“It’s very sweet of you, my love, but I’m not sure it’s such a good idea.”
My heart, which was feeling all big and pink with generosity, swoops to the bottom of my stomach. “Why not?”
Mum frowns into the mirror as she runs lipstick round her lips. “It’s just that we don’t know him at all and he might think it’s a bit strange if you knock on his door out of the blue with a plate of mince pies.”
“But it’s Christmas.”
Mum snorts, then sighs and closes one eye, brushing the lid with a line of green paint. “I know love, but I still don’t think…” Blinks at herself. “You see, we don’t really know him – I think one of the only times I’ve ever talked to him was when he came round to complain that our apple tree was growing over his fence. You’d think he would’ve been grateful for a few apples, but there you go…” She reaches for her suit jacket and stands. “Come on, are the twins ready? We’re going to be late for school if we don’t leave now.”
As we drive to school, Mum makes work calls on her hands-free, gulps coffee from her thermos cup. The twins fight about who gets to take the red lunch box to nursery. I sit in the back and think about Mr Jackson. I’ve never really thought about Mr Jackson much, until last night, when Brown Owl gave us one of her talks.
“Now girls, I hope you realise that Christmas isn’t just about Santa and presents,” she said. “It’s a time for thinking about other people – Georgie-and-Issy-if-you-don’t-stop-that-now-I’ll-have-to-make-you-sit-apart. You know, there are a lot of people – Georgie-and-Issy-this-is-my-last-warning – who get very lonely around Christmas and I’d like each one of you Brownies to sit down and put your thinking caps on and see if you can think of anybody you know who might be living by themselves. Georgie-and-Issy-this-is-my-final-warning. There are a lot of older people, especially, who are lonely. It’s more difficult for them to get out and about and they can often be stuck at home with no one to talk to for days. So if you can think of anyone you know who might be in a situation like that, then maybe you could talk to your parents about making them a nice card and some chocolates or mince pies or something nice like that and taking them round.”
On the way home I’d done what Brown Owl suggested, because I like her. She’s old, but she’s nice and she always looks a bit desperate and tired. So I put my thinking cap on and I thought very hard. I thought about all the old people I know, Granny and Granddad, Nan and Pops. But I didn’t think any of them were lonely and they were all going to come for Christmas dinner anyway. I couldn’t think of any other old people I knew. It wasn’t till we got home that I thought of Mr Jackson.
His house is joined to ours and looks almost the same. After the brick wall at the front with the gate in, there is a garden with a path leading up to the front door. There’s a porch with brick pillars and beside that is a big window with lots of ivy growing round it and the sort of lace curtains which go up in an arch so you can still see inside a bit. When we came home last night, Mr Jackson didn’t have his lights on, but I could see the dim shape of him, in the light from his TV, sitting on his chair in his front room behind the curtain. There isn’t a Mrs Jackson. Mum told me that she thinks Mr Jackson’s wife died a long time ago, so Mr Jackson lives all by himself.
I wonder what it’s like to live by yourself? You could watch whatever you wanted on TV, you could eat whatever you wanted – a whole bowl of cake mix, or a whole family packet of crisps, with ice-cream for dessert. There’d be nobody interrupting you if you were reading, nobody coming to steal your things, or mess up your room.
But at night, you’d be all alone, wouldn’t you? I like having my own room – I’d hate to share like the twins do, but sometimes at night, when I’m alone in my room and it’s dark, I can see the shadows moving on the walls, the creeping of branches outside. Then I listen hard and I can always hear the sound of the TV downstairs, or Mum and Dad talking, the clink of plates as they load the dishwasher and then I feel much better. It’s even good to hear the twins, snuffling or fidgeting in their sleep from their room across the hall.
Even during the day it could be lonely, not having someone to play with, couldn’t it? Adults don’t play of course, but they talk to each other a lot, boring stuff mostly, though you can tell that they find it interesting because they go on and on. Like when I go to Ellie’s house and Mum comes from work to pick me up.
“I can’t stay,” she always says to Ellie’s Mum. “I’ve got to pick the twins up and get home and get dinner and I’ve still got some work to do this evening.”
Ellie and I roll our eyes at each other, because we know that the Mum’s will still talk, yackety, yackety, Mum standing outside with her foot on the door frame, Ellie’s Mum leaning against the door. After about half an hour Mum will call me in her annoyed voice as if it’s all my fault and say: “Come on Gemma, we’ve really got to go home, oh-by-the-way-Deb-I-need-to-talk-to-you-about-Friday,” and then they’re off again for another half hour. Then all the way to pick up the twins she goes on about how she’s got so much to do and so little time and where does all the time go and she’s got to get everything done. But she doesn’t seem as tired as she was before she talked to Ellie’s Mum about the ironing and work and how awful the government is and why does Mrs Evans want us to do all this spelling homework when it’s nearly the end of term.
Who does Mr Jackson talk to, when he’s tired?
It’s Saturday the next day and Dad takes me shopping. When we come back I see that Mr Jackson is watching TV again, sitting in his chair by the window. I think he must watch a lot of television – he’s lucky he doesn’t have anyone to tell him he’s spent too much time in front of a screen and that his eyes will go square. Or maybe he’s not watching it all the time. Maybe he likes to look out of the window at the people and cars going past on the street. I like to kneel up on the sofa and watch the people walking past sometimes. It’s fun to try and guess where they might be going, or what their dog is called, or whether they know that their trousers are too tight, or their hair looks silly. I remember what Brown Owl said – how it’s harder for old people to get out and about. I guess that means that there’s not really much to do, except sit and watch telly or the street. I wonder if Mr Jackson watches us as we go in and out of our house? I wonder if he gets cross when the twins fight and scream, or if he wonders about me, what I’m like, what I do with myself, just as I am wondering about him? I wonder what will happen if I wave to him one day?
The next time I see him, sitting in his front room, I take a big breath and lift my hand and wave and I think he waves back. I’m not absolutely sure, because the reflections on the window are all wibbly, but my heart feels as though it grows bigger and my face starts smiling all by itself. This must be what Brown Owl meant when she said that doing a good turn can make you feel happy inside.
For the next week, we are all busy with the Christmas concert at school and the ballet concert and the Brownie pantomime and shopping.
I come back from the ballet concert and see the pale shape of Mr Jackson sitting in his sitting room and realise I have forgotten him these last few days. I wave to him, but I don’t think he waves back this time, though it’s pretty dark, so it’s hard to tell.
Mum is getting really stressed now – “Oh, this time of year is so stressful!” she says, several times a day. She hardly listens to me when I talk to her. I ask again if I can take some chocolates or mince pies round to Mr Jackson and she nods and says “Yes-why-not-I-suppose-so-do-you-think-Granny-would-like-another-scarf-for-Christmas-what-did-you-say-again?”
So I go and watch TV. But when she comes home from Sainsbury’s with several boxes of mince pies for the Parents Evening at school, I sneak one from the bag. I take the pies out, put them on a plate and sieve icing sugar all over them. I don’t like mince pies, but most grown ups like them, so I hope Mr Jackson does. I’ve already made a card, with lots of glitter glue and cotton-wool snow and I’ve written inside with my gel pens: Dear Mr Jackson, I hope you have a nice Christmas, with love from Gemma Roberts. (from next door.)
It’s cold outside and twilight now, so that the frost on the path glows pink and there is a smell of ice in the air. I walk down our path, through the gate, along two feet of pavement and through Mr Jackson’s gate. Then all the way up his path, feet crunching on the frost, heart beating hard. He’s sitting there by the window as usual, but he doesn’t get up. Maybe he thinks I’m just going to put something through the letter box. My hands feel sticky with sweat inside my gloves and I wonder whether I should just go back home again and forget about it. But he must have seen me, so it would be silly to turn around now. I mount the steps to the porch, and knock on the door.
He doesn’t move.
I knock again, but he still doesn’t move.
Maybe he’s asleep? Or shy?
I knock again, but still he doesn’t move. Oh well, I can leave the card.
The flap of the letterbox is stiff, so I put the plate of mince pies down on the ground and I push it open. It’s all black iron with curly bits on it, set into the door just at my eye level. I push my card through and that’s when I notice the smell. My body knows, before my brain does that it’s a BAD smell. A wrong smell.
I turn and run then. I don’t know why. But I run, as fast as I can, down the path, through his gate, back through our gate, up the path, slipping on the ice, but I keep going and hurl myself at our front door.
Mum opens it and stares at me. “What on earth’s the matter? Where have you been?” And I tell her about Mr Jackson and the smell and her face goes all tight and white and she tells me to go inside and she will go and see if he’s okay.
Dad comes and gives me a big hug and tells me not to worry, that everything will be okay. He takes me into the sitting room and switches on the television and stands, looking out of the window at Mum as she bangs on the front door of Mr Jackson’s house.
But everything is not okay, because soon an ambulance comes and they load a stretcher onto it, with Mr Jackson lying on it, all wrapped up. The police come round to talk to Mum and ask her when she last saw him.
She shakes her head and runs her fingers through her hair and presses her fingers against her lips and then says, all in a rush: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I can’t remember. I didn’t know him. We weren’t – we weren’t what you’d call close neighbours.”
Lucy Bignall asserts the moral right to be considered the author of this work