Bad Wrapping and the Gift of Hope


Sad fact – people have no inclination to open presents I’ve wrapped. This is because, instead of tantalising hints at treasure within, they give off an aura of utter tat, fallen from the back of a lorry or bought at a White Elephant stall. I tell myself it’s because I’m a “rip it off” person. My husband, on the other hand, is brilliant. Sizing the wrapping to be cut with a practised eye,  he can scissor a line through paper straight as an arrow (without cutting the tablecloth) and coax the lumpiest of shapes into  perfect hospital corners. He’s not much good at ribbons and bows. If there are any to be applied (and I can’t promise there will be), I’m quite good at that. But as for the basics, forget it. We have refined the process to factory-like precision. He wraps. I write eccentric labels and do pretty bits (stick on bows) and everyone is happy.

Which would you rather open? This one?

Which would you rather open? This?

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Or this? (I rest my case)

Or this one? (wrapped by an artistic friend)

Or even this? (painted and wrapped by a friend)

This morning we did the Christmas Food Shop. Observing others, it fascinates me how different we are.  Some trolleys were full of alcohol and little else, some with meat. There was one lady with a trolley crammed with just potatoes. I wanted to say, “A-scuse me! Are you having a potato printing party? ” But it seemed a bit nosy to say the least, so I contented myself with imagining a baked potato jamboree at hers, with Santa hats. There was a shaky old lady trying to read labels on jars of pickled onions and a teenager trying to help. “Sulphur dioxide. Are you alright with that? What about onions? You alright with them?” It made her laugh as she thanked him for his trouble.

After we’d stowed our bags in the car, there was an incident. From the queue waiting for spaces, a Mercedes suddenly swerved around the car at the front and roared straight into a just-vacated space. The young lady, whose space it should have been, started tooting furiously. She got out, strode over to the three young men getting out of the car, and shouted, “Oi! You were behind me!”

“No we weren’t!” replied the driver, “We were in FRONT of you. Anyway we’d been waiting f****** ages!”

The young lady, understandably, wasn’t happy. She called them a name, loudly. I won’t repeat it but it begins with a W. And has seven letters (in the plural). The young men strode off, laughing. I do not like this word but you could see her point of view.

What happened next was interesting. Four or five people, including my husband, indicated that they were about to go and she could have their space, even pulling out before they’d taken the trolley back etc. so she could park. She immediately reverted to the pleasant, gentle looking person she had previously seemed, and thanked us all profusely. We were outraged, but nobody wanted to pick a fight with three, er, unpleasant youths. But this was something we could do.

Christmas brings out the best and worst in us – my physical laziness (because that’s what it is. I spend ages thinking of eccentric greetings for labels), the kindness of strangers, impatience, selfishness, solidarity towards the wronged. But random kindness give us hope. It reminds me of the story told on Sunday…

Four candles were burning on the advent wreath. The room was still and ever so quietly they began to talk to each other.  The first candle sighed, “My name is Peace. But people don’t recognise my value and won’t allow me into their lives.” Gradually the candle’s light got smaller and weaker until finally it went out.

The second candle trembled in a draught from the window. “My name is Faith,” she whispered, “But I feel as though I’m not needed. People don’t believe anything any more unless they can touch it and hold it in their hands.” And slowly the candle flickered and died.

The third candle whispered, “My name is Love. I no longer have the strength to keep burning. The world has become so selfish and uncaring.  People only think about what’s best for them.” And with a  sputter and a sigh, its light went out

At that moment, a child came into the room. He stopped and looked at the candles, puzzled. “You should be burning!” he cried, “You should be alight. We need you!”

Then the fourth candle spoke. “Do not be afraid,” she said, “As long as I’m on fire, I will always give the other candles light and life. My name is Hope.”

And with a small piece of wood, the child took the light from the candle of hope and used it to light the way to peace, faith and love again…wpid-20141130_114837.jpg

A big thank you if you have clicked on the link and read a blog post this year.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a hopeful 2016…

One Moment One Christmas


It feels like it happened yesterday. Though in fact it’s fifty Christmases since we were in our little house by the sea. Funny how the intense impressions of youth are saved forever on your hard-drive, whereas why you came to the Post Office remains a mystery. The kind Indian man has eyes that twinkle as he runs over possibilities for me: – “Stamps? Letter? Parcel?” He leans forward, for his little joke, “Dri-ving license?” We both giggle inanely. And I point my stick at him as he knows I will.                                                   “Rude!” I shout, causing the rest of the queue to stare in alarm at the unsupported stump of my right leg. I used to wear a prosthesis but these days I hardly bother.  I am who I am.  I see my hand tremble as I sign for the parcel.  E.  Homes.  He puts the small package gently into my hand and closes the fingers around it. He is smiling.                       “Happy Christmas!” he says.                                                                                                                             

Ellie did not know what she’d expected, but she hadn’t expected this; a sea of tents as far as the eye could see, thick ribbons of mud and a sharp wind that made the canvas pitch and tremble like boats at sea; piles of rubbish everywhere and grubby children . Men ambled about, shoulders hunched against the weather, shovelling mud from tent flaps or raising mobiles hopefully to the sky. Worst of all were the sounds of despair – savage coughing and moans of pain from behind canvas, cries for help whipped away in the unforgiving wind. She saw a couple of young doctors, about her age, moving from tent to tent, immediately surrounded by men, women and children, asking in broken English for pain killers, antibiotics, dressings. What struck her most, as she made her way to the makeshift school, was the team spirit  – the sharing of food, drugs, possessions, the kindness.

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“You have it! I can man-age,” she heard a man say, offering an inhaler to a small child. He was wearing jeans and a thin jacket and coughing loudly into wet tissues. She saw women giving their food to other women’s children. She saw a teenager remove his jumper and give it to the coughing man. Craning her neck, she glimpsed the latter’s chip toothed smile as he pulled it over his head. It was thick but tight and the arms were too short. She heard laughter erupting from the group around him. This place, she decided, was misnamed The Jungle, where the each survived at another’s expense. These people had next to nothing, but they shared everything.

The school, with its wooden frame and rows of pallet benches, was full. Weary men sat alongside round eyed children, hugging themselves to keep warm. She took off her rucksack, took our her books, smiled.

The next week was a blur of impressions – days spent teaching English phrases, evenings helping dish out food at the camp kitchen, nights tossing and turning in the tired caravan buffeted by sea winds. In the run up to Christmas the weather worsened – sleety rain battered the camp, the wind was needle-sharp and everywhere the mud deepened and swelled, sliding into everything – shoes, clothes, tents. The students were keen to practise their English but there was one silent child. who always sat on the second bench. He was about eight years old, with thick hair and heavy eyes narrowed by eczema. He sat on the bench and swung his legs and listened. Ellie liked to walk up and down when she was teaching and she felt the boy’s eyes follow her everywhere.  A young man always brought him in, lifted him onto the bench, then returned for him after lessons. Curious, one day she asked one of the refugees about him.

“We no know!” He shrugged, “He no speak. Ahmed, he find him on journey from Syria. Ahmed look after him like brother because he alone. We call him Jack.”

From then on, she made a special effort to smile at him. She gave him a chocolate bar and when Ahmed came for him, she asked if he needed anything for the boy. Ahmed, a sullen teenager, transformed into a tender friend where Jack was concerned, bowed politely as he reached for the boy’s hand.

“Thank you!” he said, “We need only place on lorry to England. Everyone do!” And then he left.

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The days dragged on. Ellie’s train was booked for Christmas Eve. One day, a French volunteer brought a Christmas tree into the school.  It had been roughly cut and shoved into a green bucket that someone had decorated with red paint. A shop had donated it along with decorations and strings of tiny lights. So it was that on the twenty first of December, Ellie found herself up at seven, decorating the school with other volunteers for a surprise party. They made paper snowflakes to stick to the windows, filled plates with tiny Buches de Noel and hung paper chains made from bandage wrappers. Someone had donated a hundred cans of Cola.

When the students arrived, they stared. The children pointed. Even the men smiled and touched the paper snowflakes wonderingly.

“You can only come to the party if you speak in English!” announced Ellie.

“O-kay!” the students called, “We spik Eng-leesh!” They passed food, drank the Cola and Ellie told them they would be playing English party games.

“Chrees-mas tree!” The voice, young and clear, rang out from the back of the school room. Everyone fell silent. Ahmed was making his usual late entry with Jack limping at his side, the boy pulling his sleeve and pointing.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said, again. Ahmed was trying to smile, pulling his dirty sleeve across his eyes. Everyone was staring. When they got to the front of the room, Ahmed lifted the boy up and held him so he could see the baubles, the lights, the star on the top.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said again, sighing with delight. The refugees gathered round, smiling, chucking him on the chin. Ellie would never forget that Christmas. There was more laughter, more hope in that room than she had ever experienced. And it came, in true Christmas spirit, from a child. Half way through, someone came in with post for her, a brown padded envelope from her mother. Inside was a note and a gift. “For your little house by the sea,” it said, “To put you in the mood for Christmas!” And inside, wrapped up tightly in bubble wrap, was a decoration from home – one of her favourites : a tiny Christmas tree hung with gold twine. What were the chances of that? She would never forget Jack’s face when she gave it to him. In fact, she would never forget that day. Not ever.

On Christmas Eve, she went early to find Ahmed to say goodbye, but the tent was empty.

“They gone,” said a neighbour sadly, appearing suddenly behind her.

“Gone?” Ellie was shocked, “Gone where?”

The woman pulled her headscarf over her face and readjusted it, pointing towards the tunnel. “There traff-eec jam today. Because of Chris-maas. They go find lorry. Poor Jack. He not want go. But Ahmed, he make him! He need treatment, you know, for leg.”

“What leg?” Ellie was confused.

“jack always limping,” she replied, “In Seey-ria, a soldier, he ask him if he want treat. Then they take him away and they drive over his leg. He need hospital now.”

Distressed, Ellie peered into the tent. The two sleeping bags, pillows and piles of blankets were still there. But clothes, any personal items had gone. She felt heavy as lead. What were the chances of them getting across? Almost nil. Much higher were the chances of injury or arrest. Only last month a pregnant woman had died falling off a lorry. As she backed out of the tent, filled with fear for her friends, her foot fell on something small and knobbly. She bent down and picked  it up.

I am thinking of this today as I chunter home, as I think of it every Christmas. The party with the coloured lights, the food, the kindness of strangers. After fifty Christmases in this, my adopted land, that was still my best ever. Those volunteers and friends particularly Ahmed, who looked out for me after my brother died on the journey, they gave me the most precious gift of all –  my voice. I found the organisation that Ellie worked for and I wrote to her. We corresponded for years. I told her we shared the same name. They called me Jack while I was silent. But my real name was Elias, Elias Homsi, conveniently anglicised to Eli Homes.

I unwrap the parcel in front of the fire and read the Christmas card – Eli, I always meant to give you this. I’ve finally got round to sending it. Happy Christmas! Love Ellie x

I hang the tiny Christmas tree with its gold twine and painted decorations. I will show it to Ahmed when he arrives tomorrow.

 

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Based on eye witness accounts of the appalling situation faced by the refugees at the Calais camp.

If you enjoyed this story, would you consider donating to help with the refugee work in Calais? It doesn’t have to be a lot – only 50p will buy a hot meal for a refugee. Please click on the link if you’d like to help…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer, Advent and Latin Verbs


Call me sad but I loved Latin verbs. At an all-girls school, stuffed with hormones and self-obsession (I levelled out but have recently declined again – for obvious reasons), Latin verbs were immensely comforting. Like the shipping forecast , there was a predictability, a rhythmic quality to the conjugations that soothed you, suspended time and made you acutely aware of the moment. To this day if I start reciting, “amo, amas, amat…” my senses are filled with memory – the smell of wax on polished wood, pink blotting paper. and on the floor, clean squares of sunshine where dust motes dance a late, lazy waltz. Miss Everley, with her pointy shoes and ever-present smell of patchouli, would be proud of me.

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The word advent is Latin for arrival. The verb, advenire, to arrive, is one of my favourites because the -ire verb endings (fourth conjugation) were the friendliest ones. Look, this may sound odd, but try it. Try saying it out loud : – advenio, advenis, advenit, advenimus, advenitis, advenitunt.  See what I mean? Don’t you feel soothed and generally more benevolent towards the world? This is probably because when you got to the second person plural you couldn’t resist saying “advenitits” and this made you giggle inanely. It was, of course, the real reason we favoured it. But I can assure you Miss Everley would have had none of it, striding over to you, eyes like gimlets and breathing close-range patchouli flavoured threats at you. This was so unpleasant that, if you had a compulsion to say “advenitits” you had to whisper it in order to stay alive. Of course, if the rest of your class had noticed this compulsion and hatched a plot to hold their breath at the second person plural, you were stuffed anyway. Sigh.

For me, advent is like Latin verbs. There’s comfort in the routine  – making the cake, decorating the house. When I think of advents past, my senses are filled with cinnamon, snow and the smell of oranges. When the children were small we lived abroad, in a country that didn’t celebrate Christmas, so we used to make biscuits in the shape of holly or angels to hang on the tree. We made crackers  and filled bowls with oranges. It was very cold and there was often snow, which my husband had to shovel off the roof to stop it leaking. We missed family and friends but those makeshift festivities were among my best ever. We sang carols and met up with other ex-pats who taught us their advent routines – gingerbread houses (Norway), sweets in shoes (German), glogg (Sweden).  Of course I romanticise it – there were illnesses, breakdowns in the snow. The apartment never seemed to get warm. But they were happy times.

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This year we can light candles, go to church, sing carols. We’ll put out the Christmas cushions and the nativity scene. We’ll remember, as you will, that there are many celebrating the season with tents for homes and empty stomachs. And we’ll give thanks, as you will, to God or life or both (depending on which combination you believe in) that we have warmth and light and loved ones, to help us through the winter months. Then we’ll turn on the News and remember, as you might, that we could have done more for  others – filled a Christmas box, given money, donated at work. There’s so much need, we can become immune to it.

At times, I feel overwhelmed by the tide of evil sweeping the world – not just the terrorists and the wars and the starving children, but the selfish thoughts, the angry words, the jockeying for position that goes on in my own life, and maybe in yours. All this can drive us to despair. That’s why I’ve started using the Lord’s Prayer. it was brought to my attention recently in the News. Apart from praying it at church, I rarely prayed it. I know there’s been some controversy lately and maybe the cinema isn’t the best place for it. But in the car, or on Break Duty or  cooking, really is. It’s such a great prayer and seems to cover all the bases, all the things that are wrong with the world, and with me. Jesus  thought of it but it could equally be prayed by anyone seeking after truth, after God, whoever they conceive him (or her) to be. There’s a rhythm, a soothing quality to it that’s immensely comforting. Like Advent or Latin verbs.

And I can’t explain it, but when I pray, things happen. Good things.

 

 

 

 

Advent, sheep and a kiss from a stranger


It’s been a strange week.

I’m on my way home from work after what is called a challenging day. It’s a fitting end really; that is to say, there is darkness, traffic, and rain-galloping cats and dogs. And the lower lid of my right eye keeps doing this thing where it moves without my help. Like being flicked with an invisible finger. I sit in a queue, head thrown back listening to Eddie Mair who would actually be a best friend in real life on account of being Scottish and soothing and always finding ways to put things in perspective (well, he is a newsreader.) There’s a tiny scrap of sky on the right that’s still light. I watch it, fascinated – just a narrow shred, but somehow trnasformative. I crane my neck a bit and find myself staring into the eyes of a man in a car alongside (he shouldn’t be there really, there are chevrons). Now I know when my face is in thinking mode, I look a bit glum. When I was young my teachers were always saying, infuriatingly, Cheer up Deborah, it may never happen! I used to walk around smiling – which is the only way they’d leave me alone – but frankly it just scared people and after a while it hurt, so I gave up. Anyway, I quickly look away, like you do, just in case the person thinks you’re staring at them. Then I look back to see it he’s looked away, and, if I’m honest, because he has a nice face even though he’s breaking the law, and he’s still looking at me, And I’m about to look away again but, quick as a flash, he blows me a kiss! Honestly! A man half my age and me, a married woman, with dark roots. And tics.

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Anyway, I can’t help smiling, mainly because it’s so ridiculous but also because of his cheeky grin and the fact that he reminds me of someone I might once have taught. He gives me a thumbs-up and immediately powers off, lurching in front of me. Probably a ruse I think, or a dare, or an alcohol induced joke. But I’m smiling into the darkness and my mood is thinning. I look up. The wedge of light has gone, but although I am a deflated balloon, I lift a little. But then there is commotion behind me on account of the traffic in front having gone and several drivers leaning on horns. I gesture apologetically and they gesture back. One or two are, er, quite negative. Oh well, perhaps they had a bad day…

The next day we deliver sheep for Advent. It works like this. We go round the village shops and ask if they would host a sheep. I have a spiel which I’ve practised in front of the mirror – Hello, I wonder if you can help me. I’m from the Baptist Church and hopefully this.plan will benefit both of us (wave sheep). We were wondering if you would like to host one of our sheep during the run-up to Christmas. This should bring families with young children into your shop to look for them (and hopefully spend some money?) so they can bring their names to our Messy Church Christmas Carols and win a prize. 

The first shop keeper looks sceptical, until the sheep-waving part. Oh my goodness!They’re gorgeous! she says, wanting a cuddle (with the sheep, obviously). The next one was a bit frowny. How much does it cost? Free? You mean there’s no money involved? She looks amazed. One lady runs excitedly around her shop trying a sheep in different positions. What do you think? Here? Or here? No, how about here?! My husband has shop-keepers asking to host one. It’s extraordinary. And I suppose it all goes to show – everyone is a child at heart.

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The next day I get a copy of a letter to my GP from a consultant allergist. Now I’ve had a few of these lately from various consultants and they all start in the same distinctive way –

Dear Dr ______, Thank you for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. She describes a 13 year history of asthma…

Now this is probably some kind of Hippocratic tradition, but I always wonder. Are they really saying – Thank you so much for sending me this 52 years old primary teacher whose nasal polyps are so fascinating and unusual that my medical curiosity is finally satisfied?

Or is it sarcastic? – Well, thanks a bunch for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. Just what I’ve always wanted – an overanxious hypochondriac with so many questions I can’t blow my own nose without her asking how long it will take and if it’ll hurt. 

What irritates me most is I had to nag my doctor endlessly to refer me for my allergies. It should say – Dear Dr. ______, Please pass on my thanks to your patient, a persistent, polyp-ridden primary teacher who looks far younger than her 52 years…

And there’ll be another one soon. He’s referring me to a Nose Specialist. Did you know they even existed? Are there Toe Specialists as well and Armpit ones?

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A surreal week.

And on top of all that it’s advent. The shops are alight and there’s an advent candle at church and we’re planning carol services and nativity plays, and writing cards and buying presents and getting the tree down from the loft….And In the middle of it all, there are these signposts. But sometimes I forget to notice them. I have to be watchful and remember to breathe, and look out of windows at the sky, and forgive people and read things that inspire me to be kind, like the bible and Winnie- the- Pooh.

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The signposts are often small. Like a sheep, or a child or a letter that makes you smile, Or a kiss from a stranger They wake you up, the flick of an invisible finger pointing to life, to Christmas, to the ancient magic; we’re never alone…

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Christmas Hunters of the World, Unite…


A best mate bought me a tea towel. It was red and white and tied with checked ribbon and tinsel. She’d made a card too, which was decorated with a square of material and gold stars. It may end up being my best present. On a day of driving rain and gridlocked roads, she came here to give it to me on a bike festooned with holly and Christmas lights. My mate is one of the busiest people I know. She has three sons, a demanding job, and an aged father. She also volunteers at a prison and always has a houseful of people who need feeding or cheering up. After visiting me she was cycling to Isleworth to buy Christmas pants (underpants for American readers). Don’t ask. It’s a long story. Just know that my mate is a legend.

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I did my present shopping late on Saturday, the shortest day of the year, in Kingston in the rain with 3 or 4 other people who weren’t interested in the Strictly final.  It was a good move. I kept glancing sideways and nodding my bobble hat at them with a conspiratorial “You too, huh?” to cement our unspoken dislike of sequins and tight trousers. We had this bond. We were strong, independent non-glitter-ballers content to live in our own skins. We did not need Anton du Beke. While the country was Strictly-bound, we were going out to buy Christmas so we could wrap it up and put it under the tree. (Of course, really, we’re just less organised than Strictly people.)

It was late in the day and quiet for a pre-Christmas Saturday. The atmosphere was festive. There were lights and the smell of gingerbread and by the churchyard, a leathery man selling chestnuts. There was also a Christmas market, music, stalls strung with tiny lights. People didn’t seem in the kind of manic hurry you’d have expected either. They strolled and looked in windows and sipped lattes in the rain, or shouted into mobiles.

“What size feet yer got?”

“Do figs give Gran the runs?”

“Who’s winning on Strictly?”

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Apart from the Hari Krishna man, who surely could have sung carols, just this once, instead of that humming thing that was distinctly unChristmassy, the place was magical. It made me feel part of this vast throng of world-wide Christmas hunters battling through rain and wind, or drought if in Africa, to find the magic and buy it and get it home as soon as possible, so we can all parcel it up, put it under the tree, pour the bubbly and live the Christmas dream.

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But here’s the thing – quite a few friends and neighbours are having a rubbish Christmas this year and won’t even be trying to buy the magic. There’s no point when you’re alone or someone you love is ill or your hope for the New Year is tired and old before you even get there. I remember such a Christmas – it’s like looking through the window at everyone else, all smart and dancey under the glitter ball while you’re outside in the rain with slippers on. It suddenly hits you – in a nose against the wall kind of way – that you actually don’t need atmosphere with a tree and turkey or even presents. These things are just a distraction from what really matters…

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And God, who did the first Christmas, and knows its secrets, just gives us a baby. Which is, you know nice and all – babies melt the hardest hearts – but I’d well, prefer a miracle for my friends across the road, and for that person at church, and for my mate having chemo again. Which might well happen, I know. But in the meantime he invites us again to take a risk, on a baby…

When I get home, it’s windy and raining hard, there’s no one in and it’s so dark, I can’t even see to put the key in the lock – I am, ahem, a little visually challenged at the best of times. So I’m juggling my bags and stabbing the key at the door and getting wet hair and trying not to say bad words in my head, when a bloke walks past and lights a cigarette. A tiny pinprick of light but that’s all you need when it’s completely dark. It’s enough for me to jab wildly at the lock and feel the satisfying click of an opening door.

And in the house, it’s all panting and quiet, and dry and warm with good words like, “Thank goodness!” and “Home!” and “Put the kettle on” and the wind and the rain are all faint and distant and the bags make puddles on the floor. And when the light is on, through the lounge door, there are the wooden figures of the nativity scene – Mary with her chipped nose and the shepherd with his broken stick and the others, the same every year.

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So I wearily pull the presents out of the bags and wipe them down and tick them off on lists, and I’m thinking of the tea towel and the Christmas pants and that God, who knows we have short memories, meant it to be simple – a promise, a baby, some shepherds and angels.

And every year I’m invited to choose – to hunt for magic or open the hands, to a baby. Chipped and broken, I’ll take a risk again on the baby; that tiny pinprick of light in the depths of winter.

But that’s all you need, when it’s completely dark…

And because of this, I can confidently wish all my kind and faithful blog readers, known and unknown, a Happy Christmas and a New Year filled with pinpricks of hope. And friends with tea towels.

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