A Christmas Tale of 1925.
Well, we’ve all had a rubbish year one way or another, so I’ve written a (hopefully) feelgood story. I’ve had this story, or something like it, floating around in my head since last year, it’s not a true story, just a heart -warming tale of kindness in hard times.
It was just a few days until Christmas day 1985, Albert found himself babysitting his granddaughter Abbey while his daughter finished off the shopping, the two of them had a special bond since Grandma had died two years earlier, Abbey snuggled up to him.
“Tell me a story about Christmas when you were little Grandad”, she looked up at him with those wonderful blue eyes, “Please Granddad”,
Albert thought for a moment staring at the coal burning in the grate, “Ok, I think I have a tale for you”
I was 11 years old on Christmas Eve 1925, I remember It was a cold bitter morning with the wind whipping up blizzard like snow storms every few hours, but I was snug, sat in front of a coal fire nice and cosy. I felt so guilty though, times were so hard for many families, a lot of them had no heating and were scavenging local dumps for bits of wood to burn, they had already burned most sticks of furniture just to keep warm, we were fine while we were at school, the fuel was free and the pot- bellied stove emitted plenty of heat, half the kids in my class never wanted to go home, it was warmer in the classroom.
I was lucky, my mother worked 14 hours a day to keep me and my little sister fed and clean, she cleaned at the big house, washed clothes for the Doctors family and took in ironing from anyone, she did anything that would bring in a few pennies and worked her fingers to the bone. My dad -your Great Granddad - had died on the Somme in 1916, I vaguely remember him coming home when I was about two years old, when he returned to France my mother’s tummy started to get bigger and a few months later I had a sister. Mum called her Annie after dad’s mum, although poor dad would never know!
So, at the age of just two I became the man of the family, I did everything I could to help out, struggled in with buckets of coal to make sure the fire was kept in, kept our little house clean and looked after sis as mother worked all the hours she could. When I was ten I earned a shilling a week delivering for the local Butcher, I now realise that he had a soft spot for mum, he would always send me home with some tripe or chicklings.
I gave all my earnings to her, but she would always give me tuppence back to teach me to save, that morning I reached up for the rusting tin on the mantlepiece next to the pot with the rent money in, the tin was quite heavy, I had been saving all the year to buy mother and Annie a nice Christmas present. We’d all been out a few days earlier looking in the wonderful shops down town, the tree in the square was beautiful and for some poor souls it was the only reminder that Christmas was close, there were some spectacular window displays which made your heart skip, mother wanted to look at the wonderful dresses and jewellery, she’d always stopped to admire the red necklace in the shop window of the pawnbrokers, but sis and I wanted to see the gift shops, our most favourite was Gambins, it was the local toy shop, and kind Mr Gambin actually looked like Father Christmas, with his white beard and round body my little sister thought he really was Santa. We spent ages looking into that shop window, Annie had her eye on the beautiful doll but I wanted the little lead soldiers, they brought back memories of my dad. For many nights I had dropped off to sleep with the image of my dad and those soldiers in my head.
That Christmas eve morning Annie had gone up to the big house with mother, the idea was that they could finish earlier, I had arranged to call for John who lived a few doors away at No 7, he had been my best friend since we had met six years earlier on the first day of school, he had seen me being bullied by three lads in the playground, although he was skinnier than me he could handle himself and soon saw them off with a few well placed punches, it turned out that his father had been the lightweight boxing champion for the Midlands and taught him to defend himself, his dad would have been National champion had a blow to the head in a pub brawl not killed him outright.
I tipped out the brown pennies onto the rag rug in front of the fire, I wasn’t good at counting but looking at it I thought there had to be enough for mother’s necklace and Annie’s doll, I couldn’t wait to see their faces tomorrow morning. Mum had never had anything special, we always came first, I had seen her go without food on many occasions so we could eat, she had sacrificed her looks, her hands were wrinkled and she had prematurely greying hair, at the age of just thirty she looked a lot older. I was determined I was going to give her something back!
I excitedly shoved the coins into my trouser and coat pockets being sure to avoid the coat pocket with a hole in it, within minutes I had left the warmth of the fire and was tapping on John’s front door. I was shocked when he opened the door, he looked so haggard, pale and tired’
“Hi mate, come on in for a minute, just gotta watch Jimmy till mam gets back”. I went in to the darkened room, it was freezing, it had been warmer outside, “Has your fire been out long?” I asked. “We’ve got no wood or coal left, Jimmy’s got a bad fever and ma’s gone to pawn her wedding ring so we can hopefully buy coal to keep him warm. I must admit, I’m a bit worried, we’ve been up all night with him and he’s getting worse”.
I went back home and took some blankets off my bed, I returned and wrapped them around Jimmy, he looked up smiling weakly, he really did look sickly. There was an icy blast as the front door opened, it was Mrs Davis – John’s mum.
“Did you sell the ring?” John asked
“Yes, but he only gave me one shilling, said he had a room full of cheap wedding rings, it’s going to cost half of that to pay the doctor”, Mrs Davis stared at Jimmy and then into the empty fireplace a look of despair etched into the prematurely ageing face. I heard her mumble ‘a land fit for hero’s, huh’, She looked up at John’s worried face, “Don’t worry lad, we’ll cope somehow, oh hello Albert, your mam ok?”
I nodded as I played with the coins in my pocket, it just somehow didn’t seem right to go out buying gifts while friends were suffering, I told John I would see him later, he had obviously forgotten about our trip to the shops anyway. I left them in that dark and cold room, I had some decisions to make and some things to do.
I just couldn’t get the image of little Jimmy out of my head, I walked past the coal yard then turned around and went inside;
“Now then lad, have yer lost yer way? You’re the Harris lad from South street aren’t yer, I know yer mam, a good customer of mine” the big burley chap covered in coal dust stood in my way. I don’t know whether or not it was the dust on his face but his eyes seemed pure white, he held a pipe in his lips but no smoke came from it so I assumed it wasn’t lit, or he just couldn’t afford to fill it.
“I’d like to buy some coal please”
“Have yer got money lad? It’s gone up to a bob a bag, has yer mam given yer enough?” As he was saying this I was secretly counting out twelve coins in my pocket.
I followed him into a wooden hut and dropped the pennies on to the dilapidated black stained desk, he looked at me warily, “You’ve not been a bad boy have yer?”
“No” I replied, “It took me all year to earn that”, His laughter shook his whole body, “Then yer need to get a better gaffer lad, that’s a pittance for a year, where do want it delivered?”
“Number seven South street” I replied, he produced a stubby pencil from his pocket and licked the tip to scribble it down, “Ang on a minute, you live at number 11, I should know, I’ve delivered there long enough”.
“It’s for our neighbours, their son is sick and needs warmth”
“But this is your money” he said, “Yes, it was for my mother’s present, but I know she’ll understand”.
The chap promised delivery within the hour and scraped the money up into his coal stained hand.
I went round into West street feeling a lot better, there was a doctor who practised from his house on the corner, the bell above the door made a loud noise as I entered. A Kindly looking chap came from the back room, he had thin rimmed spectacles perched on the end of a long tapering nose, a gold -coloured watch was suspended from a chain on his waistcoat. His arms and legs were very thin. and he looked as though he was in need of a good meal.
“Good morning son, can I help you, are you ill?”
I looked at him, “No sir, not me, but I wanted you to go and have a look at my friend, he is very poorly. They only live two streets away if you could spare the time”.
“Give me the name and address,” he said softly, “A friend you say, so have they given you the money?”
“No sir, but I will pay you”, I pulled out some pennies and put them on the table, he gave me a penny back, “It’s just sixpence, I will pop round within the hour, I could feel his eyes burning into the back of my head as I left. Just one more thing to do, at the other corner of the street was the grocery shop, Mr Windridge hadn’t been there long, he was very strict and wouldn’t allow any strap in his shop, everyone had to pay up front and in cash. He too had a bell above the door but a bit quieter than the doctor’s bell, I shuffled up to the counter, and emptied my pockets on to it.
“What on earth!” the man said, “Have you come to spend all that young Albert?”
I looked up at him as his nimble fingers began to count the coins, “You’ve a fair amount here lad, do you mean to spend it all at once or will you need change? Does your mam know you have all this money?”
I explained that it had been money for Christmas presents for Mum and sis, but I wanted him to make up a food parcel, enough to last over the festive season at least, then he was to deliver it to number seven, he looked a bit concerned but nodded his head in agreement.
I walked out of that shop a lot lighter than I entered it, as I strolled into town I passed the shop window where Annie’s doll took pride of place, I shuddered but felt sure my little sister would have done the same. As I walked further on I came to the Pawn shop where mum had seen the necklace, I shoved my cold hands in my empty pockets and walked home to ask John if he wanted to come out.
As I turned the corner to our street there was quite a commotion outside number seven the coalman was there with his horse and cart, the grocers van was parked at the kerb and I just caught the back end of the doctor as he entered the house. John came running out of his house past the inquisitive neighbours, his face all red and flustered;
“Albert,” he yelled as he approached, “We’ve only gone and had one of those miracle things, I can’t believe it, me and mam were kneeling and praying for Jimmy when there was a knock on the door, it was the Doctor, Mam went to pay him but he said it was paid, then while he was there we heard such a ruckus, the coalman had lifted our grid and was dropping coal into our cellar, Mam rushed out saying he had got the wrong house, but he said it had been paid for, four bags he dropped”.
I thought for a moment, I had only paid for one bag of coal, yet he had dropped four.
“Are you sure it was four?” I asked him.
“Yes” came the excited reply, “But there’s more Albert, while he was dropping it that miserable grocer from down the street brought enough food to feed an army, it’s a Christmas miracle Albert.” With that he ran back into the house leaving me alone on the cobbled street. I decided to go home, I felt strangely elated and proud of my mornings work, I was sure mum and Annie wouldn’t mind about their presents when they knew what I’d done.
They were due back, they’d be tired so I went in to put the kettle on, as I entered into the front room I noticed something on the table, it was a pile of pennies, how could that be, I had just spent all my money, I was wondering what was going on and then I noticed the coal dust around some of them, I went back outside and the coalman winked at me while the grocer put his hand up, the doctor doffed his hat as he passed;
“I’ve left medicine, give him a day and he’ll be fine” he said, “No Charge”.
It was then that I realised all three of them had returned my money, not only that, they’d all given a lot more than I paid for.
I ran as fast as I could to the pawn shop, the necklace was still there, but not for long, I came out with the gift -wrapped present for mum, just one more thing to do, I ran as fast as my legs would take me to the toy shop, Mr Gambin was surprised when I asked for the doll and not the lead soldiers.
“It’s for my little sister” I explained, “She has admired it for so long”, As I was leaving he said “You have a good heart young Albert”, Mr Gambin shook my hand and wished me a very happy Christmas.
I ran back home and hid the presents, I was so happy, I couldn’t wait for tomorrow to come.
Mum and Annie came back, they were froze, I stoked the fire up and made the tea, we all sat around the warm fire remembering Christmas long ago. My mum told us stories of Christmas’s that had long gone, just as I’m telling you now.
It was hard to sleep that night, but I must have eventually dropped off because there was a chink of light invading the darkness of our bedroom, Annie was still asleep, there were two stockings hanging over the edge of the bed, as I was reaching out Annie woke rubbing her eyes;
“Has he been?” she asked sleepily, but she soon woke up when I passed her the stocking, we had an apple, an orange, some nuts and a small chocolate bar, right at the bottom was a new shiny penny, that would start my tin off again.
We almost fell down the stairs as I rushed to get the presents, Mum was preparing our dinner;
“Here now our Albert, are your pants on fire lad” she laughed, it wasn’t very often I heard her laugh, so I savoured the moment, then I reached behind the chest for the hidden presents, I passed one to mum and the larger one to Annie, Mum opened hers and burst into tears “How__?”
“I’ve been saving hard” I mumbled, then there was such a scream, I swear Annie was trying to strangle me as she said thank you.
Then the strangest thing happened, there was a knock on the door, I opened it to see John with his mum and little Jimmy who had actually got some colour in his cheeks, Mrs Davis was clutching a brown paper bag, she gave it to me.
“The Doctor, coalman and Grocer told us what you did for us lad, so we all agreed you should have the shilling I got for the ring. Mum looked at me quizzically.
“We didn’t need the shilling “ John said, “When the shopkeeper knew who they were for he insisted on giving them to us, just for you”.
I tipped the bag up onto the table and out fell half a dozen lead soldiers. A tear rolled down my cheek, It had been the best Christmas ever!
Old Albert sighed as he finished his story, he looked down at Abby, she was sound asleep.