Father Tom – Christmas – A Gift with a Story Attached

Father Tom heard the front door open and felt a slight draft creep in under the parlour door. He called out to whoever had come in, “Whoever you are, welcome to my home. I am in the parlour relaxing with a pipe.”

The foot falls became louder as they came closer to the parlour door. He recognized the familiar tread. The parlour door creaked open on its hinges and his housekeeper Mrs. Conti came into the room. She was dusted with a fine snow on her already white hair but somehow managed to still look warm and cheerful in spite of the cold air outside.

“Good evening Father. Have you had anything to eat this Christmas evening? There are plenty of leftovers in the fridge from yesterday you could have helped yourself. Oh, by the way it was a fine service you gave earlier this evening. Now I am off to the kitchen to see what I can put together for your supper.”

“Thank you Mrs. Conti. No, I have not eaten. I have just been sitting here preoccupied with my thoughts and my pipe. Mrs. C. I am curious to know if you might have seen someone drop off the box that was in the entry way when I came home this evening.”

“I’ve no idea Father; it was not here when I left for a visit with my children this morning. Why don’t you open it and see what it is. Probably a Christmas present one of the congregation left for you. I’ll leave you to your thoughts Father, while I fix your supper.”

And with that she went to the kitchen and Father Tom was left with no more information than he’d had before about the package. When he had come home earlier that evening he had found a mystery box sitting on the floor inside his door. The mystery was not how it got there but why it was there and who had sent it to him. He could not remember having ordered anything from his favourite tobacconist or from the booksellers. There was not a return address on the box, just his name and address on the label and it had a local post mark. He had taken it into the parlour and left it on the side table next to his chair. It sat there now and all he had done since coming home was to sit and look at it wondering what it might be. (Now that might seem odd to you, if you are one of those who tear into things as soon as you see them, but Father Tom was not that way. He liked to try to figure it out before he opened it. He loved solving those little mysteries as there was so little else he ever solved in one short moment.)

“I guess I won’t make any progress on discovering what is in the box and who it came from without opening it! Humph maybe then I can solve this riddle.”

Without any further hesitation, he took off the wrapping paper from the outside of the box – just a plain brown wrap with tape at each of the folded triangles that held it tightly to the box. He carefully opened the paper – his brothers had always been bothered by his slow methodical way of opening packages and given him grief over it for years. But this habit remained with him unchanged after 60+ years of seasoned practice. Once he had removed the brown wrapper from the box he folded it neatly and laid it aside. The box itself was nondescript, just a brown cardboard box the size of a shoe box. There were no labels or printing on it that might have given him a hint about what was inside. It had been taped closed. He sat for a long time staring at the box just wondering about the hands that had packed it and what it held inside. It was not very heavy as far as packages went; nothing like those that held his books when they came by post. Nor did it have the shape or feel of a box of his favourite tobacco blends from the tobacconist.

He took his pipe knife out of the pipe cabinet next to his chair. With a deliberate motion he sliced the tape that held the box closed. He opened the flaps on the box and peered inside. He did not shake the box or jiggle it to try and guess its contents, he merely opened the flaps. When he did, the smell of good tobacco escaped from its open top. Maybe he had ordered something and forgotten. Whatever it was, it smelled good, comforting and somewhere in the back of his mind a memory niggled that told him he had smelled this before. He stuck his hand into the box and began to remove the tissue paper that filled it and obscured what was hidden inside. He folded the tissue paper and he added it to the neat pile of wrappings. At the bottom of the box nestled among the last pieces of crumpled tissue was an old pipe – an Oom Paul. It was beautiful and had the patina of a well smoked old-timer. There was something about this particular pipe that spoke to him. He took the pipe in his hands and laid the box aside. He turned it over in his hands trying to remember where he had seen the pipe before.

He held the pipe to the light beside his chair so he could better examine it. The stamping on the shank identified the pipe as a BBB Own Make. It was a beautiful piece of briar with birdseye on the front and back of the bowl and grain running parallel on both sides of the bowl and shank. There was a silver ferrule and a military mount silver end cap on the stem with hallmarks that identified it as having been made in 1919 in Birmingham. As he rotated it to the right, he saw initials HJH engraved in the silver of the ferrule. Who did he know that had those initials? He struggled to put a name and a face with them. Nothing! He raised the pipe to his nose and inhaled deeply. Perhaps he could identify the tobacco from the smell and trigger the memory of the man and the place. There was a deep, rich, earthy smell to the pipe. The cake looked to be just the right thickness and it gave off the aroma of Virginia or possibly a Balkan blend. There was none of the cloying smell of aromatics or the flowery smell of Lakelands. He held it closer to the light to look inside the bowl to examine the condition of the cake. What a surprise! The pipe had been packed and was ready to smoke. He touched the tobacco with his forefinger and found that it was springy to his touch and not too dry. No wonder the box and the pipe smelled the way they did. How strange to open an unmarked box and find a pipe packed and ready to smoke. This riddle certainly was not to be easily solved.

He reached for a pipe cleaner and ran it through the stem. It came out clean. He removed the stem and ran it through the shank. It too was clean. The vulcanite stem was freshly polished and shone with a warm, ebony glow. The silver had been polished and had lustre as well. He sat back again and puzzled over this odd package. He held the mystery monogrammed pipe for a bit longer – HJH. It was well smoked and broken in but very clean. It was as if the pipe’s previous owner had just prepared the pipe for him. No matter how hard he tried to put the puzzle together it continued to elude him. He had no idea what it all meant – that was for sure. The clues were there in his hands, clearly before him but the solution seemed to be just beyond his reach at the edges of his memory. He could not shake the feeling that he had held this pipe before and that the person who sent it was someone he knew well. He sat quietly for a few moments looking at the old pipe and letting it float through his memory. He was brought back to the present when he could hear Mrs. Conti moving in the adjoining kitchen. The unmistakeable smell of a meal being prepared for him was beginning to drift into the room. Time had seemed to stand still for him, and he had no idea how long he had been sitting there letting different thoughts drift through his mind, in an attempt to identify the gift giver among his pipe smoking acquaintances. He associated names and faces as he did this. He could almost smell their tobacco and hear their voices as he went through them in his mind.

He reached for his matches and tamper as he came to a decision; maybe he would remember if he could taste the tobacco and smell the smoke in the room around him. He struck the match on the striker and put flame to the tobacco. He saw it coil and writhe as the flames touched it. He smelled the initial smokiness before he even tasted the tobacco. Yes, it was a Virginia with Orientals blended to perfection – its sweet grassiness and the tartness at the back of his throat was exactly what he loved about a good Balkan smoke. He knew he had tasted this tobacco before. It was one he had indeed smoked and enjoyed. In the back of his mind he knew it was one of his favourites that was no longer available. As he touched a second match to the tobacco to give it the final light he pulled the smoke into his mouth and quickly shook out the match and laid it aside. He settled back to a mysteriously wonderful smoke. The smoke curled from his mouth and around the button of the pipe. It swirled in a twist around his head and wreathed him in a wonderful smelling cloud. He disappeared into the smoke for awhile letting it carry him through his past.

As the smoke moved through his mouth and out his nostrils memories flooded his mind. He knew exactly who had sent the pipe to him. The old pipe spoke to him from the smouldering tobacco. He remembered a sidewalk pub, a table where he sat sipping espressos and smoking his pipe with a friend. They were laughing and talking. On the table sat an old tin of tobacco that had been opened. They had both filled their pipes from it and were enjoying the aged tasted. He recognized the lid with its four green squares on the top – Dobie Four Square Mixture. The face of the man across the table came into focus. The pipe he now held was the same one the man in his memory had been holding. The tobacco he was smoking was the same tobacco as that aged tin. The initials HJH now made sense to him and so did the package.

Just a few weeks earlier an old friend of his had died. Father Tom had been asked to officiate at the funeral. It had been hard on him as he realized that he was truly gone. The burial made it seem so final. He had wept as he said the funeral liturgy for him and then laid his remains to rest in the cemetery next to the old church. He had known him as Jim Hughes. He had never thought much about any additional names that his friend may have had. He missed him though and thought about his absence every day. After the burial, Father Tom had gone home and spent the evening thinking about Jim. He had taken out his own pipe – the one that he had often smoked when they had been together, and packed it with one of his own favourites – Escudo. He had smoked a bowl to the memory of his friend. He had breathed a quiet “Rest in Peace, dear friend” as he sipped the aged coins of Virginia and Perique.

Now, this Christmas evening, he held that very pipe in his hands. He knew that this old Oom Paul had been Jim’s pipe. That pipe that held so many memories and could have told many stories about their friendship was now his. How had the pipe come to be sitting in his entry way this Christmas day? How had it come to his house in this box already packed and ready to smoke? Why tonight of all nights was it here? How had Jim managed to see to the delivery of this fine gift? Those and many more questions raced through his mind.

Suddenly it all made sense to him. He could imagine how Jim had filled the pipe with this chosen tobacco, tamped and ready to smoke to be shared with him. In his mind he saw Jim gently pack it in the box among the tissue paper. Jim had chosen to pass on this gift to his old friend and set about making sure it got delivered just in time for Father Tom’s Christmas evening smoke. He sure missed his old friend. Jim must be laughing at the trouble he had had identifying the source of the gift. He must have been amused at the struggle to grapple with it and then the sudden light that came on as he lit the pipe and smoked it. He must have been thoroughly enjoying Father Tom’s befuddlement and subsequent enlightenment.

“This one is for you Jim, Merry Christmas! You must be sitting and enjoying the discomfort you caused me in trying to figure out this gift my friend. Enjoy my thanks and savour the aroma of this fine old baccy!”

He enjoyed the bowl and the memories that it set loose as he smoked it. He sensed the presence of his old friend in this special Christmas gift. What a delight to have been remembered by the one whose presence he missed so dearly. In the background he could smell the aromas of a great supper that was just about ready. He knew that very soon Mrs. Conti would call him to the table for the Christmas evening meal and a glass of flavourful Shiraz. But until that moment he would sit and smoke with his friend and savour the memories that would always be attached to this old pipe.


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