A cold wind rattled the window frame and whistled through the cracks, lifting the faded cotton curtains like a summer skirt. It was dark outside, but Ruth hadn’t noticed, so intent on keeping warm.
The last of the coal was gone, nothing but ebony dust in the scuttle. The embers were nearly cold. Time to go to bed, she thought, at least it would be warmer there.
A loud knock on the front door made her jump, but she made no move to see who was there. It was probably those rotten kids from the Council estate again. They were always knocking on her door and running away.
There was another knock on the door, followed by another. This was unusual, she thought. They didn’t usually knock twice. But who else could it be?
Pulling the old knitted shawl closer around her shoulders, she shuffled in her shabby slippers to the front door. She peered through the peephole, but its field of vision was quite small and distorted. But even in the darkness, she could see there was no one there. She turned and made her way to the kitchen, thinking a nice cup of cocoa would set her up for a good night’s sleep.
As she passed the living room doorway, her mind played the same familiar trick again and she saw Jim, her husband, sitting by a blazing fire. His snow-white hair flopping over his eyes the way it always did. As she opened her mouth to ask if he wanted any cocoa, he slowly vanished; taking the blazing fire with him and her heart sank. She missed him so much, especially at this time of year.
They had never made much of a fuss about Christmas. Something nice for dinner, and maybe some shop bought mince pies. And every year without fail he bought her two white sugar mice. She had confessed her love of them when they were courting and he always managed to find some every year since. This would be her first Christmas without him. She prayed every night that she would be allowed to go to him, but no one was listening and every morning she woke up in an empty bed.
Ruth had no family and no real friends. Days would pass when she wouldn’t see or speak to anyone. One of her neighbours would wave if she saw her at the window, but that hadn’t happened lately.
Sipping the hot milky cocoa in her chair by the dead fire, she listened intently, hoping to hear the carol singers again, but all was silent. Not even any traffic to prove she was not really so alone.
She sighed and struggled to her feet, intent on rinsing her cup in the kitchen. Just as she reached the hall, a muffled sound from outside the front door drew her attention. Two more knocks and she moved slowly to have another look. Again, there was no one there; at least she couldn’t see anything. But someone had to be out there, for she could hear something.
Then a very small voice said, “She must be asleep,” followed by a giggle.
“Knock again, and then we’ll give up…”
From where Ruth stood, she could hear small scrabbling noises, moving up the door to the letterbox.
Up close, the door echoed with another knock, accompanied by several giggles. She looked through the peephole again and saw nothing. Convinced she was losing her mind, she turned towards the stairs. The sound of the gate swinging shut stopped her. Someone was there. What on earth did they want at this time of night? Knowing they were probably gone now, she slowly opened the door.
On the doorstep was a small boy, clutching a small pink paper bag that had reindeer on it. Another child, a girl by the looks of it, was swinging on the gate. “I told you she was in,” she said, and as she smiled, a dimple appeared on her left cheek.
“These are for you…” the boy said. “Me mum made ‘em.”
Ruth reached out and slowly touched the paper bag. It had been used before and was wrinkled and soft. He pushed the bag into her hand and let go. Ruth didn’t know what to say. What should she say? That it was far too late to be banging on her door? Or would a simple thank you be enough?
But it was no good. The emotions racing through her mind had rendered her speechless. That someone had thought of her and brought a gift, overwhelmed and saddened her in equal measure and her eyes filled with tears.
When Ruth looked up, she noticed the mother, standing just a few feet away on the other side of the hedge. She looked thin and worn out, but somehow peaceful, watching her children with a small smile on her face. “Come on now, you two,” she called. “Say goodnight now.”
A chorus of good nights and they were gone, leaving Ruth standing there, suddenly stupid for not saying anything. She should have said something.
As she closed the front door, she wondered what was inside the bag. In the kitchen where the light was better, she opened the crumpled paper and looked inside.
What she saw made her heart leap with unexpected joy.
Inside, lying next to each other, were two white sugar mice…