Bob left Tracey at nine o’clock on Christmas Eve. The children were in bed but, as they were too excited to sleep, the last bitter row had been in half whispers, harsh and throat straining.
Tracey had been trying to fill the stockings with an inadequate number of sweets, crayons and cheap colouring books. He had sat watching, wanting to help, to share, but not knowing how.
In the end she had thrown everything across the room and it was too late. His “precious toolbox” had been thrust at him in the same whirlwind of anger and she had told him to go. Numb with the failures heaped on him for the last hour, he had gone.
He was a failure. Couldn’t find a regular job. If he earned casual money he declared it when he signed on. Other men didn’t. Why did he have to? What was being ‘straight with himself’ compared to Tracey’s happiness? What was so special about himself that he couldn’t sacrifice his stupid pride for his family?
The damp streets glistened under the street lights and eventually he found himself at the river. Inky black, it roiled under the bridge. He had always feared the water. Never learnt to swim. He watched it slide menacingly beneath his feet.
He could go on walking and walking. But to what? Not Tracey and the kids. Not a job. After two years he knew there were no jobs. Not for a middleaged craftsman who cared which way the wires went. Only for fresh out of college whizzkids with electronics coming out of their ears and willing to accept a boy’s wage.
It would be quick and easy this way. His heavy boots and donkey jacket would drag him down. So would his toolkit. He could tie it to his belt. Kittens in weighted sacks. Quick. And all over. When there was no hope why carry on piling failure on failure? Admit defeat and go.
He fumbled in his pocket and found a piece of string, neatly coiled. He slipped it through his belt. Tracey would be all right. She’d just said so, hadn’t she? He took a last look round at the town on both sides of the water and noticed a church spire, black against the night glare of street lights.
He’d never been a religious man. Wasn’t even sure if there was a God. But his mother had always said there was. He tried to formulate a clumsy thought that if there was anything up there it/He would look after Tracey and the kids. Then he hefted up his toolbox to his belt. Don’t stop to think. All over in just two minutes, five at the most…
Running footsteps came up behind him.
He turned, startled. The street had been deserted for a long time.
“Excuse me…” A youngish man with a breathlessly pink face above a white dogcollar was hurrying towards him. “You don’t know anything about electricity, do you?”
Bob hesitated. “Some,” he said cautiously.
“Only we’ve lost all the lights and heating in the church. No-one I’ve met so far has had the least idea. If you can help we’d be so grateful. It’s only two hours to go…”
Somehow Bob found himself falling into step beside the younger man as he rattled on about midnight services and the elderly congregation. They went up a side street and into a dark and silent church.
“St. Barnabas,” explained the young man. “The wiring is unbelievably ancient and it’s finally given up. And the fuses don’t look right somehow… This is really good of you.”
Bob had met some bodge-ups in his time but nothing like the sight that met his stupefied gaze in the back of that church. He played his torch over cobbled wires and fuses wrapped in silver foil in silence.
“The name’s Alphasael,” said his companion chattily. “Alf for short. Yours?”
“Bob. Two hours, you said?”
“That’s right. People might start arriving a bit before but…”
“Best get started then.”
The fault was not hard to find. Someone, at some time, had run out of silver paper and rerouted the lighting circuit straight into the heating circuit. When Alf, the curate, had gone round switching on all the little used heaters in readiness for the larger than usual congregation expected for the Christmas midnight service, the overloaded system had given up.
Bob had the lighting back in half an hour but the heating was another matter.
“We’ll have to check each heater individually.”
Time crept on. The vicar arrived and was effusively grateful. Bob and Alf crawled into alcoves and up stepladders. A mouse-chewed cable was found and replaced. Alf commented hopefully on the mildness of the night. Feet were heard in the outer porch.
“That should do it,” said Bob.
He sat alone in the vestry with a mug of tea, listening to the sounds of the service through the closed door. The heater blazed heat on his cold limbs and the high pure voices of the choir soared beyond feeling. It had been good to work again. He hadn’t realised just how much he’d missed the close companionship of a workmate. Alf was a good lad… quick hands and a steady eye. Funny little feet though. And his shoes… like old-fashioned plimsolls…His eyes drooped.
Later, the vicar and several parishioners came in to the vestry. There was talk and laughter, mince pies and more tea. A big man shook Bob’s hand commenting he knew a brave man when he saw one, touching wires Reverend had had a go at.
“Mark of a professional,” said Alf, passing with a tray of used cups. “First sight to fixed-it in two hours.”
The big man eyed Bob thoughtfully. Then he went to look at the fusebox.
“I restore listed buildings. High grade work for top paying customers. Not looking for a job, are you?” he asked when he returned.
Alf strolled home with Bob. It was on his way, he said. They didn’t talk much. His earlier chattiness seemed to have gone and Bob felt as relaxed and easy in his company as if they had known each other years. Somehow he knew Alf had no family to go home to for Christmas.
“Come in and….” The invitation died on his lips. Alf wasn’t there. Had he said goodbye? Bob couldn’t remember.
Through the lit front room window he could see Tracey sprawled asleep on the settee. She should be in bed. He’d make her a hot drink, tell her everything was going to be all right. Tomorrow he and the kids would make her breakfast…
He trod eagerly up the path, careless for once of its puddles, opened the front door and shut it behind him.
On the pale cement of the step the footprints of his heavy boots showed dark in the streetlight. And beside them were another set, smaller, as if made by a pair of old fashioned plimsolls. And, if anyone had inspected the path and pavements, they would have seen that the smaller footprints had kept in step with the larger ones every inch of the way.