Let’s say it once, and mean it – Merry Christmas. Really.
I’m celebrating Christmas by enjoying the thought of Fox Spirit’s Book of European Monsters being out there. It’s shiny and new and coffee-tableish, and my story of the Exmoor Beast should give you a seasonal shiver.
I’m also really pleased that my short story ‘From the Neck up’ made an appearance on the Unsung Stories website. It’s a tale of joblessness and beheading, but it does have growing things in it. I’m always writing about the things that grow.
Speaking of which, there are more reviews for my mushroom saga, The Beauty. We Love This Book said particularly good things about it, as did Plastic Rosaries. A big thank you to them for reading and enjoying it.
And finally, here’s one of my old Christmas stories. It’s been published in a couple of places but seems to have fallen off the internet so I thought I’d resurrect it here.
The Red Man
Let me tell you a secret.
For every good thing in the world there is a bad one. For every delicious sweet there is a toothache, and for every Christmas Carol sung in joy there is the sound of tears falling from an unloved face. And although Santa Claus does exist – yes, he does – so, too, does the Red Man.
The Red Man looks a lot like Santa Claus at first glance. You’ve probably seen him in a shop somewhere, and dismissed him as a poor copy of the real thing, hired by the manager to impress children who are not as clever as you. But his beard is grey and grizzled, and his coat is stained with dark spots and strange creases. He hides in the open, in the malls and on the street corners, for they are the best hiding places of all.
The night of Christmas Eve belongs to Santa Claus, and it is, for many children, the happiest night of the year. But the night of Christmas Day, after all the presents have been opened, all the games played, all the crackers pulled: that night belongs to the Red Man.
He does not give out new toys to be loved. He comes into your house, creeping in the dark, and finds old toys, favourite toys, toys that lie forgotten under the sofa cushions or behind the bookcase for the first time because they have been replaced with shinier or fluffier toys, toys with brighter buttons or bigger smiles.
The Red Man comes for those toys. He picks them apart, a little at a time, and he listens to their cries. And then he eats them. His fat belly is not padded. He grows bigger every year on the misery of the abandoned toys, and on the sorrow of the children who, upon waking on Boxing Day, remember their favourite toy and search for it, only to find that it’s not where they dropped it. It’s not anywhere to be found, ever again, and that new, shiny toy with the cold, twinkling eyes will never quite take its place.
Tommy Flynn was a normal boy. He was not always good. He was not always bad. On his good days he hugged his mother in the morning and put on his shoes without having to be asked five times. On the bad days he banged his toy hammer on the dining room table and drew on the fireplace in crayon.
Christmas Day was always a bad day.
Perhaps it was too much to ask a small and excitable sandy-haired boy like Tommy to be well-behaved in the face of quite so many temptations. He would unwrap his mountain of presents, tearing the paper to shreds, and then eat all of his chocolate selection box so that he found it impossible to sit still during his turkey dinner.
‘Children aren’t saints,’ said his mother down the telephone to Tommy’s grandmother, and Tommy’s grandmother agreed, having her own memories of a small sandy-haired girl who used to eat all her chocolate coins from her stocking in seconds flat and then smear her dirty hands on the window panes. ‘Besides,’ said his mother, ‘we all know that the real culprit is Parkin.’
Parkin always got the blame. When Tommy was naughty, he informed his mother that Parkin was the one who made him do it. This was quite an achievement for a small stuffed shark with black button eyes and white felt teeth. In fact, Parkin had never told Tommy to do anything, but Tommy felt that Parkin could take the blame occasionally, considering he was good enough to take the little shark everywhere with him.
That is, until the Christmas Day when Mechatron came along.
Mechatron had ears that turned into cannons. He had a head that turned right round in a circle. He had eight legs and black plastic buttons, but he was not very comfortable to sleep next to, and that was why Tommy awoke in the middle of the night and lay there, wondering where Parkin was and whether he was brave enough to go and fetch the shark, even though it was very dark and he was sure he could hear shuffling and muttering coming from downstairs.
He got out of bed and crept down the stairs. Pausing at the living room door, he was surprised to see a faint light creeping under the gap. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
‘Santa!’ he said to the figure standing by the Christmas tree with Parkin in his hands. But even as Tommy said the word, he knew it wasn’t right. The beard was too thin and grey, patchy in places, and the lips were too severe in their scowl. The red coat was threadbare in places and it had strange spots upon it. The eyes that looked into his were bright red, and they were as hard as rubies, and just as cold.
The light Tommy had seen came from the man. All around him was a pulsing red light to match his eyes – not a bright light, and not pleasant to look on. In fact, Tommy’s eyes began to hurt, but he couldn’t look away. Not while the man had Parkin.
‘You want him back?’ said the Red Man, in a growly voice that gave Tommy shivers.
The Red Man lifted Parkin up to his face. He opened his mouth, a black gash of a mouth with a pink worm of a tongue protruding from it, and slipped Parkin’s tail inside. Tommy heard the man bite down, heard the cotton seam of Parkin’s tail separate from his body, and saw the stuffing bulge out from his plump body. He thought he heard a noise, a high thin sound, like a faraway scream.
Tommy thought fast. He was clever, like you. He could see that the Red Man was enjoying hurting Parkin and wanted to see the little shark suffer. Begging and pleading and saying please nicely would not keep Parkin safe from that chomping black mouth.
‘Oh no,’ Tommy heard himself say. ‘Not that old stuffed shark. You can have that.’
The Red Man paused. He looked at Parkin.
‘No, I was after this, thanks,’ said Tommy. And he pointed to the fairy on top of the Christmas tree.
‘That?’ said the Red Man.
‘It’s my favourite toy in the whole world. Mum must have put it up there for safe keeping. Please don’t hurt it or anything.’
The Red Man dropped Parkin on to the floor. ‘You’re sure that’s your favourite toy?’ he said, pointing to the fairy.
‘Oh yes. No doubt about it. You’re not going to eat it, are you?’
A moment later, the fairy was in the Red Man’s mouth. It wasn’t the largest fairy, so he didn’t chew. He swallowed it up in one gulp.
A trail of wire poked out from the corner of his mouth. The wire was dotted with small bulbs, and the rest of the wire was wrapped around the branches of the Christmas tree. This was an electric fairy, made to glow on top of the tree with a beautiful white light. And the wire that came from under its skirt led to a plug that lay on the floor next to the tree.
The Red Man coughed and chewed at the wire. He tugged at it, but it wouldn’t come free.
‘Is it stuck in your throat?’ asked Tommy. ‘Do you need a glass of water?’
The Red Man nodded. Tommy dashed to the kitchen, filled a glass with water from the tap, and brought it back to the living room. He stood next to the Red Man, between the Christmas tree and the wall. ‘Here you are,’ he said. He watched the man swallow it down in big, thirsty gulps.
‘Did that help?’ said Tommy.
‘No,’ said the Red Man. He tugged at the fairy lights again, a little miserably, Tommy thought. But when his eyes fell back to Parkin, lying on the floor with no tail and sad felt eyes, he knew he had to go through with his plan.
Quick as a wink, he reached down to the ground and found the plug on the end of the wire. He slid it into the electric socket at the base of wall and flicked the switch.
A sizzling came from inside the Red Man, and after that Tommy smelled something hot and meaty, like sausages in a frying pan. The man dropped the empty glass and the red light went out from his eyes. He started to tremble, and the trembling became a shaking, and the shaking became a vibration as strong as a digger on a pavement. Tommy could feel it through his toes.
And then the Red Man gave out one long, low moan that was like an angry wind on a winter’s night, and started to pulse with the brightest white light Tommy had ever seen. He clapped his hands over his eyes, and when he dared to look up again, the Red Man had gone.
Parkin was on the carpet in front of him, looking very lonely and fearful. Tommy picked him up and gave him a cuddle. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and he took him back to bed.
In the morning, Tommy’s mother phoned his grandmother to complain.
‘I can’t make the fairy lights work,’ she said, ‘and the fairy is mangled, all chewed up and black and horrible. I asked Tommy, and he says he doesn’t know anything about it.’
Tommy’s grandmother smiled a smile that luckily her daughter couldn’t see. She remembered one Christmas when a small sandy-haired girl had pulled so hard at the tinsel that the entire tree had fallen over on top of her and covered her in a shower of needles. She suggested that maybe Parkin was to blame.
Tommy’s mother cupped her hand over the receiver. ‘Granny says, was it Parkin?’
‘No,’ said Tommy. ‘It wasn’t. Parkin’s a good shark. The best shark in the world.’ Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the Red Man biting down on his tail, and he felt a pain inside. He knew in his heart that the Red Man was not gone forever, and he was determined to keep Parkin close to him from now on. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt the little shark again.
‘Well, if Parkin wasn’t misbehaving, how did he lose his tail?’
Tommy shrugged. His mother went back to her conversation with his grandmother, talking about how she’d have to sew up the hole and maybe cover the stitches with a bow.
Tommy learned two lessons that Christmas. The first one was that it was better to say nothing than to lie. And the second one was that friends, good friends, were not to be forgotten or treated badly.
For if you don’t treat those you love with kindness, who will?