[Note: The first of four previously unposted portions of Walking Backwards for Christmas. the first novel of the series, primarily set in 1960, when Reggie was 8. The rain and snow that winter were particularly bad — until recently, the worst to be known to anyone living in the UK — and they were wreaking havoc all over the country. Worst of all, many people were flooded out of their homes, with no place to stay. Reggie’s parents have become part of the effort to find them dry shelter, giving up their own Christmas in the process. Reggie’s been sent to stay with his maternal grandmother (Grammer). She’s not the best choice for the holidays — Reggie’s grandfather died that summer, and Grammer’s still in mourning, with a dark, depressive mood, living in a house that’s almost as dark, with many electric outlets unusable and water trickling through the windows and ceiling, and down the wall. But his new best friend, Sanjit “Stan” Gupta, newly arrived from India, is curious about Christmas, and has come along. They’ve had an adventure that morning, meeting Bethany, the ghost of a 16-year-old girl who was executed for witchcraft in 1648, who leads them to the ghost of Reggie’s grandfather, who has advice and a final gift for Reggie, and only a day left to do it before he must leave for the Astral plane. He also has one final message for Grammer for Reggie to deliver. After he and Stan leave his grandfather and Bethany, he gives her the message. It lifts her mood somewhat, but matters are still pretty dreary as Christmas dinner approaches.]
Asking Stan to sit through Christmas vigil mass with all the Nine Lessons and Carols wouldn’t have been as bad as asking him to eat roast beef but it would certainly have run a close second.
Instead the three of us – Grammer, Stan and I – went to the shorter mid-afternoon “Crib service,” designed for families with small children and those who have commensurately short attention spans. The service was comparatively painless, and we were back home preparing Christmas dinner by late afternoon.
Stan and I functioned as sous chefs and general dogsbodies, as Grammer, in turn, tried to follow Mum’s newly minted recipe for a Christmas lamb and vegetable pie with Indian spices, as well as her more traditional recipe for special sausage-apple-currant-sage-onion stuffing. The former would join the latter as part of our family’s annual Christmas feast; both would continue to play a part in my own personal Christmases until 1973, when I gave up meat entirely.
At last both pie and stuffing were ready. We removed them from the oven, buried the latter in bread sauce, opened a can of cranberry sauce and – voila! – as fine a Christmas dinner as could be found anywhere in the Midlands was ready, even if we had to eat it in a darkened room, lit only by a few candles and the light of a single floor lamp.
Stan and I prayed perfunctorily, as we kept at least one eye on the food, then dug in fiercely.
Grammer’s mood, although not as dismal as it had been, remained sufficiently subdued and halfhearted about even the holidays that we ate without any conversation (though Stan and I passed notes back and forth to each other, debating the feasibility and the wisdom of trying out his new mini-Monopoly game at the dinner table).
At last, Grammer broke her silence – not intentionally, simply thinking out loud. It was just a few words in a West Country dialect, not very distinct from beneath a sigh, when it was intelligible at all: “… so, so, so … [unintelligible] giss’ee me a tiswas….”
I’d have ignored it under normal circumstances, pretending I hadn’t heard it; but at this point, I was desperate for any line of conversation I might discover and decided to follow it up.
“Why are you confused, Grammer?”
She looked up, startled, and managed the tiniest of smiles. “So ye know whud I’m saying. Gramfer taught y’ some West Country, did he?”
I shook my head. “He didn’t; you did,” I softly reminded her. “It’s your language, not his, innit?”
Her smile was still small, but growing. “Innit snugh,” she said, agreeing.
I nodded, and we smiled at each other and at Stan’s bemusement.
“It be a bit dimpsy out, and as the shadows grow, they got me to thinking about they lights on the Christmas tree this year. Casn’t think of whud t’do. Ye know how I feel about candles on the tree.”
I did indeed. Even in 1960, many of our neighbors looked askance at the idea of electric lights on a Christmas tree – but not Grammer.
She denied it, but Uncle Roddy used to insist that she bought out the store the first year that the electric tree lights came out, using them not only on the tree itself but also on the mantelpiece over the fireplace. She’d upgrade every time the lights improved, but she never went back to candles again. In a sense she was like Dr. Gupta, vastly concerned about the danger of fire. “Too many people start out ringing Christmas bells only to end up hearing alarm bells,” she’d say.
“But this year,” she said, “it be so arable lippery … and this house – if I didn’t know better, I would swear it had ancient cub walls the way it leaks. Just afeared I be about running power chords for electric lights all over the house with the danger of the water and the power chords getting together.”
“What about the television outlet?” I asked. “It’s in an inside wall, isn’t it? No leaks. We could plug in the tree lights there.”
She laughed lightly for the first time since the funeral. “Ah, the wheels ’re turning in ye head, Reginald. You’ve ye Gramfer’s marrow sitting in ye bones, of that there be no doubt. But there be no room for a tree by that wall, m’luvver, and an extension cord risks taking us right through the water again.”
“Forgive my ignorance, Mrs. Borland,” Stan began, a bit timidly, “but why do there need to be lights on the tree?”
“That’s a perfectly fair question, Stanley.”
“That’s not his name, Grammer.”
Stan explained the origins of his nickname, which Grammer found funny in exactly the way our choral director had not. She managed only a small laugh, but she now approached a middling smile. She turned to me.
“And whud have they taught you at church, Reginald? Would ye care to attempt to explain it to Sanjit?”
“The tree is an evergreen, to symbolise eternal life,” I began, “whilst the lights symbolise the arrival of Jesus Christ as the light of the world. The light leads to the life.”
“‘Leads to,’” Stan replied. “They lead to one another, they needn’t be joined at the hip.”
“I’m not following,” I said.
© 2017, 2016, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.
Walking Backward for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall is now available from Amazon Books. So is The Bluebottle Boys (Volume One). Click on the links and check them out further.
The Bluebottle Boys (Volume Two) is expected to be out early in 2018. The next book of the Reggie Stone series, By Good Angels Tenanted, will be available later in 2018.