The Twelve Nightmares of Christmas — Part III

1 January 1969
Wednesday

Received: Eight maids a-milking (cows)
Seven (hateful) 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

Managed to start the new year off without nightmares. This was entirely because I did not get a wink of sleep last night. The Menagerie is finally full to the brim even without the milk maidens, so John took the liberty of putting them in the garage, which is directly below my bed. And after a whole night listening to all the cooing, the clucking, the mooing and the gossiping from the milk maidens downstairs (they sleep early and wake early, so they were waking up and talking amongst themselves at the top of their voices by three in the morning). As a result, I am completely exhausted and I think I’ll go mad if I keep on listening to this never-ending chorus. I’ve told John many, many times that Susie isn’t interested in him, but he just won’t fricking listen.

I’m not the only one about to go mad thanks to John’s shenanigans. Susie awoke at five in the morning to a chorus of cows mooing outside her front door, and I’m pretty sure that nobody would enjoy being woken by a bunch of lowing cows. She phoned John today and made it quite clear that she was going to take legal action if he didn’t stop harassing her. Frankly, I don’t think John even noticed her strong language, he’s so infatuated with her that he was lost from the moment he heard her voice on the phone.

Nine ladies dancing today, and this was by far the easiest task we had to accomplish. We simply knocked at the door of the London Festival Ballet and asked them for nine of their corps de ballet, offering them a substantial wage for four days’ work (we figured that since Susie was going to return the gifts the moment she laid eyes on them, we might as well use them over and over again), then told them to appear at the house well-rested at eleven. Then we went off to catch some more swans, and this time before approaching the demonic swans of Bitchet Green, we decided that it would not be amiss to buy some large shields with which we could fend off the foul fowl. That said, we still received quite a few nips from the heinous birds, who apparently hadn’t forgotten us from two days ago (in fairness, we haven’t forgotten them either).

Judy rang today. She wished me a happy new year, and asked if I was “with John”. I said yes, and — after only pausing a fraction of a second — I broke down and told her everything — the wretched cow which wet my trousers, the damned geese that attacked me, and the general misery I was suffering that day. The great burden that was on my shoulders lessened a bit, but I could not help speaking in a monotonous voice.

I was jealous of her being happier than me. I was so jealous that I wanted to tell her about Graham and Susie, but John was in the room, and what good would it have done anyway? I just told her, in that flat, expressionless voice, “I miss you.”

There was a long silence. I closed my eyes, and prayed to the heavens that she wouldn’t slam down the receiver. Ten seconds. Twenty. Finally her voice came from the other side: “see you later?”

I don’t know how it is, but I felt a lot warmer after that. Or maybe it was just John’s ale from dinner (the man may be a bastard, but he does know how to treat guests). Thought for one blissful moment that he was releasing us from the contract, but this turned out to be one of my delusions, as it was literally just a word of thanks. Went back to my room and listened to the birds in the Menagerie, then collapsed onto my bed.

2 January 1969
Thursday

Received: Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking (cows)
Seven swans (from hell) 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

I was so tired that I even made it past the chattering of the milk maidens and the guttural screams of the Mustang (though as it was John who press-ganged recruited the milk maidens, I suspect them of being mute or deaf in the first place). However, I still wasn’t able to get rid of the dreams — and they’re getting worse. I can’t stop myself from having these nightmares of absolute carnage, where the milk maidens are milking gigantic swans that spatter me with their spit as they attempt to peck me and Graham in the most inconvenient places, and taking a dump right in our faces. The white globules eject themselves from goodness knows where and travel down, in absolute slow motion, and I feel the displacement of the air before I see it. It hits my face, and I wake sweating buckets in absolute terror. Plan to mention this to Graham, but the moment I see his glistening face and expression, I know not to.

We walked out to the nearby British Museum, partly to escape from all the noise, and partly to work out our next move.

“I suppose that the next step is to find ten lords who are willing and able to leap around? Can’t we just find some toys which can hop around or something?” said Graham as we stood dumbly watching all the Egyptian artefacts, and then barely suppressed a massive yawn.

“It gets worse,” I replied, “you know John, such a pedantic character. If only he had a slight bit of common sense. But with any luck, he’ll be asking us to bring back ten people from the House of Lords…”

“DAMN IT!” screamed Graham, and all the people in the Grecian Gallery glanced our way with a glare of disapproval. I led him out of the Gallery, apologizing to everyone along the way (“so sorry, he’s having a mental breakdown”), and we sat down in the Assyrian Gallery. Graham buried his face in his hands. “I’m sorry… I’m just tired.”

“I know how that feels,” I said, “but there’s no going back now.”

“Bugger the contract,” said Graham in an outburst, “you have no idea how many times I’ve wished that man dead since the beginning of the Winter Holidays. And for what? A girl that doesn’t like him? It’s completely his own fault that he’s not getting this fact at all.”

I sighed. He had a point, but I saw no way of getting out of this. “Let’s just finish the job and then get out of his control. Nowhere does the contract say we’re not allowed to leave after we’ve done his bidding.”

Graham agreed half-heartedly, and we got out in search of the lords. We agreed that actual Lords would be too hard to find, and since they were mostly old men past their prime, they wouldn’t be able to do much leaping anyway. We decided instead to ask ten young men in the street to do a bit of leaping, plying them with more handsome salaries (thankfully coming from John’s pocket, not ours), and invited them back to Leicester Square. Then we went off to buy the fifteen gold rings needed for the remaining three days.

Unfortunately this plan has not gone well at all. The problem this time lies mainly with the men we invited, and not John (although he did blow a gasket, we’re used to such temper tantrums by now). We haven’t quite carefully considered the consequences of placing ten lords and nine ladies in the same room, and the men, it seems, have been making lecherous and unwelcome advances on the ballet dancers all night long. Even when the advances are welcome they cause a great deal of inconvenience — when Graham went downstairs to the room where the two parties stayed, he nearly fainted when he opened the door and saw what was going on behind the three pear trees we bought this afternoon. At least John, whose room is directly above this one, has some inkling of the distress he’s causing me every night.

3 January 1969
Friday

Received: Ten (so-called) lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking (cows)
Seven (accursed) 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

The arrival of the weekend has brought me and Graham fresh hope, as it means that we can actually leave John once and for all. The poultry in the Menagerie are down to manageable levels, the room no longer stinks of ammonia, and even the leaping lords agreed that they would not initiate any more naughty activities. I know it’s pretty dangerous to say this prematurely, but I think we can actually do this.

There are only pipers and drummers to look out for today, and we have indeed been able recycle the ladies and the “lords” under John’s nose without him noticing. Susie is so tired of his actions that she’s already referred him to her lawyers, who have threatened to place a restraining order on him lest he continue his horseplay. He’s beginning to second-guess himself, thank God, but somewhere along the way the process must have short circuited because he decided that she was just teasing. The ignorance of that man will be remembered by generations to come.

With all the bagpipers hanging around in London, it was very easy to find eleven of them willing to work for two consecutive nights. As it turns out, the Battle of Bitchet Green has made us the talk of London Town, and it is abuzz with rumours as to what foolishness we’re engaging in, and with that even more rumours that we were offering considerable salaries for pipers and drummers. Most of the time we only had to walk up to a bagpiper on the street for him to say “yes, for how much?” Lucky we learnt some sales technique at Hastings and Shelby, so we beat them all down to reasonable prices. Truth be told, Graham and I find this quite annoying. We want this part of our lives over and done with as soon as possible, we don’t want it immortalized in newspaper clippings to be jeered at for the remainder of our lives.

Talking of which. Just as I was finishing that last sentence John decided that it would be a great idea to compose a melody for Susie so that he would be remembered for one more thing, in addition to his well-established foolishness, sadism and grievous bodily harm. A great chorus of bagpipes resounded throughout the house and spilt out onto Charing Cross Road, and within thirty seconds all the neighbours were crowded around our door, screeching their discontent at being woken at midnight by eleven bagpipe players. John tried to send us out to do the explaining, but we had escaped out the back staircase in record time and left him to do all the work. Ah, revenge is sweet.

John’s solution, on the other hand, was to simply move them all over to Trafalgar Square tube (John’s other aunt happens to be a high-ranking member of London Transport), and I was charged with the task of herding them all there. After that, John insisted that we stay behind to listen to his “aria of love”, as he called it. As a result, we spent half the night in a tube station, nodding off whenever we could while listening to countless renditions of John’s composition, the ghastliness of which was encapsulated by one of the bagpipers’ comments as we walked down Charing Cross Road: “Your friend, he’s got absolutely no artistic merit, hasn’t he?”

I hastened to disagree. “You should’ve left out ‘artistic’.”

4 January 1969
Saturday

Received: Eleven pipers piping
Ten (so-called) lords a-leaping
Nine ladies dancing
Eight maids a-milking (cows)
Seven (wretched) 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

Finally, our last day of scavenging. Drummers are slightly harder to find than pipers, because no one really brings a large drum with them to go shopping. No biggy, however, because thanks to the large number of bands scattered round London, we only had to ring up some music shops and ask if there were any bands they knew about that could spare their drummers. We got offered large and copious amounts of cocaine and other types of narcotics, which we politely declined.

Anyway, we managed to find twelve drummers without getting high, then we walked back to the apartment and spent our time loading up John’s Mustang in advance. As we moved the different types of birds out of the Menagerie, leaving behind only the last seven swans in their very large tank (we decided to let John deal with it because for some reason the swans become very cuddly around him), and cleaned up a room that had seen better days before it was wrecked by countless birds, Graham and I reminisced about happier times, before any of this happened, before John became an absolute monstrosity. Before any of this, there was only John, Graham and me, three happy schoolboys, and our girlfriends.

Every day, for the past two weeks, I have lay down on my bed, and wondered: what went wrong? Before the pigswill incident, everything seemed to be going so smoothly. Then we listened to John, got embroiled in his pigswill plan, and then our girlfriends left us. After that, we got entangled in this Twelve Days of Christmas plot, and then we grew distant from one another. Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and Graham’s managed to find a potential girlfriend along the way, but John… well, I really don’t want to pin the blame on him, but I feel that his inability to realize that his recklessness in planning, his obstinacy in carrying out his stupid plans to the full, is the reason why it’s not working out. The more we try to pull him back to Earth, the more he wants the Moon. Both Graham and I don’t want to sever ties with him, but if he goes on like this we’ll do it.

Speaking of which, the news is not good for John. Susie’s lawyers have decided to sue him for harassment, and will be producing a restraining order as a sort of reciprocation for his last batch of gifts. We (or more accurately, Graham) phoned Susie from a phone booth again today, apologizing profusely for the gifts on behalf of John and our behaviour, but she laughed and said it was nothing. There was something in her voice that I couldn’t place, as if she was hiding something, so I put this to her.

“Oh, you’ll see tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be coming over by the house to personally tell him I don’t want him. And pack your stuff, because we’ll also be orchestrating a ‘Great Escape’.” We replied that we were only too happy to oblige, though we did wonder why she had to be so secretive. Is she going to turn up with the police? Trash the interior? Throw tomatoes and eggs at him (which he completely deserves and more)? I left the phone booth, leaving Graham and Susie to throw their flirtatious remarks at each other. Goodness, they’re progressing quickly. Next I know, I’ll probably discover them in the same position as the “lords” and the ballet dancers.

At two o’clock in the morning the Menagerie was finally vacated. For once, I thought, I can enjoy the luxury of uninterrupted sleep. Then the Mustang fired up half an hour later, just as I was descending into the blessed regions of Dreamland, and I woke up cursing this one last trick of fate, and wondering why fate played them on me, and had to hound me to the grave with them.

5 January 1969
Sunday

Returned: 12 drummers drumming
11 pipers piping
10 (so-called) lords a-leaping
9 ladies dancing
40 maids a-milking (cows)
42 Abominable Swans a-swimming
42 geese a-laying
40 gold rings
36 calling birds
30 French hens
22 turtle doves
And 12 partridges in 12 pear trees

We woke up early to pack. I went inside what used to be the Menagerie and peeled back the filthy newspaper that has covered the floor since the hens moved in. The newspapers peeled back so easily, I had to be careful not to tug too hard while removing it or the bird crap would have flown onto my face and realized my visceral nightmares — and with my torture about to end any second, I wasn’t going to start a new one any time soon.

I was pleasantly surprised to find how relatively clean the floorboards were. Besides a little dampness, they were completely spotless. It’s amazing how something you thought would be hugely impactful on your life can disappear in an instant. I simply scrunched up the newspaper, threw it in the trashcan, and that was that. The last vestiges of the Twelve Days Plan, as Graham and I now call it, are completely gone. I had thought that this episode would have been hard to get out of my mind, that it would have stuck in my brain on a permanent basis. But the memories of events that happened just two weeks ago are already fading, and I can’t even remember the surge of nausea that enveloped me as Susie’s lips met Graham’s. The negotiations with the Ministry of Agriculture are just a memory, and even the late-night bagpiping in the Tube, just two nights ago, has almost escaped from my mind. All I have now are only vague memories that drain away the more I think about them. Did this Christmas really happen to us? Or was it all a dream? Any time now I might wake up and discover that it’s still 1968, that Susie doesn’t exist, that we stayed the Christmas in Brighton…

We’re sitting on the banks of the Serpentine as I’m writing this. The sun is setting slowly, and the sky is golden. It only adds to the dreamlike effect. I can’t believe that less than an hour ago, we were still prisoners of a contract we shouldn’t have signed in the first place. But then Susie and her lawyer arrived, and by some devilish trick that only lawyers would know he released us from it in a jiffy.

While John was still looking, Susie kissed Graham, and I have never been happier to see a man’s world go up in flames. A scream, louder than any wild animal on Earth (except possibly the Mustang) burst from John’s throat, as he realised for the first time that not only had his plan failed, it had backfired in the worst way imaginable. He went into this frenzy of denial, denying what was right in front of his eyes, calling upon me as he had never done before: “Michael, Michael, please, please tell me that I’m not seeing this, that she still loves me…”

“I’m sorry, John,” I told him, “but this is what is happening. It’s the truth, for God’s sake. And for once, you nincompoop, GET UP AND FACE THE MUSIC.”

I have to admit, it felt absolutely liberating to tell that to his face. I know he’s a former friend and all, but after twelve, long hard days of torment, I really couldn’t care less.

As we drove off, I could still his cries, still on a crescendo, still trying to get Susie to return, and I imagined what the papers would read tomorrow. “Selfish Bastard Found Snivelling On the Floor of His Living Room” could go for the Guardian. “The Ultimate Revenge!!!!” might work for the Daily Mail. “Mass Disappearance of Pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Police Investigate Noise Pollution in Charing Cross.” The ideas I had were endless, but when everything had subsided and we were driving down Park Lane, there was only this one thought that entered my mind as I rolled down the window slightly, and a slight breeze blew in my face.

I went to the nearest phone booth while Susie and Graham were parking (and God knows what else), and I phoned Judy.

“Hello, Judy?” I said gingerly into the phone.

“Oh, hello Michael. You got out?”

“Yeah… you could say so. Thank God it’s over. Listen, I… I’ve got a lot I want to say to you… can I come over tonight or something? We… we really need to talk.”

She hesitated for a long time. “Okay.”

When I rejoined the happy couple, they were still kissing.

“What are you grinning about?” asked Susie.

“Oh, er… nothing. You got the sandwiches?” I asked. There were lots to look forward to, but I didn’t want to dwell on them. Not just yet.

“Oh sure… by the way, what about the animals in John’s apartment? Don’t tell me they’re in the sandwiches…”

“Don’t you worry, the Ministry removed most of the birds this morning. I’ve sent most of the doves to someplace in New York, I hear they’re having a concert there sometime in August.”

“You two could go. Have a date. I have a friend in New York…” But they were too busy flirting and kissing again, so instead I just took a picture of them. “MICHAEL!”

As I look out on the setting sun, a strange feeling comes over me, and suddenly I wish that somehow this day will not end. Maybe it’s because I’m so addicted to the feeling of euphoria, something that is unfamiliar to me, but I don’t want it to disappear into the mists of eternity, even though it eventually must. I just look at the quietly kissing Graham and Susie, smile, take another Polaroid of them, and hope that this futile effort can, at least in some way, keep this moment locked in my mind forever.

I hope things turn out all right at this concert festival. Woodstock is a place I’ve never even heard of, but it should be all right. Sounds like a bird free place.

Explanatory Stuff and Acknowledgements

When I first wrote this during Christmas 2015, there was really only one reason behind it: I got so bored halfway through my University Chinese exams that I needed SOMETHING to relieve the tedium, and I’d been reading so much of a short story during my first term that I went a bit nuts and decided to write one myself. Having written six more in the proceeding two years, I find myself a little more improved, but still the same child inside, seeking to amuse people with my weird short stories.

But then this was my first short story, and there are things to be improved on, so I know that the details of Christmas 1968 aren’t all that correct and that Woodstock didn’t start planning until April 1969, but I needed this story to end on a hilarious note, so I just made up the end and hoped that you guys wouldn’t notice. (If you haven’t then please ignore what I’ve just said. I have not made any mistakes. None at all.)

Right, credits. First of all, I of course have to restate that this whole idea is not entirely original: the idea of sending Christmas presents according to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is, as stated in the beginning, a very clichéd tale and has been retold countless times, but the most direct inspiration for this one comes from the 1977 radio play “And Yet Another Partridge In A Pear Tree” by British author Brian Sibley, so I need to thank him for his wonderful play and all the other authors who have written something of the kind. This is not my best story (in fact it’s currently dead last in my collection of six) but I hope it’s good enough for those of you who have bothered to read it.

Which brings me to my second acknowledgement: I know that it’s very bad of me to say it so many times, but I really must thank everyone who has bothered to read it through, both on this story’s first publishing and on its subsequent reissue on Facebook. Your words of encouragement and polite criticisms (I know what you mean when you say I’m very “wordy”) are of immense help to me, and I really cannot go forward without all your kind words. This includes my family, who have never said a bad word about my writing (more or less) and my friends at school (both secondary and tertiary). I hope my rain-floating story doesn’t disappoint. (COMING DECEMBER 29…)

Merry Christmas to you all, and to all a good night. (And sleep well. Just be thankful that there isn’t a whole zoo next door.)

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