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Happy Christmas, Mrs. B

During my years with the BBC in London I had a charlady who cared once a week for my basement flat in South Kensington, although we only came face to face once a year when I arranged my announcing shifts in such a way that we could spend a little time together on Christmas Eve. I called her, affectionately, Mrs. B.

The ritual of high tea by the fire on this special evening was eventually broken by a sabbatical year in the United States and later by my return to South Africa.

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In 1960 we celebrated Christmas together in November during a London stopover contrived for the purpose. It had been a bad year for Mrs. B. Work had been hard to come by, her health had been poor, and her husband, George, had left her. But as she jolted her bicycle noisily up the basement steps that foggy evening she paused in the moment of farewell to whisper bravely: ''We had our fun, didn't we? Just shows, when you're really happy, you can have Christmas any time you like.''

For the next twenty-one years we exchanged cards every year. I tried several times to reach her on subsequent trips to London but without success. She responded only to my Christmas letters.

But this year was different. Shortly before I flew into London for Wimbledon I tried one more letter to Elbe Street, Fulham, giving her the address at which I'd be staying and the telephone number.

At 9:30 one rainy morning, with the tennis seriously threatened by the weather, there was a knock at the door, and a familiar call rang out, ''Coo . . . ee . . . .''

I'd forgotten how tiny she was. How blue her eyes. How shy she could be.

''I'd have been here earlier,'' she murmured, ''if I hadn't forgotten your number and spent twenty minutes waiting outside the wrong flat! I'm as silly as ever.''

Our embraces were hearty, deepfelt, briefer than expected. Relief and gratitude spilled over us. She wore a heavy woollen coat, even on a mild summer's morning, and a brown felt hat. She carried a bulky handbag and a leather hold-all.

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''There, I'm as ugly as ever. Not a day older, my friends say. They're awful liars, they are.'' Off came the coat and hat, and Mrs. B. parked herself in the only armchair. ''Ah, this is better! Hair was nice this morning. Now look at it!''

Mrs. B. tucked into the cheese and biscuits as though it were Christmas. ''I'm 71 now, you know. Have to live on $:14 a week. Sometimes I buy a bit of cold chicken. Eat sandwiches a lot. Once a week I have a real treat - two eggs and chips. Smashin'! I got seven grandchildren now, and three great-grandchildren. They're beyond me, with their stars and satellites. 'Nother one got married last Saturday.

''We sang 'Morning is Broken' but it was my voice that was broken. I'm getting a bit ancient now . . . like the Old Man o' the Mountains. You remember. . . .'he laughs at you and me . . . with a twinkle in his eye . . . as he passes by. . . .' Used to sing that when I was about seventeen. Had more elastic in my legs then!''

There was a moment's silence as Mrs. B.'s song came to an end.

''Haven't had light for three years. Couldn't pay my electric light account so they cut me off. But I manage. Have a small gas lamp I take from room to room. I only really need it when I go to bed. Christmas wasn't much fun last year. I couldn't invite people in with no lights. I listened to me radio a lot. Haven't heard from me husband George for years. Probably just as well. It's more peaceful this way. Unless I get the bulldozer I'm stuck for the rest of my life. Everyone don't keep on like me. I wish I was a lot younger. I could travel with you. You'll just have to take this with you to remember me by.''

She thrust a brown paper parcel shyly into my hands. ''There . . . it's not really Christmas . . . but it'll have to do.''

Inside was a crumpled packet of Mr. Fothergill's seeds marked ''HONESTY . . . purple and white mixed . . . Easy to grow.''

''Do you think they'll grow where you live?'' she asked anxiously.

''Of course they will. They'll grow for you, Mrs. B., and if they're anything like this picture, all shining silver, they'll be the pride of my highveld garden!''

''I'm glad,'' she whispered.

I handed her two boxes of dried fruit and some African souvenirs, but she received them quietly. The shrill laughter was suddenly gone.

''Must I go now?''

Together we walked reluctantly towards the lift. The doors clattered noisily behind us and we dropped to street level without saying a word. The sweet smell of oranges drifted across from the Berwick Street market.

''It's a long time since anyone said hullo to me like you did.''

Now it was my turn to be silent. I leant forward to kiss her cheek but she stepped back, squeezed and wiped her lips, then flung herself forward to envelop me and her parcels in a bear hug.

''Hope you meet pleasant people.''

I proffered two pound notes for her bus fare.

''I have me ticket,'' she said with a touch of pride. ''London's expensive. Keep it.''

''Happy Christmas, Mrs. B. You're the nicest present I could have wished for.''

''You're nice, too. God bless.''

A shaft of sunlight skidded across the wet street, its rays not yet warm enough to dry the tears in those shining blue eyes as they turned towards the No. 14 bus stop in Piccadilly.

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