Candy Canes, Comics, and Christmas
by Gary McKay
I met Marlene atop Lily Hill on December 17th 1983, two weeks after my tenth birthday. The news of the Harrods bombing — the IRA’s crime against Christmas — was all the talk in Ballykey that afternoon, but I was too young to understand. I’d popped out to get some sweets and on a whim, decided to climb Lily Hill while the weather wasn’t awful. This was one of my favourite places to read superhero comics in peace — at home, Ma told me I was filling my head with nonsense and at school, both the boys and girls teased me. It’s grown in popularity in recent years as a tourist destination, but back then, not many people came to Lily Hill, which suited me just fine.
I didn’t realise someone was already there until I rounded the final bend of the hill. It was a girl with short, blonde hair, dressed in a jumper and skirt. A necklace with a series of stars on it hung from her neck. I paused and considered retreating, but she’d seen me. The girl waved and skipped over before I could move.
“I’m new in town.”
I nodded, unsure what else to say.
“Do you like comics?”
She’d seen my Spider-Man bag.
Tentatively, I nodded again and waited for the insults to fly. I was tired of being told superhero comics weren’t for girls — that I should stick to Bunty, Barbie dolls and unicorns. Why couldn’t I enjoy what I wanted in peace?
The girl’s face lit up with the brightest smile I’d ever seen — even her eyes seemed to glow for a second. “That’s so cool! I love superheroes!”
My mouth opened, but no words came out. I’d never met another girl who liked superheroes and feared I never would — not in Ballykey, anyway.
“I’m Marlene, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you, super Annie!”
I grinned. No one had ever called me that before. I fished in my bag and pulled out a well-worn Batman issue.
“Do you wanna read this with me?”
We skipped over to a tree and spent the afternoon reading comics beneath it. I didn’t have a best friend — had never had one — but by the end of that afternoon I knew Marlene was mine.
It was also the start of my most important Christmas tradition.
“What if Batman and Spider-Man got into a fight?”
Marlene and I were huddled over an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in her room, listening to the rain beat against the roof — a typical summer’s day in Northern Ireland.
I shrugged. “Spidey would win. No bother.”
“Hmm.” Marlene chewed reflectively on a candy cane, of which she had a seemingly never-ending supply — whatever the season, a candy cane was rarely far from her mouth. “Batman might have a cool gadget to stop him, though.”
“What, a can of spider-repellent bat spray?”
Marlene giggled. Last month, a nearby cinema screened the 1966 Batman film starring Adam West and Burt Ward, as part of the run-up to the release of the new Batman film in August. Marlene and I pooled our pocket money together, and had just enough for two tickets, popcorn and the return bus fare. So far, it’d been the highlight of an uneventful 1989 — particularly the part where Batman fought off a shark with a can of bat spray.
“Do you think the new one’ll be any good, Annie?”
“Well, the costume will do rightly, but Michael Keaton doesn’t have much of a chin.” I smirked. “Nice arse, though.”
Marlene opened her mouth to reply, but coughed instead.
“You okay, Marl?”
She nodded and looked mournfully at the candy cane now in bits on the floor.
Outside, the rain — somehow — intensified.
I glanced at the window and froze. The wall wasn’t there anymore. I stared through the hole in the house at the outside world and tried to understand what’d happened. How could a wall disappear?
My head throbbed — a deep, sharp pain that forced my eyes shut. When I opened them again a moment later, the wall was back. I leaned over and put my hand against it. It was solid. I waited for it to disappear again, but nothing happened. I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, but that’d never caused hallucinations before.
“You okay, Annie?”
I felt Marlene’s hand on my shoulder and turned to look at her.
“Yeah, just, the wall . . . ”
“What about it?”
“It . . . ” I considered how silly I’d sound if I said it’d disappeared and decided it must’ve been the lack of sleep, after all. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, let’s get back to the comic.”
Later, when I was getting ready to go home for dinner, I lingered in the hall, looking at the pictures on the wall. There was a collection of drawings of space, and several pictures of Marlene, but none of her parents.
“Your parents are wile camera shy, aren’t they?”
“I guess so.” Her brow furrowed. “Annie?”
“One day I’m gonna up and disappear.”
“What d’you mean?” She was always coming out with stuff like that. Ma said she was a space cadet — prophetic words, as it turned out.
“One day I’ll be here, the next I won’t.” She shivered. “Like snow when the sun comes out.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Not sure how else to react, I laughed, but almost five months later Marlene was gone.
“Ah, Marlene, you’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle if you eat all that muck.”
We’d been home for less than ten minutes before I felt completely mortified — impressive, even by Ma’s standards. We were sitting around the dinner table, about to get stuck into our gravy chips, when Marlene produced a hefty bag of grapes: her after-dinner snack.
“Help yourself, Mrs Blair.” Marlene gestured at the smiling Santa on the box. “They’re festive!”
“I’ll pass, if it’s all the same to you, dear.” After Da, the greatest lover of grapes I’d ever known, ran off with his secretary, Ma swore off them for life — a vow she successfully kept. “Just don’t banjax my loo, will you?”
Marlene replied unintelligibly, mouth already crammed full of chips. I laughed, almost choking in the process, and dinner passed without further comment.
“You girls off out?”
Ma was in the living room, watching her soaps. As I wrapped my scarf around my neck, a high-pitched woman called another a slag and received a pint in the face for her troubles. A pretty standard day on Albert Square.
“Yeah, Ma.” I frowned at a hole in my gloves. “Fancy stretching our legs.”
“You better wrap up warm.” She rose and joined us in the hall. “You sure you’ll be okay, Marlene? That chest of yours — what would your parents . . . ” She grimaced and rubbed her forehead.
She waved a hand dismissively. “It’s Baltic out, girls.”
“It’s just a quick dander up the hill, Mrs Blair. Festive tradition!” Marlene patted her thick jacket — embroidered with a pair of prancing reindeer on the back — and grinned. “Dasher and Dancer will keep me toasty.”
Ma looked unconvinced. “You look after her, Annie.”
I wrapped my arm around Marlene’s and we skipped along the hall, merrily singing Jingle Bells. Laughing, Ma called us a couple of space cadets and returned to her soaps.
The snow caught us by surprise halfway up Lily Hill. The forecast said it’d fall on December 18th, two days from now; no wonder Ma called weathermen buck eejits every chance she got. When she was dying — a slow, awful time — she pulled me close and pointed to the man with the perfect teeth gesticulating in front of a map of the UK.
“Biggest buck eejit I’ve ever had the misfortune of laying my eyes on and I’ve known a few in my time, let me tell you.”
She had, at that, and probably would’ve counted me in their number, were I not her daughter. Instead, up until the day she died, I was a silly wain. That evening, when I returned home drenched from head to toe, I was a silly wain who should know better than to go traipsing around Lily Hill in the cold and snow.
But wild horses couldn’t have gotten Marlene down from that hill. Not in winter and especially not when it was snowing.
“Snow!” Marlene caught a snowflake in her hand and grinned. “It’s freezing!”
“Aye, Marl, snow tends to be cold.”
She stuck her tongue out and I reciprocated.
Near the top of the hill, snow from the previous day lay over the grass. We looked at each other, then dove to the ground and started scrunching snow in our fists. I threw the first snowball — a wild effort that comfortably sailed over Marlene’s head. Her retaliation, a beauty of a shot, caught me square in the face and I gasped from the shock of the cold.
“Look alive, super Annie!”
After an exchange of fire that lasted a few minutes, we called a truce and completed our ascent of Lily Hill, laughing and shivering. Atop the hill, we took cover beneath a tree — the same one as in 1983 — and looked at Ballykey below, lit up like a budget Christmas tree. Marlene produced a candy cane from her bag and passed me one. We tapped them together six times and popped them in our mouths.
“Imagine if we had Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, Marl. We could go anywhere in the world. Imagine Christmas in Australia — we could sunbathe!”
“Don’t think gingers do all that well in Australia, Annie.”
“Oi!” I laughed. “Maybe Germany, then.” In the school library, I’d read about different Christmas traditions from around the world and liked the sound of Germany’s.
“I think I’d spend all my Christmases here, if I could.”
“In Ballykey?” I snorted in disbelief. “Catch yourself on, Marl — it’s freezing and nothing fun ever happens here.”
“I like the cold and the quiet. It feels right for Christmas. Besides, hot chocolate wouldn’t be the same if it was warm outside. I — ”
Marlene coughed violently. Her candy cane shot out of her mouth and she doubled over.
“Marl!” I put an arm around her, cursing myself for not listening to Ma. “Are you okay?”
She took a series of shuddering breaths. “I’m okay, Annie.” Another painful cough shook her body. “I’m okay.”
Marlene wasn’t okay. She hadn’t been okay for a while. We’d been best friends for six years and until last summer, I’d never even heard her cough, despite her dandering around the place in all weather. Since then, she’d been plagued by a never-ending cold that seemed to get worse with each passing month. She’d had a good week — Christmas always brightened her spirits — but I should’ve known better.
“Marl, have you seen a doctor or something?”
She squeezed my arm. “It’s just a cold. Don’t worry.”
“We should go.”
“Not yet. Let’s sit a wee while longer.”
“Five minutes, then we’re off — I’ll carry you on my back if I have to.”
I exhaled and watched the air waft away, wondering what sort of cold lasts for months and months. Surely her parents were worried? A sharp pain crossed my forehead and I winced.
“What’re you getting for Christmas, Annie?”
I blinked. The pain was gone.
“Dunno. Probably comics and stuff.” Ma’s resistance to superhero comics had weakened since I’d met Marlene. I’d even caught her reading a Wonder Woman issue last year. “What about you?”
“Same, I guess.” She relaxed against me. “I’m so glad I met you, super Annie.”
We sat together in silence for some time, perfectly at peace with the world and each other.
It’s one of my favourite memories.
“I’m off, Ma,” I shouted from the hall to be heard above the kitchen radio. “See you later!”
“Wile early, isn’t it?”
“I’m gonna meet Marl before school.”
Ma opened the kitchen door. “Is that a new mate of yours?”
“What?” I was dumbfounded. “Marlene? Marlene Martin? My best friend?”
“I didn’t think you had a best friend, dear.”
“We . . . we ate chips here yesterday!”
Ma shook her head. “Aye, me and you did, but there was no Marlene there.” She moved into the hall. “Are you okay, Annie?”
“Ma . . . are . . . are you on something?” She’d hit the bottle hard after the divorce, but as far as I knew hadn’t had a drop in years. “You’ve not had wine, have you?”
Her face flushed red with fury. “Clear off, you wee shit, before I clip your ear!”
I fled out the front door and ran to Winell Street, where I was to meet Marlene.
She wasn’t there.
Marlene wasn’t at school either. They didn’t even call her name during the class attendance check. I considered speaking up, but something stopped me. Instead, during break time, I approached Shannon McKendry, who sat beside Marlene during chemistry, and asked if she’d heard anything about her.
Shannon shook her head. “Sorry, Annie. No clue who that is.” Mock concern appeared in her voice. “Maybe you need Spider-Man to help you out, like. Could buck you while he’s at it too.”
Dazed, I wandered off, Shannon’s shrill laughter ringing in my ears.
The remainder of the school day passed painfully slowly.
After school, with more fear than I’d ever known in my life, I ran to Glen Drive, where Marlene lived. She had to be there. The cold or whatever it was had gotten worse, and her parents had kept her off school. It made sense.
But why had everyone forgotten her?
I remembered last summer — the disappearing wall and what Marlene said to me as I was leaving.
One day I’m gonna up and disappear.
This recurred over and over in my mind as I ran, scaring me more each time until I was shaking with fear.
Ten minutes after leaving school, I staggered to a halt on Glen Drive and looked for Marlene’s house, number seventeen.
It wasn’t there.
Glen Drive stopped at number sixteen and next to that was an overgrown field. I stared at it for several minutes, hearing the thump of my heart. First the wall, now the entire house. A scream was building in my throat. I clamped my hands over my mouth and breathed through my nose. Losing control now wouldn’t help Marlene, wherever she was.
I looked behind me and my eyes widened.
Of course, where else would she be?
I climbed Lily Hill as fast as I could, falling several times in my haste, feeling like I was moving in a dream. The thought brought me to a halt, halfway up the hill. I’d been so swept up in everything, it’d never occurred to me this could all be some awful dream. I pinched myself hard and willed the world around me to fade to nothingness, but nothing happened.
I resumed climbing and, as I had six years ago, I rounded the final bend of Lily Hill and saw Marlene, dressed in a jumper and skirt. I stopped dead. Marlene turned and smiled. Her cheeks and forehead were cracked like old porcelain, and a yellowish-white light shone from the cracks. She groaned and clutched her chest.
I ran towards her and halted just short of the light’s reach.
“Annie.” Her voice sounded strained, as if speaking required a great effort. “You came. I’m so glad.”
“Marl . . . what . . . ” I took a step closer. I’d expected the light to be dazzling, but it didn’t even make me blink. “What’s wrong?”
“My time’s almost up.”
“Don’t be silly — you’re only 16! We’ll . . . we’ll go to a hospital . . . ” I took her hand. It was roasting. “Get you some help. The doctors will know what to do.”
She shook her head.
“Come on, you can’t just . . . ” I pulled her hand. She didn’t move. “I can carry you . . . I . . . please, let me help you. Please . . . ” I couldn’t hold the tears back any longer and they fell in ugly sobs. “Marl.”
“Annie.” She reached a hand forward and touched my cheek. “Let’s not waste this time. Sit with me. Please?”
I wiped my face on my blazer’s sleeve and took a deep breath.
“Five minutes, then I’m getting you to a doctor.”
“Five minutes.” She sighed. “Yes, that sounds about right.”
I helped Marlene beneath our tree and held her against me, despite the heat. Ballykey, still largely covered in yesterday’s snow, looked the perfect picture of tranquillity. It didn’t seem fair that anywhere could be at peace while Marlene was suffering, least of all Ballykey.
“I hoped I’d last until Christmas. It’d have been lovely to sing some carols. Oh, and the dinner.” Marlene licked her lips. “I sure love brussels sprouts.” She coughed and her body trembled.
“Sure, you can have as many as you want.” My voice wobbled. “Hundreds, if you like. No bother.”
She shook her head.
“I don’t understand!”
“I was never really here, Annie. Just passing through.”
“What does that mean?” I thought of Ma, and Sharon, and Glen Drive, and shivered. “You’re right here.” I squeezed her. “See? You’re here and I’m here, and . . . and . . . ” I pulled two candy canes out of my bag and waved them in front of her face. “Your favourite, look. And . . . you . . . ”
“Annie, listen to me: I’m stardust, drifting through.”
“This is my Christmas gift for you.”
Marlene touched my forehead and stars exploded into life around me — beauty beyond words. The universe was awash with colour against a black backdrop. I craned my neck to watch a comet zoom past, its core an eerie green, followed by a blue and grey tail that lingered after the comet was out of sight. I smiled, remembering last year, when Marlene, Ma, and I stayed up late to watch a lunar eclipse. We’d devoured a special midnight picnic beneath the full moon and eaten so much cake our stomachs were still sore the next day.
The images continued: wonders and marvels I’ll remember until my dying breath, including a series of green stars that aligned themselves perfectly like a Christmas tree. Behind them, a sun exploded and was reborn.
Everywhere and everything was stardust, in the end.
Beautiful, perfect stardust.
The universe faded away, yet with its beauty had also come understanding.
“That was you, Marl.”
Marlene nodded. “I always wanted to know what it’d be like to have a life like this, on a planet. I passed many in my travels.” She smiled. “Your loneliness drew me to you, Annie, and I couldn’t have asked for a better friend.”
“But you aged.”
“I can alter my form, as I need to, and take all the knowledge I need from the world around me — that’s how I knew about comics.”
“What about your parents?”
“I warped the world around me. No one ever actually saw my parents, they just thought they did. It hurt people to think about them for long, so they generally didn’t.”
It was obvious now she’d said it, but it’d never occurred to me before that I’d never seen her parents. “There was a house, though. I was in it.”
“Pure starlight given form, for as long as I could sustain it.”
“It’s just a field now.”
“And everyone . . . ”
“They’ve forgotten me.”
A terrible thought struck me. “Will I?”
“No, not unless you want to.”
“I’m glad.” Her eyes were incredibly bright. “It’s almost time.”
“Don’t go, Marl. Stay here, with me.” I shuddered and felt fresh tears fall. “Please.”
“I’m sorry . . . I wish I could.” Shining tears glistened on her cheeks. “But I can’t . . . can’t sustain this body any longer.”
Marlene convulsed and the light coming from her brightened. I held her tight in my arms until the shaking passed.
“Will . . . will you be back? One day?”
“I . . . I don’t know . . . I hope . . . ” Her face was wracked with pain and new cracks appeared with every passing second. “I love you, super Annie.”
“I love you, magic Marl.”
Marlene twitched a final time and exhaled. An incredibly bright mist poured out of her eyes, nose, and mouth. It lingered for a moment in front of me, then drifted upwards until I could no longer see it. Her body was gone too, as if it’d never been.
I sat there for hours, watching the sky and waiting.
But Marlene was gone.
“And what time do you call this? Your dinner’s freezing!”
I closed the door and looked at Ma. I thought about Marlene and how she’d never have any dinners again, hot or cold, and burst into tears. Ma pulled me close and wrapped her arms around me.
“Oh, Annie. You poor critter.” She rubbed the back of my head. “I’m sorry for how I was this morning — a rough night, is all. You know what Christmas is like. No wine, though, don’t you worry. Never wine, I promise.”
I sobbed louder, amazed I still had tears to shed.
“You’re a good wain, Annie, you know that? The very best. How about we chuck that freezing lot and go down the chippy?”
Ma’s philosophy was there were few things in life that a steaming hot plate of chips couldn’t make better. It’s a philosophy I continue in her absence.
That was a hard Christmas, and a hard start to the new decade, but eventually, time helped me heal. A few years later, I went across the water for university and never lived in Ballykey again, aside from when I moved in with Ma at the end of her life.
But I still visit once a year and sit alone on Lily Hill, to catch up with my oldest friend.
It’s my most important Christmas tradition.
“ . . . and now they’ve replaced Ben Affleck with Robert Pattinson. I suppose he has a pretty good chin, at least.”
I’m standing beneath our tree, sucking on a candy cane, relieved no one is around to hear my yearly superhero update. Ballykey lies below, remarkably unchanged in thirty years, aside from the Tesco that opened a decade ago. There’d been a lot of uproar at the time, according to Ma, yet everyone seemed happy enough to use it now. So it goes, I guess.
“You’d be amazed by everything they’re doing in the films now, Marl. It’s like the nerds have finally taken over.” I shiver and glance at my watch. “I think that’s everything. I’d best get going before I freeze. I’ll see you next year, Marl.”
As I turn to go, a snowball — a beauty of a shot — catches me square in the face and I gasp from the shock of the cold.
“Look alive, super Annie!”
About the Author
Gary McKay is a speculative fiction writer from Northern Ireland. He’s had stories published in Kraxon Magazine, The Purple Breakfast Review and Tidbits, as well as in several anthologies. He’s currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Ulster, researching how contemporary Gothic novels engage with trauma and loss. He can be found on Twitter as @garycmckay.
About the Narrator
Sarah is a native of Belfast and has lived in Holywood, County Down all her married life. She took early retirement from her work in the health service to go back to studying the sciences at the Open University. She has two grown up children and one rather fat cat. Sarah loves going to relax at the Spa and enjoys walks along the nearby beach in all weather. She travels widely and explores as much ancient history of every country she visits as she can. Her present interest is in the battlefields of World War 1, as she has a personal interest with three great uncles having lost their lives fighting in France.