WRITTEN BY LYNDA FRANKLIN
Is there anything that can thaw Helen’s resolutely frosty attitude to all things festive and joyful?
Helen sighed as another Christmas card plopped through the letter box. She hadn’t even bought her cards, let alone written them! Surely it was far too early.
She opened it, irritated by the unknown sender who was organised enough to have bought, written and actually stuck a ridiculously priced first class stamp on it. The stamp probably cost more than the card. It was such a waste of money. Who was daft enough to do this?
“It’s from Sally,” she murmured as her husband Chris appeared in the doorway.
“As in Sally, best friend?”
“Exactly – wouldn’t you have thought she would just have given it to me?” Helen stuck it automatically on the doorframe with blue tack, hardly glancing at the words “special friend” or the festive scene on the front.
“It’s so silly sending cards to people you see all the time. I did try and tell her not to,” Helen grumbled.
“Suppose we ought to get our cards sorted soon – only two weeks to go, after all.” Chris chose his words carefully. Helen was never interested in Christmas. If it wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t even have the tree standing in the hall.
“It needs to be out of the way.” she told him. “I can’t be doing with squeezing past it, or having the needles dropping everywhere.”
In the end Chris placed it beside the stairs and decorated it one Saturday afternoon while Helen was out shopping. He would have loved Helen to help him, but he wasn’t surprised by her lack of interest. He’d always been aware of Helen’s attitude to Christmas.
He’d hoped it might change once they were married, but two years on, Helen’s opinion was exactly the same. Christmas was expensive – over-rated – an excuse to over-indulge in food and drink – and something she couldn’t wait to be over.
“I’m putting money in the charity box. I haven’t got time to write loads of cards,” Helen said.
I did tell everyone. Just because they didn’t listen doesn’t mean I’m going to rush out buying last minute Christmas cards.
Chris nodded but didn’t say anything. He would buy cards for his family himself. They loved Christmas and would expect a card from them both.
The following day at work, Helen found a mound of cards on her desk. She called out a generic “thank you” and stuffed them in her drawer.
“Not opening them?”
Mia was new. She was young and pretty and wearing one of those dreadful Christmas hats on her head.
“Here – have one of these – I’ve got loads.” She placed a large bar of Belgian chocolate next to Helen’s computer. “It’s the best chocolate in the world. You should have come, you know.”
“Thanks – come where?”
“At the weekend. The whole office went to the Christmas market at Bruges. Honestly, Helen, it was such a laugh.”
For some reason Helen felt miffed.
I didn’t know you were going. No one told me anything about an outing.
“Someone said you weren’t fussed about Christmas. Maybe that’s why.”
“Oh – well – I might have come. Just for a break.”
“To be honest, Helen, it was all about Christmas. I’ve never seen such a beautiful place as Bruges at Christmas.”
“I daresay it’s beautiful all year,” Helen said, irritated by the assumption that a few decorations had made such an enormous difference.
“Yeah, maybe. Well better get on with some work. Enjoy the chocolate!”
So the whole office had gone to Bruges and not bothered to ask her. She didn’t need to feel guilty about not buying Christmas cards now.
“Attention, everyone!” Sarah, heavily pregnant, with gold tinsel in her hair, waved her hand around for attention. “All Secret Santa gifts must be in by next week, please. Ten pounds max spend, not rubbish, not rude. Just bring yours in if you haven’t already, and stick them in the box over there. We’ll be giving them out next Friday – our last working day.”
There were some assorted cheers and whoops and someone asked if they could bring in alcohol. The “no” was met with a few boos, some laughs, and then the whole office settled down.
Helen logged in. She must remember to ask who stuck that annoying garland up by the window. Every time the wind blew, it moved and fluttered around and quite honestly was getting on her nerves.
Helen decided to spend her lunch hour buying her Secret Santa. She had no idea what to get but even she knew she would have to buy something.
She wandered into the nearby department store. It was heavily decorated and echoing with muted Christmas music. Deciding something “smelly” would be a safe choice, she took the escalator to the second floor.
“Good afternoon, madam.”
Helen gave him a small smile. She didn’t like to be bothered by sales staff when she was shopping.
“Just looking,” she murmured automatically.
“Let me know if I can help at all,” he pressed. He was wearing a smart grey suit and (thank goodness) no Christmas hat. Helen nodded and walked over to the perfume counter. To her annoyance, the man followed.
“How about this one, madam?” He picked up a small bottle with the words “Shadows of yesterday” on the label.
“I’m not sure anyone wants to think about the past when they’re using perfume,” she told him curtly.
“Try it – it’s just a taster bottle.”
Helen felt obliged to dab some on to her hand. She held it to her nose and inhaled the scent. It had an unusually bitter smell. Her head began to swim and she was afraid she was going to pass out.
She felt the man lead her to a chair and his voice telling her to sit down. She took a few deep breaths but the feeling wouldn’t go away.
The soft Christmas music was fading, and in its place she could hear her mother’s voice. Her mother had passed away a few years back, but it was definitely her voice she was hearing.
Helen could see her now. It was Christmas. Was she still in the shop?
“You might as well know – you probably do anyway – but there’s no such thing as Father Christmas. It’s me and your dad who have to buy your presents and it costs a lot of money. Just so you know. We’ll do our best, but don’t expect to get everything you’ve asked for.” Her mother was looking surprised now. “Why are you crying, Helen? You’ll still get lots of presents.”
There was a sob in her throat as she remembered that day. She was seven. Until that moment she had believed with all her heart that Father Christmas and his sleigh would come thundering across the sky on Christmas Eve night and stop at her house. She believed he ate the mince pie she left him, and drank the small glass of milk. She believed totally in the magic of Christmas.
“Are you all right, madam?” The man was standing over her.
I don’t think that perfume agreed with you. Try this one – it’s called ‘Here and Now’ – you might like it better.
Helen found herself dabbing a little of the “Here and Now” on her hand and inhaling carefully. The smell was familiar and as she sat there the faces of people she knew drifted through her mind.
Then she saw Chris. He was standing alone in a shop choosing Christmas cards, and she wanted to reach out and touch him because he looked so alone and sad. It broke her heart to see him looking that way. She knew she was shaking her head, but couldn’t find the words she wanted to say.
“No? You don’t like that one either?” The man’s voice was soft and encouraging and she knew he was going to offer her more and it would be impossible to resist. “Try this one, then – ‘Futuristic’ – you never know.”
She tried to turn away but he dabbed on the perfume anyway. “Futuristic” had little scent. It was hard to feel the impact of any odour.
“I can’t smell it,” she said finally.
“Inhale,” the man said. “It’s not strong, but you will smell it if you try.”
She wasn’t sure where she was at first. Then she realised she was looking at Chris and his family. They were sitting at the table eating dinner and they were laughing and chatting and pulling crackers. A fire was blazing and Christmas songs were playing.
So where was she? Every year Chris’ family asked them to their house for Christmas, but she never went. Why was Chris there? Had he gone on his own? Had he left her on her own at Christmas?
She tried to shake the pictures from her mind. She didn’t like Christmas, so what did it matter? How could she blame Chris for celebrating with his Christmas-loving family?
There was no more perfume. The dreams vanished and she opened her eyes. The man was smiling at her.
“You came over a bit faint. Can I get you a glass of water?”
“No – thank you – I’m fine.” Helen took a deep breath. She wasn’t sure what had just happened. She stood up.
“Sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Perfume can be strong stuff.”
“Yes – I suppose so.”
“Did it help?”
“What do you mean?”
His voice was still soft and reassuring.
“Help you decide.”
They looked at each other and Helen wasn’t sure what to say.
“Don’t leave it too long,” he added gently. “To decide, I mean.”
“On the perfume?”
“Of course. What else?”
She glanced at her watch. An hour had almost gone and she needed to get back to the office.
“You’ve been very helpful,” Helen said quietly.
“Then I’ve done my job. Merry Christmas.” He beamed.
A small smile crossed her face.
“Yes – Merry Christmas.”
It felt odd to say those words. It had been a long time since she’d said them. She couldn’t describe what was happening, but it felt as if a hard knot was slowly disentangling itself, allowing her to breathe freely once more.
It made sense now. She knew why she disliked Christmas so much – but it didn’t have to be that way. She only had to look at Chris’ family to see Christmas wasn’t about hurt and disappointment – it was about fun and sharing and being together. Maybe deep down she’d always known that, but over the years it had been easier to simply not think about Christmas. It felt safer that way.
She jumped onto the escalator. There was still time to buy a card for Chris. And when she got home she’d light the fire, open a bottle of mulled wine and maybe they could watch one of those cheesy Christmas films together.
She turned to give the man a wave as the escalator moved slowly downwards. He was no longer standing there. Somehow she knew he wouldn’t be.
As he said, he’d done his job.