Why is it, that sitting in our own lounges or bedrooms with the lights on in the small hours, we look across the road and tell ourselves that there is comfort in the lighted rooms of others? That our three o’clock on a winter morning electric glare signifies worry, but that the light opposite signifies hope?

     Does the same apply, “on steroids” (to use one of those phrases that had come into the language so quickly that the originality has been wrung out of it with remorseless rapidity) to Christmas lights? 

     There are Christmas lights and Christmas lights. No, that doesn’t sound especially profound. Not that I ever meant it to. I used to pass by a house walking into work on still-dark December (or November, come to that!) mornings that appeared to have sparkling multi-coloured lights festooned on the wall, and the garage, and the fence, 24 hours a day, not to mention the perfect Christmas tree glowing green and gold in the lounge with the curtains still open. I always thought, and I’m well aware I might be utterly misjudging them, that therein dwelt folk who were more obsessed with letting the world know they were having a perfect Christmas rather than actually having one – or happily settling for a less than perfect one. 

     But when I moved into Willow Way, that estate of neat new-build houses and angular roof-ridges, whose main saving grace was being within the sound of the sea on quiet nights with the wind in the right direction, more of the houses there were adorned for Christmas than were not. I shrugged and told myself I didn’t mind, and if I had, I could have rectified the situation. As it was, I made do with the odd scented candle, though I was never really sure just what Glistening Snow was meant to smell of.

     I didn’t begrudge them their lights, and I wasn’t as bothered about light pollution and the environment as I liked to believe I was.

     But the second year, I noticed that the lights came on at the end of November (or earlier in some very determined cases) but often went out before the middle of December. By “went out”, I don’t mean that there was some temporary or localised power cut, but that the houses were dark once more, with not even the normal fluorescent glow of a light you would need to read or make a cup of tea, or do the vacuuming. 

     “They’ve gone on holiday,” my neighbour Sybil said. That’s my neighbour to the left, in the other half of the semi. My neighbours to the left, the Arlotts, were among the holiday makers, though I knew that in their case they had gone to spend Christmas with relatives in Ireland, and hadn’t decorated the house in the first place, as it wasn’t worth it. “At least, I reckon so.”

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Sybil (and her quiet, pleasant husband Paul) and I were exactly friends – they were “keep themselves to themselves” types, and I wasn’t far behind, though I got on surprisingly well with the boisterous and blended Arlott clan. But we got along well enough. I was tolerant about their hyper-yappy (though admittedly affectionate) Jack Russell (who rejoiced in the name of Dingo) and they were tolerant about my overgrown and ragged front garden.

     “I expect so,” I agreed.

     “Seems to be a trend, this going on holiday at Christmas. Can’t say it’s ever appealed to me – how about you, Christine?”

     “No strong feelings one way or the other, really,” I said, and she gave a polite smile probably thinking it was a typical non-committed Christine sort of answer. “I did once, when I was a kid,” I nearly added, and once again when I was an adult, but that was something I preferred not to think about.

     “But I hope they’ve made sure everything is secured. There’s been a spate of burglaries round here, after all.”

     Sybil was, I thought, irrelevantly, maybe the only person as opposed to newspaper, who used the word “spate” in that (or, indeed, in any other) context.

     “I mean – they’ve not even left timer switches on the lights or anything – asking for trouble. I mean, when you’re decked out like Blackpool Illuminations one day – and I may as well admit I think the place for decorations is inside – and then pitch black the next, it does make it a bit obvious. Of course if I see anything, I’ll report it,”

     “Of course,” I agreed, hoping that the echo-technique didn’t come over as too sarcastic. 

     “Oh well, Dingo won’t walk himself.”

     He probably would, I thought, and if I could translate Yap into English would have quite a tale to tell. As it was, I sighed with relief at the sight of both of them trotting across the block-paved road that led out and in of Willow Way.

     I would never agree with Sybil in being of the opinion that timer switches and universal CCTV were the guardians of civilisation as we knew it, but had to admit that the absentees probably were taking a chance, and supposed that if push came to shove I would report anything suspicious I saw, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as Sybil.

     I had never meant to buy any Christmas lights, but something about the frosted frame with a sprinkle of pleasingly asymmetric stars appealed to me. I won’t deny that amongst that nebulous “something” two hard facts nestled: 1.The fact that even though we weren’t quite at the time when Christmas decorations start to be reduced in price, it had been reduced from £15 to £8.00, as manifested by the large sign beside it on a star-shaped piece of yellow card proclaiming it was Almost Half-Price I couldn’t help but recall one of my Mum’s sayings about “blink and you’d miss it” and wondered if they really couldn’t afford that extra 50 pence, and 2. It came complete with suction pads to fix it to the window and with batteries already fitted so even I couldn’t complain about it being too difficult to set up.

     I also realised, in this instance too late, that so far as I was concerned, all that the star-spangled picture was going to do was block out a large section of my central window pane, and that if anyone was going to get any advantage from it, it wouldn’t be me. 

     A ratcheting up of the Yap level in the early winter twilight alerted me to the fact that Dingo had certainly noticed something new and different next door, and I was absurdly grateful that someone had, tempered by the (forlorn) hope that he might not carry on noticing and letting me know he had.

     Anyway, I had no intention of being one of those who left my twinkles sparkling through the night. But in a sudden volte face (does Latin excuse indecisiveness?) I thought well, that one night, I would. I would have denied that I was either hoping that someone other than a vocal small dog would notice it, or pondering the fact that the sooner the batteries were blunted the sooner I could take it out of my window again. Oh, and perhaps it DID cross my mind that so far as Sybil was concerned it would make me count as one of the “Decked out like Blackpool Illuminations” brigade, and a small act of defiance was never a bad thing, even if it led to complaints of Dingo’s paw having an unwanted encounter with a nettle.

     I was just feeling vaguely guilty about that, after all, he was a cute little mutt if your ears could stand it, when a caterwauling (if a dog can caterwaul!) outside made me think that, in the process of relieving himself, perhaps he had. But were there any actual nettles there, at least in winter? “Put a sock in it, will you,” I muttered, entirely pointlessly – I know dogs have good hearing, but I doubted if it was that good, or, come to that, that he would understand the idiom. 

     Even by Dingo standards, he was certainly going at full throttle. With a sigh I put a cardigan round my shoulders and went outside. “For heaven’s sake, what’s with the noise?” I asked – and for possibly the first time in my life, I heard my own voice trail off. Dingo had apparently already lost interest in my paltry window display and this was no piteous painful paw yap, either. This was a yap born of (not that I claim to be a canine psychologist) of a mixture of terror and curiosity. Or was I projecting my own emotions onto one frenetic brown and white furry bundle? My first, and very fleeting thought, was that it had been raining and, somehow, my window display was reflected and distorted in the puddles on the drive. Your eyes can easily play tricks with you. But the trick they played was in letting me think, even for a couple of seconds, that I was seeing a watery oversized reflection of a cut-price window decoration. The only thing they had in common was being square – well, technically rectangular, I suppose. 

     Well, that was absurd – I mean, they were supposed to be disc shaped, weren’t they? Or possibly triangular, like one of those optical illusion triangles hanging and hovering on the horizon. They weren’t supposed to be square. In fact, so far as a lot of people were concerned, they weren’t supposed to exist at all.

     Something descended from the – well – craft – that reminded me of those emergency exit chutes they have on aeroplanes, though I’ve been fortunate enough never to need to use one. And they weren’t for the purpose of escape, but its opposite. I felt a pull akin to magnetism – and it was, indeed, as if my whole body were being fragmented into iron filings as I was pulled up through that chute that seemed to be both liquid and solid. “Don’t fight it,” the voice seemed to be inside the chute, and inside my head, and all around me. It didn’t exactly hurt, or not by any definition of hurting I had experienced or read about, there was no recognisable pain either sharp or blunt, nothing scalding or searing, or stabbing, or slashing. I would be hard pushed to say how long it lasted before we were regurgitated onto a surface that was hard but yielding, into a space suffused by a light that was so bright it hurt my eyes (this was a “hurt” I did recognise!) but still seemed to distort shapes, to make me imagine things. 

     Except I wasn’t imagining things. The being looming over me had a square head, and square eyes, and the latter not from watching too much TV. Oh, and there were four of them. I realised that the magnetic force in those eyes had dragged me through the chute. I remembered, and wished I didn’t, hearing that if you fell over the event horizon into a Black Hole, your body underwent a process that went by the banal and brutal name of Spaghettification. So far as I knew (or as anyone else knew, including the world’s most brilliant scientists) there was no way back from that. But surely, if I had been reduced to a myriad metallic fragments I wouldn’t be able to think at all, would I? Like a tongue tentatively touching a loose tooth, my fingers on my left hand encircled my wrist on my right one. I suppose the fact that I had fingers at all should have been enough to reassure me, at least on that front. “You need not worry,” Square-Eyes said, “The process only lasts a couple of seconds. Of course we may need to make some amendments later. Now we must make haste. Your lights were so dim and so delayed that we weren’t sure if you were one of the Chosen Ones.”

     I don’t want to be one of the Chosen Ones, I thought, honestly I don’t. And the lights were a mistake, I don’t know why I bought them in the first place and I certainly didn’t mean to leave them on all night. You did make a mistake, so please – just send us down that chute again. No hard feelings. And I won’t go to the TV folk about it.

     He (if it was a he) read my mind, of course. “No, it was no mistake. And it’s often those who are less showy who are more interesting.”

     Was I expecting a mighty roar, like in that footage of the Saturn 5 rocket? No, I should have known better, after all, that would have disturbed others on the close. And I have never heard of a square rocket. Inside, I could hear a whirring, but instinct told me that down on the close – and it was already a very long way down, nobody could hear a thing and inside the unlit houses people still slumbered peacefully, or were wakeful, envious or disapproving or both of those who had gone away for Christmas.

     And then I heard a familiar noise, but it was muted and timorous, and yet something in that little paw on my lap, and that head nuzzling me, spoke of a fellow-creature seeking both to be protected and a protector. I fondled his soft ears and remembered one of those scenes from the movies that have become so much a part of our consciousness that they seem more real than reality. 

     But I knew that Dingo and I were not travelling down a yellow brick road to an emerald city, and that no amount of heel or paw clicking in this world – or any other – would ever help us.  

December 27, 2019 09:33

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