THE GIFT

By Avril Bowles

 

The night was cold and clear, and thousands of tiny jewels studded the velvety blackness above them as Catherine and Vincent sat together at the Tunnel entrance enraptured by sounds emanating from the orchestra playing in Central Park. The soloist had just begun Grieg's Piano Concerto and Catherine turned to Vincent, a delighted expression on her face.

"He must have known you were listening."

Vincent looked down at her and raised an eyebrow. "You mean you didn't request it for me personally, Catherine?" he replied. It was rare that Vincent made a humorous remark and Catherine laughed, snuggling deeper into the warmth of his arm.

He returned his attention tot he music, closing his eyes and looking utterly at peace for the moment. Catherine loved to see him like that. So much of his life involved danger, inner torment and fear; the latter not so much for himself but for the tunnel Community as a whole, and for her, always for her, if his existence should ever be discovered by the outside world. But Catherine and Father feared for him, every day of their lives.

Since that first meeting, when he had saved her life, and she had grown to love the powerful, gentle giant that was Vincent, Catherine had experienced more extremes of emotions than she had ever dreamed possible. But the terror she felt every day at the possibility of his being exposed to her own ignorant, violent world was outweighed a thousand times over by the joy of knowing him ... being with him ... loving him.

The music crept over her like a huge, gentle wave of warm water and she luxuriated in it, oblivious to the light sprinkling of frost which had appeared on the ground around them. It was only when Vincent spoke that she realised she must have been dozing.

"Catherine, if you intend to sit here for another hour, I'm afraid you'll have to use my other arm. This one has lost all sense of feeling." He grunted and shifted his position, trying to flex his fingers as Catherine chuckled and sat up.

"Poor Vincent," she said. "Here, let me." Taking his arm in both hands she began to knead it firmly.

"I never knew you possessed such strength, Catherine," he muttered. "I'm not sure which is preferable, the numbness or the remedy."

"Stop complaining," she smiled. "Now, is that better?"

"I think I had better say 'yes' before I end up black and blue."

She aimed a mock punch at him and stepped over his legs to snuggle beneath his right arm.

"You seem so relaxed tonight, Vincent. Almost ... playful." She looked up at him happily. The muscles in his face did not allow for a variety of expressions, but to those who knew him well, his eyes were mirrors of his soul.

"It is many years since I have been 'playful'," he replied. "But I hope you do not consider I am without a sense of humour, Catherine?"

"Of course not," she soothed. "I suppose it's just that I see more of your other characteristics, but it makes me happy when you're at peace."

"You bring me peace, Catherine, even when it may not seem that way. And now I have something to ask you."

She sat up, curious. "What is it?"

"Will you come Below on Friday evening?"

"Of course I will. Is it a special occasion?"

He dropped his eyes, mildly embarrassed. "Father is preparing a small celebration ... for my birthday."

"Oh Vincent!" Catherine clapped her hands and sat back on her heels in front of him. "How old will you be?"

"I believe he has set aside thirty five new candles, threatening the children with all manner of admonishments if they should light them before Friday."

"That's wonderful."

"Why is it wonderful?"

She laughed. "I don't know. I just never thought of you as being any particular age ... you're just ... you."

He leaned forward, tilted his head on one side and regarded her seriously. "That is true, Catherine. You have the most unusual way of expressing your observations." He ducked another blow as she giggled.

"Well, will you come?"

"Of course I'll come. I wouldn't miss your birthday party for the world. What time?"

"Seven o'clock."

* * *

By ten thirty on Friday morning Catherine was in no doubt about what sort of a day it would be. Just as she was about to leave the apartment she realised her keys were missing, and as she crawled under the bed to retrieve them she caught her heel in the hem of her skirt. Already late, she had to watch three subway trains arrive and depart crammed with bodies before finally being able to squeeze into one herself.

When she reached the office the air-conditioning was out and so was Joe. There was a note on her desk informing her that he'd had to go upstate on a family emergency and she'd would have to take his place in Court at 2.30 that afternoon, prosecuting a man who'd beaten up his wife and children. She was familiar with the case since she and Joe had collaborated from the beginning but she still found it unnerving to take over the reins in Court unexpectedly. "Wonderful," she muttered under her breath and headed for the coffee machine.

Catherine managed to get through the rest of the morning and broke for a sandwich just after twelve thirty, allowing herself a full hour to make sure her briefcase contained everything she needed and enable her to arrive at the Courthouse in plenty of time.

It was a harrowing case; the Defendant's wife had her arm in a sling an a badly swollen face, with one eye almost closed. Photographs of the injured children were shown to the Jury and some of the women looked away in distress at seeing so much blood and anguish on the faces of three innocents. By the time the Judge finally granted Catherine's request for a continuance in order to track down a last minute witness, it was four thirty and she had to race back to the office and be out again in twenty minutes to pick up Vincent's birthday present before the shop closed at five o'clock.

The little Jewish silversmith was just about to close up as Catherine arrived on the doorstep.

"Ah, Miss Chandler," he beamed. "I thought you had maybe changed your mind. Come in, come in."

"Thanks Mr Emannuel," she breathed. "I'm so sorry I'm late but I've really had a bad day. I don't know what I would have done if I'd missed you."

The little man waved away her apologies and disappeared into the back of the shop, returning with a beautifully wrapped box about ten inches long by four inches wide.

"No need to apologise Miss Chandler. And you needn't have worried ... I would have brought this round to your apartment myself if you'd arrived too late. I remember you telling me it was birthday present for your friend." Again he beamed and winked at her, "It is an expensive gift my dear. He must be a very special friend, yes?"

Catherine smiled, "Yes. Very special. And thank you." She wrote out a cheque for the balance of payment and shoved the box to the bottom of her bag. All she needed now was to get mugged and have Vincent's present stolen, to complete her day. Thank Heavens for this evening. It would be the only bright spot in an otherwise fraught and depressing day.

By the time Catherine arrived home her head was pounding with a vengeance, so she took a quick shower, swallowed two Tylenol and lay down on the bed to let them take effect. She looked at her watch ... 5.45 ... plenty of time.

 

"Father, please, please can we give Vincent our presents now!" Samantha, Eric, Ellie and all the other children were growing increasingly impatient. It had been difficult enough over the last few weeks convincing them that the gifts they were making for his birthday would bring him even more pleasure if they could be kept a secret until tonight. Since Catherine was coming, Vincent hadn't wanted to begin without her so they had waited, but some of the children were close to tears now, with frustration.

Father glanced, for the fifteenth time, at the ancient grandfather clock in the Main Chamber. It showed 8.15.

"Vincent, I really think we shall have to proceed without Catherine," he sighed. "It isn't fair on the children to keep them waiting any longer."

"You're right of course Father," replied Vincent, ruffling Samantha's hair. "I think these little ones will explode before too long. Something must have happened to delay Catherine."

"I hope she's all right," replied Father, uncertainly.

"She is. If she weren't, I would know."

Father nodded, "Of course. Well, let's get on then shall we. Come along children; you can all bring your presents to Vincent now and we will sing our special song for him."

The children flocked around Vincent, jostling each other and thrusting crudely wrapped packages at him from all directions. As he opened pens, paper, ink, hand knitted fingerless gloves and even carefully plaited laces for his boots, he took time over each one, admiring and praising each child, noticing relief wash over the anxious faces as it became obvious how much their gifts pleased him. It made him feel very humble to realise just how much these children loved him and he had to blink back a tear more than once.

After Father had given him an antique silver photograph frame containing a beautiful head and shoulders portrait of Catherine, they all sang their traditional birthday song to Vincent , before sitting down to eat the special supper Mary and the other women had prepared.

At then fifteen when all the children had been sent, protesting sleepily, to bed and the adults were tidying away the remnants of the party, Vincent touched Father's shoulder as he dozed peacefully in a chair.

"I'm going Above, Father."

"To see Catherine?"

Vincent nodded. "Thank you for this evening."

Father patted his hand and closed his eyes again.

 

It was almost 10.50 when Vincent vaulted over the balcony, landing surprisingly lightly for his size. No light shone from the apartment but he knew she was inside. He tapped softly on the glass panes of the French doors. When she did not come he tried again, a little harder. After a few moments he saw her emerge from her bedroom door, anxiety masking her lovely face. She flung open the doors to him and threw up her hands in helpless frustration. She was wearing a silk slip under a hastily thrown on oriental wrap. Her hair was tousled from sleep but she looked as beautiful as he had ever seen her and he caught his breath, as he had countless times, in wonderment that a woman like Catherine could care for him.

"Vincent! I am so sorry! I must have fallen asleep as I was getting ready - I had a headache you see and I lay down for a moment and ... oh Vincent I let you down tonight - I can't believe it, I ..."

"Catherine, Catherine," he soothed, capturing her wildly gesturing hands in his. "There is no need for you to apologise. That is not why I came."

"But your birthday party, I wanted to be with you ... to join all the others who love you, on your special day."

He made a small sound of reassurance and smoothed a strand of hair back from her face.

"Every day is special since I met you Catherine, and you were with me tonight ... in here, as always." He placed her hand over his heart and she melted against him, hating herself for failing him and grateful for his generosity of spirit.

"I have something for you." She broke away and raced back inside to fetch the gift. Returning from the bedroom she took a bottle of vintage champagne from the icebox and brought it on to the balcony along with two glasses, shivering in the chill of the night.

"I was going to bring this with me this evening," she admitted, handling him a bottle opener. He swiftly removed the cork and filled both glasses with the cascading liquid. Catherine giggled and jumped back as it splashed their toes.

"Open this first and then we'll drink a toast," she said.

Vincent took the box she handed him and painstakingly unwrapped it. Inside was a beautiful, heavy silver comb, double edged with fine teeth one side and wider spaced ones along the other. It had a filigree embossed design with a sturdy handle on which was engraved in exquisite script 'All our tomorrows'. Vincent fingered it gently.

"I didn't know what to get you," Catherine ventured. "It's ... difficult. But I wanted it to be something useful but very personal. Do you like it?"

"I will treasure it always," he replied.

She took it from him and, reaching up, drew it slowly through a tress in his mane, leaving it smooth and silky.

"You should not have spent your money on me Catherine," he said. "You are my gift ... for whatever time we are able to share."

"There's no one on this earth I'd rather spend money on Vincent," she sighed. "And yet money means so little to you. I guess it's one of life's sad ironies that all the money in the world can't buy you what you need to make you happy."

Vincent reached out to brush a thumb tenderly across her cheek. "I did not know what happiness truly was until I met you, Catherine. You have opened up the world for me and changed my life forever."

Swallowing past the lump in her throat at the love his words contained, Catherine replaced the comb in its box and picked up the glasses. Handing one to him she entwined her arm with his and looked up through glistening eyelashes into his face.

"To all our tomorrows, Vincent. Happy Birthday ... my love."

 

The end.

 

 (This story was first published in The Candlelight Collection, which is no longer available)