(published 'Dark Matter' 1999)
The parlour’s silence (if a place could be silent as opposed to the things in it) was broken only by the coal embers speaking in crumbling and hissing. A flame’s lick had the last word, before darkness wedded itself to the parlour’s silence and became a ghost of something that hadn’t even lived.
Only two hours earlier, the place had been full of family life. The children had squabbled over the best position by the fire, the high-collared woman remonstrating with a boy who was the worst offender - that the heat did reach the couch if only he would try it. Not believing even his mother, the little scamp pushed his sobbing twin sister into the empty coal scuttle and hunched himself closer to the fire. The older twins were rather scathing of the younger ones and squatted on both sides of their father’s wing armchair… he, who, in turn, drew long wreaths of a cigar into his lungs and puffed them out again, as if there were nobody else in the parlour - unread book resting on his knee, eyes glazed...
Lizbie sat in the opposite armchair, shivering a little. As she was the middle child, she was accustomed to being left out of most games by the four others. After their mother had left the room, Lizbie decided to entice the others into a game of Dares. She really wanted to play Blind Man’s Bluff, but It was not yet Christmassy enough for that. In any event, the last time they had such a rumpus, blindness became too close to fact for comfort and Mother sent them all to bed early without a candle, as a punishment for not using a blindfold nor even eyelids.
Charades was a possibility, or even Postman’s Knock or Sardines, since make-believe was that family’s forte and they never had real toys, you see, or even Christmas presents. Yet life was far too real for miming and everything seemed to end in unspeakable forfeits.
“I dare you to play Dares,” piped up Lizbie, taking a sudden advantage of a lull. The younger twins were staring icily at each other in the Eyeball game (where the ultimate forfeit was said to be an exploding head if you were the first one to blink), whilst the older ones played Cat’s Cradle with Mother’s wool across their Scroogish father’s lap; the fire had settled to the point of optimum heat. Father’s eyes were now closed, the cigar smoke uncoiling in fairy words above his shiny pate. The other children, by their lack of response, indicated passive acquiescence to the game of Dares. The parlour drew quiet.
“OK, I’ll start off...” said Lizbie.
“Why you? The first one to roll a six should go first.”
Lizbie ignored the interruption and pointed to the girl in the scuttle. “I dare you to... put your hand as close to the fire as it’ll make a scorch-mark on it.”
The girl, without demur, as if Dares possessed a form of religious sanctity, clambered from the scuttle and made her way to the fire, using knees as feet, her small run-up of a frock riding upon white thighs. Tentatively, she edged her clenched fist as near to the glowing coals as thought possible
“Cowardy, cowardy, cornflower custard,” chanted Lizbie.
The fist edged even nearer.
The older twins had by now entangled their father in the machinations of their Cat’s Cradle game, like a fly in a web. He did not seem to care: a very pliable father.
As there reeked cooked flesh, Mother returned with the trayful of Royal Tea. Crumpets done to a turn, so thickly buttered, they swam on the plate. Dainty triangular canapes, each with an anchovy perched for swallowing. A silver teapot dressed in its cozy finery. A tier of various cakes, each one so full of itself, it dripped its innards upon the one beneath. And finally, a tandoori hand, on a bed of pilau rice, each finger smoking like a cigar...
During the wend of night, there were only stone eyes. The man’s ghost In the shape of stale smoke spoke silently about the agony of its erstwhile body’s searing lungs. And the parlour rasped its chimney-throat clear of last century’s Santa Claus - who had once dared to stay there forever.