A free short story – just for you.

Please be aware that, like many Christmas stories, this one is a little macabre.  I do hope you like it

***

Christmas Comes but Once a Year

“You’re so grumpy,” Helen said. “Cheer up. Christmas shopping is meant to be fun.”

Sean ground his teeth together and stared hard at the shelves of toiletries, the scuffed floor, anywhere but at Helen. “What a load of crap,” he muttered under his breath.

“That’s nice,” Helen said. “I’m trying to find the right present for your mother. And what thanks do I get? None.”

He turned and looked her in the eye. And when he spoke, his voice was low. “It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need anything, she doesn’t want anything. I’ll buy her hand cream. Same as last year.”

Helen rolled her eyes. “That sums you up,” she said. “Same as last year.”

Sean let out a humourless laugh. “No,” he said. “Everything is not the same.”

“Not this again. Listen, it was a crap job and you hated it.”

“Yeah, but without my crappy job, how are we going to pay for all this…this junk?”

Helen stepped closer, took his arm and looked up at him. “We’ll be alright,” she said. “We’ve still got my salary. You’ll find something soon.”

Sean looked into her eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s just…hard.”

“Yeah. Why don’t we take a break? We could grab a…a coffee.”

Sean managed a smile. “That’d be nice,” he said. “Let’s go.”

***

As they left the warmth and cheerful chatter of the cafe and stepped out into the bustling stream of shoppers, Sean took a deep breath of crisp Winter air. It was good. Helen kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s meet in half an hour,” she said. “I’ve got to get you something.”

“Don’t spend too much,” he said. He gave her a smile. “Unless you really want to.”

Helen laughed. “See you later,” she said, and turned away, striding purposefully down the road.

Sean watched her until she disappeared into the crowd.

“You’ve got a lovely wife there mate.”

Sean turned on his heel. What the hell? The old man sat on the ground, huddled under a moth-eaten blanket. His wrinkled face was unshaven and layered with grime.

“Are you talking to me?” Sean said.

The man smiled, and his eyes twinkled. He had an open, honest face. “Yes,” he said. “I was just saying, you’re a lucky man. Perhaps you’d help someone less fortunate?” He held up a paper cup.

Sean pulled a face. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Do they know you’re out here, pestering the customers?”

The man’s face fell. “Not exactly,” he said, “but they gave me a coffee. Very kind.”

Sean scowled. He’d just handed over his hard earned money for an overpriced coffee, yet they’d given one away to this vagrant. “You’re pathetic,” he snapped. He stepped forward.

The man cringed and held up his trembling hands to protect himself.

The blood drained from Sean’s face. “I wasn’t going to-” He couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. He turned and marched away, hardly seeing the people he passed or the brightly lit shop windows. He walked on, turning a corner and losing himself among the crowds, leaving the cafe and the vagrant far behind him.

Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks. Without meaning to, he’d ended up outside The Crossed Keys. It had been his favourite pub. But he didn’t go there now. Not for a long time. He swallowed. His throat was dry. He glanced up and down the street then checked his watch. He had at least twenty minutes before he had to meet Helen. Plenty of time. And he needed to steady his nerves. Just one drink, he thought. And opened the door.

Forty-five minutes later, Sean stepped out onto the pavement, feeling warm and relaxed. I needed that, he thought. I’ve been so tense lately, so short-tempered with Helen. He gasped. Helen. He checked his phone. Five missed calls and a text: Where are you? I’m going home in the car. You take the bus. There were no kisses, no smiling faces. I’m in trouble, he thought.

He tapped out a reply: Sorry, I got held up. Trying to find you something extra special. Love you, xxxxxx. That should do it. It might even make her feel guilty. He smiled and pocketed his phone. The only problem was that now, he’d have to actually do some shopping. He sighed and marched toward the nearest department store.

***

By the time he’d finished, it was getting dark and he was weighed down with carrier bags, their plastic handles digging into his fingers. Mission accomplished, he thought, and headed for the bus stop.

When he realised that he’d have to pass the cafe, he felt a twinge of guilt. He shouldn’t have been so hard on the old man. It would be a cold night. Too cold be on the streets. Perhaps, he should give him something, enough for a hot meal.

But the old man wasn’t there. Sean looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of him. He shrugged and walked away. I tried, he thought.

***

That night, Sean couldn’t get to sleep. Helen had her back to him, leaving a deliberate space between them. I’m still not forgiven, he thought. It was a shame. The night was bitterly cold and a cuddle would warm him up. At least I’m not on the streets, he thought. And lost himself in a muddle of memories from the long day. He dozed, and the memories melted into disjointed dreams. He saw himself, as a much older man, reading a letter. His eyes were clouded with confusion, his brow creased with worry. The credit cards had finally caught up with him. They were taking everything. In the dream, Helen was a faint memory: she stood in silence, holding out the bottles she’d found, her eyes full of hurt, disappointment, anger. And as the dream ran its course, his house turned into a hostel. When that vanished, he walked alone down crowded streets, where every back was turned. He called out, begging a stranger for help, but the stranger turned on him, cutting him down with his sneering anger, his brutal contempt. And Sean recognised the stranger’s face.

He woke in a cold sweat. “It was me,” he whispered. “Me.”

***

In the morning, Helen woke him with a kiss. “I’ve made you a cup of tea,” she said.

Sean sat up and rubbed a hand over his face. “Thanks,” he said. He took a sip of hot tea and sighed. He must be forgiven.

“I’m going back into town later,” she said. “Do you want to come? Or have you finished your shopping?”

“I’m not sure,” Sean said.

“See how you feel.” She paused at the door. “You know,” she said, “I’ve seen all those bags of shopping.”

“You didn’t peek did you?”

“Of course not.” She gave him a smile, warm and mischievous. “But I can see the brand names on the bags can’t I? You shouldn’t spoil me like that.”

Sean grinned. So that was why he’d had tea in bed. “Who says they’re for you?”

Helen laughed. “Well, unless your mother’s taken to wearing designer clothes and sexy lingerie, I’m in for a treat.”

“You never know your luck,” Sean said. “You’ll have to wait and see.”

***

Helen drove them into town, and she sang along to every corny Christmas song on the radio. Sean sat quietly. It was great to see her happy , but at what cost? The credit card bills would wipe out the last of their savings. And what then?

They walked along the main street, holding hands, weaving between the other shoppers.

“I have to do some shopping on my own,” Helen said.

Sean bit his bottom lip. “Listen,” he said, “don’t feel you’ve got to buy me loads of things.”

“You say that now,” Helen said. “But what about Christmas morning, when I’m opening all my lovely presents and all you’ve got is a pair of gloves.”

“Gloves are great,” he said. “I’d be happy with gloves.”

Helen laughed. “That was an example,” she said. “I haven’t really bought you gloves.” She squeezed his hand. “Anyway, you can’t stop me.”

“I give in,” Sean said. “But don’t hit the credit cards too hard – they might melt.” And he smiled to himself. He’d just had a great idea.

***

The shop assistant looked tired. “What are the gloves for? Skiing?”

“No,” Sean said. “I just want the warmest ones.”

The assistant picked out a pair of mittens. “These are good. Waterproof, breathable, insulated. What size?”

“Great. Large please.”

***

Sean stood outside the cafe and stared at the girl sitting on the pavement. Should he approach her? He took a step toward her and she looked up.

“What?” she said. “What do you want?”

“I…there was an old man here yesterday. You don’t know where he is do you?”

The girl rolled her eyes. “Yeah,” she said, “we’re all friends. It’s like one big happy family.”

Sean sighed. “That’s not…Never mind. I just wanted to give him something.”

The girl’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, I remember him now. Old guy, scruffy.” She held her hand out. “Give it to me and I’ll pass it on.”

Sean shook his head and turned away.

“Try Riverside Walk,” the girl said, “on the benches.”

Sean looked at her. She was maybe seventeen, but her cheeks were sunken and her eyes ringed with dark shadows. Somebody’s daughter, he thought. He dug into his pocket and found a few coins. “Get some food,” he said, and dropped the coins into her palm.

***

Riverside Walk was new, a country stroll in the heart of town. But already the fence was daubed with graffiti, the ground strewn with crushed cans and broken glass. Sean squared his shoulders and strode along the path, avoiding the worst of the litter. Ahead, a group of people were gathered around the benches. They turned to face him as he approached.

Five of them, Sean thought, and all too young. But he was here now, and he might as well ask. He stood as close to them as he dared. “Hi,” he said, “I was looking for an old…a man. He was by the cafe yesterday. The new one on Fore Street.”

The men stared at him, their expressions blank, but their eyes wary.

“I wanted to give him something.” He reached into his bag and held up the mittens. “To keep his hands warm.”

One of the men sniffed and looked Sean up and down. “For real?”

“Yes,” Sean said. “I thought-”

“You thought,” the man interrupted, “if he had money, he’d buy drink.”

Sean shifted his feet. “Look,” he said, “do you know where he is or not?”

“Sure,” the man said. “This guy was there yesterday. Until Lucy beat him up.” He kicked the bundle of rags that lay on the ground at his feet, and something writhed beneath it and moaned. Sean’s flesh crawled as the rags fell away, revealing the man beneath, curled into a foetal ball, his hands covering his face. I didn’t see him, Sean thought. He’s almost invisible.

The youth kicked out again. “Wake up grandad,” he sneered. “You’ve got a visitor.”

The sleeping man coughed, the phlegm rattling in his throat. He spat on the ground, and slowly pushed himself up to his feet.

Sean stared, wide-eyed. The old man was in an even worse state than before, a fresh bruise surrounded his right eye and his face was pinched in pain. The ground seemed to sway beneath Sean’s feet. What the hell was he doing here?

The old man offered his hand, and Sean shook it as briefly as possible, grimacing at the state of the old man’s filthy fingernails; they protruded from the ends of a cut down mitten, the material frayed and threadbare.

“Hello,” the old man said, “my name’s Sean.” He held up a half-empty bottle. “Care to join me?”

Sean looked at the bottle and slowly, he nodded.

* The End *

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Thank you for taking the time to read this.  I really hope you enjoyed it and it didn't bring down your Christmas cheer too much.  I welcome all commenters, and I always try to respond.

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Notes

Homelessness is always hard, and I guess it was in the back of my mind when writing, that it can happen to anyone.  But it's especially hard to be on the streets at Christmas, so if you can support a homeless charity please do.  Here's a link to Shelter for England and Scotland: http://www.shelter.org.uk/

Thank you.

Picture credit: http://visionsofjohanna.org/2011/10/12/homeless-charities-at-christmas/

This story was inspired by a flash fiction challenge from that Chuck Wendig Fella.

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