Bel Roberts2
11/17/17 12:30:54AM
3 posts

In mid-December , when St. Martin’s Church Hall in Pontgwyn was broken into and vandalised, many parishioners secretly thanked God that the annual Christmas Supper had to be relocated to the local Conservative Club. For not only was ‘The Con Club’ roomier, brighter and housed its own skittle alley, but it also offered several licensed bars with upholstered seats, carpets and more scope for seasonal jollity than the bare, functional boards and abstemious atmosphere of the Church Hall.

The vicar, Reverend Gerald Bellerby, who listed temperance rather loudly and frequently as one of his virtues, announced details of the changed venue apologetically, but the sale of Supper tickets snowballed, so that in deference to Providence, he launched a Special Christmas Raffle, with cash prizes, in aid of the Church Hall Restoration Fund, to be drawn during the Supper celebrations.

Now, Matins over on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Reverend Bellerby, watched his oldest church member, Elsie Morgan, always the last to leave and never without the final word, instinctively tap the leaning pile of hymn-books into perfect symmetry, then pad towards him, her hands dug deeply into the pockets of her shapeless camel-haired coat (a bargain unearthed at the last Church Jumble Sale), her handbag hanging weightlessly from invisible wrists.

Elsie had been a choir-girl for most of her eighty years. The youngsters alongside her in the choir-stalls often giggled, when the higher notes of a hymn eluded her, or when she absent-mindedly launched into an extra verse but, generally, they were in awe of this

whiskery, female Methuselah and sometimes even shared their sweets with her during long sermons.

“Would you like to buy some Christmas Supper raffle tickets, Elsie ?

“ I’ll take a pound’s worth, since it’s in a good cause, vicar, but I don’t get much lucky, generally.”

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast ! ” responded the vicar with cheerful pedantry, then he added for full measure, “ God moves in a mysterious way, as the hymnist wrote. There are several cash prizes, so someone’s prayers will be answered before Christmas.”

Elsie chuckled mischievously as she handed the vicar her pound coin.

“It’s nothing but filthy lucre these days, isn’t it, vicar? Food for Mammon.”

The vicar winced slightly at the barbed wit of the eighty year old, as he handed her a strip of cloakroom tickets and palmed her pound coin.

“Indeed, but every little helps, Elsie. We need to get the Church Hall restored to its former glory for us to hire it out for community functions. We’ll be drawing the winning tickets at the Annual Supper on Tuesday. We’ll see you there.”

On Tuesday evening, Elsie, clutching her capacious bag (another Church Jumble Sale find) containing torch, bottle of Eau de Cologne, raffle ticket receipts and her Christmas card for Vicar and Mrs Bellerby, walked the half-mile to the club. She entered the gloomy passage-way tentatively, for though she had spent her entire life in the village, she had never been inside any of the public houses, or drinking clubs. She had had enough trouble, when younger, trying to stop her late husband from squandering half his meagre wages on alcohol and cigarettes, when there had been four hungry children to feed. Now old and alone, she still regarded smoking and drinking a shameful waste of money.

Festive trimmings had been slung across the interior walls of the clubhouse, normally frequented only by men, and glittering stars, tinsel lanterns and three-dimensional crepe-paper bells hung swaying from the tan, nicotine-stained ceilings. Before the Church Supper had been relocated there, some droll committee member had pinned, in every corner, trios of balloons arranged to suggest male genitalia: two round balloons hugging a central, phallic balloon in gaudy, contrasting colours. In case of incrimination, no one since had volunteered to take them down. The childish, barrack-room humour was lost on Elsie. She wandered around aimlessly.

In a small, dingy backroom, two trestle tables held the Christmas Supper: a few dozen cardboard plates each containing a ham sandwich, a chicken drumstick, a sausage roll, a cube of cheese pinioned to a chunk of pineapple and a garnish of salad. Along the back, near the tea urn and stacked tea cups and cutlery, stood a tray of identically decorated, individual trifles in waxed containers and a plate of mince-pies, pale as pebbles, perched in a pyramid and dusted with icing sugar.

“Hardly worth the thirty bob ticket,” murmured Elsie, who still did all her calculations in sterling and estimated values on a ninety-fifties price index.

She found the church group in a side bar and was treated to an orange juice. The vicar gave his usual welcoming speech, spoke sadly about the wanton damage done to the church hall and chivied everyone to buy last minute raffle tickets. Then he announced a choice of entertainment: a leisurely supper repast in the rear bar, or a chance to take up a challenge from club regulars in the Skittle Alley. The group parted like the Red Sea.

Elsie, munching a mince-pie, amused herself while waiting for the raffle draw, by peering into several fetid corridors, fascinated by the colourful graphics and electronic jangling of the flashing fruit machines.

An elderly man brushed past her with a full pint-glass of beer and settled himself in a quiet corner of the snug-bar. A taller, younger version of himself pushed through to join him.

“Hi, Dad! I heard you were skulking in here. Fancy buying me a pint?”

Stan groaned but rooted deep in his pocket and scooped out a few coins.

“Get yourself a half,” he said, morosely.

“Gee, thanks, Santa,” retorted his son, Keith, with heavy sarcasm. “Can you spare me a few quid?”

“Sorry, you’re out of luck, son. I banked all my pension and heating allowance this morning. I’ve only got enough left for a few groceries.”

“Well that’s really considerate of you. You must know I’m broke.”

“And until you kick the bloody drug game, you will be,” responded his father, without sympathy. “No junkie ever has money to call his own. Come to your senses, Boyo.”

“It’s my New Year’s Resolution, Dad,” Keith replied. His eyes were bloodshot and his thin body shook. “I promise. But I need money now.”

“And I’ve just explained that I haven’t got any. Now leave me in peace. Please!”

Keith became aware of the growl of wooden balls and crowd noise coming from the rear of the clubhouse.

“What’s going on here tonight, then?”

“St. Martin’s Church Christmas Supper. They have one every year.”

Keith’s mind flashed back to his abortive raid on the church hall the week before. All that trouble to break in and absolutely nothing worth pinching to sell. But he’d got his own back by smashing the cheap fittings and daubing obscene graffiti on the bare walls. That’s what he called an eye for an eye!

At that moment, Elsie wandered aimlessly into the bar, looking for the ladies’ toilet. The old man looked up and called out excitedly, “Elsie !” nearly knocking over his beer.

Keith looked over his shoulder to the doorway, which framed a hunched, dithering figure, crowned with a mop of white hair.

“Christ !” he muttered, “ it’s the Ghost of Christmas Past! I’ll go and see if there’s anyone alive I know in the skittle alley.”

He pushed past Elsie to get out. Elsie caught the smell of cinnamon and she wondered if he had been helping himself to the mince-pies. She screwed up her eyes to peer into the bar to see who had called her name.

“Hello, Elsie! I thought it was you earlier. I haven’t seen you in here before,” said the old man, Stan, with genuine warmth. He stood up respectfully.

“Good heavens! It’s Stan Price, isn’t it? No, I never go into pubs as a rule. I’m here with the church party. How are you keeping this long time?”

“I’m not too bad all things considered,” answered Stan, indicating the empty seat next to him. “Sit down, gal. Let me buy you a drink.”

“No, thanks, Stan. I’ve already had an orange juice and I haven’t brought my purse out tonight. My daughters tell me it’s too risky on dark nights.”

“You don’t need your purse tonight, Elsie. It’s my treat. It’s Christmas. Come on, gal, let me get you a sherry.”

Eventually, despite her protests, Stan bought her two glasses of sherry and the pair of old friends chatted animatedly of past times. Elsie laughed at Stan’s memories of her as a young dairy-maid at Bwlfa Farm over fifty years before, when he had set his cap at her but been disappointed. There she had met and later married a labourer from the north, a taciturn man who had drunk too much and had not made her happy. Both friends had been chastened by their life-experiences. Now both were widowed and aimlessly alone.

“Was that your son with you just now?” Elsie asked.

“Yes. That’s Keith. He would have broken his poor mother’s heart.” Stan sighed heavily then changed the subject fast in case he said too much. “What are you doing for Christmas, Elsie? Going to one of your daughters?”

“No fear. I like my own home at Christmas, Stan. I can please myself there.” She gave no hint that she had not been invited anywhere.“ What about you? ”

“Oh, the same as usual, I expect. Keith will go out drinking with his pals and I’ll have a sandwich in front of the telly. I don’t celebrate Christmas any more. It’s not the same when you’re on your own. Just another ordinary day.”

“Well, it would be easy enough for me to lay a place for you at my table on Christmas Day, Stan. If you’re not too fussy, it would be no extra work for me and I’d enjoy your company.”

Stan found himself strangely excited. An invitation to share a home-cooked dinner with an old friend on Christmas Day! And Elsie’s guest! He had sat back for years watching others enjoy seasonal celebrations that had excluded him. Now this lovely surprise! Yes, Christmas should be special for everyone, not just for couples and families. He tried not to sound too pushy, but he hoped she had meant the offer.

“If you’re sure it’s not too much work, Elsie, I’d love to accept. It’s ages since I had a real home-cooked Christmas dinner and someone decent to talk to. I’ll come just before one o’clock then, is it? I’ll bring a bottle of something.” He imagined himself showering her with exotic gifts, spoiling her, showing her at long last how much he had always cared. He could hardly breathe. “You’re still living in Wynford Street, are you?”

“Yes, number three. A bit of luck bumping into one another tonight, wasn’t it?” She found herself giggling.

Cheering broke out from the next room. The vicar was making an announcement in his usual stentorian tones. Out of a pulpit, he found his voice difficult to modulate and

his cultivated, English accent jarred within this Welsh working-class community, demanding people’s attention.

“ It’s the raffle,” said Stan. “Where are your counterfoils?”

The vicar strode beaming into the bar.

“I thought you said you never win anything, Elsie,” he said. “Look here, third prize. Thirty pounds.”

“In notes, I hope, vicar, not as pieces of silver!” Elsie quipped.

Reverend Bellerby found himself trumped again by his oldest parishioner. He glanced at Elsie’s drained sherry glass and couldn’t resist a nudge of gentle revenge. “Now don’t go spending the lot on the demon drink, will you?” Then, he handed her an envelope of money and left the bar.

Elsie looked stunned. Stan smiled and patted the gnarled hands clutching the winnings.

“If you don’t mind, Stan, I won’t break into these notes tonight to buy you a drink. It’s a bit late and I think I’ve had enough excitement for one night”. Elsie’s face was flushed. “I’ve suddenly had a very good idea!” She put the envelope into her bag, drained the sherry glass and rose to leave. “I’ll just say goodnight to the vicar and give him his Christmas card, then I’ll make my way home. Thank you for an unexpectedly lovely evening, Stan. I’ll see you around one o’clock on Christmas Day. Good-night !’’

Stan rose from his chair. “I can hardly wait,” he said, boyishly. “Take care now. Good-night!” He bent and kissed her cheek, realizing as he did so, that he had waited fifty years to do this. Elsie trotted happily away while Stan looked fondly after her.

Minutes later Keith, his son, poked his head into the snug. He looked paler and more agitated. He glanced derisively at his father’s near-empty glass.

“Didn’t the Old Biddy even buy you a drink out of her winnings?’’ he asked.

Stan rose in disgust, shrugged on his old overcoat and shuffled wordlessly into the Gents’. Keith finished his father’s beer and listened to the vicar braying over the crowd noise.

“Congratulations again, Elsie, and thank you for your Christmas card. Mrs Bellerby and I open all our cards on Christmas morning, after Midnight Mass. Have a very merry Christmas!” Then he added, as a bothersome after-thought, “Can I offer you a lift home?”

“No, you stay here and make certain that everything is locked up safely, vicar. I’ve had a lovely evening but would welcome some fresh air. It’s only a five minute walk. Good-night!”

Elsie left Pontgwyn Conservative Club in euphoric mood. She tried to imagine the vicar’s face when he opened his Christmas card and found inside all her winnings, her donation to The Church Hall Restoration Fund. She thought then of Stan. She would make certain that he’d have a Christmas Day he’d never forget. And now she didn’t have to wait for a late offer from one of her daughters. She had made her own plans. Elsie clutched her bag to her chest, put her head down and set off along Church Street.

She had not gone a hundred yards, before she felt a desperate need to use the toilet. The orange juice and Stan’s two sherries had gone straight through her. It was a bitterly cold night and the pavement glistened with a coating of silver frost, making hurrying hazardous.

Elsie’s light-heartedness turned to dismay. She could never make it home without wetting herself. She heard the church carol singers grouped outside The Colliers’ Arms and felt tempted to push her way through them to use the pubic house toilet, but her predicament was too urgent.

Instead, she fumbled for the torch in her bag and trained its weak beam into an unlit lane that ran behind the row of terraced houses at the lower end of Church Street. There she tottered a few yards into a dark corner, rested the torch on the frozen ground and squatted. As the warmth and pressure left her, Elsie thought again fondly of Stan.

Suddenly, she was startled to see a dark shadow lurching towards her. Embarrassed and dripping, she half stood, struggling to pull up her voluminous knickers.

Keith, guided by the torch-light, located her easily and rushed forward intent only upon seizing the handbag, whilst the old woman crouched and fumbled with her clothing, but Elsie abandoned all attempt to dress herself and instinctively gripped the bag instead.

“Who’s there?” she demanded. She brushed against someone and smelled a spicy odour. Mince pies! Cinnamon. Elsie raised the torch. “It’s Stan’s boy, isn’t it?”

Shocked by her perceptiveness, Keith knocked the torch out of her hand and tore at the bag. He was surprised by the strength of the old woman’s grip. Elsie flattened herself defensively against the dry-stone wall of someone’s back garden, while Keith leant menacingly over her.

“Just give me your bag!” he growled.

“There’s nothing in it to interest you,” insisted Elsie stubbornly. “I’ll tell your father about this.” She seemed to think she was dealing with a naughty child.

Faintly the voices of the St. Martin’s Church choristers floated over the roofs from the main road. It was ten o’clock, nearly time to join the supper celebrations at Pontgwyn Conservative Club for mulled wine, mince-pies and, perhaps, even a raffle prize.

Keith looked down at the mop of frizzled hair trapped between his outstretched arms. He shifted his weight and, in doing so, he dislodged a loose stone from the dry wall. He thought fast. Thirty quid lay within his grasp. A day’s dope. There for the taking. Like Manna from Heaven !

The stone seemed moulded to his right hand, demanding to be used. Keith raised it level with his shoulders, then smashed it down into Elsie’s face, shattering her glasses and loosening her dentures. She cried out, but hung on grimly.

“Give me the bloody bag, you old witch!” Keith hissed, lashing out again.

On impact Elsie ceased to resist. Her head jerked back and her mouth made a gurgling sound. Blood poured down her face and her body slumped to the ground. Keith, choking back tears, rifled through the cheap, plastic handbag.


Only a bottle of scent!

Keith let out one agonised howl and kicked the lifeless bundle at his feet, then he threw the torch down and ran through the lane, his anorak flapping like huge wings behind him, just as the carol singers, knocking at the end house struck up with the plaintive notes of Silent Night.


updated by @bel-roberts2: 11/17/17 12:31:23AM