A Christmas Gift
A Short Story For Christmas
Our story takes place in the sleepy little Yorkshire village of Grassington which nestles quietly in the dales for the greater part of the year.
It is winter and the jollity of the summer festival has long gone but soon the village will come to life now the festive season is underway. Each year on the three consecutive Saturdays before Christmas the village proudly hosts a Dickensian festival.
It is mid-afternoon on the last Saturday before Christmas and seven-year-old Angela is upstairs in the hotel which is her home. She is sleeping; she is always upstairs sleeping nowadays. She is warm there and safe, away from the rush of the festivities. She awakes briefly, gets out of bed to raise a pale hand to the window and waves.
Mrs Barraclough, her mother, returns the greeting. She is busy outside, on the other side of the cobbled street, selling the pots of jam she has lovingly prepared during the summer months.
Angela is proud of her. "You look just like a real Victorian," she'd told her earlier when mother had donned her colourful costume. "And your hat is just like the frills on your jam pots!"
Mrs Barraclough's jam pots are lined up at the back of several long trestle tables, neatly labelled, they take pride of place along with other regional niceties and a huge selection of homemade, heart-shaped biscuits on the stall she is running for the British Heart Foundation. The jams are guaranteed to entice many a discerning palate; there is strawberry, apple and gooseberry conserve too and even marmalade laced with the finest whiskey. She remembers how Angela had helped her pick the fruit. Her daughter was stronger then, in the summer, her golden-haired little angel, but with every falling leaf of autumn, she had grown paler and weaker.
Angela goes back to bed, reaches for her volume of fairy tales and begins to read the "The Little Match Girl."
"It's my very favourite one in the whole book," she says quietly to her teddy.
She loves the tale, even more, when mother reads it but she doesn't understand why, lately, she doesn't like to read it to her anymore. She'll read any story rather than that one right now. Angela soon becomes weary of her book and drifts back to sleep again.
Old Mr Stainton is weary too - particularly from a tedious morning's bell ringing service at the church. He's hoping to escape the hordes of tourists who have invaded his village and is relieved to find his favourite fireside chair still vacant in the hotel lounge.
"Pint of John Smiths and a warming steak pie and I'll be as right as rain." He says to the barmaid with genuine Christmas spirit. He senses there is something wrong as the fire is not dancing merrily in the grate as it usually does at this time of day.
"Sorry you can't sit there, brigade's got to come back - chimney's on fire," she says casually as if it's an everyday occurrence.
Then, in the fireman traipse, tarpaulins and fire buckets at the ready.
Mrs Baraclough, seeing the flames leaping out of the chimney stack, from her stall on the other side of the road, abandons her precious jam and races in through the main entrance. "Angela! Angela!" she calls hysterically, fearing the worst. But a cruel death in a burning building is not her daughter's allotted fate.
"It's OK don't worry! There's no need to evacuate the hotel," says a friendly fireman, successfully calming the landlady down as bemused diners pause for a moment, lifting their eyes from their dinner plates to absorb the ensuing drama.
Soon there are steak and ale pies all round and drinks on the house. The fire is doused and the loft space inspected for stray sparks. The roof is thankfully intact, although the chimney has collapsed in on itself. The only other obvious casualty is a pot of strawberry jam that fell from Mrs Barraclough's stall.
The hotel staff is doing an admirable job, dashing to and fro, feeding the hungry firemen and searching for portable heaters now the fireplace is out of action for the foreseeable future. "You've all done a GRATE job" quips the barmaid, not missing an opportunity to flirt with the burly firemen.
Then Angela appears, standing like a marble statue at the bottom of the stairs as she gazes blankly at the cold and empty fireplace. She is now noticeably paler and thinner than she has ever been. She can't have much longer Mrs Barraclough thinks to herself, her own heart leaping in trepidation at the frailness of her daughter's heart, but she tries to put the distressing thought to the back of her mind.
Angela has her book in one hand and teddy in the other. She looks around for a moment and bursts into tears. "Whatever is Santa going to do if we haven't got a proper chimney anymore?" she wails. Then unable to catch her next breath she falls silently to the ground. In her long, white Broderie Anglaise nightdress and with her mass of golden curls she looks as if she could be a crumpled paper angel toppled from her rightful place on the top of a Christmas tree.
A momentary silence pervades the room and for the second time that day Mrs Barraclough fears the worst. She rushes over to her daughter, the barmaid follows brandy at the ready. She feels her daughter's heart still beating, though ever weaker beneath her chest and breathes a sigh of relief.
"It's all right, Santa won't mind, my darling little angel," cries Mrs Barraclough as she cradles her daughter in her arms. Then she has an idea. "Santa will manage well enough without a chimney. I'll go and have a word with him myself."
The procession would be starting shortly. If she was quick, she could arrange for the mayor's car to stop at the hotel as everyone paraded through the village. She picks up her skirts and runs nimbly over the cobbles, pleased she doesn't have to wear a Victorian costume every day of the year.
In the village square, the mayor in all his regalia is just about to clamber into the beautifully decorated open-topped Bentley along with "Santa," alias, Mr Arksey, the local butcher.
His paunch looks just as good in a Santa costume as it does in his striped piny! Mrs Barraclough smiles to herself, and the Bentley too is just as good as any sleigh.
Santa receives his message and an extra sack of toys are loaded into the back of the car. The vehicle is soon wending its way slowly through the village, the brass band follows and the procession eventually comes to a halt at the hotel on the hill.
Santa raps on the open door three times loudly as Angela looks on in amazement. "Ho, ho, ho, I come in Christmas cheer but I fear you have no chimney here," he cries as bells announce his arrival.
Depositing his sack full of toys by the fireplace, he catches Angela up in his arms and wraps her warmly and securely in a blanket supplied by one of the firemen, then he carries her to the Bentley for a thrilling ride around the village. Better than any sleigh, just as her mother thought.
With memories of the day firmly planted in her mind, Angela will sleep soundly tonight; a sleep that could last forever. Like the matches of the little match girl and the cold fireplace at the hotel, the warmth of the fire sometimes goes out. But who knows what tomorrow may bring? Each day with the postman's knock there might still come renewed hope and the hope of a new heart.
British Heart Foundation
© 2015 Stella Kaye