December 1995 – Morris House, Slough – 7 years old
The Morrises had bought a dead tree and put it in their living room. It took up the entire corner Tobias liked to sit in when no one was around. Even now he tried hiding behind the tree, crushing piney needles, making his palms sticky.
The rest of the children of the Morris’ foster house were excited about the visitors from the local church. Tobias wasn’t sure why the fuss. They saw the same people every Sunday and barely ever spoke to them unless told to by the Morrises. Of course, it was Christmas, but in Tobias’ short life and even shorter memory, that didn’t warrant all this excitement
He remembered classmates being excited for Djeda Mraz’s visitation New Years day, but the bearded man never made an appearance at his home…
Don’t go there. Danger ! Danger!.
Britain also had Djeda Mraz but without his grand-daughter Sneguochka. He wore red and seemed to arrive at Christmas instead of New Years. It made sense, there were a lot of places to visit and he couldn’t be everywhere on one day.
“Mrs Morris, Toby’s hiding in the tree again.” Christine chorused as she spotted him shift uncomfortably. A branch was poking into his side, he broke it off.
“Toby. Get out from under the tree. I don’t want you full of pine needles for the guests.” Mrs Morris called from the kitchen where she was busy making tasty treats with the bigger boys and girls.
“He hasn’t moved, Mrs Morris.” Christine called again a few moments later. She was too busy rummaging through boxes of colourful balls and strings of lights to pay much attention to him other than to get him in trouble.
A deep murmured voice and a heavy footfall signaled the arrival of Mr Morris. Tobias shrank back against the wall. Through the branches he could see Mr Morris’s huge frame taking up the entire doorway. With the same heavy gait his foster father marched across the lounge and knelt in front of the tree.
“I don’t know Toby,” he said quietly enough so only Tobias could hear, “There’s a lot of crazy goings on out here. Do you think there’s room for me behind the tree?”
Tobias grinned. It was ridiculous, there was barely room for him behind the tree, how would a huge man like Mr Morris fit. He shook his head shyly.
“Shame. I could really do with a break from all their Christmas shenanigans. I guess your family didn’t celebrate Christmas did they?”
Tobias thought. It that why I don’t remember….
No! Leave those alone!
He shook his head.
“No. Still, lots of people do in your country. The Catholics like us and the Orthodox. What do you remember of that time of year?”
Again he though. Careful to steer clear of the dangerous memories. He remembered late at night hearing singing coming through his bedroom window. From his bed he couldn’t hear the words, but he remembered very well the sound of all those voices singing together as one.
“I like…” and he started humming the tune as best as he could remember it.
“That’s a lovely Christmas carol. I’m fond of them too.” And in response Mr Morris started singing in his rich baritone a song Tobias hadn’t heard before.
O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel.
That mourn in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmauel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
It was very sad, sweet tune that seemed to cry as well as celebrate. When he stopped there wasn’t a sound in the house. Slowly the kitchen chatter started again and Christine went back to rummaging through the boxes.
“That is a very old song, do you know it?” Mr Morris asked the tree. The tree shook its head.
“Oh yes. It is about the people of Israel, stolen from their home and made slaves. But they were promised a mighty king would bring them altogether one day and he would be called Emmanuel. So even in their captivity they celebrated.”
Tobias nodded, picking up one word in three. He was pretty smart, and though English wasn’t even his second language he could tell this was a story meant for him.
“See, being happy is about how you feel. But joy is you saying ‘No, this bad time will not last and I will live like I am living in the good times until they come for real.’ Does that make sense?”
Tobias nodded slowly. He thought he understood.
Mr Morris beamed and held a hand out to the tree. A small delicate hand took his and Tobias climbed out.
“It would be my pleasure. If you like we could sing it for the guests coming today.”
Tobias didn’t know about that. He liked to sing but was forever in trouble for getting the words wrong.
Mr Morris however, quickly rounded up Christine and a few other children and taught them all, O Come, O Come, as a small choir. Some were not interested at first and others couldn’t hold a tune, but slowly the voices built.
What Tobias lacked in pronounciation he made up for in having a decent singing voice and a love of music. Mr Morris gave him a small harmony in verses so he didn’t stumble over unknown words.
When the guests arrived all bundled with parcels and silly hats, the choir of 5 children and Mr Morris welcomed them.
“If I’d known we’d be welcomed with music I would have brought my singing hat.” Joked a very elderly stranger who was introduced as Mr Samuels, and friend to several of the church members.
Tobias wasn’t sure about a singing hat, but he was sure he like this man. For one thing he was short for an adult, and thin but he had a bright spark of mischief in his eyes and was always ready with a joke or a laugh.
Throughout the day, Tobias felt drawn to Mr Samuels side, making excuses to bring him snacks or sit closer to listen to him talk. He spoke perfect English, but his accent was not English and reminded him of…
Don’t think of them!
He shrunk down beside Mr Samuel’s chair and allowed the excitement to flow around him. The older foster children knew that after the meal they would be given the presents brought by the guests from the church congregation as a whole. The others tried to guess what they would be given when Tobias noticed Mr Samuels watching him.
“I’d say this is an unusual scene for you, Tobias.” Mr Samuels said surprising Tobias. He’d not realised the old man had noticed him or for that matter even knew his name. “Mr Morris told me your name after the carol. You have a fine voice.”
“I have…little English….” He wanted to explain. He needed the old man to know it wasn’t that he was stupid or mean that he didn’t speak for himself, but that right now he had no words.
“But you make yourself heard eloquently regardless.” Mr Samuels replied with a smile, “That means, I understand you.”
Tobias laughed with relief and he felt warmed by the old man’s attention.
“Now, I don’t know if anyone has got around to asking you, but what would you like for Christmas?”
Tobias wasn’t sure. He hadn’t thought he would get anything. Toys and books were all well and good, but after you’ve found out all they do or read to the last page, then what? He remembered watching a television Christmas special with a famous magician who had put swords all through his assistant in a box, and the assistant had come out untouched.
“For Christmas please…I want …magic.” he said haltingly to Mr Samuel, whose eyebrows disappeared into his silly Christmas hat.
“Magic. Tell me, how did you come to think of that?”
Slowly with gestures and a quick run to find pen and paper, Tobias told, signed and drew what he had seen. It took sometime and Mrs Morris came with plates of food for both of them before they had finished.
“You know what Tobias, that is some very powerful magic. It would take years of training and a good assistant to pull off magic like that.”
Tobias sighed, of course it would. How could such amazing feats be compared to dolls and construction sets.
“That’s not to say you can’t start learning magic.” Mr Samuels slowly stood groaning from his chair. “I’ll have a word with your foster parents and then…well…we’ll see. Will you be patient and wait for me to come back?”
Tobias wasn’t sure what was happening, but there was a light in Mr Samuels’ eyes and a feeling that something important was about to happen. He nodded with eager agreement.
Mr Samuels went to find the Morrises and then he left and Tobias was alone again.
“Why don’t you join the rest of us, “ Mr Morris called from the hall. Tobias didn’t want to, he wanted to hide behind the tree again and think about Mr Samuels. But then, he remembered the song and what it meant. He took a deep breath.
“Yes, Mr Morris…I come.”
The others had all gathered in the newly cleared dining room. A large stack of parcels all colourfully wrapped now stood on the table. As each child’s name was called, they would excitedly step up and be given a parcel that they would either open on the spot for everyone to see, or take away to open in private. The adults laughed at the antics of each of the children as they exclaimed over their gifts.
Tobias sat watching as one child after another got a gift. He clapped and even laughed with them in their happiness knowing that Mr Samuels had promised to come back. The thought didn’t make him happy, but he was content to wait, knowing he was bringing magic!
When all the gifts were given and commented on, and the other children had wandered off to play with their new items, the adults settled into discussions about leaving.
“But Mr Samuels come back.” Tobias protested and the adults accepted his rebuke with good humour and chatted a while longer. As time went on, however, there was more glances at watches and concerns for what needed to be done at home. One by one the guests left until it was only Tobias and the Morrises left.
Outside the winter day fled quickly leaving nothing but a blustery wind that fitfully buffeted the garden outside the lounge windows.
“Tobias, go to bed. Mr Samuels is an old man and can’t be expected to come out in the dark and cold for you.” Mrs Morris bustled around, much like the breeze outside. Everywhere she went she moved, sorted and picked up things leaving everything much as she had found them. Mr Morris sat nearby in silence and watching much like the moon, changing nothing but providing a guiding light. Tobias fidgetted. He didn’t want to go against the authority of Mrs Morris but Mr Samuels had promised and had asked for patience. He didn’t want to disappoint the old man by being asleep when he did come back.
The story of the captive Israelites came to him a second time and without explanation, Tobias opened his mouth and started singing the song he had learnt only that morning.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Who mourn in lonely exile here…”
“I think he’s made his decision, love.” Mr Morris said to Mrs Morris trying to hide a smile.
“Don’t smirk at me…” She chided her husband, “Oh, I guess it’s okay as long as he doesn’t wake the others.”
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel.”
Tobias stumbled through all seven verses with the help of Mr Morris until they got to the end and he started again. By the fourth time he was singing it alone when car lights lit the front garden. Mrs Morris went to get the door.
“Mr Samuels! Get in here out of the cold before you catch your death!” She exclaimed from the front door.
“I had to come, I could hear the joyful song calling me.” said Mr Samuels jubilant voice over the wind.
Tobias’ song stumbled and died as in limped Mr Samuels handing his coat and scarf to a waiting Mrs Morris. In one hand a plastic bag, on his head a little white hat was pinned to his thin grey hair.
“And see, I have brought my singing hat.” he pointed to the yarmulke and laughed.
“You didn’t need to come out on a night like this…” Mrs Morris started but when Mr Morris got up and offered his seat to Mr Samuels he said quietly,
“Tobias never gave up waiting.”
Tears started in the old man’s eyes and he brushed them away deftly, checking his yarmulke was still in place.
“Well then I hope it was worth the wait.” He sat down and now turned his attention to the little boy standing near the window.
“Come here, this is something that demands close attention.” He beckoned Tobias over as he pulled a small wooden box and a worn paperback book from his plastic bag.
“I’m afraid it took me longer to find than I’d thought. Fifty years in a place you tend to collect a lot of junk.”
He put the box in Tobias’ yielding hand and placed the book beside him.
“This is old. Older than me and I don’t doubt that there’s magic in it as I’ve only ever opened one compartment. It is called a puzzle box and it’s meant to test and delight bright minds.”
He then picked up the book. Tobias could see on its creased and yellow cover the title, Bobo’s modern coin magic.
“This also tests and delights a bright mind. These are tricks you can learn that look like magic and to those who don’t know the secret they will be.” He handed the book to the boy as well. “Would you like me to show you how they work?”
Tobias nodded, wide eyed with awe and pleasure as Mr Samuels rolled up his sleeves and got to work. On the inside of Mr Samuel’s arm, Tobias noticed a set off numbers smudged and dull blue on his tissue paper skin.
“Never mind those.” Mr Samuels said when he saw Tobias looking, “They are a reminder to me to always live in hope, no matter how bad things get.”
“Just like…Emmanuel!” Tobias replied touching the tattoo.
“Just like your song.”
And the two of them worked deep into the night practising magic tricks and learning the secrets of the magic puzzle box.