The following story is a true tale which took place long ago on a bitterly cold Victorian Christmas Eve in the Edge Hill district of Liverpool. Pull your chair up to the fire and I'll transport you back in time to the Christmas Eve of 1868. The snow is fluttering down on a little run-down house in Oxford Street East, and a choir in this street is singing Silent Night...
When the choir called at number 52 Oxford Street East at 7 p.m., a woman with a sad, ashen face and heavy sorrowful eyes answered. Her little 7-year-old daughter, Annie came from behind her mother clutching an old broken doll. Little Annie smiled at the choir. She could hardly see them, because she was partially sighted, but she imagined the singers as a flock of angels. When the choir stopped singing, Annie's mother, Kate, could only offer them a few farthings. A small boy held out his cap and received the coins with a grateful bow, saying, "God bless you ma'm. A merry Christmas to you and your family."
Kate smiled and nodded, then closed the door. Behind the door she stood there, trying not to cry. But she started to shake. Little Annie held onto her mum's dress and said, "Mummy don't be sad. Please don't cry, Polly doesn't like it when you cry." And Annie held up the little threadbare doll and shook it.
Kate stooped down and hugged her little daughter and said, "Oh, I love you little Annie. You're the most beautiful little girl in the world."
The past year had been like a nightmare. Kate's husband, a coalman, had died of cholera, and left her a widow at 27 years of age. Only the love of her little daughter had kept her going, but each day, life seemed to get harder. Kate was now living in a rundown dwelling owned by an elderly, cold-hearted landlord named John Stanley. Mr Stanley had warned Kate that if she did not pay off her rent arrears soon she would be thrown out, along with her daughter. Mr Stanley had called earlier in the day at 10 o'clock, but Kate had been out with Annie buying the food rations for that week; a little Christmas pudding, a loaf, two mince pies, a couple of oranges and a small slice of mouldy-looking cheese. Mr Stanley had left a note on the mantelpiece saying he would be back later and expected to be paid. Kate thought about bolting the door to the callous Mr Stanley, but the landlord had been barred from entering his premises by previous tenants, and had long removed the bolts from the doors of the dwelling. Kate undressed Annie in front of the fire and told her not to expect anything from Father Christmas, because Santa had told her he was very busy this year - but he had promised to bring presents to Annie in the New year. "Oh." was all that Annie could utter, and she bowed her head slightly and a little tear trickled from her eye. Annie quickly wiped it away and put on a brave smile. She said, "I don't need any presents because I've got Polly."
Kate hugged her daughter then lit a candle and led her up to her bedroom. As she was tucking Annie into the bed, she noticed a folded piece of brown parcel paper sticking from under Annie's pillow. Kate retrieved the scrap of paper and hid it in her hand. She then kissed her daughter and said, "Goodnight Annie, goodnight Polly. Sleep tight."
Downstairs by the light of the fire and the flickering candle, Kate's heart broke when she saw what was written on the piece of paper. In enormous childish letters, the ever-optimistic Annie had tried to write out a list of things she wanted from Father Christmas.
That finally did it. Kate held her head in her hands and quietly sobbed. She felt so hopeless and alone. A little mouse warming itself near the fire was the only company Kate had. Then came the rattle of the key in the lock. It was Mr Stanley, the hard-hearted landlord. He came in and said, "So, you're finally in, eh?"
Kate sniffled and nodded. The mouse ran off into the darkness.
"You owe me ten shillings in arrears. I want it now." And the landlord held out his hand and said, "Now."
"I don't have the money Mr Stanley." Kate said, with a tremor in her voice.
Mr Stanley picked up the poker and walked about the room, grumbling to himself. He declared, "You're out of here first thing in the morning. And I don't care if it is Christmas, I'm sick of tenants taking liberties with me."
"But I've nowhere to go. And what about my child?" Kate said, expecting Mr Stanley to show some humanity in the Season of Goodwill.
"That is your problem. Pay up now or get out." the landlord said, and he hurled the poker into the grate, startling the widow.
"Would you accept my husband's silver pocket watch? That's all I have." said Kate, in desperation. The watch was of great sentimental value but the well-being of Annie and herself had to come first in these hard times.
"It all depends on its condition." said Mr Stanley in a grumpy voice.
"Wait a moment, I'll fetch it." said Kate, and she hurried off up to her room to get the pocket watch. When she came back downstairs a minute later, the landlord was not around. "Mr Stanley?" Kate shouted, but there was no reply. She went outside, and caught a glimpse of Mr Stanley hurrying down the street. He was barely visible as a silhouette rushing away in the raging blizzard that had suddenly descended on the town. Kate was puzzled, and she went back into the house.
Something strange happened in the early hours of the following Christmas morn. Little Annie was awakened by something. Her eyesight wasn't good enough to see who was standing in her room, but it seemed to be a figure carrying a sack. Who else could he be? Annie smiled and said, "Is that you Mr Christmas?" She felt so sleepy, and thought it was all a dream.
The figure said, "Sshhh! Little angel. Go to sleep or you'll find ashes on your bed in the morning."
Annie squeezed an eye shut and watched the fuzzy figure move out the room. She heard him creeping down the stairs about ten minutes later. Annie decided it was all a dream and went back to sleep.
On Christmas morning, Kate awoke and found a box and a parcel at her bedside. The gifts were wrapped in expensive decorated paper and tied up with golden silk ribbons. A card on one gift bore the message, "A Merry Christmas to you my dear." Kate hurried downstairs, expecting to find someone in the house who had perpetrated this prank. There was no one about, and who would go to such lengths to play such a joke? Kate was completely baffled. She opened the parcel and saw it was a beautiful long velveteen dress. The box contained a stylish, expensive-looking bonnet. Then the mystery deepened. In the kitchen, she found someone had left a hamper, crammed with food. It contained a turkey wrapped in a muslin cloth and a huge family-sized Christmas pudding. Among the rest of the contents there was a bottle of Exshaw's four-star Brandy. Kate thought she was dreaming and went upstairs to wish her daughter a Merry Christmas and to tell her of the food left by the phantom Samaritan. But Kate got the shock of her life when she entered the bedroom. There was little Annie, fast asleep among a clutter of wrapped presents. Boxes of every size, large and small littered the child's bed and the floor of the room. Kate clasped her hands together and said, "Oh thank you Sweet Jesus."
She woke Annie, and the little girl was naturally completely overwhelmed by the presents from the mysterious benefactor. The bright-coloured parcels contained costly porcelain dolls, a large house for them to live in, a musical jewellery box, a beautiful little bonnet that fitted Annie to a tee, a little pram, and a beautiful royal blue dress trimmed with fine lace. There were also several story books that Kate could read to her daughter. But there were no cards to indicate who had left the child's gifts. Annie excitedly told her mother about the man in her room with the sack who had told her to sleep, but Annie couldn't give a description because of her partial blindness. She merely added that the man had a kind voice and must have been Father Christmas.
Sometime later, Kate noticed that the little note that Annie had written to Santa had vanished from the mantelpiece. And stranger still, the landlord never bothered her again. He never came back to demand his rent. But five years later, Kate's luck suddenly changed. A cousin died and left her a substantial amount of money in his will. Kate and her daughter left the dwelling in Oxford Street East, and on the day they were leaving, Kate and her daughter called upon the landlord to hand in the keys. Kate asked Mr Stanley why he had never taken rent since that Christmas Eve. The old landlord seemed reluctant to reply initially, and seemed all choked up. Then he finally told a sad tale. When he was thirty, his little 6-year-old daughter Emily and his wife Lydia died in a tragic blaze which gutted his home. Mr Stanley was naturally devastated, and when the fire had died down, he went among the burnt-out shell of what had once been a happy family home. It was Christmas Eve, and snow began to fall upon the charred remains of what had been little Emily's bedroom. Among the snow-covered rubble, Mr Stanley found a sock Emily had hung on the foot of her bed, along with a scrap of paper. It had been Emily's note to Santa, listing all the presents she wanted. Mr Stanley had all those presents for his daughter and wife in a sack hidden at his brother's home. Mr Stanley broke down upon finding that little piece of paper and carried it about with him for the rest of his life. The loss of his wife and daughter made the landlord a very embittered man, and people mistook his bitterness for cold-heartedness. So, upon that Christmas Evening when he had gone to Kate's dwelling, demanding his rent, he had noticed little Annie's note to Santa on the mantelpiece while Kate was upstairs fetching her late husband's pocket watch. That little note to Santa had been too much for the landlord to bear, and so he left in tears. It brought back so many painful memories. And yet it also made John Stanley have a dramatic change of heart, so he returned to Kate's house and let himself in with his key in the wee small hours. John Stanley carried the sack of presents originally intended for his wife and long-dead daughter into the house. He had been the Santa to little Annie and her poor mother.
© Tom Slemen 2010.