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Authors: T. Davis Bunn

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BOOK: Tidings of Comfort and Joy
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Marissa scrambled up so that she was more seated than lying. "All right, Gran."

"You haven't been acting very adultlike these past few days," Gran pointed out.

"But I "

"Never mind." She patted Marissa's arm for silence.

"Now there's something more before we begin. This is a precious thing, what I'm about to tell you. Some people know parts of this story, but very few know it all. I'm not even sure if your mother is aware of everything."

As she spoke, Gran grew ever more somber. Her gaze seemed to open up, bigger and bigger, until it seemed as though those two gray eyes filled Marissa's vision. "So I want you to promise me that what I give you is for you alone. You can't tell another person, not as long as I'm alive. This is
my
story, an important part of
my
life. You have to promise me that you will respect this."

Marissa felt a little shiver course through her. Whether it was fear or anticipation she was not sure. "All right, Gran."

"You promise that what we talk about here will remain just between the two of us?"

"I promise."

"Very well, then." There was an instant's hesitation, not as though Gran was still uncertain whether she should act or not, but rather as though a huge old door were opening somewhere just out of sight. And the act of pushing at the long-disused door took so much effort, it had to be done slowly. "I suppose," Gran said quietly, "one of the reasons I've never talked about this before was because I didn't need to, so long as Colin was still with me. But now . . . "

Another instant's hesitation, and Marissa found herself holding her breath. Then Gran unfolded the arm that held the squares of paper, slowly bringing them out and around, until she settled the first one in Marissa's lap. "This is where my story begins."

It was a photograph. A very old one, too, Marissa knew that immediately. The edges were crinkle-cut, and the borders were yellowed. But despite the fading of time, nothing could disguise the attractiveness of the man who smiled up at her. "Who is
that?"

"His name is Grant Rockwell. O r was. I don't know if he is still alive."

"Wow. He looks like a movie star."

"Isn't that remarkable. Do you know, that was exactly what I thought the first time I saw him. He looked like Clark Gable. More like Clark Gable than Clark Gable himself."

Marissa examined the man. He was wearing a uniform of some sort. His teeth were perfectly even, and his eyes were staring at her with an electric force that made her fingers tingle where they touched the photograph. "He's a hunk."

Her grandmother laughed aloud. "I'm not sure I would use that term, but I share the sentiment. He was the most handsome man I had ever set eyes on."

"But who
is
he?"

"He was a pilot in the American Army A i r Corps." The mischievous light had returned to Gran's eyes. "And he was the man I was engaged to marry."

Marissa frowned in concentration. "But Gran, that's not—"

"I said I
was
engaged to marry." She turned her head so as to better see the photograph. "But this was the man I traveled all the way to England for."

A tremor shivered the world upon which Marissa's life was built. "But I thought you went over to meet Granpa."

"That is what we have always told people, and we firmly believe it to be the truth. I was brought across the Atlantic because I was intended to marry the Reverend Colin Albright." The light in her eyes drifted south, lifting the edges of her mouth. "But first the dear Lord had to find some reason to pluck me up and carry me across the ocean, didn't He?"

"I guess so." Granpa was English, Marissa had always known that. He had the nicest way of speaking, not at all like anyone else she knew. He had a very deep voice, and it seemed as though he sang the words instead of just speaking them. She also knew that Gran had left Philadelphia and traveled to England, and met Granpa in a little village where he was preaching. Then they had decided to come back to America.

She didn't know why she found this news of another romance in Gran's past so unsettling. Nonetheless, Marissa knew she wanted to enter through the open door, and walk the dusty lanes of past times and adventures with her grandmother. "Why didn't you marry him?"

"That, my dear, is where our story begins. Here, you might as well see this one, too, before I begin." She set the second photograph in Marissa's lap. "I'm not sure I ever showed that one to Carol."

Marissa found herself blushing without understanding exactly why. A very attractive young woman was leaning forward, her arms wrapped around the handsome man in uniform. He was facing the camera instead of her, so that she leaned against his right side, and he held her with one arm. He gave the camera a jaunty smile. But what shocked Marissa was the woman's expression. She stared up at the man with an eagerness so strong it was almost a hunger. She used both arms to hold him close, and clearly she saw nothing at all except the man she was holding. "Is that you?"

"What a question. Of course it is. Don't you recognize me?"

"I'm not sure." She could see the features belonged to her grandmother. But the look on this woman's face was so strange, so different from anything she had ever known, that Marissa was almost afraid to admit it, even to herself. "I guess so."

Gran took back the pictures, looked long at the one where she held the man, and said softly, "I was a fool in love. There is no other way to explain how I could leave a good job and a nice home and wonderful folks, and sail across the sea in 1945. Which is exactly what I did, less than six months after the war against Germany ended. I left everything I knew, and sailed for a place where I didn't know a soul. And the only reason was, I was crazy in love with a man I scarcely knew."

Marissa gave a delicious little shiver. In those few short sentences were a thousand questions, all of them exciting. She hoped her grandmother would not notice her reaction, for fear that she might stop talking.

Gran's eyes remained fastened upon the photographs. "I left behind a good job in Philadelphia. I had been assistant to the president of the city's largest shipping company. During the war years, a lot of jobs had opened up to women for the first time. I had enjoyed the challenge of organizing a big company's daily operations. We were sending supplies all over the world, which was how I had met Grant Rockwell.

"Grant was a pilot, working with the Lend-Lease programs. He flew American-made planes to all sorts of places—Russia and England mostly. He would come in every couple of weeks, sign the papers, pick up a load of whatever was to be delivered with the plane, and fly off again. Every girl in the office was a little in love with him. Which made it all the sweeter when he fell for me. Or said he did.

"Every time Grant came through he invited me out. It was so exciting in those tense war-filled days to have a dashing pilot arrive and sweep me away. Grant took me to the finest restaurants and to dances and on moonlit . . . "

She stopped then, and seemed to refocus on the room and her granddaughter. What she saw made her pause and say, "Perhaps we should wait until you have rested before we continue."

"I'm fine, Gran." Which was not quite a fib. Marissa felt tired all the time. But she was not sleepy. Her mind was reeling from what she had just learned, but she eagerly wanted more. "Will you talk just a little longer now?"

Marissa's words seemed to strengthen her grandmother's resolve. "If you like. But not too much. Let me start by telling you the reason I have decided to share this secret with you. It is because I, too, have lost a Christmas."

"What do you mean, ' lost'?"

"Exactly what I said, just exactly as you feel you have right now. And I was so heartbroken I didn't want to go on. I thought my life was over."

Her hand reached over to pat Marissa's side, as though it had taken on a life of its own, for clearly Gran's mind was elsewhere. "But I tell you this with the absolute certainty of having built a life upon the result. That loss was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It taught me that some lessons can only come to us in the guise of sadness. Some of our greatest gifts start in ways that will tempt us to turn away from what is being offered. But if we have the strength and the will and the faith to accept the bad with the good, we can be rewarded with a richness that is truly beyond human understanding."

Gran continued to pat the blanket, gathering herself for the act of returning to another place and time. When she resumed speaking, her voice altered, softened, became almost lyrical with the power of her memories. "My story really begins four days before the Christmas that never was.

FIVE

GRAN'S STORY

I arrived in England on the twenty-first of December, 1945. Our eleven-day Atlantic crossing had seemed to go on forever. The weather had been simply terrible. The boat was a former troop carrier and now part of a convoy sending over emergency supplies. My cabin had not been much bigger than a closet, with a shower that didn't work. I had suffered from seasickness for five endless days, and in my delirium I had often dreamed that I was caught in a horrible tossing metal prison, and that neither the storm nor the journey would ever end. My guilt over the way I had left home made things much, much worse.

The aid convoy carried everything imaginable, from lightbulbs to shoes. Our particular ship was full to the brim with food, even the empty passenger cabins. The room next to mine contained bananas. I know, because by the fourth day of the trip the fruit had become overripe. The smell only worsened my nausea.

Finally on the seventh day, I started to feel as if I might survive. I was weak as a kitten, not having eaten much, and whatever I had eaten had not stayed down very long. When I emerged from my cabin, the captain and the chef were in the doorway beside mine, horrified over the sight of four hundred pounds of rotting bananas. That evening, after I had forced down a dinner that still did not sit very easy, the chef served us huge portions of banana cream pie for dessert. The sight almost made me sick all over again.

I recovered from seasickness only to come down with the most horrid cold. Almost everyone on board was caught in its throes. It settled in my lungs, and sapped what little strength I had. The illness was still with me upon our arrival in England.

That morning I joined all the other passengers to watch our entrance into Portsmouth. No one spoke as the tugs pulled us through the harbor mouth and down the long line of quays. We stood there in absolute silence, except for the hacking and wheezing from those who had not yet recovered. My own cough sounded worst of all, but no one paid me any notice. We were too busy absorbing our first glimpse of England through the wind and snow.

The light was bad, very shadowy, so all I could make out were dim silhouettes. The port area had been bombed to smithereens by the Germans. Now the docks were filled with boats, most of them warships. They were in terrible condition. The sides of the vessels and the cannons and the huge smokestacks were blackened by layers of soot. Many of the decks had been torn apart by explosions. Huge metal sheets had been used to repair the worst damage, the work done in such haste that the steel had not even been painted over, just slapped into place before the ships were sent out again. They looked absolutely exhausted, those ships. As if they had barely managed to limp home after the fighting had stopped.

I walked down the gangplank in the face of a bitter wind. A frozen mist too fine to be called snow buffeted me with the force of gritty sand. I stepped onto the harbor road, craning and searching, hoping desperately that Grant would suddenly appear and sweep me up in his strong arms, and tell me that everything was truly all right.

But he was not there. Somehow I made my way to the train station, thankful that the sleet and rain masked my tears. The ticket agent was very kind, but I had the hardest time understanding him. I knew we were speaking the same language, but his words were so strangely spoken, I could not make out a thing.

"What seems to be the matter, luv?"

I turned to a portly woman whose red face beamed up at me. "I just want to buy a ticket." Rather than risk not being understood, I handed over a card that held Grant's address.

"Arden-on-Thames," she said, and smiled. "Ooh, that is a nice spot, from what I hear. Oxfordshire, ain't it?"

"I-I'm not—"

"Yeah, that's it. Nice place. Or was. War years have rubbed away a lot of the polish, that'd be my guess." She was a hefty woman, almost a foot shorter than me and very solid. She wore a black-lacquered hat with bright blue feathers, and they jumped about as she jerked a thumb at the man behind the counter. "This gentleman can only give you a ticket as far as London, dearie. Once you arrive there, you'll need to take a transom to Paddington Station, and buy your ticket onward."

"I'm sorry, take a what?"

"Transom, luv. A cab." She turned to the agent and said, "Just make out the ticket, Bert. I'll see her to the train."

"Right you are." He made a noisy process of filling out the form and stamping it. "That'll be seven and sixpence."

I fumbled with my purse, having no idea what to give the man, until the woman reached in and pried out the required amount. She scooped up the ticket, hefted one of my bags, and led me through the crowd. "Platform seven. You're in luck, dearie. The trains are running close enough to time today. Sort of makes up for the weather."

She clucked sympathetically as another paroxysm of coughing bent me almost double. "You'll need to watch that cold, dearie. It's the weather, mind. Hardest winter on record, and getting worse. Are you just over from the Colonies?"

"No, I'm American."

For some reason, the woman found that deliciously funny. "Oh, I'm glad I ran into you today, I am. It does a body good to have a reason for a chuckle." She set down the case and handed me the ticket. "Here you are, luv. Platform seven. Have a lovely stay in Arden. And a Merry Christmas to you."

I thanked her as well as I could manage, and felt bereft when the woman turned and walked away. It was as though I had just made and lost my only friend in the whole world.

BOOK: Tidings of Comfort and Joy
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