h2>Dating : Mary Christmas
A Christmas Carol
I used to work at the Mission those days. I had failed as a musician and ended my days composing mediocre jingles for TV commercials. I remember the rush for Christmas as the snow started to gather on the sidewalks, and all the coughing in the crowded cafeteria as the familiar unemployed faces decided to pack for Christmas supper at the same time. It was a busy time. I didn’t have much money, but had enough to satisfy my basic needs, and had long ago gave up any pretensions of getting more than that out of life. My retirement allowed me enough time for my simple distractions, and I felt I needed to do something for the betterment of other people’s lives as well.
Besides myself, only Mary stayed the whole day there. Most of the volunteers would stay there only half of the day, eager to spend the other half with beloved ones. We seemed to be the only ones no one would miss the company. She would work in the kitchen and help preparing the simple meals we would serve, mostly some sort of vegetable soup and rice with some sort of cheap meat, the best our limited resources could afford. Then she would clean the tables and the floor between one and other wave of poor lonely souls that would come for us for food and for shelter against the cold, but mainly for just having company in a date they couldn’t really precise why but had still some meaning for most of them. There was nothing special, though. It was just a bunch of miserable, sick people meeting in this large room, and some people with good will trying to make their lives less miserable and their bodies less sick with a minimum of decent nutrition, smiles and chat. Sometimes the chat would restrain to just a grumbling observation on how you lost weight, Johnny-boy, or how you’re not allowed to smoke in here, you know that, Sara, but it was still more than most of them had in the streets. Attention, even if not of the nicest kind, was still much better than the usual indifference they needed to cope with everyday. It was when I found out that indifference, not misery or illness, or even hatred, is what kills the soul of a human being.
The truth is Mary and I never talked. I have always been very reserved, and she seemed to be always too busy. She would give everybody else gentle smiles and move from table to table to the sound of Silent Night without any apparent effort or weariness. She usually wore old overalls with little flowers painted on it by hand, a dedicated, probably personal work. In most of them the tissue was already weary and the colour was fading away, but still looked great on her and gave her a halo of youth that her loose hair helped emphasizing. Unlike myself, she didn’t seem to have a single grey hair, although her age could be guessed by the unavoidable wrinkling of the skin on the fingers and at the corner of her eyes. She might be in her late fifties, perhaps. Her eyes seemed much younger, though. They were like two lively, colourful butterflies exploring the world around them, as if had never escaped childhood. If only I were not as shy as my character evolved to be, I could have approached her. After all, we had seen each other so many years in a row…
I once talked to her, though. That was a couple of years ago. We were both very tired, and I left myself loose at a corner of the room, while she finished sweeping the floor. The other cooks had already gone home and we were alone in the room, with the exception of this old folk sleeping at one of the tables close to the large door, his white beard dreadfully dipped into the bowl together with the rest of the soup. I looked at her and saw her eyes were wet. I asked if everything was alright, knowing it wasn’t. She didn’t really say it was, but made a gesture with her left hand in my direction, as saying me not to worry about it, just let it go. It is probably not my business, anyway, I said to her, and kind of apologized. She sighed, and said she didn’t mean to be rude. I said she wasn’t, and we resumed whatever we were doing before that, that is, she kept sweeping the same clean spot on the floor, over and over, while I thought about why I couldn’t just go home. Finally she stopped and looked deep into me. She asked me: I’m sorry to ask you that, but don’t you have anyone to celebrate Christmas with? You always stay here all day long… I shook my head negatively. I kept my explanations short: deceased parents, only child, just one cousin that I know about living overseas. Never got married and too reserved to make lifelong friends. What about you? — I replied. Not anymore, she said, and dove into some sort of transfiguring sadness. It lasted until the old fellow snored from over there, so loud we couldn’t prevent the rising of a subtle smiling.
She put aside the broom and sat beside me on the floor. She took a chocolate bar from one of the big pockets of the overall and offered me half of it. We chewed it simultaneously. It was really good, especially after the long day. A sweet taste ran down my throat and reached my heart as well. Something deep inside me moved my arm around her shoulders and pulled her towards mine. To my surprise, she left her head lean towards mine and brought her arm to my neck in a hug. I felt the warmth of her tears drawing dark circles on the light-blue cotton of my shirt, while I stroked her hair softly. I didn’t feel excited or anything, just heartfully committed to give her some peace and rest. After much sobbing she breathed deeply and told me she had a son once. He was born on Christmas day, many years ago. She was young and silly, and not at all prepared to be a mother. I was shocked. I had never thought about her as a mother, but now that she declared herself as one, I couldn’t imagine her not being prepared for it. She repeated he was born on Christmas day. In a tent, in the middle of the desert, after a rock concert. No one to assist, his father stoned to the ground somewhere around. He wasn’t actually the father; she couldn’t really tell who the father was. This didn’t help either. They moved from place to place, you know how hippies would do on those days. Her kid grew up with the firm conviction that he needed to do something to change the world, make it become somehow a better place. He left home and wandered around, hanging out with his gang of friends, mostly drinking and living on other people’s sympathy. She tried to find him, but only knew about him through the gossips and sarcastic comments of neighbours and acquaintances. Finally she read in the newspaper that the authorities had got him at a close city, and that he had been convicted for some unknown reason. She planned going there to talk to him in prison the next day, but when she got there she was told he was dead, and she was shown his body, and they gave it to her for her to bury it herself. The state wouldn’t pay for that. He was only thirty-three, but looked somewhat older. He looked tired and weary from struggling for what he believed was the best way for people to live and to be happy. After a couple of days she was introduced to some of his friends. They were not the drugged, junkies she expected them to be, but rather nice fellows who just didn’t fit in that little town’s crystallized way of living. They reminded her of her own youth days, and soothed her heart. From that year on she decided she would spend Christmas, her child’s birthday, on the company of the unwanted, the excluded, the swept away, and rejoice with them and fill up her life with a meaningful purpose, one her kid would be proud of if he could see her.
That’s a really sad story, I thought to myself. I hugged her tightly and felt how I had been already crying without noticing. We might have huddled each other for ages. I then lift her head through the chin with my index finger and looked into those deep, beautiful eyes, now reddened with the weeping, and said something that came right from my heart. I said to her that if it were in my power I would like to give her her son back as a Christmas gift. I really meant it. She looked at me tenderly and her face seemed to lighten up. We hugged again, and she brought a hand to wipe off my own tears. She delicately asked me then what I myself would want as a Christmas gift, no matter if it was in her power to fulfill it or not.
I laughed and couldn’t think of anything really. There she was, a woman with more reasons than anyone to feel miserable, and she wondered what I would want for Christmas. She insisted, though. After some time, the idea struck me. I kind of smiled, more to myself than to her, and said that I would like her to give me the loveliest Christmas song of all. That would be the most wonderful gift I could receive, and it would be so delightful and melodious that I would sing it and people would join me even without knowing the lyrics, and once knowing it they would never forget it, and every ear that listened to it would tell the spirit to rejoice and the mouth to squeeze in a smile and the eyes to gaze in amazement. I felt deep in my soul that this would be the best present ever.
We both laughed together, and for a moment it seemed that all sorrow and pain had vanished from the face of the Earth. She then said she’d better be going. I said she didn’t mind, I could finish whatever was left and close for the day. She kissed me goodbye and left. That was the last time I saw Mary, but I didn’t know that then.
I put the broom back, fold the remaining table clothes and got changed. I got the keys and started looking for the light switches to turn them off before leaving. It was when I heard a profound snoring and remembered the old man close to the large door. He was still asleep over the soup bowl. Christ, I remember I thought, I almost forgot this poor man here. I tried to wake him as gently as possible, and took the bowl and spoon to the kitchen. When I got back, the fat old fellow wasn’t there anymore. Surprised, I ran to the large door, left ajar, in time to see his shadow turning the corner at the sound of a Santa Claus laughter — Ho, ho, ho! I turned around and looked at the table where he had been sleeping at. There was nothing left but a piece of paper. I unfolded it. It was the score and lyrics of a song. It was a Christmas carol. I had never seen it before, though. I started whistling it, following the notes. It was thrilling, overtaking. I could barely breath. I sung it over and over before turning off the lights and finally closing the door behind me, and walked randomly through the streets all over the city singing it all night long, without getting tired. It went: jingle bells, jingle bells…