shouldn’t. She started to shake her head but, to her dismay, found she was nodding it instead. It was those eyes. Clear, fathomless eyes; they were almost hypnotic. She realised he still had hold of her hand and pulled it away. He smiled. “Oops. Sorry. Forgot to let go. Come on. There’s a nice little coffee shop not far away. It’s the Church coffee shop, you know. You’ll meet all sorts of people there, and you can warm up a bit.” He rubbed his hands together. “It’s freezing in here, isn’t it?”
Now she had her hand back, the warm glow she had felt before had disappeared, and she was shivering again. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt. He seemed nice enough. But so had Jayesh. No. I’m not going to think of him, she told herself. Picking up her bags, she followed Mike out of the Church and towards a brightly lit shop. The warmth hit her like a blast of Indian air as he opened the door and ushered her in. Bright Christmas scenes festooned the walls, and carols hung on the air. The windows were all steamed up, and she rubbed a clear patch on the misty glass with the tip of her finger as Mike went to get coffees. She peeked out; suddenly everything seemed friendlier.
“This is more like it.” Mike sat down opposite her with a tray full of coffees and mince pies. A bunch of people squeezed around the table, moving chairs over from other empty tables, laughing and chatting. Anisha felt included in the festive atmosphere.
A beautiful woman in her late twenties, with long chestnut hair and grey eyes, sat next to Mike and smiled across the table at her. “Hi, I’m Jeannie.” She held Anisha’s eyes with her own, inviting her to reciprocate.
“Anisha,” she whispered, smiling shyly. Next to her, a girl with ginger corkscrew curls, a snub nose and freckles, held a clip board. She reminded Anisha of someone, but she couldn’t think who. She peeped at her through half-closed eyelids. It was the eyes; they were just like Mike’s. Not the same colour – light blue instead of green – but as Anisha looked at them, she had the sensation of looking into the past, present and future all at once. How strange. She shook her head slightly to clear it.
“This is Seraphina,” Mike introduced, “my colleague. You’ll have to watch her.” Seraphina dug him in the ribs, and he winced. “See that clipboard? She’ll have your name down on that in no time if you aren’t careful. Your time won’t be your own.” Seraphina gave him a little frown, but he just ruffled her curls.
“Oh, I…I think…I’m studying you see. I don’t think I could help.”
Seraphina gazed at her. “It’s a great way to make new friends. And you’d be helping us out. Just for one week?” She tilted her head on one side and watched Anisha quizically.
“Told you,” Mike chortled. “She’ll be working your fingers to the bone like she does with the rest of us.”
“Mike! Shhhh!” Seraphina looked as though she was trying not to laugh, but suddenly, the stern mouth quirked into a merry trill of laughter. “Oh, you! You’re impossible! Go on. Go get us some more coffee.
“See what I mean.” He grinned at Anisha, “She’s a proper slave-driver!” Seraphina tapped him on the head with her clipboard.
“Take no notice of him. He’s such a stirrer!”
By now, Anisha was feeling quite light-hearted, as well as light-headed. The banter had drawn her in and made her feel part of this group. “Well. I suppose I could…what would I need to do?”
Seraphina gave her a look of delight. Anisha felt as if she could really belong here with this happy-go-lucky crowd. “We run soup kitchens for the street people. Just over the Christmas period. We don’t belong to any organisation or anything, but we like to do our bit to help. And no one has anything organised in the areas we go to.”
Street people? Anisha’s smile faded. “You mean beggars?” She tried not to shudder. She’d seen them in the shadows and kept well away. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t. She’d be terrified.
“Oh come on, Anisha. They aren’t scary when you get to know them. And you won’t be alone. They have nothing. Not even family. Wouldn’t you like to help those worse off than yourself? You’d get a real blessing out of it.” The corkscrew curls jiggled as Seraphina held her head on one side winsomely. “I promise I’ll put you with someone who’ll look after you.” She studied her clipboard and made a few notes.
Anisha meant to shake her head but found herself nodding. Oh no! Now she was committed. Seraphina was already writing her name. She looked at Jeannie, who was watching her sympathetically. “Will you be going?”
“Sorry, I have something already booked. Mike and Seraphina will see you ok though. And I’ll see you around. We often meet here on a Friday night. Do come along. We’re a friendly bunch, aren’t we, you lot?”
“Yes, do come.” Jeannie was echoed by others at the table.
Despite herself, Anisha smiled. “Oh, very well.”
Seraphina clapped her hands delightedly. “And where can I get hold of you to let you know the arrangements? Do you have a mobile?”
It was something Anisha did have. She gave her the number. “And now, I must go. Friday did you say? See you all then.”
Seraphina gave her another long look. “Tell you what. Where do you live? I can give you a lift.”
No chance of backing out then. Anisha felt as though Seraphina had seen her thoughts. “That would be lovely. I must go now though. I have shopping.” She got up and collected her bags. Half of her was reluctant to leave. The other half was feeling a little overwhelmed. She wanted to go back to her digs and collect her thoughts. And she wanted to write to Daddy and Ama and tell them all about it. Jayesh was almost forgotten as she hurried back through the cold misty air, her heart lighter by far than she had felt since she arrived in England. With Jayesh, she had always felt nervous and eager to please, never as relaxed as she felt today. It was a good feeling. Almost like finding a home.
For the next two weeks, Anisha met up with the others at the coffee shop on Fridays, and a couple of times a week, she helped at the mobile soup kitchens but always stayed safely behind the counter. As the faces of the street people separated from the crowd and she got to know some of them, her terror at being on the streets late into the evening faded. And Seraphina always took her home safely. Anisha was starting to settle in and get to know people. She hadn’t realised how claustrophobic things had been with Jayesh. He didn’t even take me to meet his family, she thought indignantly – when she thought of him at all, which happened less and less. She didn’t miss him one bit, she realised to her surprise.
By Christmas Eve, she had resigned herself to not seeing her mother and father, but Jeannie had invited her to dinner, and there were parties to go to. No longer alone and shy, her world had expanded into a kaleidoscope of colour and fun. Her letters home were transformed. But however will I find time to study, she caught herself wondering, as she dashed back to her flat to put on warm clothes for the soup kitchen. Comfortable now in a thick woollen jumper, jeans – not too tight, she didn’t like those – and a big warm coat, hat and scarf, she waited outside her flat for Seraphina to pull up in the white van with blue wings painted over the back wheels. Ah. There she was. Anisha pulled the passenger door open and jumped in, only to freeze with horror as she realised it must be the wrong van.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasped, as she looked at the silhouette of a young man. “I thought this was Seraphina’s van.” She fumbled for the door handle, ready to leap out.
“Hi. You must be Anisha. Seraphina asked me to pick you up tonight. She’s running late, and you and I are on the same soup run as each other. I’m Simeon. We’re going to Wendley Road tonight. They have a bit of a special on after the soup, so I’m told. We’ve been invited to stay afterwards. I’ve never been on Christmas Eve before, have you?” He was gabbling, Anisha realised. Maybe she wasn’t the only one embarrassed by the change of plan. She stole a sideways look at him but couldn’t see his face properly. She didn’t want to turn her head and take a better look, so she concentrated on the road ahead.
They were driving to the outskirts of the city. She’d never been here before. And with a strange man. Her heart sank. What on earth were they going to talk about? She wriggled uncomfortably.
At last the van pulled up on a dark corner, and Simeon got out and started to unload. The mobile soup kitchen was there already. Seraphina was manning it and gave them a wave. Relief flooded through Anisha. Thank goodness.
“Did you bring loads more stuff, Simeon? We’re going to need it. I’ve almost run out. Busiest night of the year tonight.” She pushed her ginger curls out of her eyes and handed another cup of soup to a ragged individual standing by the hatch. “There you go, my love. That’ll warm you up. Come back later. There’ll be mince pies then.” The shabby figure muttered at her and shuffled off. “Come on, let’s get cracking. I’m only here for another hour, and then I have to go. I’m singing with a local choir. The rest of the crew will be back to pack up the soup kitchen later. You don’t have to do that. Just hand out the soup until it’s gone, then sit back and enjoy the show.”
“What show?” Anisha looked at Simeon in bewilderment.
“Search me.” He turned to the hatch. “Chicken soup? Or vegetable? Come on, Anisha. Let’s get busy. We can worry about that later.”
Two hours later, Anisha was flushed and laughing. The soup was all gone, and a cheery couple of youngsters had packed everything up and driven away. She peeped up shyly at Simeon beneath the street light. He turned laughing brown eyes to her and held out a strong brown hand. Shall we stay to watch the show then?” She hesitated. Would it be wise? She didn’t even know him. “Oh, do stay. I don’t know a soul here,” he pleaded.
“But you don’t know me either.’
He looked at her solemnly. “I know your name is Anisha. I know you are studying law at Uni.” He turned to her, swept off his scarf and bowed extravagantly. “Greetings, Mem. My name is Simeon. I am here studying journalism. I had been going to go to study at Karunya or Madras.” She gasped. Really? How strange. She hadn’t told anybody here about those two universities. He wrapped his scarf back around his neck, his teeth gleaming very white in the dark. “But I suddenly got the chance to come to Uni in England. How could I resist?” He stopped capering about and gave her a wistful look. “Oh, please. Do say you’ll stay. I’ll see you safely home. No funny business.”
Anisha looked at him, trying to be severe, but she could feel a dimple twinkling at the side of her mouth. “Very well. But you promise? No funny business?”
“You have my word. Mem.” Clowning around again, he put one arm around the lamp post, swung around it and made another of his ridiculous bows.
Laughing, she capitulated, and they wandered over to the group of outcasts collecting near a brazier. Mike was there, waving at them. Anisha breathed a small sigh of relief. Someone else she knew. They joined him, and he handed them mince pies. There was laughter and joking, but all of a sudden one of the down-and-outs gave a sibilant hiss, and a clock struck 11:45, chimes ringing out in the cold, crisp air. A silence fell, and Anisha heard Simeon give a sharp intake of breath. She looked up at the skies and gasped. It couldn’t be. No way!
It was. Before her disbelieving eyes, a huge angel choir was assembling, singing gloriously. Trumpets heralded a huge angel, who announced the age old words, “Peace and goodwill to all men, for today is born a Saviour, Christ the Lord.” She and Simeon stood there, reality suspended, taking in the sights and sounds of the Heavenly choir. Never in all her life had she experienced anything like this.
Anisha stepped back, catching her scarf on the handle of Aggie’s discarded shopping trolley. Turning to disentangle herself, she saw passers-by look at the small, tattered group, then glance upwards with blank faces and move on. Couldn’t they see it? Couldn’t they hear it? Shaking her head in astonishment, she lifted her eyes back to the magnificent sight. Her heart lifted, her soul seemed almost to rise out of her body and join the angels. Joy and rapture filled her until she felt she might explode; a silent tear ran unheeded down her cheek. Such beauty! Such majesty! Oh, what must Heaven be like? Caught up in the experience, she never noticed Simeon’s arm slip around her shoulder but instinctively nestled in to him, sheltering from the wind, all without taking her eyes from the heavens.
Slowly, the angels faded away and the stars came back out. Simeon let his arm fall from her shoulders and looked down at her, eyes shining. She opened her mouth to speak, but he put his finger to her lips, and they walked back to the van in silence. He held out his hand to her. Anisha hesitated. He gave her a steady look. “No funny business, Anisha, but I’d really like to get to know you better.” She smiled and held out her own hand. His warm fingers wrapped around hers, and they stood for a moment, gazing at each other. From behind them, Mike looked at them in satisfaction before he shook out his wings and soared upwards. Another job done.