CHRISTMAS MAGIC - June Gadsby

She’s there again.  The old woman.  Somehow, he isn’t surprised. Her presence has bothered him since the first day she appeared.  Now, he wonders if he will miss her if she goes from his life.  Ridiculous thought, but it’s there, embedded in his brain.

For weeks he has passed by where she sits huddled in a corner of the building.  His building.  She is exposed to the cold wind and the driving rain.  How does she stand it? The question enters his head, then is quickly gone.

            ‘You shouldn’t be there, old woman!’  His silent thoughts, are raw and unfriendly.  ‘Go on, be off with you.  Find somewhere else.  This is a respectable neighbourhood.’

            He has not voiced the words, but she looks up sharply as though she has heard every syllable. His cheeks, stiff with the cold, flush red with anger that immediately turns to guilt. This morning it isn’t raining.  There is a blue sky with pale sunshine making the frost on the hard pavements shine like silver.  It also reflects his image in the black eyes that regard him.  Her face gleams like polished ebony and she gives him a broad smile of recognition. Her teeth are as white as the snow that is now beginning to fall.

            ‘’Mornin’, Old Man!’

It’s the same, every day.  Mornin’, Old Man!  Her smile transforms her, making her younger.  He thinks of her as old, but she is probably younger than he is.  What is she doing sitting there, muffled in layers of ragged clothing, her whole life surrounding her in a few plastic supermarket carrier bags? Bag ladies weren’t usually seen in this quarter of the town.

            He grunts and mumbles something that makes no sense, even to his own ears. He is reluctant to speak to such a revolting piece of humanity.  And yet, there is something about her that makes him hesitate.  Digging into his pocket, he throws her a few coins.  Some land jingling in her lap; others scatter over the pavement.  She watches them roll with a languid eye.

            ‘I’m sorry!’ He snaps out the words, feeling a sudden pang of guilt deep down inside.

            The woman chuckles as he bends to pick up the coins, to place them in her outstretched hand.  There is no malice in her face, only the distant echoes of her birthplace, far away.  Somewhere in the Caribbean, he imagines. Somewhere warm, where the colours are vibrant, the people carefree. Somewhere where there is music in every sound, every movement.

She speaks in a soft, sing-song voice, always calling him ‘Old Man’ as if it were his given name and she knew him well.

            From his wallet, he extracts a twenty pound note and thrusts it at her, then hurries into his building where it’s warm and neon-bright, but not beautiful. His conscience is salved, but only momentarily.

The people here are clean, not smelling of street life.  They speak to him with respect, his colleagues, his employees. He wonders, for the first time, if they are as happy as they appear. It’s hard to tell.  Today, however, they are in a festive mood. It’s Christmas Eve.

            Staring blindly at his pile of morning mail, he ponders on what the old Bag Lady does at this time of year. Does she have somewhere to go other than that corner of his office building, where he makes money that doesn’t buy him pleasure or happiness?  Does she have friends, or some warm place to curl up in on the Eve of Christ’s birth?  Does he?

            For one chilling moment, he asks himself if he is any better off than she is, with her world in carrier bags.  He dares not listen to the answer that sits, shuddering in his heart, afraid to come out and be recognized.

            From his office window, he looks down and sees that she has crossed the street; gone over to the sunny side. It is her habit to follow the sun. She sees him watching her and raises a hand, one crooked finger pointing, jabbing at the frosted air between them.  He wants to draw back, to turn away, but is rooted to the spot, his eyes held magnetically by hers. It’s Christmas and she’s still hanging around, like an insect bite that itches and won’t go away.

Why don’t you go away, old woman?  Leave me alone!But he knows she will stay. She has a mission and she won’t go until she has seen it through to the end. Gradually, as the snow thickens and gains momentum, she fades from view behind the lacy curtain falling from a sky still blue, the clouds illuminated by the winter sunshine.

#

‘Evenin’, Old Man!  You got somewhere to go this night?’

            The office party died an hour ago.  He is the last to leave, lingering over one last glass of whisky.  He has drunk too much, and now his mind is empty. He prefers it that way. Dull and pain free.

            ‘Listen, Old Woman...’ The whisky is talking, slurring his words.  He does not usually speak to strangers, especially street dwellers.  ‘I don’t know what you want from me, but I’ve already given you all you’re going to get.’

            ‘I didn’t ask for no money, Old Man.  Did I ask for money? No, honey, I did not.  You gave it to me. You and that conscience of yours that you carry around with you like a great weight on your shoulders.’

            He draws in a sharp breath.

‘Who are you, woman? What do you want of me?’ 

As he speaks he feels something gnaw at him, deep down inside, as if he should already know the answers to his own questions.

            The Bag Lady clicks her tongue at him and rises to her feet more easily than he would have thought possible, given her size. She grins coquettishly and, laden down with her belongings, she walks slowly away, singing an unseasonal song, but it seems right somehow. And, after all, wasn’t she always sitting on the sunny side of the street.

            ‘Grab yer coat...don’t ferget yer hat...but leave yer worries on the doorstep...’  She gives him a coy look over her shoulder as she continues singing the old chestnut that he remembers from his past when life was good.  ‘Just direct yer feet, honey lamb, to the sunny side of the street...’

            Her accent is West Indian. The song is hardly festive, but he feels that there is some poignant message in there somewhere. And it’s meant just for him. She has a good, strong voice and sways in time to the jazzy rhythm.  A professional singer, perhaps, fallen on hard times.

            The Bag Lady has moved out of the shadow of the tall office block, onto the bridge over the river where the evening sun is turning the snow-covered stone ramparts to molten gold. 

            ‘Come on, Old Man,’ she calls softly over her shoulder, giving a liquid laugh.  She continues on her way, her broad hips undulating beneath multiple layers of clothing. She is still humming her song and he finds it hypnotic.

            He ought to turn in the opposite direction, find his car and go home, but he doesn’t.  He hurries after her.  She halts and regards him with a slight lift of her head.

            ‘What do you take me for?’ he demands, trying to take control of the situation, but feeling it slip away like quicksilver through his fingers.

            ‘Take you for?  Why, Lord bless you, Old Man. Don’t you be thinkin’ that I’s gonna seduce you.  I wasn’t put on this earth for that.  No, way! No sirree!’

            ‘Then what...why...?’

            ‘You’ll see.  Come on.  Come with me, unless you’re frightened of meeting yourself face to face, eh?’

            She crooks a finger at him, beckoning, challenging him to follow her. He hasn’t the will to refuse.

#

He has heard of these places, where the homeless go.  He has never been within a mile of them, but she has brought him here.  Down back alleyways that must be dark, even on the brightest of days. Young people and old, huddled pathetically together, bodies wrapped in newspaper, cowering in doorways and makeshift shelters of cardboard.  People coughing, moaning, most of them the worse for drink and drugs; starvation and disease .

            But on this night of all nights, there is a warmth, a camaraderie.  They call out to him, smiling, laughing, joking.  The Bag Lady’s voice comes to him through it all.

            ‘Here, Old Man.  We can eat and drink, and it’s free.’

            She is beckoning to him.  The building is old with flaking brown paint that hasn’t been renewed for forty years.  The windows are steamy and there’s a cacophony of noise coming through the cracked glass.  As they enter, he gags on the tainted air, the unmistakable odour of unwashed bodies. But there is also an air of gaiety. The walls are hung with mistletoe, holly and old-fashioned paper streamers. There is music and singing. 

Hark the Herald angels sing....  He recognizes the strains of the old carol and the sound of the Salvation Army Band with their shiny instruments and jingling tambourines; sees the uniformed group. Soldiers of Christ. As a child he had laughed at them, but his mother always told him they were good people and gave him a shilling to drop in their collecting tins. So many years ago. It seemed to him that he had lived many lives since his childhood. The good times were long forgotten. Or was it that they were too painful to remember.

A choir of discordant voices joins in the chorus. Faces, all around him, some of them slack and toothless, young, old, lost and haunted, are now radiant, captured by the joy of the moment. Like a big, happy family, a group are gathered together in harmony, decorating a large fir tree with glittering tinsel and shimmering glass balls.

            He hesitates, wanting to leave, but someone pushes him down onto a form at a long table full of down-and-outs, both sexes, all ages.  A bowl of steaming broth is placed before him and the Bag Lady, sitting opposite, is grinning, nodding her encouragement. 

            ‘Eat, Old Man. Share with us. It will make you feel better.’

The soup looks and smells surprisingly good.  A tramp with dirt-encrusted fingernails breaks off a chunk of bread and places it before him.  He thanks the man, dunks it in his soup and begins to eat with relish. 

            ‘Look around you, Old Man,’ the Bag Lady says as she wipes her own bowl clean with her last morsel of bread.  ‘We have nothing, but are we not all happier than you?’

He looks, but only one face, sad and full of anguish, catches his eye.  The young woman stands out in the crowd, reminding him painfully of his daughter who left home many years ago. No, correct that. The daughter he chased away.  The girl, as was his daughter, is pregnant.

            ‘You know her,’ the Bag Lady says and, when he shakes his head, she points that accusing finger of hers and his heart clenches as if struck by an arrow.  ‘You know her, Old Man.’

            The girl turns, her troubled eyes searching the crowd.  They fall on the Old Man and her face relaxes for an instant.  She approaches, keeping her head low, her hands protectively clutching her distended belly.

            ‘She is a good girl,’ the Bag Lady says. ‘Her mother got in with a bad lot and now she is dead.

            ‘What’s your name, girl?’  The Old Man cannot keep himself from asking.

            ‘Melanie,’ the girl tells him.

            ‘You look tired,’ he says. ‘Sit down and eat something. The soup is good.’

            She gives him a weary smile and as she sits on the end of the form next to him he pushes his bowl of soup towards her. She picks up a spoon and sips at the soup tentatively, nodding her gratitude. Her eyes are large and shining with unshed tears.

            ‘Melanie, eh?’ The Bag Lady laughs, repeating the name under her breath.  She tells them that she used to call herself Melanie once, when she first came to England, stowed away on a millionaire’s yacht.

            ‘That wasn’t your real name?’ The Old Man asked, curious to know more about this strange black woman.

            ‘Hell, no! My name’s Magnolia. You ought’a have seen the face of that there millionaire boy when he dun found a l’il black girl in the hold.  A black girl called Magnolia, who thought he was the prince of her dreams. Well, didn’t I get that one wrong!’

            The old woman bangs the table with the flat of her hand as she laughs and laughs at the memory she has evoked. It is an infectious sound and a few others around them join in, slapping the tables in their amusement. They have heard the story before, but they never get tired of it. This old woman has seen more life than any of them can dream of.

            ‘Lord, I thought he was goin’ to bust at the seams, but I think that was just because I had eaten all his supply of that there Beluga caviar and fancy French foie gras.  Don’t know why it should worry him, but it sure worried me.  I was good and sick all over that there fancy boat of his.  What do they see in that stuff, anyways?’

            The evening is growing old and the girl is becoming agitated.  She is afraid that the men who killed her mother with their drugs will come and find her. She has been running from them, but now she has nowhere left to go. The Old Man listens intently to her story. He wants to speak, wants to do something, but he sits there numbly, watching her as she walks out into the dark night, scared and alone.

            ‘Think about her, Old Man,’ the Bag Lady says, seeing his inner turmoil, reading his mind as though it were an open book.  ‘Think about your own little girl.’

            ‘What makes you think I have a daughter?’ he asks, dragging his eyes away from the middle distance where his thoughts are knotted beyond recognition.

            ‘I know everything, Old Man.  I know the past...your past.  And I know the future...both of them.’

            His eyes question her.  Both futures?  Did man not have only one path to tread?   He knew of no real choices.  Everything was mapped out for you, like it or not.

#

He wakes up in his own bed, not recalling how he got there.  His house is silent and empty like a grave waiting for its resident corpse.  He goes into a room that hasn’t been touched for twenty years.  It is his daughter’s room.  He looks at her photograph, touches her pretty face with a trembling finger.  She smiles out at him, eyes full of love and hope. He had expected so much of her. Too much. In his disappointment, he had driven her away.

 Suddenly, he sees, in her place, the girl from the Sanctuary last night. The one with the bastard child in her belly, hiding from drug dealers.  His daughter is dead now and this girl, walking in her shadow, wearing her shoes, is heading down the same track.  The Bag Lady has told him this. She really does seem to know everything, right down to his inner soul.

She has told him that he must make a choice between his two futures. The question haunts him. What’s going to happen?  Maybe something, maybe nothing – unto us a child is given… The voice in his head tails off.

He laughs out loud.  He is quoting words from the Bible, which he has never read.  The child he is thinking of, son of David, not Joseph. The David in question, had seduced his daughter, got her pregnant and then deserted her...oh God! Was he any better than this man? He had turned his back on his daughter when she needed him the most. And now, here was another girl, so much like his Julie, who needed help in much the same way. Is he being given a second chance to make good his mistakes of the past? Is that remotely possible? He thinks not.

The Old Man puts his head in his hands and weeps.

You’re mad, you know that? His voice screams at him from inside his head. What about the girl?  Melanie. What’s so special about tonight?  It’s just another Christmas Eve.  And, as usual, he will be alone.

Voices whisper at him: What will happen? Wait and see.  Is it good?  Wait and see.  Is it bad?  Wait and see.  Is that the only choice he has? To wait and see? Was his life, his successful business built on the philosophy of wait and see? No, he tells himself. It was not. He can almost hear his dear wife reaching out to him from her early grave. You must do something before it’s too late. Waiting is no longer an option.

#

The following day, Christmas Day, the Old Man returns to the Salvation Army Sanctuary.  It’s again full of people who look surprisingly happy.  How can that be?  They have nothing and yet they are smiling, like the Bag Lady. For a couple of days in the year somebody gives them something to smile about.  He can have everything he wants three-hundred and sixty-five days a year, every year - and still he doesn’t smile.

Even on this bitterly cold day the community hall feels warm, the volunteers from the Salvation Army are passing out blankets and hot soup.  Somebody has brought in a huge batch of roasted chicken legs.  They suck on them with great relish and the Old Man’s throat tightens as he recalls the Christmas feasts around the family table when he was young.  And later, when his own children were young and innocent and his favourite, beloved daughter could do no wrong in his opinion. His throat tightens and tears well up in his eyes.

A blind man, standing near, grabs hold of his wrist and invites him to join them, calling him ‘brother’, offering him a chicken drumstick.  ‘Eat, man.  You’re among friends.’

More volunteers arrive bearing bowls of potatoes and Brussel sprouts and gravy and there was even plum pudding and custard and bottles of wine; and small presents festively wrapped. The gifts were nothing but tokens, costing little more than the thought that went with them. They were accepted with such joy they might as well have been ingots of gold.

            The Bag Lady is there again, watching, smiling, nodding her approval.  Even when she isn’t watching, he thinks that she can still see him.  He is right there in her head.  Now, she is looking at the girl, Melanie, who has just crept in, pale and fearful. She looks exhausted. Her time is not far away, she tells him, but how can she give birth here?  There aren’t enough beds to go around, and no privacy. 

            ‘Her time is running out,’ The Bag Lady says, pointing at two men who have just entered.  One white, one black.  ‘    ‘There is one of your futures, Old Man.  The bad one.  It’s time to make your decision.’

            He doesn’t understand. If these men represent his bad future, what does he have to do to obtain the other; the good future?

The two men stand in the open doorway, their faces lined with evil intent.  Cold air blows in, laced with icy snowflakes.  The whole room shivers. The girl edges furtively away, losing herself in the milling crowd.

‘Where is your compassion, Old Woman,’ the man says, without conviction and with a stirring of fear in his own heart.  ‘Are they not just two souls looking for food and somewhere to sleep?’

‘Look at their clothes, their gold jewellery,’ she tells him.  ‘You have already answered your own question.’

The men have seen the girl as she edges her way towards a back-exit door.  They are smiling, but their smiles are as cold and as hard as the icy pavements outside.  Even their teeth are filled with gold.  They pick out a couple of skinny youths and whisper something to them that makes the boys afraid.  There is menace in the very air they breathe.

The Bag Lady leans in to him. ‘You mark my words, Old Man. When night falls…’ 

She doesn’t finish.  Somehow, she has no further need for words.  He knows now.  He knows everything that is in her head, and he is afraid.

            The girl, her back pressed against a wall, touches a fine gold chain around her neck.  She plays with it and the pendant hanging from it as if it were a rosary, but religion plays no part in it.  God cannot be held responsible for this lapsed human being.  The Old Man shakes his head. He has brought this upon himself.  Mea culpa!

#

The Old Man needs to see more closely the gold chain that seems so important to the girl.  He needs to see it so badly that he pushes and stumbles through the press of bodies that separates them.  The two men have gone, but the youths to whom they had spoken are still there and they, too, are gravitating towards the girl with ugly expressions of intent. 

He tries to convey some sort of message to Melanie as he attempts to reach her side before the youths get to her, but they are more agile. They don’t mind trampling on people and knocking them out of the way.  They have been paid to do a job.  No money has changed hands, only small white packets, greedily pocketed. Cocaine, no doubt, or something more lethal.

The girl is giving up, heavy with the burden of her unborn child.  The youths are standing beside her, talking to her.  Her face is a mask, but her eyes register terror. They touch her with their filthy hands, take hold of her with iron fingers biting into her flesh.  She is leaving with them.

‘Julie!’  He cries out the name of his dead daughter and the girl’s eyes grow large. It’s as if she recognises the name. ‘Are you Julie’s daughter?’

The girl finds new strength and pulls away from the youths, but they grab her thin arms again and drag her out with them.  The boys are anxious to earn their bonus and to reap the rewards of their endeavours.  If they fail, they must answer to the two bejewelled men.

‘No!’  The Old Man calls out after them.

She swivels her head and looks his way.  She says nothing, but he feels her silent voice deep within him, crying out for his help.  His hand rises and falls, then she is gone.

#

‘It’s time, Old Man,’ the Bag Lady says. 

He hasn’t seen her come up behind him, but she is there, a great presence, an aura of something he doesn’t understand.  She is dirty, she smells, but there is something else that emanates from her and it is trying to penetrate his brain.  It plays with his senses; with emotions he has not felt for a very long time.

            ‘It’s time,’ the Bag Lady insists again. 

‘Time for what,’ he pleads? ‘I don’t know what you want me to do.  What is this girl to me?’ 

She smiles widely. ‘Do you really have to ask?’

Julie!  He whispers his daughter’s name again and then his blood runs cold.  Either this filthy creature who has haunted him for so long is an advocate of the devil, or she is some kind of angel of mercy. He doesn’t believe in angels. Woman, take your black magic, your mumbo jumbo to somebody else’s door.

            Pushing through the crowd, he flees from the sanctuary and hurries through the town like a soul depraved.  The big stores are brightly lit, there’s a jingle of bells and Christmas music. Red-suited Santa Clauses are ho-ho’ing and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

To escape the fierce jollity of it all, perhaps to escape from himself, he slips down a narrow back-alleyway thinking that it will take him back home.  Back to his lonely solitude, his cold hearth, no matter how hotly the fire embers glow.  The alley is a dark tunnel with a shaft of light at the end of it.  The Bag Lady is waiting for him, a large, solid form that no longer seems human. 

‘Old Man! Tonight the girl, Melanie, will die, just like your Julie.’

Her lips have not moved, yet he hears every word.

            ‘Go away!  Leave me alone.  What business is it of yours or mine what happens to that girl?’

She looks at him, sadness dulling her eyes.  ‘What business was it of yours when you threw out your daughter and her unborn child?  When you did that, Old Man, you threw out love from your house and from your heart.’

He does not listen to her.  He cannot listen to her.  She is not real, a figment of his imagination. 

He breaks into a run, his feet carrying him like the winged hoofs of Pegasus. But all he feels is the wind of time passing him by.  The wind carries with it memories, images of things better forgotten.  His wife, before she died, wrapping presents in secret, his children playing, too excited to go to sleep.  The love that he had then, swelling his heart to bursting point.

            ‘Go away!  I don’t want this,’ he cries, but no one hears him.  Only the Bag Lady is there in his head and she is laughing, but the laughter is without mirth.

#

His house looms large and dark out of the night.  It is etched in moonlit snow like a greetings card.  The snow has blue shadows and it glistens like powdered diamonds.  He sees himself choosing carefully the last gift he would ever give to his youngest child.  He had loved this child more than life itself and then she had given herself to another man who wasn’t worthy of her.  This man had planted a seed in her that would grow into a bastard.  He had not been able to find enough strength in his heart to forgive.

He remembers, as if it were yesterday, the day he ordered her out of his house.  He can hear again the words he had spat out at her on that unforgettable day.  You’re no daughter of mine!  Get out and never come back! Such old-fashioned, Victorian principles, pushed out of him by his impotent rage. He had thrown her clothes, her belongings, out into the street after her. He remembers her now as she stood tall on the frozen pavement, proud and determined, challenging him. Then her eyes clouding over with sadness as she realised he meant every word he said. 

            He had closed the door because the sight of her, standing there like that, had made him feel so sick to the pit of his stomach.  Almost instantly, he was gripped by remorse, knowing that he had done wrong.  When he opened the door again, she was gone.  And she never came back.

#

The Old Man’s legs buckle beneath him as he enters the house that was once a home filled with warmth and love. His body trembles and feels like it’s about to dissolve.  He sinks down on the stairs, clinging to the balustrade and wishes he could cry, but there aren’t any tears left in him to relieve his pain.

            ‘Old Man!’

He hears the voice before he sees the great black bulk of her.  The Bag Lady is standing before him, in his own hallway, the soughing wind entering through the open door behind her, stirring her layers of clothes. And yet the air is warmed somehow and visible, swirling like pink moon dust.  He blinks furiously to clear his eyes.

‘I’ve brought you something, Old Man.’

She is holding in her hand a plump green fir tree.  It is almost as tall as she is.  She holds it out to him and he blinks at it, uncomprehendingly.

‘What’s this?  What are you trying to do to me?’

She chuckles deep in her throat. 

‘Old Man, I pity you.  It’s a Christmas tree.’

‘But why are you giving it to me?  What do I want with a Christmas tree?’

‘Think, Old Man, think – and remember how it was before. It’s still there, locked inside your head.  Inside your heart.’ She points at him.  ‘It’s not too late.  Not yet.’

            He moves like an automaton, controlled by some invisible force.  He takes the tree and goes into the living room.  In the corner, there is a large jardinière.  Once, it had held his wife’s favourite plant, but it has stood empty for some years now.  His wife used to say that everything died if you didn’t care for it.  The house, the furniture, the plants – but most of all, people.  Most of all, his children

His children.  They have all left him.  Two boys, two girls.  The last one to go was Julie.  He had provided for them, educated them, but never loved them enough.

He pulls the pot towards him, takes the tree and places it inside. A perfect fit. 

‘If you think that’s going to get you a front row seat in Heaven, you’re much mistaken, Old Man!’ 

The Bag Lady is standing at his elbow.  Her words ring in his ears.  He frowns at her, then at the tree. 

‘I haven’t known how to care for anything in twenty years,’ he whispers.  ‘How can I start learning now?’

‘You don’t have to learn. Just remember how it was.  You can start with a bucket of water before the poor tree dies of thirst.’

He fetches the water and some fresh soil from the garden shed. 

‘Why am I doing this?’ he asks, thinking that he is in some weird kind of dream.

‘Because it’s Christmas and you’re a better man than you think you are.  Isn’t that so, Old Man?’

He turns to face her, but the Bag Lady is no longer there.  He goes from room to room, looking for her.  He rushes out into the street and stands peering frantically through a thick curtain of snow as it falls from a purple sky onto his head and shoulders.  There is nothing to see on the ground but an unblemished carpet of white. Not even the imprint of a foot.

He gives an involuntary shudder, but it has nothing to do with the winter chill.  Rubbing a trembling hand over his eyes, he blinks once more into the distance and sees a hazy figure standing.

He almost cries out his daughter’s name – Julie!  But it is not Julie.  It is Melanie. The girl from the Sanctuary.  He beckons to her and she moves towards him on slow, heavy legs.

‘How did you escape those two brutes?’ he asks, his voice no more than a rough whisper.

‘I’m not sure. A miracle perhaps,’ she tells him and gives him an uncertain smile.  ‘I’ll understand if you tell me to go away and not bother you...’

‘Dear child, you must be frozen!’

He drapes an arm about her shoulders and draws her towards the house.  Once inside, he installs her in the living room and turns up the central heating. In the kitchen, he fumbles clumsily, making a pot of tea, warming the buttery muffins and sticky ginger cake that his housekeeper has kindly left for him.

He watches her, fascinated, as she eats hungrily, her eyes regarding him like suspicious dinner plates.

‘My mother’s name was Julie,’ she tells him eventually and he nods.

‘Yes, I know.  You are wearing the locket I gave her on her eighteenth birthday.’

Her fingers fly to the locket around her neck at which he is staring, in amazement and disbelief.  She draws in a ragged sob, but suppresses the threatening tears with the expertise of one well practised in such things.

‘Then, it’s true that I’m...’ She chokes slightly on her words.

‘My granddaughter...yes, child. Yes, I believe that you must be my Julie’s child.’

She tells him everything. How her mother, in desperation, had turned to the only man who would help her.  A drug dealer, a pimp.  He had introduced her to drugs.  At first, they made her feel better, then she couldn’t live without them. He had forced her to earn her keep as a prostitute. Until one day, when she tried to leave him, taking Melanie with her. 

‘She became a prostitute?’ he says, his throat catching. 

Melanie gulps audibly, her fingers gripping the thin material of her shirt, pleating it, twisting it out of shape.  This moment is difficult for her too. 

‘We got as far as your gate once,’ she tells him, ‘but she couldn’t bring herself to walk down the path and knock on the door.  You see, she thought you hated her too much to...to...’

‘Dear God!’  The Old Man is shaking his head, not bothering to stem his own unexpected tears, which are now flowing freely.  ‘I didn’t know.  I didn’t know.’

‘She had nowhere else to go, but back to the man who owned her.  When he made me work for him...you know...she couldn’t stand it any longer.  She threatened to go to the police, but the next day I found her dead, from an overdose.’

The girl is shaking her head.  She has her own ideas about her mother’s death.  They will talk about that later.  About everything.  He will look after things for her.  He will look after her, if she will let him.

Melanie’s eyes have found the Christmas tree, standing bare in its pot in the corner of the room.  She smiles and wonders why he hasn’t bothered to decorate it. 

His chest heaves as his heart fills with love for this girl and her unborn child.  He follows her gaze to the tree and scrubs away his tears.

‘Perhaps we might decorate it together.’

Her eyes shine and she places a shy kiss on his worn cheek. ‘I would like that…grandfather.’

Somewhere, deep inside his head, he hears the voice of the old Bag Lady laughing her deep, throaty laugh.

‘I told you ye wasn’t too late,’ she says.  ‘Merry Christmas, Old Man. Merry Christmas!’

 

THE END