Christmas Blues (2008)
By DAVID BARNETT
She had died at Christmas, and every Christmas after that a little piece of him died as well.
Sometimes it was a piece of him that he barely noticed or recognised, and thus didn’t really miss. Other times it was a much bigger piece, torn from him with great, wracking sobs of loss. Yet other pieces were just as important, but more slyly excised, so he only became aware that they were missing when a once-favourite wine they had discovered together soured to vinegar on his tongue, or a movie they used to watch and laugh like drains at suddenly left him cold and numb.
She had died at Christmas, and of course he dreaded Christmas. He never stopped thinking about her, but Christmas was when his loss was most keenly felt. Easter was no worse than any other time of year. Valentine’s Day was easier to ignore than he had expected, though she never put much store in it anyway. Bank holidays passed unnoticed, the summer solstice just another day. Hallowe’en, with its threat of the dead returned, roused in him foolish hope which in turn made him angry, and he shied away from the fizzes and pops of Bonfire Night, heralding as they did with rainbow flashes the onset of the festive season.
She had died at Christmas. A dark night, an icy road, a distracted driver. The wrong people, the wrong place, the wrong time. The how of it he didn’t care about any more. The why of it he would never understand. The when of it…
She had died at Christmas, and as a result her death and the season were ever entwined. He could not remember a time when Christmas and the gaping, aching, missing of her did not stroll hand in hand. They had had Christmases together, of course; eight of them. And he had had Christmases before her, many of them. Half a lifetime of them. But they had become like the Christmases depicted on cheap greetings cards, unfamiliar pictures of strange yuletides, rendered in a palette of too many browns and greys. He knew what they were, what they were meant to be, but they had nothing to do with him. It was the five years without her that defined Christmas for him now. He did not celebrate Christmas any more; he commemorated it, just as the old soldiers marked Armistice Day a handful of weeks earlier, moving slowly in silent contemplation along the grey streets of their lives, pondering what grand design or celestial dice-playing allowed them to shuffle forward with the flow of time while the passage of friends and comrades had been brought, abruptly, to a halt under skies just as grey as theirs but at the same time indescribably foreign.
She had died at Christmas, and even now her death cast a pall over the house that dissuaded all but the most sherry-fortified carollers, drew a black veil across his door that kept friends and family away, fearful that his bereavement, minted afresh every Christmas, was perhaps catching.
He worked for the kind of company that closed down over the festive period, giving him two whole weeks to creep like a shadow around the house that had once rung with laughter, had once glittered with fairy lights, had resounded each morning with the slap of cards on the doormat, had seen streams of well-wishers, friends and family flood through, bearing gifts and smiles. The flood had slowed to a trickle and eventually dried up completely; the fairy lights had lain tangled and dormant in their box under the stairs for many years now.
He still received invitations, some half-hearted, some wholly heartfelt. He declined them all, politely but firmly. After his last day at work he always went to the supermarket and bought enough food for the fortnight, among his haul a frozen turkey dinner for one, to be consumed, silently, on Christmas Day in front of the Queen’s Speech. His annus horribilis had stretched to five years now, but some habits clung to him, or he clung to them. A glass of port before bed on Christmas Eve, a Stollen loaf for Boxing Day. And, on Christmas morning, he would always take out the gift-wrapped present he had never been allowed to give to her, and place it on the kitchen table while he fixed a breakfast of bagels and scrambled eggs, A Rat Pack Christmas on the CD player, Dean Martin singing Christmas Blues on repeat until he had finished his breakfast, packed away the never-to-be-opened present, and retreated into his memories.
She had died at Christmas. He felt it only fitting that he did the same.
She had died at Christmas. It was only right that at Christmas she should return.
For the first time in years, it snowed. Opening his curtains that Christmas Eve morning, he almost reneged. Looking at the crisp, untouched snow, cast in blue by dawn’s supernatural light, stretching out endlessly across the fields behind his home, he felt his resolve fracture. But he pulled the curtains tight shut again, and spent the rest of the day in preparation.
All week he had given little thought to anything else. It had to be as painless as possible. And he was quite adamant that there shouldn’t be much mess. It was going to be a rather nasty shock for someone when they found him, though he wasn’t sure who that would be or how long it would take. He would leave no note; could there be anyone who knew him who would not instantly recognise why he had done it?
So: A whole bottle of port and a packet of painkillers, to be consumed while watching It’s A Wonderful Life. Then a washing line suspended from the rafters in the attic, through the hatch and down the galleried landing and stairwell. He had learned to tie a noose from the internet. It was already in place; the port and pills were in the living room, like an obscene offering to a black-hearted Santa Claus, the DVD was loaded. Outside, the light was failing, turning everything a cottony grey. Snow was flurrying around the orange halo of the streetlight outside the house. He was almost ready. He decided to take a shower.
He put on the CD, and as the needles of hot water pummelled his shoulders he sang along softly to Dino’s crooning heartbreak: “May all your days be merry, your seasons full of cheer, but ‘til it’s January, I’ll just go and disappear…”
He scrubbed and soaped himself viciously, as the CD reached the end of the track then skipped back to the beginning again. It was as though he was trying to wash away his old life, preparing for the new one he was going to embrace.
“Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes, but Santa only brought me the blues. Those brightly-packaged, tinsel-covered Christmas blues.”
He had never been one for God, not even at Christmas, and thoughts of the afterlife had rarely troubled him when she was alive. But since she had died, at Christmas, he had begun to brood on what might be beyond, whether she waited patiently for him in some uncharted territory. The track ended, paused with a hiss, and began again. He reached, blinded with shampoo, for the bottle of shower gel on the shelf, his hands closing around the unfamiliar plastic tube. Eyes still closed, he popped the cap, and was lost in a steaming hot fog of reminiscence. The scent which wafted from the bottle was not the usual, cheap, supermarket own-brand product he bought. It was cinnamon and tangerine and clove. The smell of Christmas. The smell of her. Eyes smarting from the soap, he peered at the bottle. How curious. It was one of hers. It must have been hidden at the back of the shelf, for all these long years. He inhaled deeply of the bottle at his nose, tears mingling with the hot water on his cheeks. He stood there, like that, for long minutes, until the shower had washed him clean of soap and shampoo, and he reluctantly replaced the bottle and turned off the flow of water.
As he dried himself, he heard the CD finish, and waited for Christmas Blues to start again. It didn’t. Dino began to sing again, but more upbeat this time. I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm. It wasn’t even the next track on the CD. The laser must have jumped. He made a mental note to get it seen to, then remembered. Remembered he didn’t have time for that.
He padded from the bathroom to his bedroom to get dressed. He had laid his best suit out on the bed, a clean, white shirt. No tie, though. She always said she liked him in a suit and open collar. Said it made him look suave. As he crossed the landing another odour raked at his nose. Not the shower gel this time, but the smell of something cooking. Gingerbread. He laughed, then paled; she had always loved gingerbread at Christmas, always made little gingerbread houses and snowmen to hang on the Christmas tree. It must be next door, he decided, though he had never smelled their cooking before.
When he had dressed he looked at himself in the full length mirror. Suave. She would have liked it. He forced a smile, and left the bedroom, ducking under where the washing line stretched from the attic down the stairwell. Only now, it didn’t. He looked up at the yawning black mouth of the attic hatch, and down the stairs. It must have fallen down. He could have sworn he tied that knot good and tight. It was dark downstairs, apart from the faint yellow glow of the log fire in the living room, and he couldn’t see the fallen noose. Come to think of it, he couldn’t remember lighting the fire, either.
That was when he began to get a little afraid.
Slipping on his loafers, he crept down the carpeted stairs. Was there someone in the house? Someone who knew he was always alone at Christmas, someone who imagined him locked away with riches? He cast about for a weapon, but could only see the tall wooden tulips standing in the vase on the small landing where the stairs turned back on themselves and down to the kitchen. He continued downwards until he reached the bare wooden floorboards, wincing as his shoes clip-clopped on the hard surface. The smell of gingerbread was overpowering, now, Dean Martin singing with insane jollity, “I thought you ought to know my heart’s on fire, the flame it just leaps higher, so I will weather the storm.”
Then he saw it. On the kitchen table, the package he religiously placed there every Christmas morning, then packed away once the horrible day was done. The package, opened. The silver paper neatly folded, the purple ribbon spooled on top. Of the gift, his final gift to her, never given, there was no sign. Anger boiled within him, then. What did he have to fear? He was already dead, or well on the way to it. But someone had invaded him, there had been an incursion. Bold and reckless, he marched into the living room, roaring, “What are you doing in my home?”
The fire crackled in the hearth. Snow flurried against the window in angry swirls. The CD was on repeat again, Dean singing, “I cannot remember a worse December, just watch the icicles form. What do I care if icicles form? I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”
The fire spat. Something was coiled within it. The washing line, melting and boiling. But there was no-one in the living room. No-one he could see, at any rate. But the cinnamon, tangerine, clove, and gingerbread became overpowering. Dean Martin was howling at him. Snow battered the windows. And the noose slowly disassembled in the heart of the blazing fire. No, there was no-one that he could see. But there was someone he could feel with every other sense. His words died on his lips. “What are you doing in my home?”
No. Not my home. Our home.
He sank to his knees, tears flowing freely. “I thought…” he began. “We could be together again…”
The fire spat. The snow flurried. Dino sang. Gingerbread burned the hairs in his nostrils. How could he have been so stupid? They couldn’t be together again, not yet. Not the way he had planned. Her time had come, and passed. She’d had no say in it, any more than he could have a say in when his time came.
The doorbell rang.
He looked from the living room to the kitchen, to the front door beyond. No-one ever came. No-one ever came at Christmas. The flames in the hearth danced. He nodded and dragged himself up on the back of the sofa.
The sound was already swelling by the time he got to the door, breathless and white-faced. He yanked it open and there they were, a dozen or more of them, wrapped up in scarves and woolly hats, some carrying lanterns that flickered in the darkness. He stared blindly at them, and back towards the living room.
They began to sing.
He panicked, and made to shut the door, but it wouldn’t go. The smell of gingerbread subsided. The fire guttered in the hearth. Dean Martin fell silent. There was only him, and them, and the song.
And in every face he saw the pieces of him that he had thought had died each Christmas. The laughter and the fun and the singing and the love. It was all there, not dead after all, but merely kept in trust for him until he decided it was time to rejoin the world of the living… or had the decision made for him.
Before he knew what he was doing, he was pulling on his coat, winding his scarf around his neck. Someone thrust a snow-damp printed sheet of music and words into his hands, and the group began to move off. Before he shut the door, he looked back into the darkness. She had come home for Christmas, but now she had gone.
But no. Not gone. As they tramped through the snow to the next house, he felt something expand inside him, something that smelled of gingerbread and burned like a log fire. The door was opened, and was there shock in the eyes of his neighbour, shock at seeing him, the hermit, out of his house at Christmas? If so, he ignored it, and began to sing with the others, a song lusty with life and passion.
“God rest ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”
She had died at Christmas, true. But so did many things. The days died sooner, the ground lay frozen and fallow, the trees, skeletal and still. She had died at Christmas, but he had not. It was cold and dark without her, but he had his love to keep him warm.