My wonderful friend Amanda has been helping me this year in my writing. It's been a simple arrangement. Every now and again I've asked her for a writing prompt, a half sentence to begin a story or a poem or just a short piece of prose that I might return to later. A few of the results of this process have appeared in this blog. Do you remember how Gerald ate the washing?
I recently asked her for another prompt and it turned out to be seasonal:
He saw the Christmas lights had been up for months, and he thought to himself ...
That's it. Simple.
When I saw those words I knew that I would be writing a small piece about the horrors of a Christmas starting in October rather than at Christmas. I knew I'd probably grumble about the over commercialisation of the festival and how none of what was seen on a city street had anything to do with Christ. You'll have noticed that I am not currently giving myself the title Christian. That doesn't mean that I don't see a greater meaning in the stories surrounding Jesus than in the way we're all encouraged to celebrate. I knew I would be bringing in Christian ideas from those stories and celebrating those.
I knew it. But sometimes knowledge is wrong.
And I knew my knowledge was false knowledge by the time I finished typing the first sentence.
What follows is the result of continuing to type. It's a Christmas story and is my present to you all this year. If you want to give me something, proof read this tale. I know it contains plenty of typos. My entire blog undoubtedly contains many such errors. If you spot them, feel free to let me know.
Here it is. The longest piece of fiction I've ever written. At about 15,700 words it's approximately 15,000 words longer than I had expected!
This year has seen a beginning to my writing. Next year will see a more serious continuation. Next year might see a Christmas story worthy of publication in something more noteworthy than this blog. That doesn't mean it would be published. Lots of very worthy stories never see publication and across the country thousands of writers know only to write for the joy of writing rather than for the privilege of being read.
Note: The characters and street in this story are fictional. The cafe is not.
Note: I type this on the morning of December 19th. The story mentions certain weather conditions that happen today and on Christmas day too. These weather conditions are fictional.
Note: Don't expect the greatest story ever told. But I hope you find some enjoyment in what follows.
Carl. June 2016
He saw the Christmas lights had been up for months, and he thought to himself, “My, don't they look fantastic?”
He smiled, sighed contentedly, and looked at his house.
It was truly sumptuous. It shone like the star of Bethlehem as if the light of the angels had come and landed upon his home. It was as if God was celebrating. He was pretty sure that Bethlehem had been no brighter when the Magi approached the place where Jesus was born.
Carl suspected that he was getting his metaphors and the story twisted up somehow but it didn't matter to him.
He scratched his face absent mindedly and ran his hand through his beard and watched as the lights shone, sparkled, changed. Surely this year he would win the Christmas decoration competition. Surely nobody would be able to challenge this display.
There wasn't a space left to fill on the outside of his three bedroom semi. The roof was arrayed with a layer of white lights to show the snow and they periodically flashed messages that Carl had spent days programming into a computer, each of five thousand lights controlled independently. Just simple messages like “Merry Christmas Everybody” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” but each letter was comprised of lots of lights. Carl had enjoyed the challenge and each word was now perfect on his roof. He had combined his programming with listening to his favourite carols and watching Christmas movies from his DVD collection.
Landing on the snow was a life sized sleigh made of lights, pulled by life sized reindeer. The bells on the sleigh sparkled as they swung back and forth. Carl would have preferred to be able to hear them but out of courtesy to his neighbours he wouldn't switch on the loudspeakers yet. Santa was on the roof too – or part of him. A life sized Santa with a perfectly formed red cloak and white beard was squeezing down Carl's chimney.
Carl knew that if the loudspeakers were switched on he would hear Santa laughing and saying “Ho, ho, ho,” every five minutes and “Merry Christmas one and all” every six minutes and five seconds. Once for every year of three hundred and sixty-five seconds. Carl had programmed Santa so that the “Ho”s wouldn't clash with the “Merry”s. So every few hours Santa would be saying “Merry Christmas one and all, Ho, ho, ho.” Carl knew that his heart and mind would scream with delight every time that happened.
The front of Carl's house was a blaze of lights. Snowmen, decorations, a Christmas tree from the ground right up to the eaves, robins, a perfectly baked Christmas pudding, angels, and all manner of the most beautiful lights Carl had been able to buy – and some even more beautiful ones he had made out of wire frames and long strings of fairy lights.
The rest of the houses in the street looked bare.
Because they were bare.
Carl felt quite sorry for the people in those houses. They had drab houses and he couldn't see the Christmas cheer in any of them. No lights. At all. Oh well, at least they could all see the special sight that was Carl's house. He was doing everyone a big favour. Bringing happiness and smiles into a sad situation, just like God did when he sent Jesus and gave the world its first Christmas. There hadn't been fairy lights then of course. When you have a blazing star and the lights of the angels you don't need electric displays of joy.
Carl's garden was also filled with the sweet sensations of Christmas.
A Christmas train ran round the front garden and down the side of the house. It was a very clever display that Carl had designed himself. The train would appear from the back of the house filled with presents in the wagons it pulled. It would then make a slow tour of houses across the garden, all lit up for Christmas and all with their own little “Santa, Stop Here” signs. At each house the train would stop and presents would be left – all lit up fabulously of course. Then the train, empty now, would return to the back of the house ready to be filled for another circuit as the presents – in an effect Carl was particularly proud of – would be taken into the houses.
The train was a new addition for this year. Much more impressive than the inflatable snowmen and reindeer that had been there before. They were now stored up in Carl's loft. He couldn't bear to part with them even though he knew that he would only ever need them again in an emergency.
This year was the year. This year he would win the national Christmas decoration competition. He had already won his local competition six years running and people from across Farnworth and even from the other side of Bolton came to drive past his house and put a little offering in the buckets Carl left out to support the hospice. Last year he had raised nearly eight thousand pounds for them. Before electricity costs and the cost of all his lights. After all of that was taken into account he had been able to send the hospice a cheque for three hundred pounds. Carl was pleased to do it.
And this year he would achieve national fame. He was sure of it. He wouldn't just appear on the cover of The Bolton News and get on the local news bulletin at Granada TV. He would be famous. His name and face would be on the Nine O'clock News on the BBC. And everyone would see what a wonderful thing he had created.
Carl sighed again. It was all good.
Except for the gap.
In the middle of the railway was a gap. Empty space.
Carl had considered just filling it with some of the inflatable snowmen but they felt out of place among the wonders of his railway. Once the loudspeakers were switched on Carl knew that the train would make real train noises as it drove along the track and after visiting each house it would make a “Toot! Toot!” noise. He was looking forward to that.
No, an inflatable snowman wasn't right for his garden any more and Carl knew it.
He had been thinking about this problem for weeks. And as he stood there inspiration came to him. Yes. It would be the perfect solution. He knew exactly what was needed and he promised himself he would labour every night to make the right centrepiece for his garden display.
Carl knew that everyone around would just love it.
He clapped his hands in joy and then went inside to start planning his new project.
It would be wonderful. More than wonderful. It would.
Hannah. June 2016
She saw the Christmas lights had been up for months and she thought to herself, “When will this hell end?”
Hannah almost wished she had never moved to her home in Welford Avenue. If only she had known. She would never have bought the place if she had. No wonder the previous owners were so keen to move away.
It was a perfect home. Three spacious bedrooms upstairs – with hers at the back of course – and a lounge that was to die for. She thought she would be happy there, a home for life unless she ever married again and got whisked away to some paradise by the man or woman of her dreams. Hannah had vivid dreams.
She knew about the lights over the road of course when she viewed the house. But that had been one evening in mid-December the previous year and she was prepared to overlook such a blight on the neighbourhood. After all, it was only really for a couple of weeks and people must have put thousands into those collection buckets.
Hannah didn't like Christmas. She wanted to avoid as much of the festivities as possible. Christmas still stung too much. Her marriage had ended a year previously, the tensions that had built up over five long years suddenly breaking out into open warfare. Her ex, Dave, had thought it hilarious to hand her divorce papers on Christmas Day with the words, “'Appy Christmas Han.”
She hadn't been amused. The joke was on him though because he lost nearly everything in the marriage settlement. Served him right. Hannah could have kept the house and she tried to stay but it held too many memories. When autumn came she knew she couldn't stand to be there much longer. Everywhere she looked there was a memory of Dave, painful, a new wound inflicted by an absent man. It was time to go.
She put the house on the market that October and started hunting, half-heartedly for a new home. Somewhere that could be hers and hers alone. At the start of December she found an enthusiastic buyer and had to put more effort into hunting. The combination of regret and hope was exhausting.
Hannah found her dream home a couple of weeks later. It was everything she could imagine it could be. At least, it was everything it could be within her budget – a nice budget thanks to the house she had afforded with Dave and his wage packet, but not an unlimited one. Yes, he may have been a shit but he had been a shit with money. Now he was a shit with less money, paying off the mortgage on a house that wasn't even his any more.
Hannah could hardly believe her luck and she made an offer for the house straight away. The lawyers on both sides worked at a speed that merited their wages and contracts were exchanged at the start of February.
Moving in day had been excellent. Saying goodbye to the memories. The day before she buried her wedding ring under the apple tree in the garden. The end of an old life. The beginning of the new. At last.
The removal company worked very hard to move the possessions Hannah was taking. She was leaving behind as much of the furniture as she could. New house, new chairs. The divorce settlement could pay for some new furniture. It wouldn't be as plush and ornate as the things she was leaving but it would be hers, without the stink of Dave still tainting every stitch, every knot in the wood, every little damn thing.
She felt free. For the first time since marrying Dave. Free.
While the removal men unpacked she drank tea and sat on the front garden wall, watching the stream of possessions as they were carried into the house. It was strange to see everything boxed as if her entire life consisted of sealed brown packages.
Joyce from next door popped round to say hello. She seemed nice and offered to drop round a meal that night to save Hannah from having to think about it. Hannah hadn't known that anyone did that kind of thing in real life. She thought it was a soap opera device to lead the viewer into the existence of a new character. Maybe Joyce was from a soap opera. Hannah found herself wondering which soap Joyce was in and what kind of dark secrets she had. Was Joyce a Corrie woman or an escapee from Ramsay Street? Or was Joyce from some crazy mash-up of The Archers, Cell Block H, and Dynasty?
It wasn't until she was sitting on the wall drinking her second cup of tea that Hannah noticed them.
The Christmas lights.
They were still there.
That came as something as a shock. But maybe there was a perfectly good reason. Maybe someone living there had been ill so nobody had found the time to take the lights down. Maybe they had started the job and got distracted. There certainly seemed to be a few less decorations in the garden. All those horrid inflatable snowmen had gone. Quite scary things really. Sinister.
Hannah decided that she could even offer to help with clearing them away into boxes once she had emptied some of her own boxes. She finished her tea, concluding that the lights would be gone soon and she wouldn't have to put up with seeing them again until next Christmas.
She was wrong.
As it got dark outside, the lights came on.
Bright. Flashing. Boom, boom, boom in Hannah's head and she hadn't even got curtains to put up.
She was shocked. Dismayed. Annoyed. Her dream spoiled by the bright lights of a loathed time, inescapable. In February. 'Tis the season to be sorry. Tra la la la oh crap it all.
So that was moving day. The lights were the same every day after that. Apart from two blissful weeks when Carl had gone on holiday and the lights stayed off. Joyce said that it was the same every year and though it was annoying there really wasn't anything anyone could do about it. She knew. She had tried. In the long run though she supposed it was all harmless.
It was now the end of June. Hannah returned home from work. She looked, hoping beyond hope, as she did every time she came back to Welford Avenue. The lights were still there. As they had been for months. Years even.
As she walked up the street to her home – fitted now with some heavy duty blackout curtains that still didn't quite prevent Christmas entering her house during the spring nights – she saw Carl in his garden. He looked up at his house and smiled and Hannah could have sworn she heard him sighing. He looked very pleased about something up on the house and then had looked down, staring at the garden. Staring at that space where those snowmen had been.
Carl suddenly shouted, “Yes, Yes, Yes, that's the one,” and clapped his hands before punching his fist into the air. He then ran back into his house and closed the door.
Hannah wondered what “the one” would be. Presumably a space filler of some garish and distasteful and tacky variety. Carl had already added a quite horrific train track with a multi-colour train of presents. It was awful
Hannah wondered how much more of this hell she could take before she exploded. She didn't want to explode at Carl. Apart from his Christmas obsession he was a nice man. But Hannah knew that even she had limits and she felt resentment bubbling up within her.
As she entered her home and put the kettle on she tried, without success, to put those feelings of dread from her mind. It would be okay. It would. Would it?
Hannah. Summer 2016
As the summer passed Hannah forgot about “the one.”
The gap on the lawn remained and each night the train circled a large bare patch of grey paving slabs. It would be a stretch to say all was quiet. For although the loudspeakers remained silent the lights made up for it by their own noise and busyness.
The summer was easier for Hannah to bear because the nights were shorter so the lights displayed their garish Christmas horrors for less hours and on some nights, if she pulled the curtains early, Hannah was almost able to forget about Carl's obsession for a while.
It wasn't that Carl was a bad man. Quite the opposite. The two of them had even shared a drink and a bite to eat a couple of times after bumping into each other when shopping in Farnworth. It turned out that they shared a love for a little café just round the corner where the service was friendly, the portions huge, and where no music ever played. Neither Hannah nor Carl wanted their meals or their conversations disturbed by the intrusion of music whether that be from someone else's CD collection or – even worse – from a badly tuned radio.
Yes, she had to admit it. If you could get Carl away from Christmas he could be quite the gentleman. Joyce had stuck her nose in though. She had spotted the two of them leaving the café one day and put two and two together to make eighty-six. Joyce had popped round that evening and had asked about the “relationship” and whether she should be buying herself a new hat. And then she had discussed it with Mrs. Ashwood down the street and with Brian Greene too and before long it seemed that the entire street – if not the entire estate – knew that Hannah and Carl were an item. Which they weren't. Hannah was so embarrassed by the whole thing that she got Carl to agree that they wouldn't share any more meals together. At least for a while.
It was just a pity she couldn't get him to turn off the lights once in a while. She had tried. Several times. But Carl just laughed it off and then would tell Hannah about the different kind of lights and motors and software he used or about a new DVD he had bought. It was much safer not to mention the subject at all otherwise the Carl who could make her smile mutated into a monster from the seventh level of that big inferno.
Hannah hadn't ever enquired about the gap in the garden. And now, with summer turning to autumn, she had put it out of her mind. “The one” lay forgotten, dead in the midst of the living year.
Carl. Summer 2016
As the summer passed, Carl worked on “the one” almost every night.
It had proved far more complicated than he had imagined.
This wouldn't be just another nativity scene. They had been done a thousand times before. A stable on the ground and a few lit up figures. Boring. Anyone would think that the nativity wasn't about the light of the world coming to Bethlehem because the scene would be the dullest part of displays. There was a time when a nice nativity was enough to almost guarantee you a place in the final round of the national Christmas lights competition. Not any more. The judges would now see through a nativity. It didn't matter how bright you made the crowns on the heads of the kings. It didn't matter how many inflatable sheep you put in the garden. It didn't even matter if you used an actual garden shed as the stable. None of that would win you the title. It was old fashioned, passé.
Yes. Jesus was boring. Dull. An ancient relic in the world of the bright lights.
And the children were even more bored by Jesus than the judges. They wanted Santa. They wanted presents. They wanted more and more and more things. They didn't seem to want Jesus any more. They wanted a Christmas without Christ and Carl felt terrible about that even though he didn't personally believe in Jesus or go to church or anything like that. Except at Christmas. What would Christmas be without Christmas church? Carl couldn't conceive of it.
Carl had decided that this was the year that a nativity scene could clinch the title, sway the votes of the judges and even inspire the children to wonder and awe and an excitement surpassing the joy of seeing elves helping on top of the sleigh.
This was the year. This was “the one.”
A nativity. The greatest illuminated nativity scene ever seen in a garden on a housing estate in England. The greatest. Bar none. If he could ever finish it.
The basic plan was drawn out in a fortnight and Carl realised he had his work cut out if he was to get his nativity finished in good time. He wanted everything in place and switched on by the end of October. First he had to order the materials and he hoped that all the extra costs would mean extra donations for the hospice otherwise it was going to be a very small donation this year.
Then the actual work began.
Six nights a week, four or five hours a night.
There had been challenges. Snags. Setbacks. Triumphs. He had never built a framework this big before or had to string together so many lights in such complicated arrays. He had never programmed anything quite so complex into his computer or struggled so much to get everything to work in perfect timing.
Sometimes it didn't work and there were times he felt frustrated by the whole project and wondered if he might be doomed to failure and have to get the snowmen out again. If it hadn't been for Hannah helping to clear his mind of Christmas lights occasionally during the summer months he might have ended up smashing up the display and resigning himself to another “also ran” place in the competition.
He enjoyed meeting with Hannah. Her company was relaxing and she took him away from his troubles for a while and into conversations full of smiles in which they hadn't had to talk about anything much. They had even been out for a meal a few times in that quiet café. Carl had been sad when Hannah had said that they shouldn't meet any more. He liked her company and knew that she had helped him get through that long, difficult summer of the nativity.
Towards the end of September all the pieces finally started coming together. It was going to be seamless. It had to be. On the tenth of October he wired up the final string of bulbs and attached them to a frame. It was time. He had built something spectacular. The nativity to end all nativities. All he had to do now was put it together.
Hannah. October 2016
She could remember the date.
If she were to live a thousand lifetimes on a planet as yet unevangelised by ardent and zealous Christian space missionaries preaching about the joy of Christmas she would never forget the date.
October the eleventh.
That was the day Hannah's state of partial relaxation turned to fear.
That was the day she returned from work and found Carl at work in his garden moving a seemingly unending series of wooden panels and wire frames into position. The noise was terrible as he drilled dozens of holes through his paving to attach his creations.
Hannah couldn't yet tell what any of it was meant to be. But whatever it was, it was already huge.
Hannah entered her house quickly and slammed the door. She sunk to the floor in the hall and just shook. What new torture was Carl going to inflict on her? How could she have enjoyed his company when he was a monster? Why had she ever moved to Welford Avenue when that house on Kipling Drive had been nice too? She lay on the carpet and cried, lost in panic, mislaid in fear.
Later that night, as she lay in bed, she tried to forget about the lights, about Christmas, about the bad memories of her marriage, and about the irresponsibility of a world that inflicts such an unavoidable festival on its people.
It was a bad night.
When she left for work the following morning she half-hoped that the thing in the garden opposite was just a bad nightmare.
It wasn't. It was there. Real. Ugly in the light of a new day.
In her lunch hour she went out and bought herself herbal tablets, lavender oil and camomile tea.
When she returned home Carl was at work again. The frames in the garden were unchanged but he had placed ladders against his house and was just finishing hanging an entirely new set of lights across the entire house front. Not replacing the old lights. Covering them. As if one circle of Hell was not enough.
And so it went on.
The next day Carl had placed ladders right across his roof and he was attaching even more lights.
On the Friday things got even more worrying as Carl attached some kind of metal frame to his roof and chimney. It stuck up about ten feet from the house and lengths of strong plastic tubing now ran from the top of the frame on the roof to the top of the frame in the garden. Hannah could hardly see how he had managed to achieve such a feat.
A weekend of construction followed. Lights and figures were attached to the frames and more lights hung across the tubing too. Lots of lights. The tubing formed its own frame, perhaps four or five feet across and in that frame hung dozens of sets of lights each hung on a transparent sheet. There must have been thousands of lights. Hannah wondered how much it had all cost. She couldn't help but wonder what it would all look like when finished. These illuminations were almost Blackpool if it was multiplied by Vegas. At least, that's the way it felt to Hannah.
On the Sunday afternoon Carl added waterproof casings into the various parts of his creation and into each casing he added another loudspeaker. It was going to be a long and noisy Christmas. Thank God it was only October. There would be a month of grace at least before the unholy din began.
On Monday the eighteenth as Hannah arrived home, Carl called out to her. “Isn't this wonderful?”
Hannah hated herself for being so polite. She hated herself for enjoying the company of her neighbour that summer. She hated Carl. She hated her street, her home and her whole god-damn life.
“Do you think this year I'll win the national title?”
“I really couldn't say. But it won't be for want of trying. Well done.”
Hannah hated herself some more. All she wanted to do was shout out her true feelings. Tell Carl just how vile and abhorrent all the lights were. Tell Carl how her life was being ruined by Christmas. Tell Carl how crazy she thought his obsession was. She wanted to swear at him. Let loose everything.
Instead she said, “I can't wait to see it finished.”
“It won't be long now. Just a few finishing touches. Then I can wire it into the computers indoors. Maybe we can watch together as I switch it on. Let there be lights. Let there be sound. Let there be the greatest Christmas celebration this country has ever seen. It's going to be magical.”
Carl smiled so eagerly and looked happier than Hannah had ever seen him.
“Magical, yes. I'm looking forward to it.”
Hannah didn't know how much it was possible for a person to hate herself but she guessed she was getting near the limit by that point.
“I've got to get in. See you soon,” she said and gave Carl a little wave before leaving him and getting into her house.
Hannah collapsed onto the hall carpet again and wept and hit the floor until her knuckles hurt. She curled up and lay there for a long while. Shivering.
No amount of camomile and valerian could help that night.
Carl. October 2016
He could remember the date.
Sunday October the twenty-third.
The big switch on.
Carl had completed the work on the Wednesday but it didn't seem quite apt to switch on his new display on any day before Sunday, the Lord's Day. He had contemplated waiting two more days for the twenty-fifth but he was too impatient for that.
For three days Carl let his garden lie in total darkness. He sat inside and watched Christmas movies, listened to carols and read A Christmas Carol. He loved that story and read it at least every couple of months. He had all the movie versions of it that he had been able to find, including those that weren't true to Dickens' genius and his story. But no movie could compare to the words of the original.
Carl couldn't have been more excited. For each of the three days the anticipation built up further and he almost gave in and switched everything on one day early. Almost. He also felt fear. He had been very careful in his construction and programming but what if something went wrong? What if the angels appeared at the wrong time? What if none of the lights came on? What if he hadn't used a big enough fuse and the whole system blew? What if? What if? What if he didn't win the competition? What if? There were moments in which the anxiety outweighed the excitement.
Sunday finally arrived. The big day. Carl got up early and spent the day checking everything again. And again. If only the sun would go down earlier. It wouldn't set until five to six. And then it would be another hour at least before it was dark enough for the lights to have their full effect. Just to be on the safe side he decided that the switch on should happen at seven thirty precisely.
At seven fifteen Carl switched on the computers and the power supply to the light display. Just one more button and his home would shine again with the glory of the season. He had arranged it so that the final button was a big one, operating a smaller switch by remote control. A big button. A two person button. An experience to be shared. He carried the button into his garden.
At seven twenty Carl knocked on Hannah's door.
His face radiated happiness at her and he said, “It's time. Let's do it.”
Hannah grabbed her coat and slowly followed Carl across the road.
As they reached Carl's garden he pointed and said, “Look, I've made a big switch-on button. You've been good to me this year, sharing those moments in the café and allowing me a place to relax and smile. Thank you. This moment is big for me, as you know, and I decided I wanted to share it with you. We can press the button together.”
Tonight was the night.
At seven thirty the unquenchable blaze of Hannah's hell would be ignited. At seven thirty her worst fears would be realised. She wished she had never agreed to watch.
She sat on her sofa rocking, trying to prepare herself mentally for her doom. She watched the clock as the time drew nearer.
Ten past seven. God help me to be ready.
Then at twenty minutes and thirteen seconds past seven came the expected, dreaded, loathsome, fearful knock at the door.
Hannah stood up. She would face her fate. And next year she would cheat fate by selling her house. Maybe she would leave Farnworth altogether and move closer to the centre of Bolton. She told herself it would be okay. Just one winter of discontent to survive.
She took a deep breath before opening the door and for a moment hoped that through some miracle of nature she wouldn't find Carl standing outside. Anyone would have been preferable. Even a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses trying to sell her eternal paradise.
But Carl stood there, smiling. He looked so happy that Hannah did her best to smile back and she hoped her fake grin was convincing enough.
He looked at her and said, “It's time. Let's do it.”
Hannah grabbed her coat and followed Carl across the road. This was going to be terrible. After the happy darkness of the previous three nights, tainted only by the threatening spectre of bright lights, big racket, this was where the abyss truly fell away before her. Judgement Day had arrived.
As they reached Carl's gate he pointed to a big red button sticking out of a festively coloured box. Carl said something about wanting to share the occasion and how he had dreamed of pressing the button together. Hannah couldn't quite process the words but she thought she had caught the general idea.
Carl's house was in darkness. The last moments of peace. Hannah tried to count off the seconds.
They stood in silence and she didn't want to disturb whatever Christmassy thoughts were running through Carl's head. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Hurry up ticks and tocks. Get it over with. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Carl turned to her. “Seven twenty-nine. I'd better get ready.”
He reached to the back of the box and pulled out a red ribbon from a hole. “Safety cord,” he explained. “To prevent accidental switch-on.”
“Thirty seconds to go. Isn't this the most exciting thing ever? I bet I'll win the prize this time.”
“Let's count down from ten.”
“Nine.” It's really happening.
“Eight.” Please God no.
“Seven.” Bloody hell!
“Six.” Why why why why
“Five.” why why why?
“Four.” Can we stop now?
“One.” God dammit!
Despite herself, Hannah found herself pressing down hard on the button.
And out of darkness came light.
Hannah was almost blinded by the sudden light and had to cover her eyes with her arm until they got used to the shock of thirty thousand LEDs suddenly springing to life like a 21st century version of the Modern Prometheus.
Carl grabbed her hand and shouted, “Yes!”
Then he shouted it again. Twice. And said, “Look, it's starting.”
Hannah took her arm away from her face and looked up.
Carl's house was lit up with all the usual festive treats. Snowmen, flashing holly, reindeer, bells, Christmas puddings and Yule logs, Santa and his elves. The brand new frame remained dark. Maybe it hadn't worked. Hannah half hoped the whole thing had failed and, for Carl's sake, half hoped nothing too terminal had happened.
“Isn't that beautiful?” Carl asked.
“Er, yes, I suppose it is … but what about the rest.”
“Ah, just wait. You'll see. It's not your usual display.”
The lights continued to shine and flash and the roof shone out its “Merry Christmas” message boldly. Up on the roof Santa shouted out “Ho Ho Ho,” and his beard seemed to twinkle light reflected from the illuminated snow.
Still the brand new lights did nothing. Carl didn't seem worried. He gripped her hand tighter and said, “I couldn't be more excited.”
Hannah watched. It was all very flashy of course and she had to admit that the way the train delivered presents was a nice touch. But she was confused by the darkness in the centre of the garden. And she felt a strong sense of foreboding about it. It was all just a lot too ominous.
Suddenly all the lights went out. House and garden plunged into darkness.
“Because it's not all Santa and puddings, is it? They don't make Christmas Christmas. Watch.”
As Hannah watched, the framework in the garden slowly got brighter. Just a patch of white in the centre, spreading out until the lights formed a scene. A woman in a blue robe was kneeling on the ground by a well. Thousands of bulbs shone in harmony. Hannah breathed a sigh of relief. The new lights weren't just more of the same old noisy Christmas tackiness she loathed so much.
All was quiet. Then the railway track lit up and the Christmas train appeared from round the side of the house. It wasn't carrying presents. Not this time. An extra rack of lights had been mounted on the first carriage and as the train approached the woman they grew brighter.
It was an angel.
The train stopped by the woman and from the loudspeakers came a voice, “Fear not. Fear not. You are Mary, full of grace, and you will bear a son.” This was quite beautiful. For a garden light show. The train departed, the woman rose and lifted up her hands and sang, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be so.”
Then the scene faded momentarily before being replaced with another.
“Yes. It's a nativity. It's the whole story, beginning to end. The whole shebang. In a ten minute show. It's all on a cycle you see. Ten minutes of Santa and Christmas trees and fairies and parties. Then ten minutes of the real meaning of Christmas. Watch.”
Hannah watched. Presently she saw Mary and Joseph leave for Bethlehem by train, which seemed a little anachronistic, and arrive at the stable on the same train.
She saw a sanitised version of the birth of Jesus. Something similar to the miraculous sudden appearance of a Jesus doll in a primary school nativity play.
She saw the cows and sheep appear in the lights on Carl's house and then, high above the house the brightest light of all appeared in the sky. The Christmas star had come to Farnworth.
She saw shepherds out in a field, sitting with their sheep. She watched amazed as an angel appeared above them and told them to go to Bethlehem. She watched astounded as a dozen more angels appeared in the layers of lights hanging from those pipes. She listened in shock as the loudspeakers blared out “Glory to God” straight from Handel's Messiah.
And so it went on. The Kings appeared too. The shepherds arrived at the stable too – on the overused train. After their scenes they stood aside on the wall of the house.
“This next bit isn't in the story,” Carl said and he clapped his hands together and did a little dance on the spot.
In an excitedly squeaky and giggly voice he said “This is my masterpiece coming up … wait for it … NOW!”
Suddenly the whole roof lit up. The words now said, “Rejoice and be glad.” Santa seemed to pull himself out of the chimney and get in the sleigh and then it honestly looked like the reindeer pulled the sleigh off the roof, along the hanging lights, in full three dimensional glory, and deposited Santa down on top of the stable. Santa then appeared in the stable with Mary and Joseph.
The speakers proclaimed, “Ho, ho, ho, I bring you gifts. My gift tonight is to wish you peace, a merry Christmas and the happiest of years. My gift on Christmas night is … well, you'll just have to wait and see. Ho, ho, ho.”
Then it felt like every light went on at once and Hannah's eardrums felt like they would burst because the Hallelujah Chorus began to play. As the music continued most of the nativity scene faded and was replaced by the trappings of a modern Christmas. By the end, Mary stood there holding her child, surrounded by reindeer and on the walls and roof of the house it was as if the lights became a firework display.
The music faded. As did the lights.
All was silent. All was dark.
“It's over. In thirty seconds the whole show will start again. Twenty minutes of the best Christmas fun ever seen in a garden. It worked perfectly. Do you think I stand a chance of winning the competition?”
“Er, er, er ...” Hannah was having trouble finding any words at all after that show. It hadn't been as awful as she had thought it might be. She had to admit that it was completely different from any Christmas lights she had seen before. “Er, er, yes. I think that was astonishing. Quite astonishing.”
“Shush. Let's watch it again.”
And out of darkness came light.
It was all just as astonishing to Hannah when she stood with Carl and watched the whole thing for a second time before managing to escape to the relative quiet of her own home.
Carl had agreed to turn the sound down very low. At least until December when the crowds would appear to see his lights, as they did every year.
For three hours. Every night until the middle of November.
For four hours. Every night from the middle of November.
Twelve times a night.
Christmas traditions. Mary and Joseph. Angels.
December came. The speakers were switched on. Full volume.
Carl had added a full multi-channel soundtrack to the whole thing.
Twenty minutes of Christmas sounds and songs with speeches from Santa and his little Angels.
And again and again and again.
Carl couldn't have been more pleased with himself and with his creation.
At the start of November he submitted his application to the National Christmas Lights competition.
A week later he received word that his application had been received and that the judges would visit Farnworth and view his display on the first of December. A good day to come. On that day he would be adding an extra surprise – an advent calendar the size of his house. Each day a new door would be opened to reveal an exciting gift.
Carl went out and watched his lights every night. During the day he did a bit of necessary tweaking and had to replace a few bulbs. His joy overflowed and he wished a happy Christmas to everyone he saw and shook their hands. He bought dozens of advent calendars and little Christmas cakes and donated them to a local food bank because Christmas is for the poor, just like Jesus said in his sermon.
As the days went on more people came to view the lights and the takings grew. At this rate everything would be paid for well before Christmas and the hospice would get a nice donation. Carl was gladdened by the generosity he was seeing and gladdened by the obvious enjoyment on the faces of hundreds of children and adults too. He would have done all of it anyway but making people happy was a big bonus.
On the first of December the judges arrived. Four of them. In a black Vauxhall Corsa. Carl was disappointed. As he was every year. Every time he hoped they would arrive in a brightly coloured vehicle covered in Christmas cheer. Every year the let him down.
And what could be more disappointing than a black Vauxhall Corsa? The judges. That's what. They couldn't have looked less Christmassy if they had tried. The driver was wearing blue jeans and a plain jumper. The other judges were all dressed in suits.
They stood and watched the display for an hour taking notes and murmuring to each other and pointing to different things. Carl didn't know whether that was a promising sign or not. Last year they had only stayed for fifteen minutes. Were they suitably enraptured by it all? Or were they condemning him? They didn't smile once. They never smiled.
Afterwards they each shook hands with him and thanked him for his entry before getting back in the car and leaving.
The result would be announced on Christmas Eve.
Carl was nervous. He put the judges to the back of his mind as much as he could and tried to enjoy the lights and the faces of the children.
He invited Hannah for a celebration at his house on the day of the results. Not just Hannah. Joyce too - a gossip but a neighbourly one. He invited most of the people on the street. Even Brian Greene who had never been friendly to him and who had said something very rude to him about Hannah. Very rude, but Christmas was a time for goodwill and forgiveness.
Carl had done all he could.
So he waited.
On the night of the big switch-on Hannah had gone back to her house torn between impression and depression.
She could see that Carl had done a really good job with his lights. She just wished he hadn't done a job at all. Or had done it somewhere else. Or that she was somewhere else, far away from the intensity of Welford Avenue. Perhaps Nepal. Perhaps some uninhabited Pacific island paradise. Even Christmas Island would be better than witnessing the spectacle of the lights every night.
As October turned to November she had taken to walking up the street as fast as possible in order to be away from the lights as soon as she could.
During November she had been caught by Carl a few times. He was nice to be with. If you liked your pleasantness enriched by pain worse than having spikes stuck into your fingernails. Carl liked to point out the different things she might have missed in his show. It would have been unbearable had he not had redeeming qualities that she couldn't quite put her finger on. She should have found him utterly repellent and abhorrent. Yet she didn't. Standing there in the cold with him felt like some kind of steadying influence in her life. Hannah couldn't understand it. Not at all.
Apart from that, being at home wasn't too miserable. The blackout curtains cut out most of the light apart from the star and those demon angels. It was okay. It was.
She told herself so.
If only it were true.
By the end of November Hannah had managed to half convince herself that the lights were just a mild inconvenience in an otherwise idyllic situation.
But then December began. And with it the noise. The full cacophony. For four hours. Over and over and over. Never changing. The same songs. The same music. The same voices sounding the same words. Over and over. Twelve times that night. Hannah counted. Twelve lots of Christmas songs. Twelve Rudolphs. Twelve playings of Slade. Twelve of Wizzard. And then twelve run throughs of the Christmas story. Glory to God and the bloody Hallelujah chorus. Again and again and again and it was only the first of December and it already felt to Hannah like she was losing her mind.
On the ninth of December Carl called Hannah over to the garden again.
“It's all going wonderfully isn't it? All the children? And I am crossing my fingers about the competition but it doesn't matter because they're so happy.”
She shouted at him. Right through an entire twenty minute cycle of the show. She told him just how she felt and how he could stick his ****ing lights right up his *** and explode for all she cared and how she wished she was dead or he was dead and how much she hated Christmas and hated having all this ****ing stuff forced on her whether she wanted it or not and how he hadn't even asked and had just assumed and how he was just a big ****ing *****.
Carl stared at her and looked more and more sad but once she had got started she couldn't stop.
Afterwards he walked into his house in a flood of tears and a woman with her three children told Hannah that she should be ashamed of herself.
Hannah did feel ashamed. She felt a lot better though for having let her feelings out.
She went back home and slept better that night than she had in a long time. She didn't even need the tablets or the camomile.
On the tenth of December she tentatively knocked on Carl's door, apologising with almost the same fervour she had shouted with. The two hugged on his doorstep and she suggested that they get away from Welford Avenue for a while. Together. Not that day because they both felt too fragile. And not the next because their cafe would be shut. But on Monday. Because she had a day off work. Yes, Monday, okay? A good meal. With lots of tea. And pudding too. Her treat.
Hannah spent the eleventh of December away from Farnworth. She needed the space and she found solace and sanctuary in a tea room in Southport, the one establishment in the town that seemingly hadn't noticed that Christmas had ever been invented. As she drank her tea she found herself thinking of Carl and looking forward to seeing him somewhere other than in front of his lights.
On the twelfth of December they met at the café. Carl had brought her a present.
“I wanted to bring flowers but I didn't know what you would like so I got you this.”
It was a Christmas cactus and Hannah found herself laughing.
She laughed a lot during lunch and wished she had never called a halt to their meetings. She decided that after Christmas she would suggest another meal. Perhaps they could even find a quiet place and have dinner rather than lunch.
Maybe she could even convince Carl to turn off his lights after Christmas. Otherwise she would still have to move, just to get away from him and them and the festive Mister Hyde side to his personality.
After lunch they had walked back to Welford Avenue together and even hugged in full view of Joyce, and Hannah found she didn't care who Joyce might tell about the passionate embrace she had imagined or how much the tale would be exaggerated with tales of kisses.
Hannah returned home, closed the door behind her, and sank to the floor. Smiling.
Hannah. Late Advent.
It was the week before Christmas and Hannah was miserable.
She had felt grumpy when she got up and her mood just kept sinking more and more into the realm of angry moodiness.
Her bus to work had been even later than usual. People at the bus stop just smiled and blamed the Christmas traffic. Great. Another way for the season to screw up her life. Monday mornings were bad enough without Christmas making them worse. Six days until the big day. The world had gone crazy and Hannah would have given anything to live somewhere that didn't lose its mind every year.
Work had been terrible.
First the new office assistant quit. He had been a hard worker and a friendly worker and quite an asset for the workplace. After only a month in the job his absence would leave a big empty space in the office.
Then Hannah was unfairly told off by her boss who was livid about a piece of work not being completed on time. It wasn't Hannah's fault and she tried to say to but that only made her boss shout at her. She hadn't even been able to begin doing the work until the day after the deadline because her boss had failed to provide the necessary information. So unfair and her boss couldn't see it.
In many ways Hannah couldn't blame the new assistant for leaving so quickly. She half wished she had the courage to do the same. The boss could be a bit of a shit. Maybe next year Hannah would move on. Move job. Move house. Move her whole damn life.
When Hannah got off her bus that night it was raining hard. Great. And then a speeding car went through a puddle at just the wrong moment and soaked Hannah's legs and feet. Great. And Welford Avenue was just as bad as usual. Those sodding lights and the noise of the songs. Crap, crap, crap!
The weather forecast had predicted rain. But nothing as heavy as this and it hadn't predicted the car and the puddle and the lights and the boss from hell and the rubbish bus service and a life that wasn't worth living.
Hannah arrived home and slammed the front door.
At least home was warm. At least it was hers. At least there was tea and a bath and a music collection that didn't include all the Christmas songs she couldn't fail to hear forty times a day.
As Hannah lay back in the bath she let some of the worries of the day wash away from her mind. Yes. Life wasn't really that bad. Not when it held the happiness of bubbles and dimmed lights, scented candles and hot water. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of rain on the roof. She liked the rain. When she didn't have to see it or feel it.
The rain got harder. The sound got louder. Mixed in to the thrumming she heard a rumble. A distant thunder. Hannah felt a thrill. She liked thunderstorms. The sound and light show provided by nature. The way the changes in the air made her skin tingle. The excitement of witnessing the power of the sky.
Hannah let the sound wash over her. She sighed. Smiled. And then began to laugh.
The thrumming continued. The thunder grew louder and more frequent. Hannah was torn between two joys. Should she get out of the bath and watch the lightning? Or should she top it up with hot water and prolong the pleasure?
As she dried herself and got into some clean, soft pyjamas she listened as the storm got closer, louder, more intense. She pulled back her bedroom curtain and stood in awe as fork lightning lit up the sky. She counted the storm. Four seconds. Three. Two. One second. Hannah flapped her arms and giggled. This was a brilliant storm and she couldn't have been happier.
Flash. Boom. No gap at all. Magnificently loud. One of the greatest of all the things bright and beautiful. Stunning. Stunning. Stunning and Hannah shouted it out, “Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow! Yes!”
The storm passed over. One second. Two. Three. Four. The ferocity departing and leaving behind a cleansed stillness as the earth breathed again.
Hannah wrapped her dressing gown round her and went to make a cup of tea. There were chips in the freezer too. This was a chip night. A comfort night and Hannah was going to enjoy every moment of it. She deserved a thousand treats after such a rubbish day.
As she poured the water on the tea bag she heard sirens in the distance and she hoped that nothing serious was happening. As she put the chips in the oven the sirens grew louder. And louder. Very close. Then they stopped.
Carl had been enjoying Advent immensely.
Every evening he had watched as people came to see his lights. Every evening he had gone out to talk to the people and give little Christmas sweets to some of the children. The looks on their faces made up for all the frustrations he had had to conquer when creating the show. No child had ever looked so joyful and full of amazement as when Santa came down from the roof to join the nativity. At least that's what Carl chose to believe.
On December 15thhe hung a big sack of lights next to his door and a sign that simply read “Santa. Stop Here.” He didn't believe in Father Christmas but he did believe in dreams and in the magic of the story. He believed in joy and celebration and in the beauty of all the smiles he saw. Santa wouldn't be stopping at Carl's house. But that didn't matter and Carl couldn't have been happier. Donations in the buckets were up this year too and he knew the hospice would be given a healthy cheque in the new year.
Life was as good as it had ever been. Christmas was nearly here and joy had come to the world. Just ten days to go. And then the happiest time of the year would be over. Carl had to admit that Christmas itself always came as something of an anticlimax. He deeply loved attending the Christmas Eve crib service. Then the evening carol service. Then a beautiful midnight mass. Then a service on Christmas Day. But after that he would probably be spending the day alone with the quiet of a meal for one, a few Christmas movies and an early night.
The weekend passed and the crowd of passers-by was bigger than it had ever been. Parents seemed to enjoy pointing all the little details out to each other. Their faces were often just as animated as their children's. There were just a few who weren't swept along by the magic and thrill of it all, a few who stood there looking bored, as if they resented having to be there.
Joyce of course hadn't got a good word to say about any of it. Every year it was the same. She would spend December complaining vociferously about all the people clogging up her street. She would tell almost everyone on the street how much it was an unwanted imposition on her life and how inconvenient the whole thing was. Some of them would nod and say that it was awful that sometimes it would take them an extra minute to park their cars. Then they would follow it up by saying, “But it's for a good cause I suppose.” Joyce didn't seem to care about the good cause and this year she had even written to the local council and even the MP asking for Carl's lights to be banned.
Carl was surprised by Hannah. He knew that she didn't really like Christmas or all of his lights but she always managed to say something kind about them. Except for that once of course when she shouted at him. That experience was followed by a very enjoyable one, but it had in itself been the most unpleasant of Carl's whole year.
Then came December 19th. The night of the storm.
Carl didn't like thunderstorms much and this one was more vicious and angry and violent than he wanted to live through. He sat on his sofa with his hands over his ears and rocked back and forth for comfort. He supposed that he should have turned his lights off but he was too scared to move. It would be okay, wouldn't it?
As he rocked he repeated an incantation.
“Let it end. Let it pass. Go, go, go, go, go.”
Over and over for what felt like hours. “Let it end. Let it pass. Go, go, go, go, go.”
But it didn't end. It didn't pass. If anything it seemed to be getting louder and closer as if someone in Farnworth had stolen the thunder god's blanket and he wanted it back. “Let it end. Let it pass. Go, go, go, go, go.”
Carl slithered down onto the floor, stuck his head between his knees and pressed cushions over his ears. But it was no good. The storm continued. “Let it END. Let it PASS. Go, go, GO, GO, GO!”
He lay down on the floor, shaking and crying and stayed there for what seemed like hours as the world suffered the terrible wrath of that angry god.
Then there was a boom louder than all the rest. Louder than anything Carl had heard in his entire life. The whole house shook and he screamed.
Silence. For a moment.
Then a crashing sound from above, more crashes and the sound as if a meteorite had fallen on the roof. More crashing from the garden.
Then two explosions. That's what they sounded like to Carl. One came from outside. One from inside.
And then the lights went out.
Carl lay on the floor in a state of shocked terror. He couldn't move. He knew something bad must have happened but also knew there was no way he could do anything about it. He covered his head with the cushions and tried to breathe deeply and find some calm inside.
There wasn't any to be found.
The storm continued. Thunder still raged. But quieter.
And then Carl heard distant sirens. Closer. Louder. And he realised he could smell fire. He tried to move but panic held him to the floor. Helpless. Hopeless. Useless. Lost.
He was found, unconscious but alive, on his lounge floor.
As he was put into the ambulance one of the firemen was heard to say that he was lucky to be alive. Had it not been for the cushions covering him he would have died from smoke inhalation. Had it not been for the pleading of a neighbour from across the road they might not have checked inside so quickly and found him. Lucky indeed. Although this wouldn't be the Christmas he'd planned, poor sod.
The fire had been a bad one. Though the house could probably be repaired, he wouldn't be returning to it quickly. Homeless. A week before Christmas.
The ambulance crew nodded sympathetically and shook their heads at the smoking wreckage in the garden, the melted and charred remains of ten thousand lights.
More sirens sounded on Welford Avenue as he was taken to hospital.
Carl moaned audibly while he was being admitted.
He didn't wake up.
Hannah rushed to her door as soon as she realised that emergency vehicles had stopped right outside her house and she opened her door to a nightmare. Carl's house was in flames. Every light hung limp and dead. Every figure in the scene was either twisted into a nightmarish abomination or seemed to be laughing at the grotesque travesties of shattered joy. Three fire engines had arrived and firefighters were rushing out to survey the scene and tackle the blaze.
No sign of Carl. Where was he? It wasn't like him to be out somewhere on a December night. Hannah looked at the rain, looked at her bare feet, and looked at the house. What if he wasn't okay? What if he were stuck in the fire somewhere? What if the storm she had been enjoying so much had killed him? How would she feel then? How could she ever live with herself? And she would miss him too. A lot. Which surprised her. “Oh God let him be okay.”
She ran across the road, not caring about her bare feet and flapping dressing gown, and grabbed a fireman. “Have you seen Carl? Is Carl okay? Where is he? Have you seen Carl? I want Carl. He might be inside. Have you checked? Where is he? He's got to be okay? Please look.”
The fireman touched her arm, said “Yes miss, will do,” and walked quickly to the other fire-fighters. Hannah stood in the road watching while the fire-fighters searched the house while tackling the fire. Presently she saw two of them take in an empty stretcher and carry it out with Carl lying on it. Not moving. He wasn't dead was he? Was he? That couldn't be happening. Could it? It wasn't fair.
Hannah ran across to the ambulance and relief flooded through her when she learned that Carl was still alive. Alive and unburned. The ambulance crew let her know that he would probably make a good recovery from the smoke. It was just a matter of waiting and seeing. Excellent news. Except they had said probably. Not definitely. There was a chance that the storm had damaged him beyond repair. Hannah found out where they were taking Carl and then watched the ambulance as it left.
Having got dry and dressed again, she grabbed a few things and left for the hospital. Even before getting back into her house she had decided that Carl wouldn't be alone there. She would be there with him until they had both finished their waiting and seeing and knew how seriously his lungs were damaged. Even if she had to call in sick all that week. She would do it. She left Welford Avenue in a hurry, rushing past the fire-fighters who were still tackling the last of the blaze. One of them stopped her.
“Hey there, it's you. Thank you for your information about the man inside, you probably saved a life tonight. Well done.”
“It was the least I could do for him. Look, sorry, I'm in a bit of a hurry right now. I want to get to the hospital and see if he's okay and whether he needs anything.”
“Okay miss. Tell him he's a lucky man when you see him. Tell him he's lucky you were there.”
The fireman insisted on explaining a little about the fire and how it had progressed and pointed out a gaping hole in the roof and talked about how the whole place would be water damaged as well as fire and smoke damaged. There wasn't any way anyone would be moving back there. Not any time soon.
It didn't look good at all and Hannah felt so sad for Carl.
She sat with him all that night.
He moved around in the bed and once he spoke in his sleep, in a very hoarse voice.
“Go, go, go, go, go.”
He didn't wake up.
December the Twentieth
Carl woke at about six in the morning, bleary, foggy, dazed, confused. His mouth was dry and tasted bad and he found it was harder to breathe than he was used to. Everything felt wrong as if something terrible had happened. This didn't feel like his bed or his duvet. Yes, something must have happened. Had he been drugged and kidnapped? Had he gone on holiday and forgotten about it? Had he died? Carl was a grand master in the games of catastrophising and exaggeration.
He opened his eyes, half expecting to find himself in some kind of heavenly waiting room where he could prepare for whatever kind of afterlife existed. Not that he believed in that kind of thing but maybe he had died. Death didn't seem too bad so far. Maybe it would be better than life and there would be bigger lights and better Christmases. It was just a shame he would never know the result of the competition. Carl supposed it didn't really matter now whether he had won or not if he was dead and his creation destroyed but he would have liked to know all the same.
Carl didn't find himself in heaven. Jesus wasn't smiling at him. It definitely wasn't hell either. No devils with pitchforks although it was a little bit too warm. Okay. So he wasn't dead. That was something of a relief. He looked around at the hospital ward he found himself in, the lights dim but bright enough to see what was there. Much to his surprise he saw his neighbour Hannah. She was slumped on a hospital chair by his bed and covered with a plain hospital blanket. She was obviously asleep. Her position didn't look at all comfortable and Carl hoped she didn't ache too much when she woke. What was she doing there? Carl didn't know. He couldn't even guess. And though he wanted to find out he couldn't bring himself to wake her. If she needed sleep, let her sleep.
Carl lay back on the bed and tried to make sense of it all. Obviously he had somehow got out of the house. Everything was a blur though and the last thing he remembered with any clarity was sitting on his sofa feeling anxious about the noise of the thunder as it got closer. Slowly it came back to him. The storm. The strike. The sound of explosions. The panic. The total paralysis of terror. The smell of the smoke. And then nothing.
Obviously he had been rescued and taken to this hospital. Obviously Hannah had decided to come along for some reason. Carl couldn't quite understand why she would have done that but he was very glad to see her there. He didn't feel so alone or scared. He felt fortunate, lucky to have found a friend in his neighbour. On the other hand, maybe she just felt guilty for shouting at him. He hoped not. Water under the bridge. And that meal they shared had been happiness from the moment they sat down together right through until the final spoonful of custard. Maybe after Christmas he would invite her out for another meal and this time it could be his treat. For coming with him to the hospital.
God, his throat was dry and breathing was uncomfortable. He began to worry again.
“What if I'm permanently disabled? What if I can never breathe properly again? What if I've lost the house, lost everything? What if I can never see another Christmas movie? What if I can't take Hannah for that meal? What if I'm disfigured by fire and so ugly she won't even look at me?” Although that last question didn't seem likely because apart from the breathing he wasn't in any pain.
“Stop it Carl. Stop it with your stupid, stupid spirals of doom? You're okay. You'll be okay. And Hannah will look at you again and you'll see the way her eyes light up when she smiles. Hang on. What? That last thought was a surprise. ... Still. It's true isn't it? I do like it when she smiles. I hope my house is okay. I hope Christmas isn't ruined. I wonder what Hannah does on Christmas day. What if my lights are all gone? What if she hates me? What if ...” and his thoughts rose to such a crescendo of chaos and worry that it was impossible to make out one from another.
At just gone seven o'clock a nurse entered the ward bay to check on the patients. She saw that Carl was awake. She smiled and said, “Hey, welcome back. How does it feel?”
Carl talked with the nurse about his worries and his breathing. She helped him sit up and gave him a glass of water and did her best to reassure him that he would be fine, letting him know that the doctor would be round later to check things properly but he would probably be discharged that day or the next day.
As they talked Hannah woke up and stretched herself and said “Ow, ow, ow. That hurts,” and she laughed. She looked across to Carl and smiled. “You're okay. I was so worried about you, you might have died and they said you had been very lucky. We can talk about it all later.” When the nurse had gone Hannah stood up and gave Carl a big hug. He didn't like hugs much but this one didn't feel too bad.
“Thank you Hannah. Thanks for being here. It means a lot.”
“It's fine. I wanted to come. I couldn't bear seeing you on that stretcher and then you didn't wake up and I was so scared. I'm sorry it happened. I'm sorry you're here and I'm sorry about the fire and the storm and the lightning and for shouting at you and for stopping our cups of tea together just because of that silly woman and I'm sorry for not being a better friend to you and I'm sorry for everything and I'm glad you're going to be okay and I'm glad I came to be with you and I can be here all day because I'm not going to work and work was awful yesterday and I don't really want to go back at all and why am I moaning about my problems when you're sitting here in a hospital bed with no home to go back to when you get out. Oh hell, I wasn't planning on telling you like that. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.” And she grabbed Carl and hugged him again. Tightly. And she managed to stop talking.
“No home? Was it that bad?”
“It's fixable. Don't worry too much. Look. We can talk about it after breakfast. Yours should be arriving pretty soon and I need to go and eat something too if I can find a canteen or a café somewhere or just a packet of crisps. What I wouldn't give to be able to take you to that café in Farnworth for breakfast. We should do it. Soon.”
“You do talk a lot.”
“Sorry. I'm just glad you're okay and last night was so scary and thanks for not dying.”
“Don't be sorry. I like it. Could you pour me a glass of water please?”
Breakfast arrived. It didn't look very appetising. Hannah went off to try to find something for herself and promised to bring back something more exciting than the hospital food. “Maybe I can even bring you some cake. We'll talk when I'm back. Try not to worry, things will work out. I promise.”
Carl sat and ate the breakfast and drank a mug of hospital tea which he was pleasantly surprised to find was tasty. It felt good as he drank it too, the warmth of the steam soothing his lungs and the warmth of the liquid easing his throat. He couldn't face the bowl of cornflakes but there was a yoghurt that was easy enough to swallow.
He finished eating and hoped Hannah would find him something more substantial otherwise he was going to be very hungry. Carl sat back on the bed and closed his eyes, wondering what the doctor would say and trying not to panic about the previous night and the fate of his home. He hoped Hannah wouldn't be too long. Another one of her hugs would be very helpful.
She didn't return for more than an hour. Carl knew. He watched the ward clock, sometimes counting the seconds as the hand went round each minute. There wasn't much else to do except sit on the bed and worry. Counting seconds seemed a much better option than worrying. He hoped the doctor would say he could go home that day. If not then he would have to ask Hannah to get him something better to read than the face of a clock. Home. Oh yes. That was impossible wasn't it. Christmas ruined. Life ruined. Fuck.
Hannah had managed to find an excellent canteen in the hospital and had treated herself to a cooked breakfast. It wasn't nearly as good as the one in the café and cost quite a bit more but it was good enough. She also found a shop and had not only bought Carl a slice of chocolate cake but an ice lolly too. She said she thought he might like it and it wouldn't hurt his throat on the way down.
Then they talked.
About the fire. How the lightning had almost certainly struck the bright star of Bethlehem as it stood tall above the house on a metal frame. The heat and force of the blow had broken the frame it sat on and it crashed down the roof adding to the hole already made by the lightning. It had then fallen straight onto the nativity scene below which at that moment had been displaying the virgin Mary holding up the newly born saviour of the world.
Jesus and his mum. Killed by the holy star.
Not quite the kind of nativity tale Carl had been wanting to tell.
That's what one of the few passers by said anyway though whether you could trust the testimony of someone crazy enough to be looking at Christmas lights in a storm was another matter entirely.
From what the fireman said before Hannah left for the hospital the current seemed to have split. Some had passed through the wires and down into the ground, causing much of the display in the garden to explode in one blinding flash of colour before being extinguished. The rest had passed into the house and caused the power supply to the lights to overload and burst into flames. The fireman said there would have to be a full investigation but it didn't look suspicious at all. Stupid. But not suspicious. Why would anyone have lights on in a thunderstorm and why the hell wouldn't anyone with a whacking great star on their roof not attach a proper lightning conductor? Stupidity, that's why. Hannah decided not to tell Carl that part.
Carl lay back on the bed in shock. How could this be happening? Why? He thought he could really use that hug right about then but didn't feel able to ask. Hannah sat with him in silence for a while, watching as he fought back the tears. Poor Carl. He didn't deserve this. She put a hand on his arm to comfort him and said, “Don't worry, it'll work out. It will. I promised it will and I promise again. In the long run things will be fine and in the short term I have a plan that might help you. At least over Christmas.”
Carl looked at her. “But I have no home. Everything's gone. Christmas is screwed. I have nothing. Nothing.”
Hannah smiled at him. “You have me. I'm here and in the middle of last night I decided. I have a spare room. You're welcome to use it. At least over Christmas until we can get you sorted with something a little more permanent. To be honest I could do with the company. Last year I spent Christmas alone and I really don't want to talk about how bad the year before was. Come, stay, if you like. But I'm not having any lights, okay?”
Carl was stunned. He wouldn't have expected such an offer of kindness even if Hannah had been the Virgin Mary herself. He didn't know what to say. Having a roof and a friend for Christmas sounded wonderful. Or as wonderful as things could be after losing a house. But he didn't want to be such a burden and perhaps the insurance company could set him up in a B&B or a caravan until his house was fixed. So his response, when it finally came, was “Oh I couldn't possibly do that. I wouldn't want to impose myself on you or cause you any difficulties.” He mentally kicked himself: “Why didn't I say yes?”
“No, no, you wouldn't be imposing. I'm offering and it would be nice to have you there. How do you feel about an Indian takeaway on Christmas Day? There's one open as usual.”
“Okay. Thank you. I'll come and stay. It won't be what I planned but it'll be nice. I'll try not to be any bother. Thank you.”
Later that day the doctor appeared on his rounds. He said that Carl's lungs should recover fully. It would take a while but he would be back to full health within a year. There wasn't much more that could be done for him at the hospital so he would be discharged that day. As he left the doctor wished Carl and Hannah a happy Christmas.
Hannah sat herself outside the curtains while Carl changed out of his hospital gown and back into his smoke infused clothing. A sudden shout. “Clothes!” Then quieter, “Oops, sorry. I'll need clothes! What am I going to do about clothes? And everything else. Oh god Hannah, what am I meant to do now?”
“Don't worry. We'll sort it. This afternoon or tomorrow morning we'll sort it. We'll go shopping in Farnworth and I'll lend you the money until you get a replacement card through. A bit of underwear, a few socks and then we'll hit the charity shops. They always have something good. We'll manage. I might even find myself a few things too. I keep promising things will be okay. And they will. I promise.”
“Thanks Hannah. I don't know how I'd have managed this morning without you. I'd have been in such a state that they never could have let me go. Back to the home I've lost. What a mess. You do know that they won't be able to stop gossiping about us now?”
A bit of waiting. More hospital tea. A bit of paperwork. And it was time to leave.
So Carl moved in with Hannah for Christmas. The spare room was quite bare. It needed some Christmas lights but he had promised to behave and not to try getting any. The spare room was at the front of the house and Carl resolutely kept the curtains closed. The view from the room was far too painful to see.
That night Hannah had gone out to the supermarket and bought the suggested underwear and socks and a few other essentials for Carl. A basic T-shirt too so he would be more comfortable the next day. And some extra food. She was eating for two now. They watched a couple of movies together. Films intimately unrelated to Christmas. Before heading for bed, early, Hannah had given Carl a big hug and said how sorry she was that things had gone so wrong for him. Carl thanked her for everything and with a few tears in his eyes wished her goodnight.
The next day was Wednesday. Hannah called in sick again. The Farnworth charity shops didn't let them down. Carl would have easily enough clothes to get him past Christmas Day and they had hardly cost anything. Hannah found herself a couple of tops and the kind of skirt that would make most women jealous. Perhaps some men too.
Hannah went back to work for the rest of the week and found her boss to be in an even fouler mood than usual. Oh well, she only had to survive two days of it before Christmas. Perhaps she would quit in the new year. No. Not perhaps. She would definitely quit. She deserved something better and a boss who didn't treat her like crap. She would quit. And things would be okay. She promised herself. Somehow. It would all work out. The decision made Hannah feel much better about her life.
Christmas Eve 2016
It was December 24th. Christmas Eve.
Carl's house was a mess. The remains of all the lights were still there but the hole in the roof had been covered up and the broken windows boarded up. Carl had been given permission to go back inside and see what could be salvaged but he hadn't been able to face it yet. After Christmas, he thought. With Hannah's help if she offers.
Hannah's house was dark. No Christmas lights. No tree. No decorations. Nothing. That's the way she wanted it but she couldn't help but feel a little sad for Carl because of the lights he had loved and lost. She had offered to allow him to put a few things in the spare room but he had refused the offer saying that it was her house and he knew how she felt about the things.
At eleven o'clock in the morning, a black Vauxhall Corsa pulled up outside Carl's house. A man in a suit got out and stood, staring at the shattered dream that lay before him. He walked up and down past the house, shaking his head and sat down on the garden wall looking miserable. Inevitably it was Joyce who spotted him sitting there. She spotted nearly everything and was very proud of it too.
Joyce went out to talk to the man. She had to know who he was.
“Er, you there … yes you. Who else would I mean? Didn't I see you here before? A few weeks ago. Yes. I remember you and the car. You were here with some other men weren't you? Pointing at the lights and writing things down. Are you from the council? Have you finally come to do something about it because it's a bit too late now isn't it? That storm did what you should have been doing all along. I wrote you know. Eight times. Eight! And did you sort it? Of course you didn't. You council people are all the same. You keep talking but nothing ever gets done and it's a wonder the whole town isn't much worse with people like the councillors in charge. I should run next year. I'd show them how it should be done, just watch me.”
“Madam, if you would just stop talking for one second. Please. I assure you I'm not from the council and I'm not even from Bolton. I'm from Cheltenham and I want to get back there before this evening and I was meant to be delivering something to the man who lived here. This looks catastrophic madam. Do you know if he is okay or where I might find him?”
“Who are you? You're not the police are you? He's in trouble isn't he, I always knew he was up to no good in that house.”
“Madam, I'm not the police and as far as I know he's not done anything wrong. In fact he's done something right. Yes, I was here a few weeks ago with those other men and what we saw impressed us immensely. It was a superb display and now it's all gone. I wonder, would you know where I might be able to find a Mister Carl Bailey? Or if you would know of someone who could help me?”
“Oh that's easy. He's gone and shacked up with that Hannah over the road. I knew they were an item all along and probably at it like rabbits and it's no good them denying it now he's living with her. She said I didn't need to buy a new hat too and they both kept pretending there was nothing. The things that go on on this street. You wouldn't believe half of them. Not that I would tell you of course, I keep it all to myself, see?”
“Madam, I am in a bit of a hurry. Traffic up here was bad and I'm running late. If you could just point out the house in question I would be obliged.”
“It's that one there,” Joyce said, and pointed.
“Thank you for your help. Happy Christmas to you.”
The man turned away quickly. He couldn't wait to get away from the obnoxious character he had just had the displeasure of meeting.
He was just about to press Hannah's doorbell when the door opened. Hannah and Carl had been just about to walk into the centre of Farnworth to see whether their café was open on Christmas Eve.
Carl looked at the man. Surprise covered his whole face. “It's you isn't it? It's really you? Does this mean? ...”
“Yes sir. It does. I am here to offer you our official congratulations. You've won. In every single category, and that's never been done before. Congratulations to you, your lights were the best we've ever seen. I'm very sorry to see what's happened. I do hope I get to see something as good before I retire from judging.”
“I won? All of it?”
“Yes sir. You are the overall winner of the British Christmas Tree Garden Light Display Of The Year competition. But you also won Best Secular category, Best Nativity category, Best Wall Lights category, Best Ground Lights category, Best Audio Accompaniment category, and you won the popular vote too that we ran on our website. You scooped the lot.”
“I did? Really? This can't be happening. Not when I've lost it all.”
“The fire doesn't matter. Well obviously it matters. But for competition purposes the rules state that they lights are judged on the merits of how they look when we visit. And on that night they were staggeringly beautiful. You've lost it all now – though maybe you can make something brand new one day – but on that night you won it all.”
The man reached out and gave Carl a strong handshake, the kind that hurt.
“Normally I wouldn't have driven up on Christmas Eve, I would have just phoned you but you're a special case because you won in such a manner. So I've come up to present you with your certificates today and with the prize money too – I know it's not much but it's the taking part that counts. After New Year we'll arrange for a bigger ceremony and we'll invite you to London for that. It's going to be a good day. Many congratulations to you sir, from myself and the entire judging panel.”
The man passed over the certificates and a cheque and then left quickly. It was a long way back to Cheltenham and he feared the worst for the motorway traffic.
Hannah gave Carl an extra special big hug and spun him round – in full view of Joyce who had been pretending not to listen in to the whole thing. She looked at Joyce, smiled at her and then lifted up one finger to her and waved. Perhaps that wasn't in the spirit of peace and goodwill to all people but it was in the spirit of making Hannah laugh.
As they walked out from Welford Avenue Carl remarked, “This calls for a celebration. How about an extra slice of cake today?”
“Better than that,” Hannah replied, “How about we buy a little tree, a few lights and maybe a nativity scene where Jesus and Mary won't get slaughtered by a falling star from God? You deserve it and I'm sure that shop near the café will have something suitable.”
They ate their meal in happiness and did enjoy their extra dessert.
“I'll tell you what,” Hannah said. “Church. I think I could do church this year too and I know it would mean a lot to you. Let's go. I'll sing those carols as loudly as I can and ignore it if people stare.”
“Han?” He hadn't called her that before and was surprised to find himself doing so now. “What do you want for Christmas?”
Christmas came. Christmas went.
As it turned out, Carl stayed with Hannah right through to the middle of February. He kept offering to find somewhere else to stay but she wouldn't hear of it. In truth, she liked having him there and they had only argued a few times. She had quite enjoyed their Christmas and the weather had been good enough on the day itself to walk down to Moses Gate and spend some time in the park. Apart from a few dog walkers it had been pretty much deserted and they challenged each other to use every single thing in the children's playground. They fed the ducks and swans too and walked down to the river. It was the best way to spend Christmas.
The insurance company quickly decided the damage to his house was just an act of God and they settled quickly for the expected cost of repairs and the replacement of Carl's possessions, most of which had been too badly damaged to save. All his lights. All his DVDs. His furniture. His clothes. Almost everything.
Between them Hannah and Carl had managed to find some excellent builders who could start work on Carl's house as soon as the insurance company gave the go ahead. They had to replace the lot. Electrics. Plumbing. Plastering. Windows. Some ceilings and floors. The roof. And a brand new kitchen needed to be put in. They were there every day sorting things out but there was a lot to do and when Carl moved back in there was still work to be done.
The year progressed.
Hannah quit her job at the end of February, walking out without serving her notice. She had happened to bump into the guy who had walked out before and he told her they had a couple of vacancies at the theatrical agency he was working at and asked if she would be up for applying because it was a great place to work. So that was that sorted. The day Hannah walked into her bosses office, slammed down her resignation letter and told him exactly what she thought of him was one of the best of her life.
The work on Carl's house was finished by Easter and on Easter Sunday they celebrated together with another trip to the park. They took lunch with them and a bottle of wine and toasted the return of good times.
As the year continued their friendship developed further and they tried to go out for a meal most weeks and explore a few other cafés and restaurants. They felt a warm affection for one another and smiled in each other's company but there was no romance, no wild love affair. Carl still had a key to Hannah's house and he had given her a key to his house when he moved back and they would often turn up unannounced with some news or just to spend an evening together.
Joyce continued to be Joyce. She couldn't believe that there was still no hat to be bought so kept telling anyone who would listen that wedding bells would soon be ringing and asking them whether they thought they would hear the patter of tiny feet too. Hannah and Carl just laughed at the gossip and hardly anyone believed it anyway so what did it matter?
Spring turned to summer, summer to autumn. Christmas was coming again. They agreed to spend it together and if the weather was right to stay up all night, find a hill to climb, watch the sunrise, and sing carols and Christmas songs to each other.
December came. The crowds gathered from the start of the month to see Carl's house. His triumph the previous year had made him famous for at least an hour. The BBC had been wanting to make a television movie about the whole affair but after much consideration he had decided he didn't want to be a part of that and refused to sell anyone the rights to his story. He had found all the media attention very tiring and wanted a quiet life no matter how much anyone offered him.
The crowds gathered. They left disappointed.
Outside Carl's house there was a single Christmas tree, decorated brightly and lit just by two long strings of 120 bulbs.
That was enough. There was more to life than Christmas.
Outside Hannah's house there was an illuminated inflatable snowman. And two signs.
The first read “Santa. Please Stop Here!”
“A Merry Christmas To You All!”