A short story collection
by Reggie Walton
I suspect that most of us view Christmas as a happy season, with lots of food, drink, fir trees, decorations and good company. Even when we are not moved by its religious significance, Christmas is a time for reflecting on the past year, and for looking ahead to the next twelve months. It is a time for family, and for enjoyment.
Of course, it’s all very well celebrating when we have the resources to do so. But what about the people at the bottom of the social scale, those who live on the streets? What about the sick, the bereaved, the victims of abuse and those who have no family at all – what is Christmas like for them? In this little book of short stories, Reggie Walton takes a long, hard, and perceptive look at the other side of Christmas – its cold side. Through characters ranging from a man dying of cancer to a Church of England vicar with a surprisingly earthy vocabulary, the author presents a collection of life – and death – stories which throw light on the less attractive aspects of the festive season. Most of the inhabitants of these tales are not singing carols round a Christmas tree, or stuffing themselves with roast turkey and brandy pudding. They are not opening presents, or quaffing wine, or sucking sweetmeats and toffees. Life for them is sad, boring, hard, or unrelenting.
‘Every time she heard the word [Daddy] it jarred, a sensation of her body turning to glass and shattering ran through…. How many times can someone fragment and re-form?’
In The Toolbox, a young mother and her small son are trying to fix a broken window blind, both missing the expertise of a husband and father. Moreover, the boy has serious questions which she cannot answer because she is hurting too. But Daddy’s toolbox is in the cluttered garage – along with a Christmas tree – and that provides a solution, as well as a tenuous but cool link with the past.
‘My father knew something was out of place. My mum would try to placate him or change his focus of attention, but he would keep on, digging, ferreting, turning her words round and round, back onto her, until she slipped up.’
The Broken Bottle is a story of an abusive relationship. Here, the narrator is a thirteen-year-old boy, living with his cowed mother, his little sister Matilda and his rigid, critical, unfeeling father. Christmas to this man is about Jesus, obedience and punishment. Presents are forbidden. The children’s treat on Christmas morning is the job of shelling peas. This year Mother breaks the rules and provides each with a chocolate bar, which they must hide as soon as they hear Father’s steps on the staircase. But it is the four-year-old Matilda who commits the first act of rebellion.
‘ “Our Father,” he said. The words jostled each other until the vacuous members of his vacuous nave were in sync. “Who art in Preston.” They all ignored the vicar and continued in their own version of the verse. “Shallow be thy game, thy dim dang dung.” Nothing.’
The most enjoyable, and amusing, tale of the bunch is The Sermon. The central character here is a vicar. As Christmas approaches, he finally loses the plot in his pulpit and tells his congregation, in the most colourful language, exactly what he thinks of them. However, even this story has a serious side, showing how the ‘Sunday face’ can often hide a complex personality and an interesting past – if one can only be bothered to ask questions.
‘Freya sat with a lit dog-end and three quarters of a pint of warm, pale-brown fluid …. She had collected left dregs and now had a healthy drink to work into.’
The harsh reality of life on the streets is depicted in Freya and Babe. A couple sleep in smelly derelict buildings and huddle for warmth in the waste heat from a swimming pool generator. Babe is large, clumsy and not very smart. He hates being alone and relies on Freya to look after him. A comfortable bed in a mission is denied her because it would mean separating. With very little money, they are reliant on church hall charity for a Christmas meal. As for the future, all they can do is dream.
These and three other tales (one in the form of a radio play) tackle some of the issues faced by modern society in the West. The stories in Cold Christmas are not ‘nice’ stories, nor are they meant to be. As a frontline paramedic, Reggie Walton sees both the best and the worst of people. He sees them when they are at their lowest. As he puts it himself, his vocation lets him see ‘into people’s hearts, minds and homes without filter, to the core of their struggles.’ And this collection shows us something of what those struggles can be like when the chips are stacked against you.
PS – My apologies to those readers who were expecting this review last month. For the past few weeks, life has been turned upside down. We had a complete bathroom refurbishment, so furniture had to be moved around to accommodate sanitary equipment. What little writing I was able to do had to be done in the living room with computer perched on knee, a highly unsatisfactory, and not very productive process. Contributing to WordPress had to take a back seat. I’m hoping now to get back to blogging book reviews more often! Please stay safe during these difficult and unprecedented times.
Andrew G Lockhart