When the first snowfall of winter arrives and all hope is lost, it is then that the greatest miracles occur.
Father Michael O’Brien sat down at his desk and stared at the blank screen in front of him for the third time that day. He was well known for his sermons and people came from miles around to hear them. He always strived to talk about real people, their challenges and joys. He loved nothing more than to hear his congregation laugh, humour he told them was a God given gift and the sound of laughter brought joy to the world. Father Michael sighed. The world news today was anything but joyful. All around there seemed to be nothing but hatred and destruction and his heart felt heavy. This year two of his parishioners, Mr & Mrs Wilson, had lost their child and there was talk of the local community school closing. They would fight that one together, Father Michael had no intention of letting that happen. He had given up trying to write this morning and gone along to the homeless shelter to try and bring solace reminding them to go along to the community centre on Christmas Day where there would be a wonderful dinner and a gift for each and every one of them. They were good people in the little village of Merrywell. Most of them came to church every Sunday and where many other churches were empty, Father Michael was always happy to see full benches every week. On Christmas Eve the church would be packed to the rafters and extra chairs would have to be brought in, yet there would still be people standing. When the congregation raised their voices in song it always brought a warmth to Father Michael’s heart.
Somehow this year he felt as though there was a sadness, apathy and a lack of hope running through the community. Mr & Mrs Wilson had continued to attend Mass but the haunted look in their eyes and the hushed whispers of the congregation each time they arrived, saddened him immensely. ‘Why Father,’ they had asked. Nothing he told them had helped. Their grief was too deep. Mrs Wilson was now expecting another child and finally he had seen a spark of light in their eyes. Hope for a happier life was everything, he thought. Christmas Eve was the celebration of the birth of Christ maybe he should focus on that this year and give it a new twist. Father Michael placed his fingers on the keyboard and waited for inspiration. After five minutes he gave up and decided he would have a cup of tea. He walked towards the kitchen but paused when he was halfway across the room. ‘Why not,’ he told the cross of Our Lord above the sideboard. Reaching for the whiskey decanter he poured himself a good measure of Jack Daniels and went back to the computer. Sipping his drink he prayed silently. It’s Christmas Eve Lord, a little inspiration would be wonderful. He had actually written his Christmas sermon two weeks ago but felt it was a little dull. Not what his congregation were used to. This sermon was the most important one of the year. It should be meaningful, emotional and passionate. It must be about love, family and all that comes in between. Half an hour later Father Michael was no further forward. He had talked about all those things for so many years it was becoming old hat. Maybe if he had another whisky. Mrs Dawson his housekeeper was out for the afternoon so there was nobody to tut tut and shake their head at him. He always ensured Mrs Dawson was out when he wrote his sermon. What he would do without her he didn’t know but oh my, what a clatter she made around the house. He found her constant stream of chatter most amusing but not when he was writing his sermon. He rather wished she was here to distract him, at least it would be an excuse to do something else. Father Michael closed his eyes for a moment and put aside the horrors that the world had brought this year and thought about all the goodness in the world. He had been introduced to Facebook by one of his parishioners who told him how important she thought it was that he kept up with new technology and what was happening. He was no fuddy duddy he told her and promised that he would glance at it now and again. Father Michael never broke a promise and earlier in the week he had opened it up and didn’t like what he saw at all. He shook his head in sadness at all the arguments and criticism. Why on earth would I need to see this he thought? He would never look at it again. It was then a video came on that caught his attention telling him about the young man who was going around giving free haircuts to the homeless and it brought a tear to his eye. He’d sat for two hours that night and read about all the goodness in the world. Video after video of people doing great and wonderful things that others would never have heard of had it not been for the power of Facebook. Families were posting pictures of beautifully decorated Christmas trees with piles of presents around them. Father Michael’s heart warmed when he saw a photo of Mr & Mrs Wilson standing in front of their tree thanking everyone in the community for getting them through the worst year of their life and said they would never forget their little Lily but it was time to move forward and this time next year would be happy occasion for them all. The light seemed to catch the photograph and it was almost as through the Angel on the top of their Christmas tree was smiling down on them. It had taken Father Michael a few moments to pull himself together and he’d had to dab his eyes and blow his nose. He picked up his phone and began scrolling through Facebook, the sermon completely forgotten. He still had the one he’d done last week, maybe he would just use that after all. The next post showed a roaring fire with a glass of sherry and a mince pie sitting on the hearth. Father Michael looked at his empty glass, it was still only 3pm. ‘Just a small one,’ he said, then made his way into the kitchen. There was a tray covered with a tea towel and underneath were the most delicious home baked mince pies. He smiled remembering the time he had bought a packet of mince pies from the local shops. The horrified look on Mrs Dawson’s face had been quite terrifying. She hadn’t spoken to him for days and the banging and clattering around the house became louder. He had learnt his lesson well and this year waited for them to arrive.
Father Michael sat down on his comfortable chair in front of the fire. He took a bite of his mince pie and closed his eyes to savour the moment. ‘Better than ever,’ he muttered with his mouth half full. If Mrs Dawson had been watching she would have been delighted. When every last crumb had been enjoyed he reached for his whisky. The heat of the fire and the crackling and spitting of logs filled the room and Father Michael’s eyes became heavy. His mind drifted off to that Christmas Eve so many years ago. I wonder what happened to them, he thought as the glass slipped out of his hand. Father Michael slept.
June Harrison looked around the shelter hoping Norah would come along tonight. It was freezing cold out there and heavy snow was forecast for later this evening. June had been a volunteer at the shelter for fifteen years and knew all the regulars by name. The first time she saw Norah she had been taken aback by her striking blue eyes and dark hair. Although now streaked with grey June’s first thought was that Norah must have been quite a beauty in her day. She carried a sadness with her far heavier than the big old suitcase she always dragged around. June was worried that Norah wouldn’t survive another cold winter. She couldn’t actually be that old, she thought but it was difficult to tell when someone had lived on the streets for a long time. Last year it hadn’t snowed, instead the rain had been torrential and still Norah hadn’t come. June knew why and exactly where she would be. Every Christmas Eve Norah would make her way to the doorway of the old toy shop on the high street and settle herself down. On the opposite side of the street Fullers book shop had a huge Christmas tree in the window and the lights would twinkle until 12pm when they would switch off. Old Mr Fuller owned the shop and lived in a small flat above it. He had first seen Norah twenty years ago and she had come back every Christmas Eve since. Every year he watched her settle in the doorway opposite his shop watching his window. Ten years ago he decided the leave the Christmas tree lights on until 12pm so she had something pretty to look at then last year he put a television in the window. He had recorded all the Christmas movies for her to watch and this year he’d left a pillow, blanket, flask of tea, sandwiches and a mince pie. He had been closed since 4pm but had waited knowing she would arrive on the dot of 5pm as she always did. When Norah arrived he smiled as she looked up at the window and waved. Once more he wondered why she came every year, refusing to go anywhere warmer. ‘Christmas Eve is my remembering time,’ she would say with a smile. Her blue eyes would twinkle for just a moment before once more misting over. ‘Like to be on my own with my memories tonight,’ she would say to anyone offering help. Tomorrow June would welcome her with open arms and give her a nice hot dinner but tonight she needed to be alone, as always. Norah settled down with a happy heart thinking of the lovely warm blanket and hot tea she had to look forward to. At 6pm while watching The Polar Express the first flakes of snow along with Norah’s tears dropped to the ground together.
James Geoffrey Graham huddled around the fire with his friends. It was a bitterly cold Christmas Eve but the atmosphere was merry. One of the older men had a radio and it was blaring out Christmas carols. Old Mac was in the corner singing at the top of his voice, one drink too many was to blame but he would fall asleep soon and they would all get some peace and quiet. They were lucky down here in the old tunnel they were sheltered from the cold and there was always plenty of cardboard and blankets to go around. James had a huge grey heavy overcoat which he’d had for many years. His father had been right, it would last a lifetime. It was probably the only thing his father had been right about. James’ mouth tightened. All these years and it still hurt as much now as it had back then. However, he may be homeless but the group he had spent this last year with were the best ones ever. Old Mac, Gerry, Joseph, young Mary and old Mary. Somehow they had bonded and after some months began telling each other their stories. It had brought a companionship James had never expected, never asked for. These people were more family to him than the ones he had been born into. They were kinder, more accepting than people out there in the real world. He would be sad to move on but he had promised himself one more year looking for her. Old Mac said she may not have survived but James knew different. If she had died somehow he would have known. He had to believe that, otherwise what was the point and yet this year he had begun to give up. It had been a fruitless search so far. He moved nearer to the fire and warmed his hands before making his way to the corner of the tunnel and settled down to remember. Something he did this time every year. He reached deep into the pockets of his old grey coat and his fingers wrapped around the little cross attached to the rosary beads that he had glued together. They were his most precious possession. As soon as he closed his eyes he saw her and it made him smile, as always. It was Christmas Eve and time to remember her once more. The smoke from the fire surrounded him and James slowly drifted back to the past.
He had loved her from the first moment he saw her singing in the choir in the town square. There was something about those eyes. Never had he seen eyes so blue and her jet black hair hung straight down her back. Not a scrap of makeup spoilt that beautiful pale skin. What a beauty he thought absolutely mesmerised. He stood in the freezing cold in the big grey heavy coat his father had bought him. ‘It cost a fortune,’ his father had said, ‘but only the best for my boy. Got to be seen to be doing my best, eh lad.’ James was embarrassed and wished his dad wouldn’t keep talking about how much money they had and how well his business was doing. ‘All yours one day James, don’t you forget that,’ he’d said before slapping him on the back. James shuddered, he couldn’t imagine anything worse than spending the rest of his life working at his dad’s factory. His mother always agreed with anything father said. It was respectful, she told him. He felt sorry for her always obeying his father’s wishes. ‘Stand up for yourself mother,’ he told her one day, when his father had been particularly outspoken and critical. His mother had told him in no uncertain terms to stop saying such things and that they should both be extremely grateful for the roof over their head, food on the table and no financial worries whatsoever. She cared more about money that she did her son. James wondered what it would feel like to be surrounded by love. He would swop the money for love any day of the week. He had stormed out of the house angry at his mother’s words and walked to the town centre to work off his temper. It was four weeks to Christmas and there was a Carol Service going on in the town square. He heard her voice before he saw her and it stopped him in his tracks. For a whole hour he stood in the crowd watching her. Feeling his eyes on her she looked up during the chorus of Silent Night and he winked. She immediately looked down but five minutes later looked up again. James winked once more and saw her smile. Who was she and how on earth was he going to get to know her. He wanted the carol singing to go on all night, something was happening to his heart and he didn’t ever want it to stop. The girl’s clothes had seen better days, nothing she was wearing was going to last a lifetime like James’ coat but he hardly noticed. All he saw were those bright blue eyes. Wonder what she’s called, he thought. When the choir began singing the last chorus of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful,’ he knew the carol service was almost finished and hadn’t a clue what to do. He had to do something, his heart was thumping. He couldn’t just let her go. Can you actually fall in love in an hour he wondered? If this wasn’t love, whatever it was he would take it. He clapped along with the crowd as the singers all took a bow. She was packing up her song sheets in a carrier bag and pulling what looked like an old woollen hat on her head. She was about to leave. James took a deep breath and walked over to her smiling, feeling like a complete idiot. He tapped her on the shoulder and she jumped.
‘Oh goodness you gave me a fright, do I know you.’
James smiled. ‘Of course you do, I’m the man of your dreams.’
Norah raised her eyebrows.
Norah turned away and continued to pack her song sheets away. James felt his face burning with embarrassment. He wasn’t doing very well at all. He tapped her on the shoulder.
‘Sorry that was a bit cheesy.’
Norah’s eyes twinkled.
‘And just a little pathetic if you don’t mind me saying so.’
‘Yes, so you said.’
Oh goodness, thought James, how can I put this right?
‘I don’t usually make such an idiot of myself, may I start again.’
She smiled back. It gave him hope.
‘My name is James Graham and I’m pleased to meet you. You have a lovely voice and the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen.’
Norah blushed slightly.
‘Thank you James.’
‘So what’s your name them.’
She looked back at him, her smile vanishing.
‘I really don’t like my name.’
‘Why on earth not.’
‘It’s not pretty, my friends are all called things like Lucinda, Marianne, and Josephine.’
He reached out to take her hand but she pulled away. It was too soon.
‘Sorry,’ he said, it’s just you’re pretty enough for your name not to matter, just tell me.’
‘My name is Norah Pratt. People I have known for a long time don’t make fun anymore but sometimes new people do. I am rather tired of it to be honest.’
‘Well we will give you a new name,’ James replied, ‘you know what you remind me of with those bright blue eyes and long black hair.’
‘I can’t imagine,’ she replied.
‘Snow White. I have decided I will call you Snow from now on.’
Norah began to roar with laughter causing the pom pom on her woollen hat to shake uncontrollably.
‘I have never heard anything so corny in my entire life. You really are funny.’
James was at a total loss and opened his mouth twice and closed it again not knowing what to say. Norah reached out and touched his hand.
‘Oh goodness James, have I hurt your feelings.’
James folded his arms, put on his best hurt expression and said ‘young lady I am crushed.’
There was a pause before they both burst out laughing. What lovely kind eyes Norah thought and somehow she had a vague feeling she had seen him somewhere before.
James shivered, ‘would you like a hot chocolate Norah, we look a bit silly standing in the middle of the town square like this and I fear it’s going to start snowing any moment now.’
That had been the moment in James’ life when everything changed. Everything that happened afterwards was caused by this single event. If James had told her his full name then, Norah may have realised who he was. By time she found out it would be too late and Norah Pratt would already be head over heels in love. The first time Norah allowed James to walk her home he realised she lived on the run down council estate that his father always talked about and criticized. He vowed at that moment to keep their relationship secret until he figured out what to do. He loved her house it was always full of people laughing, telling jokes and her parents were the kindest people he had ever met. Everyone was welcome in their house. When Norah told him where she worked it was another blow and he knew he would have to pluck up the courage to tell her who he was. James knew there were going to be difficulties ahead. He could well imagine his world crashing around him when he announced to his father that his girlfriend was one of the lower paid employees at the factory. It was fortunate that James never visited the factory floor. He made the excuse of spending Christmas Eve with friends and hurried over to Norah’s house. He was handed a glass of sherry and Norah held out a Christmas cracker. ‘Come on,’ she said, I won’t see you tomorrow let’s do this now. On the count of three, one, two, three.’ There was a crack and the gift flew out of the cracker and James jumped up and caught it. ‘What is it,’ Norah said trying to grab it out of his hand. James’ heart was thumping. ‘Grab your coat Norah,’ he said. Hand in hand they ran out of the house and Norah’s mother watched them from the window. ‘I have a feeling something very special is about to happen tonight,’ she whispered.
They walked and talked for what seemed like forever until they both realised they had walked out of the town into the small village of Merrywell. ‘How pretty it is here,’ James said, let’s come every Christmas Eve. They walked up to the huge Christmas tree and marvelled at the size of it and tried guessing how many coloured lights there were. ‘Look over there,’ Norah said. ‘How quaint. They wandered over to the little toy shop and stood looking at all the toys in the window. All hand crafted, the little sign in the front of the window said. James pulled Norah into the doorway and took her face in his hands before kissing her gently. Norah was quite sure the whole world could hear how loud her heart was beating. She knew there and then she would love him for the rest of her life. There would never be anyone else. It was that simple. James looked into her eyes and knew this was the girl for him, the one he would marry, have children with and nothing and no-one was going to stand in his way. In the doorway of Harvey’s Toy Shop James went down on one knee and produced his gift from the Christmas cracker. A plastic ring with a big pink diamond.
‘Will you marry me Norah Pratt.’
Norah found it hard to speak. Sometimes that’s what happiness does, it’s so powerful it almost chokes you. It was a moment or two before she managed to croak, ‘Yes.’
As the stars twinkled in the night sky James placed the little plastic ring on the third finger of her left hand.
Norah’s eyes filled with tears as she reached into her coat pocket. She pulled out a little set of blue Rosary Beads that she always carried everywhere with her and held them out to James. ‘Hold on to them James,’ she said. ‘Let’s say a quick prayer that we will always love each other as we do now.’
James had never been a great church goer but he was prepared to do anything Norah wanted to make her happy. In the shop doorway as the toy soldiers looked on they each held on to the rosary beads. James wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say but took a deep breath, looked into Norah’s eyes and said.
‘Let’s get married straight away, as soon as possible.’
‘What’s the hurry silly,’ Norah replied.
James grabbed her hands.
‘I want to know that tonight, on Christmas Eve, we have made a vow to each other that nobody can ever break.’
‘Why whoever would want to James, I don’t understand.’
‘Please Norah,’ he begged.
It was just at that moment the soft gentle snow turned to hailstone and together hand in hand they ran down the street screaming with laughter. ‘Where we going,’ James shouted. About ten minutes later soaked to the skin, and not caring in the least, Norah stopped and pointed. ‘There,’ she said. Through the pelting hail James saw a beautiful church all lit up and looking like something out of a picture postcard. ‘We getting married tonight Norah?’ ‘Don’t be silly, she said, of course not, were just going to see Father Michael.’ Norah hoped with all her heart the church would be open, midnight mass was still a few hours away. She reached for the handle pausing for a moment then turned it. ‘Thank goodness,’ she whispered. There was silence inside the church and the candles flickered in the semi darkness. There was a faint whiff of furniture polish and incense along with a beautiful sense of peace. Their footsteps on the stone floor were the only sounds as they walked towards the figure kneeling in the front bench. Father Michael turned as they reached him. He had known Norah all her life, had christened her in fact. There was a blush to her cheeks and the eyes everyone always commented on sparkled brighter than any of the stars in the sky tonight. Father Michael stood up.
‘Well now who is this young man Norah?’
‘This is James, Father.’
They shook hands and Norah continued.
‘We want to be married.’
‘Heavens no Father,’ Norah said with a giggle. It’s just James insists on making a vow tonight that we will be married soon and nothing will get in our way. Can we do that here Father?’
Father Michael was taken aback. ‘Well what an unusual request but yes of course you can. Would you like to come and kneel at the altar?
James and Norah knelt at the altar and held on to the rosary beads as they shyly looked at each other. Father Michael looked at them both, never had he seen and felt such love between two young people. Christmas magic he supposed.
They bowed their heads as Father Michael blessed them both and prayed for their future together then asked if either of them would like to say something in the presence of Our Lord.
James looked up at the cross hanging above the altar then turned to Norah.
‘Mrs James Geoffrey Graham to be, I promise that from this moment on I will love you till the day I die. Is that a good enough,’ he whispered.
‘Perfect,’ replied Father Michael before turning to Norah. ‘And would you like to say something.’
There was a frozen look on Norah’s face that James had never seen before. Shock. Suddenly there was total silence all around them. Even the candles appeared to have stopped flickering as the Holy statues looked on and waited.
Father Michael touched Norah on the shoulder.
‘Is there something wrong?’
Every bit of colour had drained from Norah’s face. She let go of the rosary beads and stood up before turning to look at James.
‘James Geoffrey Graham, you are James Geoffrey Graham.’
Light dawned and James closed his eyes realising what he had done. Norah looked at him horrified.
‘My boss at the factory is called James Geoffrey Graham. I never even gave it a second thought, you’re his son. You are the bosses son, oh dear God why didn’t you tell me James.’
James began to panic. ‘Because it doesn’t matter Norah, really it doesn’t.’ Norah looked furious.
‘So if it doesn’t matter why not tell me before now. You do know your father will never allow this to happen and when exactly did you intend telling him. If you are so sure of us why didn’t you say something weeks ago? Don’t answer that. I’ll tell you why James Geoffrey Graham, because you’re ashamed of me. Norah Pratt from the council estate.’
‘No, no no Norah, stop please, it was because I didn’t want my father spoiling it. I love you, surely you can see that. Please this is not how tonight was supposed to be.’
James grabbed Norah’s hand. ‘It will be alright I promise I will make it alright.’ Norah took a step backwards.
‘No James this will never be alright, I would never have gone out with you if I had known who you were. You kept me secret from your family knowing perfectly well I would never be accepted. If you really loved me you would have told them, and me, straight away. Now I know why you kept putting off taking me to meet your parents.’
‘It’s not like that at all,’ James pleaded. I wouldn’t be here now tonight if I didn’t love you. We’ll make it work Norah, please.’
Norah was shaking her head and her eyes were filling with tears. ‘James, I am one of your father’s lowest paid employees and I live on a council estate. I know your father and I know how terrified we all are when he is on the warpath. I can well imagine what he would say if he found out about us. I can’t believe after the time we have been together you never told me.’
Father Michael reached out to Norah but she held her hands up.
‘Sorry Father, we have wasted your time.’
James watched as Norah took off the ring and handed it to him. James shook his head in disbelief. Tears now pouring down her face Norah threw the ring on the ground and as she turned to run caught the rosary beads which snapped and began bouncing like tiny marbles all around them.
Hastily James fell to the ground gathering all the little beads almost as though he wanted to hold onto every last tiny piece of the girl he loved with all his heart. His sobs echoing around the walls of the church were something Father Michael never forgot.
James didn’t even know he was crying again until Old Mac came and put an arm around his shoulder offering him a swig of whisky. James gulped down a few mouthfuls then shivered. It was always the same every year when he remembered her on Christmas Eve. Where was she now, he wondered? Naturally he had gone to her home but was told that on no account would she see him and only two weeks after Christmas he discovered she had left the factory and nobody would tell him where she was. He wrote letters to her home which were always returned and when, as a last resort, he went to see Father Michael the following Christmas Eve he was told the family had moved away.
One year later his father had a massive heart attack and James sold the business. There were debts that nobody had known about which he managed to settle from the sale. The house was huge, far too big for only two people, but his fathers will meant the house was his but he was unable to sell it. James only stayed because he hoped and prayed Norah would come back one day and he vowed he would be here waiting.
Every Christmas Eve after that James visited Father Michael to ask if he had heard anything about where she might be. It was ten years before he found anything out and was shocked to learn that Norah’s parents had died and Norah, utterly broken hearted, had been rendered homeless. A member of the congregation said she had seen her at a soup kitchen a few miles away. That Christmas Eve James packed up all his belongings in a huge rug sack, put on his big grey coat along with warm gloves, hat and scarf, ensured his mother would be looked after and set out to find her. That was twenty years ago and he was amazed how easy it was to live on the streets when you felt completely broken and alone. Unexpectedly, there was a comradeship which he never expected to find. There had even been friendship and understanding amongst some of those he’d met. James never stayed for more than a year in the same place. He was so sure he would find her one day but this year he was beginning to lose hope. He found it hard to believe how many homeless people there were out there. He had visited his mother four years after leaving and the look of disgust on her face when she saw him still angered him now. He returned last year wondering if his mother was still alive, feeling guilty one moment and angry with her the next. Never once had she shown him an ounce of love or compassion. The house was falling into disrepair and it was in semi darkness. Only a huge lantern in the window gave any light. He stood for a moment watching before turning away and deciding he would never return again. The house was his but he would never live in it. He was happier in the tunnel with his friends around the fire.
His thoughts turned back to Norah. Maybe Old Mac was right and she had not survived. Why on earth had she been reduced to living on the streets, he wondered. He had broken her heart, that’s why. James sat up straight, he would never give up looking for her. He would visit yet another soup kitchen tonight hoping she was there. He had travelled far and wide over the years visiting what felt like hundreds of soup kitchens and shelters. Twice he had been back to the soup kitchen in Merrywell on Christmas Eve hoping she might want to be near home but she was never there. Tonight he would try one last time. He owed it to her. James shivered, it was freezing cold tonight. There was a carol service playing on the radio and Old Mary began to sing. It brought a lump to James’ throat and new tears to his eyes. He reached into the deep pockets of his grey coat and his fingers curled around the plastic ring and rosary beads. As the snow began to fall James Geoffrey Graham began to pray.
A few miles away, Norah sat forward and watched as the little boy on the Polar Express opened the pretty box from Santa with the reindeer’s bell inside. Suddenly her shoulders began to shake as the tears ran down her lined face creating a damp patch on the lovely thick blanket wrapped around her. There would be no Christmas magic for her this year or any other come to that. No hope of a better life one day. Not without James. How stupid she had been running off like that and refusing to see him. It wasn’t his fault that he was born into a family of wealth. Her feelings of inferiority and knowing her station in life were to blame. How ridiculous those words sounded now. Norah looked up and watched as Santa Clause the movie began and huddled further down inside her blanket. It was beyond ridiculous to fall in love within a matter of weeks and keep that love alive for so many years for someone she would never see again. She wouldn’t do this anymore on Christmas Eve. This would be the last time she would come here, it was too painful to remember. Norah turned to look at the little toy soldiers in the shop window and whispered ‘Happy Christmas,’ as she did every year and settled down to watch another Christmas movie.
As the stars shone in the night sky over the town of Merrywell the little Nativity Scene in the town centre was lit up by the fairy lights surrounding it. There was a gust of wind and the straw blew around the crib where baby Jesus lay. Mother Mary looked lovingly at her child and in the stillness there was a sense of Christmas magic.
Edith Graham sat in her drawing room staring into the crackling log fire. She tried squeezing her eyes tightly shut to stop the flow of tears yet still they came as she knew they would. It was her punishment to sit on Christmas Eve and look back over all her mistakes. Edith couldn’t remember the first time she’d realised how many bad choices she had made. Looking up at the mantelpiece she stared at her wedding photograph. How proud she had been to be marrying James that day. He was going far he told her. Edith Graham would never be short of money, or have to work and when they had children she would stay at home and ensure the house was run efficiently. He would make rules which must be obeyed. It was for her own good he ensured wagging his finger. When their son James was born Edith was told in no uncertain terms not to namby pamby him. She would be doing him a disservice. She must ensure he grew up to follow in his father’s footsteps, if he was to be successful. Edith couldn’t imagine for a moment why she had agreed. James, after all, turned out to be a far kinder, loving and stronger person than his father had ever been. It always terrified her when James stood up to his father knowing he would blame her and her soft ways as he always put it. Edith walked over to the mantelpiece and lifted the photograph down. ‘Look at my stupid simpering face,’ she said and threw it across the room feeling pleased when it shattered on the wooden floor. Bending her head and allowing the tears to continue flowing her shoulders began shaking as she remembered the time her son had returned to see her. James must have seen the shock on her face. Her hand had flown to her mouth when she realised this dirty person standing on her doorstep was actually her own son. That had been her chance to make everything better, to throw her arms around him, bring him in, offer him food and drink and sit him in front of the fire. She had done none of these things just stood staring at him unable to speak. The anger and disgust in his face as he turned from her and walked away was one she would never forget. Why hadn’t she run after him, made him come back instead of standing there like a fool shocked to the core? When she had eventually found her voice she had screamed his name and ran down the driveway but it was too late, he was gone.
The fire was growing cold and Edith shivered. She deserved to be cold in this horrible old house which had seen better days. Edith didn’t care if it fell down around her. She was sick of the do gooders who came bearing gifts of food and coal to ensure she was surviving. It gave her some satisfaction to suffer. Edith stood up and put another log on the fire and watched as the flames roared once more. She closed her eyes and prayed. ‘Just in case he comes home God, and he’s cold.’ Edith then went to get the lantern to place in the window. As she lit the candle the lantern glowed and flickered in the darkness. As she did every year on Christmas Eve, Edith stood looking out of the window and prayed for forgiveness. She would stand here until midnight waiting and watching, just in case. ‘Please God she prayed, bring him home.’
The people of the soup kitchen began handing out hot meals to the homeless people of the surrounding towns and villages. There was a festive atmosphere and lots of them knew each other and were huddled together in groups enjoying a very different Christmas Eve to the many people sitting around their Christmas trees waiting excitedly for Christmas morning. James sat alone watching and waiting. Father Michael wasn’t here this year. Maybe he had left the parish, he must be near seventy years old now. Some hours later James continued to scan the faces of the people and knew she wasn’t coming.
His legs felt as though they were made of lead tonight as he made his way through the snow that was now falling. It looked absolutely magical but it failed to warm his heart. He found himself walking the same way they had gone all those years ago. In his mind he could see them running to the little toy shop doorway, holding hands, so much in love. That’s what he could do tonight before leaving this place never to return. Go back to where it had all started and think about her. Maybe if there was a God she would hear him and know he had kept his promise to love her for the rest of his life. He hoped the old toy shop was still there and wasn’t a block of flats now like so many other places. It was the flickering of a television set in the book shop that first caught his attention and he stopped to watch Santa who seemed to be surrounded by elves making toys. It should have made him smile but it only saddened him further. Maybe he would sit in the toy shop doorway and watch it for a while. James made his way down the street and was disappointed to see someone else huddled in the doorway. He was about to turn away when his heart began to beat fast. It couldn’t be, surely not. He stared at the heap of blankets in the doorway and found when he tried to take a step forward he couldn’t move. He seemed to be glued to the pavement. If it wasn’t her he didn’t think his heart would take it. It was some minutes before he took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and began to walk towards the heap of blankets in the doorway.
Norah heard footsteps walking towards her and hoped there wasn’t going to be any trouble. She peeped out from her blanket to see what looked like a homeless person walking towards her and she breathed a sigh of relief. She could spot a homeless person a mile off and they had never posed any threat to her in all her years on the streets. Mind you he needn’t think he could share her doorway, this was hers and always had been. Nobody else ever came here on Christmas Eve. Norah watched as the man came nearer then stood looking down on her. It was the coat she recognised first before she looked into the eyes of the man she had loved and lost so many years ago. Neither one of them spoke until quite suddenly James dropped to his knees. Reaching out with shaking and freezing cold fingers he took Norah’s face in his hands. As Santa and the elves and the little toys soldiers looked on Norah flung her arms around James’ neck and they held on to each other not noticing that the snow had now turned to hail just as it had all those years ago. When eventually they pulled apart they still didn’t speak, just simply stared at each other. There was a twinkle in Norah’s eyes and she smiled before sitting back and crossing her arms. ‘What took you so long,’ she said. James stood up and began to roar with laughter then reached down and pulled Norah up and together they began dancing in the hailstone. Suddenly James stopped and grabbed her hands.
‘I think it’s time to finish what we started.’
‘We can’t James, look at the state of us.’
‘I don’t care,’ James replied and if Father Michael is the same person he always was he won’t care either.’
Norah shook her head.
‘Oh James it was thirty years ago, he might not be there anymore.’
‘Well then,’ said James, ‘we will have to pray for a miracle Mrs James Geoffrey Graham to be.’
A grin spread over Norah’s face and hand in hand they walked to the church exactly as they had done thirty years ago tonight. James prayed all the way for the church to be open and was relieved to see all the lights on. The door however was locked and his heart sunk. They were now soaked to the skin and probably looked like a couple of dirty drowned rats but James wasn’t about to give up. He knocked on the door and they both stood still and waited. Norah looked up at James, a worried expression on her face but James raised his fist and knocked again. He had found her and from now on everything would be alright he told her. They both jumped when they heard the bolt being pulled back and a much older and frailer Father Michael pulled the heavy oak door open. His first thought was that these people were looking for the soup kitchen and was about to give directions when he saw those beautiful blue eyes that he had never forgotten and gasped.
‘Hello Father Michael.’
‘Heavens above, come in, come in and warm yourselves,’ he said. I have the heating on for Midnight Mass and the congregation won’t be here for at least another two hours. Hardly able to believe what was happening he led them to the front pew and listened as they told their story. Never in his entire life had he been so moved.
‘We want to finish what we started Father, we want to be married,’ said James.
Norah nodded her head. ‘No certificates and stuff, just the two of us tonight making our vows to each other,’ can we do that Father?’
‘Come to the altar,’ Father Michael said.
Kneeling down James reached into his coat pocket and produced the rosary beads. ‘You kept them,’ Norah whispered.
With the candles flickering, no flowers or music, Norah and James stood side by side and took their marriage vows and Father Michael felt a joy in his heart he hadn’t known for a long time. This was a true Christmas miracle if ever he saw one.
When it came to the giving of rings Father Michael stopped not sure how to progress. Was there something here in the church they could use but he needn’t have worried. Once more James reached into his pocket and pulled out the plastic ring. Norah’s laughter echoed all around the church walls.
Father Michael blessed the couple standing in front of him and couldn’t remember a wedding where he felt more love between two people. He offered to give them both a hot meal before leaving and asked them if they had anywhere to go. ‘It’s alright Father we will be fine,’ James replied. I will look after her believe me. Father Michael refused to let them go without filling a bag of food for them and stood for quite some time watching them leave looking like the happiest two people in the world. He closed the church door and slowly made his way back to the little flat attached to the church. He walked over to the table in his study and crumpled up the sermon he had written then began preparing for Midnight Mass.
James thought he would burst with happiness as they walked hand in hand through the snow storm. ‘Where are we going James,’ Norah asked. ‘Wait and see,’ he said with a determined look on his face. Fortunately the hail began to cease and pretty little snow flakes fell gently from the sky. Norah grabbed James’ hand tightly when they stood together at the huge iron gates that led to the driveway. She wasn’t sure this was a good idea at all and began to feel a little frightened. The first thing they both noticed was the huge lantern standing in the window, the flickering flame looking so pretty and welcoming in the darkness. As they got nearer James realised there was someone standing behind it looking out at them and he stopped.
Edith Graham almost dropped to her knees when she saw the two people approaching the house. She knew without a shadow of a doubt it was her son. All she wanted at that moment was to run out and greet them both but she was older and slower now. Leaning on her walking stick she walked as quickly as possible, her heart beating faster than it had ever done before. Her fingers shaking she reached for the handle and opened the door. Edith looked at her son and the woman who was with him. She let go of her stick which clattered on the stone floor and opened her arms.
In Merrywell village church, Father Michael looked out over his congregation. The ladies of the parish council had excelled themselves this year and the church looked splendid. A beautiful Nativity scene was set up on the right hand side of the altar and there were beautiful garlands and flower displays all around the church. It had been the perfect setting for tonight. The congregation raised their voices in song and Father Michael knew this would be his last year as Parish Priest and it had been absolutely perfect in every way. His heart was full as he made his way up the steps to the pulpit. Every eye was on him and there was a total hush as everyone waited for Father Michael’s Christmas sermon. This year there was no rustling of papers, no notes to read from. Father Michael smiled and with no shame let the tears fall from his eyes.
‘Tonight, he said, I am going to tell you all a true story about the miracle of Christmas…….
May I wish you all a very happy Christmas if anyone would like to read more of my stories you can access my blog via my website http://www.suzannelambert.com