Christmas is approaching. Many of us will have decorated our houses in family style. Be it blingy tinsel and garish garlands, swags of prickly holly on the stairs, or minimalist silhouettes of trees and reindeer, every family has its own traditions as far as decorating goes. Most of us have a collection of Christmassy mementos that gathers a layer every year. I post a short story about a man in an attic on Christmas Eve, with a liftetime of memories to sort out.
Christmas Without Georgie
Here, in the cold, damp loft, is the muddled strata of 55 years: tinsel, plastic gew-gaws, torn accordion garlands, even homemade crepe paper strips from way back to his first years of marriage. All of it is rubbish. Complete and utter tat. Somehow he hadn’t ever had the heart to ditch it. But this year, this bloody awful year, he has no choice but to come to terms with the dozen or so cardboard boxes bulging with old Christmases. Come the new year, he will be out of here, into a new bungalow with nowhere to keep over half a century’s worth of accumulated detritus; the crumbling geology of a lifetime in this house, since he and Georgie had been married. They had celebrated their emerald last year, and planned on reaching their diamond anniversary in a few more years. But Georgie died suddenly on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The first week in September, in fact. After a nice lunch, which she had cooked herself. Just fizzed out like an old Christmas tree bulb. Pfft. Conscripted by the Almighty.
Within these boxes, twisted and mangled, are perhaps twenty or more sets of old lights, including dangerous 240-volt ones with frayed cords and broken shades. This Christmas, he has decided he will spend time alone sorting it all out. He can’t face Christmas this year. He told everyone not to call, not to visit. No Christmas here. Santa don’t stop at this rooftop. His son, Anthony, understands. But Lisa is worried about her old dad on his own, getting maudlin. He told them they have enough to do with their own families to look out for. Grandchildren in Tony’s case. They have their own Christmas traditions now. Without Georgie, there can be no Christmas in this house for him ever again. It is Christmas Eve, and he is in the loft shovelling baubles and garlands through the loft hatch, because the damp old boxes have split open before he can get them to the ladder. It’s like time has swallowed all the Christmases they had here, and is regurgitating the undigested remains. The landing is covered in fragments of glass balls, artificial holly and glittery plastic icicles.
Perhaps it is cathartic; he doesn’t care anymore, and throws it all down. He is angry that Georgie has been taken from him. A polystyrene snowman disintegrates as it bounces from the banister, going all down the stairs in clunky fragments. It’s a hell of a mess. A herd of plastic reindeer drops from the hatch as if it has fallen into an animal trap. The reindeer lie in the litter of gaudy paper and ribbon that had been saved to re-use at some future Christmas that will never happen. A cascade of cut-out snowflakes follows, but he stops when he finds Christmas cards made by Anthony and Lisa when they were little. Christmas cards with wobbly writing and crosses for kisses. ‘To Daddy’, with stick drawings of him holding their Christmas stockings. And, of course, he finds the inevitable egg-box bells threaded with pipe cleaners, now threadbare and sorry-looking. Georgie had spent hours with them making decorations. All made with innocent, unreserved love, in expectation of a happy family Christmas. He finds the birth announcement for Lisa – she arrived on December 23rd. That was a busy Christmas. She had been born at home. Georgie still managed to cook a giant turkey and manage his interfering mother who had come to help, as well as breast-feed a tiny baby and look after a three-year-old. Georgie was quite a woman. He was lucky, he knows. Hard to keep back a few tears. He puts the precious keepsakes to one side.
He has reached the oldest boxes, covered with old-style printing; they once contained products that are now a memory. An old black-and-white television, and boxes of washing powder once advertised on that same telly. Washes your laundry white as snow… He still remembers the jingle and the man presenting his smiling wife with a box of washing powder. Amazing that she didn’t clock him one with a frying pan. Inside the old detergent box, he convinces himself he can still smell the detergent. There are rotted party balloons, streamers and mouldering paper hats from way back when. Perhaps Anthony was on the way… Baubles from a tree his own father had, and a miniature Christmas tree, now bent and rusted. He remembers that from his own boyhood. But it is all rubbish. He tosses it through the hatch. There is a pile at the bottom of a ladder so deep he can’t see where the ladder ends. Lisa would go nuts if she saw. She’s always telling him to be careful, watch his step… More than one of his friends has had a silly accident, followed by hospital… and worse.
The telly box is made of sturdier cardboard; the old telly weighed a ton. Funny that its box has outlasted something that was once the height of technology. A monochrome set in a polished cabinet and splayed spindly legs with little gold feet. They’d thought it was pretty swish. There’s not much inside the box. A few paper chains, a rainbow shower of sword-shaped plastic cocktail sticks, a toy trumpet, and one unused cracker. He’ll pull that later. At the bottom, beneath a bunch of plastic mistletoe, he finds a tartan tin that once held shortbread. The price is marked in shillings and pence. He thought he’d got rid of this years ago. He knows what’s in it.
The lid is rusted, but opens when he uses a little force. Photographs taken from the days when he had been in the army. All black-and-white images, like the telly. Everything was black-and-white then. Things were clearer without the confusion of colour. He and Georgie had been going steady then, but put off the wedding until he had done his National Service. They were so young, anyway. Too young. He picks out small snapshots. Pictures so small that he can hardly see what they are. But he knows some of them by heart. Jimmy Fuller dressed in drag for a fancy-dress party. He wears a wig made from a floormop, borrowed from the cleaners. He borrowed a lipstick too. Marty Burrows. Scrawny lad, nearly didn’t get called up. Poor old Marty. Discharged when they found he had cancer. Died not long after. Joey Bell. Now he did all right in life. Car dealership. Nice house. He used to send Christmas cards to Joey. But Joey died two years back. Poor old Joey too. Most of the people in the pictures are now gone. Poor old all of them. He flips through. He had a stint in Africa. Heat like he had never felt before. Humid. Heat rash. Photographs of them all in underpants languishing by their tents smoking. He remembers being covered in mosquito bites. Dysentery. But they’d had some fun. There is another photograph. A group of young men at some do or other, some women from the medical post. He knows what he’ll see. A bunch of lads with beer glasses and girls leaning on their arms, smiling, smoking, laughing. It was how it was then. All in the moment. No one knew if they’d be fighting another war; things were shaky in the Middle East. On the edge of the group he sees himself with his arm around the shoulders of a strikingly pretty girl. She was called Jenny. Jenny Sanderson. She was a clerk in the medical records office. They really fell for each other. It had come close to him writing to Georgie and calling off their engagement. They talked of marriage. Only she had a pre-existing offer. A girl like her, she had men eating out of her hand. An officer, older, good prospects. He won the day, of course. Jenny couldn’t let her parents down by running off with a conscripted private. So he hadn’t written that letter. He hadn’t let Georgie down in the end. Not really. He throws the photograph down – it swizzles through the air, and falls amongst the pile at the bottom of the ladder.
After Christmas, he’ll have a bonfire and burn it all. But, right now, he’ll get out of this freezing loft, go down the bloody ladder and call Lisa. He’ll tell her he’s sorry or missing her birthday, and that he’ll join them for Christmas after all.
Here is a link to another Christmas story about three wise hookers, A Time of Gifts. Also accessible from my ‘News and Publications’ page. It was featured by Liars’ League in its Kith and Kin Christmas event a couple of years ago.Click the link for all the stories. If you want something good to listen to whilst making mince pies I can recommend the 2017 Christmas event, Sacred and Profane, now as podcasts. Another winter story – The Perfect DIver – from The Woven Tale Press is available online. Not on a Christmas theme, but inspired by quantum mechanics and gravitation, here is my entry for the 2017 Quantum Shorts competiton – How Matter Becomes Light . There many other flash stories on the site, all under 1000 words, for you to read and enjoy.