Intro: It’s Christmas, which means it’s time for stories around the fireplace about ruddy faced fat men who steal presents, I think that’s how it goes anyway. Below is my attempt to join the Christmas canon. I’d love to tell you what inspired it, but truthfully, I can’t remember. It’s one I’ve been tweaking for a long time. Now is the time to stop tweaking and for some of you lovely people to start reading. Enjoy.
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘Who the hell am I?’
‘You should speak up, I’m Fred.’ The young man stuck his hand out, a huge grin plastered across his face as Hector stared at him in disbelief.
‘I don’t give a damn what your name is.’
‘Then why did you ask?’
‘Because you’re in my fucking kitchen!’
Fred looked baffled as he glanced around the room. ‘I don’t think I am, you know. I’m pretty sure this is my kitchen.’
Hector’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. ‘Your kitchen?’
‘Yup, I’m pretty sure it’s my kitchen. If anything I should ask what you are doing here.’
‘You should?’ This was not going the way Hector had expected.
‘Yes, why are you in my kitchen old chap? Seems horribly rude, do you know what time it is?’
‘It’s my fucking kitchen!’ As Hector repeated himself his face began to turn a shade of red that those who sat near him at the football knew well, it was a look that usually led to them pulling up their collars and turning the other way.
‘We’ve been over this, it’s not your kitchen it’s mine. Swearing won’t change that, will it?’
Hector’s anger was so overwhelming that he couldn’t speak, so he merely swung his arms around wildly in an attempt to make the ridiculousness of this situation clear. Here he was, standing in his pyjamas having nipped down for a glass of water in the middle of the night, while this Fred had quite clearly come in through the window. He was still holding the crowbar!
That’s what he thought he meant. Fred apparently didn’t pick up on it.
‘In fact, old chap, if you don’t mind I think I’m going to head off to bed. I’ll see you out. Don’t worry about a thing, you’re obviously confused. Get on home now.’
Hector was still so apocalyptically angry that he didn’t notice Fred ushering him out. Before he could think to protest, he was standing on the doorstep. The slamming of the door placing a bizarre full stop on this messed-up dream world he’d found himself in.
Hector was no longer angry, he was baffled. What the hell was going on?
To hide his confusion, he began to bang frantically on the wooden door. His wife was upstairs, she’d wake up and do something about this. He should have done something about it himself! Why did he listen to the young bastard? Should have sparked him out the second he saw him. He might be getting on a bit, but back in the day, Hector threw a mean right hook.
His knocking didn’t seem to be working. In fact, the house could have been empty. What was happening to him?
Stepping back, he looked up at his home, smiling despite himself at the Christmas tree glinting in the window. Their daughter was coming back tomorrow, and Hector wanted it to be perfect. He hadn’t factored on having to deal with this strange turn of events.
Remembering the window that he had seen Fred enter through Hector stomped around the side of his house scaring away a cat that had been out hunting a late night treat.
This plan was no more of a success than the first. The window was closed. In fact, looking closely at it there was no evidence at all of someone having forced their way through. It looked… wait… was that new?
Hector was not the kind of man who did a lot of DIY, which meant that his kitchen window had seen better days. The wood – which had originally been painted white – had now faded to a dull brown colour.
Which was still true for most of it, apart from the central window (and the largest one) which was in perfect condition. It might have been put in this afternoon.
Hector glared at it. It could have always looked like that – he hadn’t examined his windows lately – but it didn’t seem likely. Why would the others have all that wear and tear while this one didn’t? But who the hell had replaced his window? Fred wouldn’t have had enough time.
Whatever had happened it was evident it wasn’t opening, and he didn’t fancy breaking into his own house.
He needed a seat. A seat and a smoke. He wasn’t supposed to smoke. Both of them had quit after Christie was born. However, the second she’d left home, he’d found himself picking it up again.
That meant he had a secret pack in the shed, and he was desperate for one of them. Truthfully, that had been part of the reason he was sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night. Turning away from the mystery that was his house he headed towards his shed, where he was relieved to discover that it at least appeared to be the same, and the pack of cigarettes artfully hidden in the bottom of his toolbox was still there.
Lighting one up he reflected on his night so far. The whole situation made no sense. That Fred bastard was in his house probably robbing him blind. Poor Julie must be fast asleep unaware of what was going on, and here he was, stuck outside having a smoke.
It was then that he realised how weird that was. Why on Earth was he sitting in his shed having a smoke? He should be calling the police! Who knew what this Fred was up to? The bastard could be raping his wife! Stubbing the fag out frantically, he charged out the door, his face returning to its rosy hue of fury.
Ten minutes later the shed door opened again, and Hector came strolling in. Scooping up the pack of cigarettes he’d knocked onto the ground he settled back down on an upturned flower pot, lit one and took a long drag.
With a sigh, he tapped off a small bit of ash and glanced around the shed. He liked it out here, it was his place to get away from the world, and with that Fred in his house, he needed to do that.
Wait. Fred was still in his house? What had happened? Thinking back, he realised the last thing he remembered was storming out of the shed to go wake a neighbour, find a payphone or do anything in his power to get the police here and get that man as far away as possible. Why on earth was he back here?
Hector had gone so far past angry that there were no longer words to describe his mood. He pulled himself to his feet with a small growl and walked purposely out of the shed, fists clenched.
Ten minutes later Hector strolled back in, picked up the packet of cigarettes and, well, you know the drill.
Once again Hector found himself staring at the cigarette in shock. He was aware that he kept leaving the shed, but for whatever reason, he also kept coming back.
Hector wasn’t a man used to spending a lot of time thinking about things. He was one of action. A man who had spent his life doing and then worrying about the consequences later. You could call him an old dog, but he hadn’t been that good at learning new tricks when he was a young one. But this situation, it seemed to require something a bit different. The head down and come out swinging approach wasn’t working. He needed to take it slowly.
Inching the door open he peeked around it. The house looked silent, and there was nothing to suggest that this night was anything except a normal one. Despite that he crept out, looking around him as he did before making his way to the side of his home. Halfway there he changed his mind. Instead, he approached the garden fence and with all the elegance of a three-legged sheep clambered over, landing on the concrete ground of his neighbour’s backyard with a bump.
He’d always disliked that concrete. What was wrong with grass? It brought the whole neighbourhood down in his opinion.
Grumbling about that he clambered to his feet and snuck towards their back door. Why he snuck is up for debate because the second he got there all that went out the window.
‘HELP! HELP! WAKE UP YOU BASTARDS I NEED YOUR HELP!’
Lights flared on in the house as the sounds of voices could be heard inside. Through the frosted glass, he saw what looked like his neighbour Karl making his way towards him, a large object in his hand.
‘It’s me, Hector! Open the door!’
The door creaked open slightly, but it was clear that the chain was still on it.
‘Em… who are you?’ A voice peeped out of the gap.
‘It’s me, Hector, let me in. I need to use your phone.’
‘Who?’ Karl sounded nervous, and Hector noticed that the object was a weighty ornament which he held like a weapon.
‘Your neighbour! Let me in, some tosser broke into my house.’
‘Which… which neighbour?’
‘You know which fucking neighbour.’ Hector signalled towards his house flabbergasted by this behaviour. Sure they weren’t bosom buddies, but he and Karl had always got along. Apart from the palaver about the concrete garden but he’d only called him a wanker. It wasn’t like that was harsh.
‘That’s Fred and Julie’s house.’ Karl explained slowly as if he was talking to an idiot. ‘I don’t know who you are, but if you are a friend of their’s, please knock on their door. If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.’
And like that the door was firmly shut in Hector’s face.
Fred’s house? Fred and Julie’s house? The anger seemed to drain out of him as he walked toward the pavement. What was happening? Had he gone mad?
He stared up at the building where he had gone to bed just hours before. He knew he had. He could remember kissing Julie goodnight and turning the pillow over to get the cold side. He remembered getting up a few minutes later to pee. Even further back than that he remembered taking his daughter home for the first time. That combination of exhaustion, excitement and fear as they crossed over into a new life. Yet somehow it was all slipping away. Slipping away as if it had never happened. He turned and walked away from the house, head bowed and still dressed in his pyjamas he wandered down the street away from a life that had always been his.
Julie woke and for a second stared at her husband in confusion, not recognising the man she had married. As the fog cleared from her mind, she smiled. Oh sure her friends had all mocked her for marrying a younger man, but twenty years later it paid off. Why, he barely looked thirty, and certainly not like a man with an eighteen-year-old daughter.
That thought filled her with excitement. Christie was coming home today.
Scrambling out of bed she stopped to kiss Fred on the cheek, and he smiled, still half-asleep. He really did look young, that early retirement was suiting him. Plus, she made more than enough money for the two of them.
As she smiled down at him a memory seemed to tickle the back of her mind, but she couldn’t grasp it, and just like it had appeared it was gone. Oh well, if it were important, it would come back to her. She turned and made her way into the bathroom to get ready for the day ahead.
It was the first time Christie had come home from university, and Julie was stupidly excited. Ever since her daughter had disappeared into her new life last September, she’d been worrying about her. Not that her daughter needed her to worry about her, she could have moved out four years ago and been fine, but she was her little girl, and Mum couldn’t help it.
Heading downstairs she smiled at the Christmas decorations hanging in her living room. It seemed a bit silly now. Christie was too old for stockings and candy canes, while Fred had never been bothered, but it would have been wrong not to have them.
She glanced at the clock, two hours till Christie got in. It felt like such a long time, but she headed off to make herself some breakfast and hopefully force some of it to pass.
An hour later Fred trooped down the stairs to join her, already showered and dressed.
‘Hello dear, that smells nice.’ He grinned at her, threatening to nick a bit of bacon off her plate, but she playfully smacked his hand away.
‘Get your own.’ She smiled up at him as he bent down to kiss her, completing a morning ritual that had been going on since they got together. A ritual born out of contentment in each other’s company.
‘We’ll need to head off in about forty-five minutes, dear.’
‘Hmm, what was that darling?’ Fred replied seemingly distracted.
‘Forty-five minutes, to pick up Christie, your daughter? Remember her?’ She joked.
‘Hmm, kind of. About this tall, brown hair?’
‘Ha, I wish!’ Julie began to clear away her plate, ‘I do wish she’d go back to brown, though. That blue is so distracting.’
‘You know what kids are like, dear. They’ll do what they want.’
‘I know, I know, I suppose university is a good time to experiment.’
‘And if you tell her not to do it, it will make her want to do it all the more.’
‘You’re right. You always are.’ She kissed her husband again. ‘Okay, get ready to go.’
Curled up as tight as he could Hector stared out at the people walking past him. They were all in a rush, head bowed against the cold with those last Christmas bits and pieces clutched to their chests.
Sleeping on the streets was never good, but Hector had been doing it for… Well, to be honest, he could never remember how long he’d been doing it. Years probably. Everyday blurred into one.
Anyway, it was never fun, but Christmas was even worse. Sure, it meant that the occasional person came up to you bursting with holiday spirit and proud to hand over a twenty-pound note or a gift card, but you still didn’t have a home to go to. You still didn’t have a family.
Hector didn’t know what had happened to his family. When he tried to think about them, his mind seemed to rebel, to focus on anything but his past.
Suddenly a voice drifted out of the snow. A voice Hector recognised.
‘Are you eating enough? Having more than beer and vodka?’
‘Of course, Mum!’ The exasperated tones of a teenage girl replied.
‘Give her a break, Julie.’ A man chimed in.
He heard a thousand conversations like this a day, particularly in this spot next to the train station. This was different, though. He recognised those voices. They spoke to something inside of him, and he found himself staring at the three of them as they approached.
A young girl was slightly ahead of the older two, a big backpack forcing her to crouch slightly which showed off the top of her bright blue hair. She had the wide grin on her face of someone who, while complaining about her mother’s attention, was actually enjoying it after a few months away. Behind her was a young man, much too young to have a daughter that old. His face brought an unexplained surge of anger to Hector’s heart.
It was the woman that he was holding hands with that really caught his eye, though. She was older than her husband. Older by at least twenty years, and she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
While hate filled him at the sight of that young man it was love that overpowered him as he looked at her. As she walked towards him, he almost thought he was going to cry from happiness. Then their eyes met, and everything jolted to a stop.
As Julie caught the eye of the homeless man, an overwhelming sense of sadness filled her. She knew that man, didn’t she? She knew that man, and she wanted to help him.
‘Julie?’ Fred’s voice butted into her thoughts, ‘come on, dear. It’s cold.’
‘Oh, of course, yes. I know.’ Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off the startlingly familiar man.
‘Terrible, isn’t it?’ Fred stage-whispered in her ear, ‘you get Christie to the car, and I’ll give him some money. Since it’s Christmas.’
She looked up at her husband’s face and didn’t recognise it. His hand was gripping onto her shoulder, driving her away from the man and for a second she wanted to argue. Then, he smiled, and the relief came flooding in. This was her husband, and that was just a homeless man, there were hundreds of them, which was awful, but why should this one bother her more than any other?
‘That would be lovely dear, thank you.’
Julie and Hector looked at each other once more before she walked away, the connection between them snapping apart as she turned her back. Hector wasn’t sure why but tears came unbidden to his eyes.
‘Here you go, old chap.’ Fred knelt down next to him and slipped a crisp twenty-pound note into his hand. ‘You have a good Christmas you hear me?’ He grabbed Hector’s chin and turned his head to force him to look into his bright smiling eyes. ‘Because I’m going to have a wonderful one.’
For a moment, a lifetime seemed to flow through Hector’s mind. Memories of a wife and a child. Of a home that he called his own. Then of the strange man who had come in and taken it from him. For a second he knew who the bastard was and his hands twitched as if to reach out and grasp his throat.
And then he was gone, leaving Hector to snuggle deeper into his old blanket and clutch the twenty-pound note to his chest.