‘What are you doing for Christmas Frank?’ Steph was gathering up carrier bags full of festive goodies as she made her way through the furniture shop, towards the plate glass door.

‘Going to my sisters,’ he lied. His sister hadn’t been in touch for over five years, in fact he didn’t even know where she lived.

‘Oh! That’s nice for you.’ her insincerity hung heavily in the air between them as she added, ‘Well, have a good time then’, she pushed the door open with her hip saying ‘Sure you don’t mind locking up?’

‘Yes, I’ll lock up, no problem’, Frank forced a smile,’ All the best,’ he added but she was already gone. ‘All the best!’ he repeated to the empty showroom as he started to switch

of the lights. Oh! how he loathed that expression. Frank watched the awful Steph, as he called her to himself as she strutted down the Mall, all heavy makeup and backcombed hair. He didn’t envy the Christmas that she and her family were about to have. He would rather spend his Christmas alone than contemplate the dubious joys of the pubs and clubs that would play a big part in Steph’s festivities. She would be a wreck of her former self when she returned in the New Year. He would then be treated to a blow by blow account of all the ups and downs of a typical Steph Yuletide.

The very thought made him shudder!

As he went to put off the light in the cloakroom, he caught sight of himself in the mirror above the wash basin. He didn’t look at himself very often, although he shaved the face that was looking back at him every day, he didn’t really look at it. If he did he might see what he labeled the wasted years of his life, he might see the lost opportunities staring back accusingly at him and he couldn’t have born that.

He sighed, took his coat off it’s hanger and shrugged into it, then switching the last of the lights off and systematically putting the alarm on, he stepped outside.

Frank locked the door carefully, checking it several times before he was satisfied that the premises were secure.

The crowds of last minute shoppers had dispersed into the bleak night leaving only a steady stream of workers passing through the Mall on there various journeys home, shouting their final greetings of farewell to each other.

Frank experienced the first real feeling of isolation, at what seemed to be for all the other people around him, a time of excitement and joy. He imagined that they would be going home to families, rooms full of chaotic Christmas activities. In his mind’s eye he saw them preparing food and wrapping last minute presents to put under their sparkling Christmas trees. He heard the excited squeals of children and the clink of glasses at get togethers and then consoled himself with the facts, that he had a warm comfortable flat and a couple of days peace and quiet to look forward to, He would listen to music, go for his usual long walk and then there was a film he wanted to watch on TV. He would have his meal and a glass of wine whilst that was on, he decided.

 Observing a flustered woman struggling with several shopping bags and a disgruntled child only confirmed the thought that he could settle for what he had.

At the bus stop a queue of half a dozen people waited for the arrival of the six twenty number five, he looked at his watch it was six thirty. Frank stamped his feet and tried to take refuge in his coat collar but the wind was icy and to his dismay he felt the first drop of rain or could it be snow, it was certainly cold enough!

A soft voice at Frank’s shoulder asked ‘Has the number five gone yet please?

He turned round coming face to face with a young woman.

‘No’, he replied quickly, ‘No it’s running late I’m afraid.’ He glanced at his watch again and it was then that he saw the white stick the woman was holding. He looked back Into her face whilst his insecurities played havoc in his mind, not knowing how to behave now.

‘ Well to be honest, I’m not sorry that the bus is late, had it been on time, I would have missed it!’ she told him. She had a lovely voice, thought Frank, so melodic and soothing. Frank looked in the direction that the bus would come from and saw it approaching in the line of traffic.

‘You only just made it,’ Frank told her, turning to face her again,’ here’s the bus now’.

As the queue shuffled forward towards the vehicle, Frank stepped to one side saying to the woman,’ Can I help you?’ He ventured to take her arm adding,’The step is straight ahead now’.

She stepped onto the platform and smiled her thanks before moving tentatively into the body of the bus where she took the first seat after the rail. Frank sat down beside her and asked which stop she wanted.

Although a naturally shy man he found the courage to converse with her and was pleasantly surprised to find our that she was getting off
at the same stop as he. They chatted amicably about the weather and the unreliability of public transport until they reached their destination.

Frank helped her off the bus and to his utter joy she took his arm in an unconscious way Saying, ’I’m going to Stafford House, do you know it?’
‘B- but I live in Stafford H-House!’ Frank stammered out, adding ,’At number fifteen’. ‘I’ve just moved into number twelve’, she responded brightly, ‘so we’re neighbours!’

In the lift to the second floor at Stafford House, Frank asked innocently, ‘I suppose you’ll be going to your family for Christmas, will you?’

‘Oh! No’, the woman replied, ‘ I don’t have any family to go to.’ she smiled at him again and Frank saw a glimpse of carefully disguised pain in her face. Suddenly he was overcome by a feeling that was so alien to him, that for a second or two it took his breath away. He again took her arm as they stepped out into the second floor hallway.

 The lift doors slid quietly shut as it returned to the ground floor,

Then a courage that had eluded him for most of his adult life surfaced
and he introduced himself.

‘I’m Frank’, the sureness in his voice sounding strange to him, ‘Frank Norris.’ He paused feeling really pleased with himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he had introduced himself to anyone, probably at his job interview, twenty odd years ago when he was an even shyer sixteen year old.

‘ I’m Ella Simmonds.’ she held out her hand and when he wrapped his own hand tentatively around hers, he felt suddenly quite emotional.
‘And what will you be doing tomorrow Frank?’ she asked him quietly sensing his loneliness.

‘Not a lot,’ Frank mimicked Paul Daniels and immediately felt foolish.
Ella laughed softly, she felt his embarrassment but chose not to react to it, instead s
he suggested, ‘ Perhaps we could do ‘not a lot’ together then, what do you think?’ Frank was speechless and again Ella had just the right words,’ It’s time I got to know my new neighbours,’ she still held onto his hand.

Frank managed to stammer out, ‘R, really!’ amazed at this sudden upturn in his fortunes. He held her elbow as they walked along the corridor.

‘Yes really’, Ella’s soft laugh filled the cheerless corridor. It seemed to her that this new

acquaintance had a naive quality that she found endearing. She thought he sounded very shy and lacking in self confidence, a bit of a loner she guessed however he had overcome his own problems to give her thoughtful help and consideration, gentlemanly and in her limited experience gentlemen were thin on the ground. They walked the short distance to the door that bore a large number 12 in raised relief .

Ella had another thought, ‘ Frank’ she ventured, ‘ Would you care to share a pizza and a glass of wine this evening?’ When he didn’t answer immediately she went on, ‘That is if you’re not doing anything else?’ She held out her right hand and he again wrapped his cold one around it. Her hand felt small compared to his but it was warm and soft.

‘I’d Like that very much, thank you Ella’, he managed to say, his voice little more than a whisper, then recovering went on,’ but please let me bring the wine’.

‘Good, that’s settled then.’ Ella confirmed squeezing his cold fingers before setting about the business of opening her front door,’ About seven thirty suit you’ she asked stepping inside the now open door.

‘Yes,’ Frank was in shock, nothing like this had ever happened to him before but he added positively, ‘ Seven thirty is fine’.

He stood looking at the closed door for several minutes before turning back towards his

own flat. His mind was in turmoil with the possibilities which jostled for consideration. He tried to hold her image in his mind, her lovely face and her smile that made him want to smile back even though he knew she couldn’t see him. Frank had an overwhelming desire to protect his new acquaintance and it felt really good.

He had actually met someone new that he liked, that he found easy to talk to. How many years had passed without him having close contact with anyone?

You couldn’t count the awful Steph, with whom he worked or the stream of others like her who had come and gone at The Furniture Store over two decades.

Frank let himself into his own apartment and went straight to the wine rack in the kitchen where he set about choosing a suitable bottle. ‘ Red or White,’ he asked himself holding a bottle in each hand, then without a second thought he took both bottles to the table in the living room and standing them on it told himself, ‘ One of each!’

He took off his coat and went into the bathroom. His face looked back at him from the mirror over the wash basin. ‘ To shave or not to shave, that is the question?’ he asked his mirror image, whilst examining the growth of beard on his chin.

It was then that he saw the difference. This man looking back at him bore no resemblance to the one who had looked back at him in the shop just a short hour ago, no resemblance at all.

The man who looked back at him now was smiling, couldn’t stop smiling. His eyes were bright and his face wasn’t bad at all, not handsome he thought but pleasant enough, an agreeable face, but that wasn’t it he realised. His face hadn’t changed it was the same one that had looked back at him many times before, what had changed was him, the person behind the face. For the first time in his life Frank felt alive, felt positive about his future, felt a purpose, a reason to look forward, to enjoy life’s possibilities that suddenly stretched before him. An idea came to him then, he had some audio books that he had listened to some time ago, preferring to listen than to watch. He chose three of the best and placed them next to the wine on the dining table. He now had every reason to want to listen to them again and then perhaps discuss their merits later with Ella.

In the shower five minutes later Frank realised, to his amazement and some amusement, that he was whistling ‘ So here it is Merry Christmas’.

Tune in on DAB, online, on Smart Speaker or via the app!

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