Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The Lights

by Jim Mountfield




He didn't expect snow.

Rain was pummeling the High Street when he looked out during the afternoon. The pavements were greasy, the walls stained, the windscreen-wipers mashing on the cars. Yet when he stepped out of the shop that evening, the air was crisp, not wet. Flakes fell against his face and a white crystalline layer crackled under his shoes.

Alan looked to where the street ended at the front steps of the parish church. Above the steps, framed by the arching lines of the church-doors behind it, a pine tree contained a dense constellation of lights. He remembered something his father had said at this time of year. "Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the Lord thy God... Neither shalt thou set thee up any image, which the Lord thy God hateth. Deuteronomy chapter 16, verses 21 and 22."

Then he noticed two chains of coloured lights that started on the church's corners, left and right of the tree. From these, the lights swooped across to the two end-houses on the High Street, snaked along the tops of the rows of shopfronts and passed him on either side. He turned and saw the light-chains recede towards the post office and the premises of the Burnside Times, the last two buildings at the street's other end. The lights came together there, joined by a cable that hung in a jeweled arc above the road and before the darkness lurking at the town's edge. The cable was high enough to avoid the roofs of the double-deckers that served on the bus-route between the town and Edinburgh.

It occurred to Alan that the lights resembled a long, narrow noose that'd been thrown over the High Street. Then, as he turned back, he saw how the lights passed over his father's shop … No, he corrected himself, his shop now.

Gleaming above the first-floor windows and the sign that said Howie's Newspapers and Books, the lightbulbs were moulded into the shapes of stars, bells, parcels and stockings. They shone with such vivacity that they looked less like electrical illuminations and more like giant sapphires, emeralds, pearls and rubies. Never before had there been Christmas lights along the front of Howie's store. Never before had the glittering noose around the High Street been complete.

He wondered how the rain had so suddenly changed to snow, and where the cars had disappeared to, and why the High Street was deserted. At the same time, however, something compelled him to begin walking along the street towards the church. As he walked, he read names on the facades left and right of him, bathed in the glow from the opulent Christmas lights:Quinn's Shoeshop, Bloom's Antiques, The Haswellsykes Hotel, Barr the Butcher ... He halted at the window of that last shop.

The stands and shelves behind the glass were decorated with holly, ivy, pine, fir, bracken and moss. So profuse were the decorations that they encroached on the display-surfaces and surrounded the meat. If the meat had been absent, Alan could have imagined that the shop had stood derelict for years and the thick green foliage had grown up from its foundations and engulfed its fittings.

Yet the meat on show was as plentiful as the vegetation. Trays held sausages in coiling, purple mounds and pies so big they resembled caskets made of pastry. Glistening skinned hares and plucked geese, their heads pulled off so that their necks ended in fleshy rags, hung from hooks at the sides. And resting on a silver dish in the middle of the display was a boar's head.

Curled bracken and knotted ivy lay over the dish's edges, forming a leafy mantle around the head. An apple had been crammed under its snout, between its tusks. Two cherries had replaced its eyes-their redness making the boar look monstrous and evil. Alan leaned closer to the window. Curiously, his breath didn't form a mist on the glass.

Just then the boar's head shuddered and gave a coughing sound and the apple was expelled from its snout. Alan retreated a step from the window as the apple struck and bounced off the other side of the glass. Then he saw the two cherries vanish as if two eyelids had descended over them. The cherries reappeared a moment later and he realized they were eyes-red, monstrous, evil ones-that'd just blinked.

The vegetation around the head quaked and shifted. A bulge of green fronds and strands rose behind it, parted, fell to either side and revealed a curved hairy back with a ridge of quill-like bristles. Alan realised that for some insane reason a whole, live boar had been lying in the window-display, head towards the glass, body camouflaged by the decorations.

This can't be happening , he thought, as the boar stood on its legs and launched itself at the window. There was a huge shattering crash, Alan and the surrounding street were showered with broken glass and an instant later something smashed against his chest and knocked him flat.

Lying in the snow, which was seeded now with glinting fangs of glass, Alan became aware of the four points of the boar's hooves pressing on his thighs and chest and pinning him down. Then he made out the boar's head above, its red eyes blazing at him. This, he thought again, can't be happening-

Then he stopped thinking, because the hard, sharp whorls of tusk that emerged from either side of the boar's snout gored deep into his face.

*

Feeling stiff and achy, with a gruesome taste in his mouth, Alan raised his head off the countertop and sat straight in his chair. Hardly any light came through the windows and the lines of bookracks were mired in shadows. Glad that no customers had come upstairs and caught him napping, he got up and switched on the light.

It was only then that he noticed the wetness on his cheek. He placed his fingertips against it, removed them and saw that they wore little caps of red. As he realised that his face was bleeding, the dream came back to him and he dropped into the chair again.

It took him a minute to work out what'd really happened. On the countertop in front of him stood one of the few remaining traces of his father in the shop. It was a small block of marble, with a pen-mount planted in it, and a tapering fountain pen with a black-lacquer finish planted in turn in that. The old man had received this from the congregation at the gospel hall, in appreciation of his years of service there.

Now a bead of blood had run down the pen from its sharp upper end to the marble.

Alan was puzzled. Why hadn't he woken again the moment his head dropped forward and the pen cut into his face? Why had he stayed asleep - long enough to experience the dream? Just now, though, he felt more disturbed by the fact that the incision was next to his right eye. If his head had dropped at a slightly different angle, the pen might have speared his eye.

A short time later, after daylight had wholly left the street, Alan was on the pavement helping Annie from the newspapers-and-magazines counter pull the shutters over the shop's ground-floor windows. His right eye felt partly shuttered too, thanks to its eyelid being pulled half-down by the band-aid that slanted past its corner. Then he locked the door, pocketed the keys and stepped back. He couldn't help looking up above the shop-sign at the Christmas lights. In reality, these were much less spectacular then the ones in the strange snowy High Street he'd dreamt about. They were small and round and glimmered rather than shone. Their weak blues, greens, whites and reds added a melancholy haze to the rain as it fell in front of the shop.

Annie was hunched inside a grey coat that was rapidly turning black in the rain. Her voice scraped out of a small, intensely wrinkled face. "Well, that's a sight I never expected tae see. No this side o hell freezing over."

"Aye, my father wasn't a fan of the Chamber of Commerce Christmas illuminations."

"Didnae allow them. What did he caw them? A disfigurement. A pagan disfigurement."

They began to walk along the High Street, Alan slowing his pace to match Annie's brief, shuffling steps. "Are you suggesting," he asked, "that I shouldn't have given them permission to put up the lights this year?"

"It's no concern o mine. I'm jist repeating what yer auld man used tae say."

"Things are different now, Annie. I'm not my father."

"And thank Christ for that. Ye're a damn sight easier tae work for. See that? I said 'thank Christ' and 'damn' and ye didnae blink. Yer auld man would ay exploded at me. Would ay ranted that it wisnae decent language for a woman tae use. Aye, yer da had big opinions aboot what women should and shouldnae say."

"I'm sorry if he bullied you-"

"Dinnae apologise. It wisnae your fault he wis like that. Anyhow, he wis fair in ither ways. He never tried tae cheat me when he paid ma wages. I suppose he wis feart tae cheat me. Scared I might quit and find work in anither shop. I mean, if I hadnae been there ..." Annie cackled as she turned off the street, into the vennel that led to her little flat. "Who else in this toon could ay stomached working for the auld bastard?"

Alan continued alone. He recalled being a child at Christmastime, and walking along the street in his father's company, and hearing that growling voice pass comment on the seasonal decorations around them.

For example: "Look, Alan-the holly with which the priests of Saturn adorned his temple in ancient Rome. Hung here in celebration of the birth of Christ? What a blasphemous mockery!"

Or: "What do these dolts know? Yule logs in every window. As if the Messiah's coming should be celebrated with the oak of the pagan druids!"

Or: "There he is. The red-coated charlatan riding through the sky in his sleigh. Forget this Santa Claus nonsense. We know who he really is, don't we, Alan? The heathen Norse Odin!"

Alan saw nothing in the street now that suggested the exotic mythos of the Romans, druids and Vikings. Grey rain shrouded it. Below the bleary lights, the shop facades seemed like shadows of their previous incarnations. Where Quinn's Shoeshop had been, there was an empty, boarded-up shell. Bloom's Antiques had been replaced with a discount place that sold nothing for more than three pounds. The Haswellsykes Hotel had survived, but next to it, Barr the Butcher-

Alan approached the window of the charity shop that occupied the site of the old butcher's and surveyed the dog-eared books, chipped ornaments and frumpy clothes displayed behind the glass. He thought of John Barr, the loud, swaggering butcher whose aproned torso looked as broad and solid as the hog carcasses hanging on his back wall, whose face looked as red and moist as the meat sawn from those carcasses. He remembered Barr's assistants too, scurrying behind the counters in deference to his brash voice.

Ross McKelvey was the assistant he recalled most clearly. Of course, young McKelvey was the assistant everyone recalled best … Young McKelvey hard at work, labouring over a cutting board, chopping up the bloody slabs, wrapping the pieces in sheets of grease-paper.

Young McKelvey who would eventually chop up John Barr himself.

Well, it was an exaggeration to say 'chop'. He'd grabbed a knife and rammed six inches of stainless steel into Barr's midriff, deep and devastating enough to leave Barr crippled and end his tenure as boss of the High Street's most prosperous business. Rumours had soon swept through the town that the stabbing had been the result of a lovers' quarrel.

And Alan's father had remarked with satisfaction, "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Leviticus chapter 20, verse 13."

Alan decided to find Hugh Drummond, the editor of the Burnside Times. He regarded the nicotine-stained, bald-as-a-snooker-ball, almost-mummified Drummond as the last of the dinosaurs, the final member of the generation who'd run the High Street three or four decades ago. As it was Wednesday night, Alan knew the old man would be in the public bar of the Haswellsykes Hotel, celebrating the fact that this week's edition of the Times had been put to bed. Tomorrow it'd be printed and early on Friday morning bundles of it would be dropped off at the door of Alan's shop.

He entered the bar and saw the editor sitting with a tumbler of whiskey at a corner table. Next to the corner was a fireplace where orange flames slobbered over a pile of logs. Alan bought a drink, joined Drummond at the table and after a few minutes had maneuvered their conversation onto the subject of John Barr.

"So," he asked, "is the guy still on the go?"

Drummond stared down at his gnarled fist, watching the firelight glint on the faceted sides of his whiskey tumbler, unaware that it was also glinting on the smooth bare summit of his head. "No, Barr gave up the ghost some years ago. He would only ay been in his fifties, but his health, uh, wisnae what it used tae be. Getting chibbed in the kidney wi a butcher's knife disnae help yer constitution."

"What possessed young McKelvey to do that?"

"The laddie had a wild temper. One day Barr tried to end their romance and predictably he wisnae happy. They had a massive row, McKelvey noticed a knife lying nearby, and suddenly Barr wis in a wheelchair. While McKelvey had himself a long-term booking at Saughton Prison."

"And why did Barr want to end their relationship?"

Drummond's cheesewire-thin mouth twitched up at its ends and formed a smile. "What ye're really asking is ... Did yer faither hae any involvement in it?" He placed his tumbler on the tabletop and thought for a moment. "He didnae like Barr, that's for sure. And possibly he kent Barr wis gay. But I never heard o any conflict between them. If they were feuding, they must ay done so in private."

"I hate to say it, but I could imagine my father threatening to make his homosexuality public."

"Well, it would ay been unpleasant if he had. These days Burnside is reasonably enlightened. No exactly Amsterdam or Greenwich Village, but it's better than it wis. Much better. Ye'll remember yerself what a blinkered, backward wee place this wis thirty or forty years ago. For gay people it must ay been terrifying. And Barr the Butcher sponsored the local rugby team. How would big macho Burnside Rugby Club ay reacted in the 1970s if they'd discovered they had the name o a gay businessman emblazoned on their shirts?" Drummond sighed. "Though by the time his secret did come oot, poor Barr wis fit only tae sponsor the company that supplies the National Health Service wi oxygen tents."

Despite the heat from the fireplace Alan shivered. "Christ, my father hated those people … I mean, listen to the way I talk. I don't have the town accent. He beat it out of me-he gave me hell if he heard me using local pronunciations. He didn't even want me speaking like them. Why?"

"Religious zealotry. He saw them as a bunch o godless sinners. Which, tae be fair, wis an accurate assessment in many cases."

"Aye, but you're a godless sinner, Drummond. And you and him seemed to get along okay."

"Aw right, not religious zealotry. It wis jealousy and frustration. Yer faither tolerated me because I wisnae part o the local clique. I arrived frae Glasgow tae start work on the Times much the same time that yer parents arrived in Burnside. I wis an outsider, same as them.

"And believe me, back then, the business establishment in this toon wis incredibly clannish. Ye had a better chance o getting intae the Freemasons than getting in wi that lot. When your auld man took over the paper shop, he wis hugely resented. How dare he-an interloper, taking over a key local business? So they werenae respectful tae him. Ye can imagine how he loathed that. No getting the respect frae his neighbours that he believed he wis due."

This explanation didn't convince Alan either. "But Rory Morrison wasn't from here. He was a Highlander like my parents. And he was civil to everybody, them included. Yet my father hurt him as much as he hurt anyone."

"Remember, though, that Rory wis married tae a local woman. He'd gotten intae the clique that way. So in yer faither's eyes, he wis fair game." Drummond thought for a moment, chuckled and added, "I still hae the photographs o thon protest by the way. They're in a dusty drawer at the bottom o ma filing cabinet. I made a tidy sum frae them. I sold them tae the Daily Record, the Glasgow Herald, the Scotsman ..."

Alan groaned. "I was there. I must have been in your photos. Eight years old and my father dragged me to the entrance of the Citadel to join in. Me and my daft old dad on show in the national newspapers." He took most of his whiskey in a single, jolting gulp. A little hoarsely, he added. "Oh Jesus!"

"Well," Drummond observed, "Jesus wis the reason why ye were there."

*

As Alan walked towards the church, he drew level with the glass doors of the cinema. High above the doors, the snowflakes resembled swarms of fireflies in the glow from a lipstick-red squiggle of neon that spelt the name Citadel. Slightly lower, they took on various colours as they passed the string of Christmas lights linking the front of the cinema with the High Street's other facades.

The glass panes in the cinema's doors were multi-coloured too. Coloured glitter had been pasted there to make pictures of snowmen, reindeer and robin redbreasts. The glittery pictures obscured the cinema's interior, though Alan could see figures standing inside. Curious, he pushed one of the door-handles and discovered the door was unlocked. He stepped through, crumbs of snow accompanying his shoes from the pavement onto the red carpet of the lobby.

He breathed deeply. Rory Morrison had excelled himself.

Morrison was well-known for his innovations. He organised raffles whereby each punter received a number with his or her ticket and a draw for a prize was made at the end of the film. At weekends and during holidays he organised matinees for the town's youngsters-westerns, Disney films, Ray Harryhausen films and old James Bonds. And a few years back he'd introduced bingo to the cinema, two nights a week. At least, this was what Alan had heard from people who went there. His father had forbidden him to watch anything in the Citadel himself.

But what Morrison had done this Christmas suggested he was a fully-fledged showman. Somehow, from some funfair or amusement arcade, he'd procured several mechanical figures that were set in motion by the insertion of coins. These had been dressed in Christmas-themed costumes and lined along the lobby wall between the entrance doors and the ticket counter.

The figures included, inevitably, a Santa Claus with a long fleecy beard. But there was also a stout, crimson-cheeked man in a white belted tunic and white mitre who held in one hand a jeweled goblet and in his other hand an ivy-entwined crozier. And a king whose crown was adorned with sprigs of mistletoe and holly and whose robes were embroidered with suns, moons and stars. And a clown in a costume festooned with dozens of tiny silver bells. And a burly Victorian carol singer in a top hat and frockcoat. And a mummer brandishing a wooden sword and clad in a knight's helmet and immense shaggy outfit of ribbons. All were life-sized, the wheels and cogs inside them surely as big as plates and saucers. Their bright facial paintwork made them look like they were wearing kabuki masks.

Apart from those figures the lobby was empty. Also, the lights had been turned down and were as weak and glimmering as candleflames. Alan moved on to the unstaffed ticket counter, looked along the countertop and noticed that the cinema's cash register was open. The drawer jutted from its base. He stepped behind the counter and inspected the compartments in the drawer. They contained a single type of silver coin and there were two dozen, maybe as many as thirty of them. Alan lifted one of them and saw how smooth it was. Nothing was engraved on its sides. It was merely ... a piece of silver.

On impulse, Alan left the counter and walked to the nearest automation, the Santa Claus. He crouched before it. The figure stood on a box-like pedestal that had a slot cut in it and the blank coin fitted the slot perfectly. Alan pushed it in, listened to the rattle as it disappeared, and looked up. For a moment nothing happened.

Then with alarming suddenness the Santa Claus jerked forward. His big belly folded, his head bowed, and the woolly curls of his beard dropped over Alan's head. The beard was greasy and rancid-smelling and Alan flung himself back. He lost his balance and ended up on his rump on the lobby carpet. In front of him, the automation straightened up again, his hands slapping his belly, bulbs behind his face flashing on and off and making his red cheeks blink like indicator lights. A tape inside him rumbled: "Ho-ho-ho!"

Alan scrambled to his feet. The guffawing Santa had shocked him, but what was happening simultaneously was even more alarming. Along the wall, all the automatons were moving. The abbot lifted the goblet to his mouth, bellowed "Merry Christmas!", lowered it, bellowed again and lifted it again. The king cranked a hand before him in a regal wave. The clown performed a clumsy dance, bells tinkling in his costume. The carol singer's jaw clicked open and shut and boomed out a rendition of God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. The mummer thrust his wooden sword around in the air while his coat of ribbons shifted and rustled. Suddenly the lobby was in uproar with crackling voices and creaking movement.

Alan panicked. The noise would surely draw Rory Morrison and his staff to this part of the building. And if they spotted him here, and a report of it got back to his father ... He'd get a thrashing. He was not supposed to be here. This was the last place in the town he should be.

He bolted back to the entrance doors and yanked at their handles. The doors wouldn't open. He shoved at them but they still didn't budge. In the past minute, somehow, they'd become locked. Meanwhile, behind him, he heard the clicking of wheels and the grinding of sockets as metal legs began to move, and then the slow thud of heavy feet crossing the lobby carpet-

Alan was still tugging and pushing at the doors when a cold metal hand dropped onto his shoulder.

He turned back and saw that, yes, the automatons had lumbered from their positions by the wall. Now they formed a half-circle around him, still engaged in their different performances, laughing, drinking, waving, singing, dancing. What frightened him most was that their faces no longer seemed painted and mask-like but had become human-in a psychotic way. Above his unruly and filthy beard, the Santa Claus had a crazed glint in his eyes. While his goblet rose and fell, the abbot's expression was drunken and leering. Behind the waving hand, the king's features had no regal grace or solemnity-on the contrary, he looked half-witted.

Things his father had said came back to him as he cowered against the glass doors. "The heathen Norse Odin! I've told you about him many times, Alan! About how the fools in our culture took him and his chariot from the winter solstice and pretended he was really the holy Saint Nicholas!"

The voice grew louder and shriller. "And the Abbot of Unreason, a travesty of the Church, an insult to Christ! Oh yes! In their wisdom, the Puritans put an end to him!"

The zealous voice became unbearably loud. "And that debauched favourite of the medieval English, the Lord of Misrule! A buffoon lord, Alan, a buffoon! Created to mock our true lord!"

Maybe it was the thundering voice in his head as much as the grotesque mechanical figures around him that made Alan spin back to the doors and smash his fists against their panes. A sheet of glass bearing a glittery snowman buckled outwards. Alan pounded at it yet more violently. Then his hands were suddenly resting in the middle of a jagged hole, the teeth of glass that survived around its edges still frosted with glitter. He tried to pull back his hands, but they refused to come. Two bright strips of red started to roll down the door under the hole. Meanwhile, the tops of his hands were turning red too, around the glass points that now stuck out of them.

He struggled to free his hands even while the pain of the injuries jolted him like electrical shocks. But his struggling only made the glass cut deeper. As his flesh opened, globules of red danced up in front of him, some dancing high enough to splatter his face.

*

The redness he really saw belonged to the embers in the mound of ash and wood-fragments in the public bar's fireplace. Alan jerked back from the tabletop, over which he'd been slumped with his most recent whiskey tumbler clasped between his hands. A crowd of empty glasses on the table indicated how much whiskey he and Drummond had put away during the past hours.

He looked around. The other chair at his table was empty. In the bar itself, only three or four customers remained-Drummond wasn't among them. The hands of the bar's clock were past closing time and the main door had been wedged back in the hope that the cold breeze from the street would send the stragglers home.

Noticing him, the barman barked over his counter, "Awake now, are ye? Well, ye'd best be on your way. We're shutting."

Alan's voice felt as sluggish as his body. "What ... What happened to ... to Drummond?"

"The auld boy stumbled off aboot fifteen minutes ago, after ye decided to take a nap. He wis pished too but at least he managed tae keep himself awake. Now I suggest ye follow his example. Gid night!"

Alan wanted to get up and go home, but for a moment he could only sit there, dazed by the vivacity of the dream. The thing had seemed so real. Not just the images of the painted automatons lumbering at him in the cinema lobby, but also the pain at the end when the blades of glass had punctured his hands ... Hold on, though. Wasn't he feeling that pain now?

He looked down and discovered that while he'd been dreaming, the tumbler had imploded in his grasp and sharp edges of glass had buried themselves in his palms.

*

The next morning, the band-aid beside Alan's eye had been supplemented by two gauze-and-bandage dressings around his hands. As he made his way to the shop, along the High Street, two different acquaintances stopped him and asked, "Have ye been in the wars?"

He also stopped in front of the building that'd once housed the Citadel Cinema. Drummond's comment about the photographs he'd taken forty years ago revived memories.

Alan recalled standing on the pavement there one evening with his father and a crowd of people he knew as congregation-members at the gospel hall. He felt small and shy with so many adults around him. Nonetheless, and though his arms had begun to ache, he was determined to obey the instructions he'd been given, which was to keep holding up a placard.

The placard said: Laugh at this? You laugh in hell. Alan wasn't sure why this message was written on it. He couldn't see any connection with the film title spelt in big black letters above the cinema's entrance, which was Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Meanwhile, his father and his companions addressed the folk who came up the street and turned to go through the doors. At first, his father spoke calmly, saying things like: "Can we ask you something? Do you think it's fair that a man who died for your salvation should be parodied on a cinema screen? To make money for a bunch of corrupt film-makers?" But the filmgoers ignored him and, as time passed, his voice got angrier. Eventually Alan's father was raging, "You're as guilty! You're as bad as the scum who made this abomination!"

Rory Morrison had known they were there, of course. Several times Alan had seen him behind the glass doors, watching them. Then, when the shouting reached a certain volume, he stepped out onto the High Street.

He tried to speak firmly but even Alan noticed a quiver in his voice. "Look, Malcolm. If you and your friends are wanting to protest, fine. Go ahead. This is a free country, you have your opinions, there's nothing to stop you expressing them so long as you do it peacefully. But I'm not having you shouting like that, threatening and intimidating people. Not my patrons, Malcolm. It's not on!"

Alan's father didn't reply for a moment. He groped into one of his coat pockets, located something and handed it over to Morrison. "For you, Rory," he said quietly. "Your reward."

Morrison gazed down at the small silver disc that Malcolm Howie had dropped into his palm. "What's this for?"

"Judas got twenty-nine more of them, of course. But then, his crime had a certain, evil grandeur. He earned himself thirty pieces of silver and a place in the deepest pit of hell. Your crime, Rory, is small and sneaky and cowardly. But by showing that film tonight, you've done the same thing in your pathetic, contemptible way. You've crucified Christ!"

While a dumbfounded Morrison contemplated the silver in his hand, a white light flashed and momentarily enveloped him, Alan and Alan's father. Drummond had arrived at the cinema with a camera and decided that this scene was worth immortalising.

Malcolm Howie made his next utterance in a yet quieter voice. Alan was probably the only one of the other protesters who heard it, because he stood so close. His father hissed at Morrison, "I've done some research, Rory. You're from the island of Scalpay, aren't you? A son of Archie and Vera Morrison? Now I admit that our church and the church that most folk on Scalpay belong to don't see eye-to-eye on every doctrine. But we generally regard them as a fine, righteous, God-fearing people. And it would surely break their hearts to know that one of their own was promoting blasphemous filth like this."

Morrison's voice no longer quivered - it seemed to have dried up. He sounded like a man dying of thirst. "Malcolm … You wouldn't do that!"

"Wouldn't? I already have, Rory. I posted a letter to your parents this morning. You'd best get in touch with them. Try to make your peace with them. If that's possible now."

Four decades later, Alan still seemed to feel that psychic poison contaminating the air in front of the building - the poison emanating from his father as he whispered to Rory Morrison.

He didn't know if his father succeeded in causing trouble between Morrison and his parents. Maybe there was trouble, but it wasn't the result of his father's malicious letter, since thanks to Drummond, details of the protest got into the national newspapers. What he did know was that a few months later Morrison resigned from the cinema and left the town. The manager who replaced him didn't have the same flair for pulling in customers with promotional gimmicks. Stories began to circulate about the cinema losing money. Later, it became known that the place wasn't just suffering losses, but suffering disastrous losses. Finally, in the early 1980s, the Citadel's closure was announced. In his Times editorial that week, Drummond observed glumly that "a town without a cinema is like a town without a soul."

After its closure, the back part of the building containing the auditorium had been damaged by a leaking roof and by incursions of vandals, and eventually it'd been demolished. But the front part containing the lobby had survived and gone through several owners and functions. First, it'd been a mini-supermarket, and then a video rental store-which at least meant it was enabling people to see films again. Now that developments in home-entertainment technology had rendered the video market obsolete, the building had changed again and it now housed a shabby fast-food outlet where, according to rumour, the staff would deep-fry pizzas or even chocolate bars for you if your craving for batter was strong enough.

Alan wondered about Rory Morrison. Where had he ended up? Was he still alive? Somehow, Alan suspected he was dead. He suspected too that he hadn't passed away in a civil frame of mind. In fact, recalling the savage ending of the cinema dream, with his hands skewered on daggers of glass, Alan imagined Morrison on his deathbed as a bitter and angry man-savagely bitter and angry.

*

There was no stopping the dreams after that. They assailed him night and day. In each dream he was alone on the High Street, the air was full of falling snow and the chains of lights along the shop facades glowed phantasmagorically.

One dream saw him enter the off-licence that Rob Forest had run years earlier. Inside, the shop resembled a warehouse that'd been stocked in preparation for a huge, drunken shindig. Hundreds of casks of wine and ale were stacked in towering columns, and the columns were packed together in massive blocks. Between these blocks, Alan followed a twisting passageway. Clumps of red-speckled holly covered the warehouse's rafters while ivy sprouted everywhere below, its leaves and tendrils creeping across the curved wooden surfaces of the casks.

Alan remembered something his father had said about a feast that the Romans-"The tribe of Pilate, the lot that washed their hands of the Redeemer!"-had staged at this time of year. "The Saturnalia. Held in honour of their false God Saturn, whose symbols included the ivy and holly plants. Aye, think about it, Alan. The tawdry greenery with which our idiot neighbours trick out their houses every December has more to do with a debauched Roman carnival than with the birth of our Lord!"

Then he heard rustling noises and realised that the ivy was somehow moving around him. Its thick leafy strands were stirring, beginning to slide and slither over the casks like an army of snakes. A moment later, a creaking sound came from the stack beside him. He looked up in time to see the barrel at the top of the stack shift with the movement of the ivy, then topple and crash towards him.

He awoke a split-second before the barrel flattened him and found himself lying gasping and sweating in the darkness of his bedroom.

In another dream he went into the old toy shop belonging to Meg Darnley. Every Christmas during Alan's childhood, it was home to a makeshift grotto where young kids got to meet Santa Claus. As with Rob Forest's off-licence in the previous dream, the toy shop had become enormous. At the back of it, the grotto stood as a collection of giant pillars and archways, like a temple from ancient Greece or Egypt whose stones had been dug up and re-assembled in a museum hall. Toys-dolls, teddy bears, clowns, jack-in-the-boxes-were piled against the pillars on either side of the biggest archway, which served as the grotto's entrance. Spread between the pillars, across the archway's threshold, was a regiment of little wooden soldiers clad in bright red jackets with silver buttons, and hussars' helmets with plumes at their sides.

Alan knelt before the archway to take a closer look at these splendidly detailed toy soldiers. All the little figures had rifles slanting up from their shoulders while pieces of field-artillery, whose barrels were the size of real pistols, were positioned here and there among them. It occurred to him that every weapon present, rifles and field guns alike, was pointing at him.

At the same time, he noticed an acrid tang of gunpowder in the air. And then he heard a tiny voice squeak, "Fire!"

Something banged in the drizzly street outside his bedroom window, perhaps a car backfiring. The noise whisked him out of the grotto and back into reality in the nick of time.

A third dream had him struggling along the High Street with a small but heavy weight in his hands, through freezing gusts of wind and stinging flurries of snow. Eventually the snowstorm became too much and he had to take shelter in the nearest shop, which was the pet store Ronald Weir had once run.

In the store there was no sign of Weir or any customers. However, cages filled the shelves, lined the countertop and were stacked crookedly on the floor. In each cage was an animal that looked much too fearsome to be a pet. A wolf glowered through bars and showed its fangs. A lynx twisted uncomfortably in its confines and hissed and spat. Big black crows and ravens flapped and cawed. Other inmates included foxes, stoats, rats, owls and snakes. The boar that'd attacked him in the first dream wasn't present, but these animals had similarly red eyes, burning with fury. It wasn't Alan's fault that they were trapped in the cages, but with Weir absent he got the impression that their fury was directed at him, the only human on the premises.

Disconcerted, he turned back to the doorway, but outside the wind and snow had swelled into a blizzard. He was stuck here. Then, above the animals' snarling, hissing and cawing, music began to play. Alan remembered he was carrying something and looked down. He held a box with an open lid. Inside it, a silver angel-figure rotated while a tune chimed out of a mechanism in the box's base. Before he could put a name to the tune - it was a slow, melancholic Christmas carol like Silent Night or The First Noel - he noticed that the doors of the cages holding those malevolent, red-eyed animals had locks and protruding from every lock was a silver key.

These keys had started to move. While the music-box played and the angel turned, so the keys cranked around in their locks, their teeth pushing against the lock-springs.

A moment later, the keys had turned completely. The locks were undone, the doors were open, the wrathful creatures were free-

Just before he was torn apart in an onslaught of fangs, claws and beaks, he awoke in the chair behind the first-floor counter in his shop. The carol continued to play, not from a music-box, but from a radio he'd placed on a nearby shelf in the hope that its sound would keep him awake.

Alan considered the proprietors of the places he'd dreamt about. He knew his father had fallen out with Rob Forest and had fired letters off to the Burnside Times alleging that Forest was selling liquor to underage teenagers. On the other hand, he knew of no trouble between his father and Meg Darnley or Ronald Weir. But if bad blood had existed, he wouldn't have been surprised.

Come to think of it, it would have surprised him if there hadn't been bad blood between them.

*

Two mornings before Christmas Day, Alan was on the High Street when he realised something. It was to do with the sequence of the dreams and the positions of the establishments he'd dreamt about: Barr the Butcher, the Citadel, Forest's, Meg Darnley's, Weir's Pet Shop. Each place had stood a little closer than its predecessor to the parish church where the chains of lights began.

He was only yards from the church now. Like every other detail of the grey, dreich, real High Street, the Christmas tree above its steps seemed shrunken and unimpressive compared to its dream counterpart. Looking up at it, he wondered what would happen when he arrived there in the dreams. There'd be no more shops to lure him inside and torment and terrify him. What would happen then? Would the dreams end? Or would he, the dreamer, end?

One of the last businesses before the church was a New Age shop called the Sirius. Alan recalled how decades ago when Howie's had only sold newspapers and magazines, this had been the site of the town's bookshop. He entered the Sirius, almost expecting to walk into the cloud of cigarette smoke that'd always filled the building when Polly Blake, the old bookshop's proprietor, was there. Instead, he encountered a smell of incense. It was as sweet as Polly's cigarette smoke had been stale, but equally as irritating.

The interior was different now. Polly's shop had been dark and cramped, its walls surfaced with chocolate-brown paneling where they weren't hidden behind bookshelves and book-cabinets. The Sirius seemed as bright and airy as a glasshouse during brilliant sunshine. He went past displays of crystals, candles, pendants and cards to a small case of books in a corner and checked the titles on the spines. The volumes dealt with fengshui, the I Ching, astrology, witchcraft, fairies, alien encounters and finally, the topic he was after, dreams.

The Sirius had been in existence for two or three years. In other words, it'd started up while his father was still alive. Yet Alan couldn't remember old Howie ever mentioning the New Age shop. Thirty or forty years ago, he'd have been livid. The idea of it! Opening a shop in Burnside that sold the tools and texts of black magic! When the scriptures had stated, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live-"

But in the last years of his life his father seemed to have accepted defeat. A thousand-strong Gay Pride march could have passed down the High Street and his stooped, shriveled figure would scarcely have turned his head to the window and issued a grunt of disapproval.

Alan thought of the day when he'd returned to Burnside-for, officially, a reconciliation with his father and, unofficially, to prepare to take over the business when the old man died, something that the family solicitor told him would happen soon. He came into the shop and nearly choked when he saw the magazine racks. Their contents included several lads' mags and softcore porn ones. He spotted copies of Metal Hammer, Viz and even the Catholic Herald. The old man offered no information about when or why he'd started selling them. Alan had long since become an atheist, but nonetheless something stirred inside him and he felt sad. It wasn't that the world had become so corrupt that its sinfulness had even managed to ooze into Malcolm Howie's shop. It was just that his father, bad as he'd been, had lost all his fight.

Alan chose three books about dreams and paid for them. On his way out, he reflected that he'd been 13 years old the last time he'd bought a book in this building. The purchase had been J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye. His father had discovered the book in his bedroom a fortnight later.

That prompted a storm, of course-Alan winced as he remembered the blows coming down upon him, and that pious voice quoting Second Samuel, chapter seven, verse 14: "I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men." It prompted a second storm too, of letters to the Burnside Times protesting at how the local bookshop was supplying impressionable youngsters with obscene reading matter. Drummond, bored to tears with printing small-town tittle-tattle about Mothers Union jumble sales, Round Table coffee mornings and Young Farmers charity concerts, was only too happy to give Malcolm Howie's letters prominence and turn them into a story.

Alan doubted if a phlegmatic character like Polly Blake had been much upset or offended by the campaign. Personality-wise, she seemed more than a match for his father. Yet it was a fact that the shop had closed a year later and she herself hadn't lasted long beyond the closure. No doubt the nicotine her lungs had absorbed from those tens of thousands of cigarettes had helped her on her way.

Alan thought of the quaint term Drummond used for dying: 'giving up the ghost'. That was probably what Polly Blake had done. She'd given up. She was weary of the world and no longer wanted to stay. The world contained too many idiots like Malcolm Howie and doing business there, living there, wasn't worth the effort anymore.

Next door to the Sirius was a café. Alan headed in, asked for a mug of tea, sat down and inspected his three new books. Their titles were A Guide to Dream-lore, Exploring your Dreamscape, and The Logic and Un-Logic of Dreams. He opened one and tried to read, but this proved difficult now he was sitting down. The effects of not having slept much recently caught up with him. His head became light, his eyes ached, the letters on the page below seemed to tremble and mutate.

Finally, the letters took on the appearance of black ants. Ants on the march, in indecipherable formations, across a white floor ...

He kept staring at the floor long after the ants had scurried out of view and it'd turned entirely white. Then he realised it wasn't a floor he was studying, but the snow-covered ground. Alan raised his eyes and found himself out on the High Street again. Snowflakes descended in graceful trajectories and joined what was already on the pavement. The Christmas lights hung from the shop fronts like jewels. Just ahead of him, the church steps climbed to the massive pine tree, which was flecked with so many lights it resembled a triangular segment cut out of a starry sky.

He was standing outside Polly Blake's bookshop. The stonework around the shop-window was veined with ice where trickles of water making their way downwards had frozen in the cold. His eyes followed the veins up to the gutter under the roof-edge. It was fringed with huge icicles, so that the roof looked like it'd acquired a straggly white beard.

Alan turned his attention to the inside of the window. There was only one book on display-an enormous one, larger even than the Bible on the lectern that his father had read from during the gospel-hall services. It rested amid a grove of candles, whose flames were quickly whittling away their wax stems. Then, magically, the book opened by itself. The front cover and half its pages sprang across the floor of the window-cavity. Simultaneously, a structure rose out of it, first from the cleft between the two top pages and then from the pages themselves. He was looking at a giant-sized pop-up book and popping up from it now was a palace with walls of glittering ice.

The structure had tall, thin spires that resembled the icicles above the shop-window turned upside-down. Connecting them were ice battlements like lines of serrated glass. Snow-dusted pine trees crowded along the palace's base while a lake stretched in front of it, sheeted over with more ice.

Then Alan saw how the candles surrounding the book had burned to the bottoms of their stems. Instead of expiring in piles of molten wax, however, the flames exploded. They gushed up the inside of the window. This had an instant effect on the palace. Its walls and spires glistened wetly, then withered, drooped and collapsed back into the book. Cracks zig-zagged along the frozen lake and turned into ravines and then into yawning chasms. The lake-water came up over the ice's surface in a foaming surge-

While the window filled with flames, something fell past Alan and shattered on the pavement. He looked up. All the ice was melting-not just that contained inside the book, but the real ice under the roof-gutter. Before he could leap back an icicle thumped down against his shoulder and knocked him onto the pavement. More of the frozen spikes smashed into the ground around him, showering him with fragments. Then, directly above his face, he saw the heaviest icicle wobble and detach itself and descend-

Instead of a sickening, cleaving crash as the spear struck his face, there was a soft thud as Alan's forehead hit the tabletop in the cafe. He raised himself back into his chair, his eyes aching more than ever. His falling head had overturned a café sugar-bowl and spilt sugar crystals lay glinting on the surface below him like splinters of ice.

*

It was the late afternoon of December 24th. Upstairs in the shop, Alan wearily attended to customers hunting for books as last-minute presents. He hadn't slept the previous night. Something told him it was vital he didn't sleep again until the 26th-after the highpoint of the festival, Christmas Day, had passed.

All the dreams had climaxed with something bad happening. In the next dream he knew he would reach the church, which would be the climax of the whole sequence of dreams. How bad might that be?

Alan served a woman who was the only customer in the bookroom now. He put a copy of Raymond Briggs's The Snowman and a receipt in a bag and handed it to her and, after her heels had clicked down the wooden stairs, he emerged from behind the counter and looked out of a window. Just then, while the daylight ebbed and the street darkened, the line of lights along the opposite shop-facades flickered and came on.

Seeing those little glass orbs fill with energy, Alan suddenly understood.

It was happening because of the lights. More precisely, it was happening because he'd allowed the Chamber of Commerce to put those lights along the front of the shop. His father had always denied them permission when they asked him. Even during the last few Christmases of his life, when the old man was decrepit and defeated and wouldn't have cared, the Chamber hadn't bothered to approach him, assuming the answer would still be 'no'.

Thus, for the first time since the Howies' arrival in Burnside, the High Street was completely illuminated. The Christmas lights circled it entirely, from one end to the other and back.

And now, something-some force connected with the street-was able to get into the premises, get at him, get into his head and get among his dreams.

He didn't know what this force was. Perhaps it was a malevolent psychic energy left by the people who'd once run the street, like John Barr, Rory Morrison and Polly Blake, the people whom his father had hated and hounded and, in some cases, destroyed. Or perhaps it was something from the street itself. Thanks to his father's campaigns, the healthy businesses that had once lined its sides had been damaged and weakened, sometimes fatally. And what had replaced them? Charity shops, discount stores, fast-food outlets, even a few empty, boarded-up husks. In time, the street had become a sad, shabby corridor of tack, tat and dereliction.

But whatever the identity of the culprit, it was clear that something was attacking him, using his dreams as weapons, and it was in revenge for the deeds of Malcolm Howie years earlier. He was being punished for the sins of his father.

And the conduit by which it was reaching him was those lights! He blundered down the stairs to the newspaper and magazine-room, which was also without customers. He passed Annie, who sat frowning over the Daily Record crossword puzzle, and went into the back storeroom. She called after him, "What are ye looking for?"

"The ladder."

"What are ye wanting that for?"

He struggled back with an aluminum extension ladder, the ends of its legs scraping along the floorboards behind him. By the time he got it to the door he'd managed to topple a rack of magazines with it. "Those Christmas lights are being removed. Come outside and hold this thing for me."

It took a few minutes of fumbling and wrestling to get the ladder's second section slid out and fastened so that it was at its full length, and then to prop it against the front wall. Annie stuck her face close to his and said tersely, "Dae ye no think ye should hire someone tae dae this? An electrician, like?"

"No time, Annie. Those lights have to go. Immediately!"

"And how dae ye propose removing them?"

"With my own hands."

"Ever hear o a wee thing cawed electricity, son? They use it in America tae execute people."

"Hold the ladder, Annie. I'm taking them down."

"Believe me, ye'd hae trouble taking doon yer own trousers at the moment. Look at ye! Yer face is as pale as a ghost's. And yer hands are shoogling so much it's like they're working a cocktail shaker."

He ignored her and went clambering up the ladder, not caring whether she was holding it or not. He ignored too the pain from his still-bandaged palms as they pressed the ladder's sides. Finally, his eyes were level with the lights. Before he started to tear them off the wall, he marveled at how cheap and puny and weakly luminescent they were-for nowadays Burnside's Chamber of Commerce had hardly any money to spend on its festive decorations. And yet these little things had caused him so much trouble-

Suddenly, magically, they changed. They turned into the big, bright lights again. Their forms become those of angels, bells, lanterns, stockings and Christmas trees. Fantastic colours radiated from them. Alan gave a despairing cry of "No! I'm back in the dreams!" and recoiled. This took his feet off the ladder-rung and he fell to the pavement.

*

Later, Alan ascended again-not up a ladder, but up some steps.

His feet made soft crunches as they sank into the strips of snow along each step. Above him, the bulk of the great pine tree all but hid the church from view. He passed the uppermost step and halted before it. The ends of its lowest branches were level with his waist, its tapering summit was far above his head and its foliage flowed down like a green avalanche.

A bewildering array of things were lodged in that avalanche. There were silver and golden decorations in the shape of bells, stars, angels, snowmen, robins, reindeer, sleighs, candles, lanterns, yule-logs and gift-boxes. Around the decorations hung countless fairy lights-each its own unique hue, so that no two lights on the tree emitted quite the same colour. And all the decorations and lights were enmeshed in a vast glittering web of tinsel.

The tree contained so much that it took Alan a long time to notice the strange flesh-tinted baubles dangling from the ends of the nearest branches. It occurred to him that these baubles had faces - faces like those that'd belonged to John Barr, Rory Morrison, Rab Forest, Meg Darnley, Ronald Weir and Polly Blake.

The faces on the little globes began to move. Their eyes narrowed. Their mouths twisted into sneers and then opened and gave vent to malicious laughter. As the laughter became uproarious, the faces grew increasingly contorted, until the baubles looked more like scrunched-up balls of paper.

They were laughing at him. Him! A rage took hold of Alan. "But it wasn't my fault!" he roared at the leering, jeering faces. "It had nothing to do with me! I was only a kid at the time-I couldn't have any influence on what he did! So there's no point tormenting me about it!"

The faces stopped laughing and started speaking. In a chorus their voices replied: "Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children! Exodus, chapter 34, verse seven!"

Alan ranted, "Who'd punish innocent children for something their parents did?"

The faces shouted back: "God!"

"And who'd believe in a God like that?"

"Your father did!"

He dived into the tree, grabbing at the human-faced baubles. He couldn't seem to get his hands on them. His arms thrashed about but he failed to reach them. Instead, he managed to entangle himself in the pine branches, among the strands of tinsel and the wires connecting the fairy lights. "It wasn't my fault!" he shouted again and then spluttered as his mouth filled with acrid pine needles. His rage intensified. How dare they? They were blaming him for what that vicious old man had done-

"Not my fault!" he yelled, deep within the tree now. His rage became tangible. It became a searing energy, a blaze of red and white and orange, a great burning heat.

*

With the church's stonework behind it, the remnants of the tree resembled a black, spidery pencil-scrawl on a sheet of grey paper. Only a few spindles survived of its branches, sticking from the sooty pole of its trunk. Its base was screened off by sheets that'd been hung over sections of mobile railing. One fire engine was still parked on the High Street, in front of the New Age shop and the café, but there was nothing more its crew could do. The police, ambulance and other fire engines had already departed. So too had nearly all the onlookers, aware that loitering at a fatal-accident scene wasn't going to boost their festive cheer for the day ahead.

In fact, only two onlookers remained. Annie said to Drummond, "I heard there wisnae much left o him."

"That's what the firemen tellt me. It wis only the tree that went up but they said the heat inside it wis fierce."

"So how dae they ken it wis him?"

"He wis seen, Annie. The minister and the elders were locking up after the midnight service when they heard a commotion ootside. Alan hollering. Flames whooshing up. They ran ontae the steps and saw him struggling amid the branches. But by then they couldnae help him."

"He wis in his pajamas?"

"Aye, in his pajamas." Drummond sighed. "Them poor guys in the church. They're gonnae need counselling after what they witnessed."

"I cannae understand it. When he fell off the ladder, he had some cuts and bruises but he wis mair agitated than injured. I phoned the paramedics and they came and patched him up. Then they took him tae his hoose and Doctor Inglis met him there and gave him a sedative. Promised it would knock him oot for the night. But surely if ye're doped like that, ye dinnae get up again and sleepwalk yer way across half the toon?"

"The doc might ay got the medication wrong. Oh, there's gonnae be all kinds o trouble aboot this. The tree for instance. The wiring on its lights cannae ay been safe if the whole thing burst intae flames after Alan jostled them a bit. Aye … This'll be on the Burnside Times front page for weeks." Unlike his normal tone-of-voice when he'd found a big story, Drummond didn't sound jubilant.

Then he put a hand on Annie's shoulder and gently turned her around, away from the charred tree and blackened steps. "Tell ye what. The Times staff gave me a bottle o malt as a Christmas present. It's in the office. Come wi me and I'll gie ye a dram o it. Tae steady yer nerves."

Slowly, the pair of them made their way up the High Street. "The poor laddie," Annie lamented. "I didnae realise till yesterday how much that auld bastard had messed up his heid. When he got that urge tae tear the lights off the front o the shop-the lights his faither hated so much. What wis that aboot? Some mad guilt thing?"

When Drummond spoke again, it wasn't to her. "Malcolm Howie," he mused. "Ye werenae the world's greatest advertisement for religion."

Eventually, the last fire engine moved off and then the only human activity at the scene was the passing of an occasional townsperson, out for a post-Christmas-dinner stroll and unable to resist the morbid impulse to visit the spot where Alan Howie had died. They hurried past, however, spooked by the wind as it rippled the sheets on the railings and stirred columns of black fragments up into the air.

Then, late in the day, the Christmas lights lit up along the street and back. By a miracle, the ones linking the street with the church's corners had survived the heat and continued to work. But now they were stained with smoke and soot. They cast over the site of the tragedy a yellow-grey light so pallid and grim it seemed powered not by modern electricity but by the flicker of pagan torches.

THE END


© 2019 Jim Mountfield

Bio: Jim Mountfield was born in Northern Ireland, was educated in Scotland and currently lives in Sri Lanka. His work has appeared, sometimes under pseudonyms, in Blood Moon Rising, Death's Head Grin, the Dream Zone, Flashes in the Dark, Hellfire Crossroads, the Horror Zine, Hungur, Legend, Roadworks and Sorcerous Signals. He blogs at www.bloodandporridge.co.uk .

E-mail: Jim Mountfield

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