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Not Even Christmas

A short story by Robert Scott

It had been an excellent childhood as far as Sam was concerned and the North of England had been a great place to enjoy it.

He liked spending so much time with his grandparents in their tiny flat while his mother was at work. He liked being spoilt with those tasty snacks of bread-and-dripping and the cups of hot Bovril. It was great playing with the neighbourhood kids on the flattened sites between rows of houses.

He wouldn’t dream of complaining at being wakened at night, with the siren wailing and being hurriedly bundled into the air-raid shelter in the backyard, where he was happy to share a bunk with the little girl from the upstairs flat. It all had the irresistible spark of adventure as they whispered secrets under the blanket with the solitary candle flickering in the corner, creating its enthralling theatre of dancing shadows. Even the subdued adult comments about “The War” provided its touch of lurking drama.

He even enjoyed the bracing northern winters, which brought the frost-slides, snowball-fights and games of cut-the-bay in the early twilight. Christmas was special, of course. Everybody knew that, and the air would be charged with a certain tension as it grew closer.

Christmas meant the possibility of pennies from carol-singing if the bigger kids gave you a go, although his debut had occurred only last year. He only knew a few lines and relied on those same kids for a sense of timing. He was unobtrusively in awe of the bigger ones, one of whom was thirteen. Adults were a natural phenomenon of life, like trees and animals, but teenagers seemed as remotely mysterious as aliens from outer space.

Christmas brought the exciting ritual of hanging out a sock for presents. And what presents! Sam always knew he could rely on special treats. There’d be an apple and an orange and a pear. Probably, there’d be some Smarties. But, best of all, there’d be a Mars bar. Sam craved that Mars Bar, which represented life’s ultimate luxury, the Nobel prize of the taste-buds. He’d mentally drool over it for weeks leading up to the big day.

He was just day-dreaming of course. Christmas was months away and it was incredible how slowly time moved. Christmases were a year apart and a year was just an eternity. That whole year of suppressed salivating always stretched into the inconceivable distance, like the sheer face of Everest reaching for its own impossibly remote pinnacle.

He was six now, but even three was so far back that he had virtually no memory of it. Anyway, there was plenty to enjoy between Christmases. Grown-ups occasionally grumbled about rationing, but he could never understand what the fuss was about. There always seemed to be bread, margarine, jam, and his mum made delicious potato soups, piping hot.

He was contemplating this richness of life as he walked home from the local infant school. He knew, although he didn’t quite understand it, that there was a lot of unusual excitement in the adult world too. Grown-ups were meant to be grumpy, censoring, and restrictive. Now they were bustling around on recharged batteries, continually babbling on about the end-of-the-War and mysterious wonders ahead. How everything would change. Why should things change? He’d never known things to be any different – and what was wrong with the way things were anyway?

Deep in thought, he turned the corner into his own street and walked smack into Calvin Smith. He usually avoided Calvin, who was eight and a bully, so the sight of him deposited on the seat of his pants wasn’t too reassuring.

When Calvin regained his composure and his feet, he just lashed out. Sam wasn’t really equipped to overcome eight-year-olds, but the neighbourhood kids tended to run a bit wild on the street and fights were common enough. Sam was one of many who had developed a certain premature toughness as part of the natural survival order. Instinctively and since there seemed no option, he hit back.

They were rolling about on the ground when intervention arrived. Sam might have resisted with some futile struggle, but the man holding them apart was just too imposing a figure. His appearance subdued them both. He was tall and tanned, dressed in an immaculate R.A.F. – uniform with three stripes on each sleeve. A bulging kit-bag sat compactly on his back. Everything about him seemed unnaturally perfect and there was a quality of unreality about the encounter.

“It’ll be enough”, he said. His voice carried only a trace of the local accent and a lot of authority. He looked at Calvin a little scornfully. “You ought to pick on someone your own size.”

“He started it”, muttered Calvin sullenly.

“Didn’t”, retorted Sam defiantly. He dabbed at his bloody nose with his shirt-sleeve.

“Your mother will be thrilled at that”, said the man drily. He handed Sam a tissue-paper. “Stuff a little up your nostrils to stop the flow. You can breathe through your mouth for a while.”

“I have to go”, muttered Calvin.

“Just don’t let me catch you beating on littler kids again.” They watched him slouch away. “C’mon, I’d better see you home”, the man said to Sam.

Sam would normally have been suspicious, but the uniform seemed to justify everything. Actually, he felt quite elated walking along with this impressive-looking man. He was already fantasizing about comic-book heroes like Captain Marvel. He was even happy enough to have him wait at the door, like a trophy brought home to impress the neighbours.

When his mum opened the door, there ensued a really strange chain of events. The man ushered Sam inside and stepped in after him. This seemed weird enough, but his mum walked voluntarily into the stranger’s arms and they embraced each other in silence for an endless time while Sam shuffled in acute embarrassment. What was his mother doing?

Finally, the man stepped back, closed the door, extricated himself from the kitbag and deposited it on the floor. He unzipped a pocket, drew out a tin container and handed it to Sam. “For you. You can open it.”

It was all way over Sam’s head, but he opened the container and his eyes went wide. It was full of sweets and chocolates. He’d seen nothing like it. There were three – no four Mars bars. He couldn’t take it in, stunned by the enormity of the offering. He knew that he shouldn’t accept gifts from strangers and he stared at his mum speechlessly.

“So you’ve met?” His mum’s question made no sense, but neither did the tears on her face – or any of this, for that matter.

“Sort of. He was bashing a bigger guy with his nose when I arrived. We haven’t been properly introduced.”

His mother was acting so strangely. She seemed to be laughing and crying at the same time.

“Sam”, she said with a briefly grave expression on her face, “I’d like you to meet your dad.”

Sam felt a warm glow expanding in his chest, but he didn’t know how to react. He seemed on the verge of something too vast to be immediately absorbed. He was already operating close to overload and this further development was too much for his mind to process. He stared from one adult to the other in bewilderment.

“Geez, Mum” he gasped, resorting to the vernacular of the local kids, despite many previous reprimands. “Does that mean I can keep all these?”

Inexplicably, both adults burst into laughter. There was no understanding adults but Sam knew this was all especially bizarre. He was aware that the world had gone mad – but what a wonderful madness.

“I reckon”, said his mum softly.

He wrestled with the sheer magnitude of it. Surely, there must be at least one of those baffling grown-up rules against unwrapping one of the Mars bars. And was it safe now to unplug his nostrils so that his already-watering mouth need not be diverted by the tedious duty of breathing? He stared at his newly-materialised father and then at the amazing container in his hands, letting his mind establish that there were no illusions.

“And it isn’t even Christmas”, he whispered in awe.

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