Not ideal. I had to be a bit social and accept free booze under duress today. Still, the basic premise is there with hints of Panoptica’s life.
There will be errors still. I think I caught most of them.
Too late for Christmas unless some parts of America still have it, but anyway, it’s not for this year. This is a portent of Christmas Yet to Come.
Hope it’s worth it… I’m afraid I am now very, very drunk…
This story is now available in ‘The Good, the Bad and Santa‘.
For whom the bells jingle.
“I’m cold, Mummy.”
Dawn looked down at her daughter. “Shush, Willow. It’s only for a few more minutes. Stay silent and respect the trees.”
It was hard enough for Dawn to endure an hour of tree-respect while the snow fell around them. Willow was only seven. She must be freezing by now.
It had never made any real sense anyway. Why go out to the trees at midwinter, when they are dormant? It would be so much easier, and so much more pleasant, if Earth Day was in the summer. Oh, Dawn knew the reason. She just dared not say it aloud.
“Mummy. Please.” Willow tugged at Dawn’s gloved hand.
“Hush. We can’t leave until the klaxon sounds or Santa will put us on his naughty list.” Dawn pressed her lips together. Six years ago, Willow’s father had been put on the naughty list. Willow probably wouldn’t remember her father.
Dawn bowed her head and held tight to Willow’s trembling hand. The cold was intense this year. It felt as though her eyes might freeze. Willow sobbed softly, her face buried in the folds of her mother’s coat.
The klaxon blared through the woods. Willow grabbed hard at her mother. Her shaking might now be cold or fright, or maybe both.
“Come on, it’s time to get home and get warmed up before sunset.” Dawn put her arm around Willow’s shoulder and led her on the long trudge back to the set of boxes, among many identical sets of boxes, they called home.
Around them, others emerged from the woods. Some single, some couples, some with children. All made their way home in silence. A careless word, a joke, even a called-out ‘Hello’ could be seen as disrespectful on this solemn occasion and that would mean a night of fear. A night of hoping not to hear the bells.
Dawn pressed her hand to the door-plate and the door swung inwards. She glanced over her shoulder as she ushered Willow indoors. The sun was already low in the sky and they would need to be warm before nightfall. Earth Day’s Eve was nearly over, and the darkness would be total this night.
“Hurry, Willow. Get out of those wet clothes and into a hot shower. I’ll have warm things laid out for you when you’re done.” She closed the door and locked it – not that that would make a difference. “And be quick. Mummy needs to warm up too.”
While Willow ran to the shower room, Dawn rushed to the kitchen, filled the kettle and turned it on. They would need their hot water bottles as well as hot soup to keep them alive tonight. The Thermos flasks were already lined up on the kitchen table.
Dawn turned the heating to maximum and went to her bedroom to get out of her sodden clothes. A quick rub with a towel and, clad only in her dressing gown, she returned to the kitchen. The first kettle of water went into flasks and the kettle was refilled and boiling again before the soup on the stove warmed up.
It was insane, of course, but Dawn knew that all over the country, the same thing would be happening in every home. Power usage would peak to unprecedented levels and there might well be a brown-out or even a cut. It happened every year. The trick was to get as much of your own preparations done before someone overloaded the circuit breakers. In the name of ‘saving power’, everyone used as much as possible for a few hours.
Willow appeared, wearing a thick woollen jumper. “I’m too hot now, Mummy. Can I take this off?”
“Yes, you weren’t supposed to put it all on anyway. That’s for when the power goes off.” Dawn poured the second kettle into two hot water bottles then refilled it and turned it on again. She gave one of the bottles to Willow. “Here. Put this in your bed so it’ll warm up for later.”
While Willow did that, Dawn spooned soup into a bowl and turned off the heat under the pot. On Willow’s return, she sat her daughter at the table with the soup and rushed off to the shower.
The water was only lukewarm, but it took the chill from Dawn’s body. It would have to be enough. Tonight was going to be a bad one. As she dried her hair, she thought back to that Earth Day’s Eve, six years ago. Martin, her husband, was late home. The sun had already set and he had missed tree-respect. That would put him on the naughty list but he’d have been okay because he had a reason.
Martin maintained the windmills and one had stopped working. He would be excused tree-respect in order to repair it, but he had done something else.
Dawn bowed her head at he memory of the bells. She had gone to look for him, leaving one-year-old Willow alone. A dangerous act, one that could get Willow reparented, but she had to risk it. She never found Martin but she heard the bells. A happy, rhythmic jingling that stirred ancient joy while bringing modern terror to her heart.
She did not find Martin. She found his phone. It was on. Dawn turned it off at once. Holding a live phone on that night would certainly mean the naughty list and she had a child. Dawn ran home, her eyes streaming tears, knowing she would never see Martin again. She never did.
The curtains darkened. Dawn pulled them open enough to peek through. There was not enough light left to throw clear shadows. She dressed in a hurry and ran to the kitchen. Through the kitchen window, the sun was halfway behind the horizon. There were only minutes left.
Willow looked up from the table. “Is there more soup, Mummy?”
“Yes. Yes, of course, but we’ll have to eat it by LEDlight.” Dawn refilled Willow’s bowl. There was enough in the pot for a half-bowl for herself but only because she had already diluted their ration to make it go a little further. Dawn switched on a LEDlight and placed it on the table.
“We have to turn the house off now.” Dawn wished there had been time to boil the kettle once more, but the dimming lights meant a brown-out had started. The kettle would not boil in time. She opened a panel on the wall, decorated with the five-pointed star of Earth Day, and pulled down the lever inside.
The heating system’s grumble fell silent at once, as did the rattle of the refrigerator. All lights apart from the solar-charged LEDlight extinguished. The house started to cool at once. Dawn shivered, and wondered what the pensioner toll would be in the morning. It was not something to talk about with her daughter but Dawn knew, just knew, that a big part of Earth Day involved clearing out the unproductive of society. Unlike most of her neighbours, she had realised that all of them, one day, would become those unproductive pensioners. The young cheered the deaths of the old but never considered their own mortality. Never thought their turn might one day come.
Dawn turned to Willow and forced a smile. “Soon be time for bed. Tomorrow we’ll have presents and we’ll have heat and light again.” She poured the last of the soup into a bowl and sat opposite her daughter.
Willow put her spoon down and reached for her discarded jumper. “Why do we have to turn everything off? It’s hardly four o’clock. It’s stupid.” She pulled the jumper on. “It’s too cold to turn off the heat.”
“It’s serious. We don’t want to be on the naughty list.”
“Oh, mummy. I’m not a baby any more. I don’t believe Santa brings presents and takes away bad people. The presents are already here anyway. They’re in your wardrobe.”
Dawn froze with the spoon halfway to her lips. “Willow,” she said, slowly. “Believe it. Santa is real and if you hear his bells, he’s coming. It’s just one night of the year. Just one. Tomorrow, at sunset, we can get back to normal. For tonight, the only power in this house is LEDlights and they won’t last all night. There hasn’t been enough sun to charge them right up.”
Dawn sipped at her now-lukewarm soup and narrowed her eyes at Willow. “What do you mean, the presents are in my wardrobe? You’re not supposed to go in there.”
“Yeah, well, like I said, I’m not a baby any more. Besides, April told me that Santa is fat and smokes and drinks. She says she saw him on some old pictures her parents have. So he must be dead.”
Dawn placed her spoon into her soup and stared at it. “That’s the old Santa. He’s dead. The new Santa wears green and is lithe, fit and fast. The old one was jolly, the new one is not. The old one wasn’t real but the new one is.” Dawn sniffed. “The old one was just one. The new one is many. I’ve heard the bells.”
Willow giggled. “Don’t be silly, Mummy. The story is that anyone who hears the jingle of Santa’s bells is never seen again.” Her face took on a schoolroom-serious expression “Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle. They jingle for thee.” Her mirth returned. “So you can’t have heard them.”
Should I tell her? No, not yet, she’s too young. Dawn placed her hands flat on the table. “Willow, please, whether you believe it or not. Just for this one night, do as I say. Please?”
Willow’s sigh was a masterpiece of exaggeration. “Yes, Mummy. I promise.”
Dawn managed a tight smile. “You’ll understand one day. When you’re all grown up with your own family. Then you’ll understand.”
“Yeah, sure.” Willow rose from the table. “Might as well go to bed. There’s nothing else to do.”
“Good idea Get in while the hot water bottle is still warm. If you get cold in the night you can refill it from those flasks beside the sink.” Dawn glanced at the flasks. She had filled four. Two each, or three for Willow and one for her… if it came to it, four for Willow.
“Yeah, okay. Thanks, Mummy.” Willow started to leave.
“Wait, I have to be sure.” Dawn wore an expression she hoped was an apology. “It’s not me being a mean Mum, really. It’s for your safety.”
“Whatever.” Willow led the way to her room, where Dawn took her phone, her tablet computer, anything that connected to the internet, and left her a LEDlight beside her bed.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you. I do. I love you. It’s just that for this one night of the year, these things are really dangerous.” Dawn cradled the electronic toys in her arms.
“Mummy, they are battery powered and not even connected to the mains. They can’t be tracked through the smart meter and anyway, you turned off the mains.” Willow sat on her bed with arms folded.
“I know, but they can be tracked through the internet. Santa’s elves are everywhere.”
“Just one night, Willow. Just one. Please, do this for me.”
“Oh all right.” Willow slumped sideways and shuffled under the covers. Dawn leaned over and gave her a kiss then left the room with her electronic haul.
The kitchen was very cold now, as was the soup. Dawn finished it anyway since there was no longer any way to reheat it.
Wrapped in all the clothes she could fit onto herself, she blew a breath of steam into the cold air. Martin had known. He had told her, taught her, and she and Willow were still here because she had told nobody else.
It was all about control. Getting everyone to stand for an hour in the freezing cold and then making them turn off the power for a night and a day. The smart meters could just do that but that wasn’t control. Making people turn the power off themselves – that was control.
It had to be enforced by fear. As with all religions before them the Cult of the Green God overwrote the old festivals with their new ones. The Sun God’s Rebirth, the Winter Solstice, Pagan and Druidic ceremonies through millennia, were overwritten with the Christian birth of Christ and now with the Green God’s Earth Day. Pushed by the New Santa who rewarded the faithful by letting them enjoy the presents they bought themselves and removing those who failed to observe the Green God’s declarations. Especially on Earth Day.
So now Santa was not the jolly fat smoky-drinker of old who liked a mince pie and a bit of ham. Santa was now vegan and trim and hateful and intolerant of others who did not share his way of life. The bearded red chubby was now a clean-shaven green ghoul.
The sound brought Dawn out of her reverie. Those were Santa bells. She bowed her head. Someone was on the naughty list tonight.
The bells drew closer and stopped. Dawn frowned. They must be coming for a neighbour. If only she had bothered to get to know any of them, she might be able to guess which one.
The cry cut Dawn like a razor. She surged to her feet. Santa could not be here for Willow. All her electronics were on the kitchen table. She could not have transgressed.
Dawn ran to Willow’s room and shoved the door open. The LEDlight gave its faint orange glow, enough to see Willow’s bed rumpled and empty.
There was another light. On the bed, just below the pillow. A small rectangular blue glow. One Dawn had seen before, a long time before. Six years before. In the snow.
Martin’s phone. Willow must have taken it in one of her hunts through Dawn’s room. Her only connection to her father. Her last toy. Her final Christmas gift from the father she never knew.
Dawn fell to her knees and covered her face with her hands. In the distance, through the crisp air of a frozen night, a mocking ‘Ho ho ho’ sealed her mind into the raging darkness.