The Crime Readers' Association

The Spirit of Christmas

by Keith Moray

Trevor Stanley had never liked Christmas. Not even when Vanessa his wife was alive, even though she loved it and he had loved her. He used to put a smile on his face and pretend for her sake. Well, for her and the kid.

‘I just love to see his face when we send his message up the chimney to Father Christmas,’ he remembered her saying when Marcus was five years old. ‘And when he empties his stocking on Christmas morning it makes my heart go pitter-patter.’

Pitter-patter! Vanessa’s heart did that a lot, but not in the way that lovers’ hearts should beat.

‘It’s called atrial fibrillation and it’s caused by something called mitral stenosis,’ she told him after one of the early panics when her heart started to race irregularly. ‘They found a murmur when I was a teenager and said that this could happen when I was older. They said I could have an operation but I didn’t want it.’

Trevor had suggested that she reconsider, but she refused to consider it. ‘I’ve had these episodes before when I get palpitations. They always do an ECG and sometimes they just find a fast heartbeat and other times they say it’s this atrial fibrillation. My heart beats irregularly for a while and then it always settles down.’ And that was that as far as she was concerned, so Trevor accepted it. They thought it was just something that she would have to live with.  But it proved to be more than that.


‘She has a damaged heart valve from scarlet fever when she was a child,’ the doctor explained to Trevor when she had her first stroke at the age of thirty-three. It paralysed her down one side and forced her to use a stick for a whole month before she recovered enough to get back to the job she loved so much.

That bloody job of hers, the cause of all of Trevor’s strife.

The second stroke six months later put her to bed and necessitated him taking time off work to look after both her and Marcus. He silently thanked heaven that her speech came back, albeit the smile that he loved was only a half-smile after that. But he was determined that he’d do whatever he could to stop her having another, so he dropped his job to part time and he took charge of the running of the house, made sure that she took her medication, did the shopping and the school runs with Marcus.

Vanessa didn’t take well to her disability, but she loved Christmas and even though she could do little to help him, she insisted that he should make it special for her darling son, little Marcus. The Christmas tree bedecked with baubles, the message up the chimney, the stocking hanging from the mantelpiece, Christmas dinner and crackers, the tot of whisky and a mince pie on the hearth for Father Christmas and a carrot for Rudolph. She wanted the whole lot for their son.  Yet although he could never get fully in the spirit, Trevor still forced a smile on his face and did his best. Everyone could see that.

No one expected her to die so soon. Marcus was by then an active six-year-old boy, with his mother’s smile, the same blond hair with the slightest of curls and the love of Christmas that she used to say was every child’s inheritance. It was a bitter irony that Vanessa should be taken away on Christmas Eve, cruelly deprived of the smile on Marcus’s face on Christmas morning. And of course, there was no smiling that Christmas, only tears.

Trevor was left with the boy he had accepted as his own son, even though he knew he wasn’t the father. Mumps when he was fifteen had blighted his chances of biological fatherhood. He had been completely candid and told Vanessa that before they got married, but she just shrugged her shoulders and smiled. ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be,’ she said in her matter-of-fact manner. In retrospect, Trevor realised that his wife was a fatalist.

But ‘what will be’ had happened at her office Christmas party. Trevor worked that out later. It was the night she came home tipsy and in a state of high spirits. Then the moment some weeks later when she told him she was pregnant he knew with certainty that the father was his brother, Vanessa’s beloved boss.  Trevor couldn’t keep much from Vanessa and he was sure that she knew he had guessed. He was also sure she had told his brother. But nothing was said. After all, they had a son and it was all kept in the family.

Greg was another of life’s darlings. Nine years older than Trevor, it had always been obvious that he was the parents’ favourite.  Mother’s darling boy who could do no wrong. Top of the class, the only one in the family to go to University. The successful one who became a solicitor and built up a successful law practice. Not like Trevor, the lame duck of the family, who always found himself in trouble. No university for him, nor a career worth speaking of. His brother had even called in a favour from a client and found him a job as a motor parts delivery driver. He would trail all over the county and work all hours to keep her, Greg’s personal secretary and the mother of their supposed son in the style she expected.

Jealousy is a strange emotion. In Trevor’s case the green-eyed monster took a while to rear its head. He knew that Vanessa and Greg rekindled their affair after she returned to work after the first small stroke.  He felt jealous, but he just wasn’t sure who he was jealous of. It could have been any of the three of them. He didn’t confront her, but just kept his monster in check by drinking spirits. Whisky mainly, good malts that he got from an online spirits dealer. Everyone accepted that whisky-drinking was just Trevor’s little hobby.

After her second stroke Vanessa had made him promise that if anything happened to her, he’d do whatever was best for Marcus and make sure he had a happy life. Importantly, she wanted him to make sure to keep up their little Christmas traditions so that if she was looking down on them, which she was sure she would do, she’d see his little smiling face on Christmas morning.

Promises are easy to make, but sometimes hard to live with. Keeping Marcus happy was not something Trevor relished, because resentment grew inside him day by day. He kept up the pretence of being a loving father and he put on that sickly smile whenever Uncle Greg and Auntie Jill called to see Marcus or take him out for the day or for a sleepover on a Saturday night.

That next Christmas he almost enjoyed. He kept his promise to the woman he had loved, despite her infidelity and betrayal with his elder brother. He fished out the previous year’s Christmas tree from the rubbish heap in the garden and hung a few baubles on its dead, almost bare branches and positioned it in a corner of the sitting room. He helped Marcus send his Christmas message up the chimney. Then he helped him hang his beloved scarlet stocking above the fireplace. Vanessa had knitted it herself when he was a toddler.

The image of the little darling’s face on Christmas morning when he found it hanging empty made him smile inwardly.

‘Oh dear, Father Christmas must have forgotten you, Marcus. It must be because you’ve been a bad boy.’

Life changed for them both from that moment onwards. Trevor continued to go through the motions of looking after his son. He fed him, took him to school, sent him to bed, but he no longer smiled or felt able to show any affection. He drank his different sample bottles of malt whisky every evening, making sure that he never had too much to cause a problem with drink driving the next day, but enough to numb his brain after Marcus had gone to bed. It seemed to muffle his hearing too, because the sounds of Marcus crying himself to sleep soon disappeared. Gradually, they talked less and less until barely any words were spoken between them.

Trevor never displayed any anger towards Marcus, not even when he started to notice occasions when his malt whisky tasted unpleasant, as if something had been added to the bottle to produce a faint, almost ammoniacal aroma instead of the seaweed tang he liked about his favourite Islay malts. It was little Marcus who broke the barrier of silence one night before going to bed, when previously he used to receive a hug or a night-time kiss. He asked simply, ‘Do you think we’ll ever be happy again, Daddy?’

A couple of weeks later Greg dropped round one evening for a heart to heart. It wasn’t exactly an honest dialogue concerning Marcus’s parentage, more a solicitor’s speech on the best course of action for the boy’s future. He couched in his big brother knows best tone, which successfully concealed any awkwardness that might surface between them. Trevor suspected that Greg had always despised him. He couldn’t imagine that he would have tolerated being a cuckolded husband.

‘So, brass tacks, Trev. As you know, Jill and I were never lucky enough to have children, while you and Vanessa were blessed with Marcus. We can all see that neither you nor Marcus are happy. We worry about you both. Marcus seems to like his Uncle Greg and Auntie Jill, so why don’t we―?’

‘Take him off my hands?’

‘Well, yes. We can do a formal adoption, but he’d still see you lots. You know, occasional weekends, Easter and Christmas perhaps.’

Trevor looked down at the drink he was cradling in his hands. ‘No! Not Christmas. Certainly not Christmas Eve.’

‘Of course. I understand it would be too painful a memory of Vanessa.’

Trevor noticed the slight hesitancy in his elder brother’s tone, as if he was suppressing a lump that had suddenly developed in his throat.

‘But Marcus will want to see you at Christmas, Trev. You could come to us for dinner, or I could bring him to see you on Christmas Day to drop off your present.’

And so for the next few months that was how they lived.  Trevor was unencumbered, able to go on in his mournful existence, driving by day, eating junk food on the hoof and then drinking his whisky at night until he dropped into the arms of Morpheus.

But even though Marcus was not living with him, Trevor, when the time came, still felt a need to at least pay lip service to the Christmas traditions that Vanessa had made him promise to keep up. He got out the dead Christmas tree again, hung a solitary bauble on it, set a fire in the grate and ritually wrote a message ready to burn to send the smoke up the chimney. Then with his selection of little bottles of malt whisky at the ready he hung up the old red stocking from the mantelpiece.

His whiskies tasted so much better than when Marcus was living with him, even though they could not raise his Christmas spirit above the melancholic. He wrote a note to Vanessa and tossed it into the flames. It curled and flared briefly as it caught fire before turning to blackened ashes as the smoke drifted up the chimney.

‘There, it’s all done,’ he said to the flickering flames as he finished his fifth large whisky.

He fancied that he saw her face in the fire, as he often did after a few glasses. And as so often before, he conversed with her, hearing her words as if she whispered them directly into his brain.

Thank you, Trevor. Marcus will love Christmas this year. You know how I loved to see him smile. I feel guilty that I cannot be with you both.’

‘Is that all you feel guilty about, Vanessa?’

He heard no reply. ‘I feel guilty, too, you know,’ he said.

About the empty stocking, you mean? You must have been distraught. Not thinking clearly.

‘It was a shabby trick to play on him, but I was cross. Cross with you – and Greg! You must have known I had been angry for a long time. That’s why I did what I did and now I feel guilty.’

Hearing nothing he looked at the whisky glass in his hand and then raised it to the fire. ‘To Christmas spirit,’ he said before tossing it off. He sucked air in as the whisky hit his stomach. ‘Fine Christmas spirit.’

I want to see his little face on Christmas morning. Remember, you promised to do what you need to keep him happy.

Trevor unscrewed the top of another of the small sample bottles, this time a Speyside malt. He poured it into his glass and again raised it in a toast.

‘To promises kept, Vanessa!’ He drained the glass and then hurled it into the fire where it smashed in the back of the grate and a blue flash erupted as the dregs of alcohol burst into flame.


Greg let himself into the house with the key Vanessa had given him a year before, in case they had the opportunity for a clandestine rendezvous while Marcus was at school and Trevor was out on his deliveries.

‘The lights are still on, Uncle Greg,’ said Marcus.

‘Maybe Daddy had too many whiskies last night,’ he said to Marcus as he put his hand on the sitting room door handle. ‘He may be sleeping, so we’ll surprise him, shall we?’

Marcus shot past him as he opened the door, then stopped suddenly at the sight of Trevor hanging from the overhead light in the middle of the room. The old red Christmas stocking was tied to the chain that suspended the cheap mock brass chandelier; the other end tightly knotted round his neck. His face was puce, his eyes staring sightlessly and his tongue protruding.

Greg swept the boy round and hugged him close. ‘Don’t look, Marcus. We’ll get you into the kitchen and I’ll get him down.’

It was after he had lowered the body to the floor and failed to feel a pulse that Greg began to shake as he realised his brother was gone forever. Then he saw the note addressed to him propped against a neat row of empty malt whisky sample bottles on the hearth.

With trembling hands he picked it up and read.

Greg, my gift to you is the burden of guilt. I’ve carried mine for two years since the day I snapped and gave Vanessa an overdose of her digoxin crushed up in her protein shake.  It’s up to you what you do with this note. I don’t care as I won’t be there. But you need to know that I knew all about you and Vanessa and about you being Marcus’s real dad.  Say Happy Christmas to your boy, brother!


Greg was wiping tears from his cheeks when he went into the kitchen after phoning 999 to report the sudden death. For a moment he stood watching the boy calmly drink the glass of milk he had poured.

There was an incongruous smile on his little face this Christmas morning.

You can find out more about Keith Moray and his books here.



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