Evening seeped into the streets with the persistent rain. By four-thirty, we’d drawn the blackout curtains tight. The grey world outside, grew darker as night squatted down over the village and the city below the hill. We shut it out, smothering the drone of planes. Later, no doubt, a siren’s scream would cut the foggy atmosphere. Colour would flame an ominous scarlet, as bombs hit the centre of the city and the docks. While searchlights cast white ribbons into the sky, the clacking Ack-Ack guns would puncture the night, again and again.
Inside, the lamplight cast a cozy glow across the dining room’s brown carpet, leather sofa and even over the faded velvet curtain covering the monstrous Morrison air-raid shelter, we used as a table. A couple of days before Christmas, after we’d eaten tea and listened to Children’s Hour, my mother, as usual, turned down the radio to a whisper.
“Here,” she said, handing us a packet of Happy Families, “This is your favourite game, isn’t it? Play quietly over there on the rug. And don’t squabble!”
We settled on the floor. She crept back to the fire and sat with her ear to the woven panel of the radio perched on top of the bookcase, to listen to the news. We were used to this ritual, sometimes watching her as she swallowed nervously and knit her hands together until her knuckles shone hard and white.
Since my sister was only three and I bossy in my six-year-old way, our games often ended in arguments or tears. But that night we were interrupted by the sharp pinging of a bell. This was so unusual that, amazed, we looked at the windows first.
“Is that the blackout man?” blurted my sister. “Can he see a light at our house?”
My mother shook her head. “It’s someone at the front door. You girls go and answer it.”
I looked at her in astonishment. I didn’t think I was brave enough to do any such thing. And why was she sending us out into the dark hall? There might be all kinds of dangers lurking beyond the lighted circle in which we sprawled, cards spread about us. Normally alert to all possible hazards, she seldom allowed us to anything without her hovering supervision.
“Up you get,” she said, pulling us from the floor. Reluctantly we edged into the hall, her hands prodding our backs, our slippers sliding on polished linoleum, so that we fetched up in a fused heap on the doormat. My sister was leaning, drunkenly, against my side. Desperately seeking a reprieve, I turned my head and looked at my mother standing in the square of light that had escaped from the dining room. She nodded at me. Slowly, I reached up, turned the Yale lock over and opened the door.
A huge figure filled the space, so tall and loaded with parcels, that I doubted he’d be able to negotiate an entry. My sister clutched at my sleeve, her panicky fingers pinching my arm.
The man spoke to us, but his eyes were on my mother.
“Hello girls,” he said— and smiled.
“Are you Father Christmas?’’ I whispered.
“No. Have you forgotten your Daddy?” And perhaps we had. We hadn’t seen him for over a year.
“Daddy, Daddy!” I shouted as we pressed up against him. Uncertainly, Sally echoed my cries. I knew we’d missed him even if we didn’t recognize him.
“Let me in, it’s cold out here. I’ve brought you a Christmas present.” He stepped into the dim hall, shut the door and dropped his bags on the floor. “Now,” he said still holding tightly to the handles of a pale straw object that looked like a coolie’s hat folded in half. “I have something here I think you’ll like. Stand back and let the dog see the rabbit!”
There were no rabbits about that we knew of, but perhaps we did look like small animals mesmerized by a sudden beam of light. Dad, the conjuror, put his hand into his basket and brought out—what was it? We stopped breathing. He held out a handful of beige hair speckled with grey. Half hidden in the mass, a pair of bright, black eyes regarded us. As Dad set the puppy on the linoleum, we dropped to the floor in ecstasy, while he stepped over our heads and pulled my mother into a long embrace.
For several minutes, our private worlds absorbed us, but then Sally shrieked, “Mummy! Mummy! He’s done a pee!”
Mother ran to get a cloth and Dad knelt, putting his arms around us.
“Don’t yell. You’ll frighten him. He has to get used to his new home.”
Once order and cleanliness were restored, we removed to the kitchen. I fetched a small bowl, in which water slopped dangerously, but managed to set it down without a spill. Sally fed the puppy his biscuits, and when he faltered, gave them to him one by one. We were happy to sacrifice our dolls’ bedding to make a nest for him in a box. Then, my mother shooed us away, but generously let us take Dad with us, while she prepared supper for him.
Our initial strangeness soon dissipated. Curled up against his comforting bulk on the old sofa, we struggled to tell him all our pent up stories of what had happened since we’d come to this house a year before. He wasn’t able to stay long—a few days only—but long enough to share our sparse Christmas fare, make my mother laugh, a sound we rarely heard, and re-establish his fatherhood with us.
I think my mother saw the gift of the puppy as an act of faith in better times to come. She became devoted to the Cairn terrier, named Nipper, and nursed him through a frightening bout of distemper and the consequences of an attack by a vast Alsatian dog. We, more simply, saw him as a splendid gift from a much missed father. Nipper went everywhere with us.
It was probably the best Christmas we ever celebrated as a family; later ones might produce wonder and excitement with sparkling, lighted trees, roast turkeys, exotic fruits and ice-cream— and more siblings and presents— but nothing has erased my memories of this one.
First published in Family Ties, Ed. Grove, Kimberley Elizabeth, Sherman (Hidden Brook Press 2015)