Christmas at the Cross, a short story by Maeve Murphy
12 Stories of Christmas, day 2: an abusive relationship comes to a head on Christmas Eve
Christmas dinner for the homeless in London. Photograph: Keystone-France/ Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
I posted the letter into the red letterbox.
There was a dusked, bloodshot, shellshocked sky hanging over the St Pancras sky line. The street was empty, an ominous silence. Then came the sound of dogs barking, viciously spilling out onto the street. A Japanese man walked out of the courtyard opposite. I walked back, up the stairwell and into my flat.
Okay it was the pits. There’s no point denying it. I mean I could say it was some kind of lifestyle choice, some kind of protest. But I was lost, totally lost, that was the truth of it. Dazed, concussed, staggering like a three-legged dog trying to find its way, blinded by a dazzling razor of winter sunlight, deafened by the bleating of car horns.
I was 23, alone, adrift, and living in the shite hole of Kings Cross. A spit, a wink and a toss away from the scag heads and prossies. A free falling woman. Oh yes sexual desire had brought my downfall. Fate had knocked me. Not quite unconscious but I was spaced out, floating in cotton wool. My life set on a timer, ticking away, finally had blown up. Trapped in the debris, I couldn’t get out. If I went “home” I would end up doing what my parents wanted. I wanted to play music and be a musician. But since meeting Kieran I had stopped even doing that.
I was consumed by Kieran.
I’d been deluding myself that my increasing decreasing situation was interesting, life on the margins. And now as I sat in my shitty, sleazy flat, on the torn, ripped sofa with bits of yellow foam bleeding out, I was in shock. Something terrible had happened and I had posted a letter. I had referenced the attack to the attacker. But what would happen now?
My neck still hurt. It was the run-up to Christmas and I hadn’t posted my cards yet.
Last night I had gone to bed and left Kieran next door in the sitting room of his new flat in Liverpool. I felt a bit heady because of the joint we had smoked. He’d had coke too. I fell asleep quickly. Then a couple of hours later I was woken by Kieran pouncing on me, waking me, throttling me. I remember the shock. A feeling of raw fear spreading rapidly. Inner panic.
“No,” I said, trying to stay calm. He was in a dream and would wake up.
“Yes,” he said.
It was that “yes” that was terrifying. It was cool, deliberate and conscious. His quiet Liverpool accent sounded threatening for the first time. I tried to push him off but he was a big man. It was impossible. Unstoppable.
“Stop it, please, you’re hurting me!” I couldn’t breathe. The air was getting darker. My head was getting lighter. He let go.
I walked into the toilet, shaking. Was it because in the pub, I persuaded him not to get involved in a fight? Kieran had a glass in his hand, ready to smash it. I told him the police would be called. Had I made him, the tough guy, run away from a fight? Was he in rage over that? Adrenalised from that? My fault then. I’d stopped him. Was that why?
In the loo I heard the sound of the front door being locked. My head whirled. I could stay in there but I thought I would attempt normality, so I went back in to the bedroom and he instructed me to give him a blow job. Terrified, I complied.
I must have then slept. He must have been there. All I remember is this morning waking up and feeling very calm, almost at peace, kind of floating. He was lying beside me, but I had my back to him. I remember feeling this very tender kiss on my back. I didn’t respond, just lay there, not wanting to speak. Kieran got up and made me breakfast, something he had never done before. A fry of sausages and bacon and eggs.
In my cotton wool world I had breakfast with him. Then he walked me to the train station. The last thing he said it me yesterday was, “It’ll harden you.”
It was absolutely chilling. A full admission. No remorse. Yes, he was saying, he’d ground my face in the mud, stamped on it and somehow that was a good thing. He was the boss.
Only three months before I had been living in a beauty of a flat in Camden town. Spacious, with wooden beam floors and white walls. Camden has a wonderful way of tying everything together with a bonhomie boho bow. I was having a good time, being young, not thinking about much else. I was so caught up with Kieran and his showbiz friends. It was exciting, like being around them made me really successful as well. Sex and coke and late night Soho.
I didn’t notice that my flat mate had missed her last three rent cheques. I couldn’t afford to pay her rent as well or the deposit for another flat. Rory, a guy I vaguely knew from a late-night Greek restaurant in Chalk Farm, was going travelling for a year. As long as the housing association didn’t find out, I could stay in his flat, up four flights of stairs in a condemned redbrick Victorian East End dwelling called Mid Hope House.
Having now posted the letter and back inside, I sat in fog-filled shock, chain smoking on the ripped sofa and staring into space. I shouldn’t have sent it. I felt like the walls were slanting, narrowing, tilting across, closing in on me.
The phone rang. I jumped. A college friend, Ava. I tried to tell her what had happened. She said something about weird things can happen in relationships. Really? I finished the call. Ava had a new job, was getting married, she was busy. Too busy.
I still hadn’t cried.
I got up. Night had fallen. I don’t know how many hours had passed. The Italians were whistling their drug-selling code to each other outside. I never quite worked it out: if it was to warn each other if cops were about, or whether it was to let them know of some more stuff. They had their mad wee rituals anyway – people nodding to other people and then some runner stuffing the gear somewhere for the pick-up. The black guys did the crack, they kind of opted for the deft hand to mouth, or hand to anus technique. To be honest when I first moved in, I always thought those guys, with their hooded tops, standing in packs near York Way, looked like they were acting the hard men in some New York film. But that rose-tinted thought quickly evaporated when I saw some beat the shit out of a guy in an alley. They weren’t acting, they were just really f**king mean.
I got up and looked out the window.
Opposite down below, just outside the entrance of the other housing association come squat was a very tall, thin Asian woman, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, half lit by a street lamp. I stared. There we were… I sat back down on the sofa.
There was a knock on the door. My heart rate turned up a notch. Through the weird fish eye lens I saw it was the prostitute that had been on the street, under the street lamp. I opened the door a tiny bit.
“What is it?” She had such an intense presence, penetrating, staring eyes. Nothing about her was trying to please, but there was a kind of tenderness about her. She had black bags under her eyes, stood thin in her lycra black mini dress. She was beautiful, her features were delicate but her skin was rough. London Asian, that was unusual for a prostitute.
“Can you spare a couple of quid?”
So here I was Lady Muck, literally. But it made me feel good to feel kind of superior in my compassion. I felt for her. I wasn’t her. I went into the sitting room and took out a few quid that I didn’t have and handed them to her. She looked at me. Her brown eyes had a depth. The weird thing about Kings Cross is that the people who lived there never made eye contact with the prostitutes and they never made eye contact with us.
“All I have,” I replied.
I was different from her. I was not in her dreadful situation.
”Cheers.” She replied in a lazy London drawl. Was I different from her?
I watched her shuffling out of the stairwell and down the road, passing a guy walking his bike in. Yesterday I was. Today I wasn’t so sure.
The guy looked up and saw me with my face up against the window. I quickly moved away.
The next day I woke up hungry, tired, still scared. My dole cheque had not arrived, no money, other than shrapnel. Enough maybe for some fags and some Marathons which were cheap and filling. All I could think about was food. I rubbed my legs with my hands, because they felt so cold. A woman was going hysterical, screaming outside and someone screamed at her to shut up. I lifted the bit of cloth over the window and peeked out. It was that girl who had knocked on my door.
Poverty I tell you is the most soul-destroying thing. You spend your whole time thinking about what you can’t have, and seeing as basically as money and beauty are the only two things most people seem to value, then you are the lowest of the low if you don’t have either, an invisible. I would say both a skewed romantic-type socialism and maybe some eastern mystics got it terribly wrong. There is nothing praiseworthy in poverty. It tightens your life to a point of rigidity and decisions are made from that cramped tense state of mind and often not wise ones. The police had by now arrived and finished talking to that girl and let her go. Her pimp or whoever the track suit guy was stayed on talking to the police. I lowered the cloth on the window and got dressed.
I managed to speak to my sister on the phone.
“...why don’t you talk to a priest?”
That was kind of a weird thought. I wasn’t sure about that.
I went out. I walked to the grey stone church at the bottom of Cromer Street. I was always trying to be a good person. I felt permanently at fault and always the one to blame. In Lady Muck mode I felt I should do my bit to help the poor down and outs of Kings Cross. I also had like a pain in my stomach which I ignored.
I walked down the stone steps and through the iron gates of the basement of the church which lead to the kitchen. I entered the main room. I looked at the mostly old men, battered by life. Fallen through the cracks. A lot of them were Irish, sitting around the tables, having charity soup and a sandwich. I felt their silent shame. I looked at the red tinsel Christmas decorations hanging on the wall. There was a small wooden Nativity scene on the side. The figures of Mary and Joseph in the stable with the little baby Jesus in the crib with bits of artificial straw. Beside them were the Magi, the figures of the three wise kings bearing gifts. And some wooden sheep. I wasn’t going home for Christmas, neither was anyone here.
I went up to the counter which was a few enamel tables put together.
“Do you need any volunteers, to help serve food? Over Christmas?”
The guy at the counter glanced at me. He held out the plate of sandwiches.
”Would you like some soup with it?”
“I was offering to help,” I said mortified. I also recognised him as the guy walking his bike from last night.
He kind of smiled and looked vaguely apologetic but continued to offer me the sandwich and soup. With burning cheeks, I turned on my heel and left the building.
As I crossed the road, a tramp on his way in to get some food spontaneously hugged me. There I was in the middle of Kings Cross, being hugged by a tramp and at it made me strangely happy. Maybe I was like St Francis of Assisi.
I carried on walking and went “home”. I sat on the pathetic ripped brown corduroy sofa with bits of yellow sponge coming out. I had planned to cover the sofa with a table cloth. But I sat instead staring at the window, not enough energy. I could sort this out myself. I just needed some session work. Or write some songs to sell.
I chain smoked about 10 cigarettes in half an hour. I counted all my small change, 10 pence, five pence and copper, enough for another box of 10.
I walked down the several flights of stairs, bought my fags in the Asian supermarket on Cromer and was heading back when I walked straight into the guy who had offered me the soup and a sandwich. I tried to pretend I didn’t see him.
“I offer everyone who comes in a free sandwich!”
I turned and laughed. No point being uppity. I noticed the warmth of his brown eyes. They were lovely. There was a sparkle of wit in them. I liked his husky London accent.
“Do you work at the church every day?”
“Do you live round here?”
“Yeah I’m flat minding for someone… I’m on Midhope.”
“I live there too.”
My jaw nearly dropped.
“Yes. On the ground floor. “
I was amazed. Someone like him lived so near.
“I’m on the fifth floor,” I said.
We both laughed.
“I’m just going back there.”
“Me too. What’s your name?” We walked together.
“Blathnaid,” I replied. “Bla, like blah blah and nid, like lid.”
“Lovely…what does it mean?”
We both laughed. I don’t know why it was funny. It just kind of was. Maybe it was a funny place to be a little flower.
“Did you know two people were found dead of an overdose a couple of days ago in Tankerton?”
That was the next building over. I shook my head.
“Did you hear?” I said, doing a Belfast accent in a gossipy way.
“No, I didn’t know that, not my thing: heroin.”
We carried on walking. I had this strange urge to hold his hand. He asked me what I was up to. I told him I was a musician but I was thinking of writing a play. A musical. About Hiroshima. He glanced at me, to see if I was serious, and judging that I was suggested I talk to Yoichi who lived in the second courtyard across. His mother had survived the Hiroshima attack as a young woman.
He laughed. I asked him what he did, when he wasn’t doing the homeless food thing. He told me that he took photographs and that occasionally they showed in national newspapers, but he was finding it hard to earn a living. I nodded. Like me.
David felt like a log in the middle of a crazy sea. And he was reminding that there was dry land, a shore…
David and I reached the place where we lived. He headed towards his flat.
“I’ll drop Yoichi’s phone number through your door.”
I nodded. Even in my dazed state I clocked that gorgeous smile that broke David’s serious face wide open. It was nice to know he was close. I plodded back up the stairs. I became aware again of this pain in my stomach. I ignored it.
I got in and lay in the bath. Unable to move. Motionless.
A knock on the door. It was dark now.
“Blathnaid, are you in there?” Kieran’s voice.
I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. The knock continued.
I tried not to move, but I was still shaking. I held my breath.
“I got your letter this morning. Came down on the train…open up, love.”
For a split second I wanted to open the door. The way he said “love” was tender. Loving even. Familiar. Maybe this could all be okay. I didn’t open the door. I lay in the bath trembling. Finally I heard his steps as he moved away and walked down the stairwell. I heard him stop and then continue.
I got up out of the bath and wrapped a towel around me. I went to the window. I could see him walking away down the street. Relief.
The phone rang. I picked it up.
There was a pause. And then the line went dead. I knew it was Kieran.
I would go to the police tomorrow. Now I would go to bed, not think about it. I didn’t care if that was not what Northern Irish Catholics do. I just didn’t care.
I then took a heavy wooden chair and placed it on top of another chair against the door. That didn’t feel enough, so I took the really nice wicker basket which had all my shoes and placed it on top of the chairs against the door.
The phone rang again. The phone kept ringing. I didn’t touch it.
Then it stopped. There was silence. Beautiful silence.
I could finally sink into the silence and sleep.
I woke up the next day and my dole cheque had arrived. I felt such joy. I had control back in my life. I walked down the post office just opposite Kings Cross station and cashed it, posted my Christmas cards and bought some chocolate hobnobs as a kind of treat.
A horrible energy clung to me as I headed home, crossing the road I walked back down the narrow back streets to Hillview, into a courtyard near mine and up the stairs and along a balcony. I knocked on a freshly painted door. A Japanese guy opened it. David had slipped his mate’s Yoichi’s number underneath my door. He looked younger than I thought he would be, early forties, shiny, kind of joyful, very clear eyes. I walked in and saw a modest flat, in good nick, sparsely but nicely decorated. Carpet on the floor, a TV and a big brown wooden box or casket with brass knob handles on a small table. I was intrigued by the wooden box, my eyes drawn to it. It felt religious. I wondered if I was taking my sister’s advice after all and going to see a priest.
Yoichi asked me if I would like a cup of tea or coffee. I asked if he had a green tea, he said he only had PG Tips. I explained I was interested in doing a play about Hiroshima. He asked why? I said I was very interested in survivors’ stories. It might be musical as I was a musician, so kind of like Noh theatre. I said it would probably need Japanese actors and musicians; it wouldn’t be like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Yoichi laughed. He thought this was hilarious.
He told me about his mum’s experience, about how the Hiroshima bomb had happened in an instant. Everyone was just going about their ordinary lives with no expectation of it. How there was a flash of light. About how his mum said there were dead people lying everywhere. And how everything was covered in black ash. People were lying side by side inside public buildings. He said there were maggots coming out of the living who were not yet dead and they were in great pain. As soon as the maggots appeared people knew they were probably going to die. His mother did suffer radiation sickness, was in hospital, very weak and she kept fainting. He said many people had killed themselves and his mum said she was tempted but she thought about her family.
“Yes,” I said, jotting down a few notes into a notepad. I could hear a tune in my head.
“Does your mum feel bitter about her experience, her karma? Her like punishment.”
“You believe people terrible ‘sinner’ who deserves punishment?”
I didn’t know how to reply.
“I believe in the law of cause and effect. That’s karma. So for example if you don’t respect your life. And you keep making those causes to not respect your life, then your life will not be respected.”
This was intellectually interesting, way better than a priest. Yoichi was looking at my neck. I hid my neck with my hand. I knew there were bruises. I had seen them.
“So it is people’s fault what happens to them?”
He picked up one of my chocolate hobnobs and took a bite.
“People who hurt someone else are accountable for their actions.”
“How does your mum feel about the pilot who dropped that bomb? “
“She’s not attached to him. My mum knows her karma is her karma and the bomber’s karma is his karma. She has to deal with her karma and he has to deal with his karma. If he wishes. Separate.”
I found this fascinating.
“My mother now make her karma her mission.”
I felt woozy.
“Mission?” That word made me think of the missions in Africa, the black babies etc.
“So she doesn’t want to just kill him?”
“No. She work for peace.”
I switched off. “Your mum’s a saint… not everyone can be as good as that.”
Yoichi chuckled. I got up and glanced at the wooden box. He watched me.
“I’m a Catholic,” I said.
“Better speak to a priest then.” His clear almond eyes were dancing, teasing me.
“Maybe I will.”
“Drop the self-pity,” he said staring at me.
I wanted at that moment to smash his happy, shiny face. What a bastard! At least a Catholic priest would hear your sins and give you absolution. I didn’t want to hear his heartless eastern claptrap any more. I sprung to my feet.
“Well, Yoichi, I better go. Better conversation than you normally get in confession, that’s all I can say.”
”Three Our Father and Two Hail Mary!” he replied.
As I walked down the stairwell, I became aware again of the pain. I touched my hand on my lower abdomen. It felt bloated, hard. I’d take some more pain killers when I got in. That’s what I was thinking about as I turned the corner. Did I have enough? Should I go the shops? No – there were enough –
And there he was.
At the top of the stairs to my floor.
He was standing outside my door.
And he had seen me.
I wasn’t sure whether to turn and run or to keep walking. Kieran looked at me, he didn’t look angry. He looked normal. He smiled, like he was pleased to see me. What was really attractive when we first met was he really saw me, asked me questions about me, though never actually came to see me play. Up until recently I had been doing small pub gigs. I noticed he looked his age, forty, normally I never thought about that much.
“I called round yesterday.”
I nodded. Didn’t make any comment.
He waited for me to open the door. I didn’t.
“I’ve just remembered I’ve got an appointment at the doctor,” I said.
“Are you okay?” His eyes were piercing, though his manner was friendly.
“Yes, I think so.”
“Look where you’re living. Jesus, Blathnaid. I got your letter… So what actually happened?”
I looked at him, gobsmacked not knowing what to say. He didn’t remember? Really?
“I just know something terrible happened.”
He looked sincere. “What happened?”
Finding it hard to say more words, I pointed to my bruised neck. He looked away, looked disturbed.
“I’m sorry.” He sounded sincere.
But was he? He said it would “harden” me.
Maybe I did need to speak to a priest. Focus on forgiving?
“It’s my birthday,” he said.
“I’m meeting people for drinks up in the pub tonight, if you want to come up later?”
I paused. He was brushing this all off like it was nothing. He said he would see me later. I nodded. He kissed me. It was just like a normal kiss.
“I love you,” he whispered. He had never actually said that before.
Maybe love could conquer all. He had just lost it, though I still didn’t know why, but everyone deserves a second chance. Don’t they?
I walked through the pub door a few hours later. He was sitting at a table with a couple of other people. They were Channel 4 documentary people who were hanging out in the London Irish scene which was Kieran’s thing. It was exciting to be so near these people. It made me feel like I wasn’t just on the dole, I was part of it. Maybe I could do some incidental music for it. If I could pluck up the nerve to discuss that with them. I also had to be careful, Kieran sometimes got jealous. Kieran looked nice in his denim shirt. I wore a black polo neck top. There was a large real Christmas tree nearby and a show band on the stage. It was packed. People were up in festive spirit, dancing away to country and western cover songs.
“Have you brought me a blow-up doll for me birthday?” Kieran asked.
It was such a gross thing to say on so many levels, it should have sent me out the door.
Kieran then talked about me going to spend time with him again in Liverpool. I couldn’t understand all these conflicting things, so I went to the ladies and re-applied my lipstick, I needed time to think.
On my way back came I heard Kieran talking to one of the guys. They had their backs to me.
“I hope you didn’t mind Blathnaid joining us. I want to have a sweet night tonight. Know what I mean? Butter her up.”
A throaty male chuckle erupted between them all.
My cheeks burned. Something snapped. All the stuff I’d kept hidden away from myself was now erupting. Running, backwards, forwards, round my brain.
There is a truth.
Don’t say too much.
I will! I’LL SCREAM!
I picked up my red wine; threw it over him. I had such rage the glass shattered in my hands and now there was glass all over the floor, and everyone looking at me. That’s when I saw the blood; dripping from my hand, red blood and soon it had become a red hand. I felt sweat on my face, a heavy pain pulsing. He jumped out of his seat and came forward to console me, to calm me down.
“GET AWAY FROM ME!” I roared. “DON’T YOU COME NEAR ME! OR I’LL PHONE THE POLICE!”
Next thing I was pushing open the door. And then I was running.
It was raining. I was bawling. Like a junkie I’d gone back to what had hurt me – like an old habit. I hated myself. I couldn’t be stronger. I couldn’t make better choices. I couldn’t change, so my life would never change. I was stuck like this. Stuffed. I screamed. It ripped the air. I didn’t want to be a victim. I didn’t want this.
The rest is a daze. I remember sitting in the tube carriage, blood streaming out of my hand. A guy further down had blood all over his white shirt. He was sitting upright, looking straight ahead as if he was fine.
I got out of the tube at Kings Cross. There were a group of people singing carols and collecting money in buckets for the homeless. Traffic on the Euston Road was buzzing past. I stepped out into the road.
That’s when a hand reached out and grabbed me back as a huge lorry drove past. I looked round to see Yoichi’s face. He looked furious. I was stunned. How the hell was he there? Was he like Monkey from that Japanese TV series? He snatched me across the road, into the Burger King opposite just beside the post office which was alive with all the usual illicit late night stuff. Just as we entered I saw the Asian prostitute I’d lent a couple of quid to. She was there shivering with the rest of them.
Next thing I know the young African girl behind the counter was cleaning my hand with ice and then wrapping it in kitchen roll.
The face of the Asian prostitute loomed before me, looking concerned.
“Is she okay?” she asked Yoichi, “I know her.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Nadina,” she replied. “What’s yours?”
“Blathnaid,” I replied. “It means little flower.”
We all laughed until Nadina’s pimp appeared with horrible, dead, darting eyes, wanting to know what was going on.
Yoichi then briskly walked me out and back in the direction of my flat.
When we reached Midhope Street, we passed David returning from a night out. He looked at me.
I didn’t want him to see me like this. I could see the shock in his eyes. His eyes. His beautiful, warm, lovely eyes. I felt like crying, all I wanted to do was talk to him. See him. Speak with him. Find out about him. Everything about him. David quickly opened his flat and went in.
Yoichi and I got up the stairs to my flat. The pain in my abdomen was now unbearable. It was coming in waves. I was bent over holding it with my bleeding hand.
I got out my key and opened the flat door. Yoichi was still with me.
“Want a cup of tea?”
Yoichi was looking at me strangely. I went into the narrow kitchen to make it.
“Blathnaid,” he said quietly but in an alarmed way. He looked at my legs.
I looked down. Blood. Clumps, black, clotted. A pounding in my ears. That is when I collapsed. All I remember was an ambulance man arriving and I was half carried out and down the stairs by him and Yoichi. I passed Mike the Junkie who lived below and was standing at his door with his pink shaded glasses and holding his scrawny black cat.
“Has she OD-ed?”
The guy from New Zealand who was an artist who lived opposite Mike, opened and then quickly shut his door when he saw what was going on.
We got to the bottom of the stairs. All I could think about was David but his door did not open. I’d just told him to fuck off. I really was a stupid bitch.
I was put on a stretcher. I heard the hushed word “miscarriage”. I had missed a period. Oh my God. The ambulance driver asked me if Yoichi was my next of kin.
“I’m a neighbour,” said Yoichi.
“Is there a next of kin, we need a number and address?”
“No next of kin, no room at the inn... No Virgin birth.” I mumbled delirious.
David’s face and eyes loomed in front of mine. He was there. His eyes were so warm but he looked scared. So was I. A baby? I was really losing a baby?
“Come over for a bite when you get back.”
“Christmas pity party?”
He took my hand and squeezed it really tightly.
They lifted me into the ambulance. I could see the tiny little narrow alley to the side, a half eaten hamburger and a used condom lay on the ground. I suddenly saw it all so clearly. This was hell. I had to get out.
The ambulance drove off. Blue light swirling into the darkness. Another Kings Cross casualty. I swore to my life as we raced through the back streets, I would change.
Ave Maria was playing in my head.
It was practically Christmas Eve.
Maiden hear a maiden’s sorrow,
Mother hear a suppliant child...
I could still feel David’s heart in my hand.
I held on tightly to that.
Maeve Murphy’s Christmas at the Cross is published in the short story anthology Nativity (Bridge House Publishers 2019). It is available in paperback.