Erik Lehnsherr was famous throughout the neighbourhood for his Christmas lights.
In one way this was surprising, since he was naturally Scrooge-like and determinedly Jewish. In another way it wasn’t surprising at all, because he was a man very much in love.
It was their first Christmas together, and Charles was firm on the subject of lights. He liked them, he wanted them, and they were Erik’s job.
This caused an argument that lasted for approximately twenty seconds.
Erik’s statement was as follows: ‘I’m not having a giant glowing Santa on my roof. If you want a hideous light display you can do it yourself.’
Charles’s rebuttal was contained within a single speaking look. It pointed out that he, Charles, was the one who would be cooking the mince pies and the turkey, and covering for Erik’s grouchiness parties, and buying the necessary cards and gifts for Erik’s friends and employees, and doing absolutely everything else, and Erik could choose between putting up the damn lights or never having sex again.
Unsurprisingly, Erik growled and capitulated. He comforted himself by vowing that he wouldn’t do anything remotely involving Santa or snowmen. There were standards of taste to maintain. In the end he decided to go for something geometric. Artistic. Subtle.
Strangely enough, the design required more lights than he expected. They were hideously expensive. It took a whole weekend to put them up and he nearly killed himself twice falling of the roof. By the time he finally flipped the switch he’d developed a baleful hatred for the whole concept of Christmas lights. He called Charles outside, glaring up at the display with the grim knowledge that not only would he have to take them down in a month, but he would have to do it all over again next year.
Charles poked his head out of the door, the smell of cookies wafting after him. ‘Oh, are you done, love?’ he said. ‘Let’s see.’ He slipped his feet into a pair of Erik’s shoes and shuffled down the path. Then he turned to look.
For a long time he didn’t say anything.
Erik shifted uncomfortably. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Did I do it wrong?’
‘No,’ Charles said, in a choked little voice. He reached out to grip Erik’s hand and shot him what might have been a smile if it wasn’t so shaky. ‘They’re very beautiful, Erik, thank you.’
He wiped away a single, glistening tear.
In that moment, Erik might have become just a little more enthusiastic about Christmas lights than Charles had intended.
Every Christmas after that Erik designed a bigger and better display. Charles walked in and out of the house with his eyes firmly on the sidewalk until it was finished. Every year more neighbours gathered for the ceremonial switch-on. People walking past the house at night would stop and stare, and sometimes Erik would hear their little ooohhs of admiration.
Charles told him he was insufferably smug, but he said it fondly.
It was all going swimmingly, until the year the Shaws moved in across the street.
Charles rather liked them. They seemed a nice enough couple. The husband shook hands a little too vigorously, had what might have been a creepy smile if you weren’t used to Erik, and gave a vague impression of being a homicidal maniac. The wife’s smile was apparently painted on and never reached her eyes. Now and then her expression suggested that something nearby smelled bad, and she thought it might be Charles.
Still, a nice enough couple.
As far as he could tell, Erik hadn’t even registered their existence. But when Charles came home one day and saw what had appeared on their roof, he had a sinking feeling that the situation was about to change.
‘Snowmen,’ Erik snapped, striding in with his coat swirling, his scarf flying and snowflakes sparkling in his hair. ‘Fucking snowmen.’
‘That wouldn’t be a very child-friendly Christmas display,’ Charles said, coming up to kiss him. Yes there was about to be trouble, but angry Erik was exceedingly sexy. Possibly the explosion could be averted by nudity. He instantly stripped off everything he was wearing and then, at Erik’s raised eyebrow, put the kitchen apron back on.
The next few minutes were enjoyable. Charles was optimistic, until a woman’s voice drifted through the slightly open window. ‘Oh, look, kids,’ she said, ‘how beautiful!’
To Charles’s extreme displeasure Erik stopped what he was doing, peeked out through the curtains and snarled like a feral beast.
The little family had their backs to the Xavier-Lehnsherr household.
They were looking at the Shaws’.
‘I have to do something better,’ Erik said. Obviously he wasn’t going to stand for this. His lights were works of art, symbolic of his pure and abiding love for his husband. He was not going to let them be upstaged by crass and tacky snowmen.
‘I know, love,’ Charles said, ‘but don’t you think taking a day off work is a little extreme? It could wait until the weekend, surely.’
One of Charles’s very few flaws was that he had no sense of priorities. ‘The weekend is days away,’ Erik pointed out. ‘He’ll think he’s won.’
Charles sighed. ‘It’s not a competition.’
Sometimes Erik wondered how anyone could be quite so naïve.
At the end of his day off, Erik looked with satisfaction at his new design. He looked down at Charles, who was sniffling against his shoulder, and around at the admiring clusters of neighbours. Then he looked across at Shaw. The man was standing in his doorway, eyeing the display with derision. He gave Erik a brief, amused nod and went back inside, slamming the door firmly behind him.
The next night, Shaw’s roof had sprouted a full-sized Santa complete with sleigh, reindeer and presents.
Erik ground his teeth. Oh, it was most definitely a competition.
It was a war.
‘I always knew he’d crack,’ Raven said with satisfaction. ‘That man has anger issues.’
‘Really, Raven,’ Charles admonished, ‘you do exaggerate. It’s a friendly rivalry, that’s all.’ Erik was a sweet, gentle man who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Charles wasn’t sure why other people failed to see this.
‘You didn’t see the gestures he was making with his power tool,’ Raven said, smirking.
Charles took his latest batch of cookies out of the oven and set them to cool on the counter. Unfortunately the only cookie cutters he’d been able to find in the cupboard were snowman-shaped. To avoid unnecessary tensions he planned on decorating them with tiny chromosomes and telling Erik they were diagrams of cell division.
‘He’s getting a smidgen more involved than perhaps I would like,’ he hedged.
‘He’s been sitting in a tree for the past four hours in the freezing cold,’ Raven said. ‘That’s not involved. That’s obsessed.’
‘Have a cookie,’ Charles said gloomily.
The decorated tree was exceptionally pretty, hung with glittering strands of light that sparkled against the snow. Everyone who passed remarked on it. Shaw looked grim.
He retaliated with a giant inflatable snowman, almost as tall as the house. Children ran up to touch it with glowing smiles on their little faces. Erik’s glower became more dangerous by the minute.
Erik put up sparkling glass decorations that cast rainbows across the dark streets.
Shaw wheeled in a dozen animatronic elves.
Erik created a representation of rebirth made from fruits encased in ice.
Shaw countered with a Santa-hatted polar bear, surrounded by penguins. Charles was a little puzzled by that one.
When Charles passed Mrs Shaw on the street, he was astonished to see her icy façade crack for a moment. She gave him a tiny grimace of fellow feeling and strode on, somehow managing to walk effortlessly through the snow in six-inch stiletto heels.
Charles smiled. He’d made a friend.
In the depths of night, Erik got out his plan of campaign and reviewed his potential next moves. His adversary was both cunning and resourceful, but he was by no means beaten yet. He gazed down at Charles’s peacefully sleeping form.
‘For you, my love,’ he whispered, getting out his welding tools.
Charles did seem impressed when he saw the latest creation. He also seemed a little bemused.
‘Are you sure it’s safe, though?’ he said, shivering in the cold, cookie-dough-covered spoon still clasped in one hand.
‘Of course it’s safe,’ Erik said. ‘They’re only lasers. Alex made them for me. I did the metalwork,’ he added hurriedly. He certainly deserved the majority of the credit.
‘Well… I suppose you know what you’re doing.’
Erik smiled and pulled Charles in close to his chest so they were huddled together inside Erik’s coat. There was no way Shaw could possibly beat that. He took the spoon and held it to Charles’s mouth. They took turns nibbling cookie dough and kissing, bathed in the spiralling lights from the sculpture.
‘Oh dear,’ Charles said, looking despairingly out of the window. ‘Oh bugger.’
Shaw had obviously been stumped by the lasers. He and Erik had had an altercation earlier in the day, with Shaw calling Erik’s abstract designs a disgrace to the true spirit of Christmas, and Erik yelling back that Shaw’s were pathetic pieces of materialistic tat.
Erik had come off smugly the victor, which was nice, because it put him in the mood for a marathon sex session. Charles had made the most of it, a fact he was now very glad of. Sex might be a rare commodity until Erik found a way to be revenged for this outrage.
Charles pulled on his coat, hat, gloves, two scarfs and fur-lined wellington boots. He ventured outside and stared up at the opposite roof, as though the garish, glowing menorah might turn out to be some kind of optical illusion.
Really, it was taking things a little too far.
The Shaws’ red, wreath-decorated front door opened. Mrs Shaw fixed Charles with her chilly blue gaze. ‘Coffee?’ she called.
‘Darling, what on earth are these?’
‘They’re dividing cells,’ Charles said sheepishly. ‘Well, not really. Actually, they’re snowmen in disguise. It’s a sensitive subject in our house.’
Emma Shaw sighed. ‘You don’t need to tell me,’ she said. ‘Sebastian stole my laser pointer earlier and stamped on it. He’s convinced himself that lasers are anti-Christmas.’
Charles dipped his disfigured snowman into his coffee. ‘I don’t know how much more of this I can take.’
It was time to take a stand, Erik thought furiously. No more Mister Nice Guy.
‘What about peace on earth and goodwill to men?’ Charles asked, huddling resentfully under the duvet.
There was a pathetic note in his voice and a pout on his face that would usually have crumbled Erik’s resolve. But not this time. Erik was all for goodwill to men. Shaw, however, wasn’t a man. He was a vile, demonic creature from hell, without a shred of either human decency or aesthetic taste. ‘Goodwill was never an option,’ he said through gritted teeth.
‘Couldn’t we have sex instead?’
‘Sex was never an…’
‘Oh Erik, for goodness sake,’ Charles huffed. ‘Look at yourself.’
Erik looked at himself in the mirror. He thought it was quite effective, with his sleek black outfit and the balaclava covering his face. ‘It’s camouflage,’ he said. ‘Perfect for night work.’
‘There are streetlights,’ Charles said wearily. ‘There’s snow on the ground. Everything’s white.’
‘Do you have anything I could borrow?’ he asked.
‘No, Erik.’ Charles’s voice was calm, firm and reasonable. ‘Absolutely not. You’re not going out wearing a sheet with eyeholes cut in it.’
Erik adjusted the drape of his camouflage and grinned his most vicious grin, not caring that it was obscured by high-thread-count cotton. ‘I think you’ll find that I am,’ he said. ‘That snowman is going down.’
Early the next morning Charles woke to the sound of voices. Two extremely angry voices, just outside the window.
Getting unwillingly out of bed, he wrapped himself in a dressing gown and put on his favourite fluffy bunny slippers. In the kitchen he made a pot of tea and ate two slices of toast and honey. Then he poured himself a second cup of tea and, gathering his nerve and his patience, opened the front door.
Things were worse than he’d expected. Erik was standing protectively in front of his sculpture. Shaw was advancing, bearing a sledgehammer.
‘Snowman murderer!’ Shaw roared.
‘It deserved to die,’ Erik yelled. ‘Do your worst, you no-talent hack!’
Shaw raised the sledgehammer. Charles squeaked with panic and ran out into the yard. ‘Erik, be the better man!’ he called.
‘I already am!’
Erik careened into Shaw, grappling for the sledgehammer, and they both smashed into the sculpture. There was the sizzle of a power overload. The lasers swung menacingly to point directly at Charles.
The pained cry seemed to cut to Erik’s very soul. Charles’s blue eyes glistened. His lip trembled. He sniffed, cradling his hand.
Erik was at his side in a second. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he gasped. He grabbed at Charles’s hand, inspecting the tiny burn-mark on the smooth skin.
Shaw had hurt Charles. Shaw was evil incarnate and had to be wiped from the face of the earth.
‘You did this!’ Erik howled across the snowy yard.
‘Oh, please,’ Charles said sourly, ‘he didn’t do this, Erik. You did.’ He flounced into the house, slamming the door behind him.
‘Come on, sweetheart,’ Erik said through the letter box. ‘Please let me in, I’m sorry.’
Charles’s voice was a little muffled, but infused with all the Xavier family dignity and a splash of furious resentment for good measure. ‘You may send Emma over here,’ he said, ‘and then you may go and wrap yourself up in your own horrible Christmas lights, because that is the only kind of embrace you will be getting for a very long time.’
Dignity was all very well, Charles thought, but one could only keep it up for so long.
‘He ruined Christmas!’ he wailed, burying his face in the sofa cushions.
‘There, there, sugar,’ Emma said, patting him gently on the back. ‘Men are bastards. I brought vodka.’
Charles sobbed gently while he considered the wisdom of this suggestion. ‘It’s seven in the morning,’ he said eventually.
‘Do you have tomato juice?’
‘That will do nicely.’
Erik glared across the street at Shaw.
After Emma had stormed out of the house it had been a little amusing watching the man try his front door and find it locked. But with each of them sitting and shivering on their steps Erik couldn’t feel remotely superior.
He’d dismantled the laser sculpture. Shaw had cleared away the corpse of the snowman. Now there wasn’t much else to do.
Erik got to his feet and prowled around the yard. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Shaw prowling too. Somehow their prowling took them both out onto the sidewalk and then into the street, where they exchanged glares and muttered insults that finally petered out into silence.
‘I’m freezing my balls off out here,’ Shaw said. ‘Wives, eh.’
‘Husbands,’ Erik agreed. Shaw might be his deadliest enemy, but there had to be some solidarity between men kicked out of the house by their spouses.
Shaw shrugged, looking a little rueful. ‘This happens to me a lot. I keep a crate of beer hidden in the shed.’
‘It’s seven in the morning,’ Erik objected.
Emma had interesting ideas about the mixing of vodka and blueberry smoothie. They tried it in various proportions. They tried adding lemonade for a long cocktail, and cream for a short one. They garnished with fruit and umbrellas, then, when they ran out of smoothie, it seemed sensible to just curl up on the couch and polish off the vodka.
‘We met at a swimming pool,’ Charles said, trying hard to make sure that all the words came out in the right order. ‘I wasn’t looking where I was going, and we got a little bit tangled up. And then we wanted to stay that way and they threw us out.’
Emma smiled. ‘We met on a submarine. It wasn’t as kinky as it sounds.’
‘It doesn’t sound kinky.’
‘Doesn’t it?’ Emma said, mistily nostalgic. ‘In which case it was much kinkier than it sounds.’
Charles tried and failed to imagine this, considered asking, and decided ignorance was probably bliss. ‘How long have they been out there?’ he asked instead. ‘What if they froze to death?’
Emma pondered this slowly. Outside the window, a car horn honked.
It honked again. Odd, Charles thought. Their road didn’t go anywhere in particular. Cars almost never passed. Traffic jams were unheard of.
‘Emma,’ he said, as the honking rose to a cacophony, ‘what do you think they’ve been doing all this time?’
The singing, Erik decided, was the best part of the plan. He hated Christmas songs. Charles knew that, so he’d understand the sacrifice Erik was making.
Erik wanted Silent Night, sung in German, because that was the least tasteless thing he could think of. Shaw held out for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Eventually they worked out a mash-up version that sounded pretty good.
What with that and the gigantic combined light display stretching across the street from one house to the other, Erik was confident that he would soon be forgiven.
Emma pointed out of the window. Then she fell over laughing.
‘Schlaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaf in hiiiimmlischer Ruuuuuuuuh!’ carolled Erik.
‘Will go down in histooooryyyyyyyyyyy!’ warbled Shaw.
‘Get this fucking thing out of the road!’ yelled several angry motorists.
Charles scurried out of the door so fast that he lost a bunny slipper on the way. ‘What are you doing?’ he called frantically, hopping over the last few yards on one leg.
It is unwise to hop over treacherous snow-covered ground after consuming a considerable quantity of vodka. He went barrelling full tilt into Erik, and they ended up sprawled in a heap.
‘…O wie lacht Lieb' aus deinem göttlichen Mund…’ Erik crooned into his ear. ‘Look, Charles, do you see how much I love you?’
Charles pouted irritably. Then he looked up at the display, where snowmen and elves mixed with flowing, formlessly beautiful lines of light. As crazy as it might seem, he had to admit that yes, he kind of did.
‘I suppose it demonstrates the Christmas spirit,’ he said unwillingly.
He let Erik cuddle him and kiss his injured hand better. Then he demanded that all other bits should be kissed better too. They left Emma directing traffic and shouting orders to Shaw, and Erik carried Charles over the threshold, watched by the lone bunny slipper sitting soulfully in the snow.
ONE YEAR LATER
‘I did enjoy last year,’ Charles said, giggling, ‘especially when you sang for me. But this is better.’
Erik smiled and snuggled them closer together on the sofa. His latest design was a triumph. Charles had taken to sitting in precisely this spot and staring across the street at it, sipping hot chocolate and occasionally wiping his eyes.
‘You really don’t mind that we have Santa on our roof?’ Charles asked again.
‘Not at all,’ Erik said, and he meant it. The Shaws were standing in their window, looking towards the Xavier-Lehnsherr household, where all the crass materialism of Christmas was carefully displayed. They seemed to get a kick out of it, and Erik still owed Shaw something for dismantling an entire lighting display while being harried by an angry mob. ‘I can cope with Santa, so long as we don’t have any cutesy snowman cookies,’ he said, munching on mitosis.
‘No, love,’ Charles said happily, ‘of course not.’