AWAY FROM THE MANGER – A Christmas Story

Creel Christmas Tree, Ullapool

As has been my practice over the last few years, I’m uploading a free-to-read Christmas Story in lieu of a card for readers, friends, distant relatives (HI Helen in Australia), and anyone in need of a few Christmassy moments.

Thank you all for dropping by through the year and, in particular, for those of you who take the time to comment. It’s lovely to read your take on whatever the topic is.




Grace watched the others.

It was cold out but some of the boys had gone into the yard to kick a battered ball around while they waited for the hatch to open. The cook was behind it and the smell of bacon grilling seeped through into the dining area.

Grace watched the others.

They came back in by ones and twos, pretending they’d done enough to warm them through but failing to stop their hungry gazes turning to that hatch. The smell of bacon grilling will do that.

In the farthest corner of their dining area, Hannah sat alone peeling the skin around her fingernails and creating a buffer zone, a no-fly zone, a leave me alone to my own special misery space.

Grace did not watch Hannah. She was already miserable enough and didn’t need any of Hannah’s, thank you. Christmas Day in a hostel. Grace closed her eyes briefly but opened them when the scenes from Christmas Past flashed up in her memory.

The dogs would be frantic by now because Grace’s granny would have opened all the kitchen doors. The fridge and its freezer compartment, the larder off the little back hall, the breadbasket where Mum would have been de-frosting croissants and those other pastries with the chocolate in them, would all be standing open. Well mannered dogs like Petal and Thea would be struggling with their natural impulse to grab the turkey crown or the gammon and run for their beds under the stairs.

Then she remembered Christmas Present when it would all be different, but ‘Just as nice.’ As if…

The smell of bacon grilling was enticing. Grace looked at the others and saw the hunger. Food wasn’t going to make it go away. Were they thinking about Christmases past?

“Move over, Gracie,” Rico said as he approached her table with a tray. “I suppose you’d like a bacon roll and I brought you orange juice.”

Grace cast a startled glance at the tall young man and slithered across the bench. He was a voluntary helper. Did Tuesdays.

“It’s not Tuesday,” she said and closed her eyes in despair. How cool a remark was that? “I mean, you usually come in on Tuesdays.”

“I couldn’t bear the thought of you lovely people on your own at Christmas,” Rico unloaded the tray and yet again Grace felt the tug of that bacon smell. She wondered if the street team had a spray of it to lessen the resistance of the homeless they approached. She lifted the roll and took a bite. Oily liquid slid down her chin.

Rico laughed. She made a wry face, and he picked up his own roll. Oily liquid slid down his chin.

“There’s loads of company,” Grace said. She eyed the spare roll sitting on the big plate. Had Rico brought it for her or for himself, she wondered.

“So there is and Hannah is still sitting in solitary.” Rico spoke quietly without turning in the direction of the other girl.

“Will I take her that roll?” Grace asked. Rico studied her for a moment or two. His eyes were nearly as deep and brown as Grace’s spaniels.

He nodded and stood up to let her out of the bench seat.

“Hannah?” Grace said quietly, tentatively, “Would you like this roll?”

The other girl shook her head without raising it.

“They’re really good and hot,” Grace tried again.

“I’m vegan,” Hannah said.

“Oh, oh, I didn’t know. Sorry.” Hannah had been here when Grace was brought in a week ago and Grace had never seen her eat anything.

Back at her own table, she set the plate down.

“Vegan, was it?” Rico asked. “Her excuse?”

“Did you know?”

“No! I wouldn’t have let you ask if I had.”

“I suppose,” Grace muttered.

“Missing them at home?”

Tears spurted and she drew her sleeve down to wipe it across her eyes.

“They won’t be missing me. ‘Cept the dogs maybe. Dad and I used to take them out onto the Pentlands on Christmas morning.” She stared into the middle distance.

“It’s a second wife, is it?” Rico asked.

“My category,” Grace flashed. “Am I reduced to that?”

Rico’s big warm hand tugged her smaller one out of the defensive shrug she’d made around herself. He straightened her fingers and gripped them.

“Only in the paperwork,” Rico said. “Look, Grace, maybe they are missing you. Maybe your dad’s new wife doesn’t know how to do Christmas the way everybody likes.”

“That’s certainly true,” Grace said. “She bought beef.” Grace remembered now. It wouldn’t be a turkey crown or gammon joint the girls would be slavering under but a huge piece of something or other.

“Sirloin?” Rico asked.

“That’s the word.”

“Hmn! Well, loads of households eat Sir Loin around Christmastime.” Rico pulled her to her feet and steered her out of the kitchen. “Have you been into town to look at the Norwegian Tree?”

They stood on The Mound shivering despite being zipped into their outdoor jackets. Grace loved this tree. She turned her head to look up into Rico’s face and caught the glance he was sending over her head.

“You Ba…”

Rico was too quick for her. He had her in a bear hug round her middle before she could run.

“I know. But, I will take you back to the hostel if you really can’t face them,” he said, “I promise.”

He set her on the pavement without releasing her fully and Grace stared fixedly at the top of his jacket zip. Behind her, two dogs barked furiously and in seconds were leaping up the backs of her legs. She reached down and one of the dogs, Thea maybe, had her glove off. Wet doggie kisses slurped all over her fingers.

“Happy Christmas, darling,” her dad said, and she turned then as Rico’s arms relaxed.

To run or not to run?

“I’m a vegan now, Daddy,” she said.

“Really? Well, okay. Will you find the smell of roasting meat too much to bear?”

Grace edged closer to her dad. He looked thinner, a bit. The dogs were tangling themselves in their leads and flopped onto the frost.

“I hope so,” she said.

© Anne Stenhouse 2022

Another Capital Writer, Kate Blackadder, has produced a lovely Christmassy volume of her previously published Christmas themed stories. You can buy it from amazon, here