I’m feeling festive. Term ended in a rush of noisy classroom games, chocolate prizes and hyper children. My modest little tree is outside the back door in its little red pot waiting to come in and be decorated with a string of lights and bits and bobs collected over the years. Many of the houses locally are bedecked with lights, competing with each other as to who can be first to shut down the national grid.
This apparent competitiveness was the inspiration for a piece of creative writing I did while at my writing group. We were given a one word title and allowed up to 2000 words instead of the 300 flash we were usually tasked with.
So to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and at the suggestion of one of my lovely critical readers, here’s a little fiction for you. See you on the other side …
“Look at this, Mo!” Len exclaimed. He was surfing the internet for new additions to his Christmas lights display. Len’s lights had become something of a talking point in The Close over the years.
“Looks like you’ve got a bit of competition,” said Maureen, watching from the front room window as their new neighbour opposite strung fairy lights across two conifers.
“Over my dead body,” said Len, as he clicked two angels and a Star of Bethlehem into his basket.
Maureen was exhausted. She had spent the day taking her mother Christmas shopping, helping her buy presents for everybody and buying something for herself for her mother to wrap up. She was looking forward to putting her feet up with a cup of tea. The house was in darkness as she parked the car.
“Silly sod,” she thought, “He’s fused the lights again.”
Letting herself in, she automatically tried the light switch. It worked. Where the hell was Len, she wondered, annoyed now. Her hallway was strewn with Star of Bethlehem packaging, Len’s toolbox on the bottom stair.
As she began to feel alarmed, the doorbell rang.
“Oh, hi-ya,” said the woman, standing there “I’m Cheryl Parks – just moved in over the road. My Steve has taken your hubby to A and E – he fell off his ladder.”
Maureen looked at Cheryl, slowly taking in the information. She peered past her in the gloom and saw Len’s ladder leaning against the side of the house.
“Oh God,” she said, “What’s he done?”
“Think he’s broken his leg,” said Cheryl, “Steve offered to help – he’s an electrician, see. Steve Parks -S Parks – SPARKS – couldn’t be anything else, could he?” and she laughed raucously, as if she’d just thought of the joke, which of course she hadn’t. Maureen had seen the name on the side of his van.
“I’ll take you to the hospital,” said Cheryl, stepping inside Maureen’s hallway, pushing the door to and making a performance of wiping her open-toed sandals on the mat, revealing bright red nails and an ankle bracelet. Maureen began feeling shaky, whether from shock or tiredness she wasn’t sure, but she was grateful to her new neighbour for assuming control.
“What about your children?” she said, aware there were several smaller versions of Steve and Cheryl across the road.
“Oh don’t you worry about them,” grinned Cheryl, “our Stacey’ll get their tea on; she’s very capable.”
Maureen had witnessed Stacey being very capable with a young man in a Ford Escort outside the house a few evenings back but she didn’t say anything. Instead she gathered together a few things Len might need and followed Cheryl to her car.
They found Len sitting on a trolley having had an x ray and waiting for a bed. He looked dishevelled, his hair awry, trouser leg cut up to the knee, a temporary bandage covering up his swollen ankle. He and Steve were in deep discussion.
“Hey Shezz,” Steve looked up briefly at them as Maureen dumped the bag containing Len’s things on to the trolley.
“Thank you so much,” Maureen said to Steve, while looking at Len, who winced and smiled at her sheepishly.
“No worries, love,” replied Steve with a wink. “Good job I was there!” He stood up and shook her hand.
“Looks like I’ll be out of action over Christmas,” said Len, “it’s broken in two places.” He pointed unnecessarily to his lower leg.
Cheryl suggested that she and Steve go and find cups of tea for them all. Maureen sat up on the trolley next to Len and patted his good leg. He looked as if he’d been through it a bit. Maureen hoped that Cheryl wouldn’t be long with the tea, she was gasping.
“Does it hurt much?” she asked, suddenly feeling sorry for him.
Len turned to Maureen, his face happier than it should have been for someone who had recently double fractured a major bone.
“A bit,” he said, “but don’t worry, love, Steve’s going to do our lights for us. We’re getting a banner to string across the road between our houses, Mo, just like up the high street!”
Len’s wretched lights were the least of Maureen’s priorities right now but she could see that talking about them would distract him from the pain. She wondered doubtfully what the rest of The Close would think. She knew that some of them felt Len was already going a bit far with his luminous flashing nativity scene on the front lawn.
“Where will you get a banner from, then?” She said, suspicious that Len had been doing some clandestine on-line purchasing.
“Had one left over,” Steve arrived back, making Maureen jump. He handed her tea in a cardboard cup. “Did a job down in Kent. Small village. Ran out of fixing spots.” He winked again. Steve did a lot of winking, Maureen thought. That, and talking in abbreviated sentences.
They all stayed with Len until a bed was found and he was settled. He’d be plastered tomorrow, when the swelling went down. Cheryl made the observation that she usually swelled up after she’d been plastered which made Steve laugh uproariously and call her a daft cow.
They laughed a lot, Steve and Cheryl.
“I love Christmas,” sighed Len, contentedly, from the back seat as Maureen drove him home from hospital two days later, via the town centre so he could see the decorations and the town tree festooned with fairy lights. Steve had been busy while Len had been laid up with his swollen leg. As Maureen swung the car into The Close, Len saw the banner, strung professionally across the road, uniting them with their new neighbours.
“Looks like a decent job,” he said, generously, craning his neck to see his angels and Bethlehem star adorning their roof. “Good bloke, that Steve,” he added, struggling with his seat belt in his haste to get out and have a better look.
Maureen held the door open for him thinking that her husband was beginning to sound like Steve and half expected him to wink at her, but he didn’t.
“Steve’s waiting till tonight to switch on,” she said, “he thought you’d like that.”
“Great stuff,” replied Len, hobbling to the front door on his crutches. Maureen followed him in and went to finish off her mince pies for the festive gathering later that evening.
Maureen’s mince pies were as much a tradition in The Close as Len’s lights, so she felt a little disgruntled as she and Len joined the gathering crowd to see Cheryl with a crate of Cava, dispensing to all and sundry in plastic cups. Cheryl, wearing flashing antlers on a plastic hair band, greeted them expansively, plonking red lips onto Len’s cheek and handing them both some bubbly.
“There you go, Lennie!” she said, adding, “Look, the boys have found you a deck chair!”
“Lennie?” thought Maureen, aghast, at the same time feeling grateful for Cheryl’s kindness. While Len lowered himself into the chair, she offered Jack and Darren, Cheryl’s twins, one of her pies. They turned their noses up, shook their heads in unison and ran off, grinning.
“We ready, then?” Steve arrived on the scene in a Santa hat. “Shall I nip in to yours and switch on, Mo?”
Without waiting for an answer, he jumped over their low wall and let himself in to their house as Paige, Cheryl’s youngest, sat herself on Len’s lap and handed him a remote control. Maureen could see that Len was loving this so she tried to muster up some Christmas spirit by handing round her pies. Just then a cheer went up: Len’s nativity scene was ablaze, the new star of Bethlehem twinkling against the night sky. It did look lovely, everyone agreed.
“Now for ours,” Steve was back, winking again, “go on Len, press the remote!”
With Paige clapping, Jack and Darren counting down excitedly, Len pressed and Steve’s side of The Close lit up, the Merry Christmas banner sparkling above them. As the crowd watched, an enormous white inflatable took shape on Steve and Cheryl’s front lawn accompanied by an ear shattering version of ‘Frosty the Snowman.’
“I can turn the music off it if gets too annoying,” Steve said, anxious for a moment, seeing Maureen’s face, but everyone clapped and cheered, filled with seasonal bonhomie and a second cup of Cava. Cheryl encouraged everyone to conga back to her conservatory for more alcohol and sausage rolls. Maureen pulled urgently on Len’s sleeve, thinking he’d had enough excitement for one night but he was having a wonderful time and despite not being able to dance with the others, hobbled behind Mrs Norris from number fifteen towards Steve’s back garden. With a sigh, Maureen picked up the deckchair and followed.
Christmas passed by in a flurry of neighbourly exchange, culminating on New Year’s Day in a ten pin bowling challenge on the Parks’ family Wii and their new forty-two inch plasma screen which Len accessed from the comfort of Steve’s multi positional armchair. Even Maureen’s mother had been invited and she sat happily chatting to Mrs Norris while Cheryl provided more party food from a never ending supply.
“Such a shame Christmas is nearly all over,” Len said, taking a vol au vent from the plate Cheryl offered him.
“We’re off to the in-law’s villa in Spain next week,” grinned Cheryl, “to do it all over again!”
“Lucky you,” Len replied, dropping mayonnaise down the jumper Maureen’s mother had given him.
“We’ll need to get the decorations down before twelfth night,” Maureen said, aware that with Len incapacitated, she was in danger of having an unseasonal nativity scene in her garden and bad luck for the coming year.
“We’re back mid Jan,” said Steve, shovelling a handful of peanuts into his mouth, “No rush, is there?”
“Here you go, Mo,” Darren said, handing her the Wii controller before Maureen had a chance to protest, “Your turn!”
Maureen was surprised to find computerised bowling quite easy and felt strangely satisfied that her name appeared on top of the leader board when Len finally called it a day and decided they should head for home.
The electricity bill arrived a week later. Maureen picked it off the mat with the junk mail and went to have her breakfast. Len was still upstairs, awkwardly showering, his plaster cast encased in a plastic sleeve. Maureen flicked through the sale catalogues that had just arrived and then opened the bill. She couldn’t believe her eyes; there must be a mistake. She went to her home file and pulled out the last few bills. She was right; this one was more than double any of the others. At that moment, Len limped in to the kitchen.
“Look at this!” Maureen greeted him, “your blooming lights are going to have to go!”
Len looked at the bill, a puzzled look on his face. He shook his head.
“This can’t be right,” he said, “all my bulbs are low energy.”
Nevertheless, he rummaged in the drawer for the torch and hobbled out to the garage.
“I’ll just check the meter, Mo.”
Maureen followed him, feeling angry. Len opened the meter cupboard and continued to look puzzled.
“I’ll just try something,” he said, and went to the master fuse box. He turned all its switches off, cutting all power to their house. Returning to the meter, Maureen could see in the torch light the dials still whirring merrily around at a speed much faster than any of the cogs cranking around in her husband’s brain.
“Well?” she said, arms folded, waiting for Len’s appraisal of the situation.
Slowly, he turned to her, his lights now well and truly on and with a look of complete disbelief, hissed uncharacteristically between clenched teeth: “The thieving bastard!”
LOOKING FORWARD TO A NEW BLOGGING YEAR!