It’s not a new Christmas story, a re-run from a few years ago. But this is the season for sentimental repeats, isn’t it? So why not enjoy it with Annabelle? It’s from a time before she knew Tom Harper.
Leeds, December 1887
Annabelle Atkinson didn’t want Christmas to arrive this year. She didn’t feel any of the joy or the goodwill this December. It was barely three months since her husband Harry had died; the earth had barely settled on his grave.
They’d had a few good years before the heart attack took him. Now she had to look after the Victoria public house as well as the two bakeries she’d opened. On her own, sometimes she felt like she was drowning.
On Christmas Eve, once the last customer had gone, she’d bolt the door, close the curtains, and keep the world away until Boxing Day. She’d never been one to wallow in sadness; if you had a problem you took care of it and carried on. But the last few weeks…she’d been slowly sinking and she knew it. She felt like one of the jugglers in the halls, trying to keep all the plates spinning in the air. Too many of them.
‘Come on,’ she said to Willie Hailsham, taking the empty pint pot from his hand. ‘You’ve had enough. Get yourself off home so your wife can remember what you look like.’
The same with Harelip Harmon, Donald the Steel Man, and Jingling James, always moving the coins around in his pocket. They’d stay drinking all night if anyone would keep serving them.
‘Don’t you have homes to go to?’
It was the nightly routine, almost a comedy act after so long. They drained their glasses, said their goodnights and then the bar was empty. She locked the door, drew down the bolts and let out a long sigh. Glasses to wash, woodwork and brass to polish.
Better get started, she thought. The work’s not going to do itself.
Up a little after three to supervise the baking in the kitchen at the other end of the garden. The last day before Christmas, orders to fill, plenty of demand; the shops would be little goldmines today. And the Victoria would be full from the time the factories closed.
Gossiping with the girls as they all worked together, mixing, kneading, baking, the smell of fresh loaves filling the air and making her hungry. Back in the rooms over the pub she made breakfast.
This was what hurt most: the silence. There used to be so much laughter here when Harry was alive. It seemed like there was always something to set them off. Now just being here was oppressive, all the weight of ghosts around her.
Dan the barman and Ellen the servant were already working hard with polish when she went downstairs. Sleeves rolled up and plenty of elbow grease, they’d be done soon enough. Nothing for her to do here. The day from the brewery was due at ten, but Dan could take care of that.
Annabelle put on her cape and picked up her purse. Go into town and have a poke around the shops. Happen an hour or two away would perk her up. But there was no magic in December this year. The pavements were full of people jostling around, weighed down by packages and bags. She felt removed from it all. The displays in the windows of the Grand Pygmalion didn’t make her want to part with her money. She was low, she knew it; a lovely gown or a good hat could usually tempt her. Today, though, there was nothing. No cheer.
Even a stop at the cocoa house for something warm to drink and a slice of cake didn’t help her mood. She trailed back out along North Street, through the Leylands and past Jews’ Park, back along to Sheepscar.
Soon enough the Victoria was busy, and it would stay that way until she kicked them all out. She took her place behind the bar, smiling, flirting the way she always had, and for a few minutes at least she could forget why she hurt inside.
‘Give over,’ she told one man who insisted he’d be a good husband. ‘I’d wear you out in one night, then I’d have to send you home to your missus.’ It brought laughter. As she walked around, collecting glasses, she brushed hands away, giving the culprits a look. It was all part of running a pub. A game; if you played it well, you were successful. And she had the knack.
Annabelle promised old Jonas free beer for the evening if he played the piano in the corner, and soon half the customers were singing along the favourites from the music hall. It gave her a chance to breathe and Dan could look at the barrels.
By eleven she’d had enough. The pub was still busy, the till was overflowing. But all the noise made her head ache. She wanted peace and quiet for a while. She wanted the place empty.
‘Come on.’ She rang the old school bell she kept under the bar, next to the cudgel for sorting out the unruly. ‘Time for you lot to see your families. They probably don’t believe you exist.’
Slowly, the crowd thinned. Another five minutes and it was down to the usual four still standing and supping. Donald the Steel Man, Willie Hailsham, Jingling James, and Harelip Harmon.
‘That’s enough,’ she told them. Her voice sounded weary. She knew it and she didn’t care. They were regulars, they’d probably been coming in here since they were old enough to peer over the bar. ‘Let’s call it a night, gentlemen, please.’
James slipped off to the privy while she was ushering the others out, wishing them merry Christmas and accepting beery kisses and hugs until they’d gone and she turned the key in the lock.
Then James was there, looking bashfully down at his boots. He was a gentle soul, a widower with grown children. Fifty, perhaps, his hair full white, jammed under his cap.
‘Are you seeing your family tomorrow?’ she asked.
‘Not this year.’ He gave a small shrug. ‘They all have their plans. It’s different now, everyone’s so busy. Are you going to your sister’s?’
‘A quiet day.’ Sometime before the new year she’d slip over to see her sister and the wastrel husband she had. Take some presents for their children. But she wouldn’t pop over to Hunslet and see her brother. He could take a running jump; she’d told him that a few years before. ‘Maybe it’s better that way.’
‘When my Alice died I carried on, same as I always had. The bairns were grown and gone but I still had to work and put a roof over my head.’
‘I know,’ she agreed. The everyday tasks that carried on like a machine. Without thinking, he jingled the coins in his pocket.
‘Then her birthday came around. We never made a fuss when she was alive, well, who could afford to? First we had the little ‘uns, then it didn’t seem to matter so much.’
‘We were the same,’ Annabelle said. ‘Harry’s birthday or mine, there was still the pub to run.’
‘Any road, the year she died, on her birthday it suddenly hit me how alone I was. Not just then, but for the rest of my days. Because no one could replace Alice. I had all them years in front of me.’
‘What did you do?’ she asked.
‘I sat there at the table and made myself remember all the good things. How she looked when she smiled, how she sounded when she laughed. The way she were pretty as a picture when we got wed. I said it all like she were sitting there and I was talking to her.’
‘Did it help?’
‘It did. But I can tell you’re feeling that way. I can see it in your eyes. I just thought it might help.’ He gave her a smile and bussed her cheek.
‘You said you’re not going anywhere tomorrow?’ Annabelle said.
‘Come round for your tea. It won’t be anything special, mind.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ she said with a smile. ‘I’ll probably sick of my own company by then anyway.’
She locked the door behind him, hearing the jingling of his coins as he walked down the street.