“Eddie, I’m needed at the office at once,” Joel called up. His young son came to the top of the stairs at the sound of his voice. “Bring me my coat, will you? I left it over the chair in my room.”
Eddie let his hand rub the banister as he walked to his father’s room. He mechanically reached for the heavy overcoat, while he let his eyes rest on the one token remaining of his deceased mother. It was a small figurine of a delicate young woman bedecked in white, with a single poinsettia in her hair. How she had loved that little figure. Eddie was on the point of touching the porcelain hem of the dress, when his father called again.
Eddie descended the stairs, his quiet manner and deliberate stride making him look older that his ten years. As he handed the coat to Joel, he reached for his own coat and hat.
“May I walk with you, Father?” he asked.
“There’s nothing to see,” Joel hesitated, “but I’ve no objection.”
Eddie placed the dusty-gray cap over his tousled hair. Joel happened to glance his way as he did, and a strange look passed over the man’s face.
“Where did you find that cap?” he asked.
Eddie paused a moment. “I didn’t find it, Father,” he said. “Mr. Furlong gave it to me. Arthur’s too big for it now.”
Joel still eyed the cap oddly, a peculiar confusion on his face, before he dismissed the subject with a wordless gesture of his hand. Eddie bit his lip, then found the courage to ask, “Did I make you think of him again?”
“No, no, his cap was blacker,” Joel said curtly, as he opened the front door. “I had forgotten.”
Eddie snatched his scarf and just managed to catch the closing door before it shut in his face. As he fell into step beside his father, he dug his hands into his pockets to protect them from the fierce winter wind. They were not an odd sight, but were certainly unique in their own right. Joel, with his strong shoulders and clear-cut features, made long strides along the walk. Much smaller against his father’s figure, Eddie’s round face boasted softer features and burnished flaxen hair. His shorter steps were more frequent so he could keep up.
Neither of them spoke. Eddie was so glad to be walking with his father, he did not want to vex him with annoying questions. He contented himself with listening to the surrounding passersby.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Bridges,” he heard the baker say to an elderly woman. “How’s the family?”
“Just fine,” she answered with a contented sigh. “A Merry Christmas to you.”
“Oh, I’ll never have done with all this merry-making,” a student said to his companion.
“Aye, and it’s only Christmas Eve,” his friend answered.
“Do let us go skating tonight!” a young lady begged her lover.
“Where? Under the mistletoe?” he smiled.
Passing so many cheerful faces, Eddie could not help feeling a little sad. Christmas was never a particularly merry time for him, especially after his mother’s death a few years ago. She could always talk Joel into doing something memorable on Christmas. Eddie wished he could have the same effect on Joel. The only means he could think of to achieve this end was just coming out and asking his father to do something unforgettable together. Eddie grunted in displeasure. It sounded so silly when put to words. He was sure his father would think so. Then Christmas would be uncomfortable as well as unhappy.
Eddie let a voiceless sigh escape him. “I wish I was braver,” he mumbled.
“What’s that?” Joel asked unexpectedly.
Eddie’s heart skipped a beat as he looked up at his father. “I—I wish we’d do something jolly together this Christmas.”
The words flew out of his mouth before his mind could catch up to them. He had been on the point of asking so many times, his desire got the better of his reasoning. He anxiously watched his father’s face. Joel raised an indifferent eyebrow, clearly unaware of the turmoil raging in his son’s emotions.
" ‘Something jolly,’ ” he echoed, “What does that mean?”
Eddie swallowed hard. “It means something that’ll make Christmas cheerful,” he said.
“You can’t make Christmas cheerful,” Joel said with a chuckle. “It’s an event, not a person, Eddie.”
“I know, Father, but we’re never cheerful on Christmas,” Eddie continued, nearly pleading. “And I just thought—”
“Well, I’ve never felt particularly glum on Christmas, either,” Joel said.
“But you’re supposed to be merry on Christmas,” Eddie said. “That’s why they say ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”
The traffic was thickening. Joel grasped Eddie’s hand to guide the boy through the hubbub of pedestrians and carriages.
“Was there anything in particular you were looking for?” Joel asked. “A new cap, perhaps?”
“No, Father, I just—I just wanted us to be together.”
“We’re together now,” Joel answered, “Cherish the moments—the office is two streets away.”
Eddie gave up with a sigh. Adults could be so impossible to reach sometimes, particularly fathers who were unexpectedly summoned to work odd hours on Christmas Eve. One could never get their grown-up minds anywhere near to what one was trying to tell them.
Disheartened by his failed attempt, Eddie lapsed into silence, comforted only by the fact that Joel had forgotten to release his hand.
When they came to the front steps of the building where Joel worked, Joel pulled out a small key and fitted it into the lock.
“When will you be back, Father?” Eddie asked at the bottom of the steps.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Joel replied, struggling with the key. “I would suppose near tea time, but Lockhart is so incompetent with filing, poor devil—come on now, turn!—perhaps earlier in the evening?”
“Can I watch the trains before I go home?” Eddie said.
Joel looked back. “The trains...Farnham Station? If you know your way back. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself.”
“Thank you, Fa—”
The door opened just then. A heavy-set face grinned broadly at Joel, whose key was still stuck in the lock.
“Ahh, so you’ve trouble with the key, Trilby?” he bellowed. “And I was beginning to think we had a burglar in the broad daylight.”
“Yes, Lockhart, most amusing,” Joel said. He disengaged his key with equal difficulty, while Lockhart began to speak of their business matters.
Eddie watched his father enter and turn to remind him, “Be back home before evening.”
Then the door closed and the voices behind it faded away.
Eddie stood still for a few minutes, looking at the door. The cold grew dense around him. Wrapping his scarf tightly around his chin, he shuffled slowly down the street. Farnham Station was not far away, but he was not in a hurry to get there. He thought over the various chores and tasks he had accomplished the past week, and the ones he had to do after Christmas. They all became muddled in his head, and he pushed them out of his mind.
“Christmas Eve’s no time to be thinking about chores,” he told himself. Then his shoulders drooped. “I suppose it doesn’t matter though. It’s not as if Father will be working any less, either.”
He scuffed a little clump of snow. The heavy snowflakes scattered lazily across the cold cobblestones. A shrill whistle told Eddie he was approaching the station. As he walked onto the platform, the 12:14 train was just leaving. The boy looked around until he caught sight of a familiar face. The aging porter had hardly sat down to rest when Eddie greeted him.
“Ah, young Trilby.” He said jovially. “A fine Christmas to you, m’lad.”
“Thank you, Mr. Furlong.” Eddie said.
“I see you’re wearing that cap I gave you.” Furlong commented. “Fits quite nicely, I must say.”
“Yes, it does.” Eddie said. He paused at the recollection of Joel’s reaction. “It reminded Father of Heathcliff.”
“Mmm.” The porter nodded. “Poor boy. Seems ages ago when he died. He was just a wee bit younger than you.”
“Is that why I keep making Father think of him?”
“Oh, I expect there’s a lot of reasons why your father thinks about him.” Furlong said. “I knew him, knew them both when they were knee-high. I don’t need to tell you how close those two were.”
“How did Heathcliff die?” Eddie asked. “I never dare ask Father, and Mother didn’t know.”
“Well, the boy was never strong. Didn’t have the strength to keep living, I suppose,” the porter recalled. “I remember your father used to carry him on his shoulders through the town. He brought him everywhere with him, hoping the fresh air would revive the boy. But Heathcliff caught the chill one day and that was the end of him. It’s a pity.”
That’s a shame, Eddie thought to himself. They must have been very close...
“Did he die around Christmas?” the boy asked.
Furlong drew his eyebrows together in thought. “No, laddie, I think it was autumn; October, perhaps. Why?”
“Well,” Eddie sighed unhappily, “it seems that Father always manages to think of him around Christmastime—”
“Well, you can’t blame him for that. People always remember their lost loved ones at Christmas,” Furlong smiled.
“But then he becomes sour and doesn’t try to make Christmas to be anything special or merry. I think that he’d rather forget Christmas and Heathcliff altogether and spend the day like it’s any old boring day.”
Eddie pouted. At the sight of his face, Furlong chuckled.
“I suppose your mother knew how to work around his ill temper?” He asked.
“Yes.” Eddie said. “Christmas was the only time we’d be warm and happy together, like a true family. Now that she’s gone...Father doesn’t care anymore,” his frown deepened, “and that Heathcliff doesn’t help.”
“There, there now, laddie, you mustn’t talk so.” Furlong said, patting the boy’s head. “You’re not to be blamed for reminding your Father of little Heathcliff. Keep your chin up. Things will turn out.”
“I don’t know,” Eddie said. “The past two Christmases have been dreadful. This one certainly doesn’t feel any different.”
A whistle blew hard just beyond the bend in the rails. Furlong looked up at the sound.
“That’ll be the 12:49,” he said. As he stood up, Eddie heard the elderly joints cracking softly. “Well, the day’s not over yet. You never know what’ll happen—and I still say, Merry Christmas, Eddie.”
“Merry Christmas, sir,” Eddie mumbled after the porter.
In a matter of minutes, the platform was teeming with passengers coming and going. The Christmas festivities were creating the ever-growing concourse and Eddie hurried out of the way. Farnham Station was not the oldest one in the city, but a few of the surrounding buildings were a bit out of repair. Eddie crawled up the broken rafters of the dilapidated post office, next door to the station’s ticket house. By slipping through the upstairs window, he managed to sit on the roof of the small structure, making sure not to disturb the passengers by his presence.
Sometimes, Furlong would notice he was up there and would put a reproving finger to his lips, causing Eddie to smother a giggle.
Eddie was so comfortable in his hiding place, he did not bother to descend in between trains. A few hours passed. Soon after the clock chimed four, Eddie heard Furlong speak to the Stationmaster, bidding him a good evening and a Merry Christmas. Furlong then looked up and bade Eddie a silent goodbye with his smile. Eddie waved his answer.
As he watched the old porter disappear from sight, Eddie drew up his knees and leaned his chin against them. A fog was beginning to descend upon the city, and with it returned Eddie’s disheartened anticipation of Christmas. He tried to hope it would be a nicer one this year, but how could he know? Besides, Furlong was kind, but sometimes grown-ups just say things to make children feel better—they don’t actually mean what they say.
Trying to think of something else, Eddie began to hum the carol, “God Rest Ye Merry,” to himself. When he reached the second stanza, he was surprised to hear another voice singing the same words. It sounded as if it was coming from the platform. Eddie peeped over the edge of the roof and saw a young man beneath him.
The stranger was pacing back and forth slowly, his hands in his pockets, his head cast down. He wore no coat nor jacket, only an open vest over his shirt and trousers. His feet were as bare as his uncovered head. The thick waves of his auburn mane swayed in the icy breeze.
Eddie was so intrigued, he forgot to keep humming. The youth carried the tune solo for another few verses.
Then he stopped and looked up at Eddie’s hiding place.