The Week Before Christmas

This story received its world premiere at Jazz Community Church‘s Carol Service at St Martin in the Bullring in Birmingham.

It’s 8.35am on the first day of the last week of term.

Nicky’s on the hunt for a missing glove while Daisy, her seven-year-old daughter, announces that it’s Walk to School Week.

“We haven’t time to walk this morning, love,” replies Nicky, triumphantly pulling the missing glove out of a welly.

“But it’s Walk to School Week. We get points if we walk to school.”

Nicky manages to placate Daisy with the promise that they’ll drive halfway today, and walk the rest, and tomorrow they’ll walk the whole way. They bundle out of the door and into the car. Nicky turns the key in the ignition. The engine strains. Nicky turns the key again. The engine struggles, strives for life, then gives up.

“Looks like we’re walking to school after all, Daisy.”

“Yay!” says Daisy.

As Nicky helps Daisy out of the car, the lady next door, Joy, greets them over the wall. On a Monday morning, Joy always returns her neighbours’ wheelie bins back to their usual places, after the collection. Nicky secretly preferred that Joy wouldn’t, because Joy didn’t put the bin back in exactly the right way, snugly between the wall and the drainpipe, with the handle facing out. But she’d never say anything, because it was Joy’s little task on a Monday morning and it was kind of her, even if Nicky had to quietly reposition the bin later.

“We had a big frost last night, didn’t we?” says Joy. “You be careful on your way to school.”

“We’re walking, because it’s Walk to School Week,” replies Daisy, proudly.

“You make sure you hold Mummy’s hand tight, sweetheart,” says Joy. “You don’t want her getting lost on the way.”

Daisy giggles as Nicky says goodbye and they head off down the road.

On the way, Daisy talks excitedly about her class nativity play at the end of the week. They’d been practicing lots and a nice man in a black shirt and a white necklace had told them all about Jesus. Nicky assumes she means the local vicar.

“He said Jesus is our friend,” declares Daisy. “Does that mean Jesus likes what I like, if he’s my friend?”

“Maybe,” says Nicky, not feeling equipped for a theological discussion as they scoot across the main road.

“Do you think he liked the gold-frankenstein-and-smurf?” asks Daisy.

“Probably,” replies Nicky. What a strange collection of items. Nicky thinks back to the first few days after Daisy was born, and wonders if Mary wouldn’t have preferred a breastfeeding pillow, posh moisturiser and some privacy.

“I like everything in the Christmas story,” continues Daisy, “and I think Jesus does too, the angels and the shepherds and the panda and a star.”

Nicky looks at her daughter. Did she just say ‘panda’? What had the vicar been telling them? Nicky tries to set her straight but Daisy is adamant and, now they’ve arrived at the school, there’s no more time to argue.

On the way back home, Nicky mentally tots up the tasks on her ‘to do’ list for the day, bloated with Christmas preparations, which now also includes calling out the recovery services for the car. This triggers a ‘to do’ subset, because if the car’s not fixed, she won’t be able to collect Dave from the airport tomorrow, and he’ll have to get a taxi, which will be expensive, unless she asks Mike if he can go.

It’s not until Nicky is halfway up her street that she notices the ambulance. Outside her house.

She runs the last few metres.

Joy is on the ground, between Nicky’s car and a toppled wheelie bin. There’s a nasty cut on her forehead, her arm’s at a strange angle, and a paramedic is telling her everything will be fine.

“My God, Joy, what’s happened?” exclaims Nicky.

“I’ve made a mess of your nice driveway,” replies Joy, tearfully.

“Do you know this lady?” asks the paramedic.

“I’m her neighbour,” says Nicky. “Are you taking her to A&E? Can I come?”

As Nicky says this, the burgeoning ‘to do’ list flashes before her eyes. But she firmly puts it to one side. This is more important.

* * * * *

It’s 10.38am on a Tuesday morning, and Chris is trying to balance on a bollard in the hospital car park.

It’s the best place to get a mobile phone signal, although the sharp east wind isn’t making it the easiest to hear. But, apparently, his call is important to them and will be answered shortly. Until it is, he gets to enjoy the tinny shrill of the saxophone solo from ‘Baker Street’ for the fifth time.

Who knew that getting tickets for Phil Collins would be such a mission? Chris isn’t asking for much, just two tickets, next to each other, not behind a pillar, on the date of Maz’s birthday. It’s the first Christmas since they got together, and he wants to get her something special. They’d met at a pub quiz, where they’d got talking after both successfully identifying ‘Another Day in Paradise’ in the ‘Beat the Intro’ round even before the synthesiser kicked in. So tickets for Phil Collins’ first tour in years felt apt.

Finally, a real live person answers the phone. It’s tricky for Chris to read out his credit card number without his glasses, while balancing on the bollard, but he gets there. The tickets are booked and he realises this gives him a greater sense of achievement than anything he’s done in the office all week.

He’s looking forward to giving Maz the tickets, but he’s a bit daunted at turning up at her sister’s place for lunch. The whole extended family will be there, most of whom he’s met, but still, it’s a big deal.

And before that, there’s the nativity play.

Chris jumps down from the bollard and crosses the car park. Last Saturday, he’d gone with Maz and the boys to a country park. They had a whale of a time, playing hide and seek in the woods, kicking through the leaves, lobbing stones in the lake. In the playground, Chris had spun the roundabout so fast he thought the boys, six-year-old twins, would fly off. They loved it, of course. In the café afterwards, over hot chocolates and fudge brownies, Zeek asked Chris if he would come to their “tanivity” play.

Chris walks in through the main hospital entrance. He decides to treat himself to a coffee from the League of Friends’ Café. The latte is better from the Costa near Outpatients, but they don’t have Beryl’s homemade tiffin on the counter.

He hadn’t known what to say to Zeek, so he mumbled that it’d be nice, but he’d have to check. Check what, with whom? He knew the hospital would be flexible about him going, and Maz said it was fine with her either way, no pressure. On the one hand, it’s only a pageant of kids dressed up in tinsel and tea towels, so everyone can take pictures and say “Aahh.” And yet, at the same time, it would be a massive declaration, a huge proclamation that he, Chris, Is Going To Be Involved In Their Lives.

“What were you up to, young man?” says a white-haired lady, sat at a table near the till with another woman, possibly her daughter. “Me and Nicky saw you out the window. She said, Joy, he’ll end up like you if he’s not careful!”

Joy points to her right arm, heavy in a cast, as Nicky smiles awkwardly at Chris.

“Just trying to get a phone signal,” replies Chris.

“Are you a doctor?” asks Joy.

“No,” says Chris. “One of the management team, for the trust.”

“NHS cuts, is it, means you don’t have a proper phone?” says Joy, laughing.

“I was getting some tickets,” he replies. “For a Christmas present.”

“Things we do for the people we care about, eh,” says Joy.

As Chris waits for the lift, tiffin balancing on a Styrofoam coffee cup, his thoughts return to the twin’s “tanivity” play, and the things we do for the people we care about.

* * * * *

It’s 1.15pm on Wednesday afternoon.

Maz examines the space outside her house. Can she reverse into it? She’s not sure she can vouch for the safety of her own bumpers, let alone those of her neighbours’, if she attempts it. Oh well, she’ll have to find more room further down the road.

This isn’t a good day to park half a mile from home, thinks Maz. She’s taken an extended lunch break from work and done a big shop at Asda and Lidl. It’s a bit of a faff, but although Lidl’s great for some things, you can’t get everything you want. And everyone was out doing their Christmas food shop today. In Asda, Maz went around the car park at least three times looking for a space, and then her trolley had a wonky wheel. The aisles were packed, people pushing over-loaded trolleys as they consulted over-loaded lists, while being yelled at by Slade. Four of the tills weren’t working so it took ages to get through the checkout, not helped by the fact that the guy in front of Maz realised, at the very last moment, that he’d forgotten the chorizo and went off for ten minutes looking for it.

On her way out of Asda, someone offered Maz a leaflet, with ‘For God so loved the world, he sent Jesus’ emblazoned across it. If God so loved the world, thought Maz, why did he send Christmas?

Things weren’t much better at Lidl. The central aisle of randomness was more random than ever, with dog antlers and make-your-own-snow-globe kits. They’d run out of crackers and Maz couldn’t remember if she’d said she’d get the sprouts or her sister was getting those. Should she get some anyway? Or would they be eating sprouts from now until Easter?

She finally had a mini-meltdown over the frozen cabinets. Pigs-in-blankets tipped her over the edge. I’m no expert, thought Maz, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus was Jewish, and that Jews don’t eat pork. Why then do we eat sausages wrapped in bacon on Christmas Day? Isn’t that like giving someone with a nut allergy a peanut butter sandwich for their birthday?

As Maz struggles up to the gate with the last of the shopping, there’s a woman waiting for her.

“Hi, I’ve got a card for you,” she says. “Except it’s not from me. It’s from my neighbour, but you probably don’t know her.”

“Right,” says Maz, not understanding at all.

“Sorry,” the woman replies. “I’ll start again. I live at 18, and next door to me is an older lady called Joy. She always puts everyone’s bins back for them.”

“Okay,” says Maz.

“Anyway, she fell over in my driveway, while putting my bin back, which she really doesn’t need to do, but she does it every week, and I came back from dropping my daughter off at school to find an ambulance outside my house. She’ll probably be in hospital over Christmas.”

“Poor thing,” says Maz.

“I popped in to feed her cats and water the plants, and I saw she had this pile of cards on the side in the kitchen.”

The woman hands Maz a card. It’s addressed to ‘The Lady at Number 25’.

“That’s very kind of her,” says Maz. “And you, for delivering it. Is she alright, the lady with the bins?”

Nicky explains that Joy has no concussion, thankfully, but has broken her arm quite badly. Because she lives by herself, and her nearest relative is a nephew in Devon, the hospital can’t discharge her till they’ve worked out some sort of care package.

“Which school is your daughter at?” asks Maz.

“Greenfields,” replies Nicky. “In Mrs Hudson’s class.”

“That’s the same as my boys,” says Maz. “They only started after half-term because the move got delayed. They’re very excited about the nativity play.”

“Did they say anything about a panda?” asks Nicky.

“I don’t think so,” replies Maz.

“Daisy is convinced that there’s a panda in the Christmas story, and I can’t work out what she’s going on about,” says Nicky. “Maybe it’ll all become clear tomorrow.”

* * * * *

It’s 1.45pm on Thursday afternoon.

Nicky says goodbye to Joy, and promises she’ll double check that Joy didn’t leave the oven on, although Nicky’s absolutely sure she didn’t. She’ll also bring in the latest edition of ‘Take A Break’ and a fresh supply of sugar-free polos.

Nicky turns out of the ward and heads for the lifts. Or so she thinks. No matter how many times she visits this hospital, she always gets lost. She’s alright finding her way in everyday life, but put her in a hospital corridor with signs and notices and arrows pointing in all directions, and she completely loses her bearings.

As she stands studying the floor plan, a man with a hospital ID badge on a lanyard around his neck walks past.

“Can I help you?” he asks.

“Yes,” says Nicky. “I’m trying to get out.”

“I’m trying to get out too,” he replies. “I left a trail of breadcrumbs earlier, so I can show you the way.”

In the lift, the man asks Nicky if she’s been visiting someone.

“My neighbour,” answers Nicky. “She had a nasty fall on Monday. She’s in good spirits, chatting to everyone and keeping the nurses amused, but this hospital is such a trek from where we live. It’s a real shame they closed our local one.”

The lift doors open.

“Well, yes, it’s obviously difficult to make the decision about how and where resources are allocated,” says the man.

“But do the people at the top really understand the impact?” asks Nicky.

“We do try,” he replies.

“That’s all well and good,” says Nicky, looking at her watch. “But I’ve got to get two buses back across town in the hope of making it to my daughter’s nativity play in half an hour.”

“I’m sorry it’s been difficult for you and your neighbour,” he says.

Nicky suddenly realises who he is. It’s one of the trust managers, who Joy teased about falling off a bollard.

They come to the main doors.

“Well, thank you for helping me to get out of the hospital, at any rate,” says Nicky.

It’s raining and it takes Nicky some time to work out which bus stop to wait at, and then it looks like the next bus isn’t for ten minutes. As she weighs up the pros and cons of ringing a taxi, a grey car pulls up at the bus stop.

The man with the hospital ID rolls down the window and leans over the passenger seat.

“You’re not going to Greenfields Primary, are you?” he asks. “I could give you a lift?”

Nicky and Chris arrive at the school with a few minutes to spare. Maz has saved seats for them, and they squeeze in just as Mrs Hudson introduces the play.

It begins with the class singing ‘Little Donkey’, after which Mary and Joseph make their way to the cardboard stable and tell the audience, “We are Mary and Joseph”.

On comes the star, so distracted by waving at his mum that he needs to be prompted to announce, “I am the star who leads the wise men.”

After a verse of ‘We Three Kings’, the wise men appear, one tripping over her cloak but managing not to drop her gift, and saying together, more or less, “We are the wise men.”

Maz’s boys come next, rushing on and yelling, “We are the shepherds in the field” or something to that effect, before hitting each other with their toy sheep to the sound of ‘While Shepherds Watched’.

Then Daisy steps forward, in a white sheet with a tinsel crown and a silver wand, and says in a loud, clear voice, “Panda angel of the Lord came down.”

Daisy guides the fighting shepherds to the cardboard stable, and there the tableaux is complete. The nativity play comes to an end with an enthusiastic, if not altogether tuneful, rendition of ‘Away in a Manger’.

Mrs Hudson thanks everybody for coming, and releases the children into the audience. Zeek pushes through the ranks of parents and reaches Maz and Chris ahead of his brother.

“You were great,” says Chris. “The best fighting shepherds I have ever seen.”

Zeek grabs Chris’ hand, and hugs his arm for a moment. Then he looks up, grins and whacks Chris with the sheep.

Daisy is busy explaining about the panda angel as Nicky tries to do up her zip.

“Do you think Jesus liked our story?” asks Daisy, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

Fishing for a tissue, Nicky thinks about Daisy and her panda angel, and Maz and Chris and the boys, and about Joy, too, in hospital.

“Yes,” says Nicky. “I’m sure he did.”