I saw her on the footpath, leaving a dress shop, a tall majestic vision of a woman with long, wavy white hair and a determined look to her mouth, clutching a large handbag, clearly on a mission. Oh, that’s Mary, I thought.
I turned to look again as I drove past, because of course it wasn’t Mary – she departed this world last Christmas. Her life had been a hard one, having spent most of it desperately unhappy, finding solace in cask wine. She finally came out as transgender in her sixties. She went on hormones and had “the operation”, as she called it, in Thailand, and finally felt at peace with who she was. It was quite a public journey for her, she even went on the telly to talk about her experience and how she had reunited with her son after many years of estrangement. She worked in an aged care home and really loved her work, staying on well into her seventies, until back pain caught up with her. Mary loved coming to her doctor’s appointments, and would always put on her best frock and a nice brooch and arrive very early. Sadly, not long after she retired she developed Parkinson’s disease, and began a rapid decline physically and emotionally. One night she fell down the stairs at home and hit her head badly, and was rushed to hospital unconscious. But she never woke up.
I looked in my rear-view mirror at the woman who wasn’t Mary, and shook my head.
I drove past a little driving school car, and could have sworn I saw Jimmy. Jimmy was a driving instructor, and his pupils adored his gentle approach to teaching. He was gentle in all aspects of his life, quiet and unassuming. Jimmy was HIV positive back in the days when there was no guarantee of survival, the dark days of that viral epidemic, and had lost many a friend to it during the 80s and 90s. He survived though, and always maintained a cheerful outlook, and just carried on. One day he noticed a lump on his head, and by the time he came in to have it checked it had doubled in size. It was an invasive cancer, and while he sat on the public waiting list for a surgical appointment, the growth spread into his skull and became inoperable. He never complained, and kept on teaching new drivers until the pain became such that he couldn’t leave the house any more. At his memorial in the park, I helped throw his ashes into the river, thinking, goodbye Jimmy, you beautiful man.
The tinsel is out everywhere, but it never feels like Christmas to me until Edith has turned up with a tin of Scottish shortbread. She never once failed me in this regard, and would usually bring a Santa stocking of chocolates for my little boy too. A paid-up member of the mustn’t grumble club, Edith would arrive, pulling her shopping trolley on wheels behind her, brandishing a list of the things she needed from me, and often at the bottom would be scrawled “milk” or “toilet paper”, and we would have a laugh together. She’d smoked for 70 years, and did try to give up once using something I had prescribed. I warned her she might have some vivid dreams with this medication, but neither of us were prepared for her to dream she was in the boxing ring with Mohammed Ali – she fell out of bed and fractured 3 ribs, but not before she had swung him a wicked left hook apparently!
Edith was planning to go back to the UK to visit her family once international flights resumed, but in the mean time she had a stroke and died peacefully in her sleep. She will live on forever in every tartan tin and boxing glove I see.
I smiled to myself as I thought of them all, and felt grateful I could play a small part in their journeys, these ghosts of Christmas past.