Who's Who 7: Keepsake
The people on the TV were wearing Christmas jumpers and screaming at each other. Bickering about politics, religion and the lack of school nativities. Their faces as red as the patterns on their chests as they scrabbled to be heard over each other.
He wasn’t paying attention. He’d just flicked the TV on as he’d sat down. A bit of noise to fill up the empty room. Christmas certainly wasn’t doing the job. It was stillborn this year. He’d tried his best to put the tree up, but the branches weren’t spread as nicely as they normal and the lights were a mess. It didn’t help that he had no idea where anything else went, so he’d left all the other decorations in their tired, old cardboard box. Although it wasn’t the fault of the season that the house seemed hollow. It’d felt this way since she’d died.
Life had fallen muted after the accident. Yes, people came and said nice things to him, but the pity only left him numb. He didn’t want sympathy. He wanted her back. They’d been together for so many years. Her presence had felt as certain as the setting of the sun. He’d taken it for granted every day. Why hadn’t anyone reminded him that love was a finite thing? Why hadn’t he remembered, as he’d grown a little slower and greyer on top. They’d wasted so many hours on the banal, little things. Shopping, weeding, putting the lights away properly come January.
His life felt blasphemous without her. He was passing all their yearly milestones alone, festering under the weight of her absence. Friends and family had tried to help, but he hadn’t been interested in letting them. In the end, he’d played along to make them leave him alone. He’d stopped telling them how he felt. In the same way he’d not told them about the little shop he’d discovered on the holiday they’d all insisted he take.
It was situated beside an empty, winter beach. The car park nothing more than a stretch of desolate tarmac. The window full of handmade sale signs and odd little trinkets. He’d gone in and browsed the dusty shelves and cold corners. He’d peered into glass cases and caught sight of his own reflection, making him feel like he was on sale there.
A young woman had appeared and offered him a cup of tea. He’d told her his wife would’ve loved this place and they’d talked for a while before she’d said something strange.
“We can help you spend every Christmas together.”
It’d sounded like new age nonsense as she’d kept talking, but he was lonely enough to listen. He’d nodded and realised, after a while, it was so much tacky therapy dressed up in her hippy beliefs. They made a bauble in remembrance of her, or something like that. Still, she was clearly struggling, so he’d paid up and left his address along with a photograph and some details. Her favourite colour. Her birthday. Her favourite perfume. The day she’d died.
He’d come home and forgotten all about it. Until this morning, when the package arrived. A little brown box with his address written in scrawled biro. The postage mark telling him it came from up north.
Inside was a brightly wrapped present. He tore away the paper to reveal large, dazzling pink bauble. A swirling pattern dancing over the polished surface, endlessly tracing the equator.
He lifted it out and smiled as it caught the light. As he saw the dim shape of himself, a flicker of movement caught his eye. A frown arched his eyebrows. He brought it closer. There it was again. Over his shoulder. He peered closer and the colour drained from his cheek, soon replaced by the gleam of the bauble.
There she was. Reflected behind him. Smiling. Her hands upon his shoulders. Her eyes bright, like they used to be when they were younger.
The sounds of the TV died away as he felt her touch against his clothes. He fought the temptation to reach back. He watched her and felt so happy. The world fell away as she smiled and smiled and smiled.
In the end, that was how they found him. After Christmas. After everyone else had opened their presents and celebrated, sparing him a thought or two. A few had tried to call, but there’d been no answer. It was his best friend who’d’ made the journey to check on him, letting himself in with a spare key and following the sounds of the TV to the lounge.
There he was, sitting, smiling. His eyes vacant. A little pink bauble held in his rictus gripped fingers. That grey pallor all too familiar.
As his friend went to call the ambulance, he had the strangest feeling that something that shifted in the empty lounge beside him. Something just over his shoulder. An instinct that came without explanation told him not to look. Instead, he stepped into the hall and only dialled once the door was shut firmly behind him.