For the thirteenth time that winter, I found myself sneaking out of the house and scurrying through the lengthening shadows as they languished across the streets.
Earlier this same evening, these streets had been alive with the dancing flames of braziers, roasting chestnuts for the eagerly awaiting children; with women loading covered baskets full of food and treats; with men drinking swift pints of ale before they hurried home to sweep their families into their arms. My bitter eyes had surveyed them all with unchecked envy. Did they not realise that such happiness was not to be taken lightly?
Now it was late enough that my footsteps were the only ones clattering across the pavement, and I saw more than one set of curtains twitch as faces burrowed out to see who would venture along through this cold, unwelcoming hour. The golden festive light spilling warmly onto the street through the cracks was almost enough to make me give up on this folly and return home, where my own magnificent Christmas tree glistened with sparkling ornamentation, rich with red and gold and silver. I ignored the urge for comfort, buried it down where I buried all unwanted feelings which visited me these days, and I hurried on.
The air was ice, and carried knives to prick and prod me, feeling out my weaknesses and creeping in with sharpened points through the slightest gap in my coat or scarf. It stripped raw the skin of my un-gloved hands and my painfully glowing nose. The tang of salt and seaweed buried itself into my nostrils; the same scent of the sea I had known every day of my life so far and hopefully, would know every day yet to come.
A few more steps and that sea appeared, the curve of the bay resting gently on the sands which were golden by day but grey and dismal by night, as the restless waves rushed in again and again, their hushed roar rippling off down the coast only to return once more with the next surge. This sight would always be indelibly linked with my boyhood: memories of Sundays where I would rush down to the waters to swim and paddle, or to hunt among the rocks for crabs and snails, or to dig industriously in the sand, or to collect pretty shells for my mother. As a young man this idle time had been given over to fishing and drinking and stealing kisses; just as enjoyable but infinitely less magical, unless the failing twilight was just right and the clouds cleared enough for the moon to shine, rich and rippling, on her twin caught in the waters.
On this night, the moon was blanketed behind thick, dark clouds, making my little corner of the earth feel pocketed and closed. Ahead, the darkness thickened under an arch of trees, and I pressed into these shadows to avoid any watchful eyes which might be on me. My business here was not malign, and I did not want to be taken for a thief or vandal despite how similar I might be in appearance at this hour. Especially when, with just a moments’ hesitation to sweep my eyes along the lonely road, I vaulted over the fence of the famous Fort House and landed heavily in the grounds.
This was, I promised myself, the last night I would come here. I couldn’t keep tormenting myself with what had been, and what would never be again. Soon it would be the time of year for fresh starts, and I would need to learn how to exist in the world that continued to turn even after it had been ended for me. Here, I could almost feel her hand in my hand as we wandered the avenues under the leafy summer trees. Here, her voice caught on the wind and danced playfully around the tree trunks and up the pathways. Here, her feet had trodden next to mine, always next to mine, as our children played hide and seek or tag or chase and her smile shone up at me between rosy cheeks and under mischievous, loving eyes.
Now the night swallowed all of these warm memories, stole the joy from them and replaced it with this empty, dead winter. I would not find her here. This was a place for ghosts, and she would not linger.
My blood turned to ice in my veins as I glanced up from my morbid reverie to see a figure loom out of the darkness ahead. My instincts lurched me sideways, off the path and against a hedge, and I froze, my heart racing and my breath bursting out in frosted puffs. The figure did not move, and I wondered if it was a man of this earth or a spirit doomed to wander here, a ghastly sentinel to ward off the living. I was ashamed of how long it took me to realise it was neither. The only thing guarding the path in front of me was a statue, its stony eyes unaffected by the winter chill and its resolve to haunt this place much stronger than my own. If I had continued to wait for him to move on, I fear they would have found my own body in the morning, frozen as solid as his.
This was a ridiculous endeavour.
I was warmed by a sudden, uncontrollable flush of anger. What was I doing here, silly old fool that I was? What’s gone is gone, and no amount of looking or longing would bring it back. I had a home and responsibility. In the morning I would have to put on a brave face and a smile that I knew would not reach my heart. My two boys deserved a merry Christmas, even though they did not have their mother to share it with.
I kicked the ground with impotent rage, succeeding only in hurting my foot on the solid earth. With a howl of frustration, I turned to leave and found I could only hobble and flail as pain blossomed in my bones. Limping heavily and dragging my foot, I made it to a round bench under a tree where I collapsed. Tears sprang to my eyes and spilled from the corners. I had never felt so very lost, with no hope of being found, as I did at that moment.
“I always found that this was the perfect spot to sift through my thoughts, both pleasant and undesirable, no matter the time of year.” To this day I swear that the sudden voice from the dark stopped my heart for a number of beats. I leapt to my injured foot, only to fall back clumsily with a cry of pain.
“Oh, my dear sir! I’m so sorry to have startled you. Maybe if I had cleared my throat first as a way of making my presence known … but too late now for such regrets.” The gentleman sitting to my left leaned forward, and I got a good view of his face. He seemed familiar, and I concluded he must live in the town and have walked past me occasionally, or dined in the same restaurant, or queued in a shop nearby. Despite the lack of light, his brown eyes somehow twinkled merrily above a heavily lined face, a map of the varied life he must have led. A mouth, while serious now, seemed ready at any moment to twitch into a smile as it nestled behind an impressive beard shot with red and silver. Despite the time of year, he wore no overcoat, just a crisp, white shirt and dark trousers, and yet he did not shiver and shake as I would have done in his place. I felt as if he was not just looking at me but studying me, as if he might read in my face what sort of a man I was and how life had treated me.
Fighting for control over my terror, my voice squeaked only a little as I answered. “No harm done. I’ve heard that a good scare can add more strength to your heart than a long hike.” I tried not to squirm under his continued scrutiny. “Forgive my sounding a little like a hypocrite, but what on earth are you doing in this place, at this time, on this date? I thought all god-fearing men would be safely tucked up and staying as warm as they were able.”
The man beside me smiled. It was a weary smile set in a weary face, as if time had stretched him too thin and he struggled under the weight of his years and experiences. “Ah, well that is an easy question to answer as this is my favourite place and my favourite date and all hours are one and the same when you have been around as long as I. I have always felt that Christmas Eve is the perfect day to set right what has gone wrong. To consider the outcome of the path we are on, and evaluate where it must lead.”
I nodded, but my curiosity provoked me further; nothing but the very strongest driving impulse had led me here despite all the reasons I had for staying home. I could not imagine, for a second, any man would have undertaken the same trip without an equally palpable reason. “I am very happy to have found myself in your company,” I probed, “But as peacefully memorable as this place is, surely there are other locations that would lay claim to you on Christmas Eve? Have you no family awaiting your return, no glass of spirits poured and waiting to be taken up in a toast?”
The face, which had watched me so closely, seemed to fall as I spoke. I feared I had made a grave error by mentioning his absence from home. His eyes turned from me and fixed on the stern face of the nearby Fort. I wondered if his shift in focus was meant as a deflection, or whether he was searching that grim façade for the words he needed to respond to my query. Finally they came, dropping from his tongue like rocks. ‘Family, yes, I had a family once. A wife and ten children, boys and girls, all dead or grown old now like me. I split my family into many parts when I fell in love with youth and beauty over faith and loyalty, and death split it into many more parts when it ripped loved ones from me time and time again, far sooner than was fair.” His face hardened for a moment, and some of those hard-won wrinkles smoothed out while others ran even deeper. “But I did what I could. I immortalised those I loved, and those I lost, and they shall live on for as long as man can read, in the thoughts and movements of the words I rehomed them in.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that I knew of loss too, that I knew of the bitter cruelty and unbearable pain when a loved one was ripped from your side, tearing a hole into your very heart and soul with their absence. I felt this was a man I could speak to about the rage of wanting something, anything, to fight against, to pound into submission and win a shallow victory over, just so it felt like by your very fighting you were doing something to try and stop death sneaking invisibly in and stealing your most precious prize.
Then I shut my mouth again. This man might feel he wanted to share his loved ones through words, but my wife was still my own and I wanted to guard her jealously, not to give her away too cheaply for some scant pity and empty sympathy.
Instead, I thought about what he had told me. “Do you have no-one left, then, to spend Christmas Eve with?”
He shook his head. “I used to enjoy wandering the streets and peeping through the windows to see the happiness of others on this night. I used to follow the smells of delicious feasts and drift towards the laughter of children. But I have not held my own celebrations for a long while.” He gestured to this empty garden. “Now I prefer to keep company with the skeletons of the trees, following the howl of the wind and the whispery rasp of the stone.” He sighed. “I once thought it would be absolute purgatory to have to witness the lives of others play out, with no chance of your own involvement in them. Then I thought it a blessing, a last chance to partake in the ongoing vitality of those you loved best without the selfish restraint of wanting anything for yourself out of the interaction. Now … ” He sighed again. “Now I think that there is a time to rest, and we should not seek to retain our place in a world which has moved on past us.”
My voice was level and controlled when I replied, yet I was feeling anything but. “Can the world ever move on past the absence of a loved one? Surely those left behind will always be clinging to any thought or memory held dear, and in that way will always hold a place for those who are gone.” I thought of his earlier confession of splitting his family. “Even those we choose to abandon will think of us with longing, albeit infused with bitterness and betrayal. However resentful they might be that you left, do you not think there will always be a spark of hope in them, however unlikely, that you might return and the life thrown into turmoil can resume its natural course?”
He smiled at me then. It was the indulgent smile of a grandparent or a teacher to a child who had just proudly professed a statement of pure ignorant innocence. “If you spend too long clinging to what is not, you miss out entirely on what is. You will go to bed with your arms around a shadow instead of the object which casts it. If your gaze is fixed on the past,” here his eyes swept over the fort again, “the present will remain a stranger to you and the future will never venture any closer. You will just stop still, right where you stand, and become a statue of who you once were. That goes for those left behind, and those who must move on without them.”
Again I felt the rage rise in me, and the faces of all who had told me I must calmly submit to this situation flashed through my head with expressions of concern, irritation, disconnected professionalism and, sometimes, boredom. I would not just accept it! I would not let it go! I would keep that flame burning in my window every day, a signal to the world that my thoughts still dwelt with her!
The man nodded sadly, as if he could see my thoughts, and I recalled that he must also have his reason for choosing this spot. “Did you, too, seek to find someone here?” I asked tentatively. He took in a deep breath and held it, as he seemed to consider.
“I found many people here, over the years. Enemies who became friends, dear friends who became like family, family who became like strangers, and above all I found a home here once, in this bleak, winter place, and my heart was made happy time and time again. I gave great happiness here, too. But it would be futile to look for those things here now. I come here precisely because I know no one else will, and I can reflect on the paths I took without the candle of memory flickering its distortions onto my recollections. An old man’s nostalgia should never pour soothing balm on the wrongs of childhood, and a sad man’s loneliness should never dampen down the young man’s ardour.”
He was looking beyond me now, into God knows which events of his past. “Every choice I made, I made with the full knowledge of what I was doing. No fog of ignorance blinded me. No blinkered pride hindered me.” He breathed deeply again, as if that iced, salty air alone sustained him. “I travelled the world, saw great beauty and great suffering, I was responsible for some, but tried to end more than I caused. I saw petty jealousies, vile plots, bitter disappointments, great loves, steadfast affections, monstrous cruelties, heartless abandonments, suffering of atrocities and selfless acts of immense kindness. In short, I witnessed the wide scope of life on Earth, and I involved myself where I saw fit.”
“You sound like you lived an admirable life,” I conceded. “My own world is much smaller, but for all that I would imagine it was just as precious.”
“More so,” the man smiled, “for yours has remained undiluted by fantastical imaginings of lives not lived.” He examined me once more. “Although it would seem like you are whitewashing it with the sighs of what you wish it could have been.” He started patting down his pockets methodically, until he eventually pulled out a pipe. Puffing away thoughtfully, he gestured the smoke. “The scent of tobacco will linger in a room long after the pipe is empty. It will serve as a reminder that they were there, but it will not bring the satisfaction of the smoking, nor conjure the presence of the smoker. You have children?”
The question caught me off guard, and I spluttered a little before the ‘Yes’ made it past my lips. He nodded. “They have lost their mother, and you your wife, and you must take care not to disappear into mere smoke to them as they find their way in this strange and terrifying new world. You came here seeking a ghost, but did not realise you were becoming one.” He sighed. “Although I suppose more of us are guilty of that than we would like to admit.”
I stared at him wordlessly for a short while, wondering if he would reveal who or what he was haunting, but he didn’t even seem to be seeing me anymore. His eyes were fixed once again on Fort House, and he was muttering quietly to himself. I couldn’t quite hear, but it sounded like “As all partings foreshadow the great final one, – so, empty rooms, bereft of a familiar presence, mournfully whisper what your room and what mine must one day be.”
Empty rooms bereft of a familiar presence.
The words, like this man’s face, seemed oddly familiar. They touched in me a nerve which had been prickling all night. My sons must not wake to empty rooms. I must be a presence there for them, and not become the memory of the father they used to have before their mother died.
I left the man to his reverie, loathe to disturb a wretch so deep in his mourning, and slipped away on my still dully-aching ankle. Only once did I turn and glance back, to see if the man had melted away as I had, but he sat there still, on that bench, staring at Fort House with eyes that seemed to see through centuries, and I could not tell if he were haunting that place, or that place were haunting him. Perhaps both. But I, I fixed my eyes on my path home and, as the clock crept towards the daylight hour, I journeyed home to see in Christmas morning with my boys.
© 2020 Jen Clayton
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
If reading could be a profession, Jen would be one. She has a lovely house full of lovely pets, a lovely husband, and many, many books.