The smell of fireworks was still hanging in the air when they started to arrive.
Their faces were shrouded in balaclavas and they lurked malevolently in the shadows waiting for the right moment to strike. Tightly knit and well disciplined they leaped over walls and hedges with military precision to bombard the neighbourhood with song.
When the carol singers descended on us their primary aim was not to spread Joy to the World or Peace on Earth or Goodwill to All Men. No – their primary aim was to make money.
They did, however, possess one serious, fundamental flaw in their nocturnal, mercenary activity.
They didn’t know any carols.
Those that did only seemed to know one – Silent Night – and most of them only knew the first four lines of it. The less experienced groups simply repeated the first four lines of the carol over and over again until they got bored and wandered off into the night muttering obscenities to each other. The more experienced ones were more determined and, upon reaching that unremembered fifth line, moved effortlessly into an excruciating medley of songs from the back catalogue of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III. The residents of the street cowered fearfully in the dark corners of their houses whenever they heard their doorbells ring but the carol singers just kept at it, night after night, endlessly singing until the owners of the besieged houses eventually cracked and coughed up some money.
My stepfather was dozing on the couch, half-watching the flickering images that danced out of the black-and-white tube driven monster in the corner of the room. The television was always turned down low at this time of the year so the approaching footsteps of marauding carol singers could be heard more clearly.
Mum was sat beside him reading the Christmas issue of People's Friend while she fed one chocolate after another into her mouth. She was eating chocolates because she wasn’t knitting. When she wasn’t eating chocolates she would knit clothes that always ended up being stuffed away in cupboards or at the bottom of wardrobes, out of sight and out of mind. Her ugly, misshapen jumpers were the talk of the street, always in hushed tones and never within her earshot.
Granddad was over in the corner leafing through Selected Essays and Journalism by George Orwell. He didn’t share Orwell’s belief in socialism and he wasn’t really reading the book – he was just filling his head full of information before Sylvia arrived.
Grandma was sat next to the electric fire, chain-smoking No 10 cigarettes, or Coffin Nails as Granddad called them. She had a glass of sherry in her free hand and her corned-beefed legs were swaying to the rhythmic sound of her mutterings as she stared blankly at the coloured lights attached to the sparse wire branches of the imitation Christmas tree.
"For God's sake, stop muttering, will you!" growled my stepfather.
"I wasn’t muttering," snapped Grandma.
She had secretly made it her vocation in life to be utterly unpleasant to him at every possible opportunity and whenever he asked her what she was muttering about she just shrugged her shoulders and treated him to one of her enigmatic smiles which convinced him that she was muttering things about him. When she saw that her muttering was irritating him she muttered all the more, only louder.
Once, he caught her muttering behind the daily newspaper, which she held fully open and upside down in front of her. When he commented on the fact that the paper was the wrong way up she just smiled sweetly and said, "I know, Captain Thin Lips, and you’ve just walked into my clever trap."
My stepfather knew there was no point in pursuing the subject of whether Grandma was or wasn't muttering, so he left it there and went back to watching the television.
"And a Merry Christmas to you, you miserable bugger," said Grandma, raising her glass to her lips.
My stepfather held a special place in his heart for Christmas because he hated every minute of it. He hated the expense and the false good cheer and the cold and especially the carol singers.
The sound of rapping knuckles on the front door broke the uncomfortable silence that followed Grandma’s less than festive toast. There were two short raps followed by three longer ones. This was the secret code given only to family and friends so my stepfather could distinguish them from the carol singers who he knew were preying on the street.
"Who’s that?" Grandma asked.
"How the bloody hell should I know," said my stepfather. "I haven’t got x-ray eyes, have I?"
"It’s probably Sylvia," said Mum.
Over in the corner Granddad smiled.
"You see," said Grandma. "It’s probably Sylvia."
My stepfather heaved himself off the settee and went grumbling into the hallway.
Sylvia was my mother’s friend and she was tarted up as usual. She was single and was forever in search of the elusive Mr Perfect with whom she could spend the rest of her life with. Unfortunately she was too stupid to realise that the perfect man didn’t exist and she usually ended up dating men who would inevitably disappoint her.
Her hair was made up in a beehive and she had doused it with so much hairspray it caused everyone in the room to choke as she walked past them. She was dressed in a tight pencil skirt and an angora sweater that clung to her body like a second skin and made her abnormally large breasts stand out like torpedoes. Granddad told me once (out of my mother’s earshot) that he could always tell when Sylvia was coming into a room because her tits came in ten seconds before she did.
She beamed happily as she entered the room. “Merry Christmas everyone!”
"Nah then, Sylv,” said Grandma, looking Sylvia up and down with her usual disapproval. “Been out looking for Mr Wrong again, have you?"
"Eeh, there were no need for that, Edith," Granddad said. "Come and sit over here, Sylvia. I’ve saved a place for you."
"Mind when you're lighting up, Bill," Grandma said. "Sylvia's head might catch fire."
"Leave the girl alone, Edith," Granddad replied. Then he winked and patted the empty chair beside him.
Granddad enjoyed Sylvia’s company immensely because, like the rest of the family he considered her to be a bit thick and he went to extraordinary lengths to prove his point, for no apparent reason except to amuse himself. Being well read, he had a distinct advantage over Sylvia. She regarded reading to be too challenging and found it difficult to concentrate on the articles in the Radio Times, let alone novels that contained big words she couldn’t understand or even spell.
"Do you suppose George Orwell was a true visionary, or do you think Nineteen Eighty-Four was really a metaphor for the decline of Western civilisation in 1948?" Granddad asked of her, staring intently into her heavily mascara'd eyes.
Sylvia spluttered into the sherry glass she’d just been handed and her eyes began to glaze over.
"Well?" Granddad asked, impatiently.
"Da-ad, do you have to?" implored Mum.
"I only want her opinion," Granddad replied, smiling mischievously.
Despite her rather limited knowledge of English literature, Sylvia tried to summon as much dignity as she could muster in a futile attempt to answer Granddad's loaded question.
"George Orwell?" she replied timidly, acknowledging Granddad's vastly superior intellect. "I . . . don’t really know his books, but . . . doesn’t he write . . . children’s stories?"
"That’s right, luv,” said Granddad. “As a matter of interest, how do you keep your hair up like that?"
Sylvia gave him a bemused look that suggested she was still in a state of shock. "Umm . . . Hairspray," she said, vacantly.
"Fascinating," replied Granddad, who was truly fascinated by it.
As Granddad gazed in awe at Sylvia’s gravity defying hair there was an unfamiliar knock at the front door followed by the sound of scampering feet and muffled voices from the porch. My stepfather, realising the secret code hadn’t been used, immediately sprang to his feet, switched off the television and turned out the lights. He placed a finger over his mouth and pursed his lips. "Shh," he whispered.
The room fell deathly quiet.
"Si-ilent Night, Ho-oly Night . . . " wafted through the letter box. "All is calm, All is bright . . . Round y . . . " the voices faltered momentarily "happy, happy, happy, happy talk, talk about things we like to do –. "
The singers outside were experienced campaigners and were now, with the grace and ease of seasoned entertainers, moving into selections from the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
"Doe, a deer a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun – "
My stepfather eased off his shoes, left the room and made his way to the kitchen, where he took a large butcher's knife from the cutlery drawer. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled down the length of the hall.
"Me, a name I call myself, far, a long long way to run – "
The doorbell rang and he quietly lifted himself up, silently turning the latch with his free hand.
"Ooooooooooooooooooklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plai – "
My stepfather had never been a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein at the best of times, but if there was one musical he absolutely detested it was Oklahoma. He threw open the front door and, standing under the eerie yellow light of the porch, brandishing the butcher's knife over his head, roared his fury at the six spotty-faced teenagers who were stood before him.
"GOO ON! GERAAART OF IT!!!!"
The only thing the carol singers saw (in the split-second they were frozen in fear) was a crazed, psychotic lunatic brandishing a butcher's knife at them. It only took one of them to panic and flee to make the others follow suit.
My stepfather slammed the door shut and made his way back to the front room. He switched on the lights and turned on the television.
As he plonked himself down into the soft warmth of the settee he turned to Grandma and said, "Aye, and a Merry bloody Christmas to you too!"
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL MY READERS! TRAVELS WITH MY RODENT WILL RETURN IN THE NEW YEAR!