There’s no sign of snow, not even the scent that some might be on the way. Sitting in my bedroom’s window seat, I look down at all the last-minute shoppers, hurrying back home with their final gifts and forgotten food items. It’s so mild, an unseasonal 15 degrees, that some haven’t even bothered to sling on a coat, just dashed out to pick up the cranberry sauce in joggers and a t-shirt.
This year I wasn’t hoping for snow anyway; I wasn’t expecting Christmas full stop. For all I care, it can stay in the store or up in the loft, spiders making homes in the tinsel. No Christmas cards have come, only ones of condolences; Santa replaced by an angel, weeping with head bowed. I’ve shut myself up here, away from the sight of them decking the halls with woe. I know I should help with the final Christmas preparations; Aunty Anne will arrive at any moment and there’s plenty I could do. But the truth is, I just can’t face seeing Mum’s red eyes and Dad’s face fixed to a permanent blank anymore. There’s no frost outside but it’s settled here, surely enough. My tongue is frozen. Whenever I speak, my words seem to cut like ice and everything I do at the moment seems to go wrong.
Aunty Anne’s tiny yellow Mini pulls up outside our house, an improbable flash of summer colour on this drab and dreary day. I can’t help but remember last year, when we’d sat scrunched up in the front, knees under our chin, with the Christmas tree sticking out of the open boot, the top branches jostling for room with our arms and elbows. The car had been full of the tree, the prickly needles tickling us to fits of laughter; passers-by had smiled, even calling out Merry Christmas as we drove by. Back home, we’d decorated the tree together, Granny dozing in the comfy chair with the blanket on her knees. She’d woken when we’d switched on the lights and I sang her favourite carol “Once in Royal David’s City” in the twinkling fairy lights. I knew I’d missed some of the notes, but she said it was like hearing an angel sing.
I blink the memory away and wave to Aunty Anne smiling up at me. I watch her take out her large battered leather suitcase, realising that I’m not even slightly curious what is in there for me. Normally I’d be taking the steps two at a time, eager to find out; now I only force myself downstairs so no more memories can slip into my mind, reminding me of how much can change in a few short weeks.
Aunty Anne’s hug feels like my old warm blanket, the one I cuddle up in every night; she pulls me to her and I could just lose myself in her familiar smell- woodland pine and paint- and those enveloping arms. I wish she lived closer, could visit more often, so I could disappear into those understanding arms.
“How’s my Lizzie?” she asks with a smile that seems just a little frayed around the edges.
“Oh, you know,” I mumble, as Mum comes into the lounge for a hug and Dad takes her bag. “Glad school’s finished for a bit.”
“I bet. The summer holiday is longer but Christmas brings presents.”
I nod, ignoring the case she’s gesturing at; there are no surprises - anywhere, let alone in that bag- that could shake me out of the numbness that has stung me to silence this last month. Aunty Anne carries on valiantly:
“I’m glad you could get the tree. I don’t think I’d be up for the sprint to the garden centre- the M25 was grid locked. I knew it would be at this time of day, but I couldn’t get away any sooner; I never thought it would take so long to sort through her drawers and cupboards…” She trails off and Mum makes a small gulping noise before asking whether she’d like a cup of tea.
“Or something a bit stronger, bring a bit of Christmas spirit to the place?” Dad’s half-hearted joke falls flat with Mum, but Aunty Anne laughs bravely.
“No, no, just a tea- thanks John. Perhaps later!”
Dad goes out to fill the kettle while Mum and Aunty Anne sit on the sofa. I look at the empty chair in the corner and my knees feel like they might give way under me. I sit on the floor, leaning up against the sofa. While they talk, I press my nails into the palm, hoping the pain will distract from the roar of the words: funeral, service, book of condolences. I hum under my breath, trying not to hear: taking Mum’s things to the charity shop. If I try hard enough, surely I can block them out, just like I do the jingly jangly Christmas songs.
I fix my eyes on the tree, standing bare but proud in the room’s other corner. Dad had gone to fetch it a few weeks ago when we all knew what was about to happen. He had just grabbed his coat and keys, muttering about how, if nothing else, there would be a tree in the house this Christmas. It sat in our garden after he brought it back, lopsided and forgotten in a bucket of water, while we bent under the strain of Granny’s final days. I must have been holed up in my room, the day he dried it off and brought it in. The thought makes me squirm: Dad struggling alone under the weight of the tree, wrestling to trim the branches to fit into the stand, while I’d hidden away, shouldering my cross of grief.
It might be unadorned, but the tree is beautiful nevertheless. The fresh smell of pine perfumes the room and brings the forest into our home. I’ve always been in such a rush to get the lights and decorations on, to get Christmas well and truly underway, that I realise I’ve never noticed the beauty of the undressed tree: a simple thing of wonder, needing no glitz and glam, no change at all. It strikes me for the first time how achingly alive it is, the needles such a glossy green. It is defiant, blazing life, in our little house.
“Would you like to see what I’ve brought Lizzie?” Aunty Anne’s question prods me back into the here and now. I must look absolutely blank because she flicks the clasps on her leather suitcase and pulls out an old Christmas biscuit tin; I’d know the design of the horse-drawn carriage in the snow anywhere: Granny’s Christmas decorations.
“They were one of the first things I found when I started sorting through things. She must have got them out from the cupboard under the stairs. It’s like she had them ready to give to us. Well to give to you Lizzie; she knew how much you loved decorating her tree.”
Aunty Anne’s soft brown eyes look at me kindly, but I cast mine down to the rose patterns on the carpet, tracing the petals with my fingers. They seem to be floating in pools of rippling water. I hear the scrape of the lid being removed and Aunty Anne strokes my hair, tied back days ago in a messy ponytail, as she lowers the tin down to me.
I keep my head bent and peer in. Nestled inside the soft tissue paper are Granny’s handmade Christmas decorations; the ones she had been given by her mother, when she started a family of her own. As I slowly lift the Christmas angel with her hand- stitched dress, I hear Mum start as if the angel had flapped her wings, and I look up.
“My Grandmother’s old angel from the top of the tree! Can I hold her for a moment Lizzie?” I pass it over reluctantly.
“You probably don’t remember your great grandmother; she was amazing with a needle. Such a steady hand and a careful eye. She could keep a watch on me- knee high, trying to steal the Christmas sweets from the top drawer- and still sew this row of careful stitches. I wish I’d inherited her talent; I can hardly sew on a button let alone make a dress like this.” And Mum smiles, for the first time in weeks, as she touches the hem of the angel’s dress, with its little row of kiss stitches.
With a clinking of china on the tea tray, Dad is back in the room. George bundles in after him, all mud, sweat and smiles. The wind from the football pitch has scrubbed his face red and thrown him over a few times by the look of the grass stains on his white training shorts and earth-caked knees.
“Hi Aunty Anne!” He calls out cheerfully from the doorway, cramming huge chunks of a chocolate Santa into his mouth. I return to the box of goodies on my lap as Aunty chats to him, pleased that she is the one on the receiving end of all that blustery energy. I gently lift up the folds of tissue paper and see what I’ve been hoping for: the glass bell. Granny let me hang it up every Christmas, trusting me with its delicate hand-blown form, even when I hardly trusted myself. And then I would ring it, ever so gently, watching it sway lightly on the branch; the tiny bell with its delicate blue snowflake pattern, chiming across the whole expanse of the room, filling me with its pure sound.
“I think that’s a lovely idea, don’t you agree Lizzie?” Mum’s question summons me back to the present.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Aunty Anne suggested that each of us takes one of the decorations, as a keepsake. I’d love the angel- if that’s ok. Why don’t you and George choose one each?”
I have no time to reply. George throws his half-eaten Santa onto the coffee table and grabs the tin off my lap. I yelp in annoyance and quickly try to pull it back, desperate to stop him from choosing the bell. But he won’t let go and suddenly, in the middle of the tug of war, he releases the tin with an angry “Well have it then!” and the speed of release takes me by surprise. The tin is falling from my hand. The decorations are tumbling out and rolling together on the floor. There is a sickening noise of splintering glass and then it is over.
I don’t dare look as Mum runs sobbing from the room, cursing us both. George is shouting about how it’s all my fault and why do I get the first choice of everything anyway? The words collide in my head and my thoughts feel like shards, slicing me into pieces. Dad looks at me like I’m the world’s most unfortunate child. Only Aunty Anne can blink back her tears, saying “It’s a shame, but we can buy a new one.” Her face suggests otherwise. I scoop up the two halves of the bell. I don’t care if they cut me; perhaps I even deserve it, and flee to my room.
I fling the towel, dumped on my bed, over the mirror on my dressing table; I don’t want to see my white drawn face, the dark eyes and even darker rings under them. I certainly don’t need to look in the mirror to see whose fault this all is. Carefully I lay the bell’s two pieces on the table. I pull the curtains to and lie down under my blanket, pulling it right up over my head. Other creatures are sleeping, deep in the earth; I curl myself up in a hedgehog ball and wish I could sleep likewise. Not for an hour or an evening, that wouldn’t help. I wish I could fold all this prickly pain up, sleep and only wake when it has melted like winter’s snow.
Someone must hear me as I do sleep, starting awake to the noise of a single loud chime: the bell that lies broken on the table. Slowly I open my eyes as the bell chimes twice, thrice and then is still. The bedroom is dark except for a thousand pinpricks of light, glimmering at the end of my bed. My heart lurches towards them, like I’m metal and they are the strongest magnet in all the galaxy. They take on human form; they shimmer into the form of my darling Granny.
I squirm out of the covers and peer into the swirling mass and see her long white hair, unbound from the bun which she had always worn to hold it in place; it flows down her back- a cataract of light. I know it sounds like the stuff dreams are made of, but I can see the faintest curve of two mighty wings, arching from her back.
“Granny, it is you- isn’t it?” I manage to whisper.
“Darling Lizzie.” And her voice is my lifeline; cast into all the fears and doubts and despair I have been drowning in these last weeks, it hauls me out.
“Granny, I broke your bell.”
“I know my love.”
“Mum won’t ever forgive me. I won’t ever forgive myself.”
“Lizzie, Lizzie, there’s nothing to forgive. Accidents happen. The bell was made of glass and glass can break.”
“But I wanted to keep it forever; to ring it every Christmas and remember all those holidays we had together.”
“I know you did my darling.”
“And you must have wanted it too. You left the box out for Aunty Anne to find. You meant for me to have the bell and treasure it forever.”
I feel the trace of a touch as the shimmering hand takes mine and her light pours through my skin with the strength of all the stars.
“No, my darling, I didn’t. I wanted you to have the decorations- yes. I packed them and thought of all our beloved times together. I wished for you to have them, but to treasure forever and ever? To worry over, fretting that something might happen; feeling so terrible when an accident like this one did? No. I wouldn’t have wished that for the world.”
And with each word, I feel it lighten. Like snow caught by the wind and borne aloft; I feel the dark of my despair loosen, until it drifts, whirling apart.
“My sweet Lizzie, the bell is broken- yes. But here,” she presses her hand to my heart, “and here, “the other brushes my brow, “here it can never break; your memory and your heart holds it safe. I know it seems like everything is changing, but some things, like our love, will always stay the same."
I lie my head in Granny’s lap and feel like I’m in a snow-globe. Someone has shaken this world and we two hover, momentarily, in our own beautiful flurry of snowflakes and light. Everything is changing, for my soul stirs. My head pillowed by her soft radiance, I drift into sleep once more.
The light of the North Star, through a chink in my curtain, wakes me for a second time. The swirling mass of light, Granny, is gone; but when I walk to the window and draw the curtains fully back, Polaris is like all her pinpricks of brilliance concentrated into one unwavering beam. “Thank you, Granny,” I whisper to the star, then quietly make my way to the cupboard in the corridor just outside my room. I take out the box as silently as possible. Perhaps Santa is delivering his presents at this very moment, perhaps not; what I do know is this: I have my own gift to give. I return to my room and set to work.
Bells ring out for Christmas day in many of the carols I love the most. Sweet sing the bells; chimes all seem to say, throw cares away. I know it is easier to discard troubles and woe in song than it is in life, but as I walk into the lounge on Christmas morning where my family are gathered, I feel like my cares are, for now, lightened. We share our Merry Christmases in front of the tree, quietly beautiful in all its natural finery. Mum holds onto Dad’s arm, reaching up to put her grandmother’s angel on top of the tree: Gloria, glory on high. Slowly I unfurl my fingers and there, nestling in my palm, is the little bell- whole once more. Aunty Anne picks it up, and if she can make out the fine line, the scar from the break, her shining eyes do not betray her.
“Cool!” says George. “Like a miracle!” And his smile smooths the last shard of my pain.
“Here's your bell Lizzie,” says Aunty Anne, holding it out to me.
I take the little bell and hang it on the tree. I hardly dare to, but I do; reaching out with just a fingertip. It chimes: once, twice, three times, ringing out as clear and true as it does in my memory. I draw my family to me and we join in our own five-pointed hug: a star on earth this Christmas.