Turning the key in the lock, the old man opened the door to the welcome warmth of the house, and closed the door on a cold Christmas Eve. He recalled the days when Midnight Mass really took place at midnight. But, to avoid drunken revellers joining in, for the last few decades it had taken place early in the evening. He also recalled Midnight Mass with his wife and their row of children, all glassy-eyed and dozing off, thinking of Santa Claus rather than the Saviour of the World. Now he was alone, his wife long dead and his children gone. Christmas Day was almost the only time a few of his children came to visit with their children, although he had long since stopped preparing Christmas dinner. He found this a hard time of year. When he was working, it was the one time he was guaranteed to be at home for any length of time. His wife had loved Christmas and the effort she put in on Christmas Day was enormous. He used to help, but he preferred to watch as she enlisted the children in small tasks such as decorating the cake and putting the final decorations on the tree. Now the house was empty and, apart from his memories, all he had to remind him at this time of year were cards sent to ‘Robert and Davina’ by people who had not bothered to update the lists on their computers when they printed out their labels. He always sighed at the thought but could not resist picking these cards off the mantlepiece and looking at them. The pain of missing her these twenty years was an experience of sadness at the loss but also gratitude for the pain of still longing to be with her.
He poured himself a glass of whisky and sat by the fireside, surveying the Christmas cards and recollecting Christmases past. The family had few traditions but any they had were related to Christmas. One tradition, developed after the children had mostly left home, was that he and his wife used to go out to the summerhouse and have a drink when the Christmas preparations were done. It did not matter how cold or how late, they took their drinks to the end of the long garden and sat for a while with the light on in the summerhouse and the doors closed. There was something special about sitting in the pitch-black garden with the warm glow from the summerhouse lighting up a small semi-circle of the lawn. Their habit amused the children who arrived late on Christmas Eve to see the light on at the end of the garden and the kitchen table laden with food.
Looking at his whisky he realised that he had forgotten to get a jug of water to dilute it. He went to the kitchen and ran the cold tap. Looking up at the kitchen window, down the garden into the dark night he saw something that took his mind off his whisky. The light on the summerhouse was on. ‘Impossible’ he thought. Since his wife died he had rarely used the summerhouse and not at all for at least a decade. She had loved the summerhouse and he had built it for her. Now it reminded him of her and it was too painful. Lately he stored things there such as garden tools he rarely used and, in doing so, he simply opened the door and threw them in. The old cane chairs were still there and a pile of old books, half-read by his wife, lay on a small table. The wood on the summerhouse was bleached and bent with the sun and the windows were opaque with spider webs.
‘Impossible’. This time he said it under his breath. He looked away and then looked again to ensure that it was not just a reflection. He turned off the kitchen light to see better and, without doubt, the summerhouse light was on. The grass around it was illuminated and he could see the frost was forming on the grass, glistening. He opened the back door and, breathing in the cold crisp air, he stepped out and walked carefully up the garden, towards the summerhouse. As he approached he was in no doubt that what he was seeing was real and moved closer. There was someone sitting there, which made his heart miss a beat, but he kept moving closer and then slowly opened the door.
She was older than he remembered, with greying hair and her face more wrinkled. She wore a long white dress that he did not remember, and which seemed poor protection against the cold. But she looked up and smiled and he knew it was her. The summerhouse was tidy, and the windows were crystal clear. One of the books was open on the table. ‘You’ve tidied up’, he said, and she smiled again. Sitting down on the wicker chair next to her he stared in disbelief. Tears began to roll down his cheeks and she reached out and took his hand. He truly believed he had never been happier.
Next morning the children and grandchildren began arriving, letting themselves into the house. The first to arrive shouted through the house to see if he was there but were not surprised to find the house empty. He always went back to the church for the Christmas morning Mass and then took a long walk in the local park. He preferred to return to a full house and pretend to be surprised that anyone had turned up rather than greeting them as they arrived. The morning went on and the families worked together to get food ready and prepare for Christmas Dinner. Still their father had not arrived, but they decided to open the champagne anyway. There was none in the house, but they knew it would be chilling outside in a box by the kitchen door. His son opened the door and the box was there. He took out a bottle and, glancing down the garden before closing the door, he noticed the summerhouse door was open.