As a special seasonal treat we’re very pleased to publish a short story, entitled ‘A Christmas Story’ by the very lovely Byte the Booker, Campaspe Lloyd Jacobs. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
A Christmas Story
Things could have been worse. His face was only covered in a thin film of dirt, and his voice just half gone from shouting “Ho, ho,ho” at indifferent drivers and he’d managed to leave the garage forecourt in time to get home for the match even if he hadn’t washed and changed. But the humiliation of being steamed by a bunch of 12 year old kids for a bucket of chocolate Santas made him want to kick something and when the Hammers scored an own goal in the last minute of injury time something went pop inside him and his right boot smashed through his TV screen with a crash that felt almost heroic. Shards of glass had scratched his DMs and bits had got stuck in the red polyester of his costume, but what the Hell. He was a shambles, as Nikki frequently pointed out. Now he’d given her something else to throw at him: he was forty-five and the only thing he could do well was trash a telly.
There were no more beers in the fridge so he took the last – warm – tin from the kitchen table. The TV still had enough life to give out an angry buzz. He went to turn it off, tripped and spilled half his Stella on the carpet. He swore and stretched out on the sofa with what was left.
When he woke up he had a crick in his neck and a patch of dribble in his nylon beard. The clock on the mantelpiece told him he had three more hours until Nikki would come back from work wanting home to be better, or at least wanting to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. The television stared accusingly at him through the black hole in the middle of the screen so he picked it up, staggered to the window and dropped it out. There was a muted crash as it landed in the scraggy rosebush beneath. He slumped back on the sofa and heard the music they play before the news drifting up from the TV in the flat below. The presenters would be grinning and talking about how much more shopping everyone was doing this year. It was stupid stuff and the people downstairs were probably not listening. Their TV was wasted on them. And he needed it.
The metal fire escape stopped four feet short of the neighbours’ balcony and he turned his ankle as he landed. He bit his tongue. Through the window he could see a tinsel-covered Christmas tree, strings of cards hanging between pictures of woods and waterfalls, a long pink sofa, a frilly lamp, a large silver TV and photos of smiling little girls on the mantle piece; the kind of flat Nikki would have wanted. It made his heart contract to see it. He wouldn’t look at the rest of the room, wouldn’t think of the occupants’ lives. He’d study their window locks. How careless they were – the catch behind the tree was undone. He eased open the window and stepped in behind the tree. It tickled his nose and bits stuck in his beard. The floor beneath the tree was thick with presents but on the chimney the two present socks hung flat and empty. He stepped towards the TV and then heard, behind him, a high-pitched cry. He swivelled round to face his challenger.
Standing in the doorway was a little girl with bright blue eyes, and a broad smile on her strawberry coloured lips. She had brushed blonde hair and a long nightdress covered in roses. If Nikki had seen her she’d have said “Oh Mick, what a cutie,” full of longing and reproach.
“Hello Father Christmas,” she said.
He stepped back towards the window.
“No, don’t go. I need to talk to you,” she said and ran towards him, stopping only two feet away. There was a steely determination in her eyes and he knew he was trapped.
“Please Father Christmas, will you stop giving me presents I have to share with Julia? You always write that we have to share and it is very annoying. Julia takes everything. I don’t mind getting less, Father Christmas, but I would like something from you to be just mine. Please – it can be anything!”
She started tugging at his red trousers. Her head was as high as his knee and that was where she grabbed him. If she pulled any harder the filthy tracksuit he had on underneath would start to show. He gripped his red trousers and backed away but she wouldn’t let go.
“Did you get my letter?” She insisted.
He gave up trying to escape and bent down to meet her glittering eyes. “I get so many. Tell me, little girl. What is your name?”
“Don’t you know that? How are you going to get the presents right if you don’t even know who lives here?”
“Well there are two of you….”
She sighed and raised her head a few degrees. “I am Bella.”
“Bella, of course. Very good to meet you.”
“Here,” she darted to the chimney and came back with a card. “I did this picture of you.” She looked sideways at him as though pretending to be shy. “Sorry. I made the tummy too big.”
“I’ve lost a bit of weight recently,” he paused, “what with all the running around to get things ready.”
“So which is your favourite reindeer?”
That was a teaser. Why did children have to rank everything: favourite colours, animals…?
“I like them all.”
She pouted, disappointed but not surprised, as though she was used to grown ups missing the point.
He had a moment of inspiration. “Maybe Blixen.”
She looked puzzled. “Is he new?”
“Umm. Yes. Brand new.”
“They need some carrots.” She looked at the chimney and scowled. “My parents haven’t put them out. Or your port and mince pie.” Now it was his turn to smile.
“You’d better go and get those mince pies.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “No. You might disappear, and I’ve been trying to meet you for a long time. I’ll get you some port.” He shifted his weight and edged himself towards the window as she opened a cabinet on the other side of the room, put a glass on top of it and peered at the bottles inside.
“There’s one here that says t-a-w-n-y. Is that OK?”
“You don’t have whisky?”
“I thought you always had port,” she said, looking put out. “You look.”
He loped over, shaking his head and trying to throw convivial, richer tones into his voice. “Everyone gives me port. The truth is I’m tired of it.”
She grinned, pleased to be in on the secret and he felt a new warmth creep up his spine. He looked into the cabinet and saw at the back the glinting top of a bottle of Johnny Walker black label. His heart swelled at the thought of the burning liquor running down his throat. He went for the bottle and somehow overreached. Everything wobbled, the cabinet tipped and the glass slipped. It seemed to slide so slowly he should’ve been able to catch it but his limbs wouldn’t move. All he could do was watch it fall on the hearth and shatter in small bright fragments.
The little girl let out a loud, horrified “Oh No!”
From the other side of the door came the sound of adult feet. He looked despairingly at the window. It was too far. He ducked behind the sofa and Bella followed him, putting her finger to her lips. A giggle escaped her, light and self contained as a bubble.
“Quiet now,” he whispered, his heart pounding.
She smiled, a dimple winking in her cheek. Wanting to bring it back, he tried his old party trick, the one that used to make his little sister laugh: waggling his ears. Two dimples appeared and she reached up to hold his ears still.
The door opened and they both froze. He looked under the sofa and saw a pair of blue towelling slippers walk into the centre of the room. A woman’s voice shouted:
“Tom, what have you been up to? You weren’t meant to drink Father Christmas’s port yet!” Mick broke out in a sweat. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want the wearer of the slippers to find him; most of all he didn’t want her to say something that denied the existence of Father Christmas. He couldn’t bear for Bella to think him a fraud. Her eyes would fill with tears, her lips would quiver and her body assume the heavy droop of disappointment, betrayal even. She was happy now, thinking that she alone had met the magic man and held his waggling ears.
The woman sighed and picked up the shards of glass. Her slippers slapped against the soles of her feet as she walked away. When she was gone he jumped up. “Bella, I’ve got to go. Can you keep this a secret – even from Julia?”
She nodded as if to say she understood how important this was.
“Yes but don’t forget the present just for me.”
He bent towards her upturned face and wiggled his ears. She kissed him in the middle of each cheek and gave him a hug.
He didn’t answer so she took hold of his ears and tugged at them, her nails deep in the eczema patches at the back, making them bleed. She pulled his head from side to side as roughly as if he were made of stuffing and said, “you must, you must, you must…”
Mick pulled away with a scowl. “Get off my ears, you little fool.”
Bella’s eyes bulged with shock and hurt and she looked down, hunching her shoulders and digging her toes into the rug. It made his chest feel tight. He touched her hair gently.
“Sorry Petal, I’ve got soreness behind my ears, that’s all. You run along now. Happy Christmas.”
She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “You smell of beer.”
He nodded, penitent.
“You’ll remember to bring me my present?”
“Yes,” he whispered, trying to sound gentle and authoritative. “Now go to bed.” She fixed him with appraising eyes and he felt sweat prick at his temples. At last she nodded, turned and walked out of the room.
Mick got to the window in two strides and climbed out, bashing his anklebone on the sill but managing to shut the window and crouch out of sight before the sitting room door opened.
He heard a man’s voice call out: “Janice, we don’t have any more paper or labels. The Father Christmas stuff will have to go in as is. It doesn’t matter what goes where. They’ll just share everything, Yeah?”
Mick felt himself flush. Poor Bella would feel Father Christmas didn’t listen or care. They had no proper sense of their responsibilities, these parents. Bella deserved better. He inspected the contents of his pockets: Bella’s card, a cigarette lighter and a chocolate Santa with an Esso symbol on his belt buckle. It was soft around the edges but better than nothing. Mick listened for the sound of departing feet. Then he threw up the window and jumped in feeling a younger, better man. There was a scrap of paper on the drinks cabinet and a silver marker pen on the floor. He didn’t write well, but Bella probably didn’t read well either. He gripped the pen between thumb and forefinger and wrote:
FOR BELLA, LOVE FATHER CHRISTMAS.
He extracted the chocolate figure from his pocket, careful not to squeeze it out of shape with his fingers and he put it together with the message on the mantle piece above the present socks. He grinned at the thought of Bella’s delight in finding how she was singled out. He shimmied up the fire escape to his sitting room feeling a million dollars.
He put Bella’s card in the middle of his mantle piece and studied the picture. The scribbled beard, the small blue eyes too close together, even the thin wiggly line of the mouth were all quite like him, if he smiled, if he made the effort to think about someone else. But it wasn’t just Bella that needed him. There was Nikki. He’d let her down badly again. Still, at least today’s wages meant he could take her out to dinner and maybe Bella’s portrait of him would make her smile.
Campaspe also writes using the name Clare Jacob, her novel ‘Orphelia in Pieces’ was published by Short Books in 2011 and can be purchased via her site www.clarejacob.com