A Seasonal Tale
“Time to earn your place at the dance this year,” Mother said, shooing Pepper out of the door into the bitter frost of a late Hampstead afternoon. “While you’re about it, tell that fir tree that it’s wanted inside. And don’t forget to shake the ice out of its branches – the last thing I need is puddles in the living room.”
Pepper sighed and stomped up the garden path, thankful at least for her thick leggings and Doc Marten boots. The air smelt of stagnant defrosted droplets and woody conifers. Would this be the year she managed to entice Mr Keats to the dance? Hmmph. Unlikely. However much Mother hoped so.
“You’re wanted inside,” she said to the fir tree on her way past. There was a gentle rumble of earth beneath the snow white blanket as the tree uprooted itself and shuffled towards the back door. Pepper turned, hands on hips. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” The fir tree stopped mid-pace and drooped. Gripped by an idea, Pepper gathered up her skirt by the hem to make a cradle and stood beside the tree. “Well?” she said. The tree bristled its needles and shook its branches in irritation. It was enough to loosen the icicles that dropped with an off key tinkle into her skirt.
It was traditional that every young person had to earn his or her place at the Solstice dance by singing door to door. Only problem was, Pepper’s voice was about as musical as a tone deaf hog. Every year, she thought up new ways of creating un-music purely to evade the ignominy of having to pretend that she didn’t have two left feet, much to the perennial disgrace of her mother.
“And don’t forget to visit Albion Grove this time,” Mother said.
Pepper rolled her eyes as she walked away, hoping beyond hope that Mr Keats was too busy writing magic to answer his door. As if he would ever be interested in a girl with two left Doc Marten shod feet. Well, she had never professed to be a dancer, so why would anyone think otherwise?
Albion Grove was a peaceful winding road with white fronted houses and gardens with fir trees that behaved themselves. As she turned into the drive leading to Wentworth Place, her heart started a steady thump thump, hoping that it would be Mr Keats who answered the door and not Mr Brown, who although seemed pleasant enough, just didn’t have the un-presence of mind to make an interesting enough companion for Pepper.
In the front garden, a plum tree shook its branches at Pepper as she walked up the path towards the front door. Bloody cheek. It had all the airs and graces of the fir without the needles to back it up. The best it could hope for would be for Mr Keats to immortalise it in hyperbole.
Pepper stamped the snow from her boots and stepped up to the grey oak door. She gripped the edges of her skirt with one hand, careful to protect its precious cargo. Thank the goddess it was brass monkeys outside, else she would have been carrying a skirt full of ice water. She paused, then lifted a hand to rap on the door. A snigger from behind interrupted her. What now, damn it?
“You’ll never get a penny from that miserable geezer.”
A vague hope that someone might be able to see beyond her inability to sing or dance was most cruelly crushed. She turned towards the irritating voice. Teddy Munster; year five Classics. Self-satisfied jerk.
“How much have you made?” she said.
He adjusted the harmonica around his neck and with a flicker of one hand, three robin redbreasts popped out and circled around his head chirping the notes to Jingle Bell Rock. They settled on his shoulder like some poor excuse for a witch’s familiar.
“Thirty-three sovereigns,” he said.
Pepper grit her teeth. Teddy turned back towards the village and tramped away in a flutter of snowflakes. She thought of Mother. A twinge of guilt prickled beneath her cotton collar. Perhaps she would offer to wrap the gifts instead of going to the dance; it might pacify her for a day at least.
She turned back to Keats’ front door. After several sharp raps, a young man with sallow skin and eyes that peered into the soul answered the door. Her heart knocked on the door of her own chest and begged to be released. Keats gave her a measured look; here was a man far too busy creating spells to give the time of day to a reluctant Solstice singer. She felt sure that this was a lost cause, but at least she had tried. She could go home with a clear conscience.
“What have you got there?” he said, eyes shifting to the skirt she held just above her knees. Oh well. Here goes nothing.
“I like to call it, Pepper Spray,” she said, then pulled the sides of her skirt, propelling the contents into the air in front of her.
Shards of ice glittered and flew every which way in musical discord. Pepper smiled. Mr Keats grimaced, then lifted his arms to shield his face and for one horrific moment, Pepper saw herself picking bloody splinters from his pallid cheeks. She raised her frost bitten fingers and drew a shimmery shroud between herself and Mr Keats. The icicles were enveloped and suspended in rows by height and depth. Pepper tapped the icicles and the crystal clear notes of Silent Night rang out with an ethereal quality.
The look on Mr Keats’ face turned from curiosity to shock to wonder, all in the space of a few bars of dubious music. The sky lit up as a hundred gold sovereigns rained down around her. He smiled; the edges of grey around his face illuminated by the glow of gold. She glanced down at her booted feet, then back into the face of her mystical benefactor.
Perhaps she could learn to dance, after all.
A very Happy Christmas to all my fans, family and friends.