…Now bugger off and have some turkey, normal service resumes tomorrow!
It started slowly, almost imperceptibly. A slow, fine mist descending from a cloudy sky, barely even noticeable until it reached the ground and settled. It was snowing.
Each tiny flake was invisible insight, except for when a section of the snowfall caught and reflected the light of distant fires in brilliant colours. It looked like a shoal of fish,dancing and darting their erratic journey earthwards.
And for a moment — for the barest and most bittersweet of moments — the burly man in the church clocktower, watching it all through a high-powered scope, could believe that all was right with the world.
Until he spied the lights on the horizon.
One at first, a flickering shimmer that might have been a cluster of snowflakes. But then it was joined by another,and another, swelling to an unmistakable host. Even among the reflective dance of semi-frozen rain they stood out, unmistakable as the dawn. Individually they flickered and stumbled, but their combined might illuminated the blasted landscape and picked out each crater and imperfection.
The man in the clocktower shuffled within his winter clothing, eventually extricating a gloved hand, which squeezed the button on a hand radio.
‘They’re here,’ he said into it, curtly and emotionlessly.
After a moment’s pause came the reply, ‘Roger that. Stand by, and maintain visual observation.‘
The man didn’t reply, but withdrew back inside his warm cocoon, and adjusted the rifle beneath the blankets. Through the scope he watched the horde approach as he tried to count the falling snowflakes.
The four of them in the church froze, all eying the radio on the altar. Stephens was closest, and he picked it up, but hesitated before responding. His grey sergeant-major’s eyes looked to each of them in turn before he pushed the broadcast button.
‘Roger that. Stand by and maintain visual contact.’
Markus didn’t answer. The dour Frenchman was thrifty with the few words of English that has knew, and wasn’t given to waste them.
‘We’re going with the plan then?’ Lucy asked. They had already discussed this to completion several times. She drummed her fingertips against the pew she sat on in a stacatto and disjointed rhythm.
‘Yep,’ Tim replied, launching himself into action. ‘If you’ve got any prayers left to make, do it now. Ladies and gentlemen, the service is over, it is time to leave the church!’
Stephens — the Colonel — sprung into action immediately, with a career of military discipline behind him. He started loading up their camping equipment, and spreading it evenly between the four packs.
‘Harry, go and see to the generator would you?’ Tim asked. ‘Syphon off the bulk of the petrol, but leave enough to keep everything running for an hour or so yet.’
With a stifled groan, the gangly IT Technician levered himself off the floor. In better times he had worked for the same marketing firm as Tim — albeit in a different department. Lucy had worked behind the bar of a pub on the same street. Markus and Stephens were just lucky survival nuts.
‘I still say we should take the genny with us,’ Harry complained.
‘And carry it with what?’ Lucy asked, before Tim could find the words. ‘The sled is busted, and I really don’t fancy hauling that monstrosity across two hundred miles of wasteland.’
‘Besides,’ Tim added quickly, gently, ‘these savages aren’t going to stop chasing us until we’re dead. The plan is the only way.’
With a resigned nod, Harry headed off to the back room where they’d linked up their small generator to what remained of the church’s electrical system.
‘Huh,’ Lucy exclaimed softly. The other three turned to face her with curious — and worried — expressions. ‘Merry Christmas guys!’
She held up her watch. 00:03. 25 Dec.
‘We always used to spend Christmas Day with my dad and his girlfriend. After he retired, he left my mum for his secretary, and bought a cottage in Cornwall. We’d spend Christmas there and then go to mum’s for new years.’
Lucy rambled on whilst she packed. Tim didn’t mind. She was a nervous girl and talking seemed to keep her mind off the situation.
‘Christ, what I wouldn’t give for a roast turkey with all the trimmings now.’
Tim’s stomach gave a painful — but thankfully inaudible — rumble. They hadn’t had enough food for weeks, and the scant rations which remained were being stretched so thin that it was becoming painful to even think of food.
‘A turkey, a turkey, my generator for a roast turkey, and all the trimmings!’ he muttered sardonically, but it evoked a cackle of laughter from Lucy. In the dank, shadowy surroundings of the church the seemed darkly out of place. Tim couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed or heard laughter.
He realised he was smiling, just as another strange sound broached the air.
‘What the fuck is–‘
‘Music!’ Lucy cut him off with a gleeful cry. She was right, it was definitely music, the tinkling and ethereal opening notes of a piece which tugged at the atrophied threads of his memory. Momentarily he recalled a film, the moment in Apocalypse Now when the helicopters come over the Vietnamese village.
But no, this is different. Gentler, more atmospheric, more…festive?
‘Have…yourself…a very merry Christmas…’
‘Harry, you mad bastard,’ he growled under his breath. But he was smiling. They all were. Lucy was grinning like…well, like a kid on Christmas morning. Even the surly Colonel was not immune to the tugging at the corners of mouths.
‘Well, I thought it fitted the mood,’ Harry said, coming back into the church with a shiver and a mischievous grin.
But the elevated mood didn’t last. From above came the sound of gunfire; heavy, echoing shots from Markus’ rifle. A hail of automatic fire answered, rattling against the stonework of the tower. As Markus issued a loud rebuttal, they all spurred into action.
The Colonel sprayed bullets through the rotten wooden door, showering Tim and Lucy with splinters as they hurriedly finished their packing.
‘Did you get that petrol sorted?’ Tim shouted over the sporadic busting of gun reports.
Harry nodded. ‘Six jerry cans, and enough juice left in the tank to make this madness look convincing.’
‘Good. Whether or not we can get another genny together, petrol’s always good for trade.’
He could see another objection — or a repeat of the same objection — but he never heard it. Two, or maybe three, explosions outside blew the door in, knocking them all to the ground and making their ears pop viciously.
The Colonel was first up, firing more bullets through the smoky orifice. Tim followed, shouting across to the self-appointed quartermaster. ‘Colonel! Gun! Fucking now!’
He plucked the automatic rifle out of the air as he turned to the other two. ‘Time to leave! Is the mistletoe ready for our guests?’
Harry waved a small cylinder topped with a red button, as a few more shots boomed overhead and a cluster of hostile bullets flew through the door.
Tim only noticed he was hit when he was lying on the floor, his friends shouting over him. He noticed idly that it didn’t hurt, and that the song was still playing.
‘Oh fuck Tim!’ Lucy was saying, repeating ‘Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck’ under her breath like a mantra. Her hands were red, and when he looked down he couldn’t make any sense of what he was seeing. But there was a lot of blood.
As he realised that he was dying, that to all intents and purposes he was already dead, the most surprising thing was how calm he felt. It had become so damn normal, death.
‘Time to go kiddies!’ he managed to gasp. ‘Make for the coast. Stick together. And hang onto that petrol! Harry, give me the detonator.’
‘What?’ Harry suddenly looked very young, and very frightened. It was upsetting for Tim to think that he had no idea just how old any of his companions were.
‘Harry, mate,’ he whispered. ‘I’m not walking away from this one. Give me the detonator. I can at least take some of these bastards with me.’
As Harry sheepishly handed it over, Lucy started to sob and wail. Tim saw Markus climbing down from the clocktower, rifle strapped across his back, swinging down off the ladder. he took one look at Tim’s stomach and gave him a sad nod as he carried Lucy away.
‘Go on lad,’ the Colonel said to Harry, kneeling next to Tim’s shattered and dying form. ‘Go on with them. I’ll follow.’
When Harry was gone, Tim tried to speak. He wanted to tell Stephens, to make the old soldier promise to get the other three to the coast, and across to Ireland. But there was too much blood in his throat, and it merely gurgled up with a sound like a blocked plughole.
‘Save your strength lad,’ the Colonel whispered. He pushed something into Tim’s blood-slicked hand, something it took him a moment to identify as a pistol.
‘Set the dead man switch, and leave the party. You’re a brave man Tim, and you don’t deserve to go out like this. I’ll get them to safety, don’t you worry.’
Tim was almost loathe to break the tenderness of the moment and connection with a man he hadn’t thought capable of it.
Tim lapsed in and out of consciousness over period which could only have been minutes. Each time he awoke clutching the deadman switch with a trembling hand. He wasn’t sure if the smoke was in his fevered mind, or if more grenades had been set off.
The music still played in the background, some long-dead singer crooning about making the Yuletide gay. He chuckled, a spasmodic cascade of blood.
When the first of the savages walked into the church, he looked at Tim with an unmistakable expression of surprise; even through the tattoos and piercings on his face Tim could see it clearly. The dark shapes of the rest of the horde loomed behind the outrider.
The last of his strength ebbing out of him, Tim lifted the gun that the Colonel had given him.
‘Merry fucking Christmas!’
The shot blew clean through the young man’s forehead, and he fell to the ground with that look of surprise still on his face. The retribution was as swift as Tim had known it would be, but between the bullets tearing him apart and the song wishing him a very merry Christmastime he felt the deadman switch slip from his grasp.
I’m one of those weird people who strangely doesn’t rejoice in Christmas’ beginning around mid-October, and rising into a deafening crescendo by the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month. This shouldn’t be taken as my being against the celebration of Christmas (I am not), but rather as an adherence to all things in moderation.
In my family we have a tradition: the “Christmas period” (an odious phrase, if ever there was one) does not begin until after 11th December. This is my maternal grandmother’s birthday, and I suppose it originated out of a desire not to have her day overborne by giddyness at a day still two weeks off. Whatever its initial reasoning, it has become something of a “this far and no further” line in the sand.
This year, we violated this fundamental tenet of that principle by putting up the tree on 10th December. I personally blame this on the 11th selfishly falling on a Sunday, which would mean that the earliest post-11th opportunity to put it up wouldn’t be until the 17th.
But by and large, Christmas seems to have taken it easy this year. Yes, there have been the usual adverts for all things festive, but they haven’t had quite the shrill tone as some years. Perhaps its a general malaise at the dreadful economic climate, and a realisation on the part of retail that we don’t all have money to burn at Christmas. But for me it’s been a somewhat gentle descent.
Today I had my first carol service. I sang my first carols, ate my first warm mince pie, and drank my first cup of mulled wine. It’s a week until the big day, and do you know what? It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
Tonight was spent by myself at the traditional Twyford Christmas street fayre. This is the first year I have properly experienced the phenomenon, since last year myself and Ashleigh arrived from Brighton on the train as it was in full swing, and only passed through on the way to the car- picking up some food on the way.
This year I was in the thick of things. As the newest addition to 1st Twyford Scout Group’s ranks of leaders, I took my place at the barbecue, ready to get cooking! In actuality I didn’t do any cooking, instead taking partial command of the central station, taking cooked sausages and burgers from the grillers on each side, and passing them forward to the front-of-house people.
The end result was that I stink of smoke, and spent much of the evening shouting for either burgers or sausages (or, for one fraught stretch, onions). But we sold out at about ten to eight (the fayre ran 6 ’til 9). I’m not sure how much we made for the Scout Group, but we certainly fed a lot of Twyfordians.
The early finish gave me a chance to really have a peruse through the festive stalls. There were a lot of different things, and a lot of samples. The folks at the Bird in Hand pub do a particularly fine mulled cider. I was also able to wander up to St. Mary’s Church, to see the Christmas trees display.
The church had invited lots of local clubs, organisations and businesses to make their own Christmas trees for a display over the weekend. I must say, it makes for an oddly heartwarming visual representation of a community. The Scouts contributed our own; a pioneering-style contraption, suspended from a gallows-like arrangement. The decorations were put together by the Cubs, and the Beavers’ impressive effort from 1st Twyfords centenary last year was also on display.
If you’re at a loose end in Twyford this weekend, you could do worse than going and taking a look.
But of everything I saw, nothing can quite equal what I beheld at the local Lib Dems’ stall. I know times are hard for everyone, and we all must all seek whatever ways we can to make money- but whatever other problems we face, at least Twyford & District Labour Party can say we’ve never resorted to selling adult books!
*There was, of course, an identical sign at the other end of the stall, proclaiming “children’s books”, but sometimes a photo is just too funny not to take. I hope that my Liberal rivals will take this poke in the jocular fashion it was intended.
As Far as the Eye Could See
By Matthew S. Dent
Jimmy and Maria emerged from the warmth of the train carriage and were almost immediately subsumed in a flurry of ivory flakes.
‘Jesus!’ Maria exclaimed. She wrapped her coat tighter around her as a gust of icy wind hit her blowing her plume of brilliant red hair out behind her. She quickly tucked it away in her hood. ‘It’s really picked up.’
Jimmy only grunted. What had been a charming shower of snow when they’d gotten on the train was now a full blown snowstorm. And getting worse.
‘How far is it to your parents’ house?’ Maria asked.
‘Fifteen minutes walk,’ he answered, and buried his chin deeper into his coat. The cold wind bit into his exposed face.
‘Come on.’ He looped his arm through hers as the train pulled away behind them. Its lights were quickly lost in the maelstrom of swirling flakes. ‘The sooner we get out of this, the better.’
Maria pulled her ticket out, squinting to check it was the right one, but putting it away when she saw no barriers.
Leading her through the snow, Jimmy put his shoulder to the wind and pressed onwards. He wore a thick coat, over layers strategically arranged to keep out the cold. They didn’t seem at all effective. The wind found out every flaw in his thermal armour, and stopped it up with snow. He was shivering after only a few paces.
Maria fared no better. Her clothing was designed for aesthetics rather than winter comfort- no more than you could expect from a fashion and design student. Her coat was thin, her shoes unsuited to wading through snow, and her gloves were not waterproof. Only her hood was an advantage.
She hunched shivering in her boyfriend’s shadow as he pushed through the burgeoning blizzard.
‘The road’s too dangerous!’ Jimmy shouted, leading her from the barely visible road. ‘People take the road too fast anyway. In this visibility, we’ll get ourselves killed. It’s quicker to cut across the churchyard!’
The churchyard? Maria couldn’t see a church, but then she couldn’t see much of anything anymore. In the sea of white, Jimmy’s dark silhouette was her anchor and guide; she clung to him.
Jimmy was worrying about the rest of the journey. His family home was still a fair walk away, and he hadn’t told Maria that the walk was fifteen minutes in fair weather. God only knew how long it would take in this mess.
Movement to his left distracted him. Something had darted past him, something not white, not the snow, but dark and very much solid. Maria crashed into his back, and cried out.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked. The tremor had worked its way into her voice, and he took his soon-to-be-fiancé into his arms, planting a kiss on her forehead.
‘Nothing,’ he said, shaking off his unease. It was just the snow playing tricks on him. What else could it have been? ‘Come on. We need to get home, before you freeze.’
‘I’m going to look a state,’ Maria complained. She drew her white-gloved hand across her cheek, leaving a dirty stain of make-up on the finger. ‘What are your parents going to think of me.’
Despite himself, Jimmy laughed. ‘They’ll think you’re cold, wet and hungry. They’ll make you sit by the fire, give you a towel, and make you some supper. They’ll love you, hun.’
They pushed on, Jimmy leaning into the wind, and Maria clutching close to him. She thought of the promised fire, and of what supper she might be given. The seasonal flavours of mince pies and mulled wine crept into her mouth. She gripped Jimmy’s arm tightly.
Jimmy had lowered his head, and thought only of getting through the storm. His thoughts had turned towards the pub in the village, unsure any longer whether they could make it up the hill. He kept his eyes fixed dead ahead, searching for fences, gateposts, anything solid. He ignored phantom spectres darting at the corners of his vision.
‘Hey!’ Maria exclaimed, and Jimmy felt her pull on his arm as she stopped.
He had to squint through the storm to see her. She was only three feet from him at the most. The storm was getting worse.
‘Something pulled my hood back!’ He stepped closer, and saw that her hood, was indeed down.
‘No! Something pulled it down. I felt it.’
‘Maria, there’s nothing out here!’ Jimmy insisted. The cold was biting deep into him, sapping his strength.
‘How do you know? I can’t see shit in this snow. I’m not making this up! Look!’
She turned around, and presented her hood to him. He reached out and touched it, and noted that it seemed torn, almost shredded, before it was snatched out of his hand. And suddenly Maria wasn’t there anymore.
‘What the fuck? Maria?’ He lurched forward, searching for her. He kicked at the snow, thinking she might have tripped and fallen, but there was no one there. The cold bit ever deeper into him, and panic rose through his stomach.
‘Maria!’ he shouted. ‘Maria! Where are you?’ He staggered into the snow, too late realising that he had lost all sense of direction. He had no idea which way led back to the station, and which way on to the village. Everything was just more snow.
The storm rose around him. The merciless white maelstrom of nature brought to bear on him. The snow blinded and confused him, all the while assaulting him with wet, burning cold. And nowhere could he find Maria.
He staggered on, hands reaching, searching for the feel of Maria’s more-money-than-sense coat, for the relieved embrace of his lost lover. But the snow was up to his thighs now. His jeans were soaked- why the hell had he worn jeans, of all things?- and his legs cried out in protest and agony.
He saw the door only a step before he walked into it. A big, wooden thing, which he took a moment to identify as the church. He beat on it with gloved fists. Someone might be inside. Someone who could help him find Maria.
A gust of wind, and perhaps something more solid, hit his side, and knocked him from his feet. He landed in the snow, and gasped from sudden cold and pain of it. Snow flooded into his mouth. He thrashed around, trying to tell up from down, but there no longer seemed any distinction between him and the snow.
As the cold ate into the last warm molecules of him, and darkness closed in over him, his last thoughts were of the flame-haired beauty, lost in the snow.
‘Good morning, Mr Kilburn.’
Jimmy was warm. His eyes opened slowly, reluctantly. Had the painful, all-encompassing cold been nothing but a dream?and he wondered whether the lingering memories of painful cold had just been a dream.
When he saw the aged face in front of him, he knew it hadn’t been.
‘Where am I?’ He sat up with a groan.
The old man chuckled. Jimmy saw he was wearing a white dog collar and knew the answer before he said it. ‘St. Mary’s. I found you on the doorstep, freezing to death. You seem well enough for a good night’s sleep, though.’
‘Where’s Maria?’ Jimmy asked, suddenly remembering her disappearance.
The old vicar frowned. ‘There wasn’t anyone else with you.’
‘She’s still out there then!’ Jimmy’s leapt out of the makeshift bed he was lying in, flinching slightly as his bare feet hit the cold floor. There was still some residual dampness in his clothes, but he didn’t care. He dashed towards the door.
‘Wait!’ the vicar shouted after him. ‘You can’t go out there dressed like that!’
Jimmy ignored him. Forcing the door open he threw himself into the outside world. The storm had blown itself out overnight, and everything was bright and clear now- but viciously cold. And there was a blanket of snow covering everything, almost two feet deep.
The snow attacked Jimmy’s legs and bare feet, burning and freezing simultaneously, but he didn’t care. He had to find Maria. The vicar shouted at him from the doorway, but Jimmy could barely even hear him.
There was nothing. No footprints, no bulges, no sign of her. Tears flowed down his cheeks with growing desperation, and his shivering was uncontrollable. He waded like the snow, no longer able to feel his feet, until they gave way beneath him and sent him sprawling facedown.
He surfaced, churning up the fresh snow as he tried to find something with which to lever himself up. And then he stopped.
In the tilled snow before him, something had been unearthed. A lone, white glove, a black smudge sullying one flat finger. And next to it, a soggy rail ticket, its orange edges wilting, even as it declared itself an “OFF-PEAK SINGLE; LONDON TO WARGRAVE”. And one corner of it was coloured with a dark red residue, on perfect snow stretching as far as the eye could see.