By Luke Beirne
Ivanna’s broom swept over the dark brown knots on the hardwood floor, leaving a perfectly squared trail through the pine needles scattered across it. The tree was standing in the corner beside the big window, looking out through sheer curtains to the back yard. There was no fireplace in the house, like the one she’d grown up in, so the stockings were hung along the banister of the stairs the next room over. It was Christmas Eve and it still wasn’t snowing – it was one of those years.
John, the boy across the street, had helped her carry in the Christmas tree. She’d bought it in the parking lot of the Canadian tire. It was a pretty good tree – ten feet tall. The man selling the trees strapped it onto the roof of her car for her. Trees were expensive now. When she was growing up, they used to go out to the woods on December 1st to pick one out. She picked it out with her mom, and her dad chopped it down. The boys dragged it through the snow back to the car.
Two months ago, she’d ordered a set of cross-country skis for her daughter. They still hadn’t arrived. She’d been on the phone three times in the past two weeks, but they were no help at all – it was all done online, they told her. Online, all she got back were automated messages. She wondered if Canada Post delivered on Christmas Eve – maybe it was coming by FedEx.
The phone rang. It was Rachel, her daughter.
“Hi, Mom. There’s a big snow storm somewhere and the flight’s delayed,” she said.
Ivanna pushed the curtain aside with her fingers and looked out the back window. Green grass stretched to the wooden fence at the back of the yard. “Do they know when it will be able to take off?”
“No,” her daughter said. “The plane hasn’t even arrived in yet. They say it will be here in 40 minutes, though.” Her voice faded away momentarily. “Mom, my phone’s about to die. I need to find somewhere to plug it in. I’ll text you when I find out more.”
“Ok, bye. Love you,” she said, but the line was already dead. She put down her phone and looked at the bare tree and then the needles on the floor, and then got onto her knees to finish sweeping them up with the dustpan.
She dumped the needles into the trash and put the broom into the closet beneath the stairs. She walked back through the house to the kitchen, stopping in the hallway to straighten a picture on the wall, and looked out the kitchen window at the leafless trees and the leafy, winter grass. It was two o’clock – there was still plenty of time. If she boarded at three-thirty, she’d be in by six.
When Ivanna was her daughter’s age, she’d gone to France for a semester abroad. It was the first Christmas that she spent away from home. She was in Strasbourg and spent it with the other students who didn’t go home. It was nice enough, she thought, but it was rather lonely all the same.
Ivanna set the temperature on her oven and then opened the fridge to look at the food that she had prepared. She had a good turkey this year – the past few years she had left it too late and ended up with one that was a little too small. This year, she called the man at the market in November and ordered one. She’d picked it up a few days ago. The oven beeped, and she spooned mince pie filling from a can into the pie shells waiting on the counter-top and then slid them into the oven.
In Strasbourg, she fell in love. She met him in the market, three days before Christmas. She didn’t speak to him at all. He spoke to a friend of hers – a classmate, really – and they made eye contact for a few moments, feet away from one another, before he turned and walked away. She thought about him for three days straight, until Christmas took her mind from him. The next time she saw him was New Years Eve. His name was Gabriel, she found out then. “We have the same boots,” he said to her. She laughed and said “Almost.” She was shy and missed her chance to talk to him more. His friends spotted him across the street and he said that he had to go. His hair was dark brown, he wore a black jacket, and funny little glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose.
Ivanna took the Christmas cookies from the counter-top and set four on a ceramic plate shaped like Santa’s sleigh. She carried them to the front room and set them on a little table near the tree. The box of ornaments sat next to the tree, untouched. She straightened a wicker wreath hanging on a nail on the wall, where the painting by Edward’s grandfather usually hung.
Edward lived in North Carolina. He’d lived there for the past five years. He had a family there now. Her daughter said that he was happy – she said that Alice was nice. Alice. It was a boring name, she thought. But, then again, so was Edward.
She sat down on the couch and curled her legs up beneath her and looked at the tree, ten feet tall. It was a good tree, she thought, for one that came from the parking lot of a Canadian Tire. She reached over to the Santa plate on the table and took a cookie – she could just replace it with another, she decided. She bit into it and stood up.
Two months after New Years, she met Gabriel for a third time. They were a long two months. School was harder in France and she didn’t get along very well with the other students – after a while, it was harder to hide it. She thought about Gabriel a lot. Most nights, before she went to bed, she’d brush her teeth and finish off her reading, and then she’d wish that she hadn’t thrown away the opportunity that New Years gave her. There was a long moment between his comment and his friends. All she had to do was say something. Then, one day, she was walking home from class and she saw him across the road on a bicycle. Her chest seized and she felt her face drain of colour. There he was, she thought, after all this time. He was on a bicycle, though, which meant that he was quickly slipping away. She stopped walking and stared – she couldn’t help it. She wondered if she should chase him. Then, by some bittersweet chance, a car door opened in front of him and he rode straight into it.
Ivanna tidied up the kitchen and took the mince pies out of the oven. She put them on a cooling rack and draped a cloth over top of them. She went upstairs and looked in her daughter’s bedroom. She heard her phone vibrate and beep on the table downstairs. She went back to the kitchen and looked at the clock – 2:40. It was a text from her daughter. Flight delayed 2 hours longer. She brushed the hair from her face and tried to stem the pressure behind her eyes. Two hours – that meant eight o’clock, at the earliest. That was ok, she told herself. It was still plenty of time. Even if she got in at nine, she thought, it wasn’t a big deal. She got a mug and filled it with apple cider and heated it in the microwave.
At home, when she was young, they bought local apple cider from the market every year. They’d heat it in a pot on the stove with cinnamon and cloves. Suddenly, Ivanna remembered the skis. She quickly made her way through the house to the front door and peered through the glass to the porch. She didn’t see anything there. She opened the door – nothing was there. She checked the mailbox for a delivery notice but didn’t find one. Ivanna stepped back inside. She went to the kitchen and took her mug from the microwave. She sprinkled a little cinnamon on top and then went into the living room. She turned on the TV – It’s A Wonderful Life was on, and she watched it for a while as she drank her apple cider.
That day, two months after New Years, when she met Gabriel for the third time, she’d crossed the road and helped him to his feet. He wasn’t hurt at all. After that, they went for coffee and sat together for several hours. The next day after class, Ivanna met Gabriel on a bench beneath a lamppost on a stone bridge across the water. They met two more times that week, and then began to spend nearly every evening together. The evenings were fast and heavy. She told him what she hadn’t told anyone else, and he did the same. There was an intimacy of such intenseness between them that it felt like little else mattered in the world. She was constantly aware that she had less than two months before she went home.
Ivanna checked the time – it was 5:30. She sent a text to her daughter: any updates?? After a moment, she got a response: Pushed back again… Trying to figure it out. Will let you know when I do. She turned off the TV and went back into the kitchen. She lifted the cloth and checked the mince-pies. Then she went back to the front door and checked the step for the skis – nothing still. Green grass bordered the road on both sides – rectangular lots extending from the fronts of little homes. She went back inside and poured herself a glass of wine in the kitchen. Then, she went into the front room and set it beside the cookies on the table. She lifted the box of ornaments and began to decorate the tree.
On those evenings in Strasbourg, every moment was weighted with impermanence. When she got back from France, her parents were separated. They hadn’t wanted to tell her while she was away – they thought that they needed to do it in person. After that, she split her Christmases between two homes. She and Gabriel wrote letters back and forth – they talked on the phone a few times. Soon, life moved on. Gabriel stopped writing as often, and she sometimes forgot to reply. Still, as she lay in bed on long nights she often thought of the wasted months that had passed between their meetings. Ivanna met Edward two years after her return. They were married two years after that.
The tree looked good. She sat on the couch and took another cookie from the Santa plate. She opened her book – The Murder at Hazelmoore by Agatha Christie – and picked up where she had left off. A blizzard descended upon Sittaford House. She read further. She went to the kitchen and poured another glass of wine. She heard a noise outside and looked through the window for the delivery – still nothing. She went back to her book. It darkened outside, and she went upstairs and brought down the few small packages that she had to put under the tree. She ate another cookie and continued to read. When she finished her book, she looked down at her phone. She had another text that she hadn’t noticed come in. Flight cancelled for weather. Dealing with the desk. Will call when I can. She sent one back: OK, love you.
She went into the back and turned on the TV. It’s A Wonderful Life was on. She changed the channel. Commercials. Cartoons. Commercials. Infomercials. Deck The Halls – she put down the remote and left it there. She sometimes told herself that what she had in Strasbourg was young love and nostalgia. The truth was, she knew, that she had never felt like that again. She thought about him all the time. The movie ended and another came on. She watched, and she tidied, and she wandered aimlessly around the house. She filled the stockings, just in case, and refilled the Santa plate with cookies. She washed some dishes and put them away.
At twelve o’clock, she went outside. She leaned against the doorframe and felt the cold air on her face and neck. She pulled her hands up into the sleeves of her sweater. Christmas lights lit the front porches of the houses up and down the street, which stood completely empty and still. She could see lights on inside some of the houses, and shapes shifting behind curtains and blinds. In some houses, she could see the trees glistening. Then, as she looked out over the night, she saw little white specks dangling in the air under the streetlamps. Something wet touched the tip of her nose. She poked her hand from her sleeve and held it out into the cold, and then looked up into the dark sky. Snowflakes drifted down towards her, falling slowly but surely through the cold night air.
Luke Francis Beirne was born in Donegal, Ireland and currently lives in Ontario, Canada. He has an Honours degree in English Language and Literature from St. Thomas University, and works as a freelance writer. He has previously published short fiction in Honest Ulsterman, a Belfast based literary journal; and his story “Models,” won the David Adams Richards Prize for Prose from St. Thomas University.