Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

Since Christmas is almost upon us, and in case you missed my prize winning christmas zombie story in SFX magazine earlier this year, here’s something to get you feeling festive.

Or not.

The Big Guy by Emma Woodcock

Winner of SFX short zombie story competition

The Big Guy

The sound of bolts snapping back. Hushed voices. A crack of light, thin as a hair, but blinding. It’s been months, I suppose. Time ceases to exist in the darkness.

The first latch flicks back, then the second. The door eases a little, as though drawing a breath. There’s a pause before it’s thrown open, and the light floods in, unbearably bright. I recoil – as far as the restraints allow – seeing nothing but formless, liquid shapes.

“He’s frightened.”

Mila. She’s still here then.

“Nonsense. He always does this. Come on. Wakey wakey.”

And Gustav. Of course. It’s always Gustav. “Up and at ’em, big guy.”

“Should I do the-?”

Gustav makes an impatient gesture, and Mila picks something up from the table, weaving back and forth in front of the light. My eyes are adjusting now, making sense of the figures. More are crowded behind these two, peering forward fearfully.

A small voice from the back, “Is he dangerous?”

Mila presses her lips together, as though to prevent any answer escaping.

“Not if handled correctly,” says Gustav. “Observe the double restraints. They must remain in place until the inhibitor is administered. Mila, if you would?”

She leans closer, touches my arm. Her fingers are warm with sweat. After so long without sensation of any kind, the touch is startling, revelatory.

Please, I want to say, but it comes out an incoherent croak.

She recoils, almost dropping the syringe.

Gustav rolls his eyes. “Shall I do it?”

“Sorry, Sir. No, I can manage. But, are you sure? I mean-”

“We’ve been over this.”

“I know, but seeing him like this-”

“And over.”

“It just doesn’t-”

“And over.”

“Seem right.”

“Objection noted. Please continue.”

She swallows. “Yes, Sir.”

No doubt she tries to be gentle, but to my heightened senses the scratch of the syringe is monstrous.

A heaviness comes to my still bound limbs. But it is an odd effect of the drugs that even as they dull my senses and inhibit my actions, my brain becomes more alert, memories sharper. To Gustav it is a year since we last began this game. To me, no time at all. My thought processes pick up where they left off when he closed the box, 11 months, 30 days ago.

Mila unfastens one strap, and then another. I droop forward, almost collapsing without their support.

“Come on out, then,” says Gustav. “My team have outdone themselves this year. We have Minecraft plushies. We have remote control quad bikes. We have robot dinosaurs that pee their pants. I’m not even kidding. That’s what kids want.”

I curl a hand around the box, steadying myself before I lurch forward with rusty, awkward steps. Gustav stands his ground as the younger ones shrink back.

“No,” I tell him.

“Don’t be like that. We all agreed, this is for the best. Would you leave the poor kiddies disappointed?”

I glance at Mila. She drops her gaze, murmurs, “There are other ways, Sir.”

“Don’t start on about online shops!” he says, anger flaring. “Transactions. Paypal. Postage and Packing! It is not the elf way. We create for the joy of it. We give freely of our skills. I will not sully our traditions with financial exchanges!

Her cheeks flush. “Come and see the team,” she says to me. “That always cheers you up.”

I let her lead me past the cowering others, down a narrow corridor where strings of coloured lights twinkle on the walls. She opens a heavy door, and animal smells surround me: hay and fur and rotting meat. Even here, flashing lights are strung across the stalls.

Reluctantly, I draw closer. “Vixen, old girl.” I lay a stiff hand on the creature’s head. Her ears are cold, ragged. She glances at me, as bone weary as I am. How long has it been now? Since age and ill health claimed me – and the elves, my immortal helpers, my makers, claimed me back again.

“Blitzen.” I move to the next stall. He is in a sorrier state than Vixen. Ribs show through the parchment skin. His eyes droop, seeing nothing. I move on, greeting each of them in turn, looking for some spark of recognition, some remaining spirit.

I reach the final stall. “Rudolph?”

He raises his head just a little. One eye swivels towards me, and the ears come forward. He still knows me, and it breaks what remains of my heart. A beast’s suffering is always nobler than a man’s. A man knows why he is punished, or can guess. He can blame himself for a thousand small mistakes and wrongs – whether they have any bearing on the issue or not. A beast understands nothing but that it is in pain, and it cannot fathom why – or why those it loves do not help.

“It’s almost time,” says Mila. “I’ll fetch your jacket.”

I don’t respond. My fingers stroke Rudolph’s cold, dribbling nose. He shivers, gives a wheezy bark.

“I know, old friend. I want it to end as much as you do.”

I glance at the coloured lights, winking on and off endlessly in preordained patterns.

She has left me alone. She is not supposed to do that. He will be angry with her.

I snatch down the lights, swiftly winding the cable around Rudolph’s scrawny neck. The little bulbs shatter, jagged edges piercing his desiccated hide, and my own. He still has a bit of fight left in him; kicks at the stall, shakes his big head from side to side, working the wire deeper into his flesh.

The commotion brings the others. A twitter of high, anxious voices, and then Gustav barking orders. A syringe is found, and another dose administered. The sense of purpose drains from me, and I allow the little hands to subdue me, steering me away from the thrashing reindeer.

A sudden silence signals Mila’s return. “It was only for a moment!” she says, before he has chance to accuse her. “I thought it would be alright. He seemed so quiet.”

“Just get the jacket on him.”

I allow them to dress me, pulling the huge red coat over my sagging body, fastening the buttons and buckling the belt.

“He doesn’t fill it like he used to.”

They stand guard over me as the skeletal reindeer are led out and harnessed to the sleigh. Last comes Rudolph, staggering, his big head drooping. My swollen hands are ringed with blood where wire and crushed glass has dug in. The little finger is almost severed, hanging at an odd, helpless angle.

“What were you thinking?” Gustav’s voice is soft, like that of a concerned friend. “Strangulation wouldn’t end him. You know that. Don’t you remember when you tried to hang yourself?”

I was aiming to decapitate him, but there is no need to tell him what I know and what I remember. There is always next year. There is always another attempt.

I look up at my team of undead reindeer, my sleigh filled with presents for children who don’t know what it takes to bring them this joy each year.

Mila cranks the handle, and the gramophone starts up. Tinny sleigh bells jingle. I sit up at once, tense, alert. I have tried to fight it. As often as I have tried to end my unendurable existence, and that of the reindeer. But it is impossible. Whatever they have done to me, they have done it well.

Reanimation. Mind control. These things do not contradict the Elf Way.

The piano comes in. Next year, I promise myself. Next year I will escape.

The scratchy voices begin: Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh…

And I am gone. Only Father Christmas remains. He climbs into the sleigh, he takes up the reins, as he is programmed. He waves to the elves as they load the last presents onto the back. He launches into the sky with a hollow, “Ho Ho Ho!”

the saddest snowman in the world

the saddest snowman in the world

Other people’s misery. It sucks, right? There is nothing duller than a casual acquaintance whinging to you about why they are so fed up, especially if they’re not really sure. Then they’ll have to list every little grievance and slight, just to make sure they’ve covered everything.

And you’ll feel beholden to try and cheer them up, and point out where and how their misery is misplaced, and all the good things they have going on in their lives… It’s exhausting! And the stupid thing is they don’t even believe you. All your best efforts will not alter their mood in the slightest. They will continue to wallow in their misery until they somehow eventually hoick themselves out of it…

And that’s why you haven’t heard from me recently. If there’s anything worse than being miserable, it’s sharing it with the world. So I’ve kept my head down. I’ve resisted the urge to blog miserable, self-indulgent posts, fishing for compliments and encouragement. I’ve kept a low profile until I began to claw my way out of the wretchedness and restore my equilibrium.

But for the past week I have been going around like a bear with a sore head, inwardly growling and grumbling about every little thing. Other people’s happiness annoyed me. Facebook friends celebrating their wonderful happy families infuriated me. Indie author friends’ successes and optimism irritated me.

The nadir came yesterday when I suffered a wonderful dream in which my hopelessly stiff, painful, still-undiagnosed-after-ten-years back was suddenly cured. I could tip my head back and look at the ceiling! I could turn it to the side and look at people beside me without turning my entire torso! Amazing! I woke to a bleak, rain-swept morning, the usual pain twisting down my side, and thought, Fuck this. Fuck it all.

There is such pressure to be happy at New Year; to celebrate; to toast your successes and look forward to greater achievements to come. And there is pressure when you’re out in public – as you are as the author of a blog (however modest its readership) – to always find the positive spin. As I noted in one of my earliest posts, you can’t over-estimate the importance of perceived success. No matter what set-backs you encounter, how much indifference and hostility; how much effort is simply wasted – you always have to find a way to make it sound good. It can be exhausting, both mentally and emotionally.

I have done no social networking or any author related stuff over Christmas – not because I’m on holiday, but because I felt I had nothing left to give. No encouragement, no optimism, no interest in other people’s achievements. All I felt was bitterness. I considered faking it, just to keep up relationships. But I couldn’t be bothered. And after a while I didn’t even see the point.

I can see my misery in a more objective light now that I’ve turned the corner. There really wasn’t any good reason for it. No crisis; to trolling, no one star review, no slapped wrist or mean encounter. It was more an accumulation of little set-backs and disappointments, both in my personal life and as an author.

But in fact, in the run up to christmas I had quite a few positive encounters. Online friends became real world friends. I enjoyed a cup of tea and a natter with promoter of all things lovely and local, @LongEatonLife. I met up with Amanda Penman, and will be the featured author in the first edition of Artsbeat, her new Derby based arts magazine, hitting the shelves mid-January.

I have irons in the fire. I have plots thickening.

I took a stall at a craft fair in Derby selling Darklands the saturday before Christmas. I didn’t really know what to expect. My biggest fear was that my stall would be empty, the crowds giving it a wide and suspicious berth.

As it happens, there were no crowds. The event was a complete wash out. Barely 200 people came through the doors all day. That’s the official figure, so bound to be inflated. I and my stall companion trotted in and out of the venue several times, and no doubt got counted each time.

I sold five books. That barely covered my stall cost, never mind the all day parking, or the table cloth and fire-retardent spray I’d had to buy at the last minute because the organisers changed their bloody minds about what they were supplying (grr).

So, financially a disaster. And yet… I sold five books to an audience of less than 200 people. That’s actually pretty good. The stall beside me had ONE customer all day. The stall holder on the other side said she had just covered her costs. Every stall holder I spoke to was bitterly disappointed by the turn out, and not making any money. Those who do it regularly assured me it was not at all a typical event, and I shouldn’t let it discourage me.

I set out writing this post in a slightly grudging manner. My mood had lifted enough to think it was worth writing a bah-humbug, it’s-okay-to-be-miserable-occasionally piece. But the process of writing it has actually altered my mood. I’m feeling… okay again. Back to normal. Ready to get back on that horse, knowing it will throw me again, and ready for all its devious horse tricks.

It is okay to be miserable now and then. It’s okay to fail. Of course it is! If you never fail you are obviously not trying anything challenging enough. Maybe it’s even okay to harbour the odd uncharitable thought about those who are doing better than you, or those whose success you can’t understand.

It’s okay to lick your wounds and feel sorry for yourself – just for a little while. Just to get it out of your system – like having a good cry occasionally. Only once you’ve acknowledged whatever crisis is chewing at you, given up trying to keep it buttoned down, given up trying to be strong for everyone else – then you can begin to see past it, and start dragging yourself out from under its shadow.

I’m no expert, but I know this is one of the busiest times of year for the Samaritans. I know a lot of people are trying really hard to keep it together for the sake of their friends and families. I know some people are preparing to go to parties tonight, because they think they have to – but they are dreading it; dreading having to be cheerful and friendly and gregarious all night.

If you feel that your supplies of bon-homie are running low, then my advice to you would be not to broadcast your misery to an indifferent crowd of online acquaintances, but to find those true and trusted friends who can actually help.

The way I eventually turned my corner was painfully, embarrassingly simple. I talked to my boyfriend about how I was feeling. That’s it. Everything began to get better immediately. It’s not even about someone else having the answers. It’s about them listening to you and caring.

I hope you have someone – or some many! – in your life who can fulfil that role.

Wishing the world a peaceful and sane New Year.