‘Twas the night before Christmas. Snow wafted from above, like raining clouds and floated down to the city, dripping off the fine glittery buildings. The whole city was bejewelled with twinkling filaments of light like coloured stars. Perhaps the brightest source of it was the gigantic Christmas tree that adorned the plaza or maybe just the illuminated reflection of it in people’s eyes. That being- ropes of tinsels, ornaments, string lights, and the most pronounced of them all- happiness. The streets were brimmed with life and laughter, of joy and family. Excited children made up the night with ideas of Santa and presents spinning in their heads. The houses had heaps of snow dumped on the lawns, either the aftermath of a snowball fight or an attempt to build a snowman, if not both. The rich scent of fruitcakes and strawberry candies erupted from everywhere. Oscar Wilde had been right. There was indeed no mystery as great as misery.
Ten-year-old Mary was clutching the bars of her window, gazing out at the side road bordering her house. There was nothing much going on there except for a few cars parked at a corner. Beyond the road, tiny shops were lined together, decorated with wreaths, lights, and garlands, topped with Christmas stars that gleamed like will o the wisps in the distance. A faint noise of chorusing voices stole into Mary’s ears and she gathered that it came from some carollers far away. ‘Deck the halls with boughs..’ they sung and Mary’s lips reflexively moved to shape the next words. But it was another who finished it. A distinctly feminine and gruff voice that sounded quite close to her. Mary spun around to face the sitting room so that her back was against the window. For a moment she took in the scene before her- the food strewed on the floor, the bare Christmas tree, and the small heaped figure on the couch- and gulped down the lump in her throat. The familiarity of the drastic change taken place in the room had not struck her yet.
‘Mary? Earth to Mary.’ The voice spoke again and the creased face of her nanny came into focus. Her gaunt figure was clad in a grey top and a frayed peach skirt. Strands of white spilled out from her black hair which was neatly tied back. Mary had always found the age-ragged but kind face of her nanny quite comforting, like that of a grandmother’s. She had fondly taken to calling her ‘Alice.’
Alice frowned, which crinkled her face more than ever. ‘Tell me what you’re thinking Mary. Don’t look so sombre. Everything is going to be alright.’ She saw Mary’s eyes shift to the couch. ‘Your mother is going to be alright.’
Mother but not father. She felt water wetting her eyes and blinked it off, gazing at the lamplight near the couch. She could feel Alice looking at her worriedly. ‘I’ll get something to eat and then we’ll play dolls, shall we?’
Mary mumbled a yes and Alice took off to the kitchen, eager to distract the child from her disconsolate state.
The brown ornamental wallpaper painting the four walls of the room was scratched, cracked, and frayed in patches here and there. By age, time, and well, furniture. Her father had loved to shift them to and fro from one end to another in pursuit of ‘making the best use of them.’ Mary could almost imagine him, shuffling around and pushing some armchairs or shelves while waving a dismissive hand at her mother’s protests. He would smile and wink at her saying, ‘No matter how many millions something may cost, surely some small change can put it into proper use, eh Mary?’ But that had been another time, another night when life had seemed secure and as bright as the sun.
Now she edged forward toward the coach where her mother slept. The lantern near her cast shadows on her face, blushing her eyelids to a baby pink. Under them, black sleep circles shone like dark crescent moons. Her mother was once pretty but lately, she’d been pale and red-eyed with fatigue ebbing her functioning.
‘Fa la la la la, la la la la’
Cold wind caressed the curtains, clothing the window. It was eerily quiet so that Mary could hear distant voices, chimes, and laughter fogging the night and as if she were viewing from another world instead of being a part of that one.
Her father was sick. Very sick. This realisation had sunken into an abyss inside her but now it shook, flattened, and knocked the breath out of her. It was like being run down by a car or worse, a bulldozer shoving her forward with chunks of earth and debris. The image of doctors hovering over him flashed in red across her head. He might die, die, death…Hot tears streamed down her cheeks and she trembled like a frail feather caught in the wind.
‘Mary? Oh, Mary!’ Alice had come back, clutching a plate of sandwiches. She set it down and swept forward, grabbing the child into her arms. Mary clung to her, roping her arms around her like slender vines. She held on to her tightly with all the strength she could muster, trying hard not to think of her father, lifting her up, swinging her around with those laugh lines that circled his sparkling blue eyes.
‘Fa la la la la, la la la la’
‘Oh, those wretched carollers. Bah humbug!,’ croaked Alice as she drew back. Mary felt a little smile creeping at that, despite the heavy block of ice that seemed to have settled over her chest.
Mother groaned and twisted in her blankets and Alice quietly motioned Mary to come and eat.
Eating was the last thing on her mind but she allowed herself to be steered by her nanny to a chair near the Christmas tree, if you could call it that. It was robed out of its accessories so that it was just a little green tree. But it was beautiful like a sunset, a raindrop, like every other thing in the universe that could never be tainted by us. Something her father would have said, thought Mary and felt the ice crack inside her.
She hastily bit into her sandwich but it tasted like dry cardboard and each bite pierced her throat like needles. It was like trying to swallow a stone.
Alice was staring as if she could see through her like glass. ‘Mary, I know that-‘
But Mary never found what she knew for a sudden ringing sound vibrated inside the room. The sound of a phone.
Her mother gasped and sat up frantically, her groggy eyes scanning the room for it when Alice came up and handed it out to her.
Father. Mary stood up and felt cold all over as if the ice was coursing through her veins instead of blood.
Her mom was mumbling words like- ‘yes’ and ‘I understand’ over and over again for a while and then at a point of time, Mary couldn’t remember when but a single teardrop rolled down her cheek like a clear little pearl.
Mary stiffened and felt Alice’s hands on her shoulders, comforting and steadying her but in vain. She breathed raggedly and could taste tears burning at the back of her throat when her mother finally turned to them, having ended the call.
Her eyes shimmered in the light but not just with tears, Mary noted. Something else but was she imagining it? Something else that rapidly sparked hope inside her like tinder flaring into a blaze…
‘He-he’s alive.’ She gasped out to them, half laughing and crying and that was enough for Mary, who came running and twined her arms around her. They flopped down to the couch together with the mother running a hand through her daughter’s hair, wiping off her tears and laughing hoarsely like screeching metal but Mary, hearing her laugh after what seemed like a thousand years, smiled and thought it sounded like an angel singing.
Beside them, Alice was muttering all the prayers in the world under her breath, swaying to her own recital with her eyes glued shut.
Mary leaned against her mother and shut her eyes too. Through her mind’s eye, the thin figure of her father came into view. His hands were habitually folded back behind him and he was standing upright and healthy, smiling right down at her. Soft light illuminated him to a golden glow, at odds with the blue of his eyes but glittering off his black hair and Mary felt warm as if the heat of the light was acting on her but actually it was the familiarity of the man’s face, the kind steady man she’d known all her life, the man who, alongside her mother had formed the web of her childhood memories, the man she’d love forever.
Mary opened her eyes to reality, to her mother stroking her hair. She’d see him again. She knew it. And when she did, she’ll wrap her arms around him and never ever let him go.
Distant chimes tickled the night air, bringing heed to the rising chorusing voices again. Alice looked around irritably and began amplifying her prayers but this time, a beaming Mary sang along with them-
‘Fast away, the old year passes, fa la la fa la la, la la la
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses, fa la la la la, la la la la’