In Time For Christmas, by Wendy Steele
A rumble of excitement ran through the school hall. It was the Friday before the final days of the Christmas term and snow was forecast. It was Marika’s second year in England and her first year at The Cliff Gable High School.
Mr Gray, the headmaster, concluded the morning assembly.
“All those taking part in the school production on Monday, make sure you have your blue cards signed by your form teacher, to excuse you from lessons today for dress rehearsals.”
Marika hunched over her script, dabbing her nose with a tissue. Her long dark hair was scraped from her face, but did not cool her. The knot sat damp against her neck. Her aching muscles screamed for a hot drink and bed but she ignored them, concentrating on the words before her.
“Harry, you’re a mean old man. Try sounding a little more scary.”
“I can’t, miss. Every one’ll laugh at me.”
“No they won’t. It’s a play. Give it a go.”
The bell rang for the end of the school day and Marika sat with the lighting and sound team, checking the notes on her script. The staff room was empty as she made a hot lemon drink and organised herself for the following week. She had committed hours of her free time to the play and today’s dress rehearsal had been a success.
“All go for Monday?”
Daniel Gray joined her in the staff room.
“We’re as good as we’ll ever be.”
“Thanks for all your hard work, Marika.”
“It’s my job, Mr Gray.”
“Daniel, please, and no, I disagree. You’ve put a lot of your own time into this production and I appreciate it. This is the first time in three years we’ve staged a play for the parents.”
“Thanks. I just hope it comes off.”
“You’ve had Mr Stillman and Miss Barlow to help?”
Marika’s red cheeks blushed hotter. “They’ve been busy.”
Daniel Gray’s green eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. “You’re telling me, you’ve had no help?”
“Miss Andrews from the art department and her students have made three interchangeable sets that are easy to move and she and Miss Fry helped with the costumes.”
“But the other members of the drama department have been less forthcoming?”
Marika looked away.
“You’re head of department and should have received as much help as you needed. No wonder you’re exhausted! I shall speak to Mr Stillman and Miss Barlow on Monday.”
She hadn’t meant to yell. Tiredness overwhelmed her. She looked down at her hands shaking in her lap.
“Marika, they should have helped you.”
“I know but they’ve kept out of my way, at least.”
“And you think if I speak to them, they’ll take it out on you?”
Marika nodded and reached for her mug.
“I’m sorry, Marika but that’s bullying and I won’t have that in my school. You get home, have some rest this weekend and I’ll see you on Monday morning.”
Ropata greeted her in the hall, wrapping his bright ginger body around her legs and purring loudly. She fed him while the kettle boiled and retrieved a curry from the freezer. She was glad of her mother’s advice, to cook large batches of her favourite meals and freeze them. She watched her dinner spinning slowly in the microwave.
The tiny house felt chilly even though the heating was on. As Ropata tripped the outside light walking to the bottom of the garden, Marika looked through the kitchen window at the tiny white flakes falling from a swollen sky. Taking her tray into the lounge, she put a match to the fire already laid in the grate. So many of the houses for rent in town were new, thin little cardboard boxes so Marika felt lucky to have a house with a fire place.
With the fire crackling and hot food in her belly, Marika relaxed. Two cards smiled at her from the mantelpiece; one from her mother, a Pohutukawa tree dripping flowers on the front and the other from her best friend, Areta. No shiny decorations or tinsel tree were evident in her lounge but messages from those she loved helped sustain her as the foreign country she now lived in celebrated a religious festival she had no part in. Her throat was sore but with no need to speak, she picked up her book and curled up in her favourite wide winged chair.
Roused from her chair by noises upstairs, she climbed to her bedroom, expecting to see Ropata but the room was empty. A chill wind rustled her hair. She turned to check the window was closed. A dark skinned man appeared wearing nothing but a loin cloth and carrying a wooden staff. The whites of his eyes shone in the gloom and when he spoke, his full red lips didn’t move.
“Follow me. I’ve something to show you.”
While Marika wanted to ask if she needed her coat and where they were going, her bedroom disappeared and her mother’s whare appeared around her. She sat cross legged on the earth floor and watched her mother giving birth while four women attended. Marika’s new born screams filled the tiny sleeping hut. As she watched, the baby grew, toddling around the village before striding off to her first day at school. Her tall, white, slim class mates forced into her vision, spitting nick names and pushing her between them, punching her and pulling her hair. She sat at her desk, listening to the teacher, copying down her homework before running home with her knapsack banging on her back, the leers and jeers of her peers vibrating in her head. Areta, tall, strong and tattooed took her hand on her thirteenth birthday, quietening the spiteful words until they left her head. She hid the last piece of them deep in her heart.
The dark skinned man took her hand and led her up the steps in the great hall of the university where she bowed her head in her hired gown and accepted the first class degree bestowed upon her. The applause faded and she sat on her bed with Areta beside her as the wailing of the women confirmed her father was dead. The knotted ball of anger and pain that formed in her stomach that day, was with her at the airport three years later as she said goodbye to her mother and Areta.
The airport faded, stark light replaced by a golden glow as she found herself unrolling this year’s school photo from its cardboard tube the previous evening in her lounge. As the fire warmed her knees, she scanned every face and among the white smiling faces, she saw only one black. Nausea twisted her stomach as the familiar feelings of loneliness and exclusion caught in her throat.
“The past is behind you.”
The words interrupted her torment and she cried out, her voice edged with daggers and swords. “But it’s not, is it! I’m an outcast here too! I believed a metropolitan city would embrace a worldly approach but I was wrong! For all it’s claims, it’s a small minded shit hole, just like the one I left!”
“As the spirit of the past I say, the past is behind you.”
The man was black, his tattooed forearms bulging in his rich cotton shirt and he held out his arm for her to take. She held it tightly as they walked into the staffroom on her first day at The Cliff Gable High School. He reminded Marika of Areta’s brother, strong, assertive and confident in his skin.
“Good morning and welcome!”
Daniel Gray approached her, his green eyes brimming with kindness and good intentions. She shook hands with the staff as he introduced her, trying to smile, her knees wobbling until she faced her grey locker in the cloakroom.
It was Monday morning. There was always something new on a Monday morning. She glanced at the flyer, posted through the gap in her locker. Sometimes the notes were typed. This was a letter, cut from a newspaper, a plea to the government to warn off immigrants.
She stood in the playground, her back to the tennis courts, the noise of children playing, obliterating any other sound. She saw it begin by the dinner hall and quickly stepped in. The victims welcomed her help. She joined in jump rope. She became the queen of poi. English homework was handed in on time and children queued for auditions to be in the school production.
The man who looked like Areta’s brother took her by the hand in her lounge and the salsa music rose up from the speakers. Marika smiled as the music emptied everything from her head. Only the rhythm of the music remained. Her hips were compelled to move, her feet with them as they partied the length of the room and the hallway, out into the street and on into the desert.
The man turned as he walked into the heat haze. “Enjoy your future.”
Beside her, clean and neat in his charcoal grey suit stood Daniel Gray.
“Tell me, I want to know.”
Marika pointed. “Here is the Pohutakawa tree. It stands at the tip of the world and when I die, my spirit will slip down the roots of the tree, before joining the ancestors.”
“This is what you celebrate at this time?”
“No, but when my father went to join the ancestors, I did not grieve. I took care of my mother and my loss has stayed with me.”
“I’m sorry Marika. I didn’t know you carried such sadness with you. How can I help?”
“I don’t know Christmas.”
Daniel Gray laughed, his eyes crinkling and his mirth infectious. “There are many ways to know Christmas.”
“What about you?”
They sat on Marika’s sofa, coffee steaming in the mugs on the table.
Daniel Gray took her hand.
“When I was a boy, for the month of December, my two sisters and I opened a door on our advent calendar each night before we went to bed and tried to be good so Father Christmas would bring us gifts.”
Marika frowned. “What religion is that?”
“Christian with a large dose of commercialism!”
“Last year, I served Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter and the year before, helped out at an animal sanctuary. I try to help those who can’t help themselves. It’s a time to think of others and realise how lucky I am. So tell me, what do you celebrate at this time of year?”
Cheers and applause filled the school hall as parents stood to acknowledge the work of their offspring and their teachers.
Mr Gray walked to centre stage, regaining control with the ease of a proficient lion tamer. “There are some special ‘thank yous’ I feel we should make. Give it up for two members of staff making their acting debut on our stage this evening, Mr Stillman and Miss Barlow, our ghosts of the past and the present!”
Once the applause receded, Mr Gray asked for quiet.
“And now to thank the person without whom, none of this would have been possible. On your feet for our head of drama, Miss Marika Williams!”
“Thank you for making me feel included this week. I’m even looking forward to next term!”
“You are welcome at our school, Marika and I wanted to tell you, for eight years I lived in Wales as a small boy and because I was English, I was an immigrant. Even though my father joined the choir and my mother played the organ in church, we were different and yet, we became part of a small, close community. I hope you can find your place here in England.”
“I hope so too.”
They sat on Marika’s sofa, sipping hot chocolate as the fire blazed in the grate and snow fell in wispy flurries outside. She felt comfortable around Daniel, his gentle kindness giving her confidence to be herself. There was no ring on his finger. She looked into the flames seeking a vision of him and in moments, she found what she was looking for.
“Tell me about your Christmas and New Year celebrations in New Zealand, or do you celebrate the Solstice?”
“Our new year, Matakari, would be during the English summer. The timing varies as it’s based upon when certain stars are high in the sky in New Zealand.”
Daniel Gray laughed, stretching his long body with ease, leaning closer to her. “It’s all the wrong way around for you here. No wonder you’ve been sad.”
“I tried not to be.”
“I know. I’m sorry they haven’t made it easier for you.”
“You can’t apologise for all your staff.”
“Some of them are a little…narrow minded. I think I’ve made my point though.”
Before she could agree, a rhythm began in the speakers, a crescendo of sound filling the room. She kicked off her shoes. He moved the table. He took her hand and the salsa began.
“Christmas,” he yelled above the music, “is a time to dance!”
Wendy Steele lives on a hillside in Wales with her partner and cats. Following training in belly dance and writing, she has published novels and novellas in the magical realism genre and teaches ATS® Belly Dance. Renovating her Grade II listed farmhouse and reading fill the rest of her time.
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Tags: Christmas, relationships, romance, Wendy Steele