Part Three of three parts over three days, this Christmas story is a semi-humorous collection of reminiscences from an adult when he was a teenager. He said it is a fictional recollection – but is it? I have retained the way it was imparted to me, with minimal alterations and formatting so readers may find it a bit unconventional. GBW.
Dad had his specs on and was reading the newspaper, to see if his shares had risen, while listening to the cricket commentary on the radio. The others had flopped in front of that boring ye olde traditional stuff on television, so I went into my bedroom. I checked my new tan in the mirror, then checked to see if the flat parcel was still there. I felt around inside the pillow slip but couldn’t feel anything. Where was it? I felt all around the area, my wooden bedhead, under the sheet, under the bed, down the back of the bed, but it was gone. My heart rose into my throat before plunging down into the pit of my stomach. Someone must have found it. When would they come forward to quiz me? I had been dreading the thought of my fingerprints being on the envelopes until I realised that my fingerprints were not on any police file. Then I grasped the next fact. They would dust the prints then check my actual fingers. Sprung so soon when it was only an hour before the bonfire, one hour before the evidence would have been incinerated. I collapsed onto my bed.
Eventually I got up from my bed and walked slowly out into the backyard, around the dusty cactus rockery, and towards Dad to help him chuck stuff on the accumulating bonfire pile. He had finished with his newspaper and was already twisting it into wicks and setting up sticks to encourage a good blaze under our discarded remnants of Christmas. That was a good metaphor and I mentally made a note. Everyone was told to stay inside as Dad lit a match and the bonfire flames licked at paper plates, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, cellophane, plastic cartons, plastic cutlery, bonbon hats, tooters, streamers, tangled decorations and a disposable cooking apron which twisted and writhed and finally melted in the red-hot flames. A steady column of acrid black smoke rose into the sky.
In the intense heat, a molten puddle began to form, and in this inferno I thought I saw a text book shrivel into ashes. A donation from Roslyn? The high temperature would have kept us back, but we were never allowed to toast crumpets or marshmallows on sticks because Dad said the air was too toxic. I hoped our neighbours had their windows closed and I thought of Mr Bad Neighbour’s gravelly voice. If everyone burned off, I reckon the air would turn to ash and breathing would be difficult. The sun would be blocked, the rivers would turn to sludge, the trees would lose their leaves and the temperature would rise.
Shocked at my own imagination, I turned to the old mango tree growing in the opposite corner of the garden near the paling fence. Suddenly I wanted to stop the burning. It was my favourite tree and it was getting ash on its leaves. I was turning to run for the garden hose when Bitzy ran passed me. Instantly I saw what he had in his mouth but as I reached down, he veered away and headed towards the bonfire. Two awful things happening at once. It was hopeless to try and stop the blaze now, so I concentrated my efforts on Bitzy. I shouted to Dad. “Stop Bitzy! He’s got my book in his mouth!” With one sweeping gesture, Dad reached down and took the parcel out of the dog’s mouth, holding it above his head. Bitzy did a wide arch and ran back toward the house and his water bowl.
“Thanks, Dad,” I gasped, “it’s too important to be scorched.” He raised an eyebrow. I didn’t stick around to offer an explanation. The house was cool after the extra heat outside and I welcomed the quietness of my bedroom. I pushed aside Philip’s swap cards and sat down at my small student desk. With coloured pencils, scissors and glue I made a paper angel, wrote on one outstretched wing, then folded it across the body. I glued the angel to the packet and before I could think any more about it, I ran out of my room, flung open the front door, raced down the patio steps, along the crazy paving to the front gate and headed towards Mr Bad Neighbour’s dumb, er, distinctive letterbox.
I slipped the flat parcel into the posting window of the Swiss Chalet and turned away. I ran slap bang into Mr Bad Neighbour. He steadied me with one wrinkled hand. In the other he held a Christmas-looking parcel. “Here.” His face was pale, his voice was wheezy. “Save me a trip. This is for you and your family.” I stuttered my thanks, which he waved away saying “It’s only shortbread.” I smiled. “That’s my favourite.” He nodded. “Mine, too.” This was getting a bit embarrassing for me, so I muttered another thank you and stepped around him, racing back home quick sticks.
It wasn’t until I was sipping leftover eggnog and munching shortbread biscuits that I realised Mr Bad Neighbour did not appear from his front gate. He must have come down the street. There was a ting sound as Mum hung up the phone. She came bustling down the hallway full of gossip. “Well, guess what, my lovelies?” I shrugged and the others just waited for her announcement. “Mr Bad Neighbour has been delivering tins of shortbread to all the homes in the street. Francesca says you could have knocked her down with a feather she was so surprised.” Dad said “Well, that’s nice of the bloke. Maybe he’s not as bad as we think.” Mum tapped her chin and said “You know his health is bad.”
Roslyn and I looked at each other over the top of Philip’s chlorinated head. I knew from the gleam which flared in Roslyn’s eyes that she was the one who had given Bitzy the envelope parcel. She must have had her fingers crossed that the dog wouldn’t make it to the bonfire. She said “Just another Christmas miracle, I guess.” I wanted to wink at her but it seemed too corny. And how could I tell her what I had felt in the split second beside the bonfire? It was like I saw the world being choked by our own careless actions. When I go back to school next year, I know I am going to be really interested in geography and social studies and definitely telling people to think about where all their rubbish goes. Into the ground or into the air, I am sure it is going to cause long term damage one way or the other.
It was about half an hour before bedtime and Bitzy growled in his sleep, Philip picked at his flaky nose, and Mum and Dad were being mushy, hugging on the couch in front of the television with the sound turned off. We’d had a good laugh about the time Dad put the dining table directly under the ceiling fan and turned it on full blast when Mum had just finished laying the table decorations. Red, green and silver flew everywhere! Roslyn and I sat on the floor reading really old Blinky Bill comics. I bumped shoulders and said “Thanks for being a good sister, Ros.” She grinned. “Oh, I just have to be patient. You always work things out in the end.” She sounded a bit like Mum and I groaned theatrically. Holding up a bowl, I said “Care for one of Uncle Mark’s nuts?”
All in all, it was a pretty good Christmas. But that was months ago, and you know what? Since then Mr Bad Neighbour has not held a loud party. In fact, he doesn’t have parties any more. He also stopped smoking and takes healing art classes in the church hall. His speciality is angels and he is considering launching a business called Angels of Forgiveness or some such soppiness like that. I certainly hope he never talks about my note or mentions the archangel called Gabriel because that just happens to be my first name.
– The End –
© Gretchen Bernet-Ward 2020
You know what Gabriel wrote on the inside of that angel’s wing?
It was a quote he’d heard on Christmas Day
And it goes something like this
“Bearing with one another and,
if one has a complaint against another,
forgiving each other.” Colossians 3:13