Christmas with the Peacocks
Stephen shivered as he entered the front door, the cold wind blowing snow flurries in with him. He removed his snow sprinkled homburg and woolen overcoat, set them on the settee, and stepped out of his shoes and wriggled his toes. A fire danced in the fireplace and the aroma of dinner cooking filled the room.
"Daddy's home!" squealed Stephanie as she and Katherine ran to the front door to greet their father.
Stephen hadn't changed out of his work togs and the girls circled him. He crouched down and wrapped his arms round them. They buried their little faces in his smock.
"Mmmm," Stephanie sighed, "Daddy, you smell like Father Christmas!"
"Oh, you do!" Katherine chortled, "You smell wonderful, Daddy!"
The girls showered his frosty face with kisses. He pecked their cheeks, closing his eyes, smiling, as he hugged them.
Betty entered the lounge wiping her hands on her pinny. Her hair was a festive shade of evergreen with red glitter. After Betty took the girls to see Mr. Humphries and his amateur dramatics group in a Christmas pantomime play, Ethel had come by and given her a fresh rinse and they shared tea and biscuits over a nice afternoon visit.
Betty joined her family and her eyes locked on Stephen's. It surprised Betty how, after seven years of marriage, the sight of Stephen crossing the threshold every evening after work filled her with delight. There was an almost electric excitement as he took her in his arms. She smiled as she thought of how she "won".
He could have returned to Vivienne. Instead, he put himself through an agonizingly painful and embarrassing divorce, resigned a respected employment position, humbling himself to the point of humiliation, and took a menial job working in the belly of Woodward and Lothrop.
He accepted his fate, living frugally in his little flat, taking advantage of the employer-provided lunch and coffee, and the Friday pint of stout or ale. For although he paid Vivienne £175 per month, the overtime and bonus pay more than made up for it.
Stephen had changed dramatically in seven years. The birth of their daughters shattered any remnants of his former staunch persona; he melted at their cherubic smiles and their little twittering voices and the way they called "Daddy" in the middle of the night when they were scared.
"Did I hear that Father Christmas is home?" Betty beamed.
Stephen chuckled as he looked up at his wife longingly. He stood up and the girls scampered off to the kitchen to set the table for dinner. Betty turned her face up to kiss him, "Ooh! You do smell Christmassy!" she cooed.
"We got our shipment of Christmas trees in today…all three-hundred of them!" he said wearily, "Where's Maggie?"
"Upstairs in her cot asleep," Betty replied.
"Oh," he said disappointedly, "I was hoping that after dinner we could go pick out a tree. If we wait 'til Saturday, the good trees will be gone."
"Well," she started, "You and the girls can go pick out a tree. I'll stay here with the baby."
"All right," he perked up.
"Oh, they'll be so excited!" Betty gushed, "They've been talking all day about getting a tree and decorating!"
"Daddy!" Katherine called, entering the lounge, "Steffie and me's been making a paper chain! Mummy saved our old Christmas cards from las'shear and we cut 'em into strips. Mummy gave us a little pot of glue and some brushes and we cut and pasted all afternoon!" Her face was animated and her hands waved about as she spoke.
"Yes, Daddy, we made a long chain to put on our Christmas tree! When are we going to get a tree, Daddy?" Stephanie added.
Stephen smiled at his little expectant daughters, "I was just talking to Mummy about that very thing! How about after dinner, we go to my store and pick out a tree?"
"Oh, yes! Yes, Daddy!" Katherine squealed.
Stephanie nodded in agreement, smiling excitedly, "Could we? Could we?"
"Provided you eat all of your dinner," he teased.
"Oh, we will! We will, Daddy!" Katherine bounced up and down, her ponytail swaying wildly, "Our paper chain is in the kitchen in a big box!"
"I can't wait to see it on our tree!" he said excitedly.
"Daddy! Mummy took us to see Uncle Clay in a Christmas show!" Stephanie bubbled.
Not 'Merry Stripmas', I hope! Stephen thought, rolling his eyes.
"Was it a good play?" he asked.
"Yes, Daddy!" Katherine chattered, "It had Mother Goose, a big floppy horse, a bunny, The Three Pigs, a talking fish, and...and..."
"Snow White!" Stephanie added, "Uncle Clay was the Scarecrow..."
I'm surprised he wasn't Snow White! Stephen thought.
Stephen shook his head and tried to find a connection between Snow White and a scarecrow.
The girls disappeared into the kitchen.
"Daddy, you're the man of the hour!" Betty smiled as she wrapped her arms round him, "Oh, you do smell festive."
He kissed the top of Betty's hair, "Mmmm, you smell wonderful," he purred.
Betty chuckled and shrugged.
"Make sure the tip doesn't drag on the ground!" Stephen instructed the girls as they carried the Christmas tree to the front door, "Otherwise the tip will get all ragged and our tree won't look pretty. And you did such a good job picking out a lovely tree!"
Stephanie and Katherine dutifully carried the top part of the Christmas tree and Stephen lugged the bottom.
"Daddy!" Katherine whinged, "The prickles are poking my hands!"
"Mine too, Daddy!" Stephanie complained.
"Only a little further, girls, and we'll be inside," Stephen explained, "Then Mummy can make us some cocoa!"
The girls picked the tree a little higher and walked straight to the front door.
Betty opened the door for them and Stephen led the way in. "We'll need to set the tree in a bucket of water," Stephen said.
Betty went into the kitchen to retrieve a bucket of water for him.
"Can we put the decorations on it tonight, Daddy?" Stephanie asked.
"No, sweetie. The tree has to relax. They tied it nice and tight with that twine, but now we'll untie it and let the tree get used to being inside."
The girls looked at him dejectedly. Tiddles circled the tree, rubbing against the bristly trunk. Betty returned with the water.
"You'd better watch out, Tiddles," Stephen chuckled as he placed the tree in the water, splashing a little bit out.
"Who wants cocoa?" Betty called.
"Me!" Katherine chirped.
"I do!" Stephanie smiled.
"Me too, Mummy!" Stephen teased.
Christmas Eve and the Christmas tree was set in its stand. A warm fire crackled in the hearth. After arranging the lights on the branches, Stephen carefully wound the girls' paper chain from the top of the tree to the bottom. He disappeared upstairs and into the loft, and returned with a small paperboard box. It was old and battered with dried cracking cello-tape on the corners.
"What's that?" Betty asked, eyeing the box. Little Margaret lay in Betty's arms, sleeping soundly, her little chubby feet poking out from the bottom hem of her nightgown.
Stephen set the box on the coffee table, sat down, and lovingly removed the lid. He gazed the contents, reminiscing. Stephanie and Katherine gathered round curiously as Stephen poked into the layer of excelsior.
"My grandfather made these and we always hung them on our tree when I was a boy," he explained, removing a Father Christmas fashioned out of tin. It was a bit rusty and the paint a bit faded, but it was clearly a Father Christmas in full regalia.
Katherine's eyes widened, "Ooh, Daddy, I like that one!" she marveled.
He gently placed the ornament in her little hands and she tottered over to the tree and placed it on a bough.
He reached into the box and removed a little sled with a pipe cleaner Christmas tree attached to it.
"May I hang that one, Daddy?" squealed Stephanie.
He smiled and she cupped her hands; he set the little sled in her hands and she walked over to the tree to pick the perfect spot for it.
"I've never seen these before, Stephen," said Betty.
He smiled sadly at her, "Vivienne never liked them, so I couldn't put them on her tree. She wanted things just so. The ornaments stayed packed away and tonight when I came home and the girls were so excited about their chain, I figured it was time to share these with them."
Betty gently rubbed and patted his back, "They seem to be enjoying them," she whispered reassuringly.
"Are there more, Daddy?" asked Katherine.
He took out a carved reindeer dangling from a red ribbon and held it up to the light, "My father carved this one," he said proudly.
Her face lit up, "Oooh! He's pretty!"
Stephen looped the red ribbon round her little finger.
She reached high and hooked the ribbon onto a branch.
"I was wondering where this one went!" he mused, handing a small London Bridge to Stephanie. He and Betty chuckled.
He removed the last ornament from the box, a hand-crocheted snowflake.
"My grandmother made this," he said quietly as he carefully set the snowflake in Katherine's hands. She held it up to show it off.
"Daddy, that's lovely!" Stephanie gaped.
Stephen's heart grew heavy and he bit his lower lip. His eyes glistened in the glow of the fire and Christmas lights. Katherine came over and wrapped her arms round him.
"Don't be sad, Daddy, I love your ormaments!" she sighed.
"I love you, Kathy!" he whispered, cupping her round face and gently kissing her little pink lips.
"I love your ornaments, too, Daddy!" Stephanie soothed.
"And I love you, too, Steffie!" he turned to kiss Stephanie, "You girls did a wonderful job decorating the tree," he said softly.
"Poor Maggie, she slep' through the whole thing!" Katherine pouted.
"She'll be fine, Kathy!" Betty reassured her, passing the slumbering baby to Stephen, "She's too little to remember."
The mantle clock chimed nine and Stephen planted a soft kiss on the top of each girl's head and gently nuzzled Margaret, "You may each open one present if you want. Then it's off to bed or else Father Christmas won't come."
Betty reached under the tree and handed each girl a brightly wrapped package.
They looked expectantly at their parents. Stephen stared for a long moment wanting to remember this scene forever.
"Go 'head," Betty said, "Open them!"
The girls tore into their presents; each had a teddy bear whose arms and legs were jointed and movable.
The girls squealed with delight and ran into their parents' embrace. Stephen and Betty nuzzled their daughter's hair and showered their upturned faces with kisses.
"Isn't Maggie going to open a present?" Stephanie asked.
"Maggie's asleep, sweetie. She'll be alright 'til morning," Stephen said, "Come now. Up to bed with you!"
The girls scurried up the stairs to their bedroom with Stephen, Betty and Margaret bringing up the rear.
He sat on the floor with his back resting against Katherine's bed and the girls climbed into his lap. Betty set little Margaret in her cot and covered her with the quilt Stephanie and Katherine made for her.
Stephen took a yellowed, dog-eared copy of "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" from under the bed and opened it.
"Read it, Daddy!" Stephanie whispered excitedly.
"Yes, Daddy! Read it!" Katherine chirped.
"'Twas the night before Christmas," he began and they snuggled in close, snaking their little arms round him.
Betty spread a quilt over their legs as he read.
"…and to all a good-night!" he whispered to his slumbering daughters, softly kissing the tops of their heads.
Stephen exited the loo, locking the door behind him. He stopped in front of the window. The sky was awash in the purple and red hues of predawn. A fresh dusting of snow blanketed the world outside. Stephen looked out over the garden, the deck chairs and trees covered in snow, and the common in silent splendor.
He smiled as he felt warm, familiar arms round him. Betty planted soft kisses on his back. He shivered.
"Come back to bed, the heat's not come up yet, you'll catch your death!" she admonished.
"Wait…wait," he whispered, "Look! It's so beautiful and peaceful out there," he motioned outside at the world waking up.
The sun just peeked over the horizon, glinting like a diamond. The snow glittered and sparkled.
"Oh, that's lovely!" Betty agreed.
They returned to the warmth of their bed.
"Happy Christmas!" she lovingly whispered. They lay ensconced in each other's arms, basking in the afterglow of their lovemaking.
Stephen eyes fluttered open; he turned to face her and pressed a gentle kiss on her lips, "Happy Christmas."
He nudged a knee between her thighs and pulled her close.
"Again?" she asked incredulously.
"I was thinking about it…it is Christmas, you know! I get double portions," he teased.
"You had double last night!" she playfully retorted.
"That was Christmas Eve. Today is Christmas! Tomorrow is Boxing Day…and then Three Kings Day! In a few weeks it'll be my birthday..."
She goggled at him in stunned silence…then they both erupted in a barrage of giggles.
"Besides...you were the one singing Santa Baby to me!" he purred.
"You liked that, did you?" she teased.
"I did!" he smiled, "I forgot to mention it last night, but that was a nice festive touch, the green hair and red glitter..." he said as he leaned in to kiss her.
The bedroom door swung open. Stephen hurriedly snatched his underwear on and Betty smoothed the hem of her nightgown into place.
His eyebrows shot up in surprise as Katherine entered the room followed by Stephanie with Margaret clinging to her hip like a koala. Tiddles scampered in and leapt onto the bed.
"I thought I locked that door!" Stephen grumbled, rolling his eyes.
"Mummy! Daddy! Father Christmas came!" Katherine announced.
"He's not the only one!" Stephen muttered mischievously.
Betty jabbed him and he gasped, "Oof!"
"Cheeky monkey!" she whispered.
"Mummy!" Stephanie called, making a sour face, "I think Maggie is poopy!"
The girls climbed into bed as Betty carried Margaret out of the room. The girls flanked Stephen and kissed his cheeks. Tiddles circled round and round and finally plopped on the duvet at the foot of the bed.
"Happy Christmas, Daddy!" they squealed.
He returned their kisses and hugged them tightly, "Happy Christmas, darlings!"
He reveled in the intoxicating feeling of being a husband and father. He let the whole experience wash over him and he sighed. For now it was time to stop and smell the roses. In a few hours the house would be abuzz with dinner guests: Mr. Lucas, Sarah, Shirley, Mr. Humphries, Bryan, Mrs. Humphries, Mirabelle, Mrs. Lucas, Ethel and Mr. Akbar. Stephen's heart constricted at the thought of how full and complete his life really was. He knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be, in this house, with this wife, and this family. And although he didn't know what the future held for him and his family, he knew that right now...at this very moment, all was right in the world.
Happy Christmas from Stephen, Betty, Stephanie, Katherine, and Margaret Peacock...and Tiddles.