The Snows of August
It was during his forty-sixth consecutive day of Christmas that Travis decided to tie a noose in the rope he’d secured to the overhanging pipe in the utility room.
He was thinking about the height of the pipe, and whether he would need to remove his trainers in order to avoid his feet from touching the floor, when a customer approached the bar.
‘Can I have three eggnogs, two mulled wines and a mince pie, please?’
‘No problem,’ said Travis, opening the fridge and retrieving the container filled with eggnog.
The customer was an elderly woman, comfortably past seventy, with a long face and a smile which seemed scared of stretching her heavily-applied lipstick. ‘It really does feel like Christmas in here,’ she said as she settled her purse onto the tinsel-laced bar.
‘That’s the intention,’ replied Travis, having poured the first drink.
‘You must come to work every day thinking you’ve got the best job in the world,’ said the woman before removing a folded twenty-pound note from her purse.
Travis placed a plate of mince pies next to the glasses of eggnog; he’d added two extra mince pies in order to finish the box. ‘Something like that,’ he said as Jona Lewie’s Stop The Cavalry began to play through the sound system for the eighth time that day.
‘At my age you begin to worry that Christmas might never come round again.’
‘It’s always a very special time of year,’ said Travis. ‘That’s why Frank opened this place.’
‘So a person could find Christmas whenever they needed it?’
‘Yeah, I suppose.’
After serving the mulled wine – Frank claimed it was based on a secret family recipe – Travis took the woman’s twenty-pound note and then provided her with a handful of change.
Frank’s wife, Janice, appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her faded blue jeans. ‘Frank said to go on your break, honey.’
‘He’s having a problem with the turkeys,’ Janice replied as she made her way behind the bar. ‘They don’t seem to have defrosted.’
‘I told him yesterday that he shouldn’t keep them in the freezer too long.’
Janice, two years away from sixty and slowly succumbing to rheumatoid arthritis, looked at Travis with wearied patience. ‘Maybe you should go tell him again.’
Travis made his way through the cluttered kitchen, passing Frank without saying a single word in the process, and then out through a door that opened onto the delivery bay.
A silent ice-cream van drove along the road adjacent to the delivery bay. Two shirtless, sun-flecked children, running across a patch of yellowed grass, were spraying one another with their oversized water guns. A dog was panting on the pavement as it waited for its owner to finish a phone call.
Travis had almost forgotten that it was August.
He’d worked as a barman at the Christmas Grotto for fifteen months. At first he’d found the job fun: the novelty of being surrounded by inflatable snowmen and garish artificial Christmas trees and life-sized reindeer ornaments lasted several weeks. He felt as if he was seven-years-old again. And it was nice to finally find a boss he could relate to, and who didn’t cause him trouble. Frank, it didn’t take him long to decide, was a good and honest man. And each Friday night Janice would wrap turkey and roast potatoes and sausages and stuffing in tinfoil so that he could have something to eat whilst riding the last bus home.
But things started going wrong for Travis around Christmas, the real Christmas, when the days turned quickly dark and there was frost and snow and strangers knocking on holly-wreathed doors to sing Christmas carols (although Travis lived in a third floor flat, so never received any carol singers).
A woman walked into the Christmas Grotto one evening and told Travis that she was pregnant with his child.
At first Travis could remember her face, but not her name. She had light brown hair, just like Travis, and a fair complexion, also just like Travis. About a month earlier they’d both been drunk on the last bus home and had somehow ended up going back to Travis’s flat for a nightcap. When she got dressed the next morning she’d said that she couldn’t imagine how anyone could work in a place like the Christmas Grotto.
It turned out the woman’s name was Susie. She was three years younger than Travis and in her final year of university. She was studying Theology and Religious Studies. After speaking first with her parents, who eventually overcame their disappointment and offered their unwavering support, she decided to keep the baby and retake her final year of university at a later date.
‘I don’t want a husband or a boyfriend,’ she’d told Travis in a businesslike manner as he leant – blood draining from his face and his mouth too dry to speak – with his back against the bar’s cold countertop. ‘But once the baby is born we can decide on a suitable time each week for you to visit. After all, it’s important that the child grows up with a father. And my parents also suggested that you might want to contribute a little bit of money each month, just to help towards buying clothes and food and whatnot.’
Travis, after downing a glass of chilled water, agreed to everything that Susie asked.
Fatherhood had always seemed to him as distant as the North Star (although this didn’t include the gold-painted cardboard cutout North Star nailed above the Christmas Grotto’s emergency fire exit). His own father had worked nights in a manufacturing job at an out-of-town car assembly plant. The job, despite the long hours and laborious physical toil, had provided just enough money for Travis’s mother to go back to college and for Travis to enjoy two decent-sized meals a day. But one night his father was sacked without pay after being found intoxicated at the wheel of a forklift truck. Lacking any qualifications, his father, unable to find new employment, began spending his afternoons sat in front of the television, watching game shows whilst drinking cheap cans of lager.
Travis’s mother quit college and took up a secretary job soon after Travis’s father became too ill to climb out of bed. Not yet ten-years-old, Travis, subsisting off packet spaghetti and tinned tomatoes, would often sneak into his parents’ bedroom to gaze at his sleeping father’s yellow skin. Two days before his father died from liver failure, Travis heard him say, ‘I don’t want you or the boy visiting my grave after I’m gone.’
The funeral took place the next week. After eating as much food as he could stomach at the wake, Travis promised to himself that he would never endure the brutal, life-sapping sentence handed out by fatherhood.
But a woman was now pregnant with his child.
Daniel Barak Jones was born the first Sunday in July. The birth was uncomplicated and both child and mother returned home from the hospital after twenty-four hours. A steady stream of well-wishers – mostly family and members of the local congregation – visited Susie and her newly-born son over the following days.
Despite receiving numerous texts and voicemail messages from Susie, Travis did not visit his son. Instead he posted an envelope containing four-hundred-pounds through the letterbox of Susie’s parents’ house, which was where Susie and Daniel were now living. Inside the envelope was also a handwritten note in which Travis stated he did not wish to play any further part in his son’s life.
The texts and voicemail messages from Susie stopped after a couple of weeks. Travis, deciding not to tell a single person about his newborn son, spoke with Frank and arranged to work overtime at the Christmas Grotto.
Standing on the warm tarmac of the sun-drenched delivery bay, and with his poly-cotton Christmas jumper making him feel as if his skin was about to melt to the texture of heated butter, Travis took a cigarette and a lighter from his back pocket and started to smoke. He then counted the number of consecutive days he’d worked: forty-six.
After crushing the cigarette with the heel of his shoe, he determined the number of days that had passed since his son had been born: forty-seven.
A half-frozen turkey, which looked like it had been hacked away at with an axe, was stuffed into a plastic bin when Travis walked back through the kitchen. Frank, the likely assailant, was nowhere to be seen.
‘The old lump’s gone for a walk,’ said Janice when Travis returned to the bar; she had a provoked expression on her angular face. ‘I love the man, I really do, but being married to him is going to be the death of me. I mean, can you possibly imagine what it’s like to wake up every single morning and have your sixty-year-old husband talk about nothing but bloody Christmas?’
Travis nodded and Janice, pulling out a stray strand of peroxide-blonde hair that was tickling her nose, said she had to go into the kitchen to try and find something instead of turkey to serve the customers for their festive meals.
Wizard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday was now playing over the sound system. The orange and cinnamon smell of mulled wine, which Travis usually enjoyed, began to elicit within him a state of nausea. He thought about the rope he’d hung in the utility room. He couldn’t see the red-painted door but he could feel its pulse; he could sense the room’s dark energy seeping through the surrounding walls, strewn with Christmas lights.
Attempting to divert his mind elsewhere, Travis fixed his attention on the customers inside the Christmas Grotto: a young couple, dressed for summer in shorts and t-shirts, were tonguing each other beneath the mistletoe; the elderly woman he’d served earlier was now pulling apart a Christmas cracker with one of her increasingly tipsy friends; a well-tanned man, with the dusty appearance of having come straight from a construction site, sat in the farthest corner of the room, engrossed in watching the day’s cricket on the muted television; and finally, sitting on a stool at the other end of the bar, was an anaemic-looking woman with long jet-black hair, protruding cheekbones, and a gaze that was directed solely at Travis.
‘Merry Christmas!’ said Travis in a perfunctory manner as he made his way towards her.
The woman, who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, continued to stare unblinkingly at Travis.
‘Merry Christmas,’ he repeated, this time with a discernible undertone of annoyance in his voice.
The woman blinked and then said, ‘But it’s not Christmas.’
‘It’s Christmas every day at the Christmas Grotto,’ replied Travis, echoing the line he’d uttered at least a thousand times during the week when Frank had asked him to stand in the centre of town and handout peppermint candy canes to passers-by.
‘Don’t you get tired of celebrating Christmas all the time?’ asked the woman.
Travis shrugged his narrow, sloping shoulders. ‘It’s just my job,’ he said. ‘I’d celebrate Easter or Halloween or even Guy Fawkes Night every day if it meant making enough money to get by.’
‘Well you look tired,’ said the woman. ‘And a few minutes ago you seemed as if you were contemplating the end of the world. Not losing the Christmas spirit, are you? And what’s with the key?’
The woman laughed and for a moment appeared to be on the verge of falling from her stool. ‘The key in your left hand, stupid. You were switching it between hands as if it was burning hot coal.’
Travis unclenched his fist and found a familiar silver key pressed into his palm.
‘That’s just the key for the utility room,’ he remarked before stuffing the key into his back pocket. ‘I hadn’t even realised it was in my hand.’
‘Have you got anything important locked away in there?’
‘Just the water boiler and a fuse box…oh, and a broken snow machine.’
‘How terribly boring,’ said the woman, feigning sleepiness. ‘So what about a drink?’
‘I usually take a vodka and lemonade around lunchtime. My doctor tells me that a drink a day is good for reducing the risk of gallstones. Not that I’ve ever suffered from that particular ailment, but it’s always important to be scrupulous when it comes to matters concerning one’s health. Wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Absolutely,’ answered Travis as he took down a dusty bottle of Russian-imported vodka. ‘Life, as they say,’ he continued with an almost imperceptible grimace, ‘is for living.’
The woman gestured in agreement. ‘And after you’ve made my drink could you please go and tell Janice that Angelina is here? She’ll know who I am.’
‘You’re a friend of Janice’s?’
‘Yeah, you could say that.’
Deciding that Angelina lacked the threatening authority of a rogue bailiff or a debt collector or a member of the local council (Frank had recently caused a minor stir by adorning a miserable-looking Queen Victoria statue with a Christmas party hat and a banner which read, ‘The Christmas Grotto welcomes all – so don’t be a Grinch like Old Vic!’), Travis took payment for the drink and then headed back towards the kitchen to find Janice.
The kitchen was deserted but Travis could hear a familiar voice extolling the benefits of twice-a-week Pilates with someone out in the delivery bay. Tearing a blank page out of a nearby notebook, Travis wrote ‘GO TO THE BAR!’ in elegant cursive letters and then placed the torn sheet over the top of a tray of cooling mince pies.
Travis then left the pastry-smelling kitchen and made his way to the utility room.
Dust motes swirled like melancholy stars as Travis unlocked the red door and flicked the light switch. The Pogue’s Fairytale of New York was beginning to play out in the bar. Travis closed his eyes for a moment and imagined a future he would never see: his faceless son, old enough now to have forgotten the father that had abandoned him, being pushed high into the sky on a glistening swing. Opening his eyes again, Travis locked the door from the inside.
He removed his trainers and then placed an upturned latticed crate beneath the hanging rope. All that was required – and it appeared such a simple and effortless task – was to stand on the crate, ensure the running knot was tied correctly, place the noose around his neck, and then, with one graceful movement, step off the crate.
The research he’d carried out on the internet had told him that death through strangulation could take anywhere between ten and twenty minutes. He tried not to think about this as he stood on the crate and placed his head through the noose.
Looking down at his feet, Travis became aware of two perfectly round white faces smiling up at him with absolute sincerity – he’d forgotten that he was wearing his snowman Christmas socks.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he whispered to the two snowmen, to his son, to Susie, to Frank and Janice, to his parents, to himself, to everything and everyone.
He lifted his foot in readiness for one final step into eternity.
The locked utility room door began to shudder.
‘Travis, are you in there? I want you to come meet my daughter,’ said Janice, twisting the stiff doorknob from the outside.
Travis, keeping his foot aloft, offered no reply.
‘Are you okay, Travis? Angelina said she saw you heading in this direction. And why is this door not opening?’
Travis slowly lowered his foot back onto the crate. ‘One second, Janice. I was just…I was just looking for the mop and bucket. I must have locked the door behind me out of habit.’ He then loosened the noose with his trembling hands, lifted it back over his head and stepped off the crate.
‘Well be quick about it and then come meet us in the bar. She can’t stay long.’
Having put his trainers back on, and having also decided to leave the dangling rope as it was, albeit with the utility room door locked, Travis returned to the bar.
‘I was just telling Angelina about how flustered, actually, no, how downright crazy her father, Frank that is, became when he found out I was pregnant,’ said Janice after formerly introducing Travis to her daughter.
‘Dad has never been able to deal with the unexpected,’ remarked Angelina, twirling a strip of green tinsel in her blanched hand.
‘One afternoon, not long after he found out, I received a phone call saying he’d been arrested in Liverpool for trying to stowaway on a ferry out to Dublin,’ said Janice with an air of mock exasperation. ‘A ferry for heaven’s sake! A deckhand discovered the damn fool after overhearing retching noises coming from beneath a lifeboat cover. Frank, you see, is the sort of man who only needs to walk along a pier to feel seasick.’
Angelina took a long sip of her drink and then said, ‘Probably for the best that I was your only child.’
Janice flung an arm around Travis’s shoulder. ‘Let me tell you this, Travis: if a day ever comes where you find out you’re going to be a father – and I’m sure that day is a long time away because you’ll never meet a nice girl when you’re working in this place every hour on the clock – don’t think, not even for a single second, that your own life is going to come crashing down on top of you. Every man I’ve ever known has thought that way. Some might not have said it, but I could always tell by the look of cold fear in their eyes. And Frank had it more than anyone! But don’t you go acting that silly way. Becoming a parent is just about the finest thing you can do. Because you’ll wake up one day – when your children are all grown up and off somewhere else making their own lives – and wish, wish more than anything, that you could do it all again.’
‘Christ, Mum,’ said Angelina, shaking her head. ‘You’re going to scare the poor boy into celibacy with all this talk of children and things crashing down.’
‘I’m just trying to explain the most beautiful accomplishment in life,’ replied Janice. ‘And maybe you, young lady, should start thinking about giving me a grandchild or two before I’m buried in the ground.’
Angelina suddenly, and with a litheness that hinted at several years of ballet training, leapt from her stool. ‘That’s enough on that particular topic. Are you going to show me what you’ve been baking or not?’
‘Of course, honey. I just wanted you to meet Travis here first. He’s been an enormous help to your father over the last few months. I really don’t know how we’d have coped without him.’
Travis was about to say that he hadn’t really done anything special when the front door of the Christmas Grotto was kicked open. Carrying two newly-acquired defrosted turkeys in his arms, Frank, his flabby face showing the first signs of being sunburnt, entered. ‘Christmas isn’t going to be cancelled after all!’ he shouted before heading in triumph, like a returning Roman general, into the kitchen. A minute or so later, he returned to the bar, having donned a green and red elf-covered Christmas jumper, and said, ‘Do me a favour, Travis, and go get that broken snow machine from the utility room. I think I can finally fix it.’
‘Aren’t you even going to say hello to your own daughter?’ interjected Janice.
Smiling apologetically, Frank turned to face his daughter. ‘Hello, Angelina. I’m afraid I’ll have to speak to you in a little while – Travis and I have important work to be getting on with.’
‘Sometimes, Frank, I really just want to…’ started Janice before making a sharp about-face and heading towards the kitchen. Angelina, after winking at Travis, followed silently after her.
‘I suppose I should be grateful that she’s still putting up with me after all these years,’ said Frank as he watched his wife and daughter walk away.
Travis left the bar and made his way to the utility room. The locked door appeared to him now as the entrance to a decrepit mausoleum. On entering the room Travis switched on the light and stepped onto the crate for a second time. The image of his faceless son suddenly passed through his mind again like a startled bird. From some deep abyss in his memory he then remembered a picture he’d one day seen in passing of Frank, smiling and with still a thick head of hair, holding his baby daughter.
Travis untied the noose and then hid the rope behind the boiler in a plastic shopping bag.
There was still one more thing for him to do. The snow machine, bought second-hand from a travelling salesman who had failed to include an instruction manual as part of the deal, was an unwieldy contraption that had to be pulled on wheels.
Frank, holding a container of snow-effect fluid that had been pushed behind an inflatable reindeer, was now accompanied by the young couple, whose curiosity had been piqued by the loud talk of a snow machine. ‘I’ve been reading up on the internet about how to use this blasted thing,’ Frank said before pouring the transparent fluid into the machine’s tank. He then flicked several switches whilst humming Silent Night to himself.
‘I was thinking of maybe taking a day or two off, Frank,’ remarked Travis.
‘Sure, Travis,’ replied Frank as he tightened the compressor on the snow machine. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while that you should take a holiday. A young man with your responsibilities shouldn’t be working all the time.’
A look of embarrassment fell over Frank’s countenance. ‘Janice mentioned that she’d overheard someone in church saying that you’d recently become a father. She just didn’t want to say anything to you in case it wasn’t something you wanted to talk about. I’ve told her not to worry but she’s been rabbiting on about there being a troubled look in your eyes. Can’t say I’ve seen it myself, but then becoming a parent wasn’t a thing I ever lost too much sleep over.’
Travis felt his throat constricting. ‘It’s been a difficult summer,’ he said, swallowing hard.
‘Well take two weeks’ paid leave and go get things sorted out.’
Frank then pressed a large round button and the snow machine began to make a disgruntled whirring noise. ‘Here we go!’ he said, picking up the white hose that was attached to the cumbersome appliance.
Travis took a step back as the hose suddenly began to dispense a swirling snowstorm throughout the Christmas Grotto. The surrounding walls, tables and chairs quickly became covered in flakes of snow. And so did the young couple. And Frank. And Travis, who contemplated for a moment, as the snow fell onto his hair and into his eyes, the long years of fatherhood that lay ahead.