What follows isn’t a new story. It was written a few years ago, and was one of the first short stories I had broadcast in a much-missed radio slot for such things. Revisiting it, the language seems kind of stripped down, partly because the time-constraints of the radio programme meant that submissions had a pretty restrictive word count of around 1,200 words, but also because I knew back then that my work had a tendency to be overly-descriptive to the point of stalling the story, and I can see myself fighting against that in most of my stuff from that time.
The other thing I found interesting about the radio work was that it was the first time I’d ever heard my work read aloud by anyone but me, and I was fascinated by how different some of the readers’ emphasis was to my own. I was extremely grateful that, most of the time, their performance made my scribblings sound better than they had any right to sound. There was a time, though, when one of the stories was narrated by a usually reliable reader, who on that occasion decided to voice the whole thing with the tone of a faintly distracted man with a train to catch. Oh, well. Maybe he was bored. I wouldn’t blame him. I re-read the story recently and it’s dreadful 🙂
Hopefully, this one is a little better. It retains its original title because I couldn’t think of anything better then and I still can’t. Suggestions welcome …
A YULETIDE FABLE
It was Christmas Eve, almost dusk, and though Nicholas had plans for later in the evening, for now he had an hour to kill.
Beneath the slate-grey sky, the city centre was a stampede of rushing bodies, most of them engaged in the thoughtless frenzy of last minute shopping. The air smelled of desperation and hot donuts for sale. Shoppers cursed themselves for forgetting to buy stuffing for the turkey, or that scarf for Auntie What Was Her Name Again? They cursed the cold and the snow and the offensively jolly Salvation Army Band, but most of all they cursed Christmas itself, for daring to show its fairy-lighted face even sooner than last year.
Nicholas walked among them, feeling as though he was the only one truly glad to be here on this special night. With his portly frame mummified in a burgundy overcoat he didn’t mind the cold, even though he was quite old (impossibly so, by the standards of some), and he had always found the Sally Army and its faith-fuelled tunes rather charming.
He supposed that it was the novelty of it all that he was enjoying – he was so rarely with people these days. Nicholas was a solitary soul at the best of times and even his work – much of which was people-orientated – seldom took him beyond the desolate wastes of his homeland. But sometimes, he mused, it was good to get among the living and feel one with them, to remind himself who he was and why he did the things he did.
He passed a shop window, one of many ablaze with tinsel and strings of light, and his reflected image gave him pause. His face was many things to many people, but to him it was just a mask, something to be donned and discarded at will. It was a young/old face, florid and etched with wrinkles yet alive with the joy of purpose. His hair was long and white and drawn back into a ponytail, and his beard, just as white, was neat and trimmed to what Nicholas thought was rather a dashing point. For a while he’d considered getting rid of the beard, despairing of its perpetual itching, but had eventually elected to stick with it. People expected him to have a beard, it seemed. It was traditional, and Nicholas had never been one to ignore even the most ancient of traditions.
Suddenly a voice penetrated his thoughts, not a loud voice but one that Nicholas heard clearly above the chatter and bustle of shoppers and the elephantine brass of the Sally Army.
‘ – cigarette ‘scuse me could you spare a – ‘
Nicholas turned, searching for the source. The yuletide swarm buzzed around him but he looked straight through them, peering through flesh and bone and cloth as though it were thin smoke, and after a moment or two he spotted the owner of the voice – a large, unkempt figure huddled in the shelter of a locked doorway.
Smiling, Nicholas approached him. The man was in his late fifties, unshaven and unwashed. A lank tangle of dark hair hung over his thick features, and his clothes, ragged and crusted with filfth, reeked of liquor and other, less palatable fluids.
In spite of the cold, the lower half of his shirt was untucked and undone, flapping in the breeze, and his distended belly swelled over his pants like a plucked turkey. As Nicholas drew nearer, the man’s pleas for a cigarette were broken by a sudden and violent coughing fit.
Nicholas crouched down in front of him. ‘Hello.’ he said warmly.
Gradually the man’s spasm subsided, and he regarded Nicholas with his watery, bloodshot gaze. ‘Ah.’ he sighed, his breath a sour cloud in the cold December air. ‘Good evening, sir. Could you spare a cigarette for a man who lives outside?’
Nicholas looked him over. The amber staining of the man’s fingertips told him that he’d spent much of his life pursuing on fatal disease after another, and the crimson flecks left on his lips by the coughing fit indicated that this Christmas Eve, this special night, he might finally have caught up.
Nicholas shook his head. ‘I don’t smoke. Sorry.’
The man sighed again. ‘A pity. I’d give anything for a cigarette on a cold night like this.’
‘However,’ Nicholas went on, smiling. ‘I do happen to have these.’
He held a gloved, long-fingered hand out to the man. In it was pack of cigarettes, an old style pack, minus the modern cellophane shroud and the flip-top lid. The man’s eyes brightened, and just for a moment, beneath the greying stubble and the dirt silting the creases of his face, he looked twenty-five again.
‘Hey,’ he said, his own smile exposing the blackened tombstones of his teeth. ‘I haven’t seen that brand for years. I used to smoke them when I was – ‘ His smile faded a little. ‘When I was courting. I didn’t know they still made ’em.’
‘They don’t.’ said Nicholas. He opened the pack and gave the man his cigarette. ‘Here.’
‘Hmm, no filters back then,’ the man muttered, putting the white tube to his crimson lips. ‘Real coffin nails, these are. Gotta light?’
Nicholas produced a match and lit the roll of tobacco, watching as the man inhaled gratefully, listening as the disintegrating bellows of his lungs wheezed with the effort. As he began to expel the smoke though, something seemed to break inside him and his body shook with another bout of coughing. As the wracking moment passed, Nicholas noted more bloodied fragments on his lips.
‘That’s good,’ whispered the man. ‘What I needed.’
‘Of course it is.’ Nicholas said kindly. He placed the cigarettes and matches at the man’s side. ‘A gift for you, my friend.’
‘Are … are you sure?’ stuttered the man. ‘I mean -‘
‘I’m sure.’ Nicholas told him, rising. ‘Merry Christmas.’
The man grinned at him. ‘Well, thanks! Merry Christmas to you, too!’ He held out a trembling hand to Nicholas, who shook it warmly.
As their grips slipped apart, the man’s eyes grew wider suddenly. For the first time he seemed to register his benefactor’s appearance: the rounded build, burgundy overcoat and frost-white beard apparently struck some chord in his fog-filled brain, and his black grin broadened.
‘Hey,’ he whispered confidentially. ‘Hey, you know who you are, don’t you? You’re Father Christmas.’
‘There is no Father Christmas, my friend.’ chuckled Old Nick unpleasantly, and disappeared into the crowd.