Exclusive Christmas short story by Helen Dunmore: A house by the sea

Illustrations by Anna-Louise Felstead

The wardrobe was sticky black, as if someone had tried to polish it with cough mixture. Nina looked inside and racks of old-lady clothes bulged into the room. She shoved them back, forced the door shut and locked it with the rusty little key.

She had picked the wrong room. The house was tall and narrow and there were six bedrooms. It belonged to her friend Edith's great-aunt, and Edith had been coming here for holidays all her life. Now the great-aunt was dead, and the house would be stripped and sold, but Edith could have it for Christmas week. It was better than having the house lie empty, for squatters and thieves.

Nina went to the window and looked out over the surging sea and broad empty promenade. A gull flew and then sank down almost to the water. The wind was cutting the tops off the waves. It came straight from Siberia, Edith had told her that. The house creaked coldly and the windows rattled.

She would choose another room. Nina scooped her stuff off the bed, crammed it back into her bag, and went up to the attics. The stairs were bare wood and her boots clopped on them. At the top there were three doors, all closed. She tried the knobs, one by one. Locked. Locked. But whatever happened she wasn't going back into that room which smelled as if someone was still dying in there. And then, like a sudden warm miracle, the china knob of the third room turned. She paused. Far below, in the bowels of the house, she could hear Edith singing and banging pots. The sound gave her courage and she pushed open the door.

It was the smallest, whitest room. It looked as if someone had scrubbed it bare from ceiling to skirting-boards. Up here the house was left behind and you were halfway out to sea. Nina went to the round window. The glass bulged and distorted the line of the horizon and the iron railings of the promenade. From here she could see the humps of boats hauled on to the shingle bank.

There was no bed. She would drag a mattress upstairs, and be warm inside her sleeping bag. Nina began to spread out her stuff in neat piles at the side of the room. Her clothes, her hat with her money tucked inside it, her roller skates. She had plenty of money. There had been all the extra shifts she wanted at the Gaumont, with Christmas. She could more than pay her way. There would be the food, and they would need to buy bags of coal.

She heard Edith's footsteps coming all the way up the house.

"I'm here!" Nina called down, "I'm in the attic."

There was a pause, and then Edith clumped upwards again. She stood at the door, her cheeks flaring scarlet.

"I've got the stove lit," she announced.

Nina stared at her in admiration.

"There was coke in the bunker, but there's no coal – you brought your skates, then."

"Yes." Nina lifted her roller skates. They were old and the red leather was rubbed, but her feet hadn't grown since she was 12 and they still fitted.

"We'll go skating before it gets dark," said Edith, and her eyes flashed boldly. "There's a shop on the corner that sells bags of coal. We can carry a big one between us."

They lugged the coal home, grunting and heaving under its weight. The shop man watched them ironically, without offering to help. He seemed to know Edith, but she was cold with him. As they left, Nina smiled back over her shoulder, abjectly.

"You want to watch yourself with him," said Edith, before they were out of the man's hearing.

"Why?"

But Edith just glanced, sniffed and said nothing.

Nina had the gift for lighting fires. All her life she'd known how to coax flame and make it roar. In her bedsit she was thwarted, because there was only the gas fire with its mean blue jets. But here, there were fireplaces in every room. Even in her attic there was a small black-iron grate. Edith was going to make soup, she said, and Nina could light the fires.

Nina found a pile of old newspapers, and began to make coils. First you rolled up a sheet of newspaper, then you coiled it round and twisted the ends until it was as firm as a bird's nest. She began in the front room, which was the sitting room. The fireplace was big, cold and lined with beige tiles. There were no tongs or shovel; Edith said people had taken most of her aunt's stuff. Nina laid a pyramid of paper coils, balanced kindling from the shop into a pyre, and placed small lumps of coal delicately all over it. She sat back on her heels, laid several larger lumps of coal ready, and reached for the matches.

She held the match to the edge of a coil at the back of the fireplace. Through the kindling she saw the flame grow from blue to yellow, and then stretch up to lick the wood. She dropped the match, lit another and held it to the deepest coil on the right-hand side of the fireplace. Another touch, and another. Flame puckered and crackled on the wood. The fire was lit. It was going. She leaned forward, feeding it, urging it on. The wood settled, the coal slipped. She laid more coal jewels, dropping them on to the cruxes of the kindling. The damper was right out and the chimney was drawing. More coal, bigger pieces. There was heat in it now as well as flame.

Nina went from hearth to hearth, starting fires in the back room, in Edith's bedroom, and in her own. She would get all the fires roaring and then she would bank them down with slack so that they would stay alive while she and Edith went out. She went out to the coal bunker. It was empty of coal, as Edith had said, but there was an old shovel left in there and an iron bucket. Nina scraped for slack on the floor of the bunker and thought of the sound the coalman made when he delivered his sacks. He walked to the bunker bent double, then heaved the sack off his shoulder, opened it and let down the coal with a rattle and then a rush. You could tell how full the bunker was from the sound. Back and again the coalman trod the path until he had delivered all the sacks. And then you were safe for the winter.

They sat over the fire, still in their coats, and ate the soup Edith had made. It was thick with onions, fried until they were brown and meltingly sweet. The smell of coal-smoke and onions was slowly hiding the old, dead smell of the house. Behind it all, Nina thought she could still taste the faint tang of the sea.

Nina wouldn't be allowed to make such soup in her bedsit, even if she knew how. Boiled eggs, toast and baked beans passed muster, but anything fried or foreign was out. Nina had learnt that, after her attempt at curry brought Mrs Bersted prowling upstairs, sniffing at the doors until she found Nina's.

"I'll get bones from the butcher tomorrow," said Edith. "He'll be all right, as long as he thinks we're getting our Christmas meat from him."

"Aren't we?" asked Nina.

Edith shifted and looked at the fire instead of at Nina.

"It's not really worthwhile getting a bird for one person," she said.

"We could make sandwiches from the leftovers."

"I'll be sick of the sight of a bird by then, after the turkey at my sister's. One year it was so big she had to break its back to get it in the oven."

"That's only one meal, though. You'll be hungry again."

Edith looked deeper into the flames. "She wants me to stay over," she said. "She doesn't want to drive me back on Christmas Day. And then they always go for this long walk on Boxing Day, so it would mess that up if she had to drive all the way over here first."

"With the baby?"

"Oh, they wrap the baby up and he goes in one of those carrier things, on Simon's back."

"So you're staying over on Boxing Day, too?"

"I'll be back really early the day after, Nina. You know what it's like. Simon's not much of a one for people. He's a musician, you know."

Nina knew. She looked down, flushing at her own stupidity. When Edith had said, "I'll be going to my sister's for Christmas dinner", she had thought: Christmas dinner, that's only three or four hours. Edith will be here in the morning, and she'll be back in the evening. It will still be a proper Christmas.

"You'll be all right, won't you?"

"I'll be fine," said Nina. "I'll get some sausages."

She was glad no one else had heard Edith's words, or her own thoughts. If Tony was here, he'd smile in that way of his, a bit mocking, and say, "Little Nina". If Mal was here, he would stretch and yawn like a cat, and walk away because he didn't want to think about Nina, not when she was like this. "You want to keep your feelings inside you, where they belong," he said to her once. Remembering it, she flushed more deeply. Tony, Mal, Edith, Maggie and the others. They were her friends.

***



The good thing about Christmas, thought Nina, is that it comes when the days are very short. Once it was dark again she could curl up by the fire like a cat. In the old days, people probably never left their beds all December. They wrapped themselves in their wolfskins and dreamed all winter long. They let their flame burn low, saving themselves for summer. By four, it would be thickening into dark, and she could say to herself, "Christmas Day is over now".

Edith had left at nine. Her sister didn't come to the house, because you couldn't bring the car on to the front. Edith was meeting her outside the corner shop.

Nina cooked the sausages early. It was either a late breakfast or an early lunch. She cut up an apple and grilled slices alongside the sausages. She and Edith had bought a big net bag full of tangerines. Nina thought of squeezing tangerine juice over the sausages, for a change of taste, but decided against it. Instead, she went into the small, grim garden behind the house and picked a few grey heads of lavender to put in a jar. She looked up and down the row of houses. There were some lights on in the back windows, but not many. A string of coloured fairy-lights flashed, four houses along. The garden could be beautiful, Nina thought, if it had the right plants in it. The shape of it was good, and even though you couldn't see the sea from the garden, you could smell it and hear the gulls.

The day was still and cold. She would go out later. It was all right to go for a long walk on Christmas Day; it was what people did. She would build up the sitting-room fire and then she would go out and walk for miles and miles.

No. She would skate. Edith said that the promenade went on for miles, until it faded into the path that went along the marshes. And the land was perfectly flat. You could see away over the salt marshes and down the coast. In the old days, when it froze hard, people used to skate along the drainage ditches.

Nina had never skated on ice, but on roller skates she was a demon. She'd practised all her childhood, backwards, forwards, turning, jumping, doing arabesques on one leg. She raced, she skated long distances over the clickety pavements, she practised figures on the smoothest and oiliest piece of Tarmac she could find. Her skates wore out and she begged another pair for her birthday. They were metal skates with hard rubber wheels, a laced toe-piece and an ankle strap. You could adjust the size by unscrewing a metal nut.

Edith was no good on her skates. They'd tried on that first day. She wobbled, she messed about like an adult playing a child's game. Nina tried skating with her but it was unbearable. She longed to strike away alone, free, but out of politeness she held back and took off her skates at the first opportunity.

"It's freezing. Let's go back in the house."

***



It was after one o'clock. Nina washed up the sausage plate, banked the fires, and put on her coat, scarf and a striped woollen hat Edith had knitted for her. She picked up her skates, and locked the house.

There was no one on the promenade. The sea lay flat, as if a huge hand had stroked it in the night. The horizon was wintry, bare of ships. Nina's heart lifted. Leaving her skates by the railings, she ran down the steps to the beach, across the shifting pebbles and down to the edge of the water. There it lay, barely breathing. She knelt on the shingle and reached out her hands. The cold water sucked her fingers, then slunk back on itself. She licked the salt taste, dipped her hands again, licked more salt, and then slowly she rose from her knees and turned to go back up the beach.

There was a figure leaning against the railings, watching her. A stab of recognition pierced her. It was him. Surely it was Mal. Scarcely daring to believe, she peered through the thick, cold air. His hair had fallen forward, hiding his face. Yes, it was Mal's hair, the two dark wings of it, almost meeting. She scrambled up the beach, hot, hasty, breathing hard.

"Little Nina," he said.

"Don't say that. Tony says that to me and I hate it."

He raised his eyebrows, smiling with a crooked corner of his mouth. "Nina, then," he said. "After all, I suppose you are 17."

She came up the steps, watching his face all the while.

"How did you know where I was?"

"I've been here before."

"With Edith?" she asked quickly, and then wished she hadn't.

He nodded, indifferently.

"But I thought you were spending Christmas with your mother," she said, in a rush.

"I was, but I changed my mind."

There was something in his face which made her say, "You haven't eaten".

"I borrowed Tony's van," he answered.

"I've got some sausages left over from dinner."

He shrugged, then, as he moved his feet, something clinked. Her skates.

"Some kid's left her roller skates behind," he observed, looking down.

She nearly disowned them, but his look made her sure he already knew.

"They're mine," she said, "I'm skating to the marshes."

"Can I come too?"

"You haven't got any skates." And then she thought of Edith's. Edith's feet were big, size eight. Mal's were small, considering his height. "I suppose you could borrow Edith's," she said.

They went inside the house. It seemed very dark and quiet, with the fires asleep in their grates. Nina's heart was beating with excitement now. They would skate side by side. He would match his strokes to hers. Mal would be a good skater, she was sure of it. She found Edith's skates, and with the key she adjusted the metal base to its maximum length. She could have done it in complete darkness, she was so used to it.

There were a few more people about when they set off. Thick, bundled figures in groups, staying together as if they had brought their indoor closeness with them. But she was with Mal. When Edith asked, she would say, "Mal came over. We went skating."

Mal was no good at skating. Not as hopeless as Edith, but bad enough. It astounded Nina, to find herself doing something better than Mal. There was no chance of their skating arm in arm: he needed both arms to flail and balance himself.

She skated much more slowly than usual, but tried to look as if she was putting in an effort. Mal was doing better now.

"I used to skate when I was a kid," he puffed, coming up to her, and she nodded. Really, she had no patience with people who said they used to do things, when it was obvious they had only ever done them once or twice, but she suspended this for Mal.

They skated on, until they had passed all the people. The houses thinned away. There was a bus shelter, and then a bunker from the war. Only the Tarmac continued doggedly as if whoever planned the town had intended to pave the coast for miles. It was rough and potholed in places now, but you could still skate. The air stung her cheeks. It felt as if it carried grains of ice, and Mal had no hat. Perhaps they shouldn't skate so far, she thought, but she could not stop herself. It was like when she was a child and would skate on long after it was dark, by the light of the street-lamps. Even when her mother called for her, she would shout that she was coming, but never come. They had to come out and fetch her. At the thought she skated faster, unconsciously, speeding on until she became aware that Mal had fallen behind. She spun into a turn, and waited.

"Do you want to go back?" she asked.

"Do you?" He was panting a little. It was more effort for him than for her.

"Not if you don't."

"Then we'll go on."

Marram grass grew on their left. The town had faded now; its lights were all behind them. One or two solitary lights showed across the marsh, from distant farms. On their right, the sea dragged at the pebbles. The light was already weakening. The path was narrow now, but still Tarmacked. It might go on for ever, Nina thought, or at least to the next town. She could hear the grass hissing from the wind of their passage. The sky seemed to be coming down all around them. They were specks in it, barely moving, lost between sea and land. Suddenly, she swooped back into herself, her blood tingling, every inch of her alive. The path was widening ahead of them. The Tarmac was becoming a pool. It was the end. As Edith had said, a little footpath went on from here along the marshes, but it was rough and shingly. You couldn't skate on it.

She stopped first, and waited for him. He skated up and put his hands on her shoulders. She turned her toes in to keep balance; very probably he didn't know how to lock his skates.

"Where's this place then?" he asked.

"I don't know."

"It could be anywhere. Anything might happen here, Nina."

His lips curved but she wasn't sure he was smiling. The sea was behind him, flat and grey, moving to its own tide pattern, she knew that, but seeming to be still. Mal's face twitched.

"I hate Christmas," he said.

"Do you?"

"It doesn't mean anything."

"Won't your mum mind? – I mean, you coming here."

"She doesn't know. Anyway, she'll be drunk by now."

"Oh."

"Yeah. What is it, three o'clock? She'll be drunk as a monkey."

His hands were tight and heavy on her shoulders. She was always wishing Mal would touch her, but now she wanted him to take his hands away. As if he'd heard her thoughts, he lifted his right hand, and put it on her neck. Gently, he stroked her neck. Nina's whole body went stiff.

"Don't do that," she said, her lips barely moving.

"What?"

"I don't like people touching my neck."

His hand went still, he frowned, and then suddenly his thumb went deeper, pushing into the base of her throat.

She gagged, and tears sprang to her eyes.

"Don't you trust me?" he asked, speaking as softly as she had done. Speechlessly, she shook her head. Seconds pounded in her ears.

"You don't think I'm going to hurt you, do you?"

This time she barely moved. Something deep in her body fired into life. She kept her eyes on his face but she seemed to know, like an animal, everything that was around her. The empty sea. The marshes and the grass making its whisper. The bare path with no one on it. Enid doesn't know he's here. His mum doesn't know he's here. Mal's got a temper, they all said that. She had seen it, but only in distant flashes, never close to herself. You must do something now, her body said. If he goes any further, he won't be able to come back. His eyes did not look quite as if they saw her clearly. He was tired and he'd had no food. Perhaps he was on something. You never knew, with Mal.

"You don't think I'm going to hurt you, do you?"

No. She mustn't answer that. She must take him far away from that question. She half-lowered her eyes. The pressure on her neck was steady but not as hard now. She must lift him away from this dark place.

"Do you want to see me do something?" she asked him. She saw a spark of reaction. This wasn't what he'd expected.

"What?" he said.

"Something on my skates. This place is perfect for it."

"Like a trick?"

"No. Just something I learnt when I was little."

She felt him take a deep breath, almost a gulp. The twitch came again, clinching his eye and then releasing it. The hold on her throat was easing, easing. She smiled, putting all her innocence into it.

"All right," he said, and he let go of her. She stood quite still for a moment, in case the idea of her escaping should enter his mind, and then, very slowly, she skated backwards a little way.

"You'll need to give me room," she said, preparing herself, and like a member of an audience told to take a different seat, he skated to the edge of the Tarmac.

She needed to build up speed first. Round and round she went on the circle of Tarmac, until Mal's face blurred. But she was still not fast enough. She was low down, racing. Suddenly it came, the moment, and she balanced herself, jumped, came down on her left skate, lifted her right and made a perfect line of arms, body, leg, skate. It lasted only a few seconds and she was at the edge, turning, gaining speed again. She couldn't help herself: she laughed aloud, all of her blazing and triumphant, before she swerved on to the path and, picking up speed, began to race for the town.

She could outskate him easily, but it wasn't until she reached the lights of the town and the promenade, with its lingering crowds of Christmas walkers, that she slackened speed. Dusk was coming down. She looked back through the graininess of it, and far behind she saw the speck that was Mal, labouring along the path. She slowed further. An old couple went by, leaning over a little girl on a bike with stabilisers. The grandma looked up at Nina as she skated by, and gave her a creaking smile. There were people all around her, tired of their houses and eager for the cold air. They were offering smiles now and Christmas greetings, as if they were all survivors of a wreck who had been hauled up on to the same raft.

She would go into the house, lock the door and break up the crust of the fire in the sitting-room grate until the flames leapt. She would stoke the stove and cook herself a meal. Mal had meant nothing, she was sure of it. He had only wanted to frighten her. He was play-acting. He would bang on the door and she would keep it shut against him until he went away in Tony's van, back to the city. He was finished for her; he had given her that. She would carry a shovelful of burning coals up to her room and make a fire in the iron grate, so that while she fell asleep she would see flames reflected on the white walls.

His real name is Malcolm, she thought, although even now she felt a touch of shame at remembering what she had sworn to forget. She would oil the skates, too, one drop for each wheel. She was sure she could go faster.

Helen Dunmore, 56, is a poet, novelist and children's author. Her novel 'A Spell of Winter' won the first Orange Prize for Fiction, in 1996, and she has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

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