Christmas Story by Angi Holden

Distressed Fairy

I admit to being a touch smug. When the assistant reached for the carrier bag and whispered to her colleague that my purchaser was ‘that world famous artist, you know the one, always in the papers’ I began to feel that the weeks of cardboard cartons and stockrooms and shelving displays had been worth it after all.
Expectation is an interesting thing, don’t you think? Christmas is always a time for anticipation, for children and adults alike to speculate what might be in those brightly wrapped and beribboned packages. Who of you can resist the temptation to pick up a gift from under the tree, to squeeze it or shake it in some attempt to guess its contents? For most of us it’s the reverse, of course. Every gift is wondering what it’s like on the outside of the paper: who will unwrap us and whether we’ll be appreciated by our new owner.
And for Christmas Tree Fairies, it’s a slightly different experience. We’ve been specifically chosen by our new owners. We know we are wanted. More than that, we know we are so valued that we’ll be in pride of place, at the very pinnacle of the festive decorations. As we are jostled from hand to hand, swung along the streets in our John Lewis carrier bags, our anticipation is one of geography and scale. Will we be part of the welcoming party, watching the guests shed their worsted and cashmere as they transform into dinner suited, silk-gowned social butterflies? Or will we be in the heart of the action in a busy living room, surrounded by family and friends exchanging perfume and jewellery, books and CDs and leather wallets. Will our tree be massive, but in a draughty hall? Will our tree be small, but ideally placed to observe the lingering kiss, the hand held a moment longer than entirely necessary?
One thing I was certain of was style. I had been chosen by a world famous artist, so I was assured of that at least. My new home would be chic, impressive, on trend. The rooms would be filled by with guests of culture and sophistication. I would listen to articulate conversation, eavesdrop on intellectual debate and genteel gossip. It would be magnificent.

So the workroom came, as you might imagine, as something of a surprise. I was unfamiliar with the term ‘grunge’. And not a little alarmed by the sight of several craft knives and what appeared to be a cheese grater. My artist lifted some bottles from the shelf: bleach, pva glue, Indian ink. And then she slid those graceful, slender hands into a pair of rubber gloves and reached out for me. The delicately stitched layers of my net skirts offered little resistance, surrendering easily to each cut and tear. I wept at the sound of fabric ripping. I thought for a moment that she intended to unplait my hair; a cloud of pre-Raphaelite curls would perhaps have been bearable. But instead she dislodged a number of my blonde strands with a crochet hook, before running them between ink-blackened tissue. She left me on the workbench to dry whilst she answered the phone.
‘Yes,’ she said, pulling off her gloves as she spoke. ‘I’m doing it now.’ She reached out and touched a sketch that was pinned by one corner to a board above her desk. The paper was creased, as if it had been folded into an envelope. The artist ran her fingers across the lines of a delicate fairy. The creature’s dress was torn and shabby, her hair tangled and matted, her face dirty. She had lost her shoes, and her stockings were snagged and laddered. Even her wings were tattered, as if she would never fly again. But for all that, her eyes were shining.
The artist returned to the workbench. It wasn’t quite the kind of anticipation I’d had in mind; I knew what was coming.

So here we are, a few days before Christmas. The tree stands by the picture window, its decorations not the haphazard accumulation of years of baubles and plastic icicles or the stylish red and gold arrangements that you see in magazines. There are fairy lights, but they are faint and uncoloured. The branches are draped in wool fibres, off-white, grey and black – as if they’ve been gathered from a mountain hedgerow – and caught in among the strands are tiny silver stars.
Wired to the top of my tree, looking for all the world as though I’ve been pulled through that same hedgerow, I gaze out over the minimalist room. There is little besides the tree to suggest Christmas. A pair of heavy silver candlesticks on the mantle shelf hold fat white candles. Five white roses in a glass vase are supported by twigs of holly. A roaring fire in the grate warms the room.
I hear a key in the front door, the creak and clunk as it swings open and slams shut.
‘I’m home!’ a voice calls and I hear the thunder of footsteps down the staircase. There is a furry of conversation – how was your journey? are you hungry? get yourself warm by the fire – and then they come into the lounge. The girl is still shrugging off her backpack and coat when she sees the tree. She pauses for a moment before dumping her things on the floor. She gazes up at me with the wonder of a small child.
‘Mum, she’s beautiful,’ she says. ‘She’s exactly as I imagined.’
The artist gathers the girl into her arms and kisses her lightly on the head. She is brimful, holding back tears.
Like the fairy in the sketch, I’m sure my eyes are shining.

Note: This came from our Christmas workshop session led by Angela Topping and Rosie Topping.
The image is included by kind permission of Helen Ivory, poet and artist.