The last rays of the January sunlight glided across the room. They turned to the fairy on top of the tree like a spotlight. Her wings twinkled and sparkled and Greta looked up and smiled at her as she went to the window to admire the sunset.
Greta had always enjoyed taking down the Christmas decorations. She had a ritual to welcome the Twelfth night full of good luck omens and portents. This year though she wanted to linger for awhile, she needed to go over the events of the last few weeks. Greta had wanted to keep the decorations up for a while longer so she could hang on to the happiness that she had felt putting them up with her little cat Timmy. It felt like she needed to keep them longer sort of in his honour.
Paul had brought up the boxes from the garage before leaving for work that morning and had helped her unwind the lights and carefully packed them away for next year. Now it already seemed like it was time to move on.
Greta had a ritual for putting up the decorations. At the end of November she would put on her favourite Christmas Cd or a film, make a cup of tea and warm a mince pie and then start decorating the tree.
Each decoration had a story behind it.
The angel on the top from their honeymoon, the baubles made by her niece, Polly, The Provencal figures from her French mother-in-law, the wooden snowmen and hearts from their holiday in Austria. When she'd finished, Greta would step back and admire her work, she saw it as a sort of happy memory tree that would protect and warm the house through all the dark December days.
Timmy had played with the tinsel while she was wrapping it round the tree. Tears came to her eyes and there was an ache in her heart. How she longed for those days to return now. She wanted to immerse herself in the cosy comfort of the days leading up to Christmas.
The evenings now seemed too bright, she was being hurtled too briskly into the New Year and she didn't feel ready.
Her phone rang and she saw it was her sister, Joyce.
'Hi Joyce, have you seen the sunset it's beautiful'.
Joyce was her big sister, older by nine years.
'Yes it's beautiful isn't it? Mind if I come round after work?' Is Paul working?'
Greta felt a surge of warmth towards her sister,
'I'd love to see you. we'll finish up the mulled wine. Paul's doing a shoot in London and won't be back till late.'
Joyce worked in an Animal rescue centre and now her elder daughter Polly was following in her footsteps. Greta had married late and then been told it would b difficult fo her to conceive but she had always enjoyed being a popular auntie. She'd seen how much it took out of her sister, looking after Polly and an autistic little boy and how important it must be to have the right man by your side. Joyce's husband Martin was a great family man, always there for his wife and daughter and helping to look after his son. He did voluntary work in the day centre that Ricky went to, reading stories and building models. Her parents, Anne and Malcolm, often helped out there too and the people that worked there told them this all helped create a family environment for the children.
Greta was already well into her thirties when she met Paul on a Fashion shoot in Paris. It was love at first sight. He was the photographer and used to being up close and personal with the most beautiful women in the world. She had fallen in love with him the minute they had met in the make-up room where she was adjusting the look of a model. The moment he entered the room she felt as though a fire had been lit inside her, warming her. It was still burning strongly, just the thought of him made her quiver with excitement. Greta was the make-up artist and it took her a while to realize that Paul's gentle banter was aimed at her as he moved around the room. It was still a source of wonder that he had chosen her.
Paul was from a large French family and they had gladly welcomed Greta into their warm, comforting clan. Greta and Paul joined them whenever they could for their family get-togethers in Rouen. Anne and Malcolm were always finding excuses to go and visit. Polly had spent her gap year with them and was very proud of her perfect French accent.
Greta wound some tinsel neatly into a bag and picked up the little Father Christmas that Paul's sister had given her one year when they had spent Christmas in France. A tear fell as she thought of Timmy playing with it. His little paws quick as silver making the Father Christmas swing to and fro. He'd got tangled in the tinsel and she'd taken a photo of his astonished little face, as it draped over his ears like a halo.
There's no way of knowing what's going to happen from one Christmas to the next, Greta thought as she tucked the Father Christmas away. She couldn't have known, that long ago Christmas that it would have been the last time she would help her grandmother decorate her tree. She couldn't have known ten years ago that it would be the last time she received a Christmas card from her grandfather saying, 'to a special grand daughter.' She couldn't have known this was her last Christmas with Timmy. The man that had come to the door to tell her had looked so stricken that she had found herself asking him in and making them both a strong cup of tea. They were both in tears when Paul came home. As always, he took the situation in hand. He told the man that it was a dangerous road and there should be warning signs, to try and console him. They exchanged addresses and then together gently took care of Timmy.
He had been a tiny kitten, just a scrap when Joyce had brought him home from the Animal Rescue. Joyce believed in Cat therapy. A wild abandoned kitten had worked wonders on her son Ricky, bringing him out of his shell in a way that astounded the doctors.
'He's perfect for you Greta. He even looks like you with his big brown eyes and shiny dark fur. Would you like to give him a home.?
Greta hadn't needed asking twice. Timmy entered their lives and hearts. He used to wake them up in the morning, carefully wrapping his paws around their necks.
He would always be waiting for them by the door and run round the house to express his joy. The vet said he'd never seen anything like him. Lately though he had shown the signs of his years. Greta paused her hand caressing the soft fur of a toy hedgehog that she'd bought in Cornwall, Paul had been taking photos for a documentary about a seal sanctuary and she had been doing a course and then working as a volunteer at the hospital, doing the patients' make-up.
Greta put the last bauble in its box and looked at the darkening sky. She could see the reflection of the tree in the window. It looked vulnerable without its decorations. She felt a wave of sadness as she thought of all the Christmases past, all the precious treasured memories, each one a symbol of the strength of her family and their capacity to sustain each other as the years go by.
The last bottle of mulled wine held just enough for Joyce. Greta prepared a tray with mince pies and some cheese straws her sister's favourites. The doorbell rang and she went to greet her sister and settled her in front of the fire.
'Ooh doesn't it look bare without the decorations? and without little Timmy.' She put her hand over her mouth appalled by her insensitivity.
'Sorry Greta, I didn't mean to mention him. I know exactly how you feel.'
She put her arms round her sister and held her tight. She glanced up at the tree.
'You've forgotten the angel, she's still on the top, what's she holding in her hand? It looks like a magic wand.'
Greta sat back and looked at her sister.
' You know Joyce I was taking off the decorations and thinking about all the past. All the joys and sorrows and how much you've always helped me. I'm so lucky to have such a wonderful sister.'
'Oh go on Greta you'll make me cry, you're a wonderful sister too. I'll never forget the day you were born, my own personal baby doll.'
'It's been hard for me this Christmas losing Timmy like that. I know you understand. I hadn't been feeling well all Christmas, and I'd put it down to being so upset, but then I went to the doctor and he told me to do a pregnancy test. The angel is holding the results.'
Joyce's shocked expression almost made Greta laugh but just then she heard Paul's key in the lock.
' Hey Greta, cherie', he rushed to kiss her.' I came home early, you said you'd got something important to tell me.'
The sound of his voice still made Greta weak at the knees and she sat down again to face her sister, but she had gone, quietly letting herself out so as to not to intrude in the intimate magic moment that she knew herself so well.