We’re some distance away from the commercial Scots pine plantations (they’re too well guarded for what we have in mind), in an area of ancient woodland. Bump, bumpity, bump goes our pick-up along a narrow, snowy track.
“Keep your eyes peeled for a nice tree,” says Dad.
What he means is a thievable Scots pine that fits his exacting standards.
“There!” I yell, pointing into the darkness where a moment ago our headlights picked out a perfectly shaped pine tree.
Dad skids to a halt.
Once he’s assessed our arboreal prize, he says, “Well done, my son. Perfect height, perfect width of base, and a perfectly symmetrical cone shape. Happy days.”
In the stark moonlight, I hold the tree steady, and Dad sets to work with a hatchet. That’s when the wind starts up — a low, moaning wail that sets us both on edge.
We secure the felled tree in the back of the pick-up and set off home. Meanwhile, the trees either side of us, bowed by the frigid wind, arch over us as if lamenting the loss of their comrade.
“Ain’t it lovely!” coos Mum, once we’ve lugged our burden up to our third floor flat. We set it up in the living room, braced in a pilfered, earthen flower pot.
Our tabby cat, Toby, isn’t enamoured of the new addition to our household. He swipes at the lower branches and spits while Mum decorates our new Christmas tree with chasing lights, baubles and the like.
Next morning, Toby’s nowhere to be found.
“Did you let ’im out for a pee and a poo?” asks Mum, examining the pristine kitty litter. “You know ’ee gets lost.”
I deny all responsibility, and that’s the end of Toby — the end, that is, except that one of the tree decos, a tabby cat wearing reindeer antlers, bears a remarkable resemblance to our lost feline.
A week later, and Dad’s missing in action, too. I’m sure I heard him come back from the boozer the night before, and point out to Mum that since then the Christmas fairy’s been placed on the top of the tree — which is Dad’s job. Even so, Mum stomps about the living room cursing him.
“Maybe ’ee’s on one of ’is three-day benders,” I suggest. “’ee’s done it before.”
“Or else ’ee’s shacked up with that whore from the Admiral Nelson,” says Mum. “He’s done that before, too.” And with that Mum heads out the door in search of her presumed wayward husband.
Just like Toby, Dad’s not to be found, either, and the Old Bill put in minimal effort to find the old sinner once we’ve reported him missing. Strangely, though, one of the decos on the tree, a beer-bellied Santa with a face as ruddy as Dad’s during an extended drinking binge, hangs from one of the middle branches.
Mum can’t recall buying either the Santa or the tabby cat from the pound shop with the other tree decorations. But then she’s addled on gin and tonic and Prozac half the time.
Come Christmas morning, Mum’s also vanished. She went out on a bender with the girls on Christmas Eve. I heard her come back. She was waltzing round the living room, making one hell of a racket, knocking stuff over and swearing at the Christmas tree. Then, nothing. I figured she’d passed out on the couch, but she’s not there.
“Mum?” I say, knocking on her and Dad’s bedroom door. There’s no answer, and when I go inside the bed’s not been slept in.
Dressed in my traditional early morning attire, a pair of boxer shorts, I sit down on the sofa and try figuring out what’s going on. That’s when I notice the big-boned fairy on top of the Christmas tree. Yesterday she was as svelte as a ballerina. Today, she looks like — Mum!
I leap off the sofa and approach the tree. It’ll be a stretch, but if I get in amongst the branches, I’ll be able to take the fairy down and examine it closely. Yet as I reach up, the pine needles dig into my arms more painfully than I imagined they would. Then they pierce my skin, and push deeper and deeper into my flesh, like a thousand barbed fishing hooks.
I try to scream, but a branch thrusts its way into my mouth, down my gullet and into my retching stomach, holding me fast.
Immobilised, silenced, I watch in wide-eyed horror as my blood drains into the pine needles that have speared my arms, turning the needles and the branches red. I’m feeling faint. The tree is sucking me dry, bleeding me out. And is it me, or am I becoming not just increasingly pale, but translucent, like a see-through ghost.
Other branches encircle my waist, hug me tight and their needles pierce and feed off me, too. My vision blurs. Unconsciousness threatens. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a figurine forming, dangling from a nearby tree branch. It has elfin ears, a green hat, and is otherwise naked — except for a pair of boxer shorts.
Paul A. Freeman is not a cat person, so the tabby gets what it deserves.