It was the last day before the Christmas holidays, and Ian Chesterton stood in his classroom, waiting. His fellow teacher Barbara Wright was usually finished with everything and ready to leave long before he was, and if she was, she’d stop by and have a chat about the school day. Then they’d walk together to the car park, or he’d walk with her to the bus stop. Sometimes, if they hadn’t any other plans, they’d even go see a film, or go out for drinks together, and spend hours talking about anything and everything.
He’d come to look forward to these meetings very much in the two years since she came to Coal Hill School, and moreover, he’d grown very fond of her. When he thought of it, he realized that they weren’t just colleagues anymore, they were best friends. One didn’t have to buy Christmas gifts for co-workers, but one certainly ought to give a gift to one’s best friend at Christmas.
He’d wracked his brain trying to come up with the perfect thing, but he couldn’t find anything quite right, until he’d seen it in the window of an antiquarian book shop. He’d known it would be expensive, and it was, but he also knew that she would love it, so he bought it that day, after a quick trip to a nearby pawnshop that parted him from a very nice watch he’d been very fond of. But it would be worth it, if it would make her happy.
The minutes ticked by on the old wall clock. It seemed like an eternity. Was it only half-past? That clock was slow! He looked down at his wrist to see the accurate time, but he saw only bare skin, and remembered that his watch wasn’t there. Oh well! He went to his desk and pulled out the little parcel he’d had hidden in the drawer all day, and set it on the table in anticipation.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. His heart skipped a beat (unaccountably; he saw her every day!) and a soft-spoken voice enquired playfully: “Anyone at home?”
He opened the door with glee, and smiled at her.
Barbara saw the pleased look on his face, and giggled at him.
“Can’t wait for freedom?” she teased.
Her eyes positively sparkled when she smiled, Ian thought, but he reminded himself to focus on the object at hand.
“Well, that of course is true,” he replied with a smirk, “but I’m glad I caught you before you left, I actually have something for you. A Christmas gift.”
“Oh, really?” Barbara blushed rather becomingly, and took a little parcel out of her handbag. “I’ve got something for you too!”
“Well!” Ian smiled in delight. He hadn’t even suspected she might return the favor, and he felt doubly pleased that he’d gone to the trouble now. He took his package from the table and held it out to her.
“Ladies first,” he said, though really he wasn’t being chivalrous, he just couldn’t wait another minute to see her reaction.
“Oh, thank you,” Barbara grinned, handing him his gift as she took hers from him, and neatly unwrapped it without tearing the paper.
“My goodness,” she breathed, as she slid out two fragile old books, and examined them in disbelief. She ran her fingers along the spines, which had North and South emblazoned upon them in gold letters.
“Look inside the first volume,” Ian encouraged her, barely able to contain his glee.
Barbara did so, and she gasped, seeing the name ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’ handwritten on the title page.
“I don’t know what to say!” she exclaimed, staring at the book in pure awe. “A signed first edition! It must have cost a fortune!”
“A small fortune,” Ian admitted sheepishly, “but… you can’t put a price on friendship.”
That last bit came out rather more earnestly than he’d intended it to, and he hoped she wouldn’t think him silly. But when she looked up at him, and tears were glistening in her eyes, and she was smiling a warm, radiant smile that lit up her whole face, he knew that she didn’t. She wiped away the errant droplets that fell to her cheek, took Ian’s hand in hers, and spoke in a quiet, heartfelt voice as she looked into his eyes:
“Ian, your friendship… our friendship… I just can’t tell you how much it means to me; to know you’re always there to talk to, every day, no matter what- that I can count on you for anything- I truly can’t even begin…”
She faltered, seemingly unable to find the words, or possibly too overcome with emotion to get them out. She shook her head, with a little laugh at her own inarticulateness, before squeezing his hand and whispering, simply and earnestly, “Thank you so much.”
Hearing her say those words, with that face, inexplicably made Ian feel as though his stomach had done a flip-flop, but he ignored it, and simply smiled back at her. “You’re welcome, but it’s really no trouble,” he replied, meaning it with all his heart.
“Oh dear!” Barbara suddenly exclaimed, breaking the lovely moment as she let go of his hand and looked worriedly at the little package she’d given him.
“What’s the matter?” Ian asked, concerned.
“Well, I didn’t get anything nearly as wonderful for you! I feel rather bad about it now…”
“Oh, not to worry about that!” Ian laughed, relieved. “I didn’t expect anything in return, I’m just glad you liked the books! Really, I’m very flattered you wanted to get me anything at all.”
“Well, if you say so,” Barbara responded, looking a little troubled yet, but her frown relaxed considerably at his mirthful reaction.
“I’m sure I’ll love whatever it is,” Ian said, ripping the paper with relish.
“It’ll be useful, at least,” Barbara noted with some satisfaction.
Ian discarded the paper to find a little box, which he opened to reveal a tooled leather band with a gold buckle.
“It’s not much, I know, but you were saying how you needed a new wristband for your watch, so I thought…”
Ian was very surprised, and incredibly touched by the gift. He’d mentioned, in passing, that the metal links on his wristband pinched sometimes, and that he might try a leather one instead. He never expected she’d even remember, let alone buy him something as nice as this. It was with a sharp pang of remorse that he realized he couldn’t show her how much he appreciated it by having it fitted on his watch.
“Oh, well, that’s jolly thoughtful of you…” Ian smiled, trying not to let the panic show in his eyes now that he hadn’t got the watch anymore.
Barbara picked up on his discomfort, but she took it for disappointment instead.
“I’m really sorry I didn’t get anything better,” she bemoaned apologetically. “It’s good quality leather though, and the buckle is gold plated…”
She trailed off lamely, her expression that of someone who knew they had failed completely.
The look in her eyes was enough to break Ian’s heart, and it was the complete opposite of what he had wanted when he sold the watch in the first place. He sighed, and decided it was best to tell her the truth.
“There’s nothing wrong with the gift at all, Barbara. It’s perfect, really. It’s just that, well… I sold the watch.”
“What?” Barbara’s shock was evident in her voice.
“I sold it to a pawnbroker so I could buy those books for you.”
“You didn’t!” Barbara stared at him in disbelief. “But Ian, you love that watch!”
“It’s just a thing,” he shrugged. “And you’re, well… you’re my best friend, Barbara. That’s what Christmas is all about isn’t it? People. Not things. It’s the thought that counts, after all, and the fact that you thought of me means more to me than any watch ever could.”
She looked astounded. So much so that he was worried she might cry again, so he put a comforting hand on her shoulder. They looked into each other’s eyes for a moment. Hers were such a lovely brown, warm like chocolate or gingerbread, and he found himself a little bit distracted by them. He wanted to make her understand how much he cared for her, but all he could do was stare.
Then, suddenly, she surprised him by breaking into the most delightful smile, and pulling him into a hug.
“We’ve certainly made a muddle of this, haven’t we?!” she laughed into the side of his neck.
Her jollity was infectious, and he laughed too as he wrapped his arms around her.
“Yes, perhaps we have! Shall we start over?”
“From where?” she asked, pulling back to look at him. “I shan’t give up my signed Elizabeth Gaskell, you know!”
She wagged a finger at him, and he knew she was teasing.
“I wouldn’t dream of it!”
“Back to the beginning, then?” she suggested facetiously. “Hello Mr. Chesterton, Hello Miss Wright?”
“Good heavens, no! Not after the trouble it took us to get here!” Ian grinned at her. “How about dinner? I haven’t got to be at my parents’ place till late tomorrow. We’d have plenty of time to find some nice restaurant tonight...”
“Only if you’ll let me treat you,” said Barbara. “After all, I’m the one who impoverished you with my extravagant taste in books.”
“Well, I’m in no position to object…”
“Then the matter’s settled!”
Ian was happy to acquiesce. He let go of her, a little reluctantly, and went to get his coat. Barbara smoothed her hair and waited by the door for him, her books clutched over her heart. Ian made sure to put the watchband in his pocket before he left, and he beamed at her as they filed out the door.
Just as he was turning out the light and closing the door behind them, Barbara paused for a moment.
“What is it?” Ian queried.
Barbara looked at him, and chuckled. “I nearly forgot to say it, but- Happy Christmas, Ian.”
“Happy Christmas,” he replied softly, holding out his arm for her. She took it, and they walked down the hall arm in arm, and out into the snowy evening.
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