Read by Max Berendt
“Oh dearie – this is for your birthday and Christmas.”
Lee smiled awkwardly at his nan as she waved a parcel at him. This was just typical of her, the tight old crone. Boxing Day was a completely distinct day to the twenty-fifth – there was no reason at all why she couldn’t fork out for two different presents.
“Thanks Nan,” he replied, as sincere as he could make it. And just when he felt he couldn’t get any more disappointed, he unwrapped his present to reveal a hideous itchy blob of an oversized woollen jumper.
“I made it all myself!” his nan cackled, “Every stitch in that jumper was knitted with a grandmother’s love. But nothing’s too good for my favourite grandson!”
Lee resisted the temptation to snarkily point out that he was her only grandson. Nan was well-off, so nobody in the family dared upset her. This was why his parents invited her round for Christmas every year and let her sit in the corner, guzzling down the soft-centred chocolates and smelling of old. Nan loved Christmas, and all the tacky nonsense that came with it.
So like any dutiful heir Lee went through the motions. He donned the jumper and pretended he liked it. He even assured his nan that the hideous green and brown splurges that covered it did actually look like Christmas trees. And not, as he wanted to say, the inept woolly scrawls of a craggy-fingered, near-blind old hag.
The awfulness didn’t stop there, though. Whenever nan awoke from dozing away in the corner, she’d see him in the jumper and tell him how wonderful he looked in it. “Like a young Val Doonican. Keep wearing that and you’ll have a nice girl in no time.” It made him sick.
After Boxing Day, when Lee finally got back to his flat, he immediately tore off the jumper. He toyed with the idea of burning the wretched thing. But then he figured that there was a chance nan might make it to next Christmas. It might be good for him to wear it again, just so she got the message that she didn’t need to knit him a jumper. That she might instead consider buying him presents that a normal young man might actually want.
And so he cast the jumper to the bottom of his bedroom wardrobe. Where it lay amongst the gym weights that he never used, and his extensive porn collection.
Lee’s disappointment at such a terrible present didn’t last long. Nan died three weeks into the New Year. Lee’s dad cried a bit, while his mum soothingly spouted clichés like it was probably better now she was at rest. Lee just wondered how long he would have to feign sadness before it was acceptable to ask about the will.
He got thirty thousand pounds in total when the will was finally read. Lee probably would have been less angry about this amount if Nan hadn’t also given thirty-one thousand pounds to “Dobbin’s Glade”, a local donkey sanctuary.
To further rub salt in the wound, she'd even prepared a little message for Lee, to be read to him when he was told about the money. “Dear Lee,” the old bat had written, “I hope you use this money wisely. Maybe for a deposit on a mortgage for your very own place. It’ll help you settle down with a nice girl. I hope you think of me every Christmas, and remember I will always be watching over you.”
Lee had the best three months of his life on that thirty grand. Booze, drugs, parties, he did the lot. And with his new wealth, Lee discovered a new confidence. He bought himself the finest designer gear, and emboldened by his expensive new image, he managed to successfully ask out a woman in a club who could almost pass for a model. Not a major international one, but certainly good enough to dance around wearing a tastefully skimpy outfit in an M&S advert.
Of course, the first thing Lee did when he returned to his flat after arranging their date was realise quite how messy it had become. During his many weeks of indulgence tidying had not been a priority, the result being that his carpet had disappeared under party detritus and half-eaten take-aways. There was no way he was going to be able to bring his date back to a place like this.
Driven by desire, he spent a good few hours cleaning the flat, chucking all his rubbish into one giant waste sack. After a few seconds of soul-searching he optimistically decided it might also be good to dispose of his porn collection. Which was not something he would want a woman this beautiful to find him with. Opening the wardrobe, he saw Nan’s jumper.
“Well, you can fuck right off!” he laughed, casually hurling the Christmas abomination into the sack alongside the magazines. He then felt a wave of anger, as the jumper reminded him that he had spent nearly all his inheritance, while useless donkeys enjoyed the good life on what should have been his money.
It was at this point that Lee decided to have a spot of revenge. Instead of heading to the local municipal dump, he waited till it was dark and drove quietly to the sanctuary. With one mighty effort, he hurled the sack over the top of its wall, and heard the satisfying squeal of a traumatised donkey on the other side. Then he snuck back home, ready for his hot date.
That particular evening went incredibly well. The near-model was suitably impressed by all the fake reasons Lee gave for his wealthy appearance. He mentioned his numerous business concerns and dropped in a few impressive lines he’d picked up from watching The Apprentice. By half ten, things seemed to be going in the right direction and he suggested that they retire to his nearby flat. “It’s nothing special,” he modestly apologised, “I just use it when international business dealing takes me here to Ipswich.” She cooed, and fifteen minutes later they were kissing passionately on his sofa.
“Mm ... mm ... MM ... what was that?” The near-model leapt up from the sofa mid-kiss, nearly taking half of Lee’s bottom lip with her. “Do you have, like, a pet?” she asked, “cos I have a cat at mine, and what I heard sounded exactly like it does when Beyonce climbs in through an open window.”
Lee assured her that he definitely didn’t have a cat. And the kissing began again in earnest. Until ...
“Mm … mmm ... ‘ere I definitely heard something that time. What if a fox has snuck in? Or a bat? I don’t want no bat in me hair!”
Lee realised that he would have to play the hero, and promised he would go round checking all the rooms. She seemed reassured by that, and added she would take the opportunity to freshen up in the bathroom.
Lee walked round the flat and found nothing. Yes, the small kitchen window was open but there was no sign anything had got in. He slammed it shut and returned to the sofa.
Lee tried to sit himself down on it in a way that showed he was both fantastically cool and relaxed while simultaneously erotically dynamic. He sat and waited. And waited. Just when he was about to get up, he heard the bathroom door bang open and footsteps race to the front door.
“I’ve just remembered,” the near model was gasping, “I’ve got a thing to do first thing tomorrow. I must dash.”
Lee began walking towards her “Babe, what’s up?”
“Stay back!” She motioned with one hand, the other still struggling with the door handle. “You’re one of them dangerous nutters you are!”
And with that she was out, slamming the door loudly behind her.
For a moment, Lee stood shocked. Then he heard a quiet thud coming from the bathroom. Maybe there had been something in the flat after all? He slowly pushed open the bathroom door and peered in.
The place was certainly not how he’d left it. The large mirror was covered in torn up images of naked women that he recognised from the magazines he’d thrown away. More than that, individual letters had seemingly been torn from the same pages, and used to fashion a message across the shower door. It read “What’s a lovely girl like you doing with a man like Lee? You could do so much better. A nice man, with prospects. Not some perverted donkey hater!” The last bit had been underlined in red, with what on closer inspection appeared to be mouldy pizza topping.
Then Lee heard a crash from elsewhere in the flat – and all the lights went out. In the blackness Lee reached for his phone and turned on the small torchlight. He shined the light in front of him and started making his way towards the fusebox.
Then suddenly, something scuttled across the beam of light in front of Lee. He jumped backwards, dropping his phone. The flat was once again plunged into darkness.
Lee quickly knelt down, reaching with his hands towards the dull light coming out from under his phone. But before he got there he felt something brush against the tips of his fingers. Something ... woolly. He gasped, grabbed his phone and flipped it over, shining the full force of the phone’s light at the creature.
And that’s when he saw it, Nan’s Christmas jumper: its arms twisting and folding like in some diabolic stop-motion cartoon.
He felt backwards with a scream. Lying on the ground, he felt the snake-like arms of the jumper wrap themselves round his left leg, squeezing the shin. He kicked madly to shake the thing off while shifting himself awkwardly headfirst across the floor with his remaining limbs. But he soon ran out of floor, his shoulder crashing into a cupboard, sending it crashing down beside him and scattering its contents everywhere.
Lee screamed as the sleeves slithered round his neck like an itchy woollen snake. Then his hand flailed into one of the items that had fallen out the cupboard – a tube of some kind. He grabbed it tight and began hitting the jumper with it.
Lee felt the strangling grip loosen, then the jumper seemed to fall back. Gasping for air, he stood up, waving in all directions to try and keep the evil knitwear at bay. But the thing seemed to have gone. After an hour, he managed to get the lights back on, and glanced at his weapon. It was a roll of Christmas wrapping paper.
That wasn’t the last Lee saw of the jumper. Every now and then, in the middle of the night, he’d hear the thing creeping around. Occasionally he’d catch sight of it. He quickly learnt from that first night what he needed to keep Nan’s vengeful jumper at bay – Christmassy things. Like wrapping paper and decorations. Holly, stockings, Christmas cards. Tinsel, fairy-lights, paper-chains … the list went on. And so Lee started putting them up, earlier and earlier each year.
And then one day in late August, just after he’d plastered his flat with festive cheer, there was a knock on the door. He opened it, to find a haunted-looking young woman outside, her small weary face showing from beneath a Santa cap. She looked him direct in the eyes. “You too?” she asked. “Did you mock a grandparent's Christmas wishes?” And they understood each other immediately. She started crying. “Did you know,” she began, “that there are many like us?”
And so we come to the moral of this perfectly true story. Next year, when you start seeing garish festive decorations early, I ask you not to mock derisively. Instead, please spare a thought for the poor soul who, out of desperation, has put them up: the only guaranteed defence against the dark forces of the vengeful dead. And treat all presents, even the really disappointing ones, with the utmost respect.
(c) Alan Graham, 2015
Alan Graham studied "Creative Writing" and "Economics" at UEA and is still unsure which discipline relies on make-believe the most. He currently lives and works in London, and was joint winner (with Jim Cogan) of the Liars' League MVP Award for Writing in 2015.
Max Berendt (left) studied drama at Manchester University and trained at Mountview. Theatre credits include The Trial (BAC: Total Theatre Award), Peer Gynt (Arcola), Journey’s End (West End), and The Devil is an Ass (The White Bear). Max works regularly as a voiceover artist and in immersive theatre. He will soon be seen in Door in a Wall's Appetite for Murder.