This tale of woe first appeared on the Internet under the The Wanderer by-line, (copyright 2006).
I thank my LadyCibelle and Techsan for their assistance in preparing the original version for posting. A few minor changes and additions have been made to the text during the intervening years. I'm afraid that I cannot recall whether those modifications have been proofread by anyone else or not.
Note; although this is a Christmas story, it contains some rather "strong" language in parts. It has been my experience that angry people, do tend to use such language. Very often, rather repetitively!
Well, there I was, sitting on my usual stool staring down at my half-empty beer glass. When the background noise reached a new crescendo; yet another group of happy partygoers had obviously entered the bar.
"Shit, I hate this time of year!"
"Sorry, I'm not sure I heard you correctly. Did you say you hated Christmas?" a voice beside me enquired.
"Bugger!" I though, I must have voiced my feelings out loud, I hadn't intended to. But ... that was what I was thinking.
"Yeah. What's everyone got to be so effing happy about? Disturbing my peace, that's bleeding what!" I replied, without even looking at whoever had addressed me.
"Now, come on, my friend; that's not quite the attitude you should have. It is Christmas, you know. A time for happiness and good will to all men; they're all just trying to enjoy themselves." The voice from beside me commented.
I turned then, and saw a short, rather rotund old man -- complete with shock of white hair and what could easily be taken to be a false beard -- sitting on the barstool beside me. To be honest, he looked like one of those shop Santa Claus's, who had stopped for a drink on his way home from work.
"Where the hell did he come from," I thought to myself. "I don't remember noticing him arrive. Mind you, with the crush there was in the Rose and Crown that evening, the bleeding Queen could have walked in and no one would have noticed her. Bugger they wouldn't have been able to see her.'
"Look, my friend, I come into this pub almost every night, for a nice quiet drink and to drown my sorrows. Maybe I will have a little chat with George the barman or a couple of my friends. None of us has anything in particular to be happy about, we all live alone with our own demons and to be honest with you, we prefer to have our bar to ourselves. We don't like it when all these idiots come running round wishing everyone Happy Bloody Christmas." I scowled in the old man's general direction.
"We've all got our problems in life, my friend, but you must try to lighten up some times; this is the time to forget your problems and be happy." The old sod smiled back at me.
Why do people think they can understand your problems without knowing anything about you? I got annoyed with the old boy.
"You just tell me what the f$%k have I got to be happy about?" I scowled back at him.
The cheeky old bugger was getting right up my nose, so I decided to give him chapter and bloody verse. After he heard my f$%king story, he would see that I'd got nothing to be happy about.
"Look, three bleeding years ago, after years of what I thought was a happy marriage, I came home from work sick one afternoon to find my so called loving wife shagging her boss in my bed. I do my bleeding nut and then the bitch ups and runs off with the arsehole. He had a f$%k sight more money than I ever had. So when it came to the bleeding divorce court; they give the bitch custody of not only my three kids, but my bleeding dog as well.
"What did the effing bitch do then? I'll tell you! She made it very difficult for me to get access to the children for the next eighteen months. I was in and out of court like a bleeding yo-yo trying to pursue the bastards to force her to give me the access to my children that I was supposed to have. The effing family courts don't give a shit for the fathers.
"Then the effing CSA (the Child Support Agency) ... those effing wankers' came down on me like a ton of bleeding bricks. The bastards took most of my bloody wages in child support for the next effing year or so. The effing bastards took my wages at source from my bloody employer, before I even saw it. So I couldn't afford to buy the kids much in the way of Christmas presents that year. I wouldn't have minded so much if the cow and her f$%king stud needed the bloody money. But the arsehole she's living with owned the company she'd been working for. He makes more money in a sodding week, than I make can make in a bleeding year.
"Do you know what the bastards did that Christmas? Well, I'll bloody-well tell you! They opened my presents to the children before Christmas. Then the buggers went out and brought more expensive versions of what I'd brought for the kids and they gave them to the kids first. Oh, I wasn't allowed anywhere near the children on Christmas day. Next time I saw my kids my gifts had been forgotten, whilst the children were playing with the more expensive toys."
"Ah, I see you appear to have a very vindictive ex-wife. But remember my friend, as they get older your children will know that you loved them."
"Now, that's one thing they will never be able to do, mister. Last year, the bitch ... and that bleeding git, took the children away for the Christmas holidays. They went skiing over in France. But one night they all went out for a meal somewhere and that arsehole must have had himself a bleeding skin-full. On the way back to their hotel, the bastard put his bleeding Merc into a lake!
"Oh, he made sure that he and the whore got out of the car all right; but my kids were still strapped into their seats when the car was dragged out of that effing lake the following morning. That bastard killed my kids!
"So now you see now, why I don't like Christmas. It holds no joy for me, just bad memories!"
"My friend, I'm sorry you have had such an unfortunate couple of years, but you have to try to move on with your life. You really must try to forget the past and make a new life for yourself in the future. Just try to remember the good times you had with your children."
"Look to be honest there wasn't any good times. Once they had moved in with that arsehole, they got everything they ever wanted. If I'm being honest with myself I have to admit that my kids didn't really want to know me anymore. They were spoiled rotten. I only got to see them about once a bloody month anyway; they were just forgetting me."
This old boy was still smiling at me. I've got to say it, I really felt like telling him to f$%k-off and leave me alone. But there were so many people jammed into that pub that night, I doubt he could have moved away from me if he had wanted to.
"What you tell me is very upsetting to hear, my friend." he went on "But there must have been some good times before your wife left home. And now surely you have to accept that your old life is gone. Perhaps you should try to make a new one for yourself."
The old man and I sat in the bar talking until closing time. I was still pretty pissed with the world in general, but towards the end I had begun to warm to him a little. Most likely because he appeared so interested in me, and my life. Only I couldn't understand why he should be. I think he was truly concerned about me and he was trying to convince me to try to forget the past, and look to the future.
He left the emptying pub just before I did, and I watched him make his way -- somewhat unsteadily -- out the door. After he had gone, I finished my pint, said "Good night" to George and began making my own way home.
I don't know whether it's lucky or unlucky that I didn't have a car that night. It was lucky that I couldn't drive home in the inebriated condition I was in, because I might knocked someone down and killed them. But it was unlucky, because I couldn't drive into a tree or something and kill myself, which was what I really wanted to do.
But once I got outside the pub, I found the old man slumped against the wall. He had undoubtedly consumed far more alcohol than he could handle that evening.
"Damn," I thought, "I can't leave the old bugger there. If it turns any colder, he could freeze to bleeding death."
So I made my way over to the old bugger. "Come on, Pop, where do you live? I suppose I'm going to have to walk you home."
"That is kind of you, Graham. I am feeling a little unsteady on my feet. I should be alright after I've been in the fresh air for a little while."
It didn't strike me at the time. But the old boy suddenly appeared to know my name; I never have worked that one out. Perhaps he heard George say it?
We made off in the direction of his home. Which, much to my relief, wasn't too far out of my way. The old boy was leaning against me and chatting on about life. I must admit, I wasn't really listening so I can't recall a single word of what the old bugger said. I just wanted to get him home, then get back to my own bed.
We hadn't got a third of the way to the street he said he lived in when suddenly the old guy stood up straight, as if he wasn't drunk anymore.
"Fire!" he shouted.
A little confused, I looked in the direction he was pointing. Sure enough through the windows, blackened with smoke, of a nearby house I could just make out a Christmas tree in flames. Then with a god almighty bang the picture window exploded outwards. The next second the whole room was a roaring inferno and flames were licking up the front of the building.
"There's a woman and three children in that house!" The old boy exclaimed.
Suddenly I too, was as sober as a Judge! I pulled my mobile phone from my pocket and unlocking the keypad, passed it to the old man. "Call the fire brigade!" I instructed him, as I began running towards the house.
I could feel the heat of the flames roaring out of the nearby window as I approached the door, which much to my surprise gave way at my first charge.
They say that people do brave things because they don't think of the consequences of their actions. Well, I must tell you that -- as I threw myself at that front door -- I knew full well, that there was a bleeding good chance that I wasn't going to be seeing the morning. And in my heart, I don't believe I really cared.
Clouds of black smoke enveloped me as I staggered inside, only just retaining my balance. At this time of night, I figured that anyone inside the house, who was still going to be alive, would most likely be upstairs in the bedrooms. Most of these semi-detached houses are of a similar layout and I found the staircase easily. Taking the stairs two at a time I rushed up them, trying to shout fire at the same time, but the smoke choked me and I couldn't speak.
At the top of the stairs I found the door to the room directly over where the seat of the fire was, so I tried that one first. Inside the room I felt around, it was surprising how much smoke there was in there, until I discovered the inert forms of two small children lying in their beds. I swept them both into my arms and the next thing I remember I was coming out of the smoke at the front door. Some young guy was standing there and I literally threw the two young girls at him.
Having taken a few deep breaths of clean air to recover, I turned and went back into the smoke. By this time I could see that the flames were beginning to come through the door of the room where seat of the fire was. As I got to the top of the stairs heard a whooshing noise as the flames enveloped the door and the fire flashed over into the hall. Looking back down the stairs -- through the smoke -- my mind told me that I would not be going back out the same way I came in.
I went for the back bedroom this time. Inside I found a woman who had apparently been overcome by the smoke as well. I'm not a big guy and I can't tell you how I managed to pick her up so easily. One look out of the back window told me I wasn't going out that way. Flames were licking up from the window below. I realised that it must have been a through-lounge downstairs; strange how these thoughts come into your mind.
Back out on the landing, I made for the other front bedroom; kicking the door open, I was relieved to see flashing blue lights outside through the window. Dropping the woman onto the bed, incidentally on top of her son who was sleeping there, I grabbed a TV set from a bracket on the wall and threw it through the window, hoping that there was no one standing below. Then I kicked the rest of the glass out, as best I could.
I grabbed the boy first and leaning out of the broken window dropped him into the arms of a fireman who was by then waiting below. The woman soon followed in the same manner; she was in no condition to object.
Looking around I mote that the flames were by then in the room with me; so with out much further thought, I threw myself after her headfirst. Luckily the fire crew were expecting me.
I have to wonder if they are trained to have people suddenly drop in on them; they made a damn good job of catching all of us.
The firemen put one of they're breathing sets on me, to help me clear my lungs of the smoke. I sat on the pavement and slowly recovered whilst the firemen tackled blaze. Pretty bewildered that I was still alive, looking at the raging inferno I'd so recently escaped from.
I watched the ambulance crew working on the mother and boy. I didn't see the two girls, but there were several ambulances present by then, so they were probably in one further away.
My head was throbbing, I suppose because of the smoke -- as well as all the booze -- I'd consumed that evening. People kept coming up and congratulating me, telling me I was a hero.
Damn, I didn't want or need all that crap. But shortly the police came over and started moving all the onlookers further back, away from the fire. I took that as my chance to make myself scarce; and standing up, I quietly disappeared into the crowd that had gathered; sort-of mingling for a little while, before making a hasty retreat.
When I got home, I took a long shower to get rid of the smell of the smoke. I thought that I would have to get my clothes cleaned because they stank of smoke, but then I found some scorch marks on them and binned the lot. It was gone three in the morning by the time I finally crawled into bed.
The following morning -- Christmas Eve -- I crawled out of bed around ten, with one of the biggest hangovers I'd ever had in my life. I figure it was half the beer and half that bleeding smoke. Whatever, I was in the kitchen popping coffee and aspirin when confusingly I heard my mobile phone began ringing. Eventually I found the thing on my dining room table, and answered it.
"Hello, is that Graham Stark?" A female voice -- that I didn't recognise -- asked.
"Yes! What's your problem lady?"
I was back into miserable old bugger mode by then. I have to admit that that was how I used to speak to people then. It kind-of kept them away from me, and that was how I had grown to prefer things.
"Oh, Mr Stark. I just wanted to thank you for saving my children and me last night."
"Who is this?"
"I'm Sheila Monroe. It was my children and me that you pulled from the fire last night. I just wanted to thank you. We would have died if you hadn't saved us."
"I'm afraid I haven't got the faintest idea what you're talking about, madam!"
Denial, I thought, was the best way to stay out of the limelight.
"He said that you'd say that! But I know that it was you, who saved our lives by getting us out of the fire last night. So please don't try and deny it ... or possibly I'll have to tell the newspaper reporters who you are, and I believe, from what your friend has told me, you wouldn't want that. The press are going crazy trying to find you, you know.
"Okay, it was me, but there's no need for any thanks. I didn't think about it, I just did it. You really don't need to thank me," I told her, and then I began to wonder. "By the way, how did you know where to find me?"
"Oh, your friend, the nice old gentleman came in a little while ago. He said he was a friend of yours. He told me who you were and gave me your mobile number. Would you like to talk to him?"
"Yes, I would. I've got a lot to talk to him about. He went off with my mobile phone last..."
I stopped speaking. What the hell was I talking about? I was talking to Sheila Monroe on my bloody mobile phone. But last night I had given it to the old bugger to call the fire brigade with, and after I came out of that burning house, I'd not saw the old guy again. How the hell did I get my phone back? How the hell did he know my name?
"Oh, he seems to have gone. I can't see him around anywhere."
"I shouldn't let it worry you. I think he has a habit of disappearing," I found myself saying.
"Mr Stark, I know this is a bit of an imposition on Christmas Eve, but is there any chance you could call by the hospital today. I really would like the opportunity for my children and myself to meet and thank you properly in person. We will not tell anyone who you are, if that's what you wish."
Damn and blast, she was asking so nicely how the hell could I refuse. "If you insist. But really just knowing you're all safe and well is enough thanks for me."
What a bloody hypocrite I was! I didn't really care a damn about the woman or her kids. And I couldn't for the life of me figure-out why I had run into that burning house last night; unless it was in an unconscious effort to kill myself. But for some inexplicable reason I had found myself agreeing to go and see her a little later.
It was probably about one-thirty, when I located her at the hospital. Sheila Monroe was dressed in the strangest ensemble of clothes I'd ever seen. Well, thinking about it, I realised that I hadn't given them time to dress the night before, had I? Oddly Sheila Monroe knew who I was, the moment I walked into the room.
"Oh, Graham, how nice of you to come," she said, throwing her arms around my neck and then she began talking to me as if I was an old family friend.
There were two other people in the room; they promptly asked if I was her husband.
She told them, "No, Graham is just a special friend."
It was after the couple left us alone, that Sheila apologised for her behaviour. Explaining that the other people were reporters and she had thought they might wonder who I was.
I thanked her, for keeping the secret and then she took me in to meet her children. Becoming somewhat amazed, that they all appeared to instantly recognise me. I found all a little embarrassing and the meeting, whilst friendly -- and a little overwhelming for me, at first -- was a little strained.
Let's face it, I didn't know this family and I found their gratitude very humbling. I was distinctly uncomfortable as well because they reminded me some much of the children I had lost. Sheila's children were about the same age as mine had been. Well, maybe a little younger.
I really wanted to excuse myself as quickly as I could and leave; I know that I really shouldn't have gone there. But that goes no-way to explain what happened later that day and in the following weeks and months.
But the elder of the two girls – Miranda, I put her at about eight-years-old at the time -- latched onto my left hand and she was hanging on for grim death. Then the boy – Jacob, a year or so younger -- came over and took hold of my right arm and just never let go. The little one, Yvette, must have felt left out of things, but she solved that problem by climbing on my lap and locking her arms around my neck.
I really didn't know what to say to them. I could see a big bruise on Miranda's face and remembered the impact it had had with my shoulder as I picked her up the night before. But she never mentioned it.
I hadn't been with them very long when a lady from social services arrived. She asked Sheila if she had any relatives or friends that they could stay with, but Sheila replied that she had no relatives living in the country. The woman then told Sheila that she would arrange to book her and the children into a local 'bed and breakfast' accommodation.
I was aware the dump the woman told them they would be staying in, and I immediately felt sorry for them.
Look, I knew the place; it's a right bloody hellhole, full of asylum seekers and illegals' awaiting deportation. I still don't know why I said it, that sort of thing wasn't me back then. But I suddenly heard myself telling Sheila that she and her children could come and stay at my place for a while.
I had the room I know; but why I invited them to stay with me, I just don't know or understand to this day.
Then I was even more surprised to hear Sheila accepting my offer.
This was all very weird when you come to think about it. You might have gathered that it was completely out of character for me to have even offered, in the first place. Looking back now, it was pretty weird for Sheila to accept the offer of accommodation from someone who was really a complete stranger to her, as well.
The day got even weirder when all four of us piled into my car and I started to drive home. I suddenly realised that I had nothing for them to eat in the house; so we stopped off at a supermarket and between us did some shopping. Four trolley loads we finished up with; well, we were buying Christmas for five.
As we stood waiting at the checkout, I looked over my guests and realised that they had little in the way of clothes to wear either. So from the supermarket, we made our way to the clothing outlet next door, where we made an even bigger impression on my credit card; although Sheila assured me I would be reimbursed, which eventually I was.
When we got to my home, I showed them where to settle themselves. It was quite painful to see these children settling into my children's old bedrooms. I told Sheila she would have my bed and I would use the put-you-up in my study downstairs. That way she would be near the children and I would be on a different floor.
I kind-a had it figured, that no compromising situations – or misunderstandings -- could occur that way.
Come on, there are some really weird guys out there nowadays. Sheila didn't know me from Adam. And to be honest, I was watching my own back, as well.
To the children's obvious disappointment, my house wasn't decorated for the season, so I dug the artificial Christmas tree and the Christmas decoration box out of the attic. Then the children and I set about changing things with a vengeance. I did the usual and spent God knows how long getting the Christmas lights to work.
Why is it, when you last put them away those lights were working just fine. But when you get them out of the box again, you have to check nearly every light bulb before they will come on?
Sheila still had the problem of Christmas presents for the children. That I solved by digging out the presents I had brought for my children the year before, that they hadn't lived long enough to receive. I had put them away in a cupboard and tried to forget about them. It was a painful thing for me to do; but having done it, I was glad I did. Sheila's children were about the same age as mine would have been.
Christmas morning was an enjoyable time for me. The best Christmas day I'd had in many a year.
I had some really strange feelings watching Sheila's children open those presents. Look, I'm not going into that; it's far too painful.
Then later Sheila started cooking Christmas dinner, whilst I played with the children.
About twelve o'clock, we were surprised when some guy arrived from Sheila's insurance company. Jesus it was Christmas day. He was a loss adjuster and had come to tell her that she had nothing to worry about as far as the house was concerned. The company would organise the repair of the house and they would inform her when and where to choose her replacement furniture and carpeting.
"Christ, they're on the ball!" I commented to Sheila after the guy had left.
"You're not kidding! I hadn't even told them about the fire yet," she replied. "I wonder how they knew where to find me, as well?"
We didn't really solve that question. Later -- when we enquired -- the insurance company said they had received a phone call on Christmas Eve reporting the fire and making a claim on Sheila's behalf. The odd thing was their records said the call had been made during the morning; well before I had gone to the hospital to meet Sheila. And before I had invited her and her children to stay with me at my house.
That Christmas was a good one for me. Yes, I did kiss Sheila under the mistletoe, but it was a very respectful kiss, and we only did it because the children insisted.
Having children in the house again, soon came to my neighbours' attention. Well, the neighbours' children actually.
I looked out of the kitchen window on Boxing Day morning and noticed several of them in the garden playing with Sheila's children. Suddenly folks who had been avoiding my eye for the last few years were smiling and waving enthusiastically whenever they saw me. They also took to stopping me in the street for a chat.
I thought, we were just beginning to settle into our new living arrangements, when the New Years came along. At the stroke of midnight there was a bang on the door, half a dozen of the neighbours came in waving bottles of spirits and before anyone knew what was going on, an impromptu party had started up.
Before my wife had left me, this had been a regular New Year's occurrence. I think the neighbours had stayed away in the ensuing couple of years, as I had turned into a bit of a killjoy. But it certainly looked like they intended to make up for lost time.
I won't go into details, because I honestly don't remember very much about that night. That is until I realised that all the neighbours had gone home and Sheila and I, -- who had both drunk much more than we should have – were ... Yeah well, we were making-out on the sofa.
Nothing really heavy, I'm not sure where my mind had been or what I thought I was doing. But then I suddenly realised that I had my hands were they really shouldn't have been, and knew instantly that it wasn't the right thing to be doing.
Mind you most guys who found themselves in my situation, wouldn't have blamed me, I'm sure. Sheila was ... is a very good-looking woman, I think very few single men would want to kick her out of bed. If you get my drift?
But, hey ... I'm nothing special. So I had to wonder, just why would she be letting me do what I was doing. We'd met just a few days before and I didn't want her to sleep with me, just because she felt she was obliged to. Because she was grateful, that I had saved her and the children's lives, and given them somewhere to live. So coming to my senses, I rapidly brought the encounter to a halt.
Sheila appeared to be a little surprised that I had brought the encounter to a halt. Looking somewhat embarrassed, she went very quiet for a while. Before blurting out a quick "goodnight" and rapidly retreating up to her room.
We didn't discuss what had nearly happened that night again, and we never again got anywhere near being intimate with each other after that evening. Although over the following few months, I thought we became very close friends.
However it was a very strange situation we found ourselves in, with both of us going out of our way never to come into bodily contact with each other or invade each others. private space.
You know the idea, detours completely around the other side of the room, rather than squeezing past one another.
I became Uncle Ray to the children, because for some reason, little Yvette had had trouble-pronouncing Graham. The way Yvette said it, I sounded like Ray -- or something similar to it anyway -- and the other two children soon took up calling me Uncle Ray as well.
For simplicity and so as not to confuse the children, Sheila also started calling me Ray. Over the next few months the neighbours' children also began to refer to me as Uncle Ray. And before I knew where I was, Ray became my new name.
I spent a lot of my time with the children during those months. Look, when you've got children in the house, you just take them for granted; or rather I had with my own children. When they are suddenly not there anymore, you certainly do miss them and all the things you should have done with them.
Having Sheila's children in the house was like a second chance for me, although I think I did get melancholy a few nights, wondering whether I had been as good a father, as I could have been to my own children.
Over time I discovered that Sheila's husband had taken his own life. Apparently his business had gone bell-up on him and he just couldn't handle it. He'd had a nervous breakdown and turned into a depressive, before eventually committing suicide. I didn't learn this all at once, and not all of it from Sheila either. It was more that I had to work it out, from picking up bits and pieces here and there.
Work began on Sheila's house quite quickly, but we were told early on that it was going to take some considerable time. The heat had been so great that a lot of the structure of the house had been damaged, requiring an almost complete rebuild. Even the people in the other-half of the semi had to move out for a while whilst the party wall was rebuilt. All five of us would visit the house every week to see what progress had been made.