by Des Birch
“But why can’t I open it now?” asked Darren, my nine year old.
“Because it’s not yet Christmas,” I replied in the calm way that mothers do in these situations.
“I know that uncle Carl has bought me the game. Look, it’s here under the tree.”
“Uncle Carl said that you could open it on Christmas day when he comes around for dinner. The only reason he left it here is because he was going to be away on business all week and he didn’t want to leave it in his car in case it got stolen. Now put it back.”
Darren sulkily replaced the gift under the tree and skulked off to his room, to play on his gaming laptop.
I did have sympathy with my son. His best friend, Steve, next door, had gone to America with his mum and dad, to spend Christmas with his uncle. Darren’s other friends lived at least fifteen minutes away by car, so he was alone except for his trusty laptop with which he could at least contact his friends.
It is always a worry that children spend too much time on computers and not enough time playing out in the fresh air, and Darren was no different from any other child in this respect. That is why his father and I bought him a bike for Christmas. At first he appeared to love it; racing around the pathways and dirt tracks nearby. However, it was not very long until he tired of not being able to show it off to his friends, and that was when he began moping around the house.
When I had prepared the bird and put it in the oven, I went to his room to see how he was. Darren was laying across his bed, playing on some social sites with his virtual friends. His room was decked out with streamers and hanging stars; with holly and a rope-light around his window. He even had a small Christmas tree complete with flashing lights.
“You’ll be able to play with your friends over the Christmas holidays,” I told him. “Just not today.”
“But it’s not fair!” he insisted. “All my friends are out playing and I’m stuck here with nobody.”
“You’ve still got me and your dad,” I replied feigning hurt feelings. “And your uncle Carl will be coming over later on.”
“You know what I mean,” he mumbled as his attention returned to his laptop.
“Count your blessings,” I said. “You’ve seen pictures of people all over the world who have literally nothing.”
“Yea, but that’s over there.”
I had no idea what his last comment meant and so I left my sulky offspring and went next door to check on Steve’s Nan.
Mrs. Walker had lived with Steve’s parents ever since her husband had died. She was a frail woman, housebound, and the only way that Steve and his parents could go away was that I promised to look in on her on a daily basis. She greeted me enthusiastically, as if she had not seen me in weeks. She did not get many visitors. I had invited her to our house for dinner, but her multitude of illnesses made her unwilling to travel even that short distance. Generally she could get around the house in her wheelchair, making tea and coffee and heating her ready-meals, but today I had promised her a full Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. I say ‘full Christmas dinner’, but it was a special meal to fit in with her specialised diet. However, I had managed to make it look festive and it would be ready before ours, so the family meal would not be interrupted. I stayed with her for half an hour but noticed a tinge of sadness in her eyes as I left.
“I’ll have your dinner ready in about an hour,” I told her.
“Oh thank you,” she said. “You will bring young Darren with you, won’t you? I’ve got him a small gift.”
“Yes of course,” I replied as I closed the door and headed back to my kitchen.
Mrs. Walker’s annual gift to Darren was always something practical, although to Darren’s eternal chagrin, never fashionable. Every year I had to remind my son to look surprised and happy as he opened it.
When the meal was ready, I called to my husband Paul, to help me carry it next door. I would take Darren later when we retrieved the dishes. I knew he would be chatting to his friends on his laptop and I did not want to disturb him. Paul was tinkering with the family car; something he did on a regular basis. I never understood why a relatively new car needed so much adjustment, but it kept him happy.
“Can you get Darren to do it, love? I’m a bit tied up here.”
To be honest, I think Paul just liked sitting in the car, but once again I popped into Darren’s room to enlist his help.
“Aww mum! Do I have to? I’ve got all my mates online.”
“And I need you to help carry dishes next door.”
“But they’ll all be gone by the time I get back.”
“It’s only next door,” I replied as I held open the door.
My sulky child closed his laptop and followed me to the kitchen, where I handed him a tray. We would deliver dinner and pudding together as the pudding was one that could be served cold. I added a few crackers and a small gift and we headed out of the door.
Mrs. Walker was sitting at the table, examining photographs which she took out of a shoe box. The house seemed dull in comparison with the Christmas spirit reflected from every corner of our house, but she seemed happily wrapped up in her memories.
“Merry Christmas Mrs. Walker,” I said upon entering the room.
“Merry Christmas,” she replied as her eyes lit up at the thought of company.
“Merry Christmas,” mumbled Darren as he examined the room. “Where’s your Christmas tree?”
“Oh I didn’t think I’d bother with the family being away.”
Darren’s attention then turned to the photographs.
“Who’s this girl with Steve?” he asked, as he picked up a photograph.
The old lady laughed.
“That’s his girlfriend from school,” she replied. “They were childhood sweethearts and they later married.”
Darren rolled his eyes at her obvious mistake.
“No Mrs. Walker, Steve is my age. That must be somebody else.”
The old lady smiled.
“That certainly is Steve,” she assured him. “It’s your Steve’s grandad and my late husband. Yes, the girl in that picture is me.”
“But…but she’s young and pretty!”
“Darren!” I called.
“That’s all right,” said the old lady as she laughed once again. “I was once your age, you know.”
Darren looked confused. I do not think that he had ever considered that old people had been young once. He looked at the photo and then began to examine the old lady’s face.
“Don’t you miss him?” he asked.
“Every day,” she replied, “but I still have my family.”
Darren once again looked around the room and I thought it was time to take him home before he asked any more embarrassing questions. Once home I asked him to help with the Christmas dinner. It was not that I needed any help; just that I thought it might be good for him to understand how much work was involved.
“Oh mum,” he complained. “You said I could talk to my friends online before they all go away.”
I had indeed promised that he would not be long around Mrs. Walker’s house and so I let him return to his room.
Eventually Paul had finished playing with the car and came in to help me lay the table.
“Just going out on my bike,” called Darren as he escaped through the back door before I could stop him.
“Don’t be long,” I called after him. “Your uncle Carl will be here soon and then we’re going to have dinner.”
“At least he’s getting some fresh air,” remarked Paul.
“And playing with his present,” I added.
Darren did have his chores, but they tended to become more relaxed over Christmas. There would be time enough for him to find out what hard work Christmas can be, as he got older.
The back door opened and in walked Carl and Darren.
“Put your bike in the garage,” I said as I noticed it through the door.
I greeted Carl and then waited by the front door for Darren to return.
“Now don’t go pestering your uncle Carl to let you open the gift,” I whispered.
For once Darren actually took heed of what I had said. All through dinner he never once mentioned it. In fact, Carl gave it to him between dinner and pudding and, although Darren enthused when he opened it, he soon put it down in favour of something sweet.
After dinner, I asked Darren to help clear away the dishes. I expected at least some resistance, but he quietly did what I asked.
“You can go and play now,” I told him.
He smiled, picked up his game and disappeared upstairs.
We all sat having drinks and then I decided it was time to collect the dishes from Mrs. Walker. I went to Darren’s room to ask him to help me. It seemed that he had crept out to play on his bike. He had also taken down all of his Christmas decorations, even the tree, and the computer game lay on the bed unopened.
I thought perhaps I had been wrong in trying to quell his enthusiasm and that this was his way of rebelling. I hoped that I had not spoiled Christmas for him.
Darren flashed past me as I walked over to Mrs. Walker’s house. As soon as I entered the house I knew there was something different. I could hear voices and I was delighted that she had some company. I walked into the dining room and saw the tree flashing in the corner. There were stars hanging from the ceiling and holly on the window, surrounded by a rope light. As I turned to look at Mrs. Walker and her guests, I was surprised to find her sitting alone, except for a laptop on which she was laughing and joking with her family.
A lump came to my throat and a wave of pride washed over me as I realised that my little boy was growing up.