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Silent Night

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Silent Night

 

"To age," said Abe, holding aloft a glass of brandy. "You sure you don't want any?"

"No. Thank you, but alcohol seems to lose its appeal after the first century or so." Henry smiled fondly as he reached over to fill his cup from the nearby teapot. "I'm glad that you like it, though."

"Like it? It's not every day a guy gets to drink brandy that's as old as he is." Abe took a slow, thoughtful mouthful, considering the deep, matured flavour. "Especially when the guy in question has just turned fifty. Thank you, Henry. It was very thoughtful."

"Just a token. Of my affection. Of..." Henry gestured somewhat vaguely, with a hand that bore a now filled and steaming teacup. "You know."

"Yeah." Abe's smile was warm. He took another sip of brandy, then sat down next to Henry. "So, what you been doing? It's been a while."

"Oh, you know. A little of this, and a little of that. I would much rather talk about you though, Abraham. I was sorry to hear about Clara."

"Oh, that." His son shrugged carelessly. "That was only ever a holiday romance. We had some fun, but I knew it wouldn't last."

"Still determined never to give me grandchildren, you mean?"

"Ha. You want grandchildren, you'll have to be prepared to look after them yourself. Anyway, I'm getting too old for all that stuff." Abe leaned back in his chair. "And how about you? Met anybody lately?"

"No. Well. No." Henry shrugged rather vaguely, sipping his tea in a manner clearly meant to show that he didn't want this line of conversation to proceed. "You know how it is."

"Yeah, all too well. She's gone, Henry. She's been gone a long time. You still have a life to live; and a long one. You can't spend the rest of it alone."

"Abraham..."

"And don't 'Abraham' me." Abe sighed, and slowly shook his head. "Listen to me. You'd think I was the father. Our relationship is getting ever more weird, you know that?"

"Too weird?" asked Henry somewhat hesitantly. Abe smiled.

"No. It'll never be that – and I mean that. Getting used to calling you 'Henry' instead of Dad – that was weird. Growing up and growing grey, and starting to be older than you – in a sense. It's all been weird." He stared into the brandy, swirling it around the glass in uneven patterns. "And normal too. You're the only father I've ever had, at least that I remember. It could never be too weird. So lose that worried look." He took another sip of brandy, then brought his smile out for an encore. "We need birthday cake."

"That's your answer to the increasingly complicated existential issues faced by our relationship? Cake?"

"Find me a problem cake can't fix."

"Well... since you put it that way." Henry clapped his hands together. "I'll get some plates. Will you do the honours?"

"Naturally." Abe finished his brandy, with an expression of obvious relish. "I cut much bigger slices than you."

"One of us has to worry about sugar and cholesterol."

"And I'm happy for it to be you." Abe followed Henry to his feet. That he was slower at getting there than he had been a few years ago did not escape either man, but neither addressed it. It didn't need to be discussed. Not yet. Not this year. A moment later Henry set a white box down on the coffee table, as well as a pair of plates and a knife.

"I bought it at that patisserie we used to like. It's chocolate and coffee cream." He lifted the top from the box, to reveal a tall, multi-layered confection, topped with a large blue candle, and the name 'Abraham' in piped white icing. "They might have got slightly the wrong idea when I mentioned that it was for my son."

"I don't know. Looks great to me." Abe picked off a sugar pirate, and decapitated it with a crunch. "I always did want to be a pirate."

"Yes, I remember. I also remember having to patch up your knees when you tried to leap from table to table in the living room, because you had seen Errol Flynn doing something similar."

"Actually I think it was Burt Lancaster. You took me to see The Crimson Pirate for my seventh birthday. Was it tables though? I remember trying to swing on a rope hanging from the banister. I think I broke my thumb."

"And the banister," put in Henry. Abe raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah? I don't remember that. Did I get into trouble?"

"No, but I did. Your mother thought that I should have taken you to see something a little less fraught with potential pitfalls." Henry smiled ruefully. "I'm not sure that the next door neighbours were terribly impressed either. We were minding their young son at the time, and you'd roped him into being Nick Cravat. He spent most of the next week trying to swing from their curtains."

"Albie!" Abe brightened at the sudden memory. "Cute little kid. They moved to Albuquerque, didn't they?"

"I believe so. Probably to get away from our appalling influence." Henry laughed quietly at the thought. Abe laughed as well, far less quietly, then cut a pair of sizeable cake slices, and handed one across to his father.

"There you are. I don't know if a wanton corrupter of small children deserves cake, but you might as well have it."

"Abe, this slice is bigger than some of the houses I've lived in."

"Don't exaggerate. And anyway, who cares? How often does a thirty-five year old guy get to attend his son's fiftieth birthday party?" Abe took a large bite of his own cake, then went over to pour himself some tea to go with it. "Besides, you'll need it. There's the sweetest little old lady just down the block, and she's moving into sheltered accommodation soon. I said I'd take some of her furniture for the store." He beamed cheerfully. You can use those ever-young muscles of yours to help me shift it."

"Lucky me." Henry took a bite of cake, and went to sit back down. "There are laws against making one's aged parents do hard labour, you know."

"No there aren't. I checked." Abe washed down his cake with a large swig of tea. "Besides, it's half your business."

"True. Very well, I shall consent to be press-ganged into service."

"That the same thing as 'okay'?" Abe grinned teasingly, and sat down beside his guest. "You know, one of these days, we really ought to do something about updating your vocabulary."

"Our speech is a reflection of our character, Abraham. An insight into our—"

"Yeah, I know. I heard all this back in the sixties, when you started objecting to slang and rock 'n' roll lyrics." Abraham waggled his heavy brows, a form of jaunty, wordless teasing as he took another mouthful of cake. Henry sighed.

"I should have had you educated in England."

"Hey, it wasn't any American who came up with 'Do Wah Diddy Diddy'. Actually I think it was a South African, but the point still stands." Wiping cake from his hands and mouth with his handkerchief, Abe stood up. "You ready?"

"It would take an army of me at least a week to eat this much cake. I fear that 'ready' would be a considerable exaggeration."

"I should have had you educated in America."

"Touché." Henry set aside his plate, and rose to his feet. "All right. Let the manual labour begin. Who is this lady, anyway? Anybody that we know?"

"I don't think so. I only met her by chance about a month ago. She's eighty-seven, no living relatives. Owns an apartment just a short hop from here. Has a lot of nice stuff – including some art deco, and that always sells well. Also some older stuff she was left by her parents, I think." Abe clapped his hands together decisively, with a loud, ringing sound like a rimshot. "I hired a van. It's being delivered there. Anyway, she likes to sleep in the afternoon, so I said we'd go along right after lunch, and collect everything. It should be just the one load. We can always talk more this evening."

"Of course. And dinner, perhaps. Is there a restaurant that you especially like?"

"I'd rather cook. I haven't cooked for you in ages." Abe put an arm around Henry's shoulder, steering him towards the door. "What'll it be? Italian? Chinese? Mexican?"

"You decide. It's your birthday." They strolled out into the street, Abe leading the way, their pace relaxed and unhurried. There was a chill in the air, but it was not too cold, and the mere company itself was warming. Henry chatted quietly about the places he had seen since they had last been together, and Abe smiled his big, warm smile, gladdened by the simple tales. The cake had been good, the brandy exceptional – but a visit from his father was the finest birthday gift of all. In the midst of their togetherness, they almost missed the old lady's building, and it was only the bright logo on the side of the rental van that alerted Abe. He slowed and gestured to the tall, front door. Henry eyed it suspiciously.

"This is where you tell me that she lives on the top floor, isn't it."

"Of course not." Abe pressed a doorbell, and called out a cheery hello. A moment later they were buzzed through. "Actually she's one down from the top. But don't worry, there's a good service elevator. It'll take the furniture okay."

"Not bad at this antiques business, are you."

"I do okay." They shared a smile, before falling into a companionable silence as the elevator doors slid shut. A small jolt and they were on their way, gliding up the building to the seventh level. Henry smiled as the doors slid open, for the voice of Bing Crosby was floating down the corridor, carrying softly from the other side of a large, blue door. It was a song that brought back memories of the thirties – of long rides in a open-topped car, and the convivial company of friends long left behind. Abe saw the look on his face, and smiled.

"Does everything trigger memories with you?"

"You wait a while, Abraham. When you've lived a little longer, you'll realise that memories are everywhere. We build the world upon them, and they follow us wherever we go."

"I'd better be sure to make plenty of good ones then." With a particularly devilish grin, Abe pulled ahead, ringing the doorbell, then stepping back. From somewhere on the other side of the door came the scratching of footsteps, soft and half-muffled, as though the feet were encased in bedroom slippers. Then came the grating sound of unlocking, before the door eased slowly open. Abe was already beaming, a typically charming smile of greeting further lighting up his eternally bright eyes.

"Mrs Hunter," he said cheerfully, holding out a hand towards her. It went untaken. She was staring past him, as though he were not even there, towards his ever-young father. Pinioned by her gaze, he was staring too – but just like hers, his eyes were not seeing the present. They were staring instead into the past, back into a dark, cold evening that had fallen upon the world some sixty years before.

**********

The radio was on, crackling faintly whenever the wind blew more strongly. Bing Crosby was singing Silent Night, somewhat ironically being all but drowned out by the bustle of New York City. Henry stretched out his feet towards the fire, and smiled when a steaming mug of cocoa hove into view.

"Here." Kat still looked like summer. The steadily encroaching winter seemed to have no effect on her at all, and he loved her for it – although not nearly as much as he loved her cocoa. David waggled a bottle of brandy questioningly, but Henry shook his head, smiling a refusal. David made up for his restraint by adding a double ration to his own mug.

"You're a star, kid," he tokd his wife. She smiled at him, the expression that still adoring, still slightly starry-eyed, reflection of a new marriage.

"I have to look after you both, don't I. Although you might want to leave some cocoa for the rest of New York."

"It's cold out there!" protested Henry. She went over to sit beside him, cuddling close with the easy familiarity of a comfortable friendship.

"And you an Englishman. I thought you were all used to bad weather over there? Rain and hail and fog and—"

"I left for a reason," he told her. In truth that reason had had nothing to do with the weather, but he was of no mind to point that out. "Anyway, cocoa and good company beats the alternative."

"We need to get started some time though." David downed half of his reinforced cocoa in one long swallow. "The night's not getting any younger."

"Nor any less dark." Henry sipped far more sedately from his own mug. "I do wish you'd give this up, David. It's building up to be a ghastly night. Why not stay here?"

"Because there's a thousand dollar prize, and I know that I can win it. I'd be a fool to let that sort of money slip me by. A thousand dollars would set us up nicely."

"A thousand dollars is no use to anybody dead," grumbled Henry. David waved a dismissive arm.

"You're too cautious, that's your trouble. It's only five miles, and the first mile isn't even hard going. I don't leave the city limits until the race is almost half done. It's child's play, especially with all the preparation we've been doing."

"And it's not really dangerous, is it?" asked Kat. David laughed, going over to take her hand.

"Of course not. We've driven the course a hundred times, haven't we? The only reason I'm not taking you along tonight is because passengers aren't allowed."

"I could go as co-pilot, if Henry doesn't want to," she suggested. Henry shook his head.

"Oh no. If this young hothead is determined to go ahead with this, I shall be there to keep an eye on him. I can rein him in on some of those tighter corners. You know what he's like."

"Fearless," said Kat proudly. David practically glowed. Henry raised an eyebrow.

"Some might say foolhardy," he suggested. Kat frowned.

"But he's right though, isn't he? It isn't really dangerous? We have driven it a lot of times."

"Nothing like this fast," pointed out Henry. "It's also a very cold night tonight, and there's a fog coming down. Not a thick one perhaps, but it will limit visibility."

"It's not that bad." David finished his cocoa, and set the mug down on the nearby coffee table. It made a sharp, decisive 'click!' on the shining glass. "And anyway, my mind is made up, fog or no fog. I must have that money, Henry. It means everything to Kat and I, and our plans. Freedom from my family, for one thing. A new life." He smiled fondly, and reached out to squeeze his wife's hand. "Children too maybe."

"And I want you to have all that. You know that I do." Henry sighed. "You won't be dissuaded? No matter what I say?"

"As I said, my mind is made up. You don't have to come. I know the course well enough not to need a navigator."

"You don't know it in the dark, and you've not done it at such speed. It will all look very different out there tonight." Henry sighed, then nodded and rose to his feet. "Very well. But if this fog gets any worse, I should think that the race will be called off anyway. It would hardly be great publicity to have the contestants plastered all over the countryside."

"Cheerful sort, aren't you," said David. Henry smiled. On the surface the expression seemed light-hearted enough, but there was a glint in his eyes that spoke of the hard-won experience of more than two hundred years.

"The very picture of merriment and joy," he said, in a perfect deadpan, then finished his own cocoa. Quite suddenly, a measure of brandy in it no longer seemed such a bad idea. At this sign of an imminent departure, Kat stood up as well, offering them both a kiss on the cheek.

"I'll be there at the finish line," she told them. "With a hot flask and some sandwiches. I think I have some mince pies as well. Just don't go taking any risks; and David, listen to Henry."

"Of course." David took his wife's hands, and pulled her into a playful embrace. "And we'll be back up here again in no time, one thousand dollars the richer, and with some celebrating to do. All right?"

"All right." She stood on tiptoes to kiss him, then let go of his hands so that he could walk away. "Good luck."

"I won't need it. But thank you." Shoulders back, head up, he walked with easy certainty to the door. Henry followed rather more slowly. He was not an overly-cautious man, but there was something about tonight that was making him uneasy. He smiled to himself, and shook the feeling off. David was right – it should be simple enough. And besides, what he had said before was perfectly true. If the conditions were bad, the race would surely be cancelled. There would be nothing for any of them to worry about. Not tonight.

**********

From the wide open doorway of the old lady's apartment, Bing Crosby's voice rang out more clearly than before. Henry recognised the tune, but the words drifted past him unheard. He had known the woman the moment he had laid eyes upon her – and it was all too plain that she had also known him. She took a step forward, her cane probing uncertainly at the carpet, her wide, green eyes fixed with deadly clarity upon his face. When she spoke, her voice came to him straight out of the past.

"Henry?" There was a quaver in the voice, jarring with his memory. For all the wrinkles, he saw the twenty-seven year old she had once been – the woman who had made him cocoa; the new wife with so many plans, all told to him with wild, enthusiastic gesticulations from the back seat of a Chevy convertible. For a moment, standing there in the corridor, he could feel the seats vibrate again beneath him; feel the wind in his hair; smell gasoline, engine oil, and the fast, fresh breeze, filled with the scents of changing seasons. He managed a cautious, querulous smile.

"I'm sorry. Have we met?" Beside him Abe had gone rigid, decades of living with a well-kept secret making the hairs on the back of his neck visibly rise. Henry wanted to smooth them down, to touch his son, be it in reassurance or simply for reassurance. He didn't dare. He couldn't touch Abe anymore. Not in public. They were no longer father and son. Abe was fifty now, and to the rest of the world, older than he was. The past – even the recent, precious past – had never seemed further away.

"Henry." She moved closer, and her eyes – her bright, familiar, green eyes – seemed to look straight into his very soul. "But it's impossible. Isn't it?" She turned then, looking past him, down an otherwise silent and empty corridor. "But why... why you, and not... him?"

"Mrs Hunter..." Abe jerked forward suddenly, galvanised into action by something. The chime of anguish in her voice most likely. That same sound – half question, half pain – was the very thing holding Henry back. Why him indeed? It was not some basic philosophical question that she was asking, though. He knew that well enough. She was asking why not David? Why was he of all people standing here unchanged, when David had been dead these past sixty years? And when she had seen them both die together, in a blaze of impossibly hot fire, on a cold December night so long ago.

**********

"This is crazy," said Henry, as he settled himself in the passenger seat. "I hope that you realise that."

"It's worth it though. A thousand dollars, Henry. You don't know what that means to Kat and I."

"If it means that much, I can always—"

"Not that much you can't." David smiled at him, eyes grateful. "I know you have means, but I also know that you've been hit by this depression just like everybody else. We need our freedom, Henry. Financial, and the other kind. All the other kinds. This race will set us up, at least for long enough to make proper plans. So it's risky. Not that risky. You know I drive well enough."

"Yes." Henry relaxed slightly. "You do. All the same..."

"Hey, if I kill us both, you can take your revenge in the afterlife, okay?" David's smile was broad and teasing, his eyes as warm and as dark as Kat's cocoa. Henry smiled as well then, and nodded.

"Deal."

"Excellent." With that David turned back to the wheel, coasting them over to the starting line. There were seven other cars. A few empty spaces showed where some competitors had chosen not to turn up, but the fog had lifted a little. They could see further ahead now than when they had left the house, and although the sharp, cold bite remained in the air, the ground seemed mercifully free of ice. The going would not be so hard after all. There had been no mention of cancelling the race.

The roar of the engines was so loud that Henry barely heard the gunshot that started them off. He saw the flash, flaring up through the dregs of the mist, and in the same instant David stamped on the accelerator. The car leapt forward, a stallion given free rein, tearing free of the herd without another to match it. David's expression was rapt, a tiny pulse beating at the side of his forehead. Henry watched him as often as he watched the road, alert for signs that his friend might be taking inadvisable risks. David seemed steady, however. With Henry calling out occasional sharp turns and changes in the terrain, they made good time, car and driver easily handling the speed. Henry began to enjoy himself. There was an electrical charge in the air – a thrill of excitement touched with fear that made his heart hammer somewhere close to joy. When the finish line hove at last into view, the bright lights eating up the last of the mist, David let out a whoop. They were not sure where the other drivers were, but nobody else had a chance of beating them now. Nobody had come close to overtaking for the whole of the race. With David's jubilant cheers and the yelling of the sparse crowd echoing in his ears, Henry began to laugh. It had all gone like clockwork. He couldn't have been more pleased for his friend.

With a screeching protest of tyres on asphalt, the car skidded to a halt just past the finish line. David punched the steering wheel in glee, shooting Henry a quick look of triumph before throwing open the door.

"Kat?" He was laughing as he spoke, looking around for his wife even as he was unfolding his long body from the interior of the car. Henry could see Kat emerging from the crowd, her face flushed with happiness, as well as the chill of the freezing night. He smiled, deciding to stay where he was. This was their moment. As much as they could be alone amongst the spectators, they deserved to be. He barely noticed that the mist had thickened some – that the lights signalling the end of the race seemed paler now. He barely noticed the gleam of approaching headlights – saw them only as a brief flicker in the rear-view mirror, and wondered for a moment what they were. He realised at the same time as David – they both turned – turned towards a growing, deepening blaze of light rushing suddenly out of the fog. One car, two, probably three. Somebody screamed. Henry thought that it was Kat. He wondered then if David would have time to run, but knew in his heart that he wouldn't. Seconds later the world was a maelstrom of screeching metal; of blood and pain and tearing, and a growing sheet of flame. After that there was nothing but blackness, and the shock of ice cold water on his naked skin.

**********

"How is she?" asked Henry, hovering awkwardly in the doorway. He felt like an intruder, which of course he was. He shouldn't be here – should never have been here – standing awkwardly amongst half-remembered furniture, and trying not to look at the many, accusing shelves, covered in photographs of a long-dead friend. Abe shrugged.

"Okay I think. I called a doctor. Better be sure." Straightening up, he stared down at the too-white face of the old woman, her head resting on lace-fringed pillows. She had sagged against the wall when Henry had denied knowing her, and only Abe's quick movement had stopped her from falling. He had got her to her bedroom easily enough, but she looked small and frail lying there, her blood red cardigan too dark against her skin. "Man, you weren't kidding about everything being a memory."

"I'm sorry. I hope I haven't cost you a good business deal."

"I'm hardly worried about business right now. But no, I'm sure it'll be okay. I can always come back another day. It's just the van rental, and that's not so much. But damn it, Henry. Are there many old women like this dotted about the place?"

"Probably. Maybe." Henry could not take his eyes off her face, lost in the confusing juxtaposition of past and present. Kat at twenty-seven. Kat at eighty-seven. The taste of cocoa, a laugh borne on the wind, a scream of fear and loss, drowned out by shrieking metal. If David had only driven a few more feet before stopping – if the fog had not worsened – if the other cars had not all come together in a bunch. It didn't matter now; or maybe it did. He had an idea that it still mattered very much to Kat.

"Let her sleep," said Abe quietly, and Henry nodded, letting the son be the father, letting himself be guided away, through a living room like a shrine to the past. His own eyes stared back at him from a bookshelf, standing beside David, with that old Chevy convertible just behind them. It was a black and white photograph, but Henry saw it in colour. His blue and white polka-dotted scarf, David's red striped socks. The burgundy gleam of a car that was loved almost as much as a wife. Henry turned his face away. He shouldn't be here. He could certainly do no good for Kat. A murmur of voices was telling him that the doctor had arrived, and that Abe was telling him something of what had happened. Moments later his son was back at his side.

"Come on." Abe's arm was around his shoulders then, leading him back towards the elevator, taking them back towards the street. Back to the reality of 1995, and the bustle of New York City. Real sounds, real voices, to chase away the past. Cold air hit Henry's face, and he blinked as he stood on the sidewalk. It took a moment to right himself, and bring himself back to the present.

"You okay?" asked Abe. He nodded. He was okay – he was always okay. That was both his blessing and his curse. Abe pulled him close, in a sudden, bolstering bear hug that banished a few ghosts. "Hey. Enough moping. Whatever that was all about, it's gone. We're celebrating today, remember?"

"Yes. Yes, of course."

"And there's cake back home, and I was gonna cook us dinner. Mexican, I think. Nothing like chilli to get the heart pounding. Okay?"

"Yes. Thank you, Abe. I..." Henry smiled gratefully, his own dark eyes filling with warmth as they met with his son's. "Thank you."

"Hey, no problem. We've got each other's backs, you and I, right? Always."

"Always." He wanted to say something else, but he didn't. Further thanks, further explanations – the tale of a beautiful young woman, and her reckless and charming husband. He stayed silent. It didn't matter now. It couldn't. Now there was just the present, something to hang on to for as long as it lasted. Something – someone – to enjoy for as long as he could. A warm arm across his shoulders, a comfortable, easy silence, and an uncomplicated, unquestioning companionship to keep the ghosts at bay. Henry slung his arm around Abe as well, and they walked together like that back along the street, and all of the way back home.

 

The End