Christmas had approached with a certain degree of stealth. Its arrival had almost gone by unnoticed and its lodgings had been confined to the elements rather than the inner warmth of a family hearth and home. It had been left to fend for itself in the snow and the sporadic winter winds that raged before resting briefly. Christmas, it seemed, had been absent too long. Upon returning it found that its once close and loving family had become strangers to the world and to each other until, in an unexpected and united gesture, New Wood's residents began rapidly rediscovering themselves and their voices in the sepulchral silence.
It began first with just one meticulously wrapped present placed beneath the tree in Market Square, a single gift from an unknown person who had placed it there perhaps as a reminder to themselves that not everything was completely unsalvageable. That one simple gesture begot another. Under an hour later several more presents had appeared, and several hours later than that the amount had surpassed three hundred, a record number for New Wood. The residents hadn't spoken to each other and neither had they hinted in any way that this time-honoured and hitherto forgotten tradition was to be honoured at all. It had happened seemingly without forethought, without any prior discussion and without the pessimism that had plagued much of the townsfolk since news of Eventide's probable collision course with the Earth. One resident followed the other, and sometimes two appeared simultaneously each with that same accompanying smile that had once been so painless to express. One by one they placed their presents carefully beneath the tree and waited; they waited because they knew each other as well as they knew themselves. They no longer looked up to the sky with the dread that had governed the majority of them these past few weeks. Now they looked forward towards the tree, past the tree, into the heart of the town and into the hearts of their friends who they knew would soon arrive as they themselves had arrived with animated grins, presents and placid eyes that no longer housed fear. New Wood's closed doors had opened again and from within had poured forth that temporarily misplaced sense of community.
Over the course of the next six hours several hundred people flocked to Market Square. Longchester House had emptied and its aged residents had joined the younger, the youthful and the youngest each carrying presents, candles, decorations for the tree and, in George's case, a head full of Christmas carols ready to be voiced into the night. It was a clear defiance of what lingered above. Barbara was there also, clutching a candle and watching the flicker of flame leaving luminescent trails in the winter air as she moved it gently from left to right while searching for her son's face in the crowd.
Upon hearing the growing congregation of voices close by, Mina had appeared at her shop door and had observed in stupefied silence as the crowd continued to grow. She disappeared momentarily and returned seconds later with her own ornate candlestick sporting a rim of small and scrupulously carved fairies circling the base. It was one of the first things she'd ever created. She soon found her place in a crowd of people she'd known all her life as Hal handed her a candle from amidst the maturing throng of bodies. He gently nudged his way through with a grin and hugged her tightly as candlelight continued to gleam into existence all around them. Edna watched from a small distance away and couldn't detain her smile a moment longer. She'd been one of the first to arrive and one of the first to place a present beneath the tree. Now she stood holding a candle whilst looking around and trying to convince herself that this wasn't some fabricated dream.
Faces continued to appear, some more unexpected than others. Officer Benson had remained at the rear of the crowd before Daniel clipped him jokingly around the back of the head and pushed him forward. Benson span around with a pre-planned look of contempt before releasing a chuckle that surprised both of them. They moved inward amongst the other residents before each accepting a candle. Although Daniel knew very few people there, it was enough to know that they all knew him.
When Phil arrived several minutes later he appeared visually to condemn the proceedings. He cast his disapproving eyes from one smiling face to the next before those same disapproving eyes found his mother standing amongst them clutching a lit candle. He remained still for a time and seemed to withdraw from the moment, casually removing himself from everything and everyone around him as he watched Barbara socialising in her own inimitable way. She half-smiled and leaned her head forward whenever anyone glanced her way. It was an almost regal gesture. When she turned her head and looked straight toward Phil he felt that same twinge tapping his spine, that same inexplicable sense of unease that had governed most of his adult life whenever he saw her. Even now he didn't know what to do or say, how to react or how to approach, but approach he did. He hadn't expected to see her twice in one day. He moved forward and readied his words. He'd mention something about Christmas and the candles or he'd talk about how cold it was. He'd speak about anything and everything if only to avoid those self-made silences he'd become so efficient at creating whenever his thoughts outweighed his words.
Within seconds of standing next to her Phil felt his mother's arm curl around his as another of Longchester House's residents handed him a candle and proffered a smile. There'd been no need for words. In fact very few people were speaking at all. Aside from occasional whispers, handshakes and hugs, it seemed that the residents of New Wood were happy just to be there, to be outside amongst friends and family and without the burden of despair that had been circling their souls for too long. It was enough... it was just enough.