At West Essex Writers, the writing group I run with fellow published author and friend, Virginia Heath, we set everyone a challenge to write a story entitled, The Ghosts of Christmas Past with a maximum length of 2000 words. The winner received £30 in book tokens.
Here's my story:
The Ghost of Christmas Past by Liam Livings
15 Years Ago
‘But what if they’re full?’ Pip asked, having watched the residents eat plates full of an enormous turkey lunch with all the trimmings.
‘There’s always room for trifle, Christmas cake, and other puddings,’ nurse Sheila said, looking around the wood-panelled red-carpeted day room of the nursing home.
Pip stood by the silver serving trolley with his hand poised holding a knife next to the large Christmas cake.
Usually he would be back at home, opening presents underneath the Christmas tree; today instead he was working.
‘How much shall I serve?’ he asked nervously.
Sheila showed him the size of cake and then put it into a bowl, covering it in custard. ‘Sit next to Emma, and help her.’
Pip looked to the corner of the room, beneath the bay window, as the snow fell outside in the New Forest, and he saw the elderly lady lurched to one side in her chair. He wasn’t sure what to do now. This wasn’t what he’d expected to be doing when he’d agreed to work as a domestic at the nursing home.
‘Sit next to her.’ Sheila showed him by pulling a chair up close to Emma’s.
Emma chewed although nothing was in her mouth, and her eyes lit up at the sight of the cake so near.
Pip had been working there long enough to know this elderly lady couldn’t feed herself, nor could she do an awful lot else for herself, so he didn’t understand how he – a timid sixteen year old boy – could help. ‘Maybe I could do it next time,’ Pip said.
Kneeling on the ground, Sheila’s dark blue nurses uniform stretched over her ample thighs. Adjusting the large silver buckle across her stomach, she said, ‘Maybe butters no parsnips, young Pip. It’s now that we need you. Unless you’d rather hoover the conservatory. Again.’
Pip looked around this lounge, filled with elderly residents sitting around its edge. Nursing staff sitting next to residents feeding them, others in pairs lifting them into wheel chairs taking them off to the bathroom. The Christmas tree twinkled in the corner, covered in white lights. The remnants of presents the home had bought each resident to open that morning.
‘It would really help us out, as well as Emma getting her pudding sooner.’ Sheila said, holding the spoon mid air, with a hopeful look on her face.
Slowly, with butterflies in his stomach, a sickness filling his body, Pip walked forward and took a seat next to Sheila. There he watched as she filled the spoon with cake and custard, told Emma it was for her, then waited as the elderly lady opened her mouth for the spoonful to enter.
‘Just like that,’ Sheila said, handing Pip the spoon and patting the chair she’d just stood from for him to sit in.
And just like that, Pip had found himself an unofficial helper to the nurses.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of helping other residents with their Christmas lunch, wheeling them back to their rooms, and once because Sheila had said she was happy for him to help – using a contraption they called a Standaid hoist with one of the nursing assistants to lift a resident onto the toilet.
It was only when Pip arrived home – a short bike ride through the New Forest in the biting cold and snow – that he realised despite it being the first Christmas day he hadn’t spent with his family, he’d not thought of them until then. And it was the first of such days when he’d felt he’d done something worthwhile, something useful with his time, rather than sitting around stuffing himself with Quality Street and watching Top of The Pops on telly while his mum made dinner and his dad gently soaked himself in whisky.
‘Hungry?’ his mum shouted as he slammed the front door.
‘Starving,’ he replied, taking his shoes and coat off.
‘Not too bad, having to work today?’
‘It flew by,’ he replied with a smile as he settled down to his own Christmas lunch, with a feeling of warm contentment and satisfaction he’d never experienced before.
‘There’s always room for trifle, Christmas cake, and other puddings,’ Pip said, as a wide-eyed student nurse asked what she could do to help.
‘It’s sad,’ she said quietly, tucking a stray blonde hair that should’ve been tied up in a bun, surreptitiously behind her ear, ‘that these people are all in here today.’
Taking a deep breath, after reminding her hair that touched her collar needed to be tied back, Pip replied in the same way that Sheila had to him all those years ago, ‘They’re here because they’ve got to be. It’s my and your jobs to make them feel as at home and festive as possible.’
Frowning, and looking on the verge of tears, the student nurse nodded. ‘Understood.’
That Christmas day more than fifteen years ago had made Pip realise what he wanted to do with his life; with his career. Having seen Sheila and how she looked after the residents that day, and during the years afterwards when Pip had gradually become more and more involved in the nursing side, until finally he’d left to study nursing at university, Pip knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Sheila’s letters to him while at university, taking more of an interest in his studies than even his own family, had spurred him along to finish. And now, years after qualifying, he was in charge of his own ward. Elderly care medicine, the group of patients, of society that always seemed to be overlooked.
‘I can’t take that man to the toilet,’ the student nurse was saying to Pip now, with a worried look in her eyes. ‘He’s creepy.’
‘Follow me please,’ Pip said.
They walked past beds of elderly men and women, arranged in a row along opposite walls of the ward.
Pip’s care of the elderly ward was the last old-fashioned Nightingale ward left in the hospital; the others having long since been converted to offices, flats, and moved to the shiny new hospital building. Full of side-rooms, and bays, the new wards resembled more a hotel than somewhere to care for patients.
‘People always concentrate on children,’ Sheila had told Pip, on the day of his interview to become a care assistant at the nursing home once he’d turned eighteen.
‘Do they?’ he’d asked.
‘We all get old. And giving care and attention to those who have no-one else to do it for them is the most important thing you can do.’
Pip nodded, more determined to complete the A levels Sheila had advised would be best before applying for a place to study nursing at university.
‘You’re a natural,’ she said.
Even now – Pip managing the ward, and having to deal with wet behind the ears student nurses like the young girl sat in front of him at this moment – Pip didn’t feel a natural. He felt it was hard, challenging, dirty, exhausting. But most of all, he still, all those years after that conversation with Sheila, it was the most important thing he could have done with his life.
Wordlessly Pip showed the student nurse to a seat in his office, this being the last straw in a long line of I can’t last straws where she’d tried to avoid feeding, toiletting, bathing, and generally touching any patients, Pip said, ‘That old man is someone’s grandfather, someone’s father. And you’re not here to pick and choose who you look after. I can’t butters no parsnips. Didn’t you realise you’d have to wash and toilet and care for people, when you started your nurse training? It’s called nursing. Not sitting. What did you think you’d be doing all day to look after your patients?’
‘I dunno about parsnips, but I thought there would be people to do all that sort of stuff for us.’
‘There are,’ Pip replied, ‘they’re called nurses.’
‘Now, what’s wrong?’ Pip asked the student nurse, who was now starting to cry, and dab her eyes with a tissue Pip had given her.
And on she went about her parents wanting her to be a nurse, about how she’d got such good grades in sciences, and how she’d been watching Casualty since a little girl and had loved it.
Pip sat in silence, letting her exhaust herself, getting out everything that had obviously been on her mind, weighing her down with such anxiety and sadness for so long, and finally, into the almost silence as she sniffled, he said, ‘What about what you wanted to do?’
This had been the deciding factor when Pip had asked Sheila whether he should apply to be a nurse, despite his parents’ disapproval and tales of broken backs, always being skint and never being thanked.
‘I knew when I had first given my grandma a bath at home, that I wanted to help people like that.’ Staring at Pip, Sheila went on, ‘And the first time I asked you to hep with the feeds on Christmas day, I knew you’d enjoy it.’
‘Better than Hoovering an empty room.’
Pip, even then, had been more interested in people than things, and Sheila, obviously spotted that and had gradually persuaded him, feed by feed, wheelchair by wheelchair, that he could, and would make a better nursing assistant than a cleaner.
Now, finally, having listened to the student nurse explain that she’d not considered what she wanted to do, he said, ‘What do you want?’
‘A cup of tea,’ she replied, blinking.
‘Not now. Generally. In life. To do with your life?’ Because this isn’t glamorous or well-paid, but I love it. I ask my friends if they leave work feeling they’ve really achieved something, really made a difference. And do you know what they say? The ones who aren’t exhausted nurses...’
She shook her head.
‘Not very often,’ Pip repeated it. ‘If you don’t really want this, go and find something you do want. Or that at least pays you well so you can do what you want at weekends.’
‘Isn’t it a bit late?’ she asked, eyes wide.
‘You’re what, eighteen, twenty?’
‘There’s always room for more Christmas cake, and pudding, and there’s always time to do something you love. Something new.’
The student nurse left Pip’s office. She’d agreed to stay on until the end of the shift ‘to help out,’ and said she’d let Pip know about her decision whether she’d stay and finish her nursing degree.
Pip knew that someone this unsure in the first term had slim to no chance of staying on. And really, why should she if it wasn’t what she wanted to do?
‘Once someone can answer what they want,’ Sheila had told Pip, after his first week at uni, ‘It’s much easier to work out how to get it.’
As he prepared himself to return to the ward, Pip checked the time on his fob watch. The fob watch Sheila had given him upon when he’d been able to start applying for jobs as a qualified nurse.
‘Take this, and do great things,’ a seventy year old Sheila had said. ‘You know where I am if you need to talk. It’s not over now you’ve qualified; it’s just the beginning.’
A wave of memories hit Pip now as he paused at his office door, ready to return to his staff, to his patients, to his ward.
He’d never managed to call Sheila once he’d qualified; she went into a nursing home and died not long after. And although Pip wished she could see him now, he always had her with him, peering over his shoulder, giving him advice about how to do something, dispensing her little sayings and phrases, particularly at Christmas time.
If you enjoyed that, my Christmas novella, inspired by the film, The Holiday, is reduced to only 99p before going up to its normal price.
A New Life For Christmas by Liam Livings
A house exchange between two single men leads to a romantic new life for both of them.
Oliver and Kyle live thousands of miles apart, but each needs a break from his current life and love. Enter the Cloud B&B website, a wonderful new way to exchange homes for the holiday. They both muster their courage, and decide to visit another continent for Christmas.
In the UK, Oliver has been pining after his neighbour for far too long, living his comfortable but quiet life in a town in the New Forest. When his crush moves on in the worst possible way, Oliver is seduced by the chance to stay in fun-loving, sunny Miami.
In Miami, Kyle is a club owning workaholic, who suddenly discovers the man he lives with has been unfaithful. Yet again. As consolation, Kyle is tempted to see first hand the picturebook charm of the New Forest in winter.
Both of them find not just a new setting but a new romance. Oliver makes a big effort to shed his inhibitions and meets a musician, Mark, who plays in the Florida bars, and who may be just as cautious and polite as Oliver in making the first move.
And while Kyle’s trying to come to terms with England’s very different culture—and food!—he’s charmed by Oliver’s best friend Edward, who’s bold and sexy, but secretive.
Will Oliver take the leap of faith and encourage a lover who can and will give the commitment he deserves? And will Kyle find a man who can be loyal and also offer Kyle the family life he needs?
But perhaps more importantly—when Christmas is over, can a new life survive?
Universal Amazon buy link: http://mybook.to/New_Life_Christmas