The Most Precious Gift | Writing

A short Christmas story for 2013 🙂

Isaac stepped through the front door and felt the warmth of the flat cocoon his body. He rubbed his hands together furiously, attempting to regain feeling in his frozen fingers. Heat emanating from the radiators curled itself around him, like he was a fly being bound up in a spider’s web. The silk threads of warmth touched his skin, thawing out his icy being. The smell of grilled bacon was drifting in from the kitchen and it made his mouth water as he unravelled his scarf from his neck and threw his car keys down on the table in the hall.

‘Hiya, love’, a voice called out from the living room. Isaac could hear a heated argument emitting from the television that Maria was lounging in front of. She lay on the sofa, her head resting on the arm with a small pillow beneath her neck. Her long, dark hair hung behind her, cascading down from the arm of the sofa as she usually laid it when she was too lazy to find a hair band.

‘Hey you,’ he called back, shrugging out of his coat and walking over to her. ‘Why are you watching this shit again?’

‘I love it.’

Isaac raised an eyebrow at her before bending over to kiss her head and turning to walk to the kitchen.

‘Hey!’ Maria shouted to him.

Isaac smiled to himself and crossed back to where Maria was lying, lips puckered and eyes shut. He held her face tight between his hands and kissed her hard before releasing her.

‘Thank you!’ she said.

Maria beamed at him before turning her attention back to the television. It seemed the argument that was blaring out while Isaac had walked in had been resolved and now one woman was sobbing quietly. Isaac ran his hand through Maria’s hair as he wandered into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

It was a small flat but big enough for the two of them. Maria had a way of making spaces homely and this was no different. Since they’d moved in three years ago, she’d brought it to life with her photos and paintings all over the walls. Little mementoes of the places they had been together were all over the cabinets in the living room. Maria was the type of girl to collect a little something from every place she went, just in case she forgot she ever went there and lost some precious memories. The day they boxed everything up to be moved from her parent’s house to the flat was one of the most stressful days of Maria’s life. With her mother, father and Isaac encouraging her to leave some little things behind or throw things away, she couldn’t decide which things were more important than others and had ended up taking most things with her, much to Isaac’s dismay. Over the years though, he had grown accustomed to her magpie qualities, smiling to himself each time she started to fall asleep on the train home, tickets still held tightly in her hand ready to be placed in some sort of scrapbook or photo album.

He took a mug from the cupboard over his head and dropped a teabag inside, watching its circular form slide into the bottom of the cup. He reached into the fridge for the milk while steam erupted from the kettle’s spout and curled itself around the bottom of the cupboards above it like an old steam train had been chugging around the countertops. The cup of tea after a hard day at work was the best cup of tea anyone could ever have in Isaac’s opinion. He poured the scalding water into the mug, removed the teabag and added the milk. He watched the swirling patterns that the milk made in the dark water, spreading itself out and lightening the dark water that the tea leaves had stained.

‘Save any lives today?’ Maria called over from the sofa.

‘Ten,’ he joked.

In fact, he had been in a school all day teaching kids their fire safety rules. It was all very well being a hero in an emergency but it was keeping seven year olds entertained for three hours that really tested him. He loved the energy that children had and the way they could have an argument and make up again within the space of two minutes. Maria smiled at him as he scooped the teabag out of his mug and threw it in the bin. He took his tea and came to sit beside her, lifting her legs up to sit down and then settling them on his lap.

‘What’s happening on here then?’ he said, nodding towards the television and taking a sip of his tea.

‘See?! You DO like it!’ Maria said, pointing an accusatory finger at him.

‘Ria, I am just taking an interest in your life.’

‘Liar,’ she replied. ‘Anyway, she slept with the other one’s boyfriend. The one with the funny teeth. Her boyfriend.’

‘Ooh.’

They both watched as the argument began to erupt again between the one with the funny teeth and the other woman. Maria turned to Isaac and stared at him for a while, studying the profile of his face that was so familiar to her. The small dent in his nose between his eyebrows and his full lips which stood slightly apart as he become engrossed in the argument.

‘How were the kids today? What age was it?’ she asked him.

Isaac remained still, apparently oblivious to anything but the television.

‘Isaac?’ she said, prodding his leg with her foot.

‘Yeah?’

‘What age were the kids you were teaching today?’

‘Like 7, 8 years old? They were really funny actually. It was fun,’ he said, smiling at her. ‘The older ones, they know so much stuff about everything. This one kid was telling me all about, like, the universe. I don’t even know half the words he said. I’ve got the younger ones tomorrow though. They’re sweet, they are.’

Maria smiled weakly. They looked at each other in silence as applause came from the TV. The sound didn’t disturb their gaze on one another. It seemed as though every day for the past two years had had a moment like this. Ovulation charts had become part of their everyday routine since they got married. Parenting books lay around where fiction had once been. The invisible thread of words unsaid ran between their eyes. She read them and shook her head. He sighed.

‘Let’s wait til New Year okay? If nothing’s happened by then, we’ll look into other things. There’s loads of options out there aren’t there?’ he smiled at her reassuringly.

She nodded mutely.

‘Ria. Everything will be okay.’

She smiled slightly and took her legs off his lap. Folding them underneath her, she nestled up to him as he put his arm around her. His arms were so big; they felt as though they encircled her whole body. Kissing her head, he pulled her close to him and held her as though she was the most precious thing in the world.

 

*

 

‘This one’, Maria said pointing at a small Christmas tree among the realms of them that stood in the garden centre. ‘He looks as though nobody wants him. Look at him babe.’

‘Well he’s obviously one of the shit ones if he’s still here two weeks before Christmas,’ Isaac replied.

Maria looked at the tree apologetically as if to protect it from Isaac’s harsh words as he wandered off to look at the taller ones. They only needed a small tree to go in their little flat but Isaac always seemed to dream big and deviate towards the 6ft trees instead. Their Christmas tree buying had been left until the last minute as Maria had become so busy with work, marking the children’s regular spelling tests and planning lots of activities for them to do before the end of term.  She always enjoyed the lead up to Christmas at the school she worked at. The kids were always so excited that it took her back to a time when she too couldn’t wait to fall asleep on Christmas Eve. A time when she spent many weeks looking through catalogues for all the things she wanted. But right now, there was only one thing she wanted and it wasn’t something she could buy.

‘Hey, Is.’ Maria turned to see a girl with deep chestnut hair, her hand on Isaac’s arm and her body pressed a little too close to him for Maria’s liking.

‘Oh hiya Eva. You alright?’

‘Yeah I’m good. How are you?’

‘I’m fine.’

She smiled at him from underneath her eyelashes.

‘I was wondering when you were gonna take me for a drink,’ she said, tilting her head slightly to the right.

Maria looked on as Isaac squirmed uncomfortably, aware he was now under both women’s gaze.

‘Umm, I, uh, do you wanna meet my wife? She’s just over here. Ria! Come here. This is Eva. This is my wife Maria.’

‘Hi, it’s nice to meet you,’ Maria said, extending her hand.

‘You too,’ Eva said, shaking it.

 

*

            ‘Ria. For the fifth time, I did not invite her for a drink. I asked her, WITH Peter, Tim and everyone else, if she wanted to go for a few drinks for Christmas. It wasn’t a one on one thing!’

‘She’s barely even out of nappies Isaac! I saw the look she gave you. It was obvious that you’d asked her out.’

‘Okay, okay! So out of all the women I’ve ever worked with, you suddenly think I’m gonna pounce on this one. Why would you think that? I’ve never cheated on you!’

‘Because she’s pretty and skinny and she’s young and-‘

‘And she’s not you! So I don’t want her! Enough now, Ria. Enough of it. Phone Pete if you want. He’ll tell you what she’s like. He’ll tell you. Look-’ Isaac pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and began to ring Peter. He pressed speakerphone and the rings reverberated around the small living room where the tree stood in one corner, the netting on the floor.

‘Hello?’

‘Pete! You’re on speakerphone, mate. Need you to tell Maria what Eva is like.’

‘What? Eva?’

‘Yeah, Eva from work. New girl.’

‘Oh, her. She’s alright.’

‘She’s flirty isn’t she? With everyone?’

‘Oh yeah, definitely. I’d keep away from her if I was you mate, she’s trouble. Don’t know why Darren hired her.’

‘Thank you!’

‘Why did-’

Isaac hung up on Peter and stared at Maria as if to say ‘are you happy now?’ She looked back at him and then at the tree. Silence filled the flat. A few carol singers outside were making their way along the houses on the other side of the road and strains of ‘Silent Night’ could be heard floating up to their window. Maria touched the spiky needles of the tree and brushed her fingers along the branches never taking her gaze off it.

‘She called you Is. You told me never to shorten your name so how come she can?’

‘She did it of her own free will and I don’t know her well enough to correct her.’

‘But you know her well enough to invite her to the pub-’

‘The whole point was to GET to know her! Look I’m actually going down the pub now, I’ve had enough of this.’

Isaac pulled his coat back on, grabbed his keys and left the flat. The slam of the door made Maria jump and she sank down to the floor and sighed. Picking up the first bauble in her shoebox of decorations, she placed it on the tree.

 

The carol singers had changed their song to ‘The First Nowell’ and Isaac heard them singing about angels as he raged past them to the pub. The cold winter wind brushed through his black hair and but he barely felt it. He swung open the door of The Raven and pulled himself inside. A group of people sat in the corner laughing loudly, Christmas crowns and Santa hats on their heads. Isaac walked up to the bar and leaned on it, waiting for the attention of the barmaid. Men loitered around the edges of the pub, sipping on their beer and staring at everyone else enjoying themselves.  Couples huddled together in their own worlds while a hen party screeched wildly next to them and music sang out from speakers in every corner.

‘You alright, Isaac? What you having?’ the barmaid asked.

‘A pint of lager, please.’

She turned on her heel and grabbed a glass from underneath the counter while he tipped a beer mat on its side, attempting to balance it. He felt a hand pinch his elbow and turned to see Eva looking up at him.

‘Oh, hello!’ he said quickly, surprised to find her in his place of solace.

‘Hi,’ she smiled.

The sound of conversation from everyone else filled the awkward silence that embraced them both. He shuffled around uncomfortably to face her, keeping an eye on the barmaid with his pint.

‘How about that drink then?’ she asked.

Isaac blew out his cheeks and exhaled. He looked to the barmaid who was placing his beer in front of him. She smiled and opened her mouth to tell him how much he owed her.

‘Could I have another one of those aswell please?’

Eva grinned up at him and clung onto his arm. He smiled back at her and thought about Maria.

 

*

She threw some red tinsel around to the back of the tree and drew the rest around its body. The few decorations she had put up since Isaac had left looked meagre on the branches of the small tree. It wasn’t the same decorating a Christmas tree on your own. She gave up and got up to put the kettle on instead. The carol singers had moved on and everything was quiet and still. Maria sighed into the silence and looked around the cosy flat she shared with Isaac. Pictures of them hung on the wall smiling surrounded by photos of their families and their friends. It was their own little haven, their sanctuary and theirs alone. She placed a hand on her stomach, inflating it to see what she would look like if a baby was inside her. She admired her reflection in the mirror, turning to the side to see the bump from all angles. Exhaling slowly until her stomach was flat again, she frowned and stared down at her body sadly. The kettle came to the boil and she walked over to it, checking her phone for any texts from Isaac on the way.

 

*

Eva watched Isaac’s lips as he spoke. She wasn’t concentrating on what he was saying anymore. Instead, she had noticed the dip in his Cupid’s bow and the fullness of his lips around his slightly imperfect teeth. She linked her arm through his and her foot was hooked underneath his leg.

‘…so yeah, Darren’s all right once you get to know him.’  He stopped and looked at her from the corner of his eye. She giggled at him and he smiled uneasily.

‘Do you want to come back to my place?’ she asked.

‘I-I can’t. I’ve gotta get back to Maria.’

‘If she matters so much, why are you here on your own?’ ‘

Isaac looked at her as she sulked and fidgeted with a loose thread from her top. Her hair hung around her face and obscured her features so that he could not see the way her nose crinkled in disappointment. He took a sip of his beer and debated whether to burden her with the argument she had caused between him and Maria. She was sat so close to him that he could feel her breath on his hands. Looking around, he saw an old man sat at the other side of the pub nursing a pint in his hands. A cocky businessman entertained a table of ego-feeding women around him. And an elderly woman was being helped into her seat by her life-long partner.

‘I’ve got to get back to Maria, Eva.’

 

*

He knelt down beside her as she lay sleeping on the sofa and hesitantly touched her face. She flinched and opened her eyes slowly to see his worried blue eyes glistening back at her. Maria stared at him and he attempted a smile. She didn’t smile back and he tensed his jaw.

‘You, uh, you decorated the tree without me,’ he said.

The multi-coloured lights danced around the tree; the only movement in the flat. She carried on staring.

‘I, um, I had a drink with Eva in the pub. But look, look, don’t say anything, okay? I had a drink with her, well half a drink, and it was the most boring drink I’ve ever had in my life. She’s pretty, yes. She’s flirty, yes. She’s my colleague and I need to try and get on with her. But she was getting too close-‘

‘How close?’

‘She was just too close, alright? And I left.’

Maria looked at him, assessing the situation in her head. Imagining what ‘too close’ was.

‘Did you kiss her?’

‘No! No, nothing like that, I just mean she was kind of, cuddled into me.’

‘Cosy.’

‘Ria. I’m sorry. I’m home now, come on. Please don’t be mad. I came home, didn’t I?’

She looked at the man she loved and for a split second, thought about leaving him. Thought about moving back into her parents, seeing him now and again around the town but not being with him. She tried to think about life without him and she couldn’t.

‘Don’t you ever think about going near her again, you understand?’ she told him. ‘You ever do that again and I’ll kill you.’

 

*

 

Isaac did what Maria asked and stayed away from Eva. Although she moved on to Peter, she kept a soft spot for Isaac and always managed to brush past him at work, giving him secret smiles and starry gazes. At last, work finished for Christmas and he spent whole days in bed with Maria when they weren’t shopping for people’s Christmas presents. When Christmas Eve came, they cuddled up to each other on the sofa watching old Christmas films with endless cups of tea. Their small flat was decorated now with all sorts of trimmings and it was a little nest of cosiness. There were a few presents under the tree for their family and friends and a couple for each other. Boxes of biscuits and bottles of wine stood in the corner, waiting to be shared out among relatives.

‘Shall we see what’s on tele?’ Isaac said when yet another black and white film finished.

‘Yeah, go on’ Maria replied.

He flicked through the channels while she ate posh chocolates from a purple plastic tray. They watched programme after programme flick past. Adverts for sofas, beds, dolls, banks and washing powder flitted through until suddenly, an advert for baby food came up. Isaac smiled to himself.

‘We’ll have to get some of that,’ he said.

Maria looked over at him beaming and snuggled into his arms as she cradled her stomach. The most precious present to both of them had come at last.

 

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