Dan and Daisy were dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones their parents used to know. And so it came to pass, courtesy of a new-fangled loop in the jet stream that shoved a ‘cold blob’ southwards in a great duvet of snow that unfurled up hill and down dale, all but burying their row of cottages.
By morning, a robin red breast was in place atop a snowy fence post, tweeting earnestly. Clichéd smoke twirled from chimneys.
Thumping the kitchen window open with a puff of snow, Dan was confronted by the sight of a postman in full red-and-white Santa suit trudging up the garden path, white-mittened hand raised in greeting:
Choking on a mix of milk and misanthropy, Dan croaked back:
‘Same to you…’
… with festive fucking knobs on, he thought, yanking the window closed and grabbing the breakfast tray with a grimace. He paused at the front door to scoop up a pile of Christmas cards and annoyingly numerous adverts. What a palaver! He caught his terse face in the hall mirror; a counter-productive effort to untousle his bird’s nest of brown hair was quickly abandoned.
Upstairs in bed, Daisy lay slumped beneath a beam of sunlight that was crashing through the skylight. Dan lowered the tray into her lap.
‘Bugger off!’ she smiled, green eyes half-closed, ‘Middle of the night…’
He dropped the cards by her side with a loud slap.
Assuming their positions, they began munching and tearing. Daisy took up an envelope and ripped:
‘Hmm, nice card… Oh good god, a family portrait! And a photo-copied letter – a family press release, no less! So intimate, so heart-warming!’
She glanced at Dan wryly and back at the card:
‘“Dearest Dan and Daisy…” blah, blah… “We’re thrilled to report that ‘Big Boy’ Thomas came top in his end of year exams.” Oh did he?! The bugger’s ten-years-old, for god’s sake! Who cares what results he gets at that age?’
Dan shook his head:
‘I don’t care.’
‘Correction: I would feel pleasure, if the fucker failed; otherwise I don’t care.’
Daisy chuckled and dabbed a doughy service member at the top of her egg:
‘Mark my words, nothing good comes from emphasising exam results at that age. How annoying!’
She picked up another card and tossed it indifferently:
‘Swedish postmark, translation required.’
Dan gave it the once over, trying to engage the Swedish part of his brain:
‘What do we have here…? Okay: “How unusual…” er, “extraordinary, that another year has got past again… It was truly so nice”, er… “that we all got to meet us last summer. How wonderful it would be if we should be able to meet next summer. I am feeling myself…”’
‘No doubt!’ said Daisy, slurping some tea.
‘“… extremely sad that we not can meet this Christmas”.’
Unmoved, Dan tossed that one and looked at the back of another envelope:
‘Oh, what! This one’s from Uncle Gwil!’
‘My mad Welsh uncle.’
He turned the envelope over in amazement:
‘How long has that been…?!’
‘“Mad”, says who?’
‘Says everyone! Actually, I really liked him. We used to spend summers up at his cottage in Snowdonia, up in the mountains. It was real fairy tale stuff: patchworks of little green fields viewed from up on Snowdon; just like flying, you know. Wonderful! Towering slopes, huge boulders, millions of bits of scree.’
‘Isn’t that what it’s called?’
She shrugged and nodded:
‘I may have heard his name mentioned years ago, but that’s about it.’
‘Ah, well… it’s a bit sensitive… Something happened, some kind of episode. The parents wouldn’t let us near him after that. I was ten, eleven. No more lovely mountain summers…’
‘What was the problem?’
‘Never found out. They wouldn’t tell us.’
He chuckled and shook his head:
‘There was talk of witchcraft!’
‘Well, wizardry… Welsh wizardry. He begged to see us, especially me – for years! I was his favourite for some reason. The folks were very unbending about it. And he gave up. And that was that.’
‘It was cruel.’
‘Was he a blimmin’ paedo or something?’
‘Good grief, no, Elon. No, no. It was all this stuff about witchcraft.’
‘Oh, for god’s sake!’
‘No, really; he was big on it, apparently. Claimed he could do things. The view in the village was that dark forces were being summoned. It probably didn’t help that he dressed up like Gandalf the bloody Grey and strode around in a cloak.’
‘So how on earth did he get hold of our address?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Well come on,’ said Daisy, rubbing her hands: ‘Let’s see what the mad uncle’s got to say for himself. It’s like we’re entering the mummy’s tomb! Woooo-hooooo!’
Dan pulled out the card and flinched:
‘Oh weird. He’s drawn speech bubbles on the front!’
‘Give it here.’
Daisy grabbed the card:
‘Oh. My. God!’
The card depicted a row of cutesy, snow-covered cottages, not unlike the one in which Dan and Daisy were sitting. Smoke twirled up from a chimney. On a gate post, a little robin sang his red-breasted heart out. The card’s message at the top in golden letters:
‘Peace On Earth And Goodwill To All Men!’
It was a lovely, warm, cosy, Christmas cliché; saccharine sweet with lashings of snowy syrup.
But all was not as it seemed; for in small, jet-black letters, Uncle Gwil had inked speech bubbles over the cottages indicating the conversations therein. The first conversation read:
‘You know, you could help for a change!’
‘You know, you could stop nagging me into an early, festive grave!’
And from behind the warm, golden-lit windows of the next cottage:
‘I could murder a cup of tea.’
‘Make it your sodding self!’
‘Merry bloody Christmas to you, an’ all!’
The conversation in the third cottage was more pointed:
‘Where in god’s name have you put the Quality Street now?’
Dan roared with laughter:
‘That’s outrageous! Tell me, tell me, he hasn’t sent one like that to mum and dad!’
But Daisy’s face had darkened:
‘I don’t know why you’re laughing. He isn’t a teenager, Dan; he’s an old man, and he’s sick.’
‘He’s mentally ill! Are you blind? Why would an old man send something like that to his nephew and partner at Christmas? He’s demented.’
Dan’s laughter drained away in a hurry:
‘Come on, that’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?’
He frowned, dimly aware that he was entering a minefield marked: ‘Daisy’s Exaggerated Reverence For All Things Christmassy.’
‘It’s just a joke, Daise. He’s making fun of the whole bloody Bing Crosby, “They all lived happily ever after” sham of Christmas bliss!’
The instant the last word had left his mouth, he sensed a silent detonation – Senator Daisy McCarthy now sat before him on the bed:
‘“Sham”?! You RAT! What are you talking about? Don‘t you even like Christmas?’
‘Yes, but the whole thing, the pretense… the thing that you have to be happy on cue, on time, even when you’re not.’
‘“Happy Chwithmath! SMILE!” Christ! Happiness isn’t something you can book like a bloody Tesco order and have delivered, eight o’clock, Wednesday morning, December the bloody 25th! If I feel miserable as sin, what do I do then? LIE? You bet, otherwise it’s: “Danny, cheer up, you’re ruining Christmas for everybody! What would Baby bloody Jesus make of that, eh?” The whole thing’s a farce!’
He tossed the card on the bed, wondering where on earth that had come from. It had come from the venom with which she’d said the word ‘rat’. He knew instantly, with ice-cold certainty, that he’d blown it.
Daisy’s face had turned a whiter shade of pale. She calmly indicated the tray and bed:
‘Is this a farce?’
‘No, obviously….’ he sighed, closing his eyes.
‘Doesn’t sound like it. Are we happy? Are we “just pretending”?’
‘No, of course not.’
He reached a hand out. To his amazement, he saw that her chin was trembling; she was almost in tears.
Daisy flung her arms out as though addressing a theatre:
‘I thought we were happy… I thought this was real. You seem to think the whole thing’s a joke. You’re like your demented uncle.’
She grabbed the card:
‘Look! Don’t you get it? The cottage is exactly like ours! He’s found out about us somehow. He’s sick, Dan! He’s telling us our Christmas is a lie; this is how we are. He’s laughing at us! He thinks we’re a pathetic couple wearing identical pyjamas but hating each other. Our Christmas isn’t a sham, it’s a happy Christmas!’
‘Of course it is. We’re happy!’ Dan said hopelessly, from the depths of despair.
‘OH, WE’RE ALL HAPPY, MATE!’ Daisy shouted. And then, screaming:
‘LOOK AT US!’
But this was the thing, Daisy never got angry. Dan couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
She said, finally, in a terrifying whisper:
‘I hate your uncle! I hate his card! And…’
She took the card, ripped it in two, four pieces, and threw them, like Frisbees, to the far side of the room. Dan’s inner fourteen-year-old couldn’t help but admire how well and independently they flew.
‘… and I hate Christmas! There, HAPPY?!’
She threw off the bedclothes, stomped across the room, slammed the door behind her, at him, against him, in his face. For the first time in his life he felt her hate him. And he hated her – the unreasoning stupidity of what she had done – right back.
Feeling exactly like he was in a dream – heart heavy, gelatinous, burning – he gathered the pieces of the card and put them together. Ignoring the speech bubbles, he looked at the picture closely for the first time. The cottage really did look like theirs. And as he looked closer – Oh! – the hairs stood up on his arms and at the back of his neck: there was a postman trudging up the path of one of the cottages carrying a bag of mail, wearing a red-and-white Santa suit, arm raised in greeting.
And from inside the cottage, behind an open window, someone was waving back.
Dan gazed into space, shaking his head:
‘That’s just weird!’
The Bath Stain
They spent the rest of the day, the rest of the month, and in fact much of the next year, arguing. It had been the first real argument they’d ever had. And that was the first casualty of the card: their pride in the fact that they never, ever argued: ‘Just never do. Don’t seem to feel the need, do we, love?’
Spring came with a steady, light drizzle of misunderstandings, missteps and miscarriages of housework justice.
One early afternoon, Daisy called to Dan from the bathroom:
‘Er, did you clean the bath?’
‘Are you joking?’
‘You said you’d clean it, so…’
Dan walked over:
‘That’s correct: I said I would. And then, because I said I would, I did.’
‘I see, because somebody forgot to tell the brown stain running in an unbroken line around the top. Witness!’
Daisy indicated the evidence with a helpful finger.
Dan looked down at the gleaming white surface, shaking his head in disbelief. He had actually climbed into the bath that morning and scrubbed for fifteen minutes to avoid exactly this kind of incident. All he saw, perhaps all he wanted to see, was a small yellow stain underneath one of the taps.
‘Oh, that’s limescale. I tried scrubbing it; you need special stuff to get that off. I’ll pop into…’
Anticipating the reply, Daisy interrupted by scratching with a fingernail, leaving a tell-tale white trail in what was indeed common-or-garden dirt.
Squatting in her owl pyjamas and guinea pig slippers (with felt ears), she held up a soiled fingernail like the counsel for the prosecution:
‘Don’t waste my time! If you can’t be bothered to do it properly, I’ll do it myself. Or we’ll have to pay to get a cleaner, which you don’t want to do.’
Dan clenched his jaw:
‘That is bloody outrageous!’
They spent the next few hours in hell.
And so it went on: someone let the bread burn in the toaster so that the whole house stank. Yes, but someone hadn’t emptied the rubbish, so it didn’t make much bloody difference, did it?
Someone went shopping last week, thank you very much, and – sure as eggs were fucking eggs – they weren’t going again this week!
‘Do you think I look good in this? Sorry, I forgot, you don’t think I look good in anything anymore!’
‘Can you help me with this? Don’t worry, I can see you’re too busy. Busy bloody bee!’
‘Well why don’t you fuck off, then?!’
‘Oh, I would if I could, believe me!’
On and on it went: ceaseless, exhausting, merciless. They were now the characters in Uncle Gwil’s card. The bitter, carping hatred he had inked on the picture had rubbed off on their hands, and they had wiped their mouths so that their lips and tongues were black with it. Or so it seemed.
That spring, they dug deep into their hearts; not to find answers, but to prepare foxholes: a network of entrenched positions from where they lobbed sticky bombs of blame, grenades of resentment. And there were no winners in this ‘just war’; just losers, sighing, weeping, blinking up at the darkness at night, wondering what had happened, where the love had gone. Had it gone?
Sometimes, exhausted, desperate, they tried to call it off. They approached each other nervously across no-man’s lounge, holding out their hands to show they were unarmed. They hugged each other, exchanged peace offerings, damned the ego-donkeys responsible for the whole damn mess. What was it good for? They wanted home to be back by Christmas. They wanted an end to it, to just be normal again. But the reservoirs of bitterness were deep and undrained: I love you, but how can you hurt me like that, if you really love me?
The pain was too enduring, too powerful to restrain or control. Their normal selves became rarely seen strangers hidden behind masks of anger, so that they felt shy, awkward, when they weren’t arguing. And always, always the same question haunted them: How much can any love take?
Alone one day, Dan lay sprawled on the bedroom floor sobbing. Daisy, who had gone ‘to help mum and dad with their computer’, lay in her mum’s arms and heaved and sobbed, a loving hand on her head.
By year’s end, as the days shortened, the nights chilled and the first flakes began to fall, the forecast was for a long, hard, emotional winter.
And then, having forgotten all about it, about how it had begun, the Christmas cards started arriving again.
The Demolished Snowman
He hardly dared open it. Part of him thought it completely absurd to blame Uncle Gwil and his ridiculous card – it had just triggered something latent, it would have happened anyway. On the other hand, this time one year ago, they had been happy and in love.
Inevitably, it was another clichéd Christmas scene. Dan closed his eyes, breathed a long-suffering sigh and focused.
In the middle of the picture stood a collapsing snowman. The shrunken, knobbly head was slumped forward onto a concave, old man’s chest. The carrot-nose drooped down, pebble eyes lying deep, dark and mournful in sunken sockets. One twig arm hung limply down; the other was bent and broken on the ground.
Kneeling in the snow before the slushy statue, a little boy was crying, head similarly sunk on chest, face wet with tears. ‘Oh Jesus, not that awful bloody Aled Jones thing!’ Dan muttered to himself.
Rising high over the snowman was a snow-covered tree with a last scattering of autumn leaves hanging like gold coins in the wintery sunshine. Sure enough, once again, Uncle Gwil had inked a single black letter on each leaf. On one of the branches, a blackbird sang, pouring enchantment into the early evening air. It was a beautiful, melancholy scene.
Although the snowman and child were in shadow, a ray of sunlight passing through the tree fell exactly on the centre of the little boy’s chest. A speech bubble emerged from the blackbird:
Dan shook his head, nonplussed: ‘Watch? Watch what?’ He read the letters on the leaves on different branches. They spelled:
‘T C H
‘P A I
‘“Watch the pain”?!’ he said.
He tossed the card dismissively, angrily, onto the coffee table beside him and rubbed his face. Enough with this nonsense! What the hell was his uncle on?
He thought back to the first card. Why on earth would she get so upset over a thing like that? And why would she stay upset for the whole year? Him too! What was it about? Endless arguing… It was like being buffeted in an airliner at 30,000 feet. How much turbulence can it take? How do you know when the microscopic, spidery cracks of fatigue will start to crawl across to the relational rivets; when the rivets will begin to loosen, grow restless? And is there a time when it all just bursts apart, when it’s too late and you’re falling through space? Were they there yet? Were they just falling now?
He walked across to the lounge window overlooking the back garden, as smooth and pristine as it had been the previous Christmas. Maybe they should make a bloody snowman, maybe it would be healing! He spat the word in his mind.
At exactly that moment, Daisy – the old Daisy – burst through the front door smiling, eyes wide:
‘Let’s make a snowman!’
Dan smiled brightly and his heart sank like a stone deep into his chest, or his stomach, or wherever it is that hearts go to die.
He rolled the ball for the body, she rolled the ball for the chest. The carrot, pebbles, bobble hat, twigs, buttons and scarf were all in a basket.
It was the good type of snow – solid, damp, clumped together beautifully – so that you were soon heaving at a trundling, creaking little steamroller. Heave, creak, big. Heave, creak, bigger. Heave, creak, you could hardly move it.
Daisy pushed at her ball, rose-cheeked, balloons of milky breath in the frozen air:
‘I haven’t done this for years. I’d forgotten how heavy they are! Is it big enough yet?’
‘Well don’t make it too big, or we won’t be able to lift it.’
‘Big strong man like you!’ she winked, leaning on her ball archly.
He pretended to look behind him and she laughed.
‘Come on, then! Bring yours over.’
Like removal men, they stood either side of the middle-sized ball for the chest and heaved, wondering about their backs. Why had they built such a bloody big one? Well, because he’d built such a bloody big base. If my back goes!
Urrrghhh! They lifted it high, higher, to the rim of the base… two more inches… Daisy tried to get a better grip for a final push. There was a slip, a sudden lurch of great weight, and the ‘chest’ fell with a thump back to earth, splitting in two neat halves.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake!’
Even as he said it, Dan realised what he was doing, but it was too late. The sentiment was already out, propelled by a hidden pocket of compressed annoyance. He tried to row back, half-smiling, but the irritability transformed it into a fierce grimace:
‘Why didn’t you get a proper grip first?’ he smiled, raging at her.
Her face darkened:
‘I did have a good grip. But I SLIPPED, OKAY?! You made it too bloody heavy.’
She also realised what she was doing.
They fell silent, looking at the ground hopelessly, feeling pathetic in their utter defeat. Even a little nonsense thing like this and they had poisoned it.
‘Well, we can’t stick it back together,’ Dan said. ‘It’s broken now.’
She flashed a look of stinging hurt, reading unintended, bitter, clichéd irony between the lines:
‘Yes, it’s broken!’ she said, and stomped off; the words piercing his chest like arrows.
The whole world suddenly seemed hateful, hostile to him: the snow was cold and harsh, not magical; the half-built snowman childish, clichéd, stupid; the sky grey and forbidding, bitterly indifferent. And their love, that had meant so much, that they had assumed was invulnerable, was exposed as a pitiful lie. They were strangers. Not even that, they disliked each other more than two strangers ever could. It occurred to him that anyone who offered either of them the least glimmer of affection and kindness now – any small hope of happiness – could steal them away in an instant. Their invulnerable, invincible love was demolished, useless.
A wave of black despair, self-hatred and bewilderment poured through him, and he slumped down beside the broken snowman, rather like the little boy in Uncle Gwil’s card.
And then, suddenly, from a branch overhead, the high, fluting song of a blackbird pierced the afternoon air with aching, bitter-sweet melancholy. It filled his heart with longing, sadness, with the beauty of sadness. A shiver of recognition passed through him. And then he remembered.
In The Abyss
Dan collapsed into a chair by the fire in the study; Christmas tree in front, side table with a full glass of whisky beside him. The despair was so intense he felt almost dizzy. He had arrived at a summit of misery and fear. What was next? He glanced at the glass: golden, shining in the firelight. This was his giant-killer, this would see him safely down the mountain. At least until tomorrow. And next to the glass, Uncle Gwil’s card. He picked it up and looked at the strange scene. It was as if he’d known, or made it happen. It was absurd, infuriating, beyond comprehension.
And then it came to him again: that distant, unknown world with its strange people living in the dark, damp house in Snowdonia with its unfamiliar smells. And his parents: walking away, waving, leaving him, just leaving him there! Leaving him with this all but unknown aunt and uncle, his heart a ball of black desolation. They just left him. He was tiny, alone.
And then this fierce-looking, dark-eyed man with long grey hair and beard; this Uncle Gwil, sitting on the side of the bed, watching the tears streaming down the boy’s face:
‘Feeling sad, boy? Missing mum and dad?’
Dan nodded, jaw trembling.
‘Where does it hurt, lad?’ Uncle Gwil had asked.
Dan looked up at him, uncomprehending.
‘Where do you feel it hurting? Where do you feel sad?’
Dan pointed to his chest.
‘Then feel it boy, feel the pain – don’t try to escape from it.’
He tried to feel the pain.
‘Just feel the pain, watch it – just watch the pain where it hurts. Can you do that?’
He tried again. Uncle Gwil gently touched the centre of the boy’s chest with his right index finger and an extraordinary, blissful, golden warmth seemed to blaze through Dan’s heart.
The card – was it about the same thing? He looked at the glass of gleaming, amber whisky; reached out a hand… stopped. He took a deep breath, relaxed in his chair, and felt the sadness in his chest.
At first, it was like a tumbling ball of volcanic rock, rolling inky black; then cracking to expose fiery magma; then blackness; then fire searing his chest, scalding him, burning him, hurting him. Thoughts flew through his mind, distracting him from the sensations – thoughts of the whisky, of Daisy, of wasting his time, of what he had said, of what he should have said, of the card. He remembered the words: ‘Watch the pain!’ He brought his attention back again and again to the hurt, the fear, the acidic remorse that he had always assumed was intolerable.
And he did it the next day. And the next. And he did it when he lay awake at night. And then, again, one very ordinary afternoon, he brought his attention to the scalding pain and, as he held it there, and held it there, and held it there again… something happened. There was a softening, a crack in the clouds, a ray of light. Incredibly, absurdly, watching the pain, feeling it, had become pleasurable: spicy, to be sure; but now, truly, there was an element of aching delight. The feeling deepened and intensified. And suddenly what had been agony was bliss. A thought of Daisy drifted across his mind and, out of nowhere, impossibly, instead of bitterness and rancor, he felt an impulse to be kind to her, to give to her – to give her everything, whatever she wanted, all the time. Why not? Why not do whatever he could to make her happy in her life that, like his, like everyone’s, was so fraught, so short-lived, so storm-tossed? Why not just let it all go?
That evening they held each other with a tenderness they had both forgotten. The war was over. When everyone was losing, what was there to fight about? It had all been nonsense; just a vicious, pain-driven cycle.
‘What happened to us?’ Daisy said.
‘I don’t know. It was all just nonsense,’ he said.
‘And what has happened to us now?’
‘I don’t know.’
Journey To Snowdonia
Dan took a bus and a train, and another train that pointed resolutely in the direction of mountains.
He took the path up from the station, the old way he remembered as if from somebody else’s life. He found the main road and walked up through the little village, with vast, grey mountains on one side, clouds nesting on their peaks. Then up the tiny, winding path beside the precipitous drop, tiny fields far below, to the cottage surrounded by birch trees that he suddenly recognised like old friends: lovely, swaying in the mountain breeze, as they had all those years ago.
Everything looked almost comically the same. He felt a moment of bitter regret: Why had he not come again? Why had he just accepted it all?
He rang the doorbell, clutching bottle, flowers and conversational gambit. Would he even recognise the guy? What age could he possibly be now?
The door swung open to reveal a small, ancient barrel of a woman perched atop spindly legs. Clearly not his aunt, she looked him up and down, eyebrow raised high in suspicion:
‘Er, Gwillym… I’m here to see Gwil Gwillym… I’m his nephew…’
She cocked a sceptical eye:
‘Are you indeed?’
‘Er, yes. Is he in?’
‘No, ‘e’s not in; ‘e’s out back.’
She looked him up and down again:
‘Nephew, is it?’
‘Yes, I … ’
She hopped off the porch, hobbling away at speed along a gravelly path that led round the rear of the house without so much as a backward glance.
Sure enough, Uncle Gwil was lying in the warmth of the late afternoon sun at the end of the garden beside the compost heap.
‘Wake up sleepy ‘ead, someone’s brought you flowers!’ the woman said.
She looked at Dan, crossing her arms defiantly.
He looked down at a small, overgrown grave beneath a simple headstone. He shot a bewildered look at the woman and knelt down. He read the inscription and looked up at her:
‘He’s been dead for more than ten years!’
‘Dead and gorn!’ she declared to the whole garden.
‘Good riddance, too, if I may say so. And if I may not say so, ‘ard bloody luck! More trouble than he was worth, if you ask me.’
‘But I got a card from him not four weeks ago! And the year before that…’
‘I got a Christmas card from him, one month ago; signed in his name.’
The old woman raised her eyebrows, unimpressed:
‘He always was a rum bugger!’
With that she turned on her heels and hobbled off back down the garden.
‘But who are you?’ Dan called after her.
‘I’m the poor sod who cleared up after ‘im!’
She stumbled on a tuft of grass and disappeared round the corner. The front door slammed.
Dan looked after her for a moment in disbelief, then knelt down and looked more closely at the inscription on the grave:
‘Gwil Gerraint Wyn Gwillym, 1910 – 2008, husband, father and forgotten uncle of beloved nephew.’
He stood up and sighed, dumbfounded. A shiver passed through him: in about eleven months, the Christmas cards would start arriving again.
David Anthony Wyn Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens