Christmas wasn’t happening. Even though my watch said it was the 25th of December, there was nothing to signify festivity. The pound-a-bowl man on Lea Bridge Road had his usual colourful jumble of exotic fruits and vegetables laid out in front of him like still-lifes. The dry cleaner was drily cleaning, and the scrawled note on Indiano Pizza’s door declared ‘We not closed’. People were out and about, doing what they normally do in Leyton: carrying bulging Sports Direct bags, waiting at bus stops, smoking roll ups, nursing empty coffee cups.
I’d woken up biblically hung over, thanks to my Christmas Eve in the Nag’s Head: the Economist double issue by candle light, and three bottles of house red. Blurry eyed, I’d half imagined the odd sock draped over the end of the bed a christmas stocking.
A pint and a half of water after rising, I forced myself out into the damp drizzle, resolved to try and create some semblance of the season. Despite the numerous open shops, I found nothing that spoke to Christmas – unless you counted satsumas. In the off licence, a Polish man was counting out coins to exchange for four cans of lager.
I asked the shopkeeper where I could find something seasonal.
He shrugged. ‘Got Bacardi on special today if you want.’
I shook my head and made to leave. Then his wife, who had not been visible, emerged from the counter stacks of chocolate bars, samosas and yesterday’s newspapers, saying matter-of-factly, ‘Get some holly. Cut it from a tree in the woods.’
Genius. I thanked her, dug out a couple of warm pound coins from my pocket and paid for a pair of paper scissors, which had been hanging on a dusty display, in front of the motoring magazines.
The path up to the woods was trodden deep brown with dead leaves and dog shit. It smelled of cupboard under the stairs, the damp patch where the boiler once sprang a leak which has never quite dried out. I pushed aside a bramble, and felt a shower of water wash over me, as the leaves took the chance to shake themselves dry. I could smell wild garlic; was brushed up against nettles, ferns, and bracken. Trees stooped low, curious as to who or what was stumbling amongst them. And then the holly bush was in front of me. Bright berries punctuating the dark, velvety green of the waxed leaves.
I took the scissors from my pocket, and clasped a branch with my other hand. Immediately, I felt the claws of the holly rip deep into my wrist. I gripped tighter, gritting my teeth as more flesh tore with even the tiniest move. I snipped and tugged, pulled and wrestled, until finally I held aloft my own mini tree – dark green, bright red. Christmas.
Back on the path, a master-less dog bounded up to me, tail pointed skywards. I shooed him away. The blood from my wrist flicked onto his whitish fur and he dug himself down into the undergrowth. At the carpark, I paused to check my reflection in a wing mirror. Scissors in hand, scratches on my nose and cheeks, blood all over my hands. Murder suspect. A van slowed down, its driver looking at me, a frown passing across his face. I pushed the holly inside my coat. Wincing as the points cut into my chest, I stumbled back down the road and home. I’d make fish fingers and mash for Christmas dinner.
Jim Minton is a writer, occasional stand-up comedian and part-owner of a micro brewery. He has had works published by Liars League, is a regular performer with East London spoken word collective Red Army Fiction, and has read at the Write Ideas literary festival. His first novel, Undertone, will be available on Amazon soon. He grew up in the North East and now lives Walthamstow, East London. He works for a youth charity.
Illustration by Hanagh Little