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Feather's Miscellany: Alone At Christmas

John Waddington-Feather brings a story for this very special day.

Sir Peter Headington was a kindly man; some would have said he was a saint, but that he would most firmly have denied. He was a City banker, the head of a long established family bank, as his father and forebears had been before him. So successful had been his great-grandfather, William, he’d been awarded a baronetcy by Queen Victoria. As bankers they’d been successful, but they’d all been successful philanthropists, too.

Sir William had founded a hospital for the poor. Sir Michael, Sir Peter’s father, had sponsored a new medical school. Sir Peter himself had gone further still and opened up a wing of the family home, Headington Grange, for the homeless. He also founded the Headington Trust which established more hostels for the homeless and ex-prisoners throughout the country. Comfortably housed and well fed all his life, he felt for those without homes and food.

In time he and his wife Susan handed over their entire home to families in need, when it became obvious there’d be no more heirs to the baronetcy. Though they were a devoted couple, they were childless and Sir Peter was the last of the line; and when Lady Susan became badly crippled with arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair, they decided to leave the Grange and hand it over to the Trust to be re-furnished for homeless families.

Once everything had been completed they moved to London and settled in Kensington in a ground-floor mews apartment. It was sufficient, containing three en suite bedrooms, a large living room, a reception room and small kitchen. They both felt well blessed for their new home was handy for them to continue leading active social lives. Despite her illness, Lady Susan managed to do a healthy round of engagements: her charity work, her bridge club and regular visits to relatives and friends. Sir Peter enjoyed his club and supported his old rugby team Blackheath. He’d played much sport in his youth, especially rugby and cricket. He’d also boxed for the army during his National Service as a young man in his twenties, after which he’d gone into the family bank.

By the time he was seventy he was a very wealthy man. He was also a great giver and unloaded much of his wealth on charities, as well as the Trust he’d set up for the homeless. A modest man, he turned down many honours. Seeing the homeless housed and the hungry fed was sufficient. He preferred to work unseen on the shady margins of society than wallow in the limelight of the centre. He was more at home with the outcasts of this world than the well heeled or famous. The vagrants loved him like a father and they became his surrogate family when his wife died.

After her death he was lonely so joined a group which organised a soup-run daily across the City. When he’d finished at the bank each day, he’d change from his natty City suit and bowler hat into an old pair of corduroys and jacket and join the soup-run. Somehow, as he grieved deeply for his wife, he felt her presence as he drove round the back streets feeding the drop-outs, the druggies and winos, gathered on derelict sites round fires or huddled in sleeping bags in shop doorways.

On one run near Christmas he met a young Romanian gypsy couple and their newborn baby, crouched round a fire near the river along with the usual drop-outs. It was a foul night and he asked if they’d a home. No, they’d been in the country only a few weeks and could barely speak English. And the baby? Were they sleeping rough with him? Yes. They were illegal immigrants and daren’t approach the authorities for shelter and benefits in case they were sent back to Romania. During the day they begged or sold papers. At night, they kipped down where they could.

“Come with me,” said Sir Peter, and piled them into his van while he completed the soup-run.

By the time they’d done it was late, but Sir Peter took them to a Night Shelter he supported and booked them in. Then he arranged with the warden for them to stay there till they found more permanent accommodation. He also arranged for them to meet a lawyer and apply for asylum. “Thank you. Thank you,” they said, about the only words they knew in English, but their eyes spoke their gratitude.

It was when he was making his way home that night after garaging the van that he felt ill. He’d been feeling unwell for some time and his doctor had told him to ease up. But he didn’t. He continued working at the bank and doing the soup-run whatever the weather. As he walked down Kensington High Street, the pain in his chest became worse. He just had to sit down and noticed light streaming through the doorway of a nearby church.

He staggered in and rested in the nearest pew, quite alone. There was no one else there except the caretaker, doing his rounds before he locked up for the night. As he came up the aisle he noticed Sir Peter and how pale he was.

“You all right, sir?” he asked.

Though his heart was thumping painfully, Sir Peter raised a smile and nodded. “Quite all right,” he replied. “Just give me a moment or two. I shan’t be long.”

The other sensed he wanted to be alone and went on his rounds leaving Sir Peter gazing at the Nativity Crib just by. His head was swimming but the Crib seemed to glow brighter and brighter. He thought he was imagining things; but no, the Crib was growing brighter. Not only that but it was also growing larger by the second, till all the figures in it were life-size. And strangest of all were the figures of Mary and Joseph. They had the features of the Romanian gypsies he’d left earlier that night, dark skinned and dark eyed.

By now a mist was clouding his vision, but he saw Mary beckoning him into the Crib, into the stable where her baby lay. Joseph, too, was pointing to other figures who came out of the darkness into the blazing light which emanated from the Infant Christ.

Sir Peter began to recognise them one by one as the mist before his eyes cleared and the pain in his chest disappeared.

“Susan!” he cried, moving towards his wife; not the crippled old woman who’d died the previous year, but the young beautiful woman he’d married. Once he’d crossed the threshold of the stable, there were others, near ones and dear ones who’d gone on before, all clustered round the manger where the Child Christ lay, smiling and laughing, welcoming him into that joyful light where he was no longer alone, welcoming him into his new life.

Having done his rounds, the caretaker returned and told Sir Peter it was very late and he’d really have to lock up the church for the night. There was no response, so he touched Sir Peter on the shoulder thinking he’d fallen asleep. He spoke louder, but still no response. Then he bent down and looked hard at the man in the pew. He was smiling peacefully, but quite dead.


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