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Torfaen Tales

A Stranger at Christmas

A lot of people don’t like me. They make their feelings known with loud comments as though I can’t hear them. School children say rude things as they pass by. They possibly think I don’t understand English. However the nice people make up for the others. The nice people press money into my hand as I sit on my little chair selling my magazines. I’ve got to know their faces. They are the closest thing to friends that I have in this town.

I don’t live here. My daughter Sophia and I live in a hostel in another larger town about 10 miles away. It is a horrible place, cold and dirty, but it’s all I can manage at the moment. I’m trying to put some money by so that I can rent a small flat but it’s difficult now that everything costs so much more. I hear everyone grumbling about the cost of living.

You may wonder why I stay in this country instead of going back to where I came from. But we can’t go back. We are refugees. I am able to stay in this country because I married a British citizen, but he is now dead. Anyway, he was no good. He beat me and my daughter.

You may also wonder why I don’t sell my magazines in the town where I live. I tried that for a while, but the people there were worse than in this small town. Several times they beat me and stole my money. So I took advice from the magazine people and came to the small town. It’s worth the bus fare. At least I know Sophia is safe at school, and afterwards she waits at a friend’s home until I can collect her. She’s doing well at school, and after just a few months speaks English as well as everyone else. And she’s also learning Welsh.

The town grew busier as Christmas came closer. I enjoyed watching the Christmas parade, and almost forgot how cold my feet and hands were. The nice people were more and more generous as Christmas drew nearer. I could see in their faces that they felt guilty at having so much more than me. Then, late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, one of my regular ladies brought me a cup of coffee.

“You look half frozen, dear,” she said, digging in her shopping bag and opening a packet of biscuits.

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, warming my numbed hands around the paper cup.

“My name’s Brenda. What’s yours?”

“It’s Mira.” I could tell this was a name she was not familiar with. I could see her turning it around in her mind.

“Mirror,” she repeated. “Like a looking glass, right?”

I laughed. “Not quite. Is spelled M-i-r-a.”

“So you sell these magazines because you’re homeless, is that right?”

“Not quite. I live in a hostel, me and my daughter.”

“How old is your daughter?”

“Eleven. She is called Sophia.”

“What are you doing for Christmas?”

I shrugged. “We will stay at the hostel.”

“Come and spend Christmas with me and my family,” she said. I could hardly believe it. Such kindness. I was struck dumb.

So that’s what we did, me and Sophia. We spent Christmas with Brenda and her husband Gethin and their family. I packed up my folding stool and my remaining magazines there and then, and walked home with Brenda. Her husband drove me in his car shortly after, and we picked Sophia up from her friend’s house. He was a quiet man, and he didn’t seem to mind us staying with them. It seemed that whatever Brenda said, that was what he did. We then stopped at the hostel where I packed our things in a bag and explained that we’d be back in a day or two. I didn’t want them to think we were leaving and give our beds to someone else. I’d had to fight hard to get into the hostel. Even though it wasn’t much it was better than sleeping rough, moving on every few hours to avoid the police.

Back at Brenda and Gethin’s home I was coming to terms with our good fortune and better able to take in my surroundings. It was not a large house, and they were clearly not wealthy people, but the house had the feeling of a home. Well-worn but comfortable.

“I’m really sorry,” said Brenda. “I hope you don’t mind sharing a bed, we’ve only got one spare. That’s because our Cerys is off in Africa this year. She’s gone over there as a volunteer, helping to teach children to read in English. She loves it over there. She sends us photos and email messages all the time from her laptop.”

Brenda was puffing upstairs as she spoke, and Sophia and I followed her to her daughter’s bedroom. It was lovely. I felt a lump rise in my throat as Sophia looked about her.

“Oh, Brenda!” I sighed. “We don’t mind sharing a bed. After all it is a double, and this is such a lovely room.”

“Make yourselves comfortable and come down when you’re ready. I’ve got a casserole in the oven, I hope you’re hungry.”

Yes, we were hungry. Always hungry. I helped Sophia brush her hair and reminded her not to eat everything like a greedy girl. Even though we were poor and hungry we had some manners. She grinned, happier than I’d seen her in ages. I felt guilty for the bad times I’d brought on my little girl.

It was a wonderful meal, hot and plentiful. Chicken and vegetables in a sauce. Plenty of potatoes. Me and Sophia, Brenda and Gethin. Gethin hardly said a word, but Brenda was full of questions. Where we were from, what and why. I gave her the shorter, less horrible version of the story of my life. That my husband was dead, but not that he had beaten me until I almost died too.

I had intended to help wash the dishes afterwards, but by the time Brenda had finished questioning me Gethin had done everything and returned with cups of tea.

We were not late to bed that night. As we sank into the soft bed, Sophia asked me if she was dreaming. “No, my darling girl, this is real,” I replied, hardly able to believe it myself. “These are the kindest people in the world and they have invited us to share Christmas with them.”

We awoke early in the morning and dressed quickly. I wanted to make myself more useful today. Luckily Brenda and Gethin allowed us to help with the preparations for Christmas dinner.

“Many hands make light work,” said Brenda as she poured us glasses of sherry. Never mind that Sophia was only eleven, she had a small one too. “Everything’s done, now we can relax for half an hour before the troops arrive.”

Troops? Fear shot through my heart. I’d had enough of soldiers and their cruelty back in the old country.

But no, she meant her family. First to arrive was Brenda’s mother, a frail old lady with white hair. Gethin went to collect her in his car. She didn’t seem at all surprised to see strangers at her daughter’s table. Then there was their son, Dai, his wife, Becky, and their three children - two boys and a little girl hardly more than a baby. Chaos ruled as presents were opened and wrapping paper was cast aside. We were not forgotten. I don’t know how she did it, but Brenda had wrapped a warm jumper for each of us and some perfume and lip gloss for Sophia which she thought the most wonderful things. I felt both humbled and humiliated that we had been so ignorant to come with nothing for our hosts.

Then we were seated at the table for our Christmas dinner, a wonderful meal. Quite how we all fitted around that table I don’t know, but we did. Brenda and Gethin made it seem as though Sophia and I had been expected all along. There was silence for a short while as everyone tucked into turkey and roast potatoes, gravy and lots of vegetables. The food was simple but well cooked. I found my thoughts wandering dangerously back to Christmases many years ago in my parents’ village. But luckily the chatter resumed before long, and we were pulling crackers, wearing silly paper hats and reading even sillier jokes from small pieces of paper inside the crackers. Sophia had cleared her plate, and I shot her a warning glance as she reached for yet more potatoes. She drew her hand back as though scalded and sat with a guilty face. Thankfully nobody noticed.

“Just a small piece of pudding for me, please, Brenda,” I begged. “My stomach is splitting.”

The two small boys were delighted with the thought of someone’s stomach splitting, and described the event with sickening detail.

“Behave, boys!” ordered their father. And they were silent.

After we finished eating the television set was switched on in time for the Queen’s speech. Brenda’s mother, Win, was the only one who really paid attention. She nodded her agreement to everything the Queen said.

“The Queen has had the same hair style for as long as I can remember,” said Becky.

“Becky notices these things ‘cos she’s a hairdresser,” explained Brenda. “She’s got her own salon, you know.”

“I worked in a beauty salon when I was younger,” I said.

Becky and I were soon swapping information about the beauty business. Eyelash tinting, waxing, massage. I’d done it all, had all the qualifications. But of course all left behind in the old country. Still, it was good to talk with someone who knew about these things. Becky was a nice girl, clearly with a good head for business.

The two little boys were giggling at Win, who had fallen asleep and was snoring softly. Dai was feeding his little daughter her bottle which he had warmed himself. I found these modern British men amazing, such a help to their wives. Shame I had married a man from the old country with all the old-fashioned ways and none of the modern ways of his adopted country. Ah, life could have been so different.

“So how about it?” said Becky. I shook myself, for I had not been paying attention. I apologised.

It seemed Becky had been considering taking on a beautician to expand her hairdressing business and attract more trade. She wondered if I would like to come in on a trial basis for a few weeks, with the possibility of permanent employment if it worked out.

I had to pinch myself. Could this day get any more wonderful? Could I dare to think ahead towards a time when I would not have to sit in the street selling magazines and ignoring the scorn of passers-by? Could I dare to hope that life might get better for me and my daughter?

By Karenne Griffin


Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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