© C S Lewando
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This is a short story of Christmas past...
Ernest surveyed the ranks of Camembert cheeses ripening in the warehouse. Smileys had never before produced anything other than the Cheddars of English fame, but this was the obvious way to go in the current climate, being quicker to produce. It had not taken him long to persuade his brother-in-law to give it a try. The merest hint of making more money in a shorter length of time had been persuasion enough, and if it was not a roaring success, it would have been Ernest’s fault; a win-win situation.
It was nineteen-fifty, and the starvation rations of the war were already receding into memory. Finances had eased, but there was little enough in the way of luxury goods to spend it on, so the cheeses would surely be popular. Or any goods at all, he thought, remembering Jane in her functional, hard-wearing skirts. His late wife had worn the same three skirts in rotation for five years, and would have loved to have been alive now to see colour starting to return to the shops.
The Christmas rush was pending, and row upon row of Camembert cheeses stretched into the depths of the old red-brick building in pungent, orderly fashion, every cheese having been lovingly placed in position by his own hands. If he said so himself, he had done a sterling job, taking care not to over-stack the soft cheeses and crush them. Ernest’s modest pride was tempered by the thought that his late wife would definitely have found fault. He did not know what, but she would have found something.
The door crashed open.
Startled, he shielded his eyes against the onslaught of winter sunshine, and froze at the imposing sight of Mr Jack Smiley framed largely in the doorway. He had eaten at least one too many of his own cheeses during the war-time shortages. Ernest shrank inwardly, realising that his brother-in-law was having a bad day.
‘Haven’t you finished yet? A child could have done it quicker. You’re a miserable excuse for a man, Ernest. God knows why I let Jane persuade me to take you on. I should have known better. I did it for her, I suppose; may she rest in peace.’ Smiley stalked forward, poking him in the chest relentlessly to emphasise his words.
Ernest backed at each stab, wondering whether he should say something nice about his dead wife, but did not. They would both know he was lying. She had been a vindictive cow, and her death had lent a measure of unacknowledged peace to both brother and husband. So Ernest kept quiet, and learned, furthermore, that he was inadequate and his stacking was abysmally wasteful on space; besides which the Camembert was not selling as well as he had said it would. All in all, he was only kept on out of charity and respect for Smiley’s late sister.
As Smiley made a triumphant exit, his spleen well and truly vented, to his own astonishment Ernest felt the heat of resentment churn in his normally placid bowels. Jack and Jane Smiley had been cut from the same superior cloth. Jane Smiley, fearing the onset of spinsterhood, had conned him into marriage, only betraying her true nature once she had him safely tied. Men were short in supply after the war, and he was made to realise that he was a better catch than none at all, but only just. But she haughtily lifted her nose when widows and unmarried women came into the shop hesitantly asking if there was, please, any cheese for sale. ‘My husband will serve you,’ she would say grandly.
In ire, Ernest seized the nearest cheese with both hands, and flung it violently onto the floor. It was only a little cheese, about six inches across and one and a half deep, with a fine white mouldy crust, but it made a satisfyingly rich squelch as it hit the floor. Teeth bared in a nasty smile, Ernest vindictively kicked the cheese. He thought of Jane, saw the Smiley logo grinning out of the goo, then jumped up and down on the cheese until he could jump no more. When his anger fizzled out and died, there was nothing left of the Camembert but a cheesy stain upon the floor. He mopped at eyes which streamed from the onslaught of unadulterated cheese fumes, and his temper evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared. He should have done that to Jane when she had been alive. At least prison would have been a choice of sorts. He felt immeasurably better. For the first time in the years he had been married to Smiley Cheeses, he understood why Jack Smiley shouted at him: it was not Ernest that Smiley was shouting at, but his own frustration.
Ernest whistled on his way home that evening for the first time in years, tipping his cap at a woman he did not know. ‘Merry Christmas, Ma’am,’ he said. He was somewhat bewildered when she responded with a smile. So he said it some more, the words getting louder and more confident every time he uttered them, ‘Merry Christmas, Sir; Merry Christmas!’
On waking the next morning his first conscious thought was that he ought to change his socks. His second lucid thought was that his socks had never smelled like that before. Blearily he opened his eyes, and blinked several times before deciding he was not dreaming. Hovering a full ten inches above the foot of his bed was a very small, fluorescent green Camembert cheese.
He climbed out of bed, and the ghostly cheese glided forward until it was just behind his ankle, whereupon it maintained that station despite his gyroscopic efforts to detach it. He dressed, watching the antics of the cheese as he wobbled on one foot to stuff a foot into his trousers. He gave a little giggle and danced, pirouetted, and walzed around the room. The cheese echoed his movements gracefully as though attached to his ankle by elastic.
He thought hard, then smirked as he trod down the stairs, the cheese glowing faintly in the half-light behind him. The sun shining through the pseudo antique glass in his front door smeared gobbets of ghastly green on the wall. He paused for a moment in his plan, wondering with mild astonishment how he could have missed the vulgarity of the glass before. Whistling softly, he opened the door and glanced up and down the road, sniffing the air as if to test for rain. Then he plunged outside, leaving the Camembert bobbing in the wake of a resounding crash as he slammed the door shut. He allowed himself a congratulatory smile, but as he moved away the cheese glided through the door to keep its vigil. A bloodhound could not have been more faithful to its master than this cheese to the source of its untimely demise.
Reaching the high street, he was immediately engulfed by the raucous bustle of London in pre-Christmas crisis, but he did not mind. The very anonymity of mixing with hundreds of people without having to make contact with them appealed to him. Happily weaving through the crowd, he momentarily forgot about his problem until he noticed that people were actually looking at him and not through him as they should.
Their faces depicted varying degrees of disgust, disbelief, and discomfort.
He lifted a heel, glared at the ghostly Camembert, and shook his foot hard. The cheese became a yo-yo on an invisible string, gradually subsiding, still firmly attached. Ernest walked faster, weaving like a lunatic amongst the laden shoppers. The cheese passed sublimely, literally, though the crowd. Faster and faster he walked, until he was actually running. People stopped talking, and stared as he flew by, and still the cheese followed after. Spying a bus on the point of pulling away, he made a superhuman effort. Lunging for the open back, he managed to grasp the hand rail and heave himself onto the platform. The conductor did a double-take, backing slightly as if wondering what kind of madman had just clambered aboard.
‘You orlroight, guv?’
‘Yes! No! I mean perfectly!’
He straightened, and adjusted his once-immaculate tie. Breathing heavily, and wiping back the hair which was plastered to his forehead with perspiration, he turned around furtively to see whether he had succeeded at last. The cheese hovered gently in the slipstream just behind the bus. He turned and found himself staring into the conductor’s puzzled eyes. He sniffed. The aroma which had surrounded him was absent. The conductor tapped his ticket machine. ‘Where d’ya wanta get orf, Guv?’
Ernest did not know. He fished in his trouser pocket, hooked a sixpence and handed it over. ‘Six pennies ter Pennylorst Road,’ the conductor chanted in a sing-song voice as he wound the ticket machine with practised ease,, bracing himself against the steep, curving stairs as they took a corner.
He could never understand why double-deckers did not fall over when the top deck swayed so precariously, and as it settled back onto all its wheels again he breathed a sigh of relief, and sidled into a downstairs seat. The cheese edged into the bus, hovering under his seat with the misplaced affection of an unwanted puppy, wafting gently in the enclosed space. The woman across the gangway stopped talking, and began to fidget, looking across at Earnest and back again in a way that quite unnerved him. Then she collected all her belongings and vacated her seat for one nearer the front of the bus next to an open window. Her neighbour soon followed. He wished the tired upholstery, spotted with cigarette burns, would envelop him, but those in torment are never reprieved so easily. A ring of empty seats soon surrounded Earnest, and the conductor’s unnecessarily loud cry of ‘Pennylorst Road, Guv. Merry Christmas,’ came as an obvious relief to all on board. As the bus pulled away he felt eyes boring into his back, and sensed the passengers visibly expand to fill up those empty seats once more.
Standing at the kerbside, utterly lost, he looked down and saw the silent cheese faithfully maintaining its vigil. He was almost grateful for the company. No-one should be alone at Christmas, after all. Like a leper, he crept down the first dark alley he saw, the gloom of the blackened walls seeming to welcome him. He emerged unexpectedly into sunshine dancing on ruined buildings. He sat down, and a thought blossomed within him: he was lonely, and always had been.
He had just never realised it before.
While superficially following the flight of a pigeon over a bomb crater in which children were playing, Earnest seriously realised a few truths about himself, which quite surprised him; firstly for thinking them at all, and secondly for honestly admitting them. He was the last person who would have suspected that he would end as a small, boring nonentity in a dead-end furrow.
When had that happened?
Middle-age was pending, and he had missed everything in life, it seemed. As the last child in a family struggling against poverty, he had not been cosseted, rather tolerated as his father moaned about another useless mouth to feed. His education was minimal, despite early excitement at the knowledge he was good at numbers. Who cared about that, when you could sweep the butcher’s floor for tuppence and bring the scraps from the floor for the family? After his two brothers had died glorious deaths for England he was drafted just as the war came to a close. His parents faded away, and he was left to trudge streets filled with skinny children, triumphant women and empty shells of men. People looked at him askance as if to wonder why he had remained whole: was he a coward, one of those conscientious objectors, or was there something else wrong with him? What they could not see was that he was a dreamer whose hopes had been stamped into the ground often enough to stay where they had been put. He was wasted in this new and exciting era, according to Smiley. He had been fairly useless as a husband, too, as it turned out, not providing his wife with the children which would have justified his existence. He had simply become something to dust down regularly, like a living room ornament.
During this long, contemplative period, shadows greedily gobbled up the sunny patches, night clouds stalked across a purple sky, and a small wind rose. The buildings faded into a craggy silhouette against a gloomy sunset. Ernest shivered and stood up, easing cramped limbs, and as he walked in the direction he thought must be towards home, he turned to watch the Camembert following. A slight smile enlivened his features for the first time in weeks. He just wished he could share the joke with someone.
Unexpectedly, snatches of voices raised in song floated towards him. He then did a strange thing. Like a man sleep-walking, he trod down a cobbled alley, following the raucous sound hovering on the evening mist. He passed crumbling buildings and a small bombed out church nestling amongst a sea of drunken gravestones, and ended up by the river. Coloured lights swam and winked in the inky darkness of the Thames' oily swell. On looking up at the source of the lights and the singing, he thought that the reflection of the Spotted Cow looked cleaner than the building itself, but it did not matter. The place exuded warmth and friendship, feelings which he had longed for since his barely-recalled childhood.
He opened the door and slid into the cheerful, confused riot of uncoordinated decor. The sulking Camembert could not compete in odours with the beery, sawdusty, tobacco-smoke-filled room, and waited sullenly to heel as alcoholic generosity pressed a pint of beer into Ernest's hands. ‘Merry Christmas, Guv.’ He looked at the beer and small slithers of memory surfaced: his parents merry from sherry; himself punch drunk with childish excitement. It had not all been bad.
The pub echoed with noise. He was anonymous, yet welcomed in the same breath. An ancient man lifted an even more ancient squeeze-box, and began to play. After a while the small bar resounded with the strains of 'Daisy, Daisy'; 'It Must Be Because I'm a Londoner'; 'There’ll be Bluebirds Over; and ‘Kiss me Goodnight, Sergeant Major’.
He knew all the words, of course, the radio had been blaring them out with patriotic fervour for the last four years. He tentatively searched for his voice. A plump lady at his side put an arm around his shoulder. ‘Come on, love. Give it some welly.’
So he gave it some welly. It was not as if anyone would notice, anyway. As his voice discovered a fine tenor hiding beneath the rust, it dealt him a blow of nostalgia that left him weak at the knees and moist in the eye. For the first time in his adult life he was amidst a crowd who seemed to accept him as an equal. He even bought a round, and did not have a clue who he was buying it for. Eventually, a confused rendering of Auld Lang Syne hit the air, heralding the traditional chucking-out ceremony. The boozy crowd, sure that if they sat tight the landlord would forget they were there, tried to put this theory into practise, forcing him to cover the taps with cloths and flash the lights before his clientele grudgingly swayed out in pairs, holding each other up. Finally the lights within the Spotted Cow disappeared, leaving the night to the grey river mist.
Poor in pocket, but rich in well-being and Christmas spirit, Ernest tried to find his way home, though he was not quite sure where that was. Stumbling along the uneven cobbles on cushioned feet, he made his way back past the ruined church and its gaping, empty window sockets. He had forgotten his bout of philosophy and deep thoughts. The time for all that had gone, and as for a purpose in life, well, who needed one anyway? He was alive and, at this moment, not a little merry to boot. Totally oblivious of the Spectral Camembert, he was now using the gravestones for extra support.
At that moment he heard a sound not unlike that of an un-oiled door opening in the mist. Something of a dark, translucent, shadowy and indefinable nature rose in the air before him. ‘Fooooood...’ it groaned.
Ernest stared, entranced.
Seemingly disconcerted, the spectre cleared its throat, clanked its chain and floated further up the graveyard, and tried again. ‘Morghool Huuuuungry, give me fooooood.. Ooooh.’
Ernest realised he should probably be terrified, but was not. In a mild state of happy confusion he tripped over a headstone, performing a graceful somersault. The cheese was catapulted over his head. The ghost, Morghool, stretched out a bony hand through a wisp of cobweb-like shroud and snatched it neatly before it could spring back to Ernest's heel. Earnest untangled himself and climbed up the gravestone until he had regained his equilibrium, and found himself staring at the apparition which held in its hand a Camembert somewhat like his own.
‘Foooood...’ the apparition exclaimed in sepulchral tones, giving Earnest a beseeching glance.
‘Take it, it's yours. It’s Christmas, after all,’ he replied, rubbing sore knees and eyes. The ghost recollected its place in society, released an obligatory shriek and whooshed back to its grave to devour the unexpected treat.
Ernest weaved his solitary way home, pondering on the reason why he was strangely happy, and some things jumped unexpectedly into focus. Firstly, he realised that the Christmas fuss was not so much about buying stuff, as getting rid of things he did not need, like loneliness and cheese. Secondly, he recalled that after his wife’s demise he had become half owner of Smiley’s. Jack was about to get the shock of his life. Thirdly, he was going to come back to the pub, if he could find it, and sing some more, and maybe, just maybe, buss the plump lady on the cheek.