Without the shadow of a doubt, it was that unique period in the year. Christmas was approaching, like a living thing, a behemoth, resistless. In fact, its approach had been made quite plain by the litter of advertising and Season-specific items piled on the shelves of shops for more than two months before the great day itself. Here, in the northern climes, the weather had turned cold and wet, with even worse promised before Spring arrived the following year, as usual. The one thing that wasn't promised, of course, was a white Christmas.
David Lomax was not exactly overwhelmingly eager about the Season. At thirty-something and with no family within a thousand miles, and few friends, he saw no great cause to celebrate. Besides, he wasn't religious and the overcooked plastic glitz just seemed tacky to him. He preferred to keep his head down and dodge the outpouring of cheerful Yuletide greetings and the swapping of greetings cards. His attitude had earned a background hiss of whispering at work, where he had refused to get involved in the annual Secret Santa. His colleagues had made a point of his not being invited to the office Christmas party, but that suited him anyway.
Arriving home, at the small flat in what had once been the basement of a four storey house, he let himself in and shut the world out behind him. He kept his coat and gloves on until he got into the little sitting room. There, he switched on the ancient and rather decrepit electric heater and tossed coat and gloves onto a chair. The faded blue walls made no difference to his mood, with the clock and a mirror as the only adornments. A low power bulb failed to light the corners of even this tiny room and a dark cloth covered the single, small window.
He lit the gas ring that occupied a small table near the heater, shook the battered kettle to check its contents, and placed it on the hob. A chipped mug, two big spoonfuls of sugar dumped into it along with a tea bag, waited for the water to boil. David lumped down into the old armchair beside the table and closed his eyes. He was tired, worn down by the insanely lengthened hours at work, where it seemed that three months worth of work had to be accomplished in the three weeks before Christmas, just to ensure that the bakery produced sufficient bread and cakes for the whole two days that the major supermarkets would be closed.
The kettle rattling noisily on the hob brought him back from the brink of sleep. He poured the steaming water into the mug and sat contemplating what to do about food. He went through the same routine most evenings, usually ending up with either soup or a takeaway. Chances were that it would be the same again this evening. He stirred his tea and sipped it carefully. That wonderful elixir began its magic, to let him slowly unwind. It would have worked, too, but his world was suddenly invaded by clashing noise.
David went and peered out of his window. Outside, a lowloader truck sat, its engine mumbling, while music blared out tinnily from giant speakers. A man garbed as Santa Claus sat upon a mock-up of a sleigh, waving and ho-ho-ho-ing at kids dragged out into the cold to witness this visitation. Young men and women hurried about, each carrying a bucket tackily wrapped in Christmas paper, expecting the spectators to pour money into the plastic receptacles. David sneered at the fact that the spectators were all too ready to hand over cash. It was so easy, at this time of year.
One of the helpers was scurrying towards David's door. He let the curtain drop back across the window and then went and seated himself firmly in his armchair. He ignored the two attempts to attract him to the door. Shortly afterwards, the noise diminished, as the cash-trawlers moved on down the street. Eventually, he couldn’t hear them any more.
Much happier with his isolation restored, he opted for soup for his evening meal. It was just a matter of minutes to bring the canned soup up to heat and to saw off a thick chunk of bread from a loaf rapidly going stale. He ate in silence. The meal, such as it was, done, he relaxed. He was considering reading a book when he drifted into sleep.
He was in his sitting room, that couldn't be doubted, but things weren't right. The walls were now occupied by a few framed photographs, of people he didn't know, and his mirror and clock were gone. The electric heater was absent, too, with a small coal stove in its place. The small table now held a tall pitcher, stood in a large porcelain bowl. The gas ring was gone, but a black kettle sat on top of the stove, the first wisps of steam rising from its spout. The naked floor he preferred was now covered partially by a thin rug, worn and its pattern almost invisible under the grime which coated it.
David concluded that he was dreaming almost immediately, but it didn't give him the power to escape it. Instead, he found himself drifting a few inches off the floor. In a tall backed, winged armchair, an old man sat hunched over a mug of something hot. In one corner, a small Christmas tree stood defying the drab surroundings, without lights and barely decorated. At the foot of the tree, a small gift sat, wrapped in ancient paper. As David watched, the old man rose slowly, painfully, and went to the tree. He picked up the gift, struggling to regain his normal stooped posture before returning to his seat. There, he held the gift before himself. A faded label occupied most of the uppermost face. The man's shoulders began to quake and then large tears fell from his wrinkle-wreathed eyes into his lap.
David felt an overwhelming compulsion to reach out to the old man, but as his hand rose, so did his whole body. He drifted up, up through the ceiling. Another room appeared around him. This one was much warmer, an open fire in a grate was slowly dying. The room was unlit except for light from the street lamp outside. The big sash window was almost completely hidden by a large Christmas tree. This tree was real, and covered tastefully in decorations. At the foot of the tree, presents were piled high, in bright, cheerful paper. David's eye was caught by a photo on the mantelpiece over the fire. It showed a family, with four smiling children in front of their proud, happy parents. Compared to the room below, this place was the scene of utter luxury.
A soft noise was followed by the window opening slowly. Two figures slipped inside, dressed darkly, grasping a sack each. To David's horror, the pair began to stow all the waiting gifts into the sacks. Then the room door was opening. A tall man, the one in the photo, peered into the room. Seeing the intruders, the man shouted and charged into the room. He was dressed in nothing but a pair of pyjamas. One of the thieves grappled him. The other grabbed a poker from the hearth. David shouted and tried to intervene, but the poker crashed down and the man slumped to the floor, blood slowly spreading around his head. The intruders made good their escape just as the light in the hall outside came on and a woman's voice called softly. David moved as if to help the prostrate man, but he was again rising without volition.
The room he entered, drifting up through the floor, was a mess. Stuff was piled in every corner and toys littered the floor. Against the chimney breast, a slim radiator stood, an antiseptic lump of white which seemed incongruous in that setting. Am artificial Christmas tree, all silver and white, its lights flashing hypnotically, occupied a rickety table in the alcove beside the window. Several gifts had been thrown under the tree, as if they had no meaning. Christmas cards lay in piles in various parts of the room, many still with their torn open envelopes. He saw nobody, but he could hear a heated argument taking place in another room. There was a loud bang and a child began to scream in fright, startled from sleep. Doors slammed and, not knowing how, David knew that one of the shouting adults had stormed out to seek some place to drown their anger and misery.
David shook his head sadly, even as he again drifted upwards. He was struggling to understand what the purpose of this strange dream was. What he'd seen already did nothing to improve his perception of Christmas, that was for sure. The fourth room, the highest in the old house, came s a visual shock, a bath of brilliant white light that hurt his eyes and head.