Day 1 - 21th December
"Are you sure you're willing to comply with this Miss Tritingam?"
Clara delicately pushed a loose curl of hair behind her ear, before clasping her hands tightly together in her lap as she sat on the very edge of the chiffon lounge and tried to come up with a conceivably ladylike reply.
Eric Fitzgerald Von Jayne settled his teacup back on the lacquered wood of the richly set tea-table that separated the two like a wall of impenetrable ice. His white-gloved hands as creaseless and ironed as the tailored suit moulded around the silk tie and polished shoes. He wore a pair of thin glasses on his nose, though his eyes, usually shining with nobility and intelligence behind those polished panes, were dull and bored.
"The market for toasters isn't all that profitable at the moment as I'm sure you're aware. This arrangement of our union would be beneficial for both parties" he continued, waving one of his hands in a dismissive manner, before adjusting his silver spectacles with a slight, habitual tap of one finger.
Clara swallowed tightly, wishing to clench her fists but instead replying delicately "Kitchen Appliances, actually-"
"Right right" he interrupted, leaning forward to lift his teacup again "however my age status being above yours requires your voiced approval and as you're still in school… well, a compliant one would be accepted easily." He took a sip¸ pinkie in the air.
Clara tilted her head slightly and observed him from under her thick lashes and through the locks of mahogany curls that framed her face. She looked at him carefully, at his trim suit and orderly haircut, at his polished shoes and firm physique, and at the pure pompousness of his physique and attitude.
"5 days…" she murmured thoughtfully, as though speaking aloud, and Eric frowned over the rim of his teacup "what was that?"
She lifted her head up finally and fully "5 days Eric" she said "do you know what happens on that date?"
"The evening of the ball where we announce our engagement to the media" he replied, putting his teacup down "more tea if you would."
Clara smiled almost wistfully as she leant forward and lifted the delicately engraved teapot "no, Christmas."
He said nothing, but simply accepted the teacup she offered him with practiced grace. She resumed her perch on the edge of the lounge, feet tucked beneath her nervously, and smile quickly disappearing off her face.
"Clara" she interrupted boldly, muscles clenched in anticipation of a raised voice.
He inclined his head stiffly "Clara, if it is truly your wish not to-"
"No" she said quickly, urged on by her previous success in interrupting this piece of aristocratic, physical literature "I am willing, and I agree to our partnership."
He paused for a while, before inclining his head and leaning back to sip from his teacup.
"However, I suggest 5 days" Clara added quietly, attempting to look him in the eye before glancing away "if you would be so kind as to put aside some of your duties to get to know your fiancé."
For the first time, Eric seemed to struggle with words for a moment as he tore himself between work and duty. After another moment, he caught her eye and nodded stiffly.
There was silence from then on, filled only with the distant sound of a grandfather clock ticking in the next room. Eric observed her for a while longer over the rim of his teacup, before saying, as though revenge on his previous insult of being interrupted "this is very generous of me, I hope you know."
Clara looked away, casting her eyes downward.
Day 2 - 22 December
The air was frozen in its Winter grasp, flakes of thin ice drifting in a slow, downward grace through the unchanging skyscrapers and towers of the city. Clara stood, bundled in the furs and warm boots of her heritage, her arms wrapped around herself and dark hair spilling out from beneath her fur hat as she waited patiently and obediently.
The frozen play equipment in the park she stood, in creaking like old men.
He appeared, striding out through the spiralling glass doors of the tallest building in the city, the collar of his trench coat pulled up to cover his ears and clutching his briefcase, not even glancing at his surroundings as he shuffled off down the frozen pavement.
Taking a deep breathe, Clara unwrapped her arms and strode off after him. It was a few moments before he noticed her, and when he did he stopped abruptly. "What do you want?"
"Oh" Clara blushed and lowered her head. Behind his glasses, Eric's eyes widened as he recognised her "what are you doing here?" he asked, lowering his voice incredulously and glancing around suspiciously.
"Oh, well…" Clara blushed harder "I wanted to see where you worked so…"
"A silly, impudent thing to do, all out here by yourself, what would your superiors think?"
"I thought we could order a mince pie together, I've always…" she trailed off at the look on his face.
"Well, have a good evening" Clara wrapped her arms around herself in embarrassment and turned away, hurrying off back through the park and onto a street filled with lights and people and the sound of a bell being rung and jolly shouts of "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas!"
"Really!" Eric muttered, before taking one last quick glance around then following her briskly.
The street was crowded with revellers and friendly faces, Christmas shoppers and magazine sellers, men in red handing out cups of hot milk while other, much fatter ones with white beards, continued to shout and make a racket with their bells.
"Oh be quiet would you!" he exclaimed to one, though in amongst the crowd he was ignored and jostled this way and that. Eventually, feeling bedraggled and quite regretful of his decision, he found her in the window of a brightly lit, jolly café filled with more people than Eric thought he'd ever seen in such a small space.
Quite ungainly, he shoved his way inside and, after yanking his briefcase out from between the bellies of two very large men who were engaged in either an argument or a heated discussion, Eric found himself at her table.
She was reading a small book, eyes intently fixed on the words, hair spilling over her shoulders and fur coat draped over the back of her chair. Eric straightened his tie and re-adjusted the cuffs of his suit, before sitting down opposite her.
She glanced up in surprise, and Eric turned the waitress who'd slithered over "one mince pie, nothing more."
Clara blushed and closed her book quickly, stuffing it away and glancing cautiously from under her lashes at Eric as he gazed around himself with high disapproval, his eyes sliding over the top of her head as though she were just a part of the furniture.
"What were you reading?" he asked suddenly.
Clara woke up suddenly from her daze and straightened, brushing some of the hair out of her eyes "a romance novel…"
"You like that sort of thing?" he asked, absently adjusting his glasses with a tap of his finger.
Clara nodded and folded her hands in her lap, staring at a spot on the table just in front of him. The waitress arrived with a small pie on a green and red plate, almost dropping it on their table as she whisked off to another call.
Eric stared at the pie, then offered her a fork. Her cheeks were flushed with the warmth and vigour in the room and took it from him, waiting a moment before sticking it carefully into the pie. She glanced up at him quickly, before cutting a small piece off and placing it in her mouth with relish, her eyes lighting up.
Eric took off a much smaller piece, gave it a slight sniff before putting it in his mouth. He curled his lip up with disgust and swallowed harshly. Clara looked surprised "you don't like it?"
"It's horrible" he replied smartly, and the waitress who was once again passing, gave him a dirty look. Clara looked surprised "haven't you had one before?"
"And good riddance too!"
Clara lowered her gaze from his, and asked him what work was like. His reply was full of long words and even longer numbers that made little sense to Clara and she struggled to keep up.
They talked awkwardly for a while longer, about things that were small and inconsequential to Eric and were simply one-worded replies to Clara's questions. The waitress, still giving dirty looks at Eric, turned up for the cheque. Eric paid, grumbling at the extra expense from his wallet.
The two left then, pushing through the heavy crowd until they were once again on the brightly lit street, where the streetlamps were adorned with Christmas lights and carols drifted from the mouths of a choir which had appeared in the park.
Clara turned around in surprise when she noticed Eric was not with her, but he quickly appeared, tucking his wallet back into his coat. Giving a sidelong glance back at the café, Clara noticed that the waitress was folding a rather larger tip into her apron pocket.
Clara looked sidelong at him, but he ignored her.
The car ride back in his limo was silent and full of an awkwardness that even Clara dared not break. He dropped her at her own, ornately carved front door of her mansion and left with a formal "Goodnight."
Clara stood for a minute as the snow sailed down and gathered on the marble front steps at her feet, clutching her cold plastic fork and feeling dismal. The door opened behind her and light spilled onto the steps "Mistress Clara?"
Clara turned around after a moment and walked into her house, a smile creeping to her lips as she thought of a certain waitress who hadn't needed to receive compensation for a certain remark.
Day 3 23 December
She stood, huddled beneath a skeletal lamp post hung with weather-worn tinsel, a small wind, as chilly as the atmosphere, striking her nose and face. She coughed, then yanked her fur hat tighter down over her head, folding her arms tightly against her chest, waiting patiently.
The building was tall and made from dozens upon dozens of rectangular glass windows that glinted in the dull, morning light.
She thought of the time she'd first been told of her arranged marriage to Mr Von Jayne, and how, out of curiosity, she'd waited outside the building to his work on a snowy evening much like this. She had been fascinated by the look of intense concentration on his face as he left the building, face to the pavement and shoes tapping smartly along over the ice. So, Clara had returned every evening for the next week, just watching him. He'd slipped, once, though he was sure no one had seen though Clara couldn't help but cover her mouth with a hand in case he saw her and her laughter.
The swing doors to the building twirled around and Clara's head snapped up out of her reverie. Eric, not even wearing his suit jacket, stormed out of the building and across to her.
"What are you doing here!" he snapped crossly.
"I thought you were on your lunch break…" Clara said quietly, feeling ashamed at having made him angry again.
Eric looked at her for a moment, then sighed "I am, but I don't leave the building."
Clara looked up at him cautiously "well, I sent you a text, didn't you get it?"
Eric glanced over his shoulder, then replied curtly "I don't like sending text messages."
"Oh" Clara looked down again.
Eric shivered, the cold wind snapping through the thin layer of shirt he wore. Startled, Clara yanked her fur coat off and thrust it at him, babbling about not catching cold. Eric snorted something, but she turned and began jogging off. He tried to follow, but then caught a glimpse of his work in the background and stopped.
"I'm not wearing this!" he called irritably.
"Well you can't give it back!" she replied over her shoulder defiantly.
A suited man appeared at the entrance to the building "Mr Von Jayne, would you-"
Feeling utterly exasperated, Eric turned away and walked back into the building, the fur coat draped across once arm, and he noticed it was still warm from her body-heat.
"Silly girl" he muttered, and the man who had called him in, looked across slyly and said "well I've never seen anyone run down these stairs so fast."
She waited for him outside of his office building that same evening, and this time he stopped to let her catch up. Smiling happily, she hurried up and into step beside him. They walked two blocks in silence, Clara constantly glancing quickly across at him.
After she caught him staring at her for the third time, they were at the place she wanted to go.
"They do really nice hot chocolates, at a place just on the corner of George St" she said cautiously. Eric looked up, apparently coming out of some kind of solemn daze, and looked at her blankly. Taking a deep breathe, she reached over and grasped his hand firmly in her own and yanked him off the sidewalk.
"Watch out the taxi!" he yelped as she danced through the traffic, bounding onto the kerb.
"You can't ignore me forever!" she replied loudly, over the din of the traffic. She pulled him down another frozen footpath and down an alley, until the noise of the traffic died away.
The café was a quaint little thing, settled in amongst the ancient stones of some kind of forgotten historic relic of a cottage. She chose a window seat and sat down, and after a moment Eric looked at their hands, still intertwined together on the table. Clara blushed and pulled away quickly.
When their hot chocolates arrived, Eric stared suspiciously at the puffy white things floating in the top.
"Marshmallows" she said, wrapping her hand around her mug and lifting it to her mouth.
Eric tried his and curled his lip "too sweet" he said "I don't really like sweet things."
Clara looked up in surprise from her mug, and Eric glanced across at her. He stood up and walked around to her side of the table.
He placed a hand behind her head and used a handkerchief pulled from his sleeve to dab at the milk-stain on her upper lip. Colour heated her cheeks like two Christmas plums-
Eric sat down, and asked pleasantly "why did you agree to marry me, Clara?"
Clara, still recovering from shock, replied impulsively "I was in love with another man, but he didn't love me, he loved another girl" her tone was tinged with slight sadness.
"How did you know he was in love with this other girl?"
Clara sighed passionately "he wrote her a poem, confessing to her…"
Eric snorted "only fools waste time on composing something as fickle as a poem."
"Why don't you like Christmas?" she asked suddenly, feeling upset.
Surprised, Eric replied "because it was on Christmas Day 3 years ago that my mother left."
Clara's eyes widened "I'm sorry…"
"Well, business goes on, can't let the stock-market down."
They left the café, continuing to wander down the old alleyway. When Eric asked why they were still walking this way¸ Clara replied "so you can't see a road sign to call your limo."
Eric said nothing for a while, pondering this reply. Finally, the alley jolted sharply to the left and they found themselves on a busy main road where cars roared past in frenzies of roaring motors and flashing lights.
Eric glanced up at the road sign, but Clara leapt in front of him and waved her hands "you can't see!" she exclaimed.
Eric looked at her, and then his mouth stretched into a smile, then a laugh and he stood there, on the side of the road, chuckling to himself. Clara looked surprised, and as she dropped her hands, her finger scrapped against a shard of ice protruding from the sign post. A thin trickle of blood seeped out of her finger, and she bit her lip in agitation.
Eric stopped laughing, reaching into his other sleeve and pulling out a clean handkerchief. Delicately, he wrapped it around her finger, lifting it to his mouth and kissing it gently.
"I already recognised the street anyway" he said, and Clara laughed.
He dropped her home in his limo, and as they pulled away from the great arching front gates, Eric leant back in his seat casually and said to the driver "stop by would you? I'll pick up a bottle of wine, would you like to share a drink with me?"
The driver looked startled "but Master, you never-"
"I'm feeling generous tonight, so just do it!"
That night, Clara, a towel wrapped around her head, flung herself onto her enormous bed, brushing aside assignment papers and study sheets. She rolled onto her back and flipped open her phone, which had rung while she was in the shower.
Day 4 24 December Christmas Eve
She waited for him during his morning lunch-break again, and he came out and took her to another small café, where he got a no-sugar coffee and she a chocolate milkshake. She told him about Christmas carols, and where in the city had the best light displays. She spoke of traditions and foods, of the smell of turkey on cold evenings and the fire crackling.
Eric told her of a bottle of wine in the middle of the table each year that was never opened because someone always somehow forgot. About the Christmas lights from the neighbours his father complained deprived him from sleep, and there'd be a maid at the front door all day, just to turn away people looking for donations.
Clara listened to him silently, sipping her milkshake with a solemn look in her eyes. She said nothing after he'd finished, and they walked out onto the street together in silence. They walked through the park, and when four dirty grey pigeons landed on the powerlines overhead, Clara laughed and reached across to slip her hand through his.
"Look" she said quietly "four calling birds."
"What does that mean?" he asked scornfully.
Clara laughed "it means it's the fourth day of our Christmas."
The orphanage was a small, ramshackle, windy building on the far side of town. 11 children, without Christmas presents that year, huddled around Clara as she distributed some of the larger fur coats her younger sister had grown out of. A small child in dirty pigtails, pulled insistently on the bottom of her coat, and Clara bent down the pick her up. Christmas, she thought, wasn't always just about presents and singing, food and traditions.
When Clara returned to her home later that evening, it was dark and the stars were out, though she was feeling fulfilled and accomplished. She smiled and rubbed her arms to keep warm as she strode up to the large arching gates of her mansion, having caught public transport home.
Eric was outside the gate, arms folded and a cross look on his face.
"Where were you this afternoon?" he said harshly "I waited for 2 hours after work-"
"I told you I couldn't come, I sent you a text didn't I?"
Eric snorted in disgust "you know I don't check my phone, but honestly what could've been more important than-"
"Many things Eric!" Clara snapped, anger roaring up inside of her "there are many things in this life that are more important than you, you just can't see it because you're too caught up in yourself that you don't even notice those around you! I was in an orphanage, I do it every year, though of course that sort of thing would be unconceivable to you wouldn't it!"
"Children!" Eric yelled "do you know what the population growth at the moment is? The world economy can't handle any more-"
"Oh you selfish, arrogant, good for nothing jerk!" Clara fumed, turning away from him.
"Clara don't you dare--!"
She ignored him, striding through the gate and up her driveway without a backward glance. Eric cursed and got back into his car "drive!"
When Clara finally marched up the marble steps to her front door, she was still furious with Eric for being so selfish and stuck-up and and-
"Clara?" it was her father's voice, coming from the library through the door to her left. Curiously, she went in and saw her whole family along with most of the housekeepers, crowded around the fireplace with wine glasses raised in toast.
"Did you hear my dear? We've just got an enormous investment, the whole business will be set for at least the next ten years!"
Clara stared at her father numbly, hardly taking in what he was saying for she was still running through her head angrily every little remark Eric had said that got on her nerves since the day she'd met him.
"That means you don't have to marry that horrid Von Jayne fellow, the engagements off, Merry Christmas my darling!"
Day 5 25 December Christmas Day
Eric found out the following morning, and he was furious. "How dare she play me like this!" he roared, throwing various implements around the room. He had a teddy bear collection, which was now mostly strewn across the floor.
"Now now Master, there's no need-" the housekeeper quavered.
"Get out!" he roared "I'm going to work!"
He walked to work that morning, marching along like a great, stern soldier, growling the whole while about wasting money and time and energy.
He worked that morning like a man on a mission, not even stopping for coffee breaks but just venting his anger on the paperwork and signage sheets, the bills and the payment cheques that needed his signature.
At his lunch-break, he didn't go outside, and when his personal secretary come to tell him that everyone else had left the building already, Eric snapped that just because it was Christmas it didn't mean he was going to leave early like all of those other slackers.
Jenkins sat down in a chair opposite his Boss's table and shuffled the papers on his clipboard. After a few moments, he said casually "what about that pretty girl Boss, the one who you've been going home with every afternoon for the past week?"
"What about her?" Eric snorted, opening a draw and shoving in the finished paperwork "we were engaged, but they called it off, humiliating me and my family!"
"If I might say so…" Jenkins struggled for words for a moment, and Eric glared at him "you don't seem angry about it, but rather sad…"
"Of course I'm angry I'm…"
Jenkins looked at his Boss wisely. He'd known this man for a long while, and he understood him, if only a bit.
Eric sighed "I was upset, for the first time in two weeks she didn't turn up and I…"
"Yes, she waited outside my office building for a week before actually approaching me."
"Does she know that you were aware of this?"
Eric grabbed a piece of paper and scrunched it into a ball with his fists, glaring the table "no, she's meant to know these things!"
Jenkins looked at him sternly "you'll never get anywhere with that attitude, Boss, but I think you want to marry her, you just don't know it."
"But how do I know if she still-"
"You find out, Sir."
That evening, Eric stayed at his office late. Afterwards, he hurried out of the building and went to the dry-cleaners to pick up his suit for the ball that night. As he stepped back out onto the frozen street, a single song lyric floated through his mind.
He turned away and found the closest jeweller, before returning to his house.
The ballroom was alight with crystal chandeliers and sparkling lanterns. Lady-like twitters and gentlemanly remarks drifted through the room, wine glasses clinking and heeled shoes tapping on the polished marble floors.
Clara floated through the guests, smiling and laughing as was appropriate, dancing when asked and offering platters of food when commanded. The Christmas Ball was usually her favourite evening of the year, and she wasn't sure if the lack of the announcement of an engagement made the time better or worse. Her heart felt heavy, but she knew it wouldn't have worked out anyway.
His personality clashed so terribly with hers, would she have even been able to endure a husband like that? He was so very difficult!
She wore a shimmering, perfectly cut red dress that pooled around her feet like water, with a grey fur shawl over her elbows and dark mahogany hair trailing over her shoulders.
The night seemed to drag on, and all she could think about was Eric. She saw him a few times, and at first cursed his nerve to show up, before realising it was his duty to anyway. No matter how she felt, he'd always just do what it was he wanted.
"Merry Christmas dear!"
Clara smiled, before moving away. She felt sad, so terribly sad, yet every time she saw his face she despised him more. For the very fact he was there, teasing her.
She pulled herself into a corner, keeping out of the way and watching the world go by with a look of sadness. A short, smart looking man walked up to her, bowed low, and presented her with a neatly scrolled up piece of paper. She took it curiously, then looked up just in time to see Eric walking steadily over towards her.
Terrified, she turned and dashed away from the party and the guests, up the stairs and through corridors until she finally found herself on a low balcony overlooking a tiny garden. She leant against the railing and un-scrolled the paper carefully, her breathe catching as she read in neat handwriting:
To a man who knew little of what it was to live
Who knew not how to laugh or give or to see true
On an evening of darkest frost,
when the lights were bright, the moon arising
In a park, so far below
She stood for many a day,
thinking I did not know,
though I could hardly look away
How I was blessed with such good fortune I will never know
Though for the rest of my life, I will never forget her visage, nor hark
As she stood, waiting, in the park
Clara looked up, tears blurring her eyes. He stood below her, gazing up at the balcony. She could see his hair was ruffled, and wet leaves clung to his jacket from where he'd pushed through the hedge.
"Why did you write this?" she called down bitterly, her voice cracking slightly with emotion "I thought only fools wasted time on composing something as fickle as a poem."
"They do" he called up "I'm a fool tonight, a fool who's falling in love!"
Clara, biting her lip, turned away. A few moments later, a door under the balcony opened and she came out, the moonlight shimmering off her dress and hair.
Eric turned to her, his face solemn and dark, eyes glinting at her beneath his spectacles. She walked up and he held out something to her.
"I have a present for you" he said quietly.
She leant forward, then started in surprise as he clasped the necklace around her neck.
The five golden rings glinted on their chain, resting against her chest.
Clara looked at them for a moment, then wrapped her fingers around the thin golden bands and began laughing and crying at the same time. Eric looked confused "it was five golden rings wasn't it? On the fifth day of Christmas?"
"I have a present for you to" she laughed nervously, wiping away her tears.
Eric looked surprised, but she reached up and removed his spectacles, folding them into his coat pocket.
Then she flung her arms around his neck and pulled his lips down to hers. For a moment, he was so stunned he didn't know what to do, but then the sweetest sensation swept over him and he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her into the air, returning her kiss with his own energy.
When they broke apart they were both laughing and he pressed his forehead against hers.
"Merry Christmas, Clara."