Festive Read – Mouse Toys

It was cozy in the cottage with the curtains pulled tightly against the cold night and the fire burning brightly. With the little ones tucked up in bed, Martha and Joe had leisure to fill three brightly coloured knitted socks with Yuletide bounty. Joe’s big hands were as gentle and careful with the tiny presents as if he held his children newborn again.
“It still amazes me how you managed to cram three babes in there,” he said, and rubbed Martha’s stomach affectionately.
“Me too,” but her smile was rueful and he caught the edges of pain in her eyes.
He put down the presents and the sock and went to kneel beside his wife’s chair.
“Why do you worry heart of my heart?”
“We know there will be no more babies. And… A man needs sons.”
He drew her close and kissed her cheeks and eyelids.
“This man needs his Martha, and his three beautiful daughters.”
She looked into his face for a long moment then rested her forehead against the breadth of his shoulder.
“Have you never thought that another woman could have given you sons?”
“No,” he said gently. “No more than you’ve thought that the man your father chose for you to marry could have afforded to dress you in silk and buy the toy mouseys your babies fell in love with at the Yuletide Fair.”
Martha thought about that then touched one small hand to her husband’s bearded cheek. She shuddered as if at a sad memory.
“You are right. I have never thought like that. Since I was a little girl I knew I would wed you and none other. And I am the happiest of wives. But not everybody is like us, and when I saw the man Da wanted me to marry raise his fist to his poor downtrodden little wife at the Fair I could have cried for the pity of her.”
Joe looked sombre. “Aye it looks very bad. The men talked about it in the forge after the Fair closed. Sadly, we can do nothing about him unless she asks. Which she won’t. Did you think him a violent man when you refused him?”
“I never thought him anything but not my Joe.”
This earned her a tender kiss, before they went back to packing the socks with those gifts they had saved all year to buy. They had finished their joyful task and Joe was busy heating a stoup of spiced ale when there came an almost shy tap on the door. The dogs did no more than open their eyes slightly, which meant they were unconcerned.
Martha went to the door and opened it to find her own father, a man who had not spoken a word to her since the day she married against his will, standing outside in the sifting snow. She raised her brows.
“I had not thought to see you on my doorstep. Is aught amiss?”
Her father reddened and shuffled his feet looking for all the world like a schoolboy caught in a neighbour’s orchard. Martha laughed.
“Since you are here you’d best come in.”
He came into the warmth, carefully wiping his boots on the rag rug. Joe handed him a mug of mulled ale and he sipped it.
“Martha,” he said in a very quiet voice. “I think I’ve come to apologise.”
“You think?”
He folded his lips, and for a moment it looked as if his pride would keep him silent, but then he shook his head.
“No. I know I’ve come to apologise and see if I can set things right between us…”
“It’s been four years Da. Why now?”
“Because four years is too long to nurse my stubbornness. Because there isn’t a day goes by when I don’t miss you. Because you won’t let your Mam help you out with a bit of money now and again. Because I want to know my grandbabies. Because…” He spread his hands in a gesture of defeat before ploughing on. “As your Mam and I walked to the fair I told her I was ready to forgive you if you would only say you were sorry for defying me.”
Martha made a spluttering noise and Joe laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Let the man finish,” he said quietly.
Father spoke on in a voice roughened by some strong emotion. “Your Mam laughed at me. Said you had nothing to be sorry for. Said if I wanted to be your father again it was for me to admit I was wrong. I wasn’t going to do it. Not even when I saw you surrounded by your daughters and it felt as if my heart was being pulled from my chest. No. I wasn’t going to say I was wrong. Then I saw him. I saw the man I wanted to give you to, and I saw his wife. I saw the shadows in her eyes. I saw the bruises on her face. And I saw that it could have been  you.” He looked Martha directly in the face. “I’m sorry, love. I was wrong and you were right. Joe may not have wealth, but I see how he loves you. Can you forgive a stubborn old fool?”
Martha said nothing, but she opened wide her arms and her father embraced her with tenderness and longing, and hope of forgiveness.
It was some while before father and daughter got themselves together enough to speak, and even then there was some little constraint as each remembered the harsh words they had used to  the other. Joe smiled down on them from his great height.
“Will you come and see the little ones after church tomorrow?”
“We would love that. Mother and me would truly love that. But now I must go home, before I disgrace myself with unmanly tears.”
He kissed Martha and wrung Joe’s hand before taking something from his capacious pockets and putting it on the scrubbed wood of the table.
“For my granddaughters.”
Then he ducked his head and all but ran from the warmth of the cottage kitchen out onto the snowy street.
Martha sat at the table, rendered silent by disbelief.
Joe went to her side and she turned her face into the warm flannel of his shirt. He held her gently.
“Let’s just drink our ale and talk about this in the morning.”
Martha nodded gratefully.
They climbed the stairs together. At the top Martha turned to look back into the firelit kitchen, where three little socks hung on the mantel – only each one now had a coveted toy mousey right at the very top.

©️Jane Jago 2018

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