Sunday, 18 December 2011

We Do This Every Year: A Christmas Story

I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and flicked the ash from my cigarette out of the open window. Sarah shivered audibly to let me know that she was cold. I took another drag and she cleared her throat.

“Couldn’t you close the window? It’s freezing?”

“Sorry, do you want me to smoke with the window up? With a child in the car?”

She sniffed loudly and looked out of the window. I was being difficult on purpose. It was her friend that was late. This friend from the hospital she’d suddenly found three weeks ago who had a house in the woods that was exactly what we had been looking for. This friend who we were supposed to be very nice to. I knew Sarah had a lot of friends but she’d never actually introduced us to any of them before. I looked at Joe in the rear-view mirror. He had that “the grown-ups are fighting” look on his face so I turned round.

“He’ll be here in a minute, Joe. We’ll get there in plenty of time, don’t worry about it.”

Joe managed a small grin. Joe’s my brother’s boy. I look after him every Christmas; give him a break from the orphanage. Take him out Christmas Eve; drop him back on Boxing Day. He’s doing alright. Well, as alright as he could be, living there. I would take him all year round, I really would, but I’m away all the time in different places and I couldn’t be taking a kid where I’m going. I tell myself that’s why I don’t take him, anyway.

And Sarah, well, I’ve been seeing Sarah off and on for years. We met and discovered we came from similar backgrounds, that we had similar needs. It could be good and it could be awful. We weren't doing well. Pressures of this time of year, it’s always tough. She'd dyed her hair black again which she only seemed to do to let me know she was unhappy. I took another drag off the cigarette and tried to blow the smoke out of the window.

“Here he is, look,” said Sarah and I tapped the steering wheel again.

The old man looked like he could barely walk, shuffling along the pavement to the car. I wondered if I should get out and help him in but decided against it pretty quickly. If he was with us then he could make his own way. He opened the door and sat down heavily in the back. A lock of his hair fell in front of glasses which he smoothed back over his scalp. Sarah gave him a smile that I just knew was designed to make me jealous, which I ignored. I gave him a polite nod, and Joe looked at me to see what he should do before giving him a nod too.

“So...” I started, but the old man waved his hand.

“Just start driving,” he croaked. “I’ll tell you how to get there.”

I did what I was told. No time to lose.

It was a couple of hours on the motorway before we turned off and got onto the narrow country lanes. It got dark early and I knew that we were all anxious to get there. I went as fast as I could but didn’t break any speed limits or do anything that could have been seen as dangerous driving. Thank Christ the snow had been cleared off the roads. The old man looked like he was asleep in the back but occasionally he’d growl an instruction.

Finally we reached it. A dirt road sheltered from snow by massive overhanging trees led to a small cottage by a lake. Sounds idyllic, and the setting was, but it was barely two stories, hardly the glamorous retreat Sarah had made it out to be. I resisted the urge to voice my opinion that it looked like a fucking shithole, and gestured to Joe to keep his mouth shut. He wouldn’t have said anything anyway, he’s a good lad. Sarah helped the old man out of the car and pretended not to notice his hand grazing her arse as she helped him towards the front door.

I got the bags out of the boot and followed them up the front steps. It was nicer inside. The front door opened onto a spacious living room/kitchen sort of combination, and a narrow staircase went up the far wall. It looked cosy.

“I’m upstairs, Sarah too,” the old man said. He saw the look on my face and grinned. “Two bedrooms. Don’t get jealous for no reason. There’s a room for the boy, too. Sarah said you’d be fine on the sofa.”

I nodded. I’m sure he was looking for a reaction but the truth was I didn’t expect to sleep at all. Sarah and the old man went upstairs. When Joe looked for permission to follow I nodded. He took the bags from me and went up after them. When they’d gone I stepped outside again and felt the cold wind coming in off the lake. Its whistling was the only sound I could hear. We really were all alone out here. So much the better.

We ate early. Sandwiches from the supermarket. No one really said anything. No one wanted to be the one to address the issue at hand so we all just sat there, eating in virtual silence. The clock struck nine and we started yawning. Before long, Sarah and the old man had gone upstairs. Joe looked at me sleepily.

“I don’t want to this year. I can’t Do we have to?”

“I know you don’t to, son. But we don’t have a choice, do we? Come on, it’ll all be over in the morning.”

He shook his head and went upstairs. I felt bad. I did. I wish I could have said more to comfort him but there wasn’t really anything to say. I heard some muffled talking from upstairs and the sound of doors closing. I sat down on the sofa and stared out of the window. There was no denying the beauty of this place. The snow on the trees, the ice on the lake. It was like a Christmas card.

I must have fallen asleep because I came to with a start.

She was standing in the middle of the room about two feet away from me. Mum. Looking like she did when she used to drop me off at school, when she used to tell me that if I worked hard I could be anything I wanted to be, not like she did at the end. Smiling at me like nothing was wrong. I took a deep breath.

“It’s starting, isn’t it?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Do we have to? This year, this one year, can’t you leave me alone?”

She shook her head.

“You know that I didn’t mean to, don’t you? And she fucking knows that, doesn’t she?”

Mum didn’t lose that smile.

“She knows. It doesn’t make a difference. She’s coming, Henry, she’ll be here in a minute.”

I couldn’t take it. I never could.

I heard Joe cry out from upstairs. I could smell that smoke that I knew couldn’t possibly be there. I knew what I’d see if I went upstairs. I’d see my brother and his wife wreathed in flames, their skin cooking, holding their hands out and demanding to know how the fire had started. I’d see Joe weeping on the bed, howling how sorry he was, that he hadn’t known what he was doing.

Sarah started to scream. I knew she was seeing a teenage girl in school uniform, clothes sopping wet, mouth wide open trying desperately to get that breath she needed, wanting know why the game hadn’t finished, why Sarah hadn’t stopped holding her down when the other kids had let her go. I’d see Sarah on the floor, screaming that it hadn’t just been her, demanding to know why she wouldn’t leave her alone.

I got up and went to the foot of the stairs. The old man was shuffling backwards out of his bedroom, wearing light blue pyjama bottoms and no shirt, and just before I turned away I swear I saw some long, broken fingers inching their way towards him. He was trying to scream but couldn’t get the sound out. I knew from the look on his face that I never wanted to know what he was looking at.

I ran. Straight out of the front door, down the front steps, and into the woods. I ran as fast as I could for as far as I could before my legs gave out from under me and I went down on my knees. I knew she was there before I looked up.

She was standing in her white nightgown, bare feet. Long brown hair, barely out of her teens. She was rubbing the sleep from her eyes and looked at me, trying to think if she knew me. I had to watch the realisation dawn on her that I was a stranger, that she needed to be frightened. I had to watch her mouth open and see her lower lip start to quiver. That hesitation, her trying to think if she should turn to run or try and reason with me. And I did the same thing I do every year. I tried to tell her that she should be quiet, I didn’t want to hurt her, I was already going. But there was that banging sound from the next room and I was so startled that the finger I had curled around the trigger instinctively flinched. And the red patch blossomed on the front of her nightdress like it always did.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to.”

But that didn’t make a difference. And her expression changed, as it did every year, from terrible sorrow and confusion to the darkest rage. Her eyes went black. Her teeth lengthened and sharpened. Her hands became claws, and she screamed. Or maybe that was me screaming. And she ran at me.

It was morning by the time I managed to drag myself back to the house. Joe was putting the chairs and table back in their right place. The banister on the stairs was completely smashed, and the old man lay on his back in the middle of the living room floor. Sarah was laying a sheet over him as I walked in. I could smell the turkey in the oven. There were three places set on the table. I went over to the corner and found my bag. Joe and Sarah’s presents were in there. I smiled at Sarah as she walked over the kitchen, ruffling Joe's hair as she went.

If you wondering, she did show me my future. I know it’s the same for all of us. The same thing every year. It doesn’t matter where we are. We do this every year.

“Smells good,” I said.


Hello there. I hope you enjoyed my Christmas ghost story.

Yes, so, that wasn't particularly full of Christmas cheer. So I apologise for that. I hope you enjoyed it anyway. This went through a few changes. I wanted to write a dark Christmas story. Initially I thought about doing something a bit more traditionally Christmassy, or Christmas-quirky anyway. Then I had the idea for this and it just stuck. I thought about making it a period costume thing, then I thought about setting it in America, but finally I just thought I'd keep it simple. It's not the setting that's important; it's what happens in it. It was also a lot of fun to write something in first person again, unpleasant as Henry may be.

If you want a good Christmas story, there'll be a great one on Adam Z. Robinson and Max Dorey's Tales from the Red Barn blog on Wednesday. Great stories and great illustrations. That's how those boys do it. Tell your friends.

Things are continuing in much the same way elsewhere, I'm on the verge of a plan. I think. Who knows. Christmas is a good time for me, despite what you might think reading this! I would recommend that you go and see Carol Morley's documentary on Joyce Carol Vincent, Dreams of a Life. Not only is it incredibly moving and sad story, it's such a fascinating reminder of how there's so much we don't know about each other.

Anyway, I hope you all have a lovely Christmas. I'm very grateful to everyone who's read the blog this year and to those of you who've let me know what you've thought. I hope you’ve been enjoying this blog over the past few months. There may be another post between Christmas and New Year, but for now, let me leave you with this:

and the even stranger real-life counterpart

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