It may be behind, like the cow's tail, but here is my Christmas story for December 2023.
It might be Christmas, but Suzie Castle felt no cheer or goodwill to all men. Losing her parents this year within months of each other weighed heavily on her, as did having her art class budget cut. She worried for her students, who had left before she did today with cheery Christmas greetings and shouts of ‘see you next year’ as they filed out of the classroom before her.
Cold from riding the train and then taking a bus from the school where she taught to her home, her feet wet from walking through slush and snow from the bus stop, she trudged up the stairs of her three-storey apartment building, wondering why she’d insisted on having a room with a view when an apartment on the main floor would have been so much more convenient right now.
Stopping at her door, Number 304, she set her grocery bag down and searched her purse for her keys. Why hadn’t she thought to find them while sitting on the train or the bus? She fitted the key in the lock, turned it and pushed her door open—then stopped.
Pale blue light flooded her open-plan kitchen, dining, and living room.
Had she left a light on? She didn’t think so. Besides, all her lights were practical, white LED bulbs. This morning, she had switched them all off and opened the drapes before leaving for her journey to the school. Now, not only was there light, but her drapes were closed against the wintery night. She stepped inside, her jaw dropping as she looked around.
The blue light came from an acrylic Christmas tree on her coffee table. Who had put it there? And when had all those cards been set up on her mantle shelf?
Suzie toed off her wet boots and wriggled her toes into her welcome mat as she unzipped her coat. Who on earth had been in her apartment? She hung her coat in the hall closet. As she approached her coffee table, she noticed several wrapped gifts on the floor beneath it. Frowning, she picked one up and looked at the label.
Happy Christmas, Miss Castle. See you next year. Best wishes, Jorge.
She picked up another.
Thank you for making the last term so fun. Love, Beccy.
Thinking of the bright, difficult fifteen-year-old with whom she’d had more than one skirmish, tears pricked Suzie’s eyes. She brushed them away and picked up another gift.
You helped me see things differently. Thank you. Love, Donny.
Donny. Suzie laid the gift on the table. She’d crossed words with him, too.
Suzie ran her gaze along the row of cards, stunned to see herself depicted on each one. She picked up the biggest, showing her in her toque and muffler with a big smile. She ran her finger over it and opened it.
Hope you like my drawing of you. Happy Christmas. Peter.
Peter. Her most talented pupil.
On another card, she was pointing something out to a figure she was sure was little Mary Brown. Whose easel had been behind Mary’s? Suzie couldn’t remember but thought it might have been Devon Jackson. She turned the card over. Sure enough, there were his initials and the date.
Suzie swallowed the lump in her throat as she remembered some of the casual, throw-away questions and comments from the last few weeks in the run-up to Christmas.
What do you do at Christmas, Miss Castle?
“Snuggle up in a big blanket with a book and drink hot chocolate.”
Do you have turkey and all the trimmings?
“Good gracious, no. It’s just like another day for me, although I sometimes buy myself a box of chocolates.”
Have you ever locked yourself out of your apartment?
“Only once, and then I left a spare key with my neighbour.”
Why did that question and her response suddenly spring into her mind?
Who had asked it? Suzie’s brow wrinkled as she thought back. It was Beccy. She was sure of it. At the time, she’d been busy suggesting a correction to the shading in Beccy’s drawing and not thought anything of it. Now, she saw clearly how her students had been cleverly gathering information all this time.
A knock at her door startled her, but she went to open it, only to find her elderly next-door neighbour, Mrs. Delaney from Number 306, outside.
“Mrs. Delaney,” Suzie said, welcoming her with a smile. “Please come in.”
There was an answering twinkle in Mrs. Delaney’s kind, blue eyes. “Don’t mind if I do, but I won’t keep you a moment. I only wanted to make sure you weren’t cross that I’d used your spare key to let the young ones into your apartment, and of course, I stayed with them while they decorated. They were such polite young people and wanted to do something nice for you so you wouldn’t feel lonely at Christmas.”
“How could I be cross about that sentiment, Mrs. Delaney?” Suzie motioned her to sit down. “This is the nicest thing that has happened to me in a long while. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“If you’re sure it’s no trouble, dear.”
Suzie went into the kitchen to fill the kettle and switch it on, but right beside it, a mug with two single sachets of gourmet hot chocolate sat on top of a box of chocolates.
“Mrs. Delaney,” Suzie called. “Would you like a mug of hot chocolate instead? Irish cream or salted caramel?”
“Irish cream would be lovely,” Mrs. Delaney said, and Suzie unhooked another mug from her mug tree.
When she had made the drinks and carried them into the living room, Suzie sat opposite her neighbour and smiled.
“Thank you for helping my students set this up,” she said. “This is the best gift anyone could have given me.” She raised her mug in a salute to Mrs. Delaney and each one of her students. “Happy Christmas!”