Custom: A Boxing Day Story

26th December 2016

The air was thick with fog. A bleakly shining sun looked ready to die out completely. The streets of Berlin were deserted. And the few people on the street were stopping to talk to no one.

Within days, things had changed. Amahl was worried that he would have to leave from here as well. His perfectly ordinary job as a carpenter’s apprentice was in danger. For the first time, his boss Albert had looked at him with fear and apprehension. His mother and his sister had not left the house, fearful that their headscarves would make them easy targets for people who were angry with them simply for being Syrians who had escaped certain death and come to Germany.

The anger wasn’t misplaced, Amahl thought. The terror attack that had burned a hole into the city’s fabric on the 19th of this month, had left him shaking as well. He was hurt because someone pretended to be one of them. He was angry because this senseless act of violence had placed all of them under renewed suspicion.

Hadn’t they suffered enough, he asked himself. He knew first hand, the kind of cruelty the ISIS was capable of. He could not understand why anyone would align themselves with that monstrosity and kill innocent people. But violence seldom had a logical reason behind it. All he knew were the scars he carried on his left leg and the jarring limp he walked with, stiff and awkward in the cold weather, sweaty and dangerously unsteady in the heat.

Christmas had been a subdued affair. Most people had celebrated, but the spirit of the holiday had been weighted down by the tragedy. Carols had somehow sounded melancholy and while he didn’t understand German so well yet, he knew enough to know that the country was divided.

And he was the object of debate. There were those who still took pity on him. And then there were others who saw him no differently than they saw the truck hijacker. And these divisions were tearing away at him; fuelling his anxiety, burdening him with guilt.

Amahl continued on his way to Albert’s workshop, wondering if today he’d be given the sack. Most businesses, public offices and stores were still closed for the holiday but not Albert’s. Heart thundering in his chest, he entered the store and like the past few days, his boss acknowledged him only with a slight tilt of his head.

Wordlessly, he passed him a packet and an address, motioning him to go deliver the things. Amahl understood that this meant that the payment had already been made.

He nodded to Albert and left.

It wasn’t a very long walk. A middle-aged woman answered the door. Amahl braced himself for the fearful, apprehensive look. However, he was greeted with a warm smile.

“Oh, I didn’t know Mr. Zachariah had a new delivery boy,” she said, in a thick British accent.

Amahl knew some English but wasn’t sure how to respond.

“What’s your name and how old are you, son?” she asked.

“Si…Sixteen….I only started working in his workshop last month,” he replied haltingly in his simple and limited vocabulary.

The woman sensed that he was probably a refugee kid. However, she showed no signs of being scared of him.

“Wait here, don’t leave just yet,” she said to him as she relieved him of his burden and went inside. A few minutes later, she returned with a small box of gingerbread men and homemade toffee.

“In my country, we give gifts to working people on Boxing day. here is yours,” she said. When Amahl hesitated, she thrust the box into his hands. “Take it. It is custom.”

Dumbstruck, Amahl was overcome with extremely strong emotion. He simply nodded at the kind woman and left.

17th July 2017

“Amahl, come here,” Albert called out from the inner chamber in the workshop. The young boy came running to his boss.

He was given his errands for the day and with a clear set of instructions, he left.

While returning to the workshop, he saw that a large crowd had gathered around one of the houses in the next street. With a jolt, he realized that it was the same house from where he had received the Boxing Day gift. Gathering his courage, he went closer to see what was happening.

He caught snatches of conversation and realized that there had been an electrical fire in the house. A few feet away, the woman of the house was standing, looking tired and ready to burst into tears. He went closer still, wondering if she’d recognize him. When she didn’t, he simply turned around and left. But not before he heard her say something to her neighbor in a voice completely broken by loss.

2 Days Later

The house looked undamaged from the outside. Most of it was intact and unblemished even on the inside; only the store room had caught fire, but all of Martha’s precious possessions had been burnt to a crisp.

She knew it was stupid to be so upset about old things when she could have easily gotten hurt in the fire. Trying not to dwell too much upon it, she briefly thought about her grandmother’s jewelry box that was now beyond recognition and repair.

Just then, the doorbell rang.

To her surprise, it was the delivery boy from the carpenter’s shop.

“I’m sorry about what happened Ma’am. And that day, I came to see if I could be of any use. But there were so many people here that I left. But I heard you tell one of your friends about a box that got destroyed in the fire. I’ve brought my tools with me. Do you mind if I see the box,” he asked.

Perplexed, Martha motioned him to come inside. With trembling hands, she opened the carton of the debris from the store room. She reached for the badly burnt and twisted box, wondering what miracle the boy was hoping to work on it.

Amahl’s heart sank on seeing the bent and melted box. But he was determined not to give up.

A few hours later, Martha couldn’t help but let out a shout of surprise and joy.

The box, now repaired, looked rather different from how it had looked previously, but there was still an aching familiarity to it. The bent and twisted edges had been shaped into roses. The melted motif on the lid had painstakingly been restored to something closer to the original pattern. And a slight depression at the bottom of the box had been disguised with a miniature painting of three little gingerbread men.

“How can I ever thank you,” she asked him through her tears.

“You don’t need to,” he said.

“You have given me a most priceless gift, why would you do this and not even take this money for it,” she asked.

Amahl couldn’t say much. “It is custom,” was all he said as she pulled him into a hug.

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