The Scarf - A Christmas story

Doorsteps are always cold in winter, beyond the warmth of modern central heating systems. They mark the border between the harshness of wintry weather and cosy homes. On one side of this border is Michael's kingdom; he never crosses a doorstep these days.

Michael knows a lot about doorsteps. He'd spent a large part of the summer sitting on them, minding his own business as he tucked into fast-food minimeals rescued from street bins. He'd hosted several parties on doorsteps in the warmth of July and August. It wasn't hard to find a building whose doorstep rarely, if ever, welcomed a well-shod foot.

  • harshness of wintry weather = the cold power of winter weather
  • tucked into = ate
  • rescued from street bins = taken from rubbish bins on the street
  • well-shod foot = a foot in a shoe of good quality

Michael's summer guests had long since drifted away to find, perhaps, their own doorsteps. Michael wasn't one to dwell on life's unfolding; the summer was long gone. Now a nasty wind whipped at his face, his only defence a squinting of his watery eyes. His nose took the worst of it. Ears were snug under a grubby cap, but he'd lost his tatty, woollen scarf in a moment of carelessness during the comfort of autumn.

How Michael now wished for that scarf.

A Christmas story

  • drifted away = moved slowly to another place
  • wasn't one to dwell on life's unfolding = didn't live in the past
  • nasty wind whipped at his face = cold wind blew in his face
  • a squinting of his watery eyes = almost closing his cold eyes
  • snug under a grubby cap = warm under a dirty cap
  • tatty, woollen scarf = old scarf made of wool
  • moment of carelessness = not being careful for a sort time
  • how (he) wished for = how very much he wanted

"Hello, Michael! Quite a nip in the air!"

Andrew was a man interested mainly in the weather, the state of his feet, and the absence of pennies from his pocket.

"Hello, Andrew. You found any good shoes yet?"

"Shoes? You ask me about shoes, Michael? There's nothing in the bins if you don't get to them before six in the morning! Even those with work are out binning these days. Children must be fed, and although shoes are not in themselves the tastiest item on a menu, the money thus saved does put potatoes on a plate!"

Michael drifted away when Andrew suddenly forced himself on a passer-by, in the hope of getting something; a cigarette, a kind word, a smile, half a sandwich. Money would be nice, obviously. Michael had not yet resorted to begging.

  • Quite a nip in the air = Quite cold weather
  • absence of pennies = not any pennies
  • binning = looking for things in the bins
  • thus = in this way
  • drifted away = moved slowly to another place
  • resorted to begging = decided to ask people for money

"Once in royal David's city...."

Trumpets blared out the good news to impatient shoppers bustling about in festive obligation; presents sought, coffees sipped, beers supped. People with protected noses flocked together in an explosion of well-marketed goodwill.

Michael wanted a scarf more than anything in the world. Should every trumpeter on the planet blast out in unison to the glory of love and joy, the tip of Michael's nose would be none the happier.

This was getting serious. Desire was back!

A Christmas story

  • blared out = made a loud sound
  • bustling about in festive obligation = people moving around in crowds, doing what they have to do before Christmas
  • presents sought, coffees sipped, beers supped = presents looked for, coffees drunk slowly, beers drunk
  • with protected noses flocked together = with noses warm behind scarves and coming together like a lot of sheep or birds
  • well-marketed goodwill = the good feeling get when buying presents advertised in the media
  • blast out in unison = play the same music loudly and together

He wanted to feel soft silk, on his own rough neck too long exposed on a body too long enclosed in rags scavenged, usually sopping and grimy, in corners explored only by those desperate for anything at all. Michael had felt such scarves, and had kissed the necks of the ladies wrapped in them, but it was a long time ago. Had the cruel wind backed off for a moment, he might have gone on to recall that no two scarves had ever smelt the same.

  • rough neck too long exposed = a neck which has not been protected from cold wind and whose skin is not soft
  • enclosed in rags scavenged, usually sopping and grimy = wearing old clothes that have been thrown away, that are usually very wet and dirty
  • wrapped in them = wearing them

It was a long time ago.

A long time since Michael has crossed the doorstep of a restaurant. A long time since he'd helped a lady out of her coat and hung it carefully on the stand before pulling out for her, quite charmingly, a comfortable chair. So very long since he'd perused a wine list, pondered a menu, gazed into sparkling eyes and basked in the glow of a friendly face.

  • helped a lady out of her coat = helped a lady to take off her coat
  • perused = examined
  • pondered = thought about
  • gazed into sparkling eyes and basked in the glow of = looked for a long time at bright eyes and enjoyed the soft warmth of

"Hey, I told you yesterday, don't hang around at the front. The punters don't like it. There's some fresh stuff in the bins at the back. Help yourself, but you'd better be quick. Hang on a minute..."

Michael hung on.

"A guy left most of his wine. Take it."

Michael took the bottle. He hadn't touched alcohol for a while, but appreciated the gesture.

"Thank you!"

"A Merry Christmas to you!"

"And to you, my friend!"

  • hang around = stand somewhere for some time but not doing anything
  • punters = customers
  • hang on = wait
  • touched = drunk
  • appreciated the gesture = pleased with a kind thought

Michael headed off towards a park he liked, and sat on a bench in front of a lively, illuminated fountain.

So long ago, he thought.

Two men sat on the bench next to his, waffling on about engine problems.

"If you're on diesel and it's running rough, you should check the glow plugs. First thing I look at, every time."

Michael took a reckless gulp of the wine, and felt his blood warm. A dangerous warmth, he knew, but any warmth was good warmth. He felt the surge of false confidence he'd expected.

  • headed off = started to go
  • waffling on = talking a lot in an uninteresting manner
  • glow plugs = parts of an engine that get hot to make it start
  • reckless gulp of the wine = drinking a mouthful of wine but not thinking about the negative effects
  • surge of false confidence = a sudden feeling of being more in control than you really are

"Excuse me, if I may intrude, but the state of the glow plugs doesn't affect the running of the engine. A diesel engine has a higher compression ratio to that of a petrol engine, and it's this compression that causes the ignition of the air and fuel mixture when the engine is hot. The glow plugs provide the initial combustion, when the engine is cold. After that, they just sit there doing nothing at all."

"Really?" said one of the men. "I thought they were like spark plugs."

"So did I," said the other.

"No, their function is totally different. You'd do well to check for a leak around the head gasket, or perhaps at the intake manifold. Could be a valve or two needing a grind, and that's never a quickie."

"Well, thanks a bunch for the tip. I'll have a word with a guy I know. Merry Christmas!"

"My pleasure. A Merry Christmas to you!"

  • intrude = join in a conversation without invitation
  • but the state...[] = the condition (old, broken)
  • thanks a bunch for the tip = thanks very much for the advice

Michael drank a little more and stuffed the bottle into his deepest pocket. As he walked away, he felt the wine flood his system, felt it crash into his brain and splash a smile on to his face. He watched a restless population grind itself down into the pavements.

"They'll drown if they don't hurry up."

Michael found himself fancying a warm tram ride. He might get caught without a ticket, in which case he'd fumble about in his pockets whilst mumbling something or other, and hope for the best.

  • stuffed = put by pushing down
  • a restless population grind itself down into the pavements = busy shoppers walking around so much that they sink into the pavements
  • found himself fancying a warm tram ride = decided to have a warm ride on a tram
  • he'd fumble about in his pockets whilst mumbling something or other = he'd try to find something in his pockets as he said something that was difficult to understand

He took a seat behind a couple busy lambasting someone who'd crossed one of them. They agreed that hell would be too good a place for the wretch.

"Excuse me," said Michael, leaning forward but mindful of the alcohol on his breath. "One should never judge another until one has walked a week in their shoes."

  • busy lambasting someone who'd crossed one of them = talking in a critical way about a man who'd done something wrong to one of them
  • hell would be too good a place for the wretch = hell would not be bad enough for the unpopular person
  • walked a week in their shoes = to put yourself in the situation of another

"What? What's shoes got to do with it?"

"Well, one doesn't know who another person is. The only way to find out is to wear their shoes for a week, to become them, and find out who they really are. It's only then that one can judge."

"But I can't put someone else's shoes on for a week and become them. That's nonsense!"

"Exactly!" said Michael.

"Wow! I see what you mean. So we can never judge another. That's cool! Isn't that the coolest thing you've ever heard, Dave?"

"I suppose socks would do. Wear someone else's socks for a week. Would that work?"

"I think it might, if you could get your hands on their socks. And your feet into them."

They all laughed, and Michael got off the tram at the next stop. He took a last swig of wine, and carefully placed the bottle upright in a bin for someone to find what was left.

"Naughty, Michael! You should know better. It was fun, though, and it is Christmas after all, isn't it?"

  • last swig of wine = last drink of wine

On a nameless street, to the pulsing beat of a shameless heart, Michael grinned himself forward. Just as his thoughts were turning toward the finding of a refuge for the night, a car pulled up abruptly beside him. A lady got out and began to take bags and boxes from the back seat. She wasn't looking too relaxed, thought Michael.

"Excuse me, ma'am, may I help you?"

"Oh, could you? I've had such a day, and the traffic is horrendous, but that's to be expected just before Christmas, isn't it? If you could take this bag while I key in the numbers."

The lady keyed in the numbers, and Michael stood by as she opened the door before stepping forward to hold it.

"Thank you so very much. Are you one of those people who wash car windows at traffic lights? I always give them a pound or two. Here you are, call it a Christmas present."

A ten pound note drifted in slow motion from handbag to hand.

  • the pulsing beat of a shameless heart = the rhythm of the heart of a person who is not embarrassed about their actions
  • ​his thoughts were turning toward the finding of a refuge for the night = started to think about where he could sleep
  • horrendous = terrible
  • key in the numbers = to operate an electrical system by using a code
  • stepping forward = moving forward just a little
  • drifted in slow motion = moved slowly from one place to another

"Merry Christmas!" said Michael, otherwise lost for words in a heady slipstream of sweet perfume.

"And to you!"

As the door closed, Michael pounced forward to try to stop the lady's scarf becoming trapped. He was too late. It hung down on each side of the closed door.

Michael watched the lady disappear into the lift. A stream of thought about right and wrong sped through his mind. Then he pulled on the scarf, and it slid in its entirety into his hands.

Soft silk.

A Christmas story

  • otherwise lost for words in a heady slipstream of sweet perfume = unable to say anything else when enjoying the smell of nice perfume
  • pounced forward = moved forward suddenly
  • lady's scarf becoming trapped = lady's scarf in a situation that makes it impossible to put it somewhere else
  • disappear = go
  • stream of thought ... sped through his mind = many thoughts quickly going through his mind
  • slid in its entirety into his hands = it all came into his hands

"Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…"

Michael turned to look along the street, to where the little brass band had settled on a flight of steps outside a church. Michael was suddenly back on stage as a shepherd in a school nativity play.

It was a long time ago, and a time of learning; the difference between good and bad, between right and wrong.

He turned back to the door and began to knock on the glass.

"Yes?" boomed a serious voice as its owner peered at Michael from behind the closed door. Michael held up the scarf, and pointed in turn to the lady's car, to the door frame and to the lift. The man on the other side of the door seemed to understand.

"Wait!"

Michael watched the man stride over to a desk and pick up a phone. A few minutes later the lady came out of the lift and walked over to the door. Michael held up the scarf and watched the door swing open.

  • little brass band = a small band whose members play wind instruments made of brass
  • had settled on a flight of steps = had stopped and stood on some steps
  • boomed = spoke loudly
  • peered = looked
  • ​stride over = walk with long steps to a place

"Your scarf, ma'am. It got trapped in the door."

"Oh, thank you so much! I've just made such a mess with my bags, looking for it. It belonged to my mother, she died earlier this year, not long after my husband passed away. I love the cold weather these days, so I can wear it. It still has the smell of her perfume, I think it always will have. It's one of the few things I have that helps with the loneliness."

The lady took out a handkerchief as Michael handed her the scarf, and she gently dried her eyes. The rest of the world dissolved when he noticed the little pink heart embroidered on one corner of the handkerchief, along with the initials YES.

  • passed away = died
  • dissolved = to disappear, like when sugar is put into hot tea

"Yvonne?"

"I'm sorry? What did you say?"

"Yvonne. The answer was always ‘Yes', our little joke."

Michael smiled.

"YES, I will always love you."

Michael looked into the lady's eyes.

"Yvonne Emily Saunders. You still have the handkerchief, after all these years."

"Michael?"

"Yes. And, still, YES."

Two hearts, a cold doorstep, and flakes of snow falling on to warm trumpets melted in the Christmas chill.

A Christmas story

© Paul Drury, 2016

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Everyone

Merry Christmas!

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