Bittersweet – A Blaenavon Christmas

This short story was first published in Townscape | Treflun, No. 1, (December 2019), pp.8-9.

Bittersweet – A Blaenavon Christmas

by Lisa Kate Powell

It had rained for two damp and miserable weeks, but the 23rd of December dawned bright and clear in Blaenavon. The early morning mist had risen off the mountains, leaving the sky blue and the air bitingly cold.

Sarah made the journey from her family’s small cottage into town alone. Only two days until Christmas and there was shopping to be done.

Broad Street thrived with people, despite the brisk December wind. She was simply relieved to be free of the house, where wet clothes were constantly drying and the air was damp, heavy and made her cough.

Sarah was weary too of the baby’s high-pitched screams, and of the way her younger brother and sister, aged six and seven, fought like feral cats, while her mother rocked the baby by the fire, too tired to stop them.

Now, Sarah weaved through groups of shoppers, many of whom stopped here and there to greet one another and blocked her way. But she paid them no mind – she was pleased to be busy, to be distracted.

Distantly she heard a Christmas carol being sung, mingled with the shouts of shoppers. She didn’t know the name of the song, but found herself humming the tune as she wandered along. A group of young boys barged past her, laughing, as they chased a ball down the street. Wreaths were hung on every door, transforming the street.

Her shopping list was slightly unusual. No goose this year, but beef instead with vegetables which could be stewed over the fire. She needed thread, too, so that she could patch up her old coat – again.

The butcher’s made her stomach growl with hunger – the spread laid out in the shop window was like nothing she had seen before, so rich in choice and smelling of sweet spices.

If only father had sent some money, she thought, as she bought a small cut of beef. He would soon. He would write, just like he promised.

The confectioner’s was not on her list, but, once the necessities had been dealt with, her feet seemed to find their own way there. A little money remained in her purse – enough at least to make her brother and sister smile.

A rush of sugary sweetness greeted her as she walked inside. “My brother likes the peppermint ones,” she told Mr Evans, the shopkeeper, pointing to the ones she wanted. Her eyes swept across the rainbow of coloured jars that were stacked behind the counter.

“Does he? And what about you, miss?”

“Oh no, nothing for me, thank you. I’m thirteen. I’m too old now for sweet things.”

He laughed and shook his head. “Thirteen! Old! That makes me quite ancient.”

Sarah blushed. She didn’t mean that Mr Evans was old – though his bushy moustache was quite grey – but now she felt embarrassed.

“And you are never too old for sweets,” he continued. “Do pass on my best wishes to your mother. Is she keeping well?”

Yes, although she isn’t sleeping much because the baby hardly stops crying. You see, my father left a couple of months ago, just before the baby was born, in search of work and he hasn’t written yet, nor sent any money.

But Sarah didn’t say any of that. She hated the way people looked at her when she did, their smiles a mixture of sadness and concern.

Instead, she smiled and watched as Mr Evans poured out a few more sweets than she had paid for and wished him a pleasant Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

Sarah walked back down Broad Street, slower this time, savouring the cold air and careful not to slip in her over-worn boots.

It always amazed and saddened her how quickly the daylight faded in the winter months. Already the sky had darkened and the rooftops of the shops that flanked the street looked stark and black.

She felt a strange contentment, though this was not the Christmas she had wanted or expected. It was a feeling she had not realised she missed until now. The carollers continued to sing, even as the light was fading and lights from the shopfronts gave the street a warm glow.

In her patched-up coat pockets, sat the comforting weight of a small bag of sweets. A bag that was fuller than she had hoped. Christmas was a time for miracles after all, even if they were only little ones.

How nice it would be to see her siblings smile again, she thought, if only for a day.

© Lisa Kate Powell 2019 (all rights reserved), reproduced with kind permission of the author.