Thursday, 14 June 2012

Christmas Eve

    The city was coated in a blanket of white, and the stars watched over on that most special night. Slow streams of traffic trickled out of the city centre in all directions, as people desperately tried to get home. Others hurried through the streets, sliding on the grimy sheets of ice, as their breath misted in front of their faces, obscuring their vision. The city lights were even brighter than usual, as the halogen glow of street lamps were joined by snowflakes, Santas, trees and reindeer depicted in every colour of flashing bulb. Amongst the honking of car horns and the shouts of children in the street, carollers could be heard, as they tried to spread a bit of cheer, despite the bitingly cold air. Somewhere in the dreary inner city, surrounded by many near-identical others, was a tall block of tenements. Simple, plain, grey with snowy white trimmings and lights burning brightly in the windows - nothing distinguished this block from the others, but it was here that a group of quite different inhabitants spent their Christmas Eve…

    On the ground floor, the first home was lavishly decorated. Tinsel adorned the pictures on the walls and various Christmas ornaments were arranged around the living room. In the corner was a small but cheery Christmas tree, with mismatched decorations and topped with a pretty angel statue. Hanging from the mantelpiece, above a crackling fire, was a small stocking. The owner of this stocking, a small boy of about five, came hurrying into the room from the kitchen, dressed in his pyjamas and carrying a glass of milk, which he carefully placed next to a plate of mince pies on the table by the fireplace. Glancing over his shoulder to check his parents were still in the kitchen, he then tiptoed over to the pile of shiny, carefully wrapped presents under the tree. He picked up a present with his name on it and began feeling it all over, poking and prodding in an attempt to guess what was inside it.
    The young boy jumped and abruptly dropped the parcel at the sound of his mother’s voice, and turned to find her looking at him sternly. She glared for a few moments before breaking into a smile and dashing across the room to pick him up and dump him, giggling, on the sofa, where she collapsed beside him.
    “What have I told you about the presents? You have to wait until tomorrow!” she said, wagging a finger in his face.
    “She’s right,” continued Jake’s father, smiling as he joined them on the sofa, “You know it’s not too late for Santa to change his list.”
    “Too excited!” giggled Jake, squirming around in between his parents, “I wish Santa would come right now!”
   “I know kiddo,” said his father, ruffling Jake’s hair, “but he won’t come unless you’re asleep. Speaking of which, I do believe it’s past your bedtime.”
    “No,” whined Jake, looking up at his father with wide, pleading eyes.
    “Yes, off you go. If you’re asleep, tomorrow will come even faster!” smiled his mother, before kissing him goodnight. Before Jake could protest further, his father scooped him up and over his shoulder and carried him, giggling again, off to his bedroom. His mother shook her head, still smiling at her two boys. Then she remembered the package that had been delivered earlier that day, which she quickly collected from the kitchen and took with her as she left the flat and rang the bell of the one opposite theirs. A young woman, about the same age as her answered the door.
   “Sorry to disturb you, but this was delivered to our flat by mistake.”
   “Oh, thank you for bringing it over,” replied the other woman, taking the package, “well, have a happy Christmas.”
   “You too,” said the young mother, smiling politely as the door was shut and she hastily returned to her own home. The encounter was brief, but civil, as the neighbours had little to do with each other.

   The other woman closed the door and looked at the package briefly before setting it down and returning to her dinner party.
   “Hey Liz, who was that?” called out one of her friends from the far end of the table, over the top of the other conversations taking place.
   “Just a neighbour dropping something off,” Liz answered casually. She made her way back to her seat around the table, thinking how pleasant it was to have a sophisticated dinner with her friends from the office on Christmas Eve. Like her neighbours, she had decorated her flat, but it was all carefully planned, using only carefully chosen sets of tasteful ornaments that all matched and complimented each other, and a fake tree to avoid the unnecessary mess a real one would make on her perfectly white carpet. The dinner was accompanied by quiet background music and scented candles. Liz sipped on her wine and smiled to herself.
   “So, what are your plans for tomorrow Liz?” asked Steven from across the table.
   She tried hard not to blush – he was very good-looking – as she replied, “Oh, I have to go visit my family. I’d rather not, but I did promise my mother. What about you?” she continued, trying to steer the conversation away from her relatives.
   “The same, though I’m rather looking forward to it. Why aren’t you?”
   “Well, um…” Liz blushed more as she fumbled for an explanation, “they’re all quite… different from me. I mean, the whole day will be noisy and messy and, just, chaotic. Not really me you know.”
   “Ah, I see,” Steven grinned, glancing around her pristine, white flat. Liz smiled back, somewhat nervously. The truth was she just didn’t like her family. They were far worse than she made them out to be, and in her group of friends, she felt ashamed of them. The group of them at the dinner party all worked in the same office, and though none came from particularly well-off backgrounds, they were all doing quite successfully. The same definitely couldn’t be said for Liz’s sisters, and her parents couldn’t care less what any of them did.
   Mentally shaking herself, she stopped thinking about the next day and went back to the conversation around the table. Her work was her life, and her friends were a big part of why she enjoyed it so much. She laughed brightly at the joke someone had just made, and flashed her perfect, white smile across the table towards Steven. Picking up her glass again, she took a large swig, and then grabbed the nearest bottle to top it up, ignoring the little voice warning her to go easy in her head, as she was determined to have fun that night, before having to endure her family the next day.

   The laughter and chatter from the flat could be heard out in the hallway, where a businessman by the name of Tony Bakewell had just strode into the building, stamping snow off his shiny black shoes as he did. He grumbled to himself and shot a dark look towards the source of the merry noise, then set off up to the next floor and his own flat. When he entered, his home was cold and dark, but that was nothing unusual. He flipped the light switch, illuminating his dreary, sparsely decorated home. He hadn’t put much effort in, because he spent remarkably little of his time here. He left early for work in the morning and got back late every night. The most important item of furniture was his large desk, which housed his computer and several piles and boxes full of papers and files.
   Removing his outdoor wear, Tony loosened his tie very slightly before heading into the kitchen to quickly make himself something to eat. He hastily threw a salad together while heating up a microwave meal, which he ate as fast as possible, then picked up his black, leather briefcase and settled down at the desk. Tony was obsessed with his work, to the point where he had no friends and would have little to do with his family, who didn’t understand his burning ambition. He was an intelligent entrepreneur, who was determined to make millions, and would let nothing stand in his way – not even Christmas. He’d been an atheist for years, and thought the whole season was a waste of time and money. He ignored any cards or presents he received (though most people had given up sending them some years ago), didn’t attend any parties, never gave money to carollers or other charities and had refused his families invitation to spend Christmas Day with them by claiming he was “too busy”.
   That night, he would sit at his desk for hours, until his eyes were itching with tiredness. The next day, his office was shut, but he would still work all day at home. He could hear carollers out in the street and began muttering to himself darkly.
   “Bloody waste of time… stupid people… load of rubbish… better off working…”
   He loosened his tie a bit more and smoothed his hair down, before continuing to work away on the computer. Just as he was intently studying a particularly complicated document, he heard a large crash coming from the flat opposite his. He sighed exasperatedly and muttered again.
   “Damned Walkers… can’t learn to be bloody quiet…”
   He cracked his fingers and shook his head, then carried on working late into the night, just like he did every other day of the year.

   The Walkers were a particularly loud family, who regularly received complaints from their neighbours about the volume of noise coming from their flat, and that Christmas Eve was no different. The flat was usually quite a dismal place, and always smelt like cigarettes and alcohol, but it had been decorated for Christmas with many ornaments and a grand tree by the window. However, that night the decorations lay broken and scattered over the floor, much to the dismay of the two children, who were huddled together in a corner of the living room. Their parents stood in the middle, having a screaming match with each other.
   “You’re such a pig! Absolutely useless, bloody pig!” bawled their mother, tears cascading down her face.
   “Don’t you talk to me like that, you bitch!” bellowed their father, who grabbed another ornament off the mantel piece and flung it across the room in the general direction of their mother.
   “And why shouldn’t I? You come home drunk, after spending all day in the pub because you can’t find a ruddy job –” she was cut off as her husband dealt her a blow across the face, causing her to stagger. In the corner, the eldest child strokes the hair of her younger brother, who is sobbing with wide horror struck eyes, and whispers in his ear.
   “It’ll be all right, it never lasts, hush now, it’s ok…”
   Meanwhile, their father is still yelling abuse at their mother, who isn’t shy in returning insults, as their language gets progressively worse. They used to be a happy family, until alcohol took over the adults’ lives. Fights had been a regular occurrence for some years now, leaving the Mr Walker angry, Mrs Walker upset and the children terrified every time.
   “Would you shut him up?” shouted Mr Walker at his daughter, referring to the increasingly loud sobs coming from the little boy curled up in her lap. She stared in shock and horror, while still holding and trying to comfort her brother.
   “Leave them alone!” cried their mother, who was now sporting a large bruise blossoming across her face, “This is nothing to do with them!”
   “It will be if he doesn’t shut it!” Mr Walker strode across the room and violently kicked his son, resulting in his daughter bursting into tears, as the boy yelled in pain.
   “Stop, please, please stop,” whispered the girl, holding her brother even tighter as she felt his tears beginning to seep into her clothes. Her pleading simply earned her a slap across the face, causing her to gasp in shock and pain. Mrs Walker began to scream in protest, a noise which could be heard throughout most of the building. The girl buried her face in her brother’s shoulder, resigning herself to the fact that this would continue until her father stormed out, which might not be for some time.

   Upstairs, an elderly couple stopped what they were doing at the sound of Mrs Walker’s scream.
   “My, what could that be?” remarked the woman, “Well, no time to wonder, come on now Richard, they’ll be here soon!”
   “Yes Gladys,” her husband replied, somewhat wearily. He was carefully laying the large, oak dining table for twelve people, while his wife bustled around the kitchen, with about half a dozen different dishes on the go at once.
   “Richard, that’s not right!” she frowned at him, placing her hands on her hips, “That place should have a smaller glass for one of the children! I don’t want them using the expensive ones.”
   “Sorry dear, I’ll fix it right away,” he replied, dutifully doing as he was told. Over fifty years of marriage had taught Richard to do what his wife said without arguing, as it made for a much easier life with her. One such thing that he never argued with was their Christmas tradition – every year, without fail all their children and grandchildren came to stay with them for the holiday, and every year Gladys went to extreme lengths to get everything prepared exactly as she wanted it. Their home was decorated with the same ornaments every year, all chosen and arranged by Gladys, while Richard simply had to collected a pre-chosen tree. He went with her to buy the presents, but it was Gladys who chose and meticulously wrapped them. Now, she was preparing, in her opinion, the most important part of the holiday – the food. They would have an adequate dinner that night, before the spectacular banquet the next day.
   Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
   “Quick Richard, that’ll be them! Answer it.” cried Gladys, as she hastily wiped her hands and removed her apron.
   “Yes dear,” he sighed gently, as he opened the door.
   “Hello dad, merry Christmas!” cried his eldest daughter, hugging him, before several other people spilled into the flat behind her. Gladys and Richard had a son and a daughter, both married with three children, two boys and a girl each. Gladys often admired the perfect symmetry in their family tree.
   Gladys hurried out of the kitchen to greet her family, gushing over each of them in turn.
   “Oh, it’s so good to see you again!”
   “My, haven’t you grown!”
   “Dear, you’d be so much more handsome if you cut your hair!”
   “That’s an, um, interesting piercing there, dear…”
   “How have you been? Work going well, hm?”
   “Ok mum!” interrupted her son, laughing at his mother’s usual well-meaning but long-winded chatter, “That’s enough for now, let us get our stuff away and sit down.”
   “Yes, yes, of course. Richard, help them with their bags, I must sort out the food,” she said, throwing her hands in the air and dashing off back into the kitchen. Her children exchanged a glance and rolled their eyes, sighing at her obsessively organised nature. Sitting their father down and assuring him they didn’t need help, they went to unpack, ushering their own children, a mixture of sulky teens and hyperactive children, through to help instead. They were fairly certain this Christmas would be no different from any other – which was just how their mother would like it.

   A few minutes later, Richard left their flat carrying a plate of mince pies his wife had made from scratch. He crossed the hall and rang the bell of the flat opposite.
   Inside a very old man raised his head wearily and glanced towards the door. He groped around beside him for his walking stick, and carefully pulled his weary body out of his large, worn, leather armchair. Slowly, he shuffled across the room, hunched over with a bad back, and eventually answered the door.
   “Merry Christmas, Mr Fields,” said Richard, smiling politely, “My wife made these delicious pies and asked me to bring them over to you.”
   “Eh?” croaked Mr Fields, cupping one hand around his ear, “Speak up boy.”
   Raising his voice, Richard tried again, “Mince pies for you!”
   “Ah, right, why didn’t you just say so?” he said, setting his stick aside in order to accept the plate with both hands, “Thank you very much.”
   Smiling, Richard pulled the door shut as Mr Fields went back into his flat. He shuffled over to the nearest table and set the pies down, before returning to his chair in front of the television. His flat was rather drab and plain and smelt very musty. He had lived here for about five years and was now in his early eighties. The flat was decorated in bland shades of cream and brown, and didn’t look particularly festive, apart from the few lonely pieces of tinsel put up by his carer, who visited twice a week. She wouldn’t be coming the next day though, as she was spending Christmas with her own family, after Mr Fields’ insistence that she do so. At first she had been reluctant, not wanting him to spend Christmas alone, but he had assured her his son was coming to see him. This was a lie – Mr Fields had no family. His wife had died some years previously and they had no children. He would be alone for Christmas.
   Mr Fields scratched his nose with a gnarled, wrinkly finger, and then reached for the remote control. He began flicking through channels, looking for anything that wasn’t related to Christmas, anything that wouldn’t remind him of how alone he was.

   The last flat in the building was on the top floor, and although it was the largest it was home to just two people. The flat was tastefully decorated and had a warm, homely atmosphere. The living room was full of family pictures and a warm, crackling fire burned in the grate. The Christmas tree had been lovingly decorated with a mix of old ornaments passed down through family, and newer ones the couple had bought together. The smell of cooking filled the room, escaping from the well-used kitchen. The windows offered a wonderful view of the snowy city, and it was here, admiring the view that a young woman sat in the window seat, thinking happily on her life.
   “Lily?” a voice called.
   “Through here Josh,” she replied, smiling as she turned to see her husband enter the room. He walked over to her, grinning broadly and bent down to give her a light kiss, before gently puling her over to sit on the large, squashy sofa with him.
   “So, how was your day?” he said, wrapping his arms around her.
   “Good, I think everything’s ready for my parents coming tomorrow,” she answered, leaning against him, “Yours?”
   “All right, but I’m glad to be home.”
   “I’m glad you’re home too.” she grinned up at him.
   They sat together for a while, not saying anything, just enjoying being with each other. Lily’s mind drifted back to her earlier thoughts. She and Josh had been married for almost two years now and she was still very much in love with him. They had the occasional fight, but it helped keep their relationship spontaneous and exciting. The little surprises he gave her also helped – taking her out for dinner now and then, buying inexpensive but thoughtful gifts for no reason. They both worked hard at their jobs, as they wanted to move out to the country one day, but they always made time for each other. Glancing back towards the window, Lily noticed that snow was gently drifting down from the sky again.
   She looked back up at Josh, who had also noticed it, and murmured to him, “Do you remember the day you proposed? It was snowing like this, then too.”
   “Yeah, of course I do. Best decision I ever made.”
   Lily sat up straight and faced him directly, biting her lip nervously.
   “Lily? Is everything all right?” Josh asked, seeing the worried look on her face.
   “I need to tell you something about your Christmas present, before my parents get here.”
   “What is it?” he said, taking her hand in his.
   “Well, it’s going to be a bit late.”
   “That’s fine. How late?”
    “About nine months. I’m… well, I’m pregnant.”
    Josh’s eyes lit up in wonder, as a huge grin spread across his face. Lily giggled nervously, as he stared at her in awe.
   “This is… this is amazing Lily! Pregnant!”
   She nodded again, unable to take the smile off her face, as her husband swept her up and whirled her around the room before kissing her again.
   “This is the best Christmas present you could’ve gotten me,” he said, his voice full of wonder.

   The snow continued to float down outside the window. The city was getting quieter, as lights began to go out and the stream of traffic dried up. People were getting ready to end the day, in preparation for the next one. For some, it would be a time spent with family and loved ones. For others, it was about friendship, while a few would spend it alone. Some would have a happy day, full of love and joy, while for others it would be miserable and filled with arguments and hatred. Some would treat it like any other day, while for others, it would be one they would never forget.


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