A Christmas Tale

25 Oct

Peter looked up from the counter for the hundredth time that Christmas Eve, searching for any sign of a customer near the garage. This was the petrol station night shift: that long, lonely stretch of hours where the silence was so deep that you could hear the slightest noise clearly. The call of an insomniac bird would sound as loud as a backfiring car. Occasionally the stillness would be punctuated by the cry of a drunk somewhere in the distance or the whine of a car speeding from somewhere to somewhere.

Such a cry broke the peace of this Christmas night, its sound amplified into a thousand possible meanings by the silence before and after it, providing food for Peter’s mind, made hungry by boredom. He ruminated on who had cried, why they had cried and to whom, if anyone, they had cried; whether they were in distress and need, or just mouthing off in a drunken stupor; what this told us about society in general and its terrible decline. In particular, what did it say about Christmas?

Could the meaning of Christmas have been reduced to the anguished cry of someone losing their dignity late at night in an alcoholic funk? Was not the much-vaunted promise of warm, loving family time together on Christmas Day just hypocrisy, when overshadowed by the unhappiness of what was really going on out there? Such fevered thoughts are no doubt the familiars of many a Christmas night-shift worker.

His meditations were interrupted, his spirits suddenly lifted by the sight of a young man approaching the night till, out of the darkness. This young man occasionally visited the shop alone at night, maybe for chocolate, milk or some such. He never spoke or even looked up as he purchased, evidently chronically shy and probably, Peter thought, judging from his stance, demeanour and manner of speaking, suffering from some minor mental illness.

The young man sidled up to the window and spoke: “m-Mars bar and a t-Twix, please”, forcing the words out from his stuttering mouth. Peter tried to dredge up a bit of Christmas spirit and, feeling genuine compassion as he pushed the chocolate through the drawer and took the young man’s money, smilingly said: “There you go”. The young man said nothing and Peter thought, as he pushed the change under the glass, “Hm, typical”, slightly miffed that his kindness had gone un-acknowledged.

The young man then paused for a moment, turned and placed 50p back into the drawer, looking up for the briefest second and saying quietly: “That’s your Christmas present”. He then disappeared into the night.

Peter stood for a moment, his cynicism fighting with his better nature. Then a tear welled up in his eye, his chest heaved momentarily and a trickle of warmth permeated his soul. This, if anything, this tiny act of infinite kindness, was the real meaning of Christmas.

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