Trevor sat up like an eager puppy.
Aproned and floured up to her elbows, Sarah considered the offer. There was no way she could get into town, buy the twins’ present and get back in time to finish off the mince pies, stuff the turkey and do all the other jobs that a family Christmas implied. She had let the quandary find its way to her tongue, it had slipped out, and her husband had pounced on it.
“I don’t know, Trev.”
“No really, I can go. You stay here and finish your pies. I can be there and back in no time.”
Sarah’s reluctance to take him up on his offer was well founded: the year before he’d been charged with the vital task of buying her mother’s present – a pair of slippers, also at the last minute – and what he’d brought home had been an immaculate trinity of wrongness: wrong size, wrong colour, wrong style. She remembered thinking at the time that it was a miracle he’d bought slippers at all and not, say, a kettle, or a book on motor racing.
“Where’s the cash, love?”
Sarah paused; if she was to avoid Trevor going on this errand, it was now or never. She cursed herself inwardly for having left it so late but the boys must have their computer game; she could see no alternative. Correction: there was an alternative, and it was to leave Trevor in charge of the pies, the stuffing and all the other Christmas Eve jobs while she went into town. She snorted a little laugh to herself and shuddered.
“In the pot on the side there. But Trev …”
Trevor already had his fist in the pot and was pulling out the notes.
“Be careful with it. That’s the last of the Christmas cash – there’s no more till January now.”
“Ah, don’t you worry your pretty little head.”
“Now, you know what you’re buying, don’t you?”
“Course I do: Apocalyptic Seven.”
Sarah sighed and tutted loudly.
“Eight! It’s Eight! They already have Seven.”
“Eight. Apocalyptic Eight. That’s what I meant.”
He pulled on his coat and scarf and gave Sarah a peck on the cheek.
“Won’t be long.”
Sarah’s thin smile said please, please don’t fuck up.
On the bus into town, the spirit of the season got to Trevor and he found himself happily mulling over his good fortune: he had a lovely wife, two smashing boys (if a little spoilt), a nice, comfortable council house, a football team that were top of the league, and it was Christmas.
But then creeping into his consciousness came the shadows: the three years of unemployment; the maxed-out credit cards; the reliance on state benefits and Sarah’s wages from her part-time cleaning job; and because of the cost that would be involved and the lack of funds, the impossibility of increasing their family, which they both yearned for.
Trevor shook his head to clear it of negative thoughts and focussed instead on the impressive street decorations that the otherwise cash-strapped city council had somehow found money for.
He got off the bus at the nearest stop to Hartley’s Toys and began to weave his way through the heaving crowd of like-minded, last-minute folk. He was about to enter the shop when something caught his eye and ear.
Just beyond the door, sitting on the chill pavement with her back against a lamp-post, was a woman. She was old – maybe in her 70s – and wearing a black hijab. Looming over her and jabbing his finger was a thick-set, thuggish-looking man, a bit the worse for wear with Christmas cheer.
“Go on! Get back to Arabland, you … Arab!”
The man was rocking on his feet under the influence, but that didn’t make him any less intimidating. People passed by on the pavement, some stopping briefly to see what the commotion was all about before proceeding to their more important business. But Trevor was drawn to the woman, who was defiantly staring the thug down.
“I said–” The man continued, about to repeat or possibly ratchet up the tirade.
Trevor put himself between the two. “I’d say the lady’s got the message, chum.”
The man was momentarily taken aback, then stuck out his chest in a reflex of Neanderthal bravado, but Trevor, who was by no means small in body, stood his ground. His adversary weighed up the chances of coming out on top in any tussle and, thinking better of it, turned and wended his uncertain way down the street, swearing under his breath as he went.
Job done, Trevor made to leave and enter the shop, but something held him back. He turned and was met by the sad, world-weary eyes of the woman, who was tugging at his trouser-cuff. She held out her hand, and he noticed for the first time the sign in front of her, roughly-fashioned out of cardboard:
‘Refugee. Pleas give.’
Trevor smiled weakly and shook his head, but the eyes held him. A warm feeling began to percolate through his body; within him there was a war going on between heart and reason, and his heart was winning. His hand went to his pocket. He brought out a note and placed it in the woman’s hand.
“Tank you.” she said. “ سوف السنة الجديدة تجلب لك العديد من الأشياء الجيدة، إن شاء الله. ”
“I’m sorry, I don’t under– … never mind. Happy Christmas to you!”
Trevor left the woman and entered the shop, the warm feeling remaining until the time came to pay for the twins’ computer game; he found he was £10 short. There was no point going to the ATM because he knew there was no money in the account. He considered returning to the old woman and asking for the money back, but when he got out of the shop, she was gone.
Sarah was still in the kitchen when she heard the front door open and close. She knew it was Trevor because the boys weren’t due back till much later in the afternoon. It was strange that he didn’t come through to see her so she went looking for him. She found him in the living room, staring blankly at the fireplace. “Sorry” was all he could muster, and Sarah knew at once that he’d fucked up again, big time.
It was a miserable Christmas all round: Sarah wasn’t speaking to Trevor and nor were the twins. Sarah’s parents – whose turn it was to spend Christmas Day with them – had never liked Trevor much, and once they found out what had happened, they weren’t speaking to him either. But Trevor didn’t feel like speaking to anyone anyway and merely sat in his armchair, reflecting on life’s injustices: he thought he’d been performing an act of kindness and this is what it had got him.
The mood in the house carried on into the new year, right up until the first bit of good news. Not a gambling man, Trevor nevertheless made a point of buying a ticket every year for the Christmas lottery. When he finally got round to checking the ticket, he had to do it two or three times because he didn’t believe it; he’d never won anything in his life before. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough to cover the bills for a few months, and to buy the boys their computer game.
Two days later, the second bit of good news: a hypermarket had opened locally, they were hiring, and they wanted Trevor as a van driver. Apart from the regular income, which was a godsend for the household, Sarah noticed Trevor’s demeanour changing: a semblance of self-respect was returning, and with it the old Trevor, the one she’d fallen in love with ten years before.
It was a happy new year altogether, in fact: the twins surprised their parents by doing exceptionally well at school, Trevor’s father recovered from a nasty illness that had been plaguing him for a long time, and in May, Sarah sat her husband down on the sofa and told him her own wonderful news. One by one, Trevor’s hopes and dreams were being fulfilled, and it seemed like the future was going to be rosy.
God willing, of course … as the now forgotten old woman would have added.