Ho Ho Ho and all that – Merry Christmas and Happy Reading

I have a friend who BUGS me. He comes up with – or finds – these wonderful ideas and then parks them in front of me and says disingenuously, “Wouldn’t that make a good story?” followed by repeated pokes of, “So why don’t you write it?”

One of the ideas he came up with is the idea of a knitting-granny superhero with a nurse or caregiver as a sidekick. He must have been poking me in the ribs with that one for a YEAR, but there weren’t any superhero granny stories in my head and I just kind of smiled and nodded and went about my business.

Until now.

Just when this became a CHRISTMAS knitting-granny-superhero story, I am not sure. But ’tis the season. Enjoy.

 

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Val Hall

 

It was one of those rare November days that dawned perfect and stayed that way – especially after more than a week of dreary grey drizzle that had kept them all cooped up indoors staring out of rain-smeared windows into a blurry wet world. All that was apparently forgotten as the brittle November sunshine brought out brightness, and smiles, and people who (admittedly with shawls and coats on over their inside clothes) spilled out onto the lawn which sloped down to the sea below Val Hall.

Susan Vickery had not followed them onto the grass – her balance was iffy, and even a cane probably wouldn’t help on the uneven ground and still slippery grass – but she too was smiling as she sat safely on a rocking chair on the veranda, a crochet afghan tucked around her knees, and looked out at the others milling about in the sun.

“You okay, Mrs. Vick? Anything I can get you?”

Susan tilted her head to look up at the orderly who stood beside the chair, his long body stooped a little over her.

“No, Eddie. Thank you. I’m fine.”

“Nice day, isn’t it?”

“The best,” Susan agreed.

But a familiar voice reminded her that there was no joy to be had in some people, no matter what the day looked like.

“Was a time,” the voice was saying mournfully, as its owner – a stocky, paunchy, balding man with round wire-rimmed glasses too small for his face – stomped out of the hall and onto the veranda and then paused morosely on the top of the stair  leading down to the lawn, “was a time that days like this I would FLY – up there in the blue, like the birds. But then they had to go and…”

Susan sighed. This was not a new story. Bertrand Ballard had joined the inmates at Val Hall, the Bruce Wayne Foundation- funded Home for Retired Superheroes (Third Class), a scant month before – and in that time they had all been treated to a repetitive and endlessly whining litany of the wrongs he had suffered, and the whys and wherefores of what he called his “abandonment” at Val Hall. It boiled down to this – he had been The Cardinal in his youth, wearing bright red vestments with a scarlet streaming cape, his superhero activities seemingly confined to the colder winter months when his bright colouring made him stand out (and how he loved being the center of attention)… but that had been a long time ago now. He had still been able to stuff himself into his vestments and they retained the ability to permit him to fly – but that was before… somehow… it was never clear on how… the scarlet cape got ripped. And someone well-meaning tried to mend it – with ordinary needle and thread. The patch was neat and almost invisible – but the magic of the cape had gone and The Cardinal had been grounded for good. He hated everyone, since that moment. The person who had tried to mend the torn cape, the people who tried to console him, the people whom he perceived as laughing at him behind his back, the people he talked (well, whined) to, and the people he would not speak to at all. He had been obstinately solitary since his arrival, lost in the fog of his wrongs, repeating them over and over again as though naming them often enough would make them hang their heads in shame at the unfairness of it all; he was a difficult, cantankerous, bloody-minded old man now. Other people still occasionally had visitors – sometimes group ones, arranged by the Foundation, which sanctioned the infrequent stay-in-touch gatherings between the retired superheroes, in their home, and the retired sidekicks, in their own, because the Foundation frowned on commingling on account of the fact that it could be dangerous if the sidekicks were egging the superheroes to try and reclaim their lost glory. But The Cardinal had apparently flown alone, and no sidekick ever turned up for him, or anyone else, for that matter. He seemed alone in the world. There were times he appeared to prefer it that way – but then, there were the endless sorrowful monologues. One would have to assume that they were meant for somebody to hear.

“Eddie,” Susan called out softly, just as the orderly had started to retreat back into the building, watching The Cardinal (now clad incongruously in brown corduroys and a flannel shirt and carpet slippers which would inevitably get soaked as soon as he stepped off the bottom step onto the lawn) stump his way down into the group of the rest of the ex-superheroes milling about in the sunshine.

“Yes, Mrs. Vick?”

“I changed my mind. Come here, help me up. Where’s my cane?”

“Right here,” Eddie said, cupping her elbow with one hand to help her rise and deftly removing the afghan from her lap with the other. “Let’s get you up on your feet and I’ll get it for you. You weren’t thinking of going gallivanting on that lawn, now, were you?”

“No,” Susan said. “I’m going to look for clues.”

“Clues?”

Susan indicated the erstwhile Cardinal with a toss of her chin. “I need to find out more. About him.”

“Mr. Ballard? How are you going to do that?”

“Snoop, of course,” Susan said. “And you’re going to help me.”

“Mrs. Vick, I don’t think we ought to…”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Susan said with some asperity. “I want to find out if he’s really beyond help or if he just pretends that he is.”

“What are you talking about?” Eddie asked, mystified, as he handed the old woman her walking cane and hovered at her side as she turned to make her slow and careful way back into the house.

“The cape,” Susan said. “I need to take a look at that cape. And now’s a good time seeing as he’s out there bothering everyone else. It won’t last long – they’ll ignore him or someone will finally tell him to shut up and then he’ll go all wounded again – but I have a window right now.”

“You’re going to break into his room?” Eddie asked, a little hesitantly, not sure that he should have been doing anything to encourage this deliberate descent into delinquency amongst his charges.

“Yep,” Susan said brightly. “And you’ll stand guard at the door, my friend. Warn me in good time to creep out at my pace without him catching me in the act.”

“But that isn’t…”

Susan laid a hand on his arm. “Trust me,” she murmured. “Let’s go.”

Bertrand Ballard’s room was almost enough to bring tears to Susan’s eyes when she pushed the door open  and peered inside. One whole wall was almost covered by a large cork board which had stuff pinned to it – newspaper cuttings, photographs, letters, ephemera – all chronicling the life and times of The Cardinal, and of the joy he had brought, and the good he had done, and all the excellent references and letters of thanks he had received during his tenure. Susan paused before the board, wasting precious time, scanning the things Bertrand treasured, feeling tears prickling at the back of her eyes as she did so. No wonder he was feeling bereft, at the loss of this. He had mattered. He had believed that he mattered. When it was all snatched from him – when the cape tore and the well-meaning mend rendered it useless – he must have been devastated.

But where were the Cardinal vestments? Where was the cape?

It was not in evidence in the room. Susan could almost have believed that Bertrand would have acquired a mannequin  which would permanently wear it, and parked it somewhere where he could always keep it in sight – but there was nothing like that, and on further reflection Susan dismissed the idea. Of course he wouldn’t have wanted to be reminded of it.

He wouldn’t have just hung it in the closet, either. For the same reasons.

The closet proved to be pretty empty, containing only a couple of forlorn items of clothing hanging on a handful of wire hangers, and some other stuff folded neatly on built-in shelves inside the closet. But on the top of those shelves Susan saw a large box, tucked as far away into the corner as it would go.

This was what she had come there to find. But she wished she could stop feeling as though she was violating The Cardinal’s soul by pulling his discarded, superpower-free vestments back out into the light.

But she had to see.

She pulled down the box, carefully, and balanced it on one hand as she wobbled back across the room. There, she leaned her cane against the edge of the neatly made bed, and laid the box down on the chenille bedspread. Lifting the lid, she saw The Cardinal’s vestments folded inside, almost reverently, wrapped in white tissue paper. She had to extract the whole thing before she could get at the cape, tucked away at the back, and then she had to finger the edge of the cape before she could find the exact place of the rip and the mend – she had not brought her glasses, and her eyes weren’t what they had once been. But under her hand she could feel where the cape had been broken, and then violated by being mended with inexperienced and untrained hands. She sighed. She’d hoped that there might have been something that she could have done about the problem, but what had happened here was pretty much irreversible, and beyond her power to save.

“Mrs. Vick,” Eddie whispered from the hallway where he stood just outside the half-closed door. “I think I hear them coming back.”

“Thanks, Eddie. Shan’t be a tick.”

She folded the vestments back the way they had been, tucked the tissue paper back around them, replaced the lid, and pushed the box back into the closet. By the time she had hobbled over to the door and outside she had barely had time to step into the middle of the corridor, with Eddie supporting her elbow as though he was helping her navigate the hallway, before the first ex-superheroes came down the hall, Bertrand amongst them. He didn’t speak to anyone, just stomped up to his room and then inside, closing the door behind him with what Susan felt might have been rather more than necessary force.

The glimpse she’d had of him, thus, was enough to make her come to a decision.

“Eddie,” she said, “I need your help again.”

“Now whose room do you want to ransack?” Eddie asked in consternation.

“Nobody’s. I want you to get me something.”

“What, Mrs. Vick?”

“Knitting needles. And wool. Red, if you can find it.”

“Wool?” Edie repeated blankly.

“Yes. Yarn. Find me some.”

“You don’t knit, Mrs. Vick.”

“I do now,” Susan said with asperity. “Just do it.” And then, because she had been brought up to be polite, added, “Thank you.”

Eddie deposited her back in her own room, and then took himself off. A little while later he returned with several sets of knitting needles in different sizes and a bulging pillowcase which he carried like a sack by its wrung-together neck.

“I don’t know if it’s what you need, but I did my best,” Eddie said. “I pretty much cleaned out the craft room. And Mrs. Dowd had abandoned her project – it started out as a sweater, and then I think she wanted to turn it into a blanket, but by then she’d already shaped it and then it just seemed too much trouble – it’s been gathering dust in the sunroom for weeks now. She hasn’t shown any signs of going back to it and at any rate it’s beyond saving. So I liberated it. It isn’t red, though.”

“Have you found any red?”

“Very little. It doesn’t seem to be a popular colour. I suppose I could get you some, the next time the ferry comes to the island I could ask them to…”

“No, Eddie, this will do. This will do just fine.”

“What are you up to, Mrs. Vick?” Eddie asked, curious, as he watched Susan rummage through the pillowcase to examine her loot.

“Let me be, now. You’ll see.”

She kept to herself for a little while, after, and although Eddie kept an eye out for her and her project it seemed as though she had manufactured an invisibility screen behind which she quite competently hid both herself and what she was doing. Eddie did catch glimpses, sometimes, as November slid into December and the days grew ever shorter – once he saw her sitting on an armchair before the fire laid in the greatroom hearth, bent over knitting needles with spectacles perched on the end of her nose and concentrating furiously on her task, humming a melody which made Eddie’s hackles rise although he didn’t know why. It was as though she was humming the thing she was making into existence, with the needles just there to hold it together and give it a physical weight. But she had caught him staring, that time, and had looked up, and had given him such a smile as to almost make his heart skip a beat – but then she was gone again, the next time he looked, vanished from that chair, out of his sight, somewhere, humming her magic into being. For Eddie was quite certain it was magic.

It was late morning on Christmas Eve when she finally emerged, one hand on her wobbly cane, the other folded against her side with something tidily draped across her forearm. She looked around where some of the others were gathered in the greatroom, playing cards, watching an old movie on TV, gossiping over their mugs of tea as they sat next to one of the large windows and watched the snow fall outside. Bertrand was not there, and once she had established that Susan nodded firmly to herself and began to make her slow careful way down the corridor towards Bertrand’s room.

Eddie, who had been watching, followed as unobtrusively as he could. Things were coming to a head, he could feel it, and if Susan Vickery was about to do something superhero-like… well, Eddie had been almost like a sidekick in this scenario. He was sure it all involved the wool and the knitting needles and after all he had handled the gathering of those himself.

Susan did knock, politely, on Bertrand’s door, but then calmly ignored the growl of “Go away!” from within, and pushed the door open.

“What part of go away don’t you understand?” Bertrand yelped, coming to his feet from the armchair in which he’d been sitting, as though to protect his cork board from unhallowed eyes.

But Susan was already inside. She did not quite close the door behind her, and Eddie shamelessly put his eye to the crack. He smiled with real affection as he watched the diminutive Susan facing up to Bertrand who, while himself not all that tall, seemed to dwarf her as he loomed over her in his room.

“Oh, a pox on your whingeing,” Susan said, in a tone of voice that made whatever Bertrand was about to splutter die on his lips. “Sit down. Look, I understand. I do. I know exactly what the problem is. And – well – here.”

She stretched out her arm, offering him the thing folded over it. Automatically, Bertrand reached for it, and then seemed to wake up from a sort of trance and snatched his hand back.

“What is it?” he demanded ungraciously.

“Something I made,” Susan said.

“I didn’t ask you to do …”

“Just take it,” Susan said. “And if you were a gentleman you’d ask me to sit down.”

“There’s only one chair,” Bertrand said owlishly.

“Exactly,” Susan said, sidestepping him and hovering above the chair for just long enough to transfer the thing she held into his hands before settling down into the seat at her back, her hand on the handle of her cane, her back straight, sitting like a queen on her throne. “Take a look at it, already, why don’t you.”

Bertrand blinked a couple of times, seemingly bewildered, and then shook out the thing he now held in his hands.

Both he and Eddie, from outside the room, stared at it. If you weren’t looking directly at it – if you’d just noticed it from the corner of your eye – it was a messy sheet of knitting, made of a dozen different yarn oddments of varying weights and colours, an eye-watering mix of purples and greens and baby pinks and yellows and – and this was somehow important – streaks of bright red. But if you stared at it, directly at it, the thing… blurred. And became a swirling, glowing, opalescent cape… yes, cape…­ which it was almost impossible to perceive as holding an actual form. It seemed to be made out of sunsets and northern lights and dusk and the cold light of winter and the honeyed light of summer and clouds and little lost bits of starlight from galaxies and from nebulae.

Eddie held his breath, and knew that Bertrand had done the same.

“What is this?” Bertrand whispered at last, in a voice quite changed from his usual gruff and ill-tempered gravelly one.

“Before I came to Val Hall – before – oh, Bertrand, you aren’t the only one who’s been left to molder and be forgotten out here in the Bruce Wayne Home for Retired Superheroes, Third Class…” Susan gave the place its full moniker, with all its sonorous weight, and Eddie actually winced. “Before that,” she continued, changing her tone to something deeper, warmer, “before that… when you were The Cardinal, my friend, I was The Maker. I could set my hand to anything and it would live for me. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the kind of thing I could Make. But it’s been… a while. We all grow old. We lose things. I haven’t set my hand to anything for years. For many years. For too many years. But…”

“But?” Bertrand asked gently, holding the cape in reverent hands.

“That,” Susan said, practically and devastatingly, “that which you hold is the last thing I will ever Make. I took everything that I had left and I put it into that. But it’s real, and I Made true. If you go and put on your Cardinal vestments… and you put on that cape… it will let you fly. Once. That’s all I could manage. I’m sorry, but at least you’ll have it one more time. It’s up to you when, where, how. But there you have it. One. More. Time.”

Bertrand stared at the cape with eyes that were clearly not seeing it at all.

“Why?” he asked. “Why would you do this?”

“We were all superheroes once, “Susan said. “Third class. Eh. The ‘proper’ ones wouldn’t be seen dead in a place like Val Hall, this little isolation ward on its little island, keeping us from the world and the world from us. When we could do… whatever it is that we could do… our own small gift, however insignificant… we were, well, if nothing else, then tolerated. Many of us were loved, though.” She nodded at the board that took up Bertrand’s wall. “Witness that. You lived your gift, you gave it away, and there were people who loved you for it. It just isn’t right that you should die here with nothing to show for it but fading memories.” Her cane lifted a little, then came down with an authoritative thump. “Once,” she said. “One more time. Because you were loved by somebody, because you meant everything to somebody at some point, because… because… because it’s Christmas. Have a present. There you go.”

She leaned on the cane, leveraged herself back onto her feet. “Sleep on it,” she suggested. “Put that away, where it won’t be seen by prying eyes, until you’re ready for it. One. More. Time.”

She nodded at Bertrand, who still hadn’t moved, and began to make her way towards the door. Eddie took the hint and made himself scarce.

He watched them both, after that. Watched the closed door to Bertrand’s room, at least, which remained closed when everyone else gathered for Christmas Eve dinner – a nurse went to knock on Bertrand’s door but came away after being told that he was fine but that  he just didn’t want any dinner. Susan Vickery was there, though, seated in her usual chair, but Eddie couldn’t swear he saw her eat anything. She picked at the food in front of her, moving it about on her plate, lifting her eyes constantly to the window which was now only a square of glass looking blindly out into darkness, as though she was expecting to see something out there that nobody else could see. Someone handed her a glass of eggnog, after, and she drank it dutifully, as though it was medicine. Eddie saw the veined old hands folded around the glass and shivered. Were they that gnarled, that twisted, before this night? He could have sworn they had not been. But was he really that unobservant? Or was there something else going on?

The last. The last I had in me.

What had she done?…

After everyone had gone to bed and the fire was allowed to burn down to embers, Eddie was still prowling the halls, an incongruous Christmas hat on his head. One of the night nurses, on her way back to the nurses’ station from a trip to the kitchen for a cup of tea, asked him if he was supposed to be Santa Claus. Eddie just nodded and smiled.

He did not sleep. He saw the shift change when the day nurses came in to relieve the nightwatch, and it was still dark outside when that happened, the cold December dawn of Christmas morning dragging its feet. In the first faint glimmerings of light Eddie took a moment to step outside. It had been snowing all night, and the world was strange and unfamiliar under the white blanket; the snow was deep enough to almost brush the top step of the stairs which led from the veranda down to the open space in front of the hall, and it gave the front lawn a whole new aspect.

And then Eddie became aware of two things.

One was that the deep snow had a single set of tracks on it, tracks leading from the veranda steps down towards the jetty and the sea – and almost all the way across the lawn, close to where the stairs down to the jetty began, Eddie could see one vivid scarlet figure, a swirling opal cape on its shoulders. And the other was that he was not alone, and it was without surprise that he looked down and saw a shawl-wrapped Susan Vickery standing beside him, smiling gently.

“I thought he might choose first light,” Susan said. “So I made sure I was there to see.”

“What did you do?” Eddie whispered, almost supernaturally awed.

“Watch,” Susan said, gesturing with one of those ancient clawlike hands.

And as Eddie swung his gaze back to where Bertrand Ballard – The Cardinal – stood, the scarlet-garbed, opal-caped figure straightened up, lifted both arms up until they pointed at the sky which was beginning to show glimmers of the white and gold winter dawn, and rose  straight up, the ground falling from beneath his feet as something discarded, abandoned, left behind. Eddie watched him as he lifted one knee a little, adjusting his trajectory, and then angle up and out, over above the trees, out across the open sea.

“How long has he got?” Eddie asked quietly, suddenly aware of a cold kernel of knowledge which he would have given anything not to be aware of.

“I don’t know,” Susan said huskily, watching the sky where The Cardinal had been. “Until the joy gives out. Until whatever I was able to put into the cape finally frays. I am not what I once was – I couldn’t Make it last forever. Or even for very long. But this was what he hungered for. The sky that he loved. And maybe it will have been enough.”

“Is he going to die?” Eddie said, his eyes filling with tears.

“We all are,” Susan said, “one day. But maybe it’s best to die flying.”

Eddie looked at Susan then, really looked, and realized that it had not been just his imagination – some kind of life force had leached out from her, and what stood beside him was a withered remnant, a shell, the shape of its bones visible through its skin. Susan’s cheekbones stood out starkly above the  hollows of her cheeks; the skin stretched tight across her temples, tissue-thin, pale. Her eyes were sunken, but very bright as she watched the now empty sky. Her hand was a bony talon on her cane. Her thin legs seemed to disappear into her slippers like two sticks, looking unlikely to bear even the weight of such a birdlike creature as herself.

She had never looked more like a superhero to Eddie than she did in that moment.

“Thank you,” he said. He was far from sure what he was thanking her for, but felt it needed to be said.

“One more time,” she said, and smiled. “Let’s go in. They probably have breakfast ready. And they’ll be opening presents in the greatroom.”

She turned and hobbled back inside, without looking up again, without acknowledging that the greatest present given that day in the Bruce Wayne Foundation Home for Retired Superheroes (Third Class) had already been both given and received, flying free over an ocean flooding with the light of a winter dawn.

 

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Hope you enjoyed that one. Merry Christmas 🙂

 

(PS This story will be going up on my website as well, soon, with a “donate” button on it – so if you liked it and you want to support the arts (or you BVC folk share this with someone outside of BVC who might…) you might pop over there eventually and consider making that donation. Or there’s always my Patreon  page (THEY got the story first – and my patrons will continue to have early looks at new stuff, if that’s the kind of thing you think you’d like…)

 

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