by Shena Mackay
  • 25 May - 31 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘I suppose your mum’s made all her pies and pudding and the Christmas cake?’ Granny Fitz said as we went up to my room.

‘Yes, but we haven’t iced the cake yet.’

The room was cold and my teeth chattered. Soot pattered into the empty grate.

‘Should’ve been done weeks ago. Have you got your marzi-pan on at least?’

There was an empty stone hot water bottle on the bed, hard and icy to the touch. I took Bobbity out of my bag and sat him on the shiny yellow quilt.

‘I don’t care about any stupid Christmas cake.’

‘In that case I don’t suppose you care about the iced fancies we’ve got for tea.’

I didn’t, but I had to pretend to.

Later that afternoon I overheard Granny talking to a woman in the snug.

‘I think it’s worse when your daughter’s having a baby than having one yourself, don’t you? You wish you could go through the pain for them.’

Pain? Although I knew women died in childbirth in books, nobody had told me it hut to have a baby. I closed my eyes and prayed.

The sheets were freezing and the stone hot water bottle scalding when I lay in bed that night with waves of noise from the pub coming through the floor and a ragged rendering of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, followed by a female voice breaking like a glass on ‘I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus, underneath the Mistletoe Last Night.’

‘Your dad is keeping the books up to date now, I hope?’ Granny Fitz said at breakfast. ‘Has business picked up at all?’


‘So you’ve built up a clientele of regulars, have you? Can’t rely on passing trade in the winter. Or riff-raff for that matter.’

I saw them sitting in the tea room, the men we made at school from coloured raffia that tasted bitter and could cut your tongue.

‘Local ladies coming in for their morning coffee? Afternoon tea?’ Grandpa Fitz’s eyes were like china marbles with a swirl of grey and red flecks.

His hand trembled as he wiped egg from his moustache and his teacup rattled in its saucer. He took the cigarette from behind his ear and tried to light it but the match kept going out. I took the matchbox and struck a match and held it until the cigarette glowed.

‘Can I see your Crystal Palace after breakfast, Grandpa? Is it finished yet?’ Granny Fitz gave a bitter laugh. Grandpa had been engaged in building the Crystal Palace out of matchsticks. There were to be trees made from twigs and bits of sponge dipped in green paint and the great fountains would be cascades of silver twisted from the paper in cigarette boxes set in lakes of mirror glass, to the amazement of the crowds of pipe-cleaner people.

‘Can I, Grandpa?’

‘I’d better get on through to give George a hand,’ said Grandpa, and went into the public bar where George the barman was clattering glasses.

‘It went up in flames, like the original. What they call poetic justice, as somebody in the bar said,’ Granny Fitz told me when he was out of earshot.

‘Better not mention it again.

Broke his silly old heart.’

‘Oh poor Grandpa!’

It was a raw, grey morning smelling of ashtrays and carpet dust.


‘I wish the baby would hurry up and come. Granny, does it hurt very much to have a baby?’

‘No worse than going to the dentist.’

‘Gas or Cocaine?’

You were given the choice.

A needle or smelly rubber

mask over your face; children spitting blood into a row of white basins.

‘You clear the table while

I wash up, and tell your grandpa we’re going shopping and we’ll be back presently.’

‘I’ve got to buy my Christmas presents but I haven’t got much money.’

‘Don’t let’s worry about that.’

I went into the bar. Grandpa wasn’t there. ‘George, can you tell Grandpa we’ve gone shopping?’

‘Pardon Mrs Arden?’ said George, a friendly Geordie with a Hitler moustache that wouldn’t grow properly over the scar on his lip.

‘Pardon Mrs Arden

Me chicken’s in your garden.

If it wasn’t for his liver,

I’d drown him in the river,’

I said, reminded of the school playground and Ruby.

‘Please can you tell Grandpa we’re going shopping.’

‘OK, Toots,’ said George. ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Buy me something nice for Christmas, won’t you?’

With sinking heart I added George’s name to my Christmas list. Even with the two shillings from Mr Greenidge I hadn’t got nearly enough money. A ten-shilling note was sticking out of the open till; a flock of butterflies beat their wings inside me. George had gone down to the end of the bar and was stacking crisp packets. I could hear Mrs Lynch the cleaner’s carpet sweeper in the saloon.


Granny Fitz saved me from becoming a thief but I sat miserably beside her in the bus, sure that she could tell that I was the sort of girl who would rob her own grandparents. I felt guilty, although better at the same time when she took a ten-shilling note from her purse and told me to put it in mine. We went to Bon Marche in Brixton, a grand emporium of delights, and we were sitting with a pot of tea and éclairs after we had finished our shopping when I suddenly remembered Ruby’s black eye, when Gloria and Lex had accused her of taking money from the till, and I went hot and cold.

‘Granny, if you think of doing something wicked but some-body stops you from doing it, does it still count?’

‘Oh I expect so. Depends. Look at the way your jumper’s sticking out of the sleeves of that coat. How long have you had it now?’ I had unbuttoned my coat, which had once been a shade called Old Rose, with wine-coloured piping. When I stood up my skirt hem hung below it.

‘Committing adultery in your heart,’ said Granny Fitz.

‘I’ve missed the school play.’

‘Never mind. Perhaps you can do it at home for Grandpa and George and me.’

‘I don’t think so.’

I thought of Ruby doing the Mince-Pie Dance by herself. They would have to change the words of the song, and I knew I would never have dared to sing by myself in front of an audience.

We are the Mince Pies

Sugar and Spice.

Warm us up

And we taste nice.

A spring of holly

In our tum.

We are the Mince Pies

Yum yum yum.

Then we had to lead the plum pudding, the turkey and the yule log into:

Down the chimney

Who will come?

Jolly Old Santa Claus!

Filling stockings

One by one!

Jolly old Santa Claus!

Miss Fay had written the play herself, about a greedy boy, played by Titchy Vinnegar, who wakes up to find his stocking filled with ashes and soot.

‘Betty’s been taken in,’ Grandpa Fitz informed us on our return. ‘Five o’clock this morning. No news yet.’

‘Give us a brandy, Gerald, and a bottle of pop for April.’

‘I’d love a Babycham,’ I said.

‘A chip off the old block,; said Grandpa, winking.

‘That’s enough of that, here’s to our little girl,’ Granny knocked back her brandy.

A blue haze of smoke hung over the tables, dominoes clacked and a sad-faced woman with wispy hair sitting at the bar raised her frothy glass of milk stout saying, ‘To our little girl, God bless her.’

‘Take your pop upstairs, April,’ Granny said.

It was not until I put on the new coat Granny had bought me, navy blue with a velvet collar, that I realized how cold I had been. I twirled around in front of the long mirror in my grandparents’ bedroom admiring myself in the coat, and its matching hat which I knew I would never wear at home. The very thought of the comments it would attract made me cringe and think of Miss Fay’s haunting account of a knight running the gauntlet. Her lessons were so full of things I wished I didn’t know.

Something woke me in the night, a dream perhaps, that left me feeling frightened. I put my feet onto the cold linoleum and then padded along the corridor, still half asleep, to Granny and Grandpa’s room. Their bed was empty, the bed-clothes pushed back. I groped my way down to the public bat. Granny was there in her dressing-gown and Grandpa with a cardigan over his pyjamas, and George wearing a purple silk dressing-gown and Arabian Nights slippers. The fairy-lights were twinkling round the bar.

‘Here she is!’ said Grandpa. ‘Come and wet the baby’s heat.’

‘You’ve got a lovely little baby brother,’ Granny hugged me, her face wet with tears.

‘Is Mummy all right?’

‘Both doing fine. She and Daddy send their love.’

I had a fleeting sense of miles between us, the distance to a blurred nativity scene.

Grandpa was singing, ‘ “It’s a boy, it’s a boy, it’s a something, something boy.” ‘

He poured cherry brandy into a liqueur glass and handed it to me. I shipped liquid fire. George went over to the piano and stuck up, singing along.

‘Sweetest little fellow anybody knows.

Don’t know what to call him

But he’s might like a rose –‘

He broke off. ‘Why don’t the jus call him Rose?’

‘Smilin’ at his mummy

With eyes so shining blue

Makes you feel that heaven

Is comin’ close to you.’

Granny joined in and Grandpa said, ‘Weighed in at 7lbs 12oz. What a little champ, eh?’

Bittersweet melting cherries slid down my throat and happiness unfolded in the petals of a crimson rose and the sun blazed out in my head.

‘Hey, everybody, I’ve got a brother!’

‘No more lonely only,’ said George.

A red jewel flashed in my chest and fairy-lights flicked off and on, dappling our faces with soft puffs of colour and the shining foil garlands swayed and twisted gently and I felt pure diamond-faceted joy.


Peter was a little marzipan boy; he was like the Eskimo on the Christmas cake, with his face peeping out of his white shawl; he was a vanilla ice-cream, Peter Nicholas Harlency. From the beginning he was in danger of being cannibalized.

‘Look at those little legs!’ cried Granny Fitz. ‘Couldn’t you just eat them?’ And Betty took playful bites from his talcum-powdered bottom as if it were a doughnut smothered in icing sugar. We were all head-over-heels in love. Peter’s dark fuzz of hair was like thistledown when you kissed his head.

Granny and I arrived at the Copper Kettle on the morning of Christmas Eve. She had to get the train back in the afternoon, and Percy had arranged for the taxi, from the Three Brewers.

I stood in my new coat and hat and gasped at the beauty of our room, the Christmas tree and paper garlands, before falling into my mother’s arms. Percy had met us at the station and as we walked past the Rising Sun I begged to stop to say hello to Ruby.

‘Plenty of time for that later,’ Percy said.

I gave the lone cry of the peewit but Ruby did not appear.

‘I’ll see her at the crib service anyway,’ I said. ‘We can still go, can’t we?’

‘Don’t see why not, just you and me though. I don’t think your baby brother’s up to singing carols yet.’

‘Bless his little cotton socks,’ added Granny. There were just two clouds in my frosty, sparkling sky. One was in the shape of the turkey which I had unfortunately won in the Drovers Tavern Christmas raffle, a huge pink thing that Granny had insisted on bringing with us. It had been beheaded and you could see dark pockmarks in its goose-fleshed skin where the feathers had been plucked out, and its claws had been cut off leaving yellow stumps filled with dried blood. The other cloud was a red-brick house called Kirriemuir. I had a hard red rubber bone in my bag, Liesel’s Christmas present, which squeaked when you rubbed it on your front teeth, and smelled of the dentist’s. But when to deliver it? Perhaps I would push it through the letterbox and run away.

Percy and I stood at the back door of the Rising Sun. Lex opened it, in a white shirt with sleeves rolled high and tight over his tattooed biceps and his belly building.

‘What d’you want?’

I held Percy’s hand tightly.

‘We wondered if Ruby was coming to the crib service,’ he said.

‘What? No, she isn’t, it’s Christmas Eve, in case you hadn’t noticed, and I’ve got a pub to run.’

He started to shut the door.

‘Hang on a minute,’ Percy put his foot in the door. ‘That’s why we’re here, because it’s Christmas Eve. There’s a special service for the kiddies at the church and I’m sure Ruby would like to be there.’

‘Oh are you? Well, you can mind your own bloody business. You’ve got a nerve coming here, trying to turn my kid against her family, giving her ideas. I know your game, mate. Bleeding commie!’ He was squeezing Percy’s shoe in the door.

‘Just a minute, mate. Whoa re you calling a commie? If you paid your own kid a bit of attention instead of…’

Percy was forced to withdraw his foot. He was as thin as a curly-haired elf compared with Lex, who was giving off gusts of angry, stale sweat.

to be continued...