Christmas Short Story Competition - Winner

Damien McKeating

Last Christmas
Christmas Short Story Competition


Damien Mckeating was born and a short time after that he developed a love of fantasy and the supernatural. After studying screenwriting at university, he worked for a time as a radio copywriter, before becoming a teacher for children with special educational needs. He has written for radio, comics, film, prose, and worked as a lyricist and bass player for a peculiar folk band. He has short stories included in different anthologies, ranging from modern takes on Irish mythology to SF adventures for young readers. He is fond of corvids, writes daily, and is currently the oldest he has ever been.

Last Christmas By Damien McKeating

There was a chance they had grown wings and flown away.
Enid stood on her doorstep and looked at the footprints in the snow. It was deep, powdery snow, and although it wasn’t snowing now the gusts of wind sent ghostly billows swirling.
The footprints came up to her front door and then stopped. There were no footprints going back the other way.
Enid had noticed them from the bedroom window and almost ignored them, imagining the postman had called, before realising there was only one set. She remembered stories and tricks involving turning your shoes around or walking backwards to leave only one set of prints. Was someone playing a trick on her?
She closed the door, grabbed a blanket from the sofa and wrapped it around her shoulders. A chill had followed her inside and latched onto her bones. But the house was full of twinkling fairy lights, of a green tree in gleaming decorations, and the energetic beat of sixties rock from the digital radio. Between them and the blanket she was soon warm again.
A song on the radio caught her memory and she was pulled along in its current. The last Christmas she had seen her mother, they had been dancing together to it. Of course, mum had barely been able to dance, even though she’d been younger than Enid was now, but it had filled them both with such joy.
Enid smiled. It was, she confirmed to herself, a joyous memory and not a maudlin one. She felt fortunate to have happy memories of those who had gone on ahead of her.
The tablet on the kitchen counter chimed and she answered a video call.
‘Hi, Mum,’ Amanda called through the screen. For Enid it was a little like looking back in time: Amanda was slender and steely, with short, blonde hair, looking for all the world like Enid had done thirty years ago.
‘How are you?’ Enid asked.
‘Looking forward to seeing you soon. We’ll be over on Boxing Day, if that’s still all right?’
‘Wonderful. I’ll be here. Won’t be going anywhere else; the snow’s coming in thick. Hope you can still get through.’
‘We’ll make it. Josh’s kids still talk about last Christmas at great-grandma’s house. There’ll be lemon curd tarts, right? There might be a rebellion if not.’
‘I’ll make some fresh.’
‘How bad is the snow? Are you all right? Have you got everything you need?’
‘Oh, I’m fine. It’s like being young again, winters like this one. They told us the world was warming up,’ she joked. The rising temperatures had changed the ocean current, which had changed the weather. She saw Amanda frown. ‘You know I’m joking.’
‘Yeah, well, we won’t be joking if you get snowed in.’
‘My cupboards are fully stocked for a winter siege.’
There was a chorus of screams and shouts from off-screen. ‘I’d better deal with that,’ Amanda said. ‘Catch up later.’
‘Bye,’ Enid said as the call ended.
Enid spent the day prepping pastry and jams ready for baking. She made a vat of mulled cider, which she would slowly work her way through over the coming days, letting the warmth of cinnamon, orange and clove keep the winter bite at bay.
The house had been her parents’ and she’d moved back into it after they died. It was a house of memories. The brick and mortar were as much a cosy blanket as any knitted or stitched fabric. Her family was etched into the grain of the timbers. Amanda had always called it ‘Grandma’s house,’ and now her kids did the same. Different grandmas of course, but a legacy all the same.
There were more footprints in the morning. It had snowed in the evening and overnight, of that Enid was certain. The footprints also looked different, although of that she was less certain. She hadn’t thought to take a photograph for comparison.
Was someone playing a trick on her? If she had been a doddery old woman she might have considered it cruel. But she was sharp and had as good a sense of humour as she’d ever had.
One set of footprints leading up to her door and never leaving. Had they done it overnight, in the snow? Early in the morning?
Who came home at such an hour?
She caught the thought and turned it over in her mind. She found it odd that she considered it someone coming home. An odd turn of phrase. Maybe she had read it somewhere, and it had buried itself deep down in her subconscious.
It was Christmas Eve however, and she supposed everyone was welcome. In truth, the house never felt empty even with just herself in it. It was too full of family, from knick-knacks and photographs, to memories, to the sharp-soap smell of the laundry room, the smooth polish of the dining table, the soft rustle of the inherited curtains.
No, she was never alone.
She made herself a cup of Christmas mulled cider, and as she stirred the golden liquid she caught a hint of aniseed. The smell shocked her, made her heart lurch in her chest. It was the smell of dad’s tobacco. She remembered the hand-rolled cigarettes. He’d taught her how to do it for him and it had infuriated mum. She’d roll them while he was driving.
Enid realised her thumbs were rubbing against her fingers, just as if she was rolling a cigarette right now. She almost fooled herself she could feel the paper, so strong was the memory brought on by that sweet smell.
The chime of the tablet brought her back to the present. She answered a video call to Amanda, some grandchildren, and some great-grandchildren. There were screams of delight, children talking rapidly over each other, adults trying to make a salient point, or just rolling their eyes at the chaos.
Enid smiled. She swelled with happiness until she thought her chest could explode. Soon it would all descend on her house, their house, and she couldn’t wait.
‘Love you,’ everyone on the screen shouted.
Was there a better present at Christmas than the family coming together? Of course not, although it was a trite sentiment until you found the right perspective. Trite only because it was taken for granted, Enid thought.
With thoughts of family forefront in her mind, and the sharp scent of aniseed still in the air, the stories of the house told themselves to her as she climbed her way to bed. The notch in the banister rail; a DIY accident by her dad, which had become funny only because he narrowly avoided losing a finger. The porcelain plate painted with lilies, done by her great-grandmother when she had worked on the potbanks. The airing cupboard where the boiler had been, where Enid had been able to nestle inside when playing hide-and-seek. The front bedroom, the sight of births, deaths, consummations, illnesses, rows and reconciliations.
The words practically echoed around her. Voices of the past. Like an early Christmas gift, those tiny parcels of sound coming back to her.
She faltered, reaching out to the wall for support, happy beyond all expression. She realised she was crying and smiling.
‘Silly thing,’ she told herself, and it was her mother’s and her grandmother’s voice she heard. Their phrase, their intonation, in her mouth.
She slept a little and woke up while it was still dark. It was Christmas morning and there was a tingle of excitement in her bones. Once upon a time she had woken up like this, in her little bed in the back bedroom, and raced down the stairs to see what Father Christmas had left for her.
She felt the urge to do it now, even thought it was silly, or maybe because it was silly.
On a whim she peeked out of the window, wondering if she might catch the footprint culprit in the act. The world was quiet and night-time bright in that way that only snow can do.
The world was crisp and white over. The footprints were there. Two sets, leading away from the house.
Enid gasped.
She followed the track of the footprints to the edge of her garden and there, beyond the gate, stood two figures. Enid couldn’t see them clearly, but something about their shape was familiar.
Two figures who had walked away from her home.
She rushed down the stairs and flung open the front door. The figures were waiting for her. They sparkled with the snow-light, like shadows glittered with stars.
Enid took a tentative step towards them.
And another.
Another, faster.
Faster, still.
Until she ran to the tree dressed in winter and found her parents waiting for her. They looked like they had when she was young, in that ageless time when you never notice them change.
‘Hello, love,’ said her dad.
‘Merry Christmas,’ her mum smiled.
‘You came home,’ she said.
They embraced her and their warmth took her breath away.
‘We come to see you every year.’
‘We like seeing everyone.’
They each took hold of one of her hands. As gentle as always.
‘What are you doing here?’ Enid asked.
‘It’s time to go, love,’ said dad.
Enid shook her head. She looked back at the house. There were no footprints in the snow. Not even her own.
‘It was my last Christmas,’ she said.
‘Always is,’ said mum.
For a moment Enid worried about the family finding her there, lying peacefully in bed, looking for all the world like she might just be sleeping. Then she didn’t worry anymore.
They were gone.
No footprints in the snow.
They might have grown wings and flown away.  

Judges Comments

Christmas is a time for many things: family, rituals, songs, traditions... and ghost stories. All of these seasonal elements are beautifully combined in Last Christmas, Damien McKeating's winning entry in WM's Christmas Short Story Competition.

It's such a warm, atmospheric story that Damien has almost made it possible for the reader to see Enid and the inside of her house. Each detail adds something important to what we need to know about her; everything is suggested; nothing is spelled out. It all adds to the sense of intimacy the story generates. In the same way, Damien has shown the nuances of his central character. We know she's elderly because of her carefully chosen name and the fact that's she's got great-grandchildren. But she's lively, and sprightly, happy with video calls, cooking up a feast in her kitchen.

We know, too, that the house is a happy family home full of memories – and therefore, in a sense, haunted, in a happy way. And we know right from the beginning that this warm story has an otherworldly element to it, although it gets – as its writer intends – pushed to the back of Enid's, and the reader's mind, by the cosy busyness of preparing for Christmas. Damien has placed all the elements of his story together to create the internal logic that allows him to step sure-footedly from apparent realism to a haunting magic.

The perfectly paced ending, which feels as soft, and gentle – and inexorable – as the falling snow, brings everything together. It's a poignant story and it will bring a lump to the reader's throat but it's far from being a sad one. Warm and uplifting, it conveys the spirits of Christmas in every winning line.


Runner-up and shortlisted
Runner-up in the Christmas story competition was Melanie Rowsell-Docherty, North Walsham, Norfolk, whose story is published on
Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull, Humberside; Dianne Bown-Wilson, Drewsteignton, Exeter; Shan Croxson, Clevedon, North Somerset; Christine Griffin, Hucclecote, Gloucestershire; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; GP Hyde, Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire; Jeanette Lowe, Sheffield, South Yorkshire; Vivienne Moles, Sandown, Isle of Wight; Helen Rogers, Whitley Bay, Tyneside.