Even though this was the last day of their first term, she felt like a newbie. Lisa had settled in well at her class, though she still felt as if there were some things they weren’t doing right at home. She’d never baked in her life before, and this school seemed to demand cakes on a near-weekly basis, and they had to be home made.
Her first attempt had been a disaster and her upside down marmalade cake had been upside down for all the wrong reasons. Her ginger cake had been a cheat and it had cost a fortune from Waitrose. She’d put almonds on top to make it look a bit more home-made and had been admonished by her class teacher. Had she forgotten the nut free policy in the school? Well, in truth, she had.
What mattered was that Lisa was happier than she’d been in a long time.
Ellen, her mother, stood near the gate. She never quite came right into the grounds unless she really had to. She smiled shyly at those who smiled at her, but there were also groups she didn’t feel part of and wasn’t sure how you got invited into them. One parent, at a parents’ evening had said that fundraising was the way to meet people or the craft group. But she was having enough trouble fundraising for day-to-day living, and she couldn’t sew or knit for toffees. Her own mum and dad had been firmly planted in front of Strictly or Eastenders when they weren’t out at work.
The last day of term. It was cold. Freezing. She knew the temperature wasn’t anywhere near as low as zero, but she always felt cold in winter. When they’d moved into the flat, the agent had pointed to the wood-burning stove, but she had no idea what to do with it, even though it had been safety checked and was ready for use.
Just her and Lisa again this Christmas. Of course, there were friends at the end of Facebook and a few relatives on Skype; her sister in America. And Ian would be over on boxing day.
There was some sudden laughter near the sports shed, and some tinsel was being worn like a king’s crown. Lisa would come running out soon, with all the other children spilling out from the school’s main door.
Ellen knew there were other parents here, struggling or sometimes thriving on their own, with barely enough money to get by. She could tell by some of the new four-wheel drives, and Mercedes baby buggies that there was also money here, wrapped in Barbour Jackets and Fat Face jumpers. She didn’t resent that. But she really didn’t know how she could light up Lisa’s Christmas this year. They were closer to zero than they had even been.
Ellen felt welcome at the school. It was a breath of fresh air from the dinosaur institution Lisa had gone to before they’d moved here. The exam sausage machine. Then Dan had died, and they just had to flee those awful memories. So here they were. And all the life insurance money going on the school fees. Maybe it was her, not yet ready to bind to a new community and make new connection. They might have ordinary names; Just plain Ellen and Lisa, no Hiawatha or Star in their family. She felt on the edge of this colourful world, not yet part of it.
The door burst open, and children spilled out of the door, like water from a bubbling spring. Lisa’s class came out a few moments later, each child clutching a more or less squashed home made cracker, shaking hands with their teacher before leaving. Lisa saw her mum and ran towards her.
Suddenly Lisa stopped and stood very still. Ellen thought something was wrong and started towards her young daughter. But something made her stop.
Lisa was staring at her, more than she’d ever stared at her before. It unnerved Ellen and she mouthed the word, “Lisa?”, in the form of a question.
For a fleeting moment a flash of anger lit up in the child’s eyes. Ellen saw it, like a flash of lighting focused through a prism. In a breath it was gone, to be replaced by a look of mischief, the child’s lips curling up into a smile. Then the smile was gone and Lisa turned to a parent who was standing next to her, a parent of one of the older children, and she held out her hand to him – a stranger!
The man looked down with curiousity, wondering what the little girl wanted. “Are you okay? Are you looking for your mum or dad?”
Lisa said nothing but continued to hold out her hand, hardly moving. And then Ellen heard Lisa say these words to the man: “Make a chain with me!”
The man seemed to freeze for a moment before reaching his hand toward’s the little girl’s and taking hold of it. In that moment, Lisa looked up at her mama and smiled such a warm smile, it brought tears to Ellen’s eyes.
But it didn’t stop there. Lisa proceeded to pull the man towards another woman, who was standing with her partner, waiting for their twins to come out of the school door.
A few seconds later, the chain was now made up of three adults and a child. A few of the youngers ones, seeing that some kind of game was afoot joined the little line, and soon there were a dozen souls snaking around the school entrance. Sometimes the whole line stopped, yet there was never a word spoken until someone hesitated and then, sometimes Lisa alone, sometimes a trio, and sometimes the entire line of people would say: “Make a chain with me.”
It happened in less than three minutes. Ninety seconds was all it took for the every person in the school grounds to join the line. Only Ellen was left.
“Come on, mama! Make a chain with me!”
Lisa wanted to run, to flee this place, to perhaps run all the way to the sea and then, where else? A hundred and sixteen pairs of eyes, young, older and even very old were fixed upon her, as her usually shy little daughter looked with a wintry twinkle and the invitation was there to be accepted or refused.
Her cold hand was reaching before her fuzzy thoughts could fog her up any further. And Ellen was last in the line, clutching the bony but warm fingers of a puffing and laughing grandma. Ellen thought this was some kind of madness, or perhaps a spell, but she didn’t let go.
And that’s when the teachers who stepped out of the school door gasped, only for a moment, then looked at each other and did what teachers need to do. They stepped briskly, confidently, as if they recognised these moments all of the time, and joined the end of the line.
The chain walked a fancy figure of eight around the basket ball court, led confidently by a little girl called Lisa. Mum held hands with some, some who’d been firm friends for years, others connecting for the first time.
Where would Lisa take them next?
Out of the gate of course. Right. Past the Co-op and up the hill, which was where Ellen found her voice, born on the wings of dawning realisation and panic.
“But its just a bedsit! And we don’t have a thing in the fridge!”
That’s when a mustard yellow van turned the corner near the bus garage and Matt, the school maintenance wizard, seeing what was afoot, leapt out, abandoning it to the attentions of a stunned parking attendant, and joined the back of the line. Jack, who led the school community choir, was just stepping out of the Co op, nodded in recognition at what was clearly a Christmas Chain. Matt and Jack knew all about Christmas chains.
Soon they were past St Cuthman’s and entering the doorway to a small block of flats, the stairwell, echoing with the sounds of laughter and chat, and someone humming “Last Christmas”.
Not everyone could fit into the stair well and half of the chain waited in the cold of Whitehawk Road.
Up to the third floor, up to a red front door and Lisa shouted: “Stop, Chain! I think my mama has got the key!”
Quickly the key was fitted it into the lock of their flat front door.
One large room, a small plastic Christmas tree, dressed, courtesy of Lidl, for under a fiver.
And that’s when the mums and dads went to work. They crowded in, fast as flowing wine, hurled a patchwork rug over the flat screen television.
Then they upended their bags. Pine cones and flapjacks, spiced buns and tissue paper. A quick jog to the shop and soon there was mulled wine and juice brewing on the stove. Magazine paper became paper chains and mince pies were soon warming in the oven.
Ellen stood there, looking on, the last to enter the packed room, A now thoroughly Christmas room, decked out with holly and mistletoe from rummaged parents’ bags. Some had been shopping and now they shared it all. Most of the school choir were there and they sang carols as an impossibly tall dad scrunched up a copy of the Metro, fished a log from his rucksack and lit the stove. Soon flames were dancing the eyes of all who sang and a few who were laughing.
Mistletoe and blushes appeared and even a sprig of holly. IPhones flashed and the table was laid with all that was found or brought, which was much.
Ellen looked on, into her crowded, tiny home. She saw Lisa whooping with delight as she pulled a home-made cracker and gathered up a marble and a riddle.
“What tea is the warmest of all?” “Community!” she cried! “I don’t get it!”
It went on beyond early sun set.
Then they were left alone.
Yet somehow, never alone again.