Fiction…Monday: Christmas at the Opera Garnier (Part Two)

Happy holidays!  Today I’m continuing my Christmas excerpt from my Phantom of the Opera trilogy.  Read Part One here, for the preceding scene and a little more context.  Most of this excerpt is from Meg Giry’s point of view, though the last bit shifts to Erik’s (otherwise called the Phantom) point of view.

***************

Early Saturday morning I showed up to meet Erik with a basketful of garlands in my arms.  At Christmas the Opera Garnier became a whirl of garlands and trees and explosions of giggles among the ballet girls as they planned gifts or discussed hopes.  Not to mention Christmas music everywhere, as we practiced for a series of special performances around the holiday.

It was Christmas everywhere at the Opera, except belowground.

“What is that?” Erik asked warily, eying my basket as though something might jump out at him.

“Decorations,” I said, moving over to the wall of masks in the prop room.

“Where are you planning to decorate?” he asked, no less wary as he triggered the secret door.

“I was just thinking…it would be awfully nice…”

“I don’t decorate,” he said abruptly, but I was getting good at hearing the nuances in his abruptness and this one was more of a ‘go cautiously’ than ‘back away’ abruptness.

Not that I went very cautiously anyway.  “But you could.  And it’s so gloomy with no decorations!”

“It is not,” he protested.  “And I like gloom.”

I heaved a sigh.  “Well, I guess.  I can leave these here, I suppose…”

“What were you planning to do anyway, hang wreaths on my gargoyles?” he asked, and this time it was an ‘I’m pretending I don’t like this, but keep talking’ abruptness.

“Of course not, they have too much dignity for that.  I just wanted to put some garlands on your piano and mantelpiece.”

“All right, fine, give me that,” he said, pulled the basket of garlands away from me, and stalked off through the tunnel.

I grinned, picked up the lantern, and followed.

He never got exactly enthusiastic, but he didn’t stop me either.  I reasoned that if he really didn’t want green lengths of garlands spread along the top of his piano and draped on his mantelpiece, he wouldn’t have let me do it.  It did make the place more festive—though to be fair, it wasn’t really gloomy to begin with, with the thick warm rugs and the paintings glowing on the walls.  Still, it put me into a Christmassy mood.

I didn’t particularly notice I was humming until Erik looked at me, tilted his head slightly to one side and said, “Adeste Fidelis?”

It had been running in my head all day, so it wasn’t really surprising.  “Oh.  Yes.”  He was still looking at me, and it made me somehow self-conscious.  More than I had been wheedling him into decorating.  “It’s seasonal, there’s nothing odd about it.”

“No, of course not,” he agreed, and wandered over to his piano.  “I’ve never heard you hum before.”

That observation did not make me feel any less self-conscious.  “I don’t sing,” I said.  “Everyone can hum.”

“Not everyone can hum on-key,” Erik remarked.  “Which you were, by the way.”  His fingers moved over the piano keys, the familiar melody of “Adeste Fidelis” rippling out.  “You had it slightly more up-tempo than standard.  I like it.”

“Thank you?” I said doubtfully.  I didn’t know why this conversational topic was making me feel odd.  Complimenting my humming was a long, long way from announcing he was an Angel of Music and…anyway, that wasn’t even the same thing and would be just silly besides.

Erik’s playing of “Adeste Fidelis” somehow merged into “O Holy Night,” and he went on to play quite an assortment of seasonal pieces.  For a man who had to be prodded into decorating, he knew a lot of carols.  Neither of us sang.

I didn’t invite him to come over for Christmas dinner, for all that I half-wanted to.  I wasn’t sure how Mother would take the idea, but I might have hazarded that.  It was more that I felt sure it would bring an expression of panic onto Erik’s face, and panicking about a Christmas invitation seemed even sadder than not extending one.  So instead we arranged to meet at the Opera the day after Christmas.

Christmas day itself brought a package from Leclair and a party with our neighbors.  There was no Christine to spend the day with this year, but while I did notice the lack of any card or note or forwarding address from her, I didn’t actually give it a lot of attention.  I was busy looking forward to the next day.  To when I could go back below the Opera again with Erik.

He had left the garlands up, and I smiled at them as I sat down on his couch.  “Here,” I said, holding out the wrapped package I had been carrying.  “You go first.”  My heart was beating fast, a mingling of nerves and excitement.

He set the rectangular gift he was holding down on the ivory table, and took the box from me.  He turned it over in his hands, fingered the silk ribbon tied in a bow.  I dug my fingernails into my palms, waiting.  He didn’t look at me, gazing down at the package.  At last he pulled one end of the ribbon and the bow unspooled.  He found one of the flaps and tugged against the glue holding it down.

“Oh just rip it!” I said.

He looked up, blinked.  “But it’s very nice…”

“Haven’t you ever ripped open a gift?” I demanded, smiling.  I thought that through a second too late and lost the smile.

Luckily, he smiled instead.  “It’s Christmas, so no sad stories about my life today,” he said lightly, and tore the paper in half.

He raised the lid on the box, reached in and lifted out the folds of green knitting.

At first I held my breath.  But he stared at the scarf for so long that I had to inhale.  I also had endless time to repent of the whole idea, to think that it had been stupid to give a green scarf to a man who only wore black, who might not even like scarves…

“I thought,” I said.  “It’s cold down here.  And it’s a nice color.  And…I’m good at knitting, I only dropped one stitch and I fixed it, you can hardly see—”

“You knitted it?” he said softly.  “For me?”

I was taken aback by the undercurrent in his voice.  As if this was all much more important than I had realized.  “…yes.”

He looked up at me at last, smiling but eyes crinkled.  “Thank you.  That was—very thoughtful.  It’s beautiful.”  He coughed, ducked his head, and I wondered about that sad story he hadn’t told me.  He unrolled the scarf, looped it over his neck, and reached for the gift on the table to give it to me.  “Your turn.”

I took the package without glancing at it, gaze still on my scarf lying across Erik’s shoulders.  I had found the right shade.  The green matched his eyes.

I realized I was staring and quickly looked down at the gift in my lap.  I undid the ribbon, tore open the paper and revealed a red leather-bound book.  “Around the World in Eighty Days,” I read off the cover, gold lettering surrounded by elaborate decorations.  “Jules Verne.”

“You’re interested in exotic places, so I thought…”

“It’s wonderful!  I’ve read it, and I didn’t have a copy.”  And even if I had, I wouldn’t have had one like this.  I opened at random to the center, ran my fingers over the neat black type on the thick creamy paper.  This was worlds better quality than any of the handful of books Mother and I owned, or any I had ever even borrowed to read.

“Oh good,” Erik said, in apparently genuine relief.  “It seemed like the best choice in the shop, but I wasn’t sure—”

“You went to a shop?” I said without thinking—though there wasn’t any other way to get a book like this.  He had a pipe organ, a Stradivarius and a phonograph, but as far as I knew he didn’t have a printing press down here.

He blinked, and made a vague gesture around the room.  “I do buy things.  I have to eat, for example.”

“Right, I know.”  I smiled down at the book again.  He had gone out to a shop to buy a book for me.  He wouldn’t do that, would he, if I wasn’t…at least somewhat important to him?

**

            Later, after Meg had gone home, he unrolled the scarf again.  He studied it row by row, fingers exploring the neat lines of loops and crossed yarn until he found one loop that twisted around the wrong direction.  The dropped stitch, the one Meg had knitted back in.

He smiled, ran his fingers over the one stitch gone awry as though it was a talisman.  Because it was proof.  Not that he didn’t believe her about knitting the scarf, of course he believed her.  But one twisted loop made it unique, made it unlike any other scarf made to the same pattern, unlike any scarf that could be bought in a shop.  It was proof that she had sat down and put time and thought and effort into not just finding but personally creating a gift for him.

Maybe he should have written her a song after all.

No, still too personal.  But he was glad he hadn’t just bought a box of chocolates.

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