Death under the Christmas tree

Christmas tree bauble

Emma sighed as she heard Ron’s voice again. “No, no, not there, over there! Honestly, why can’t anyone listen to a simple instruction?” Perhaps because they aren’t simple instructions, you silly man? She saw Anna look up at her and was briefly afraid that she’d thought that out loud, but was relieved to see that Anna was just expressing silent relief that they weren’t the targets this time. Emma stepped back from her tree. It was nearly there. The lights were twinkling away, illuminating the glitter on the paper snowflakes the children had created.

“It looks lovely.” Anna said. “I always think preschool teachers must have the patience of saints dealing with a room full of glitter wielding three year olds.”

Emma laughed. “It’s all right really. At least we’ve got a messy area set up for it.” She sidled closer, lowering her voice. “I’ve had more than one parent tell me that if they’re not shitting glitter this time of year there’s something wrong.” Anna’s guffaw echoed around the church and several heads popped up to see what the commotion was. “Oh God, you’ve done it now. Ron’s coming over.” They both turned and pretended to study their trees.

“Is everything in order ladies?” Ron asked. The way he spoke reminded Emma of her dad. Somehow the language patterns worked for a man in his sixties, but not for the 45 year old standing in front of her.

“Absolutely fine, thank you Ron.” Emma replied. Anna didn’t respond and a sideways look revealed that she was still trying to suppress a giggle.

“I’m a bit concerned that your tree is too far forward on the table. Could you move it back just a smidgen?”

Emma shook her head and explained that she couldn’t. “I’ve already had to leave some of the branches down at the back to fit it in front of the screen. The only place I could move it would be sideways and that would knock into the beauty salon’s tree.”

“Hmm. I see what you mean. Well, it’s not very satisfactory but I suppose it’ll have to do.” He turned and began inspecting Anna’s tree until he was distracted by a set of lights being plugged in on the other side of the church. “Er, do you have your PAT testing certificate?”

Emma registered Anna’s wry smile and mouthed “lucky escape” at her. “Well, I think I’m about done.” She clambered up onto a chair and placed the sequinned fairy on the top of the tree. The ornament looked slightly lopsided, as if she’d had one too many gins. That’ll be me on Friday night, she thought. She noticed Ron turning around and quickly hopped down from the chair. The last thing she needed was a lecture about health and safety. Ron had driven everyone mad doing the risk assessment. Unfortunately the only thing he hadn’t asked was how tall the person decorating each tree would be. If he’d realised that a 5’2 woman would be decorating a 6ft tree on top of a 3ft table he might have asked the caretaker to leave the stepladders out. As it was they were securely locked away and the man with the keys was at home enjoying his teatime egg and chips. She felt a hand on her back. “It’s OK, he didn’t spot you.” Emma turned to see Angela, Ron’s wife, smiling confidentially at her.

“That’s a relief.” As Angela moved on, Emma wondered what she saw in her husband. She watched as Angela stopped to help untangle some knotted lights and reflected that she was the complete opposite of Ron. She made things simple, he overcomplicated them. Emma spotted their daughter Evie, approaching the raffle prize table staggering under the weight of a hamper. There was another lovely one, Emma thought. Evie had been at the preschool when Emma first started working there. Even then her artwork and presentation had been as beautiful as her nature. How could she be in year four already? Emma shook her head. Time really did speed up as you got older.

She turned back to look at the finished tree and smiled. It did look good. She loved her job at the preschool but it was especially good at this time of year. All of the Christmas crafts and practising for the nativity play made her feel like a kid again. The church looked beautiful too. It was heartening to see how everyone pulled together to create the Christmas tree festival every year. Then the church filled with people coming to look at the trees over the weekend and to gather in the main street as they switched on the village lights.

Her reverie was broken by a loud crash. She looked round to see Ron sprawled on the floor. Angela and Evie were already there, helping him up. He looked down to see the hamper on the floor and the corner that was sticking out from under the table.

“What idiot left that there?” he demanded. Evie’s eyes immediately filled with tears.

“I couldn’t fit it onto the table Daddy.”

“So you thought you’d just abandon it where anyone could fall over it? I could have broken my neck, stupid child.”

Evie ran, sobbing. Emma watched the colour rise in Angela’s face. She could taste the rebuke forming in her mouth and wondered if Angela was finding her own words. The church was silent. Emma had never heard Angela raise her voice. She watched her jaw tighten and wondered if that would change now. It didn’t. Ron broke the silence with a ‘what?’ in Angela’s face. She shook her head and turned to follow her daughter.

Fallen Christmas tree

Emma shivered as she walked up to the church the following lunchtime. The children who had been hit by the sickness bug the week before had created a few more paper snowflakes. They nestled in a plastic wallet in her hand. She stopped short when she saw the policeman on the front gate.  

“Is everything OK?”

“Do you need access to the church?”

She held up the wallet of snowflakes. “Just need to put the last few decorations on the preschool tree.” He waved her through. The latch on the church door clanked as she twisted it and pushed the heavy door open. It was so quiet that she thought she must be alone as she headed towards the tree. As she reached the front row of pews she saw Margaret, a churchwarden, sitting there looking anxiously towards the altar. Angela was next to it, polishing the silverware to within an inch of its life.

“Is everything all right Margaret?”

“She’s been like it all morning. I can’t get her to stop.”

“The police…?” her question hung in the air.

“I found Ron this morning.” She paused, bowing her head. “The police doctor said he might have survived the head injury if someone had found him in time. It was so very cold last night…”

Head injury? He hadn’t hit his head when he fell, had he? Emma looked back at Margaret but she had bowed her head again. It sounded as if she was muttering a prayer. She put the snowflakes down next to her tree and walked on towards Angela.

“Angela? I’ve just heard about Ron, I’m so sorry. Is Evie at school?”

Angela nodded, her cloth continuing to move across the surface of the communion plate. “She doesn’t know yet. The police wanted me to go over to school with them after I gave my statement. I don’t know what to say to her.” She stopped polishing for a moment. “How can I tell her I’m glad her father’s dead?”

Emma realised that she’d expected Angela to cry but wasn’t surprised when she didn’t. She rummaged around in her brain, trying to think of a reply but knew that she couldn’t.

“I know. It’s awful, isn’t it? I knew you’d understand though. He’s never told her he’s proud of her, can you believe that? The way he spoke to her last night;”

Emma nodded. “It was the last straw, wasn’t it? There isn’t a little girl alive who doesn’t idolise her daddy. At least, they do to begin with.”

A small smile appeared on Angela’s face. “We were the last ones here. He insisted that he needed to go and buy food instead of coming home. I stayed with her as she cried herself to sleep and the next thing I knew it was morning. I thought he must have left early.”

“Do they know how it happened?”

“Silly man didn’t follow his own rules. They found a cable trailing across the floor. It had got wrapped around his foot. They’ve taken one of the candlesticks away. It was in his hand and they think he must have hit his head on it as he fell.”

Emma shuddered, thinking of the injured man sprawled on the floor, too dazed to stand as the temperature dropped.

“Not a pleasant thought, is it?”

It wasn’t. As Emma tried to picture the scene, she found she couldn’t. Ron had planned the layout like a military operation. There was no way anyone could have left a cable in the wrong place without him noticing. Angela had started polishing again. There must have been a spot that only she could still see. Emma told herself that the gleam in Angela’s eyes must have been from the silver.

“At least he’ll never speak to my daughter that way again.”