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24 JANUARY 2001
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a christmas story

Christmas Past

Brian Gannon

It was Christmas Eve – and going to be a quiet Christmas. All of the kids were away either with family or friends over the holiday period. My own family was a few hundred miles away so I had volunteered to be on call in the (likely!) event that someone might be needed. Cook had left some cleverly packed rations so that as few as one or as many as ten could eat over Christmas, depending on who pitched up.

First to come was David, sixteen. He was the staff team's odds-on favourite to return anyway, as his relationship with his mother had been on hair-trigger for a few weeks and we expected that the planned three days together was optimistic. He arrived after lunch on the day before Christmas with his overnight bag – and the wry smile of someone who had taken a kick at goal and missed wildly. “Checked out," he reported in the shorthand he used to annotate his life. “Tired." That would be two of us for Christmas.

Until Jack telephoned. Jack was a former child care worker in our programme, in his late sixties and four or five years retired. He lived a mile or two nearer town and continued to be a most useful stand-by whenever our staff roster came apart or when there were hard times in the offing. He was a richly experienced worker who loved his retirement though still appreciated being called in two or three times a month. He asked whether he might come over tomorrow. So there would be three of us for Christmas dinner the next day. This would be no problem, with cook's flexible plans. We could serve ourselves in the kitchen, and then eat more cosily in the staff room.

It was about 4 pm and I was just making a cup of tea and wondering whether I should wake David, when the bell rang. “O Lord, wonder which one this will be?" I thought as I made for the door. Two boys, unknown to me and aged about eight and ten, stood in the entrance, clearly lost for words. They looked at each other, as if wondering what to say, and the older one began to explain. Their step-mother, they said, had sent them on a one-week holiday camp, and when they came home today they found her gone – and the house completely empty. The neighbours told them that the mother had spent a few days cleaning up and packing while they were away. Her furniture had been collected and she had left the day before the boys returned. They were hovering between shock and tears as they told the story.

"She just left, took everything – including our dog," whispered the younger child tearfully. The older boy looked at his brother and put a hand on his arm. “We didn't know what to do. We guessed that this was the place where children with no home have to come when ... “ The tear-jerker story was beginning to get to me.

A telephone call to the town welfare office confirmed that their story was essentially accurate and that a social worker had been planning to go up to the house to wait for the children to come back from camp. The boys' father had been away for extended periods, working in a neighbouring country, and the step-mother had 'had enough' of caring for children who weren't her own anyway, and without help from their father. I offered to accommodate the children over the holiday period. They had after all brought themselves here and broken the ice, so to speak. The social worker expressed her gratitude, saying it would be hard to raise a children's court official at 5 pm on Christmas Eve. We found some clothes for the boys, dug out some of cook's provisions for supper, made up two beds, and eventually tucked in two tearful kids that Christmas Eve.

* * *

We sat down to a strange Christmas dinner with our two young guests, still shocked and unhappy. David was monosyllabically content at having a place to share the yuletide feast “and was quite movingly sympathetic towards his unexpected “siblings". Jack put on a sterling (though largely unsuccessful) show of festive spirit, and to be honest, none of us knew whether it was more proper to be happy or sad.

We came to the last course, and cook had prepared a traditional steamed Christmas pudding which, in the absence of more detailed instructions, we had simply heated in the microwave oven. Jack, game to the last, attempted to lighten the proceedings by secretly tucking a lot of small silver coins into the children's share of Christmas pudding. Their father, as it happened, had been a refugee from a central European land, so the two boys were delighted by this 'English' custom. Jack helped things along by sharing their excitement and by pretending to be disappointed that he hadn't found any silver coins in his own serving of pudding, “... and look how many you chaps have found in yours!" We all felt a little better as the children giggled at this.

A little while later we were all clearing the table, carrying things back and forth to the main kitchen. On one of my journeys I bumped into Jack, leaning against a wall in the passageway, obviously weeping. Of course, I thought. Christmas for him, his own family being far away in England, was proving hard ...

"Oh, Jack," I began, an arm on his shoulder.

"Oh, I'm alright!" he said, attempting an awkward laugh through his tears. “This is just another of those 'child care' things!" He went on: “I was coming back from the kitchen for another load of plates, and the little eight-year-old – who yesterday had lost just about everything that mattered in his life – took me aside and said earnestly to me: 'Jack, I'm so sorry that you didn't get any silver coins in your pudding; won't you please accept half of mine?' “

So Jack and I, hard-bitten old stagers in this game of Child and Youth Care, learned that day, with tears in our eyes, something profound about hope and generosity – from a child whom we might have thought had nothing new to teach us.

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