Short story: Christmas present
I wrote this a few years ago, when we were asked to write a story with the theme of Christmas for my writing group. Of course, Christmas is a crappy theme so you have to go the full 'Carrie' with it. Happy Christmas!
It was absolutely freezing but I was determined to get outside the office at lunch time. If not the phone would just ring and ring and an hour would dissolve into minutes. In the park the benches were only dotted with people, rather than the summer pattern of three to a bench; strangers as well as friends squeezed in at touching distance.
I sat down in a square of sunshine, pulling my grey winter coat around me. Then I unzipped my bag, taking out my sandwich and a can of drink, and unfolding the newspaper. I figured tramps didn't have it so bad on a beautiful December day like this.
As soon as my sandwich was opened, the pull of the plastic drew a couple of pigeons to mill around at my feet. For seemingly earless creatures, they soon responded to the call of someone else's food in their vicinity. But I had learnt my lesson just like everyone else... throw one pigeon one crumb and you'll soon have a whole swarm on your hands. An army.
I took a bite from my turkey and stuffing sandwich and was trying to get into the headlines but something kept catching my eye. It was a bedraggled looking pigeon, so different from the rest who looked positively plump; fat and alive. This one was limping at my feet. I tried not to look at it.
Still, it skittered around the bench, in obvious pain. If your cat or dog was limping like that, you'd take it to the vet. But this was the wild of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Pigeons were considered no better than rats here. Pigeons were one down on the food chain from the vagrants who gathered drinking strong cider on the bandstand.
My phone was probably buzzing away in my pocket for a while before I even heard it. I fingered through gloves, my oyster card and keys until finally I touched the cold of the plastic. Just in time.
'Hi darling, I was thinking of getting some decorations tonight. How about it, a nice tree or something?'
My eyes fell on the crippled pigeon. He stared at me, knowing. I looked at my sandwich again. For the first time I realised how festive my sandwich ingredients were, and felt sick.
'You know I'm allergic to Christmas decorations,' I said, mock breezily.
I wanted to throw the pigeon a crumb. It might be his last meal. And I wasn’t hungry now. But I was scared they would all descend, enveloping me. I had seen The Birds.
'Oh come on, Kim,' he implored. 'A cute little Christmas tree. A few bells and baubles. Surely it can't be that bad. We'll take them down if you have a reaction to them. We didn't have any last year. I feel left out.' I could almost see him pouting.
The pigeon shuffled past again. He was filthy compared to the other pigeons. His feathers were encrusted with hard living, with London grime. He looked thin, and beaten, like an abused dog, or an abused child.
The sandwich lay in my lap. I was not hungry.
'Please don't put any up.' I said, in a very quiet voice. But I don't think that he heard me.
The call ended and I sat staring at the cloudless sky. That noise beneath my feet was the pigeon limping back and forth until I couldn't stand it anymore. I didn’t want to watch it die. I folded up my paper and picked up my unopened can of drink. The sandwich was still in my left hand. It could feed that fragile pigeon for a week. I dropped the sandwich at my feet and walked away. But something made me look back.
The other pigeons had descended like in my dreams, like in a horror movie. The other pigeons were gathered, tearing at the bread.
But my pigeon sat looking on, not looking at the sandwich, but looking into the middle distance, straight at me.
Trouble was written all over the front door in the form of a jaunty Christmas wreath. Luckily it didn't smell of anything, but the angry red berries looked like blood spatters to me. They could have been bullet holes for the way they made me feel. How did a wreath relate to Christmas anyway? The only other place you saw wreaths was whilst burying your loved ones.
I opened the door, praying that was it, his one token effort. Hoping he had listened. Instead the house looked like it had been taken over by one of those nutters who decorates their garden with enough fairy lights to trip out the whole of London. Except this was indoors. Dangling decorations hung like elaborate jewellery from the light bulbs. Glittering fairy lights lined the coving, spotting the cream paint with pink, green and blue.
I felt myself start to gag, but it wasn't the lights. It was the walls. The walls were draped in silver tinsel. It covered the picture frames like a layer of twinkling snow. It was entwined around the banister, like a perfect Christmas card, a festive fairytale.
The smell was everywhere. I could taste it in my mouth.
Mike appeared in the kitchen doorway. I could tell he was cooking dinner, and somehow that smell mixed with the tinsel made the feeling of sickness a hundred times worse. I leant against the wall, trying not to fall over, trying not to pass out.
Mike was oblivious. 'Do you like it, darling? I couldn't resist. But you haven't seen the best bit yet.' And then he was dragging me into the front room, his arm on my shoulders, too tight.
Resplendent in the living room was a five-foot Christmas tree adorned with red and silver tinsel and baubles. He had decorated it more carefully than the shop display in Selfridges. He was as proud as a new father.
‘So what do you think?’ he asked.
I looked at him and tried to reply. Instead I started screaming.
Christmas Eve 1988. Like several million other children on earth than night, I couldn’t sleep, so I snuck downstairs. My mum didn’t like mince pies; ‘sticky muck’ she said, so earlier we’d left Father Christmas a slightly sloppy chocolate cake we’d baked earlier that day. Rudolph was going to have to share that, too.
I peered through the banisters, entwined with sparkling golden tinsel. I could see into the kitchen from here, and there was the cake, two slices gone. Oh my God, they’d been! I felt like dancing. It looked like I’d missed them. But that meant my presents would be under the tree, all piled up high, if I was lucky.
I tiptoed down the stairs, listening out for my mum or dad, but heard nothing. Then when I got to the living room, there was a small noise.
Was he still here?
Trembling with excitement, I peered round the door-frame. I knew I could not let him see me.
But I wanted to see him so much.
And there he was. My heart felt like a bouncy ball let loose in my ribcage as I gazed upon him: Father Christmas! He was bending down by the tree, tenderly placing presents, my presents. He was here for me!
I watched, unable to move, unable to breathe. Then he turned around.
I jumped, and he looked shocked as well. I went to turn and run, but he was quick and came to gently grab my hand. I looked up at him, this big, tall man, with a thick white beard. I looked right into his eyes.
‘You’re not meant to see me,’ he said, in a strange, muffled voice.
‘I’m sorry, I’ll go back to bed…’ I said, quickly. I suddenly felt uneasy, as if some of the magic of Christmas had rubbed off by me seeing this thing that children weren’t meant to see. Even so, I looked around for Rudolph. I couldn’t spot him anywhere.
‘No, it’s OK,’ he said, his voice softer now, more familiar. ‘Do you want one of your presents?’
‘I’m not allowed…’ I said, warily. I knew my mum and dad would be mad. Even if it was Father Christmas, they’d like to see me open them all.
‘Just one little present,’ he whispered. ‘I’m sure you’ve been a good girl. Hold your hands behind your back.’
So I did. There was a jangling sound, and then I felt something cold entwining my wrists.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked, still excited. ‘Is it my present?’
‘Not yet,’ he whispered, and I realised he was wrapping tinsel around my wrists. My excitement changed shape. Was Father Christmas a stranger? Then he turned me round to face him.
‘It’s just a game. Just a game and then you can have your present.’ And then the room disappeared as tinsel covered my eyes, spiky and cold. I never noticed that tinsel had a smell before. But now I could smell it, and then I could taste it, as he wrapped it around my mouth, and nose. I couldn’t breathe. My mouth tasted metallic, I could feel the wiry foil on my tongue and my teeth.
I tried to scream.
Nothing came out, just that taste, and that smell. I felt like I would breathe it forever.
I wished more than anything I had been a good girl, and stayed in bed.
Then worse; I was pushed onto the floor. I know it was beneath the Christmas tree because I could hear the bells jangling gently, but horribly, I could feel pine needles digging into my bare legs, my back, my feet. Something else was happening, but I blocked it out, and thought of the tinsel and the tree. I thought of tomorrow when my mum would drink whiskey and lemonade and dance to the songs on Top of the Pops and my dad would tell us jokes and take photos and make us wear those stupid hats. I thought of those things and cried, as the tinsel dug into my mouth and eyes and nose, and the pine needles dug into my back and bum. And he was there: Father Christmas. I felt like I would die.
Was this my present?
After a thousand years, he pulled me up and gently untangled the tinsel from my wrists. But the skin was red underneath, and I could see particles of glitter embedded in it, like a graze. I couldn’t look at Father Christmas now and I don’t know if he looked at me. I wasn’t sure if I liked Father Christmas anymore- he had hurt me. I tried to look at the tree, the beautiful tree, but it had done nothing whilst I had been hurt but silently watched. Pine needles covered me.
I was a cactus.
Father Christmas knelt down under the tree again, but he didn’t seem gentle anymore. I tried to look into his eyes again, just to really see him. But I couldn’t. He was hiding in his beard.
Still, was he crying? But maybe it was just more glitter from me, from the tinsel.
Father Christmas doesn’t cry.
He handed me a small present from under the tree.
‘Take it and go back to your room.’
So I did and I ran back upstairs. But I didn’t open it. I never opened that present. Instead I went to bed, and pulled pine needles from my skin, my legs, my back, my bum and collected them on a plate by my bed. Later I counted them, but I lost count as the hours passed, slower than any Christmas Eve I’d known and there had been some long, happy ones in previous years.
I waited all night to hear the front door go, but it never did. Then I remembered: Father Christmas comes and goes via the chimney. But our chimney was too small.
So the thought remained: is he still here?