The Gift of the Magi

One pound and eighty-seven pence. That was all. And sixty pence of it was in coppers. Coppers tossed in the bottom of the bag, and dug out towards the end of the month to top off the payment for the occasional buttered fruited scone she had with her coffee before she started her shift. Three times Della counted it. One pound and eighty-seven pence. And the next day would be Christmas. Her bus pass would expire on Christmas day, and she wouldn't be able to buy a new one until pay day on the 30th. She only had to work two days next week but this wouldn't be enough for four bus trips.

Looks like I'll have to fall back on shank's mare, she thought.

There was clearly nothing to do but cry, so Della did it now as she was prone to do often and well. She was never fully aware of all the reasons for the tears but there were always plenty to draw from, there in the bottom of the bag with all the pennies.

She looked around herself at the place she called home—a furnished flat at £310 per month. It was comfortably outfitted in a fashion suitable for the pensioner who used to occupy it before her death and nothing had been changed since. The dried flower arrangement on the coffee table and the faded art prints on the wall had gradually been assimilated—a muted backdrop to be ignored by the present occupants as they went about their business when they were at home.

Their business at home was writing. The second bedroom had been converted into an office where each of them had their own computer in front of which long, silent hours were shared while they laboured together at their craft. Neither had managed to convince a publisher to accept their creative efforts.

In the door was a letter-box through which countless rejection slips and returned manuscripts had passed. Sello-taped just above it was a small card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young" and just below that, "Olivia Henry" which was Della's pen name.

The "Dillingham" had been proudly displayed during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was working as a foreman at the cotton mill. Since the plant closed and his income now depended on an hourly wage at the bookstore they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and warmly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Unless, of course, she had to work overtime at the café in town where she was a waitress, in which case the welcome hugs were provided by her Jim.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with a damp face cloth. She stood by the window and looked out gloomily at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey alley. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only £1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. A hundred and twenty pounds a week didn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had figured. They always were. And there was always ink, paper and postage to pay for.

Only £1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. It wasn't so much that she couldn't have squirreled enough away to get him something—something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by her husband. On several occasions during the last year her tip jar had been overflowing, but he was impossible to buy for. His tastes weren't so much eclectic as too discriminating for his own good. She trolled for hints and even asked him outright. But he said it was like sex—if you have to ask for what you want it just isn't the same. At least she understood what he was talking about.

When his hard drive had crashed last week she had no choice but to contribute everything she had saved. After that expense, they had agreed not to buy each other anything, but Della had already seen the earrings. And they were exquisite. Even more beautiful than any of the ones he'd bought for her before whenever he found himself a few bob ahead. He never usually waited for an occasion to give them to her. She hadn't meant to snoop, but the box had fallen out of his pocket when she hung his coat. She was only slightly angry that he'd broken the rules and noticed that his pocket was very frayed as she slipped the small black box back into it. She had to find him something. Something very special.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and noticed the clock on top of the T.V.

"Damn! I'm going to miss my bus!"

She grabbed her bag and dashed down the stairs, almost knocking down the postman in the process. She got to the corner just as the bus pulled up and regained some of her composure, once onboard and seated. She hoped her boss would let her leave early. Perhaps she'd be able to find Jim a special bar of chocolate or something before the stores closed.

~

The morning fairly flew by and she hardly noticed her boss when he put an envelope in front of her face while she wiped off one of the tables.

"Merry Christmas, Della. You can knock off a bit early if you like. Margaret and I can close."

She opened the envelope expecting only a Christmas card—certainly not a bonus. The café was infamous for its stinginess when it came to its employees, even charging them for the food they ate, so she was surprised to find a book token for £10. She smiled. Any other year she might have accepted it more grudgingly—business had been exceptionally good this year and she hadn't had a pay rise since she started there five years ago. But today she was grateful beyond words. She would be able to get a book for Jim.

"Thank you, Mr. Porter."

She reached out instinctively to give him a hug—certainly not an action suited to this environment—and he responded with equal spontaneity by kissing her flat on the mouth before she realised what was happening.

"What say we pop into the storeroom, Della, and have a wee nip of some Christmas Spirits?"

"I don't think so, Mr Porter. I do need to get some last minute shopping done. Thanks again for the book token. Please give my best wishes to your wife and family."

~

Getting the book would be tricky. The book token could only be redeemed in the bookstore where Jim worked. It was a big store, however, and if she was careful, she could avoid being seen by him. She pored over the stacks of sale items and finally saw it—the perfect choice—a new collection of short stories by one of Jim's favourite authors, Jim Murdoch: Making Sense. The book jacket was slightly wrinkled, but the volume had been reduced to £9.99 because of it.

When Della reached the counter her intoxication gave way to apprehension as she saw Jim standing off to one side engaged in an intimate conversation with one his co-workers, a very attractive one at that. She held her breath as the woman reached forward to give Jim a kiss and noticed that she was wearing the earrings—Della's Christmas earrings—there was no mistaking them. Forgetting that she hadn't yet paid for the book, Della dashed out of the store in tears. It was only seconds before the security guard grabbed her arm.

~

At 7 o'clock Jim's key turned slowly in the lock. He was first home, it seemed, since the mail was still lying on the floor—a letter from the last publisher to whom he'd sent his novel. They were interested in publishing it! Where was Della? He punched 1471 into the phone. Someone had called, but he didn't recognise the number. He tried to call back but the line was busy. Probably a wrong number, anyway. He reached into his pocket and found the earrings he had forgotten to wrap. Not finding any suitable paper, he put the naked box by the tiny tree Della had decorated, and sat down to write her a note. He found £1.87 in smash lying on the coffee table. He put it into his pocket and wrote:

Sweetheart
Meet me at the pub when you get in. We have something to celebrate.
I just got a promotion and there was great news in the mail.
love,
Jim

He smiled and left the flat seconds before the phone rang again. He didn't hear it.

~

Della sat in the waiting room at the police station for another few minutes before the Sergeant came in.

"Look, lady. Tell you what. I've been talking to my boss about this, and she says I should just let you give me the book token and you can have the book. We'll get it straightened out with the bookstore when they open again next week. Now you go home and have a Merry Christmas."

~

Della waited in the rain for what seemed like forever to catch the bus. It was full of sad characters. She opened the door to the dark flat, and dropped her coat and the book on the chair by the door. She went straight into the office, turned on her computer and started a story about a young woman whose faith in humanity had been crumpled and tossed. And she cried, trying not to think of who Jim might be with.

~

The magi, some believe, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish people in a flat who got so caught up in their own worlds that they sometimes failed to understand what was most important in them.

Things will eventually get sorted out between them. Della will find out that the kiss from Jim's co-worker was as innocent as her kiss from Mr Porter. She will learn that Jim had asked that same co-worker (her name was Morag, it seemed) where he could find a pair of earrings like hers for Della, knowing how much she would love them. Jim will regret not having waited until Della came home. And he will love the story she wrote through her tears, as will the thousands who read it in the magazine which will later publish it.

But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were not any wiser than most. The true magi are those who know that the only important gifts are never wrapped up in pretty paper or tied with golden strings.


Carrie Berry
© 2001

Commentary

The Gift of the Magi, a semi-autobiographical homage to the O. Henry story of the same name, appeared in Gator Springs Gazette's special Christmas anthology, Quilted in Gator Springs in December 2002.