A Christmas tale.
Snow is a rare visitor to the Isle of Man. The balming effect of the gulfstream on the local climate, as well as less-welcome influences on it of recent years mean that, below the central mountain area, winters often pass without sight of snow. The chances of it falling within the narrow timescale of Christmas are even more slender. So when snow started to land, just as the afternoon slid into darkness on this particular Christmas Eve, it was greeted with dread by some, and joy by others.
Lifelong friends Ash Kinvig and Lily Quilleash had already made an early escape from their desks within the financial district of Douglas when the snow started falling, and were in the pub with colleagues. They had been in the middle of one of those pub-type conversations (in this case, trying to remember the name of the dog whose owner pushed it up and down the promenade in a pram), when Geoff from Compliance had called everybody’s attention to the snow. Grown adults had pressed their noses against the hostelry window, and made that keening “Oooh” sound, as if they had never seen snow before. Which in the case of Prakash, who had transferred from the Bengaluru office five months earlier, was a perfectly reasonable response.
‘It won’t stick.’ said Helen from HR, taking on the traditional role of the person who says ‘It won’t stick’ when a gathering of Manx people see snow. Martin and Martyn checked the weather apps on their phones. Both were of the view that the Isle of Man was due to receive an unusually generous blanketing, just in time for Christmas Day. It would stick.
The apps were right: snow was general all over the Island. It was falling on the ruined tholtans clinging to hillsides and the drive-through McDonalds, on the ancient forts and the quickly-constructed starter homes. By 9.43pm it was falling on Ash and Lily, trudging home carefully through the thickening powdery carpet. Cars ground past occasionally, progressing through the flurries with caution. In the distance could be heard the wail of an ambulance, attending to a more impetuous driver.
As they walked, Ash found herself being questioned over her insistence that they leave the pub at 9.30.
‘It’s Christmas Eve!’ Lily protested.
‘Thanks, aware of that. Which means that tomorrow is Christmas Day. And I cannot for a moment contemplate dealing with a whole day of my mother’s plonking hints about grandchildren, my uncle’s racism, and the Perry Como Christmas album on repeat – with a hangover.’
Lily tutted. ‘You’ve changed. I remember one Christmas Eve when at half nine at night you were dancing an Argentine tango in a kebab shop with an MHK. And still got up in time to be a disappointment to your family the next day.’
Ash’s eyes widened. ‘Literally 16 years ago, Quilleash. Hangovers were like cobwebs in those days. You gave an embarrassingly girly shriek when they first hit you, and then just brushed them off. I’m 40 next year, and the buggers land less like a cobweb and more like a truck.’
Their journey home was nearly complete. Each of them owned a flat among the Victorian terraces that marked the boundary between Douglas town centre and the residential suburbs. Their wine-fuelled journey took them past the mock-Gothic front of one of the town’s churches, its windows filled with light as the service of Midnight Mass was being prepared.
‘I love the way snow softens all the sounds,’ Ash noted, in a moment of poetry.
Lily sniffed. ‘The sound is lovely – but the smell round here is a bit farmyard-y. Why is that?’
‘Er…excuse me!’ another voice called.
Ash and Lily stopped in the tracks that they were leaving in the snow, and looked around. They had both clearly heard the voice, an older, male tone. But there was nobody in sight to claim ownership of it.
‘Actually,’ the voice added ‘You may need to look up.’
Ash and Lily exchanged a glance, and then did as the voice suggested. They gasped in lungfuls of sharp, cold air.
The church by which they stood boasted a fine spire, tapering away to the delicate lightning conductor, high above the surrounding houses. To the astonishment of the two women, a man was balanced gingerly on a protruding piece of brickwork in the spire. His hands were clutching other mercifully convenient outcrops of stone. The confoundment of the pair of pals was compounded by what this precariously positioned man was wearing. Looking up at the dark mass of the spire, with snow falling down, it was difficult to make out every detail. However, the man, who seemed both tall and chubby, was dressed in a suit similar to those that Ash and Lily had seen in various pubs earlier that evening. It was made of a soft, heavy material, in what appeared to be the brightest red. The edges of his jacket were trimmed with white fur, and the same colour scheme applied to the nightcap-like hat her wore. It was hard to make out facial features beneath the luxuriant full beard, with a white tone that perfectly complemented the fur trim of his outfit.
Lily Quilleash, a 39-year-old graduate working in international finance, inhaled deeply before delivering her assessment of the situation.
‘HE’S REAL!!!!!!!!!!’ she shrieked, the overexcited echo bouncing off the nearby houses.
And he’s probably not deaf,’ Ash chided her friend, making slightly cliched ‘tone it down’ motions with her fingers held out flat.The portly gentleman on the spire adjusted his pince-nez, which were threatening to escape the end of his nose.
‘Ah, yes dear lady, I am indeed real. Though I fear I may not be exactly who you imagine me to be.’
Ash and Lily exchanged a glance. “Red suit, big white beard. Rather a…um……cuddly physique,’ Ash commented, ‘And every time you move, I hear sleigh bells. I hate to jump to conclusions late on Christmas Eve, but you can see why we might think that, you’re, ah…..’
The man on the spire looked down at his clothes, as if viewing them for the first time.
‘Yes, Madam, I do understand why you might have formed such a conclusion. Might I suggest that fashion is not my prime concern right now? From this vantage point, I can spy a ladder lying against the church wall – left there after the tree was erected, I imagine. Would you mind awfully….?’
Making middle-class apologetic sounds, more to distract themselves from the strange turn of events, Ash and Lily fetched the ladder. Their attempts to set it safely against the spire were not helped by the fact that each of them had most of the contents of a bottle of Rioja sloshing around inside. Eventually however, they were able to get it into position for the red-suited stranger to achieve a foothold. With an understandable smattering of Oh-Deary-Mes and Heavens-To-Betsys, he made his way to ground level, much to the relief of all concerned.
Now safely on tarmac, the gentleman swept off his red hat, revealing a fine mane of hair, as white as his beard. He bowed low to Ash and Lily.
‘The Reverend Juan Carroon, minister of this chapel, kind ladies,’ he introduced himself. ‘At your service and in your gratitude.’
‘I’m Ash Kinvig,’ said Ash. ‘My over-emphatic friend is Lily Quilleash. If you don’t mind me asking Reverend, what were you doing on the church spire?
‘Oh, a festive folly, Miss Kinvig. Midnight Mass starts soon, and I thought it might be cheering for me to greet the parishioners from the spire, in seasonal garb. Alas, my guy rope untied itself and vanished into the night, leaving me stranded.’
‘That’s guys for you,’ Lily nodded.
Their white-bearded companion produced a gold fob-watch and inspected it. ‘It seems that midnight is not that far off. A busy evening, indeed. If you will excuse me, I have duties to attend to – and once again, many thanks.’ With a beaming smile he set off, not towards the brightly-lit entrance to the church, but around the corner.
‘Bye, Sant….Reverend!’ called Lily. There was a brief flash of another warm smile, before the shadows swallowed the man up.
Ash shivered. With all the unexpected excitement, she had stopped noticing the weather conditions. It was snowing more heavily now, and somehow it felt as if this would continue for some hours yet. She took Lily’s arm so they could either support each other in the slippery conditions, or plunge into a drift together.
‘Come on, my happy little elf,’ she said. ‘I think that definitely counts as our Christmas miracle. Now let’s both get home, neck some ibuprofen to ward off Madam Hangover, and prepare for Judgement…. I mean, Christmas Day.’
In that limbo-like phase of Christmas Day, after the Queen’s speech but before the sky starts to darken, Lily’s phone rang. She slipped into the kitchen of her parents’ house to answer it.
‘Happy Christmas Lil!’ she heard Ash’s voice. ‘How’s your day going?’
‘It’s not too bad, actually,’ Lily smiled. ‘Dad’s doing The Vagina Monologues in Charades. We all worked it out a few minutes ago but we thought it would be a laugh to let him crack on. So to speak. How’s Christmas with the Kinvig crew?’
‘Tolerable actually. Calling it quits early last night was a good idea, even if I say so myself. It means I have the capacity today for a little Prosecco – it blunts the edge of some of the minority-bashing from certain relatives. Oh that reminds me……
Ash stopped speaking, but the line hadn’t broken. ‘Ash – are you there?’ Lily asked.
‘Sorry, a Babybel escaped. Anyway, talking of last night and white-haired people, I looked up our friend the Reverend Juan Carroon. He was the minister of that chapel – between 1898 and 1906.’
Lily’s phone flew from her hand in shock, but she saved it quite skilfully. ‘Say what now?’
‘Yeah,’ said Ash. ‘He was looking pretty lively for somebody who died in 1923.’
‘Ash, did we help a ghost climb off a church?’ Lily demanded. Ash’s scoffing was audible down the line.
‘You ludicrous girl! He was too hefty for a ghost – he squashed my toe when he was getting off the ladder. Also, wouldn’t a ghost just float off the spire? Or through it?’
‘So who was he then? Who spends Christmas Eve dressed as Santa, hanging off a church spire and pretending to be a dead clergyman? It’s a bit rum, even for that part of town.’
‘There is one answer,’ said Ash, a tentative note entering her voice. ‘Remember that smell we noticed near the church, like something off a farm, an animal smell? Well, just supposing, you were a gentleman in a red suit operating some sort of flying vehicle involving large animals. A sudden snowstorm causes you to lose your way, and you prang into a church. You’re thrown from the driver’s seat and have to cling on to the spire for dear life. Your furry friends manage to bring the vehicle down safely behind the church. When questioned by two foxy and curiously youthful ladies who come to your assistance, you make up a story using the identity of somebody you remember because you’ve been visiting the area for a heck of a long time.’
‘You’re drunk,’ said Lily flatly, although she was in no position to criticise on that score.
‘And you’re convinced,’ replied Ash. ‘It’s the ho-ho-honly possible explanation. What else is there? That a podgy bloke of later years managed to climb up the church in fancy dress, in wild snow, to have a bit of lolz and bantz with elderly churchgoers. I didn’t find that guff about guy ropes convincing at the time.’
Lily absent-mindedly bit into a breadstick, realised it was a biro, and threw it aside. ‘But that would mean…..’ she said slowly, every word being dragged out of her by the reluctance of disbelief.
The two friends arrived at the same conclusion simultaneously. ‘HE’S REAL!’
‘And we just probably saved his life,’ added Ash. ‘And therefore Christmas. Well done us is what I say!’
At which point, both Ash and Lily later swore, they heard a faint, warm chuckle, echoing down the line.