Christmas Eve: A Short Story
The stolen coins in her pocket sit awkwardly against her hipbone. Kit feels their bulk at her side with every step she takes: their muffled, metallic jingle is still faintly audible from inside her jeans. She compels herself to make smooth movements, gliding like a slow-motion ice skater as she guides her buried treasure back to the windowsill. Her thin hands twist the clasp with ease. The fingers are dry, knuckles raw from the cold, but after so many years of practice they remain well trained for this kind of work.
‘Aren’t you a natural escape artist? Just like a kitten!’ Kit freezes – hands outstretched – at the sudden recollection of her mother’s voice. Twenty years have passed, but for an instant her chest still throbs with an instinctive pulse of happiness. What was young Kit doing? Where was she sneaking into, or sneaking out of? The details drift away, carried by the billowing currents of a memory she long ago decided to regard with mistrust. All Kit is sure of is the feeling. The safe, engulfing sensation of her mother reaching down and hugging her close. ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, my little Kitty Cat.’
Kit shifts her weight from one foot to the other, and remembers the coins in her pocket.
Her hands are still suspended, ready to prise open the window. She presses onto the fastening with far more violence than is necessary, and waits until she feels the metal bite her palms. With a soft grunt, she jams the glass upwards. Iced air rushes into the room. She hooks one foot over the frame and prepares to jump. Raising her leg, the bulge of money pinches her thigh. The pocket is full, already straining, and three coins spin out. Kit swears, grappling to catch them, but as she bends another dozen – more than half of the entire collection – upturn and start to tumble away.
‘No!’ Her voice is hoarse from cigarettes, but has a higher pitch than you’d guess to look at her: the ghost of long-lost prettiness lacing its fingers around a throat coarsened by sarcasm. Cavernous wood panelling thrusts the echo back into her face, while around her the coins clatter to the ground. Most land in the shadows, within clutching distance. But one pound coin spins. Kit stares in horror as it gleams, coquettishly, around and around: winking up from a dimpled floorboard about six feet away.
‘Hello?’ The door opens. A man’s head peers round the frame. Kit is in shadow; she leans gently against the window until she is embraced by the darkness. Blinking rapidly, her eyes flit past the man – scrutinizing the room with the effort of one who does not see well at night – to the single coin that remains on the floor. The pound’s performance, mercifully, seems to be over. In the same moment that the man pushed the door ajar, Kit watched it collapse lightly onto the ground; curtseying down with a final glint of gold. Now it sits motionless beneath the desk she stole it from. Just below the man’s eyeline. Kit sees him reaching for the light switch.
‘What’s wrong, Reverend?’ A woman’s voice sounds from the hallway beyond. Her tone is harsh, crisply impatient compared with the man’s. Shrill. Demanding. It reminds Kit of a seabird.
‘I thought I heard something,’ the clergyman replies. He shifts a little in the doorframe, moving his hand away from the light switch. The shadows realign and Kit can see the details of his face. He is young. Far younger than he wishes to sound. His jawline is plump, following an indistinct curve, and the eyes hidden behind his solid black glasses are almost cartoonishly round.
‘Well I didn’t hear anything!’ The unseen woman is not young, of that Kit feels certain. ‘Hurry along, Reverend. We don’t have much time before Midnight Mass.’ The young man starts to close the door. He casts one final, short-sighted look into the gloom.
‘There’s no one there,’ he murmurs. It sounds like a question.
‘Unless Santa’s come early!’ The woman laughs. Kit thinks of seagulls dive-bombing for chips. The door swings over, and the room returns to silence.
If she still believed in his existence, Kit would thank the God this young curate serves for her unexpected reprieve. One of her nine lives gone (and did she really have any left to spare?) But to thank God would be to speak to him, and to speak to God she would need to forgive him for things Kit knows she never can. Instead she is halted by the thought of the young clergyman’s face. What kind of life would it take to deliberately try and appear older? Kit has not seen her reflection today, beyond a smudgy glimpse caught in the windowpane, but that was more than enough. The last mirror she saw properly was at the hostel.
The bathroom had been forced into being from a cupboard under the stairs, fitted with a regulation safety mirror and mould-prone window that remained locked at all times (Kit did not take offence. She would recommend people always keep their windows locked). In the cupboard-come-toilet, Kit saw herself for the first time in several weeks. Or rather, she did not see herself at all, but a thin, jaundiced mockery. Pale scabs webbed over the corners of her mouth. Blue shadows ringed her eyes like shiners. The weary muscles around her cheekbones contorted into a wretched expression that would be pitiful if temporary, but was sickening now permanent. Kit can recall pulling at her cheeks, rubbing her bony fingers along the sides of her face, but nothing would erase those lines. If she ever had a girlhood, the barrage of life’s knocks had long since battered it away.
‘You look like I feel,’ she told the Kit in the glass. At 26, there are no special measures left: no youth workers, no sure starts. She is already started. As the man was fond of saying on that dull quiz programme they were shown in the hostel TV lounge (an experiment, and an unsuccessful one at that) I’ve started so I’ll finish. Kit is old enough to finish. She’s already older than her mother was when she died.
This time at the windowpane, Kit indulges herself fully: digging her palms into the metal and waiting for the sting of blood before she finally pushes the window open. With one nimble twist (‘clever little Kitty Cat’) she lands outside. The force of the cold makes her breathless. Her thoughts are spinning, just like the coin she left behind. It would be madness to return for it. She’s had more than enough luck for one night, and Kit does not consider herself a lucky person. Yet anger at her mistake crests like a wave within her. How could she be so stupid? She’s losing her touch if she can’t even steal a church collection.
Gathering her bearings as quietly as she can, she attempts to focus on a glass-cased noticeboard to her left. Lattes and Pilates (Thursday 10am – bring your own mat). Silver Surfers (book online). And the largest poster of all, What Would Jesus Do? with the answer apparently provided by an unfortunately placed Slimming World sticker. Kit permits herself a sneer. She is officially underweight, according to her last clinic check up, and the tattered women’s magazines in the waiting room suggest this is a deeply desirable outcome. They recommend superfoods and High-Intensity Training to achieve it, however. Not heroin.
Slinking around the church perimeter, the air cuts into Kit so painfully that she is forced to pull her scarf tighter around her neck, even though she dislikes it intensely. Wiry, fluffy, a faded sort of pink leopard print; needless to say, she did not choose it herself. In fact, she acquired it last Christmas. The hostel had a sorrowful pile of donated gifts to hand out with the plastic plate turkey. As one of the only women who actually turned up on the day, ‘the pink one’ went to her. Kit knew as soon as she pulled off the wrapping paper (with jittering, chemical comedown hands: Christmas is not her favourite time of year) that pink leopard would not be her colour. Still, it was hers. One of the few things that remained so. Running the material through her hands, she found the little white label hanging off one end – 100% polyester, Made in China – and asked a volunteer for a marker pen. Thinking of communal laundries and the casual thefts that often accompany them (not that she judges those with an inclination towards casual theft), Kit wanted to write her name. She imagined satisfyingly thick capital letters.
PROPERTY OF KATHERINE EVE ANDREWS
But when the volunteer returned – a plump, kindly young woman wearing a Rudolph apron and paper hat – Kit discovered that the pen would not work. Or rather, the pen was fine: it was she who wouldn’t work. She stared down at the marker, fingers straining to form the correct curve around it. When was the last time she held a pen? In panic she pressed too hard around the barrel. Her fist jerked. The marker shot from her grip. It rolled along the floor (why, Kit feels she ought to wonder, do so many things end up on the floor?) and when the volunteer returned it, Kit saw pity in her eyes.
‘Shall I write for you?’ Kit should have been grateful, she knew, but her relief curdled at the sympathy drawn across the other woman’s face. She thinks I don’t know. She thinks I don’t know how to read or write.
‘MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME!’ Within minutes Kit had been removed, expletives colouring the Christmas air and the half-forgotten scarf still clenched between her fingers. Occasional passerbys, carrying presents or spare dining room chairs from one home to another, averted their eyes while Kit beat her fists against the closed centre door. Wearing no coat, she felt her sweatshirt growing damp with the cold; flecks of snow bounced onto her sleeves as she hit and howled and sobbed. ‘My mother taught me! My mother taught me!’ She has hated the scarf ever since.
Still, as tonight’s temperature plummets, the scarf becomes Kit’s closest thing to a friend, albeit a friend made from irritating manmade fibres. Tightening its loop around her neck, she hears an organ begin to play from inside the building. Her nerves give a quiver. She pats the coins for comfort. With a few more hurried, feline steps – trainers scarcely leaving an imprint on the snow – she grows close to the church gates. Made from wrought iron and entwined by dark diamonds of ivy, the leafy twists and metal curls form near-perfect footholds. Creeping over will pose her little difficulty. For a moment Kit is perched, mounted on top of the gate post and appreciating what turns out to be the highest point in the churchyard. She can see ripples of candlelight indoors, casting amber prisms that illuminate the darkness. And beyond (her eyesight in the dark is far better than the Reverend’s), she watches the church congregation – the backs of their heads, at least – as they sing God’s praises.
‘While mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love.’
Despite herself, Kit takes a moment to savour the intrigues of this advantage. It is surprisingly interesting to consider head after head of the people inside: some curly, some limp and windblown, and others still rendered entirely bald. Kit thinks that perhaps it is the bald men she likes best. Some favour optimistic patchy scalps, others a pre-emptive blank slate. Is it braver to fight, even for a hopeless cause –
‘And in this world of sin … ’
or to concede and try to find dignity in surrender? Kit is smiling at the dilemma she has constructed for herself (‘clever little Kitty Cat’) when one head in the congregation turns towards her.
‘It’s a child.’ Kit speaks aloud, as if to convince herself. A haze of frost hovers in front of her lips. ‘Just a child.’ She should drop down, slink off into the night: she must look absurd while still balanced on top of the church gates (absurd and guilty, the more streetwise side of Kit’s mind cautions). Yet she finds herself unable to move. With bright eyes in a pale face, a little girl is peeking out from the cosy burrow created by a knitted beanie hat and thick (navy) scarf. Something about her expression binds Kit in position. It captures her, like the metal clutch of handcuffs. Kit knows what handcuffs feel like.
‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.’
Kit is used to confrontation. Ready for it, even. It would not be the first time that she found herself on the receiving end of downright disgust. Indeed, a part of her respects the strangers who have the courage – if one could call it that – to be honest about their revulsion. She prefers the perverse passion of hatred to the eyes down middle-classes. Scum. Junkie. Kit has heard them all and worse. But in this little girl’s face, there is neither anger nor avoidance. The child is simply looking at Kit. Meeting her gaze. Eye to eye.
‘And God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.’
Kit feels like she can see the girl thinking. A moment passes. Two. Then the child smiles.
‘Come in.’ She waves a small (navy) gloved hand towards the side of her pew. ‘Come in. There’s space next to me.’ Kit starts to tremble. Time stills: her mind, already numbed by the cold, struggles to process the gesture as if she is hearing a voice in a foreign language. Then the shoulder of a mother – half shrouded by an interior pillar – bends down and whispers something into the little girl’s ear. The child returns to face forwards. Her spine slumps. Kit drops from the gate.
She lands on ice, not snow, and pain from an old injury spikes up her anklebone. Kit feels the pocketed coins bounce, but for once they do not escape.
‘Steady,’ she says, thinking of her coins. Steady, she thinks, speaking to herself. Her plan when the night began had been to go straight, spiriting away from the church grounds to be absorbed by the concrete caverns of the nearest housing estate. But Kit does not go straight. She turns and walks towards the gravestones. Her feet are catlike, betraying only the softest whisper of a crunch on the ground. She brushes past glossy new white headstones, as flat and wide as celebrity teeth. And she continues on, deeper through the grounds to where the older stones have started to mottle and decay.
Eve Andrews. Our darling daughter, now at peace. Troubled but loved, mother of Katherine. Born 4th May 1972. Died 24th December 1997.
Kit scratches her neck. She removes her scarf. Lays it on the earth. Then she reaches inside her pocket and empties out each coin.
‘I can’t go back,’ she says. ‘But I can’t take you with me.’ In silence, she retreats back into the warmth of the cold.
Thank you for reading Kit’s story. Please be kind to someone who needs it this Christmas. Perhaps even yourself. Who knows the difference it might make?