A Candle In The Window
Laura Fox took pains to wrap her son’s Christmas present. It was an iPod – he had jiggled to music from the day he was born – but the parcel was so tiny that she would need to be careful where she placed it under the tree, in case it was buried beneath the avalanche of gifts stacked there. She fidgeted at it, fussing to find the right bow to offset the silver- snowflake paper, and when she was finished she stepped back to admire her handiwork. Mark always ripped apart packaging, oblivious to presentation, but she wanted everything to be perfect for her boy. Laura checked the clock. It was shortly after midday on Christmas Eve and she had another three hours to pass before her husband and daughter would be home. She had sent Peter to the butcher’s to pick up the fresh turkey on order since December 1, then he was dropping in to their old neighbours, the McGales, with selection boxes for the children. He had a couple of cards to hand-deliver and then he would collect their daughter, Rebecca, from the bus station. She was catching the Letterkenny Express from Dublin, which stopped off in Omagh.
Rebecca would stay with them for five days of the holidays, but she was spending the New Year with college friends who had pooled their funds to rent a ski lodge in Austria. No trouble deciding what to buy Rebecca for Christmas, she wanted ski-wear. Laura sighed, rolling up the Christmas paper and leaning it against the dresser. She had longed to implore Rebecca not to go abroad but Peter had insisted they must let their daughter lead her own life. ‘We can’t wrap her in cotton wool forever,’ he had told her, uncharacteristically stern.
Laura surveyed the cosy intimacy of her kitchen. Not a dish to be washed, not a surface to be wiped – everything was in its proper place. She twiddled the radio dial and sleigh bells tinkled. Normally she loved Christmas music, it could never be too schmaltzy for her taste, but today Laura was restless. The flop of envelopes on the front door mat diverted her. She adjusted a garland on the banisters as she passed it in the hall, settling a pine cone into position, and bent to retrieve a couple of envelopes.
She recognised the handwriting on each, knowing without opening them that the first card came from her cousin Jim and his wife, while the other was from an old school-friend, Margo. ‘To Laura, Peter and Rebecca.’ said Margo’s card. She ripped it in half with a violent twist of the wrist, throwing the two pieces into her wastepaper recycling bin. Jim’s card read: ‘To Laura, Peter and family.’ That one she placed on a worktop, where the bright-eyed robin on its cover seemed to watch her as she snipped the stamps from their envelopes to save for charity.
Once again Laura found herself staring at the clock. This would never do; she must keep busy. She decided to make a batch of mince pies – there was enough time before Peter and Rebecca arrived, provided she got cracking now. A biscuit tin full of them already sat in her larder but you couldn’t have too many mince pies at Christmas – you never knew who might call. She reached for a jar of Robertson’s mincemeat, and took a packet of readymade pastry and an egg for glazing from the fridge. The mechanical repetition of rolling pastry soothed her. Roll-pat-turn. Then a shake of flour. Just like her mother had taught her. Except she would have disapproved of readymade pastry. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees,’ she would have said. Laura wiped her hands on a tea-towel and set the oven to heat, before growing absorbed in cutting out scalloped circles. Her hands carried the memory of the baking routine in their fingertips, and soon two dozen mince pies were tanning in the oven. A quick cup of tea before Peter and Rebecca arrived – she had earned it.
The radio presenter’s voice made itself heard over splashing water from the tap. ‘Our next track is dedicated to all you listeners who can’t be with their loved ones this Christmas.’ It was Nat King Cole singing When A Child Is Born. Laura closed her eyes at the opening line, reliving the day Mark had come into the world. Twenty-one years on, the memory of the first time she had seen her son remained undimmed. He had been such a scrawny infant, his skin several sizes too large for his skeleton and crinkling into folds at his neck. She had been astounded when the midwife had placed him in her arms, for both Laura and Peter were sturdily built. How could this skinny little whippet of a child belong to her? But then the baby had opened his eyes and their gazes had connected, and she had known her son. Had known, too, that no matter how many other children she might bear, none of them would ever match the fierce upsurge of love that had flared in Laura for her first-born. ‘His name is Mark,’ she had told her husband, without removing her eyes from their minutes-old son. ‘I thought we’d agreed on Stephen for a boy.’ ‘No, he’s Mark. We were mad thinking we could name a child without seeing him first.’ Mark. She had whispered her son’s name into the whorl of his eardrum and, although she knew it was impossible, still, he had done it. He had smiled in recognition.
The smell of baked pastry recalled Laura to the present. Her mince pies! She made a dash for the oven and whipped them out. ‘Nick of time,’ she muttered, for although they were golden-brown now, in another thirty seconds they would have started to blacken. Laura used a sandwich knife to ease the pies onto a baking rack to cool, before soaking the pastry tins. She still hadn’t managed that cup of tea. Another glance towards the clock. There wasn’t time now: Peter and Rebecca were only minutes away provided Rebecca’s bus was running to time. Peter would have phoned her if there had been any holdup. He was always careful to keep her abreast of his movements, as was Rebecca. It had become second nature to them. Even a delay of ten or fifteen minutes left Laura fretful and jumpy. She needed constant reassurance. Ear cocked for the door, she sprinkled icing sugar on the mince pies and popped a broken sliver of pastry into her mouth. Mark loved her mince pies, he said she was the only mother who still baked them. All his friends’ mothers bought theirs from the supermarket. He could eat half a dozen at a sitting, and still there wasn’t a pick on him. The scraggy mite of a baby had grown into a lean young man. A medical student, imagine! They would have a doctor in the family one day. The taut lines of Laura’s face softened. Mark Fox MD. Her son. Of course Rebecca was at college now too, in her second year into a degree in nursing studies, but there was nothing like a doctor in the family. And to think her grandfather had dug ditches for a living.
The telephone rang. Laura let it peal six times before lifting the receiver, although she had only to stretch out her hand to reach it. There was always a burst of atavistic terror when the phone jangled and she was in the house alone – as though bad news might sense when she was at her most vulnerable and choose that moment to pounce. ‘Silly goose,’ Laura scolded herself. ‘It’s probably Peter to say the Christmas Eve traffic is heavy and they’ll be late.’ ‘Hello?’ She injected a note of fake jollity into her voice. ‘Mrs Fox? It’s Suzanne. I just wanted to say Merry Christmas.’ Mark’s presence, until then tentative for all Laura’s efforts to conjure him up, permeated her kitchen thanks to his girlfriend’s voice in her ear. ‘Suzanne, how lovely to hear from you. Are you well? I’m sure you’ve looking forward to Christmas. Rebecca’s due in any minute, her father went to the bus station to collect her. She’s at college in Dublin these days. They say you’ll have a white Christmas in London this year. No sign of it here in Omagh…’ Laura chattered. ‘Is there any news?’ Suzanne interrupted Laura, repeating the question twice before penetrating the lava flow of words. Laura paused, listening to the clock tick, to the radiators click, to the young woman’s breathing down the phone-line. ‘We’ve had no word, love.’ Her voice was gentle. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say so Laura waited a heartbeat or two, then replaced the receiver. She knew she should have made more of an effort with Suzanne, hadn’t the girl taken the trouble to ring her, but she wasn’t able to maintain the facade. Not today, with Christmas in the air. ‘All is calm, all is bright,’ burbled the radio. Laura felt the warning prickle of tears.
A key turned in the front door and she inhaled to steady herself, patting at her eyes and nose with a tissue before turning around, a smile of welcome trembling on her lips. Rebecca and Peter were standing in the hall. Peter was carrying their daughter’s rucksack and looked faintly ridiculous in a Santa hat. ‘Rebecca came off the bus with this plonked on her head and insisted it was my turn to look like an eejit so I had to wear it driving home to humour her.’ He shook his head and a gold bell at the hat’s droopy end tinkled. ‘Ho ho ho.’ Peter puffed out his cheeks. ‘Dad, you sound like more like one of Santa’s reindeer than Santa.’ Rebecca was carrying a cloth bag in her arms with gift-wrapped oblongs protruding from it. She bent to rest it against the foot of the stairs and straightened to face her mother, a faltering quality in her gaze. ‘It’s good to be home, Mum.’ Laura opened her arms and Rebecca raced into them. While Rebecca closed her eyes for their embrace, inhaling warm skin and hairspray, Laura looked straight ahead, beyond her daughter, beyond her daughter’s luggage, beyond her husband. Checking for somebody behind them.
It was a few minutes to midnight on Christmas Eve: the cusp of Christmas morning. ‘Will we do it now, Mum?’ Rebecca held a box of matches in one hand and rattled them, nervous. Peter placed his warm hand on the back of his wife’s neck, squeezing reassurance, until she swallowed and nodded. Laura squared her shoulders, lifted a church candle from its box, dislodging a ridge of loose wax, and set it in a painted wooden candle holder. Mark had bought her the trinket for Christmas with his pocket money more than a decade earlier. Rebecca reached her mother the matches and she struck two, until the third match ignited and she could light the taper. Peter opened the sitting room curtains and displaced an ornament on the window sill, while Laura shielded the tremulous flame. Moving slowly, she set the candle in the exact centre of the ledge. The remnants of a pool of melted wax from last year marked the spot. ‘Now Mark will have some help finding his way home.’ Rebecca slipped her hand inside the crook of her mother’s elbow. Laura looked at Peter, willing him to believe, but she couldn’t decipher his expression. It had been two years, one month and twenty-seven days since their son had vanished in London. He had started out one night to meet friends for a drink and had never arrived. Despite a police hunt, visits to the area by the Fox family, television appeals, a poster campaign and the offer of a reward, no sightings had been reported and no body had been found. Laura was convinced he was still alive. Mark was lost, not dead. She would know if her child was no longer in this world – her heart would send a signal to her brain and she would know; let no-one dare to tell her different.
Church bells chimed midnight and the family cocked their heads, listening. Their reflections were illuminated in the opaque glass of the window; they were standing so close that their outlines merged into one another. ‘Maybe this Christmas,’ whispered Laura. Rebecca smiled, Peter watched the candle. The breath from Laura’s voice sent the flame dancing for a couple of seconds, before it settled back into a steady yellow glow.