The boxes lay strewn all over the place. Sofa, table-top, floor, racks….almost every nook of the room was dotted with colourful boxes. The shiny wrappers reflected the sunlight in various hues. Clutching the pen between her teeth, her hair in a messed-up bun held by a loose clip, Jenny worked with deft fingers to give finishing touches. Beads of sweat kissed tips of her nose. She gave a smile of content as she looked around.
“Mommo..wok omosh ovo”, she tried to convey her message through the pen clenched between her teeth.
“I can see that”, I smiled back at her.
Pasting the final piece of cellotape to the box, she stood up and eased her back.
“Now, only the final bit remains”, she finally spoke normally – liberating the pen from her teeth.
“And can my daughter now take a break to have her lunch? It’s past two hours past lunch time now”.
“Nnna naa…not now mom. These boxes need the final touches”, she shook her head vigorously.
I knew she wouldn’t relax till she finishes what has been her relentless practice for six years now.
Short that she is, she stood on her toes to reach out to the box kept on top of the almirah. As she brought them down the little clinks and clanks added a special charm to the otherwise quietness of the late afternoon.
For six years now, hordes of boxes filled with goodies have made way from our living room to the different orphanages and old age homes across the city. With her changing financial status the goodies have changed in quality and quantity. But what has never changed is the little appendage that Jenny carefully attaches to each of the box – two silver bells with a red ribbon.
Neither she, nor I ever speak about it. But everytime I see those little bells a soft shiver passes through my soul.
** ** ** ** ** **
“ Look, look..just look at the paper stars…how dirty they are!”
“ Ah! They just need a bit of brushing”
“And what about these ? These balls have even lost their color.”
“ Aha, didn’t I tell you ? This year we are not going to use the balls to decorate the christmas tree, we shall use paper streamers instead. Just wait and see how I make little flowers out of them. They would look gorgeous on the christmas tree.”
“ Christmas tree! Which one ? This one ? This is hardly green – this has become pale yellow”, Jenny pulled out the discolored and whithered looking christmas tree from one corner. Little brooks of water streamed down her cheeks.
“Ha ha ha…just wait and watch the magic! I’ll touch up a bit with some green color and then cover the tree with little tufts of cotton. Haven’t you seen that it snows at Santa’s place during winter? So we’ll have a Santa themed Christmas this time”, Gloria tried to push in as much punch as possible to her voice. Soft and understanding that she was, she never failed to gauge our trying times. When it came to adjustments, there was no one who could surpass her. Her twelve year old mind had the maturity to understand the rough weather that we were passing through.
“ Santa! But where is Santa? We do not have a Santa doll. Shall we then buy a new Santa?”. Jenny’s eyes twinkled in fresh hope, surpassing her wet eye-lashes.
Gloria looked at me helplessly. She had played all her cards and now she was clueless.
“Ofcourse we shall have a new Santa!”, her father came to her rescue. “But we shan’t buy one. We shall make one. We just need one of your dollies and some white cotton. I am sure Mommy can find a bit of red cloth from her closet to make his dress”.
“Yay! A new Santa!”, Jenny clapped happily. Her six year old eyes shone brighter than ever before.
“But bells ? What about his bells ? He needs to shake his bells when he says ‘Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas everyone’. Shall we atleast buy his silver bells then?”, her voice spoke in expectation.
“ We shall see. But first we need to make the Santa”, her father pulled her closer to himself.
“And for that I need a sweet kissy from my little missy”.
She readily obliged – rubbing her tear stained cheeks against his bushy beard.
** ** ** ** ** **
Both the girls watched in wide-eyed wonder as their cousin took them on a tour round the house. Hollies and mistletoes adorned the freshly painted peach and yellow walls. A Santa sat near the Christmas tree shaking his head to the music of ‘Jingle Bells’, a pair of silver bells tied to a red ribbon was attached to his hand. The streamers gave the illusion of a carnival. The chain of tiny lights surrounding the manger lent the place a different kind of aura.
“ And hear this latest collection of Christams Carols”. My brother put on the music.
The carols had a faster tempo than what we had during our childhood.
“Remember our Boney M days?”, my brother laughed out loud. I shook my head in affirmative.
It was the same house, same people but Christmas had changed over the years. As long as my parents were alive, even after my marriage, I would come here to lend a helping hand. Passing on streamer after streamer, as my brother perched himself on the high stool, I would warn him to take care of his balance. I would help mother peel potatoes for the roast and prepare little packets of food for the poor. Christmas Carols would blare aloud from little loudspeakers while we would struggle to hear each other. With their passing away, Christmas had become different. Not just that I had to now come to my ‘brother’s house’ instead of my ‘father’s house’ , I had a little lesser role to play now.
“Food is ready”, Mili, my sister-in-law announced.
The children rushed to the dining table and I proceeded to help Mili arrange the table. I was glad that this ritual hadn’t changed over the years. The ritual of Christmas Eve dinner had remained intact. Though my contribution had diminished for the past two years. A supplementary main course was now replaced with a dessert item. With dwindling finances, that was all that I could afford.
The children digged into the food with wild cheer. While Nathan displayed perfect table manners, Gloria managed to almost remain as good as her cousin. The untamed one was Jenny. She shook her head in affirmative for every food item that was offered, took helping after helping even though I knew she was full enough and shamelessly pulled out the plum from the dessert arrangement. No amount of pinching or elbow nudging from my end would deter her.
This continued till her father intervened. “Sweetheart, don’t try to resemble a famine in motion. Christmas is yet to come and your little tummy has to bear some more torture in the days to come. So do give it a rest”.
All of us broke into laughter while Jenny frowned at her father.
“Come on, let her have as much as she wants. Christmas comes once a year”, Mili tried to pacify her.
Jenny was in no mood to relent. She hurriedly finished her food and ran away.
** ** ** ** ** **
I would have perhaps never heard the conversation if I hadn’t thought of leaving back the dessert pot that I had got along. As we were getting ready to go home, the thought of keeping back the dessert for my brother struck me. Desserts were his weakness, especially caramel custard, and he had the habbit of raiding the refrigerator late in the night.
“ I am pretty sure it is she”. I heard Mili speak as I approached the kitchen. I thought of retracting my steps as I did not want to intervene into a couple conversation.
“ But Jenny ? Are you sure it is she ? When did you notice it?”
The name of my daughter pierced hard into my ears. My legs were too heavy to move.
“ When I was cleaning the table, I suddenly noticed that the silver bells were no longer where they were. I searched for them discreetly but they were no where to be found.”
“ Come on….the children were playing nearby, so may be the bells got misplaced. “
“ May be . But I am kind of convinced that it is Jenny. I heard her tell Nathan that they couldn’t buy the silver bells for Santa and how she wished she had one”.
“ You could have told me this. We could have given her a pair of bells. Their condition is pretty bad this year. Probably they couldn’t buy”, my brother’s voice was laced with genuine sympathy.
“ Yeah may be. But forgive me, she is too greedy a girl. I know this would hurt you but I see too much greed in her eyes. Unlike our Nathan, or even her own sister Gloria, she is not exactly the giving type you know. “
Putting the bowl back to the bag, I hurriedly retraced my steps to join my family. I badly wanted to go home.
** ** ** ** ** **
The light from the paper star flashed on and off. The alternate streaks of light and shadow gave a different look to the sleeping girls. I arranged the cushions and placed the chairs in order as a last minute clean-up. Daniel neatly arranged the Christmas cakes in the basket.
“ Thank God my brother-in-law decided to play the part of Santa this time. Otherwise I would have never been able to afford to buy Santa’s gifts this year”, he laughed out loud, eyeing the neatly wrapped gifts that my brother had quietly slipped into my bag when the children were busy with their games.
“ This is from Santa. Remember to place them under pillows”, my brother had whispered into my ears.
I was in no mood to join into my husband’s merry mood. I tried my best looking here, there and everywhere just to avoid the tears from spilling out through my eyes. A tight little nothing tugged my heart constantly. I arranged the cushions and rearranged them again and again just to preoccupy my mind. I picked up the bags that they had carried to the choir classes. And suddenly there was this clank and clink. It was a microsecond of a time but my heart stopped beating. I shook the bags again. Cink! Clank! The sound emerged from one of the bags – Jenny’s bag. I opened the bag and put my hand inside to pull out the source of the sound. A set of silver bells! An exact replica of the one that was with the Santa at my brother’s place.
A rush of heat passed through my face. I felt devastated. I felt helpless. I felt angry. The anger seared through every inch of my body.
Pushing a bewildered Daniel aside I went straight to the bed of my sleeping children. I shook Jenny vigorously and pulled her up. She slumped back to her pillow. I pushed her up again. This time she opened her eyes and smiled.
“ Did Santa come ? Did he give my gift?”
I did not answer her, instead I placed a thunderous slap on her cheeks. She was so startled that she forgot to cry. She rubbed her cheeks and stared at me.
“You greedy girl. Thief! You are a thief!”. I slapped her again and again, screaming at her at the top of my voice.
Gloria sat up rubbing her eyes. Daniel was too stunned to react.
I was too hurt to be stopped. I landed slap after slap. But strangely she did not shed even asingle drop of tear. With her big eyes she just stared at me.
“ Silver bells. So you need silver bells, don’t you ? Greedy girl! How could you steal the bells from that house? So take this instead”, I threw her bag on her face. The silver bell tumbled out of the bag and fell on her lap. I was like a possessed spirit. I tore open the gift wrappers, threw away the contents. Crayons, marbles, dolls, pencils fell all over the place. Gloria wailed out loud. Daniel held my arms. Only Jenny stared at the silver bells.
** ** ** ** ** **
“Mrs.Dorothy. Mrs Dorothy”. Some one called from behind. I adjusted my spectacles to trace the speaker. Had it not been for the lights from Christmas decorations I would have perhaps not discovered the source of voice in the dark lane, with my failing eye sight.
A grey-haired woman waved and smiled. “Mrs. Dorothy, you don’t recognise me , do you?”
I tried to flip through the album of known faces that I could recall. She didn’t fit in any.
“I am Amelia. I used to be the choir teacher of Gloria and Jenny ages ago”
“Aha, Ms. Amelia! Indeed! How time flies! I am sorry. Blame it on my poor memory.”
“ No, no not at all. Even I would have perhaps forgotten you all, had it not been for Jenny’s gifts”.
“Jenny’s gifts ?”, I was amused.
“ For six years now, she unfailingly sends me a parcel of goodies for Christmas”.
“ Ah, yes. That she does. From the day she began to earn she makes it a point to send Christmas gifts to almost anyone and everyone in town – especially to children and old people”.
“ Tagged with her famous Silver Bells! Infact , when she meet me the last time, I christened her Bella!”, she laughed out loud.
“Yes, her parcels are never complete without the bells”, I smiled. A small bit of glass pierced my soul.
“It amuses me to think that eighteen years ago it was the same gift that I had given her. She had told me about the Santa in your home without the bells. So I had quietly popped in a pair of Silver Bells with a red ribbon into her bag when she had come for the choir practice on Christmas Eve. I knew she would be very surprised to discover the bells when she opens her bag.”, Amelia laughed again. “Infact when she came to meet me the last time she told me that I was the reason she ties Silver Bells to her gifts. She wants every child to have her Silver Bells on Christmas Day. She does attach a lot of importance to those silver bells’, she continued her banter.
Was it December chill or was it my old age I do not know but I genuinely shivered. I felt ashamed; extremely, terribly ashamed but there was so much glory in that shame! I felt like a dwarf in front of two Silver Bells tied to a red ribbon but there was so much strength in that miniscule feeling!
A group of children ran past with their Santa caps. Someone, somewhere played a Christmas Song:
“Silver Bells, Silver Bells,it’s Christmas time in the city”.
I cried silently.