An original Christmas story by Aoife B. Burke,
first published in The Tuam Herald on December 18th, 2019.
The lifeless body was discovered on St. Stephen’s Day, but you could say the scene was set in motion two days before, when the extended Hastings clan descended on the family home on Christmas Eve. It was almost a full house that year; only Uncle Fergus and his husband Jonas were missing, seeing as it was their turn to spend the festive season with Jonas’s family in Berlin. But the eldest and youngest, and their families, had made the trip home.
Martha, her husband Robert and her three kids were first to arrive. Granny and Granddad raced to the front door when they saw the car lights shine through the sitting room windows, and welcomed their only daughter, their son-in-law and grandchildren with beaming smiles.
Fiona slipped her phone into her coat pocket for long enough to be admired over how tall she’d grown and how nice her outfit was, and to be lightly interrogated as to how her Junior Cert study was going. Ben, the baby, was still young enough to be revived from the grogginess from the car journey by his grandparents’ cheerful enthusiasm, and middle-child Christie sloped in after them, being the one to take the longest to warm up and get used to changes of scenery.
“When are the rest arriving, Mum?” called Martha from the kitchen, where she was unloading wine and nibbles for their evening’s gathering. “I thought Francis and Rebecca would get here before us, considering he plans everything down to the last second.”
“Slight flight delay from Heathrow; I got a text from Francis the minute they landed, then one once they claimed their baggage and another as soon as they got on the road, so if my calculations are correct they’ll be here in about half an hour.” And sure enough, they were.
Fiona was the first to greet her uncle’s family, eager as she was to see her cousin Katie. The teens had only three months between them and had similar interests, and kept in touch between family get-togethers. Katie graciously took her turn in being greeted by her grandparents before rushing off with her cousin to catch up properly in person. Her little brother Jason, close in age to Ben, rushed in wearing a Superman costume, with his right arm thrust forward and his left by his hip, while the naturally more reserved Ben cowered in the corner
Francis and Rebecca had also brought plenty of wine, cheese and other appropriate nibbles. “Can someone say Duty Free?” remarked Robert to Martha under his breath, earning himself a quick dig in the ribs. “How else were they supposed to transport all this stuff, get it through airport security? Don’t be such a Grinch”. Robert and Francis had a certain rivalry; both considered themselves alpha males and that their opinions, methods and general ways of living superior to anyone else’s, but particularly each other’s.
With all the guests assembled it was time for the traditional walk to evening mass, where Ben behaved beautifully, enchanted by the cathedral decoration and the singing of the choir while Jason managed to fidget out of his mother’s admittedly loose grip in order to pet the animal figures in the nativity scene.
Remarkably, the interruption to the service was minimal, and no damage was done, so the family’s return to the house called for the festivities to begin. The wine flowed, the cheese assigned to the feast devoured, the extra bottles of ‘just-in-case’ champagne popped.
The kids filtered off into their own activities; the older girls watched YouTube and tried on each others’ clothes, the boys, miraculously, played nicely together with the building blocks their grandparents provided, and Christie, finding herself as usual without a companion, observed the adults’ merry-making over the top of her book.
Christmas morning arrived. The boys burst in to their respective parents’ bedrooms with their stockings, showing them the gifts they’d received. Christie followed, fastidiously going through the decorative sock and shining her mother’s phone torch in to it to make sure she didn’t miss anything potentially stuck in the toe. Fiona and Katie slept through the initial excitement but were both secretly pleased to have received stockings of their own, even though they professed to be too old for that sort of thing.
The adult Hastings siblings and their spouses got their own stockings too; Granny couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her own grown-up children out of the fun. She’d even sent two over for her middle son and Jonas, to land in Berlin on Christmas Eve. When they chatted later on Facetime she’d check to make sure they arrived on time.
Santa had also left gifts for the kids under the tree. Along with clothes, books and a few toys was a box left to one side, about the size of a bed-side cabinet. ‘Jason’ was inscribed in big, red print on the packaging, which said recipient proceeded to tear off, as if he had a raging vendetta against it. Inside the box was a chestnut coloured teddy bear. But not any old teddy bear; this one talked.
And talked, and talked. It seemed that even Santa didn’t realise how much this bear talked. And sang. Jason couldn’t have been more thrilled with his talking bear. It piped up over breakfast, it piped up through dinner, it piped up over the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special. This bear would just not shut up. The settings were simple; either off or on, and for a small boy with a knack for getting his way, Jason had no issues at all making sure the switch was turned to “on” at all times.
As on Christmas Eve, the imbibing of chocolate and Baileys and biscuits and gin and sweets and champagne was unabated. St. Stephen’s Day came with slight headaches all round. “If it wasn’t for that bear, I’d be fine!” fumed Robert at lunchtime, following the latest nugget gleaned from the bear.
“Suuuure you would, your current state has nothing to do with the wine you drank from noon to midnight yesterday,” remarked Martha, her jaw jutting in barely-held-in exasperation.
“I’ll have you know that that bear was like gold-dust for, er Santa to find, so er, he’ll be getting his money’s worth from the damn thing,” Francis declared. “Jason loves that bear, and he can play with it ’til he grows bored of it. Knowing him it shouldn’t be more than a day or two. Maybe five.”
Instead of retaliating, warned with a stern look by his wife, Robert went back to bed while Martha, Francis and Rebecca busied themselves getting ready to meet local friends in town, and to attempt a bit of shopping to revive the already almost empty fridge and cupboards.
Grandad was making a list – “Oh, could you pick up some Febreze when you’re there? And some firelighters! Could also do with replenishing the battery supplies” – while Granny tidied up the wrapping paper from the day before, sorting it into recyclable and non-recyclable piles.
Her thumb nail snagged on a chair cushion during the task, so she fetched her nail scissors, snipped the loose nail away, and subsequently distractedly left the scissors behind her on the chair containing the sizable recycling pile, when she hurried to see the three off, knowing that Francis wouldn’t pause for a second to pop his head around the door to say goodbye if he was even a minute behind the schedule of his own creation.
Christie and Ben had retreated to the sitting room to watch A Muppet’s Christmas Carol. They could hear Jason jabber away to his bear from the kitchen, so shut the door fully in order to enjoy Kermit and Co. better. Around an hour and a half later they emerged, buoyed by the festive film and ready to join the others for some more family time.
Taking a de-tour in to the living room to check on some of their Christmas gifts, Christie spotted the bear lying face down next to Granddad’s favourite chair. She approached it cautiously; like much of the rest of the family she was slightly put off by the bear’s eerie mechanical movements and incessant inane chatter and warbling. But the bear was to chatter or to warble no more.
Tentatively she turned the bear over with her foot. As she did so the door to the battery encasement came loose, revealing an empty chasm. Someone had clearly removed the batteries, and callously tossed the bear to one side. But who would do such a thing, especially considering the uproar Jason would make upon discovery of a still and silent bear?
Speaking of the little boy, it was at that point he entered the room with Granny. “That’s mine!” he exclaimed, brattily, and wrestled loose from his grandmother’s grasp in order to shove Christie out of the way. “What did you do to it?” he asked Christie, accusingly, to which she replied “I found him like this. Ben was here too.”
Ben, from the other end of the room, where he had been building a tower with some blocks, backed her up. “We came in and he was on the ground,” he shrugged, quietly happy not to be involved in the drama. Jason’s chin began to wobble, and before a major incident occurred Granny hurriedly said “It’s just the batteries, wait there ’til I find a few more and fit them in.”
They were the last two packets of C batteries left in storage. Granny popped them out and fixed them in to place in the cavity. “There, try the switch now”, she encouraged, which Jason did. Nothing. Not a peep. “I think you’ll find that the wire has been cut, Granny,” Christie declared. “And I think it was cut with this.”
She held up the nail scissors. Granny balked; it had been she who had carelessly left them in the living room for anyone to stumble upon. Jason was getting truly worked up now, silent in his outrage and on the verge of what could only predicted as to be a real whopper. Just then the back door opened, banging shut the door of the room in which they were in. “Mummy!” cried Jason. “Someone’s killed my bear!”
The racket roused Robert from his rest, and brought Grandad in from his study, where he was fiddling around with one of his Christmas gifts, a vintage radio given to him in order to take apart and put together again. “What is going on in here?” demanded Francis, in full offence mode, “What’s happened to the bear?” “It’s been tampered with, love,” replied his mother, trying to control the situation before everyone else started over-reacting. Jason was by now in snotty hysterics, wrapped around Rebecca, who was trying to work out what had happened.
“Me and Ben were watching a film. When it was over we came in here to look at our presents. When we got here I noticed the bear on the floor and it wasn’t moving or making a sound, so I turned it over and saw that the batteries were gone. When Granny put different batteries in I then saw a little wire poking out all raggedy and then I spotted a scissors and came to the conclusion that the wire was cut with the scissors.” It was the most Christie had said over the last three days.
Fiona and Katie slunk downstairs to see what was going on. When they discovered that all the commotion was about that annoying toy bear they slunk back upstairs again, to resume their friendly argument over who was better, Lizzo or Billie Eilish. While Rebecca got Jason’s hysterics down to a low wail Martha questioned Christie and Ben over the discovery. “It wasn’t either of you, who cut the wire, was it? Or took out the batteries?” “No it wasn’t, we’re the innocent bystanders who found the body. We were watching a film and then when it was over came down to this room to…”
“Yes, I know the story, you told it very clearly Christie, thank you.” Francis was pacing the room. “That bear cost €100!, whoever is responsible for this will pay up, I don’t care if it’s one of the kids.” Martha sighed, familiar with the over-wrought emotions of her brother and knowing better than to fuel the fire. “It wasn’t one of mine, Frank. Have either of you seen The Muppet Christmas Carol before today?” Christie and Ben shook their heads no. “And because you’ve just seen it I bet you can tell your uncle every bit of the story, now, to prove that you couldn’t have messed with the bear?” The nodded in the affirmative, and Ben launched in to the story for the captive but chastened Francis, with Christie correcting her brother now and again when one of the details wasn’t quite right.
Having established that Christie and Ben were outside observers and proven of their innocence, an investigation was launched. It was up to Christie now to unearth the truth. Jason had calmed down, the demise of the bear almost forgotten, and he invited a willing Ben to watch the Muppet movie again. Christie worked better alone anyway. She borrowed a notepad and pen from her grandfather and drew up the full list of those gathered for Christmas. After that she divided up those with an opportunity to commit the crime, and then those with a motive.
Christie quickly eliminated her mother, Uncle Francis and Auntie Rebecca from the list; they had all left the house before the bear’s last words were spoken. That left her father, both her grandparents, Fiona and Katie and Jason. Of those who had opportunity, only three had a clear motive – her dad Robert had been vocal about his antipathy of the bear only that morning, and had been giving out about it for most of the day before.
Grandad was known for his fondness of tinkering with mechanics, and while most of the other adults expressed either pride, indifference or distain over the bear, his immediate reaction was interest over its inner workings. Her grandmother had had the most visceral reaction to the bear; she’d shuddered and called it creepy, while she thought she was out of ear-shot on Christmas Day.
“I did not!” Granny exclaimed, upon questioning. She did. “I heard you when you were talking to Uncle Fergal and Uncle Jonas yesterday on FaceTime. You said you hated the bear, it gave you the creeps and it was like it was possessed.” Granny shifted uncomfortably, but defended herself. “Okay, I might have said that but it was only an off the cuff remark. Do you really think I’d do something like that to Jason?”
Christie considered her answer. “I’d like to believe you Granny, but you’re forgetting one thing.” “Which is?”
“The murder weapon belongs to you.”
Granny couldn’t disagree with that, and acquiesced while she excused herself from questioning in order to help Francis with preparing their traditional St. Stephen’s Day cold cut supper.
Christie decided to talk to Fiona and Katie next. At three years younger than the fifteen year olds, and unsure at most times how to interact with them, she was eager to get this interview out of the way. She knocked on the door of the room in which the three of them were staying. “What?” demanded her older sister, Katie. Fiona snickered. “I’m just inquiring as to your whereabouts at the time of the crime?”
“What crime, whatever happened to that bear? We were up here; we’ve been here all day.” Katie looked at her sister, challengingly. Fiona added “We were trying on outfits for our Instagram stories, we’d actually be able to prove we were here the whole time if we wanted to. Which we don’t.”
Christie excused herself, and decided to go with her gut instinct, which was that they were not involved. Any motive they would have had would have been purely mischief making, and neither were concerned enough with their younger siblings to bother going to the trouble of murdering a mechanical bear.
“Grandad, what were you doing between the hours of 2:30 and 4:00pm?”. “Well, first I put the lunch things away and then I loaded the dishwasher and then I came down to the study to work on my new project. I had Radio One on in the background, half listening really but picking up this and that. They were talking about Brexit yet again. I only came out when I heard the ruckus!”.
Christie had no reason to disbelieve his story, but to cover all bases she used the home computer to check the podcast version of the radio show that had been on earlier that day; it tallied with what her grandfather had said. There was no radio in the living room, so he couldn’t have heard the programme if he’d committed the crime. She drew a line through his name.
Robert was next. Christie found her father in the sitting room with Ben, watching a Christmas film on TV. “Dad, would you mind pausing that for a few minutes please, while I ask you a few questions?” He did as she asked, with bemusement. “Where were you this afternoon, while Mum was out?”. “Well, after finishing up lunch, and then struggling to keep it down, I decided a nap was the best thing for me. So I went up to my room to do that, and slept for about an hour. I woke up and checked my phone for the time; it was about 3:30pm. I went down to the kitchen for a glass of water, then back up again to read my book for a while and when the door slammed downstairs I came back down. Perfect timing, I’d just finished my chapter!”
Just as he’d finished giving his statement Fiona and Katie came bursting in to the room and an argument began about whose turn it was to watch television. “Still investigating, Christie?” Fiona inquired with a sneer, once she noticed her sister was also in the room, “Who cares anyway? It was a stupid annoying talking bear that was probably never going to make it out of the house anyway.” She turned to Fiona, “Imagine being stuck in the car and then A PLANE with it, morto!”, the girls descended in to giggles before resuming the fight over the remote control.
That was enough for Christie to get her heckles up. So Katie didn’t want the bear with her on the flight back home! Suspicious. Christie tip-toed to the door of the living room. Her mother was inside with Grandad and Rebecca enjoying a pre-supper prosecco and chatting contentedly among themselves. Dad was still holding his end of the battle in the sitting room so she raced upstairs to her parent’s bedroom, to where her mother’s phone was charging on the dressing table.
Christie entered the pin, which she’d noted when Martha entered it in one day last week, and clicked in to her mother’s Instagram account, the fake one she used to keep an eye on Fiona. She found Fiona’s Stories and sure enough, they concurred with Fiona and Katie’s version of events.
Carefully leaving the phone back where it was, and reminding herself to encourage her mother to change her password more regularly, she noticed a strange bulk beside the wastepaper bin. Looking closer, she saw what the bulk really was, and left it there with a shake of her head and a feeling of disappointment. That cleared one thing up. But there was still something niggling at her mind, telling her that the case wasn’t closed just yet.
Not five minutes later, the call came for supper. Francis and Granny had laid out a lovely spread, and the family gathered round. The adults took one end of the table while the teens and children occupied the other. Christie, as usual, was in the middle. As the cheery chatter surrounded her, she remained deep in thought, figuring out the mystery. She turned to her grandmother, who was seated beside her.
“I never asked, Granny. Where were you this afternoon?” “Oh, gosh, let’s see if I can remember. Once things had quietened down after lunch I kept Jason company for a while, while he played with the bear. We both got a bit sleepy so went down for a little snooze for an hour or so.”
“When we woke up Jason and I tottered down to the living room, where we found you and Ben.” Christie pushed her food around her plate, and frowned. “Did you have any good dreams?” “Why yes I had! We were all in some palace, and Martha was being sworn in as president…” Christie let her grandmother, infamous for her enthusiasm for telling people about her most recent dreams, continue as she herself put the final pieces of the puzzle together. “That, not he. It, not him!” she muttered under her breath.
Supper ended, and the clearing away was about to begin. “Before we do that, could I ask you all to join me in the living room? Just for five minutes?”, requested Christie. The family, each happy to leave the clear up for a while, followed her into the room next door. “I believe I know the full story of what happened to the bear, who had yet to find a name. A bear who was really annoying, yes, but didn’t have a chance to grow on any of us yet. Even Jason. A bear who didn’t deserve its grizzly end”. She’d been composing her speech while the rest finished their meal.
Francis was in agreement. “Indeed it did not, that thing cost, er, Santa, an arm and a leg!”
“We’re all aware of the cost, Francis, thanks, but was he really a toy, or a torture device? That yoke was an abomination,” said Robert. “Yes Dad, you really didn’t like it at all. Which is why”, intervened Christie, “It was you who took out the batteries.”
“Robert!” Martha proclaimed, “Is it true?” Robert, to his credit, blushed a little. “Okay, yes, I removed the batteries. Even from upstairs I could hear the thing piping up with no consistency or rhythm, it was driving me mad when I was trying to nap.”
“I went down to ask Jason to turn it off for a while, but he wasn’t even there playing with it! So when I couldn’t find the off switch, I’ll admit I snapped. I prized open the battery case and shook out the batteries. I was going to put them back, but then I came downstairs and everyone was there and someone said the wire had been cut. No point in putting the batteries back then. So I kept schtum. But it wasn’t me who cut the wire.”
“No.” Christie said, warming to her role. “That was someone with the least amount of impulse control in the house. The person who cut the wire was the very person who it would most effect, apart from Uncle Francis. It was… Jason!”. “Yah?” said Jason, who hadn’t been paying attention.
Rebecca faced her son. “Darling, did you really cut your bear’s wire? Why did you do that, he was your new friend!” Jason bristled, and burst in to tears. Through the hysterics it was confirmed in no uncertain terms that Jason was the culprit. He had woken up soon after he and his grandmother went down for their nap and had grown restless. He didn’t want to watch the film with his cousins, he’d seen it loads of times before, so took himself down to the living room.
When he got there he found that the bear wasn’t any use to him because it wasn’t moving or speaking or singing anymore. Boredom was making him bold, and he was about to start rustling through the wrapping paper that was all piled up, when he spotted the nail scissors and remembered that there was something loose hanging from the bear. So he just snipped it on impulse, then realising that it had been a bad idea, hot tailed it back to his grandmother’s side and pretended to go to sleep.
Granny, horrified by her part in the crime, gasped at the revelation, while the others congratulated Christie on her sleuthing skills. Robert, seeing a teaching moment earned from his bad behaviour, apologised for not telling her the truth and promised to do better in the future.
Martha took Christie aside to say well done on cracking the case. “How did you figure out it was Jason? That boy would make a career criminal. That poker face! Frank and Rebecca had better watch out for him,” she said, only half-jokingly.
“He called him ‘that’. The bear wasn’t his friend yet, he hadn’t even given him a name, and he treated it like any other toy when it wouldn’t move or talk to him.”
“Clever girl”, her mother said, admiringly. “You’re quite the observer.” Christie replied “I just wanted justice to be served. And something to do.”
Robert was punished for his part in the mystery by giving up all rights to the TV. Jason’s other Santa presents were confiscated until he learned the value of them, then given back one by one each time another set of waterworks was threatened. Granny felt guilty enough for leaving a sharp object within children’s reach that everyone know she wouldn’t do it again, and was let off the hook. As for the bear? Grandad’s hobby ensured that it was back working before supper had even been laid. But he wasn’t going to let anyone else know that until peace, and quiet, had been safely restored.