Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Hawthorn Tree

by Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2011


Downsizing. That’s what we told people. It was the quickest, and the easiest way to explain what we were doing. Because then it sounds like something admirable, it sounds like a lifestyle choice, like something they have programmes on Channel 4 about, rather than what it really was, which was something a lot messier and more confusing that I’m not sure either of us could have found the right words for even if we’d wanted to. “Ooh, you are lucky,” more than one person told me. “We dream of doing something like that.” I just smiled, and something about the way I smiled seemed usually to make them tell me how brave I was too.

But it didn’t feel like downsizing. Not when we stood at the back door and looked at the vast expanse of green hill behind us, and beyond that the big sky. A proper sky, stretching all the way from east to west without a single building to block the view, and one that was filled with stars at night time. I don’t think the girls had ever seen the stars properly. You don’t, living in London. I remember saying to Ben that it felt like we were living life on a whole different scale.

Of course it wasn’t perfect – the survey said we would need a new roof sooner rather than later, and there were a couple of windows at the front that were rotten through and needed replacing straight away, but the estate agent put us on to a local builder who got them done before we even moved in and didn’t charge that much more than we’d have expected to pay in town. And it was a shame the garden was north-facing. The hill that had seemed to cradle the cottage protectively when we came to view it in the summer turned out to overshadow it in the winter, blocking every scrap of sun from the raggedy garden that trailed up its slope – but Ben was still convinced he could do something with it. I don’t know where his confidence came from – it wasn’t as if he’d ever done much in the way of gardening before, but somehow that was part and parcel of the new start.

He had such big ideas. When he hacked all the brambles back he found the original wall, a dry-stone one, all tumbled down and coated with moss, and he was convinced he was going to rebuild it, even though there didn’t seem any point because there was nothing behind the garden but the hill and the worst thing that was going to come in was likely to be a sheep or maybe a lost rambler. But he joined the local library with the girls and came back with a book about dry stone walling to go with all the ones about growing vegetables. He did at least agree that that was a job to put off till next year, if he was going to stand any chance of getting any veg sewn in time for the spring.

At least it kept him busy. The idea was that he was going to pick up locum work while I commuted, but between the end of August when we moved in and the end of November I don’t think he got more than four or five days in all. A lot of the surgeries he contacted said they were waiting for their settlements under the new system and they might be able to give him more in the new financial year, but that wasn’t much use in the meantime. I know it got him down, but I didn’t want to push it in case he took it as criticism. We were alright for a while anyway. Our friends back in London wouldn’t believe us when we told them how small our mortgage payments were.

Still, at least it meant Ben was around while the girls were getting settled in their new school in the village, which I have to say they took to like ducks to water. They seemed to have their little group of friends and invitations round to play in place within days, and they were soon arriving back with new enthusiasms like riding lessons or keeping chickens that would never have crossed their minds in a million years if we’d stayed where we were. It was amazing to think they would grow up as countryside kids, and barely remember the years they spent living in the city when they were older.

I was finding the commute just about manageable, though having to get up even earlier to de-ice the car in the mornings as the year wore on started to do my head in. Even then, though, being able to look up and see the sun just beginning to peek up over the brow of the hill and set the frost on the peak shimmering – or just a pink glow in the fog that hung around the summit some mornings – well, it made it almost worthwhile. Thankfully Ben was happy to sort out the kids on the weekend mornings, and let me lie in and then enjoy a long bath and a lazy morning. I always had grand plans for us to go on days out and long walks exploring the area, but somehow with the days drawing in we never quite managed it. We’d never even got as far as the top of the hill behind our house. Someone at the village shop had told me it was an old fort and there were bronze age burial mounds up there, and that the views from the top were breathtaking. “Don’t worry,” Ben told me one Sunday night when I was moaning to him about how we weren’t taking advantage of things for the sake of the girls. “We’ve got years to explore. We’re not going anywhere.”

You see, that’s the way we’d been talking. Not all the time, but regularly, about the future: whether it was his seed catalogues, or locum work picking up in the spring, or getting a dog which was the girls’ latest obsession. All things that meant he was planning to be around for a long time. That’s what I couldn’t convince the police about. Because of course once they’d found out about the affair, and the fact I’d given him two options, either moving out here or splitting up – well, you could tell by their faces that they’d made their mind up exactly what had happened and there was no point them wasting their time looking for someone who didn’t want to be found.

And I considered that too, don’t get me wrong. I spent ages going over every conversation we’d had since we moved, any signs I might have missed that he was having second thoughts or he’d made the wrong decision. I even phoned Her. That was probably a mistake, especially after having most of a bottle of wine to pluck up the courage, but it was clear from her voice that she hadn’t been in touch with her and she didn’t have any idea where he was. She kept saying “missing? What do you mean missing?”, as if there was any way of explaining it better. And at the end she even asked me to let her know if I had any news. I told her not to hold her breath.

I’m getting ahead of myself. It happened on a Saturday morning, when I’d slept in even later than usual. The girls were sat in front of the TV when I went down, with their cereal bowls still sat empty on the carpet next to them, and when I looked out of the sitting room window he was there in the garden digging away at the base of the hawthorn tree he’d got it into his head was shading the place where he wanted his rhubarb to be. He’d been worrying away at it for days, cutting back all the branches and burning them on a damp smoky bonfire too close to the house and nicking his hands on the thorns because he couldn’t be bothered to wear the perfectly good set of gloves he’d bought. I thought about shouting out of the back door to see if he wanted a cup of tea, but in the end I didn’t bother, just made a herbal one for myself in the big cup and took it back up to the bathroom for a wallow.

The bathroom’s my favourite room in the house. It’s tiny, and built in under the eaves, but they managed to fit in a proper cast iron bath tub with the lion legs – I think it’s proper Victorian – that you can stretch right out in, and we treated ourselves to fluffy new towels the girls aren’t allowed to use as a moving in present, so my Saturday morning bath is a proper treat. There’s no window, just a skylight, so you can lie in there looking straight up at the sky and the clouds passing across above you and keep topping yourself up with hot water and just let everything ebb away.

I’d been there half an hour or more – I remember I was reading one of the colour supplements, not that day’s because we hadn’t been to the shop yet, but I never get a chance to read the papers on the right day anyway – when I heard Ben talking to someone in the back garden. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and I thought one of the girls must be out there with him, but a couple of minutes later I heard the sound of the back door opening – and felt it too, because it sent a gust of cold air zooming up the stairs and made me duck down to get as much of myself under the warm water as I could. I heard him telling the girls that he had to go out and to be good and for Maisie to look after her little sister and both of them to look after mum. And then he was gone.

“Ben!” I yelled down the stairs, but he’d shut the door behind him. “Ben?”

He wasn’t coming back. He had his coat and boots on already, so he had no need to. I sat up in the bath, sending water tsunami-ing up over the edges and on to the cork tiles we were planning to change when we got round to it.

“Ben?” I was bellowing now.

“He’s gone out,” called an uninterested Maisie up the stairs.

“Gone out where?” I shouted back down. No answer. The village was a ten-minute drive, and the nearest neighbours weren’t much closer, not that we knew them anyway. There was nothing out the back except for the hill.

I got up in the bath and wrapped a towel round me, managing to dip the corner in the water which made me swear even more. To see anything lower than the very peak of the hill I had to open the skylight, which involved getting out of the bath and slopping even more water all over the place. I could feel myself goosepimpling even before I got the window open and let the November air in to meet my wet hair.

I couldn’t see Ben anywhere. There was his spade, stucking up from the earth by the hawthorn tree up by the back wall – he’d made some serious inroads: the ground around it was all dug away and there was a fresh gash in the trunk where the pale flesh shone brightly out from the mossy bark. There were the black ridges where he had planted his onions and spinach and lambs lettuce, with precious little to show for them save for the labels marking the ends of the rows, and the rainbow spinning windmill Beth had insisted on buying from the garden centre even though there was nothing worth scaring the birds away from yet. But there was no sign of my husband. I looked up the hillside beyond, still striped and contoured with frost. The sheep had all been taken in for the winter. And for all the woman at the shop said about the views, we’d never seen anyone walking up there.

I leaned out of the skylight as far as I dared to look to the east and the west. There was nothing but grass and stones all the way to the arching horizon, and nothing but cold grey sky above. The winter sun had barely crested the brow of the hill, and for a moment when I squinted up into its brightness I thought I saw the silhouettes of figures up there, but when I blinked they were gone.

When I got downstairs, still damp, the girls were just where I left them in front of the television and showing no interest in the whereabouts of their father. I pulled on wellies under my dressing gown and walked all the way to the top of the garden shouting Ben’s name – thinking all the time how embarrassed I would be if he should pop up from somewhere and introduce whatever stranger he’d been talking to with me in that state – but there was no reply but the wind. When I went back in to the cottage I had to switch the TV off to get the girls to even look at me. “Who was in the garden with daddy?” I asked them both, but Beth just shook her head dumbly and Maisie, when pushed, insisted she thought he’d been talking to me. I don’t think they’d even looked round from the screen all morning.

So we waited. Or at least I waited, and tried not to let the girls think that anything was wrong, and when it got as late as I could possibly let it get and still make it to the supermarket – which he knew perfectly well was what we were supposed to be doing that day – I packed them both into the car and drove there and forced myself to go up and down every aisle checking off every single thing on the list while convincing myself he would be waiting, full of apologies, when we got home. But we arrived back to a empty house, dark and cold, with my note still sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. And that’s when I decided to call the police.

Well, you know the next bit. I tried as hard as I could to keep things normal for the girls, but obviously there was nothing normal about their dad not being there and there was nothing I could do to deny it. Every night when I put her to bed Beth asked if her daddy would be there in the morning. Maisie stopped talking about him at all. I think she thought it would upset me. I tried to tell her it wouldn’t, but we both knew she was right. Sometimes I’d find her sitting just staring out of the back window of their bedroom, even a couple of times at night long after I thought they were both asleep and there was nothing but pitch blackness on the other side of the glass.

What did I feel? Mostly angry. I was embarrassed about having to rely on people I hardly knew to help me pick up the kids from school and look after them until I could get home in the evening, brilliant as their friends’ parents were about rallying round. I was angry about the fact that I had to pack both them into the car and take them with me on a 20 mile round trip if we needed anything from the shop, or an even longer one if one of them had a play date or a music lesson. I was angry about being left to cope with it all on my own. I didn’t sign up for this, I kept saying to myself. I’d put some serious consideration into life as a single parent just a few months before – I’d made lists of the pros and cons and left them out where he could find them so he would realise just how serious a situation we were in – but that had been in London with my friends and my whole support network around me. Not out here in the arse end of nowhere where you had to spend half an hour scraping ice off the car before you could even get anywhere.

The police didn’t start taking it seriously until a fortnight had passed and his bank card and mobile hadn’t been used (I’d told them he’d left his phone sitting charging on the kitchen dresser and even showed it to them, but they said there were still procedures they had to follow). I’d been complaining to Beth’s teacher how they didn’t seem to be doing anything and then the very next day on the way to school we drove past a line of policemen picking their way through the copse near the junction with the main road and a man in a frogman suit stepping down into the black pond beneath the trees, and it all hit home to me what was really happening. I managed to keep things together until I’d dropped the girls off but I’d hardly got the car out of sight around the corner in the lane before I had to pull over and spent five minutes dry heaving into the hedge.

I was saved by the nice lady from the village, the same one who’d told me about the history of the hill in fact. She stopped alongside me, took one look at me and put me in her 4x4 and back to her kitchen where she made me a strong coffee and insisted I have a tot of whiskey in it, and then she sat down on the other side of the table and told me to tell her all about it. Well, it all ended up coming out, about the affair and why we’d moved here and how worried I was about what it was all doing to the kids and how terrified I was about what had happened to Ben – all to this woman I barely knew, in fact I’d only found out her name, Vivienne, that morning – and she just kept handing me tissues and patting my arm, and her dog kept licking my other hand like she was trying to comfort me too and by the end of it I felt better than I had in weeks.

It was funny because she couldn’t have been less like my mum – Vivienne’s country through and through, all gilets and Barbour jackets and sensible boots, and her kitchen was the sort mum used to be really snobby about with quarry tiles and an Aga and all these bunches of different herbs, some of which I didn’t even recognise, drying above it, but right at that moment it felt like just where I needed to be and I’ve never felt more cared for.

When I’d let it all out she just sat there watching me stroke the dog, and she looked like she was coming to a decision, and then she told me to follow her through to her utility room which turned out to be rigged out with a whelping pen in it and twelve boisterous Springer Spaniel puppies that set up a yapping as soon as we opened the door and started jumping up at us for attention. Vivienne picked out one – a gorgeous boy with a patch over one eye and a tail going ten to the dozen – and handed him over to me. She told me that she’d heard in the village how my girls had been pushing us for a dog and she thought he might be exactly what we needed right now. And she wouldn’t take any money for him, although she did say I could pay her for the sack of food and the bowls and blanket she gave me as well and she’d pass it on to the RSPCA.

Well, that sort of restored my faith in humanity and gave me something to go on for. You can imagine how delighted the girls were when I brought them home and introduced him to them and told them that yes, we were keeping him. And from that day on life felt a bit more manageable and less like we were living on hold, waiting for Ben to walk back in through the back door. And Kipper – Maisie let Beth name him, which was really good of her – kept us busy, and cheerful for each other, even when the police liaison officer came to tell me they were stopping their search of the local area in favour of “secondary investigation techniques” which as far as I could tell meant just waiting to see if Ben turned up.

Maisie’s friend Sarah’s parents – it seems ridiculous calling them that, Angela and Julian – were brilliant too, having the girls for the day when I had to go into town and look through the unidentified persons records with the liaison officer to see if Ben was in there because they knew how upsetting I would find it. They got back at 4 o’clock absolutely delighted because Angela had taken the three of them out pony-trekking all up along the ridge. “We saw our house and we saw you in the garden, and we waved but you didn’t see us!” Beth told me, which was confusing because I’d been at the police station all morning, but Angela just shook her head and told her they had been a very long way away. Apparently they had planned to go all the way to the top of the hill and take a photo of themselves with the cottage in the background but Fidget, Sarah’s pony, had gone all skittish so they’d turned back before they’d got there, and to be honest it seemed like they’d had quite enough excitement for one day. They both went up to bed straight after tea and were out like lights, although Maisie murmured something weird as I was kissing her goodnight, asking who the man was that I had been with in the garden and saying she was wishing for it to be daddy even though she knew it didn’t look like him.

I was determined to make Christmas as normal as possible for them, too. The one thing Vivienne had insisted on was that Kipper shouldn’t be a Christmas present – a dog is for life, etc. – so I’d got them both a Wii between them as their big present and plenty of other stuff for their stockings and we’d bought daddy a Top Gear book – it was Maisie’s idea – and wrapped it up and we had a nice moment putting it on the mantelpiece for him “ready for when he comes back.” After breakfast I let them plug in their new toy and I got on with the dinner. I even checked Ben’s veg patch to see if there was anything I could salvage for us to have with the turkey, but it was all looking pretty barren. I’d probably failed to do all sorts of things I was supposed to like watering and fertilising, what with everything. To be honest I think it was the first time anyone had been anywhere near that end of the garden since he disappeared. Even Kipper tends to skulk round the back of the house to do his wees and poos where we’re most likely to tread in them. I think he doesn’t like the cold, the big wuss. The few times I tried to persuade him up to the back of the garden to use the nice clear patch of earth around the stump of the hawthorn tree, he started whining and half-throttling himself trying to pull off his collar so he could run back into the house. And I know this makes me a terrible dog owner but it was too cold to persist for too long.

The first Wii argument kicked in after about an hour, and by that time the dinner was at a point where it could look after itself, so I announced that we were all going out for a walk. There was the usual shrieking and wailing at that, but I silenced that with a reminder of the promises they had made when we got Kipper and we eventually all managed to get ourselves togged out in coats, scarves, hats, mittens and wellies without too much fuss.

To be honest I didn’t blame them when we got out into the weather. It was a grey Christmas not a white one, with the mist hanging heavy in the valley, but I was fired up by now and I said that rather than go up the lane as usual we were going to walk up the hill. I had the idea that we would get above the fog and see those beautiful views that Vivienne had talked about – we might even meet her up there, she said she was often up there with her boys, as she called them – but in fact as we trudged up the footpath with the girls discussing their new favourite Mario characters and Kipper doing his best to both strangle himself and trip me up with the lead – it seemed to get even thicker. The footpath was slippy with mud. Beth had a couple of near misses that left her grizzling, and Kipper nearly had me flat on my face a couple of times, so after a bit I decided we should just strike out across the grass – as long as we were going upwards, we knew we were going in the right direction, after all. The hedgerow soon faded away behind us, and then it was just us trudging across grass stiff and cracky with frost, just the four of us, three girls and a dog on our own in a world of white. The girls had stopped talking to save their breath for climbing, and even Kipper seemed to quieten down and settle close to my side in a way that made me think maybe we were getting somewhere with his training after all. He had his ears pressed back hard against his head and he kept darting these quick glances around him. Maybe he could sense rabbits out there in the fog.

The hill was higher than it looked. I kept thinking we must be getting close to the top, because the gradient would change, but then we would suddenly reach an even steeper bit, and I realised this must be the fort that Vivienne had been talking about. I wished I’d thought to bring a flask out with us, because the air was so cold up here it felt sharp in the back of your throat, and I was surprised the girls weren’t complaining more, but they seemed to have been struck by the same mood as the dog, just huddling into their coats and peering around themselves at the blankness. It felt like everything – not just us, but the fog and the hill and the whole countryside around us – was waiting.

Finally we reached a point where the ground flattened out, and I announced that we had reached the top, although I could see the vague shape of an even higher bit of ground jutting out ahead of us. I had thought to put a couple of mince pies into the pocket of my fleece as a reward, and I was just reaching them out and trying to disentangle the kitchen roll I’d wrapped them in with my glove still on when Kipper took fright at something – I saw the hackles bristle up all along his little back, and he let out a low growling noise I’d never heard him make before – and then somehow he’d managed to slip the loop of the lead off my wrist and streak off into the whiteness before I could do anything.

Maisie gave a scream. I was shouting his name too, but the racket we were making somehow seemed to dissipate into the mist around us. Beth slipped a little, mittened hand into mine, and when I saw her frightened side eyes looking up at me I tried to give it a reassuring squeeze but my heart was thumping away in my chest and the bloody dog was nowhere to be seen anywhere.

I told them both to hush so we could all listen for where he was, and then we could all hear him rushing about somewhere, letting out these funny little excited yaps and whimpers. But the strange thing was that none of us could agree on where the noises were coming from. I thought he was somewhere on the far side of the hill; Maisie swore blind he had doubled round behind us, and when I asked Beth all she did was stretch out a shaking arm to point ahead at the place where, now my eyes were getting used to it, there was definitely a higher outcrop rising up out of the mist. Somehow it seemed better to be moving in some direction than none at all, so I took both their hands firmly in mine and we started to walk that way.

Christmas is funny, isn’t it. The memories you have of Christmas as a kid stick with you forever. My Mum and Dad used to have a cocktail party on Christmas Eve, which was all glamour and lipsticky kisses from aunties in sequins, and grown up snacks like cornichons and strange-smelling drinks left half-finished in sticky glasses in the candlelight. And then the next morning after I’d opened my stocking I would always creep down to the living room, turn the volume down low and slide in the VHS tape to watch the whole of the The Railway Children on my own before they emerged around lunchtime to make a start on the Bloody Marys. Every year the same, an ecstatic mix of joy and tears and the wonderful familiarity of knowing exactly what comes next.

And it was only at that moment that I realised what had been nagging at the back of my mind ever since we started off up the hill and into the whiteness. That moment when the fog began to clear and I saw what we were walking towards and stopped dead in my wellies on the close-cropped, wiry hill-top grass, a cold numbness spreading through my body. The moment that Maisie slipped her gloved hand out of mine and hurtled away from me, her little sister stumbling after her as fast as her short legs would carry her, out of my grasp and out of my reach and into the white that closed around both of them…

Daddy, my Daddy!

You'd Better Watch Out

by Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2009


Alice was always so pleased to see her great-aunt, which just served to make Carol feel even guiltier about her own lack of enthusiasm for their visits. She still went though. That was the main thing.

“Hello Auntie Claire!” her daughter trilled as soon as the front door cracked open, and Carol felt her heart breaking a little bit when the pair of eyes that were peering suspiciously out through the few inches the security chain would allow failed to register any emotion at all at her presence.

“They’ve been back again,” was the first thing the old woman said when they had managed to negotiate the routine of door-shut-chain-off-curtain-back-door-open-and-mind-the-clutter-in-the-hallway. Carol fixed her features into a smile and decided to ignore this until she felt a bit stronger with a cup of tea inside her. “We’ve bought you a treat,” she said, raising the Tupperware box and tapping it with a gloved finger. “Christmas biscuits. Alice made them at school.”

“We’ve broken up now,” Alice announced as she led the way into the stuffy sitting room. “So I’ll be able to come to see you every day with mummy.”

Won’t that be nice, Carol glared fiercely at the old woman’s retreating back, but she failed to respond, as usual. Alice didn’t seem to mind. She thought her great-aunt was deaf, for the very good reason that Carol had told her she was. It had been a quick-thinking excuse to explain why she so often found herself raising her voice when she was talking to her, but it had turned out to be a multi-purpose white lie in the long run.

Carol went straight on through to the kitchen to make tea. She had long given up asking, given her aunt’s tendency to regard the most basic level of hospitality as a nefarious attempt to do her out of teabags. She’d brought a pint of milk with her in her bag – not that she’d get any thanks for it – and she popped it into the fridge and took the opportunity to check the dates on the plastic containers left there by meals on wheels while the kettle was boiling. Only one was ready for the bin this time, which was a good sign.

When she brought the tray through to the sitting room, Alice was clucking over the meagre collection of Christmas cards arranged above the gas fire. Carol could see most of them had printed greetings – she recognised the one from the local church and the Indian takeaway – and she felt a pang of mingled pity and guilt and resolved to make an extra effort, a resolution her aunt put to the test straight away.

“They were back. Last night. In the garden,” she announced, her eyes wide and challenging.

“Who were?” asked Alice.

“Never mind–” her mother began, but Aunt Claire was already off. “The hoodies. They come in my garden.”

Now you’ll talk to her, thought Carol.

“Really?” asked Alice, fascinated. She moved to the window and bunched up her sleeve to wipe away the condensation that coated the panes.

“Every night,” affirmed the old woman. “They wait till it’s dark, and then they’re there. Stood in the shadows, looking in at the window.”

“Come away love,” said Carol weakly. “Do you want to pass your auntie one of your lovely biscuits?”

“Every night,” Aunt Claire said, settling back in her chair with some satisfaction. “The police won’t do anything. I’ve called them.”

“Did you?” Her heart sinking, Carol added something else to the long list of things she had to sort out before Christmas.

The old woman nodded. “They gave me this.” She sifted through the oddments that she kept on the high table by the side of her chair and extracted a leaflet from the pile of dog-eared Readers Digests.

Anti-Social Behaviour Incident Diary, Carol read. Do not complete this Incident Diary for Noise Nuisance complaints. For such incidents please phone Enviromental Protection. Oh god. She was going to have to spend forever on the phone. On the front page, beneath “Details of incident, including who did it, if known, and where it happened,” there was tiny spidery handwriting: the same ones as before. Just stood there. Looking into the house. They come closer every night.

Carol took a deep breath and gathered her strength. Rob was going to kill her. “Why don’t you come and stay with us for Christmas?” she heard herself say. “It would do you good to get away for a few days.”

“Oh, yes, do!” trilled Alice, coming away from the window at last.

“Oh, yes,” said Aunt Claire with a sort of scornful glee. “I know what you’re up to. They’ll not get me out of this house, and neither will you. I’m stopping here. Are you just going to leave that tea to mash and go to waste?”
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“The bloody cheek of the woman!” said Rob later that night, thumping down onto his side of the bed with The World According to Clarkson in his hand.

“I know! As if we wanted her grotty little house,” protested Carol. “It’s not even like it would be in our interests if she did have to go into a home.” As far as Alice’s school were concerned, she lived at Great Aunt Claire’s address, which was considerably closer to the centre of the catchment area than their own. Carol tended to think of that as a white lie too. After all, they quite often did pop in there on the way back from school, and not just to check if any letters had come from the headteacher.

“I am worried about her, though” she said when her husband had got comfortable. “She’s completely convinced about it.”

He thumbed his bookmark. “Have you called her social worker?”

“I tried. They’re on reduced hours over Christmas. I’m going to try to get hold of her in the morning.”

He nodded. “Well, see what they say. It sounds like living on her own might be getting too much for her.”

“She’s always lived on her own though.” Carol thought back to her own childhood, and the younger Aunt Claire – though she seemed old even then – coming for lunch every Sunday and, as her father used to joke, doing her best to spoil the Sabbath for everyone. She had been fairly batty even then.

“Then you’d think she’d be glad to have some visitors,” Rob grinned.

“Oh, don’t laugh.” Carol rapped him on his bare arm. “And what if it’s real? There’s always kids hanging around in the car park by Lidl, that’s why I park up the road when I go and see her. What if it’s them coming into her garden to scare her?”

Her husband plopped Clarkson down on the duvet, admitting defeat. “Look. It’s just something she’s got in her head from too much reading the Daily Express. She’s imagining things in the shadows. Did you have a look in the garden?”

“Yeah.” Carol and Alice had had a quick scout round the shaggy lawn and bare borders on their way out.

“And was there any sign anyone had been there?”

“No. But I wasn’t sure exactly what we were looking for.”

“Fag butts? Empty cans of booze? Crisp packets? The teenagers round here don’t seem to be able to go three feet without dropping some litter.”

“No, none of that.”

“And do you really think the local kids have got nothing better to do than hang around in gardens frightening old ladies at this time of year? It’s supposed to be minus two tonight.”

“She said they had their hoods up,” she said weakly.

“Well there you are then. It’s probably monks,” he said witheringly. “The old bag’s probably having a religious vision. Next time, tell her not to bother ringing the police and just get straight on to the Vatican instead.”

“You’re horrible,” she scolded him with a smile as she settled back into the pillows. But in her heart she knew he was probably right. Her own mother, Aunt Claire’s sister, had started seeing Tony Blair at the post office not long before she died. Which, frankly, sounded a far worse prospect than any number of hoodies in the garden.

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Well, that was just the limit. Here was a woman who insisted she wasn’t capable of leaving the house to do her own shopping, and she’d somehow managed to shift her chair right across the room all by herself. “Why d’you want it right over there?” Carol demanded. “It’s miles away from the fire. And you’ll get a terrible draught from the window.”

“I’ve got to keep an eye on them,” her aunt replied stubbornly.

She sighed. “Keep an eye on who?”

“The hoodies,” the old woman exclaimed in exasperation. “There was one of them standing in the middle of the lawn last night, bold as brass. Well, I won’t be intimidated. Here I sit and here I stay.”

Carol peered out of the window at the ragged patch of lawn, which appeared unchanged. “Claire, do you really think –”

“Don’t you take that tone with me!” her aunt snapped back. “I know what you think. You go back to your big house with that husband of yours and you think I’m just making this all up, but I’m telling you they come, every night, as soon as it gets dark they’re there creeping about and trying to find a way in, and I’m not going to let them.”

Carol was alarmed to see tears welling in the corners of the old woman’s eyes. Whatever it was, it was real to her, that much was clear.

“Look.” She glanced at her watch. Alice’s party was due to finish in half an hour. If she was quick, she could make it to the garden centre and back, and then… “We’ll come back. This evening. I’ll bring Rob, and he can go out there and have a good look around and make sure there’s nothing for you to worry about. How’s that? And I’ll bring something else too. I’ve had an idea.”

------------

Rob grumbled all the way over about how he’d been looking forward to a nice glass of wine all day and that he was going to miss the Christmas Q.I. until she finally snapped as they turned into Aunt Claire’s street that his liver would thank him for the night off and it wasn’t as if it wouldn’t be on Dave again and again and again anyway. She noticed as they went past that the Lidl car park was empty, but she didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

They could see her in her chair at the window as soon as they opened the gate – she hadn’t even closed the curtains, she must be freezing – and Carol made a point of shining the torch all round the garden, right into the hedge and the corner where the fence was sagging with the weight of next-door’s compost heap, to prove as much to herself as to her aunt that there was nothing and nobody there.

“I’ll just stop out here then, shall I?” said Rob grumpily on the front doorstep, and she handed him the bag with her sweetest smile and the promise of a hot cup of coffee as soon as he was done.

She’d planned to distract her aunt by telling her Alice needed to do her reading, and since they had abandoned The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe at a particularly crucial point the night before – Lucy had just proposed going back to visit Mr Tumnus only to get to his cave and find the White Witch had got there before them – her daughter was only too happy to go along with the plan. Between them she and Rob managed to trail the long lead in through the little window in the downstairs loo and loop it out of the way behind the safety handrail. He found enough strong branches in the hedge after only a few minutes of muffled swearing, and when she flicked the switch the whole garden flashed into life and she was pleased to see Aunt Claire jumped about a mile.

“How about that then?” she asked, beaming.

“Brilliant!” shrieked Alice, slipping off her great-aunt’s lap and pressing her face up against the chilly glass.

“That should be enough to make anyone think twice about coming in,” said Rob in that weirdly hearty tone he adopted with the elderly, babies, and anyone else he was a bit scared of. Carol shot him a look.

“It’s a bit more cheery, isn’t it?” she asked her aunt, who was scanning every inch of the newly-revealed garden with anxious eyes.

“Aren’t they pretty, Aunt Claire?” said Alice breathlessly. “Yours is the most christmassiest garden in the street now!”

The old woman waited a long while before speaking. “And that’s all coming off my electricity, is it?”

------------

They had been gone about an hour, and the old woman still sat at the window, staring out at the pools of light that danced around the garden as the winter wind shifted the branches of the hedge. A cup of stone-cold coffee sat untouched on the table beside her.

After a while the faint throb of next door’s television ceased, and the thumping of stairs and cascade of water through pipes that heralded their going to bed gave way to silence. Still Aunt Claire sat staring out into the garden, as fingers of ice began to form in the corner of the window panes and feel their way out along the glass.

The furthest lightbulb went out first. One moment it was glinting away, illuminating the panels of the bowing fence and the frost that was beginning to set upon the scrubby grass, and the next it had winked away into nothingness. The second one puttered out of life a moment later, bringing the shadows creeping a few inches closer to the house. Then the third was extinguished, then the fourth, and before long only the closest lamps on the string which ran along the edge of the path were illuminated, and twilight had taken over the rest of the garden. The old lady still sat there, gazing out into the night, her thin hands gripping the arms of the chair and her breath rising up as vapour in front of her face until the darkness came all the way up to the windowpane and an even darker shadow loomed in front of her.

She screwed her eyes tightly shut as something began to tap on the glass.

------------

“I appreciate your concern, Ms Langtree, I really do. I’m going to make a note on your mother’s file that we should –”

“She’s not my mother!” Carol said, and regretted her sharpness straight away. “She’s an aunt. My parents are both dead.” Then she regretted that as well, because it sounded like she was trying to pass the buck, and she wasn’t totally sure that she wasn’t.

“But you are the contact relative?” She could hear the tapping of a keyboard at the other end.

“Yes.” Carol swapped the phone to her other hand and attempted to manoeuvre the glove she had had to take off to dial the number back on using her teeth. It was bitter out on the front step, but she didn’t want either her aunt or Alice overhearing the call.

“Well, as I say, I’m making a note on the file that we need to convene for a reassessment at the earliest opportunity after the holiday period. That will give us a chance to get a proper medical assessment as well.”

“But isn’t there anything we can do now?” Her ears were nearly as cold as her fingers. She pulled her scarf up and wrapped it over her head, Baboushka-style.

“Ms Langtree, it is Christmas Eve.”

Carol gritted her teeth. As if she didn’t know that. They’d still got most of Alice’s presents to wrap, the turkey should have come out of the freezer an hour ago and Rob hadn’t replied to her text saying so, and a hundred other things besides. And she’d spent the best part of forty minutes playing phone chase around the various answerphones of the local social services department before tracing the one emergency out-of-hours number that actually had a human being at the end of it. “I know. I’m sorry, I really am. It’s just that I’m really quite worried about her. She didn’t make it to bed last night, and I’m not sure she’s slept much at all. She’s not really looking after herself.”

She could feel the disapproval emanating from the other end of the line. “A lot of our older clients stay with family at this time of year.”

“I have asked,” Carol snapped, feeling herself flush in spite of the cold. “She won’t come.”

“You don’t think you could persuade her?”

“You obviously haven’t met my aunt,” said Carol with a sigh. She stepped down off the doorstep, one gloved hand against the pebbledash to guard against slipping, and skirted the bare flowerbed to check on how things were going in the sitting room.

------------

“What’s wrong, Auntie?” The old woman’s scream had made Alice jump. She followed the direction of her gaze and saw her mother peering in through the front window. She returned her wave.

Her great-aunt hadn’t made a start on her letter to Santa at all. “Come on Auntie,” she said cheerily. “I’ve done lots of mine. What are you going to ask for?”

“Horns,” whispered the old woman, still staring at the window.

“Really?” asked Alice, intrigued. She was thinking about an old-fashioned squeezy brass-and-rubber affair and what fun it would be to creep up on people and parp it when they were least expecting it. “I might ask for one of those too. Lets both write it down.”

“That’s why they wear their hoods up,” the old woman hissed, turning her steely blue eyes towards the girl.

Alice shivered. She couldn’t see her mother through the window any more. “I think we should just write our letters,” she said, trying to adopt a grown-up sort of tone.

“Come here.” Her aunt beckoned her over to her chair. Alice didn’t want to go over, but she didn’t feel she had a choice. “Closer.” A bony hand fastened around the arm of her reindeer jumper. The grip was surprisingly tight.

“I’ll tell you something else, too.” The old woman put her mouth so close to the girl’s ear that it felt like the wind was blowing in her hair. “I know what they’re hiding under those big baggy trousers, too.”

This, Alice decided, was quite enough. She pulled away – it actually hurt – and copied something Miss Lemon said which always seemed to work when the boys in her class were playing up: “Stop this nonsense!”

And then she felt terrible because she could see her great-aunt was starting to cry. “Now, look, Auntie Claire,” she said, panicking and trying to change the subject before her mother came back in. “I’ll help you with your letter and then you can help me put it up the chimney. Come on, it’ll be fun. And if we get it done that means Santa will definitely be coming for you tonight.”

------------

Christmas morning was the usual chaos, and they were late getting away to collect Auntie Claire, who had been persuaded – well, given no choice, really – about coming over to theirs for her dinner at least. Carol had told Alice about a dozen times she didn’t have to come – she kept casting longing looks back at the pile of brightly-coloured boxes she had got as far as unwrapping but not yet managed to open – but her daughter insisted. (She was still feeling guilty about making her great-aunt cry the day before, not that she was going to tell her mother that.)

Then there was the palaver of getting the car de-iced – it had been the coldest night of the year so far, according to the news. And they’d no sooner got going than Rob rang on the mobile with a question about the lunch and she had to pull over and spent five minutes telling him she couldn’t see how anyone could get to 38 and eat that many roast potatoes without knowing you had to par-boil them first.

The radio kept saying there was snow in Derbyshire but this didn’t officially mean it was a white Christmas for some reason or other, but Alice wasn’t bothered about that because there was frost sparkling everywhere and that was good enough for her. So they switched it off and sang While Shepherds Washed Their Socks By Night and One On A Scooter Beeping His Hooter at the tops of their voices all the way there and it felt to Carol like one of the best Christmases ever until they got there and the front door was wide open.

She had her mobile out in her hand like a talisman and was nervously peering into the dark hallway – she’d already clocked the empty chair in the window – when she became aware that Alice was tugging urgently at her sleeve and trying to draw her attention to something else. “Look mummy – he did come! He did!”

All across the garden, in the thick frost that covered the lawn and the border and the path up to the open front door, there were dozens and dozens of hoof prints.

Come Quick, Danger

By Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2007


Fessenden, Reginald Aubrey (1866-1932) Radio engineer and inventor, born in East Bolton, Quebec, Canada. After a varied career in industry and academic life as a teacher, chemist, and electrical engineer, he became interested in adapting wireless telegraphy for voice transmission. He developed the principle of amplitude modulation (AM) and made the first broadcast of speech and music on 24 Dec 1906 from Brant Rock, MA, which was heard over 500 miles away.
- Cambridge Biographical Encyclopaedia



Not long after noon, when the sun is as high in the sky as it will get today, and the squalls of the morning have given way to an unrelieved flat greyness over Brant Rock, she straps on her snow shoes and trudges the length of Ocean Street carrying a tray of sandwiches for the fellows in the laboratory. She has covered the plates with two napkins fresh from the linen press that put the snow to shame, and for once she is glad of one of Reginald’s gadgets, the vacuum flask he copied from an account of Dewar’s original in Scientific American, for she has made a hot soup of winter squash and rosemary that will, she hopes, drive off the tickle in the throat he was complaining of when he awoke. He will need his voice tonight, of all nights.

She can already hear the roar of the generator as she passes the chapel at the end of the village, each gravestone topped with a cap of freshly-fallen snow. As she follows the shovelled path between the picket fences, against which drifts lie three or four feet deep, the thump-whir-thump of the rotary transmitter adds its competing rhythm to the waves that crash on Blackman’s point below. She gazes up at the vast antenna which stabs up from the midst of the motley collection of buildings, expecting as ever to see some sign of the force that crackles within it, the energy that races up and down its spine – 750 times a second, her husband tells her – but, as ever, it stands impassive against the grey sky.

Inside, the transmitter’s roar is loud enough to make conversation impossible. Her husband has his back to her, hunched over the alternator, his shoulders tense. Staines, in apron and goggles, raises a friendly hand as she sets the tray down on the table, holding up three fingers – hello; welcome; we’ll be with you in three minutes. She pulls up a stool, sits down to wait. After a while, she puts her mittened hands over her ears.

At last, at a signal from Reginald, Staines pulls the switch on the generator and the rotor ebbs and dies, the circle broken as its poles unblend and slow into individual visibility. Her husband turns, notices her for the first time, and his face breaks into a wide smile. Staines is already pulling off his gloves and tucking in to the sandwiches.

“How will anyone hear you over that racket?” she asks, uncorking the vacuum flask.

“Oh, I won’t be speaking from in here.” Her husband wipes his grease-stained fingers on a rag that looks no cleaner. “We’re rigging up a line to the old lookout station on the point.” He gestures to a thick cable wrapped with gutta-percha that runs across the laboratory’s grimy floor and out though an open window on the building’s seaward side. “Arthur will be in here manning the transmitter, and I shall be out there, hunched over the microphone.”

“All alone?” she asks doubtfully.

He gives a grin. “Oh no, my dear. I’ll have the whole world in there with me.”

“Or at least those that are next to a telegraph receiver,” points out Staines through a mouthful of bread and potted meat.

“The modern world, then.” He accepts the cup she hold out for him, and reaches for a sandwich.

She looks towards the open window and the roaring, relentless ocean beyond. “I pity any man stuck out there, tonight of all nights.”

He splutters crumbs into his beard in his enthusiasm. “All the more reason to reach out to them: to let them share in the Christmas spirit. Do you not see, my dear, this is exactly what we are working for? Imagine: a few years from now, the farmer on his ranch, the cripple in his bed, the lighthouse keeper at his lonely watch, the young city clerk far from his family; all of them united together in worship. One great universal congregation of the airwaves.”

She gives a weak smile. She’s heard this speech before. “Have you decided on your program yet?”

“Oh yes.” He taps the violin case which lies upon the table. “I thought I would start with a verse from a carol. And then something from the gospels.”

“You must give them a warning first. They will be frightened out of their wits.”

He smiles. “You think so?”

“To hear a human voice coming from their receiver, when all they are expecting is dots and dashes?”

He and Staines exchange amused glances. “You think we will have a rash of sailors hurling themselves overboard? Perhaps you’re right. I shall begin by assuring them there is no need to be alarmed.”

Staines sings softly into his soup: “fear not, said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds.”

“You’re quite right, Staines!” Reginald reaches for his Bible. “That’s just the thing: the warning to the shepherds. Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. Luke, isn’t it?”

His assistant smiles at her reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Mrs Fessenden: we’ll give them good warning.” He taps out the general alert on the table top – Dah dit dah dit, dah dah dit dah: CQ, CQ: Come Quick, Come Quick.

As if in answer, there comes a thumping on the door. She gives a little scream, her hand to her throat. Ridiculous. It’s just the mailman, doffing his hat and stamping the snow from his boots as her husband throws open the door for him.

“My dear fellow! Come in, come in. What brings you all the way out here in such weather?”

“Card for you, sir.” The man gazes around the laboratory, his eyes wide.

Her heart lifts. Is it from Kenny?

“West Orange, New Jersey,” her husband reads, and tears excitedly at the envelope. “Ah! It must be from Edison.”

Of course. Why would Kenny write her here? He has the house address. She enclosed it with the package she sent to his barracks. She has heard nothing back.

Even in her disappointment she remembers her manners. “Would you care to join us?” She gestures to the table. Even after Staines’ best efforts, there are plenty of sandwiches left. Her husband has hardly touched his own plate.

“No, thank you kindly, Ma’am.” The man stands, turning his hat brim in his hands, staring up at the alien bulk of the spark gap transmitter and the alternator beside it.

“Oh, but you’ll take something against the cold,” says Reginald distractedly, flipping open the card with its bright picture of Saint Nicholas on the front. “Staines, fetch out the brandy.”

The mailman will accept a dram, if it’s no trouble. Staines brings the bottle and four grubby glasses.

My dear Fezzie, I once told you that man had as much chance of broadcasting his voice as of jumping over the moon,” her husband reads. “I see from my almanac there will be no moon on Christmas Eve. Advise you take a good run-up. Ha!” He shakes the letter at the startled mailman. “You see that signature? Thom. Edison.”

“The electric man?”

“The very same.” He takes the glass that Staines is offering. “I used to work for him. Your health.”

“Much obliged, sir.” The mailman sips his brandy, draws a brawny hand across his moustache, looks around the laboratory once more. “And this is electricity, is it?” he ventures.

“Much more exciting,” Reginald assures him. “This, my friend, is wireless telephony. Using this equipment, this very night, I intend to cast my own voice out across the Atlantic. Every man with a wireless receiver will be able to hear me.”

She hates it when he shows off.

“You will put me out of business, sir.”

“Oh, not for many years yet. Come, would you like to look at it?”

He beckons him towards the transmitter, but the man holds back, unsure. “Is it safe, sir? I would not like to hear voices in my head.”

Reginald chuckles in his superior way. “My dear fellow, do you not realise that there are waves of sound passing around you at every moment? Through you, even.”

“You mean they are here, around me, invisible?”

“All around us there is a veritable cacophony of noise, if only we could hear it.” He throws an arm towards the ocean. “Out there every boat captain and coast guard and weather bureau and shipping office is firing off messages into the aether, all squabbling and gossiping and arguing and feuding and calling out for help: a great maritime Babel spreading out across the waves courtesy of Messrs Morse and Marconi, and every dot and every dash of it is echoing off those cliffs below us and the bouncing off the walls around us in the form of electromagnetic radiation every second that we stand here.”

The mailman gives a shudder. “I do not like to think of that, sir. It does not seem right.”

Her husband roars with laughter and claps him on the shoulder in that bluff, gruff way he adopts with working men. The mailman puts down his glass and says he must be going.

“Shall I leave the rest of this food?” she asks, after the man has plodded back up the well-trodden path. Reginald has already returned to his instruments.

“Yes, yes, my dear. Prepare supper for the usual time – Arthur, you’ll join us for a bite?”

She assures the assistant it will be no trouble. She took her holiday delivery from Hobson’s the previous afternoon, and she has plenty laid in.

It has started to snow again as she walks back from the laboratory, and the tall antenna is singing in a sharp north wind that has blown up from Duxbury Bay. She cannot shake a feeling of anxiety that clings to her like sea-mist. These are great forces that her husband is attempting to bend to his will. And for all his bombast, he does not fully understand them. Nobody can. And she cannot help but think that perhaps – though she knows how hard he would laugh at the idea – we are not meant to be their masters.

She fills her afternoon with baking, hauling tin after tin of shortbreads and butter tarts from the oven even as she chops and boils the cranberries and grinds the herbs ready to dress tomorrow’s goose. As the sun sinks behind Green Harbor she is whipping eggs and cream and sprinkling them with nutmeg and cinnamon ready for Reginald to add the brandy when he returns, and all around her the house creaks and sighs and whispers to her as she does her rounds lighting the lamps. She does not want to be making her Christmas preparations in this unfamiliar house, with its bagged chandeliers and shuttered verandah, leased to them cheaply because it is meant for summer lets. Her life seems to have become a series of short-term leases, following her husband’s enthusiasms and the money he needs to indulge them. She thinks back to the campus at Allegheny, midnight mass and drinks with the Dean, and the provost reading out the grace at high table. Or their home at Pittsburgh, with her mother’s pianola tinkling away in the drawing room, a roaring fire in the grate and every room blazing courtesy of Mr Westinghouse’s Patent Alternating Current Electric Lighting System. And she thinks of Kenny far away in Texas, his first Christmas in uniform, and she sends out a mother’s silent prayer in the hope that maybe it will transform itself into electromagnetic radiation and float out there across the dark land to find him.

The men come in just after eight, blustering and stamping and complaining of a blizzard that has blown up “out of nowhere” – and, indeed, the world that is framed in the doorway behind them is a maelstrom of black and white. They are carrying one of the receivers from the laboratory between them, which Reginald insists on setting up on the sideboard on the parlour, topping up the barretter with one of the bottles of sulphuric acid he keeps in the basement before he will even think about finishing off the nog. When both are ready – and he has joked about not getting the two bottles muddled, and she and Staines have dutifully laughed – she leads them through to the dining room where she has a tourtière waiting fresh from the stove and enough mashed potatoes and corn to see them through till 1907, as Reginald observes with a fondness she had almost forgotten.

But all too soon it is time for them to depart again, and that familiar feeling of unease descends on her shoulders once again. “Could you not wait until morning?” she pleads as they pull on their coats and mufflers.

“Not if we wish to be heard.” Her husband shakes his head. “Mr Armor has yet to receive a single one of our daylight transmissions at Machrihanish. He recorded the strongest signals close to midnight. The darkness is our friend.”

“I worry about you, out there alone.” She wrings a napkin round her hand.

“But Helen, my dear, I will not be alone.” He takes her in his arms. “You will be with me.” He nods towards the receiver on the sideboard. Keep your finger on that switch and you will hear every word I utter, as clear as if I were in the next room. And so shall the rest of the world.”

His beard scratches against her cheek as he kisses her. And then he is gone, into the whirling night.

She sits in the cold parlour, listening to the ticking of the clock as it makes its way slowly towards the appointed hour. Out there in the darkness, other families sit round the table, exchange their gifts. Other mothers tuck excited children into bed with promises of magic in the morning, or huddle by the hearth and relish the tingling thrill of a fireside tale. She remembers her own grandmother, back in Quebec, pulling her close to tell her of how at Christmas Eve, at the strike of midnight, when all good children are fast asleep, the beasts of the fields acquire the power of speech and talk amongst themselves, exchanging their masters’ secrets, and in the graveyards the dead themselves rise up and kneel at the foot of the cemetery cross to take communion from a golden-surpliced priest - the very same priest that used to minister to them before he too passed away, and when the mass has finished they all turn and give one last longing look towards the village before returning silently to their graves. And anyone who slips out of their house to try to spy upon these strange events will be instantly struck dumb, or blind, or drop dead from fright where she stands, as God is her witness.

The clock strikes, starting her from her reverie. The wind is rattling the shutters on the verandah. She pulls her chair up to the sideboard, jams the headset to her ears, presses her finger to the receiver, and listens.

At first, all she hears is the sound of the storm, redoubled in ferocity and now inside her head, blowing and whining and shrieking. She closes her eyes, straining to make out any trace of her husband. And just as she thinks he has failed – that this is it, that dots and dashes will be the end of man’s efforts to control the air around him – the chaos condenses into the heterodyne’s whine and she hears a voice, so faintly.

…ssenden, speaking to you from Brant…. Ssachusetts. Do not be alarm…

And although she knows he is but a few hundred yards away from her, she also knows that if she can hear him, his voice can also be heard out there on Nantucket, and Novia Scotia, and Newfoundland, and beyond, out in the measureless expanse of black ocean, in places unimaginably far away, mysterious names like Bailey, Rockall, Malin, Fastnett, Sole and Finisterre. And she has the sudden sense that right now, at this precise moment in time, the whole world is shrinking in upon itself and contracting. And it is all because of her husband.

She can hear his violin sawing away now, marking out O Holy Night through the storm of white noise that fills the earphones. Softly, she begins to sing along:

… A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was Born…


And it was tonight, nineteen hundred and six years ago, that something else changed, something new came into the world and made everything different. And she knows, now, with a certainty far stronger than the wavering signal from the aerial on the point, which fizzles in and out of existence with every second, that her husband has succeeded. With this, now, he has changed the world.

His voice is coming clearer now.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host… praising God, and saying… to God in the highest, and on earth …. will toward men.

It ebbs and surges with the waves that roll relentlessly in from the Atlantic to spend themselves on the black rocks below.

And when they had seen… made known abroad the saying which was told them... And all they that heard it wondered at those things… told them by the shepherds. 


And she feels a great surge of pride in her breast for this man, this scruffy daydreamer she married sixteen long years ago when she was already carrying his child and has followed ever since from place to place, always on the move, one cart for their possessions and three for his equipment, never once staying long enough to put down roots and make a place their son could call home.

… but Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And now, after an aching pause that lasts long enough for her to think the transmission is over, or that through her own stupidity she has allowed the own electrodes on her own receiver to slip out of sync or the barretter to run dry just as, in her carelessness, she has allowed the gas lamps to run down and dim, he speaks in his own voice. The man she loves.

… name is Reginald Aubrey Fessenden. I speak to you tonight from… boratory of the United States Weather Bureau in Brant Rock, Massachusets… urge you, where’er you be, to write me on your return to shore… know that you are listening. For now, farew… Merry Christmas, one and all. I shall speak to you again by means… same apparatus on New Year’s Eve… arewell. Farewell.

And as he bids the unseen listeners goodbye, the lamp on the table sputters and plunges the room into blackness. And another voice speaks out of the receiver. A cold, high, cruel voice.

Never see New Year

She starts back in the sudden darkness, but her finger does not leave the cold metal of the machine.

Never see morning

And it is gone, lost in the rush of noise that fills her headset as the transmitter runs down and returns the world to chaos. But she is not there to hear it. Tearing the phones from her ear she is gone, clattering through the unfamiliar rooms in the darkness with no time to put on snowshoes, hat or even a coat as she throws open the door and plunges out into the whirling cold outside.

The houses of Ocean Street are all but invisible. She keeps her head down, following the grey gash that has been cut through the snow down the middle of the highway, but it is more than twelve hours since the men attended to it with shovels and rock salt and it has frozen again, a thin sheet of treacherous ice beneath her indoor shoes. She slips and stumbles her way through the darkness, sobbing, tears of fear and frustration streaming down her cheeks and hitting the ground as ice. She cannot even see the great aerial ahead of her. There is no moon tonight.

As she passes the chapel at the end of the village she is aware of figures in the graveyard, movement among the headstones, a crowd that seems to mill toward the great stone cross capped with white, but all her fear is focused on the path ahead of her. The snow has obliterated the fences, and out on the headland she is running through a world of white, a great field of lethal beauty. Her ankle twists beneath her and she falls, her arms breaking the faultless crust and plunging into sharp and painful coldness. And she is screaming now, but there is no one to hear.

Just as she thinks she is sinking into coldness forever, ice filling her lungs and eyes and ears and the snow sucking her down to wrap her in a wet and welcoming shroud, her numb hands close around something beneath the snow. A cable, wrapped in gutta-percha. She seizes it gratefully before she realises what it is. And then, with the new strength it gives her, she looks up and around her, and she sees the black bulk of the laboratory building to her right, behind her, and she realises how far she has strayed from the path. She can hear the pounding of the Atlantic somewhere below, dangerously close, and she sends up a silent prayer of thanks that she was stopped before she stumbled blindly over the cliffs and was dashed to pieces on the beach below.

Forcing herself to be calm, she elbows herself up onto all fours, not daring to let go of the cable which is her only guide in this new world of whiteness. She hauls it up through the crust of the snow with the last reserves of strength she can find within herself. Its quivering bulk snakes off into darkness in both directions. One way, she knows, leads to the laboratory, and warmth, and safety. But her husband is at the other end. Sobbing, she pulls herself to her feet, and begins to force her way through deep, unbroken snow, following the cable, this gutta-percha lifeline, hand over hand, towards whatever awaits her.

------------

The cork erupts from the bottle with a satisfying pop, and Staines brings it to the grubby glasses before it can bubble up, lest a drop be wasted.

“It’s a bottle of Heidsieck I’ve had put aside since ‘99” enthuses Fessenden. “One of the finest from Allegheny’s cellars. I feel we have earned it tonight.”

“Indeed, sir.” Staines passes him a glass and holds up his own. It is a shame the glasses were not a little less grubby, to be sure, but the pump has been frozen solid since mid-December, and he feels he has displayed inventiveness worthy of his title by plunging the tumblers into the snow that has drifted outside the laboratory door to rinse them. God, it was bitter out there tonight. The wind from hell was blowing in off Duxbury Bay, and as it roared across the headland it made noises strange enough to strike fear into the heart of a more superstitious man than him. As he had paused outside the doorway it had sounded just like a woman screaming.

Fessenden clinks his glass against his own. “Well, Arthur, remember this moment.”

“I shall, sir.” He drinks. He is an ale man himself, but he will admit that this is rather fine.

“It very nearly didn’t happen.”

“Indeed. I think we were right to abandon the old lookout station.”

Fessenden rolls the liquid round his mouth, smacks his lips. “Indubitably. We could never have got a sufficient signal in this storm.”

“And your office worked very well in the event.”

“Yes.” The inventor smacks his hand upon the wooden partition above his desk. “A little strengthening of this to make it soundproof before our next experiment, and we will have an ideal studio.”

They both drink deeply, pondering the future.

“Besides, the path was treacherous enough this afternoon when we laid the cable!” remarks Fessenden after a while. “And in this blizzard? Imagine it. Impossible.”

“Indeed. I thought you were about to pitch over the precipice yourself for a moment when we reached that turn.”

“And so I would, had I not abandoned the cable to save myself.”

“Do you think we will be able to retrieve it? It seems a shame to leave it dangling over the cliff like that.”

Fessenden shakes his head dismissively. “We’ve plenty of cables. One will not be missed. Perhaps when the storm dies down.” He stretches and yawns. “Let us wait and see what morning brings.”

Way On Down

By Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2006


Good evening Laysangennelmun. Laysngennlemun. Laydsngennemum.

That’s it. That last one. You’ve got to get the delivery right – it’s kind of lazy, but not so much of a drawl that you can’t make out every syllable. A lot of people go over the top and just mumble it, missing out the middle of every word, but he didn’t, he just sort of slid them together. You always knew what he was saying. Well, at least up to the last couple of years.

I do this bit in my show called “Elvocution lessons”; get someone up from the crowd and teach them how to do the “thangyouverymuch” and the “Uhhuhuh”, and from there we go into the intro to Good Luck Charm together with all the choruses like a call-and-response thing. It’s great if it’s a birthday party or a hen night or something and you can get the person whose party it is up. If not, I just usually go for the fittest girl there. They’re normally up for it.

It’s extras like that that make mine the best Elvis show you’ll get outside London. That’s not me saying that – it was Venue magazine a few years back. “The South-West’s Premier Elvis Impersonator”, they called me. Their man came down to see me at the Mardkye when I was still doing the regular nights there, before it went gastro. I had it printed up on my fliers. “The South West’s Premier Elvis Impersonator, Venue, 1996,” in that nice fancy script they use for wedding invitations. Actually I might take the date off the next lot I get printed up. I’m sure they still think the same, but it starts looking funny after a while.

And don’t think it’s like, “best in a category of one”, either. There’s a couple of other Elvises down Exeter, and one in Taunton, but he’s semi-retired now. There’s a lookey-likey in Nailsea who does Elvis, but he doesn’t really count because he does Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust and Inspector Clouseau, as well. I can’t see how Inspector Clouseau counts. He doesn’t look anything like Peter Sellers, he just puts on the outfit and does the accent. Actually I looked at his website recently and he’s started doing Dame Edna, so times must be hard. I guess there’s not much call for Gary Glitter these days.

There’s a Chinese Elvis who does a restaurant in Keynsham, too. I don’t get that. I’ve seen him, he’s good, but you know, I’m not being racist, but Elvis just wasn’t a Chinky, was he?

Besides, I bet none of them have got anything like the repertoire I’ve got. I can give you anything from the Sun recordings – well, just Good Rockin’ Tonight really, but that’s still more than most tribute acts – right through to the Vegas stuff. I’m saying that, but most people only want the same three or four songs – used to be Hound Dog or Heartbreak Hotel or Viva Las Vegas, but lately it’s almost always Suspicious Minds; I don’t know why. It’s got so I leave them out of the main set because I know they’re going to turn up when I ask for requests at the end. People appreciate them more then. They tip more generously because they feel obliged. A few years back everyone wanted A Little Less Conversation because it got used in that advert, and then they’d get upset because it’s not the version they know. They’ve stopped asking for that now. I did have a couple over in Clevedon last summer, it was a Ruby wedding, and they’d been to see Girl Happy on their first date so they pacifically asked for Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, which made a nice change. I had to get the backing tape in specially.

--
Since Mum had the last stroke I’ve been trying to get in to see her every day, even if it’s just for five minutes. Sometimes I won’t manage it if I’ve got an overnight or two gigs in a day, but to be honest I don’t think she notices. Most of the time I’m not even sure she knows it’s me anyway.

I usually try to get there around her dinnertime, which I know the nurses appreciate. Maureen who’s in charge of her wing told me they have a hell of a job getting through all the residents before the evening shift comes on at seven. She said sometimes they’re still clearing away the lunch things at one end of the building when the trolley’s coming round again from the other end. On the day the doctor talked to me I already knew something was up because it was rhubarb crumble, which mum likes, but she wasn’t enjoying it at all. She kept slumping over to one side and I kept having to stop and lift her up again in the chair, which is difficult because you don’t know where to hold her and really you’re supposed to get one of the nurses because they’re trained but you could be pressing the button for ages. By the time I gave up there was custard on her chin and on her dress and on the chair and a lot of it still in the bowl but precious little inside her. I cleaned her up as best I could and gave her a kiss goodbye and I was sort of hanging around to have a word with Maureen before I went but she saw me first, and asked me to go and wait in Doctor Henderson’s office because he wanted a word but he was sorting out the meds and he’d only be five minutes.

I hadn’t been in Doctor Henderson’s office before. It was on the ground floor near the kitchens and it wasn’t a room really, just a partitioned-off bit of a bigger room with walls that were panels up to half-way up and the top bit made out of frosted glass to let light through. It was funny because there’s a pretty strong smell to the Home – bleach and medicated toilet paper and air freshener and dusty radiators and flowers that need their water changing all sort of mixed up together – which you get used to after a while but it smelt completely different in here. A weird sort of sharp, medical smell that caught in your nose. It reminded me of something, and I couldn’t think what it was, although I had plenty of time to think about it because I was waiting for a lot more than five minutes, worrying all the time about what it was Doctor Henderson wanted to talk to me about. I was hoping it was just whether I was free to do a turn at the Home’s Christmas Party that year as usual, but I knew in my heart of hearts it was the nurses that organised that.

I must have zoned out a bit because I suddenly realised I had been staring at this shape on the glass for ages without realising what it was, and it was actually a face, a man’s face. He was standing in the dark in the room next door looking in at me, and he must have been there for ages without moving, and it was right at that very moment that I realised what it was the smell reminded me of: it was the biology lab at school with the pickled animals on the shelf that we used to dare each other to go in and look at because Danny Waters swore he once saw one of the foetuses moving and swimming around in its jar trying to get out.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when the door opened and Doctor Henderson came in, apologising for keeping me waiting but there had been some problem with one of the residents having a funny turn and they’d had to sedate her. I stood up and went to shake his hand but he waved me aside, saying “I’ve just got to–” and then at least one of the mysteries was solved because he pressed a little dispenser that was hanging on the wall and the smell got stronger as he rubbed the stuff into his hands. “Alcohol hand gel,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Bit potent, isn’t it? But it does the job against MRSA.”

“I think you might have one of your patients on the loose,” I said. Some of the old folk wander. They get confused. I pointed through the glass, but the face was gone now.

“In there?” he asked, peering through. “I hope not. That’s the drug cupboard. It should be locked. Give me a second.” He went out into the corridor and I heard the sound of a door rattling before he came back in and did the hand thing again. “No one in there, thank goodness. I’d catch hell if any of the residents managed to get in there!”

“I must have been imagining things,” I said, and he gave me one of those reassuring doctor smiles before pulling a chair up and telling me all about mum.

Well, the gist of it was that she’d taken a turn for the worst. “Nothing specific – just a general deterioration in her condition,” he said. “It’s to be expected,” he said. “That last stroke hit her pretty hard, and I suspect there may have been others we don’t know about.” He said “The tests show a definite acceleration in the cognitive decline” and “I don’t know whether the nurses told you but she’s on pads full time now, and she’s showing less and less awareness of when she’s dirty.” And he put his hand on my arm and said “I’m very sorry.”

“So what are you saying?” I said, and my voice sounded as if it was coming from a long way away.

“It’s not drastic” he said, and gave me the reassuring smile again. “She could hang on for a good few months yet. It’s very hard to predict these things. All I’m saying is, if there are any relatives you want to see her, now’s the time to give them a call.”

“I don’t think there is anyone really,” I said.

“Oh?” He looked puzzled. “She was talking about someone yesterday while I was doing the reflex tests. You haven’t got a brother?”

“No.” I stood up. I wanted to get out of there, away from that cloying smell. “There’s just me.”

--
Well, she didn’t hang around long after that. She went just over a week later. I got a call at home on the Wednesday morning from a nurse I hadn’t met before saying I should come over straight away as they didn’t think she’d last another night. I got there in twenty minutes. They’d put the Christmas decorations up the night before, and someone had stuck a big red bauble and some plastic holly on to the rail of the bed above her head. You could see the room reflected in it all crazy, with the bed shaped like a triangle and the floor rising up to meet the ceiling and these shadowy figures rolling across it as the nurses came and went.

She looked so small. It wasn’t a big bed, just a standard hospital one, but even lying back on the pillows her body only came to half way down it. I could see the outline of her legs underneath the blanket and they were so thin they would have had Bob Geldof passing a hat round. I’d never really noticed how small she’d got. The nurse said Doctor Henderson would be round to see me in a few minutes and then she went and I sat down on one of those orange plastic chairs like we used to have at school and listened to a radio somewhere else in the building playing White Christmas.

She was asleep, with her mouth open, and with every breath you could see the top of her chest rising up and down, just a shallow little movement beneath the only button they’d bothered to do up on her cardigan. As a singer I know all about breathing – controlled breaths from the diaphragm, deep breaths from the abdomen and great big bellowing breaths from way on down in the bottom of your belly – and this was the worst sort. It meant she was barely taking in enough air to trouble her lungs at all.

I sat there with my eyes prickling and my hand just lying next to hers on top of the blanket, not touching her because I didn’t want to wake her up in case it confused her or she was in pain. When Doctor Henderson arrived I was pleased to see Maureen was with him, and she gave me a smile but she looked as worried as he did as he picked up mum’s arm and felt for a pulse.

“Not much longer, I’m afraid,” he said to me, but I hardly noticed because just then behind him mum’s eyes opened and a great beaming smile like I hadn’t seen in years spread all over her face. She opened and closed her mouth a few times like she was trying to get enough spit up to speak and Maureen went forward with the water bottle but she took no notice, just carried on smiling the happiest smile I’ll remember for ever and she said “my boy! My beautiful boy’s come for me!”

And then she sank back down into the pillows and just seemed to keep on going, leaving nothing behind but an old empty body that wasn’t her any more.

So it was nice that after months of not being with it she knew what was going on at the end, and she knew I was there, which was a comfort. It was funny though that she wasn’t actually looking at me when she said it, she was sort of gazing over my shoulder at the gap in the curtains that were screening us off from the rest of the ward. When I turned round they were swinging backwards and forwards in a cold draught that was coming from somewhere, so perhaps it was just that her eye got caught by the movement.

--
I went and sat in the Winter Gardens after it happened, on a bench out the back of the Sovereign Centre. It was a freezing day and except for a couple of shoppers at the far end taking the weight off their feet the place was almost deserted, which suited me fine. I sat there and thought about everything I’d been through with mum, right back to when I was a little kid on my first day at school and she waited right up until we were about to go out the front door before she presented me with a pair of mittens she’d knitted for me specially in secret, and how upset she was when the bigger boys took one of them off me in the playground and threw it up onto the roof and I had to lie and say I’d just lost it. I could have done with those mittens now.

We were always close, me and mum. We had to be, because there was just us. My dad walked out not long after I was born, and she never even seemed to think about getting together with anyone else. “This way I know I’m not going to get hurt again,” she told me the only time I ever asked her about it, after me and Shirley announced our engagement and I was full of the joys of spring and convinced getting married was the answer to everything. So she was right about that. As usual.

She had another kid, before me, but he died. I think that had a lot to do with it, too, not that she ever talked about it. The kids at school used to call me a mummy’s boy and there were times I thought she did fuss over me a bit too much – she wouldn’t ever let me have the school dinners, I had to come home every lunchtime for a full dinner she’d cooked for me, even when she was working – and I never thought it was funny that she bought me all my clothes till I was fifteen and I went away on the school camp to Symonds Yat and the other lads started taking the piss out of me for wearing thermals. She still used to get me things right up until she went into the home – I’d pop round and she’d say she’d seen something in Marks that was just right for me and she thought she’d better get it because it was on special offer. I always gave her the money back, but I ended up wearing them more often than not. It saved the hassle. Although in the last couple of years she did start picking up some funny stuff, weird colours and once even a red shirt that was obviously from the women’s section, and I always had to make sure I got the receipt. Which was easy, because by then I was having to check her handbag pretty regularly anyway because she was putting all sorts in there.

They’d given me a plastic bag full of her stuff at the Home. There wasn’t much in there: the photos from the side of her bed, her reading glasses, some hankies, her rings and the chain she used to always wear. I looked around to check there weren’t any hoodies nearby that would have the jewellery off of me, but the only person I could see was an old geezer tottering his way down the path on two sticks, looking like he might topple into the roses at any second, and I figured if he turned out to be Raffles the gentleman thief even I would probably be able to outrun him. I split the bag open – noticed too late it was one of those zipper lock ones – and tipped everything out into my lap. There wasn’t much to show for a whole life. You could barely see through the glasses – they’d been sitting on her bedside cabinet gathering dust since she got too poorly for books – and her engagement ring was missing one of the little blue stones from the setting, but I wasn’t sure it hadn’t always been like that. I lifted up the locket on its gold chain and held it to my nose and there was still a faint trace of her on the metal and for a while I just sat there with my eyes closed and the rest of the world carrying on around me.

When I opened them again, feeling a bit self-conscious, the old geezer had got a lot closer. Fair play to him: it looked like every step was costing him a hell of an effort but he was obviously determined to make it from one end of the Winter Gardens to the other as his exercise for the day. He was older than mum, or at least I’d guess so. Grey hair slicked with macassar oil or pomade or some old-fashioned stuff you have to go to the special section in Boots for (believe me I know; I’ve experimented with everything trying to get the quiff right). It’s funny how you notice old people. It’s like when Lisa was born, suddenly there seemed to be women with babies everywhere. Mind you, it could have something to do with Weston. Pensioner capital of the world, it is. You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who wants to tell you about what they did in the war. And driving’s a bloody nightmare.

I was turning the locket over and over in my hand while I watched him, and my thumb kept rubbing up against a little nick on the side that I hadn’t known was there. Luckily I always keep the nail on my right thumb long for when I play the guitar for Hound Dog – I can’t really play but it’s just C7, F7, C7, G7, F7, C7, G7 all the way through – so I was able to get it in there and ping it open. I was expecting more family pictures or something inside but all there was two locks of hair, one on either side. One was blond and looked like it might have come off of me as a baby (I used to be bright blond when I was little, not that you’d know it to look at me now), but the other was jet black and it didn’t look all that clean – it had left a sort of film smeared on the glass covering. For a second I wondered if it might have been off my dad, but then I realised she must have cut it off my dead brother or sister and she’d been carrying round something snipped off a dead baby for the whole of her life, which was enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. Still, the locket might be worth something so I put it and the rings into the change pocket of my wallet, the one with the zip on, for safe keeping. I could take it into the jewellers on the High Street some time.

The old guy had nearly made it to the bench where I was sitting and I sort of shifted up to show him he was welcome, but then just as he finally got there this funny look came over his face and he changed direction, almost tripping himself up on his sticks as he turned. I was halfway up out of my seat to help him but he managed to right himself, and he muttered “sorry, gents,” as he turned and set off back down the path at twice the speed he was doing before.

Which was a shame, because at that point I could have really done with some company.

--
“What’ll you do?” asked Barry as he brought me my second pint. He always throws in a couple of free drinks and there’s generally a few customers put one in behind the bar for me, so with that and the roast dinner they do me it works out pretty well even though it only pays forty quid. And it’s regular, and a nice crowd.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well, will you stay in Weston? You moved down here to be near your mum, didn’t you?”

I hadn’t really thought about it. He was right, I’d only moved down here when mum couldn’t look after herself any more, and now she was gone I suppose there was nothing to keep me here. Weston’s handy for the motorways – both of them, the M4 and the M5 – so you can get pretty much anywhere for gigs pretty easily, and if I moved I’d be bound to lose a few customers what with all the fliers I’ve handed out with my home number on them. And I’m settled here, too.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” I told him. “Why?”

He gave a grin as he picked up the empty and gave the table a wipe. “Just want to know if I’m going to have to find someone new for Sundays, don’t I?”

“Not for the moment, anyway,” I told him. “I’m snowed under with bookings. I might have a think about it after Christmas.”

“Good for you,” he said, and slapped me on the shoulder. “Does your mate want one of these, too?”

“Eh?” I said, taking the froth of the top of the pint.

“The fella you were talking to.” He looked round the pub, which was filling up for the meat raffle before my second set. “Where’s he got to? In the gents, is he?”

“You’re seeing things, mate,” I told him. Barry’s a good bloke, but he does tend to hit the optics a bit too early in the day.

--
I was snowed under, what with the funeral to organise as well. I’d rung round the family – cousin Helen was going to come over from Evesham with her kids, which was nice – and even written to Shirley to tell her. It’s not like she’d be bothered, but the girls deserve to know about their grandmother, and they’re old enough to make their own decisions now. They used to see mum for a while after Shirley and me split up, arranging things directly because of the court order, but obviously that had stopped over the past few years. I’m not even sure they’re at the same address now. I’ve been sending them Christmas and birthday presents, and nothing’s ever come back. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.

The Home took care of a lot of the details – they have a deal with one of the local funeral homes, what with them being such a regular supplier I suppose – and all I really had to do was pick out a coffin and a headstone and sort out the order of service ready for the printers. I wasn’t going to bother with a do afterwards because I didn’t think that many people would turn up, but Barry had said anyone that wanted to could come in to the Royal Oak and Suzanne would do some sandwiches and sausage rolls if we thought we needed them.

The hardest bit was trying to decide what song I was going to do at the service. Don’t Cry Daddy and In The Ghetto hit the right tone, but don’t really make much sense under the circumstances. Crying in the Chapel’s a bit literal. The Wonder Of You’s OTT. Eventually I settled on Always On My Mind. It’s an obvious one I suppose, but mum always liked it. And besides, it says what I wanted to say.

--
I had a lunchtime gig booked the day before the funeral: some firm had booked the upstairs room at a pub in Redland for their office do and they wanted a mixture of Christmas songs and classics. I hadn’t played the venue before so I went in early to check it out and make sure there weren’t going to be any problems with the equipment, and I caught the end of rush hour, which is a pretty rare experience for me with the hours I work. It always amazes me how people manage to do it every day – spending hours sitting in boring traffic jams waiting to get to their boring offices and push a few boring pieces of paper around for eight boring hours before turning round and doing the whole thing again backwards. I knew pretty early on that wasn’t the life for me. Like I always say, if you’ve got to wear a suit to work, it might as well be one with rhinestones on it.

Anyway, they’ve brought in this new system on the Long Ashton bypass where the outside lane is closed except to cars that have got one or more passengers, and it must have been starting that week or even that morning because the police were out making sure no one broke the rules. I think to be honest it was making it worse them being there, because it meant everyone slowed down when they saw the patrol cars and then they were signalling people to change lanes and there were honking horns and all sorts of argy-bargy going on. And the coppers weren’t exactly helping themselves because they didn’t seem to know how the new system worked and they were sending cars all over the place. This one policeman, a young black lad, signalled me to pull out into the outside lane and even when I pointed at the empty passenger seat next to me he just nodded his head and just kept waving me through. I think he must have seen the outfit hanging up in the back – I always get changed at the venue just in case I can’t park nearby, which you’d understand if you’d ever tried walking through a city centre dressed as Elvis – and thought it was someone sitting behind me. I’ve made myself jump looking in the rear view mirror enough times. But I think he realised his mistake when I got closer because he was looking into the back of the car and he had a look of proper horror on his face, like he knew he was going to catch hell, but by that time I was past him and sailing into Bristol in the outside lane past all the jammed-up cars with their single drivers, keeping an eye out for any cameras but figuring it wasn’t me that was in trouble, was it?

The gig went well – they all sang along with O Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night, though they didn’t know many of the others, which is always the problem because both Elvis’s Christmas albums are mostly full of American stuff, so I tend to mix a lot of the classics in between them. I had a little wobble during White Christmas because of mum but I don’t think anyone noticed. They passed round an envelope during the pudding, by which time they were all half cut and so I got a nearly fifty quid tip on top of my fee. Someone had even put in a twenty pound note. I love Christmas.

--
I had a hell of a job getting my black suit on for the service. I knew I’d put a bit of weight on, but I hadn’t realised how much. I had a look at myself sideways on in the mirror and decided it was time to face facts: I’m getting more and more Vegas Era when I’m supposed to be ’68 Comeback Special. It’s either start jogging or get myself a cape, and for a sake of my health, jogging it is. You kind of lose the effect of the Elvis moves if your belly is still wobbling away ten seconds after your hips have started doing something else.

I gave up on the button in the end and used a safety pin rather than relying on the flies to hold it all together, which was alright as long as I wore the tie long to cover it up. There was a little crowd waiting outside the church when I got there – Maureen from the home had managed to move her shifts around to come and a couple of the other nurses from the home came along on their lunch break, which was really nice of them. Doctor Henderson sent his apologies. Helen turned up with her eldest and they’d brought along her dad as well. He’s a couple of years older than mum and they used to be quite close. He’s in a home now as well, but he seemed to be on quite good form except that his hearing’s going.

There was another chap there as well – he must have slipped in after us because I only saw him when I went up to do the song, sitting at the back. He was sort of half behind one of the pillars from where I was so I didn’t see his face, just his shoulders and his hand, which was gripping the pew in front of him. He had filthy fingernails – all cracked, and clogged with black dirt underneath, which made me think he was probably the gravedigger, just come inside to get himself out of the cold.

It all went well, I think. The vicar didn’t really know mum but he said some nice stuff about her illness and how our bodies are just an earthly tent and we’ve got a proper house in heaven and how she was at peace now, and we sang one of her favourite hymns, Let There Be Light, and then I got up and did my song and after that the undertakers carried out the coffin and I scattered a handful of earth on top of it and that was it. I looked around for the gravedigger but he was nowhere to be seen. I expect they’re meant to keep themselves out of the way.

“She was very proud of you,” Uncle Patrick said to me when we got to the Royal Oak and his grandson was getting the drinks in. I’d just helped him into a seat and he kept his hand on my arm and patted it. “She always used to say so.”

“Thank you very much,” I said, disentangling myself and looking round to see if Maureen had got there yet. I’d never seen her out of uniform before.

“She always said she’d never get over losing your twin, but she was determined she was going to love you enough for two.”

“You what?” I said, but he didn’t hear me, just kept raising his eyebrows and nodding when I asked him what he was talking about. Luckily Helen came back from the ladies before too long and I could tell her what he had just said. “That’s right,” she said. “Did you not know?”

“I knew I had a brother,” I told her. “But we weren’t twins, were we?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “Or at least, that’s what I’ve always been told. The only set of twins we’ve ever had in the family, only unfortunately your brother didn’t survive. He was stillborn, a few minutes before you, and they were worried you were going to come out the same. Dad always said your mum never got over it.”

“No,” I said. “She never did. But she never told me we were twins.”

Well, you see what this means, don’t you? That makes me exactly like Elvis. He had a twin too, Jesse Garon Presley, that was stillborn. His parents had to bury him in a shoebox because they couldn’t afford the cemetery fees. How amazing is that? I mean, it’s not like it’s really something I could work into the act, but it’s brilliant, isn’t it?

It’s like when my first one was born I was all up for calling her Lisa Marie, only Shirley wouldn’t let me. She said only posh people have two names, so we settled on just Lisa and when the little one turned up a year later I was pushing for her to be Marie only Shirley didn’t like that either, so she had to be Mary. But I still sang His Latest Flame to her when I went in to see her at the hospital, and I used to sing it to her every night when she was going off to sleep – would you believe that yesterday, this girl was in my arms and swore to me, she’d be mine eternally, and Marie’s the name, of his latest flame – until Shirley hit the roof one night and started screaming at me that no it wasn’t, she was called Mary and I was just going to confuse Lisa and it was typical of me agreeing one thing and then trying to have my own way after all. But this is something she can’t take away from me. Bloody brilliant. I was so excited I didn’t even mind when Maureen told me she had a husband.

--
Well the day after the funeral felt like the right time to make a new start, so I popped into JJB Sports and bought a pair of trainers and a tracksuit. I didn’t exactly feel at home there and the kid who served me had a nasty smirk on his face so I nearly didn’t bother trying them on but then I thought it would be even worse if I had to come back, and went through to the changing rooms. There were only two cubicles and they were tiny, and it wasn’t till I’d got my trousers off that I realised there was someone in the one next door which for some reason made me even more self-conscious, though I don’t know why because judging by the sound of his breathing he was in even worse shape than me. When I got the tracksuit on I realised I could probably have done with an XXL but I wasn’t going to hang around and I just got my clothes back on and got out of there as quick as I could. The weird thing was, when I looked back I could see the bloke’s legs under the bottom of the curtain and he didn’t even seem to be getting changed, just standing there, and he certainly wasn’t wearing anything sporty, just a pair of suit trousers and leather shoes that were caked in mud.

I got changed back at the flat and headed down to the seafront, not quite jogging but definitely going faster than usual. I felt like a bit of a prat and I kept noticing my reflection in shop windows as I went past them and wondering when exactly I had turned into such a fat bastard, and I managed to convince myself that everyone else was looking at me thinking the same thing. A couple of times the feeling got so strong I even turned round to look behind me but of course there was no one there.

I figured I’d do the actual running on the beach because I’d read something about running on sand being better for your feet than concrete and I knew it would be pretty much deserted at that time of year. I don’t know if you know Weston but when the tide is out, which it is pretty much all the time, it goes about half way to Wales and you’ve got this great big expanse of beach to do what you like on. You have to be careful further out towards Brean because there’s a hidden channel where the river comes out and it’s surrounded by mud and quicksand. Every summer, regular as clockwork, some prat trying to show off his off-roading skills ignores the signs there, loses his 4x4 and has to be pulled out by the coastguard, but I wasn’t planning on going anything like that far. I just wanted to get a decent distance from the sea front so that if I got out of breath and had to stop at least I wouldn’t have kids taking the piss out of me.

My plan was to take it easy on the first day and just go from the pier to the Tropicana and back. I started off doing some stretches and running on the spot a bit and then tried to get up a steady pace but I was out of breath by the time I’d got level with the first snack bar. I kept going, thinking maybe I’d only go as the Sea Life Centre on the first day and work up from there, but before long I had a stitch cutting into my side so badly that I had to stop and lean up against one of the posts where they tether the donkeys in the summer. Christ, I was unfit. The whole of the back of my throat felt like it was burning. The really embarrassing bit was that I couldn’t stop farting either – my arse was put-put-putting away like a lawnmower behind me. Thank god there wasn’t anyone around to hear it. I let myself have a minute and then carried on, wheezing all the way and barely keeping pace with an old dear going up the promenade on her zimmer and cursing myself for letting myself get so out of shape. I fixed my eyes on the pineapple which sticks out of the top of the Tropicana and concentrated on willing it to get closer, hoping I might tune out, hit the wall or whatever they call it, and have some sort of Zen experience that would get me there without dying.

I couldn’t do it. As I got close to the Sea Life Centre, which is built out on a sort of mini-pier over the beach, it felt like my lungs were going to burst and I stumbled in underneath it, grabbed one of the cast iron cross bars and doubled over, heaving up mouthfuls of thick spit onto the sand. My eyes had gone all weird – I think it was a combination of the low winter sun shining off the sea and dazzling me and the lack of oxygen getting to my brain – and it was only once I’d finished hawking my guts up and could stand up straight again that I realised I wasn’t alone. There was someone a few metres away, under the walkway, leaning on one of the girders. It was dark in there and the shadows meant I couldn’t see his face, but I could see a pair of legs in black trousers and they were facing towards me, which meant he must have been stood there watching me for a while. And that seemed weird enough, but when I looked down at the sand around him and then from side to side along the beach I realised that even though he had mud and dried sand caked all over his shoes there was only one set of footprints leading in to the darkness and they belonged to me.

“Hello?” I called out, my whole body prickling with sweat.

He didn’t say anything, but I could hear the sound of his breathing even over my own. Then he took a step forwards across the sand and I saw both his hands come up into the light and begin to reach out towards me, the fingernails all clogged with thick black dirt, and I found that I actually could still run after all and I sprinted all the way back up the beach without looking back once.

--
“Elvis! Elvis! Mr Elvis!”

I’ve got used to people calling out after me, and it took me a second to remember that I wasn’t in costume. I turned round and recognised this young bird who’d booked me for a company awards do the week before huffing up the street behind me loaded with Marks and Spencer bags.

“I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your real name,” she smiled as she got closer. She was lovely looking; I remembered thinking so at the time. I was going to get her up to do the duet with me but there was another woman at her table with a cracking pair so I went for her instead, but later on I saw her throwing up behind a pot plant so I should have gone with my first instincts. I remembered her name: she was called Tracey, and I made sure I used it as much as possible so as to have the upper hand. “Can I carry some of that for you, Tracey?” I asked.

“It’s funny bumping in to you like this; I’ve been meaning to call you all week,” she said, passing over one of the bags to me and showing the yellow wrinkles the handles had cut into her hands. “Just doing some Christmas shopping, I expect you are too.”

I was out looking for stuff to send to the girls, but I didn’t tell her that. I didn’t want her thinking I came with any other baggage than the stuff she’d just handed me.

“What it is, is, we’ve got the photos back of the awards night,” she said, falling in beside me as we walked down through the precinct. “I don’t know whether I told you but I have to write it up for the company magazine – it goes to all the branches around the country – and there’s a bloke in the photos who none of us are sure who it is. I want to get everyone’s names right, and I wondered if you might be able to help?”

“Of course,” I told her. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to – there was no reason I’d be any the wiser than she was – but I wasn’t going to turn down the chance of spending some time in her company.

“Do you want me to email them over to you?” she asked. “Or if you’ve got time now you could just pop in to the office. It’s only over in Orchard Street.”

“Of course. Maybe we could go for a drink afterwards or something?” I suggested, but she got all flustered and held up the bags and said she’d used up her lunch hour shopping and really ought to be getting back. I went to her office anyway, and it was quite cool because when we walked in she said “look, everyone, it’s Elvis!” and they gave me a cheer and I did the hip wiggle and everyone laughed.

It took her a couple of minutes to get the picture up on her computer because it had put itself to sleep while she was out. It was a group photo of all the award winners and it wasn’t very flattering of me – I looked pretty chinny and where I had my arm round the managing director’s shoulders you could see a big sweat patch on my jumpsuit. “That’s him,” she said, pointing to a bloke standing in the second row just behind me. God, he was an ugly bugger. He had these sort of thick eyebrows that met in the middle and black hair that looked as if it could do with a wash, and he wasn’t looking at the camera, he was staring at me with this great scowl on his face like he was ready to swing a punch at me. I hadn’t noticed him on the day at all.

“He doesn’t look like he enjoyed the performance much, does he?” I said.

“No!” she laughed. “D’you know who he is? No one here’s got a clue.”

“Not the faintest I’m afraid,” I said, clicking the corner of the photo so it disappeared off the screen and straightening up. I didn’t like looking at it; it felt creepy. I didn’t like to think that someone could look at me with that much hate in his eyes and me not know about it. “Perhaps he’s one of the hotel staff. Have you asked them?”

“No,” she said, biting her lip and looking disappointed. “I suppose we might be able to photoshop him out.”

I didn’t hang around: I obviously wasn’t going to get anywhere with her and besides, it was bloody freezing in that office; I think their air conditioning must have been on the blink.

--
Like I say, I was booked up solid over the holidays, with two or even three gigs some days. I’d been offered a wedding reception in Swansea on the 20th
which I’d usually turn down because there and back is a bit further than I like to go in one night but when I checked my diary it turned out I was in a curry house in Newport the next night – it’s a regular; I do them every couple of months – and I was pretty flush, so if I booked into a B&B I could do both.

Well, the thing I always forget about overnights is the hours in between. The B&B kicked me out just after nine, and I wasn’t due in Newport till seven that evening. I’d already had my breakfast so it wasn’t even as if I could spend the morning in a café. I went and got a paper and had a coffee anyway, and I was good and resisted the Danish pastries on the counter, but even when I’d read the Sun cover to cover and flicked through a copy of the Star someone had left on the next door table it was only ten fifteen. I don’t know how people manage on long tours. I mean it’s not as if I do a lot at home but at least you’ve got the telly and all your stuff around you, and when you’re working nights you soon learn to keep yourself busy. I had a bit of a wander round Swansea but there wasn’t a lot to see apart from Christmas shoppers and the usual teenagers hanging around, and besides it was brass monkeys and I was just starting to think I was going to have to just sit in the car for the rest of the day – I couldn’t even go to the pub with two long drives ahead of me – when I turned the corner and there was a cinema in front of me like the answer to my dreams. They were only just opening up for the day, and I walked straight in and asked for a ticket to whatever was on. I reckoned with the trailers and the adverts it would kill getting on for three hours, which would take me through to a late lunch, after which I might even come back and see what was on the other screen. If nothing else I could catch up on my kip. Working nights I don’t usually surface much before noon, which is probably why I was feeling so out of sorts this morning.

Well I reckon the woman at the window had only just woken up herself, because she was all over the place. She pushed the computer screen round so I could choose a seat – apparently you can’t just sit anywhere you want to these days – and she said in a sort of bored voice “d’you want two together?” For a second I thought she was taking the piss because of my weight – that shows you how much I was thinking about it – but then I thought she couldn’t be, and I said “pardon?” and she did a sort of double take and said “oh, sorry, I thought you were together.” Anyway, I was a bit flustered by this point so I just handed over a tenner and got my change and went on in, but when I looked back there wasn’t even anybody queuing behind me.

I went and sat in the seat she had given me but when the film started I moved to the front because there was only one other person in the whole cinema. He came and moved forward as well, and sat a couple of rows behind me, which was a bit annoying because he was quite noisy – he wasn’t talking or anything, but he was kind of a heavy breather and I was just really conscious of him being there all the way through it. The film wasn’t all that, and my mood wasn’t exactly improved when I came out and found a message waiting for me on my mobile from the B&B wanting to charge me extra because they thought I’d had someone else in my room the night before. I should be so lucky, I told them when I called them back, but they insisted both the beds had been slept in and they were going to bill my credit card. Bloody cheek! I gave them a piece of my mind: told them their poxy room was hardly worth the price in the first place – it was filthy. The tooth mug had these black fingerprints all over it. I didn’t notice them till the morning, and by that point I’d had it by the side of my bed and been drinking out of it all night. It made me feel quite sick.

--
Well things took a turn for the better a couple of days before Christmas because I managed to get this bird’s phone number at the Cadbury Country Club’s Christmas With The Stars. I spotted her crying during Are You Lonesome Tonight which is always a good sign and I got talking to her afterwards and found out she’d just been dumped by her boyfriend and she was only there because her sister refused to waste the ticket. Her name was Nicola. I didn’t do anything that night but I called her the next evening and suggested we meet up after Christmas and she said “why not before?” so it was obvious I was well in.

We met in the bar of one of the hotels on the seafront on Christmas Eve and she’d already demolished most of a white wine spritzer by the time I got there even though it was only four in the afternoon. “I was worried you wouldn’t fancy me when you saw me out of costume,” I told her after she had a couple more drinks inside her.

“No, I clocked you before you’d got changed,” she giggled. “I saw you getting out of your car when we were still at the champagne reception. “Mind you, I thought you were gay then!” She was batting her eyelashes at me and she’d moved her stool forward so our knees were nearly touching.

“You what!” I asked her, acting all outraged.

“Well, I saw that bloke you arrived with and I thought he must be your boyfriend,” she said, and she uncrossed her legs so as I got a flash of her knickers. Well, obviously then I had a point to prove, so I said “I’ll show you I’m not” and moved in for a snog and she let me have one with tongues and everything but when I tried to slide a hand up under her skirt she batted it away and said “not yet, take me somewhere first.”

“Where d’you want to go?” I asked her, figuring it was still early. I’d already found out she didn’t have any plans before she was due at her family’s for lunch tomorrow.

She looked out of the window and gave a great big smile. “Let’s go to the pier!” she said. “If you can’t act like a big kid at Christmas, when can you?”

Well I was more up for a few more drinks but trying to keep my stomach sucked in while I was sitting on a bar stool was starting to kill my back so I let her drag me along the seafront and up the pier. They had all extra Christmas lighting up as well as the usual stuff and Frosty The Snowman and Winter Wonderland playing and it was quite a laugh actually. We did the shooting thing with the pirates and I managed to squirt her with water and make her scream, and we played some weird racing game where you sat on actual motorbikes that we were both rubbish at, and went on the ghost train where I did manage to cop a feel without her objecting. But the thing she was really into was the penny falls – she was darting between them, spotting the ones that were just on the brink, and she kept winning more and more 2ps and just feeding them back into the machine and sending me for change whenever she ran out. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in my life.

Eventually she’d used up all her spare change and all mine but she was convinced I had stashed some of our winnings somewhere and she was frisking me and dipping her hands into my pockets which I didn’t exactly object to. I did actually have a twenty pound note folded up in my wallet but there was no way I was changing that – we would have been there all night – so I pulled it out before she got there and opened the change pocket to show her there was nothing in there, only of course there was. I’d completely forgotten about mum’s locket and rings. “What’s that?” she asked me, and I suddenly had this horrible fear of spoiling the mood, but then I had a brilliant idea.

“Something from the past,” I said. “Come with me.” And I took her hand and led her out of the back door of the arcade and out to the end of the pier, leaving all the clatter and din behind and replacing it with nothing but the sound of the waves lapping at the girders far below.

“What are we doing out here?” she asked me, looking around at the dodgems and the racing boats all covered up for the winter.

“Come on,” I said, pulling at her hand. We went right to the end of the pier and looked down into the black water. The tide was in for once, thank goodness.

“Oh, come on, it’s freezing,” she said, but I shushed her and took the locket out, dangling it on the end of its chain where it winked in the reflection of the flashing lights on the roof of the pier. “Here’s to new beginnings,” I told her, and let the chain run through my fingers until it slipped away into the darkness. A bit Titanic I know, and it was probably only going to come back in on the next tide, but birds love that romantic stuff. There was a plop from below, and she gave me a grin.

“To new beginnings,” she said, and gave me a chardonnay-flavoured kiss that went on for quite a while and left me in no doubt I was getting an early Christmas present. I kept my eyes open because I thought there’d been someone hanging around when we came out there, but he seemed to have disappeared.

--
So all in all today was one of the better Christmas mornings to wake up to, with bright sunshine coming in through the blinds and a sleeping woman in my bed next to me. Even better, she didn’t hang around because she wanted to get back to hers for a shower before heading over to her parents. We did have a glass of bucks fizz together before she went, which she said did wonders for her hangover.

After she headed off I mooched round the flat for a bit flicking through the channels and then decided to head out for a run, which shows you how good I was feeling. Barry and Suzanne have invited me over to the pub for lunch, so everything’s being done for me, and I’ll probably end up spending most of the evening there too. Nicola asked me to give her a call on Boxing Day and she was making noises about New Year’s Eve too but I’m going to play it by ear. I don’t want her to get the wrong idea.

I put my tracksuit on and I swear it’s already looser on me. The only people around on the seafront were a few dog walkers and families trying out new bicycles and skateboards, but I decided to head out on the beach anyway. I’m still avoiding the area around the Sea Life Centre after my fright the other day, but that wasn’t a problem because the tide was miles out and I picked out a course way down on the beach towards Brean that meant I would pass it by a good hundred yards or more. It’s only my fourth or fifth time out running but I couldn’t believe the difference – I could cover twice the ground now without getting out of breath, and I’ve found that if I zone out a bit and detach my mind from the actual physical running it makes it much easier. So what I tend to do is concentrate on a song or something – not actually sing it, because I don’t have the breath for that, but run through the lyrics in my head as if I’m listening to it on a personal stereo. Actually I’m thinking of getting an Ipod, but I’ll wait till the January sales.

The sun was bouncing off the wet sand like a mirror as I ran down towards the sea, and it reminded me of the hymn we’d sung at mum’s funeral.

Spirit of truth and love
Da da da holy Dove
Speed forth thy flight
Move o’er the water’s face
Bearing the lamp of grace
And in earth’s darkest place
Let there be light


In the cold light of day I’m feeling a bit guilty about throwing away her locket and I keep my eyes on the ground as I run, just in case it’s washed up on the tide. Still, I figure it can’t have been worth that much and I’ve still got the rings. I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it if I hadn’t been pissed but it did feel good to do something symbolic – like closing a chapter of my life. I was pretty sure I hadn’t just done it to help get my end away.

Holy and blessed three,
Glorious Trinity
Da da da Might
Boundless as ocean’s tide
Rolling in fullest pride
Da da da far and wide
Let there be light

Give up on that one, I think. I let the rhythm of my feet pumping across the wet sand set the tune. Bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a-bump-a

Babe, you’re getting’ closer
The lights are goin’ dim
The sound of your breathing
Has made the mood I’m in

I can see myself reflected in the wet sand beneath my feet, my mirror image, his feet rising up to meet mine with every step in perfect symmetry. What’s that film where he keeps seeing Elvis in the mirror? That’s how I feel sometimes. Like I keep catching something in the corner of my eye, but when I turn around he’s gone. It’s just a trick of the light.

All of my resistance
Is lying on the floor
Taking me to places
I’ve never been before

I’ve left the seafront far behind me now and I just keep going, striking out across the sands towards the shimmering horizon. They said this was what it was like before the Tsunami that other Christmas: the sea went out for miles and everyone was wandering about on these great big beaches staring out into the distance trying to see the waves and not knowing death was thundering towards them and there was nothing they could do about it.

Way down where the music plays
Way down like a tidal wave
Way down where the fires blaze
Way down, down, way, way on down


I’m feeling light headed now. I’ve got the buzz. This must be what they call hitting the wall.

Ooh, my head is spinnin’
You got me in your spell
A hundred magic fingers
On a whirling carousel

I look down at the twin beneath my feet and I give him a wave. And bugger me if he doesn’t wave back.

And I can feel it
Feel it
Feel it
Feel it


I’ve come out too far. The sun’s in my eyes and Brean Down is on my left when it should be straight ahead and I can’t even see the pier or the Sea Life Centre any more and I don’t think I can run any further because I seem to be sinking and it’s getting harder and harder to move my feet. I fall forward onto the sand, and my reflection rises up to meet me but where my hands meet his they just slide straight into the sand like it was water.

Way down where the music plays
Way down like a tidal wave
Way down where the fires blaze
Way down, down, way, way on down


And then his hands fasten round my wrists and they’re cold and strong and this time they are never going to let me go.

Hold me again
Tight as you can
I need you so
Baby, let’s go

Way on down.