I never posted that Christmas card.
He would arrive at our home every Christmas eve, push his vacant face up against the back window and stand in the same spot until somebody noticed him. On a few occasions he had remained there for hours; waiting to be let inside. One of my earliest memories (it sticks to the inside of my head like fly paper) is returning home after a carol service and being the first to enter our cosy little living room. I remember, clear as a snow-kissed morning, glancing and the silhouette of our Christmas tree with gentle awe. Then, something caught my eye outside. I turned my head toward the window. What I saw chilled my young bones. There, pressed against the glass, was his face.
I hated it. And I hated him. My father explained to me, as well as one can to a child, that Uncle Harry was a very sad and tired man. “Remember!” he exclaimed. “Aunt Matilda left him on Christmas eve. He needs to be around his family at this time of year.” I retorted that, had I been Aunt Matilda, I wouldn’t have left it until Christmas to leave him. I was sent to bed without supper that night.
I felt that he soured Christmas, not least by his horrid, leering arrivals but by his very presence. He seemed to absorb all of the love from our bellies and refuse to let it even flicker across his wide, cruel face. He barely spoke, just lingered. He drank too much and, when he did open his mouth, it was only to spout nasty family secrets or stuff his vile face with festive food.
When I was ten years old, Father decided that he would take my mother and me (for we were only a small family) to a beautiful log cabin in a wooded area of rural Germany for Christmas. Uncle Harry, of course, would be invited. At this second nugget of news, my soul fell to my feet. Father wrote Uncle Harry a note, for he did not own a telephone, and stuffed it inside his Christmas card. The letter explained where we would be going and that, if Harry should like to join us, he would be most welcome but that he would have to arrive the day before Christmas eve. The responsibility to post our family cards fell to me that year.
But Uncle Harry’s card, I’m somewhat ashamed to tell, found its home at the bottom of the river which ran through our little village.
Father remarked that he was rather disappointed that Harry did not peer through the back window on 23rd December. Nevertheless, I read something of relief on his face that Christmas. I felt I had done a good turn. Uncle Harry would arrive, realise we were absent, and leave for his own, miserable home. He might even catch a chill standing in the snow!
When we returned home on the second of January, full of the joys of the season, I felt that we were a family refreshed. It was truly the brightest and most enjoyable Christmas I had ever had. I was the first to run into the living room, eager to assemble my brand new train set on our carpet. I scampered into the room and was about to skid to the floor when something caught my eye at the window. Uncle Harry. There he stood, leering in, as was his way. I covered my mouth the prevent a shriek from escaping. The same cruel eyes, the same lifeless, flat features pressed against the glass.
He had frozen to death and stood propped against the window, rigid from the cold.
I mention this now with a chill in my very fibre; I write it down with a trembling hand. It has plagued my thoughts for many years – such insurmountable guilt! Now, a married man of thirty-seven and with two children of my own, something terrible has cemented my childhood deed. I found myself, this Christmas, away from my darlings on business. I had, of course, been provided with accommodation. My professional dealings involve sales to Europe and I was required to attend a black tie celebration on Christmas eve, with a number of German clients, in a retreat near Baden-Württemberg. I promised to stay in touch with my beloved family throughout my stay, heartbroken as I was to be away from them over the festive period.
My eldest child, Jonathan, had specifically taught me how to take, process and send photographs on my laptop computer – hopeless as I am with such things. I thought, before I left for the dinner, I would take a photo of myself in all of my finery and send it across to my family. I stood next to the fire place, making sure that the gorgeous winter scene outside, illuminated with Christmas lights in the darkness, would be visible through the window above my shoulder. I set up the camera on the tripod, selected the timer function and posed. I could not, of course, get the damn thing to show me the image itself afterwards. Nevertheless, I endeavoured to extract the file and send it home, praying that confounded thing had worked.
The morning of Christmas arrived and the phone roused me from my deep sleep (a brandy too many at the dinner). It was my darling wife, Carla. I asked after the children who, too engrossed with what Santa had brought them, felt no need to come to the phone. I then wished my wife a Merry Christmas and told her I would be home soon. She told me, in return, that she loved me and that I looked very handsome in the photograph I’d sent. I was very pleased – even slightly smug – at my technological triumph. There was then a slight commotion in the background and I struggled to hear what Millie, my eight-year old daughter, was saying:
“Just a moment darling…I’m talking to Daddy…No…Ok, Charles? Millie says…that you look very nice in your suit and tie…yes…and the view outside looks incredibly Christmassy…but she wonders…darling? Millie? Speak up!…Oh, yes, Charles, we all wondered actually: who is that cruel looking man at the window?”