“Mum says don’t forget Christmas dinner,” said Daniel as he left The Whitelaw that afternoon, having safely delivered the account books. “Any time, she said, but we’ll probably eat about two or three-ish.”
“I already told her there was no need,” said Tip. “I’ll be perfectly fine by myself. I’m not a charity case.”
“She said you’d say that,” Daniel grinned. “I’m to tell you to not be silly, Ebenezer, we want to see you.” He did an impression of his mother as he did so, the tone stern but affectionate. He nodded at Tip as he went out the door and repeated, “Dinner at two,” as he went through it. Tip sat back at his desk and considered how much the boy resembled his father George, Tip’s business partner. He smiled and shook his head, returning to that evening’s performance.
Christmas Eve was always fun at a variety theatre. The atmosphere being festive anyway, the performers would rouse themselves at the prospect of an extra day off to pull something special out for the short time they had on stage. For many of the audience, this was the beginning of their seasonal celebrations, and they were ready to shout, laugh, howl or whatever the occasion demanded. Money may be short in these hard times but somehow this just made the wintry celebration more important. Performances had to be perfect. Lew, the stage manager, would manage – he always did – but Tip liked to be on hand, just in case.
A hectic night, full of laughter, applause and rushing about, and it was past midnight when Tip made his final round of the theatre, making sure as he always did that it was left ship shape. Folding back a corner of a loose poster, picking up a dropped ticket stub, needlessly rearranging something in a dressing room, it was part of his daily ritual. He left by the stage door, bidding a goodnight to the theatre’s mouser, Tilley.
It was a clear night, with a bite to the air. There would be a frost tomorrow. Across the city the bells that, at midnight, had rung in the special day had finished and churchgoers were all on their way home. Despite this, he met no one as he strolled through the dark streets.
On one dark corner, he heard a mewing noise. It sounded familiar and for a moment he thought maybe Tilley had followed him home. “Don’t be silly,” he said to himself and carried on but the noise came again, louder this time and with a piercing tone that made him realise it wasn’t a cat. He headed down the alleyway to see. Was there something at the end?
The nearby church struck one. As it did so, Tip saw the shape huddled in the corner. He reached a hand down to touch it.
A man had curled up against the wall, to find some shelter in the bitter air. He was wrapped in a black woollen hooded cloak and as Tip shook his shoulder, the man’s hood dropped back revealing his face. He was dead but in his arms was a tiny baby, an angelic mix of blonde curls and blue eyes. She looked up at him, as if expecting something.
“Bloody hell,” said Tip. “The ghosts of Christmas past and future, together.” He sighed and rubbed a weary hand over his eyes before he picked her up, checked her over and went to find a police station.
The policeman on the front desk didn’t seem surprised at Tip’s story.
“That’s the second this week,” he said. “Bitter cold it is, and with folk not having much, it’s not uncommon. Now I’ll have to get a few details and then I’ll let you get on your merry way this Christmas Eve. How did you find the gent?”
“I heard the baby crying and went to investigate. The man had already passed on,” said Tip.
“The gentleman was dead to begin with,” said the policeman winking at Tip. Tip rolled his eyes and inwardly cursed Dickens.
“What will happen to the girl?” he said.
“We’ll take her along to the orphanage in a bit,” said the policeman. “While we see if there’s any other kin.”
“Could I take her? Just for now? Those places are dreadful, no place for her,” he said. “Come on, constable, think what day it is. I’ll give you my address and,” he said thinking of Charlotte’s invitation, “I’ll be here tomorrow. We’ll take care of her.” He wrote the addresses down on a scrap of paper and held it out. The policeman hesitated.
“It’s not procedure…” he started to say but something stopped him going any further and he reached out for the paper. “Get on with you then,” he said. “Quickly.”
Tip took the girl and headed home to his tiny flat. As he walked in the door, the rashness of his decision struck him. An orphanage couldn’t be worse than this dingy hole he called home. But he looked at her and resolved to make the best of it. He lay her in a drawer from the chest that stood to one side of the room, with an old jumper as her mattress. Arms freed, he set about lighting the fire to banish the cold and damp from the place. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done this; he’d just have to hope the chimney wasn’t blocked. His usual routine was to come home from the theatre, grab a drink if he fancied one but many nights he simply fell into bed, washing and changing clothes the following morning before heading back into the theatre. The Whitelaw was more his home than here. Hell, even the café around the corner where he got his breakfast was more home than here.
He went into the kitchen and found some bread and cheese and a glass of wine for himself and then heated up some milk on the stove. Improvising, he dripped this into the baby’s mouth with a teaspoon, the process taking a while but she drank it down, all the while staring at him with her big blue eyes.
When she’d finished, he wrapped her up in her blanket and cuddled her for a while. She fell asleep emitting only occasional snores. At four o’clock, by the ding of his carriage clock, he placed her back down in the drawer, curled under a blanket on the sofa and watched the fire die down. His thoughts were of times past, absent friends and old lost love.
She woke him at seven precisely, the mewling noise the closest she got to crying. The fug of sleep lay on his eyes, and he couldn’t remember where he was or what he was or what that noise was but she was persistent, and she was joined by the Christmas bells outside.
“Good morning, little one,” said Tip, sounding merrier than he felt. And yet there was something about her presence that made his spirit cheer, even as he relit the fire and let the warmth spread through the small room.
He picked her up and prepared the milk as he had last night, taking her to the window to look at the festive day outside. Frost sparkled on the window, and had sprinkled the trees and fallen leaves with a sparkling dust that glittered in the morning sun.
“A beautiful day!” said Tip, turning to look at his rooms. “And a dismal room. We can’t spend Christmas here, you and I. Thank heavens for Charlotte.”
He wrapped her in the jumper she’d laid on all night, had a quick change himself and the two of them headed out of the door.
Tip stopped off to pick up some wine, mince pies and small gifts and with these tucked in a bag over one arm and the baby under the other, he hailed a cab to Dulwich. Ringing the doorbell at number 28 Woodwarde Road, he stood back and burst into song as the door opened.
“We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!”
Daniel stood behind the door, and smiled and beckoned them inside. Charlotte appeared in the hallway, wiping her hands on her apron. A not unpleasant bread-like smell filled the house, mixed faintly with the greenery hung in a wreath on the door.
“Tip, how lovely to see you!” She reached in for a hug and a kiss but stopped as she spotted what he was carrying. “Tip? Who’s this?”
“Temporary guest,” he said and began to explain the previous night. As he spoke Charlotte reached instinctively for the child, her face transformed from the swollen disfigured sight she had hidden from the world these last two years, and instead shone with joy at the child. Both Tip and George, her husband, who stood in the doorway to the living room, noted her brief return to the Charlotte of old.
“Oh Tip, how awful! Is she alright? Not hurt? But how have you been feeding her?”
“Teaspoon. She’s drunk enough. She seems absolutely fine, a lovely calm little thing.”
“Daniel, run next door and see if Mrs Barclay can spare a bottle for us. Tip, come through, sit down, you must be worn out. Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine, thank you Charlotte.”
“Nonsense. A drink? Have you had breakfast? We’ve some sausage left over from ours. I can fry it up, make you a sandwich?”
“That would be lovely. But what I’d really like is a cup of tea.”
“I’ll get it,” said George. Charlotte was reluctant to put the baby down. She wasn’t too besotted to note Tip’s tiredness in sitting down on the sofa nor spot the dark circles beneath his eyes. But he was determined to be sociable and, once his breakfast was eaten, he and the boys sat and played games on the floor. Charlotte had fed the baby again with the bottle this time, bathed and changed her with the help of the kind lady next door who had provided some spare clothes and napkins. Now the child sat on the floor, watching and laughing at the men and boys who entertained her with their singing and nonsense.
“What do you think her name is?” asked Charlotte as they sat at lunch. The turkey was dry, the sprouts were soft and the potatoes were a little too well done, but if you covered it with enough gravy it was at least edible which wasn’t always the case with Charlotte’s cooking. The baby was asleep on the sofa.
“Now, don’t go down that path,” said George. “It will be harder for you to part with her if you start giving her names or imagining a fate.”
“I hadn’t…” Charlotte started to say when she was interrupted by the doorbell. George got up to answer it and found a rotund bearded policeman on the doorstep.
“Good afternoon sir,” he said with a beaming smile. “And a Merry Christmas to you! Are you Mr Harding by any chance?”
“I’m not,” said George. “But he’s through here. Come in, officer.” The policeman stepped through the door, bringing a burst of fresh crisp air to the house. George led him through to the living room and indicated the baby, still asleep on the sofa. “You’re here about her, I suppose?” he said.
“That’s right sir,” said the policeman. “I’m sorry to have interrupted your lunch ma’am,” he said to Charlotte.
“No matter,” she murmured. “Have you found her family?”
“We have yes. The gentleman you found her with last night was her father, I’m afraid to say. Her mother seems to have passed away, records suggest in childbirth, and the gentleman was taking her to his parents, who live in Buckinghamshire. He was having trouble making ends meet, having lost his job and couldn’t look after her very well. There’s no evidence to suggest any foul play, just a poor man and a cold night.”
Tip looked down at the child and remembered how the man’s arm was curled protectively around her, wrapped up in whatever he’d been able to find. The child was loved. He shook his head.
“What happens now?” he asked.
“The man’s parents are happy to take the child in,” said the policeman. “They’re travelling down to collect her, should be here later today. I’ve come to take her back with me so they can take her home.”
“What are their circumstances?” asked Charlotte. “Can we do anything to help?”
“They’re managing, respectable enough by all accounts,” said the policeman. “Just the son who’d fallen on hard times. Happens to many these days.”
“Well, could we send a gift?” Charlotte cast about for something to include with the baby. For a moment her eyes settled on the plate of mince pies on the table.
“Not anything you’ve cooked, Ma,” said Daniel.
“They’ve suffered enough,” joked George. He winked at his wife. “Sorry love.” She made a face in reply and moved to the fireplace instead, gathering down some of the greenery hanging there. With a few deft twists she made it into a bouquet and tied some bon bons from the tree onto the branches.
“Here,” she said, holding it out to the policeman, who was still beaming at them. “And would you like a mince pie, officer? They’re not as bad as you may have been led to suggest.”
“Thank you ma’am, that would be kind,” he replied and twinkled his thanks as he ate it down. Gathering the baby in one enormous hand, and the bouquet in the other he was about to make his way to the door when he turned. “Would you like to say your goodbyes?” he said, and there was something about his face which seemed older and more worn than when he’d walked inside earlier. The afternoon sky was darkening and the crisp day was fading.
Charlotte bent her head over the baby’s and kissed it. “Stay safe, little one,” she whispered. “Thank you for your visit.”
Tip was scribbling a note in his notebook and, when he was done, he ripped it out and tucked it into the baby’s jumper. “Keep this safe for her, when she’s grown,” he said to the policeman. The man nodded.
“Thank you for your help and cooperation, Mr Harding,” he said. “It was much appreciated, I’m sure. A merry Christmas to you all!” And with that, he and the baby faded into the night, leaving nothing behind them but the faint jingle of bells.
Tip and the family gathered at the front door to watch the departure and Tip felt Charlotte suppress a sob.
“That poor darling,” she said. “God bless her.”
It was left to Tip to provide the inevitable reply.
“God bless us, every one.”