Christmas Comes but Once a Year…

and when it comes it lasts three months.

All September it lurks in the shadows, fearful, almost, to show its face.   Advertising suggests delicately that if we want to avail ourselves of any pre-Christmas bargains, now is the time.  Those sharpest of eye might catch a glimpse of the advertisers ‘campaign animations limbering up in the wings; a cute little dragon, a charismatic cat, a carrot…a carrot?

Down in their dark fetid dungeons union convenors are preparing their respective marches to personal glory, competing with each other for the best headline, the direst threat.  They are eager to let you know either their members get their twenty-five percent pay increase or you’ll spend your Christmas in airline departures, or waiting on the station platform, or…

October, and the carrot is christened Kevin!  In despair of getting a flight or a train, you learn the ferries are likely to be on strike, and France has downed tools until the New Year.  You decide your best option will be to celebrate closer to home, so you attempt to book a Christmas break at a hotel.   The sound of derisive laughter on the ‘phone is not pleasant.  Now if you’d booked in July

As October spills over into November you notice how wolves are beginning to gather around street corners, taking experimental nips at the heels of more harassed-looking shoppers as they struggle beneath their panniers of expensive toys.   Throwing up the barricades you elect to have a traditional Christmas, and the die is cast.   The following day is the optimum time for news of shortages:  shortages of turkeys, shortages of Brussels sprouts, et al.

November into December and out there in tele-ad world personalities have slimmed themselves to wafer elegance.  Luxury baths, swimming pools and tropical beaches await their perfumed presence   – why do advertisements for perfumes always involve so much water?  The scent would wash off, surely?  Kevin the Carrot now has a circle of friends, including a love interest and a middle-aged pop idol.  The cute little dragon no longer breathes fire on everything, but is reduced to gazing longingly at various ‘special offers’ – including a mobile phone.  What’s a dragon going to do with a mobile phone?  He looks rather sad, and lost.

The wolves are fiercer by far.  You can barely elbow your way into Marks and Spencers, and the smell of hot plastic at the Supermarket is all but intolerable.  By the end of the third Black Friday in a row and just before the last Cyber Monday you will have realized the goods you were counseled to buy in September are now on sale fifty percent cheaper than the price you paid.  This is the time to remember the smug look you gave your neighbor as you told her you ‘had all your Christmas shopping done’ and how she confessed she’d ‘done nothing yet’.

Personally, I try to regard Christmas Day as a period for quiet reflection, so to speak; the eye of the hurricane.  It is a time for families to be together, discussing their issues openly.  Last year, for example, Cousin Hubert chose the occasion to ‘come out’ (we all had to try and look surprised – we’ve known for years) and once explanations have been offered to children why the expensive games console they have been given is obviously totally the wrong games console and apologies offered for our hopeless present buying there is an opportunity to relax, indulging fond memories of times past.  On this one day of the year, at least, we are given the chance to watch once more movies the entire cast of which have been dead for half a century (which helps).

And then, quite suddenly, January will dawn and it will all be over.   The world will return to work, which should be a relief if only the banking community could remain on holiday, but alas, no.

The credit card statements will hit the doormat, delivered personally by the most insistent of the wolves.  They will be transferred from doormat to desk, where they will sit unopened and we shall try to stare them out for maybe a week, then bury them under other ‘more urgent business’ for a further two.  All the while the wolves will be ranging around our door, scratching and baying, until at last, unable to outface them any longer, we pick up the paper-knife.

Bad?  Not too bad.  We should have paid it all off by next September.

Happy Christmas, everybody, and a stonking New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Three. Bonds of Blood

The story so far:

Humbled and saddened by Sophie’s rejection, Joe learns the truth about his last day with Marian and the reason for her death.  His inherited wealth will mean he can provide for his brother Michael’s care, wresting control from their elder sibling, Ian, who wants to keep them both out of sight, in case they damage his political ambitions.  Michael has absconded, and while  Joe does not fully understand his elder brother’s anxiety about this, he is determined to find Michael for his own reasons.   Joe fears Michael may be involved in Violet Parkin’s killing.  If he is, will he return to the scene of his crime?

Remembering Emma Peterkin’s information that Michael had spent time with villager and reputed witch Margaret Farrier quite often in his growing years, Joe decides to pay Margaret a visit…. 

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

Margaret Farrier raised an eyebrow.  “You’re remarkably direct, I’ll concede that.  Is this the approach you used on poor Janice?  If so, I’m not surprised you frightened her.  Now she is someone who doesn’t like you.”

“She’s changed so much since Teddy died.”

Margaret nodded curtly:  “People do.  The altered state.  We are never prepared.”

Joe felt there was hidden meaning behind those words.  He paused, wondering whether to pursue that particular tack, but decided against it.   “Maybe.  Anyhow, I don’t know any other way to ask.  It seems such an obvious question.”

“Let me see.  You do not believe that Jack Parkin did away with Violet, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“I agree with you.  You do believe her death had something to do with pagan ritual?”  Joe nodded.  “Well, you see there I cannot agree with you.”

A lull.  Margaret Farrier offered no further amplification, though Joe waited expectantly for a number of seconds.  At length he asked:  “Why not?”

“An absence of any evidence, together with the ludicrous notion that this village is infected by the black arts.  The very idea! Absolute balderdash!”  She rose to her feet.  “I think the sun is over the mainmast.  Would you like something to drink?  Whisky, sherry?”

He accepted.  “Miss Farrier, I know Violet Parkin was involved in witchcraft – so why is it such a ridiculous presumption that her death may have been ritual?”

“You know?”  She withdrew a bottle from her sideboard for his whisky, poured her own from a decanter on the shelf, then brought the drinks to him. He stood up.

“Please sit down Joe – may I call you that?  I’m Margaret, by the way; or Margo, if you prefer.  Joe, the people of this village – no, I’ll go further than that – the lonely old women of this village (of which I, by the way, might be said to be one) indulge in the odd herbal remedy now and then;  the occasional spell, if you will.  It is a hand-me-down from generations of folk medicine, and it is a sort of hobby for us, no more than that.  The idea we would stake poor Violet out in a ritual sacrifice is – well – I already used the adjectives:  unthinkable!”  She stood close to Joe as she handed him his drink, challenging his eyes to meet her own.  “Do I look like a black witch to you?”

Joe grinned:  he was beginning to like Margaret Farrier.  “Possibly not.  But then, possibly I wouldn’t know a black witch if I did see one.  I’ve had several versions of the ‘poor harmless herbalists’ argument thrust at me, though, and I don’t entirely believe them.  Dancing naked at solstices, overturned gravestones, and dead animals nailed to people’s doors?  Three pagan rituals and not a hint of sorrel.”

She returned his smile.  “I am a Wiccan priestess, Joe.  There are certain areas of worship that require communion with nature: when it happens it is a joyful thing, but that is just one tiny part of what witchcraft is about, and it’s a long way from that sort of ritual to one entailing human sacrifice.  No such ceremony could be sanctioned by any form of The Craft.  As to the sacrilegious activity and your guardians’ unfortunate experience…”  Margaret shrugged, though her expression was sympathetic.  “Not us.”

“Oh, just as simple as that!  A single brush-stroke:  ‘not us’!”

“Joe, whenever the rumour mill finds a fresh breeze, its sails can be seen turning miles away.  Stories of how poor Violet was found germinate these excesses in every depraved soul who believes he knows how witches behave: and he uses them – to create mischief, to revive old grudges.  As I said:  not us.”

“Nonetheless you admit you do practice witchcraft?”

“I thought I just confirmed that,” She sipped her drink.  “But I’m not the issue, here, am I?”

“No.  I came to ask you about my brother.”

Margaret paused in mid-sip.  Then she said, as if she might have misheard:  “About…?”

“Michael, my brother.”

“Oh, of course!  I remember.  About what concerning your brother, specifically?”

“He joined you, didn’t he?”

“Michael sought initiation, once, it is true.  I gave some teaching, but…”  She paused, choosing her words.  “Michael was in a dark place, I quickly sensed it.  We could not admit him.”

“Margo, have you seen Michael recently?”

Joe was very careful to note the timing, as well as the phrasing, of Miss Farrier’s response.  It was perfect.  “Not for some years, I fear.  He had such burdens, your poor brother – such burdens.”

Still Joe was not fully convinced.  Michael must be nearby, and this house, he felt certain, was one of the first places he would visit.  He continued the conversation, asking questions about witchcraft in a general sense.  Margaret Farrier gave very frank, open answers.

Only when he tried to get her to name specific people or places did she demur with the sweetest but most uncompromising of smiles.

At last he was ready to leave.  As he rose from his chair, a thought occurred and he felt in his jeans pocket, producing the little package Sophie and he had discovered the previous week.

“Would you know what this is?”

It was clear Margaret did know, instantly.  But she delayed long enough to unwrap the parchment and to look upon the photograph within.

“Where did you get this?”

She had displayed perfect honesty: so did he.  “From Violet Parkin’s bedroom.”

Margaret nodded.  “So it was you.  I should have known your curiosity would get the better of you.”

“You know about…?”

“I get to learn, Joe.  I get to learn.  This…”  She waved the components of the package:  “Is very interesting – very interesting indeed.  Tell me, what do you think it is?”

“I thought maybe a love letter, but I couldn’t read the writing.  The man in the picture, is that a younger Jack?  It doesn’t look like my memory of him, but I could be wrong.”

“No – not the younger Jack.  It’s Ned Barker:  taken about twenty years ago, I’d say.  This is a binding spell, Joe.  The sort of spell a woman casts when she wants someone to love her.  The ‘writing’ is in runic symbols – I didn’t think Violet had an appreciation of those – and the spell is bound together with her hair.”  She dangled the thread with faint distaste between her thumb and forefinger.  “Not, you understand, hair from her head?”

As he was leaving, she said:  “I wonder, would you be susceptible to advice?  Be careful Joseph – be very, very careful.  Sometimes in seeking the truth of others we discover the most unwelcome things about ourselves.  I know you have trouble.  I shall try to smooth your path.”

Joe bade the woman goodbye.

In early evening, after tea was concluded and Owen and Julia had departed the kitchen, Joe raided their larder for bread and a little cold meat.  With these and a bottle of fresh water in a carrier bag he slipped from the house by means of the back door and quietly started his car.  He did not quite know why he had to leave so secretly, though maybe there were notions of protection for the old people, whose suffering was undeserved; yet there were others, too, whose attention he would prefer not to attract.  So when he reached the Parkin farm, when he turned into the lane, he cut the engine and free-wheeled the Wolsey as furtively as any thief through the open farmyard gate, only stopping when he reached the cover of the hay barn.  Had he made the journey unseen?  He had reason to hope; the farm was away from the deserted road, and the crime scene tape that until recently made it conspicuous had been withdrawn.

What did he expect to find there?   Joe’s reasoning would have been his need, now he had the means, to do something, anything, to help his brother; to remove him from Ian’s pernicious influence, yet that may not have been entirely truthful.  If he were honest, he might admit that he had to confirm his terrible suspicion that Michael would return to  Hallbury to revisit the scene of his crime.   If it were, where else but this farm should he come?  Joe quitted his car in favour of a stack of hay bales nearer the barn entrance which offered concealment while still commanding a view of the open yard.  Here, braving a constant meal-queue of hungry midges, he settled down to wait.

The hours passed.  An evening sun obscured from his sight set lower in the western sky, casting its rays in a roseate glow across Wednesday Common. He stayed, knees cramped and shivering, as darkness crept, as a pall of solemn sky gathered for rain.  He stayed for a long time.

Much, much later, after the moonless, overcast night had fallen and the cold had begun to etch itself into his bones, he began to admit to the possibility he was wrong.  Michael had not appeared, and glad he should have been!  Had he really doubted his brother’s innocence?  Had he honestly believed Michael would murder a lonely old woman in such bestial fashion?

Eventually, now in total darkness, Joe, resigned, rose to stretch himself.  The torch he had rested on his lap fell to the ground with a clatter.  Immediately, as if in answer, there was another sound.  Not from the open common but behind him, in the barn.  A stir of birds, or bats, in the rafters maybe?  No, this was different.  He cursed himself for omitting the most obvious check of all.  Someone was already there, hiding among the high-piled bales of hay.

“Michael?”

A flurry of raindrops on the roof, promising more.  No other sound.

“Michael, I brought you some food.”

Still nothing.  Joe edged back to his car and reached through the open window, switching on sidelights that would bathe the barn’s interior in a soothing glow.

“Mikey?”

A confusion of sound and shape half-slithered, half-fell from high in the stacks of hay, and even in that dim light Joe knew this was his brother.  Michael landed with no pretence at stealth, springing cat-like back to his feet and for an alarming moment Joe felt he might attack, but Michael, having corrected his balance, seemed to freeze.  They were face to face, the brothers, no more than a yard between them.  Michael’s eyes were wild, his mouth drooling blood and working at muttering, cursing sounds, crying sounds, sounds of distress.  Biting back fear Joe reached out, his fingers finding sodden clothing, exploring the contours of Michael’s arms, his shoulders, his face.   The flesh he touched was icy, the hair matted with mud.  Pity consumed him and he was moved to close his arms around his brother, until he felt the stickiness, saw the darkness on his fingers – smelled the blood.

“Oh, Mikey, where have you been, old son?  What the hell have you been doing?”

No answer came.  The sounds, the inner writhing, continued unabated.  Michael’s body was rigid; his arms pressed into his sides.   Trembling, Joe sought his hand, and found cramped fingers clasping cold steel.    His heart missed a beat.  He ran his fingers along it, the knife, at first as if he did not believe it; then, believing it, in sheer horror; for it was a long knife, a broad-bladed, heavy affair –  a machete, perhaps.  And Michael’s grip was clamped around its hilt with a furious strength.

“Mikey;” Joe said slowly, trying to control the terror in his voice:  “Give me the knife?”

“NO!”  Michael jumped back, raising the blade in a shaking hand, “No.”  Her repeated, and several times more:  “no, no, no, no…”

For once in his life Joe felt seriously scared of Michael.  But that was no answer:  he could not turn his back, not now.  “Mikey, you must give that up.  It’s a bad thing, old son.  Knives are bad.”

“No.”  Michael was focussed, stepping forward again, stabbing the machete at his brother.  Joe might have fled.  He might have done that, and been justified; for to all appearances Michael was beyond him, a lethal stranger only destined to do him harm.  But then what; the police, Joe supposed:  an armed confrontation in the night – Michael, disturbed, angry – scared?  What could happen then?  Courage came, as it always does, from somewhere when it is needed.  Purposefully Joe reached for his brother and gripped the bladed arm, steadying it.  “Mikey; for me, yeah?  Drop the knife.  It’ll be Okay, Mikey, honestly.  We’ll look after you.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

“Okay Mikey.”  They were the only other words Michael said.

#

“I’ve found him.  He’s with me, in the car.”  Joe banged his head against the glass of the ‘phone box.  “God knows why I’m handing him back to you.  I should have gone straight to the police.”

Ian’s reply was calm.  “Joe, you‘re doing the right thing – no police, alright?  He’s our brother, Joe.  We take care of our own.”

“You haven’t seen the state he’s in.  Ian, his clothes are soaked with blood, and it isn’t his.  There’s blood on his face, around his mouth, for Christ’s sake!  I dare not think….”

“Joe!  Joe, it’s alright.  I’m sure it’s alright.  Has he said anything?”

“Just three words.  He doesn’t seem able to talk.  He’s calm now, for the moment, and he’s hungry, but he won’t eat; been living rough for days by the smell of him.  ”

A brief silence at the other end of the line – Ian, thinking.  “Right.  This is what we do.  Take him to the lorry park at Calleston – the new one; do you know it?  It’s not well-known yet, so it won’t be too busy.  Find somewhere – a quiet corner; park up and wait.  Some really good people I have connections with will meet you there – they might be about half an hour after you arrive, but not long.  They’ll get him sorted out and he’ll be back in hospital before morning.  Look, Joe, don’t worry.  Michael’ll be fine – a warm bath and some clean clothes can do wonders, yes?  Now what model of car are you driving?”

“Ian!  He had a knife – a big one.  Have you any idea what he may have done?”

“Candidly?  Have you?  You clearly think he’s been up to something: what – murder?  Did you find him standing over a body?  He’s my brother, Joe, as he is yours; I don’t believe Mikey would hurt anybody, even if you do.  Get back to him and take care of him.  I’ll organise things at this end.  And no police – he’s clearly got enough to cope with without them.  So, what was the make of that car?”

Two hours later, Joseph found himself outside Church Cottages without any notion of how he had arrived there, or what instinct had driven him.  The better part of an hour had been spent waiting, with Michael sitting wordless and inert beside him, in a lorry park for the arrival of a very professionally equipped ambulance.  The two nurses who came to take charge of his brother were caring and gentle with Michael, who, his crisis apparently over, allowed himself to be led like an obedient dog.  The nurses were every bit as concerned for Joseph, aware that he was in the grip of delayed shock and worried that he should contemplate driving in so emotional a state.  There was little they could do, however, and upon Joe’s insistence that he would manage they departed.  Michael sat on the stretcher in the rear of the van, staring fixedly out into the night.   He made no response to Joe’s farewell.  As the ambulance took him away, Joe realised he had forgotten to ask where Michael was being taken.

Now he was here, in front of Tom Peterkin’s door, because Tom was his only friend, and there was nowhere else.  To go home in these bloodied clothes would mean running an impossible gauntlet of questions from Julia and Owen, questions which, in his exhausted state, he could not face.  The shock of this night, the horror of his brother, the sad beauty of Marian’s ghost and Sophie’s last words to him all rotated in his brain and he could not, dare not, spend the next few hours alone.  It was cold and the shivering had begun: someone had to listen; someone had to make sense of it all.  If he had not taken their friendship too far towards destruction, if Tom was still ready to understand, he would be that person:  if Tom was no longer his friend, Joe had no idea to whom he might turn.

His knock echoed in the empty street.  It went unanswered.  The blue front door stared blandly back at him.  He had no notion of how late it was; he had no thought of time.  He waited, knocked again.  At last a light, the shuffling of tired feet:  the sound of a key grating in the lock, a latch turning.

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Steve Halama on Unsplash

 

 

A Four-Letter Word…

Xmas is a four-letter word.  In my etymology it ranks alongside a small and select number of other words of similar length, one or two of which begin with ‘F’.

In reality, of course, the letter ‘X’ represents the Greek letter ‘Chi’, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, ‘Khristos’.  In the Greek it looks like this:  Χριστός.  The ‘mas’ bit is from the Latin word ‘missa’ for sending away – think of the same family of words as ‘message’ or, in archaic, ‘missive’.  It attached itself to Khristos and became ‘Cristes-messe’ in  Old English, which sort of aligns it with my existing stock of four-letter words, most of which, incidentally, also have origins in Old English.

So, to a chorus of resounding groans…

What do I wish for us all?   The glowing image of a Dickensian Christmas, with plumply merry celebrants swaddled in greatcoats, bearing lanterns and singing carols in the snow?

A warm log fire and a tall glistering tree surrounded by happy children, their amassed wrappings strewn about them and their faces lit with surprise and joy?

A rich table of succulence and abundance besieged by celebrants sharing fellowship, love and honest laughter?

Cards and gentle humour, or earnest chess with one person dear to us in the sunset of a favoured room?

None of these.  I wish us all safe passage through a strait beset by dangerous currents.  I wish us forbearance as our children quarrel, patience with the visitor whose knock drags us from our favourite film to engage in conversation, charity, even, for those whose homes we share and wish it were otherwise.

Goodwill to all men.  Especially those whose presence in the grey world beyond our doors has been forgotten; who are forced to confront their memories alone. To those who are cold, to those in pain.

To you, and to you all, I give my Christmas wishes.  May you find harbour beyond the passage to another year with your loves untested and your friendships intact.

Have the merriest Christmas possible, is all I ask.

Be festive.

Buy some holly, or something.