Parachutes and Painted Faces, a story by Corinne Beinke at
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Parachutes and Painted Faces

Parachutes and Painted Faces

written by: Corinne Beinke


A comfortable silence sat between the two women, as it often did on the slow walk home from school. Although they were generations apart, they were intrinsically linked by an appreciation for the wisdom each other held.

“But Granny, why did you jump out of those planes? Were they not going where you wanted to go?” Esther smiled down at the girl clasping her hand as they crossed the road. Her blonde hair stuck out in all directions between the folds of her thick maroon scarf, her nose and cheeks tinged with red from the crisp winter winds lashing at her face.

“The planes weren’t flying anywhere. They went up there so I could jump out,” Esther pointed up to the heavy grey clouds above. Silence fell again. All quiet apart from the slow winding cogs of a 6-year-old’s mind. Esther was used to the long pauses that often fell between them. She used to think that Poppy hadn’t heard her last comment or that she was purposely not listening, but she soon realised she was a speculative and thoughtful child with a rich inner world much like her own. Esther loved to watch Poppy’s head tilt and her gaze shift towards the sky. Curiosity and wonder gathered into piles of stories and questions that may or may not be spoken out loud.

“I don’t think I’d like to do that. What if you landed in the wrong place like in a zoo or something? You might end up with the lions or with the meerkats. Or what if you missed the land completely and ended up in the sea? That would be so cold. And it’s probably difficult to swim with all that parachute stuff attached to your back. What did it feel like when you jumped out? Did you get that weird belly feeling you get when you drive over one of those humps on the road? You know the ones that make you feel like your stomach’s flown up to your chest? Did it feel like falling?”

“No. It felt like flying,” Esther beamed at the memory. “And what’s so bad about meerkats?” Poppy looked up at her grandmother’s curious face. Wrinkled with age and experience, her paling blue eyes held mysteries she longed to uncover. Who was this woman who used to jump out of planes for fun?

“I don’t like the way they move. Like they’re hiding something. Guardians of a desert secret.” Esther nodded in agreement. She’d never thought of the creatures in that way.

The last moments of daylight chased them to the red front door of the terraced house. Everyone else on the street had black doors and black railings but Poppy’s grandparents’ house was different. They were the splash of colour on an otherwise monochrome street. Not only was their door the colour of sweet strawberry jam but their front step held 3 small plant pots that always bloomed with pansies and violas, no matter the freezing winter temperatures and impending snow. Neighbours spied from dark windows at the scattering of colour on the doorstep of the small house. They craned their necks to watch Esther’s magic fingers as she tended to the plants daily.

Although well-liked amongst the community of mostly elderly residents on the street, the couple were often talked of as being somewhat mysterious. Kids would say magical of course, for they knew it was Rodney, Poppy’s Granddad, who would light up the street with decorations for the festive season every year. Nobody ever saw how he did it but on the last night of school before the Christmas holidays, Rodney would adorn the entire street with glowing lights, festive garlands and expertly crafted figurines. Lit-up reindeer balanced on rooftops and grazed in front gardens, elves hung from streetlamps and window panes. And a real-life red and golden slay appeared in the small park at the end of the street, a favourite amongst visiting grandchildren of course. Their imaginations would take them to faraway places as they took turns being Father Christmas on the red velvet seats every day on the lead-up to Christmas.

“Here we are then,” Esther sighed as she walked up the three steps to the front door. She reached into the pocket of her wax jacket and pulled out the keys to her home. Poppy watched as the long black and red striped feather dangled from the keys, another curiosity. She had never seen a bird with feathers like that in England before yet her grandmother insisted she had found it hiking in the local woods. The warmth of the fire and the smell of dinner shook Poppy back to the present, so she pulled off her heavy winter coat and scarf and followed the scent into the kitchen. The weekly dinner with her grandparents always went by too fast. Poppy longed for time to slow down so she could steep in the love that shone from the eyes of her two favourite people a little longer. In the few hours she spent with them she learnt more about life, and people and friendship and hope, and all the really important stuff that she never learnt about in school. With them, she didn’t feel different or strange. With them, she was safe to be herself.

“Where is she then?” A bellowing voice came from the stairs. Poppy followed the sound to where her granddad was ducking through the doorway of the living room. Rodney wasn’t a tall man but all the doorways in the old part of town were built to less than 5ft high. Even after 30 years, Rodney continued to bump his head on the door frames, cursing angrily at the house as though it were alive and purposely trying to injure him. Poppy thought the low doors made the house whimsical and fairylike. But mostly she loved how the rooms made her feel 5 years older than she actually was.

“Poppy my girl. I’m sure you’re getting bigger by the week. How was school today? Is that girl still giving you bother?” Poppy wrapped her arms around her granddad, allowing the scratchy wool of his jumper to rub against her red tender cheeks. She closed her eyes and breathed him in. Humbug mints and tobacco smoke. His smell. They moved to sit next to the fireplace that was already decorated with branches of holly and pine. On the mantelpiece, a collection of Christmas cards and candles were balanced amongst obscure wooden carvings, shells, rocks and other relics of a well-travelled life. In fact, the entire house was much like an artefact museum, with every surface an altar to a story, or memory of the extraordinary. Poppy’s mother called it hoarding. She said they’d need a skip to clear out the place when they were gone. Poppy didn’t understand what she meant by gone, she couldn’t imagine why they would leave or where they’d go. All she knew was that every day she spent in that house she discovered something remarkable about one or both of her grandparents. They were the most fascinating people she knew.

Rodney pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began wiping dark grease marks from his fingers.

“Go wash them in the sink Rods! If you ruin another one of those handkerchiefs with that oil, I’ll have your guts for garters,” Esther rolled her eyes at Poppy. “Honestly, your granddad and his endless tinkering.” Poppy chuckled at the faces he pulled behind Esther’s back. She loved his tinkering and how he could fix anything from a car engine to a wristwatch, or the broken glass eye of her favourite doll.

“School was alright. Same as always. We’re learning about different types of bugs and how they move at the moment. Did you know dragonflies eat butterflies? And they’ll even eat another dragonfly? We learnt a song about their body parts too. Do you want to hear it?” Poppy jumped to her feet and began singing about thoraxes and antennae to the tune of heads, shoulders, knees and toes. Esther watched her performance from the window hatch that looked out from the kitchen while stirring a pot of gravy on the cream-coloured arga. At the end of the song Poppy took a stumbling curtsy to an enthusiastic applause.

“How long until dinner Granny? I’m starving. It was turkey twisters for school lunch, again. I just ate the baked beans.” Esther stopped stirring the gravy and began threading Christmas cards onto a line of string.

“Won’t be long. Time enough for you two to help get these cards up. I haven’t even started on the ones from the girls in France yet.” Esther picked up a thick pile of cards from the table.

“Your grandmother’s still in contact with those daredevil women you know Poppy. Parachuting was all the rage in 1950s France apparently.” Esther gave Rodney a gentle jab with her elbow and a sideways glance that only a married couple of 40 years could interpret.

“What did you do after the war Granddad?” Poppy asked as she tied a string of cards to the ceiling beam above.

“I worked for Technicolour. For the t.v. people”

“What does that mean? What did you actually do?”

“I painted the eyes blue.” Rodney winked as he pointed toward the television screen in the living room. “We didn’t always watch things in colour you know. In my day…” His story was interrupted by the sudden trill of the telephone in the hallway.

“I’ll get it,” he said ducking out of the kitchen and only narrowly missing the doorframe as he left. Poppy continued threading the cards and tried to imagine a world without colour. She wondered if that was what they meant when they said colourblind. How wonderful it must be to see the world in technicolour after a lifetime of living in grey.

“Esther,” Rodney called from the hallway. “Can you come here a moment?”

Esther put down her end of the thread and gently squeezed Poppy’s shoulder as she walked past. Hushed tones, manic whispering and barely concealed panic collected in the corners of the small house like dust balls. Poppy strained to listen for a moment but became distracted by her favourite wooden ornament only recently placed on the windowsill by the back door. The tiny wooden house, inconspicuous on the outside, could be lit up to reveal a magical workshop filled with hardworking elves preparing gifts for Christmas on the inside. Poppy abandoned the cards and flicked the tiny switch hidden behind the snow-covered pine trees next to the house. A single reindeer with a tiny golden bell hanging from its neck stood proudly on the other side of the trees. She peeked into the window where the delicate elves she’d watched her grandfather paint, moved robotically along a carousel of packing boxes and wrapping paper.

“Poppy darling we’re going to put dinner on hold and just nip out for a bit. That ok?” Esther and Rodney emerged from the hallway and began gathering their coats and scarves.

“I’ve just got to help out an old friend with something. Shouldn’t take too long. But I need your granny to drive. My eyes are no good in the dark.”

“Ok,” Poppy switched off the light to the miniature workshop and wrapped her scarf around her neck.

“We’ll take a flask of tea and some biscuits to keep us going,” Esther began filling a bag with custard creams and jammy dodgers while Rodney put the kettle on the stove.

“You sure about this Esther?” He mumbled out of the side of his mouth.

“Well, what choice do we have?” Esther helped Poppy into her coat. “There’s only 10 days left. They need us.”

“10 days left before what?” Poppy let her grandfather scoop her up into his arms. “Who needs you?” Rodney reached for his tweed flat cap hanging on the hook by the front door.

“Right we’re all set,” he said placing the flat cap on Poppy’s head and putting her pink knitted hat on his own. “Everybody needs me!”

“Grandad I can’t see,” Poppy giggled as the cap slid down over her eyes. Rodney kissed her nose and swapped the hats before opening the door and letting in a cold gust of winter air. Her unanswered questions were quickly forgotten when she looked out at the street now sprinkled with a dusting of snow. Cool flakes kissed her cheeks as she gazed up at the white night sky. Please let school be cancelled tomorrow, she silently prayed.

In the car Esther’s face was pressed up against the windscreen as she looked for the road in the snow, which was falling heavier by the minute.

“Won’t be long now” she called back to Poppy who was already halfway through a packet of custard creams. Only with her grandparents could she get away with eating this many biscuits before dinner. Rodney sat in the passenger seat, glasses balancing on the tip of his nose as he flicked through a tattered old book on his lap. Poppy hadn’t seen him bring the book and she couldn’t tell what it was about, but its dog-eared pages and the scribbled notes next to obscure diagrams and graphs meant it was obviously well-loved.

They drove for about half an hour out of town along winding country roads with high hedges and only the occasional twinkle of Christmas lights to break the otherwise dark and milky horizon. Eventually, the tall hedges turned into trees and they drove through a dense wood that Poppy didn’t recognise. In fact, the road itself had become more of dirt track and leading nowhere in particular. She craned her neck to look through the front windscreen at the dusting of snow already settling on the low tree branches and logs on the ground. She looked at her grandmother who was still arched forward, nose pressed to the window and wrinkled with concentration. Poppy couldn’t see a road amongst the densely packed trees but she swore she saw a pair of eyes peek out from behind a low branch.

“What was that?” She called out from the back seat.

“It’ll just be a deer dear” Rodney chuckled at his own joke. “Nearly there now.”

Poppy leant back in her seat and reached for another biscuit. Just as her eyes began to droop, the car pulled up to a small house in a circular clearing in the trees.

“I’ll be as quick as I can,” Rodney said as he tightened the scarf around his neck and walked out into the heavy snowfall. Poppy watched him walk towards the house with the tattered book in his hand. From the car, she could only see one dimly lit window downstairs. The other windows all had thick curtains to keep the warmth inside the house, and perhaps prying eyes out.

“Right. Eye spy?” Esther’s face blocked Poppy from seeing who greeted Rodney at the door. After 30 minutes of car games she was restless and hungry.

“I’ve just got to spend a penny,” Esther announced. “Back in a tick.” Poppy watched her disappear behind the trees and then climbed into the front seat. She opened the glove box and rummaged her hand amongst bits of paper, shells and pens in search of her granddad’s stash of humbug mints.

“Jack pot!” She said unwrapping the clear paper and shoving the mint into her mouth. Just as she was hiding the wrapper in the glove box, a flash of light caught her eye. A curtain on the bottom floor of the house was slightly ajar. It was open just enough that she could see her granddad bent over some kind of machine. A small hand kept reaching up to pass him various tools, and he kept turning around to talk to someone just out of sight. Suddenly he took off his glasses and a triumphant look passed across his face.

“Finally,” Poppy sighed, assuming his work was done. But just before sliding into the backseat, she watched an arm reach out and place a hand on her grandad’s shoulder. A dark red sleeve with white fur lined cuffs. Poppy pressed her nose closer to the glass and tried not to blink. But before she could get a better look, a small hand reached up from below the window sill and pulled the curtain shut.

“I nearly got frostbite on my bottom,” Esther joked as she slammed the car door.

“Was that? Did I just see?” Poppy rubbed her eyes and looked back at the house which now looked dark and ordinary.

“What dear? Oh look, here he comes.” Rodney piled into the passenger seat and turned to Esther with a smile.

“All fixed. Home now James, and don’t spare the horses!” He turned to Poppy who had a permanently confused expression plastered to her face.

“Who was that you were helping granddad?”

“Just an old friend,” he said patting her leg. “Now, have you saved me any bickies?” Poppy passed him the packet and climbed onto her knees to better see the house as they drove away. The snow was thick on the ground now, and the pine trees on either side of the house had a generous layer of frosting on the top branches. Poppy sighed and slid back down into her seat. She felt herself becoming hypnotized by the passing trees but before she could succumb to her body’s call for sleep, she gasped. Just emerging out of a flurry of snow and wind-blown leaves, she saw two eyes, an antler and the glint of something gold.

“What?” Rodney asked. “What did you see?” He looked out the window as the car pulled off the dirt track and onto the quiet hedge-lined roads again.

“Just a deer,” Poppy looked back for any signs of the house in the shadow of the dark woods, now fading into the distance. Esther and Rodney exchanged a look and settled more deeply into their seats. Poppy’s mind was brimming with thoughts but, perhaps for the first time, her questions had overcome her. She fixed her gaze on the two people she loved most in the world as though they would shapeshift in front of her eyes. But everything was ordinary again. Curiously unremarkable. All Poppy could do was allow silent wonder to cradle her the whole way back to the curious little house on the monochrome street.

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This publication is part 94 of 93 in the series 12 Days of Christmas