Not Daddy Christmasbyoggbashan©
Not Daddy Christmas
Copyright Oggbashan November 2016
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
I saw Sonia as soon as I walked into the Council Offices. I was there to look at a planning application for the Residents' Association. It was the last day before the local office closed a week earlier than normal for building work until the New Year. She was sitting on a bench clutching a ticket with two large wheeled suitcases beside her.
Numbered tickets were only necessary for interviews with the Housing Department. But why would Sonia need to talk to them?
She hadn't noticed me. Her head was bowed and her body was slumped as if she was incredibly tired. Her attitude contrasted starkly with the Christmas decorations in the foyer. I sat down beside her. Even then she didn't react or acknowledge my presence.
"Sonia?" I said.
She looked up. There was a fleeting smile as she recognised me before she burst into tears. I opened my arms and she sobbed against my chest. As she moved I saw the number on her ticket. She would have to wait an hour at least before she would have her interview.
As the sobbing slowed down I was thinking fast. Why was she here? The suitcases indicated a real crisis. She must be looking for emergency accommodation. As a single woman she would have almost no priority. Families with children had enough problems getting help from the council. But she shouldn't be that desperate unless something drastic had happened.
Sonia was the only daughter of my wife's friend Mary. Mary had divorced her useless husband fifteen years ago. He had disappeared after the divorce never paying the agreed maintenance for Sonia then in her teens. Mary had died of breast cancer four years ago. I had gone to her funeral with my wife Jane. Sonia had been there with her partner John.
I knew that Mary hadn't left much. She had been living in a rented house and trying hard to manage with the few part time jobs she could find. Jane and I had helped with Sonia's university costs. We had helped again financially when Sonia had later trained to be a teacher. She was working at a school about five miles away. I hadn't had much actual contact with Sonia because my career was so demanding. It was one of my real regrets that my work had kept me away from Jane even after she had retired. Three months after I retired Jane had a stroke, dying in my arms as we waited for the ambulance.
I hadn't seen Sonia since Jane's funeral two years ago. She had been there again with John but even in my grief I had recognised that Sonia was unhappy.
Now? If she wanted to see the Housing Department Sonia was in real trouble.
"Come on, Sonia," I said. "We're leaving."
"Leaving? I can't, Uncle David. I'm homeless, evicted this morning and I have nothing except what's in these suitcases."
"You don't have nothing. You have an Uncle David and you're spending Christmas with me. Come on. My car's outside."
It took me five minutes to persuade Sonia to leave. As I loaded her suitcases into the car I was impeded by her clinging to me. I almost had to push her into the car and fasten her seat belt. She was still crying quietly as we drove away.
At my house I deposited her suitcases in the hall. Sonia dashed into the downstairs cloakroom. A few minutes later she emerged obviously having repaired her makeup. She still looked sad and older than her thirty years. I put a cup of coffee in her hands. She clutched it as if it was a lifeline.
"Thank you, Uncle David," she said, "but..."
"You really need something to eat?" I suggested.
"Instant pasta do for a start?" I asked.
"Anything. I haven't eaten since last night."
The pasta took less than five minutes. It took Sonia longer than that to eat it slowly as if it was a meal she was savouring.
Over the next couple of hours she helped me to make the bed in a spare bedroom and told me about her situation. Until yesterday morning she had thought she was unhappy and depressed because she was arguing with John and the arguments had been getting worse. She didn't say so but I suspected he had been physically abusing her as well.
She had been late home the night before, clearing up at school but yesterday morning John had gone. They hadn't been sharing a bed for months. The first Sonia knew was a note on the kitchen table. It was on top of a pile of official looking envelopes. Most of those envelopes were addressed to both of them, had been opened, but she hadn't seen them before. John must have been intercepting them but how? They were both out at work all day and Jane got home first.
She had sat down to read John's note. It was an apology and a farewell. He had gone and he said she wouldn't be able to find him. The official letters were dire. They hadn't been paying the rent for months. They would be evicted tomorrow, that is now today, and they owed thousands of pounds, not just for rent and utilities but for credit cards Sonia didn't know existed. The bailiffs would take whatever they could as part of the eviction.
The bailiffs had been as considerate as they could be when Sonia showed them John's note. They had let her take more than she should have been allowed but she was homeless and irretrievably broke, possibly facing bankruptcy. John had ignored all the warnings, all the offers of help and advice, and had abandoned Sonia to face the music. Sonia's car, her pride and joy, had been taken by the bailiffs so she wouldn't be able get to work in the New Year.
She had dragged those suitcases the five miles from their former home to the Council Offices. She had a few coins in her purse and had intended to go to the cash machine today. John had overdrawn their joint account and somehow had emptied her personal bank account as well. She had a balance of less than one pound.
Why hadn't she thought of me? I knew the answer and I was ashamed of it. Since Jane's death I had been almost a recluse. I had lost contact with many people, including Sonia. In the last few months I had been starting to build a new life without Jane. Working for the Residents' Association had been one of the new things, but I was still numb inside.
Sonia's financial problems would have to wait until the New Year. All the agencies would have shut down but at least she had a roof over her head with me. We wouldn't have enough food. I had planned to live out of the freezer over the break with meals for one except for three planned Christmas dinners with various groups. We would need to go shopping tonight or tomorrow.
I asked Sonia whether she would help with the shopping, and whether she was up to it this evening. She preferred tomorrow. She was desperately tired. She hadn't slept since she read John's note yesterday morning.
I micro-waved meals for the two of us in the evening and sent Sonia to bed at nine o'clock. The spare room had an en-suite bathroom which I heard her use.
I went to bed shortly after ten.
The next morning Sonia wanted to make breakfast for me. As I only eat cereal for breakfast I told her to make breakfast for herself and coffee for both of us. Her response was to hug me before kissing me on both cheeks. I liked that. Sonia was and is an attractive young woman but decades too young for me. Even so I appreciated a hug.
Over breakfast I tried to get her to discuss what we needed to buy to eat over Christmas. I found it difficult to get Sonia to talk. She nodded or answered with a monosyllabic yes or no. Eventually I asked why she wasn't answering.
"Uncle David," she said slowly, "you can't buy me happiness nor replace what I have lost in the last two days. I've lost my innocence and trust. The physical things? The bailiffs took the Christmas presents and more importantly my laptop and desktop computer. They let me transfer the personal and work files to a memory stick but I can't work without my laptop. I need to be back at work for the start of next term but..."
"The hardware? That's no problem, Sonia. I've got a spare laptop and a desktop computer. For what I do the spare laptop is enough. You can use the more up to date one. What else do you need for work?"
"Most of my stuff is in the classroom. I've lost copies of some things. The bailiffs let me take the students' workbooks I was marking because they're not mine. But I can't rely on you for everything, Uncle David. I can't."
"Why not, Sonia? I'm your friend. I may not be a real uncle but I'm here for you. We'll get you sorted out after Christmas. I'm sure we can get you equipped to start back to work in January. That's what you need first. If you are working and have an income there is a way out of this mess. Until then, we need to go shopping for the next few days. Finish your coffee and we'll hit the supermarket. Please?"
In the supermarket Sonia began slowly to become more animated. She helped choose food for us. She suggested more basic food that needed preparation before cooking. I had been living on too much fast food for years. I would have bought pre-packed sprouts. She insisted that we bought sprouts that needed peeling and washing. Yes, they would be nicer but I wouldn't have had the patience.
I had a small problem. I was booked into three Christmas meals over the next few days but I was reluctant to leave Sonia alone. She seemed vulnerable and very unhappy. She had good reason to be unhappy. But for me she might have been sleeping on the streets this Christmas. She was clinging to me often, as if I was the only reasonable thing in her world.
As we unloaded the shopping I asked Sonia if she would join me for the Christmas meals. She might be the youngest person at them but I might be able to book her in as my unexpected house guest. She was unsure but told me to try. As I had expected there had been cancellations for all three meals. The organisers would be happy for me to bring Sonia. Her presence, and my payment, might make the difference between meeting the costs and making a loss.
I didn't say much to my elderly friends, just that Sonia was staying with me. They welcomed her and the old men flirted with her outrageously. They and she knew it was not serious. She remained close to me at all three meals. When Sonia went to the rest room Helen, one of my female friends, suggested that Sonia had claimed me. I replied that Sonia only temporarily needed me because her arrangements for Christmas had gone wrong. That response was met with a shake of Helen's head.
"Watch yourself, David," Helen said, "Sonia thinks the world of you."
I would watch myself and try to remain as an elderly uncle, and Sonia's friend. I think Helen might have been jealous. She was one of several widows who had been very friendly to me recently. If Sonia hadn't been next to me Helen would have hugged me as she usually does whenever we meet.
Sonia was cooking proper meals for us. She insisted on doing the meals herself. I was allowed to sit at the kitchen table but all I was allowed to do was some vegetable preparation. I was enjoying the better food, and yes, the sight of a young woman in my house.
Sonia's work in the kitchen brought back happier memories of the early years of my marriage to Jane. Jane had been delighted to have her own kitchen instead of sharing with her mother. We had started our life together in a very small flat, all we could afford to start buying. But her own kitchen had been Jane's joy.
Watching Sonia, wearing an apron which had never been necessary for my solitary meals, and using kitchen equipment that had been unused since Jane's death, made me remember what I had lost. If only... I shouldn't have put off my retirement so long. I could have had years with Jane instead of a few months.
Sonia wasn't Jane. She couldn't be. But working in the kitchen was helping her to put aside her own troubles if only for a few minutes.
Sonia had finished marking her students' workbooks. It had taken her a real effort to ring her school and tell them of her change of address. The headmistress had come on the line. Sonia came back into the kitchen and said accusingly:
"David, you didn't tell me you were a governor at my school. Why not?"
"I was only appointed a few weeks ago," I protested.
"Why? You have no..."
"...children? No. I'm a political appointment. I was nominated by the Education Committee for my financial expertise. I've only been to one meeting."
"But the headmistress said it might be a problem if I'm living with you."
"That may be true, Sonia. I could always resign quoting family reasons."
"That's ridiculous!" Sonia retorted.
"It is, but it might be a problem for the school, and for you."
"But we're not..."
"No. We're not. I'm your elderly Uncle David. That's it."
"No, David. That isn't it. You're not that elderly. You're more than an adopted uncle. You're my friend and..."
"There's no 'and', Sonia. I'm your uncle and friend."
She proved me wrong by kissing me. That wasn't a peck on the cheek but full on the lips. While I enjoyed it, it worried me. Sonia was far too young for me.
Sonia's sadness was a real concern. We were working together to try to sort out the mess that John had left. Sonia found a hint of the cause in one of the earlier letters. John might have been fired from his job several months ago. He hadn't said a word to Sonia, and had continued leaving as normal as if to go to work.
Sonia looked through the paperwork again. There was no firm proof that John was jobless but the inference was clear.
I had given Sonia some cash. She had telephoned her bank and altered the security details on her own account. They were going to change her bank account number and send her a new debit card after Christmas. I had topped up her mobile phone because her direct debit had failed. We had reviewed all her debits. I funded her account by an on-line transfer for the important ones, insurance and work related memberships. I had to pay off some arrears for a few.
Sonia was costing me hundreds of pounds but that was nothing compared to the debts John had left her. They couldn't have accumulated to that much in the few months since he seemed to have been unemployed. He must have been living beyond his means for a couple of years. Sonia didn't know why or what he had been spending the money on. John didn't drink much. He didn't gamble. He didn't use drugs. But somehow he was spending several hundred pounds a month on something.
We sat down at the kitchen table and went through the paperwork John had left. Sonia and I were relieved that the credit card debts were in John's name, not joint. The bailiffs had left a copy of the court order. That was for the unpaid rent and two of the utilities. The bailiffs' recovery and the eviction would clear the rent but not the accumulated debts for utilities. The electricity company's letters advised that the supply would be cut off on 1st January.
We separated the letters into three piles. The largest one was debts that were solely John's responsibility. The smallest one was debts that had been cleared by the bailiffs' seizure. Sonia and I made a list and a total of the debts she was jointly responsible for even if she hadn't known about them. It was manageable. The total was just over two thousand pounds with the penalty charges.
Sonia had tried to telephone the different bank where the joint account was based. After hanging on the line for nearly half an hour she was told that she couldn't disassociate herself from the joint account without going to a bank branch for a face to face interview.
She asked them to hold the line while she asked me whether I would come with her. Of course I agreed. Sonia and the bank's advisor set an appointment time on the first working day in the New Year. Until then the joint account would be frozen. No payments would be made from it although credits could be made.
They would stop debiting her personal account at the other bank. When the joint account had been set up John and Sonia's personal accounts had been linked for any unauthorised overdrafts. Sonia's was now unlinked but there was still a large debit on the joint account. That would be discussed at the appointment.
At the end of the call Sonia was white-faced and near to tears. She sat on my lap and sobbed against my shoulder. I tried to comfort her, telling her it would be OK, things would be sorted.
"But I'll owe you so much, Uncle David," she sobbed. "I can't repay that much."
"Who is asking you to?" I responded.
I put my finger on her lips.
"Shh. We'll sort you out and get you back on your feet financially. In the New Year we can start to rebuild your life. Meanwhile? I'm enjoying your cooking."
Sonia kissed my finger.
"Cooking? That's nothing. I need to eat too and without my Uncle David I might be starving."
"What would you have done if...?"
"If my Uncle David hadn't rescued me? I would probably have walked to Andy's flat and begged use of a settee for the night."
"Andy?" I asked.
"Andy would have been John's Best Man if we had married. We thought about getting married three years ago but it went nowhere. Neither of us were prepared to commit then. Later? We didn't want to. We both knew things were going wrong. How wrong? That I didn't know until I found John's note."
"Why Andy? Is he more than a friend?"
"Andy? He was the only friend within walking distance. I would have preferred to go to a female friend but that would have meant a bus ride I couldn't afford. Andy might have been willing to drive me to a female friend. I knew he would help if he could."
"Yet he was John's friend, not yours?"
"Originally he was our friend. John and I met him, and each other, at university. Andy was one of the people sharing student accommodation with John. Like me, there were seven of them with a communal kitchen and bathroom. I have other friends from university but none are as local as Andy."
"Do you trust Andy?"
That was a definite answer with no hesitation.
"Why?" I asked.
"Andy is sweet; a bit shy, but very reliable. If he knew I was homeless I'm sure he would try to do as much for me as you are doing, even if he couldn't afford it. I would have preferred not to ask him for help. It would create an obligation that I couldn't repay and that might hurt Andy. I owe you too, David, but help from Andy would be like the widow's mite -- more than he could afford."
"And I can afford to help you without any real consequences for me," I said.
"No consequences, David? Your friend Helen doesn't think so. She looked at me as if I was taking her man away."
"Helen? Yes. She wants me. She's one of four women who have indicated that they might be available to the widower deprived of female company."
"How serious is Helen?"
"Serious. So are the other three. You have saved me from real embarrassment over Christmas. All four of them wanted to invite me to spend Christmas with them but after seeing you with me? They didn't. If I had chosen one the other three would have been offended and the chosen one might have seen it as a real commitment. I'm not ready for that. It's too soon after I have started socialising again."
"I'm pleased I could do something for you, David," Sonia said.
"It's more than just something, Sonia. You have given me a real reason to decline their invitations and have bought me time to consider."
"So you are considering a lady friend?"
"Maybe. But not now. Not until you are sorted out. All four of them are attractive but I don't know them as well as I ought to before taking things further. Which reminds me. You need a car for work. We'll get you insured on mine. It was Jane's runabout. I had been using a company car until I retired. They offered it to me at a reduced price but it was too large and too expensive to run. I was thinking of getting a mid size car when Jean died."