Tony Bulmer Xmas Epitaph
Here is a quirky little short story I wrote about 15 years ago whilst living in London England. The story was inspired when I saw a quite extraordinary xmas display set up on a dingy balcony near Heathrow airport. The balcony faced a major road junction and the motivation behind it really set my mind working. You will notice certain British usage in the story, a Motorway is of course a Freeway, and an Estate is most often a large public housing development [although there are privately owned ones too] U.S. readers might want to use the word “projects”. Merry New year to you all!
It was an ambitious display. An oversize Santa, with toy filled sack, standing proud, as he waved a cheery greeting, against a back drop of oversize snowflakes. There were flashing reindeer too, and the obligatory snowman, complete with top hat, scarf and a crooked carrot nose. Out front of the display, a glacial torrent of pulsing neon dripped downwards over the edge of the balcony. The decorations hadn’t come cheap, but standards had to be set. Doreen Noonan had been evolving her display for years. Each year more impressive than the last. Of course the electricity bills were a problem, but increased voltage was the only way forward, if you wanted to be the best on the estate. Besides, her cleaners job at the day centre helped—you can’t take it with you, can you?
Other people on the estate did their bit, or tried to. Xmas trees went up early on the Westside Estate. November saw the first displays: tinsel, spray snow and a million rainbow bulbs, flashing out routines into the frost filled darkness.
Doreen always got in the Christmas spirit early. After months of preparation her display was ready by mid October—and although she usually waited until November first before the big switch on—Mrs Hawes from Nelson Mandela block had shown incredibly bad taste the previous year, by switching on a full week before Halloween. It was not something Doreen approved of; it spoilt things for the children.
Doreen got son-in-law Kevin to erect the display. Her balcony overlooked the Freeway into town. The thought of all those millions of motorists passing by—slowing down to see her lights—it gave her a warm glow of pride putting all those souls in the Christmas spirit.
Kevin was an itinerant drunk and sometime electrician—when he wasn’t scrounging benefits. He agreed to do the electricals in exchange for a bottle of booze; though cost-cutter scotch didn’t give him quite the enthusiasm he required, for a job of such magnitude. Kevin wired the display, with his usual slovenly inattention to detail. He left the empty scotch bottle on the icy balcony.
A wet night. Friday December the seventeenth, the display suffered a malfunction. A blackout of catastrophic proportions. The cause? Rain water seepage down the side of the building the most likely candidate, but electrical malfunctions are always tough to trouble-shoot.
Doreen knew one thing: she had to work fast; children could be disappointed. Mrs Hawes would almost certainly pass comment at the day centre, and the thousands of passing motorists… well it brightened their day—her daughter-in-law Mandy had said so, hadn’t she?
Doreen investigated the fault in her stocking-feet. It wouldn’t take long; she had become a bit of an expert with loose connections after all these years.
Mandy and her son Vinnie found her three days later. The coroner said misadventure. Electrocution caused by an incorrectly earthed appliance. There was a good deal of disappointment that Christmas, and it wasn’t just the children, or the drivers on the motorway. Mrs Hawes blacked out her lights as a sign of remembrance, and pretty soon lights were flipping off all over the estate.
And the story would have ended there; but for Doreen’s son Vinnie: born on the twenty first of December 1975. Vinnie was a crook. A nasty mid-level enforcer and leg-breaker with the Westside crew. He was also a family man. A loving son and father, and his kids were going to go without their nanna at Xmas time.
Kevin had to pay. He’d ruined Vinnie’s Xmas. Ruined Xmas for the kids—
And that was unforgivable.