'Hold your end up Connor! Don’t let it drop! Hold it! Hold it! Oh Hell!’
Connor caught my eye through the fragrant needles of the upturned pine, glaring at me with as much venom as a ten-year-old can muster, then he was gone.
‘Where are you going?’ I said into the tree.
‘If you’re going to shout at me I’m going in.’
‘You’re going to leave me to bring in this tree on my own?’
‘Why not? Everything I do is wrong.’ His voice choked a little. ‘It’s supposed to be fun Dad.’
‘Fine. While you’re at it, ask your Mum why the hell she insisted on a real Christmas tree anyway.’
The only reply was the slamming of the kitchen door.
I let go of the tree and it hung there, firmly wedged in the doorway, half in the kitchen, half with me in the garden. It was ridiculous but I wasn’t laughing. All this might be fun for Connor but for me it was just one extra chore at the end of long working day. Still, I knew I shouldn’t have taken it out on him. I just lost my patience.
How was I going to get this tree inside? Forgetting I was standing on the back steps, I stepped back to survey the situation and I fell, flying through the air until my head hit the hard frozen ground. The world spun around quickly and then went black.
When I awoke all I could see was white metallic light, so bright it hurt my eyes. I was still lying down but I wasn’t in the garden anymore. I was in a room, a very warm hospital room. It must have been a bad fall and I felt a pang of anxiety. Where were Linda and the kids? Were they here?
The room smelt strange, like a zoo, a mixture of strong animal odours and some kind of chemicals, an industrial disinfectant maybe. This was no hospital room. I started to get up from the bed. The room was filled with metal boxes and cages and I tried to see what was in them. Where the hell was I?
There was a figure moving around on the other side of room. It had its back to me but I could see there was something strange about it: head too big, body too short, shoulders too wide. Then it turned and marched quickly towards me. I started back in terror. The creature was inhuman – a grotesque monstrosity with gigantic round eyes set in a flattened pink face decorated with skin flaps and creases and other strange features like one of my daughter Emily’s home-made treasure maps.
The creature’s eyes widened at me and it held out a short greasy arm to stop me getting up. It seemed angry and babbled a stream of incoherent gibberish then stepped back suddenly and hit a switch on the console behind it.
‘You’re not supposed to be awake,’ it said, suddenly translated into English. ‘It’s not your time.’
‘What do you mean ‘my time’? Where am I? What is this place?’
‘The cataloguing room…’ he paused. ‘On a ship, a ship in space.’
‘Space?’ I jumped up from the bed. ‘I can’t go into space. I have an important meeting tomorrow.’
The creature shook his head. ‘It’s not up to me. I’m just a cataloguer. We take specimens – plants, animals, technology, we catalogue them, we dissect them, we preserve the pieces and we take them home. I don’t choose what is taken, I just catalogue things.’ He started forward. ‘Now, I must put you back to sleep.’
‘No, wait. It’s Christmas.’
The creature stopped. ‘What is that? Christmas?’
‘It’s a time of giving and forgiving, a time of compassion, of peace; a time for family.’ I thought about home, the abandoned tree and poor Connor’s face.
He relaxed back a little. ‘Tell me more about this Christmas.’
I told him about Jesus and the Nativity, about Santa Claus and Christmas Day, Christmas trees and Christmas gifts and about the dream of peace on earth for all men.
‘It sounds like a wonderful planet you live on.’
I thought about our world and all the good things we often forget and all the good in people we don’t notice in our busy lives. ‘I just remembered it is a wonderful place.’
The creature took a step towards the control panel and I felt a pang of fear. What was going to happen now? I was still groggy but I looked around for a weapon, something to fight with.
‘Did I tell you I have responsibility for quality?’ said the creature.
I shook my head, getting to my feet.
‘I can reject poor quality specimens, get rid of them, send them back. And now I can see that you are poor quality. Poor, poor quality.’
‘What do you mean?’
I think if he’d had eyelids he would have winked. ‘What is it your people say at this time of year? Ah yes – Merry Christmas!’
I awoke at the bottom of the garden, lying on the frozen lawn. I must have been away some time because there was no longer a tree wedged in the doorway and the back door was closed. I walked round the side of the house and looked in through the side window. The tree was up and Linda, Connor and Emily were half-way through decorating it.
I wasn’t too late. It was all still here. And there was still a chance to do it right.