It will soon be Christmas. Time to forget the shopping and the eating and the (sometimes) stressful gatherings. This is the season of hope and goodwill. Many years ago two of my friends had a long falling out and were reconciled on Christmas Eve. It was one of my best Christmases ever, and a small symbol of what Christmas means. On a larger scale, over a hundred years ago, on Christmas Eve 1914, the troops in the trenches put down their weapons and came into no man’s land to play football together.
‘Fallen in Love’ is a short story I wrote five years ago, in the spirit of Christmas. I’m reproducing it here, and I hope you enjoy it.
Have a merry and peaceful Christmas!
Fallen in Love
The streets of York were thronged with late-night shoppers. The tinny sound of Christmas songs drifted from doorways, mingling with the noise of the crowd and the Salvation Army band. Above them were strings of festive lights, suspended as if by magic in the darkening winter sky.
It was a time of year Emily normally loved. Today, though, she pulled her scarf tighter around her neck and trudged past the black-and-white timbered buildings and the lighted windows and on into the market square, with her head down. This year there would be no happy family Christmas, just a nightmare of organising who would have the children, and when. In previous years, she and her husband had gone into town together to buy the children’s presents. Not this year, though. This year they were meeting to ‘discuss arrangements’.
Emily cast a searching glance around the market square and caught sight of Mike waiting for her beside the mulled wine stall. Underneath his parka he had on a bright red Santa suit. His policeman’s boots were polished to a shiny black, and a Santa hat was tilted comically on top of his curly head. He raised a hand to wave, displaying a red mitten, and despite everything Emily’s lips curved in a smile.
‘Hi,’ he said as she approached. He leaned forward to kiss her cheek. His lips were warm on her cold face, and the scent of him so familiar it caught her breath. ‘You’re looking well.’
Emily took in his fancy dress. ‘What’s with the kinky outfit?’
‘Oh, that.’ He looked down, as usual totally oblivious to what he was wearing. ‘I’ve just come from the hospital. Me and some of the lads have been handing out presents.’
Typical of Mike. Always so generous with his time. Just a shame he spent so little of it with her.
He pulled a piece of gingerbread out of his pocket, wrapped in a napkin. ‘I got you this.’
Emily took the proffered gift, touched by the gesture. He’d remembered how much she liked gingerbread. She picked at the crumbs of it as they set off around the market. They could be any one of the other couples out Christmas shopping. Except unlike the others, they weren’t actually together.
She glanced sidelong at Mike, and saw that there were faint shadows under his eyes, and a few lines that hadn’t been there when they separated six months ago.
‘Why don’t you come home for Christmas?’ She surprised herself with the question and added quickly, in case he got the wrong idea, ‘The children miss you.’
‘You don’t mind?’
He sounded uncertain, and Emily felt a pang. ‘Of course I don’t mind. Unless – ‘ She hesitated, then forced out, ‘Unless you’ve met someone else?’
‘No.’ He laughed, his breath a cloud of moisture in the cold air. Then, after a pause, ‘You?’
‘No,’ she said, irritated. ‘When would I have time?’
‘No, when would you?’ His tone was dry, and he cast her a glance. ‘Still busy?’
She frowned. ‘I’ve got my accountancy exams in spring. Plus I need to put in the hours at the office, and not forgetting time with the kids.’
They trudged on in silence for a while. Emily felt Mike’s comment like an accusation, and couldn’t resist adding, ‘Anyway, what about you? Still gigging with the band? And football training?’
They reached a row of benches at the edge of the market square. Mike slowed to a halt. Emily lifted her head and saw the sadness in his brown gaze, and regretted her outburst. She drew in a breath of cold, icy air.
‘We always used to find time for one another,’ he said. ‘What happened?’
‘That was when we were falling in love.’ Emily heard the bitterness in her tone, and dropped her head, scuffing the ground with her boot.
‘What about when you’ve fallen?’
She glanced up, puzzled.
‘What about when you’ve finished falling in love, and you’ve fallen?’ he explained. ‘Fallen. Like this.’
He fell backwards onto the bench with a mighty thump, body stiff, arms aloft.
‘Mike!’ Emily started forward, half-laughing, half-stunned by his action. His Santa hat and fur-lined hood had cushioned the blow beneath his head and he lay motionless on the bench, looking up at the sky, an expression of wonder on his face.
‘Emily, come and look at this.’ He raised his head, indicating the next bench along. ‘Lie down.’
‘Are you crazy today?’ She eyed the bench next to Mike’s, glistening wet in the moisture-laden air. ‘It’s soaking.’
‘Here.’ He leapt up, removed his parka and spread it out for her. ‘Lie down.’
She lay down gingerly on his warm jacket. The fur of his hood was soft under her head, and the comforting scent of him surrounded her. When she was settled, Mike lay down full-length on the bench behind her. She tilted her head back to find him so close, their heads were almost touching.
‘Look up,’ he said.
Emily did so and gave a gasp of surprise. Above them the sky was now a silky black, filled with stars. A crisp, white moon sailed over them, and just above the horizon rose the planet Venus, glittering silver like the star of the Magi. The sounds of the city faded away, and after a while it seemed as though they were alone, just the two of them, lying head to head, gazing up into the firmament.
“This is amazing,” she breathed.
She sensed Mike stretch an arm out, and she reached a hand behind her head and felt for his fingers.
“Happy Christmas, Em.” He caught her hand in his.
The brass band of the Salvation Army led into ‘Hark the Herald’, the notes carrying clear across to them. The silver stars shimmered in Emily’s gaze. Mike’s hand gripped hers, and she tipped her head on the bench so she could see him lying behind her, gazing up at the winter sky, his ridiculous red hat flattened beneath his head.
She smiled. ‘Happy Christmas, Mike.’