All That Other Stuff
Ellie Harding rested her chin on her hand and stared out of the window across the valley, relaxing as she always did at the sight of the tall spire of the parish church surrounded by cozy-looking cottages nestling under their Cotswold stone roofs.
Her daughter-in-law, Lori, came in from the garden balancing a wicker laundry basket on her hip.
“I will be glad when Christmas is over.” Lori heaved a dramatic sigh. “It’s nothing but rush and fuss, and no one is ever satisfied. One week left, and I still have to mail cards, shop, clean and for what? Just one day. And as for peace and goodwill, hark at that lot.”
Sounds of discontent burst from the living room where twelve-year-old Matthew and eight-year-old twins, Molly and Hannah, were arguing over television programs.
“And not only that,” Lori continued, “David is due home from Singapore on December 22nd, and,” she paused for breath, “Mother and Dad are arriving the same day.”
“As David has been away for almost six months, isn’t that a bit inconsiderate of them?” Ellie murmured. She tried to keep the tone of censure out of her voice, but her brow puckered as an additional thought sprang to her mind. “I thought your parents were spending Christmas in Germany with your Aunt Sophie.”
Lori snapped a tea towel, making it sound like a flag in a strong wind. She folded it in half, smoothed it out with the flat of her hand, folded it again and added it to the growing pile of clean laundry on the kitchen counter.
“They were, but Mother fell out with Aunt Sophie over goodness-knows-what and decided she and Dad would come here,” Lori explained. “Oh, Ellie, what am I going to do?”
“We’ll have a cup of tea, dear.” Ellie, a staunch supporter of that particular beverage’s restorative properties, thoughtfully put the kettle on. As it came to the boil, her eyes began to sparkle with mischief.
“Park everybody,” she said suddenly.
“What do you mean?” Lori asked, plainly puzzled.
“I’ll take the children,” Ellie said. “That should give you time for everything you need to do. Book your parents into a hotel and yourself and David into another. That will give you one day to yourselves, and then on Christmas Eve, you can all come to my house.”
Lori’s eyes opened wide. “But I couldn’t⸺.”
“Yes, you could. Don’t think about it, dear, just do it.”
Between them, Ellie and Lori helped the children pack and loaded them and their backpacks into Ellie’s battered blue Audi. Matthew sat silently beside her on the drive out of town, plainly not in agreement with the plan.
“What are we going to do at your house, Gran?” Molly asked. “You don’t even have a TV.”
“I’m sure we can find something to do,” Ellie replied, keeping her eyes on the narrow, two-lane road where she had to stop for a flock of sheep passing from one pasture to another.
“We could do a nativity play,” Hannah said as she watched the woolly bodies crowd either side of the car.
“There’s only three of us, and we already did that at school.” Matthew sounded glum at the prospect.
“Yes, but did you design and make your costumes?” Ellie asked.
“Well, no,” Matthew admitted. “We just used the ones from last year.”
“Ooh, Gran, can I make a crown with sparkles on it?” Despite being restrained by her seat belt, Hannah bounced on the back seat with excitement.
“I’m sure we could arrange that, dear. You three will be the Wise Men, and everyone else can be shepherds.”
“And you have to be the angel, Gran,” chorused Molly and Hannah.
“Can we invite friends from school?” Matthew asked.
“I don’t see why not.” Ellie drove through her gateway, minus its gate, and pulled up in front of a solidly built ivy-covered stone house. “Who would you like to invite?”
“Well, Jamal, because he was new to our school this term and doesn’t know many kids yet and Oliver because he doesn’t have a dad.”
“And can we invite other people too?” the twins asked in unison.
“Yes, you can,” Ellie assured them. “Two friends each. The more the merrier, don’t you think?”
“Then I’ll ask Yasmeen and Adeera,” Hanah said. “I hope their parents will let them come.”
“Yes, and Susan Howell and Dawn Fry,” Molly added. Hannah nodded her agreement.
Ellie parked the car, and the children poured out of it and in through the front door. They hung their coats on pegs in the hallway and deposited their backpacks at the foot of the stairs.
“We’ll have hot chocolate with marshmallows,” Ellis said as she headed to the large kitchen at the back of the house. “While I make it, you can start designing your costumes.”
She took sheets of paper and coloured pencils from a drawer and put them in the table’s centre. In no time, the girls sketched outfits for the shepherds while Matthew, now warming up to the idea, designed crowns for the Three Wise Men.
Over the next two days, Ellie produced lengths of fabric, sheets of art paper, fancy buttons, glue and glitters, rolls of florists wire and strands of ribbon. On a brisk afternoon walk, with a light wind gusting from the south-west blowing the clouds inland over the hills, they collected sheep’s wool from the barbed wire fencing around their field.
“This will make the beards for the Wise Men,” Ellie said as she held out a plastic bag for the children to fill with wool.
“How?” asked Matthew.
“We’ll cut lengths of cotton fabric and stick the wool to it, leaving a gap for your mouths,” Ellie said. “Then we’ll cut lengths of elastic so that it fits your heads, sew the ends to each side of the fabric, and you can just slip them on.”
“That sounds pretty easy,” Matthew said. “I say, Gran, can I be in charge of the costumes?”
“You certainly can, dear,” Ellie agreed.
Her angel wings fitting filled an entire afternoon with the children measuring wire and fabric and calculating the best way to affix them to Ellie’s back.
“Donny Williams sat on Carrie Davis’s wings in class and broke them,” Hannah told her.
“Yes, and she cried,” Molly added.
“Well, after all this work, we’ll have to make sure we hang my wings where no one can sit on them,” Ellie said.
Together they draped and stitched fabric and, once all the costumes were made, Ellie sat the children around the table again and helped them write their invitations. Molly and Hannah decorated theirs with sparkles, both sure the recipients would be pleased with them.
The invitations were hand-delivered and, when Christmas Eve finally arrived, so did the rest of the family and all the guests, including Yasmeen and Adeera’s parents. After a happy and noisy reunion with their father, Matthew, Molly, and Hannah helped everyone into their costumes. Ellie couldn’t help but notice that Lori’s parents, Margaret and Richard, looked somewhat bemused to find themselves clad in tunics made from old bedsheets and cinched around the waist with frayed scarlet cords from thrift store velvet curtains. When everyone was dressed, Ellie clapped her hands, which made her wings wobble frantically.
“Quiet everyone,” she said. “Now, who can tell me what the Three Wise Men did?”
“Oh, Gran, I know, I know!” Hannah’s hand shot up as if she were answering questions in school. “They followed the star.”
“Indeed, they did.” Ellie nodded sagely. “Now, come this way.”
She took everyone outside and then clapped her hands again. From the dark at the bottom of the garden, a bright white light appeared amongst the old and gnarled apple trees. Its silvery glow illuminated the whole area. She watched the children’s eyes open wide in wonder and smiled as they stopped, in total astonishment, at the edge of the lawn.
There, its legs folded neatly beneath it, sat a camel. It turned its head towards them and looked at them from liquid-dark eyes from beneath long lashes. A small tubby man, sporting a large moustache and wearing a red fez, stood beside it.
“This is Fred,” Ellie said. “And this,” she patted the camel’s sinuously graceful neck, “is Harun.”
Margaret sniffed. “Don’t expect me to get on that filthy beast.”
Ellie hid a smile as she heard Richard say, “Don’t worry, Mags, only the Wise Men rode camels. You’re a shepherd. Here, hang onto your crook.”
Fred helped the children onto the saddle, showing them where to put their feet and where to hold on as Harun stood up. His spongy feet made no sound as he lurched and swayed across the winter-damp grass.
“Mother, how on earth did you manage that?” David asked as he caught up with her.
Ellie patted the hand he slipped into the crook of her elbow.
“Oh, a phone call here and a favour there,” she said casually. She clapped her hands once more, and the light in the trees winked out before appearing again further away in the paddock next to her garden.
“It’s over Mr. Donovan’s stable now.” Molly couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice as she pointed over a gate set in the hedge.
Mr. Donovan, as bent and twisted as Ellie’s old apple trees, smiled at them as he opened the gate and ushered them all through it. The little procession, at last, came to a halt outside the stable. Harun obligingly collapsed his legs, and Molly, Hannah, and Matthew all but fell off him in their eagerness for what they might see. They pulled their friends forward with them, and all peered in at the stable door.
The sweet smell of hay assaulted their nostrils, and they heard the rustling of straw as they looked in on a cow contentedly chewing her cud, a donkey who flicked his long, fuzzy ears at them, and a ewe with twin lambs. A young woman wearing a blue robe smiled a welcome and invited them to sit on some straw bales placed in readiness for the visitors. Beside her, a tall, bearded man wearing a brown cloak welcomed everyone. Between them, laid in a wooden crib, a baby kicked its feet and gurgled happily.
“Oh, Gran, this is magic,” Molly whispered. She went to the crib and knelt beside it, staring down at the baby as if she couldn’t quite believe it was there. Hannah, Matthew, and their friends were more interested in the animals.
“Well, Ellie, I think you have surpassed yourself,” Richard said, still looking around and taking in every little detail with an expression of wonderment on his face. Even Margaret seemed suitably impressed.
“This is so cool, Gran.” Hannah looked up from the lamb she cuddled while Matthew and Jamal petted the donkey.
Matthew’s eyes opened wide as a thought struck him. “Christmas isn’t about what things we get, or what food we have. It’s all that other stuff, isn’t it, Gran?” His pre-teen voice had a croak in it.
Ellie nodded, adding softly, “That’s right, Matthew. It’s all that other stuff. Christmas is for loving and caring, sharing and,” she looked at Lori, “peace and goodwill.”