Grandwem knew he was no longer among the living first time she clapped eyes on him. She’d had the gift (if that’s what it bloody was) from her Mam, who’d had it from hers, and so-on down a ragged line. It missed some people, but Ada was same and Grandwem suspected her Granddaughter, Beryl, would find herself likewise saddled. ‘What a life!’ She whispered as she walked by him on the street.
No need asking if anyone else had seen. She knew from passing expressions it was only her.
Two weeks to Christmas and, for once, snow sprinkling lanes, gentle as icing-sugar on a bun. Yet, he was wet, as if it’d rained stair-rods for days. Soaking, so his jacket-top was dark, hair plastered to his forehead, and that face seemed speckled with run dirt. As for the rest of his clothes, they were wrinkly with damp so once good shoes appeared as cartoon footwear, springing leaks.
That was four days since and, by now Grandwem had seen her drowned man thrice. Always the same route, same dank and sodden appearance and set expression. ‘He’s going home,’ she thought, ‘and I’d wager money his body’s in the Res.’
Mansfield ‘Res’, brackish Reservoir, always where they fetched up, sad souls.
Some called such pools ‘Stockinger’s Rests’ as they were where broke or broken-hearted stocking factory workers had sometimes been discovered.
She’d not think on it now. It was too close to Christmas and Beryl would soon be home.
Passing Clarkey’s shop Grandwem looked with appreciation at the tinselled window with familiar celluloid angel, gold doily wings outspread. Clarkey’s was a bit of a local joke, as their Christmas trimmings were up all year round. Odd thing was, she thought, most of the time you didn’t notice them, and Old Man Clarkey didn’t switch the ‘Disney’ lights on until December. Only then did cheaply elongated versions of Pluto, Mickey and Jiminy Cricket glow faint red, green, and orange from their bells.
Folk needn’t laugh, as the decorations were all to do with Clarkey’s ‘not right’ son, who wept so inconsolably when they were taken down, repeating the phrase ‘don’t do it, Mam, don’t do it,’ over and over, that his Mam and Dad relented. ‘Put-on little soul gets not enough joy as it is,’ Mrs Clarkey said, ‘why shouldn’t he have them all year, they bring him such pleasure, and ent that what Christmas is supposed to be bleddy for?’
This year, Grandwem had ordered her usual Capon from Willis’s Butchers along with four big sausages to cut up and a tub of dripping. She’d make the mince pies, bolstering mince-meat with whatever fruit she’d dried out in the summer, just as in wartime. Cake, likewise, and Beryl said she was bringing a Chocolate Log. Alf would get them all ‘summat he shouldn’t’ in the way of liqueur, usually sticky sherry with a name like Old Coach, and gin tasting of ‘fuel that should be put inside a car.’
Despite all preparation and the fact she’d had an army of kids from Sunnyside Terrace making paper chains, Grandwem couldn’t get the drowned man from her mind, especially at night, when imagination took her to the street he was going home to, the meal waiting in the stove, and the mam, sister, or sweetheart who’d cooked it.
Also, the drowned man got wetter as days went by. Soon (although by now it’d begun snowing in earnest) he was darkened from head to foot, a squelch of a man, features flabbier, skin mottled as a pantry’s too-old Wensleydale Cheese. No white flakes clinging to his hair, or making shoulders furry.
‘Look, Mrs Bean, we know you’ve been on the money before with this sort of thing, and we always appreciate a tip-off. But, frankly, it’s Christmas, and we can’t afford the men, or sending the boat out.’
‘But he’s in there, Sergeant Hodges, I’m sure of it.’
‘Well, that’s as may be, but if he is, we’ll try in the New Year, when all the miscreants have gone quiet for a spell. I’m not being flippant, Mrs Bean, but he isn’t going anywhere.’
Yet, a few days later, drag the Res they did, dredging up an old bicycle, a few dead dogs, and an ancient sign-board reading No Fishing.
‘I were sure he’d be in there,’ Grandwem said to the family, ‘maybe it’s ewd age and me radio’s gone off dial.’
Christmas Eve and Beryl was coming late.
Grandwem decided she’d venture out and see if Waltham’s had any false cream left to go with that chocolate log. She’d just got the false cream and put the tub in a string bag, when the drowned man walked towards her, and she realised she must be further along his circuit.
Poor man, he looked proper ghastly, untouched by snow, and so wet he seemed oiled from head to foot. Close to, facial skin appeared barely hanging on to the bone, but something in the blue of his eye stopped Grandwem recoiling, as she realised she’d seen him before.
He’d been younger then, good looking in a flint-edged sort of way, and suddenly his name came bustling back, not a real name she recalled, but one he’d taken on, from a film, or a book or some such … Steven … Steven Guthrie …
The lad from the slum who’d got away and re-invented himself. The lad folk said felt too good for his roots and ‘thinking he was summat’ rejected his family name. He’d gone off to become an artist and had been successful. Grandwem recalled with shock he’d been sweet on her daughter, Rita, herself dead near ten years.
Suddenly Grandwem knew, as he passed her by, where Steven was headed. A vanquished slum, known to all as ‘Dog and Rat Yard,’ pulled down last year and replaced by six smart flats - Fourteen families, squeezed into tiny, broke-spined back-to-backs, including Steven’s. ‘Too Lord Snooty to come and get his Mam re-housed,’ as some wag put it. But Grandwem recalled Steven’s Mother as a vicious tongued, hard-bitten woman, who’d little time for anyone, let alone a son with artistic ambitions.
Following her drowned man’s steps, Grandwem headed for the flats, recalling as she did, that in the years after Rita’s death, flowers had appeared regularly on her grave. They’d been large, tasteful bunches, Grandwem had come to blame on the absent Steven who, it was said, lived in London. A card and sentimental message, but no signature, and not from a florist Grandwem recognised. The flowers had stopped coming this year.
‘He an’t died here,’ she thought, ‘but died away. He’s blocking some London lock, daft lad.’
That provided explanation as to why he hadn’t been in the Res. ‘He’s come back to see the Mam he never got on wi, well I’ll be blowed.’ Grandwem said aloud.
She’d reached the flats when Steven stopped, gazing past where new wrought-iron gates were fixed.
He looked into a long-gone court - houses sloped like drinkers queuing outside a pub before opening time. Then, turning, he raised a hand to Grandwem, and his voice rang out from a mouth suddenly young again:
‘Goodnight Mrs Bean, Seasons Greetings to you. Do me a favour and tell everyone me and Rita wish them a merry Christmas.’