My Friend Gilly, Trifle Pudding in the comments to this blog though she has yet to break into blogging, sent me this picture from an old edition of Punch
In the covering mail she writes:
This short story is the result
Hope – a story for Christmas
Hope Peace couldn’t remember exactly the first time she noticed the old man; he always seemed to have been there, shuffling up the road as she made her way down towards the town. His white beard caught the wind and flapped at the sides of his face. And whatever the weather he wore a heavy coat and carried a heavy bag.
Hope wasn’t tall or clever or pretty or any of the conventional things that made children stand out. But she noticed things. And that made her different and special.
She noticed how people stopped and let the old man past, smiles on their faces, nodding as if they agreed with something. But after he passed everyone followed his steady progress and their expressions changed. They became sad or worried or fearful and invariably turned back to continue their journeys with a shake of the head or a sigh.
One day she asked her mummy why she smiled as he approached.
‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s good to see someone as old as him still out and about. Still getting by. Still something to live for. Gives us all hope, I suppose.’
And another time she asked her daddy why he looked sad as the old man passed.
‘Oh I don’t know. He seems so weighed down, so tired of life. It’s a shame he doesn’t seem to have anyone to help him. Makes me feel rather hopeless, I suppose.’
As she grew she noticed that some days the old man walked a little taller, as if the bag he carried was empty of whatever was normally inside it. And on other days he was bent as if weighed down by a new burden.
And one day the old man was crying as, stooped and bent, he struggled past. ‘Mummy, why is he crying?’
‘Was he dear? I think we all want to cry today.’
‘Some bad men have killed some people with a bomb and now we are told we must kill the bad men.’
‘But isn’t that right, mummy? If they’re bad?’
‘I fear that innocent people will be killed too.’
As Hope grew, she wondered more and more about the old man. One sunny day, as she was heading for a choir practice the old man shuffled past as usual. Hope stopped and watched him closely. To her surprise when he was a few yards past her, he too stopped, turned and tipped his hat before carrying on.
After that, the old man seemed to catch her eye as they passed, as if he wanted to say something but he always stopped himself.
It was a hot sunny day and Hope woke with a start. The sky was an impeccable blue, the birds sang and everyone seemed to be happy. She set off for school with a smile on her face but as she went down her street she realised the old man wasn’t there. A small cloud passed in front of the sun and she shivered. Hope felt lost. She looked both ways but the street was empty.
‘Are you looking for the old gentleman?’
A woman stood in her front garden, clipping her roses. Hope hadn’t seen her before.
‘Yes. I always pass him but…’
‘He’s getting very old. I suppose even he couldn’t keep it up forever.’
‘I don’t understand.’
The woman smiled. ‘No, but you will. He lives round the corner. No 25. Why don’t you go and see him?’
Hope nodded and went to school but the happiness everyone felt at the good weather and the impending holidays didn’t penetrate her worries about the old man.
‘Mummy, the old man didn’t pass me today.’
‘What old man, dear?’
‘The one we always pass; the one with the bag. The one you smile at?’
‘We pass so many people. Point him out to me, next time.’
But there wasn’t a next time. The summer was one long outdoors day after another and, mostly, Hope forgot about the old man. It was September and the wind blew when Hope set out to start the new school year. The woman stood by the roses looking down the road. As Hope drew alongside she said, ‘He’s missed you. He’s been worried.’
‘But I missed him. I’ve been worried.’
The woman smiled at Hope. ‘We’re all so busy, aren’t we that we sometimes don’t see things we should.’
‘Will he be alright?’
‘Oh, at his age he just thinks about the next step he’s going to take. It’s about all he can manage.’
Hope took a few paces down the street and stopped. ‘Should I…?’ But the woman had gone.
At school the mood was one of excitement. Then a teacher put his head around the door and whispered to Hope’s teacher. Frowns replaced smiles, whispers drowned out laughter. More bad men, more horrors, more anxiety, more fear.
Hope was sent home early. She climbed her road and stopped by her gate. Both her mummy and daddy would be at work. She made up her mind and carried on, past the familiar houses and park, beyond the grass and trees until she came to number 25. She looked at the front door. On it, a yellowing piece of paper had been pinned. ‘Hope round the back.’
Hope frowned. How did the old man know she would turn up? How long had the paper been there?
Carefully – because Hope had been well taught to be wary of strangers and the old man, for all his familiarity was a stranger – Hope went to the side gate. It was open. She into a large garden. It was extraordinary. On one side the flowers bloomed and the displays were delightful; on the other everything seemed dry and dead or dying.
The old man sat in a large chair; it straddled the border between the lush side and the dreary side. All around him were packages, parcels with names on them. He seemed to be wrapping them carefully. When he finished one he picked a flower and inserted it into the parcel. As soon as he picked the flower the plant withered and died. As Hope watched, he shifted the chair a little one way to accommodate the increase in the dead part of the garden.
He sighed as he looked at Hope. ‘You came.’
‘Yes. What are the parcels?’
‘One for every child who dies before their time.’
‘Is that what’s in the sack you carry every day?’
‘Where do you take them?’
‘To wherever they might do some good. But, you see, the garden is dying. I don’t think I can go on much longer.’
‘Can I help?’
Hope began to work in the garden. After school, at weekends.
‘Where do you go Hope?’ Asked her mother.
‘I help the old man with his garden.’
‘How’s the garden coming on?’ Asked her daddy.
‘The old man says you should come and visit. It’ll soon at its best.’
‘But it’s nearly winter.’
‘The old man says it’s best at Christmas.’
‘This I must see.’
Word spread about the Christmas garden, about how it was truly at its most perfect at this time of year. Hope worked hard and the dead areas began to shrink. The old man smiled more though he didn’t seem to have any less parcels around his feet.
Christmas day arrived and Hope woke with a start. She looked outside her window. People were gathering by her gate. She dressed and told her mummy and daddy. They smiled and followed her outside. Everyone wanted to see the garden. So Hope led the way, worried what the old man might say.
She knocked on the gate and as usual it opened. ‘I’m sorry but a lot of people want to see your garden.’
The old man nodded. ‘Of course they do. Let them all in.’
People poured in, a never ending line but the garden never seemed to fill. The old man sat and continued to parcel up the boxes and pluck the flowers. A small boy asked what he was doing and everyone listened. ‘But why?’ Asked the little boy.
‘One day,’ said the old man, ‘I hope people will stop killing children and then there will be peace. And if by these little gifts, I can help bring about that day, I will.’
‘But,’ said the little boy, ‘you’re old. Surely you can’t go one forever. What will happen then?’
The old man paused in his packing and then smiled at the little boy. He pointed at his helper. ‘There’s always Hope.’