Short Stories

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

By Alice Johnson

Sweat trickled down the cleft of her back as she paused for breath half-way round the running-track. The sun had gone down, but the heat remained; trapped under the clouds like an electric blanket heating up the atmosphere. Maybe it was because the track was rectangular, perhaps that’s why she couldn’t manage to run the full 3,000 metres without feeling as if she’d been trekking through the Sahara for five days straight. The track’s two long sides made it impossible for her to run continuously to the end – it was too far. She was defeated before she had even started. The end wasn’t even in sight. She decided to test how far she could actually jog in the heat. Two-hundred metres later and she paused to greedily gulp in the warm flannel air. A skinny guy in a football strip skipped past, almost dancing along. How could he move so effortlessly, running like he was skating on ice?

And then the first Ghost of Christmas Past appeared to her, the realisation flashing across her mind: she had to admit her defeat was only because she was overweight and unfit. Rectangles didn’t actually have anything to do with it at all. The ghost came to her as a memory of cross-country training at school, some 15 years ago. She was taken back to the time when she was last to finish to 10,000 metres. The annoyed teacher, impatient that she was taking so long wanted to close the field gates. They would both be late for their next lessons. It wasn’t that she was a bit behind, but more than two laps behind everyone else in her class. She was on her own, a lone, fat student trudging through mud and grass in a polyester tracksuit, the cold biting at her reddened cheeks.

Now she was back to reality, bent over her own knees, an adult watching drips of salty sweat splash onto the spring-form surface. One by one, joggers ran past her, the soft tread of their trainers rhythmic, pounding. Pounding, pounding, pounding, thump, thump, thump, just like the blood pumping through her forehead. She stood upright, hands on hips, her chest rising and falling. A slight breeze caught her attention and she turned her face in its direction, swivelling at the hips, eyes closed, to enjoy it as much as possible.

When she opened her eyes again, the traffic lights on the road running next to the track were turning red. A woman with a pram waited until the yellow changed to red before she ventured out across the zebra stripes. That could have been her. If the ‘pregnancy’ as the doctor’s called it, had followed through to the end. And so the second Ghost of Christmas Past came to visit. Three months into pregnancy was a baby to her. Her baby. It was her baby that had died three years ago. It died, her baby died – it wasn’t an ‘unviable pregnancy’. There was nothing unviable about her baby. ‘The father’ hadn’t been there for her either; well, why would he? He didn’t want ‘it’ as he called the child, in the first place. He wasn’t there for her in the beginning and didn’t plan to be in the end, so why would he be there when the baby died. He didn’t pick up the phone when she called him anymore. She called and called and then called again. Two messages were left, but he didn’t call her back. It was a week since the ‘procedure’ had been done: she resorted to sending him an email. He replied two days later with just one word. “Sorry”, the email read. Sorry, she thought. Sorry for what, sorry for leaving me in the first place? Sorry that the baby’s dead or sorry that you didn’t want it in the first place? She bashed out some angry words in reply; and then deleted it.

A salty sting awoke her from the daydream and she was back on the running track. Forehead sweat had trickled down into her eyes. She must have been daydreaming with her eyes open again. She had often imagined what her baby would have looked like – it would’ve been a girl she thought. There’s no point dwelling on the past, her mother said. Her womb was intact and she would be able to ‘conceive again’, the doctors said.

This side of the rectangle seemed at least two degrees hotter than the other side and the breeze had disappeared completely. The road had become busier, even though it was long past rush hour. Exhaust fumes were starting to make her chest hurt standing still, so she’d have to move soon. Running still didn’t seem like the best option, so she started walking at a brisk pace, hands still on her hips. She felt them jiggle underneath her hands, the ‘childbearing hips’ she was told she had. That seemed ironic when she lost the baby.

She was stamping, almost marching to the sound of her own heartbeat, the sweat continuously trickling down from places she hadn’t realised could actually perspire before now. A drip trickled down the small of her back, running straight down between her buttocks, tickling her as she walked. Perspiration ran in small rivulets down the side of her face, down her nose, into her mouth, sometimes gathering at her chin before leaping off into oblivion.

An argument grew closer, approaching her from behind. The Spanish couple were power-walking: big strides, arms at perfect 90-degree angles, rhythmic walking, striding walking, rhythmic walking. Their argument, annoyance, disagreement grew closer and closer. She had always thought Spanish sounded like a babbling brook. This sounded more like white water rafting over rapids. She assumed it was some kind of domestic dispute, but maybe not. Maybe she shouldn’t make that assumption. Maybe they were arguing about politics, religion, humanity, the price of fish. Who knew.

Now it was time for the third and last Ghost of Christmas Past to catch up with her. She was taken back to the time when she thought they had been happy. They were a good couple – they were. That’s what she told herself. He was good to her, that’s what she told herself. It was just that no-one else could see it. Everyone was wrong about him. It was Christmas Eve nine years ago when it happened and they were supposed to be going out to a party. He hadn’t come home from the shops he had ‘nipped’ out to five hours earlier. She didn’t know why and he didn’t like her calling on his mobile phone, so she hadn’t. She was younger than him, but he liked them that way, her mother had said. She had showered, done her hair up as he liked it, even put a bit of lipstick on – but not too much so she didn’t look like the slutty wives he despised. The electric bar heater was on and where was the harm in getting into the Christmas spirit with a small glass of red wine. She could tidy up in a minute, when she heard his car pull up. He would never know she had been drinking.

The car door slamming woke her up with a jolt on the lounge sofa. She had drunk half the bottle of wine and dozed off to sleep where she was. She panicked, looking at the clock: it was 3am. Her good husband burst through the door in a drunken stupor, hardly able to stand, let alone walk. He stumbled over to her and she asked where he’d been.

“How dare you question me,” he roared at her. Then, as if sobering up suddenly and ready to pick a fight, he spotted the half-empty wine bottle on the coffee table.

“You’ve been drinking. You’re drunk,” he said rhetorically. “And what’s this,” he pointed at her lips, “you bloody slut, you’ve had a man in here, haven’t you!”

It was Christmas Eve and for some reason that had given her courage. For the first time ever, she answered back to him.

“You’re the drunk,” she screamed at him, shoving him on the chest. Her good husband toppled and fell backwards onto the Christmas tree, pulling off and breaking several decorations. Baubles rolled away searching for cover and the angel at the top swayed dangerously. She stood, chest heaving, scared, adrenaline pumping, wondering what to do now.

He rose slowly, keeping eye contact: she didn’t see the walking stick he sometimes used in his hand, until he raised it above his head. The first blow didn’t seem to hurt for a while, it was more the shock of the crack as the top of her left arm broke.

She paused, hands on hips, wondering why her left arm had suddenly started hurting again. They had pinned it in five places after the ‘incident’ with her good husband, but it was fixed. The Spanish couple had passed her and she carried on with the walk, the sweat still dripping off her chin.

The good husband’s second blow was harder and the third harder still, and he kept on hitting and hitting until she was cowering behind the sofa as he pound her on the back with the wooden stick.

Back onto the running track and the sharp pain in her left arm grew stronger and stronger. She gasped at the sudden impact of it, clutching her chest in agony, falling to the floor as her legs were no longer strong enough to hold her own weight. Joggers ran to help her as she fell backwards, writhing in agony on the spring-form floor.

Then the blows reached her head. And the good husband kept hitting and hitting and hitting. Until there was no more hitting.

 

No more running.

 

No more throbbing.

 

No more pulse.

 

-The End-