One More for Christmas Dinner (2009)
By DAVID BARNETT
Here comes Poe, tramping through the snow at the dying of the day, his passage along the slush-covered pavement kept on even keel by the ballast of the full-to-groaning bags-for-life that dangle from each woollen-clad hand.
Bags-for-life! The irony was not lost on Poe as he hefted each cotton sack to better distribute the weight. Bags-for-life! But he had never got on very well with the plastic carrier bags, hated the way they stretched and ripped, their handles cutting into his hands even through the knitted gloves he always wore, whether snow or sunshine, rain or wind.
Consider Poe. A man was never better named, some might say. Consider that tombstone brow, the sparse hair the colour of ashes, the sallow complexion, the nose that hung from his face like a death sentence delivered by a stone-faced judge. Consider the thin line of a mouth beneath that nose, straight and true like the final layer of bricks sealing a man into a cellar, say. Consider the eyes, grey and dry, very much like the afterlife might look.
No, never was a man better named than Poe, said many who thought they knew him. His name and his manner sat together like tar and feathers, and spoke of tell-tale hearts and purloined letters, of pits and pendulums, of premature burials, perverse imps and murders.
Oh, yes, of murders.
But those that thought they knew Poe, didn’t at all. They would be hard-pressed to tell you his first name. They would not know how his house was decorated – though they could have guessed at funereal greys and oppressive blacks, of thick drapes that let in no light, and hard, high-backed chairs adorned with dusty antimacassars, on which rested an ashen-head that contemplated the agreeable darkness.
They spoke behind his back, pointed at him as he hugged the shadows in summer and was most active in the early dusk of winter. Children dared each other to run up his cracked path and tap on his door, and made up rhymes and songs about what he would do should he wrench open that door of flaking black paint and make a grab for the child too slow to flee his outstretched claws. Double glazing salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses alike shunned the gate that hung on one rusty hinge, and no cat would make a toilet of his barren garden. Poe has always lived alone, they whispered to each other. And that’s the way he likes it.
Oh, the arrogance of the ignorant! Just because Poe was not like them, did not dress as they did nor exhibited loathsomely-fake bonhomie, they felt they knew the measure of him, and what they thought they knew for certain was here is a man who hates Christmas.
How wrong can fools be? Poe, despite his demeanour, despite the lonely gait with which he walked through the streets, despite the hunched shoulders and the downcast afterlife-eyes… despite all this, Poe loved Christmas. Poe lived for Christmas. Poe was the most Christmassy of them all. There. That would have shocked ‘em. That would have shut ‘em up. Poe loved Christmas, and that was that.
Here is Poe, pausing at his gate, the gate which hangs on one rusty hinge. Some wag, be it a child or one of his neighbours, has hung a tiny plastic wreath on the rotten wood, plastic holly and cheap red beads for berries. He can feel the weight of their stares on his back, lurking behind their curtains, behind the flickering electric candles and sprayed-on snow. Look at Poe! They’ll be sniggering to each other. Just look at Old Man Poe! What’s he make of that, then! Miserable old Poe! About time he lightened up and remembered it was Christmas! Bet he’ll snatch it off and throw it to the floor, old Poe! Bet he’ll stamp on it with his boots! Bet he’ll say Bah, Humbug!
Poe touches the plastic holly leaves with his woollen-clad fingers, and the thin, cemented line beneath his judgmental nose wobbles slightly. No-one can see, of course, and even if they did, would they know? Would they know that miserable old Poe, who hates Christmas, just smiled?
He leaves the wreath where it is, and gingerly opens the gate, pushing a pile of fresh-snowfall towards the fence as he does so. He lays his bags-for-life on the step while he fishes into his black overcoat for his keys, withdrawing the immense bunch like a gaoler. Five locks there are on Poe’s door, from the top to the bottom. Not that anyone would want to break in. Not that he’d have anything worth stealing. He opens them in order, top to bottom, and picks up his bags before the slush can soak through the cotton bottoms, and steps into his abode.
They are right about many things, those that talk of Poe though they do not know the first thing about him. They are right that his home is dark and grey, they are right that he has thick curtains to protect his privacy. What they are wrong about is what goes on behind those thick curtains. In winter he does not bother to draw them back, and after depositing his bags on the linoleum floor of his kitchen he goes around his windows, rattling the handles to ensure they are properly locked, and arranging the drapes so that not so much as a crack of light from within his house can be seen from the street. And then, only when he has completed his ritual and can be sure that he is cocooned within his dark house, does Poe switch on his Christmas lights.
Was a more festive display ever seen? Not in that street, for sure. For all that his neighbours believed they embodied the spirit of Christmas, with their Christmas cards pushed through the doors of neighbours they never so much as nodded to for the rest of the year, for all the plastic toys they spent their plastic money on, for all the dancing animatronic snowmen in their gardens and signs demanding Santa stop here in their windows, for all that they would never have guessed what lay behind Poe’s thick, dark curtains.
He didn’t buy a real tree, though he would have loved a Norway spruce or a Nordman fir, a Fraser or a Lodgepole Pine. He couldn’t, because what would they think, to see him dragging a seven-footer up his path and through his variously-locked door? They would gape and stare, nudge each other and think he had finally gone mad. So he made do with his artificial tree that had served him well over many years, festooned with the baubles and gewgaws he had bought, in ones and twos, surreptitiously at the market or in pound shops, secreting them in the pockets of his overcoat over the years until they were safely home and he could bring them out, the reflected light making his eyes shine as he placed them reverently on the branches of his tree. Tinsel, there was, in red, gold and silver. Candy canes and biscuits, which he baked himself every mid-December. Little foil-wrapped boxes, hung by bows. And the lights! Seven strings of ‘em, white and red, static or racing through one of a half-dozen different programmes. Now, with his windows tightly insulated by his thick curtains, Poe hit the switches and they burst into life, Christmassy comets that chased each other around the tree that dominated his living room. He allowed himself a minute to watch them before returning to the kitchen, to put away his purchases. Turkey there was, and sprouts. Carrots and gravy, Yorkshire puddings and stuffing balls, pigs-in-blankets and parsnips. He didn’t stint on Christmas dinner, not Poe. Pudding with brandy sauce, and Christmas cake, and five different cheeses. A nice white wine for chilling, and a pudding wine for afters. Sherry for while he cooked, and port to sip with his cheese.
Poe loved Christmas dinner.
Those who thought they knew Poe but didn’t weren’t all cruel and barbed, though. There were those who pitied him, especially at Christmas. But they were just as misguided as the others. They thought Poe to be alone, and therefore lonely. Which wasn’t the case at all.
He had no family, had no-one that might be called a friend in the usual sense, but he wasn’t alone. Just last Christmas there had been the man who had come to talk to him about satellite television. The year before there had been a plumber, called by Poe with a tale of a dripping tap. The year before that, an insurance salesman had chanced his arm, on Christmas Eve, and was most surprised to find Poe receptive. Before that, a man who had telephoned about a conservatory. The previous year, a lady to whose advertisement Poe had responded, inquiring as to the possibility of cleaning work on a regular basis. Before that, a man who wanted to lay him a Tarmac drive.
No, not alone at all, especially not at Christmas.
Poe had just finished putting the food into his refrigerator when there was a hesitant knocking on his black front door. His thin mouth did that thing again, that smile, and he went to answer it.
There was a young man there in a suit, a waterproof top-coat pulled tight against the snow, which was falling with renewed vigour. He carried a briefcase and blinked at Poe. “Mr Poe?”
Poe nodded. The man dug in his pocket and produced a laminated card bearing his photograph. “I’m Paul. From Financial Solutions Expedited Limited.”
Poe nodded again and stepped back to allow the man in. Paul said, “I must say, I’m surprised you wanted an appointment on Christmas Eve. Most people don’t want the extra bother…”
“It is no bother,” said Poe. Consider Poe’s voice, the first time we have heard it. Sonorous and heavy, like air escaping from an opened tomb. Thick with possibilities, potential. Unnerving, yes. “Through here, please.”
Paul followed Poe to the kitchen, and looked at the space that, by rights, should have held a table. Poe said, “I have moved it. In preparation for Christmas.”
Paul nodded. “Are you…” he looked around, reconsidering. “Do you go away, for Christmas?”
“I have people for Christmas,” said Poe. He led Paul to the living room, and the sight of the Christmas tree, in all its blazing glory, must have reassured him somewhat. He smiled and took off his coat, laying it over the back of the sofa.
“Well,” said Paul, opening his briefcase. “We have done some preliminary work and…” he paused again. “I must say, Mr Poe, that we generally deal with people who have, shall we say, a less than perfect credit rating. You seem to have an impeccable record.”
Poe nodded, inviting him to continue. Paul said. “I mean, our loans are very useful for many people, but the interest rates, because we do lend to people who are not always in possession of as good a credit rating as yourself…”
He tailed off as Poe went to the kitchen. Poe said, “Please do keep talking. I am merely putting on the kettle. Would you like a tea?”
“Lovely,” said Paul. “Anyway… you have, of course, been pre-approved for a loan against your property. You said it was mortgage free?”
“Been in my family for three generations,” called Poe from the kitchen.
“Well,” said Paul, “based on our initial valuation, you may well be in line for an approved loan of quite a significant amount. I’ve done some calculations which I’d like to show you.”
“Lovely,” said Poe, making Paul jump. He had returned from the kitchen and was standing behind him. “But I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Poe hit him on the head five times with a length of lead pipe he kept under the kitchen sink. The plumber had brought it with him a few years ago, and it had been Poe’s preferred method of despatching his Christmas visitors ever since. He had previously used a knife, but that had often made a dreadful mess on the sofa.
Poe went to wash the pipe and return it to its home under the kitchen sink, and then returned to the living room to survey the dead body of Paul from Financial Solutions Expedited Limited. He put his hands under Paul’s armpits and began to drag him to the little door under the stairs that led down to the cellar.
Poe really did love Christmas dinner.
Poe did not sleep very well on Christmas Eve. He never did. He was as excitable as a child. He woke early, before dawn, and put on a vinyl record of Christmas carols sung by a choir in a cathedral in a place he had never visited. The record was very old. The boys would be men, now. Some of them would be dead. After taking his Christmas bath he went down to the cellar to prepare. The table which should have sat in the kitchen was there, painstakingly taken to pieces and reassembled in the cold cellar some days before. He had already dressed the table with a festive cloth and a centrepiece of holly, mistletoe, pine cones and a large, white church candle. The body of Paul was slumped awkwardly in one corner. He would bury the remains later, of course. That was always his Boxing Day task. But for now, it was time to be getting on with the business at hand. Christmas dinner.
He toiled all morning and into the afternoon, did Poe. After so many years he was adept at getting Christmas dinner just so. The pigs-in-blankets were always just the right side of crunchy, the turkey was always moist, the sprouts green and cooked in a little white wine. The smells wafted through the house, and he played his carols again.
Dish by dish, Poe carried Christmas dinner down to the cellar, and placed it on the table beneath the stark light of the bare bulb. He took a box of matches and lit the candle in his centrepiece, and arranged mismatched chairs all around the table. Expectantly, he sat at the head of the table, and waited.
They came one by one, materialising out of the darkness, pale and diffuse. Here was the plumber, the satellite television man. Here was the cleaning lady, the insurance salesman and the man who laid Tarmac drives, who was Irish and always told good jokes.
Poe’s thin mouth twitched and he finally broke into what those who didn’t know him would recognise as an actual smile as they all took their places around the table.
“One more for Christmas dinner,” beamed Poe, and the body of Paul in the corner twitched and gave up its burden. The ashen-faced spirit of the young man from the loan company looked down at its cold body in the corner, blinked at the gathering and then, at Poe’s insistence, sat down in the empty chair.
“God bless us every one,” said Poe, and began to carve the turkey.