A Happy Christmas Present for Grace

Grace paused from her search of newspaper ads where she’d been circling job opportunities. Sounds of approaching footsteps in the corridor always got her attention at this time of day when there was less activity with most of occupants already at work. It had been a secure neighborhood when she and her mother moved in ten years ago but lately with construction of more high rises around them a diverse group had occupied those new units and one had to be more careful answering the door now. There’d been some break ins recently so one needed to be alert.

It had now been a month since mother had passed away and Grace was exhausted. She’d spent ten years looking after her mother who’d slowly degenerated after her father’s death. Her dad had left them reasonably well off financially so in the initial stages they could continue living in their spacious home in an up-market area of town. But mother’s health condition required frequent specialist attention and diagnostics and sometimes periods spent in hospital so what had seemed to be more than adequate finances began to drain away to the point where it became obvious, they needed to sell their mansion and move to a smaller apartment,

In those initial years after her father’s death Grace had been able to keep working in the laboratories of a company producing a range of pharmacy products. She enjoyed her job but as her mother became more helpless at home Grace had to decide whether their finances could handle a care person while she continued her work or not. She finally decided to consult their accountant and the news she received made it plain it would be cheaper for her to quit work and draw down on surplus gained from the sale of their home and much of the furniture moving to a three-bedroom apartment where they now lived as her mother was not expected to live long. However, doctors’ predictions had proved wrong, and mom had struggled through ten years of misery with Grace in constant attention.

Then she remembered her constant companion Rod since their college days and his urging she let him into her life so he could help with the situation. He’d asked her to marry him, and he’d share responsibility with her gladly. At first, she’d asked for time to think it over and after waiting a while he’d pressed the issue again and she’d agonized over the decision. It would not be fair to saddle him with this burden, so she wept as she said no and suggested he find someone else to share his life with. She remembered the look of devastation on his face as he studied her for a few moments then turned and left. That was eight years ago now and she’d yearned for him all that time. Now grief for her departed mother was added to that loss.

The doorbell rang and she put the paper aside to move to the door and peer through the glass observation unit to see who was at the door. She could make out the form of a man, but he was standing to the side so she couldn’t see his face clearly. He pressed the doorbell again.

Grace opened the door a crack secure in the knowledge there was a locked screen door behind this one to offer extra protection. The screen door had been installed at each apartment after the two break-ins had put residents on guard with a deluge of complaints to administration.

“What can I do for you sir.” She made sure her voice was confident though cautious.

“Thank you, madam my name is Stan; I’ve been commissioned by the new owner to take a survey of residents to see what their suggestions and concerns might be. There’s no need to open the screen door just give me your concerns and I’ll record them and report back to the company now owning this high rise and the newly built blocks surrounding. This is apartment 6B and the name recorded here is Ms. Grace Claridge. Is that correct?”

“Yes!”

For the next few minutes Stan asked questions referring to his check list and asked for any additional issues Grace would like to raise.

“I wasn’t aware ownership of this building had changed. I do have a long-term lease and am curious as to how the change of ownership will affect residents. There are specific legal documents explaining our rights and obligations, so I assume none of those change. Who now owns the buildings?”

“Hodge Holdings are the new owners Ms. Claridge.” He closed his clipboard and headed for the next apartment.

Grace’s heart skipped a beat. Rod’s parents had been the majority shareholders in Hodge Holdings, and she wondered if Rod would know she was one of the residents in a building his parents now controlled. She presumed he still worked for the company. She thought with regret of her decision not to let him into her life. He was a good man, and some lucky woman was probably Mrs. Rodney Hodge now and enjoying the children that made it a happy family. She sighed and returned to the task of finding a job. She still had a reasonable amount of money in investments but not enough to move out of this apartment and find a home in some safe suburb. At age thirty she’d have sufficient to put a deposit on a home but needed a job to approach a bank for a loan to buy a suitable place. She wanted to rebuild her life in another location.

The next week she attended several interviews and eventually found a company that had positions matching her qualifications and experience. She was excited at the prospect of starting at her new job next week and surprised at the liberal salary package this company offered her. They’d been impressed by the excellent references she had from the company she worked for before her mother’s illness forced her to leave.

It was December so she’d be in orientation for a few weeks before the company closed for the Christmas holidays. It would be a while before she could approach a bank for a house loan and there’d be the bother of selling the lease agreement on the apartment, she now occupied with all the legal work that would entail. The bank would have to be assured she had permanent employment so it would probably be a year before all this could be attended to. She was impatient to leave this apartment where so much stress had occurred over the time her mother had been ill.

There was a rule at her new place of employment that cell phones needed to be closed during work in the laboratory as this could affect the working of delicate machinery. So, at the company cafeteria she turned on her phone and noted someone had left a voice message and selected play back. The voice sounded familiar, but she could not quite place who it may be. Out of curiosity she returned their call and her heart almost stopped as the person at the other end answered.

“Hello, this is Rodney Hodge how can I help you?”

Grace sat with her heart beating fast and seemed paralyzed and unable to speak.

Finally, an impatient voice spoke again. “This is Rodney Hodge how can I help you?”

Grace collected her wits quickly and spoke urgently.

“Rod it’s Grace, I’m returning your call.”

“I just learned you are occupying an apartment in one of our buildings Grace. How is your mother?”

“She passed away Rod. I’ve just started work in a pharmaceutical company and am in the cafeteria for lunch but must go back to the labs in a few minutes.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, Grace. I was wondering if I could be of assistance to you both as we own that building now and thought you may need some extra help. Incidentally, I’m in charge of Hodge Holdings now as dad retired. I wonder if we could meet sometime?”

“Would your wife be comfortable with that Rod as we do have a history together.”

Rod laughed. “I don’t think that would be a problem, Grace. I did get married four years ago to a woman from France who happened to be studying engineering here in the US. We met at a convention. I’m afraid her love for France was greater than her love for me so she left after a year of marriage and asked for a divorce. So, I’ve been a bachelor again for two years. Perhaps she sensed too that I hadn’t got over my college sweetheart and resented that too. So how about it. Let’s meet for a dinner appointment sometime for old times’ sake.”

Suddenly Grace felt relaxed and happy. He hadn’t forgotten her.

“Rod I’d love to see you again. When did you have in mind for a dinner meeting?”

“Tonight?”

“OK where shall I meet you?”

“What time do you get off work?”

“We finish the day at 5.30 pm and it takes me a half hour to return home in the evening traffic to change out of uniform so probably wouldn’t be able to meet you in town before 7.30 pm if you give me an address as to where this restaurant is.”

“I’ll pick you up at your apartment at 7 pm then. If you’re not home, I’ll wait.”

Grace had to concentrate hard on her work that afternoon as she was so excited at the prospect of meeting Rod that evening. At exactly 5.30 pm she was out the door and rushing to the staff car park. The evening traffic out of the city seemed unbearable. Usually, she listened to an audio book from her cell phone through the car speakers but this evening she was too excited to concentrate on that and impatiently fought her way through traffic reaching home on time. She was already planning on what she’d wear that evening as she wanted to make a good impression on Rod. She’d shower lab smells away and select her favorite perfume.

When she looked in her clothes closet, she was disappointed. All her dresses seemed dated now. There’d not been a reason to buy anything formal during mother’s illness as there was no one to impress and they had to conserve money anyway. She wept as she looked at her dresses then eventually selected the best out of what she had and hoped he liked it. At 6.45 pm the doorbell chimed, and she rushed to peep through the glass but flung open the door and said come in forgetting the screen door was locked.

Rod tried the door tentatively while holding a bunch of professionally wrapped flowers then laughed.

“And how will I come in when the screen door is locked Grace?”

She quickly unlocked the screen door then stood back looking at her Rodney. He was the same man she’d loved forever but there was a sadness about him she didn’t remember from their courting days. He thrust the flowers forward for her to take and she took them mechanically turning to find a vase to put them in while Rod followed. She arranged them and placed them in the center of the table then turned uncertainly. Each looked silently at the other thinking of their past relationship. Then Rod moved forward slowly and reached out for her. Grace fell into his arms sobbing. After a few minutes he spoke.

Let’s go, I’ve reserved a table, so we need to be there on time otherwise they give that table to one of those waiting patiently for a table to open. He put his arm around her and steered her to the door and down to his waiting BMW.

That evening it was apparent to each their love for each other had not diminished in the years they’d been apart. Grace luxuriated in Rod’s company and yearned for him on the nights he had to be involved in company business. She hoped that somehow, he’d ask her to marry him again. This time she’d not be foolish enough to say no should he propose. But while their meetings continued whenever Rod was available from his heavy responsibilities and their love for each other apparent Rod did not ask. Perhaps he remembered being refused twice. Perhaps his unhappy experience with his former wife had made him too cautious to venture into marriage again.

She turned her mind to what she could possibly get him as a gift for Christmas. He obviously was rich enough to have anything he desired. Finally in desperation she settled on a $500 gift card from an up-market men’s wear retailer and a huge box of chocolate assortments she remembered he enjoyed from his college days. They were to meet to celebrate Christmas eve together. She’d present her gifts to him when he came to pick her up. He’d told her their Christmas eve activity was a surprise and she tried to guess what that could be and where.

He’d hinted his parents and family members would be present wherever that was to be, and she looked forward to seeing his folk again. She remembered they’d anticipated having her as a daughter in law and they’d bonded well in those days when Rod was courting her. She hoped they still liked her. The old folk were now retired in a seaside resort so apparently would be making a trip to the city for this occasion. Rod’s younger brother worked with him at Hodge Holdings in an administrative position and his sister was married to a corporate executive on the other side of the country. Perhaps they’d be there too.

Grace’s employer closed the day before Christmas to give all employees a chance to prepare for family gatherings on Christmas Day. She had Rod’s gifts carefully wrapped and had new sets of clothes, so she looked attractive to Rod and his parents, and she’d had her hair styled by a professional hairdresser. She waited impatiently for Rod to pick her up and see what the surprise location was and hoped he liked her new dress.

Rod arrived on time and nodded his head in appreciation as she opened the door.

“Wow Grace you look lovely! Mom and Dad are looking forward to catching up with you.”

Grace shone with excitement at his reaction and tentatively reached out to kiss him. He held her for a few minutes then said they should get going. Grace ran back to get Rod’s presents and handed them to him which he received with happy interest and carried to the car.

Grace smiled as they turned in to the Hodge family residence which Rod occupied alone now. It was looked after by a couple during Rod’s absences. Steven Simson looked after the spacious grounds and his wife Mary cared for housekeeping and supervised the part time cook and looked after guests.

“I’ve often wondered if you kept this house. It’s huge Rod why do you need to keep it for one person?”

“Well, it doubles as guest rooms for visiting clients and of course my parents retain their rooms for times when they visit the city, so I only occupy a small portion for myself, but the home is well used.”

Rod’s mother Rachel met them at the door as they entered. She hugged Grace warmly.

“So nice to see you again Grace. Rod told us about your mom’s passing, and we’re so sorry for your loss. You’ve been a wonderful example of a daughter’s love for parents under difficult circumstances and I’m so happy you’ve consented to share this Christmas eve with us. Did Rod tell you you’ll be spending the night here so you will be with us for Christmas day too?”

“I can’t stay Rachel. I didn’t bring any change of clothes with me. Rod didn’t tell me.”

Rachel thought for a moment. “I meant to ask him to do that so maybe I forgot. That’s what happens to old people. I’d still like you to stay with us for the weekend Grace. There are things stored in the guestrooms in case people must stop over so maybe you could look at that option, otherwise Rod can take you back to get what you need and come back. Would you do that for me?”

Rachel took her to look at the assigned guest room then shepherded her into the family entertainment room where there was a large gathering most of whom related to the Hodge family while Rod carried his gifts inside and placed them under the Christmas tree with other gifts.

Everyone settled into their assigned places at the long table and Rod’s father welcomed the guests and indicated the caterers bought in for the evening should commence serving. Father left his seat and came around to where Rod and Grace were seated to welcome her personally. She felt happy at this acceptance by the family.

At the end of the meal when people were retiring to the lounge area adjacent Rod stood and asked for their attention.

“I have a very happy duty to perform if I could ask you to linger a little longer.” He led Grace to an open area where they could be seen by all and whispered in her ear.

“I’m going to ask you to marry me in front of all these people. Please tell me you won’t disappoint me this time as I don’t think I could handle any more years without you if you say no.” Grace nodded her head enthusiastically.

Ron went to his knees in front of her and in a loud voice asked Grace to marry him.

“Yes!” she shouted happily, and the room broke out in a round of applause while Rod slipped a ring on her engagement finger.

“Do you recognize the ring?” He said this quietly as he slipped the ring on.

“Oh yes, it’s the one you offered me years ago when I foolishly said no and surprisingly it still fits my finger after all those years.”

“I’m glad it does because I’ve already reserved the wedding ring for you to look at as soon as shops open again.”

He stood and embraced her while the watching family and friends clapped then retired to the lounge.

Grace told Rod of his mother’s invitation to stay the weekend and he nodded his head with enthusiasm.

“Let’s go back to your apartment and pack some things for you then. The engagement and wedding rings were to be my Christmas present to you, but I had some things in reserve in the event you said no again. I can hardly wait to see what you got for me when we open our gifts under the tree tomorrow morning.”

Rod told his father of his plans to take Grace to the apartment to pack some clothes for the weekend there at the Hodge residence. They headed for the door and stood outside to survey the clear moon in a cloudless sky.

They stood there for a few minutes absorbing the glorious scene and Rod turned to his future bride.

Happy Christmas Grace, you’ve made mine a very happy one indeed.

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© Copyright 2022 Ian Grice, “ianscyberspace.” All rights reserved

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