This year, Santa’s little helpers have been more than generous and we’ve got a bumper crop of wonderful Christmas short stories for you – from the dark to the whimsical and all stops in between. So put your favourite Christmas jumper on, pour yourself a mulled wine, grab a mince pie and sit down for another great criminally festive read.
Christmas lunch is arguably the high point of the day, with everyone gathered around the table to share a convivial meal, pigs in blankets, sumptuous afters… Only you might just feel differently after reading today’s chilling short story by Sally Spedding.
Afters by Sally Spedding
Mrs. Hammond, smart in a new tweed suit, pushed her way through the melée of prams and bus queue stragglers, into Snoderton’s local bread shop, where its various Christmas decorations were already in place, and a manufactured tree replete with tiny lights monopolised the front window.
“Two white rolls and a split tin, please!” She called out over too many other heads to that sole assistant sporting a vivid yellow overall and a sprig of holly in her hair. “I’d better take a malt loaf as well.”
Time was running out, what with all those other portly customers pushing their way to the front.
“You’ll have to wait, Missus.” Shrilled that same yellow-clad girl, darting from shelf to till. “There’s others before you.” But Mrs. Hammond wasn’t to be deterred. She eased forward to the counter amongst the stifling confines of bad breath and middle-aged coats and was finally served.
The bread and rolls felt moist and warm through their paper bags, as she hurried outside into mid-December’s unseasonal warmth. She skilfully dodged cars and shoppers in her rush to the Pet and Garden Stores. Another five minutes and they’d have closed for lunch. She dared not think of the consequences.
They knew what she wanted. Regular as clockwork was this customer with one bandaged foot much larger than the other. Without prompting, the young man with a ginger kitten nestled in his unruly hair, carefully weighed a mixture of cubes, nuts and dark beans before carefully pouring it all into a plastic sack.
“There, Madam,” he added, creating a tight knot. “All the very best minerals and vitamins, tried and tested.”
She thanked him and was about to leave, when her attention was caught by a large, stiff-bristled brush with a jolly red handle.
“Do you think this will bring dandruff to the surface?” She asked.
“Just the job, I’d ‘ave thought.” Said a woman’s voice from behind a huge and busy fish tank. “What yer got? A llama or summat?”
Mrs. Hammond didn’t like her tone at all, but realised it was a good buy and that Jeremy would most certainly benefit.
By the time she reached home in Cherry Drive, she was hot and flushed. Her immaculate, bow-fronted pebble-dashed house welcomed her as always, with those two painted words on a piece of pine wood screwed to the front door.
The brightness of the hallway was always a pleasant surprise. Usually gay with fresh flowers and a tangerine-coloured carpet, those earlier blooms had been replaced by sprigs of holly from the garden. And something else…
She sniffed. Wrinkled her nose as another, all-too familiar smell filtered upwards from beneath the workroom door. Also came urgent scrabbling from within.
“He can wait a little longer,” she told herself, slightly puzzled by the noise. “After all, he’s eaten a colossal late breakfast. Half an hour won’t hurt, surely?” She convinced herself, while preparing delicate, triangular cucumber sandwiches in the spotless kitchen. She’d been eating alone for almost two years since her husband’s sudden disappearance, adapting well to living without him, feeling not the slightest tinge of regret. Thanks to his careful savings, she was now free to indulge herself as she pleased.
Meanwhile. those sounds from below were becoming more insistent, and she ate more hurriedly than usual, filling her mouth untidily with a portion of peach gȃteau. At the same time, shutting out a growing impatience by listening to the local radio’s news programme. A regular part of her day.
“A major event is almost upon us,” the announcer enthused. “The Buxley and Snoderton Livestock Show promises to be the most successful venture of its kind in the South East, with the introduction of many specialised classes catering for every type of breeder. A huge number of exhibits are expected on the first day which is tomorrow, especially with Christmas drawing so near.”
Mrs. Hammond smiled to herself. Tomorrow would be her day when she’d see the culmination of all her labours and dreams. Such utter joy! Also, with the chance of a splendid trophy and very useful prize money.
Rarely had she felt such elation, and to the sound of ‘The Merry Widow’ waltz,began to dance – albeit clumsily – around the room. The kind of thing she’d done with Wilfred in those old days. Still prancing, she then tied a frilly apron round her none-too slender waist, before transferring that sack’s contents into a large pudding basin. Next, she added boiling water to the heap, causing billows of steam to rise, filling the kitchen and misting up its front window.
Having stirred the mixture with one of Wilfred’s old walking sticks, she periodically sprinkled in various additives, moving faster in time with the music as her body swayed and circled in a growing ecstasy.
Louder and louder swelled the beat while the mash expanded, spilling over the bowl’s edge in misshapen lumps. So happily involved was she, that the heavy, purposeful tread beneath the kitchen went unnoticed.
She then carefully divided the food into three equal portions. A trio of concentrated meals for her Jeremy before the big day. Celery and lettuce hearts finally garnished each serving, and she admired her handiwork from different angles, before selecting one for his lunch.
“Fit for a king,” she mused, while carrying it downstairs.
Just then, the front doorbell rang.
“Damn!” She swore under her breath, “Who on earth could it be this time, interrupting things?”
After a short squirt of air freshener, and having quickly hidden that dish inside the cloakroom, she opened the door.
“Excuse me.” The man began. Both his eyes revealing a disconcerting squint. “Mrs Hammond, I believe?”
“It is!” she snapped, trying to stop that unpleasant smell from below seeping past her.
“I’m Reginald Blunt. Your local Council’s Offensive Odours Officer. We’ve recently received several complaints regarding these premises.” He waved a piece of official-looking paper in the air.
“Complaints?” She repeated with genuine surprise. “About my place? You can see how meticulous I am. Really, what a nerve!” Yet blood rushed to her face as the front door pressed even harder into her hip. Fortunately, the passing traffic’s noise would drown any protests, should her demanding charge decide to call out.
“That effluent odour at present lingering over the gardens in this area, has been traced to your particular plot at the rear.”
Suddenly, she laughed.
“My dear man, remember your refuse collectors’ strike is still ongoing? Not my fault. Besides, without my late husband, I’m finding it extremely difficult to dispose of household waste satisfactorily, you understand?”
Immediately his tone softened.
“Well, Madam, I’ll drop by tomorrow evening with a week’s supply of ‘Decompostex’ for you. Extra strong, should do the trick, eliminating all risk of infection.”
He then fumbled with his bicycle clips for an agonisingly long time, before finally leaving.
“Incredible weather for this time of year, don’t you think?” She called after him, in relief, but he’d turned round as if certain he’d heard something else. However, all he saw was an ordered cleanliness and her display of miniature, artificial Christmas trees under the lower windows.
While re-heating Jeremy’s nutrient-filled food, her anxiety turned to indignation that she, a law-abiding individual in her own home, should be answerable to rumour and ignorant nosy-parkers.
Her acquaintances enjoyed their raffia work and flower-drying, so why should she be thwarted? It just wasn’t fair. Then she wondered if they resented her opting out of the coffee morning rota or abandoning her talks to young wives on life with a Secondary School maths teacher. She tried to reason other things out too, while re-arranging those celery and lettuce hearts before taking the overdue meal down to her hungry charge.
All was quiet in the house that evening, yet that silence held an air of expectancy, and Mrs. Hammond was unusually tense. She’d compiled a thorough list of jobs to be done in chronological order, and by midnight, her preparation was nearly complete. She’d already set her hair in rollers, plucked her eyebrows and pressed her cuticles down before spreading out her magnificent midnight blue, wild silk dress and matching scarf on the chair for tomorrow.
Her expensive straw hat was a masterpiece of cherries and lace. What a picture she and Jeremy would make and, until the early hours of the morning, he was her focus. That red-handled brush had proved very effective, smoothing as it cleaned.
“Good Lord!” She’d clapped her pink hands together, marvelling at his transformation. “You really look like a champion already, my love. I don’t see how we can fail. Really, I don’t. Now for the detail. Please be still, dear,” she’d crooned. “We mustn’t hurt you, must we?”
By using cotton wool-tipped needles for the last, most exacting and time-consuming part of that ritual, the result was eye-popping.
“To think our stupid Council would have me deprived of this,” she murmured to her perfectly groomed charge. “They’ve no idea. No idea at all.”
She then packed those special tools away in an embroidered holder, before pulling on her rubber gloves for the next unpleasant, yet necessary, task.
Still in darkness, with no lights from neighbouring houses to reveal her movements, she changed into a more practical boiler suit before trundling a wheelbarrow load of Jeremy’s copious waste to the end of the garden. Here, in a damp corner surrounded by a few old fruit trees and overgrown cabbages, lay an already waiting hole. She made sure her mouth stayed shut tight while she tipped that reeking load into the ground.
A few deft movements with her rake soon covered the yellow ooze with earth, then it was back to the house to spray and sprinkle away all trace of excreta.
With a mother’s tenderness, she then gave Jeremy a hot drink from her thermos flask before settling him to sleep. Having blown him a kiss, she closed the door, and from his downy, double pillows, heard his appreciative grunting.
Mrs. Hammond then thoroughly washed her latex gloves and left them out to dry before retiring to her own bed. She slept in fits and starts, waiting for dawn to infiltrate the sky. Outside, the rumbling milk floats began their rounds, and her own milkman’s rendition of ‘Swanee River’ brought her to full consciousness, activating her into running a deep, pine-scented, bath. The bubbles kissed her lightly-whiskered chin, while her hand, webbed in froth, dangled leisurely over the side. Her mind had become a welcome blank, cocooned, as were her fleshy humps and furrows, in a warm, insulating sea.
Suddenly, the raucous alarm clock jolted her from inertia. The countdown had begun.
Jim Drake, the local church’s caretaker would be arriving with his van at eight o’clock prompt. A small, but active man, he still enjoyed doing small favours for her.
“Such a refined woman with a generous purse every Christmas,” he’d once commented, but never asked questions. Merely doing as he was politely told in anticipation of more donations to come.
Dressed in her blue finery, Mrs. Hammond finished her grapefruit and coffee, washed up then trotted round with the carpet sweeper. Even the smallest disorder upset her, unlike some of her neighbours who seemed to revel in squalor. Those dreary bridge parties amongst dirty doors, stained carpets and flatulent dogs had become an anathema, and as time passed, she’d found it best to eliminate all non-essentials and concentrate instead on her own fulfilment.
That early mist had cleared, leaving the new day’s sky an uninterrupted blue. What a wonderful start to Christmas, she thought, arranging all Jeremy’s equipment in the hall. Meanwhile, her wide-brimmed hat perched resplendent on the end of the banister, was caught in a shaft of sunlight.
As for Jeremy, sporting a very large label numbered 27, and smelling of ‘Nuit de Joie,’ he waited quietly for the van to arrive, certainly giving his owner cause for pride. He was truly a magnificent sight. The embodiment of all her dreams.
Mrs. Hammond heard the van stop, then saw Jim Drakewearing an absurdly large, checked cap, walk up her path. Although a trifle annoyed at his attempt to gentrify himself, she nevertheless obliged him with small talk as they carefully loaded up the van.
Because of her mis-matched feet, the Ministry of Transport had denied her a normal car to drive and she didn’t relish being incarcerated in an invalid capsule with her bulky, Swiss-made corrective shoe. There was no denying it. She was completely dependent on Jim for this particular venture, and felt it best to keep him happy.
Having settled herself next to her precious cargo to ensure he remained comfortable, she frequently exhorted their driver to avoid the many bumpy drains whenever possible. His natural timidity soon turned to fear under the strain of such responsibility, and several times he crashed the van’s gears.
Buxley and Snoderton were two small towns whose increasing industry and populations had fused them together in one urban sprawl along the banks of the River Wald. The livestock show itself was sited in a large, open meadow on those outskirts of the more residential Snoderton, and since dawn, a steady flow of trailers, horse boxes and transporters had been filling an adjoining field, while many tents and marquees sprang rigid from crumpled canvas heaps.
Men in breeches, hacking jackets and various badges ran round shouting instructions and occasional obscenities at those show-jumping course builders, who in turn struggled with heavy pots and shrubs. As for the Hand-Reared Produce Section – one of the more publicised innovations – this was materialising in the form of a parade ring surrounded by every kind of box and cage imaginable.
She thought of nothing else as Jim Drake’s van passed along the Buxley road in bright sunshine. Jeremy, having just broken wind, seemed quite contented, but she, in her tight corset felt a mix of excitement and fear rising through every part.
What if it all went horribly wrong?
Suddenly, out of the blue came an unexpectedly sharp bend. Her driver tried to call out a warning, but it died in his throat. Although her suede-gloved hands instinctively gripped the bench she was sitting on, that violent swerve made her topple sideways on to him.
“I’m so sorry!” She blushed, but he wasn’t listening. He couldn’t.
Now out of control, his van spun and turned this way and that, while above her, Mrs. Hammond saw Jeremy’s huge cage rocking back and fore until it fell sideways with a loud thud on to the floor. It not only blocked her vision, but also, and far worse, pinned her legs against the vehicle’s steel side.
All seemed weirdly still. There was neither sound, nor movement except for that cage’s mesh door slowly being pushed open, and Jeremy emerging very cautiously on those large, padded feet, because his specially printed label had slipped over his eyes.
He’d already sampled some of her not so long ago. Two tasty toes from her left foot, which she’d blamed on a stray dog entering her garden, so this was no deterrent. His long, white teeth glistened with anticipation as he soon found what he wanted and took his time. There was no need to hurry because he, like her and their driver, wasn’t going anywhere.
Jeremy’s only problem was in choosing from his celebratory Christmas menu. Whether a checked cap or plastic cherries might provide the most tasty of starters, yet leaving enough room for those considerable ‘afters.’
We hope you enjoy our festive tales. On behalf of all our authors, we’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
You can find Sally’s books on her Amazon page.