The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Hera sat beneath the reindeer skeleton. It was made of aluminium and flashing fairy lights; its innards were red and gold baubles. It towered three metres above, from bolted-down hoof to the tip of its great antlers, where the electric cable fed into the window of the department store. And in the space between its feet, under its hollow body, was a dry patch of pavement, free from the slush and brown grit of mid-December snowfall, free from tramping boots and swinging shopping bags. Here Hera lay down, her chin on her paws. She gave a long sigh which sent a jet of steam into the air like a boiling kettle.

Leah gave Hera one last look before stepping into the shop. Andy Williams was on the speakers. She squeezed between padded, many-layered bodies with flushed red cheeks glowing between hats and scarves and decorated with glittering snowflakes. Bags knocked knees and shins; curses were muffled.

She went to the pet department first, down on the basement floor beyond a crowded escalator of impatient late-night shoppers and bored kids still in their school uniforms who hung from the rubber handrails and kicked their feet against the glass and sat down on the steps only to be hauled back onto their feet by their mothers

Leah wore a large, loose puffer jacket – coming apart at the cuffs and shoulder seams – over an equally ill-fitting hoody and a few layers of jumpers and t-shirts. She was a patchwork of pockets and trapped, humid, human-stale air. She found some small, flat pouches of dog food and slipped a few up inside her jacket. As it was nearly Christmas she had a look at the treats and the dog toys too – nothing that squeaked. She settled for a plain old tennis ball, tucked deep in an inside pocket.

She went for the perfume next, passing Santa’s grotto – still with a long line of children, parents, and prams – and the spectacular tree, done in the same colours as the garish, giant reindeer outside. (She thought of Hera and hoped she wasn’t too upset.) Beneath the tree were empty boxes wrapped in shiny red paper and tied up with luxurious ivory bows and cascading ribbon curls. Children pointed at them, their reflections in the foil pointing back.

The perfume girls were overly made up, as they always were, but for the season they also sported either cute little Santa hats or elf ears or antlers. They offered spritzes and scented cards. Leah didn’t use her nose. She looked for price and popularity. She looked for the brands – Chanel, Gucci, Armani. She looked for smaller packaging. She stuffed boxes up into her jumpers in the space below her boobs, covered by the shapeless, hanging form of her jacket.

The hand came down on her shoulder and squeezed. She dropped the box in her hand. Everybody looked round at her – shoppers and jolly perfume girls with pockets of candy canes to give to children – and she felt their brazen glances. Disapproving, gloating, feeding off the moment.

The security guard led her away. Panic became worry. She thought about Hera, lying under the reindeer, meagre cover from the weather, waiting for her to come back.

“On the table, please,” the security guard said. “Everythin.” They were in a small office with CCTV screens and a desk. Leah unzipped and put the perfume, the dog food, and the treats for Hera on the desk. “The ball too,” he said. He was old for a department store bouncer. He didn’t sound angry at all.

“Are you goin to call the polis?” Leah asked. She thought of Hera sleeping outside, chin on her paws, hackles ruffling in the cold wind, snowflakes landing on her eyelashes and whiskers. Hungry, waiting. (Meanwhile Leah would be warm in the jail, sleeping on a dry mattress, fed.)

The guard picked up the tennis ball and rolled it around in his hand. “He’s a Collie?” he asked.

“She. And, aye, I think so. Or mostly a collie, maybe somethin else too. I don’t know for sure.”

“You found her?”

“Couple of years ago. She found me.”

“Pretty lookin dug. She waits for you without being tied up, eh?”

“Aye, she’s a smart one. Her name’s Hera, after the Greek goddess.”

“Cold out there for a dug.”

“D’you have one yourself?”

The man nodded to himself and when he replied he addressed the tennis ball in his hand. “I did.” He tossed the tennis ball up in the air then caught it. “Here, take this.” He pushed the ball into her hand. “And these.” He gave her the food pouches and treats. “Now go.”

She said thank you a million times.

“If I see you in here again I’ll call the polis,” he said.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, and left.

She came out from the body-warm heat of the store and into the frigid air of December, which in Glasgow usually meant icy rain, but the snow had come early, just in time for Christmas. It was pretty; it would be a hard winter.

Hera perked up at the sight of her. “Good girl, good girl.” Leah stroked Hera’s damp fur and fed her a treat. She licked her chops then licked Leah’s face, heating her nose with smelly dog breath. “Let’s go.” Together they walked down Argyle Street, past the other sparkling, massive reindeer and the shops spilling light and people and Christmas music onto the streets in narrow shafts of cheerful warmth. Andy Williams played again, following her through the streetlights and whispering after her into the dark of the Broomielaw and the bank of the River Clyde.

The most wonderful time of the year…

Punters were more giving around this time of the year, that was true. More likely to drop some coins in her cup, or buy her a hot drink to keep the chill away, or offer her twenty quid for a blow job in an alley between the bins of some pub where an office party raged inside.

A group of them slept beneath a bridge on the central-side bank. As she approached, Leah knew something was wrong. Too many people standing around together, nobody lying down. In the dark she recognised the shape of Paul’s beanie hat and the way his neck bent forwards, as if under the weight of it. He pulled away from the group and came towards her.

“What’s goin on?” she asked.

“Auld Ernie, deed,” he said.

“Deed how?”

Paul shrugged his shoulders, his neck sinking further like a walking pigeon’s. “Age, or the cold, probably, with the snow and all. The Freeze is early this year.”

“What do we do?”

He did another pigeon-neck shrug. “Find somewhere else. Polis will get him in the mornin.”

*

Paul found shelter under the stretch of the Central Station railroad bridge that crossed Argyle Street. He lay in the doorway of a record shop – closed for the night – huddled with three others. People Leah didn’t really know. She didn’t like being so exposed in the city centre anyway – once she had slept in the doorway of a bank and had cold water thrown over her in the morning by one of the clerks – so she kept on going until she found another camp by the river with some faces she recognised and bedded down with Hera curled up in the space between her chin and knees. She breathed in the musty, damp comfort of Hera’s fur, her shoulder hard against sodden cardboard, and dreamed of dead fingers touching her body.

Heading back towards the city in the morning, she saw police tape blocking the Clydeside path – they’d found Auld Ernie then. She left the Broomielaw and headed for Central Station. There was police tape there too, blocking the railroad underpass. People in woolly hats and scarves and mittens crowded in to see. A polis in high vis diverted the traffic. Leah crouched and pulled Hera in close. Hera licked her face in reassurance.

Brigton Tim was where he always was – by the Union Street entrance to the station, wearing his red Big Issue tabard and offering his magazines to those going in and out. “Big Issue, sir? Big Issue, madam?” He called out to the them in a fine, deep radio voice that belied his greying, scruffy beard and his craggy, knife-scarred face.

“Not today, thanks!” Leah shouted at him and smiled.

“Not heard that one before!” Brigton Tim was wearing a Santa hat, and with his ample frame, beard, and sonorous tenor voice, looked every bit like a down-on-his-luck Saint Nick. (“Shouldn’t have given the toys away!” people would say. “Not heard that one before!” Brigton Tim would reply.) “The lovely Leah and the equally lovely Hera, how are you, m’dears?”

“Gettin by,” Leah said. “You?”

“Not too bad. Doin well with the magazines this week. Good tips. Christmas, you know?”

“Aye, that’s good. Listen, Tim, did you see what happened round the corner?”

“I saw the ambulances, aye. Friends of yours?”

“One of them. Paul, from Bellshill. You know him?”

“Tall guy, crooked neck?”

“Aye.”

“Sorry to hear that, love.” Brigton Tim looked genuinely sorry, but he knew how it was, he’d been through it, many times.

“Do you know what happened?” Leah asked.

“Cold, maybe. The Freeze is early this year.”

“There were at least four of them, though. Enough to keep warm for a night.”

“Warm, maybe…” While they spoke, Brigton Tim’s eyes flickered over her shoulders, scouting for customers. He knew his regulars by name. “The drugs?”

“Maybe. I hadn’t heard anythin about bad gear though.”

“Well, you know I don’t keep up with that kind of thing anymore.” Tim straightened his tabard out, as if smoothing the lapels of a suit, and shuffled his magazines into a neater pile. “I’ll ask around at the office, okay?”

“Thanks, Tim! You’re a gentleman.”

“Stay safe now, love.” He clapped Hera and waved them off, looking a little glad to see them leave. They could still hear his voice streets away – “Big Issue, sir? Big Issue, madam?”

*

She didn’t need to wait to hear from Brigton Tim, the news was on the front of the Evening Times before the sunlight bled out in the late afternoon and the streetlights came on. The Evening Times salesmen had the same voices as Tim. One of them – a pleasant old geezer called James with a dead wife and four grown-up children and a bad back from decades of labouring – let Leah read the story for free, happy for the conversation. He gave her a cigarette, too.

Four dead, with the police saying it was likely drugs, though many rough sleepers died of hypothermia this time of year. There were quotes from the Sally Army, dire statistics from the shelters and contradicting ones from the government. Leah hadn’t heard anything about bad gear…

She collected change on Sauchiehall Street, fed Hera treats, chatted with some American Christian-group-types who gave her a coffee, a muffin, and a flyer. She ignored catcalls and abuse and informed a forward young man that her dog was not for sale. Not for any price.

She didn’t want to sleep by the Clyde that night and decided to head south out of the city centre. As she walked down Hope Street her eyes were drawn to the dark mouths of the alleys, the places that sent a chill through her, made her glance over her shoulders and be glad that Hera was beside her. She passed by the railroad underpass, still closed, then crossed the foot-bridge. She felt or imagined shadows crossing over her, footsteps echoing in the mist.

The rough pubs this side of the river were decorated in gaudy, flickering lights and glittering rat-tails of ancient tinsel that gave them a shabby, sad glory. Warm within, they promised. Snow leaked into her boots, their worn-down soles sliding on the compacted ice underneath.

Terror stopped her dead. Darkness rushed towards her – the streetlights switched off one by one in step. She turned and it came from the other side too – the red lights dying, one by one, extinguished. It brought with it the cold, a bone deep chill that moved like the wind but didn’t rustle her hair, or Hera’s. Her throat was dry, her heart thumped. Hera barked. The dog howled, pacing round in circles and firing barks in every direction. “Run!” They ran, slipping and splashing and panting, not knowing which direction they were headed, unable to see anything beyond a couple of metres of snow ahead.

Two huge, dazzling golden eyes opened in front of her. Between them she could make out the edges of a silhouette – the head and shoulders of a man. Then She heard the horn and dove head first into a bank of snow.

She heard the bus driver swear as he went on his way. She could hear the huffing diesel engine now, smell the leaking, salt-rusted exhaust. She sat up, cold air burning her throat, a stitch in her side, and saw the streetlights were on again. The tail-lights of the bus she’d ran out in front of were disappearing in the fog, heading towards the city centre. She could hear music drift from somewhere nearby.

“Hera?” The dog whined and licked snow from her hair. “Good girl, good girl.”

Leah stopped by an off-license and spent two day’s-worth of savings on a half-bottle of Glen’s. After her recent brush with arrest she didn’t want to chance stealing it.

She entered Queen’s Park and followed the cat’s-eyes on the cycle paths until she was deep inside and high up, passing the observation deck where the entire city glittered like a Christmas tree below. Hera pricked her ears and twitched at the noises of hidden nocturnal animals. Pitiful moans leaked from her snout. Leah prayed those pinholes of light stayed on.

In the forest on Hill 66 she found Magda, who had moved out this way a couple of months before. Magda introduced Leah and Hera to the others in the ramshackle camp of stinking sleeping bags and cardboard roofs. Leah shared her bottle with them and was welcomed.

“A toast to Oaky,” Magda said, holding up the bottle. “Poor Oaky.”

“What happened to him?” Leah asked.

“Found deed down by the pond a couple of days ago.”

*

“He smoked and drank but left it at that. Wouldn’t touch anythin harder. ‘Life’s bad enough as it is,’ he said. Used to say. Must have been the cold. The Freeze is –”

“Early this year. I know.”

They changed the subject to Christmas Day plans. Magda and some others were heading to the Gurdwara in Pollokshields – they were serving dinner and putting out beds. Christmas seemed impossibly far away. Leah had another disturbed sleep, dreaming of grasping cold hands on her throat. She hadn’t been drinking so much lately, it wasn’t good for her. She could feel the edge of sickness, the terror. She blamed it for the street blackout earlier. Seeing things – it could happen. She’d seen old drunks with the DTs wild and screaming at God-knows-what.

In the morning, she took Hera for a walk around the park. The dog bounded in the frosty grass and licked the ice that covered the pond. Leah threw the tennis ball for her; her tail wagged with joyous abandon and her tongue lolled out in a smile. Other dog walkers pulled their animals past by the collar, avoiding eye contact.

“That’s a happy dug right enough,” a man said, strolling over. Leah recognised him as the security guard. “What was her name again?”

“Hera, after the Greek goddess.”

“Aye? Goddess of what?” Hera dropped the ball at his feet and he scratched behind her ears before throwing it.

“Women and marriage.”

“My wee dug was called Henrik after Henrik Larsson, god of football. He was a Jack Russel Terrier. Got run over this time last year.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Cold out here at night for a dug.”

“Cold out for people too. At least she has a thick fur coat.”

“Right enough.”

The guard’s name was Mark. He was walking through the park on his way to work. Leah and Hera walked with him all the way to Central Station where he bought them both a bacon roll from the Gregg’s and gave half of his to Hera. Leah thanked him profusely, for the food, the chat, for letting her go. She said Merry Christmas again and this time he returned it before setting off down Argyle Street where the reindeer stood tall, glimmering weakly in the grey morning light.

Leah walked around the corner to Union Street to find Brigton Tim but he wasn’t there.

*

Brigton Tim hadn’t turned up at the hostel before curfew the previous evening. He hadn’t turned up at the Big Issue office that morning to buy more magazines. He had, however, turned up dead, his stiff body found in an alley by a KP taking the bins out at closing time.

Leah spent the day putting the story together, going between polis stations, halfway houses, and hospitals. (Andy Williams sang again in the prestigious waiting room of the Royal Infirmary’s casualty.) She spoke to the volunteer groups that roamed the streets, to the hipster café owners who gave away free sandwiches, and to mutual friends – everybody knew everybody to some degree, and Brigton Tim was an especially well-known character.

Drugs, a few people suggested. Leah didn’t believe them. The other default answer was The Freeze. But that didn’t fit either. He had a place to stay that night. She looked at the fluttering tape across West George Lane – blue and white tinsel – and felt the cold reach right inside her, down to her stomach. She needed something to warm up, to calm down. She knelt to let Hera lick her face.

She blagged change for the bus to head southside and reached Queen’s Park as the streetlights turned from orange to red. She wished Mark would turn up again to walk her through. Her hands were shaking so she spoke to Hera as she walked into the dark, the canopy of the trees ahead like a tunnel on the horizon. She hummed Christmas carols.

Not far past the entrance Hera spun around and pointed back towards the gate. A growl burbled in her throat, her left front paw came off the ground and dangled limp. For a split-second Leah saw something, thought she saw something – a man, or a shadow of a man, standing under the streetlamp just beyond the gate. It flickered off and back on. There was nothing, just the empty pool of red light. Her hands shook – from the cold, from her drying-out liver. A trick of the light, or of the dark, or of her mind – an impression of a man in a suit.

Hera barked and howled at nothing. She spun in all directions, tail tucked under her body. “Calm, girl, calm!” She upset the birds in a nearby tree. Their sudden flight caused a sheet of snow to fall to the ground. This was too much for Hera who darted off, yowling and whining, towards the hills and the trees and the dark. “Hera! Hera come back! Come back right now!”

Leah ran after. She cut straight up the hills instead of using the winding paths. It was steep and she ended up on her hands and knees in the snow several times, yelling the dog’s name, wheezing and breathless. She couldn’t feel her toes or fingers, only a throbbing pain in her head to tell her it was cold and dark and she was thirsty and hungry and alone.

She saw the flagpole of the observation deck ahead and knew she was near the encampment on Hill 66. Before heading into the trees, she stood at the top of the hill looking down on all of Glasgow for the tell-tale black fur on white snow. “Hera!”

Seeing nothing, she made her way over the thick roots and frozen carpet of leaves to the camp. The sleeping bags were arranged close together and there was now a tarp tied between the trees covered in a thin layer of fresh snow. “Magda! Magda, are you there?” No answer but for the night-time birds singing. She shook the nearest sleeping bag. It felt heavy, heavier than sleep. It lacked the warmth of a human being, it lacked the smell of that warmth. “Oh, oh Jesus Christ, no.” There were five sleeping bags. She found Magda’s face peering out of the hood of one of them. Her eyes were open. “Christ almighty.”

A voice joined the birds singing: It’s the most wonderful time of year. Leah backed up against a tree, eyes scanning between the trees and the black night soup. With the kids jingle-belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer. It was a radio voice. First on the wind, then getting closer. It’s the hap-happiest season of all. Then she saw him step out from the dark – black-tie dress, flashing white teeth, the cheesy crooner look, the wholesome, cheery sing-song voice to go with it. He was looking right at her, smiling.

“Who are you? You, you did this! What’s going on?” Leah’s fingers dug into the bark of the tree, making them bleed.

He lifted his head and belted out the song. There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and carolling out in the snow!

“Go away! Leave me alone!”

He looked into her eyes and she shivered. Her back went tight. This time his mouth was closed, still smiling his pearly-white smile, and she heard the voice inside her head, between her ears. There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.

He came closer. His shining black dress shoes left no impression on the snow. He was only metres from her now. Leah was paralysed with fear, her body was going stiff, her mind screamed white noise. And barked.

Hera came tearing through the woods, barking and howling, and charged straight into the singer in the black-tie suit. He turned into a puff of white like an exploding snowball, the black suit and bow-tie falling empty onto the ground where Hera clawed and tore at them with her teeth. Leah felt her headache return and took a deep, frozen breath and coughed it back out. She felt the water in her boots and the pain in her fingers. “Come, Hera, come! Good girl. Run!”

Together they tore blind through the forest, branches reaching out to snag and trip and catch. The crooner’s voice swooped over them like the wind. There’ll be much mistltoeing and hearts will be glowing… It brought a tempest with it. A thick hale of snow and ice fell on Leah on the open hilltop and she fell, tumbling down a steep incline and landing on concrete.

She brushed snow out of her face and tried to catch her breath. She looked around into a maze of pillars that rose to head height above her, crowned with snow. She’d fallen into the Sunken Garden. Once the basement of a stately home built in the middle of the park in the eighteen-hundreds, the house had long been torn down but the support pillars had been kept and decorated with etchings and poems (and graffiti) as a piece of public art. Beyond the foundation walls there was a whiteout. The voice came at her from the snow storm …when loved ones are near, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Leah and Hera dove into the concrete maze. The ground beneath was like an ice rink. There was a flash of red between two columns. “Stop runnin, love.” She recognised the deep, tenor tones of Brigton Tim’s customer-voice and saw another flash of his red Big Issue tabard and Santa hat between the columns.

“Tim? Tim is that you? What’s goin on?”

“Time to give in, Leah. It’s over. Stop runnin, m’dears. It won’t hurt, I promise.”

“Why? Why are you doing all this? Who are you?”

She fled in a zig-zag through the columns, catching flickers of figures that looked like Paul and Magda. She found herself wedged into a corner of the Garden. Hera stood on point and grumbled. A small dog trotted towards them from between the pillars. Hera stalked up cautiously, her nose twitching. It was a Jack Russell Terrier.

“Why? Because I love Christmas so dearly, and you’re spoilin it.” This time it was Mark’s voice. He stepped from behind a pillar. Mark, in his black vest and steel-capped boots and radio. “You and all those like you. You miserable lot that stain the clean, pure snow on the shopping streets, that silence our carols with guilt, you the hungry that make people choke on their turkeys when all they want is to feel merry.”

“I want to feel merry too.” Leah was crying, hot tears running down her frozen face.

“But you can’t. You have nobody. You have nothin. Where is your family? Where are your presents? Where is your Christmas spirit? You don’t have any. The only spirit you have is vodka.” Its voice sounded kind, not the least bit angry.

“That’s not true,” she sobbed.

“It can all be over, Leah. All the sufferin, the cold, the compromises, the fear and hatred.”

Leah tried to run but slipped over.

“That’s right, just sit down and close your eyes.” Mark, or Tim, or Andy Williams, or whoever or whatever the thing was moved towards her. Hera lay on top of her, shielding her. She barked and yowled. The paralysing cold began to fill them both, the dog’s cries becoming whimpers. Leah pictured the blue and white tape decorating the Sunken Garden, wrapping round her still, frozen body – The Freeze is early this year…

Leah felt something digging into her leg. She reached into one of her deep jacket pockets and pulled it out – the tennis ball. The one that Mark gave her. Mark, who had wished her a Merry Christmas, who had bought her a bacon roll and fed her dog, and chatted with her as they walked through the park. It was already looking frayed where Hera had tried to chew the green fuzz off it. It felt warm in her hand.

The thing was singing its song, taking the form of the crooner Andy Williams again, this time wearing a jolly Christmas jumper with Rudolph on it, a wool bauble for his bright red nose.

Leah took a tight grip on the ball and launched it at the thing’s head. The ball bounced off its crown with a weak, hollow thump and it caught it. It looked at the ball with a half-smile, a hint of confusion, then disappeared.

The ball bounced on the icy concrete and rolled away between the maze of pillars. The wind died, the whiteout over.

Hera licked at Leah’s face, licking the tears from her cheeks and the snow from her hair. Leah smelled the dog’s hot breath and held tight fistfuls of her fur. She pushed her face into Hera’s neck and took a deep breath of damp, comforting fur. With a glum sigh she thought, There’s still another week till Christmas.


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