Tabitha’s Gift By Alexandra Marell

A short Christmas story for December 2009. All rights Alexandra Marell.
Please note, the story hasn’t been professionally edited so please excuse any glitches

Tabitha’s Gift

Christmas 1918 Miss Tabitha never stayed out this long. Jem glanced at the mantle clock. Six pm and long-gone dark. The cat’s evening meal untouched these past two days. Where could she be? “Just popping out, Ma. Perhaps take a walk and call down the lane. There’s a good moon tonight. I should be able to see without a lantern.” She reached for her overcoat and gloves fervently hoping the cat hadn’t fallen foul of a fox on this Christmas eve. The first Christmas without Da was a sad landmark for them both without the added trauma of losing a good friend. “Chances she’s out courting and we’ll have kittens in the spring.” She draped a muffler over her head and threw the ends over her shoulder. Donned her walking books in deference to the light sprinkling of snow that had fallen earlier in the day. “You’d like kittens about the place, wouldn’t you Ma?” “Aye, lass. Kittens would be nice.” Ma levered herself stiffly from the armchair set in front of the hearth. “Now, don’t you be staying out too long,” she ordered. “And do up your scarf, or you’ll be catching your death.” Jem stood still while Ma fussed with the knots, tying and arranging them just so. When she was satisfied Ma pressed her lips together and nodded her approval. “You’ll do. No further than lane-end, mind you. There’s strange folk abroad nights like this.” “Oh Ma.” Jem bared her teeth and clawed her fingers. “Do you think I’ll be ravaged by the ghost of Jeremy Black out to wreak revenge on his unfaithful finance this Christmas eve?”

Ma arched a brow. “It’s the living, I fear, not the dead. And you’re nineteen, not nine so act your age. Now you go call for Tabby while I brew us a nice pot of tea.” “There are no ills can’t be cured by a nice pot of tea.” They spoke the last in unison. Jem leaned down to place a kiss on Ma’s soft cheek. “Back before you know it,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll find her.” The brittle smile didn’t fool her. As she stepped out into the crisp air, Jem remembered another night very similar to this one. The same moon and stars lighting the dark blue sky. The shadow of the great elm tree falling across the lane. In the distance, the silhouette of a man, his great-coat almost brushing the ground. Ma’s cry of relief at the sight of a husband who’d survived the war to end all wars. From one pocket, he’d produced a sparkling brooch for his best girl. And from inside his coat, a young tabby-cat he’d found limping along the road into the village. Miss Tabitha had made herself at home and never missed a meal. Until now. “Tabby.” Jem clicked her tongue and listened for a response. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked and at the end of the lane she saw the pale twinkle of lamplight in the Tanner’s cottage window. Beneath her boots, snow crunched and she stopped for a moment to breathe in the sharp, clean air. Poor Da. To survive the war only to succumb to the influenza, the new enemy that had ravaged europe just as hope loomed on the horizon. In his weakened state, he didn’t stand a chance. “Tabitha.” She called again, listening for the familiar bell-like meow. One of the last links to a time they’d never have back, Tabitha was more than a cat. If something had befallen the animal, she had no idea how she’d break the news to Ma. Left, or right? At the end of the lane, she contemplated her choices. Life often hinged on such trivial decisions. She touched her collar for luck and glanced to the right and the road into the small fishing village of Mensham. Tabitha had been known to congregate on the quay with the other village cats, attracted by the smell of fish and the likelihood of leavings after the traders had bought up the night’s catch. But after gorging, she always came home and few boats would be out on Christmas eve.

To the left, the road wound up towards the narrower cliff path and a few isolated cottages. Beyond them, on the headland, Haddon Hall, the ancient seat of the local gentry. Jem reached into her pocket and felt for a penny. Heads for the village. Tails for the cliff road. If she was quick, Ma need never know. The penny sparkled momentarily as it twirled in the moonlight. Jem caught it deftly and lifted her palm to see which way fate would send her. Brittania with her trident aloft. Tails it was then. She wouldn’t go far. Only a fool would venture too far the cliff road in the dark. Perhaps to the first bend, and then she’d turn back for home and… “Tabitha?” A flash of fur ahead. Cat or rabbit? Jem ran towards the creature, stumbling on the loose stones of the unmade road. It certainly looked like a tabby cat, but why would Tabitha run from her? The creature streaked past the first cottage, which was in darkness and ran on, up the road towards the white cottage on the second bend. There, it leaped the gate and disappeared. Jem stopped to catch her breath. No sign of the animal. No sign of any life but the shaded light in the white cottage window. Would it be appropriate to knock at this time of night and ask whether the owner of the light had seen an elusive grey tabby cat? The cottage had changed hands in the autumn after widow Johnson moved into town to live with her daughter. The new owner, ex army and a writer by all accounts, had hardly been seen since the death of his wife. She’d died around the same time as Da, soon after they’d moved in. “Tabby.” Jem tiptoed towards the cottage whispering the name. The gate only creaked a little as she lifted the latch and pushed it gently to. The dark shape of a small outbuilding stood at the rear of the cottage. The cat could well have taken shelter in there. She was quite mad to be sneaking around someone’s garden in the dark. Wouldn’t blame him if he called the police on her. Crouching low, she picked up her skirts and sidled past the side window that glowed orange with lamplight. Froze when she heard the click of the back door opening and closing, followed by a murmured voice.

Curiosity killed the cat and it would probably be the end of Jem Waters, too. She couldn’t resist raising herself carefully to peek in at the window. Just enough to get a glimpse of the enigmatic captain Andrews. Descriptions of him had varied between movie-star handsome to warscarred lunatic, depending on who did the gossiping. The few times Jem had seen him about the village, he’d looked normal enough. Mid-brown hair, like hers. Just growing out of its regulation army cut. Tall and straight-backed, he always wore a scarf wrapped about his face so his features remained elusive. He sat now, in a leather armchair pulled up to the fire, staring absently into the flames. One arm draped loosely over the arm of the chair. The other wrapped around a small grey creature that lolled comfortably across his lap. Tabitha! Jem dropped down, out of sight of the window. Relieved and confused in equal measure. What on earth was Tabitha doing in captain Andrew’s house, sitting on his lap as if she’d always belonged there? Had he been her previous owner? No, wouldn’t she have gone home sooner? Jem straightened and shook out her skirt. What to do now? Knock on the door and demand the cat back? What if Tabitha refused to leave? She couldn’t lie to Ma about this. Jem leaned against the whitewashed wall, head tipped back, gnawing at her lip. The captain must be lonely and in want of companionship. She’d find him another cat and then politely explain the situation. Problem solved. In her haste to leave, she didn’t see the hole in the flower bed flanking the path. With a muffled shriek, she mis-stepped and the world tipped sideways, pitching her on the soft earth in an undignified heap. Resisting the urge to wipe dirt from her mouth, she pressed herself into the snowy ground and prayed the captain hadn’t heard her cry. Lie still, give it a few moments and then run for it. Oh lord, he was coming to the door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a crack of light as the door opened. The shadow reaching out along the path. A silhouette, that leaned out and then looked down. A lantern swung towards her.

“What in the blazes do you think you’re doing? Get up and explain yourself.” The voice was sharp and clipped. Not a local accent. The words an order, not a request. Jem raised her head and attempted a tentative smile. “This isn’t what it looks like.” In the lamplight she could see that she’d tripped over a bank of earth and fallen into a ditch. The captain’s angry shadow loomed over her while she scrabbled to right herself. Sitting up, she pushed back straggling strands of wet hair that had escaped her plait and contemplated how she might leave the ditch without further humiliation. Just how did one climb out of a hole in a ladylike manner? “Here. Take my hand.” “Thank you. ” Formality might be the best way to salvage some dignity. Grasping his hand, she allowed herself to be hauled from the ditch. When she swayed momentarily and attempted to untangle her skirts, he tightened his grip. With a rising feeling of panic, she realised he wasn’t about to let her go. “I was looking for my cat,” she said, the words tumbling out in a rush. “I thought I’d seen her running into your garden and then…” “You thought you’d take a peek at the freak-show?” The sharp bitterness of his words took her aback. He held her so tight, his hand trembled. “No, of course not.” She shook him off. “How could you say such a thing?” She heard a snort. The lamp swung up, close to the captain’s face. “Take a good look, then. Is this what you wanted to see? Nice bit of juicy gossip to pass around the village, don’t you think?” He was scarred. A burn, most likely, puckering his cheek and disappearing into the open collar of his shirt. She’d seen worse. Men and boys from the village who’d come back missing limbs, blinded by mustard gas. Some had never returned at all. “You were one of the lucky ones.” She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. Or to sound so heartless. The pain would have been unbearable and only now did she notice that his hand was still trembling. She shook her head. “I’m sorry. That…it must have been awful for you.”

“Spare me your pity.” The lamp swung away, sending his face into shadow once more. “What were you doing skulking about my property?” “I told you, I was looking for my cat. For some reason I can’t fathom, she appears to be in your house. If I could…” “Just go. Now. Before I decide to put you on a charge, soldier.” “Soldier?” For a moment, the captain seemed elsewhere. A flicker of confusion and then he raised his face to the sky. “Please. Just leave.” “But, my cat?” Without a further word, the captain turned on his heel and disappeared into his cottage. The door slammed behind him, effectively closing the conversation. “Well, thank you captain.” Jem threw the words at the closed door while furiously sweeping dirt and snow from her coat. “I didn’t hurt myself, by the way. So kind of you to enquire after my well-being.” If there was a ruder, more bad-tempered man in the world, she’d yet to meet him. And Tabby? How could she take up with such a self-pitying, out of sorts character? “Ouch.” A sharp pain in her ankle stopped her. Closing her eyes, she reached for the garden wall, supporting herself while the pain ebbed away. Common sense told her to knock on captain Andrews’ door and ask for assistance. Pride made her grit her teeth and hobble gingerly back to the cottage and Ma, who’d be wondering where she was. Tomorrow. She’d return tomorrow and brave the man and his temper. Then they’d let Tabby decide where she wanted to spend Christmas day. **** “He has Tabby, you say?” Jem sipped tea while Ma bound her ankle with a strip of linen. “He does. Don’t worry yourself. I’ll go back tomorrow, after church. See if he’s willing to talk reasonably about it.”

“No, I wouldn’t do that, Jem. Especially with that ankle of yours. Just let it be, eh?” “You don’t want her back?” Ma rose, arching her back to ease out the stiffness. “Likely she’ll come back when she’s ready. Now, I’ve gifts to wrap. Will you be all right, there?” “Ma, wait.” Jem put down her tea. “Why the change of tune? Tabby means everything to you. You can’t mean to leave her with that awful bad-tempered brute.” “Likely he has a reason to be bad-tempered.” “You mean his face. Yes, he showed me that.” The captain’s anguished revelation came back to her. Immediately, she felt contrite. “Of course I feel sorry for him and I know he’s recently lost his wife. Oh Ma. This means we can’t just go barging in and take her away from him, can we?” “No, we can’t. She’ll come home when she’s good and ready. And lass.” Ma turned as she reached the stairs. “His wife didn’t die. Word is, she left him.” “She left him? Why? Surely not because of his face?” “And the shell-shock, so they say. You remember how Da was, sometimes?” “He called me soldier. When I fell in the hole.” Ma nodded in acknowledgement. Da would ramble about mud and barbed wire, sometimes reliving his experiences at the most inopportune of moments. “She’s a clever one, that Tabby. Shall we invite him to dinner? I hear he’s quite the handsome man, if you look past the scarring.” “Ma.” Jem felt the heat rising in her cheeks. “Don’t you start with the matchmaking. I told you I’m thinking of walking out with Peter Arkwright. He asked me.” “Pfft! You can do better than him.” “I’m sorry for the captain. Don’t think I’m not.”

“Then it’s settled. We’ll go up to the white cottage after church and see if we can’t bring a smile to the poor captain’s face.” Jem sighed out her resignation. No use arguing with Ma when she’d made up her mind. “We can try. But don’t get up your hopes.” Chances of a smile were slim. But it was Christmas, the season of giving. And no one should be alone at Christmas. Of course, Miss Tabitha already knew that. **** All that remained of the snow was a small bank of slush in the shade of the front wall. No white Christmas, then, but the morning was sharp with sparkling frost and the path likely to be icy. Jem rubbed at the misted glass and watched the blue-tits picking at the scraps of bread on the bird table. Ma had been cheerful enough when she’d gone up with her early morning tea. Sitting on the bed, Ma in her shawl, they’d looked at photographs of Da and then stored them back in the envelope tied with a red velvet ribbon. Now, dressed in her Sunday best, Jem tested her ankle and felt nothing more than a twinge. Seems she would be able to walk the half a mile to church with no thanks to captain Andrews. “Jem, would you get the door, love.” Ma’s voice from the top of the stairs. Jem glanced at the silent door. “There’s no one there, Ma.” “There will be. I just heard the gate creak.” Footsteps, like the fall of heavy boots stamping on the flagstone path. Soldier’s boots, just like her Da’s. Jem took a deep breath. “Captain Andrews?” She managed to sound surprised even though she knew it must be him. He stood, in full uniform. Cap in hand. His face uncovered. She opened the door a little wider, pushing back her uncombed hair. The captain caught the gesture. “Have I come at an inconvenient time?” “No. No, of course not.” She stepped aside. “Please, do come in, Captain.”

He fingered his cap. “Paul. Please call me Paul.” “Oh.” She looked down. At the captain’s feet stood a grey tabby cat. “You’ve brought back Tabitha.” “Tabitha?” The captain seemed as surprised as she did to see the cat. “No,” he said. “I didn’t bring her, she just sort of came with me.” “Ma will be pleased to see her, none the less. Umm…will you take a seat?” “No, I can’t stay. I was on my way to church.” “Oh, so were we.” “I came to apologise, actually. For my boorish behaviour last night. There was no excuse for it. I do hope you weren’t hurt?” Stunned by the apology, she managed to form a reply. “I twisted my ankle. But, thank you. It’s much better this morning.” “I should have offered to walk you home. It was unforgivable of me to send you back by yourself. And I should have given back your cat.” The captain smiled, ruefully at the cat now winding itself about his legs. “I’d hoped she was a stray.” “Da bought her home. When he came back.” No need to mention where from. The uniform bound them in common experience. “Then she will be very special to you.” The smile lit his face, turning the ogre of the previous night into a human being with a story to tell. “Please sit down…Paul.” Suddenly, she wanted more than anything to hear that story. “So, my apology is accepted?” “Of course,” she said, fluffing a cushion. “But only if you promise never to tell anyone you found me lying in a hole in your garden.” “My lips are forever sealed.” He winked and her heart did a little flip. When he settled into the armchair, Tabby immediately jumped onto his lap and made herself comfortable. Within seconds, her contented purring filled the room. “I see you have a Christmas tree. I remember helping Father to drag one home. Before…”

His voice tailed off and Jem watched him pick at a loose thread on the arm of the chair. She kept very still, waiting for him to continue. She knew exactly how he felt. How the people they were before the war had been changed in ways they could never have imagined. “Before the war,” he said at last. Jem perched herself on the arm of the sofa. “Da told us something of what went on over there. But it’s hard to imagine how it must have been. If you ever want to talk about it. Well, it would help to know what Da went through.” “That’s very kind of you. Most people don’t want to hear. They just want everything to be normal again. All tickety-boo, you know?” She had an inkling, but she’d never really know what their men-folk had endured. All she could do was listen and hope that talking would help them unload some of the burden they’d carried back from France. “May I escort you and your mother to church?” “We’d be honoured. Wouldn’t we Ma?” No answer, even though she knew Ma would be skulking behind the door listening to every word. “The honour is all mine,” the captain said. “You’re not ashamed to be seen with this?” He pointed to his cheek, his tone challenging. “Only if you’re going to wallow and feel sorry for yourself. I’m warning you now. Ma can’t abide a whinger.” He laughed outright at that and bowed his head graciously. “You’re right, of course. Forgive me. It’s hard not to feel sorry for oneself. Hard to remember a time when things were normal.” “Life will resume, Paul. Give it time and I promise it will.” At that, Tabby lifted her head and gave a short meow. “See. Even Tabby thinks so. And Tabby is always right.” “I can well believe that.” **** Tabby meowed again before continuing with her toilette. They were made for each other, these two. The sensitive artistic captain and the down to earth and practical Jem. Only, they’d never have known it without her

assistance. Jem would help him to live and laugh again, and he would help her to see the world in a different light. Her paws washed to perfection, she gave them each a long appraising stare. She’d done her bit. It was up to them now, to make what they would of life’s gifts. The world had gone a little mad for a while, but now people spoke of peace and hope for the future. In the village, the church bells rang out the message. Jem stood up at the sound of the bells. “Will you excuse me? I need to comb my hair and fetch my hat. And to find Ma. No, please don’t get up, I won’t be a moment.” “Of course.” The captain settled back into the chair and Tabby felt his fingers sifting rhythmically through her long fur. Soothing and relaxing, the tension flowing from his body little by little. She purred in response, encouraging him to keep on stroking. To keep on letting go of the past. “Merry Christmas, Tabby. And thank you.” His words were so quiet, she had to prick up her ears to make them out. She smiled inside, because cats only ever smile on the inside. And happy Christmas to you too, captain. Now, let’s make this a Christmas we’ll never forget. The End. Thank you for reading. AM.

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