THE OLD WAYS • by Sandra Crook

The house was in darkness when he returned after midnight, but he thought he saw the flicker of candlelight through the blinds as he negotiated the icy path. As instructed by his parents before he’d gone off to a New Year’s Eve party, he picked up the piece of coal, a salt-cellar, and a large chunk of bread which were in a bag on the porch.  He rummaged in his pocket for the silver dollar that his father had given him.

What a ridiculous hotch-potch of customs and superstitions, he thought scornfully. This is what you got with a cosmopolitan family; an English father, Spanish mother and a German grandmother. Jesus, they’d been freaking out all day long about what you should and shouldn’t do at New Year. He’d been glad to get the hell out of it earlier on tonight.

He rang the doorbell and waited impatiently, breath steaming from his mouth in the frosty night air, stamping his feet. After a few seconds, he hammered on the door knocker. No reply.

He sighed in exasperation. They were supposed to answer the door. It was important, they’d said, that the New Year was brought into the house by a tall, dark man carrying coal, salt, bread and silver to guarantee good luck for the coming year.

Yeah, right.

He stepped back, looking up at the bedroom windows. They were in darkness, though for a moment he thought he saw one of the curtains twitch slightly.

“Sod superstition,” he growled, losing patience. He rifled through his pockets for his key, and let himself into the house, gingerly balancing the salt, coal and bread against his chest. He felt a momentary blast of icy air against his face as he did so.

“Happy New Year,” he called.

He deposited the lump of coal on the fading embers of the fire in the kitchen, and placed the bread, salt and the silver dollar on the kitchen table. Okay, that was it then. They would have warmth, food, work and money for the coming year. As if.

Now, please, could he go to bed?

Ah no. There was something else they’d said he had to do.

He got a glass from the cupboard and picked up a bottle of red wine. He shook it… half full. At least they hadn’t drunk the house dry in his absence. Now, to complete the tradition, he had to pour a glass out for his father, the head of the household, and then they could all go off to bed.

Still feeling the effects of the beers he had drunk, he slopped some wine into a glass and wove unsteadily into the sitting room, where his father was sleeping in front of the television. He leaned against the doorway, staring at the back of his head.

“Hi Dad,” he said softly, deciding that perhaps he would drink this glass of wine himself and get his father another one later. No reply. Shrugging, he knocked the wine back, and returned to the kitchen to replenish the glass.

On the way back, he passed the dining room doorway. His mother was seated at the dining table. Looked like she’d fallen asleep, her head rolled right back. Beneath her flimsy, lacy dress he could see she was decked out in bright red underwear. He shook his head. Gross, at her age. For a Spanish mujer, she wasn’t all that fat, but still not slim enough to get away with lace, and certainly not scarlet underwear.

Another silly tradition, Spanish this time. He wondered what she’d done about the twelve grapes they were supposed to eat, one at each stroke up to midnight.

He’d let her sleep. She’d only want to know what he’d been doing tonight, and the fact was he could scarcely remember anyway.

He wondered where his grandmother was. She’d been the one bitching all day about keeping up with the old customs and superstitions, and now she hadn’t even bothered to stay up for his return. He stomped slowly up the stairs to her room. She was in bed with her face turned towards the flickering television.

He glanced at the screen where a drunken butler staggered backwards and forwards to a long dinner table serving an old lady seated at one end. God, she was watching that bloody film again. How many years had they sat through Dinner for One, with some crazy English couple going through the same sketch every New Year’s Eve?

What was it with these people?

He turned the television off before going to stand beside the bed. No point waking her up, but she did look a funny colour. He stood watching her for a moment. She didn’t look at all well. Perhaps he’d better get his mother.

He went back downstairs to the dining room.

“Wake up, sleeping beauty,” he said, walking over and nudging his mother’s head. It rolled to one side, and he jumped back with a shrill cry as several squashed grapes slithered out from between her lips, lips that were as blue as her great bulging eyes.

“My God,” he cried, rushing to the sitting room.

“Wake up, Dad, I think Mom’s choked on the grapes,” he shouted, shaking his father’s shoulder roughly.

His father fell sideways in his chair, revealing a shirt that was sodden with crimson liquid, which was not, he realised, red wine. His gaping throat smiled up at his son.

He stared wildly around the room, realising now that his grandmother was almost certainly dead as well. Hysteria rose within him, along with several beers, a couple of pizzas and a glass of red wine.

He dashed for the kitchen sink, heaving violently until he was done, and then stood upright, gasping for breath.

Then, remembering the icy blast that had brushed past him as he entered the house, the awful truth dawned on him.

Nobody had remembered to let the evil spirits of the Old Year out, just before midnight!

Sandra Crook spends most of the year cruising the waterways of France with her husband. Having recently resumed writing she now concentrates on fiction, and occasionally poetry. Some recent work can be found at Previously she had articles published in the Financial Times Weekend Review and various animal and regional magazines.

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