The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas — Part II

26 December 1968
Thursday

Received: Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

Returned to John’s apartment very late today. It’s Boxing Day, and I was in no hurry to return to that madman. When we finally did return John opened the door for us and looked extremely apologetic. He apologized for what happened, and looked very heartfelt. He even said he was sorry for dragging the both of us into this.

I was all ready to believe him until I began the walk back to my room. I opened the door to the next room by mistake, and what do I see? No less than twenty or thirty hens staring at me from the many cages stacked in the room, the floor of which was covered with newspapers and smelt faintly of ammonia.

For a moment I thought I’d descended into a private hell. Then I remembered the “three French hens” line. “JOHN! Please don’t tell me that I’m looking at (a bit of mental arithmetic) thirty French hens!”

“Arrived last night, while you were gone,” beamed an immensely satisfied John, “and don’t worry, they’re all in cages, so they won’t escape and run into your room in the middle of the night. By the way, can I ask you to bring in four more pear trees as well as eight more cuckoo birds in tomorrow?”

I wanted to slam his head against the wall and decry his inability to accept the complicated concept known as “common sense”, but I swallowed my anger and tried instead a last-ditch attempt to reason with him. “John, come on. You’ve already shown her enough of your love by sending her… two turtle doves and two partridges in two pear trees. What kind of a fool do you take her for? You’ve made your point, and you should leave it at that.”

John’s face darkened in record time. “No, this is only part two of a twelve-part gift. And anyway, she loved the gifts! She phoned me again this morning after I sent her the turtle doves. She said that they were really cute on the tree, and that she had some nice birdhouses for the turtle doves to live in.” Then before I could draw his attention to the long-term problems with this idea, he added, a little testily, “You know, I think you really shouldn’t lecture me on stuff you have no knowledge about. How’s Judy, by the way?”

I had no choice but to concede defeat. I cannot for the life of me imagine why she would accept them. Maybe she was polite. Maybe she was genuinely touched by this act. Love is one of the few things you cannot gain just by trying really hard, and Judy certainly hasn’t been of much guidance. But still. “You apologize for putting me through this and then ask me to relive my nightmares… such a bare-faced liar,” I told John.

I tried phoning Judy again, and this time she picked up. She was amused but not surprised that John had put together another of his crackpot schemes, and we discussed it for a good half-hour. She told me off for not using my OWN common sense before signing the contract, upon which I tried to defend myself. In the end I apologized again for my involvement in last week’s prank, but she just sighed and put down the phone. The room felt very quiet after that, and I walked off to find Graham, feeling sick once again.

27 December 1968
Friday

Received: Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

Didn’t sleep much. First it was the unsettling thought of sleeping five feet away from a bunch of 27 hens, then it was the unsettling noise of 27 hens clucking away like crazy, and then when I finally got to the Land of Nod I had unsettling dreams of 27 hens breaking free of their cages, charging into my room, and plucking away at my flesh.

Susie called John again, this time noticeably later. I picked up, before John had the ability to do so.

“Who is this?” A silky voice came through the receiver.

“Oh, I’m one of John’s friends, but I’m working a part-time job as slave and servant. Anything I can do for you, madam?”

She asked me to pass on a message. The mask of politeness has slipped a little following the arrival of the hens. Sure, you might be able to find a use for turtle doves and trees, but what use are hens? Apparently the hens are now having the run of her small attic, but her room is directly below the hens’ favourite roosting spot, so she’s not exactly excited about having hens above her head at night. My sentiments exactly.

Later in the morning I tried to get the cuckoo birds that John wanted, but it’s one thing to order four cuckoo birds, and another to attempt to get twelve all at once. The vendor looked at me as if I had gone off my rocker, and looked at me suspiciously, but eventually he acknowledged that I was not trying to rob him of his livelihood and I bought them with a warning not to come back. This time round I was more careful to keep the birds balanced, and I also decided that the welfare of the birds could not compare with mental scarring for life, so I stuffed them all into two cages and to hell with animal cruelty. However, they found another way to torture me by screaming out their indignation the entire way back and many a passer-by looked at me as if I was performing the greatest injustice on earth. It was probably my shouted apologies that ultimately proved too distressing for the passengers, and I was escorted off the train at Holborn. I had to walk down Shaftesbury Avenue looking absolutely ridiculous.

Which is more than can be said for Graham. Cruelty to animals was unfortunately not an option for Graham as he set out to capture a few more partridges. Although he’s been saved the trouble of actually looking for partridges — as it turns out, there’s plenty in the woods of Hampstead — he hasn’t been spared the trouble of actually catching them. Thanks to this, he spent the entire morning trying to catch four partridges and leaping after them, and he returned to Leicester Square, looking as if he’d been caught in the Battle of the Somme, just as I was hauling the final tree up the elevator. We looked at each other, I at his completely ruined trousers (again), and the same curses flashed between us unspoken.

We put the trees in my room, as the room with the hens was full after we put the cuckoos in as well. Then, not waiting for John (he was still composing his fourth love letter — and to put it bluntly, the rhetoric is terrible and gets worse with every progressing letter as he runs out of material), we went to Madame Tussauds up the street and saw a lot of celebrities, all smiling but totally dead and expressionless on the inside. A bit like John, really. We laughed at the Chamber of Horrors, and thought that nothing could possibly compare to that moment of hell when the two birds rained crap right down on our trousers.

John was humming something that sounded like the Carnival of the Animals when we got home, but he was butchering the tune and sending bits from “The Swan” back and forth. It was dreadful to hear and I’m glad he’s in chemistry.

28 December 1968
Saturday

Received: Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

By now Susie is beginning to be annoyed by the bunch of gifts that keep appearing at her door whenever she walks out to get her milk in the mornings. Graham and I learnt this from none other than Susie herself, who we happened to bump into while on my way back from a jeweller’s. We introduced ourselves to her, told her that we were out for fifteen gold rings (because tomorrow we have to somehow find six live geese), and her face lengthened considerably when she got word that John had no intention of stopping his campaign for another eight days. She knows full well that the gifts are well-meant, and she thanked us for all our efforts, but at the same time she told us that if John continued to send her gifts she would deal with them as she saw fit, including the culling of any unwelcome birds. Graham watched her as she swayed down the street. I saw him debilitate it for a few seconds.

“Hold my stuff…” muttered Graham. Before I could say anything, he was already off. I watched him catch up to Susie, and then I turned away. Judy had crept into my mind again.

The room next to mine is now practically a menagerie. In addition to the 24 hens that occupy it, we now have eight cuckoo birds in it, and due to our unhappy experience with the turtle doves John has simply ordered sixteen more from some godforsaken farm, and they have joined the chorus of birds next door. The bird excrement is practically on every imaginable surface in that room, and when I went in to get three hens for John last night, I almost suffocated to death from the overwhelming smell of bird poop and ammonia. I opened the windows, upon which I felt much better, but one of the partridges didn’t make it, so Graham’s going partridge catching again tomorrow.

But the noise! 44 birds is bad enough when you just think of the sheer size of it all, but when you couple it up with NOISE. The noises they make when they go around is just distressingly loud. And when I went to the toilet after listening to yet another deafening rendition of the Mustang’s throaty roars, I turned into the wrong room, switched on the lights, and all of a sudden there was this mad rush of wings and the birds were screaming their heads off. It’s not something you want to be greeted with at four in the morning, and it was a living nightmare for me.

Went to the Greenwich Observatory in the afternoon. Got to see the Prime Meridian for the first time in my life. East and west, both within a stride… I straddled the Meridian while Graham snapped my picture with a Polaroid. I know I tend to get mushy over these things, but it felt wonderful and strange when I did it.

Yes, we have had to engage in countless horrid activities, our London trip has been screwed up quite badly, and bird waste has landed on us, but there is a brighter side to life. I watched the line stretching before me, slicing the world in half, and imagined the whole world below my vantage point. The whole world blossomed before me, with its colourful collection of birds and people. And I thought: there are nice people in the world like Graham, and then there are nutters in the world like John. There are birds that make people happy, like the partridges at Susie’s place, and then there are birds that crap on your head and make you feel horrible. But it’s hard to separate them with a simple line delineating where they go: you can’t put the evil swine to one side, and the angels to another, cause that’s not the world. The mixing of good and bad, now THAT’s the world, with each complimenting the other. (That’s a very good line. I must get it published, it’s publishing gold.)

Come to think of it, where did we put the gold rings?

29 December 1968
Sunday

Received: Five gold rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

I discovered to my cost the rings in a cage of six cuckoos: they were trying to peck them to pieces but were not succeeding thanks to their small beaks. I managed to get them all out without losing too much flesh from my fingers and the cuckoos escaping. John is reaching fanatical status in his obsession to get the gifts in on time, but the problem is that all of the things he’s bringing out to her door are being turned away. I can’t blame Susie for putting her foot down. She now has five gold rings, eight cuckoos, nine hens, eight turtle doves and five partridges in pear trees. It’d be enough to drive anybody mad, and from what I hear she has given away most of the cuckoos and hens, slaughtered some of the turtle doves and sent two over to John’s with the words “here’s your Sunday roast”.

And those doves weren’t our only encounter with dead pheasants today. We set out to capture twelve geese as a start for the line that says “six geese a-laying”. Understanding that John was averse to the use of false or dead geese, we decided to get to Hampstead Heath to see if we could find some geese. However, Graham’s antics have gained some degree of notoriety with the Hampstead Constabulary, so we were unceremoniously ejected the moment a copper saw us. We then decided to deviate from the plan and take liberties with the song.

John was (again) beside himself when he saw the six geese from the butcher’s on the table. But before he could launch another rant into how we were disrespecting the spirit of gift-giving, we brought him round to see our side of argument.

“You see, John,” said Graham, while I stood by and offered my support by nodding every now and then, “the song says ‘six geese a-laying’. Well, laying can mean two different things: their laying of eggs, or their lying down on the floor. Now seeing as it is emphatically cruel to take away Mother Goose while she is trying to raise her children, Michael and I thought it would be much more sensible, and much more HUMANE, to go for the alternative. Now, dead geese cannot do anything but lie down, so this is a far better way to go. And I’m sorry, but if you still think that we should go for the alternative, then we shall call you a complete monster with no vestige of humanity left in you. You’ve already proved that point by asking us to be your errand boys, you miserable little bugger, and no girl in the known universe would love any creature that does not have a shred of humanity.”

John was still boiling, but he saw no way past this, and so he begrudgingly accepted the reality. He was still fuming as he loaded up his Mustang in the evening. Despite what we had told him about our conversation to Susie the previous day, he was adamant that she would finally appreciate the gifts when she saw how much effort he was putting into preparing them. It was complete chaos in that car, and the cacophony that came from the car was completely deafening. I was hoping that he’d get pulled over by a policeman, and preferably sent to a mental asylum, but life doesn’t really work that way, and at half-past three in the morning I woke once again to the sound of the Mustang on Charing Cross Road. Which was actually quite welcome. I had another nightmare in which the birds tore down the wall separating the Menagerie from my room and picking my skeleton clean of flesh.

30 December 1968
Monday

Received: Six geese a-laying
Five gold rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

Somewhere around the other side of the world the Apollo 8 astronauts are returning home to a hero’s welcome. I can’t understand why those Americans can need medals — we have it much worse than them. Graham and me set off to find fourteen swans a-swimming today. We might have been able to get round that trick with the geese, but there is no way to duck from the task of swan collecting. As we were not welcome on Hampstead Heath, we drove out to the South to see whether there were any swans in the parks which were not under the jurisdiction of the Hampstead Constabulary. Somewhere near Sevenoaks we encountered the wonderfully named Bitchet Green and decided to try our luck there. We made our way down to a riverside nearby and saw hundreds of swans there. So we thought, alright, let’s just nip down there and catch two at a time. With any luck we’ll be done by noon and we can go and catch two more partridges, have lunch and then visit St. Paul’s and also see if they have any job vacancies at Harrod’s. We need to get away.

Within two minutes of our carrying out this plan it had gone disastrously wrong, due to the swans not being of a peaceful type. I had observed swans at the zoo before, and I had come to the conclusion that they were peace-loving creatures with no sinister intentions on their mind. However, either I had been staring at a different species of swan during my trip to the zoo, or they were so evil that they could skilfully disguise their own behaviour. Either way, I learnt just how vicious they could be. As if heeding a secret signal of their own, the swans came charging at us with breakneck speed, shrieking something that sounded remarkably like the filthiest foul language I have ever heard, and began pecking at me and Graham. Unfortunately, these weren’t gentlemanly swans, and they knew quite where to strike. Graham was wailing at the top of his lungs, something I had never heard him do, and I was thrashing my limbs back and forth in a valiant attempt to keep them off me. It was Graham who finally lost all control and started pummelling willy-nilly, which stunned two or three swans. Okay, three down, only eleven more to go, I thought.

One might have expected the swans to relent after seeing their comrades-in-arms fall to the ground, like what happened in Animal Farm, but these were no ordinary swans. They simply regrouped and redoubled their attack. They began actively trying to tear off our flesh, and it was this that finally made me lose complete control. Within thirty seconds, countless more were lying on the earth. Graham was by then close to the brink of collapsing, but then he seized his chance, grabbed three of the swans and dashed back to the car John had lent us, and kept at it four or five more times until I broke free, rushed back to the Mustang, and we roared off back to London. I found a phone booth in Croydon and told John that he would have to catch the partridges and buy the geese and the remaining cuckoos himself, then slammed the phone down before he had a chance to reason why.

The final score may have been Swans 0 and Humans 16, but we looked as if we had been caught in a feast of cannibals (which we indeed had), and that’s a humongous price to pay. Miraculously, besides getting seriously pinched and a swollen bum after we were floored by swans, we were completely fine. Physically, that is — I don’t think I’ll be able to get this out of my mind for a long, long time.

John was jovially humming his distorted version of the Carnival of the Animals to his partridges-in-a-cage again when we got home. I went up to him, slapped him, told him to shut the (censored) up, and went to my bathroom to scream the living daylights out of me. I didn’t even hear the roar of the Mustang as it left and arrived. Good riddance to it.

Five days ago I would have thought that nothing could outperform the abomination of having a bird crap on me. Now I know that’s not true. And if my instincts are anything to go by (which they are), then we haven’t finished on the downhill course yet. We’re not even halfway there.

Can’t write anymore. Arms ache too much.

31 December 1968
Tuesday

Received: Seven (dratted) swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five gold rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree

New Year’s Eve. And out in search of maidens who know how to milk cows.

Susie is completely ignoring John right now. When she opened the door to find our hard-won presents sitting in the doorway, she simply called the Ministry of Agriculture and requested a removal service. As she put it dryly, “I can’t have an entire section of the zoological gardens blocking access to my house”.

She then phoned to the apartment, and surprisingly she was looking for Graham and not John. It just so happened that a photographer for the Daily Mail had been driving by and, upon hearing some high-pitched yelping, decided to investigate the matter. This girlish screaming turned out to be issuing from a man (I hastened to tell her that it was Graham), which the photographer for some reason found extremely amusing, and took a lot of pictures of what the papers called “The Epic Battle of Sevenoaks”. Needless to say, the papers added a lot of stuff we didn’t remember (“the swans tried to reach inside the two boys’ mouths, but they were beaten back by the screaming”), and I think we were perfect news fodder, because this embellished story is what made page four. Susie was immensely intrigued in our roles in the Sevenoaks incident, and kept on asking Graham for details. I’m beginning to think that John’s plan might not bode well for his own purposes.

But anyway, milk maidens. If finding swans were hard, then we got a taste of the downright impossible when we set off to find milk maidens today. Now, milking work is usually done by farmers, and not to be stereotypical or anything, but I think that these farmers are almost always buff men who grow beards and are somewhat advanced in age. One cannot easily find maidens who are willing to go through the arduous job of grabbing a cow’s udders and milking them, much less eight who are willing to bring their livelihood to town and get offered as a present.

But since His Royal Highness and Most High Excellency Generalissimo John has demanded eight maids a-milking, we had not much choice but to follow. Having had enough of the areas south of London, we decided to look to the North. After only three tries, we found a farm with a milk maiden in it, and after another nine, we found one whose milk maiden did not attempt an assault on us.

Which still brought us dire consequences. We were trying to convince the milk maiden of farm number 21 that we weren’t enticing her into prostitution when I felt a wetness down my trousers. I looked down thinking that I had wet myself, but it turned out no, I had merely exposed my trousers to the cow, who for some reason thought it the ideal place to deposit large quantities of his saliva. I spent the entire ride back to Leicester Square feeling extremely uncomfortable, especially when a breeze blew inside the car and on my still-very-wet trousers.

We brought back eight maids with their cows, ten more gold rings and two more pear trees just in time for dinner. John was very philosophical about the incident and said that “these things happen”. Graham punched him immediately and said, “These things also happen.” Then we went off to a pub near Westminster to have the countdown to 1969. And surprise, surprise — we bumped into Susie at one of the bars, and Graham and her tucked themselves into a corner and had a long talk.

I didn’t wait for the inevitable ending. Despite the roaring fires (both inside and outside the pub) I felt a little cold, and my mouth was really dry. I abandoned my pint of beer and told Graham I was going for a walk after they’d finished their first round of kissing. They were oblivious to my absence as I strode out the door.

I set off towards the Thames. I was in limbo — why was everybody having it better than I was? I knew that I could not hold it against Graham. He’s been through so much, he deserves a break. And yet my own failures with Judy still run through my mind. I could have done much more, but instead I’d sat by and let everything run aground with her. I stood on the banks and gazed into the water, hoping that some magical force would rise through the water and speak to me somehow.

The sound of Big Ben’s chimes rang through the night. Twelve chimes. And with every sounding of the bell, I tried to imagine that it was the death knell for all my troubles. Maybe she’d been right. Maybe I was just not letting things go as they were. I don’t know. Maybe time will tell. I listened to the water for a few moments before taking a deep breath and joining in the celebrations that were heading my way.

And with that, goodbye to 1968.

(Part III — the finale — comes Thursday! Stay tuned!)

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