ADVENT DOORS By Anne Stenhouse
Jamie sidled out of his room and crept along the landing to the bathroom door. Once in the bathroom, with the door closed behind him, he could pull the cord and enjoy the flood of light. Slumped against the side of the bath with legs and feet stretched in front of him, he was fiendishly uncomfortable, but it was a small price to pay for being able to carry on reading.
No one outside knew he was here.
Not even Mum.
“Jamie,” his mum’s voice carried upstairs and cut through the hum of the powerful bathroom fan over his head. Jamie dropped his book. What was she doing home? How could the supermarket spare their senior supervisor two days before Christmas?
Oops, no mistaking that tone. Scrambling onto his feet he stretched a hand to the edge of the sink and balanced. He pulled open the door and gazed down to where his mum waited.
“You are supposed to be across the road at Lynsey’s party. You were invited.”
Jamie shuffled. Was he invited because Lynsey wanted him there, though? Or was he invited because Lynsey’s dad felt sorry for him?
“Suppose,” he muttered. He saw the angry expression challenging him, but he also saw the quick flash of something else before his mum suppressed it.
“Suppose!” His mum started up the narrow stairs and grabbing him by the arm marched him along to his room.
She pointed at the new trousers and the Christmas themed jumper and waited while Jamie changed into them. His bad foot slowed him down as usual, but when he glanced at the long mirror on the wardrobe door, he realised everything suited him and the trousers were long enough to cover his gammy foot. He looked like anyone.
“Where’s the parcel?”
Jamie toyed briefly with the idea of saying he’d lost it. When he couldn’t come up with any notion of where in this tiny, tiny house, he might have lost it, he hauled it out from under his bed. It was a little less pristine than it had been. The big tinselly bow was crushed but the paper wasn’t torn. Or at least not much.
“For goodness sake. Do you know how hard it was to afford that?”
“I didn’t want to go, Mum. I told you I…”
“Yes,” his mum sounded defeated. “Yes, you just want to go on sitting in the dark reading a book.”
Jamie didn’t sit in the dark reading a book. You couldn’t read a book if it was dark, not really dark, not December dark. Could you?
“I like reading and if I’m in the bathroom that nosy woman at number twenty can’t report you for not being here, can she?”
“Oh, Jamie.” His mum shepherded him downstairs and stretched around him to unlatch the front door. “Mrs number twenty had a stroke last night. She’s in hospital.”
“Oh,” Jamie didn’t know what else to say. They knew about strokes. It was one of them that took his dad.
“Ralph,” his mum corrected herself, “Doctor Sime, told me when he phoned to find out where you were. I said,” she paused dramatically, and Jamie gazed at her, “I said you’d been held up because you missed your connection.”
“Right,” Jamie often said he’d missed his connection when he walked, very slowly, to the first stop on an alternative bus route. It meant he didn’t have to listen to the taunts from the cool guys about his foot.
They crossed the road and walked down towards the house Lynsey’s family occupied. It was her, her dad, twin sisters and an elderly auntie. Lynsey’s mum died when her baby brother was born. He died, too, but Lynsey said she didn’t miss him because she’d never known him. She did miss her mum.
“There’s a reindeer in the garden,” Jamie said. It was cold and his breath hung in the air as he spoke. “It’s real.” Jamie could smell the smell of an animal and when it moved the bells on its harness jingled. The handler raised a hand in salute.
Jamie looked towards the door where there was a big wreath of greenery and holly with berries. “Why aren’t they out looking at it?”
“It’s Lynsey’s big birthday surprise. That’s why Ralph phoned because he didn’t want you to miss it. Go on.” His mum gave him a sharp push between the shoulder blades towards the door. “Don’t let on.”
“Aren’t you coming in?”
“I’ve got to get back and finish my shift,” his mum said.
“Right,” Jamie felt the wobble. The one that attacked him in the tummy whenever he remembered that Dad wasn’t coming home again. Not ever. Mum had to work, or they’d go hungry.
He felt the weight of the parcel in his hand. Why had she spent money on this when they couldn’t afford more than a turkey dinner for two at her staff discount? What kind of Christmas was that in comparison with how it used to be?
“Jamie,” his mum’s voice cut into his rambling thoughts, but it was like a cake slice not a carving knife. “Jamie if you really don’t want to go in, I’ll phone Ralph and say you’re poorly.” She began to feel in her coat pocket for her mobile.
“Why are you calling him Ralph?”
“It’s his name. And, you know, maybe I’m a store supervisor and he’s a consultant surgeon, but he’s a gentleman.”
“He wants to operate on my foot,” Jamie said the words and they were an accusation. Lynsey had heard his mum and her dad discussing a fairly straightforward tendon realignment.
“Yes, well, I haven’t agreed to anything, Jamie, but he is the best in the field and the science has moved on since your dad vetoed the op the last time.” His mum sighed. “Darling, I have to get back to the store. Are you going in or do I need to walk you to the library?”
Jamie thought about the library and the way its revolving door welcomed a person in. Even before you got into the building and could smell the books and the floor polish and sense the hush in the atmosphere, you were being drawn forward to its hidden secrets.
“Revolving doors do spit you out, though,” Jamie said, “At shutting time.”
“Of course, they let you out. It’s not a prison and I’ll be finished by six-thirty so I can meet you…”
“I didn’t mean that.” Jamie protested. “I love the library and anything’s better than after-school club.”
Supervision of Jamie, now eleven and tall for his age, was one of the things he and his mum argued about. They were teetering on the edge of a full-blown row. Christmas cheer was saved by the opening of the front door.
Mr Sime stood in the light, and the noise of a party well underway drowned their angry words.
“Hullo young man. Well, there’s been a lot of huffing in the doocots over your whereabouts, I don’t mind telling you. Nancy,” Mr Sime broke off and Jamie saw the delight, quickly followed by concern in Mr Sime’s eyes as he skipped down the front steps to grasp his mum’s hand. The doctor pulled her towards him and kissed her on the cheek.
Jaimie didn’t think his mum was surprised. He was surprised, though. He was very surprised.
“Ralph, you weren’t supposed to see me. Jamie’s here now. I’ll collect him at eight o’clock.”
Mr Sime kept his hand on his mum’s arm and that did make her surprised.
“I’ll bring him along and there might be a few left-overs,” Mr Sime said. “Auntie will see the girls get to bed okay.”
Jamie went into the house and handed his parcel to Lynsey. He hoped she wasn’t going to ask him what was in it because her auntie took it from her and added it to a pile of unopened parcels in a laundry basket beside the door.
“I hoped you’d come in time for the surprise,” Lynsey said.
“Yes,” Jamie said. “Sorry I’m late.”
“That’s all right. You’re worth waiting for.”
Over Lynsey’s head, Jamie shared a look with Mr Sime. The surgeon closed the door behind him. Jamie didn’t panic.
“The reindeer was great, Mr Sime,” Jamie said later as they walked along the road towards the end where the smaller houses sat. Mr Sime was carrying a cool bag, but Jamie didn’t know exactly what was in it. It seemed heavier than it should be if there was only a few sausage rolls and a bit of cake in there.
“Do you like animals?”
“Oh yes. Next to books.”
“Going to be a vet?”
“Don’t know.” Jamie thought about his foot. “I maybe couldn’t do much on a farm. I mean with big animals.”
“You think? Because of your balance?”
Jamie pondered this. Was there a door opening here, or closing? Should he say yes or no or maybe? Why was his dad’s face harder to remember this Christmas than it had been last?
Jamie’s mum was standing in their tiny hall when they came through the gate.
“I was looking out,” she said although everyone knew already. “Come in.” she backed into the front room and Jamie waited while Mr Sime followed her. He closed the front door.
Ahead of him their Advent calendar hung on a shoogly gold tack. Jamie opened the little door for the 23rd and found a picture of a donkey.
Wouldn’t it be good to run free, he thought. Surely his dad would have changed his mind when the science improved? Another thing that would be good, he knew after tonight, was learning to dance so he didn’t have to sit on one side and watch.
He pushed open the living-room door and wasn’t really surprised to see the bit of mistletoe Mr Sime was stuffing back into the cool bag or the bottle of red wine on the table.
“Can I have the operation during term-time?” he asked.
© Anne Stenhouse
A list of my fellow Christmassy Robins is below and there’s more free storytelling for you on their blogs.
A Debt for Rosalie buy here