There are names that have been passed down through thousands of years which have powerful and deep-rooted meaning to their bearers. Other names have been adopted from other languages, cultures and from the big screen. They all have one thing in common. They are with us from birth until the grave and they are how we are known to everyone that we meet. This story is slightly out of season but I hope you don’t mind.
Grace – The Gift by Sally Cronin
It was Grace’s fifth birthday and the staff at the council run orphanage had made sure that there was an iced cake for tea and some small wrapped presents beside the plastic yellow plate. The children sat at tables for ten boys and ten girls, and meal times were expected to be conducted in silence. This rule was however broken on birthdays, when all fifty children would stand up and sing Happy Birthday enthusiastically in the hopes of receiving a thin slice of the oblong sponge cake.
Grace sat in silence as the noise erupted around her and gently fingered the blue and white wrapping paper on the nearest present to her. From the shape she could see that it was a book. It would not be new; a hand me down from one of the older children. Still, in this home of abandoned children, a gift was always treasured. A tear rolled down her flushed cheeks and slid into the corners of her mouth. She wiped them away hurriedly; being a cry baby was frowned upon. Gratefulness for the charity that put a roof over your head and food on the table in front of you was drummed into the children from a very early age.
The energetic rendering of the song ended and there was a scrapping of wooden chair legs as all fifty children sat down at once. Silence resumed as slices of bread and butter were grabbed and placed onto plates with well-scrubbed hands. There were four small dishes of jam around each table and the youngest children would wait their turn knowing that receiving a small spoonful would be an unusual bonus. One of the serving ladies, a local girl called Alice, took away the oblong iced sponge cake to be cut into thin slices. After Grace had been served one of the pieces; the large platter moved around the dining hall watched eagerly by fifty pairs of eyes.
Picking at the cake with trembling fingers, Grace managed to eat a few morsels before a coughing fit overtook her. The matron came across and slapped the child firmly on her back and offered her the beaker of diluted orange juice.
‘Come on girl, buck up,’ the stout grey-haired woman looked down at her sternly. ‘There is many a child here who would be delighted to have these treats’
Grace tried her best to smile knowing that being labelled ungrateful brought consequences and having been disciplined twice recently she was in no hurry to repeat the experience. It was not seen as cruelty, to stand a child in a corner for an hour at a time, or to send them to bed without even this meagre supper. Grace had felt the pangs of hunger more than once since her best friend Hope had left the orphanage.
The thought of her friend waving goodbye as she had left in her smart new tartan coat, made Grace catch her breath. To stop herself crying she pinched her arm as hard as possible. She hoped that Hope had not forgotten her now that she had a real mummy and daddy. The two girls had been brought to the orphanage within days of each other at only six weeks old in the winter of 1953; as toddlers they had become inseparable. They were so very different that no-one could mistake them for sisters. Grace had straight red hair that frizzed at the slightest dampness and freckles sprinkled her nose and cheeks. She grew rapidly into a gangly five year old whilst Hope, with her curly blonde hair and blue eyes, remained petite and doll-like.
It was always hoped that the babies who arrived at the orphanage would be adopted into a good home. Although there had been some interest initially, by the time the two girls reached four years old it was becoming more and more unlikely that this would happen.
However, a few months ago a couple had arrived and immediately taken to Hope and started the proceedings to adopt her. The two small girls had known nothing but this regimented environment, and never imagined that one day they might be separated so devastatingly.
The matron rang the large brass bell on her table. The children stood ready to file out to the games room for an hour before bedtime at seven o’clock. Grace trailed behind the other girls from her table clasping her three gifts; as yet unopened. As the older boys played with some wooden toys in the corner, some of the smaller children clustered around Grace and begged her to open the presents. As expected there was a dog-eared picture book of fairy stories which was passed around and admired. One of the other packages contained a small packet of sherbet sweets that were eagerly sampled, and in the third was a woollen scarf in a bright red colour. Grateful for its warmth, Grace wrapped around her neck and sat until bedtime looking at the pictures in her new book.
Grace had barely eaten since her birthday, and the head teacher at the primary school in the village, had rung matron to say that the child was becoming more and more withdrawn. Although strict and somewhat fierce looking, the matron was not an intentionally unkind woman and she called in the doctor from the local surgery.
He was a gruff looking man with a shaggy mane of greying hair. The children adored him because he always arrived with pockets filled with boiled sweets. He sat on the edge of Grace’s bed and having examined her carefully, he took her little hand in his.
‘Well little Grace what a pickle we are in,’ he smiled down at the solemn child. ‘It is nearly Christmas, and you will miss all the fun if you don’t start eating soon as you will have to stay in bed.’
The child turned her head away and whispered into her pillow. ‘I only want Hope to come back home for Christmas.’
The doctor returned downstairs and met with matron behind the closed door of her office.
Reluctantly at his request she made a phone call and proceeded to have a lengthy discussion with the person on the end of the line.
Having left instructions that Grace was to be fed every two to three hours with some chicken broth and a little toast and jelly if she would eat it, Doctor Baxter left to continue his rounds. He promised to return on Christmas Eve in three days to see how the patient was doing and also to carry out his annual duties as Father Christmas at the children’s party.
Grace did sip a little of the broth and nibbled at the toast, and three days later she was carried downstairs and sat on a chair near to the Christmas tree. The children had made all the decorations, and what they might have lacked in expertise, they had made up for in bright colours and glitter. Fairy lights flickered through the branches of the tree that had been donated by the villagers, along with a present for every child, in a sack placed by a big red arm chair. The presents were to be distributed before they would sit down to unusually overflowing platefuls of sandwiches, jelly and and as a very special treat, Christmas cake. The boys and girls were not sure what they were looking forward to most.
Hearing tyres on the gravel of the drive the children rushed to the windows of the dining hall and started clutching each other in excitement. Santa Claus sat in the back of a large open topped black car, and when the vehicle stopped; he opened the door and stepped out to wave to them all. They were so focused on his progress as he walked to the front door that the three other passengers in the vehicle went unnoticed.
Ten minutes later Santa was sat in his large comfortable chair. The children came up one by one to sit on his knee, and were given a present wrapped in festive paper, tied with either a blue or pink ribbon. Grace watched the proceedings quietly on the side lines until there was just one present left. Alice put down the jug of juice that she was serving to the children, and came over, picking Grace up and depositing her gently on Santa’s lap. The white faced child glanced up into a pair of twinkling eyes that looked vaguely familiar, but it was difficult to tell who was behind the big white bushy beard.
He leant down and whispered in her ear. ‘I hear that you would like something very special for Christmas, is that right little girl?’ he winked at her. ‘I hope that I’ve brought you what you wished for.’
At that moment Grace’s eyes were drawn to three people who had suddenly appeared at Santa’s shoulder. For a moment she froze in place, then pushing herself off his knee, she wrapped her arms around the small blonde girl standing in front of a smiling man and woman.
The two girls remained huddled in each other’s arms sobbing uncontrollably until the woman knelt down beside them and wiped their faces with a clean white handkerchief. Satisfied that she had managed to stop the flood of tears, she reached out and took each of their hands in her own.
‘Hope has missed you dreadfully Grace and we have heard so much about you,’ she smiled at the bewildered Grace. ‘We were all hoping that you would like to come and live with us too; as Hope’s sister.’
An hour later the group of adults watched as the two girls sat side by side at a table. They were talking non-stop except when selecting and eating another sandwich or a piece of cake. Even matron could not hold back a smile at the change in Grace now that she was reunited with her soul mate. As for Santa, he scratched his face behind the itchy beard and wished that he could capture this moment for ever.
Happy Christmas Grace…
© Sally Cronin 2015
I hope that you have enjoyed this story and as always look forward to your feedback. Thanks Sally
You can find recent reviews for my latest release and other books: Sally’s books and reviews 2019/2020