This story is by Vimal Madhavan and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
GINNY’S hands trembled a little as she held the candle tight and lowered it into its holder on the table. Its golden light, flickering over the spread of mince pies and sausage rolls, was beginning to slowly win its daily duel against the winter gloom.
Her family would soon be here. Ginny felt her evening could begin.
It had been a quiet day. Ginny hadn’t spoken to anyone. So in that way it had been like most of her days. But today had been a busy day.
She refilled her glass, took a long sip, topped it up again, and did her final checks of the festive dining room.
She ticked them off mentally: the mulled wine in a carafe, the polished crystal glasses, the sandwich plates brought out from the sideboard, and the pile of Santa Claus napkins. On the other side of the room a string of lights snaked across the mantlepiece, twinkling red and blue in time to “We Three Kings of Orient Are”. The tree, a Scots Pine – Ginny always insisted on a real tree – stood proud in one corner, with wrapped presents spread tastefully around it on the floor.
Ginny took a gulp of her drink. She always looked forward to this time, when she and her family could all be at home together.
Pouring himself a whisky beyond the table was Tony, her third child. Sickly in his early years and bookish in his teens, he had finished years of study with a doctorate in engineering. His company made laptops for schools all over the country.
Next to Tony, her head thrown back in laughter, and impressive in a sparkling black dress, was her daughter, Sonia. Bright and attractive, she could keep a party entranced from the moment she walked in. She was in the middle of telling a story now… like she always was, always in the middle of something. For her, life didn’t have time for everything she needed to do.
Listening to the story with unbridled pride and total attention was Sonia’s father, Jim, with pint of beer in hand. Ginny felt a gush of excitement as her gaze lingered on his face.
She remembered the first time she had seen him, at a freshers’ party. Moments later she had managed to get talking to him – and they hadn’t stopped for the past 60 years. He was her heart-throb, her pal, her confidante, her partner in the long walk of life, each supporting the other through the rough patches.
They were now just waiting for Billy. Her precious Billy. Billy, who never made it past childhood, despite all his valiant efforts.
Billy was her first-born. His birth signalled the moment she had got her family, the unit that she had wanted all her life. Her dream was complete. She had her man, they had their baby.
That dream nearly died two years later when Billy finally succumbed to the assortment of illnesses he’d struggled with since Day One.
Ginny remembered nothing of his funeral. So it was easy to keep him alive. The toddler that disappeared lived on in her memory. The eternal flame burned on. And by then she had had Sonia and was expecting Tony. He lived on in his brother and sister also.
This was the family she had fought for and whom she defended against all comers over the decades.
Ginny went and sat next to Tony. She had always been closer to her boys – particularly Tony – than to Sonia. People said that’s how it often was. Girls, especially when they were the only daughter in a family, were often closer to their fathers than to their mothers.
This was her place. Sharing time with her boys. She took a sip of Tony’s whisky, knowing as she did that she wouldn’t like it. His dry whisky was never to her taste. But it was another tradition … taking a sip from his Christmas whisky.
“You’ve got to learn to drink proper whisky,” he laughingly told her as she screwed up her face. “One day soon …
At least Tony ate and drank. She knew Billy wouldn’t do either. Nor would he speak much.
Ginny could feel the pangs of loneliness and loss threatening to overcome her. She had thought her life was over when Billy’s flame flickered and died, but she had resurrected him and sustained him.
(Another taste of her drink, a little sip this time … just to get over this moment, Ginny thought.)
At first Billy had stayed away after his final, devastating illness. To others he was lost in the mists of time, but in Ginny’s memory he eventually was whole again, complete and tangible. Each birthday they planned a new theme cake for him, and he had his pile of presents at Christmas.
He had begun to return after Tony went away, driving off the side of a steep mountain road on holiday somewhere. Jim had answered the door to the policemen one chilly autumn evening, and he never again spoke more than a sentence at any time after that.
“My Jim was never Jim again. The man who loved to talk, who could tell a story to hold everyone spellbound, who was known for a beautiful turn of phrase, had lost the will to speak,” Ginny had told friends.
That’s when Billy started to come back. He had grown in the intervening years, and he had started to bring memories back.
But then Sonia had left, angry at a home that was dark and sad and morose. Everyone seemed to have stopped living after Tony went, and Sonia had too much to do.
“It broke my heart,” Ginny said. “Early one morning she was gone, with not even a goodbye.”
“Even in the note she said not to try to find her. And Jim didn’t do anything. I think he didn’t know what to do. The police said she was an adult and didn’t want to be found.
“We sat around, and Jim wouldn’t eat anything, and he had always loved my cooking. Slowly, slowly he also went away.
“I kept on talking to him, but he didn’t seem to understand what I was saying.
“And then one day they came and took him away.”
But soon after that was when, Ginny said, Billy started bringing Tony home.
“I would just find them both in the sitting room, my two boys.”
“It was usually in the evenings when things were quiet and I had had time for a little glass of wine.”
Or sometimes a whisky – and sometimes both.
“They would tell me all they had been up to. Well, Tony would. Billy was quieter, filling things in for Tony when Tony stalled.”
“I loved to listen to my boys.”
Ginny’s eyes had a faraway look, a bit uncertain, as she remembered her two boys keeping her company.
“It was much later that Jim returned. The boys were visiting that same day.
“Oh, he was pleased to see them. But sad that Sonia wasn’t there.
“And then the next time he came home, he brought Sonia with him.”
And so tonight they would all be here, sharing the Christmas spirit with Ginny. They always all came at Christmas.
She sighed in contentment and finished her drink, pleased that she was bringing them all together again. Christmas time, family time.
She poured herself another whisky. It was a little larger one this time – only so she could finish off the bottle she had opened that afternoon and replace it with a new one.
She leaned back dreamily into the soft sofa, her mind wandering into a mist of distant, half-imagined memories.
She thought she heard the doorbell … “Oh, that’ll be Billy,” she thought, and watched herself float to the front door to welcome him home.
A cool gust swept past her as she looked out of the open door. She waited near the open door for Billy to show himself.
Behind her the gust picked up a couple of the festive napkins, flicking them into the air, before they spiralled down and settled on the flame of the flickering candle.
As she watched herself looking for Billy, she just about noticed a rosy glow lighting up the ceiling, and felt a spreading warmth enveloping her. She felt herself float lazily back to the sofa to the soft sound of flames crackling and glass gently cracking. A swarm of embers swelling up into the Christmas tree freed a pine scent that triggered a last, fleeting, memory of her children at bath-time.
Silent Night played on in the background, as Ginny’s eyelids flickered and drooped and closed. Her breathing, even and deep, took the curls and wisps of smoke deep into her lungs.
In the swirling gloom, Ginny’s family gathered around her, reaching out their welcoming arms, gathering her to their bosoms.
All together again.
Happy ever after.
All together again