A Christmas Story 2020
It was Christmas morning a few years after The Beatles ceased to be. It was early, dark and crisp. Mr James Burchill was long retired and rattling around in his flat high up opposite the Cathedral with its green surrounding and gravestone-studded grounds.
Mr Burchill was awake and yet again he was disappointed. After all these years insomnia had still not let me meet Santa. Maybe next year, He lived in hope and own his own.
He was sitting in front of the Christmas tree counting the decorations when the clock in the hallway struck 06:30. Tradition had it that this was the time that children, including the younger Burchill many decades and decades before, would bounce to the end of their beds to delve into the depths of thick, woollen football socks for treats. Tangerines and golden chocolate coins, puzzles and waterproof joke books, toffees and other festive bric-a-brac to tide us over until after lunch.
Instead of that, as an older and wiser head, he headed across the hall to the kitchen for tea and milky, cereal. Strong tea and not much milk, he was 70 years old and strong as a broke down old ox. A dog was awake in somebody’s yard, barking something, a lively sound. Fair play to that dog who will never scare a bird away but keeps on trying every single morning including Christmas morning before the sun comes up, he thought. That dog’s a trier.
He drank his tea and ate his cereal and considered turning the radio on for carols and hospital visits. He wasn’t quite ready for that yet. He had other things to do: a bath or a shower, he ummed and ahhhhed and he shuffled back into the tree room. Maybe a snifter? Just to get the day started? Before the telephone calls? Before he had to get out of his lovely, warm dressing gown and make his way to church? A bracer? A livener, after all it was a special day. It was Christmas Day and an affable, grey haired, old chap needed a treat.
No, no not quite yet. Not at seven in the morning, not even on Christmas Day. No, no. A bath then. A Christmas bath. Ready himself for the festivities. Clean as a new pin. Warm as a sprout. He made his way down the hall to the bathroom and turned the taps with a little melodrama, imagining that he was filling a moat as defence against the savage infidel on this day of Christ.
The bath was a big, deep old thing that would take several minutes to fill. So, he wandered back to the kitchen for another cup of tea and to look across the sink and through his window over the rooftops of the town. He realised that he was humming ‘Come Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, and he smiled. He did so love this day.
Out of his small misted kitchen window he could see bedroom lights flick on, and he could almost hear the squeaks of delight from the children, and the groans of sleeplessness from the adults these were to be expected. What was less usual was the site of were three figures walking side by side down the road towards the Cathedral. Due to the proximity of his house to that thousand year-old monument to Christ, the three figures also gave the impression that they were walking directly towards him. They were thin types but well dressed in dark cloth, each with a tall, smart hat. He could see from the shakes of their shoulders and the way their heads bobbed up and down that they were giving voice to some Christmas song or other. Good show for them! Well done, He thought. A merry Christmas to them all. Although he would have liked to see them turn even slightly and take a less direct route. Something about the mist rising from their shoulders disconcerted him just a little, Christmas or no Christmas.
The shriek of the boiling kettle aroused him from his observation and dark feeling, and he made myself a fresh mug of tea, dark brown just as he liked it. Maybe he could pour a small tot of something to give it that energising kick he wondered. No, no. Not quite yet, not before the visits and the company of friends, relations and possibly old colleagues from his days working at Hodges, Powell and Fox Limited of the High Street. A grand company he remembered fondly as he stirred his brew absentmindedly. There would surely be visits this year.
Half an hour later his he had bathed, he was warmed through, clean shaven and dressed smartly in his tweed suit complete with waistcoat. As it was Christmas Day he sported a Christmas tie in red and white with Santa Claus and his sleigh repetitively flying across and down it. He made his way to the tree room and opened the curtains to a misty view of the Cathedral with its surrounding green. When it was born a thousand years ago, it had been highly coloured and decorated, and was the most eye-catching structure in one hundred miles or more. These days it was still a proud creation with a lengthy naive, but its butter-gold walls remained unpainted.
The three people he had seen earlier were standing in front of the ancient building and, from the look of their backs, were still singing. They stood in a row dressed plainly in their dark coats and hats. Now he saw that they all had long, flaming red hair hanging down looking quite unkempt, rather lank even. He also noticed that their left hands were holding briefcases, bulging fit to burst. Their right hands were hanging by their sides, straight down, long fingered in black gloves. They continued to sing, lifting their heads and tilting them back so he was sure that their hats must certainly topple over.
Mass wasn’t due to begin for another two hours, so he had to respect their commitment, they were in for quite a wait, and now snow was falling. It soaked into their cloths and hair and disappeared as if vaporised.
But enough of that crew he thought, it was time for a cigarette. So, he turned his back on the trio with their weird scene in front of the ancient church with its might, studded oak doors. A single, tall lamp provided cosy illumination over his armchair, he have never been a fan of too much illumination in any sphere of his life. He emptied the ashtray into the fireplace, turned on the radio to the sound of chorister’s high voices piping beautifully. He lit the fire and then his cigarette, and He sat down, plomp, into his old leather chair where he began to read the novel he had set aside the previous evening.
He have to admit that when he woke, he was lucky to be alive! It was, according to the radio some hours later than when he had taken his seat and started to read. His cigarette had fallen from his right hand onto a patch of damp on the carpet where he had spilled a whiskey and soda the night before. The drink had saved him! There was much to be thankful for. Then he realised that he had missed morning mass, and thereby he had missed meeting many of his friends and fellow religionists.
“You did it again you old duffer”, he admonished myself having missed that same service in previous years due to a variety of related missteps on his part. “You old fool”, he chuckled without guilt in reality.
But, what ho, at least the sun was now well and truly over the proverbial yardarm and he could treat myself to a small whiskey and soda to well and truly welcome in the spirit of Christmas. No matter that this year there were only two cards on the mantlepiece, and that he had left the purchasing of food late again, so this year’s festive feasts was a beef lasagne out of a packet. Things would certainly look up after a snifter and some carols on the record player.
“Head up! Shoulders back! Mass at five! On we go”, he encouraged himself. He placed the stylus onto his 1958 recording of A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from Kings College Cambridge, and the solo and very singular voice of the chorister began his rendition of Once in Royal David’s City, all echoy and pure. Burchill felt a tear on his cheek just as always.
“Enough of that, quite enough”, he told himself as he relight the fire and stiffened his resolve on this happiest of days with a small whiskey and soda. He retook his seat and hummed along to another carol. It reminded me of the many comradely Christmas Eves at Hodges, Powell and Fox Limited on the High Street after the debts had been collected and business closed for the week. Now was the lull until after the Boxing Day sales had created more custom for the little firm.
What a merry crew they were, he remembered and began to drift off again.
“We would shut the door, Mr Powell or Mr Fox would regale us with the latest figures, and then present us each with a small, brown envelope containing, if the year had been profitable, our bonuses in cash. Mrs Hodges would sometimes attend, sometimes not. We would then all drink toasts to this, that and the other, and sing carols. Mrs Hodges particularly liked It Came Upon a Midnight Clear he remembered. We were quite a band on Christmas Eve”, he chuckled to himself.
As the whiskey and soda warmed him through, he remembered more about back then.
“Those were the days”, he explained out loud to no one. “We were a wild bunch when we needed to be. But clear minded and professional when we went about our business of making sure that those who were owed got what they were owed, minus our cut of course. But times change and you have to change with them or you get lost. This is true in marriage as much as it is in business, just ask my ex-wives”.
So it was after one such Christmas Eve celebration after the doors of Hodges, Powell and Fox Limited were shut, the bonuses handed around, the speeches made and the toasts toasted that the thin, wiry figure of Mr Burchill, announced to the gathered company that things had indeed changed. Changed for the better for some, and changed for the different for others. He was the some, and Hodges, Powell and Fox were the others.
He’d been looking at the books and, while the company had a good, steely, no messing reputation on the High Street and beyond, it did not have good management. It was not exactly losing money, it was simply not making enough of it for Burchill’s liking.
After the final toast to something or other, he had left the room and gone into the back kitchen, to open the back door and to welcome in some large, silent, muscular new brooms. Lovely fellows, stoutly built, soberly dressed and professionals down to their steel-toed boots. They were about to work for their Christmas bonuses all right. He ushered them into the main office and with a nod set them to their work. Then he shut the back door and turned his back on the entire Yuletide scene.
Business being business, and being married to the second Mrs Burchill – a sweet girl with a poorly constitution as it turned out – he skipped off home in good spirits to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus at midnight mass in the Cathedral with a thousand other fellow Christian souls around him. He sang loudly and shook every hand that came into view, he slapped backs and crashed coins into the collection plate. Burchill was the soul of festive spirit and everybody knew it that night.
It was at home on Boxing Day morning that he heard about the terrible fire that had consumed much of the offices of Hodges, Powell and Fox on the High Street. A cataclysm, a Christmas horror story to end all. All three partners had, it seemed, fallen to drinking heavily, a cigarette had caught a curtain tail, and poof! all gone except the name over the door, a couple of bank accounts, and some legal documents that fortunately and with uncommon but sensible foresight were resting with Mr J Burchill’s credentials.
That was so long ago though, water under one of many burnt bridge. A decade or so passed, hard times came to the business as it sometimes does. Not for Burchill though, he had got out in time to secure the lovely flat he was sitting in, and a nest egg or two. A reputation is only of value before you retire after all.
Once again he had nodded off in his remembrances. When he woke he looked at his mantlepiece clock and realised that he had missed the day! The clock told him that it was 11:45pm. Late, too late for mass or lasagne.
He poured myself a small whiskey and soda, lit another cigarette, stoked the fire and considered a walk before bed. A walk was a fine idea. A walk might help him sleep. He would definitely have quick walk in the Cathedral grounds. But first of all he would look outside, just to make sure it wasn’t too snowy, that the ground was safe to travel for an old man, that there were no Christmas drunks or strangers outside who might interrupt his outing with attempted conversations or to ask for directions. He couldn’t be doing with it. Best be on the safe side, man of his age.
He stood, and his bones cracked as they had been doing for some years now. He placed his whisky tumbler in the table by his armchair. He paused to light a cigarette. He flicked his lighter’s metal roller, nothing. It never let him down. It had been with him since the earliest days of Hodges, Powell and Fox Limited on the High Street when he was new to the job. Mr Hodges had given it to him. It was inscribed thus:
To James, my nephew and a fine young man. Donald Hodges esq.
He flicked the roller again, still nothing. He flicked it one more time and it caught, burning his finger tip so that he howled and dropped the lighter to the floor. He quickly gathered it up and went to the window. He hesitated before pulling the curtains apart and peeking out into the drawing darkness of the early afternoon. There was the snow drifting across the gravel standing outside the mighty, studded doors of the ancient Cathedral. Making patterns, covering tombstones. But that was it. No figures, no one singing. The weird trio, as he’d started to think of them, had obviously thought better of it and gone home.
“Daft old duffer. Time for my walk”, he told himself and headed into the hall to don heavy coat and flat cap, to put on his gloves and take up his steel-ended walking stick for balance and defence. Then, thoroughly protected against the cold, he remembered that he had left a cigarette precariously on the edge of the ashtray by his chair.
“Best go and check” he said.
But before there was time to return to the tree room there was a knock on the door. He stood still.
Then came a second knock.
This time he froze and hoped for silence. He couldn’t move.
Then a third knock sounded.
Then three times three, louder and louder until his head ached. And then he made out the song that he had seen the weird trio singing but that he hadn’t yet heard. Three voices were howling It Came Upon a Midnight Clear that wonderful Christmas carol from all those years ago.