The Last Christmas (Part One of Two)
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The Last Christmas (Part One of Two)
Ali sat stoically in his Toyota Prius, the engine ticking over as he waited. He would take a cigarette break at the next stop. It had been a busy day but then Christmas was always full on. Patrons were either going to shops, seeing relatives or travelling to parties. Later on in the evening he would be ferrying about pissed up people going home from pubs and bars having celebrated Christmas Eve. He didn’t mind so much; the more folks drank the more generous they were with tips which made the occasional verbal abuse worth taking. Just. He pressed a button to wind the window down and peered at the house he was parked outside. He could see the silhouette of a Christmas tree behind curtains. His fare should have been notified by now that he was there. On cue, the front door opened and a woman bundled her way out clutching a small boy in one hand and a suitcase in the other. He got out and flipped the boot open. Ushering the passengers into the back seat, he took the luggage and stored it safely. He already knew that the destination was Northampton train station but he checked again anyway.
Diane sat clutching her son’s hand, looking out of the car window as it pulled out of the close. Semi-detached houses merged together in suburban, shapeless darkness; some had outside fairy lights adorning trees in gardens and private hedges. It was a freezing cold night. With the moon hidden behind clouds, the sky was as black as coal, white pin-pricks of stars visible through the light pollution. Messages bound in static fought for airtime with tunes coming from the cab’s radio. Michael Buble was singing a plea for someone to come home for Christmas. Diane always argued with Mick about which was the best version. She always stood her ground that it was the one by Darleen Love.
“Going someone nice?” the taxi driver looked at the woman and boy in his rear view mirror. He could see she was reluctant to catch his eye directly. He guessed it was something to do with her black eye.
“Oh, just going to see my brother in Watford.” the reply was hesitant and downbeat considering the text. Diane’s voice was quietly spoken with that slight farmer-ish twang that people had in Northants. Ali stared at her, noting her features. He guessed that she was a twenty-something and thought that she was a looker, what with her short, blonde hair, beautiful blue eyes and alluring face. She reminded him of Hilary Duff. Maybe he had been watching too much Disney+. The boy was wearing a duffle coat and looked like a human version of Paddington Bear.
“Santa, mummy. You said we could see Santa tonight.” Tim was five years old and believed completely in the notion of Father Christmas. He had his mother’s looks with fair hair and a sweet face; his eyes twinkled when he wanted something. His mother had sweetened the prospect of a journey on the night before the big day by promising him that they would go and visit the man himself.
“Yes, Tim. We will. Soon.” She looked at him from the corner of her eye, the boy squirming on the seat and looking full of life.
The journey was a short one taking them through the town centre and into the station passing the landmark lift tower on the horizon; on it was a message in laser that read “let’s talk about it” with a heart symbol above and “NHS” lit up below. For anyone who didn’t know any different, it just looked like a large chimney. The cab pulled up at the taxi rank that was in front of a large, glass-fronted building with the red, national rail logo adorned near the top. Ali shuffled around the car to the boot and pulled out the suitcase. Handing it to the pretty mum, he again found himself looking at her face. A blueish-purple patch of skin sat underneath her left eye, her top lip puffed. She had been in an altercation of some kind. He shrugged it off as none of his business and nodded thanks as she handed him fifteen pounds in cash and told him to keep the change. He wished them a merry Christmas, watching them disappear into the station. A homeless man sat by the station entrance, hunched over wearing a scruffy coat pulled over his head. A makeshift cardboard box requesting donations was next to him along with a bull terrier that was panting. Ali continued watching as the woman ghosted past the down-and-out ignoring his hand held out and his meek plea for spare change. She was a lady that needed to be somewhere else. Clearly.
The opening strains of “Merry Xmas Everybody” belted out at The Pickering Phipps. The place was heaving tonight. Untidy queues of people stood three deep waiting to be served as over-worked staff behind the bar scurried from pump to pump pouring beer. The electronic sound effects and images of the quiz machine beeped and blinked as another punter tried his luck. The volume of combined chatter sounded like the drone of bees with the excitement of the holiday upon most following a final day of work.
Mick, John and Kevin stood at a stone pillar, empty glasses perched on the waist-high wooden shelf. All three were clutching partially drunk pints of lager, surveying the jungle of limbs that formed the clientele.
“Don’t fancy yours.” John was a tall man, tinsel wrapped around his black hair like a bandana. He had turned to grin at the other two men as they had tried to follow his eyes to see who it was that he was demeaning.
“Those two girls over at the table. The fat one with glasses is just right for Kev.” The other men found their bearing and glared at the woman in question.
“You could be right, Johners. You could be right.” Mick lost interest quickly and resumed chugging his beer.
“What’s up with you, misery guts?” John grimaced as he cajoled.
“Nothing wrong with me, my son.” Both John and Kev watched as Mick threw his head back to drink. Red marks on the back of his hands, in particular, his knuckles were conspicuous. They had known each other a long time so the reason for the markings was easy enough to work out.
“Anyway, enough of all this waffle. I’m going in. I trust you muppets will back me up?” Mick was also tall at six foot. His short-sleeved shirt revealed a dragon tattoo imprinted along his forearm. He had a rugged face with a square jaw. The kind of man who could look after himself in a dust up. He meandered over to another pillar a few feet away and started talking to three women who looked like they had come straight from the office and were out for a good time. John and Kevin glanced at each other, shaking their heads with wry smiles.
“You wouldn’t think the bloke was married would you?” Kevin spoke in a tone just loud enough for his friend to hear and no one else, not wanting to broadcast Mick’s marital status.
“Yep. They usually work him out. Especially as he there’s a white mark on his finger where the wedding ring goes. He’ll lose it one day.”
They ambled over to the women and joined the conversation.
The 19.22 train rumbled its way closer to Watford. The countryside was a pitch-black blur with little to see from windows in between towns and cities. Tim sat next to his mum waiting for the next set of street lights and conurbation to interrupt the humdrum view.
“Do you think daddy will be sad at missing Santa?” Tim sounded like the little boy that he was, his falsetto only just audible above a group of teens drinking cans of lager and talking loudly on the seats in front.
Diane considered a response. It was a delicate affair when it came to talking about Father Christmas. She didn’t want to say the wrong thing. After all, she had managed to persuade her son that a trip on Christmas Eve was worth it to see the Big Man but hadn’t told him that it would be without his father until it was time to leave.
“I am sure that your dad will be catered for by Santa. He may need to check if he’s on the naughty or nice list. Which one do you think he’s on?”
One of the rowdy teens turned and leered at Diane through the gap in the seat headrests. He had his head skinned and was wearing a Harrington jacket. Holding a can of San Miguel in his hand, he wafted it in the air theatrically as he tried to stay upright having turned around.
“Us lot are on the naughty list love.” He slurred. One of the others turned to see who he was talking to.
“Leave her alone. Stan. She’s not causing you any trouble.” The other lad had a thin moustache and a white shirt on that had escaped having beer spilled on it so far. Diane gave a faint smile as they both resumed laughing and joking with the rest of their crew.
The train was slowing as the next stop approached. An announcement came over the tannoy to confirm Watford was the latest destination to be reached. Diane tapped a message out on Whatsapp to let her brother know they would be arriving shortly. She peered at her mobile phone as her update received a reply. She had a rough itinerary for the evening ahead, one that she hoped would be memorable for her son. He had dealt with a lot over the few years and deserved something nice. Diane thought about how things had turned out having married at a relatively young age and started a family. Tim was definitely the highlight of an otherwise problematic existence. That will all change from now on.
The train was stopping, passengers standing to retrieve their things from overhead lockers and queue at the doors. Diane decided to wait until everyone else had gone. Reaching for her suitcase, she followed the crowd as they disembarked and headed for the exits. Tim held her hand once again, both for reassurance and because he didn’t know where to go. Having slipped her ticket in the machine reader, she wandered through the turnstile. Her brother Tom was waiting for her.
“Good journey? The siblings embraced, Tom in his full-length, beige mac and Diane wearing her dark-blue coat with fur-liked collar she bought for dog-walking. He pushed her back, holding her arms and stared at her face. She looked away in embarrassment. Tom scowled and was about to say something when he realised his nephew was there as well.
“Hi Timmy. Ready for Christmas?” He picked the little boy up and held him aloft in the air. Tim giggled as he came back down to earth. They formed an impromptu island with a river of people flowing around them.
“Let’s go. My car’s not far.”
It was a short walk to Tom’s Audi waiting in the train station car park. For the second time that night, Diane’s luggage was stashed away in a car boot and the car pulled out, making its way into the suburbs of Watford.
Part two at: https://www.abctales.com/story/marandina/last-christmas-part-two-two
Image free to use at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northampton_railway_station#/media/File:Northampton_station_entrance,_geograph_5211160_by_Robert_Eva.jpg
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I'm enjoying this story while
I'm enjoying this story while I have my lunch. Some of it sounds so familiar. You created the atmosphere of the pubs on Christmas Eve really well too, felt like I was back in the early 90s at the pubs I used to go to after work on Christmas Eve.
Looking forward to next part.
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Good so far! An alternative
Good so far! An alternative Christmas tale, infused with reality!
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the rigth mix of santa and
the rigth mix of santa and shit behaviour. We really are rooting for Diane and her son.
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