A Christmas Tale

Jack sat in his car. His warm car. His warm, dry car, he corrected himself. Sainsbury’s carpark was the usual assortment of badly parked vehicles, but even more so now it was near the terminal end of the Christmas shopping madness. The scene through his windscreen was of hurriedly scampering shoppers clad in the regalia of winter in Wales, collars pulled tightly against gusting, rain-laden wind, shopping bags clutched possessively to their breasts, scarves knotted, beanies pulled skin-stretchingly tight against raddled cheeks and tingling ears.

He could hear the wind slapping ferociously across the undulant car-park, whipping up lake-like puddles into leg soaking spray and the intermittent huffs and puffs of passers-by as they gasped expletively at the blessing of living in the Western part of this island of ours.

Not for the first time, he doubted his rationality for returning. London would be dry now he assured himself, but as always he doubted and sought i-Confirmation from his constant companion. He examined the screen, touched an icon and there it was: five degrees, clear sky. It didn’t say “warm duvet, warmer girlfriend, hot coffee bubbling away in the kitchen”, but he thought it. The thought reminded him regretfully: “warmer girlfriend” was now a thing of the past. Instead he was living in a parent’s house, camp bed, careful with the language, no Xbox, lights out at ten, sherry trifle world, but at least it was only until Boxing Day. Then it was back to London and the emptiness of an apartment for one.

He smiled ruefully at the turn of his thoughts and added, “Damn you, Jesus. Why not July 25th?” Then prepared himself for the fray.

Jack had worked out bottles of Glenmorangie and Chateauneuf du Pape would be welcome Christmas presents for his father and step-mother-to-be and the Amazon app had glowed invitingly, but something of his chapel upbringing told him he had to brave the burgeoning Christmas crowds that seemed to grow in waves as the weather worsened and Christmasageddon neared.

He looked through the windscreen again at the stream of people going into the store and saw an old lady pushing a trolley through the storm, her thin body bent against the wind.

“Well, if she can do it…” he thought and opened the car door, which was immediately snatched from his grasp, swinging wildly in an arc that would miss the nearby Mercedes by a fraction so small as to defy measurement. His heart leapt as he watched it, then as quickly as it reached near bursting point, it subsided with gratitude and relief as the door cleared the shiny, silver paintwork. “Oh Christ, that was close.”

He pulled the handle a little closer, lest his exit caused enough movement to allow his errant door to carve his initials, postcode and mobile number in the flank of the Merc, and squeezed through the remaining gap and on to the sodden tarmacadam. Immediately, he was reminded of his failure to repair the soles of his brogues, a must-do item that dated back to the summer. He did not get to wear brown shoes that often, too busy with soul-repair to worry about holes in shoes. That is why he was here in Llwchwr on a minus six degrees morning, safe in the bosom of his family: planning his new life as Jack the Bachelor.

A few quick strides around Lake Sainsbury’s brought him level with the old lady, who was by now struggling with her trolley.

“Let me take that, love.” He offered, grasping the handle.

“It’s the only thing holding me down, I think,” she winked impishly. “You’re the Russell boy aren’t you? Ran away to London with some girl.”

“The very same,” he replied.

“Yes, I remember you, always getting into trouble with your airgun on the common.”

“That was a long time ago…” he paused, struggling to remember her. “Anyway, let me give you a hand before you blow away.”

“John Dorset had a bruise on his bum for weeks,” she chuckled at the memory, “Mind you, serves him right for fornicating in the park. Turned out a bad one too: four children by three different wives.”

Then Jack remembered: Mrs Allbright-Sands, the retired school teacher who taught his father at Casllwchwr Primary School. She knew everyone.
He stretched out his free arm and held her close, guiding her around the puddles and into the foyer of the supermarket. As the doors slid closed, the noise of the wind subsided to a distant howl and Mrs Allbright-Sands shook her coat free of the clinging rain.

“It’s madness, isn’t it now?” She observed as the two of them surveyed the scene confronting them. The small store was packed enough to make it the envy of John West. “I don’t know how I’m going to get my shopping done.”

“I’ll help,” Jack volunteered, with the realisation he was being manipulated, albeit willingly. “I have all the time in the world, so take your time.”

“Nobody waiting for you to come home then, is it?”

“No, no-one, Mrs Allbri…”

“So, you did remember me then? Good boy. Call me Avril. The rest is a mouthful and more.”

“Avril it is then.” He replied as he guided her into the fruit and veg aisle.

Jack and Avril spent an hour going up and down every row, the basket they had collected at the door slowly filling with a careful assortment of Christmas fayre. When they reached the alcoholic drinks, she turned to go down the next lane.

“Just a moment, Avril. I have to get something for my dad.” Jack said to her.

“He’s still drinking then?” She observed, a barely suppressed smile on her face.

Jack laughed and grabbed the bottles, then led her to the tills, where the queue snaked out like a pack of human biscuits, Santa hats decorating the shopped-out like a reminder of what it was all about and Salvationists shaking their tins in remembrance of what it used to be.

Avril pressed a coin into the tin and Jack fumbled in his pockets to do likewise.

“I don’t really approve of the Salvationists,” she opined, a little too loudly, after they had gone, “they’re not proper Christians. I’ve not seen your father in chapel recently either, come to think of it.”

She left the sentence hanging and Jack stopped himself from responding for fear of it leading to his own Godless ways. She let the moment pass and twinkled again, her bright eyes looking gratefully up at him from her lined face.

“Still, being a Christian is what you do, not who you are or where you go and helping an old lady with her shopping is a very Christian thing to do.” The warmth of her smile was a very Welsh warmth and Jack could feel the damp leaving his holy soul, if not his holey sole.

“I’ll run you home if you like, Avril,” he offered, “it’s on my way.”

“Only if you have a proper car, I can’t get into those little sports models, you see.” She said.

“It’s just an old Ford,” he answered before he realised she was teasing.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” she replied as she gathered up her bag and deposited it in the trolley. “Thank you, Jack, you turned out very well. Not like that Dorset boy.”

Easing their way through the crowd of people greeting each other and packing their shopping, eventually they reached the foyer again, just as a large, black four-wheel drive pulled up directly in front of the exit, blocking the path and forcing shoppers to divert around it through a particularly deep and wind-blown puddle.

A large, florid-faced man climbed out of the car and pulled his expensive overcoat tightly around his rotund stomach. With surprising speed, Avril reached out and touched his arm lightly. He stopped and turned, an irritated look on his face.

“You always were a selfish little bastard, Robert Jones,” she said in clear, Welsh, school-ma’am tones, then turned and strode purposefully away with Jack following in her wake. Jones stood, his mouth open, but nothing coming out, aware of all the shopper’s eyes on him, a faint glow of embarrassment colouring his already red cheeks.

Nothing more was said about the incident in the car-park as they drove through the rain swept streets of Gorseinon, Jack concentrating on his driving as Avril tapped carefully on the keyboard of an old Nokia 3310.

They drove up the hill to the coastal town of Llwchwr, past the big Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, each of which brought a pursed-lipped look from Avril. Soon they reached her small terrace which overlooked the banks of the estuary separating the town from Llanelli and Jack helped her in with her shopping. She offered tea, making it plain that acceptance was the only option and just as the kettle boiled, the doorbell rang.

“That will be Elizabeth, my grand-daughter,” she confided, “she’s a very attractive young woman and single too…”

Jack poured the kettle into the large china teapot that dominated the small kitchen with a dash of poppy red brightness.

“You got a toy-boy then, nan?” said a voice from behind him. He turned and the tea-pot faded into grey.

“This is Jack, he’s a good boy as well as being very handsome. He helped me with my shopping today.” She gave that impish wink again, eyes twinkling. “I’ve always liked him, just don’t let him near an airgun.”

“Oh really, an airgun? You must tell me all about it some time…” She held out her hand, which was attached to a long, slender arm that ended at perfect shoulders adorned by long, dark tresses, framing a stunningly beautiful face. “Hello Jack, I’m Elizabeth. I know… I look just like Catherine Zeta Jones.”

She laughed gently at her joke, then added, “Well on a good day, anyway.”

“Ah yes, the airgun, that’s an old story,” he took her hand, “Nice to meet you, Elizabeth – do you live around here?”

“Nooo, don’t let the accent fool you. I got out in September last year – doing my PhD at QMC.”

“Really? That’s just down the road from me. I live in Stratford.”

“Tough break, but I suppose someone has to. Anyway, I can’t stop long – I just called in to drop off the pressies.” She indicated a big carrier bag she was holding. She handed the bag to Avril, pecked her on the cheek and turned to leave, calling over her shoulder, “Nice to meet you, Jack.”

And she was gone.

Jack stood still for a minute, then turned to Avril. “Nice girl.” He said.

“Elizabeth is lovely,” she agreed, “I don’t see as much of her as I would like, but she lives in London.” She paused. “Like you, young Jack.”

Just as he was making his excuses to leave, her phone chirruped and she looked at it myopically. “Can you help me with this, Jack? I’m not sure where I put my glasses.”

She handed him the old Nokia. It was a text message from Elizabeth. “Ooooh Nan. He’s nice. Be a love and give him my phone number. Love you, Liz XXX”.

“Well, she’s a little hussy.” Avril smiled that warm smile again. “But I’d better do as she says, or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Jack left clutching the small piece of torn notepaper like it was the winning ticket in the National Lottery. He waved as Avril closed the door and got into the car as the new door in his life opened.

Mrs Avril Allbright-Sands picked up her mobile and with her clear, bright eyes, read the message again. “He’s a good boy”, she messaged back to Elizabeth, “I think you’ll like him.”

© 2010 Martyn Richard Winters – all rights reserved.

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