She wandered about the house, idly fluffing tinsel and blowing off stray glitter. The tree twinkled in the window and she paused a moment, pondering. Her mother had always told her never to put her tree in the window; ‘It’s just showing off… a lack of taste. It attracts the wrong sort’. She’d never been very specific on that point, but her tone was the one reserved for those who had the audacity to rise out of the ‘normal’ pile. For years Mari had followed the tradition, bound on all sides by many of her mother’s pretensions wrapped in adages. This year was different and she had to admit, it was mostly because she was bored rigid.
In the last few days before Yule she would usually be baking frantically, the kitchen a dumping ground for every conceivable mince pie variation, pudding concoction and cake experiment she could get her spoon into. Not this year, not with her very own conception cooking and due out of the oven before the New Year. She wasn’t a weakling, terrified to move in case it damaged the sleeping babe; she was simply exhausted.
Instead she had ended up decorating the house with the same dedication she gave her baking and there was barely a space free of glitz and holly, sparkle and mistletoe. She’d spent a couple of days shifting the tree around until some spark of rebellion, a need to start anew with the new life, placed it firmly in the large bay window of the front room.
Gazing at the slightly drunken fairy, seemingly uncomfortably pinioned aloft, Mari heard a thunk. She turned, trying to locate the sound and had to steady herself on a chair back, her girth unsettling her balance. Silence settled firmly over everything and she took to pacing through the ground floor once more.
She still wasn’t quite used to her childhood home suddenly becoming her domain. It had always been ruled by the iron will of her mother. Shoes off the second you came through the door and stood on the mat. Elbows off the table. Bed made before you were even dressed. No boys brought home. All dates inspected during a ‘tea’ for said purpose. So many other rules that Mari had spent her youth creeping from foot to foot, almost silent and dateless because she couldn’t face putting any boy through the ordeal of ‘tea’.
When her mother had suddenly announced, Mari at the start of her 7th month, that she was going to live with her sister, Maud, in California, there had been a long moment of speechlessness. Gladys had then informed her daughter that the house was hers to caretake until Gladys died; then it would be hers alone, mortgage free. Inside two weeks, Mari was installed and Gladys was a ghost under the Cali sun.
Mari desperately wanted to change the furniture, but so far had managed only to rip off all the plastic protectors. She still fought the urge to instantly make beds and dust constantly, but chances were that would fade when baby arrived and she had no time for such nonsense. On which thought she trekked upstairs, shoved open what had once been the door to her bedroom and surveyed the nursery she had created.
Art school had been the saving of Mari. Away from home, with no restrictions, she had spent the first three months drinking, partying and saying yes to any boy who looked in her direction. Joel had been her salvation. One of the ‘catches’ in her year, his art was of the sublime to look at, impossible to understand school and it was rumoured he was already on several shortlists for patrons and awards. He turned up at Mari’s flat one day, dragged her hungover form to a greasy spoon and shoved a full English and copious amounts of coffee into her.
Whilst he fork-fed her eggs and tilted coffee over her lips, he’d berated her for wasting her prodigious talent, told her he wasn’t going to let her do so any more and set her straight on a few realities she wasn’t sober enough or honest enough to face alone. By the time she left the school she had a job with a very exclusive interior designer who adored her fresh ideas, and she was married to Joel, living with him in an exquisite penthouse in one of the nicer parts of the city.
Now there was a mini them, due as close to Yule and a new year, new life mentality as they could manage, given the vagaries of conception. They’d agreed to stay in the house, give up the flat to save money for baby and nappies and college, but Joel couldn’t get away from his final commission before the holidays; an unfinished mural in a church at Christmas wasn’t really the thing. She hadn’t minded, pouring her efforts into the nursery which exuded warmth and light, colour and impatience as she leaned on the door frame. The only room she’d dared change so far.
She dropped wearily into the rocking chair, set within easy reach of the yellow robed cot, and let the wealth of cushions pillow her aching back. The walls were a riot of fluffy animals, fairies, gnomes, abundant trees and innumerable flowers all laced together with sparkling streams, achieved with subtle applications of glitter. The window blinds were blue with a blazing sun for daytime and deepest midnight bedecked with stars for sleepy times.
Mari felt herself drifting to sleep, which often happened as soon as she sat down. Her eyes flicked open on hearing a thud, followed by two more. Probably Maisy, next-door’s cat who liked to try all the windows in case she could sneak in and sleep in the washing basket. Her eyes slid shut. Thud. Thud thud thud.
She shoved herself out of the chair with an effort and crossed to the door, looking along the length of the hall toward the airing cupboard. Thud thud. Thud thud thud. Mari felt there was almost a rhythm to the sounds. Daft cat was probably stuck. The sounds returned again and again, varying the beats, but becoming steadily louder, insistent.
Finding no cat on her upstairs tour, Mari set off downstairs. She slipped on the fourth stair from the bottom, felt her heart stop as she began to fall and grabbed frantically for the bannister. She achieved a less than graceful descent onto her behind, landing with a jarring bump, but no obvious damage. Having barely managed the process of hauling herself back up, she slumped into the front room and dropped onto the sofa. Staring at the tree in the bay window, listening to the thumps, now in a constant pattern – Parrupapumpum, ruppa pum pum, ruppa pum pum, she sighed.
With no energy to search for the cat she shuffled her phone off the table and considered dialling Anne, her neighbour who was on standby. Whilst pondering if it was worth sending Anne into a panic she noted the picture on the opposite wall jump slightly. A terrible print of some bluebell wood, it bounced out, a good inch off the wall, settled again. The phone forgotten in her hand, Mari watched the picture dance two, three times more and then bounce straight off its hook, clattering to the floor.
Could the cat be stuck inside the walls? Was it, gods forbid, a rat? The thumping was definitely louder. Perhaps a pipe having problems in the freezing cold? About to lever herself to her feet, she dropped the phone and gasped as pain shot across her stomach, tensed her body and then dropped her back to the sofa, exhausted. ‘Not now, no, not now’ she muttered; ‘Not until Joel gets back, please’.
Staring at the lighter patch on the wall she rode out three more waves of pain which seemed to resonate with the thumping in the walls. Phone! Get Anne! Ring Joel. Parrupapumpum. Pain. Tense, relax, breathe. Breathe like the midwife taught. Ruppapumpum, ruppapumpum.
The wall began to move. Gods, let it be some delirium caused by the pain. Breathe. Parrupapumpum. Breathe. Phone. It had slid into the bay, fairy lights twinkling on its mute screen. She couldn’t get up, couldn’t reach. Pain.
The wall pressed outward. Hands. A face. Moulded in unfaded wallpaper. Parapapumpum, ruppapumpum, ruppapumpum. Breathe like the… breathing with the drumming, breathing through the pain, watching the face in the wall. Watching it burst through.
Figures began to stream through the room, dancing, singing, piping, drumming. Wings fluttered, voices sang in dulcet melodies. The air shimmered, sparkled, showed light and laughter. A man and woman, waltzed in the centre of the maelstrom, diadems on their brows. They halted for the most minute moment at Mari’s sofa, smiled, blew kisses, spoke blessings on mother and child before whirling away in scents of pine, holly, mistletoe and fresh snow. They swept through the room, passed through the tree in the window causing its lights to shake and jitter and vanished.
In the sudden silence Mari, stunned into forgetfulness of her pain, heard one final sound; the panting of someone running to catch up. A young boy burst from the wall, his drum bouncing wildly off his chest, eyes wide. Mari pointed to the tree and he fled after his troup. Reaching the tree, he looked back, looked down.
‘My phone’ Mari managed as another wave took her.
Confused for a moment, looking about, the child caught her gaze, directed at the phone and picked it up. Hesitant, he stepped lightly to her, his drum beating a faint tattoo on his chest as he moved, and dropped the phone into her open hand.
‘Thank you’ she murmured.
He smiled, gently beat out a final ruppapumpum and then set his drum and sticks under the tree before disappearing into the lights.
As Mari called up Anne’s number she smiled at the tree in the window;
‘Mum, I reckon you were wrong. Trees in windows attract just the right sort.”