As promised a week or so ago, here's the first of two of my short Christmas tales to get you all in the mood for the festivities ahead. This is quite an early one actually; it was originally published back in December 1998 in UNREAL DREAMS #5. The next will follow in a few days.
SNOW JOKE ...
Jimmy was sorry. It had only been meant as a joke, he kept telling himself.
He was not a vindictive lad and it was only when he had first completed the spell and found that he didn’t know how to reverse it that he realised he didn’t really hate Dad and certainly didn’t want him ‘despatched by the conjuration of deviles’ – as it had said in Charlotte’s dusty old book.
After all, the events of that morning had not been so unusual. The car had been deeply snowed-in, which happened quite a lot at this time of year. Mum had been irritated because Jimmy was starting to get under her feet, which also usually happened around this time of year. And Dad had been late getting up and even later for work, which happened quite a lot at all times of the year. The result had been the same as usual: Dad red-faced and shouting at everyone before he drove off in a huff, Mum commencing her daily routine of housework with tear-filled eyes. And in the middle of it all the Christmas tree, covered in tinsel and fairy lights, but looking very, very phony. It was on the spur of that desolate moment that Jimmy had decided it was all Dad’s fault and that he was going to do something about it.
On reflection, he now realised that this had been a very silly reaction to a brief moment of sadness in the general joy and excitement that was the Christmas holidays, and it should certainly not have sent him upstairs to his sister’s bedroom and the pile of mysterious books in her bottom drawer. Charlotte wasn’t coming home this Christmas. She spent most of her time at a place called the LSE, but now apparently, was somewhere called Katmandu and had recently written to her parents, saying that she considered the yuletide feast a corrupt, western opiate and no longer had any time for it.
Mum had cried and Dad had gone mad, storming around the house shouting something about ‘the weed’ finally getting to ‘her great, stupid, empty head!’ Jimmy hadn’t got cross with Dad on that occasion because both he and Mum, for once, had seemed to be in agreement on it. But it didn’t make any difference: Charlotte was still away for Christmas and would see them some time in the New Year. Once Jimmy had got used to the idea, it hadn’t bothered him too much because it meant that he could spend the first few days of his school holidays digging around among the various odds and ends in her room.
That was when he’d found the Tome Of Lore.
The treasure trove of odd-smelling bric-a-brac in Charlotte’s room, stuffed under her bed, littering her desk and dressing table, had proved a novel distraction at first, but not as much as this particular book, which as well as being full of mucky drawings, also had gross but neat pictures of goats’ heads on tables, half-men-half-monster things, people on crosses upside-down, and animals with unreadable names scrawled underneath them. Jimmy was a bright lad and it hadn’t taken him long to work out what it was all about. He vaguely remembered Dad once having a row with Charlotte over the ‘voodoo crap’ he’d found on the toilet shelf when he’d been looking for his football yearbook.
The thing was, Jimmy hadn’t believed that any of it was for real – not until soon after lunch, when he’d gone out into the back garden again and found the snowman missing.
At first he’d wandered round and round the garden in a daze, wondering if someone might have knocked it down. It was not as if it was easy to lose: five feet tall and with huge chunks of stone for eyes and buttons. Then the thought had struck him that it might have melted, though the snow was still deep and crisp, the sky an opaque gray, and the air cold enough to freeze your finger to ice if you licked it and held it up. He’d also wondered if somebody might have pinched it, but when he’d looked over both fences into the next door gardens there was no sign of it. He wasn’t even sure if it was possible to steal a snowman anyway, so he hadn’t followed that line of thought for too long.
Only then had it begun to dawn on him that maybe the spell had worked. It had been very simple. All he’d been required to do, according to the book, was ‘constructe a mannequin from natural thinges’. The picture in the book had shown a clay doll, but Jimmy didn’t have any clay. He still had some Plasticine from when he’d been a really little kid, but he wasn’t sure if that was natural or not. Later on in the morning, when his mum had finally had it up to her back teeth with him and ordered him out to build a snowman or something, this new thought had come. As he’d put his bobcap and gloves on, he’d asked her if snow was natural stuff. Distracted, she’d said that it was pretty natural.
So that was that then. There’d been other bits that were slightly more complicated though. For one thing you had to get hold of some clothes of the person you hated, and some of their hair and blood, and put it all on the mannequin. The first bit hadn’t been too bad: Jimmy had got Dad’s Bolton Wanderers scarf out of the closet in the hall, and wound it round the snowman’s neck. The hair and blood had been tougher, but he’d sneaked up to the bathroom and examined one of the razors by the wash-bowl. There’d been plenty of little hairs packed into it, and a blob of dry brown stuff which just had to be blood, because Dad was always cutting himself when he was shaving. Jimmy had scraped it all off with a little piece of paper, then gone out to the garden again, pressed his finger into the snowman’s shoulder to make a hole, pushed the paper inside and covered it up.
After that it had been really easy. He’d had to draw a circle around the mannequin, which he’d done by dragging his booted feet through the snow, then walk round and round it, anti-clockwise, repeating something called an ‘incantation’. The words hadn’t made any sense to Jimmy – he hadn’t even been sure if he was pronouncing them properly – but he’d said them anyway, carrying the book round with him as he walked.
However, when he’d finished nothing had happened. He hadn’t been sure what he’d expected to happen anyway, so he didn’t feel too disappointed. And besides, he wasn’t as cross with Dad by then, so it didn’t matter so much. He’d gone in for his lunch, wondering what he was going to do that afternoon. It was straight afterwards of course, when he’d found the snowman had gone. At first he’d been surprised, then worried, then frightened. And now at last, as he sat by the window waiting for Dad to come home from work – he was sorry!
It had only been a joke, honest.
All afternoon he’d mooched about on the street, sneaking up garden paths, peeking round corners and under people’s cars. There’d been no sign of the snowman, but Jimmy had convinced himself that it was out there somewhere. Just waiting for Dad to get home.
By now, the fun of the Christmas holidays was really wearing thin. By three o’clock it was snowing again, coming down hard, in heavy flakes, and Jimmy stood on the porch marvelling at how quickly it buried the stumps of plants in the front garden and the kerb where the pavement met the road. Soon even the milk bottles were hidden, only their necks visible. Mum was in a better mood and said that it was starting to look really Christmassy, but Jimmy found it ominous. Everything seemed to stop when it snowed this hard. He’d hardly seen anyone all day, and even though this was usually the time when lots of cars were coming back onto the estate, and lights coming on in houses, he hardly heard a sound. Even the rumbling engines from the main road round the corner were muffled almost to nothing. He began to feel as if everyone else had vanished. Then it started to get dark. That worried Jimmy even more. Once it was dark, no-one would be able to spot the snowman moving about. He’d be able to get really close to them.
By the time Dad got home, the sky was completely black. Jimmy hurried out to the porch and for a minute was dazzled by Dad’s headlights as he pulled carefully onto the drive, the car slipping and sliding. Then the lights went off and Dad climbed out, almost unrecognisable under his big overcoat and scarf. He stayed by the car and hissed for Jimmy to come over to him. Jimmy ventured over there, looking nervously around. In this blizzard, he could hardly see anything beyond the garden wall. Dad seemed very excited and asked quietly where Mum was. Jimmy said that she was upstairs having a shower. Dad said that that was great, and crept round to the back of his car, telling Jimmy to give him a hand. Jimmy followed him, but was feeling more and more nervous. The longer they stayed outside, the less he liked it. He was convinced somebody was watching them – and from quite close up.
What was worse, Dad seemed to take forever opening his car boot. Jimmy told him to hurry, as an afterthought adding that he was cold; which was true – his hair was already covered in flakes. Dad told him to hang on. Then Jimmy thought he heard the sound of feet approaching – big feet, crunching deeply in the snow. Getting louder and louder. He looked round sharply, terrified.
Dad started picking large, colourful parcels out of his boot and placing them in Jimmy’s arms. The crunching footsteps were even louder. Jimmy thought he was going to wet his pants. There seemed to be no end to the presents, but Jimmy wasn’t thinking about Christmas at all now. Dad was saying something about making it a really special year for Mum, and not to drop any of them. Then Jimmy realised where the footsteps were coming from: the alley at the side of the house, linking the front drive to the back garden. Whoever owned those gigantic feet was coming down that alley. And now they were almost at the end of it.
Dad was locking the boot and trying to balance a couple of parcels on his knee. Jimmy begged him to hurry. Dad tut-tutted and told him to go inside if he was cold. He suggested they put the presents at the back of the closet. Jimmy said he wasn’t going in without him. He grabbed Dad by the coat and started pulling him towards the front door. Dad told him to be careful, it was slippery. Jimmy didn’t look round as he heard the big feet come crunching out onto the drive, turn left and come straight towards them. Jimmy wanted to scream. Dad was chuckling, saying what great weather it was for Christmas.
Then he closed the front door behind them. The catch caught automatically.
Jimmy didn’t dare look back through the frosted glass, but dragged the curtain across and ran after Dad down the hall. They put all the presents at the back of the closet, piling coats across them. Then Dad said that he was going upstairs to get changed and have a word with Mum. Jimmy wasn’t to say anything to anyone about the presents. Jimmy nodded dumbly. When Dad had gone, he scampered around the house, checking that all the downstairs windows were locked, not to mention the back door and the French windows in the dining room.
Only then did he feel secure.
However, it wasn’t to last. When Mum came down she ordered him upstairs to tidy his room while she made tea. Dad came down behind her, grinning and winking at Jimmy. Worriedly, Jimmy went upstairs. He pulled the curtains back and looked out of his bedroom window, but a dense rime of frost covered the glass, and beyond that the snow was flurrying thickly. He could hardly make anything out at ground-level.
Then something happened which really frightened him. He heard somebody opening the back door. It sounded like Mum, probably taking rubbish out to the bins. For a moment he was frozen with fear, then he charged downstairs into the hall. Through the door to the living room, he could see Dad in the armchair, reading an evening paper. The news was on the television. There was suddenly no sound from the kitchen. Jimmy waited in the hall, breathlessly. Rooted to the carpet. Then he heard Mum coming back in again, and he rushed in to her.
She was blowing on her hands as she closed the back door, saying how bitter it was outside. Jimmy agreed, but he was now wondering how long she’d had that door open for. He looked warily around him. It wasn’t a small house – there were all sorts of hiding places in it. Things looked pretty normal, however, and there were no tell-tale snowy footprints leading across the linoleum floor to give the game away. He’d begun a tentative search, armed with his cricket bat, when Mum told him that tea was ready.
He ate in the lounge with Mum and Dad, constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering where the intruder might be concealed and when he might pounce. That was when he had the idea. He could hardly contain his excitement and relief and, as soon as he’d finished, Jimmy took his cup and plate through into the kitchen. When he was sure that nobody was following him in, he opened the meter cupboard and turned the thermostat onto full. He stood back, hardly daring to breathe. It didn’t seem to have any immediate effect on the temperature, but he knew that within a half-hour the whole house would be baking. Let’s see a snowman try and hide out in this, he thought triumphantly. The only thing now was to ensure that nothing happened before it got too hot for it. Jimmy had always had the gift of the gab, and as soon as he went back into the lounge, he began to engage Dad in long, meandering and ultimately pointless conversations. Dad put up with it at first, but eventually said that did Jimmy mind, but he was trying to watch the local news. Jimmy didn’t mind – as long as it kept Dad in the lounge. Only when the news had finished, and Dad got up, announcing that he was going to go and do the washing up, did Jimmy start chattering again.
Dad talked back for several minutes more, until Mum finally sighed and said from her armchair that if somebody didn’t go and do the washing-up soon, she’d have to do it herself. And would somebody please turn the heating down while they were at it? The house was like an oven! Dad said he’d sort it out. Reluctantly, Jimmy let him pass. He wasn’t sure how long they’d been in the lounge – maybe an hour or more. Surely that was enough?
As Dad went through into the kitchen, Jimmy began another nervous search of the downstairs rooms, at any time expecting to come across a huge wet patch on one of the carpets. It would take some explaining if he found one, but a telling-off was something he could put up with. However, there was no sign of anything wet. The hall and dining room were dry, as was the landing upstairs, all four bedrooms and the bathroom. As Jimmy came back downstairs, he began to wonder if perhaps the intruder hadn’t come in after all. There was no way he could have held out so long in this. It was so hot in the house that Jimmy was sweating hard.
That was why the icy breeze he suddenly felt seemed even colder than it should.
He stopped where he was, shivering. The breeze kept up. It could mean only one thing: somebody had opened a door somewhere. The front door was at the foot of the stairs – he could see it was closed. It had to be either the French windows or the back door. If the snowman was still outside, he might come in now.
Jimmy dashed down. As he scurried past the dining room, he stuck his head in quickly – the French windows were still closed. It was the kitchen then! He charged in without thinking, and saw two things immediately. Firstly, Dad was alright – he was standing by the sink, hands deep in the washing-up; secondly, the back door was wide open, snow billowing inside. Jimmy was baffled, especially as the door had the air of someone having just gone out through it rather than just come in. But then he noticed that another door was open as well – wide open. It was the door in the corner, the door to the deepfreeze, probably the only place in the house where the thermostat would have made no difference to the temperature.
Jimmy stammered something to Dad, but Dad said nothing. He didn’t move either.
And there were other questions: why was Dad was now wearing his Bolton Wanderers scarf? Why did it look so tight?