With the spectre’s arrival the room was transfigured into a playroom, only one so filled with rocking horses and tin soldiers it resembled a toy shop fully stocked for the season. Where the wardrobe had been was now a fireplace mantel, a roaring fire beneath and stockings with unfamiliar names stitched into them hanging from it, each also stuffed with toys. Balloons bobbed against the ceiling and their strings played like broken cobwebs about a small boy knelt in the midst of the toys, so many the drift they lay in passed his knees. He was bent to the rug, unwrapping those gifts that were were wrapped and discarding the paper carelessly, deepening the drift. Soon it had deepened so far the boy’s head was scarcely visible above the toys and wrapping paper, elements of which were starting to spill onto Burning’s bed.
He rose cautiously, his legs brushing through the crackling papers as he stood. He could still see the spirit–just–for a golden light poured from the top of his head as if the child was wearing a burning crown.
“Spirit?” he asked. For a moment the boy turned, the light from his crown throwing the shadows of the room in odd directions. Then he resumed his quest, shaking gifts and tearing the paper. The drift had passed Burning’s waist.
“You look like my nephew, spirit,” said Burning, and he laughed a laugh with little humour in it.
“Have you seen my games?” said the spirit, his voice ringing clear as a bell. “I lost them and don’t know where to look.”
“Your games?” said Burning. Paper was now rustling about his chest, the drift deepening faster than the boy could tear wrappings to add to it.
Burning looked about the room. Some of the toys had been caught up on the paper waves where they bobbed like becalmed sail boats. Among them was a Snakes & Ladders box, which Burning waded toward and retrieved. The paper was above his shoulder and starting to wrap itself about his neck.
“Here, spirit,” he said, holding the game out to the lad. “I found a game for you. Now will you let me be?”
But the boy who by rights should have been invisible beneath the rising tide searched on. “My games,” he said, his voice wheedling. “I want to find more games.”
Burning tried to say something in response but by this point the drift had risen above his mouth; when he opened it to speak it filled with gift wrap, which he tried to spit out.
Still it rose higher, past his nose, past his eyes, past his head until he could see nothing but gold, silver, red and green glitter, and hear nothing but the roar of a thousand papers crackling. He struggled to breath; he was smothered-or perhaps drowned–by the papers. He choked and felt his gorge rise to spill his supper into the playroom. Instead, out came more paper, welling deep within him.
“Spirit!” he called through a mouthful of disgorged papers. “Spirit, help me!”
Suddenly all was dark.
* * *
In the darkness sped a set of flashing lights.
Christmas was as it always has been, immutable, unchanged by the interceding years. But I’d left it all behind in search of a new life overseas, and with it came a new family and new customs.
On Christmas Eve we travelled south to Virginia. It’s something we do every year. My uncle- and aunt-in-law open their home to all and sundry and every two years the schedules of all those invited coincide and we visit en masse from every corner of the country.
This was a busy Christmas. Even a house bordering on palatial can only accommodate so many souls and with eighteen of us visiting it was stretched to breaking point.
Also stretched were the nerves of my wife’s relatives, who by the time we arrived had already had quite enough of our nieces and nephew. Cousin Casey, slyly good-natured and perpetually out of breath, cornered us soon after we arrived. “He keeps asking me if he can play games,” he said, eyes haunted and darting about the room in fear the object of his discontent–our nephew–might at any moment wander in and cajole him. “He wants to play Mario. I keep telling him I ‘lost’ Mario but he doesn’t believe me.”
(“Hey,” said the spirit, scrunching his face up beneath his glowing crown. “I did not think he really lost the game. I wish I could play it.”)
Growing ever out of control, this year their mother didn’t make even a token effort to reign them in. It was a topic of conversation discussed late into the night as the drinking adults became tisy to the point of slurring. I put it to them that if it was difficult to deal with for three days of the year, imagine how it must be to live in a house with the four of them.
But this is Christmas now: gossip and backstabbing; opinions and drinks; ungrateful, tow-headed rapscallions charging underfoot and very little room to breathe. Overwhelmed on more than one occasion I retreated to the basement for solitude, only to find other people hiding there. Cousin Sean’s girlfriend attended her first family Christmas and while she proved outgoing and stoic in the face of unceasing demand from our nieces, even she needed space to decompress and reorganise herself.
Her birthday had fallen on Christmas Eve and so the family had organised a surprise party for her while she and Sean were out walking. They filled the dining room with dozens of balloons and baked two cakes–pumpkin roulade and spice–which they anointed with copious amounts of cream cheese frosting. After the party was sprung and before the cakes were eaten we had our now-traditional Christmas Eve feast of seafood and pasta alfredo. The salmon seemed to be a touch underdone but we ate it regardless. For the rest of the night both my wife and myself suffered from upset stomachs. I spent half the night yakking in to the toilet and much of Christmas day unable to eat. It was sad but as I insisted the whole time we were there, it wasn’t my Christmas. At home missing dinner on Christmas day would have been unthinkable, sickness or otherwise.
I just wasn’t at home anymore.
This reluctance to join in spilled into the rest of my time there. Still sick, on Christmas evening I braved a little roast beef and risotto–another Christmas culinary tradition–and retired to bed while everyone else was infected by the Christmas spirit. Two years ago the house had been so full neither Lindsay nor myself had a room; this year we had a pull-out bed in the living room, but the living room was connected to the kitchen where the festivities were being held. Everyone young and old twisted the night away to Motown classics while I, living next door to the world’s noisiest neighbours, cocooned myself in misery and begged for sleep.
(“Look,” said the spirit. “Look how happy everyone is. Everyone except you, you poopyhead.”)
And I was unhappy. This wasn’t my Christmas. I rarely understood what was going on, and everyone who was gathered was reluctant to inform me. The family moves like a herd of sheep, bumbling into one another until they reach consensus and slowly move in a uniform direction. If you’re not in the know, you don’t stand a chance. This was made clear on Boxing Day when the majority of the party departed as one, heading out for lunch and leaving us behind. Annoyed at not being invited Lindsay decided we should go out and spend the afternoon alone together. We went to a nearby town which was clean and gloriously festive in the crisp winter air. Skaters queued on rubber mats to use the outdoor rink; a tree large as a house was wrapped in ribbons and dwarfed by the imperious buildings that stood all around it. We ate Thai food in a restaurant where drunken businessmen huddled in the corners and fresh-faced young women sat on stools so tall their feet didn’t touch the ground, and were served water by a wizened old men whose body shook while his pouring hand stayed calm.
It was a good afternoon in the middle of a hectic family Christmas. Sometimes it’s nice to get away.
Though there were times at which I enjoyed myself, mostly I felt alone. These were the traditions of a family of which I’m only ostensibly a member. “I can’t join in their reindeer games,” I told my wife, sadly but bullishly, angrily regretful. I spent so much time trying to hide away because I was worried if I tried, I wouldn’t find a way in. Even the simplest conversational exchanges were beyond my limited social skills. Sometimes I waited for minutes trying to find an opening in the conversation in which I could ask someone to please step aside, I have rubbish to throw out.
We drove home late on the twenty-seventh under driving rain and darkening light, in silence for the most part, angry at each other for unspoken reasons. The Christmas I loved is gone now, deceased. Being and adult I shouldn’t be surprised by this.
What I am surprised by is that the person I was, that I tried for so long to smother, still lives on in my unwanted, fearful, misanthropic ways.
* * *
His eyes brimming, his voice catching, Burning spoke softly to the spirit. “I tried,” he said. “I made an effort, damn you. I participated, I conversed, I played games and enjoyed myself. But only to a point! A man cannot be coerced into having fun. Would I be a monster if I said I don’t like fun? It’s an acquired taste, a hellish one, often more trouble than it’s worth, mind you. Why, if I pooh-poohed opium, nobody would think any the worse., yet those addled souls haunting alleys in the China district claim it’s an unusual high, better than any brand of ‘fun’ you might list.
“So don’t judge me and find me lacking, spirit. How dare you! You, with your addiction to games and other trifles.”
At this Burning scooped from the floor a children’s toy, a helmet with the face of an automaton. “Ghost of Christmas Present!” he screeched, a man beyond wits’ end. “Have at thee!” And grabbing the small squirming spirit up with one hand he forced the helmet over his glowing crown, pushing it further until the light was snuffed, the spirit’s cries silences and the room darkened.
“There!” he said. “Christmas no more!”
But all this Burning now spoke to his bedpost, for his hands were wrapped about it and not the small boy.
Forcing his fingers to relax one by one he prised them from the post and sat, quivering while the clock ticked off seconds. It took was a while before Burning regained his composure, and when he had he found his gaze inextricably drawn to the display. 11:59, it read, and then, as he watched, it changed.
The final ghost! Burning’s eyes widened with fear. Hands he’d fought to still now shook again, as did his whole body. Goose-flesh spread like plague marks across his skin and he realised there was no other sound in the house but that of his breathing . . .
. . . and perhaps not even that.
“Never!” he cried, leaping to his feet. “You’ll not have me, spirit!” With that he tore open the door and charged down the stairs, fleeing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come which followed insistent and without remorse.