This week has been a busy one. My preparations for Christmas continue and are almost completed.
I've bought and wrapped my gifts.
I've organised my bits of the Christmas Day menu and the food for the days around it. The shopping is done apart from the fresh goodies - etc. veggies and meats. I've done some of my second edits to 'the Taexali Game' though what remains won't take me long.
What I've also spent time on recently is writing two short stories.
One story has been for the 'Christmas with the Crooked Cats' Facebook group extravaganza of FREE stories. (See my blog post HERE for that story)
The second story I started for my every-second-Saturday post at the Writing Wranglers and Warriors Blog but at over 5 thousand words it's a little too long. Though I've posted the beginning of it on the Wranglers blog, I'm sharing the whole story here today.
Anticipation of new stories is a theme of this short story. For me, it's a delve into my past but as an author of fiction there may be some parts I haven't quite remembered correctly. Maybe some of my old school friends will tell me what's real and what's fiction about it?
Not so… great expectations
Friday, 23rd December, 1960
Sometimes it was really difficult to go home. Even harder than leaving to go to school in the morning.
‘Enjoy your Monday off school next week and remember what Christmas Day is all about.” Mrs Locky never wasted unnecessary breath when the class was all lined up and ready to go home.
At precisely four o’clock, on the ring of the huge brass hand bell, Wee Missy forged her way out through the throngs as she exited Broadholm Primary School Annexe where there were a couple of overspill classrooms. Her class was one of the unfortunate ones in that it was housed in a decrepit and ancient old building, the school roll being too large for all of the pupils to be housed in the new school building. However, there was nothing to be done but suffer the situation for a whole school year.
‘In the bleak mid-winter…’ The words of the Christmas Carol they’d sung that afternoon refused to go away as Wee Missy said a fast farewell to some of her classmates. She felt utterly bleak about it but she couldn’t avoid going home. Sunday was Christmas Day but she knew that it wasn’t going to be a cheerful one for her. The events of last week were going to catch up with her come Christmas Day. She stifled the tears as she waved goodbye to her best friend June.
She’d been too ashamed to share her secret with anyone but keeping silent about it was so awful as well.
‘Frosty winds made moan…’ It was far too glacial to hang about as she scurried further into her scarf and tucked down her chin, the sky a dull leaden grey that heralded more snow.
‘Earth stood hard as iron…’ Her present classroom only had the narrowest casement window imaginable with two bare electric bulbs dangling on a long electric cable from the ceiling for illumination. She coped well enough with the miserable light but the damp smell of mouldy wood seeped right up her nose and filled her head to the point where she eventually forgot about it every day. The lack of heating was a much worse problem. There were a few clanking radiators in the room, but it was only the one right beside the teacher’s desk that blasted out any heat and she wasn’t ever going to be naughty enough to share that space.
Thank goodness that Mrs. Locky didn’t know what she’d done or she’d be at the front of the class for the rest of the school session!
She tugged her thick black blazer lapels up under her tied over scarf to stop the wind whistling into the tiny space at her parched throat that was full of dry tears. Her school blazer was the only thing she had to wrap around her legs and toes to warm them up during lessons and keep out the freezing draughts. Good thing it was made of wool except it scratched her bare legs, her short socks leaving a lot of cold leg to be warmed below her grey pleated skirt that just reached her knees. Of course, the heating problem near Christmas time wasn’t only in her school annexe: her own house was sometimes just as cold when she arrived home.
‘Water like a stone…’ The Christmas carol, written by someone famous called Christina Rossetti - according to her teacher - repeated itself in her head as she purposely slid down the icy pavement, some kind children having created the perfect glassy walkway on the hardened icy snow that had been intermittently falling since the previous Wednesday.
‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow…’ Always a dreamer. As she speed walked past the proper new Broadholm Primary School Building, the janitor having cleared a small space outside the school gates, she imagined herself back in there the following Christmas.
‘In the bleak mid-winter, Long ago.’ Only built a few years ago, the main school had really good radiators that made hardly any noise at all. She was sure she’d be back there in the warmth the next year because it was only a couple of classes who had to use the annexe. When the other new Primary school was built, in a different part of her newly built housing estate in Glasgow, nobody would ever need to use the annexe again.
Next Christmas would definitely be very different because she vowed she would make sure that she wouldn’t ever feel so bad about going home again.
‘Enough for Him, whom cherubim, Worship night and day…’ The teacher had explained all the difficult words but some of the old fashioned Victorian Christmas Carol was still hard to understand so she skipped bits, in her head, as she wended her way home.
Being the Primary Five exile class was also hard to understand. For her and her classmates, there was no playing outside at break times in the tarmac playground areas that wrapped around the big rectangular senior school block of the new school. The boys kicked a ball about on one side and called it their football park. The girls strung themselves out and played ball games at the gable wall. A tennis, or bouncy rubber, ball in each hand they sang songs like “I’m Shirley Temple and I’ve got curly hair, I’m Betty Grable and my legs are up to here…” Sometimes she didn’t remember all the words of the songs but she just made them up to fit the tune, anyway. Or the girls played with their skipping ropes and sang other songs as the two children holding the ends of the double ropes ‘cawed’ in new kids to jump up and avoid snagging the circling ropes. The new school was also great because it had lots of wall to do hand stands up against it. There were empty bits of tarmac where they could play hopscotch with chalk drawn ‘beds’ using an old shoe polish tin filled with sand for a peever that they nudged along with a foot as they skipped from one chalk-drawn square to another. When the grassy areas around the school weren’t too muddy, or full of piled up snow, they sometimes played a game of rounders, as well.
The annexe didn’t have a proper playground at all. There were only small stone chips around the building and you slipped on them too easily. Of course, the boys still tried to play football and got in the girls’ way as they stood in huddles nattering to each other.
‘A breastful of milk, And a mangerful of hay..’ The school dinners were better in the new school as well since they were cooked in the fancy new school kitchens and served hot to the tables in the dining area. It was a bit strange calling them school ‘dinners’ because they were served around midday, but Wee Missy didn’t care what they called them- she was lucky because she always had two hot meals every school day. One she ate at school and the other at home because her dad only ate a sandwich around midday and needed a hot meal in the evening.
‘Enough for Him, whom angels Fall down before, The ox and ass and camel Which adore…’
In the Primary Five annexe, they had to sit their school lunch plates on their cleared desks and that was tricky because the slope of the desktop meant you had to keep the plate steady while still using your knife and fork. The food served from huge metal canisters and metal boxes was already cooling down by the time it was dished out- even though the distance to the annexe wasn’t all that far. She hated her dinner getting cold because the two-course school dinners were fantastic to eat, much better than her mum’s cooking. Wee Missy loved all the food at school, her especial favourite dessert being caramel flan and custard.
The only thing on the school menu that made her gag was the kidney in the steak and kidney pudding but she’d learned to force it down. You had to eat everything on the plate or suffer the consequences of Mrs. Locky’s wrath because she wanted no scrap food to deal with! Wee Missy even relished the tapioca, the ‘frogspawn’ that most of her friends refused to put past their lips. For them, it was just as well that there was generally more than one desert choice because nearly everyone avoided the tapioca and jam. For Wee Missy that was great, because she always got an overflowing plate of tapioca, and sometimes even seconds as well.
‘Angels and archangels May have gathered there…’ Having passed by all the twinkling classroom lights, darkness swiftly descending now, she thought of another thing she looked forward to next Christmas. The lovely new light wooden desks in the main building were absolutely perfect to sit at. She could lift the lid and store her pencil case inside, with loads of room left for her biggest library book, and her hat, gloves and even her scarf.
Oh, no! The thought of her library books made her feel really guilty again. Why on earth had she done such a stupid thing?
She looked despairingly up at the tenement blocks of houses as she by passed them, some of which had twinkling Christmas trees in the windows. Her own tree wouldn’t go up till that night or maybe tomorrow if her mum was too tired. Her dad had already checked the fairy lights and had replaced the bulbs that weren’t working properly so they were ready and waiting for the tree box to be opened. She looked up again at the last ‘close’ of houses at the end of the street. The Christmas lights were lovely against the darkened brickwork of the buildings She’d bet there were lots of excited children living in those houses who couldn’t wait for Santa to come and give them unexpected presents.
Those good children – unlike she was.
Deliberately setting aside her dismal thoughts, she backtracked to visualising her classroom. Presently, all she had was a scratched and ancient two pupil desk - the kind which was only a top with two holes cut out for ink bottles to sit in. There was nowhere to stash away anything underneath. That meant her woolly hat and other things had to be stored at her wet feet and they never dried out properly.
The only good thing about the double desk situation in the old annexe was that the combination of kids in the back row changed according to the results of the weekly tests, so she regularly had a new neighbour.
‘Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air..’ Her teacher read out the results and efficiently reorganised the pecking order in the class room after lunch on Friday afternoon. Wee Missy was always in the back row, one of the top ten of the class and well away from the teacher’s hugely long blackboard pointer that slammed down on those idle fingers in the front rows. Her teacher liked to keep the naughty boys and girls close by her.
But she was just as naughty as them!
As she turned into Kinclaven Avenue, she watched one of her front row classmates head down the hill to her house in Southdeen Road. Wee Missy’s mother would have a fit if she was ever sitting next to that poor girl again, the girl whose parents had to be a lot poorer than hers were because Ellen was a bit smelly and was constantly lice and nit ridden.
‘But only His mother, In her maiden bliss, Worshipped the Beloved, With a kiss.’ Earlier in the school session, Wee Missy had been sent to the front of the class for talking during the lesson. Only one afternoon of sitting beside Ellen and she’d gone scratching home with more than her shame. Her mother had scrubbed the black Derbac soap into her scalp even more ferociously than usual and used the bone fine-tooth comb so hard that she’d almost gone bald. She never ever wanted nits again. The kids at the back of the class were nit and lice free - as far as she could tell - and she wanted to be sure she stayed that way forever.
She occasionally stamped at the razed frozen ice in the puddles – proof that someone else had nipped along the route home even faster than she was covering it. The mile and a half hike from school to her home was unexciting except when she stopped at the Kinclaven play park, but even with gloves on it was cold enough to freeze her fingers to the metal chains on the swings in seconds and she was neither that daft nor that bored to attempt such an idiotic diversion close to Christmas. Her school blazer and home-knitted grey hat, scarf, and gloves weren’t enough to keep Jack Frost and his many icy friends from biting her all over- just like the wooden seat would be permanently stuck to her bottom if she sat on it. She needed to get to her house as quick as possible to be out of the frozen wasteland around her but she also dreaded it. The really big problem that had been making her sick for days now would be worse when she stepped in her front door.
Feeling guilty was so horrible.
‘What can I give Him, Poor as I am?’ As she skidded her way down another pavement slide, she had to admit that exhaling puffy white clouds was actually quite funny…till it seemed to freeze the hairs in her nostrils. She’d read about how her nose worked quite recently in an encyclopaedia that her much older cousin had given to her.
She preferred the Enid Blyton books, and even the Biggles Adventures that her cousin John had no use for any more, but when she’d no new stories to read she propped up the encyclopaedia behind her pillow and read that. It had some pictures and diagrams in it, but she’d have liked even more since some of the information was quite difficult to understand, though she knew it was intended for children.
‘If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb…’ She rewrapped her scarf right up over her nose and smothered the next lines. She didn’t want to think about them at all. ‘If I were a wise man, I would do my part…’ She hadn’t been wise at all. Not at all. And that was why going home was so difficult.
‘Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.’ Her mother had done that but she’d messed it all up.
As she hurried past the Church of Scotland, other Christmas carols that Mrs Locky had made her practise in class replayed in her head like her dad’s scratched vinyl records.
‘Hark! the herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Her Nana would say that she had sinned something terrible because of what she’d done last week. Now she felt really disgusted but she only had herself to blame for that.
‘Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies, with the angelic host proclaim...’ Even though it was the last school day before Christmas, there hadn’t been much joy in class. It hadn’t been much different from any other Friday except that the carol singing had been for a whole hour rather than the usual Friday half hour hymn singing. The teachers at school never talked about Santa coming down the chimney, or about going to visit him in his grotto in Lewis’ shop in Glasgow City Centre and there was never any mention of anyone ever going to the pantomime at the Alhambra or the Pavilion Theatres, either. Christmas tree talk only went on in the playground. Usual lessons went on in the classroom.
Everybody knew Mrs. Locky wasn’t really her teacher’s name but most of the kids in her class couldn’t spell Lachowski. Wee Missy liked Mrs. Locky most of the time but although her teacher might look round and cuddly, the woman could wield her belt as well as the headmaster if anyone got less than nine correct out of ten in the Friday Spelling Test. She’d tasted Mrs. Locky’s tawse a time or two too many at the beginning of Primary Five, but it had been an effective salutary lesson. Rote learning her spelling to perfection was a challenge she never failed at now. Lachowski would never be spelled wrongly either. Her times tables were faultless as well, though she still had a lot of work to do to get the other bits as easy to reel off. To get to twenty-two yards is equal to one chain wasn’t so bad but the next things about furlongs and miles were harder to remember.
‘Silent night, holy night…’ Wee Missy’s absolute all time favourite was reading. She loved all the reading that was done in class - even the Road Safety advice that was on the back of the school jotters that Glasgow Corporation provided - but she liked it even better when she zoomed home to read the books she’d borrowed from the public library and her weekly batch of comics. Her dad liked to read as well, which was brilliant because every Tuesday evening they walked the two miles to the local Public Library to change their books and walked even faster on the return trip. On those occasions, her feet felt like they barely hit the pavement because her dad was a really fast walker. He’d been a member of a harriers club as a younger man and he did such a fast walk/run that she had to jog to keep up with him on her much shorter legs. It was just as well that he usually carried her books along with his own in his old army knapsack that bounced against his back when they hurried home.
The thought of reaching home to read had her skipping up the hill on Tallant Road at a spanking pace but as she approached the shops near Carolside Avenue, her mood darkened again.
She’d hardly anything new to read. Even worse than that, next week was going to be so horrible!
A cold shudder passed through her, even colder than the seriously icy atmosphere around her.
‘We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar’ Christmas Day was supposed to be so nice: happy and cheerful, filled with lots of lovely new surprises to open but that wasn’t going to happen to her! She pretended that the sting at her eyes was just because the arctic chill was gluing her eyelashes together.
Though at eight going on nine years old, she knew better.
'Oh, star of wonder...' It was only Friday, but she’d already devoured the two thinner ones of the three library books that she was allowed to borrow each Tuesday. The big fat Enid Blyton Ship of Adventure Series book she’d vowed to save for her Saturday reading. Those stories absorbed her for hours and sent her places she could only dream of. She wasn’t going to start it when she got home, she wasn’t! ‘I’m not. I’m not’ accompanied her till she passed the Newsagents shop close to her home on Rozelle Avenue. A sort-of-a-smile almost broke free when she saw the Christmas advert for her favourite comic in the window. The Bunty had produced a special Christmas edition that week with an extra story in it! That would mean an even longer time could be spent savouring her comics.
She mostly hated her older sister- the four year gap meaning almost no reason to like her sibling who was now only interested in boys, especially the one who lived in a house opposite the Co-Operative Shop she’d just passed. Meggie had always been a tomboy so it was difficult to understand the girl who now went to bed every night with rollers in her hair that she claimed would create a perfect style in the morning. The problem with Moody Meggie was that her hair was totally straight and sleeping on uncomfortable jaggy rollers didn’t make a bit of difference. Meggie’s hair was still straight in the morning and didn’t do that curling under thing it was supposed to.
The best thing about Meggie was that her comics were still ordered even though she wasn’t really much of a reader. Being a tomboy meant that Meggie got The Beano; The Dandy; The Beezer; and The Topper. Mean Meggie pretended to read them all and took till about Wednesday night before she’d pass them on to her but that was good because there was always something new to read on Thursday after school.
‘Guide us to thy perfect light…’ As Wee Missy rounded the corner which led to her house on Jedworth Avenue, she thought about the comics for this week that were going to be such a treat to look forward to- the only drawback being that they wouldn’t be delivered by the ‘paper boy’ till after five o’clock that evening. Sometimes the package, rolled up tight in elastic bands, didn’t pop through the letter box till nearer half past five and when that happened it was a really ghastly wait.
What was she going to read till they were delivered? Guilt made her last steps even harder to take.
Wee Missy approached the short flight of stairs which led up to her block of flats and let out a deep sigh, sending a cloud of icy vapour around her. She wanted to be in her house and out of the biting cold, yet she could hardly bear it. Remorse sat even more heavily on her shoulder, a burden that she’d repressed for more than a week, but she’d been brought up to face up to consequences so she knew she just had to get on with it.
“Hullo, hen. Was school good the day? Huv you seen oor Thomas?”
'Good tidings we bring...' Her neighbour’s questions always came thick and fast and Wee Missy’s answers rarely varied as she shook her head. Thomas was nearly the same age as she was but was in a different class at school. He was nearly always home later than she was because he mucked about with his mates on the way home - even on freezing cold days. Michael Irvine was a couple of years younger and was already home, eating biscuits and drinking milk like she’d just been offered by Mrs. Irvine.
“Here’s your key, love. If you need any help, remember to just chap.” Mrs. Irvine’s smile was always cheery as the key was handed over.
'To you and your kin...' It had only been two months since Wee Missy’s mother had started in her temporary seasonal job at the huge Woolworth’s Department store in the city centre of Glasgow. Her mum had never been anything except a housewife since her mother and father had got married, so the new job was taking a bit of getting used to. They were all out early to catch a bus - her mum, Dad and sister - well before she had to go to school. In the evening, her sister was supposed to be home before her dad at five- thirty but Meggie rarely was. It was nearly half past six before her mum returned. It wasn’t the loneliness that bothered Wee Missy when she unlocked the door and went in to her house. Being alone was great.
She loved lots of peace and quiet but that was what was now giving her guilty bad dreams!
‘We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.’ Her heart sank even further as she dumped her school satchel on the floor at the coat cupboard. She took off her almost solid frozen school blazer, the wool so matted with frost it looked white instead of black. She struggled to hang it up since her fingers had no blood at the tips. Her hat, scarf and gloves had fared little better and stood up in solid heaps when she dropped them, too.
Bypassing her parents’ bedroom was horrible since the door was wide open. She couldn’t miss seeing the huge wardrobe that filled the space alongside the window: that solid, dark wooden wardrobe with its generous shelf at the top.
What had made her do it? The house was as cold as her conscience.
The clock on the mantelpiece read twenty past four. That meant ages to wait for something new to read. Chores needed doing, but her hands were too cold. There wouldn’t be any hot water from the taps till the immersion heater was switched on but she was allowed to boil the electric kettle to make herself a cup of hot cocoa. Till the electric kettle boiled, she hugged her cold fingers under her oxters to warm them up. When the sound changed to that almost boiling splutter, she scooped out two spoons of drinking chocolate powder into her cup and added some milk. Once it was mixed to a paste she shakily added the boiling water and then stirred it furiously to mix it in. The rest of the kettle of hot water went into the basin in the sink. Some cold water added, she immersed her freezing fingers till they thawed out, yelping as the blood warmed through to her fingertips.
'Oh, come all ye faithful...' Able now to wrap her hands around her cup, she took it into her bedroom. Staring at her piles of already read books and comics brought forth none of her usual excitement but she had to read something, or do something else. She couldn’t just do nothing.
Straightening up the covers on her bed was easy but she wasn’t climbing up to the top bunk to do her sister’s. She’d given up on tidying her siblings mess ages ago. Slurping down the last of her cocoa, she felt she’d almost thawed out.
'Joyful and triumphant...' She wasn’t allowed to light the coal fires that were in the living room and bedrooms but she knew from the last few weeks that her lazy sister wasn’t going to be home in time to set them. Having dumped her cup in the water she’d used to warm her hands, she washed the few other things from the morning – cereal bowls, a couple of cups and some cutlery. She wasn’t great at peeling potatoes but she knew it would help get the dinner ready more quickly if she got on with it.
And it would help to atone a little bit for her sad misdeeds of the previous week.
‘Peace on earth, Goodwill to men…’ One look was all it took for her to feel ill again. The kitchen was opposite her mum’s bedroom, and that wardrobe just wasn’t going to go away. Blocking out the sight of it with her hand she made her way into the living room.
Her dad always made sure to leave ready some kindling for the fire and the coal bucket was half full. She’d learned how to roll the newspaper into spills so she set to work. It took a while but by almost five o’clock, she had the fire set in the grate.
Wee Slavey in her Bunty comic was always setting the fires and doing the menial chores in the big manor house so it was a just enough punishment for her. How could she have been so stupid as to drag that chair over to the top shelf of her mum’s wardrobe?
She wished so much that she hadn’t overheard her mum telling her dad that she’d stashed away some things up on the shelf for the girls.
They didn’t have a cat but her curiosity now almost killed her.
The stash of unwrapped presents on the shelf included the Annual Editions of her favourite comics. They were meant to be opened on Christmas Day but she had devoured them the previous week- every single word. Even the last page which wasn’t a story but about the people who had helped make the books.
Now she had no new reading to look forward to! Tears dripped from her chin. She was so disappointed in herself for taking away the excitement of Christmas.
'We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year...'
'We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year...'
Sunday, 25th December, 1960
Weak daylight crept through the curtain. Wee Missy wanted to sleep all day long-even though it was Christmas Day. Pretending was going to be so horrible. She’d managed to keep her awful guilty secret during Christmas Eve but the day of reckoning had now arrived.
In previous years, Santa Claus hadn’t brought all that much since her parents didn’t have the money for lots of gifts, but it had still been very exciting to investigate the contents of the white pillow case that had been left hanging at the end of her bed. There had usually been a new doll, maybe a few jig-saws, some chocolate, hard boiled sweets and some fruit- usually a tangerine, and if she was very lucky an exotic pomegranate. Of course, the most important contents of her Christmas pillow case had been the Annuals.
She could hear her mum in the kitchen making breakfast and her dad would be off soon for his Sunday walk- even though it was Christmas Day.
“Are you two awake?” her dad shouted as his knuckles rapped at the door. “Merry Christmas! Has Santa brought you anything this year? ”
Jumping out of bed she pretended to be excited as she opened the door to him. “I don’t know yet.” She’d learned the previous Christmas about the Santa and her parents’ secret but it was nice to keep up that pretence.
“Well, hurry up then. See what’s in that big stuffed pillowcase.”
As Wee Missy delved into the bulging white sack her sister’s head hung down from the top bunk, the rollers falling out of her hair.
“Thanks, Dad,” Meggie said as Dad passed up her pillow case.
Wee Missy’s dread turned to squeals of absolute delight as her fingers rummaged around. There were so many presents in her pillow case. She had a gorgeous new doll with the kind of nylon hair that could be combed. More new jig-saws that she loved to put together and plenty of chocolate and sweeties. The already read annuals were there….but there were also lots of brand new books as well!
Enid Blyton books and
some of the Chalet School Series that
she’d just started to read. How could her mother have afforded such a lot of
Such a lot of books she didn’t deserve.
Tears dripping down her chin she hugged her dad really tight and then ran to her mum who’d just come into the room.
“Thank you. Thank you!”
Never, absolutely never, would she ever sneak a look at her presents before Christmas again. She’d learned a very salutary lesson. She had to be the luckiest girl in Glasgow.
Christmas was for surprises!
ps. She did wonder where her mother had hidden the books she'd not read!
ps. She did wonder where her mother had hidden the books she'd not read!