It felt as though only a few hours had passed before I was looking up at the Advent House again, the taste of whisky in my mouth.
The atmosphere felt different this morning. More subdued. As if it had suddenly dawned on the rest of Morkwood that there were twenty-three days left of this. We all knew what was coming, it was just a matter of when.
William was no less jovial than he was yesterday. His white teeth were positively shining against his flushed complexion as he rocked back and forth on his heels, checking his watch intermittently. The door would be opened not a minute later – and certainly not a minute sooner – than two o’clock.
At around ten minutes to two, William spotted Mrs Lassiter in the crowd. He beckoned her over and stooped to whisper something in her ear.
The entire village quietly watched this exchange. After he had finished speaking, Mrs Lassiter nodded, briefly touched William’s elbow, and retreated around the side of the crowd. She stopped a few feet from where I was standing, right at the very back, her gaze firmly directed at the ground.
It was abundantly clear what he had done. William had told Mrs Lassiter what was behind the door.
There was a ripple of movement as people began to shift their weight from foot to foot, stretch their legs and generally prepare their freezing bodies for movement. As Mrs Lassiter had been advised to steer clear of the rest of the villagers, it could mean only one thing: we were all going to have to run.
“Good morning, everyone,” William said.
He knew exactly what he had done by speaking to Mrs Lassiter. He surveyed the villagers with his hands on his hips, revelling in the commotion he had caused.
“We’re all here, aren’t we? Good, that’s what I like to see. Don’t forget, I’m good friends with the Christmas elves – I have eyes and ears everywhere.”
William had to use the Cherrypicker to reach this morning’s door. He put on a hard hat and slowly ascended to the top row. Once he was close enough, he reached forward and took hold of the doorknob.
“Merry Christmas!” he yelled, and flung the door open.
A few villagers raised their binoculars, but I could see immediately which painting it was.
It was of a family of four, a mother, father, son and daughter. They were all sprinting towards a wooden bench on the left-hand side of the painting. The mother had bunched her dress up above her knees. The daughter was right behind her, flinging her boots into the air so she could run in bare feet. The father was in the process of pushing the son to the ground with an outstretched arm. Each of the painted faces were frozen in panic.
It took mere seconds for the chaos to begin.
Small children were flung over shoulders. People began to tackle each other to the ground. A few of the older members of the community staggered back, hoping to avoid the scuffle, but few succeeded. There were screams and cries as the whole crowd pushed and shoved and heaved.
And then, as if they had suddenly amalgamated into one giant being, the crowd began sprinting as one towards the centre of the village.
Today’s game was the church rush. The aim is to get to a pew before every space is taken. The church can only seat around three-quarters of the population of Morkwood, if that. If you don’t get a seat, you have to run a lap of the village.
I threw myself back to avoid the stampede. In its wake was a trail of dishevelled bodies lying in the mud, some already scrambling to get back up. Others remained still until they felt it was safer to proceed.
I waited until most of the villagers had gone before helping to pick up the fallen. There were a few younger villagers, no more than ten or so, who had also chosen to stay behind to give the elderly and lesser abled a fighting chance. There was the young doctor, the postman and a few farmers, but the majority of Morkwood under the age of sixty had gone.
And for what? What was so terrible about taking a lap of the village if you were able to? My mother once told me it was the thought of losing that made them run, but it’s not that. I know it’s not that.
They’re just animals. All of them. Animals.
As I turned to usher the stragglers towards the church I bumped into William, who was standing close behind me. He had an arm around Mrs Lassiter, and she was looking up at him like a dumb, obedient dog.
“I suppose you all better get ready to run that lap,” he said.
At that moment I wanted nothing more than to pick up a rock and smash his face in.
Read yesterday’s The Festivities of Morkwood.