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Tuesday, 20 December 2016

John's Special Christmas Gift - A Christmas Story By Janey Bracken for 2016














Harry walked along Victoria Street in central London, his guitar slung over his shoulder as he clutched his grubby sports bag which contained everything he owned. He kept the money he had earned from busking in his pocket, he had enough to buy a  meal in McDonald's just up the road and still have some cash left over to last him a couple of days.  Harry usually did a bit of busking in Victoria Railway Station, that is until the railway police moved him on as he had no licence to play there.  People had been generous today though, Harry played his guitar well and he could sing, something a lot of the other buskers didn't have the talent for.  Harry had managed to get casual work as a waiter over the summer months, he'd travelled down to Margate, a seaside town on the Kent coast,  but as the holiday season ended the work had dried up, so he had returned to London.

Harry was a Londoner, born in Clapham, his Mum and Dad had a semi-detached house in one of Clapham's nicer areas away from the hustle and bustle of busy Clapham High Street. He'd got engaged to a girl who lived a couple of miles away in Wandsworth, they'd met at the Alma Pub in the Old York Road.  Harry had been on leave from the Army when he met his future fiancĂ©e Kerry, he'd been a bit of a tearaway when the was young, he was bored, so he decided to join the Army as soon as he was able to, on his 18th birthday.  He'd been on a pub crawl with his mates on the night he first saw Kerry and she'd been having a drink with her best friend Jen whose birthday it was.  They were all a little bit tipsy and Harry fancied Kerry straight away as he spotted her and Jen sitting near the bar.  They all got chatting and Kerry agreed to meet Harry at the weekend. It was as if they were old friends and they got on really well on their first date.

Harry's Mum and Dad, Ellie and Steve, took to Kerry straight away too and they were really pleased to hear that Harry had asked Kerry to marry him. Ellie and Steve thought she would be a calming influence on Harry, who at 24, hadn't had a lasting relationship with any of the girls he had gone out with. After getting engaged Harry had moved in with Kerry, she had her own flat above the Dry Cleaners in Wandsworth High Street.  She wasn't sure what being married to a soldier would be like, but she was so in love with Harry that nothing mattered. She had been used to living on her own, so she would get used to Harry being called overseas on different assignments.

Everything had been fine until Harry was sent to Afghanistan for a four month period. Afghanistan had seen an awful lot of conflict and it was a dangerous place to be. Kerry had been worried sick about Harry going there as she had heard about the risks it involved.  They had been able to keep in contact on Skype and Facebook and also on the social networking site of Second Life where sometimes that avatar hug and kiss almost felt like the real thing.  Then one day Kerry lost contact with Harry. She knew that sometimes they had no internet and she would just have to accept that his job meant he would be operational somewhere where he couldn't communicate.  In fact Harry had been busy carrying out his duties patrolling Helmand, a stronghold of the Taliban; His troop had been pretty isolated over the last week, their supplies dangerously low. Then one night there had been an ambush, all had been quiet as the soldiers did their usual rounds, carefully picking their way along the dark streets when suddenly all hell broke loose as a grenade exploded just yards away. At the same time snipers opened fire on the hapless soldiers.  Harry had dived for cover feeling as if he'd been punched in the thigh. He realised he'd been shot, but he was lucky, two of his mates had been killed instantly. He lay sheltered by a low wall as he suddenly heard the sound of a drone overhead followed by rapid fire as the insurgents were taken out remotely by the drone controller. A deathly silence ensued and he stayed put until he thought it was safe to emerge, feeling dizzy as he got to his feet from losing so much blood, the pain in his leg now excruciatingly bad.  He could see his friends lying prone on the dusty road and also the bodies of the terrorists a little further on; He was shaken to the core with the horror of it all.  Back-up had arrived quickly, two helicopters circled overhead.  Harry lost consciousness, falling to the ground alongside his lost comrades.

Harry had been patched up by the Army medics and he had been put on the next flight home to continue his treatment in the UK.  Things had gone from bad to worse as the doctors told him that  his leg was so badly damaged that his condition was life-changing;  Although he could walk, his leg would be weak, making him unfit for active duty in the Forces.  So as he finally left hospital he also received his discharge papers from the Army. Harry was both spiritually and physically broken by the whole experience, especially from witnessing the deaths of his buddies.

Kerry soon realised that the man who came home from the war wasn't the same man she had been engaged to. He was subdued, snapped at her all the time and just wanted to sit around the flat all day doing nothing. His leg was healed as much as it could be, but he had plunged into depression.  As the months went by Kerry despaired of things ever working out, she still loved Harry, but he was becoming violent, not harming her, but smashing up the home and the medication he was on only seemed to make him worse.  She'd sit down and talk to him, as did his Mum and Dad, to try to help, but there didn't seem to be an answer to his problems.  One day, after yet another row with Kerry, he looked deeply into her eyes and he broke down in tears. "I'm so sorry Kerry" he said "None of this is your fault, how can I treat you like this?"  In that instant he decided he must leave home, he couldn't do this any more, he needed so badly to sort himself out, but on his own.  He packed a few belongings into his sports bag, grabbed his acoustic guitar and headed towards the door as Kerry begged him to stay.  That was the last time Kerry had seen him, he hadn't even contacted his Mum and Dad and two long years had gone by.  Kerry and his family did everything they could to find him, but he had covered his tracks well, living on the streets or staying in hostels, they were frantic with worry, but Harry didn't want to be found.

Harry had done well busking over the winter months, he was good looking, his thick dark hair, handsome face and crystal blue eyes drawing attention from the ladies who passed by and his great singing voice also made people donate generously as they stopped to listen. He often shared some of his earnings with the other homeless people, everyone had a story to tell, so many people had fallen on hard times and society had scorned them.  As he strolled down Victoria Street he spotted one of the homeless guys he had said hello to the day before, his name was John and he was sitting on the pavement slumped against the wall, he looked cold and hungry. Harry tapped John on the shoulder and asked him if he wanted to go along with him to get a burger.  John smiled gratefully as Harry helped him to his feet. John pointed to the Internet Cafe across the road so they headed over there as the snow began to fall. 

Once in the warm they got chatting and John told Harry that he had lost his family and home in a house fire. He'd been on the streets for a few years now and he said things were getting tougher as the uncaring and spiteful officials now tried to stop people feeding the homeless and the councils were also shutting down shelters due to austerity cuts. Harry suddenly had pangs of guilt, he did have a home, he thought about Kerry and his parents, he had just walked out on them; He had been so depressed that he had only thought about his own feelings.  John said he had a brother, but they hadn't spoken in 20 years after a family argument.  As Harry ordered coffee, burger and chips for them both, John dug deep into his pockets for the little bit of change he did have and paid for half an hour's access on the internet.  Harry asked John for his brother's full name and address as he thought he might be able to find him for John on-line.  After a little bit of searching there was someone with John's brother's name still listed at the same address, plus a phone number! Excitedly Harry wrote the telephone number on the Cafe receipt.  John said he would try the number later when he had worked up the courage to make the phone call.  John produced a small shabby pocket book and copied the telephone number into it. 

John looked at the computer and pointed out that there was an Open Source icon near the bottom of the screen.  Taking the mouse John Clicked on it and there were a variety of virtual reality programs listed "I see Second Life is on here" John said.  "I used to meet people on-line in SL quite a bit, I wonder if they are still around"  He continued "Have you ever created an avatar in Second Life Harry?"  Harry looked sad "Yes" he replied "I had an avatar when I was stationed abroad in the Army and I shared a virtual home with my girlfriend Kerry so we could meet and chat"   Pushing the computer mouse over to Harry, John told him to log in and see if his place was still there in Second Life.  Harry logged into SL and waited as the virtual world loaded.  He found that his avatar was actually in the same virtual house that he and Kerry had built, his heart pounded as he spotted a huge poster dominating one wall of the room. It read "Dear Harry, please get in touch with me.  I miss you so much and I want you to come home. Your Mum and Dad and I have searched everywhere for you and we will keep on searching, we won't give up.  I love you so much Harry and I always will, please contact me or your Mum and Dad, your real life home is waiting for you. Another Christmas without you will be terrible for us all. All my love, Kerry xxxxxxxx" 

Harry sat staring at the screen, his eyes filled with tears.  John smiled at Harry and said softly "You could catch the bus right now Harry, just go and let them know you are safe, make Christmas 2016 a wonderful year for them."  Harry realised John was right, he missed Kerry and his Mum and Dad so much too. Kerry was the only woman he'd ever loved, he'd never looked at anyone else.  "Yes" Harry said, "I'm going home."  Taking some change out of his pocket he gave it to John and thanked him. "I'll come back to Victoria Street on Christmas Eve to wish you a happy Christmas John."  And with that he got up and headed for the door.

Harry was nervous as he rang the bell to Kerry's flat, looking up he saw her glimpse out of the window.  After seeing it was Harry she had run down the stairs, opened the door and leapt straight into his arms. Hugging him so close as if she would never let him go.  John felt the years melt away, he loved Kerry, how could he ever have left her. Kerry and Harry went up to the flat and sat chatting and holding hands. After a little while Kerry handed Harry the phone so he could call his Mum and Dad.  Kerry could hear the excitement on the other end of the phone as his parents sobbed with relief and joy.
                            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Harry had been home for four days now, he was no longer depressed, he was so grateful to have a family who loved him and he realised how lucky he was in the fact that he had a home to return to.  He had carried the guilt of surviving the ordeal in Afghanistan after his friends had died. He realised now though, that he could not have done anything different when they had been ambushed that dreadful night in the Helmond Province. However, Harry's view on life had changed dramatically after leaving home and he would never be that selfish young man again who had always put himself first.  His thoughts turned to John.  It was Christmas Eve and Harry decided to go over to see if he could find John as he had promised.  He kissed Kerry goodbye and set off for Victoria.  It was still early and he trudged the whole length of Victoria Street, but John was nowhere to be seen.  He asked some other homeless people if they had seen John, but none of them remembered him.  He gave each of them some money and felt a great sadness that he couldn't find John. He put his hands in his pockets against the cold chill and felt a piece of paper in the bottom of his right pocket. It was the Internet Cafe receipt and it had John's brother's phone number on it.  Harry sheltered in a shop doorway as he took out his mobile and rang the number. After a few rings an elderly man answered the phone "Peter Wallace here" he said. Harry asked him if his brother John had been in contact.  There was a long silence, then the old man told Harry that John had died a few years ago.  Harry said there had to be a mistake, either John wasn't dead or he had got the wrong phone number and Peter wasn't John's brother, but someone with the same name. 

Peter lived in Vauxhall, a short bus ride from Victoria Street and he asked Harry to come over if he wanted to, as he had pictures of his brother John he could show Harry.  Harry accepted and in a little while he was knocking on Peter's door.  Peter asked Harry in and made him a tea as Harry told him the story about the homeless man in Victoria Street.  John went over to his bureau and took out a large envelope full of old photos.  He pulled out a photo of his brother John, he was in uniform, he had worked for the Salvation Army before he died.  Peter told Harry that John had perished with his family in a house fire. Harry looked stunned, there was no mistaking John and he told Peter that he had met the same person. But how could it be? 

Peter looked at Harry, his eyes glistening with tears "Well Harry" He said, "It may have been my John."  He told Harry that John had been dedicated to the Salvation Army, part of his job had been to trace people who had gone missing and to help them to re-unite with their families, if he did manage to find them.  Although the room was warm, Harry shivered, almost as if he felt John's presence in the room.  Peter collected up the photos and put them back in the bureau and Harry whispered very quietly "Thank you John".  John was indeed still working his magic and Harry would always remember him.  Harry said his goodbyes to Peter and wished him a Happy Christmas as he set off for home. 

That evening he sat and told Kerry the whole story, she was intrigued.  She told Harry that she had kept the virtual house in Second Life in the hopes that one day he would log in and see the note she had left. Happily everything had worked out.  An hour later Kerry posted the story on Facebook about Harry meeting John, she included a picture of Harry with his guitar, a photo she had always carried with her when Harry was missing. Christmas day was a really lovely family time, Harry and Kerry went over to Harry's parents where they celebrated being together.  Having Harry home was the best present they could ever have wished for.
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Life is a magical thing, full of synchronicities and wonder. This was especially so in Harry's case. Kerry's story on Facebook had gone viral over the internet, a nice Christmas tale, and she had received hundreds of messages from well-wishers over the next few days.  However, one message was a little bit different, it was from a record company.  The director of the company had heard Harry busking in Victoria Station, he had intended to talk to Harry, but he was in a rush to catch his train.  He had been disappointed when Harry hadn't been there again, but luckily he had seen Kerry's story and recognised Harry from the picture.

A year later, after signing with the record company, Harry became a big star, his records selling world-wide. His life was complete, he had his Kerry, they had married soon after he came home, plus they had a little baby boy, they called him John.

In future years Harry was to become a true legend, he would use his fame and fortune to provide help for homeless people as well as for war veterans, many of whom needing a hand in adapting to civilian life.  John's spirit lives on, his magical energy gave Harry his life back and he would carry on searching out those in need.....

A Happy and Peaceful Christmas to you all.

Janey Bracken
(Characters and events in this story are entirely fictional. For my previous Christmas stories please see the list at http://sllondon.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/christmas-stories-by-janey-bracken-2008.html)

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