Today is the first Sunday of Advent and this year I have decided to see Advent in with a story that I have written. It is the 200th anniversary this year of Charles Dickens’ birth and not only was Dickens one of my first and most profound literary influences but also one of the most significant literary chroniclers of Christmas. To celebrate both Advent and Dickens’ bicentenary, I have written a long short story which I will be posting here in daily instalments, finishing on Christmas Day. Please share this literary journey with me and, if you like it, encourage others to join us here at the Consolations of Writing to share it too. Merry Advent to you all! Love Matt
The Gift: A Bedtime Story for Grown-ups, in Five Candles
Alana cannot sleep. At least, not properly. Occasionally her mind drops into sleep, but it is only like she is skimming the surface of sleep, sometimes dropping a little below, but always somehow being pulled back up into dry wakefulness.
It is not the first time this has happened; it used to happen often, but not for some time now, and tonight there seems to be no reason for her sleeplessness. As a child, she would be sleepless with apprehension the night before her birthday or on Christmas Eve. Christmas is soon enough, but she is too old to lose sleep over Christmas now, most of all when there’s still four weeks to go until it arrives.
There were other reasons, of course, why she sometimes lost sleep. Sometimes, when she was in her early twenties, she would lie awake thinking, consciously worrying, about whatever it was that was playing on her mind: fears for her future; fears of failing, of being left behind, forgotten, alone. But that is not the case tonight. She has no conscious worries, nothing racing around anxiously in her mind to keep her from sleep. And yet she cannot sleep, simple as that, as though her mind has just forgotten how to.
They had a television, she remembers, when she was a child, which was a particularly temperamental machine. Once, the off-switch stopped working. They would press it in, the screen would go blank for a brief moment, the image shrinking rapidly into the dark vacuum of the screen, and then it would come back on again, like a jack-in-the-box with an overactive spring. She remembers being strangely tormented by that image, as though the television would never properly turn off again and they would be doomed to watch it forever – how strange that a childhood ideal, perpetual television, could when made reality become a source of torment. Well, tonight her brain feels like that television, occasionally playing with the idea of sleep, only to resurrect itself suddenly, laughing macabrely as it does so.
She opens her eyes in a tired act of surrender to wakefulness and looks in the bed beside her. Peter seems, as far as she can tell, to be fast asleep. He doesn’t snore, thank goodness, but when he is asleep his breathing always becomes deeper and slower and at times he makes low mumbling noises which, she fancies, only she knows about. She considers waking him up but decides not to; he looks too peaceful to do that to him. But it’s no good lying in bed trying to sleep when she can’t; she has tried for too long tonight without any luck. And so she reaches for her bedside lamp and her book: a philosophical detective story she had picked up second-hand during the week, from a series that has been recommended to her. She has enjoyed what she has read so far, but something about reading the book tonight only frustrates her. What earlier in the night had seemed light and whimsical now seems affected and ponderous. She can only read a handful of pages before finding herself wrestling with an almost uncontrollable urge to hurl the book at the wall. But she refrains. It would only wake Peter.
Soon she hears his voice beside her.
“Can’t sleep?” he mumbles. The light must have woken him anyway. She could have thrown the book against the wall after all.
“No,” she says. “Did I wake you?”
“You were making a lot of noises,” he says. “Huffing sort of noises.”
“Yep. Disapproving noises.”
“Disapproving?” she asks. “Like what?”
“You know, the kind of noises you make when you don’t like something. Like a tut and a groan combined.”
“Really? I make those sorts of noises?”
“Sometimes,” says Peter. “Didn’t you know?”
“No,” she says, then goes silent. The mixture of insomnia and her husband telling her something she had never known about herself is a dangerous combination and she has the potential to become quite annoyed by him, except that he reaches out and puts his arm around her waist and then says, “I’ll get you a cup of tea.”
For a moment she feels appeased, but calls out, “Make sure it’s chamomile,” as he climbs from the bed.
Most of her potential frustration is pacified by the time Peter returns to the bed with two cups of chamomile tea; most, but not all, because, while he has been gone, she has read more of her detective book and has only become more resentful both of its style and of its heroine.
“This book,” she says, “is really annoying. Seriously, the main character is so self-important. Men should never try to write female protagonists; they never get them right.”
“Is that why you were tutting and huffing before?” asks Peter, handing her the tea.
“Maybe,” she says, “but I still don’t believe I do that.”
“Only sometimes,” he says, then changes the topic. “I’ll tell you a story,” he says.
Alana’s face lights up.
It’s been some time since they have told each other stories. When they were first married, it was an almost nightly occurrence. At first they read to each other, then Peter started to mess around with the details of the story, until the stories he told were almost nothing like, and generally much more amusing than, the stories they had begun with. Before long, Alana found she preferred Peter’s stories to the ones they read, and soon she was even telling stories of her own. The thought of Peter telling her a story tonight after such a long time sparkles and fizzles inside her like she is, momentarily, a child again.
“Yes,” says Peter. “Just give me a moment…”
“Don’t take too long,” says Alana, “or I’ll have to go back to reading my book again…”
“Okay, okay,” says Peter, “just a second. The story is called…”
“No stalling,” says Alana.
“It’s called…the story of…”
“Of what? The story of what?”
“Of the goblin,” he says. “The goblin who…poisoned the Christmas pudding.”
“He poisoned the Christmas pudding?” says Alana, indignant. “That’s not nice.”
“Well no,” says Peter, “but do you expect goblins to be nice?”
Alana pauses. “No,” she says, “but why would he do that?”
“I’ll tell you,” says Peter. “Just listen.”
“Alright,” says Alana, slowly. “But does it have a happy ending?”
“Eventually,” says Peter, “but you’ll have to let me get there.”
“What if I fall asleep when the story is still unhappy?”
“Then you’ve fallen asleep, and that’s good, isn’t it?”
“Not if I have nightmares.”
“Well, if you have nightmares, I’ll wake you up and tell you the happy ending.”
“Alright,” says Alana,
“Can I begin then?”
“Yes you may.”
“Very well then. Here it is.”
Go to Day Two