Jane Longman felt tired. Tired and a little low. There was so much to do before Christmas and yet somehow this year her spirits just didn’t feel up to it. She knew that it would be sensible to take some short cuts, had even read only last week in a magazine “The Cheat’s Guide to Christmas” but hadn’t really taken it in.
Now as she weighed out currants and sultanas for the Christmas pudding she was making, the article came back to her and she wondered why she simply hadn’t bought one. It would have saved her time and probably money too. She sighed and gazed distractedly out of the window. There was her robin again. At least she presumed it was the one she habitually spotted. Mark had told her that they are territorial birds and make their nests in the same place every year and so, fanciful or not, she chose to believe that it was the same one. She could see him now perched in one of the raised flower beds, his tiny beak foraging for insects amongst the dry leaves. Strange, she mused, that although robins could be seen in gardens all year round, they are traditionally associated with Christmas.
And Jane believed in tradition. Robins, homemade puddings, advent calendars and the pieces of holly that she would tuck behind the picture frames and drape in bunches tied with red ribbon over the doors, she loved them all.
Later she would take a solitary stroll around the park enjoying with a furtive feeling of pleasure the weight of the secateurs in the pocket of her old gardening coat and the sensation of suppressed guilt as, under the cover of darkness, she would stealthily cut down great swathes of ivy and prickly branches of holy. She knew it was wrong. There was probably even a law against it, but it was something she and her brother Sam had done in the days of her own childhood and Christmas wouldn’t feel like Christmas without this ritual. She’d just have to make sure that no one saw her. She smiled imagining the tall looming figure of a dark uniformed policeman, his regulation boots black and shiny in the lamp light, pouncing upon her
“Madam, I am arresting you for the misappropriation of evergreens. The theft of holly and ivy by a middle-aged woman with untidy hair and an apologetic expression is an offence against…”
She shook herself. Lately daydreaming had become rather a habit.
The kitchen opened out in to the sitting room and from here Jane could see Deborah lying full length upon the sofa. Her daughter’s eyes were glued to the television and every now and again she would a rip the wrapper off another advent calendar chocolate and shove it unseeingly in to her mouth. Although it was only the 18th she had eaten her way right up to the twenty third of December and would probably have polished off the Christmas Day star before the hour was out. Jane recalled her own excitement as a child of rushing down stairs each morning with Sam to open another window. They had taken it strictly in turns to carefully peel away the coloured foil and then solemnly divide the chocolate as precisely as possible into two equally sized pieces before reverentially laying the discs upon their tongues. They wouldn’t have dreamt of cheating and breaking open the windows of the calendar early. Part of the pleasure was in the waiting. Deborah didn’t do delayed gratification.
Jane suppressed another sigh. There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for my daughter she reflected, I love her and have always put her first, but does it automatically follow that I have to like her everything about her?
“Do you want to come and make a wish?” She called
“Oh Mum! That’s just childish!”
Jane knew that there would be no point in waiting for Mark to come home. He disliked whimsy, as he called it, but every year of her life she had made a wish whilst wielding a big wooden spoon through the rich curranty mixture. As a child, her mother had urged her and Sam to close their eyes and wish for anything they wanted, anything in the whole wide world she would say… but… and this was important… they could never ever tell what they wished for or it wouldn’t come true.
Jane remembered the intensity of those early wishes, some of which had been granted. Love for instance.
She had met Mark when she was twenty-one and two years later in a quiet ceremony before a drooping vicar with a pronounced Adam’s apple, they had made their wedding vows. Since then her wishes had been of a more domesticated shade. Perhaps as we get older, she thought, we don’t need to believe in wishes and so the magic just disappears? But it shouldn’t. I wonder why we let it happen?
Dreamily she poured the sweet fortified wine into the big brown mixing bowl and reflected upon how little now, at this stage of her life, she had to wish for. But that can’t be right… she wrestled with the thought… there’s so much that I haven’t done, haven’t experienced. What about adventure and romance? She grimaced. How many long-standing marriages retained any vestige of romance? The rigours of routine, the day to day existence of humdrum practicalities left no room for fantasy. Marriage is like one of the more hardy house-plants, she decided. You can neglect it, forget to water and feed it and yet still it survives, but it never flowers again. Are my flowering days over she wondered? And felt with a start of surprise a prickling of tears.
I’m just tired she thought. I’m being silly and self indulgent. But at the same time, she became aware of a rising sense of panic as the increasing loss of her own identity hit her. Who was she now? Right at this moment. In this kitchen performing one more Christmas ritual that would probably prove to be… well… pointless? Her eyes swam as miserably she picked up the wooden spoon. She knew the answer. Of course, she did. She had become one of the Silent Army. The army of middle aged women. Undemanding, unassuming and therefore overlooked.
She picked up the spoon. Then she closed her eyes and stirred the pudding with two smooth decisive strokes, drawing, from deep within her, all the ardent longings of lifetime and made her wish.
There was sudden crackling in the air around her. Her eyes flew open. Strangely charged and full of static, the atmosphere felt heavy and portentous. The kitchen darkened, the curtains billowed as if agitated by an unseen hand and then, through the open window, came the sweet clear trill of the robin.
In that moment all sense of time and place seemed to vanish. Jane was aware of the thumping of her heart. Something was coming, she could feel it. And so, listening intently to the dying notes of the robin’s song, she waited. But abruptly the spell was broken. Deborah’s complaining voice sliced through her consciousness
“Mum! This telly must be on the blink, the picture’s gone all fuzzy”
On Christmas morning she and Mark kissed each other as they exchanged gifts. He liked the briefcase she had bought him, and she thanked him for the unflattering beige blouse he’d ordered online for her, before carefully folding it away.
After breakfast she snatched a few minutes for a telephone conversation with Sam, a widower now, who lived a three-hour drive away in a small cottage nestling amongst the Gloucestershire hills. Always glad to hear from her and alert to every nuance of her tone, he had picked up on the strain in her voice
“Remember Janey, you can always come here”
Eleven thirty and Jane was busy in the kitchen: peeling potatoes and parsnips, cutting small triangles in the base of Brussel sprouts and sautéing fresh cranberries.
Evelyn, her mother-in-law, was bustling around and getting in her way.
“Jane, how about a coffee? No, I’ll make it. I’m sure we could all do with one”
And there was just a hint of reproach in her tone that none had been offered before.
“Lets have both” agreed Jane “Deborah would you just give the glasses a quick polish?”
“Why do I end up doing everything around here?” Grumbled her daughter earning a slight lift of the eyebrow from Mark who was just coming in with a copy of the Radio Times.
Mark had insisted on calling their daughter Deborah because it was his mother’s middle name. Jane had thought such a tribute only necessary if the mother in question was dead and Mark’s mother had been very much alive at the time of Deborah’s birth and indeed was very much alive today having joined them on Christmas Eve for the full duration of the holidays.
“One simply decides to keep on going” Evelyn Longman had said on her seventy-fifth birthday “To endure. I’m indefatigable”
Jane, in the privacy of her mind, had other words to describe her mother-in-law. Words like tiresome and wearisome.
“You look smart mum” Mark was always dutifully complimentary to his mother.
Evelyn patted her newly set hair and looked down at her print dress.
“Well it is Christmas after all and I do like to make an effort”
She looked across at Jane, a slight frown on her lightly powdered face
“Aren’t you going to change for lunch?”
Jane felt a sudden spurt of annoyance. She’d thought her new black trousers and tunic top looked pretty and festive.
“Oh, Mum doesn’t care how she looks, Gran” said Deborah coming back in with a tray of glasses and a decanter.
“That’s why I’m never going to have children. Mothers completely let themselves go. They can’t help it. It just happens”
There was an awkward pause as Jane looked from her daughter to her husband.
“Is that what you think I’ve done?” she asked, and her voice was a little unsteady “Let myself go?”
“Don’t be silly love, you look perfectly fine” said Mark “And Deborah apologise to your mother”
“Sorry Mum. I just meant that you don’t seem all that bothered about how you look. And anyway, what’s the point? It’s not like anyone ever sees you”
Jane stood quite still for a moment, and then put down the dishcloth she was holding, untied the ribbons of her apron and walked out of the room. Calmly she went upstairs and packed a small suitcase which she then took out to the car. Coming back into the kitchen in her coat she said quietly
“I’m going to Sam’s”
Mark looked up from trying to tune the radio into a carol service.
“What do you mean you’re going to Sam’s?”
She picked up her handbag.
“You’ll manage just fine without me. The turkey needs to come out at one thirty and remember it needs time to rest. The potatoes and veg are all done and I’m sure that Evelyn can manage the gravy”
Her mother in-law bristled “I’ve been making gravy for over fifty years”
Ignoring her, Jane turned to Mark whose lips had tightened with surprise and suppressed anger.
“But when are you coming back?” he demanded
“I have no idea” She replied with perfect truthfulness and then without apology or explanation she took up the Christmas pudding in its white china basin from the kitchen counter. Something of herself had transferred itself into the rich dark mixture. She couldn’t just leave it behind.
“Oh, and I’m taking this”
She turned and went out in to the hall where she heard the plaintive voice of her daughter.
“But now there’s no pudding”
Jane started the car and negotiated her way down the drive. As she did so the song of the robin came quite distinctly through the opened window and rose, like an offering, into the crisp morning air.