Winner: John McNorvell - Christmas Present
Winner: Annalisa Crawford - The Fear of Ghosts
Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
Also shortlisted :
Jerry Ibbotson - 97 Seconds
Caleb Stephens - Gone Fishing
C.R. Berry - Ery Mai's Dream
You can read previous winners in our very first issue of Dark Tales right up to Volume 16:
by John McNorvell
Rear Admiral Arthur had once said to him, long ago, when everything was new and frightening,
'You’re lucky to have me looking out for you my boy.'
He knew the sound of somebody blowing their own trumpet, but he had also come to recognize the truth of it. The Rear Admiral was a respected figure in the necessarily impermanent style of life he had fallen into.
'There’s many a callow youngster hasn’t lasted more’n a few months because they didn’t know the ropes.'
Of course at forty he wasn’t a youngster at all, but to Admiral Arthur no doubt he seemed it. The Rear Admiral’s own age was indeterminate, obscured by the great, grey beard and the weathered darkness of his skin, brought to the texture of leather by remorseless rains and unforgiving sun.
'Now there’s some as asks for any spare change, and that has its merits. You’re not bludgeoning them with guilt you see, and sometimes you’ll get ten pence and sometimes a quid. There’s them as just reaches in their pockets and pulls out the first thing they find, so as to get rid of you quick. And you can be lucky; you might find a few pound coins they thought was ten pees. And then you might get some paper clips or a condom.'
He looked thoughtful, remembering some incident in the past.
'Though what good a condom is to me at my age........'
Damian wondered if a condom had been much use to the Rear Admiral at any age. It was true he’d been to sea in his youth, but only in the engine room of the Dover ferry and his title was an honorary one, owing more to his idiosyncratic approach to sex then to his maritime achievements. He had continued,
'Or you can try the traditional style. 'Spare the price of a cup of tea? A little bit for a bite to eat?' But unless you happen to be thirsty or hungry don’t let the buggers take you literally. You don’t want them popping into some poxy coffee shop and coming back with a paper cup full of froth and shite. Make sure it’s cash.
'And they like it if you use the old honorific my boy. 'Guv' is got a bit corny these days I grant you, but 'sir' never goes amiss. Don’t go overboard with 'Your honour' or anything daft and never call them 'mate'. The last thing on earth them people want to think is that you’re one of their kind. It doesn’t matter what you was before. You could have been some oil magnet, or the bleeding Pope, but here we’re all the same. Stay humble, tell ‘em your grateful, and stick by your mates, if you make any. They’re all you’ve got.'
He remembered that speech well. All the time he listened, he’d been slightly amused, thinking how he’d tell this story at dinner parties, how this old tramp had mistaken him for one of his kind, just because he’d been down on his luck. He’d thought, 'Give me a few months. I’ll stop drinking today. Get myself straight and Christ this’ll seem funny.' It wasn’t the last piece of wisdom the Admiral had imparted.
'Then,' he said, 'there’s Christmas.' Damian couldn’t now recall if he had actually smacked his lips with relish, but that was the image he carried with him. Certainly a glow of anticipation had burned briefly in the old man’s watery eyes.
'You never know what might happen at Christmas. People change. Some of them won’t give you a penny, they wants it all for their shopping. Great bags full, bursting with stuff but they won’t give you a penny, not a brass farthing. But others ——'
His eyes had defocused, gazing at some blissful scene in the remote distance.
'Once I tapped up three fellers, one after the other in the London Road, and they gave me a fiver. Not together I don’t mean, they didn’t know one another. I just saw the first one and did my spiel and he gave me a fiver and smiled, and while I was still looking at it, this city gent type comes by and he gives me one too. So I thought, I might as well try the third feller, and I didn’t need to say nothing. He looks at me and there it is, another fiver. And he wishes me a Happy Christmas and off he goes. And there’s me with fifteen quid in about as many seconds! Oh yes, Christmas is the time my boy. You wait.'
Inside he’d laughed at the notion he'd still be there at Christmas. But he hadn’t stopped drinking. And Christmas had come around.
If he’d really listened to what the Admiral had said, he would have stayed around the town centre, where people were numerous and money was plentiful and guilt was high. But still he didn't count himself as one of the Admiral's kind. Instead he went out into the suburbs. These tree lined streets were empty of people. His feet took him back to the old house. He was still in denial in those days, enough to preserve a confused, romantic notion of his plight, so he envisaged himself standing outside watching his kids through the brightly lit window, while the snow drifted around. They would be playing by the Christmas tree, waiting for dinner to be served and he would hear their laughter and wipe a tear and turn away into the snow. And it was a poignant vision, but not painful, because he knew one day he would be back there, part of the joyous family.
The reality was worse than he could have imagined. It did not snow, but there was a freezing drizzle and an aching mist. When he reached the house it was dark and silent. They had gone away somewhere for Christmas; he had no idea where his children were.
He had only gone back to the house once more, and that was in the summer. The sound of children playing came from the garden and he stood opposite in the shade of the big plane tree and watched. At first he thought that they must have friends round. It looked like a birthday party, which was odd because Alice’s birthday was the nearest but that wasn’t for another month. He waited patiently, searching the laughing faces for Alice or Tom, but neither appeared. Finally two women approached from the driveway and asked him to move on. He did not know them. With astonishment he realized that they had mistaken him for some dirty old man, an opportunistic pervert, because he had been watching the children. He attempted an explanation, but they started talking about the police. He had been on the street long enough to know how that meeting would turn out. A little girl perhaps five or six years old appeared behind them, but it was not Alice. In a voice which nearly broke his heart she said,
'Who's that man, Mummy?'
'Nobody,' the woman replied. 'Go back to your party, darling.'
Slowly understanding came. They no longer lived there; Alice, Tom and their mother had moved. They were lost to him. He wondered where they had been at Christmas. And for the first time it occurred to him that Sarah might have found another man, someone who bit by bit would become their father.The woman's reply to her daughter seared his soul. 'Nobody darling'. She had assessed him correctly; he was indeed nobody.
He wanted to scream. He had to get them back but how? The only way was to stop drinking. Again he resolved to do it. But he had made the same resolution a hundred times now. Loneliness and despair engulfed him and he went back to the only friend he had, the friend whose super strength he could rely on. He could no longer remember why he had started drinking. Had he hit the bottle because of the arguments with Sarah, or had the drinking been the cause of those bitter, brutal rows? It no longer mattered. Whether it was cause or effect, drinking was his life, and in more lucid moments he guessed it would be his death.
When the next Christmas came around he stayed in the bright, noisy centre of the town, where he could maintain the illusion that he was still part of the world, and like the Admiral had said they would be, people were more generous. He had gifts of food and money. A few people even touched him, patting him on the shoulder. Nobody was foolish enough to wish him a merry Christmas, but they said things like 'Compliments of the season' and other oblique stuff which made no reference to his situation. On Christmas Day he ate in a church hostel and slept there too, only waking in the black night to contemplate how he might kill himself.
But he did not. There were visions which kept him alive, scenarios in which he beat the booze, was reconciled with Sarah, welcomed back into the household, hugging his children who squealed with delight. He suspected now that they might be illusions, but he kept them alive. He was not as bad as some of the guys he saw around. Some of them knew no shame, had no pride. At least he tried to keep himself clean, although he knew he must often stink. He never drank himself into unconsciousness unless he was in a place he knew, with people like himself. He never stole from anyone. He was not like the Admiral. He was not shit, he was a man, better than most down here, better than Skanky Len or Black Billy. Such were the fragile foundations of pride upon which he built his day to day survival.
And it was this which had brought him through to see his third Christmas on the streets. It was Christmas Eve, information he deduced only from the fact that the storm of shopping was reaching its frenzied peak. Tomorrow he looked forward to a decent meal in the warmth of St Mick’s, and in the meantime he put his faith in the Rear Admiral’s observations of the alteration which the human character underwent as the joyful season progressed.
Damian, Len and Billy shared accommodation in a derelict house near the waterfront. The Rear Admiral, who had a number of private addresses scattered round the city, would deign to join them in the colder weather. He referred to it as his Winter Palace.
Soon after Damian had left the house, the snow began. He knew that out in the woods and fields the world was being quietly transformed into a place of magical beauty. But here in the centre it formed a miserable, foul slush underfoot. Only in the little back lanes did it settle into a white blanket, and the whirling flakes were black against the pale sky. It was here, as he trudged between the High Street and the shopping mall that he ran into Father Christmas.
It wasn’t the first such encounter of the season. At the back of the square, behind the barrier of stalls pushing cheap jewellery, mulled wine and other Christmas essentials on a persuadable public, away from the eyes of the shoppers and their children, it was not uncommon to see a Father Christmas or the occasional listless elf puffing dispiritedly on a roll-up. On seeing Damian, they would sometimes nod slightly, as if acknowledging the fellowship of another who had seen behind the bright lights and the glittering facade into the dreary emptiness of Christmas. But this was the first time he had come across one of them out of his territory.
In some ways this vision was one of the less convincing of any of these Father Christmases. He had clearly skimped on the traditional padding and apart from a pronounced pot-belly he appeared more gaunt than portly. In addition his boots appeared to be giving him problems. But the false beard was a work of magnificence, and he was swathed from head to foot in bright red. The skin of his face, which could just be glimpsed beneath the hood, had a ruddy hue and, in an unaccustomed flight of fancy, Damian imagined it had been reddened by the touch of polar winds.
More pragmatically he wondered if it was permissible to tap Father Christmas up for some loose change. While he was weighing the pros and cons of waylaying Santa, the decision was taken from him. The extraordinary figure stopped and stared. Damian had the strongest impression that he was being assessed. If so, a judgement was suddenly reached and the figure drew a hand from a deep pocket and pressed into Damian’s palm a twenty pound note. With barely a pause he repeated the action and to Damian’s astonishment he found himself clasping a tenner in addition to the original twenty. Father Christmas looked long and hard and thrust a third note into the now outstretched hand. Could it be another ten? He scarcely dared look. It was not. It was another twenty. He stared at the money, hypnotized. He tried dazedly to recall when he had last held so much cash. It seemed a lifetime ago.
When the capacity for speech finally returned and he looked up, the bizarre red figure was almost out of sight, hobbling uncomfortably on the slippery flagstones. Then the whirling snow engulfed him and the street was empty. From the brightly lit square came the distant strains of Lennon singing 'So this is Christmas.'
Bodily needs overcame his baffled curiosity. Usually the first thing he thought of when he had any money was alcohol. But the combination of the smells from the Christmas market and the wet cold had made him hungry. If he had been starving he wouldn’t have paid the market prices. Instead he went to a kebab shop near the station. The two Iranians viewed him with suspicion and a little hostility, but he held one of the twenties in front of him like a totem. It worked: at least he got service, if not respect. He ordered the largest doner kebab on offer, with chilli pickles and even some salad, a huge portion of chips and made sure everything was smothered in mayonnaise. The next question was where he could go to eat it. He decided against returning to the Winter Palace. There would be questions about where he had got the money. Everybody would want some of his kebab. He didn’t mind sharing, but something about the sight of Santa coming out of the snow filled darkness had reached right down into his childish heart; he deserved a treat, he deserved this for himself, he wanted a Christmas dinner. This was his Xmas present to himself. He found a seat in the bus station and tucked in, constantly looking around and guarding his food jealously. Less than half way through he realized he had overreached himself. He could not eat it. He should have taken it back with him after all and gained a bit of kudos with the others.
The greasy, spicy aftertaste left him thirsty. Staggered, he realized that he still had about forty pounds left to buy booze. There was no point drinking here: somebody would soon move him on. He would go back to the house and settle down there. The drink would keep out the cold. Flushed with generosity he bought some cans of super-strength for the other three, and smokes too. The twenty plus quid that still remained he hid carefully in the recesses of his clothing. As he did so, the sour and stale smell of his body hit him. But what could he do? Visit a laundrette? Have a bath fitted in the winter palace? No, it was not money to change his life, but it was enough to take the edge off for this festive season. Food, booze, a bit for his mates, and a bit left over. It was a result.
He rehearsed the scene to come, with a childish excitement. Obviously he couldn't tell them the extent of his good fortune: it might provoke jealousy. An additional consideration was that Black Billy was notoriously casual about issues of ownership. He did not want to worry about going to sleep at night. But, in the spirit of the season, he would share the consequences of his luck. They’d all have a good drink and maybe get a fire going, Skanky Len would start singing (and resist all attempts to stop him), and eventually they’d fall asleep, sated and briefly happy. It would be one of the better Xmases for them. He felt beneficent and powerful, ready to dispense largesse and goodwill. He felt once again a cut above these temporary companions of his, companions which a fickle fate had thrust upon him. But he must be careful not to let them know the exact, the staggering gift which the stranger had given him.
Entrance to the Winter Palace was effected from a back alley running between the restaurant zone and the run-down houses which bordered the river, a place of evil smelling bins and dejected kitchen porters smoking. The walls of the backs were adorned with barbed wire or broken glass parapets, but Skanky Len had found a way to open one of the back yard doors while seeming to leave it secure. With an anticipation slightly blurred by the alcohol he had consumed, he made his way into the house. It was not the scene he had imagined. On a night like this one of them would normally start a bit of a fire, using any old bits of wood they could find. But it was cold and desolate and nobody was around. He had expected to find them all hunkered down for the evening - he was the only one who ever roamed the streets after dark. Puzzled at their absence he settled down alone, with an open can beside him and thought a bit more about how pleased they would be when they finally turned up. For them to be out so late it must have been lean pickings on the streets that day. He hugged the cans and cigarettes to him, feeling a little like Father Christmas himself. What had possessed the man to do it, to just shove that fifty quid into his hand? He remembered stories, superstar footballers driving round the city dispensing handfuls of money, eccentric millionaires. He recalled the assessing look; obviously he had passed some test and been found deserving. For once somebody had found him worthy. In the blackness and the silence, tiredness and alcohol overcame him and he drifted off into a contented sleep.
What woke him was laughter, that and Skanky Len’s singing. Black Billy and the Rear Admiral were shouting their approval and the fire was spitting and cracking. They were all drunk as skunks. You had to be very far gone to encourage Len to carry on singing. Over the pungent fumes of alcohol and the throat catching smell of smouldering wood, Damian detected another aroma, something he hadn’t smelled for years. Surely it must be - surely it couldn’t be - but yes it was! The Admiral was smoking a cigar, a big, phallic cigar, and when he saw Damian awake he shouted even more loudly and lurching over to him, he proffered a bottle. It was scotch. Good scotch too, not supermarket’s own.
'Get some of that down yer my boy. That’ll keep the cold out.'
'Keep the fugging cole out,' slurred Black Billy.
'We been visited,' bellowed the Admiral. 'We’s all been visited. By Father Christmas, Santa Claus God bless him.'
'Sanna fugging Glaws,' agreed Billy.
'I met ‘im by Saint Mick’s and he got Len behind Sainsbury's and Billy ran into him just outside ‘ere. '
'Jus out fugging sides,' confirmed Billy.
Len stopped singing. Damian realized that they were all looking very hard at him, their faces glowing in the firelight, dirt and grime on their faces cracked by unaccustomed smiles. It was an intense stare, as though they were waiting for him to say something.
'Ow’s your day been young un?' said the Admiral. They had all become a little sober. 'Ad a good un?'
He looked at the whisky and the cigar, and noticed that a couple more protruded from the Admiral’s pocket. In the dark corner the fire gleamed on more bottles. He saw their shiny, sweaty, drunken faces, and the animation which he had never witnessed before. So, the mysterious benefactor had found them all. He felt oddly deflated.
'I met him in the alleyway,' he told them.
Immediately Skanky Len broke into a painfully fractured rendition of the Rose of Tralee, while the Admiral slapped him on the back and Black Billy grabbed for the whisky bottle.
'Got caught in the fugging alleyway, the fugging twat, caught in the alley by Sanna fuggin glors.'
The Rear Admiral said,
'I could’n believe it my boy, knocked me down with a feather, God’s truth. Just shoved it in me hands like. Thought I was having one of them ‘lucinating things, but I was stone cold sober I swear. Couldn’t believe it. Counted it ten times if I counted it once. And then, while I’m still pinching myself along comes Len, and he looks like he’s seen the ghost of Christmas past, rattling is chains and that, but no, the self same thing has happened to him. So we went and got a bit of a drink to celebrate like and then we gets back here and Billy’s met im too!'
Len had stopped singing.
'I hears as the Welshman, and Olly the Brolley over by the station saw him too. That’s what I hears. And he done zactly the same for them.'
'Well, Jesus bless us all,' said the Admiral, 'maybe he found every last distressed gentleman in the town! I don’t begrudge ‘em, so long as he found me too, eh lads?'
'More money ‘an sense,' commented Len viciously.
'Money! He must be made of the stuff. Anyway lads, here’s to us all.'
'Fug all here too,' agreed Billy.
In a drunken way they discussed the mysterious figure. Opinions swung between eccentric millionaire and escaped lunatic. They drank more. The air was thick with tobacco smoke. They all sang, if only to drown out Skanky Len. The fire died and they dozed in warm bliss.
'Sanna fuggin Glaws,' muttered Billy.
'Lonely for Mary the Rose of Tralee,' wailed Len occasionally.
'Hard to believe it is,' whispered the Rear Admiral. 'Two thousand quid between us.'
'You’re a good man Admiral. Always said so. But you’re no good at the old arithmetic.'
'What you talking ‘bout young feller. As good as you with figures, Jesus bless us.'
Damian was on the verge of deep, contented sleep. He muttered.
'Four of us and fifty nicker each is two hundred, not two thousand old man.'
'Enough of the old man. I ain’t lost me marbles. Five hundred quid an’ there’s us four: you, me, Len and Billy. We each got five hundred and I should know I counted my own whack often enough. So don’t give me no rubbish about fifty. You’ll be expected to chip in just the same as the rest of us. Fifty indeed...'
'Fugging fiffy indeed,' echoed Billy.
The streets were empty. Only the pubs were full. He walked without direction, driven on by his unconquerable agitation. Of course it must be true. Bottles of whisky (he had counted six beside the Admiral), cigars, not a mean little cheroot type of thing, but big, fat things – you couldn’t buy that for fifty pounds. He could not doubt it. The Admiral had met his Santa Claus and the mystery man had given him five hundred pounds. He had given five hundred to Skanky Len, a thieving toe-rag. Five hundred too to Black Billy, a lowlife with no shame. He knew without question that the same sum had gone to Ollie the Brolly and the Welshman. He knew it in his heart.
The snow started again, sallow and jaundiced in the sodium lights. He passed out of the centre into the silence of the suburbs, where the snow now lay thick underfoot. He remembered the assessing look he had been given. What was it that the man had seen in him, what test had he failed? Had he looked less needy and distressed than the others? He dismissed the thought immediately. Sadly, he was as unkempt as any of them, his clothes as inadequate, and his nails as dirty, his eyes as dead. No, his inadequacy must be much deeper than that. Even in the company of Len and Ollie and Billy he was worth less. No, he was worthless. A tenth of the value of Skanky Len. A tenth of nothing was nothing, was less than nothing.
Whatever the strange Santa had seen in him, it had been the same thing that Sarah had seen, that all his former friends must surely have seen too. Where were they now, all of them, any of them? They were with more worthy people, men and women with more merit, humans whose price might be set even higher than Skanky Len.
All hope left him. How ridiculous to have thought himself superior to these people. How absurdly deluded to imagine his children could love him, or that he would ever regain respect in the world.
His feet had brought him to the edge of the gorge, in sight of the bridge. He gazed down into the unknowable depths. He had been weighed in the balance and he had been found insubstantial, empty of importance, quite weightless, lighter than air. With this thought he produced the last twenty pound note from the recesses of his clothes and held it up to the swirling wind, where it kicked and fluttered in his numb fingers. He let it go and watched it take its agitated path down into the gloom. After a while he followed it.
Father Christmas stopped at last and rested. It was a special time for him and had done his best. If he could reach just one soul today, on this day of all days, then it would all be worthwhile. He knew that lives could be changed by just a small action, something that nobody else would bother thinking about. The snow fell heavy now, suffocating everything.
He was done with the costume and he did not mind the cold. Quickly he unhooked the magnificent beard from his ears, with just a little difficulty. Damian had fancifully speculated that this skin had been reddened by the touch of icy winds. He could not have been more wrong.
Next came the hood, which snagged uncomfortably on the horns. Then the long red coat which he flung into the night to show his gaunt body.
In the blackness he sensed Damian’s spirit whirling past him, thinly screaming. So, he had reached one soul and made it his own. The day’s work was done. He laughed aloud, but the sound was more remote from 'Ho, ho, ho' than any laugh ever heard.
Finally he stripped the ill-fitting boots from his feet, and leaving a trail of cloven prints in the snow, he went in pursuit of Damian’s snowflake soul.
Copyright (c) John McNorvell 2017
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