One hour to midnight. Soon the church bells would peal across the town heralding first-footers along the streets. They’d knock on doors, call out Happy New Year, deliver small gifts of coal, coins and cake. May you always have a fire in your hearth, money in your pocket and food in your belly. They’d be welcomed into houses through the front door and given a glass of sherry and a mince pie before leaving by the back door. Every year Cynthia looked forward to the tradition and the company, though each year the cleaning got harder.
She knelt back on her heels, surveyed the half-scrubbed floor and wiped her forehead. She’d been cleaning since six this morning, but she still had the inside windows to wash and the kitchen benches to scour. Her mother used to say she’d die of shame if Cynthia opened the door to first-footers before the whole house gleamed. She’d impressed upon Cynthia the importance of ridding the house of any trace of dirt from the old year. If she neglected to do this, her mother warned, bad luck would follow. When Cynthia’s father fell down a mine shaft, her mother blamed Cynthia for failing to demolish a cobweb in the kitchen.
After the funeral Cynthia’s brother offered to take over his father’s first-footing role. His flaxen curls alarmed the neighbours who argued that first-footers had dark hair and such a departure from tradition was asking for trouble. The librarian advised them to read local history to learn how these superstitions arose. She added that rampaging Vikings were unlikely to put in an appearance so it would be safe to welcome first-footers of all descriptions. However, the neighbours’ doubts were confirmed when Cynthia’s brother died of pneumonia a week after his night of first-footing. His mother blamed Cynthia for forgetting to defrost the fridge.
For fifty more years Cynthia was meticulous about cleaning every part of the house before midnight. When her mother died last New Year’s Day the neighbours blamed it on the new trend of female first-footing and predicted the end of the world. Cynthia saw no point in mentioning that her mother had died in bed with an empty whisky bottle.
Cynthia rubbed her aching bones and surveyed her half-scrubbed floor, reflecting that now her mother was gone, there was nobody left to see or care what she did. She stopped scrubbing, washed her hands, set out the sherry and mince pies, switched off the lights, lit a candle and placed it by the window. Then she lay on her sofa and dozed until midnight.
She woke to the sound of peeling bells and waited for the crunch of footsteps on the snow, laughter, the creak of garden gates being unlatched, the splashes of light across the dark night as neighbours opened their doors to call out Happy New Year. In the lengthening silence she watched the flame of her candle burn low and heard only the beat of her own heart.
Sandra Arnold‘s most recent books are a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) which were published in 2019. Her flash fiction and short stories have been widely published and anthologised. www.sandraarnold.co.nz
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