The Final Gift
This is so … lame. I don’t care who wins. Claire got off the sofa and wandered into the hallway. The sound of the X-Factor finale faded into the background. How can they all sit there pretending everything’s normal?
She trudged upstairs and into her bedroom, flinging the door closed with a satisfying slam. She plumped down on the end of the bed and let herself fall backwards, her long, dark hair fanning out around her head. Letting out a deep breath, she closed her eyes.
It had been the worst few weeks of her life. No, make that the worst year. Nan had spent the year fighting bowel cancer. A week after Claire’s fourteenth birthday, the doctors said the treatment wasn’t working.
Kids at school kept asking thoughtless questions about how her Nan ate and pooped. They didn’t care how Nan felt about having a bag of poop attached to her all the time. None of them had a clue what it was like to watch someone they loved get weaker and more drawn every time you saw them. Claire was the one who had to say in a cheerful voice, “Oh, aren’t you looking well today, Nan,” when inside it tore her apart that Nan could barely walk upstairs anymore. When she remembered how things used to be, it churned her stomach.
“Clean, cold hands, Claire,” Nan would say, as Claire, aged five, stood on a stool by the kitchen side. A mixing bowl sat in front of them. Nan’s arms lay over Claire’s shoulders, their hands touching. Together they rubbed the fat and flour together until it formed perfect crumbs. And afterwards, the gorgeous smell of cake baking in the oven.
Nan taught Claire to knit, too. That had been a rainy day activity. When Claire lost her concentration and dropped stitches, Nan would put her on pompom duty—winding wool around two doughnut-shaped circles of card.
“Keep it nice and tight, Claire.” Nan would demonstrate on her own pompom. Claire stuck out her tongue in concentration as she poked the wool through the hole and tried to pull each strand taut.
Those days had seemed so ordinary at the time. I’d do anything to have them back again.
In the end, Claire had found it hard to concentrate on everyday tasks. Her grades dropped, and her friends got bored of asking about her Nan. They wanted Claire to behave as if everything was normal again, but this was a new normal, and it felt weird and wrong.
Her family was no help, either. Her six-year-old brother hadn’t understood what was going on. He just knew Nan was ill and couldn’t play games with him anymore.
Mum and Dad did Nan’s shopping and ferried her to the hospital and took her to appointments. They never talked about how Nan coped, or when she was going to get better. And Claire was too scared to ask.
A couple of times a week, Claire stopped by Nan’s house after school. She let herself in the front door and walked through to the kitchen, calling a greeting. Claire made a pot of tea and set it out with two cups and one of Nan’s favourite biscuits, a fig roll, on a tray.
Nan’s eyes would light up when Claire brought the tray into the lounge. While Nan nibbled on the biscuit, Claire described her day at school.
“Now, tell me what grade you got on your English essay,” Nan would say.
“My girl, I know you can do better than that. Bring the next one round for me to see first. I won’t have you slacking off.”
“Okay. I’ve got another one due next week. I’ll read it to you.”
“Good.” Nan smiled and folded her hands on her stomach. “That’ll liven things up. It’s so dull not being able to get out, except for those wretched hospital appointments. I hate hospitals. They’re full of ill people.”
Claire had laughed and promised to bring the essay soon.
But, as the weeks passed, Nan got more tired by the day, and some days she would just sit and listen while Claire chatted.
Three weeks ago, Claire got home from school to find her mum sitting at the kitchen table, dry-eyed, with a blank face.
“Your Nan’s gone,” she’d said. Her voice was soft, and she didn’t look Claire in the eyes.
“Passed away. This morning, after you left for school. I’m sorry, love.”
Her mum had given her a gentle hug and, later, when all the family were together, they’d eaten a silent dinner.
It hadn’t felt real. The funeral was horrible. People kept coming up to her and saying, “Ah well, your Nan isn’t suffering anymore. That’s the main thing.” And Claire wanted to shout, “No, it’s not the main thing. The main thing is that I don’t have my Nan, and I’ll never ever see her again, and I have to sit in this stupid church and pretend to celebrate her life when the only way I want to celebrate it is by having her back again.”
Claire opened her eyes. The image of Nan faded, and the ceiling swam into view. The white swirls took on a life of their own, dancing before her eyes. She had to get out of the house.
She got up and went back downstairs, put her duffle coat on, and stuck her head around the lounge door.
“Mum, I need some fresh air. I’m going for a walk up the village.”
“Okay, love.” Her mum looked round. “Don’t be too long. Why don’t you call on Laura? You haven’t been over there for a while.”
“Could do, I suppose.”
“Well, make sure you stick to the roads with streetlights. Don’t go down any of the alleys.”
Claire closed the lounge door, checked she had a front door key, and headed out into the night.
The biting wind made her gasp, and she pulled her hood tight around her head. She walked onwards, struggling against a sharp headwind. She passed the turn to her school friend Laura’s road. I don’t feel like talking to anyone right now.
No one else was out at this time of night. Even the convenience store was closed. Through front windows she saw other families watching the same dumb TV programme as her own family.
Christmas lights were strung up outside houses. She hated the garish blue LED lights. She threw a scornful look at the huge inflatable Santa on the village green, lit up from the inside. How tacky is that?
Without realising where her feet had taken her, she had ended up outside the church. Light were on, and she could hear music coming from inside. With a bitter pang, she remembered it was the night of the village carol service Nan used to take her to. I could go in and listen. Get out of this nasty wind for a few minutes. Although, it won’t be the same without Nan. Singing had never been Nan’s forte. Claire half-smiled, remembering the way Nan used to belt out her favourite carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” with the tune a secondary consideration to volume.
She walked towards the half-open church door, and gently pushed. “Silent Night” grew steadily louder as she slipped into the church. Her feet slid over the worn stone step and onto the ancient paved floor. It felt like going back in time. The cold, still air of the church enveloped Claire, and the smell of fusty books and burning candles met her nose.
The small congregation scattered around the pews listened to the church choir. Christmas candles flickered on the end of each pew. As the carol finished, she found a seat in the back row, half hidden by the shadow of a stone pillar.
The vicar stood up, an elderly man with short grey hair, and kind eyes. He started reading from the Bible:-
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed … “
Claire looked round the old church, craning her neck to look at the high ceiling and the stained glass windows. Her Nan was the only one in the family who used to come here regularly. Nan was always helping out with bake sales and bring-and-buy sales. And she took Claire to the Easter and Christmas services. Claire remembered receiving a chocolate egg in her chubby hands from the vicar every Easter, and then Nan taking it off her, saying, “We don’t want to spoil our lunch, do we? I’ll save it till later.”
Claire came back to earth to hear the choir singing, “Away in a Manger.” A comfortable feeling washed over her. She relaxed as the music soared. Huddling into her corner by the pillar, enjoying the sense of peace and stillness, her eyes began to close.
Sensing a movement, she looked up, to see the vicar sitting next to her. She realised the service had finished. I must have dozed off.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just wanted to say hello.” He smiled at her.
“Hi.” Claire sat up straight, her sense of peace disappearing as quickly as it had come.
“It’s nice to see you again. Claire, isn’t it?”
“Would you like to join us for a cup of tea and a mince pie?”
“We miss your Nan a lot, you know. She was always so involved with the church at this time of year.” His smile widened, kindly eyes crinkling at the edges.
“Well, she’s not here now.” Claire turned her eyes away from him.
“No. But we have the comfort of knowing that she awaits the resurrection.” His quiet faith radiated from him.
Claire could stand it no longer. “So what!” she burst out. “She’s not here now, is she? I want her here, and I don’t care about the future. If God is so wonderful, why did He take my nan away from me? Why did she have that stupid, horrible illness? Why did she have to die?”
Her voice echoed around the empty church. As the echo died, she heard the clink of tea cups from one of the back rooms.
The vicar looked at her intently. “I’m sorry, Claire. I don’t have all the answers.” His voice was calm. “I ask those questions every day when someone good and patient and loving is taken from us. But the Lord will give you strength to get through every day, if you ask Him.”
“I’m not asking for anything from God. I don’t want to speak to Him after what he did to Nan.”
The vicar didn’t reply. He seemed to be deep in thought.
“I need to go.” Claire stood up.
“Will you hang on for five minutes?” the vicar said. “I have something for you.”
Claire’s eyes widened. “Okay, I guess.” She sat back down, and the vicar strode off into the back room.
A few minutes later, he came out carrying a small brown box, tied up with string, and topped with a red, foil star.
He passed it to Claire. “I thought you’d like to have this. But promise me you won’t open it till Christmas morning.”
Claire took the box and gave him a curious look. “Uh, thanks.”
He patted her on the shoulder, “Merry Christmas, child. Come and see me any time you want to, especially if you want to chat about your nan.”
“Alright.” Claire gave him a small smile. Can’t see that happening.
She tucked the box under her arm and walked back home.
On Christmas morning, Claire woke at 7 am when her brother clattered down the stairs shouting, “Santa’s been!” at the top of his voice.
Claire blinked, yawned, and sat up. She eyed the pillowcase of presents at the foot of her bed.
She was deciding whether she could be bothered to get up, but then remembered the strange box the vicar had given her.
Leaning down, she fished it out from under her bed.
Claire took the star off, and laid it to one side, and then untied the string. She lifted the flaps and peered inside. Something woolly? What is it?
She drew it out, unfolded it, and giggled, and then the laughter came so hard her stomach hurt. Then she was crying, and the tears rained down her cheeks. She looked at Nan’s final gift through her tears mixed with gulps of laughter.
It was one of the horrible knitted bobble hats Nan had insisted on making for the church bazaar every year. No one ever bought them, but she kept making more and more, and the villagers regifted them to each other every year. Everyone hated the things, but they just couldn’t get rid of them. And here it was—the perfect specimen. Yellow and brown stripes, huge yellow pompom, just like Claire used to make, and a wonky seam.
Her mum opened the door. “Claire, are you okay? What on earth is going on?”
“Look!” She held up the hat and gulped. “The vicar gave it to me for Christmas.”
“One of Nan’s hats!” Mum bubbled up with laughter. “Oh, Claire. Those hats will haunt us forever.” Mum hugged Claire, and Claire felt her mum’s shoulders shaking.
She wasn’t sure whether Mum was sobbing or laughing, but inside Claire something released, and the new normal slipped into place. At last she found she could get the words out.
“Mum, I miss Nan. I really miss her.”
“I miss her too, love. But everything’s going to be okay. And I love you.” Her mum drew back and smoothed Claire’s hair behind her ear, before wiping away Claire’s tears with her thumb.
“I love you too, Mum.” And Claire picked up the hat, pulled it on, and they both giggled at each other.