We looked at her, horrified, and she looked at us like a snake would look at a mouse before eating it alive..
She cast her gaze downward and we followed suit. All around were the presents that had been saved up for, carefully chosen and fastidiously hidden, just to make our Christmas Day special.
“Take a good look,” she said quietly, “because you won’t be seeing them again.”
We packed them away in silence, tears pricking my eyes each time I retrieved a toy I really wanted but knew I wouldn’t be getting. The ruptured plaster and torn paper was noted, our mother gently touching it in that scarily silent way parents do to indicate the size of trouble you were in. The silence sounded like Big Trouble.
We made our way into the living room. The Christmas tree lay on its side, its fairy askew and showing off her knickers. The Very Old what I now know to be Victorian glass baubles that had been my great-grandmother’s lay in shattered shards across the carpet like a broken rainbow; the lights were dead and there was a faint whiff of something strange in the air. Mrs Tibbs sat by the window, staring out.
She looked really odd.
But then, when a cat chews the flex of Christmas tree lights and electrocutes herself, she’s going to look a bit odd, isn’t she?
White whiskers – those that were left – were black and curly, and her fur had a tough melted feel about it. The vet was good enough to see her that very night – Christmas eve night (imagine the cost!) – and despite shock and a burnt tongue, Mrs Tibbs survived.
Christmas day came and went unnoticed and for the first time ever we were marched down to the church service at our village church where I sang my little heart out and my brother put a half-chewed toffee in Jennifer White’s hair just for fun.
By the evening however, our mother’s rage had ebbed, our father was pretty well sedated and something resembling reluctant calm had fallen: mum gave us each a present.
“From Father Christmas,” she said. I took the present unenthusiastically. I had always been told not to tell lies, and here was my mother lying to me about Father Christmas. Straight up. An In-Your-Face Adult Lie.
She smiled wanly.
“It seems he came after all,” she said. “I’ll go and check on Mrs Tibbs,” she continued, leaving us to unwrap our gifts.
“Heh heh heh! Told you it was mum and dad,” my brother sniggered, and lifting one buttock, farted loudly.
Christmases came and went, and as I grew up I promised myself that if I ever had children of my own, I would a) apologise that they had my brother for an uncle, and b) never ever ever ever ever ever ever lie to them about Father Christmas. How hard could it be?
Shoot forward a few decades as I held my breath deciding between truth or lie.
“Well does he, mummy?” my six year old daughter had asked.
“Well…” I began… ’
Huffing at my reluctance, he climbed the wobbly ladder, pushed open the hatch and disappeared inside the loft..
For a long time.
“Stop it!” I squealed. Panic swamped me as I stared at the black hole. Then a strangled, alien voice wafted out of the eerie darkness.
“We are the Giant Loft Spiders and we will eat your brain…”
My irrational fear rendered me immobile. If I had known how to faint, I would have. If I could have induced immediate vomiting and unconsciousness, I would have done. However, my brother’s prank just resulted in immediate paralysis, so when he spotted our sacks of presents and hurled them both down at me with a shout of “CATCH!” I didn’t, and they flew over the banister and down the stairs, smashing and crashing all the way.
Unfortunately, Mrs Tibbs was half way up the stairs just as the sacks began their descent and she fled into the living room – and straight up the Christmas tree, rocket fashion.
The Very Old Baubles were shaken from their boughs, some tinsel, caught half over one of Mrs Tibbs’ shoulders and round a leg caused nothing but yowling alarm and speeded her ascent, until suddenly there was a tremendous bang and all the lights went out.
“We…are..coming to get…you!” hissed my brother in the darkness, one foot searching in the darkness for the top of the ladder.
Rationality now just a memory I ran straight in to the ladder nearly knocking myself out and my brother off the top. We flapped about, me crying and he loving every minute of my terror and the fact that it was dark and we had a ladder.
“What was that bang?” I asked through my weedy sobs.
My brother was just about to answer when we saw the flash of headlights through the glass front door. We peered over the banister as, momentarily, the sacks of presents were illuminated: split open, their guts strewn down the stairs, across the hall floor, some resting by the front door.
Mum and Dad were home.
“…must have gone to bed…” my mother was saying as my father, ahead of her, opened the front door and stepped inside.
I remember the crack of his head against the open door as his foot caught the large-wheeled toy car that would have been my brothers delight on Christmas Day, as it threw him backwards. I remember, vaguely, the scream my mother let out as my father’s flailing fist caught her smack in the face and the muffled thud as she fell over him, he now a crumpled, swearing lump on the hall floor.
I sat stock-still at the top of the stairs.
For once, my brother was quiet too.
Despite her injuries, our mother worriedly called our names.
“We’re alright!” my brother answered in a strange and unfamiliar voice.
“Jesus Bloody Hell!” my father was shouting.
“What the bloody hell has been going on here and why are all the bloody lights out and what the bloody hell is all this in the bloody hall, bloody hell?” he continued, ending with “Jesus! My bloody ankle!”
Our neighbour was very good that night.
He took our dad to casualty where they plastered his broken ankle, whilst me and my brother stayed at home with our mother as she reinstated the electricity.
“We’ll need a ladder to reach the fuse box,” she said without emotion.
“I’ll get it!” exclaimed my brother. I let him. With the aid of a torch, I began to pick up the presents.
So Santa really didn’t exist? I still couldn’t get my head round that one.
If she noticed, our mother didn’t say anything when my brother went upstairs to get the ladders. In a flick the house was once again bathed with light illuminating our mother’s injuries clearly. We looked at her, horrified, and she looked at us like a snake would look at a mouse before eating it alive…To be continued…
Long ago and far away, in a land called 1971, there lived a brother and sister. This is part one of a very story of what happened to them on Christmas Eve, as it was told to me.
‘The year that I was 6 and my brother 10 our parents decided that we were both old enough to be trusted with the welfare of both house and cat so they could go out for a Christmas eve drink with friends. At seven on the dot they set off into the night heading for a pub hidden somewhere in the countryside, leaving strict instructions with me and my brother to be in bed by 8 o’clock and No Fighting. Otherwise, Santa wouldn’t come.
In the living room the Christmas tree sparkled as its little lights flashed on and off illuminating the Very Old Glass Baubles that adorned the tree. A few presents sat temptingly beneath.
As did Mrs Tibbs, our tabby cat. Her eyes, also like glass baubles, reflected the flickering lights and she refused to come out from beneath the tinsel-laden boughs.
About ten seconds after our parents had left my brother was restless. I would have been happy to go to bed at 8 o’clock as instructed, but he being that bit older than me he found being alone in the house on Christmas eve a fascinating delight and an opportunity that may not come even once a year. His fidgety excitement soon had us heading for disaster.
Trying to coax Mrs Tibbs out from under the tree, she backed away, bumping the tree lightly as she went. It rocked gently. The Very Old Glass Baubles swayed ever so slightly and the tinsel glittered.
“C’mon. We’re going to play hide and seek,” announced my brother.
The last time we did that he’d persuaded me to hide in the garage in a trunk that was full of nails and saws and he’d left me there to go and play football with his friends until tea-time.
He sensed my apprehension.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun. We won’t hide though,” he said, and scurried upstairs.
What sort of hide and seek involved not hiding?
Tentatively, I followed. I could hear banging and shuffling, the dragging of things about, and doors opening and closing. A shaft of light came from our parent’s bedroom.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, dismayed.
“They hide, we seek!”
I stepped into our parent’s room where my brother was searching high and low.
“For the Christmas Presents!!” he said, in his exasperated older sibling voice.
“But Father Christmas brings those!” I said, horrified.
“Wake up Thicko” he instructed. “Mum and Dad bring them!”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“That’s not true!” I said. I couldn’t possibly be true – really it couldn’t! Santa brought our presents! He flew through the air with his sleigh and his gang of reindeer delivering presents to all us good children in the world.
“Don’t be so stupid!” scoffed my brother.
As my young brain absorbed and digested this absolutely terrible news, I watched as he continued hunting. There were none to be found.
“See! It’s not mummy and daddy! It’s Father Christmas!” I declared, worried, relieved, and on the edge of tears.
He muttered something about getting a ladder and pushed past me. Lamely, I followed him down stairs as he made his way to the garage.
Struggling back in with some step-ladders he told me the grab one end and we staggered back upstairs with them, taking a few chunks of plaster out of the wall and tearing the new Vymura wall paper. I stopped to look at the damage.
“Now look what you’ve done!” he declared.
We dragged the ladders along the landing until we came to rest below the loft hatch. We looked up.
“Yes!” he said with glee. “You can go first because you’re smaller.”
Terror gripped me as I remembered the Loft Spiders – they’re bigger than ordinary spiders because they live in the dark and they have teeth. I knew this was true because my brother had told me. I couldn’t go up there!
Huffing at my reluctance, he climbed the wobbly ladder, pushed open the hatch and disappeared inside the loft….’
To be continued…
This Sunday myself and other lovers of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night are convening at The White Lion pub in Henley in Arden to thrill ourselves senseless with a live lit evening of horror and ghost stories. If you’re in the area, float on by – it’s free entry and it’s a haunted pub; what’s not to like? And if I snap any pictures of phantoms and weirdness, you’ll see them here. My collection of photos of ghostly apparitions seems to be growing, the first one taken during my trip to the wonderful Finland, and some more recently snapped at The Savoy theatre in Monmouth. Freaky stuff.
Anyway, returning to our evolutionary roots of fire-gazing and story-telling, Sunday at The White Lion is bound to be creepy evening – in a good way – organised by editor and author Pat Spence.
I’ll be reading my ghost story, Channel One Six from my updated Collection of Unsettling Short Stories, which will also be on sale. If you fancy a fun yet spooky night, come along to the White Lion.
Once in a while you might stumble upon a quirky shop or unusual venue hidden away somewhere, the sort of place that makes you go Wow – I had no idea this was here. Advertising blurb would call such a place a ‘hidden gem’ and although not out specifically treasure hunting earlier this year, I did indeed stumble upon a hidden gem in Monmouth. I’m sure Monmouthians know all about their beautiful little theatre, The Savoy but it was news to me, and any theatre that has it’s foundations built on the same foundations as an 18th century pub has to be a winner. The little entrance is at the bottom of Church Street, a narrow winding little street that in no way hints at having a theatre at the end of it. If I’d been asked ‘What do you think is at the end of this street – a charity shop, an launderette, an antiques shop or a theatre?’ I would have gone with antiques shop. And I suppose in a way, that’s what this little theatre is.
The Savoy is a real proper theatre but also acts as a cinema and general all-round brilliant venue. Sadly I wasn’t in Monmouth long enough to go to a show there, but I would have if I’d had the chance. The venue is now run by volunteers and thank goodness for such people, for without them astonishing buildings and heritage like The Savoy would be lost. So if you cross the border from Gloucestershire or Herefordshire into Monmouthshire, do find time to visit this wonderful little theatre.
Another place that was a surprise find was the basement of a cafe in Leamington Spa. Not that I was actually surprised that a) said cafe had a basement, but b) that it was an uber cool venue for music, theatre, stand-up, open mics, art, film – you name it, The Temperance Bar in Bath Street Leamington, supports it. In the digital age of streaming and gaming, finding places such as these is treat – there is something deep in our psyches I think about big buildings and little buildings – big caves and little caves that feed the imagination. Maybe it’s the acoustics. Did you ever make a den as a child? – scrabbling around trying to stop the quilt or sheet falling in on you, stuffing the corners under books and toys that were balanced on the edge of the bed or bedside table, just so you could have your own little space lit by a torch and shared with only your most precious toys – and of course a book.
There is a little copse not too far from where I live and when I’m out on a rare ramble I have a poke about this little copse just out of interest. And always – come rain or sun or snow or frost – there is a little den there that someone has made of logs and twigs and branches. Now, if I wanted to go down the LRR route and let my imagination runaway with me, I could go all Blair Witchy and completely creep myself out, but I wouldn’t want to spook myself alone in the woods. That might cause me to run a little bit faster than is healthy and fall flat on my face as I trip over a twig. And how embarrassing would that be. But the point is, we do love a den. A hovel. A hidey-hole; whatever you want to call it. And maybe as writers, we all have one of those deep inside our minds too. I like to think it’s where the words live. The storylines, plots and ideas live. In a little venue all of their own.