Extracted from The Oxford Book of Scottish Short Stories

To complete my last reading challenge of 2008, I was looking for a short story with a weather event in the title. So, it was entirely by chance, that I stumbled across a story set on Christmas Day in one of those places that I have been visiting again and again during my 2008 reading – a mental institution! (Let’s hope this isn’t fiction foreshadowing life …)

The title derives from the Russian fairy tale, The Twelve Months, in which a wicked stepmother sends her beautiful daughter out into the snow to find violets and strawberries. It takes a miracle to find them. Similarly happiness and pleasure at Xmas are out-of-reach when you’re a broken man locked away in an asylum. Christmas is the time of year that is driving you crackers!

Douglas, the antihero, has left his wife and children to live in a dingy rented flat and wrap himself in his overcoat of alchohol. He takes a job delivering free papers, which he loses after he harrasses one of the wealthy householders on his route. His breakdown follows rapidly and leads to his commital. The ward is full of pitiful souls, the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree utterly at odds with the mood. More apt is “the big empty doll’s house that stood incongruously, and desolate, with dead leaves blown against its open door; a too easy metaphor for lost childhoods and broken homes and lives.”

It’s surprising how many broken lives MacKay packs into the 8 pages. The language is heavy with symbolism, at times dripping with irony. In one of the papers to be delivered, Douglas reads:

Glasgow – World’s Cancer Capital ….Nicotine and alcohol had given to his native city this distinction.

“Christ. Thank God I left Glasgow when I did”.

The climax arrives when his daughters visit on Christmas Day, putting a brave face on it. After they leave, Douglas reflects on their refusal to eat the satsumas.

he took the paper and pen, and wrote “Satsumas Are Horrible This Year”, as if by writing it down he could neutralize the pain; turn the disgrace to art. It would not be very good, he knew, but at least it would come from that pulpy, sodden satsuma that was all that remained of his heart.

A story not to be recommended if you want your Christmas full of unremitting cheer. But I loved the quality of the prose, the vividness of the pictures. Sheena MacKay has a new fan. I discover she has written eight novels. Where do I begin?