Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The flipside of everything sweet and kind

Okay, it's THAT time of year again. Or at least, it will be in a few days. Mince pies, crackers, glimmering glass baubles and snow-decked evergreens. But there are several alarming things about Christmas. Firstly, that it comes around so often. When I was a youngster, it seemed to take forever to arrive. Now that I'm in my 50s, festive seasons flicker by like speeded-up cine film. Secondly, that it's become such a non-meaningful feast. I'm not going to lecture anyone on this, but I despair at the amount of commercialisation that goes on at this time of year, seemingly minus any kind of understanding about the soul of Christmas (I mean, even our pagan ancestors knew that midwinter had a power and spirit all of its own). And thirdly, and this is the one where I'm both alarmed and excited at the same time, it's our penchant at this time of year for scary stories.

Those who follow this column will know that each year about this time I post one of my own Christmas spook tales right here.Why is that? I don't know for sure, but I wouldn't do it if there wasn't a demand for it. And let's be honest, I'm only following in a grand old tradition.

Who knows what the origins of this are. Why do we enjoy our Christmas ghost stories so much? Possibly it's the fact that winter has closed in and the sun only sheds daylight on our frozen, desolate world for a few hours each day. Or is it just that we're unconsciously aware of the many ancient, pre-Christian customs that are woven into this event - the use of holly and mistletoe, the presence of elves, the conflation of the benign St. Nicholas with the darker druidic figure of Old Father Winter? Could it be that there's something genuinely magical and, dare I say it, supernatural, about Christmas that somehow afflicts all of us? I mean, what other religious festival of the year is partaken in as enthusiastically by so many atheists?

Either way, even if all that is guff, I'm still content to be doing what so many other writers do at this time of year. Ever since Charles Dickens penned A CHRISTMAS CAROL, other maestros of the written word have followed suite. M.R. James obviously - I mean come on (he all but invented the modern Christmas ghost story)! While Ramsey Campbell has made several astonishing contributions to the pantheon of festive fright fare, not least THE CHIMNEY and THE DECORATIONS. Robert Bloch did it with THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, L.P. Hartley with SOMEONE IN THE LIFT, Mary Danby with NURSERY TEA, Charles Birkin with KING OF THE CASTLE.

Compared to these momentous efforts, I feel my own tales may pale by comparison, but hey, I'm more than prepared to let you guys make that judgement for yourself. So here's this year's offering. It's called KRAMPUS, and before anyone complains about that, it was written and published yonks before the new movie of the same name. To be factual, it was first published in the online genre magazine, K-ZINE in the autumn of 2014, and now here it is again, entirely at your disposal:


KRAMPUS

Grandpa Ludwig didn’t usually participate on Christmas Day when we all gathered around the fire after dinner and urged the adults to tell ghost stories. Part of the time it was because he was asleep, but also, I think, it was because he didn’t enjoy such things. We all knew he’d had a difficult time as a child. It’s not everyone who can boast that his father was condemned in absentia to die by the guillotine, even if he did live to tell the tale, but Grandpa Ludwig was of such an age by this time – seventy-five at least – that he surely had no real memories of those dark and deadly days. In addition, his father had been a great storyteller, an author of children’s fiction as famous in Germany at one time as Enid Blyton was in England, so it hardly seemed possible that Grandpa Ludwig had not inherited at least a smidgen of that talent.
     As such, one year, when it was plain that Grandpa Ludwig was wide awake after dinner, laughing uproariously with the other adults, mince pie in hand, paper crown perched at a jaunty angle on his balding pate, we urged him to start off the annual ghost story game by telling us one of his own. Grandpa was very thoughtful for a moment or two. He took a sip of port wine, before nodding gravely and saying that, yes, it was time he told us all his ghost story.
     His choice of phrase quite surprised me. The notion that, all along, he’d possessed a ghost story that was exclusively his own, and that for so many years he’d been withholding it – who knew for what reason? – was an eerie and mysterious concept.
     I remember how we youngsters huddled together on the carpet in front of the fire, legs crossed, and how my mum turned the lights down, as she always did on this occasion, leaving only the faint glow of the candles on the Christmas cake and the orange embers in the hearth to reflect our rapt attention. Grandpa Ludwig took off his spectacles, polished them with his handkerchief, and then pinched the bridge of his nose, a sure sign I would later learn, that the event he was about to recount came from memory, not imagination.
This is what he told us …

*

Most of you will know that my father and his brother, Klaus, were not identical twins, but that they were twins and as children they were so alike that many people could not tell them apart. Of course, in terms of temperament and personality, they could not have been more different.
     My own recollections of Uncle Klaus are that he was more physically imposing than my father; he was tall and athletically built, with shining blond hair and piercing blue eyes. A more idealised Aryan male there could not have been, though I didn’t understand that philosophy at the time. Nor did I really notice how relations between my father and his brother, while not exactly hostile, were never better than cool. At least, that was always the case during my lifetime. Of course I knew nothing about father’s refusal to join the Hitler Youth in 1927, which had meant that my family – Uncle Klaus’s family, more to the point – was regarded with suspicion for a brief time.
     The one thing about Uncle Klaus I didn’t like was the scar on his left cheek. It was not a particularly awful one – little more than a horizontal white line, but even to my childhood eyes, it gave him a colder, crueler aspect. Apparently it had been caused when he’d run into a barbed wire fence while playing outdoors as a toddler, but he was always rather proud of it, or so my father would later say, telling anyone who asked that it was a duelling scar, as if he was the scion of a Prussian aristocrat rather than the son of a small-town Bavarian solicitor. 

     The last time I ever saw Uncle Klaus was in 1939, and though I was still very young, I had some vague notion that Germany was on the eve of war. He was wearing a uniform when he came to see us. Many times in the past he’d been in uniform – uniforms were quite commonplace in those days – but this one was jet black and it sported the SS Sig Runes on its collar and the Totenkopf, or Death’s Head, as they could call it here in England, on its armband. I don’t think Uncle Klaus had come with the express intention of warning my father that he was in imminent danger, but I was sent to my room while the adults discussed matters, and so fierce as the resulting argument that I heard it through the floorboards. Snatches of that dispute still remain in my memory.
     “Will you continue writing fairy stories while the world burns, Eric?” my uncle demanded to know.
     “What does it matter if I do?” my father replied.
     “It matters if they call you ‘traitor’ for it.”
     “Never once have I written or spoken a word of treason.”
     “Nor have you written against it. Is it not the case that, several times now, you have been invited to supply poems, ballads and books in honour of our cause, and have always refused? We stand on the brink of a great destiny, and yet you – a man of widespread influence – seem determined to disapprove of it.”
     “Klaus, I am not a political writer.”
     “Eric, not everyone agrees with that …”
     Before Uncle Klaus finally left, I came to the top of the stairs in tears. I might have been a child, but I was not a fool; I knew the sound of irreparable damage when I heard it. He glanced up as he pulled his hat down over his brow and climbed into his long leather coat; his expression was one of deep regret, but also bitter anger and betrayal. He spoke to me, but I was in too anguished a state at the time to make sense of his words.
     We left our home the very next day, not just our house, but Germany itself. I have almost no memory of that rushed dawn departure as I apparently slept through most of it.

*

Grandpa Ludwig sipped his port.
     The mood had turned rapidly and unexpectedly sombre. His family’s narrow escape from Nazi Germany had never been the easiest topic of conversation. His writer father, though he’d adopted England as his new abode, had been haunted to the end of his days by his inability to reconcile himself with a homeland whose history and culture he had loved but which had been subverted to such a ghastly degree that he no longer knew it when he left. Grandpa Ludwig, of course, had barely experienced Germany. He now had only the faintest discernible accent, and though his early days were undoubtedly difficult – a boy named Weidmann living in postwar Britain! – he soon adapted to his new home and in time became as English as Winston Churchill.
     Perhaps this was why, after another contemplative sip or two, he was able to continue with his narrative. Though his mood was no lighter. Far from it …       

*

We must move forward now, to the Christmas Eve of 1948.
     To an eleven-year-old those pre-war days already seemed a receding memory, but the good times had not yet returned. Britain was a land of food rationing, bombed cities and bereaved families. Ironically, though my family were immigrants, our position was better than some. My father had learned to speak English, but never to a standard where he might write in that tongue, at least not with the same eloquence he’d shown when writing in German. However, he was able to teach, so we had regular money and a reasonably comfortable home in the suburbs. My two best friends at the time were Billy Flynn and Peter Osgood, boys from the same road in which I lived and fellow pupils at the Catholic school I attended. Both their fathers had fought in the war, and survived – one had even been present at the relief of Belsen – so to them any German who’d annoyed the Nazis to the point where they’d driven him into exile was someone to be admired. Hence, they never treated me like an outsider.
     Hard though youngsters may find it to believe now, on the Christmas Eve in question we were required to attend school as if it were any normal day. We had a two-week holiday, but it only commenced the following morning on Christmas Day. For all that, our teachers were kind enough to release us at lunchtime, so Billy, Peter and I took the opportunity to divert through the town centre on our way home. There was a raw, wintry feel that afternoon. The snow that had fallen the previous week had thawed a little, but had later frozen again, and great, dirty mounds of it were now piled at the end of each pavement. The gutters and bus shelters sparkled with icicles; white frost covered every branch and blade of grass. We were well wrapped in our coats and scarves; we had our balaclavas and our woollen mittens. Even so, there is only so much one can do to fend off that depth of cold, but we were determined to endure it because a great treat awaited us.
     The English version our German Saint Nikolaus is of course Father Christmas. They share much in common. Both are fat, jolly men with white curls and white beards. They wear warm winter robes and dispense presents to good children. There are some differences. 


      In Germany, Saint Nikolaus would visit homes on the eve of December 6th, whereas in England, Father Christmas would visit on Christmas Eve itself. While Saint Nikolaus bore ecclesial accoutrements – for instance, he wore a mitre and carried a crosier – the English Father Christmas had a druidic air; there was something in his makeup of the old spirit of winter, which, looking on it as an adult, seems almost pagan to me. But even so, in England, as in Germany, children were taught that this benign figure was a saint, beloved of Christ, so his magical gifts were to be welcomed and adored. As a small side-matter … in Germany, St. Nikolaus had a shadowy other-self, little known and an entirely dissimilar personality. But more about him later.
     The purpose of our diversion into the centre of town that Christmas Eve was concerned neither with Saint Nikolaus nor Father Christmas, but in fact with Santa Claus, their American counterpart, newly introduced to the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the war. Santa Claus, though in many ways indistinguishable from his European brethren, had one very unique attribute: he could actually be spoken to; he would sit children on his knee and they could request their presents face-to-face. I’m talking of course about the famous department store Santa Claus, who had been a fixture in American cities since the turn of the previous century, and now at last had come to Britain.
     The department store in question was Halley & Meredith’s, whose palatial residence was in the very centre of our town, in a space, if I recall correctly, which is now occupied by a wine bar, a Poundstretcher and a kebab shop. At the time we referred to Halley & Meredith’s as ‘posh’, though in truth it would probably have seemed fairly second rate compared to Harrods in London or Kendals in Manchester. But it occupied a great baroque building, and its frontal canopy was hung with international flags. It even had its own taxi rank outside, the implication being that the sort of people who shopped at Halley & Meredith’s could easily afford to take cabs. One entered the premises through revolving doors, assuming that the concierge on duty – a dapper chap with a military air, wearing a shell grey overcoat with gold braid at its shoulders – would permit you access. Under normal circumstances it seemed highly possible that three schoolboys lacking the governance of their parents would be refused, but this was Christmas Eve and everyone was excited and in a good mood, and in any case, Santa Claus was waiting inside. Or was it Father Christmas or Saint Nikolaus? Or someone else?
     Halley & Meredith’s seemed vast and crowded that day; we trekked past Scarves, Gloves And Hats, past Cosmetics, past Haberdashery, past Men’s Tailoring, past Ladies’ Shoes, all locations which, when I’d been present with my mother, had signified hours of tedium. But now, to see them decked with tinsel and boughs of evergreen was almost too much for an eleven-year-old to take – our sense of thrill rose inexorably, and of course we still had the ‘Christmas Grotto’ at the end of it all. We finally found this hallowed place down at the basement level, a venue normally reserved for tools and gardening equipment, though now it had become a magical kingdom.
     In hindsight, it had probably been done quite cheaply, but we walked along a side-aisle which we no longer recognised, passing under arches made of pine branches and hung with multi-coloured Chinese lanterns. Streamers and paper chains were looped across the ceiling. Christmas trees stood on each counter, decked with ornaments and fairy lights. Cotton wool had been laid over racks of goods to imitate snow. In the drab, grey Britain of those immediate post-war years, it was a delightful thing to behold. Even the shop assistants – those straight-backed ladies who always teetered around Halley & Meredith’s in tight skirts and tall heels, looking beautiful but severe – seemed so much more human in green, conical ‘elf’ hats, and also because they were smiling and chattering brightly.
     Santa Claus himself was quite remarkable. A knee-high white picket fence woven with holly had closed off a small area, and he was in the middle of it, seated on a throne-like chair. He wore the traditional crimson robe trimmed with white fur, and it flowed out around him on all sides; it was far too large to be practical – one could never have walked around in such a garment. Beneath it, he wore a bottle-green waistcoat, crimson pantaloons and black boots, again trimmed with white fur. Of course he had a capacious belly and a thick white beard, which fell almost to his belt-buckle. To complete the picture, there were oodles of gift-wrapped presents stacked behind him, as if he was ready right now to load his sleigh and depart on his goodly mission.
     There was a hubbub of excitement from the queueing youngsters, most of whom were there with their mothers and grandmothers, or both. It may seem strange now, three eleven-year-olds waiting to see Santa Claus in a department store, but we weren’t the eldest there. Other older children were also present, patiently waiting their turn, eyes fixed with wonder on the resplendent figure. World War Two, with its prolonged loss of life, property and innocence and then the drudgery and austerity that had followed, was entirely responsible for this – in some ways we were older than our age back then, but in others we were much younger.
    Of course, when Santa’s hearty laughter finally told us our turn had come, we older children didn’t actually sit on the big man’s knee. We advanced through the gate in the wicket fence and stood there politely, hands behind our backs, as he addressed us.
     “And what do we have here?” he said, his blue eyes twinkling. In keeping with the myth that he hailed from some frozen Tyrolean land, he spoke with a central European accent. “Three young men, in whose steady hands the future of the world must reside.”
     Peter, always the boldest among us, answered first when we were asked what we were hoping to obtain at Christmas.
     “I would like a new bicycle, sir,” he said soberly, as if he knew that he really was asking for quite a lot and that such an extravagant gift might be beyond even Santa Claus’s ability to bestow.
     “A new bicycle, hmmm,” our host rumbled. “We’ll have to see about that, but who knows?, anything is possible.” He switched his attention to Billy. “And for you, young sir?”
     “I would like a toy gun and holster, sir,” Billy said. “Like you see on the cowboy films. Maybe a cowboy hat as well?”
     “Hmmm … well, a hat and a gun. Those are quite the sort of items a young man should possess, though you won’t be meeting many Red Indians here in Lancashire, I shouldn’t think.”
     “No, sir,” Billy said in a tone which suggested he’d given this matter weighty consideration but was still set on his course.
     “Hmmm … well, this is all to the good, gentlemen. Such manly gifts will prepare you for the trials of adulthood.”
     This conversation might have seemed a little more protracted than most of those Santa Claus had engaged in up until now, and yet he still didn’t turn to me – and frankly I wasn’t concerned in the least. Because from the moment I’d set eyes upon him up close, I was struck with the kind of horror that even back in the war-ravaged 1940s most people would experience only once in a lifetime.
     It was Uncle Klaus.
     That is all I can say.
     Feel free not to believe me, but I swear to you it is the absolute truth.
     He’d changed enormously. Beneath that thick, white beard and the rosy cheeks – the former of which was clearly real, the latter fake – he was as gaunt as a leper: his skin had a yellowish tinge; his eyes, which were neither as blue nor as twinkly as I’d first thought, were sunken in skullish cavities; his lips were thin and covered with cracks and sores. But there was no mistaking that horizontal scar on his left cheek, even though many other scars had appeared since. And now at last he turned to me, and he pointed with a long, bony finger, the nail at the end of which was sharp and twisting.
     “And for you, Ludwig?” he said, though it wasn’t really a question. “Krampus … ja?”
     “I … I just want to go home,” I stuttered.
     “Nein!” he said harshly, wagging that terrible finger in admonition and fixing me with a stare so malevolent that it was all I could do not to faint. “Krampus!”
     The next thing I knew, we were being ushered away down another aisle by one of the elf-ladies, and Peter and Billy were gossiping excitedly about whether or not they had increased their chances of receiving their much sought-for presents. In their eyes at least nothing unusual had happened, and when I glanced back over my shoulder at the diminishing form of Santa Claus in his golden grotto, a little girl was positioned on his knee, shivering with delight as he cuddled her and crooned a carol, and the queue of other children awaiting their own turn had extended until it snaked down the entire length of the department store’s basement.
     When we emerged outside, it was turning dark and tiny spots of snow were spiralling down. There were many more people about, attending to their last-minute shopping, and the roads were a chaos of vans, wagons and cars. My two friends were still in a state of exhilaration as we commenced the long walk home, so it was difficult broaching the subject of whether or not they’d thought there was something strange about the man masquerading as Santa Claus in Halley & Meredith’s. Clearly, neither had detected anything. Peter did acknowledge that I’d seemed a little tongue-tied when Santa Claus had spoken to me, though he hadn’t noticed the man address me by my own name, and certainly recalled nothing about his use of the term ‘Krampus’.
   
     Not that they would have known what it meant, anyway. Not that anyone in this country would have known. You see, Krampus was the name given to that shadowy other-self of Saint Nikolaus, the one I referred to earlier. Whereas in English-speaking lands, Father Christmas and Santa Claus have always preferred to ignore naughty children, in Germanic countries Krampus actively punishes them. I had seen illustrations of him in children’s books written by my father, and he is truly grotesque; a monster, a deformed devil with horns, hooves and a humped back. The sack he carries is not intended for the provision of gifts, but to abduct those misbehaving youths he encounters on his travels, and to carry them back to his lair where all manner of torments will be inflicted on them. You look shocked. Don’t be. In the days of my youth, children were to be seen and not heard. Parents, while loving, were stern. There was a price to pay for transgression. Bad behaviour was never tolerated.
     Even now, it pains me to recollect that journey home from the shops. I was so distressed by what had happened that I contributed almost nothing to my friends’ joyous jabber. All of a sudden, Christmas – the culmination of so many weeks’ eager anticipation, the date we had ached for since the onset of winter – meant nothing to me. The ruddy glow of Yule candles in passing windows, the falling snow – now a thickening, shimmering cascade – should have rendered a perfect setting. But my thoughts were in turmoil. More than once I glanced over my shoulder, especially after we left the town centre and entered the residential districts, where doors were closed, curtains drawn and fellow pedestrians little more than occasional muffled shadows. Though I never saw anything amiss, I was increasingly certain that someone was keeping pace with us just beyond the range of our vision.
     At last the moment came when we were to go our different ways. We stopped beneath a corner streetlamp, Peter and Billy pumping my hand, clapping my shoulder, wishing me all the best for the season.
     “A little touch of Germany for you tonight, Ludwig,” Peter said.
     “What do you mean?” I demanded, even more unnerved.
     “This!” he said, smiling, indicating the snow. “We get this now and then at Christmas, but in Germany you get it every year, or so I’m told.”
     “Not every year,” I replied, still shaken.
     “Happy Christmas anyway, Ludwig!” they shouted as they walked away, leaving me alone in the lamplight, flakes swirling past. I looked again over my shoulder.

     The street we had just walked along was lined down either side with terraced houses; a perfectly normal street in our part of the world, yet now an increasingly stiff breeze was whipping the snow in eddies – on some occasions I could see as far along it as the coal wagon parked at its distant end, on others no more than thirty yards. I remained there for several minutes, convinced there’d be something to fix on if only I could gaze into the murk hard enough. Intermittently down that street, curtains were only half-drawn, thus allowing rays of soft, warm lamplight to penetrate outward. Without warning, someone passed one of these. I blinked – and they’d gone again, hidden by renewed swirls of flakes. But it was someone headed in my direction. Someone wearing red.
     It could have been any ordinary person walking home; there was absolutely no need to assume the worst. But briefly I was rooted in place. Only slowly, with great difficulty, was I able to retreat to the edge of the pavement, where again I waited. I don’t know why; it makes no sense now – it was as if I had some inner urgent need to know I was in danger rather than simply fear it. But then something happened that leant genuine panic to my heels. I spied the figure again, much closer this time – maybe forty yards away – crossing the street to the side on which I was waiting. It was only a silhouette, half-glimpsed as it passed through another shaft of flake-speckled lamplight, but it was bent forward in ungainly fashion, its back humped, its heavy robes trailing behind it.
     There was no further debate in my mind. I spun around and raced blindly along the next street, and along the one after that, regardless of the treacherous footing. I must have covered half the distance home before I stopped to get my breath. I had seen no-one else that whole way, but likewise no-one was in sight behind me either, and now, the flakes having relented a little, I was able to see a good distance in every direction – and spied nothing but snow-covered road junctions, the red-brick gable walls of houses, the weak palls of light cast by streetlamps. Nothing advanced through them, so I felt a little better, though I had yet to cross Dalewood Brow. That place no longer exists today – a supermarket and offices have been built there instead, but in my childhood it consisted of several hundred yards of derelict colliery land, hummocky and deeply overgrown; a wonderful place for children to play in summer, but in wintry darkness a test of anyone’s nerve. Especially on this occasion.
     I didn’t need to go over the Brow. If I turned left at this point I could just as easily walk around it, making my way home via lamp-lit streets, passing more houses, more cars. Yet that would take much longer – maybe add half an hour to my journey, and all at once I wanted desperately to be home, if for no other reason than my fingers were frozen and my feet turning numb. So I pushed open the creaky gate in the wrought iron fence that ran along the Brow’s edge, and set off hurriedly up its winding, cindery path. Because the Brow was covered with snow, much more of it was visible to me than I’d expected, and somehow that was comforting. All the way I glanced nervously around, able to see a vast expanse of white, broken only by the occasional black skeletons of trees, or protruding twists of frosty underbrush.
     I quickly lost sight of the wrought iron fence, but my confidence was growing that I would soon be home. I was approaching the Hump, as we knew it – a great slagheap with a foot-tunnel driven through it; beyond that I needed only to cross the canal bridge, and ascend a footpath through thickets to the edge of the housing estate on which I lived. That was when I heard the distant creak of the gate.
     Did I actually hear it? Was it possible to hear anything in that situation? The gate was dozens and dozens of yards behind me. My ears were muffled by the balaclava. Even if I had heard it, might it not have been shifted by a gust of wind? I couldn’t see far enough back in this twilit snowy realm to be sure one way or the other, but then I heard something else – the steady crunch of approaching feet.
     I didn’t wait to hear more. I ran on up the remainder of the path and through the foot-tunnel. This in itself – a straight low corridor of damp brick, completely unlit, running for at least fifty yards – would be a nightmare in the modern age, but notions of ‘stranger-danger’ were almost unheard of in that long-ago era. I was nearly home; this foot-tunnel was part of my normal world; I had no fear of it – until this point. Because though I got through to the other side without hindrance, I stopped again, for no good reason I can think of now, and peered back, and to my utmost shock I beheld a figure entering the tunnel from the other side. Again it was nothing more than a silhouette framed on the moon-lit snow, but, as before, it was hunched forward – so much so that I couldn’t see its head, and it moved with a heavy, shambling gait; immense, unwieldy robes dragged behind it. The clomping of its footfalls on the stony ground echoed along the passage towards me; those sounds were like no impacts of shoes or boots that I’d ever heard.
     I simply fled. Raw terror drove me across the canal bridge at reckless speed – it had no safety barriers and was shod with ice, yet I careered over it like a madman. The path beyond led uphill through tangled, snow-clad thickets. There were any number of places where an assailant might lie in wait and leap out, but I bypassed them all without a glance. Even when I left the Brow and ran along the next street to my own, I was pursued by inexorable fear, which only intensified as I rounded the corner onto the final straight – I had a nagging certainty that I’d be grabbed at the death.
     I wasn’t, but worse was to follow.
     With sobs of relief, I kicked open our garden gate and ran up the path. The front door was locked, so I veered left, running down the side alley past our allotment and coal-bunker, to the kitchen door – to my disbelief, this was locked too. I fumbled wildly under the scullery window, found our spare key, and let myself in, slamming the door closed behind me. The next thing I noticed was the cold supper waiting on the kitchen table – some boiled bacon, bread and jam, a mug of milk – with a handwritten letter alongside it. Though the house was luxuriously warm, coals burning in both the kitchen stove and behind the fireguard on the grate in the living room, a new kind of chill struck me.
     My parents were out.
     I knew that before I even snatched up the note and began to read. It was from my father, and it explained that he and my mother had been invited round by neighbours for a Christmas Eve drink. They would only be a couple of hours.
     But which neighbours? He didn’t specify.
     And when had this couple of hours commenced? Was it shortly to expire or did it still stretch before me?
     I yanked off my balaclava, my hair soaked with icy sweat – and heard a distinctive clank as the front gate banged open again. Incredulously, I listened to the progression of heavy, misshapen feet along our snowy front path, and then into the alley beside the house, whereupon they abruptly stopped. I was now listening so intently that I fancied I could hear the whispering of the snowflakes outside, but apart from that there was only silence. Torturous, prolonged silence.
     It is almost impossible to convey the horror and isolation I felt at that moment, even though I was ensconced in my own home. I stared fixedly at the kitchen door. For a time, there was nothing else in the world but that door – and what I suspected lurked just beyond it. I was unable to move; I didn’t dare move, terrified that if my feet scuffed on the floor they would alert the thing to my presence, even though such thoughts were patently ludicrous – it had followed me all the way home. Even if it hadn’t, it knew where I lived; according to our myths, it knew where every child lived.
       There was a soft crunch of snow, this directly on the other side of the door, and then a further pause. Was it listening in through the planks as I was listening out? We had a telephone – I don’t know why it never occurred to me to run and dial 999. I suspect I was simply too mesmerised by events. My nerves were taut as cello strings, my hair standing on end. But I quickly broke from this stupor when the door-handle started to turn.
     I think I may have screamed aloud as I lurched forward and rammed home the upper bolt. Immediately, the handle ceased moving. There was another prolonged silence. I stood rigid, eyes goggling, awaiting the next move. Then the handle turned again, this time with violence, and there was a long, dull groan as a significant weight was pressed against the door from the other side. I was far from confident the single bolt would hold, especially when the weight was withdrawn and, instead, a heavy blow landed. Followed by another blow and another; loud, echoing reports, increasingly angry, which must have been heard all along our street. The kitchen door was solid oak, but it shook and shook, and I imagined that its screws would flirt from their moorings under such an assault.
     It was a sure sign of how enthralled by fear I was that only now did it strike me to drive home the lower bolt as well. At first this was difficult: the assailant was hammering on the woodwork, not just with hands but with feet like iron clubs, and the lower section of the door vibrated so hard that it rarely lined up with the jamb – so hard that I thought it would shatter inward – but at last I managed to slide the bolt into its mount, and then ram my key into the lock and turn that too. All violence without instantly ceased.      
     The silence that followed this was perhaps the worst part of it, for all I could do was hover there in a state of near-paralysis, unsure whether my unwanted visitor had slunk off into the night, or was still present, contemplating another means of ingress. When I suddenly heard a clunk of metal at the front of the house, I shrieked hoarsely and stumbled through into our entrance hall, but not without first taking my mother’s rolling pin from one of the kitchen work-tops. I still remember vividly how that hall seemed to elongate before me, to telescope out to inordinate length as I stood at the kitchen end and peered down it, past the evergreens draped over the stair banister, past the telephone table, past the wooden coat stand, to the front door itself, which, even as I watched, began to open.
     I dashed down there with rolling pin raised, like some fearless warrior, screaming. But I was actually on my last legs, and I tripped on the rug before I got there, and found myself pitching forward – into the arms of my astonished father.
     Neither he nor my mother could speak they were so taken by surprise, but it soon became clear to them from my flow of semi-delirious gibberish that I was not playing some silly game. Despite my pleas that he lock all the doors and call for police assistance, my father went promptly down the side alley to the rear of the house. He found nobody lurking there, but with the aid of a candle, he noted extensive damage to our kitchen door. Afterwards, he listened again to the tale I had to tell him, and I left nothing out – but though he turned a trifle pale at my mention of the department store Santa Claus who’d appeared to know me and looked like Uncle Klaus, I don’t think he really believed that part of it.
     Though I was eleven years old, I spent that Christmas Eve in my parents’ bed, alongside my mother. My father slept in the armchair downstairs, next to the fire, which he stoked up to a good blaze before switching off the lights. Apparently he spent an uncomfortable but undisturbed night, and never once relinquished his grip on the poker. By morning, a fresh snowfall had obliterated all traces of footprints on our property. In a strange way, I was quite glad of that – I had no desire to see the shape of those left by our Christmas Eve intruder.

*

Grandpa Ludwig lapsed into distant memory as he sipped his port wine.
    “Surely there was some kind of investigation?” my dad finally asked. Clearly, this was the first time he’d ever heard this particular story.
     Grandpa Ludwig nodded. “Absolutely. At the first opportunity my father sought out the general manager of Halley & Meredith’s to officially complain that their Santa Claus had frightened me, and that he might well be the same person who had followed me home. Even the police became involved, and the Santa Claus in question – his name was William Harrison, and he was an out-of-work actor – was spoken to at length. Of course, Harrison denied any responsibility, and insisted that he was of good character. Others vouched for him, including fellow staff at Halley & Meredith’s, who also provided an alibi, claiming to have shared a festive tipple with him once their work that Christmas Eve had finished. And indeed, when I was eventually shown a photograph of Harrison, it was a completely different man. This ended police enquiries at the store, for Halley & Meredith’s had no other gentlemen employed in the role of Santa Claus.”
     “That can’t have been the end of the matter?” someone else asked.
     “Far from it.” Grandpa Ludwig shifted to get comfortable in his armchair. “The news had got out, and there was wide concern in our town that someone – nobody knew who – had followed a child home and tried to force entry to his house. The police continued to ask questions for quite some time. It was perhaps two years later when my father finally contacted them to say that he was sorry for all this trouble, but that he felt I had simply fallen asleep while alone in the house on Christmas Eve and had suffered a nightmare.”
     “Did you?” my mum asked gently.
     “Not a bit of it.”
     “So what brought your father to this conclusion?”
     Grandpa Ludwig shrugged. “It’s anyone’s guess, but it was quite a coincidence, I think, that around this time we learned the fate of Uncle Klaus. It seemed he’d been taken as a prisoner of war by the Soviets in 1944, and eventually, when hostilities were over, had been put on trial, accused of leading his unit in the massacres of civilians in Poland and Belarus. He was found guilty as charged, and executed by hanging. I’m not sure of the exact date … but it was some time in December 1948.”
     Even my dad was speechless; evidently he’d never heard this part of the story before either. The snapping and spitting of chestnut shells finally brought us round.
     “Krampus,” my auntie said with distaste. “What a horrible being to conjure up at Christmas time. The flipside of everything that is good and kind and forgiving.”
     Grandpa Ludwig nodded. “As Uncle Klaus said to me.”
     “When did he say that?” my dad asked. “If you never saw him again?”
     Grandpa glanced up, his spectacles glinting with firelight. “Why … that final night before the war, after the argument with his twin brother, when he left our house in Mittenwald. At the time his exact words were lost on me, but since then I’ve remembered. He said: ‘Be warned, Ludwig … there aren’t just good fairies in your father’s stories. There are bad ones too’.”



***

If you've enjoyed this story, which hopefully you have, you might be interested to know that late last year I put several of my Christmas chillers out as an e-collection called IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER. You can still buy it HERE for the non-too-princely sum of 99p. You might also be interested in the 2010 novella of mine, SPARROWHAWK, which is also still available as an e-book, though sadly out of print in paperback. This is probably the most Christmassy of all my Christmas ghost stories, and set right in the heart of the season - in Dickens's London, during the bitterly cold December of 1843. Grab this one HERE, for £2.41.

(The pic at the top is freely lifted from the Dutch festive horror movie, SINT. Check it out - it's well worth it).


3 comments:

  1. Now this is a supernatural tale !
    Enjoyed it greatly, thanks !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're very kind, G. Thanks very much.

      Delete
  2. You're welcome, Paul.
    It would make a very good tv episode, provided that they maintain the admirable sobriety of it.

    ReplyDelete