A dark Xmas story of mine from about about 15 years ago.
*Deep and Dreamless*
Peter sat in the unlit room for almost an hour before he bothered to switch the light on. At this time of year, the darkness came so quickly it always seemed to catch him unawares. He downed the glass of whiskey – was it his third, or his fourth? – then closed the curtains and turned on the light.
There was a slow, hesitant knocking on Peter’s front door. At first he wasn’t going to answer it, but then he heard the three little voices piping:
‘O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…’
Peter balanced his empty glass on the arm of the chair and padded down the hall. On the doorstep were three small boys with bright eyes and dirty faces, and smiles more genuine than any he’d seen in a long time.
Carol singers seem to get younger every year, Peter thought as he listened dutifully to the throng. The eldest of the three boys couldn’t have been more than eight years old, and the youngest barely four with a vocabulary that wasn’t the equal of the song’s requirement. At least they were tuneful and actually seemed to enjoy singing. Unlike some of his earlier callers who had belted out a few bars of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ and rattled their tins loudly.
The four-year-old gave Peter an almost toothless grin while his infant’s palate grappled vainly with the song’s lyrics. Peter wondered what their parents could have been thinking to let youngsters out unaccompanied on Christmas Eve. It was after 6.p.m. and as dark as midnight. The street was quite deserted; there was no telling who might be lurking in the shadows.
Peter dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins.
‘Ooh, thanks Mister!’ The older boy clearly regarded the money as a small fortune.
‘You should be getting off home. It’s not safe these days.’ Peter said.
‘We got Power Rangers.’ The youngest said, waving his keyring.
‘Even so, I expect your Mum will be wondering where you’ve got to. Go on, you don’t want to miss Santa do you?’
The boys turned tail and raced for home. Peter smiled and closed the door, their song still playing in his head. Strange they should have picked that carol, the one that most reminded him of Caroline; especially the second line.
He thought of her now, in her own deep and dreamless sleep, silent as a star. Whoever said ‘Time Heals’ couldn’t have lost someone the way he had. Caroline had been dead for five years now, and it had yet to stop hurting. She would have been 35 tomorrow. Peter was a year older but already he felt like an old man, eager to embrace death as a welcome release from his suffering.
He remembered a film he’d once seen about a man who was born on December 25th, and had become a werewolf as a punishment for sharing a birthday with Jesus Christ. It was a stupid film, but Peter couldn’t help feeling that perhaps to be born on Christmas Day was unlucky. It hadn’t done Caroline many favours.
She had been born premature and blue, as her mother had never tired of telling people, a good three weeks early. Thirty years on, Caroline Noelle French, nee Roberts, had died whilst being delivered of a stillborn baby girl leaving Peter to mourn a wife whose face still haunted him and a daughter he would never know.
Strange as it may seem, Peter didn’t hate this time of year. He still hung decorations and fairy lights about the house and on the tree in the back garden. The many happy memories of past Christmases spent with Caroline took the edge off the pain, and he knew she’d have been disappointed if he’d left the house bare.
He poured himself another whiskey, his fourth – no, fifth, wasn’t it? He’d lost count – then he switched on the television, turning the volume low enough just to fill the silence. He took up the remote control and channel hopped between a circus, a carol service, news, and the film ‘White Christmas’. There was nothing he really wanted to see, but the moving images gave the illusion of having company.
Caroline would have watched ‘White Christmas’ and cried at it. She could be funny like that: weeping at sentimental films yet so brave and able to cope in the face of real tragedy.
The night she’d been taken to hospital: she’d called the ambulance herself, and hadn’t woken him until moments before it arrived. Peter remembered her shaking him gently, saying something about how she couldn’t feel the baby moving, how it was hurting badly, but that he wasn’t to worry, the ambulance was on its way. The resolution in her voice could barely disguise the quaver there.
In the ambulance, Caroline had held his hand – shouldn’t it have been the other way round? – and told him to be strong, and that things happened for a reason and it was best to accept. She must have known she wouldn’t make it.
Peter rubbed his eyes. He’d had too much to drink; he was getting maudlin. He turned the television’s volume up and caught the white-gowned choir singing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.
For the second time that evening, he thought of the words of that song and imagined Caroline as a sleeping town. He pictured her spine as a cobbled road; saw the soft curves of her body forming churches, houses, schools and inns; blurring the horizon as she lay beneath a sky made from her black, black hair that was prickled by myriad tiny stars. He wished he could be now in the little town of Caroline, walking its winding streets, losing himself in its most secret places.
‘…Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light…’ The choir sang.
It was at this moment, that joker Fate decided the light bulb should blow. The fairy lights that lined the walls and edged the TV gave adequate illumination; Peter decided to leave searching for a new bulb until morning, or more correctly, he’d do what he always did and take the bulb from the bedside table lamp, which wouldn’t get replaced until well into the New Year. He walked to the far end of the room and opened the curtains. The lights on the tree seemed to blaze brighter now, in comparison with the lightless house.
Behind him, the choir continued, ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…’
Peter shuddered. He’d always found that line to have a strangely menacing undercurrent. Especially as his brightest hope and his darkest fear were one and the same: that his wife and daughter would come back.
This was the first time he had allowed himself to shape the thought. He wished, oh how he wished, that they would return to him now, but at the same time he realised that should his dead wife and child manifest before him he’d probably run screaming.
Could that happen? Could wanting something enough bring it into being?
‘Caroline,’ he whispered, his breath misting the window pane, ‘Caroline.’ His voice bounced back at him in a silent echo he only felt.
Peter poured himself another drink. His fifth? Sixth? He was past caring. And the choir sang on:
‘…How silently, how silently…’
The sound of their clear voices was almost drowned by the pounding of Peter’s heart. Beyond the jewelled tree something stirred. Wind lifted snow into a Dervish dance. Peter pressed closer to the window as the random swirling began to take shape.
In the midst of the blur there seemed to be a figure; frosted, ethereal, a Madonna of the Snows, with an ice child in her arms. Peter slammed his fist against the glass shattering it. He didn’t notice that his wrist was cut and bleeding; didn’t notice the deep red life-blood pat, pat, patting onto the soft beige carpet. He didn’t feel the sting of the gash, nor the anxious pulsing of the lacerated vein. All he was aware of was the vision unfolding before him: the wondrous gift of his black haired, honey-skinned wife remade in coldest white.
‘Caroline!’ he shouted.
The figure raised a finger to her cool lips to silence him. He pushed at the window. It gave beneath his hands allowing him to pass through it. He glanced briefly over his shoulder; the glass he had slipped through was intact except for the corner his fist had smashed.
The back garden was a carpet of snow that glittered like broken glass beneath the full pale Moon. Above the tree the beckoning figure hung in the air; one arm outstretched, the other cradling her child. Peter felt himself floating across the lawn and rising towards them.
‘We came for you.’ Caroline said, her voice an icy whisper from lips once red, now white.
‘Why not before? I’ve prayed for this for so long.’
‘It wasn’t your time. Now it is.’ she answered as they rose.
Peter looked back at the house. It was ill-lit, but through the window he could just make out his body slumped on the floor, a dark pool of mingled blood and whiskey spreading beneath his lifeless wrist.
Caroline glanced up at the Moon, which seemed to brighten in response to her, then back at the house. Peter followed her gaze to the face of his dead body, picked out by a watery beam of light. He looked quite peaceful, he thought; pale and still, sleeping death’s sleep: deep and dreamless.
© Suzanne Barbieri 1995/2011