Christmas Decorations

The small, dark haired girl sits on her bedroom windowsill, watching a long legged spider scuttle across the grubby glass. She observes the arachnid with a serious expression, her eyebrows furrowed in a deep frown. The window in front of her is layered in a sheen of light misting, the condensation from the night before refusing to abate.

‘Joanna, can you come here a minute?’

The dark haired girl reluctantly tears her gaze from the silk spectacle and lowers herself from the perch on the sill. A gust of wind whips up, rattling the loose window frame. Joanna glances over her shoulder and widens her eyes in surprise. The spider has vanished. She rushes back to the sill and searches desperately for the absent arachnid.

‘Joanna, did you hear me?’

‘In a minute mum.’ Joanna replies and presses her face up against the cool pane.

Heavy footsteps reach Joanna’s ears and she scans the window more frantically. The creaks and groans of the stairs tremble through the house.

‘There you are.’ Joanna exclaims, as she spots the fearless spider, hanging precariously by a thin thread of its web.

‘Don’t get up.’

Joanna jumps and nearly slips off the sill. She climbs down carefully and sways from side to side to her mother, giving the impression she is skating on ice. Her mother watches her with the same furrowed brow as her daughter’s.

‘Glad to see your eagerness to help out.’

‘I was checking the spider was alright.’

‘Oh right.’ Joanna’s mother says with raised eyebrows.

Joanna rocks back and forth with her hands behind her back, waiting expectantly for her mother to push the matter further. However, much to her surprise, Joanna’s mother turns and leaves the room.

‘I need you to get the Christmas lights down from the loft.’ She calls from the hallway, used to her daughter’s peculiar interests and train of thoughts.

Joanna groans and stamps her feet stubbornly.

‘But its dark up there and it smells.’

‘You should be right at home then.’

‘But mum…’ Joanna whines and karate chops her pillow off the bed.

Joanna’s mother reappears at the doorway and stares stubbornly at her daughter.

‘Pick up the pillow and get in that loft. Otherwise you will get no Christmas presents.’

‘Alright, alright.’ Joanna mumbles, returning the pillow to the bed and dragging herself into the hallway.

The rickety wooden ladder stretches up into the small, black hole in the ceiling. Joanna shivers in front of it, as a gust of wind rushes through the darkened gap.

‘Well go on then.’ Her mother instructs, barging past with an overflowing basket of dirty clothes.

Joanna swallows and climbs onto the bottom rung of the ladder. She clutches onto its edges with a death like grip. The draught from the loft above buffets the already wobbling ladder and Joanna speeds up, eager to get off the wooden deathtrap. Reaching the top, she pokes her head through the shadowy gap and finds herself face to face with an impenetrable wall of darkness. Despite the butterflies in her stomach, she scrambles forwards into the loft.

Her eyes slowly adjust to the poor lighting. Piles and clusters of non-discernable objects fill the interior of the loft around her. A thin slit of light peeks into the room through a gap in the window blinds. Joanna sits up and looks down at her hands. They are covered in murky, grey dust. She wipes them on her dress and climbs to her feet.

‘And don’t get your dress dirty.’ Her mother calls through the gap.

Joanna glances down at her filthy dress and bites her lip gingerly. She moves hesitantly through the crowded loft, silent screams trapping in her throat. The floorboards creak and crack beneath her. The wind whistles through the gaps in the walls. It makes an unnatural and alien noise, much to Joanna’s displeasure. Something curls around her foot and she screams, stumbling back and crashing to the floor. Her back collides with something hard and solid.

‘Joanna, you alright?’

Joanna looks down at her legs, entwined in a long coil of coloured lights.

‘Yeah. I found the Christmas lights.’

Her mother tuts and heads downstairs. Joanna rubs her sore back and begins to untangle the messy heap. She puffs and sighs as she does so, growing increasingly irritated by the thick knot. Glancing to her side, she pauses. A corner of a canvas peeks out over a pile of heavy looking boxes. It shows a pale blue sky and a solitary fluffy cloud. She wriggles free of the Christmas lights and moves towards it. Not trusting the precariously balanced boxes, she carefully takes the canvas by the corner and jimmies it free.

It is much larger then she previously anticipated and she has to use both her hands to lift it up. Joanna moves across to the loft window and tugs up the blind. In the dusty light it reveals itself to her. It is a painting or to be more accurate a watercolour painting.

The painting sits in the centre of the table, illuminated by the bright, kitchen light above. Joanna and her mother stand in front of it, studying it with curious expressions.

‘Where did it come from?’ Joanna asks, leaning over the painting like an intrigued art curator.

Her mother says nothing but just stands silently with her hands placed firmly on her hips.

‘Mum?’

Joanna’s mother tears her transfixed gaze away from the painting and looks at her daughter.

‘Sorry dear, I have no idea. Maybe it belonged to your father.’

She returns her attention to the painting and smiles.

‘It’s very pretty though.’

The painting is of a scenic landscape, a large, rolling green hill with a row of trees cresting its summit. A tall, dark figure stands halfway up the hill, his hands stuffed into his pockets and his head cocked to the sky. The sky itself is a milky blue, dotted with fluffy marshmallow clouds. A small bird is in a mid swoop over the tops of the trees.

‘Look mum, do you see the bird?’ Joanna says excitedly and points at it on the canvas.

Her mother nods and puts on her reading glasses. Leaning forwards, she inspects the painted bird more carefully.

‘Brown with a red tail.’ She mutters.

‘A Robin?’ Joanna suggests.

‘No, Robin’s have red chests not tails and beside this is much larger then a Robin.’

‘Well what is it then?’

‘I think it’s a nightingale.’ Joanna’s mother ponders, gnawing the tip of her glasses.

‘Cool.’ Joanna whoops and shifts her attention to the figure.

The figure is tall and muscular, indicating him to most likely be male. He wears a tall, dark coat, tall black boots and has a scarlet scarf wrapped around his neck. His hair is slightly ruffled.

‘I wonder who he is.’

Her mother doesn’t reply. She has pulled up a chair and is in the process of untangling the huge scrunchie of Christmas lights.

‘Honestly Joanna, I’m sure you have tangled this more.’

Joanna glances at her gingerly. Her mother peers at her disapprovingly over her reading spectacles.

‘Ooooh there’s a signature.’ Joanna exclaims, her attention drawn back to the large painting. ‘It’s too small to read.’

‘In the draw, second from the left.’ Her mother announces, already knowing the question.

Joanna scurries off and after thirty seconds of loud shuffling through draws, she returns, a large magnifying glass in her hand.

‘J.S.’

She places the magnifying glass on the table and drums her fingers on her chin. Her mother is still engrossed in the act of trying to detangle the Christmas lights.

‘Do we know anyone with the initials J.S?’ She asks her mother.

‘Hmmm dear?’ Her mother replies, not really listening.

‘Never mind.’

Joanna is still pondering over the painting five minutes later, when her mother suddenly slaps her head.

‘I forgot. I’ve invited Jean and Sally round for tea.’

‘Sally’s coming today?’ Joanna says, perking up suddenly.

Sally and Joanna are best friends but hardly get to see each other because Sally and her mother are involved in pantomime performances, requiring them to travel a lot. Her mother throws the half finished pile of lights to one side and gets to her feet.

‘Yes and in ten minutes if I remember correctly.’

She starts clearing off the cluttered table frantically.

‘Be a dear and move that painting somewhere else.’

‘Okay.’ Joanna replies.

She carries the painting into the living room and accidently knocks it against the edge of the door. A piece of paper slides out of the canvas and flutters to the floor. Joanna carefully leans the painting up against the door and picks up the piece of paper. It is extremely old and fragile with many creases and tears around its edges. The material is funny as well; heavy and coarse like old parchment. She turns it slowly over, fearing that it will be disintegrate into a dusty pile at any second. Written in fancy, neat blue ink are the words:

Dear John,

Here enclosed is the painting you desired to see. Do not concern yourself with the cost and price of the piece. It is a gift, call it if you must, a nostalgic memory of time well spent. I am still bemused at your selection, considering the many other paintings I have produced of you, which are far superior. Permit me if you will to take the fancy that you have chosen this piece in particular for its simplicity and ambiguity. Or am I attempting to delve to deep into your literary psyche and you have merely chosen this painting in question for its subject? The tall hill overlooking Wentworth Place. As ever I take the upmost delight in my attempts to unlock the inner workings of you John and will continue to do so, despite knowing that I will never truly understand your methods. I hope you are keeping well and look forward to seeing you at a near date to discuss our plans for Italy next autumn. In the meantime I wish you all the luck in your writing and demand to hear more of your inspiring work upon our next appointment.

 

Your ever-loyal friend and colleague

Joseph Severen

 

Joanna stares at the letter in her hands, a look of disbelief and amazement in her eyes. She reads it again, mouthing some of the more difficult words quietly under her breath. The lettering is small, slanted and wavy, making it hard for Joanna to discern certain words in the letter. As she rereads the name at the bottom, she looks up to the ceiling, wondering who on earth these two people were. The recipient of the letter, John, appears to have been a writer of sorts but it didn’t say what kind. Mrs. Egbert, Joanna’s English teacher had said that there are lots of different types of writers. He could have been a novelist or a poet or even a journalist. Simon Flynn had laughed when Joanna had asked if a journalist is a person who writes about journeys. However in a manner of speaking she is correct. The doorbell rings and Joanna’s mother, looking rather flustered hurries to the door.

Jean, how lovely to see you, come in.’ She says, hugging Jean in a tight embrace.

Sally catches sight of Joanna and waves excitedly. Joanna beckons her over excitedly and Sally squeezes between the nattering mothers and skips into the living room.

‘Look what I found.’ Joanna says proudly, showing Sally the old letter.

‘What is it?’ Sally asks, hovering behind Joanna’s shoulder, to get a good look.

‘Its…’

‘Joanna, come and help me carry Jean’s bags into the kitchen.’ Joanna’s mother calls.

Joanna rushes over to her mother and shows her the letter.

‘Look mum, its…’

Joanna’s mother shoves two bags into Joanna’s hands, crumpling the delicate letter.

‘Later Joanna.’ She says irritably and disappears into the kitchen.

Joanna dumps the bags on the table and checks the letter is still intact. Luckily it is. She folds it carefully in half and slides it into her back pocket.

‘My mum says we can swap presents.’ Sally says excitedly, appearing at the doorway.

Joanna smiles, pats her back pocket and follows Sally out of the room.

© [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales], [2014]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Daniel Ashby] and [Ashby Tales] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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