The Holly Bears a Berry

Merry Christmas to all and many thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and follow my blog this year and for all the helpful comments. I’m hoping to devote more time to reading and writing in 2017, especially once my youngest starts school in September. What are your writing plans for the New Year?

I wrote this story inspired by the festive season. I was planning to submit it somewhere in the hope of getting it published but never got around to it in time for Christmas! So today seems an appropriate day to post it here. Enjoy! Would love to hear your thoughts.

The Holly Bears a Berry

The sight of blood when not expected is always a shock. Marjorie coughed again; a further spattering of crimson appeared on the snow-white porcelain. Her face in the mirror was pale and insipid, as if she had been through too many wash cycles and her colours had faded. She felt a sudden lightness and tightened her grip on the side of the basin. She had always been squeamish about bodily fluids, even her own. She wiped away a smear of blood from her lower lip with trembling fingers and splashed her face with water. It felt as cold as meltwater from the snow which lay thickly outside, muting and shrouding the lane in its chilly embrace.

The water brought a little colour back to her face. She took care to remove all traces of blood from the sink and patted her face dry with the hand towel. It was the dark red one with embroidered holly leaves she only took out from the big chest at this time of year. The panic she had felt was beginning to subside. It was Christmas Day. No time to think now. There were jobs to do, cooking to get started. She must put on a smile for Monica, Steve and the children. Yes, that was what she must do. Get through Christmas first. Christmas was about family, not about yourself. That’s what mother had always told her.

Padding through the hallway in slippered feet, she went into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. It was almost too heavy for her to lift. She could hear the voices of the children in their bedroom laughing and shrieking as they opened up their stockings. The soft murmuring from the other room told her that Monica and Steve were awake too- she would take them tea in bed. They deserved to have a lie in today. In the pantry, the pale lifeless form of the turkey sat on the marble shelf. There was a trickle of blood collecting on the serving platter beneath it. She touched the pimpled flesh with her fingertips and felt a wash of nausea. The urge to cough returned and she reached for the handkerchief in her dressing gown pocket. Blood again, but only a little.

As the kettle boiled, Marjorie looked out of the window. A robin sat in the hedge opposite, its red breast feathers puffed up against the cold. A blackbird landed nearby and began plucking berries from the holly, gobbling them down eagerly and sending small flurries of snow down to the ground as it did so. Marjorie got out the bread sauce recipe and turned on the oven, deciding to set aside the crusts to feed the birds later. They needed help in weather like this. She wrapped her dressing gown tighter around herself, glad of the comforts of home. The tea tray was set out with china cups and saucers, a little jug of milk and a miniature Christmas napkin and mince pice for each of them. It pleased her to add these little touches to what was after all, a special day. She took it in to them and wished them a ‘Happy Christmas’ before returning to her room to dress for the day.

The green mohair cardigan was on the armchair where she had laid it out the evening before. She put it on, remembering the trip to Sweden when Joe had bought it for her. “It’s too expensive,” she’d whispered, turning over the price tag in the shop. But he had insisted, saying it was perfect for her, that shade of green suited her, and she’d had to agree. Now she kept it for special occasions, washing it by hand in tepid water, so as to preserve it for as long as possible. She smoothed the soft fabric over her breasts, cupping them as she did so. Was there something she had missed? Maybe there was something about the density that was different but she couldn’t be sure. It had been almost seventeen years since her operation. She’d never forgotten, but it had become something she thought about less often in recent years. Other things had taken over, drawn her attention away from the familiar threat that still lurked in the background, waiting for her guard to drop.

Marjorie touched the framed photograph of herself and Joe on the dressing table. It had been taken on their wedding anniversary at their local pub. They had hired the back room and Monica had made a cake with red flowers and leaves and ‘Happy Ruby Wedding Mum & Dad’ perfectly piped. She was good at things like that. All the children and grandchildren had been there. They had been happy. “Help me get through today Joe,” she whispered. She pressed her eyelids together and took a deep breath.

*

All day, it was as if the colour red was taunting Marjorie. It was Christmas, everything was red of course, you couldn’t get away from it. The red and gold lights twinkled on the tree, the red-ribboned gifts and paper hats, the flush in her daughter’s cheeks after she had consumed a few glasses of red wine. Marjorie herself drank more than usual. Nobody commented; it was a day for letting go, for relaxing and indulging. The children tore open their gifts and filled the room with heaps of brightly coloured paper and packaging. Marjorie sat back in her chair by the fire, until the urge to cough came back again, and she escaped to the kitchen.

The blood was there again. More so than before. She washed her mouth out at the kitchen sink then put on her coat to take the bread crusts out to the birds before it got dark. The robin was on the garden path, hopping towards the gate leaving perfect footprints in the snow. Marjorie threw him some crumbs and stood to watch as he pecked at them, the tiny black eyes darting back and forth, keeping her at a safe distance. She thrust her hands deep into her coat pockets and clenched her fingers around her handkerchief. The cold air seemed to knock the breath from her, she felt weak again, as if she could collapse and lie down, right there on the snow-covered lawn. Best to stand still until it passes, she thought. Soon she would have to go back inside. She coughed some more, turning away from the robin who seemed not to notice.

“Are you coming in Mum?” Monica was standing at the door shivering, with a large scarf draped over her shoulders. “You’ve been ages, come in, it’s freezing!”

Marjorie turned slowly, conscious of not making any sudden movements. Her daughter was smiling at her like she thought she was mad. Perhaps I am, she thought. “Yes. I’m coming now,” she coughed.

“That’s a nasty cough Mum, how long have you had that?”

“Oh, a little while.”

“You ought to see someone about that you know. Can’t have you getting bronchitis or something.” The two women linked arms and headed back to the warmth of the kitchen.

“Yes. I’ll go and see the Doctor next week. After the Bank Holiday. Now, who’s for a game of charades?”

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.
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