Bill let go of the curtains, shielding his home from the fog, the night, and the winking lights. And Father Christmas in the middle of his yearly visit.
Even with his new glasses, Bill Reid wasn’t sure what he saw hanging from the bedroom window of his neighbour’s house. Fog had clung to the streets for the entire day and while it had thinned marginally in the short time since sunset, enough remained to mute the pavements and the road with a grey blanket. Lurking behind the murk, the twinkling lights in windows flashed. He blinked a few times and realized he was looking at yet another Christmas decoration to go with the reindeer, the snowmen and the plastic sledge. Hanging from the window, linked to a short ladder, Father Christmas looked to be in the process of clambering up the wall of number seventeen.
Bill laughed at the crass sight. He didn’t know who lived in the house, only that it was a couple with at least three kids who’d moved in about two weeks ago. He’d lived on Oak Avenue for twenty years. Plenty long enough to know what the people in the surrounding homes would think. Lights and trees were fine. More, they were expected as long as the lights weren’t ostentatious. A six-foot Santa apparently performing a break and enter under cover of night wasn’t one for Oak Avenue.
Bill laughed again. Sue heard him from the kitchen and called through.
“What’s going on in there?”
“Come and have a look at this.”
A lone supermarket delivery van passed. Two days before Christmas and it felt like the world was more than ready for its annual close down. The road was never busy with traffic at the best of times. Today, a Friday, it looked to Bill like a Sunday afternoon.
Sue joined him and peered through the window. She smelled of dinner and perfume. They were having John and Cathy from next door around for drinks later; he’d been looking forward to it all day.
“What is that? Father Christmas?” Sue asked.
“Yep. Nice, isn’t it?”
Thanks to a nearby street light and the illumination from the lights in the ground floor window, blurry oranges, and winking bulbs showed enough despite the fog. A fat figure dressed in the standard red and white suit (although that red was bleached like a bone); a heavy sack slung over one shoulder, and a plastic hand clinging to the ladder that dangled from the closed window. Although Bill couldn’t be sure, he thought Father Christmas was straining to peer up at the window and the last foot or so of the ladder.
“Yes, lovely.” Sue eyed him. “No, you can’t.”
“Can’t what?” He knew.
“Get one for the house.”
“Really? It’s great. I want one.” Bill stamped his foot in mock anger as if he was ten and not in his mid-fifties.
“It’s tacky and ugly and the entire road will hate it.”
“That’s why I want one. Look at his bulging sack.”
Sue laughed at the entendre and kissed his cheek. Again, he smelled her and loved her with a fire to warm against cold Decembers. “Get ready. They’ll be here soon.”
Sue returned to the kitchen. Bill let go of the curtains, shielding his home from the fog, the night, and the winking lights. And Father Christmas in the middle of his yearly visit.
“That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Bill looked up from the paper and his toast. Lisa stood near the windows, facing the front garden, the road and the opposite houses. She breathed on the window, fogging it, then wiped the condensation clear.
In the daylight, the Father Christmas was much clearer. The hat with bells hanging from the tip; the white fluff of his belt; the polished black of his plastic boots; the bag that looked ready to burst with its overflowing presents. The sheer size of the thing. It was there for the world to see. And by world, Bill knew the only people who mattered were his middle-class neighbours. The local Facebook page would be going bonkers.
“I like it, but your mother won’t let me get one,” Bill told his daughter. She pulled a face. Whether it was at the suggestion of Father Christmas stuck to the wall of their house or at the decoration itself, Bill didn’t know. He loved the girl with a force that was occasionally frightening – even after nineteen years – but he sometimes wondered if he really knew her. Lisa did have a sense of humour; she was sharp and quick and destined for great things in a way he had never been at her age, but Christ, everything was black and white to the girl.
But it was nine on a Saturday morning. He had his paper, his toast and nothing bigger planned for Christmas Eve other than a couple of pints at lunchtime and the preparing for the family arrival tomorrow.
“I can’t imagine why,” Lisa said. “Other than the fact it’s tacky as hell and sentimental and a bit shit, really.”
“Just like Christmas.” He said it before she could.
“No.” She dragged out the syllable for a second too long and Bill smiled around his toast. Sue joined them with her coffee. It had been a later night than usual with drinks with their friends and then an unexpected hour in the bedroom. She looked wonderful.
“I’ve already told him he can’t have one,” Sue said to Lisa.
“Spoilsport,” Bill muttered.
“There’ll be a petition to take it down by lunchtime.” Lisa indicated the nearest houses to number seventeen. “They’re probably ready to move out. Or call the police.”
It was a joke and Bill knew it. Still, there was an edge to his daughter’s tone he didn’t care for. He heard the humour; he also heard a slight sneering. A judgement. For the people at seventeen with their tacky decorations, perhaps. Or for the middle-class road. Or for Christmas.
“What’s the problem with it? The people who put it up like it. It’s a laugh, isn’t it?” Bill said.
“It’s cheesy. It’s supposed to be ironic, but it’s just. . . crap. Like that guy you listen to on the radio in the afternoons who’s deliberately not funny. Like not being funny is actually funny.” Lisa pointed to the dangling Santa. “That’s Christmas.” She smiled. “Crap, really.”
“No presents for you, young lady.” Sue sat beside Bill and raised her breakfast to his. “A toast to your toast.”
“A toast to your toast,” he echoed.
“Old people.” Lisa returned to her bedroom where Bill suspected she’d be online in about three seconds to decry her parents to the world. Along with Christmas.
Really, what was the problem? People celebrated; they had a drink and a laugh; they saw friends and neighbours and they were warm against the dying year. If they had to stick up some garish decorations to do so, then where was the harm?
The dim sound of tinkling bells came to their living room. Bill looked up, aware the windows were closed. Across the street, Father Christmas hung from his place on the wall of the house.
Father Christmas had turned around to face straight into Bill’s living room.
With the light from the downstairs hall bouncing up the stairs to meet the illumination from the second floor, Bill ascended the stairs without any shadows walking with him. As he reached the hallway, he heard Sue flush the downstairs toilet and smiled. He could have waited for her to finish instead of coming upstairs to the bathroom, but the wine they’d had over dinner along with a few bottles of Bishop’s Finger didn’t want to hang around. He padded past Lisa’s bedroom door, heard the murmur of her voice and a reply from whoever she was talking to, through her computer, and took care of business in the bathroom. Washing his hands, he studied his face in the mirror, not liking the way the light bleached his features or how the sliver of illumination carved a square below the window. It didn’t take much imagination to see the winking flash of Christmas lights inside that white square.
It was just one of those things. It doesn’t mean anything.
He could believe that quite easily. Imagination was fine for writers or creative people and while he loved his books, Bill knew he was long past letting imagination dictate what he saw or believed. The world was made of solid things. His family, his home, his friends, his job in the Council. Christmas.
A phantom ache clung to his elbow from where he’d jerked and knocked his arm into Sue’s plate, spilling her toast to the carpet. She’d cried out in shock, then asked him what was wrong. He’d coughed hard, deeply, eyes blurring for a couple of seconds before he could focus and there was Father Christmas, clinging to the wall opposite, surrounded by lights and reindeer and those inflatable snowmen. St. Nick with his sack thrown over one shoulder, his body fixed to the ladder and free hand straining for the bedroom window. Facing number seventeen and most definitely not staring into Bill’s living room.
“I had a twinge,” Bill said to his reflection. It was what he’d told Sue. A twinge in his stomach as if he’d been about to be ill. It passed, he told her, but he’d go to the loo just in case. Sitting on the toilet, staring at the wall, he’d taken a few minutes to jettison the childish terror of a sodding Christmas decoration moving when it couldn’t possibly do so and then returned to his breakfast, his wife, his world of normality.
Close to twelve hours later, the quiet of Christmas Eve pleasant in the warmth of his home, it was a welcome knowledge to know it had just been one of those things.
You haven’t looked out of the window much, have you?
No. He had not. While he hadn’t gone out of his way to avoid the view of the faint mist on the road and in the gardens, he had drawn the curtains a good hour before the sun went down in its red glory. And when he’d gone out at lunch to meet his friends for a pint, he’d marched in a straight line, breath puffing, the chill icy in his nose and chest. Eyes ahead. Focus ahead. His speed that of a younger man until the stabbing pain in his side forced him to remember he was in his fifties and it was time to slow down.
He left the bathroom. He and Sue would have another drink, then bed. With everyone descending on the house by eleven at the latest the next morning, they needed sleep and time to prepare for his brothers, sister, their spouses and kids, and his parents. This was his last chance at peace until probably seven the following evening.
Bill slowed as he neared Lisa’s bedroom. She was still on her computer, her voice carrying through the closed door. He paused there, wishing she had met up with some of her friends for a drink, but she wasn’t a pub kind of kid. Few of her friends were. Their lives were online, not face to face.
“Yeah. Aunts, uncles, cousins I don’t know.”
Bill listened. Whatever reply Lisa’s friend offered wasn’t clear.
“Well, yeah. I mean I know them, but I don’t have anything to do with them apart from Christmas, you know?”
Downstairs, Sue was in the kitchen. Probably heating another glass of mulled wine and digging through their copious supplies of beer for him.
“Yeah. It’s going to be hell. Grandparents who must be about three hundred by now; all my inbred aunts and uncles. If I can get out before dinner, I’ll come round.”
“Inbred?” Bill whispered.
“What?” Lisa’s annoyance was as clear as her surprise. “Not even for like half an hour?”
Her friend couldn’t get away from family, it seemed.
“Shit.” Lisa sounded much younger than nineteen in that second. Again, Bill wondered if he knew his child as much as he loved her. There was actual disgust here; not even something as simple as disliking the day. Disgust at the whole thing.
“Yeah, I don’t like it.”
Bill sagged, disheartened. It was as if she was agreeing with him, not her friend.
“Like why this one day? Why not meet up with people whenever you want? Why wait for the same day as everyone else? Shit, why do it at all? It’s the same every year. Like, literally the same every year except all my relatives are older and definitely more boring.” She laughed. “Definitely more inbred. I swear, the stuff they get up to out there in the country.”
Bill leaned on the wall, listening to Lisa go on with her mocking just on the wrong side of good-natured. The country. Old. Same every year. Same every year. Same every year.
The terms clung to his heart, bringing a dismay that pained his stomach. Lisa had always been cynical and that was okay. He could live with that. But this was ugly. It was the same judgement she’d given to the garish decorations festooning number seventeen. Judge the decorations; judge the people who celebrated Christmas to such an extent.
Which meant judging her family.
Bill left Lisa to her conversation, returning to Sue and the lights on their tree. They watched TV; they laughed at repeats of Morecambe and Wise, and Bill sipped brandy an hour later while Sue found a mixture of Christmas songs. Nat King Cole followed Bing Crosby while Bill sang quietly to Slade, Wizzard, and Shakin’ Stevens with a humour he did not feel. After the carols from King’s, Sue suggested bed. They hadn’t heard or seen anything from Lisa all evening; she’d be asleep by now.
“I’ll be up in a bit.” Bill shook his brandy glass slightly. The liquid caught the glimmer of the tree lights. He’d filled it with a liberal splash ten minutes before, not admitting to himself he’d deliberately timed it. Because he knew Sue would soon suggest turning in.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yes. I’ll finish this and be up. Keep the bed warm for me.”
She smiled and he loved her. Thirty years and that love was in their home and their curtains sealed against the embers of the dead year.
Sue yawned hugely. “All right, but don’t be long. Big day tomorrow.”
He knew it. The inbred and the old would join them to celebrate light and love and family.
Within minutes, he was alone, brandy in hand, beside the lights on the tree. The TV was on, showing some ancient film, the volume close to non-existent. Floorboards creaked overhead; the faint light from their bedroom reached halfway down the stairs. It went off. His wife in their bed, doubtless asleep in two minutes if the mulled wine was anything to go on. Lisa, up there either still decrying family and Christmas, or also sleeping. Dreaming of days that didn’t involve forced fun and festivities. The same every year.
Bill drank, eyes on the screen, attention elsewhere. He’d have to speak to Lisa at some point. Not tomorrow, though. Let the family meet and laugh for the day, then have a word. Point out that just because sociability wasn’t her strong point, that didn’t mean judging those who did want to celebrate the day was okay. Nor was mocking her extended family. Nor was any of it.
Bill shifted, niggled by doubt. Something in those words – same every year – stuck to him like. . .like Father Christmas was stuck to the wall. Reaching for access. Weighed down with his bag of presents or whatever was in his sack. Except Bill thought his own weight wasn’t anything as fun as presents.
It was a begrudging admittance Lisa was right.
It was the same every year. Same people. Same conversations. Same music and TV and routine and routine and routine. Anything meaningful in the day was lost and buried by repeats and ironically bad music and over-indulgence. Christmas was just one big echo sounding out of his childhood into adult life and then into the grave.
Soft bells tinkled.
Bill’s neck turned his head. He had nothing to do with it. He stared at the curtains and heard the gentle tinkle again. The sort of sound one might hear from the movement of a hat with jaunty bells attached.
Because that’s what it was.
The whisper didn’t help. If anything, the tired hiss of his voice was an invasion in the tranquillity of Christmas Eve night.
As his neck forced his head to turn, his legs took over. He stood, still with brandy in hand, and lurched to the window.
Curtains parted, Bill gazed at the houses and gardens shrouded in a thicker mist than earlier.
Father Christmas stood in the middle of the road. He’d descended from the wall of number seventeen, trudged through the frozen earth and black ice, between the inflatable snowmen and reindeer to stand in full view of Bill’s living room. But stand wasn’t the right word for the hunched thing outside. It was too old to stand straight, too weighed down by those centuries and repeated nights trudging from year to year, so it hunched over, head twisted to peer at him with blue lights for eyes. Winking lights, cold instead of warm on a tree or hung in a living room window. This was Christmas of distant time before the houses and cars. Christmas of mud and no sun, of woodlands and hunting not for tradition on Boxing Day, but to eat. To survive. Because that was life. Survive in the killing and blood, or die in the ice and the wind. Harvest in the spring and the summer; hide in the long months of the winter when the wolves howled in the woods and the night never ended and this bent, gnarled creature was the creation born from ever-present fear of the snow and the freeze. A story told by parents to comfort children with promises of gifts and a future beyond the woods and the fog caressing the hedges and leaves as it lay on the detached houses and garages here on Oak Avenue.
This walking Christmas was that story, birthed by people in the ground for a thousand years and a thousand more before then. This stunted goblin with its sack ready to spill its toys to the ice, with its cold fire for eyes and its mouth open to reveal jagged teeth and a pit into its belly. It was outside Bill’s Christmas of family and light and food. And it was hungry.
Whatever gifts Santa had brought shifted inside the giant sack, the movement feeble but still discernible.
The curtain fell from Bill’s hand, shutting out the mist and the silence.
“I did not see that.”
It was all he could think to say, all the words his tongue and lips would create. He swayed but managed to stay upright, and swallowed a large mouthful of brandy. The burn helped to bring him back, and he took another.
Lisa, the day tomorrow; his private wish for more time like tomorrow despite his advancing years and knowing there were fewer Christmases ahead than behind – they were the issues that mattered. The vision outside was as imagined as Scrooge seeing Marley and then blaming it on indigestion.
Scrooge did see Marley, Dad.
A second away from crying out, Bill flung the curtains wide.
The mist had thickened in the last moment and while the soft grey obscured much of number seventeen, it left the road open. The empty road.
“Christ.” Bill sat and placed his almost empty glass down. Way too much indulgence today. He’d watch his intake over dinner tomorrow and into the evening – food as well as drink – and he’d suggest to Sue they take down the tree and decorations by the twenty-seventh. Let Christmas sleep for another year.
The floorboards overhead creaked.
Bill glanced at the ceiling, unsure why the sound disturbed him. Fingers trembling more than he cared to admit, he reached for his brandy. Then stopped.
The creak had come from the corner of the room, not directly overhead where Sue slept. And in the corner, the fire they rarely used, the fire mostly forgotten in the age of central heating and radiators, was a dark pit with the long since disused chimney breast stretching to the roof of his home.
Another creak. A shifting. A loose patter of brickwork.
Bill stared at the unlit pit, fully aware he didn’t have time to cross the room and ignite the flames before those two blue lights brightened the fake coal. Before Christmas came to him.
All he could do was hope his body would be alone in the hunched thing’s bag when it left his home to set out for the snow blanketing the world.
Luke Walker has been writing horror and dark thrillers for most of his life after finding a copy of Lovecraft’s stories that his brother left in the bathroom. His books include Ascent and Pandemonium.
He lives in England with his wife, cats, too many bad films and not enough books.