A Christmas Tale to Chill Your Heart
A Short Story by Matthew C. Woodruff
The beauty of the late autumn day was in sharp contradiction to the chilling aura oozing out of the Arnos Vale Cemetery that day. Even though the unseasonably warm sun was shining encouragingly on the shoppers at the annual Arnos Vale Christmas Market, Meshelle felt only a foreboding she couldn’t define even to herself. To Meshelle the ancient Arnos Vale Cemetery could have been the setting for any number of horror movies, all of which would most likely end in blood-splattering and gruesome ways.
She hesitated just as she was about to enter through the towering and ornate classical Greek granite and wrought iron gates.
“Come on,” her friend said to her from a good ten paces ahead, turning around and wondering what the holdup was. By now Meshelle’s friend was used to her small peculiarities. Meshelle was sensitive to certain things, often had a sense of foreboding or a feeling of the imminent intervention of destiny into her own or someone else’s life.
“Shel, just take a look at this place, it’s beautiful,” her best friend said while motioning around at everything, walking back toward her while trying to sound encouraging.
In her mind Meshelle agreed. Arnos Vale Cemetery was a beautiful place, with its wide stone walkways, the immaculately kept trees and shrubbery, with the bright morning sun glowing through their branches. Even the statues and stone mausoleums had a grace that couldn’t be denied. But in her heart, Meshelle could feel that the cold hand of fate was about to close.
Meshelle swallowed down her misgivings and allowed her friend to pull her inside. As she stepped through the portal into this habitation of the decaying, a strong sense of Déjà Vu washed over her, causing her to stumble. Her friend looked at her with concern.
“You ok?” She asked.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Meshelle answered. “It’s just, well you know… I felt…”
Meshelle’s friend did indeed know, for she had heard the story before from Meshelle. In fact, it was one of the first things she learned about her. It had been Christmas Eve thirteen years ago. Meshelle and her mother had been on the High Street in London just having finished a little last-minute shopping on the cold and snowy day and were headed to a hotel for lunch when a sudden and terrible feeling of foreboding washed over young Meshelle. So strong was the feeling that Meshelle stopped suddenly shaking uncontrollably, dropping the few bags she was carrying in the middle of the street and into the dirty slush, scaring them both.
“Shel, whatever is it dear,” her mother asked seeing Meshelle’s face white with fear, looking around to see if something was wrong. Ten-year-old Meshelle fought back the tears, looking at her boots she said shakily, “I…I don’t know, Ma. I just felt…wrong.” She was unable to put into words then, what she knew so strongly now. Something terrible was going to happen. Her mother pursed her lips, worried but not understanding. “Come on let’s pick these up and hurry into the hotel,” she said.
They hurried across the rest of the street, fogs of breath streaming out and the dirty slush squishing out from the bottoms of their boots with every stride. Their target, the Milestone Hotel was a grand old place reminiscent of times that were more refined. The huge lobby was speckled with divans, chairs, tables and ottomans. Ornate Persian carpets had been scattered about as if on a whim. There were grandiose side bureaus astrewn with draping holiday arrangements and side tables seemingly without number that were home to delicate looking antique vases or lamps or small statuary.
Large chandeliers of cut crystal were hanging from the high vaulted ceiling, bathing everything and everyone in a mid-19th century like glow. The largest fir tree either of them ever saw dominated the center of the tall lobby, colorfully decorated gaily with balls, ornaments, ribbon and bows and all manner of Christmas decoration. A ‘Happy Christmas’ was on everyone’s lips and shared willingly with fellow hotel guests as they chanced to pass one another.
On any normal day Meshelle and her mother would both be awestruck by the display of ample wealth and elegance and the fabulous Christmas decorations. Today they headed directly into the little side café, peeling off gloves, scarves and coats on the way, getting lighter and lighter like quickly melting snowmen. This wasn’t a normal day though or a normal Christmas Eve and not just because of Meshelle’s earlier sense of looming doom.
This Christmas was meant to be unique and special.
Much earlier that year, when the first birds and blooms of spring were appearing, Meshelle had spent a day home in bed, shaking with an undefined fear and foreboding, only to find out later that she had lost her father to an accident at work. It was a tragedy and was an Augean task to come to terms with for them both. There were several dark months for them earlier that year. But as time passed and its healing magic did its work, life began to return and take on a new normal.
This was the first Christmas since the loss and since they had no other family, Meshelle’s mother decided to start a new tradition for just the two of them. Instead of spending Christmas in their little memory-filled country house, they would spend Christmas Eve, Christmas day and Boxing day in London where all the hustle and bustle happened, in the hopes of bringing at least some joy, novelty and frivolity into the season.
As they installed themselves at a little table near the warmly burning fireplace and draped their coats and scarves over the backs of the chairs, like some conquering army’s pennants, a young and handsome black-tied waiter appeared with two menus. “Ladies,” he started, his American accent unmistakable, “merry…er I mean happy Christmas!”
Meshelle’s mother returned the greeting with a smile, but Meshelle kept her head down, for she was shy, and the waiter was very cute.
“Can I bring you both some hot chocolate or eggnog?” He inquired of them, handing each of them a lunch menu.
“I think hot chocolate sounds lovely,” Meshelle’s mother said to him. “Is that ok, dear?” She asked Meshelle.
“Yes, please” Meshelle quietly replied still barely looking up. The waiter smiled and turned toward the kitchens, stopping to check on a lovely older couple’s table on the way.
“My, isn’t he cute.” Meshelle’s mother said to a blushing Meshelle, glad the day was returning to normal. “Any idea what you want for lunch, today?”
“Cheese sandwich on toast,” she answered glancing at the menu just to verify it was offered. “And tomato soup.” It was her favorite. It was what she always ordered.
“That sounds delicious”, her mother agreed “but I think I will have the chicken today with the soup.”
The waiter soon returned to place two large mugs of steaming frothy hot chocolate in front of them both, adding a cinnamon stick to Meshelles while giving her a little wink, making her blush even more furiously.
With an appreciative laugh her mother ordered and the day resumed, all thoughts of the strange, earlier incident escaping from their minds like the fog of their breaths had earlier from their mouths. They both sat silently and contemplated the coming celebrations and gifts.
Fifteen minutes later, Meshelle’s mother choked to death on her chicken sandwich, the young waiter standing by helplessly while other patrons attempted in vain to assist her.
Eventually, Meshelle ended up in the same foster home as her now best friend and her life once again resumed.
“Come on,” Meshelle tugged on her friend’s sleeve coming back to the moment, “Let’s forget about all that and do some shopping!”
“Right on, Girl,” Her friend answered, heading with her toward the first of the vendor stalls.
The Cemetery that day was a plethora of gift giving ideas. There were quirky handmade gifts for sale. There was jewelry, homewares and art prints featuring wildflower and British animal watercolour illustrations. There were also bath and body products, including Merino felted soap. For the dog lover there was handmade dog accessories and pet portraits and prints. There were bags and scarves and boots for sale. There were kitchen accessories and small appliances. Meshelle even bought a new carving knife for herself.
And there was food galore available, there was hot chocolate and hot dogs, there was ice cream and ice coffee, there was muffins and danish, croissants and rolls, there were hot pretzels and freshly popped popcorn. The list of gloriously unhealthy food went on and on. There was enough going on to make Meshelle and her friend forget the day’s earlier worries.
Mid-day found Meshelle and her friend wandering off the main paths of the cemetery into the older and less traversed areas. Here the sites were not so well cared for. There was broken and turned over headstones, grass and shrubbery needed to be cared for and a few mausoleum doors were broken and ajar. There was even one open grave with a nearby rusty pick and shovel moldering in the grass.
The sounds of the Christmas market were fading into the distance.
“Come on,” Meshelle said, “Let’s head back” not liking the eerie surroundings.
“Wait, I have to tell you something.” Her friend said in a strange tone, stopping.
Meshelle turned toward her and placing her bags on a nearby, broken bench, took her hands. “What is it?”
After a pause Meshelle’s friend said, “I’m pregnant.”
Momentarily Meshelle was surprised into silence. Her friend was a lesbian and had been in a serious relationship for several years.
“Oh my God that’s great, isn’t it?” Meshelle inquired, trying to gauge her friend’s feelings. “You wanted a baby, didn’t you?”
When there was no reply from her pensive looking friend, Meshelle continued with, “who’s the baby daddy?” trying to lighten the mood before her friend’s silence became over-whelming.
“Robert,” her friend stated quietly, not looking at Meshelle.
“Robert? You mean my Robert?” Meshelle asked incredulously, her brow furrowing and dropping her friend’s hands like they were loathsome things. She and Robert had been dating fairly seriously for five months. Meshelle had confided to her friend that she thought she was in love. Now she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“My Robert?” She asked again sounding a little hysterical before becoming increasingly angry at the thought of the monstrous betrayal.
“Shel, I am so sorry… I…we didn’t mean for it to happen, it was just… Robert doesn’t know.” Her friend’s excuses tapered away, while she grabbed ineffectually at Meshelle’s hand.
Shaking free of her friend’s touch Meshelle turned toward the bench to try to quiet her raging heart. Red filled her vision. Her friend’s voice saying ‘Robert’ swirled furiously around and around in her head.
She looked up at her surroundings trying hard to calm down but all she could see around her was neglected death. The earlier sense of foreboding came crashing into her. It’s all just too much, she thought to herself, I lost dad then mom and now this!
She looked back down and all she could see now was the carving knife in one of her shopping bags. She pictured in her mind how sweet the end would be when it was finally all over, no more loss and no more pain. She picked up the bag and removed the box the knife was in.
“Shel, you’re scaring me, what are you doing?” Her friend said, quietly weeping now. “It’s not that bad, we can work through it…”
“SHUT UP!” Meshelle screamed no longer wanting to hear her friend’s pathetic voice, finally extricating the knife from the box.
She quickly turned toward her friend and plunged the knife deep into her friend’s stomach, killing both her and whatever life was growing inside, blood pouring out onto the unkempt path. A look of horror and fear flashed across her friend’s face as she dropped dead to the ground.
A little while later, the red receded and some sense of sanity returned to Meshelle. She dragged her friend’s corpse into the cold open grave and using the broken shovel covered it over with dirt, weeds and rock. She did her best to clean up the knife and cover over the blood on the path. Not knowing what more she could do, she gathered up all the bags and headed back to the gate, through the crowds of happy Christmas shoppers. She took her mobile out and called Robert.
“Hey Shel, what’s up?” He asked with a smile in his voice. His voice grated in her ears now and eyeing the carving knife back in its box in her bag she said, “I really want to see you, let’s meet later at Arnos Vale. I want to show you something.”
As she exited the Arnos Vale Cemetery toward the bus stop, she heard “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” playing in the background.
Matthew grew up in upstate New York surrounded by books (and snow). After founding what became the most widely distributed alternative arts and entertainment magazine in upstate NY (based in Albany), Matthew moved to Greenville, FL where he accepted a position on staff at the University of Florida.
His first book, 26 Absurdities of Tragic Proportions, was inspired by his love of the macabre illustrations by artists like Edward Gorey. Selected as a finalist in the American Fiction Awards, 26 Absurdities may be the most unique collection of short stories ever written.
Matthew’s second book, Tales from the Aether, continues in the Dark Humor/Dark Fiction genre and is scheduled to be released November 1, 2019.