We had an enchanted summer and fall, Eliza and I, meeting every Sunday for a walk and having tea with my grandparents afterwards. Once we even went to a village dance, which was quite a disaster because I didn't know all those complicated steps and couldn't keep my large feet off her toes. She was good-natured about it, though, saying she didn't care too much for dancing herself, and we happily resorted to our walks and chats again.
Her parents had decided to prolong their stay in Europe until the end of the year because her father had come across some excellent business opportunities which he could not afford to miss in those times of economic worries. Eliza didn't mind. "If they're not back before the New Year, I won't have to attend all those dreadful parties with Dad's business partners and the rest of the high society where he likes to show me off as the potential bride for some wealthy toff", she grinned. "I'm glad that I get to spend more time with you."
I bristled at the thought of the world she hailed from, full of businessmen and doctors and lawyers, not unlike the environment I had fled, but on an even higher level. I was pretty certain that her parents didn't know about me, and I wasn't sure if I liked the fact.
Anyway, Eliza was as sweet as ever and I loved her with all my heart. Our first kiss by the lighthouse had been followed by many more, and sometimes it was hard to keep control of my desire to touch more than just her hand or her face. But I didn't want to embarrass her by doing anything unseemly, much as I would have loved to.
Besides, Grandpa's warning about the dangers of letting passion get the better of me was still resounding in my head. "You don't want to get that girl into trouble, do you?" he had said. "I don't want to be a great-grandfather just yet!" Neither did I want to be a father. Babies were not on my agenda for the next ten years. At least.
So I restricted myself to innocuous kisses and caresses and enjoyed the warmth that prickled within me every time she touched me or leaned against me for a tender embrace.
Time flew by incredibly fast. Far too soon days became shorter and colder. Eliza often shivered on our Sunday walks despite her coat and scarf. I happily put my arm around her to hold her close and warm her up a bit as we walked.
By mid-November, the temperature had dropped unpleasantly and fierce storms ripped the last leaves off the trees, barring us from walking our beloved coastal paths and forcing us to stay inside with Eliza's aunt or my grandparents. I missed the privacy of our walks that had allowed us to talk much more intimately.
The first snow fell a few weeks later. A week before Christmas, we went for a long walk through the fields beyond the village. My heart was a little heavy that day, as I had not yet plucked up the courage to tell her I would not be here for the holidays. I had pondered the problem for a long time, but in the end I had decided to go to Missouri. I was not exactly looking forward to meeting Dan's relations – I had never warmed to his father and utterly disliked Aunt Dorothy, the spinsterly widow of his older brother – but I had promised the girls that I'd be there.
Thankfully, Eliza was very understanding when I said I was going away for Christmas to be with my sisters. "I wasn't expecting to see you much over the holidays anyway", she said. "It's sweet of you to go back because of the girls, considering that you're probably not too keen on the trip."
I grimaced. "Not on the trip and not on those Cleavers and certainly not on all of those friends of my mother's who are sure as hell going to pester me with stupid questions about a fisherman's life. But I haven't seen Jess and Janie in half a year, and Mom wrote in one of her last letters that the only thing Janie wants from Santa is me. And Jess said she didn't want Christmas at all if I wasn't there."
"They must be really sweet, your little sisters. Well, if you were my big brother, I'd adore you, too."
"So you don't adore me?"
"Oh, stupid!" She threw a small snowball at me. "I didn't say that!"
"Hey! You think you can attack me just like that? That calls for revenge!" I bent down to scoop up some snow to retaliate.
We had a jolly good snowball fight and walked back, laughing giddily, with snow all over our coats, cheeks and noses pink with the cold.
I escorted her to her aunt's after we had warmed up with hot tea and some of my grandma's homemade cookies. On a whim, I built a large snowman below her window. "He'll watch over you while I'm away", I said, and she cocked her head and smiled at me.
"No wonder your sisters love you so much", she said. "Have a wonderful time with them and hug them for me. I'd love to meet them one day."
"I hope you will", I said. "I'll miss you while I'm away."
I had not yet quite got out of Dan's car in the afternoon of Christmas Eve when the front door flew open and two little figures burst outside like a cork from a bottle of champagne.
"Oh, Mick, Mick, Mick!" Janie squealed, hurling herself at me and clinging to my leg, as usual.
"Hey, Janie love", I said, ruffling her blonde curls. "Let go of my leg for a minute and you'll get a kiss."
Reluctantly, she freed me from her clutch, and I hunkered down to kiss her on the cheeks as Jess threw her arms around me from behind. "I want a kiss, too!" she cried.
"Ouch, Jess, don't shout into my ear!" I turned my head to give her the desired peck on the cheek. She grinned at me broadly, displaying a gap in the lower row of pearly little teeth.
"Why, you've lost a tooth, Princess!" I said, and she nodded eagerly, beaming. "It came out last Friday", she said proudly. "I've put it into a little box. I'll show you later!"
Dan had unloaded my small bag from the car, and Mom had appeared in the front door, a starched white apron over her dress. "Mick, dear, come on in! Girls, let go of him for a moment, will you?"
"No!" they cried in unison, and everybody laughed. With their little hands firmly holding on to mine, I walked over to the doorstep and gave Mom a kiss on the cheek. She reached up and laid her hand on my cheek for a moment with a wistful look in her eyes before hugging me tightly. "I'm so glad you're here again, Mick. It's lovely to have you home for Christmas."
The hallway was lavishly decorated with evergreens and red and golden ornaments. Janie tugged at my hand impatiently. "Look at the stars, Mick! Jess and I made them!"
I duly admired the stars the girls had cut from gold paper and hung among the greens.
"Come and see the tree, Mick! It's huge and it will be so beautiful when we're finished decorating!" Jess gushed, eyes sparkling with anticipation. "You'll help us, Mick, won't you?"
"Yes, please please help us!" echoed Janie. "And Mom said we can have hot chocolate and cookies!"
"Let Mick take his things into his room. I'll make the chocolate meanwhile", Mom said, gently prying the girls off me. "You two can come and help me put the cookies on a plate."
Jess and Janie scuttled off to the kitchen with Mom and I went to take my bag upstairs. My old bedroom felt strangely alien to me. I hadn't missed anything in it since I went away, not even the books I'd left behind or my collection of sheet music that was neatly stacked in a corner of my bookshelf. I dropped my bag on the floor without unpacking anything and left the room.
Someone had turned on the radio, and the familiar tune of "The First Noel" filled the air. I smiled. One of the woes of growing up is that so many little childhood joys and mysteries lose their magic. Christmas had long before stopped casting that enchanting spell over me. The beautiful old melody brought back the warm excitement I'd used to feel when I was younger. I hummed along under my breath as I walked back downstairs and into the living room.
The girls were perching on the edge of the sofa, shifting giddily. Janie narrowly avoided knocking over her cup of chocolate when she tried to reach for a cookie.
"You've already had three of those chocolate cookies!" Jess scolded her sternly. "You can't have them all, you know. Mick will want some, too."
"It's you who wants them!" Janie retorted. Jess glared at her fiercely, her lips twitched, but she bit back a sharp protest.
"Now come on, princesses, don't quarrel about some silly cookies. You eat all you want, I'll be happy with the leftovers unless it's walnut cookies. Let's start with the tree!"
Both girls jumped to their feet immediately and hurried over to where cardboard and wooden boxes were lined up along the wall by the tree, all labelled in Mom's neat handwriting. Mom and Dan had only fixed the electric lights to the branches so far, leaving the rest of the ornaments for us to put up together.
I knelt down to open the first box of glass ornaments and handed a red ball to Jess and a white one to Janie. Jess looked at Janie with that incorrigible big-sister-knows-it-all attitude. "You have to be very careful with those, you know. They are very old. And if you break one, Santa will know and all you'll find in your stockings tomorrow will be some lumps of coal."
Janie gaped at her, unsure whether to believe her or not. She looked as if she was going to break into tears just to be on the safe side.
"Don't cry, sweetie. Just be careful. And if you do break something, Santa will know you didn't do it on purpose. You'll have your presents, don't worry." I patted her on the back, and she gave a little quavering smile and walked over to the tree solemnly to place her glass ball.
I pulled Jess close to me and said, "Jessie, love, would you do me a favour?" She nodded fervently. "Leave Janie alone today, will you? I know you're a big girl with some experience in life, but just don't rub it in with her. I don't want any of you to cry by the Christmas tree."
Her conflicting thoughts showed on her expressive little face, but she bit back a cheeky answer and nodded again.
"That's my Jessie", I said and quickly hugged her to my side before she hurried over to select the perfect spot to hang her red ball.
Piece by piece, we filled the large fir tree with glass balls, brightly painted wooden ornaments, paper stars and tinsel which the girls draped over the branches with religious accuracy. The plate of cookies was forgotten and their chocolate had gone cold, so absorbed were they in decorating and singing along with the carols on the radio.
Finally there was only one ornament left to be placed: the golden star that went on top of the tree. Both girls wanted to help me put it on. I chose Jess for the job because she was taller, but before Janie could turn on the waterworks again, I assigned her the responsibility of switching on the lights on the tree when we were finished.
"Go get the ladder, Mick!" Jess said.
"We don't need one. I'll be your ladder today!"
She giggled as I sat down on my heels to let her climb up my back and sit on my shoulders. As I straightened up, Mom walked in and gave me a questioning look. "Don't bend over too far, Jess, or you'll fall and knock over the whole tree!" she warned.
"Oh, Mom, I won't let her drop", I replied, and indeed Jess accomplished her final mission without any accidents.
Janie switched on the lights, and we stood in silence for a moment, admiring our work. The tree did look splendid. "What a beautiful tree", Mom said. "Very well done, all of you."
"It's only so beautiful because Mick helped us!" Jess declared with utter conviction.
Mom smiled at me with an expression of loving appreciation that I had not seen on her face for a very long time. I smiled back gratefully.
The girls were sent to bed soon after dinner, and I said good night not much later. I was tired from the long train trip, and there was a package in my bag, waiting for me, that needed to be unwrapped without any spectators. A rather flat, rectangular package, carefully wrapped in green tissue paper and adorned by a fat red bow that was a bit squished now from the journey. Otherwise, the little packet Eliza had given me when she saw me off at the station, telling me not to open it before Christmas Day, was intact when I pulled it out from between the clothes in my bag.
She had attached a little note to the red ribbon. I unfolded it. Is it already Christmas Day when you read this? it said, and underneath, in smaller letters, You don't fool me. I knew you'd open it too early. You never stick to conventions if you can avoid it. Which is exactly why I love you. Here's a kiss from me. Eliza.
I grinned. She knew me pretty well by now.
Forcing myself to go ahead slowly, to savour the anticipation a little longer, I untied the bow and opened the package. Inside was another layer of soft tissue, this time white, with a Christmas card on top. I read the card first, smiling at the familiar elegant handwriting, before unwrapping my gift.
It was a framed picture, lying face down. I turned it around and couldn't stifle a small gasp.
Eliza had made good on her promise to draw me, and I hadn't even noticed anything. She must have done it from memory. I shivered with emotion. Never before had I received a gift like that.
Looking at this portrait of myself was an unsettling experience. I wondered if this was really what I looked like to others or if it was what Eliza saw in me. Or maybe it was a hint at the person I might become. This wasn't a boy any more. The bold charcoal lines showed the profile of a young man in a fisherman's jumper gazing over the sea pensively, looking older than just seventeen, dark curls ruffled by the wind, a face dominated by a long nose and high cheekbones, a heavy-lidded eye slightly narrowed against the sun.
In the lower right-hand corner, Eliza had signed her initials and given the picture a title: My Fisherman.
I was glad that I hadn't waited for Christmas Day. I didn't even want to imagine anyone watching me while I unwrapped this.
I went to bed with her little note and the Christmas card tucked under my pillow. I knew it was childish but I felt the need to have at least this little token of her with me. I missed her terribly.
A sudden commotion outside the door disturbed my sleep. I wondered if it was already morning and the girls were on their way downstairs to see if Santa had been there to fill their stockings, but it was pitch dark outside the window with just a bit of moonlight. Could they be up so early for sheer excitement?
As I groped for the alarm clock on my bedside table and then remembered that I had taken it to Maine with me and not packed it for this visit, the door opened and a small white figure appeared, dragging another, even smaller one, along by the hand.
I felt for the switch of my bedside lamp and flicked it. I couldn't help smiling. With their white nightshirts and long hair, they looked like a pair of rosy-cheeked little angels that had lost their wings somewhere along the way. "Jess? What are you doing here? What time is it?"
"Sssshh! Don't let Mom hear us!" She put a finger to her lips. "Janie and I can't sleep! We're so excited about Christmas! Can you tell us a story, Mick? To keep our minds busy?"
I shook my head in a mixture of exasperation and amusement. I had found my wristwatch on the bedside table. It was still Christmas Eve, only half past eleven. "It's awfully late for you to be awake, but I was just like you when I was little. I'll come with you and tell you a story."
"Can't we stay here with you, Mick?" Janie begged.
"Well, if you want to … just don't all fall asleep in my bed, I don't have room for three all night long. Oh, and close the door!"
Jess obeyed. Janie was first to slip under the covers with me, Jess climbed into my bed from the other side, grinding her chin into my shoulder.
"So now, what do you want to hear? Something about Santa Claus and angels and Christmas?"
"No", Jess said earnestly. "Another story about the two princesses. With pirates and sharks."
"And a purple octopus!" Janie chimed in.
"A purple octopus. You told us about octopuses before, don't you remember?"
"Yeah … but they aren't purple, normally."
"This one is!" she insisted.
So I made up a story about a friendly purple octopus called Rufus who got washed up on the shore right below the princesses' castle. He turned out to be a magical octopus and helped them defend their island against a horde of evil pirates while their prince was out at sea, fending off a bunch of sharks.
By the time the prince was about to return home after his glorious victory over the bloodthirsty sea creatures, both girls had sagged against me and were sleeping soundly.
The rest of the night was not too comfortable for me. Jess was using my chest as a pillow, so I couldn't move without waking her, and if I had tried to turn over, I'd probably have pushed Janie, who had snuggled up closely to my other side, over the edge of the bed.
I must have fallen asleep at some point, though, because I woke up when Mom knocked on the door cautiously and stepped inside. A relieved smile ran across her face when she noticed the girls draped over and beside me. I blinked at her sleepily and grinned. "They couldn't sleep and wanted a story", I whispered.
"I wish I'd had a brother like that", Mom whispered back. "Just look at the three of you."
Janie had turned on her back and was making little snoring noises with her mouth open. Jess didn't seem to have moved all night long, her head was still resting on my chest with one arm flung across my belly.
In a louder voice, Mom said, "Good morning everybody! I think Santa has found our chimney tonight, and maybe there are some girls and boys who want to see what they got before we go to church!"
Two pairs of eyes popped open as if on cue. "Oooh, is it already Christmas Day?" Jess squealed and jumped out of the bed. "Janie! Come!"
They ran off barefoot.
"Put on your slippers, girls, or you'll catch a cold!" Mom called after them, but the warning was lost on them.
We exchanged a glance, and both of us laughed. "Leave them, Mom. They're far too excited to bother with slippers." I did put on mine as I got up and walked over to my desk to get the three little packages I had brought with me.
"Merry Christmas, Mom", I said, holding one of the gifts out to her.
"Merry Christmas, Mick", she replied and proceeded to embrace me tightly.
"Open your present", I said.
"Shouldn't I wait until we're downstairs?" she asked.
"Please open it now."
She carefully opened the package. Inside was the little lighthouse I had carved from a small piece of driftwood. It bore quite a good resemblance to our lighthouse near the village.
Mom's face had lit up like a thousand candles. "Oh, Mick, this is … this is incredible. You're really a chip off the old block, aren't you? You've learned a lot from your grandfather, not just in terms of fishing."
"I'm glad you like it. And I'm glad you let me go back to Maine after all."
"I can't say I'm glad that you're so far away, but I couldn't have kept you from going where your heart told you to go, could I? Even if I would have loved to see you go on to college."
"I wouldn't have been happy in college, Mom."
"No, you wouldn't", she agreed. "But you're happy now. So I'm trying to be happy, too. Although I don't always manage."
"It's the intention that counts", I said and hugged her. "Now let's go downstairs and celebrate. I want to see the girls' faces when they open their gifts."