Agnes viewed Christmas through two lenses. One, a prism that created a dazzling array of opportunities and options, potential visitations and teas… the other, a smoked glass that beheld the world in the grey shadows of loneliness and fear.
Although now in her eighty-eighth year, Agnes continued to harbour Christmas fantasies… visions of sugar plums, families at the piano, trees hung with lights and tinsel, cedar bough wreaths and greeting cards hung from a string, the air filled with the smell of cloves and cardamom.
From a strictly practical viewpoint Agatha had very little immediate family or friends to fulfill these imaginings. Health and distance had exacted their toll. One husband, one child, and two brothers had predeceased her. Another son lived on the other side of the continent and a daughter nearer but equally distant in a way. Neither had been home for years and only offered hurried phone calls now and then.
Friends had also dropped away due to health and the inevitability of death. Mind, Agnes’ simmering resentment rebuffed most friendly encounters, and even her building neighbours did not know her well.
Nephew James, on the other hand, occasionally dropped by her apartment, usually with a gift of some kind, a plant or bouquet, an invitation to lunch… lunch at one of those modern restaurants, all noise and bustle where Agnes couldn’t hear a word. Sometimes that seemed worse than eating alone.
As expected, two weeks before Christmas James arrived with one of those large wicker gift baskets. James stayed but a moment to deposit the basket on her kitchen counter, give Agnes a hug that smelled of fresh air and aftershave, and rushed outward to some other engagement. At the end of the hall he called back that he would pick Agnes up for Christmas dinner at five and then disappeared.
Agnes stood in the hallway for a few minutes looking after him until she turned inside and closed her apartment door. She contemplated the looming presence of the ‘gift basket’.
With some difficulty, Agnes shifted the cumbersome basket about so she could examine the contents. Without disturbing the plastic wrap, Agnes saw more than she wanted to see, a cornucopia of Christmas cheer… a jellied salad, a box of chocolates, a tin of goose pate, a bottle of wine, a tidy little jar of strawberry jam topped with a tartan lid, a round package of European cheese, a small square of Xmas cake and… a bottle of wine. There appeared to be more surprises buried even deeper.
Agnes blew through her lips. “Phhfff! All this and a bottle of wine. Now what am I to do with this stuff?”
She contemplated the basket for a few minutes further, and found herself loosening the big red bow. Once released, the gathered cellophane and ribbon fell away. Additional excavation seemed imperative.
As she lifted the various contents out into the light and onto the counter, she studied each item accompanied by agitated breathing. Agnes couldn’t abide wastefulness. Each item must be accounted for and divested in some way. James would expect some kind of comment on his gift.
Agnes continued unloading the basket. The strawberry jam Agnes could use. She liked a bit of jam on toast in the morning, as long as it didn’t have too many pips in it. She held the jar up to the light and turned it slowly. Some lighter bits, or pips, nestled against the inside of the jar. Agnes felt tempted to unscrew the lid for a better look, but she didn’t want to break the seal. She put the jam down on the counter.
A box of chocolates next received her scrutiny. Two layers of chocolate at least, some of them filled with chewy, gooey creams. Agnes liked chocolate but more than one gave her cankers. “I suppose I can take them to bridge on Thursday,” Agnes considered.
The shiny tin of butter tarts resting on the bottom of the basket caused the most consternation. “Butter tarts! Butter tarts? Twelve of them! More sweets I don’t need!” Agnes complained. “Twelve tarts!” Actually Agnes loved butter tarts. She still remembered her mother’s butter tarts, so flaky, buttery and sweet with raisons. But butter tarts also reminded her of social times at home, with Doulton China teacups and dainty doilies. All long gone.
Agnes considered the magnitude of the dilemma. Four tarts she could probably manage. She could freeze them and bring them out if someone came to tea.
But social invitations now stymied her. That any number of people might actually enjoy a butter tart thereby easily reducing their numbers, presented an idea beyond the scope of Agnes’ imagining.
“Maybe Meg will go for a walk with me, then she can come in for tea. I could put the tarts out.” This thought settled Agnes for a few moments. Though, the real dilemma would be in asking Meg to go for a walk, let alone asking her in for tea.
She stood at the kitchen counter, counting and recounting the tarts. Twelve. Not ten or a baker’s dozen, but twelve, at least ten more than Agnes could possibly eat with lunch, or dinner… or a number of meals in fact.
The whole basket involved so much more than she could eat on her own, or share, or dispose of in any reasonable way. Agnes left the contents strewn across the counter and turned away.
She slumped into a large high backed nubby brown easy chair. Her deep meditations on the dilemma of the butter tarts and other items, had exhausted her.
She relaxed. Her hands and mind were finally still. She exhaled softly and let her head drop back against the hard chair pillow. As she sat in the late afternoon stillness in her small apartment, the rest of the afternoon passed quietly beyond her sliding glass patio doors. With little effort Agnes could watch smartly dressed heads and shoulders bob and gently sway, floating by above the dark, algae encrusted cinder block wall that defined her damp patio from the rest of the world.
Drifting in a reverie of old memories, new frustrations and the residual emotional pain of almost ninety years, Agnes watched the dark November evening fall. The heads and shoulders slowly became smoky, diaphanous apparitions, now backlit by streetlights and windows across the street.
Unmoved by hours, Agnes slipped into sleep. She only came alert again when street sounds and loud voices broke into her strange evening.
“My goodness,” Agnes said to no one at all, “What time is it?”
She tucked her feet down, and pushed herself to standing. She stood for a moment recollecting a sense of her room, then edged her way toward her small kitchen clutching first at the chair back, then the wall, and finally the kitchen alcove door frame.
Agnes tapped the switch plate. Her neat, tidy alleyway of a kitchen flashed before her. Precisely folded, flower bedecked tea towels hung straight and true from the stove handles. The toaster oven sparkled from the twenty-four inch square white Formica counter top. On the opposite counter the brittle plastic cover of James’ gift basket cast sharp lights and rippled with the playful colors of an oil spill. The large red bow and its curly satin ribbons hung off the edge of the counter and displayed in colourful jumble, all the treasures the basket had revealed.
Agnes frowned. It was one thing to speculate on what to do with all that “stuff and nonsense,” and something else to dispose of it all.
“It would have made more sense for James to bring me a couple of frozen chops. I could fry one up for tonight’s dinner and save one for next week.”
Agnes didn’t feel she was hard to please. It didn’t take much, from her perspective, to do the most sensible thing. “Really, young people just don’t think.”
Agnes returned to her big chair, even dinner forgotten as she pondered the “dilemma of the butter tarts.” The silly phrase almost made her giggle.
Unexpectedly, Agnes rose. She moved quickly into the kitchen and grabbed up the bottle of wine. She pulled her apartment door open, looked surreptitiously up and down the hallway. Four doors down she stopped, glanced around again and placed the bottle of wine against the bottom of the door.
Amused at herself, she returned to her apartment, and swept up the next item, the European cheese and a nice small wooden box with a colourful label. This time she went the other way, and only two doors down she left the cheese.
Now, actually grinning, Agnes returned and fetched the chocolates. Again, a momentary pause to ‘scope out’ the hallway, and off she scurried to make another delivery.
By the time she had delivered the last of the basket gifts, she’d had to take the elevator to the second floor.
The next day, the building was abuzz with amused and excited tenants, each comparing notes about the mysterious gifts. Agnes scuttled out and in as need required, avoiding extended conversations. But when Bob of four doors down asked her what she had found at her door, Agnes replied, “I discovered a lovely little tin of butter tarts. Would you like to come round and share a couple with me?”