Sophie Bridge’s New Year’s Tale

Inspired by a Christmas decoration, here is a short story for the child inside of you. Call it a little New Year’s gift as a thank you for your encouragement and support.

Wishing you all the best for the New Year!

Amna

 

The curious tale of Sophie and Per the Elf

When Sophie first witnessed the small elf spring to life, little did she know of the impact that he would have on her life. The phenomenon began many years ago, when, as a curious eight-year-old, she had crept out of her bedroom at eleven o’clock on Christmas Eve, hoping to spy Father Christmas sneaking into her home. It was a good thing that Mum was working the evening shift at Scarborough Hospital. And their neighbour, Mrs. Frogget, who was meant to keep an eye on Sophie, had fallen asleep at the kitchen table, owing to more than a sip of whisky from the hip flask tucked inside her bag of knitting. Her snores, sounding like the growls of a slumbering bear, gave Sophie the resolve she needed to steal out of bed, and into the box-shaped sitting room.

Sophie curled up on the worn out armchair by the electric fire and waited. And waited. She yawned, she stretched, but nothing could ease the lead-lined feel of her eyelids. In fact, sleep tried its best to draw her away from the task in hand, but Sophie was determined to see Father Christmas with her own eyes. To stop herself from drifting off, she counted the number of baubles on the silver tinselled Christmas tree (six), then the lights coiled around its thin branches (ten), before turning her attention to the fairy and the elf on the windowsill.

The fairy had been demoted from treetop to windowsill because she always fell off the flipping tree. “Maybe she’s got vertigo,” Mum had said after picking her up from the floor for the umpteenth time. Sophie had bought the fairy with Mum that December and bored Mum silly with her hints of wanting to dress up as a fairy, and wouldn’t it be lovely if she got a fairy costume for Christmas. But Mum said a costume cost too much and as a result, Sophie channelled all her disappointment of not getting what she wanted into relocating the fairy.

“Because you won’t do as you’re told,” Sophie had told the fairy, “I’m going to sit you next to Per.” Sophie had only recently named the red-hatted elf who sat cross-legged on top of a white paper package tied with twine, because she had overheard Mum talking about a trip to Sweden, taken long before Sophie was born, and how she had lived with a husband and wife with a son called Per, and how it was just magic and Mum didn’t intend to come home until she received the Bad News. Sophie had no idea what this Bad News was, but at least she had a name for the elf.

Although she tried her hardest, Sophie never took to Per the Elf. It was the lazy smile painted on his face – just above his fluffy beard – and his saggy body, reminding Sophie of a sack of potatoes which got on her nerves. But Mum liked him. She said she would never throw him out. “He’s a part of me,” she had said. Sophie sometimes didn’t get Mum with the things she said and this was one of those things.

“Hej hej! Hej hej!”

Sophie stirred from her sleep. Her eyes flickered open and she thought she saw a shadow pass in front of her, causing her to near tumble from the armchair.

Father Christmas!

But then she looked around: the living room was empty and all was quiet, save for the light patter of rain against the windowpane and Mrs. Frogget’s baritone snores coming from the kitchen. Sophie glanced up at the clock on the wall above the tree: it was half past eleven. I can’t have been dreaming, she thought. She pulled her thin cardigan around her and tucked her feet under her bottom to keep them warm, all the while trying to maintain a watchful eye. Yet just as she was about to nod off, she heard the voice again.

“Hej hej!”

She cast a look this way, then that. “Father Christmas, is that you?” she asked.

“Over here – by the window.” Whoever it was spoke like the clown with the squeaky voice from the circus that summer. Turning her attention to the window, Sophie almost let out a scream. Fortunately, she clamped her hand over her mouth just in time, for if Mrs. Frogget caught her, she knew she’d get a clip about the ears. When her alarm eased, she moved closer to the window.

There, on the windowsill, was Per the Elf jumping up and down on top of his white box, waving his hands in the air.

She peered down at him. “You’re not Father Christmas.”

“Of course I’m not,” he said, his hands now on his hips and his lazy smile no longer a smile, but a squiggled frown. “I’m Per. You named me, remember?”

If Sophie did have any words, they got lost on their way down from her brain to her vocal chords.

“I’d rather you didn’t stare at me like that,” Per continued, leaping down from the present. “I’ve been given a job to do and woe betide me if I don’t get it done.”

“You’re alive. You can talk!” Sophie said, drawing closer to Per, her gaze wide-eyed. This was far better than catching sight of Father Christmas.

“Of course I can talk. Of course I’m alive,” the elf said. He stood on his tiptoes to bring himself level with Sophie’s eyes. “We don’t have time for pleasantries. Come midnight your mother will be home and it’ll all go quite wrong if she sees me. Which reminds me,” he said, “you must keep our meeting secret.”

“Ooh I like secrets,” said Sophie.

“Well that’s good. Now, can we begin?”

Sophie nodded.

Per the Elf turned to his gift box, untied the twine and pulled out a tiny pencil and notebook as well as a pair of half-moon spectacles from the minuscule box. Closing the lid, he then sat down on it. Sophie couldn’t help marvel at the sight and tried to open the box herself, but the elf slapped her away before she got a chance.

“That doesn’t half hurt,” she said, rubbing her fingers.

Per continued as if nothing had happened. “Now,” he said, “have you been good this year?” Sophie scrunched up her brow which always made Mum remark how sweet she looked which in turn annoyed her, so she quickly unscrunched it. But then her heart began to race.

“If I haven’t been good, does this mean I won’t get any presents?” she asked, not that she was expecting a lot.

The elf let out a sigh which seemed to drag out all the breath left in him. “Sophie. I thought you were a clever child. This has nothing to do with Christmas.”

“Oh,” she said, trying to hide her relief, only to concertina her brow again. “But why are you asking me whether I’ve been good?”

Per the Elf tapped his pencil on his notebook, reminding Sophie of the tick of Mum’s alarm clock. “Would you mind answering the question.”

“I have been good,” Sophie said, albeit a bit too quickly.

Per arched a tiny eyebrow and peered at her over his half-moon glasses.

“Well,” she stammered, her cheeks turning hot, “I did nip Sunita Choudhury for no good reason.”

“Go on,” said Per, scribbling away.

“I did it more than once, even though I told my teacher and Mum it was just the once. But I did say sorry to her. And I also said sorry to her for telling her she was a Brownie because she was already brown and she needn’t join our local Brownie group.” Sophie chewed her lip. She felt the tears pricking at her eyes. “But now we’re best friends. She comes to my house for tea and I go to hers and everything. And I know I lied about not taking the Mr. Kipling apple pies from the harvest festival display, and there was never a mysterious old man by the display, but I didn’t want Mum to get into trouble because she told me she’s sick and tired of school calling her in for something I’ve done. So I stopped taking things and making up stories.”

“Hmm.” Per sucked the end of his pencil and looked up at her.

“And sometimes I wish that Mum’s boss at the hospital would jump off a cliff because he always makes her cry and makes her work all the time.” Now tears slipped down Sophie’s cheeks which she wiped away with the back of her hand. The elf didn’t seem to notice though as he finished up his note taking.

“We’re done,” he said, popping his things back inside the box.

“That’s it? But what’ll happen now?” asked Sophie, annoyed he had brought their meeting to such an abrupt end.

“In time you’ll see. But now it’s time for bed.” He motioned to the clock on the wall. “Your mother will be back soon.” Sophie turned around to the clock and then back to Per the Elf who now sat cross-legged on the white-paper package, as still and lifeless as the fairy next to him.

The scrabble of the key in the lock prompted Sophie to scurry back to bed. She thought she couldn’t sleep, but when she next opened her eyes it was bright daylight.

Mum came into her room and snuggled into bed next to her. “Merry Christmas, love,” she said, giving her a kiss on her cheek. “Normally it’s you racing into my room.” She felt Sophie’s forehead. “You’re not ill are you?” Sophie didn’t say anything and simply rested her head on Mum’s shoulder.

Later that day, Sophie examined the elf, but there was nothing extraordinary about him other than the paint chip on the side of one of his wooden clogs. She even tried to unwrap the box but it was hopeless as there was no sign of an opening. And seeing Per’s lazy smile just irked her even more so she gave up on him.

Christmas Day came and went, as did Boxing Day and the other days of the school holiday, passing in a blur of TV specials and leftover turkey from the dinner they shared with Mrs. Frogget. And although Sophie had a niggle that the talking elf was a figment of her imagination, part of her wanted to believe that he really did speak to her. So she still kept their meeting secret, even though she was bursting to tell Mum about him.

That year, Mum didn’t have to work on New Year’s Eve and Sophie got to stay up and watch telly with her. They even sang Auld Lang Syne, the words to which Sophie didn’t really understand, but somehow they warmed her heart.

“I promise to be good, Mum,” Sophie said as Mum tucked her up in bed after they saw in the New Year.

“I know it’s hard with everything,” Mum said, kneeling by her side. “But just try. I know you have this vivid imagination, that you love to tell stories, but sometimes it’s better to tell the truth and be honest.”

“I’ll do my best,” Sophie said, giving Mum an Eskimo kiss.

At midday on New Year’s Day there was a knock on the door. Sophie opened it to see a man in grey bearing a large parcel. She was about to call out for Mum when he said,

“Sophie Bridge?”

Sophie nodded.

“Delivery for you.”

Sophie ran into the living room, ripping at the package before she sat down. “Look what I got,” she said to Mum. She didn’t hear what Mum said as she was too busy yanking out the contents.

Sophie gasped. It was the most beautiful fairy costume she had ever seen: a dress of ivory silk, embroidered with tiny crystal flowers, together with blush coloured ballet pumps, a crystal tiara and a sparkling wand.

She hugged Mum so tightly. “Thanks Mum,” she said. “It’s the best present ever.” Such was her happiness that Sophie didn’t notice the straightening of Mum’s body, nor the faint shiver running down her spine, nor the tear leak out of the corner of Mum’s eye. In fact, all Sophie could think of was Per the Elf, that their meeting did happen, that he did spring to life. And so, Sophie made a promise to herself that she would never ever tell a soul about their meeting.

As the new year turned not so new, Sophie forgot about Per the Elf, but she was good as she could be with a few guilty slips along the way. Like the time she stole Jack Smith’s football when he made fun of Sunita, and the time she cheated when she was given a second, harder, spelling test because Miss Stone didn’t believe that she scored ten out of ten without cheating the first time around.

Christmas Eve arrived more quickly than the year before and Per the Elf sprang to life. On this occasion he found his way to her bedroom and jumped up and down on her bed to wake her up. Once Sophie had recovered from the shock of being woken up by none other than the elf, he wasted no time at all to demand whether or not she had been good. And, in all her honesty, Sophie confessed while Per dutifully noted everything down. And like the previous year, a parcel arrived on New Year’s Day. She tore it open to find a Lego set. The following year, she got so many books she couldn’t believe it. The year after, she got a science kit.

And so it continued that way: a review of her deeds with a grumpy little elf each Christmas Eve, and the receipt of a gift on New Year’s Day. Sophie always kept the elf secret. She put it down to something better than Father Christmas who she had outgrown, and although neither she nor Mum said anything, Sophie came to believe that the gifts had little to do with Mum.

The best present was a bicycle. The worst, was receiving nothing – in the year she turned 16 and everything else turned for the worse. Mum died suddenly and Mrs Frogget was left in charge of Sophie. And such was Sophie’s seesawing anger and hurt at the world and at God or whoever for taking Mum away, that she lost any sense of who she was and who she could be, and the rebel inside her was let out. She was cautioned for shop lifting. She was caught with alcohol and drugs. But what people didn’t know, was that Sophie wanted to be caught. She wanted to be told that she had let herself down, that she had promise, and that her mother would be disappointed. Teachers, social workers, Mrs. Frogget: all thought that mention of her mother to whom she was so close, would put a stop to her destruction. But it continued and there were threats of expulsion and foster homes and correction centres, and if it wasn’t for Mrs. Willis, her form tutor at school with an unfailing belief in Sophie, she would’ve ended up even further away from the promise she showed.

And then Christmas came. After Mum died, Sophie had kept Per the Elf in a box and shoved it right at the back of her wardrobe. Yet somehow he managed to get out and appeared on her pillow in the early hours of Christmas Day. And when he asked her if she had been good, it released all the heartbreak that Sophie had kept to herself for so many months. And for the first time, the elf didn’t take notes of any kind and just placed his little hand on her arm.

Thereafter, Sophie put her head down, studied hard. She got a place at Imperial College, London, to study Medicine. She felt happier, more at ease with herself and the world, and her anger subsided, giving way to a sort of relief that she felt almost euphoric, like the very first time she experienced snowflakes dust down on her skin.

In the year she turned 18, as he always did, Per the Elf visited her that Christmas Eve.

“You won’t see me like this again,” said Per as he put his notebook and pencil and half-moon spectacles away in the box. “But I’ll always be around – so long as you don’t throw me away. Promise me that.”

Sophie nodded. She understood in her own way what he meant and like Mum, she would never throw him away.

Her present arrived on New Year’s Day: a cheque to help cover the costs of university. She didn’t notice the postage mark, nor the stamp. She had just assumed it was the accumulation of Mum’s rainy day money.

Some 40 years later, when Sophie decided to once and for all clear away the forgotten junk in her attic, she came across a box of Mum’s belongings. Amongst the paraphernalia were a series of old letters from a man called Per Christiansen who lived in Gothenburg. The correspondence was regular: three or four letters a year, until the year Mum passed away. As Sophie read them, she understood who he once was to Mum, and of course, who he was to her. Their tone was warm, with questions about Sophie, the request for more photos and what she wanted for Christmas. And though stumbling across the letters was fortuitous, her enquiries about him came to nothing other than telling her that Time had taken him away.

Yet knowing that didn’t stop her from travelling to the outskirts of Gothenburg to seek out the farmhouse where Per Christiansen once lived. The house was still standing, but Sophie couldn’t bring herself to knock on the door. It wasn’t until the owner, Sven – who had just by chance opened the front door to find her turning away – invited her in. In fact, he insisted upon it, as did his partner, Morten. Sophie couldn’t say no.

Over a pot of strong coffee, each shared snippets of their life story. As they talked, Sophie couldn’t help glancing around the too cool and too white interior. It was as if she were searching for something, but she didn’t know what it was she should look for, until her gaze settled on a bookshelf. There, nestled between two books, was a small elf sitting on a white-paper package. Instinctively, Sophie went to pick it up.

“We found him tucked away in a corner of one of the old bedrooms,” said Sven. “He’s a funny little thing.”

“I have one just like him,” said Sophie. “A twin if you will.”

“We couldn’t bear to throw him away,” said Morten. “He’s part of the house, and now he’s part of us.”

“That’s how I feel about my little elf,” said Sophie.

Another three decades had past since she made that trip to Gothenburg, but the memory of it remained one of the few crystal clear things in her mind. As she lay down in her bed on the night before Christmas, her limbs stiff with her 90-plus years, Sophie reflected on that visit, the letters from Per Christiansen to Mum, and her life in general which had ebbed and flowed with success and failure. There were broken hearts, broken promises, either on account of Sophie’s doing, or someone else’s. Two marriages came and went: one built on too many lies; the second built on the straws of hesitant love. But she had muddled along and found fulfilment. The low point was her inability to have children. To the outside world, it seemed she had accepted this fate, but inside she never quite moved on. Her decision to devote herself to treating sick children at home and away helped lessen her pain. Often, she would bring out Per the Elf to distract her young patients, wowing them with tales of Per’s little adventures in the big city of London where she was based. On occasion she still convinced herself that he really did come alive, but Time, too, eroded the surety of those Christmas Eve visits.

“Hej hej!”

Sophie awoke to find her bedside lamp still switched on and standing next to it, was Per the Elf.

“I’m dreaming,” she said.

“No you’re not,” said Per the Elf. He leapt onto the bed and pinched Sophie’s ear.

“Ow!” said Sophie rubbing her ear lobe.

“See,” said Per sitting crossed legged on top of her quilt. “I don’t have much time as He’s waiting outside. So: have you been good?”

Sophie knew who He was. She settled back against her pillows and replied, “I always tried.”

© Amna K. Boheim 2014