Even though he was alone, Charles 'Chippy' Sloane felt a sense of tranquillity. It was a long time since he'd felt this way. He hunkered beside the decorated Christmas tree, dwarfed by its awesome height. To the ceiling, it reached where an angel pointed a plastic glare down at him as if forbidding him to come any closer. He lowered his gaze quickly. The angel reminded him of his sister's husband, and the glare brought snide comments, open taunts and full-blown fights to uncomfortable recall. Tinsel of silver and gold streamed like the sparkling skeins of a mythical tree, incandescent under the action of the winking lights - red, blue, yellow and green. Baubles of every colour and size imaginable hung like perfectly spherical glassy fruit on plastic bristles tipped with white splashes to resemble snow. One red ball reflected a rosy fish face back at him, pulling his nose forward and elongating his forehead - Chippy didn't want to look. He didn't like his face, piscatory in the shiny curved surface or not. Quickly, he set about his task because he had little time. Five gifts lay on the carpet beside him, waiting to be wrapped. He reached for the first - a children's Bible - he covered it in red paper dotted with Santa heads and candy sticks and wrote on the card:
"To my darling Samantha - your tree needs a nicer angel, and you are best fit to take its place. Have a happy Christmas, and keep me in your prayers. Your uncle, Chippy."
A tear threatened to smudge his writing, and Chippy breathed sharply. He loved his darling Samantha. She reminded him of his own daughter, now living with an estranged wife who wanted nothing to do with him. Samantha, too, was somewhat estranged, he realised. Her father frowned each time he tried to chat with her. Giving it a little thought, Chippy relented. He would, too, if a man who'd done time wanted to befriend his little child. But Steve wouldn't have to put up with him anymore, Chippy told himself with a calm shrug. He was taking care of that tonight.
Settling a ribbon on the gift, he lay it at the foot of the tree and glanced once more at the critical angel.
"Chippy, you're a coward," it seemed to tell him. "You couldn't bring yourself to fight your wife in court. You think you've got the guts now?"
Did he have the guts? He raised his eyes towards the apology for a Christmas Tree topper. It stared him down - the more he looked, the more accusing was the glare!
"Bah!" Quickly, he returned to his task. "Focus! Focus! You haven't got all night."
Quite true. He didn't have all night, and he certainly wasn't Santa Claus. He had small gifts to give to the family who had taken him in when no one else would. They were attending Midnight Mass at the chapel down the street with the customary cake and wine party to follow at the club. Veronica, his sister, had pleaded with him to go with them, ignoring the knitted brows of her husband.
"Come on, Chip," she had begged. "It's been six months since you’ve been out. Who cares about the world? I know you're innocent. Steve here believes it too."
Steve only grunted. Believing something was one thing. Being convicted and serving time was another. He had a reputation to uphold. Besides, he and Chippy never got along.
"Let's move, Ron," Steve told his wife, tight-lipped. "We are getting late. Sam! Where's your coat?"
They hurried out, leaving Chippy alone in the house; Veronica had kindly given him the little cottage at the back when he had finished his time. Chippy decided he'd have to tidy up the place before the night was over. It was a nice thing to do. But then, the mess he would leave would
always be there. Wouldn't it?
He clicked his tongue and reached for the second gift. It was a pair of black T-Strap Dance shoes. He'd paid an arm and a leg for the patent leathers because there was a time when Veronica loved to dance. She still did, if only Steve would ask her out.
“Ask me out? My husband?" Veronica's peals of laughter shook the tiny cottage one evening as she put up curtains to make the place more habitable. "Chip, you might as well hope for snow in hell!"
“But I saw an amazing pair of ballroom shoes, Ronnie," he had argued. "Just the right fit. And you dance so well!"
"You are hopeless," she said, pulling his cheek affectionately. "You'll be alright here?"
"You bet!" He had nowhere else to go. "Thank you for having me here, Ron."
She only nodded and left. He knew Veronica had backed him to the hilt, but his world was darkness, disgrace and shame. He had suffered seven years in prison for a stacked crime of beating his wife. She had served him divorce papers while he was in jail and was now remarried after cleaning him out of everything. Nothing remained now except the gifts he wanted to give and the rest of the night.
The shoes reflected the twinkling lights from the tree. He placed them in their box and wrapped them with lacy gold paper. On the card, he wrote:
"Your feet were made for dancing, and these shoes were made for you. See you sometime, my darling sister."
He couldn't find words for the third gift. It was a broad silk tie, proudly tiled in blue and grey and meant for a corporate mogul. The tie exuded power; with a subtle silver sheen along each tile when pointed towards the light, it was sure to raise the wearer to a position of self-assurance and superiority. Chippy only wrapped it in white paper dotted with motifs of tiny red and gold candies and wrote on the card:
"Steve, for the next 'Cake and Wine' at the club. Happy Christmas, mate!"
The fourth gift brought tears - it was all he had left of Amanda, his little girl snatched away with cold disdain and insensitivity by a wife who had once loved him but had now moved on with her divorce lawyer. It was a small picture album of their marriage, Amanda’s birth, her first adventure with solid food, her innocent relationship with an old doll and many other memories. With a smidge of guilt that he hadn't fought hard enough for at least visitation rights, he breezed through the pictures, precious and familiar; yet distant, smoky and awkward. His wife had sought a restraining order against him when he finished his time, and out of the smarting ignominy of facing a stern, dough-faced judge, he had honoured the injunction and stayed away. Their marriage picture presented pride, arrogance, beauty and joy. She, beautiful and joyous, in pure white and smiling as she cuddled against his strong shoulder and he, all arrogance and pride, in full uniform - tassels, medals and lanyard, and the five-star insignia of the Commissioner of Police!
Ex-Commissioner of Police, he told himself with a snap! Because, now, he no longer carried the title, having served seven years for the charge of beating up his wife. He had never laid a finger on her, let alone beat her, but she had come armed and ready for battle, painting him with a brush that made the entire police force blush. Then, out of the blue, she brought an additional accusation that he had abused their infant daughter!
Commissioner Charles 'Chippy' Sloane closed the picture album with a snap, and a gust of cool
air trapped between the thick cardboard pages flapped into his face. He wrapped it up quickly in red paper designed with white hearts, placed a bow on it and wrote:
"Remember your dad, Amanda, my girl."
The last item was a flat cardboard box; another smaller but thicker case made of polished wood lay beside it, but these didn't appear to be gifts because there was no wrapping paper left. Chippy glanced once at the plastic angel, still blazing her eyes down at him and smiled calmly.
"Yes, these last two boxes are for me," he told it. "So, stop glaring at me like I'm such a despicable man. I aim to go with whatever dignity I have left."
Settling the gifts under the tree one last time, he picked up the two boxes and quietly left the house, going to the back where his little cottage stood, away from the street and shrouded by leafless shrubbery. A few lights twinkled on the naked branches, like skeleton fingers playing with coloured pearls - Veronica's sweet attempt to make Christmas a happy time for him.
"Dance, Ronnie," he said to an image of her in his mind. "Your feet were always made for dancing. And Steve, if you cannot take a hint with that tie, you ought to be jailed!"
Entering his home, he placed the articles on a chair and tidied up the living space, the small dining table, a writing desk, his bed and finally, the kitchen, where the sink had only one coffee cup. With a grunt of satisfaction, he looked around and found everything in order. Then standing before a small fireplace, Chippy undressed, opened the flat box with unwavering fingers and retrieved a crispy khaki uniform embellished with all the insignia of a high-ranking and decorated police officer. Donning it, he stood to attention before a thin, long mirror by the door and nodded at his reflection in grim approval.
Then he reached for the polished wooden case, opened it slowly, and his eyes glittered at the police-issue semi-automatic handgun sunk deep in hard black foam packing. It was a heavy grey pistol with a 9mm calibre, a licensed copy of the Browning Hi-Power. Beside it was a 13-round detachable magazine containing its lethal 9mm Parabellum in the foam.
Chippy's experienced fingers reached for the weapon and snapped in the magazine with one smooth, fluid movement. Then, standing to attention, he muttered, "Happy Christmas, you old loser. Your last seven Christmases were like a black and white movie. A splash of red now is all that you need," and stoutly raised the pistol to his head.
Had the bells not been ringing at that time to hail the best and sweetest time of the year, a gunshot might have cracked the night and brought all festivities to a close sooner rather than later.
Veronica and Steve returned home before dawn, carrying a slumbering Samantha and noted the four additional gifts under the tree. Smiling with sisterly affection, Veronica would inspect the shape of the box and predict what it contained with accuracy. Steve would fidget with the white wrapping of his present in flushing mollification and whisper under his breath:
"You, old son-of-a-gun!"
The angel would stare accusingly as if to complain about the cheeky suggestion that she be replaced by a little girl, Samantha, who couldn't even keep her eyes open on Christmas Night!
And far away, in another town where the night was chill, but the fireplace was warm and fuzzy with sleighbells ringing, tinsel glittering, presents, music and cake, a little child named Amanda would fall asleep in the arms of another man, whom she now called daddy.