The Memory Box

“I’m sure it’s in here somewhere,” Nan muttered, reaching for her spectacles, before attempting to prise open a battered old biscuit-tin lid. Katie didn’t know whether to step in or let Nan soldier on.  Although Nan’s arthritic hands gave away the fact that she had recently reached the ripe old age of eighty-three, her mind was still razor sharp.  Katie always loved listening to Nan’s stories, even though she’d heard them over and over again.

The biscuit tin, which had once been full of Christmas Shortbread, was covered in tartan and festive flowers.  Katie couldn’t quite place the era.  She eyed Nan fondly, taking in her features; her white hair, cut into a short, modern style, and the slenderness of her frame.  The biscuit tin looked dated, but somehow, Nan never did.  Nan had always been such a stylish lady.  Katie couldn’t think of many women in their eighties, who still wore jeans, apart from that Mary Berry, who did the cooking on TV.  Today, Nan was elegantly dressed in a beige cashmere-look jumper.  Tied at her neck was a gold, sequinned scarf, which brought warmth to her face and made her blue eyes, although furrowed with lines, appear vivid and bright.

Inside the old biscuit tin was an assortment of letters, cards, and photographs, along with many other odds and ends.

“I used to call this my Memory Box” chuckled Nan.  “I put all my keepsakes inside it – you know theatre tickets, letters, that sort of thing. Haven’t opened it in years!  It’s probably a load of old tat!”

As Nan rummaged through the old tin, Katie fell into a poignant silence.  This assortment of forgotten items, each and every photograph or keepsake, told a story; the story of Nan’s life, which in turn, was a part of Katie’s own.  

At twenty-two, the majority of Katie’s life still lay ahead of her.  But lately, she’d been feeling a bit stuck in a rut.  After leaving college, Katie had ended up taking a job in the City, as an office Junior, at the Insurance firm her Uncle David worked for.   Just over three years later, she was still there, filing, typing, taking minutes at board meetings, making coffee and ordering stationery supplies.  There was nothing particularly wrong about it.  The salary wasn’t bad.  Katie had a wardrobe full of nice clothes.  She was saving up towards a deposit for a flat, and she had her own car.  She caught the 8:08 train to Paddington every morning, and arrived home again at 6:32.  It was familiar.  It was safe.  But sometimes, Katie wondered if she ought to have followed her heart, and done that Teaching Degree she’d looked into.

“Here it is!”  said Nan, finally laying hands on what she had been searching for:   An old black and white photograph of herself as a young woman. 

“See? I told you! You look just like me!”

Katie gasped. She could definitely see the strong family likeness. It was astonishing how much nan resembled her father across the eyes.  Nan’s shoulder length hair, much darker in those days, was set in elegant, pin-tucks and waves.  She wore a dress with a perky little collar, cinched in dramatically at the waist, and high-heeled shoes, showing off her shapely legs.   

“I was about twenty here”, Nan recalled, with a faraway look in her eyes.

“Nan, you looked like a film star!” Katie said, drinking in the glamour and femininity of the era.

“Oh, go on!” laughed Nan.  “But I was rather slim, wasn’t I?”

“A million dollars!  You must have had all the boys chasing you!”

Nan’s face lit up.   “I had a few admirers.  But I only ever had eyes for your Grandpa George.  Oh how I miss that man!” She sighed.  “This was a few months before we started courting.”

Courting.  Katie couldn’t help smiling at Nan’s old-fashioned expression.

“How did you meet again?” Katie asked.

“Oh, it was a chance encounter” Nan recalled. “I was working at the dress-makers, you know, on the sewing machines.  One day I was sent to the post office on an errand. Your Grandpa was standing behind me in the queue. He was the most handsome man I’d ever clapped eyes on! We started talking and he asked me where I worked. Well, that evening, he was waiting for me at the gates! Turns out he’d been waiting there for over an hour! And from that day onwards, he waited for me every single day – come rain or shine. 

Katie sighed.  How romantic!

“How old were you when you got married, nan?”

“I’d just turned twenty-one.  I was a baby, really.  But we were head over heels.”

Katie thought about her own life.  There were no signs of anything remotely close to marriage on the horizon for her.  In fact, Katie seemed to possess quite a talent for falling for the wrong type of guy.   Katie and her best friend Sarah had once spent a hilarious evening coming up with nick-names for a few of Katie’s biggest dating disasters.  There was vain Wayne followed by Lying Lee.  Oh, and not forgetting, two-timing Tim, of course! 

It would be so nice, for once in her life, to find the type of guy that would wait at the gates – do something truly romantic- for her.  Katie sighed.  She wondered if men like Grandpa George even existed anymore? 

Joe Hart’s face flashed momentarily into Katie’s mind.  But she batted the thought away as quickly as it had immerged.  Don’t be so ridiculous.

Nan spoke very calmly, as she poured another cup of tea, as though she could see into the depths of Katie’s soul.  “So, any young men on the scene for you, dear?

Katie shook her head, a little too quickly, before biting into one of nan’s famous home-made rock cakes.  Chance would be a fine thing.  “I’m afraid not, Nan.  I still haven’t met the right one.”

Nan eyed Katie over the rim of her spectacles as though she were examining a candidate at an interview.  “Hmm, you can’t fool an old fool like me!  There’s someone on your mind, I can tell.”

Katie sighed, admitting defeat.  “Well, there was this guy…Oh it’s ridiculous.  I met him on my way home from work a few weeks ago…but, let’s just say it was definitely a chance encounter!”

Nan seemed unperturbed.   “Well, what’s his name?”

“His name was Joe.  Joseph Hart. It was just before Christmas. My train was cancelled. I had high heels on and my feet were killing me – so I found this cute little coffee shop. I sat down and started reading my book.  I was miles away, when suddenly, this guy started talking to me.  Turns out he was reading the same book!   We got chatting, and he ended up buying me another Caramel Latte.”

“Oh?” said Nan, clinking her china teacup onto its matching saucer.  “And what happened after that?”

Katie wriggled in her seat.  “Well, it was all going great, until I found out he lives in Devon.  He’d come to London for the weekend – to visit his cousin.  We chatted for a while, but then he had to dash off for his train.  So we quickly tore a napkin in half and scribbled down our phone numbers.  And that was that.  But, he’s probably lost my number, and well, Devon’s not exactly round the corner, is it? 

“Not exactly,” repeated Nan. “But I’m pretty sure they have a university there.  Maybe you should look into doing that Teaching Degree.”

Katie smiled.  Nan was so wonderfully black and white.  In her mind, it was simple:  Boy meets girl.  Boy waits for girl at the gates.  Boy and girl fall in love, get married and live happily ever after.  But unfortunately, it was no longer the 1950’s.  Life just wasn’t that simple anymore.

“You never know, Nan.  Katie sighed.  “He might just surprise me!”

“Well, of course he will!” said Nan with a twinkle in her eye.    “He’d be a fool to let you slip away!”

The surprise came a few days later.  Katie was clearing out her wardrobe when her phone rang.

“Hello?” she said, not recognising the number.

There was a slight pause. 

“Are you doing anything this evening?”

It took Katie a few moments to remember where she’d heard that West Country lilt.  It was Joe Hart!

With her heart pounding like the clappers, Katie managed to reply in a composed manner.  “Err, nope.  No plans whatsoever.  Why?”

“Cos, I just wondered if you fancied another one of those Caramel Lattes?   It’s Joe.  Joseph Hart.  The guy from the coffee shop?  Do you remember me?

Katie caught her breath. Are you kidding?  “Hi Joe.  Yes, of course, I remember you.”

“Well. I thought I’d pay my cousin another visit, you know, hit the January sales and all that.”  His voice lowered slightly.  “Actually, I hate shopping.  But it seemed like a good excuse to see you again.”

Wait, was he in London now?  Had he really come all this way, for her?

Katie’s heart did a flip.  “Where abouts are you exactly?”

“I’m at that coffee shop.  I’m just getting to that last chapter of the book.  Have you read it yet?”

“Yep.  I finished it last night. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a good ending.”

“Ok.  Well, I’ll be waiting here for you.”

“I’m on my way!” Katie grinned.

Practically flying down the stairs and grabbing for her coat and scarf, Katie’s mum stopped her by the front door.   “Ooh you look nice, love.  Where are you flying off to?”

Katie smiled.  “I’m going to meet a friend for coffee.”

 Mum smiled.  “Well, have fun! Oh, and before you go, I was just about to throw this out, but it’s such a nice tin, I wondered if you could make use of it?”

Katie couldn’t help but smile when she caught sight of the empty biscuit tin that her mum was holding in her hands. Christmas Shortbread.

“As a matter of fact, that might just come in handy.”

Katie rummaged around in her coat pockets for her gloves and quite by chance, pulled out the napkin that had Joe Hart’s telephone number scrawled across it.   

Instinctively, before leaving the house, Katie opened the biscuit tin lid, and placed the napkin inside.

A Christmas Story…

Thursday 19th December

Alison Jennings put the car into reverse, and began inching her way out of the tight parking space her seven-seater had occupied since around 10:30 that morning. It was at times like this that Ali wished she had a smaller car!

It was just gone quarter to three, almost time to collect her four and five year old from school. The time had whizzed, and Ali hadn’t bought nearly as many Christmas presents as she’d hoped. She still hadn’t got anything for her parents, two of her brothers-in-law, her teenage son, or her husband, Nick! She’d definitely have to go out again next week.

Ali drove down a ramp and followed the exit signs round to the right, where she was immediately met with a queue of traffic, waiting to exit the multi-story. Car-horns were hooting all over the place. Silly people…What’s the point of hooting? There was nothing else to do but wait. Ironically, a carol sprang to mind that her dad used to sing. What were the words again? Peace on earth…and angels singing… or something like that. What a joke!

Ali exhaled sharply as she checked the time on the dash. 2:54pm. She had to be at school by quarter past three. Inwardly, she scolded herself for not having left sooner. The shops had been packed and school-run time was notoriously busy. Ali contemplated texting someone. Perhaps one of the other school-mums wouldn’t mind grabbing her kids and waiting with them until she arrived? She edged forward, noticing the speed at which the cars were moving. She decided not to bother anyone else. With any luck she might just make it, but it would be a close call.

Just over half an hour later, Ali had collected the kids, and she was now bundling them back in the car. Ali seemed to spend most of her life, standing in the rain, strapping kids in and out of car seats lately. Boy did she need a cup of tea! A little way down the road, Ali’s heart sank as she remembered they were almost out of milk. She wondered if she ought to send Danny, her teenage son down the road to get some? But by now, it was pelting down with rain. And he’d probably moan and protest after a long day at secondary school. Then Ali thought about dinner. She wasn’t even sure if there was anything much to eat in the fridge. Plus, it was the last day of term tomorrow, and she really ought to buy the teachers a box of biscuits or something. There was no way round it. She’d have to make a stop on the way home.

Saturday 21st December

The alarm went off at 6:15 am. Ali trudged downstairs, bleary-eyed in the darkness. In robot-fashion, she turned on the heating, fed the cat, and made two cups of tea, wondering if Nick had even remembered. They needed to be at the butcher’s by seven o’clock that morning to collect the Turkey. Carrying two mugs of tea up the stairs, she peered into the kids’ bedroom. Her two little sleepy-heads were absolutely out for the count. Blotto! They would definitely not appreciate being dragged out of bed, in the dark, on the first morning of their Christmas holidays. Ali had been awake since 5:15 going over and over the ever growing list of vegetables, condiments, drinks, desserts and other groceries she still needed to buy. She made a mental note not to forget the cranberry sauce. Or the brandy cream. And the extra roll of Selo-tape. Oh and she’d better buy some cheese. Uncle Pete loved his cheese. Some of Nick’s family were coming over for dinner tomorrow evening. What on earth could she cook? A Beef Casserole might be best. If she prepped it early enough, she could set the oven timer to come on while they were that at that blasted Christingle Service that her neighbour was dragging her along to. Ali wondered if she could wriggle out of it somehow. But the kids were desperate to go. And surprisingly, Nick was keen too. He used to go to Carols every year as a child. Ali hadn’t set foot in a church for years. Her head was spinning. She needed to write a list. What time did the supermarket open, she wondered? Would the vegetables even keep until Christmas Day? She hoped they hadn’t sold out of Red Cabbages.

Sunday 22nd December

With the beef casserole prepped and in the oven, Ali turned her attention to wrapping presents! The kids were happy watching ‘The Grinch’ in the front room with Nick, and so Ali had the dining room table all to herself.

Ali had to admit, she’d been a bit of a ‘Grinch’ herself, that morning. It all started, when Danny, her teenage son, had started moaning about the fact that he’d run out of clean socks and pants! The cheek of it! He’d been lying in bed all morning, while she’d been up with the lark, cleaning the bathroom and trying to make the house look presentable. Then, when Henry, her four year old, had accidentally tipped over his glass of juice at lunch-time, Ali had felt like she was going to spontaneously combust!

Ali put on a Christmas album, “Christmas With The Crooners,” opened a packet of mince pies and poured herself a glass of sherry. Perhaps that would get her back in the festive spirit! Tomorrow, she’d take an early train into London to finish her Christmas shopping, and with any luck, she might even get to sit down and watch a movie on Christmas Eve – providing she’d made the trifle and wrapped up the last of the Christmas presents.

Ali smiled wryly as an Andy Williams Classic began playing…”It’s the most wonderful time of the year…!”

Wonderful? Christmas was just one big stress!

Ali inhaled. She wondered how long she could carry on living life at this pace. She glanced at the clock. She only had an hour or so before they needed to leave for the Christingle. She hadn’t even chosen the kids’ outfits yet. Why, oh why had she agreed to go?

The Church was packed with jolly looking visitors, of all ages. Ali was somewhat taken aback. She’d immediately envisaged a cold, echoing, austere looking building, filled with elderly folk. But the church hall was brightly painted, cosily decked out with garlands of Ivy and Mistletoe. Sparkling fairy lights were wrapped around the pillars, and a magnificent Christmas Tree, covered in red baubles and ribbons made a Festive focal point at the front of the hall.

Ali felt a little out of place as the sound of the first Christmas Carol filled the air. The people sang with such gusto, and such happy faces, it made her feel a little self-conscious. Ali kept her eyes glued on the words printed on her song-sheet.

Hark, the Herald Angels sing,

Glory to the newborn King,

Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…

It was that song again… Her dad’s favourite Christmas hymn! She studied the words, and joined in the jubilant singing:

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace,

Hail the Sun of Righteousness,

Light and life to all He brings,

Risen with healing in His wings,

Mild, He lays His glory by,

Born that man no more may die,

Born to raise the sons of earth,

Born to give them second birth,

Hark the herald angels sing,

Glory to the newborn King.

A strange longing filled Ali’s soul. She felt tears prick at the corners of her eyes. Light. Life. Peace. Healing. Second birth. These words seemed to stir something, right within the very core of her being, even though she had no idea what any of them meant.

And then all of sudden, as oranges and candles, dried fruits and red ribbons were handed out to all the children, the Minister began to explain.

  • The orange represented the world.
  • The ribbon, God’s love wrapped around it, red because of Christ’s redeeming blood, shed on the cross of Calvary.
  • The dried fruits and sweets, symbols of mankind – God’s creation.
  • And finally, the lit candle, representing Jesus, the light of the World, bringing hope to the people living in darkness.

As Ali stood, watching her children listening intently, their faces softly aglow with candle-lit wonder, she felt her husband gently squeeze her hand. A strange feeling began to wash over her. What was it, Peace? Joy? Did Nick feel it too? She closed her eyes for a moment, and as the first chords of the final hymn began to resound, she exhaled, letting all the stress of the past few weeks, leave her for a moment. And for the first time in a very long time, she suddenly knew what – or rather who – Christmas was really all about.

Ali had such a lump in her throat as they sang the final hymn.

Come and behold Him, born the King of angels,

O come let us adore Him.

Christ the Lord!

As they exited the church hall, they passed the Minister who was handing out leaflets at the door. To her amazement, Ali grabbed one. She couldn’t quite explain how she was feeling, but inwardly she knew that something had changed, and she needed to find out more.

“So, did you enjoy it?” her neighbour asked cautiously, as they walked out into the darkness. Ali thought about how desperately she’d NOT wanted to come and all that she would have missed if she hadn’t.

Spontaneously, she threw her arms around her friend. “I did! I really did. You’ve no idea how much I needed that. Thank you so much for inviting me!”

And as they drove home in the darkness, the kids strangely quiet in the back of the car, Ali glanced up at the Christmas Lights shining overhead in the high Street. She smiled as she noticed them, as if for the first time. There were stars and angels everywhere she looked! Glory to the Newborn King, she hummed quietly under her breath.