Family

it is merry christmas everybody’s having fun look to the future now it’s only just begun so here it is merry christmas everybody’s having

Peter tapped the steering wheel in time with the beat, enjoying the soft sensation of his mittens on the plastic. He swung his head back and forth, playing the game that Max had invented. It was called The Bobble Game and you won if you could manoeuvre the bobble of a santa hat around your head in one full rotation without it touching your face. Peter was excellent at the Bobble Game, but he forfeited this round in order to join the battle cry of christmas cheer.

it’s chriiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaas

The upcoming bend was sharper than Peter had anticipated and he jerked the steering wheel hard. He felt his stomach lurch as the weight of gravity within the car shifted and he heard the shuffling crunch of the tree dislodging in the backseat and tumbling to its side. Peter waited until the country lane straightened out then pulled up alongside a bank of trees to survey the damage. Aside from a bit of surface grazing, the pile of gifts was largely intact. One of the boxes had caved in but it was only the scarf he’d bought for himself, which wouldn’t have been hurt and could be re-wrapped when he got to the cottage. The tree’s movement had also released a spray of pine needles, which would have to be tidied up, but Peter was determined not to let such things alter his mood and he straightened the tree back up. Once he felt it was secure between his passenger chair and the back seat, he pulled away and continued up the road.

It was only when his mind returned to the road ahead that Peter realised the music had stopped. The CD had played out and the only sounds in the car were the hum of the engine and the soft whipping rhythm of trees passing at speed. Peter ejected the disc and cycled through a couple of radio stations to try and find some new christmas music.

onfirmed reports of shortages throughout zones threKZZTayeth revelationsKZZTrepeat norwich is second wave

Peter tutted and placed the disc back into its player, his dopey yuletide smile returning with the sounds of drums, guitars and sleigh bells.

when the snowman brings the snow well he just might like to know he’s put a great big smile on somebody’s face

Peter completed a round of the Bobble Game – he was excellent at the Bobble Game – and pressed a little harder on the accelerator. Outside the trees had receded, leaving only a wide expanse of fields and, along the lip of the horizon, the Norwich city skyline. Thin tendrils of smoke rose from the city but Peter’s smile persisted amidst the music. He would not surrender.

Old Hall Farm was an unfinished wedding present from Harry, Peter’s father, who had been evacuated there during the war. Harry’s surrogate family would never have children of their own and so when they passed away almost twenty years ago, Old Hall Farm was left to his care.

Though it had suffered from twenty years of neglect, when Peter and Laura had announced their engagement, Harry began to renovate it on the sly. He had planned to hand them the keys at the wedding dinner, but the farmhouse had stubbornly refused to be brought to code and setbacks had plagued the renovation. When the day of the wedding eventually came Harry instead presented the happy couple with a framed drawing of what the cottage would eventually look like, and substituted what was going to be a moving speech about his childhood for a speech about how workmen were wankers.

Over last few months, his father’s team of renovators had discovered rotten beams in the attic, cracks in all the load-bearing walls and a vengeful cult of rats in the cellar, to name but a few. The workmen had told Harry it would be easier to knock the whole mess down and start again, rather than patch cracks for the rest of his life. Well, Harry responded, the farmhouse had stood since the 17th century and he would be damned if he would yield his childhood to the inconvenience of time, now get back to work. The farmhouse stood now, a gutted stone skeleton, battered but defiant, its weathered granite spiderwebbed with vines and its sunken roof patched by sheets of blue plastic. Above the hard oak door, etched into the stone was a faded date; sixteen something. It was hard to tell as the ridges had been smoothed away by three hundred long years. Peter pulled into the courtyard and parked, looking up at the sick, broken wedding present with a warm smile.

He set about extricating the tree from the back seat of his car, loosing dozens of pine needles as he did so. Finally, with a heave and a crack it came free and Peter held it aloft with triumph. It was a small thing, reaching no higher than his hip, but he’d find a table to prop it on. It didn’t feel like christmas without a sloppily decorated pine in the corner. His mother had always done it but his father kept the tradition alive, even if his attempts at tinsel calligraphy were crude imitations in comparison. Now it was Peter’s turn and he wasn’t going to let the artistic impotence he’d inherited from his dad hold him back.

“I’m home!” Peter called in through the front door. He picked up the tree and its stand, and carried them through to the living room, where the family were sat around the dining table. He pulled a side table over to the corner by the fireplace, placed the stand upon it and slotted the tree inside, before marvelling at his handiwork.

“We have a tree” he proclaimed to the family, loosely covering it in whatever tinsel was left. When the tree had achieved a slapdash sense of yuletide décor, Peter puffed out his chest and returned to the car for the presents.

Once the gifts had been safely piled by the door, Peter checked out his Santa Dad look in the hallway mirror. It was just another one of those things that had crept up on him with the arrival of his son. When Laura was carrying Max, he’d thought a lot about his duties, his responsibilities, and the big stuff; teaching him right from wrong, putting food on the table, earning the respect of his little boy, but there were a myriad other little details that he’d never considered, moments that presented themselves one by one, each of them serving to shock him to the core that he was indeed a father, and that there was a small living thing that now looked upon him the way he’d looked upon his own dad.

One such shock was realising that he was the father at christmas now. Since his mother’s passing, his father had always shouldered the burden of cooking, carving, and reading the weak cracker jokes to his groaning children who would refuse to encourage this silly old man in his jumper and santa hat. Now he looked in the mirror, at his own jumper, the hat on his head and his overexcited smile. He was the silly dad at christmas.

He heard his father call to him from a different day.

“Planning to skip town?”

His dad handed him a cup of horrible brand whiskey. He was wearing the suit that was supposed to be too good to ever actually wear. Seeing his dad in his best suit further pricked at Peter’s nerves and he fiddled with his bow tie, the knot unravelling between his trembling fingers. The comfort of his father’s house was clinging to him, and he never wanted to to leave the sofa.

“Don’t suppose I could borrow your car keys?” Peter responded with a distressed smile.

“I’ll drag you up the aisle by your heels if you’re not careful” His father sat next to him and began to redo his bow-tie.

“You always side with her” said Peter, trying to sound as playful as he could muster.

“Women are tricky,” his dad replied, putting the finishing touches to a passable knot. “But they’re the only opposite sex we have.”

“I’m not sure I can do the whole…” Peter struggled to find the words, his mind travelling, his heart racing “the whole … husband thing.”

Harry sighed, looking up at the mantelpiece and the black and white picture of his own wife. It had been five years since she died.

“It’s easy, you know” he said “I just put food on the table, protected her when she needed me and acted like a man she could respect.”

“That sounds incredibly hard.”

“Looking at it all in one go, sure,” smiled his father “but stretch it out for years and you’ll get it done. I just kept up with my own father’s standards, and, trust me, you’ll be twice the dad I ever was.”

“That,” muttered Peter “might happen sooner than you think.”

His father’s face dropped. He mouthed ‘is she…?’

Peter nodded.

“How far gone?” asked Harry.

“A month.” he grinned.

His father grinned back.

“Get in the fucking car and get up that fucking aisle right fucking now.”

Peter smiled again at the thought, then picked up the small mound of gifts and walked with a slight bounce back into the dining room.

The ceiling of the dining room was low, a thick beam of timber running across it at prime head-bothering height, a souvenir from a time when folk were shorter, or at least more careful with their heads. The dining table took up much of the space. Wooden. Dark fired oak, he remembered his father calling it. Truthfully, Peter had not yet become enough of an adult that he knew about woodgrains, and he shuddered at the thought of one day waking up and being aware of such things. Peter placed the presents on the table, ignored the muffled little growl of impatience from Max, and set about lighting the fire.

His father often told him of the wartime nights of his childhood spent crowding around the fireplace, listening to the wireless, the warbling of brass orchestras segmented by impassive tales of cities at siege and the millions caught in a different kind of fire. But when warmed at the hearth, and the war had been filtered through the airwaves, away from the sirens, the soot and the cordite, his father had found a sanctuary here, and Peter was determined for it to be so again. One last time.

He watched the small pile of newspaper ignite at the base of the log pile. His father stirred behind him, the black veil almost slipping from his head.

“Oh alright, if you can’t wait,” chirped Peter “Presents!”

He took his seat at the head of the table. His family were subdued at the moment, the black veils draped over their face.

“Now I thought it might be nice to wait a bit, perhaps listen to some music?” he explained, calmly fielding a low moan from Laura, “Yes, yes, but you’re right, I can’t wait either!”

He separated the stack of gifts into those for Harry, those for Laura and those for Max.

“As he’d always say when he wore the hat, it’s age before beauty isn’t it, Dad?”

He took a small box, labelled ‘Dad’ and took it over to where his father was sitting, across from him at the other head of table. He placed the box down in front of his father, close enough to hear a wet gasping sound coming from beneath the veil.

“Let’s have a look what we have shall we?” Peter lifted the veil to reveal the shrivelled face of his father. One of his cheeks had been torn away to bare tendon, rotted teeth and bloodied gums.

The sudden burst of light startled him and he began to thrash against the restraints in his chair, moaning loudly. His neck chain clanked furiously, hands pulling against their leather straps, fingers clawing chips and splinters from the arms of his seat. Peter stroked what remained of his father’s sandy hair, calming him as best he could.

“Easy, old man,” he soothed, gripping him by the forearms. “Christmas is peacetime, remember?”

Gradually, his father’s milky eyes adjusted to the light and he calmed, reduced to feeble snapping motions of his jaw. Peter picked up the small package and shook it in front of his father’s face, as Harry had once done for him.

“Look!”

He held the package to his father’s hands. The contact made him spasm and groan. His hands scrabbled violently, ragged nails scratching at the object in their grip. Peter manoeuvred the gift under Harry’s nails, which tore away the wrapping paper to reveal a small square box.

“There we are!” said Peter with pride. “Let see… it’s a…”

He opened the box to reveal a silk tie. He removed it and held in front of his dad, who did not see it, but was rather snapping his jaw in the direction of Peter’s face. The chain around his neck held him back.

“Let’s give that a try.” Peter draped the tie around his father’s neck and, keeping his hands out of nipping distance, tied a double windsor knot. Navigating around his father’s convulsions, he pushed the knot to Harry’s dishevelled collar, which was torn and stained with filth. “Perfect”, smiled Peter. “Who’s next?”

Neither of the two shrouded figures volunteered themselves. Peter ran his fingers over the pile of gifts, picking up a petit maroon box, tied with a gold ribbon. He gave it a playful little shake, hearing it tinkle.

“These are for you, my darling.”

He appoached the taller of the two creatures, revealing a beautiful black dress beneath the shroud. Its seams were torn in places, but the dress blended beautifully with the veil to create a single, shadowy form. Setting the gift on the table, he took the veil in his hands and lifted it to reveal

the face of his bride. The sun was in her eyes and she was squinting with discomfort. It wasn’t the first malfunction of the day. A pigeon had flown in through the open window of their ‘just married’ car and they’d both collapsed into giggles when Laura’s mother had vaulted in after it, purse in hand, to “break his pissing little neck!” These little moments made Peter and Laura all the happier. They were not just a bride and groom adhering to the strict schedule of a wedding, but Peter and Laura, two silly people who were going to at least attempt to spend the rest of their lives with each other.

Laura smiled at him. She looked perfect, simply being there, happy to be in a white dress and marrying the ridiculous man that swallowed his own tongue doing a magic trick involving the disappearance of peaches. Her eyes seemed almost afraid to lock with his. All of his fear washed away. She needed him now, and all he wanted, all he needed at that moment was to be her man. He took her free hand in his, gave it a playful caress with his thumb and winked.

“Dare you” he said.

She blushed.

“I hope you realise,” she replied with a wicked grin “that I am going to win this marriage.”

He held her and kissed her on the forehead. The skin was cold at his lips and her snarling head bucked in his hand. The restraints around her neck held, and he hushed her, pressing his lips to her forehead tight and tangling his fingers in her flattened, knotted hair. A mess of it came loose and dropped to the floor. Her lower lip was torn open, and the blood had congealed in the wound.

Like his father, Laura calmed in Peter’s care. She looked at Peter, her gaze locked on his. Her white-washed eyes stared intently at him, her head cocked like a dog, inquisitive and withdrawn.

Peter opened the box to reveal a pair of silver earrings. They were his mother’s, the pinnacle of her collection. They looked three teardrops laid over one other in sequence, smallest to largest. Laura always wanted pierced ears. He’d gotten her to the chair three times, but she always ran.

“I wanted you to have these,” he said, still smiling “But they don’t come in clip-on. Still, we’re not afraid anymore are we?”

He brushed her hair behind her ear, revealing a delicate lobe, complete and unmarked. He removed one of the earrings from its case and unsheathed its needle point. Still she watched him, her jaw moving slightly on its own power, as he lightly pushed the pin into the flesh of the lobe until it pricked out the other side. No blood flowed. He fixed the clutch behind her lobe and admired the way his mother’s jewellery sat on her, before doing the same with her other ear. And still she stared at him.

“My mother would be so happy to see you with these.” said Peter. Laura began to again twist and lurch in her seat. Peter giggled. What a great Christmas.

One remained, the smallest of the hooded trio. He cut a tiny silhouette. As Peter appoached him he noticed that one of his boy’s little legs had wriggled free from its strap. Max kicked out, catching Peter on the kneecap. He stumbled back, rubbing his knee, biting back a curse.

“Mother Hubbard” he cried. “Max, come on now! That’s not like you”

Well, to be honest, it sort of was. Peter was frequently amazed by Max’s ability for inflict pain upon him. The kid has the damnedest little habit whenever Peter picked him up. He’d hold Max in his arms and the little sod would just grab handfuls of his face, his little child fingers pulling at the flesh like it was putty. He often caught a finger right on the eyeball, and Peter would have to quickly but safely navigate Max to the floor before fully allowing himself to the spasm of pain that his finger had wrought. It didn’t happen that often, that was the insidious thing. Nine times out of ten, Peter would hold his four year old and Max would allow himself to be held, perhaps even nestling his head into Peter’s shoulder. Then, occasionally, Max’s hands would clip at his face like an emu.

He also once stabbed Peter in the foot with a kitchen knife.

He’d been heating onions for dinner, the knife still perched on the chopping board. Max had grown sharply in the last year and when he stretched for it, he could just about reach his ‘tippy-fingers’ to the kitchen counter. As Peter stirred the sizzling jumble of onions in the pan, Max had tottered over and made a grab for the chopping board, the corner of which peeked over the edge of the kitchen counter. The board toppled, the knife slid off the counter, through the air, through Peter’s sock and stabbed him briefly on the top of his foot. Though the knife didn’t stab him hard enough to embed itself, it was hard enough, and Peter purpled the air with a volley of swears. Max picked up the chopping board, which was now “mine”, and scampered out of the room. When Peter approached Laura for sympathy, she slapped him hard on the arm and called him a “stupid idiot” for leaving a knife within grabbing range of their son and told him to tend the wound himself. Fair enough, he thought in retrospect.

GBH-aside, Max was a gentle little boy, shy and withdrawn around strangers like his mum, but a bounding dope when at home like his dad. Peter found it hard to tear his eyes away from Max sometimes. He was just so fascinating to look at and he had the most expressive little face. You could practically read his thoughts with every scrunch of his eyes or curl of his lip. His head also seemed much too big for his body. Peter knew this probably wasn’t the case, and was likely down to the thick crop of golden hair that Max wore in a mop, but still, he looked weird, like a cartoon. Peter would just watch him play sometimes, big head hung low over a squadron of plastic troops, his face alternating between anguish and glory with all the emotions in between.

When Max’s leg had stopped lashing out, Peter cautiously approached him and lifted his veil. On contact with the light, Max squealed and moaned, aggravating Laura and Harry, who echoed back with moans of their own. Howls begat howls and before Peter knew what was going on, the room had erupted into the typical yuletide hollering and high spirits that he’d always known around a Christmas table. He stood apart from the wailing figures strapped to their chairs and couldn’t help but laugh. He clutched his sides, laughter burning his throat, as his family cavorted and thrashed.

As his smile slowly faded he did his best to draw the table to attention. When he’d finally soothed their spirits, Peter took the last, and biggest gift from the table and brought it over to where his son was perched.

“Now I think,” said Peter, his voice slow with uncertainty “I think this was the one you wanted.”

Max loved his soldiers, and in the weeks leading up to christmas had begged for Santa to bring him a Star Crusader. Of course, Max already owned about three of the bloody things, and there were about eight or so to collect. He’d tried pressing the kid for details but Max was quite insistent that “Santa would know which one.” Whilst shopping, Peter had tried to memorise which ones they’d already bought him. They’d got him the red one, the yellow one, and possibly the black one, or perhaps the dark green one.

This was all very, very important.

He’d played it relatively safe and bought him the blue one, and as he tore it open in front of Max he tried to gauge the little boy’s reactions. His heart sank as Max reacted to the blue Star Crusader with total indifference. Damn it all, he thought. The kid already had it. Max jerked his head forward, much more interested in Peter himself than the toy he was earnestly offering him, but the neck chain held him back and Peter tousled the boy’s hair in apology.

“Never mind, eh.” Peter smiled at the little boy, but Max could not return it. His entire lower jaw was missing. His tongue rested limply on his throat, dried and cracked. The accumulated drool, blood and bile of the injury had dried to a chalky combination of stains. With the black veil in his hand, he wiped clean the torn mouth of his little boy.

He put aside the neglected Crusader and turned Max to rejoin the rest of his family. He placed a loving hand on the boy’s shoulder, and withdrew it before Max could sink his top row of teeth into it. He stood back, with his father’s santa hat bobbling around his head, and surveyed the Christmas table.

His Christmas table.

A small chorus of moans sounded off, the soft gurgling of the trio almost harmonious, singing a drowned rendition of Silent Night. He smiled and tore open his gift to himself: a bright green scarf, with a sleigh at one end, and a pattern of 12 reindeer running all the way to the other. He placed it around his neck. When he was a child, he used to dread the day when his parents were not the architects of seasonal cheer, when all he and Megan had to do was fall asleep and when they awoke, Christmas had been built around them brick by brick. He felt that something would be lost forever when he stepped behind the magician’s cloth and performed the trick for himself.

But the truth is, this was better. Having Done Christmas Right gave him a richer feeling of accomplishment. Wonder had been lost, but it had been replaced with triumph. It was all part of that next stage of life he’d been so afraid of, all part of becoming the man his father once told him he’d be.

He pulled all the crackers himself and dug out their innards. He threw away the jokes and the trinkets, but saved the paper hats. He went around each of his family in turn and plopped the rustling crowns on their heads. The hats hung loose on them, and before long they had slipped to the point of being christmas necklaces. Harry began to gnaw on the points of his, ripping off a little orange peak and slackly chewing on it.

He surveyed the room. The house had been decorated, the gifts had been given, and the hearth was ablaze. The fire had turned this corpse of a farmhouse into a home once more. It was a safe haven from the evils at the door, that tried and and tried and tried to make their way in.

He placed the CD into a player plugged into the wall and set it to his favourite number. Christmas was almost done. There was just one thing left to do.

have yourself a merry little christmas let your heart be light next year all our troubles will be out of sight have yourself a merry

He took his seat at the head of the table and clasped his hands together in prayer.

“Our father in heaven,” he began, reciting the version his father had taught him. “Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and…”

His smile broke for the briefest of moments. Peter had come home, the door of his basement flat was ajar, its viewing window broken. He heard a siren approach, pass and die away on the street above. A gunshot, far away. He dropped his briefcase and coat and stumbled into the flat. On the wooden floor were thick skidmarks where heels had struck out at the panelling. A splatter of blood was still damp and dripping on the wall. Another siren passed above him. Sticking out of the doorway that led to the lounge was a pair of legs. As he stood over the body he recognised it to be their upstairs neighbour, Mr Xho. He had the length of an iron poker dug into his temple, and his mouth was wet with blood. Peter looked up. He saw his family.

“And…” stumbled Peter. A pain burned deep and hot behind his eyes. He reset his grin and kept ploughing to the end. “And deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and for ever. Amen.”

When he had finished, he rose from his chair, and clambered onto the dining table. He lay back in the midst of his family, looking up at his father’s face, his beautiful wife on his left, his bouncing boy on his right. One by one, he released the straps from their wrists, and they began to paw at him, scratch at him, sink their nails into his flesh. Pain shot through his chest like a wave of needles, before he carefully unhooked the restraints around their necks. Freed from their harnesses, and renewed by the sudden vigour of available meat, his family crunched their teeth into his body. The thick bursts of pain were no match for the pride that swelled in him. His father’s teeth stripped the flesh from his forehead, his wife’s scratching hands burrowed into his chest, and Max grabbed a handful of his father’s face, plucking an eyeball from its socket. They feasted upon him from the outside in, but as Peter faded away, his smile could not be broken. He knew that, for a final time amidst the music and the tinsel, he had become the man that, one nervous morning on a sofa, he was so sure he would never be.

Once again as in olden days happy golden days of yore faithful friends who were near to us will be dear to us once more someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow so have yourself a merry

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