Alby Stone: Nicked

Copyright © 2022 Alby Stone

It wasn’t my favourite time of year but, handled carefully, it could be quite enjoyable. I’d just got home from the office, grateful for the lunchtime finish and looking forward to a few days off, blessed downtime enlivened by regular treats. The groceries were packed away, the jacket and tie hung up, the shoes kicked off. The kettle was on and I was extracting a teabag from the box – and, of course, at that moment when to my mind toil officially ended and rest began, someone knocked on the door. Hoping it was my Amazon delivery at last – since the pandemic ‘next day delivery’ seemed to mean ‘two days if you’re lucky’ – I jumped to it. When I opened the door, I had to look several times before I could believe my eyes.

‘What do you think?’ asked Don March, my best and oldest friend, extending his long arms and giving me a twirl that would have made Anthea Redfern giddy.

Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to think. Don loved his electronic kit, but this was off the scale. The black boiler suit, with hood and around a dozen zip pockets, was an unusual look for him, an archetypal jeans and a t-shirt man. But then so was the rest of his ensemble: backpack, utility belt, cameras and microphones, twin earpieces, and weird headset like a flying helmet with head torches and a set of drop-down eyepieces whose function I could only guess at, probably wrongly. His left wrist was encased in a plastic tube with an assortment of buttons, dials and LCD display panels. There were wires everywhere. At least he retained his trademark Doc Martens.

‘Nice,’ I said doubtfully. ‘Are you into Ghostbusters cosplay now?’

‘Don’t be silly. This get-up is my Paranormatron. Trade Mark. Had the body-suit especially made, cost a packet but I’m thinking of marketing it. It could make me some serious dosh.’

‘What does it do?’

‘It detects things that aren’t there and records them. Evidence, mate. Evidence.’

‘How can it detect things that aren’t there?’

‘I’ll rephrase that,’ he sighed, with a theatrical roll of the eyes. ‘It detects things that appear not to be there.’ He then launched into a lengthy monologue on the nature of reality, of which I understood not one word. By the time he’d finished I was counting my blessings. There are times when baffled incomprehension can be considered a virtue.

Don was certainly an odd bugger, though not at first sight – that is, on a day when he wasn’t wreathed in electronics or encased in a Peter Venkman onesie. To the casual observer he was a shade over six and a half feet tall, slim but muscular, healthy and athletic, handsome as hell, with lively brown eyes, a full head of thick brown hair, and a smile that was always genuinely sincere. And a confirmed bachelor. Not in that way – as if it would have mattered to me or caused him any concern – but simply because women didn’t take to him. One meeting was usually all the encouragement they needed to look elsewhere for whatever they wanted from a man. It wasn’t because he had halitosis or body odour, or that he was hostile to them. No, he showered daily and always smelled nice, and he permanently had a crush on one woman or other. In some ways he was an old-fashioned gentleman, what they used to call gallant – polite, holding doors open, offering his seat on the bus or tube, that sort of thing – while he was a also a card-carrying supporter of equal rights and pay. The sad truth was that his physical attractiveness was vastly outweighed by his personality. Women flocked to him because of his looks, but they flitted away pretty quickly, sometimes mere seconds after he opened his mouth and began to speak. Evidently the body beautiful wasn’t worth the bother of the misfiring brain and unstoppable verbiage. The fact that he was almost always broke – or claimed to be – because of his mad-arsed ideas didn’t exactly help. To be fair, he was fully cognisant of his shortcomings and didn’t blame women for keeping their distance. His ongoing bachelorhood was less a statement of intent than a resigned acceptance of fact.

‘So, what have you detected and recorded so far?’

‘Nothing yet,’ he admitted. ‘I had a few technical issues to sort out and I’ve been waiting for the right time and conditions for a field test. But tonight’s the night.’

‘Why tonight?’

‘Because this is Christmas Eve.’

‘It is? Well, I suppose that would explain the decorations, the crap music, all those people out buying last-minute presents, and all the others worrying that they might not have stocked up with enough food and booze to keep a small army in indigestion and hangovers for a month. I really hadn’t noticed.’

Don didn’t really understand sarcasm. Straight talking, wild theories and technical minutiae were his thing. ‘Exactly. And tonight I’m going to prove that Father Christmas is real.’

That was typical of his thought processes – from quaint fairytale to absolute certainty and incontrovertible scientific fact in the blink of an eye. If he could wangle some peculiar electronics and some poorly-understood theoretical physics into the mix, so much the better. The trouble with Don was that he wanted to believe the magic was real, therefore it was. At the same time, he wanted to bring science to bear and analyse that magic to death. In a way, his capacity for committing fully to two diametrically opposing worldviews was admirable, sometimes breathtaking. For him there were no contradictions. He didn’t suffer from cognitive dissonance so much as cognitive promiscuity. But inevitably – as well as being a guaranteed romance-repellent – his strange brain often got him into trouble.

I sighed. ‘Just be careful, okay? We don’t want a repeat of the Aylesbury Incident.’

It was a few years ago now, and hadn’t actually happened in Aylesbury but for easy reference that was the closest sizeable town. Don had got wind of rumoured Devil worship at a particular location in the Chilterns. He belonged to a network of detectorists, ghost hunters, UFOlogists, ley hunters, psychogeographers, folklorists and weird science aficionados who seemed to spend an awful lot of time exploring country lanes, empty fields, ancient monuments, old churches, derelict psychiatric hospitals, and abandoned rural buildings in the dead of night. Despite being a lifelong atheist, Don had become obsessed with ‘proving’ – for him it was never about disproving – the existence of Satan. He’d hired a car and driven out there late one evening and had set up what he called an observation post, with a digital camcorder – top of the range and equipped with zoom and infra-red capability – a suitable distance from the alleged diabolical hot spot, a remote crossroads. After all, it wouldn’t do to get too close to Old Nick. Unfortunately, the fool had chosen to observe the hoped-for unholy rites from a vantage point in the middle of a dark lane about fifty metres from the crossroads and had been knocked flying by a police car travelling at a fair old pace. Don had assumed the flashing blue lights in the periphery of his vision were an ambient manifestation of occult energy, perhaps even orgone. Fortunately for him, the police lights were soon joined by those of an ambulance and he was whisked off to hospital with a broken leg, a dislocated shoulder, cuts and bruises, and concussion. Mind you, he swears blind that seconds before the impact he saw through viewfinder an animated discussion involving a very tall bloke with a beard, Boris Johnson, and a chicken. Sadly, his camcorder was completely destroyed in the accident, so even in the wholly unlikely event that he did see such a sight, there is no evidence. As usual.

‘And when are you going to – er – obtain this, um, proof?’

‘Tonight. I’ll be going out at around midnight. That’s when he delivers the presents. Well, he did when I was a kid. I doubt that’s changed – waits until the sprogs are asleep and the adults have drunk themselves into a stupor, then down the chimney, unload the sack, quick mince pie and neck a sherry, sorted. Back on the sleigh, next delivery, repeat until the sack is empty. Job done, long lie-in.’

There were so many things wrong with the scenario that I barely knew where to begin. For one thing, most of the kids in our part of London lived in flats that had never been graced with a chimney, and any chimneys that remained had long been superseded by central heating and double glazing, and were probably completely blocked by caked soot, old bird nests, guano, and rotting pigeons. And, of course, there was the small matter of Father Christmas being only a story designed to blackmail children into a few blessed weeks of good behaviour. The proof of that was the simple fact that in the course of human history no child had ever received a Christmas present that hadn’t been purchased, wrapped and smuggled into a home by an identifiable adult relative or a devoted sibling. It would, however, have been pointless to mention any of this.

But there was one warning I felt duty-bound to offer. ‘Don, do you remember your poltergeist investigation?’

He stared at a point roughly an inch above and a metre behind my eyes. That was what Don did when confronted with a threat to his worldview – stare into space and wait for doubt to evaporate. ‘What about it?’

A couple of years after the Aylesbury Incident, Don had read a theory linking poltergeist activity to neurochemical activity in pubertal girls, which was supposedly expressed as explosions of psychically-driven kinetic energy. Hence the typical poltergeist behaviour – levitating ornaments, flying crockery, random bangs and rattles, puddles of water materialising from thin air, and so on. Don’s method for investigating this theory was breathtakingly simple. He would stand outside young girls’ bedroom windows late at night and measure magnetic fluctuations coinciding with poltergeist phenomena. A visual record would be essential, so his kit included the camcorder bought to replace the one destroyed at Aylesbury.

Somehow, he managed to persuade the magistrate that he was engaged in a genuine scientific investigation, but the misadventure still earned him a night in the cells, a hefty fine for breach of the peace, and a spectacular black eye administered by one young lady’s incensed father. I’d made no comment beyond a shake of the head and a resigned sigh. Further bollockings seemed redundant.

‘Never mind. Just don’t go pointing camera lenses at people’s windows, okay?’

‘You know me,’ he grinned. ‘Sensitive to a fault.’ He rose from my sofa, stretched and yawned. ‘I won’t stay. Going to be a long night, so I’d better get home and grab a couple of hours sleep. I’ll keep you posted.’

As he opened my garden gate, I couldn’t resist one last parting shot. ‘Don’t cross the streams!’


Over the years I’ve learned how to get the most out of Christmas. The trick is to make it all about yourself and bugger everybody else. Make it clear that you don’t want presents, and that friends and family can expect as much in return. Limit yourself to sending no more than a dozen cards. Shun all festive activities in the workplace. Accept no invitations to other people’s homes and adopt a strict ‘no admittance’ policy for your own. Treat yourself according to your means. Make sure all the holiday shopping is done at least two weeks before the Big Day, except for any perishable items or sudden fancies that can be picked up at the corner shop. Don’t read, listen to or watch the news. And, unless the house begins to burn down or you feel the onset of myocardial infarction, absolutely no telephone calls, in or out. The reward? Two or three days – perhaps a week or more, if you play your cards right – of pure self-indulgence and personal satisfaction, unencumbered and uncompromised. I feel sorry for religious people; they always have to share Christmas with the Baby Jesus, his mum and dad and Other Dad, three wise men, some shepherds and an assortment of animals. The catering must be murder. Especially when Herod gets wind of it.

Christmas Eve is my favourite. While everyone else is out getting stupid-drunk, bankrupting themselves or gamely trying to elicit inappropriate sexual conquests with a sprig of mistletoe and an alcoholic leer, I can be found slumped on the sofa with a selection of snacks, a few beers, and whatever Netflix has to offer that doesn’t mention the C-word. If it can’t be done without a remote control or found outside my arm’s reach, I’m not interested. If it wasn’t for the unfortunate fact that what goes in must eventually come out, I probably wouldn’t stir for the duration. This year was no exception.

‘Merry Christmas,’ I saluted myself ironically as the clock ticked into Christmas Day. Another couple of episodes of Stranger Things floated serenely by. This was the life, a late night of doing sod-all followed by a solid sleep and a long lie-in. A hopefully accurate forecast of my far-off retirement. Maybe I’d get a cat. That was my kind of pet – an amusing creature noted for aloofness and independence, that entertained and exercised itself, and which required only food and a trip to the vet once a year, all being well. I could have its supplies delivered. And my groceries. Books, CDs and other stuff from Amazon. With luck I wouldn’t need to leave the house too often. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a lazy person – I just like being lazy.

Naturally, as I was sinking into a dreamy idyll of uninterrupted idleness and solitude, someone knocked thunderously upon my front door. I promised myself there and then that I would have the bloody knocker removed and replaced by a doorbell, one operated by batteries that could be removed if I wasn’t expecting a delivery. I closed my eyes and waited for the knocker to go away. But they knocked again, louder and longer. Against my better judgement, I hauled myself off the sofa and went to see who the hell it was and what the hell they wanted with me at three o’clock on Christmas Morning.

It was Don, of course, and he looked as if he’d been mauled by a combined horde of clothes moths, wild dogs and deranged Luddites, then dumped in a pond. His Ghostbusters outfit was shredded, trailing water, disconnected wires and the dangling remains of sundry electronic devices. His face was scratched and bruised. His headset was gone and a clump of hair was missing. He leaned heavily against the door frame, his chest heaving, eyes wide with terror. Grudgingly – very grudgingly – I opened the door wide enough for him to stumble inside.

‘Brandy,’ he gasped. ‘Whisky, rum, vodka, tequila – anything.’

I sniffed. He stank like a polecat. ‘Have you pissed yourself?’

‘No, it was the – shit, just give me a drink, okay?’

‘You know I don’t drink spirits.’


I thought of the six bottles of Proper Job and four of Old Speckled Hen maturing in the sideboard, waiting for the moment I could give them my undivided attention, and hardened my heart. ‘Tea or coffee, and that’s it.’

Don collapsed onto a kitchen chair while I made tea for him, coffee for myself. He’d begun to make a bee-line for the sofa but I headed him off. I wasn’t letting him anywhere near my lounge until I’d found out what was causing that dreadful stench. ‘Right,’ I said when he’d downed nearly half a mug of tea. ‘What happened?’

He closed his eyes. ‘It was – I was – there was – I can’t – I don’t know.’

Not exactly the concise answer I was hoping for. ‘You don’t know what it was or you don’t know what happened?’

He shook his head, shrugged helplessly, and hunched forward with his elbows on the table, face like a slapped arse. ‘Um,’ he said.

It wasn’t like Don to be lost for words. Getting him to shut up was usually the problem. And that boneless slouch was not a good sign. I was going to have to work hard for my night’s sleep. ‘Why don’t you start at the beginning?’

As suggestions go, it was not a good one. He tipped the rest of the tea down his throat, half-heartedly smacked his lips and looked generally pitiful. I sighed and refilled the kettle. The second mug of tea perked him up a bit.

‘After I left you, I went home and had that nap. Then I did some fine-tuning. You know, checking battery levels and that sort of thing, precautionary trip to the toilet, packed a couple of Mars bars in case I got peckish. At half past eleven I left home and walked to the target zone. I’d chosen Granville Street – it’s the only road in this area that is made up entirely of two-storey houses, and about half of them have young children. I’d checked the electoral register and there were only a couple of Hindu or Muslim families, so I presumed most of the residents would celebrate Christmas. Anyway, when I got there the place was very quiet, nobody about. Lots of illuminated Christmas decorations outside. Actually, some of it was a bit over the top. Took my eyes a while to adjust and I had to recalibrate the video feeds but luckily most of it was LED lighting, so it didn’t impact too badly on the infra-red. As you know, Granville Road is fairly steep, so I took up a position at the bottom end, started recording, and scanned the rooftops. Actually, that gave me a brilliant idea. The next edition of the Paranormatron – Trade Mark – will include a backpack with several drones and a second handset to control them. A panoramic, multi-POV record. As it is, all the video and audio gets uploaded to the Cloud in real time, and I can download and edit the material on my desktop PC, but the drones would create practically a 3D experience. And that gives me another idea – I could feed that into a VR headset and… Okay, I can see I’m losing you with the techie stuff. Luddite. And that finger-drumming is really annoying, you know? That’s better. So, I watched and waited, and…’ He paused.

‘And what?’ Despite the technobabble and the absurdity of his investigation, I was getting drawn in.

‘And nothing. Not a whisper of any paranormal activity. Normal urban ambient sound, light and electromagnetism. I stood there like an idiot in the cold and rain until half past one and got zilch. By then I was soaked through and frozen and I’d had enough. Not only had I got no proof, there was nothing for me to get no proof of.’

‘Don, that last sentence made no sense whatsoever.’

‘It meant exactly what it said,’ he snapped. ‘Honestly, you can be so obtuse.’

‘Whatever. Continue.’

‘So I decided to go home, have a hot drink and see if I could figure out where I’d gone wrong. Maybe think about adding motion sensors to those drones, enhance the video and audio ranges, add radiation detection capability… You’re drumming your fingers again. Well, I only live two streets away from you.’

‘I know where you live, Don. You’ve lived in the same flat since we were kids. You inherited it when your mother died.’ Well, it certainly wasn’t going to be left to Don’s father, who’d pissed off to Thailand when Don was six and hadn’t resurfaced.

‘I’m just saying. So I was nearly at home when it happened. Right at the front gate. Then it fell on me. From a great height. Hit my shoulder and knocked me on my backside. If it had fallen on my head…’ He shook that very item in wonder at his continued existence.

‘What was it?’

 ‘A sack. A heavy one. It split open when it struck me and a lot of presents spilled out. Not wrapped very well, so I could see they were all toys. But it was weird because they were all hand-made of wood and cloth and tin, teddy bears, wooden soldiers, dolls, drums, hoops, a rocking horse, a yo-yo, even a monkey on a stick. Shoddy old rubbish even a junk shop wouldn’t take, real crap. Then – then…’ He seemed to shrink inside the tattered remnants of the ParanormatronTM. His hands shook violently. ‘Then they attacked me.’

‘Who, Don? Who attacked you?’ I badly wanted to know if Don could identify his assailants. Whoever had done that to him needed to be locked up.

He gulped down a mouthful of tea. His eyes were wide with fear. ‘Elves. Dozens of them. All dressed in green, with pointy red caps. Only little buggers, no more than a couple of feet tall, but so many of them. And… They’re not like they are in the storybooks, mate. Deathly white faces, staring black eyes like ball bearings, teeth like razors, claws, cudgels, crazy laughter… Christ, I thought they were going to tear me to pieces.’

I sat back, deflated. ‘Elves? Really? Evil elves?’

‘Yeah. As real and solid as this table.’ He rapped with his knuckles. ‘But that wasn’t the worst of it. While I was lying all the ground, dazed and terrified, the reindeer came.’

Reindeer? What – assuming I believed a word of this bullshit – was so frightening about reindeer? ‘What, they trampled you? Gored you?’

‘Well, they were reindeer and they weren’t happy, so I got a bit of the old antler and hoof treatment. But they were also reindeer that had been dead a long time. They were rank. Patches of flesh and fur missing, grey and green with mould, eyes that looked as if they’d been half pecked out by crows. And they pissed on me. Rotting reindeer pissed on me.’

Well, that – if true, which I seriously doubted – might explain the appalling stench. I was inclined to think Don had dropped some acid, been mugged and beaten up by drunken thugs, lost control of his bladder and fallen on dog shit. Evil elves and zombie reindeer? Do me a favour.

‘Then he came.’ Don closed his eyes again, both hands clamped tightly around the now-empty mug, though that wasn’t enough to control the tremors.


‘Who do you think? Him. Their boss. He stood over me and gave me a kick with one of those big black boots – steel toecaps, by the way – and he leaned down and he spoke to me. Have you been a good boy? And when I didn’t answer he gave me another kick and said No, you haven’t. I know who’s been good and who’s been bad, and guess which category being a nosy bastard falls into? Christmas is for children, a magical time, and the enchantment must not be broken by idiots like you. Don’t you ever poke your nose into my affairs again, you little shit. Don’t even think about it, or you’ll be bloody sorry. Then there was more laughter from the elves and a sound like rushing wind and hoofbeats, and I was alone.’

Don slumped. All that shivering and shaking must surely have taken up a lot of energy. ‘And he’s nothing like people imagine. Red and white suit and hat, white beard, rosy cheeks, all plump and jolly? Ho, ho, ho? Well, this guy looked the part, only it was all wrong, sort of perverted. Sneering and nasty, the red too bloody, the white too deathly. Saint Nick? More like Old Nick.’

‘You mean it wasn’t Father Christmas?’ Yes, I know you shouldn’t encourage insanity or pretend to buy into delusions. I just wanted to know what Don thought about his hallucination. You can’t apply logic unless you know what you’re dealing with.

‘Oh, it was Father Christmas alright. There are two sides to him, though. We tend to think of him as that benign figure you see on greetings cards, and blokes dressed as Santa in shopping malls and what have you. The clue to his real nature is in that question he asks the kids. A kid who’s been good gets a reward, right? But what about those who haven’t been good? In Germany and some neighbouring countries Santa Claus has a helper called a Krampus, which takes naughty children away in a sack or beats them with sticks. Guess what? The Krampus has horns and cloven hoofs. Does that remind you of anyone?’

‘You think it was really the Devil?’ I shouldn’t have been surprised, It was a typical Don leap from one imaginary being to another. Of course, that take-off was followed by a landing.

‘No, I’m saying that Father Christmas and Satan are one and the same.’

I wavered. Thinking about it, that would explain a lot. Christmas as a time of consumerism, greed, drunkenness and lust – not to mention envy and worry, and probably all the other deadly sins and human failings. The annual onslaught of Slade, Wizzard, Mariah Carey and Bing Crosby. Office Christmas lunches. Secret Santa. Christmas specials of every crap television show going. Festive socks and hideous jumpers. Carol singers. Writing cards to people you don’t like enough to seek their company. A whole season of misery, suffering and hard graft, all for the sake of being ‘merry’. No wonder God topped himself every Easter. Not that I believed in supernatural entities, whether divine or infernal. For me, God and the Devil were as real as Father Christmas, and he was as real as Doctor Who or James Bond. Whatever the dim and distant origins of either Father Christmas or the Devil, I wasn’t buying Don’s idea. In any case, he blew any lingering credibility with seven more words. ‘And Santa is an anagram of Satan.’

I stood and gazed down at Don. The ParanormatronTM embodied his delusions – ridiculous, pathetic and reduced to rags. I’d indulged his madness for far too long. ‘This is utter bullshit,’ I told him. ‘It’s about time you got a grip.’

Don sat bolt upright and gestured angrily at his destroyed garment, pointed at his cuts and bruises. ‘You think I did this to myself?’

‘No.’ I briefly outlined my hypothesis involving hallucinogens, muggers and dog shit. To his credit, he heard me out without resorting to the violence that was so clearly bubbling away behind his tired, haunted eyes.

‘I don’t do drugs,’ he said, his tone worryingly neutral. ‘You know that. Never have. Mug’s game.’

‘Maybe you were spiked?’

‘Nope. And speaking of mugs, it wasn’t muggers who did this to me. For one thing, I’m big enough that villains think twice before taking me on. For another, everyone round here knows I’m always pretty much skint. As for dog shit, you know full well that the neighbourhood watch people pay more attention to dogs fouling the footpath and littering than to young scrotes attempting to make off with their pensions. Plus, that old harpy Mrs Wilson and her posse are always out with brooms and hoses. If it wasn’t for the traffic emissions, you could eat your dinner off Granville Street. Not that Mrs Wilson would stand for anyone leaving gravy stains or crumbs on the pavement.’

‘If only Mrs Wilson had been out when those decaying reindeer pissed on you,’ I sighed. ‘She’d have given them what for.’

He pounced, ignoring the sarcasm. ‘Ah, so you believe me.’

‘Look, I believe that you believe that’s what happened.’ It was true. Don may have existed in a slightly different world but he wasn’t a liar. ‘Hey, look on the bright side. At least you didn’t get slimed.’ Unfortunately, my nose reckoned that would have been the better option.

‘Oh well,’ he said. ‘Better luck next year, eh?’

Whatever real event the hallucinations had displaced from Don’s memory, this persistence seemed foolhardy in the extreme. ‘You’re going to try again? Are you out of your mind?’

He shrugged. ‘Faint heart never won fair lady. Not that there’s a fair lady to win, but you know what I mean. It happened, okay? I know what I saw. But I want proof, damn it.’ He frowned and shook his head. ‘Next year I’ll take precautions. I reckon ultrasonics will keep the reindeer off, or maybe lion shit, the scent of a big predator. And iron should sort the elves, folklore says they don’t like iron, but I’ll take a baseball bat and pepper spray just in case. And the next Paranormatron – Trade Mark – will need to be reinforced. Kevlar or ceramic armour. And a proper helmet, incorporating a visor with a head-up display. And…’


I made Don take a shower, while I took the wreckage of the ParanormatronTM out to the dustbin. His DMs were salvageable, so I wiped them with Dettol and gave them a squirt of Pierre Cardin body spray, and a dose of Daktarin for luck. When he emerged from the bathroom, smelling a whole lot better despite the Germolene and TCP, I gave him a pair of shorts – our waists were about the same size but my strides would have looked comical on his long legs – and one of the old 5XL t-shirt I liked to slob out in, then settled him on the sofa for what was left of the night. He started snoring seconds after stretching out.

It took me a while to get to sleep. Thinking about it, Don’s identification of Father Christmas with the Devil wasn’t all that crazy. They were like two sides of the same coin, the cosmic carrot and stick theologians tie their brains in knots to justify in terms of divine will versus free will, even though the game is clearly rigged. Christmas summed it up: be good and you’ll get rewarded; be bad and punishment ensues. The Baby Jesus may have died for your sins, but you’re still going to Hell for them. A waste of a Saviour, if you ask me.

Father Christmas wears red, traditionally the colour of anger, lust and violence. The Devil is red-skinned, red-haired or clothed in red, though in the Middle Ages he was believed to wear green – the colour originally worn by Father Christmas in England. Father Christmas has his reindeer and elves, the Devil has his goats and demonic imps. Father Christmas lives at the North Pole, the top and centre of our world; while back in the days when people thought the world was flat, Hell was its underside, Satan at the antipodes, at the bottom of Dante’s spiral Pit. Christmas is a festival of lights at the darkest time of year– Lucifer is the light-bringer who revels in darkness. We associate Christmas with blazing hearths and things roasting – potatoes, turkeys, pigs, chestnuts – and that’s precisely the fate that awaits us Down Below, if we haven’t been well-behaved. Be good, you get nicely warmed. Be bad, you get burned.

I haven’t always pushed a pen across a local government desk for a living and watched streaming videos in my spare time. Once upon a time, when we were budding teenage layabouts, Don and I shared a passion for myths and legends. But our paths diverged when we reached adulthood. I became interested in the academic study of our traditional body of knowledge – the underlying social, historical, psychological and ontological mechanisms – while Don became a paid-up member of the I Want To Believe camp and branched out into ghosts, UFOs and what have you. Later, I lost interest completely, no longer even the Scully to his Mulder. The memories stuck, though, as obstinate as my scepticism.

And so, on the verge of sleep, I came to my conclusions. Father Christmas was a fantasy. The Devil was a symbol of divine displeasure. One a seasonal myth, the other a religious bogeyman, and neither was real. Therefore, Don’s little escapade was a confabulation, a false narrative superimposed upon an authentically distressing but ultimately mundane experience. It was bollocks. QED.

Nevertheless, my dreams were unpleasant. Gibbering elves chased me down the spiral ramp encircling the Inferno, past tinsel-strewn grottoes where horned, grinning maniacs beat screaming children with birch rods, through groves of dead trees with reindeer carcases dangling from skeletal branches, along London streets of darkened houses with gouts of flame belching from every chimney and fragments of electronic gadgets crunched beneath my feet, until at last I fell to my knees before a vast, corpulent figure with a grubby sack in one hand and a pitchfork in the other…

And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day. Or that’s what I thought as I literally fell out of bed, but after a dazed few seconds I realised it was only the smoke alarm. Only the smoke alarm? That was potentially even worse than waking up in an ancient Pogues song. I ran downstairs in a blind panic, thinking Don had somehow set the kitchen ablaze while making toast. There was, however, no smoke and no Don. As I stood staring, bewildered, at the cooker, fridge, washing machine, microwave, light switches, electrical sockets – anything that might conceivably combust – the alarm stopped its blandly apocalyptic bleep.

I couldn’t see or smell anything that had been burned, or even vaguely scorched. As far as I could tell, the kitchen had not been used to prepare food or beverages since I’d made tea and coffee in the early hours. As for Don – the sofa was unoccupied and he wasn’t anywhere else in the house. I looked everywhere, including in my wardrobe and under the bed. He must have woken before me – it was nearly noon, after all, a bit late for most people to crawl out of bed – and gone home.

Panic over. I visited the bathroom, dressed, and made a hearty breakfast. After washing the dishes I put the kettle on and went to choose some sounds to ease me gently into a lazy, secular afternoon. Something loud and non-Christmassy to drown out any atmospheric contamination from my neighbours’ collective festive frenzy leaking through the walls and double-glazing. I’m no Grinch. I don’t mind other people enjoying their Christmas, but would prefer them to keep it to themselves; they never do, so I am forced to take defensive precautions. But as I stood by the CD shelves, pondering my choice of sonic weapon, something caught my eye and music was instantly forgotten.

There, on the floor by the sofa, were Don’s wallet, phone, keys, and a handful of coins. He wouldn’t have gone home without them, surely. And he didn’t go anywhere without that iPhone. I quickly returned to the kitchen and saw Don’s boots under the table, exactly where I had placed them after disinfection. He certainly wouldn’t have left barefoot on a cold, rainy day. Yet he definitely wasn’t anywhere in the house. This was deeply worrying. Don didn’t have a landline and although he had a laptop there was no telling if and when he would get round to answering an e-mail or Facebook message. There was nothing else for it. I put on my shoes and a warm coat, and walked round to his place.

Don’s flat was on the ground floor of a once-grand Victorian house that had been divided for profit sometime in the middle of the Thatcher years. Somehow, Don’s mother had managed to purchase the place for cash when we were both in our early twenties. I had no idea how she’d done that because she’d never had a job and was, to my certain knowledge, always broke. If he pressed she would mutter vaguely about a windfall. I guessed she’d either won the lottery or inherited a bit of serious wealth, though as far as I was aware Don’s relatives were just as feckless and unworldly as Don, and equally lacking in assets. Away with the fairies, the whole family. But facts were facts, and the fact was that he owned the flat, perhaps the whole building, as he never complained about service charges or anything like that. Nor did he complain about the other occupants, none of whom I had ever laid eyes on. I couldn’t recall seeing lights in the other windows, only darkness by night and net curtains by day. For all I knew the house was empty apart from his floor. My friend, of course, never gave a straight answer if I asked questions.

I rang the bell for Don’s flat and waited. I rang again, and again. Then I used his keys to let myself in, shivering as I entered the hall and turned to face the inner door. The place was freezing cold and utterly silent except for the echo of my footsteps. The house felt abandoned, only the absence of dust and a pristine doormat devoid of junk mail as evidence that anyone had been living there. Maybe it was my imagination. I don’t know. But I hadn’t felt anything like that on my many previous visits.

Surprisingly, a Christmas wreath had been fastened to the door, an old-fashioned affair constructed from moss, holly, ivy and mistletoe around a wicker frame. That wasn’t Don’s style at all. Ornaments were simply not his thing. A closer look revealed that the wreath wasn’t just old-fashioned – it was old. The berries were dry and withered, the leaves brittle and on the verge of disintegration. That was the clincher, as Don liked new, shiny stuff, preferably of the hi-tech variety, latest models if humanly possible. Whoever had put the wreath on his door, it wasn’t Don.

The flat was cold but otherwise as normal as could be expected, assuming you knew Don and were fully aware of his eccentricity and obsessions. A table untidy with electronic components, cables and tools. Another with an assortment of scientific instruments. A large reflecting telescope hulking in a corner. Shelves well-stuffed with books and periodicals, with several stacks on the floor serving as overflow – UFOs, paranormal phenomena, folklore, earth mysteries, alternative archaeology. Dozens of podcasts and documentaries burned to DVD-Rs. Not a novel or feature film in sight. Fiction was too frivolous for Don. We’d watched a few films together over the years, enough for Don to conduct a reasonably informed conversation, if pressed, but always at my instigation and only if the theme touched upon his interests. So this place was quintessentially Don: nothing that didn’t feed his knowledge or have a practical function. Not a home, a live-in workshop.

But the flat smelled wrong. Usually it smelled of coffee, generic shampoo and cheap, utilitarian deodorant, with a hint of toast. Now, it reeked of cloves and cinnamon, plum pudding and brandy butter, roast turkey and potatoes. A good old British Christmas dinner spread, in fact. And something else – stale, musky sweat, like the stench of a man who laboured hard every day but never bathed, or whose clothes hadn’t been washed in years. Whatever Don’s faults, his personal hygiene was faultless, if only because he believed poor health was a distraction from the contemplation of loftier matters. His diet was similarly rigorous, if plain – wholemeal toast and natural yoghurt for breakfast, green salads with boiled eggs for lunch, pasta for his evening meal, apples and bananas if he needed a snack. Not the kind of fare that could cause that Christmassy smell. Yet the kitchen bin was empty, everything in the fridge fresh and wholesome and non-festive, the laundry basket half full but hardly miasmic. However hard I looked, I could find no source for the alien scents.

Nor could I find Don March.


When he still hadn’t turned up a week later, I went to the police and reported him missing. The sergeant I spoke to wasn’t unduly concerned. After all, Don was a grown man, not on any organisation’s register as a vulnerable person, and despite previous activities which had come to police attention, of seemingly sound mind. When I told the sergeant my friend had been mugged early on Christmas morning – there was no way I was going to mention evil elves, undead reindeer or a demonic Father Christmas – his only response was to say ‘Well, he should have come to us.’ Then he went back to the sports pages of the Daily Mail.

In the year that passed following his disappearance I visited Don’s flat once a week at first, to check his mail. His bank account, which held a much healthier sum than I could have imagined, remained untouched, though he did receive eyebrow-raising monthly payments from a source I couldn’t identify – and, far from being as poor as he claimed, he was very well-off indeed. His desktop computer, laptop and tablets were all password-protected, so I couldn’t get into them to see if he had any next of kin or solicitor to notify; and he didn’t keep paper records. There were no letters from the Department for Work and Pensions about benefits, no medical appointments. All he received were the bank statements, Council Tax notifications, and various periodicals and journals, plus the occasional subscription renewal reminders. When I knocked at the other flats in the house, there was never a response. Meanwhile, I received no communications of any kind from Don. He had simply vanished.

As hope waned my visits became monthly. The next Christmas Eve, I went to his home again. I’d stopped hoping for signs of his return, and now I went there to mourn. Don wasn’t my only friend, but he was the person I’d always felt closest to, for all his follies and foibles, and in spite of our diverging lives. Exasperation had always been outweighed by affection and amusement, and we’d enjoyed a few adventures together. I missed him, and all that he was, warts and all.

That horrible wreath was still affixed to his flat door, now reduced to a dry, powdery, grey-green wad held together by a yellowing wicker skeleton. I hadn’t had the heart to remove it, but now I did, taking it outside and throwing it into a wheelie bin. ‘Good riddance,’ I muttered, and slammed down the lid. I picked up Don’s mail and sat at his desk to see what had arrived.

Another bank statement, showing his balance was now an astonishing six figures in the black. The latest issue of Fortean Times. A subscription reminder from the Folklore Society. An invitation from a fly-by-night property company to sell or let the house. A photocopied invitation to attend services at the local evangelic church. A menu for a pizza house. And that was it. Not much to show for a life, really. A regular influx of anonymous correspondence, a cold flat filled with books and dead memories. It was depressing. On a sudden whim, I left the flat and went up to the first floor.

Silence reigned. I knocked on the door but nobody answered. But this time, purely out of curiosity, I turned the handle. The door opened, to reveal – an empty flat. No carpet or furniture, not even a light bulb. The second floor flat was exactly the same. My long-held suspicions were correct – Don had been the only occupant. Thinking about it, it was quite logical. He had clearly inherited the entire house. But he certainly hadn’t needed additional income and would have been able to conduct his electronic experiments and focus on his researches without being bothered by tenants and their needs. Selfish, perhaps; but quite understandable, if you knew Don.

By then it was late evening, and time to go home, even if my heart wasn’t in the usual Yuletide preparations. I managed, though. By midnight I was nicely full of snacks, and dozing off with Wednesday drifting along, all but ignored, on Netflix. My melancholy but satisfying Christmas was shattered when someone rang my doorbell. I wondered who it could be, as it was too late for carol singers and the neighbours knew better than to disturb my solitary pleasures. Someone at the wrong address? The emergency services?

When I opened the door, a tall figure stumbled into my hall and stood, hunched, swaying and wheezing. It was Don. I stared at him, astonished and overjoyed at his sudden reappearance, but horrified by the state he was in – emaciated, filthy and stinking to high heaven, barefoot but still wearing my shorts and t-shirt, now threadbare and as soiled as the rest of him. He now sported long hair and a wild beard, both shot through with grey and sprinkled with what appeared to be pine needles. His ankles were scabbed and sore, as if he’d been chained up. He held out his trembling hands to show dirty fingers with broken nails, raw with cuts and stained with what I first thought was fresh blood then recognised as dribbles of scarlet paint.

‘Don, where the bloody hell have you been?’ I would have hugged him but the smell was a but much and besides, Don looked a little diseased.

His lips worked soundlessly as he gazed at me with wide, hollow eyes that heralded the imminent departure of sanity. Unable to form a single word, he shuddered violently, thrust one filthy hand into a pocket of the shorts and produced a poorly-carved, badly-painted, two-inch tall wooden toy soldier, the uniform a clumsily-daubed approximation of one that might have been current in Ruritania sometime around 1800.

‘The enchantment must not be broken by idiots like me,’ Don sobbed hoarsely.

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