Maisy took a stealthy look over her shoulder before ripping the gumdrop doorknob from the gingerbread house and popping it into her mouth.
“I think we did a good job with that house, Maisy! Your gran will be well impressed tomorrow.”
Maisy chewed as fast as she possibly could, taking care to keep her gaze towards the ground to avoid being caught out, but her pesky tongue got in the way of her teeth and she bit down on it painfully.
“Hang on, where’s the doorknob gone?”
The little girl turned to her father with a wince. “I git mah cung!”
He laughed at her and poked her in ribs. “Serves you right for eating the doorknob. How will people get through the door if there’s no handle?”
Maisy shrugged as she swallowed the remains of the gumdrop. “They can go down the chimney, like Santa.”
“Good thinking, but it doesn’t look quite as finished now. Why don’t we put another on?” Steve rooted through the piles of icing sugar-dusted sweetie packets in search of more gumdrops.
“Umm, I ate them all,” Maisy said with a mischievous grin.
Steve tutted and shook his head, but he didn’t mind. It was Christmas, after all, and it was a rite of passage for children to fill themselves up to the brim with pure sugar. He began to gather together the plastic wrappings ready for the bin, and kicked up clouds of icing sugar in the process. He didn’t mind that, either. If there was ever a time to coat an entire kitchen in a light dusting of sweet snow, it was Christmas.
“Can Santa really fit through the chimney?”
“Course he can.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep. How else do you think he gets inside all the houses when people lock their doors?”
Maisy thought on this, her brow furrowed in concentration. Steve watched her with an amused smile.
“What’s on your mind?”
Maisy sighed. “I don’t think the chimney is big enough for Santa’s belly.”
“Are you calling Santa fat?”
“Yes. Santa is fat, because of all the mince pies and gingerbread houses he eats. And I think he’s far too fat to fit inside our chimney.”
“He got down the chimney last year, didn’t he?”
“Mm, yeah. But he might’ve got fatter. Or our chimney might have got thinner.”
“Chimneys don’t get thinner, Maisy.”
“Can they get blocked?”
“Well, yeah, I suppose.”
“How do you know our chimney isn’t blocked?”
“Because we never use it. We don’t light a fire very often, do we?”
“But what if stuff falls into the chimney from the outside?”
“What kinda stuff?”
“I don’t know, Daddy, but it might!”
Maisy drew a wonky little present, complete with a droopy bow, on the sugar-coated worktop with her stubby index finger. Steve could tell she’d been thinking on this for quite some time, and that she was really rather worried Santa wouldn’t come. Or even worse, that he might get stuck. That thought worried Steve a little, too. He knew Santa wasn’t real, but if there was a teeny, tiny chance he was real he certainly didn’t want it to be his chimney he got stuck down. He’d never the hear the end of that at work.
“Shall we go and check the chimney, Maisy?”
Maisy stopped her scribbling and grinned. “Yes, please!” She brushed her hands on her dress, which only made them all the stickier thanks to the globs of icing which had found themselves attached to her, and skipped towards the living room. Steve followed, shaking his head at the ridiculous things parenthood made him do.
They approached the fireplace. Maisy hung back and waited for her Dad to get on his hands and knees and scoot towards the grate. He twisted his neck awkwardly and peered up into the chimney. He couldn’t see a thing.
“Looks clear to me.”
“You can’t tell just from looking,” Maisy insisted. “I already tried that.”
“You’ve poked your head in the fireplace?”
“That’s not very sensible, Maisy.”
She shrugged. “There wasn’t a fire.”
Steve sighed. He knew she was too smart to stick her head into open flames, but sometimes kids were inexplicably dumb, and he could never be too sure.
“You need to stand up in there,” Maisy implored. “I didn’t already try that ‘cos I was too scared.”
Yep, kids were inexplicably dumb. But Steve conceded, because dumbness tends to rub off on parents.
He hopped up onto his knees, hobbled further into the fireplace, and then attempted to stand. His shoulders immediately got stuck on the walls of the chimney, and he felt dust shower down upon his hair and face. He wriggled his shoulders up and down, and gradually managed to squeeze far enough inside the chimney that he could stand up straight.
“It’s a tight fit, but it’s possible!” he called,immediately regretting opening his mouth. He could taste dust and charcoal on his tongue, and all of a sudden he felt very claustrophobic. He bent his knees and wriggled his shoulders again as he sank down, desperate to get out of the blackness as soon as he could.
As he pulled himself out of the chimney, relief washed over him along with a new batch of dust which fell into his eyes and blurred his vision. He stumbled away from the fireplace with his eyes screwed shut, gave himself a shake, then squinted out from beneath his eyelashes.
Everything had turned a curious shade of beige. He blinked repeatedly, assuming he still had dirt in his eyes, but his vision wasn’t changing. He searched for a patch of his t-shirt that wasn’t covered in either soot or icing sugar, and wiped at his eyelid.
Yep. Everything was beige. And the smell of freshly baked gingerbread was overwhelming.
He glanced around the room and resigned himself to madness. This was it. His nervous breakdown had occurred. Everything was made out of biscuit. And his daughter was nowhere in sight.
“Maisy? Maisy, where are you?” He spun on the spot, noticing for the first time that the red carpet beneath his feet was made up of millions of short strips of strawberry laces. The window was tinged green and the curtains were beautifully piped drapes of royal icing. More white icing oozed at every corner of the room and around the edge of the ceiling, which was made of gingerbread just like the walls.
“I’m here, Daddy.”
The voice came from behind him, and Steve was both reassured she was with him and worried that she was destined to witness her father’s mental breakdown.
“Where are we?”
“You see it too?”
“Yup. The chimney swallowed you, so I followed.”
Steve made a mental note to tell his daughter that if ever he was swallowed up by something, she should call 999 rather than follow him blindly into it. But he knew that lecture would fall on deaf ears in that moment. After all, she was stood in a house made of gingerbread and candy.
Maisy approached the sofa. It looked identical to their own – deep red and adorned with cream scatter cushions – but it was coated in granulated sugar. Maisy poked it, and her finger slipped right through its surface and deep into the fabric.
“Ew, it’s sticky,” she said with a giggle. She removed her finger, then plunged her hand into the foamy sofa once again. She ripped away a huge hunk of it, brought it to her lips and took a huge bite. Her face lit up. “It’s strawberry!”
Every protective instinct in Steve’s body told her to spit it out and stop touching things, but he was overwhelmed with childish wonder that matched his daughter’s. He joined her at the sofa and followed suit. She was right – it was strawberry marshmallow, and it melted deliciously in his mouth.
“Let’s look around,” Maisy suggested, and she took hold of her father’s hand and dragged him away from the sweet suite.
They left the living room behind and found themselves in a hallway identical to their own, other than the fact that everything appeared edible. The slim table, positioned near the doorway, was built from KitKat fingers and was even adorned with sugar paste keys and unopened bills. The front door was crafted from gingerbread just like the walls, and it featured the same green glass that was in the living room window. Maisy approached it and licked at the pane.
“It’s apple! Try it.”
Steve poked his tongue at the window tentatively. He felt like a fool and prayed that nobody would see him from the outside. But when he got a taste for the tangy green apple flavour, he threw caution to the wind and licked again and again. Meanwhile, his daughter gnawed like a rodent at the banister.
“What’s that made out of?”
Steve nodded, impressed by the chocolate’s high shine which perfectly mimicked the white gloss paint of their own banister at home. He became swept up in curiosity, wondering what the oven was built from, and the fridge, and the toaster.
He headed down the hallway and beckoned for Maisy to follow.
More white chocolate appeared to create the glossy cupboard doors, while deep, dark chocolate had been marbled and flecked with milk and white chocolate to create the granite worktops. The square dining table had been mimicked with more KitKat fingers, while the fridge appeared to be carved out a giant Maoam. The oven looked to be built from black liquorice, though its doors were crafted from yet more apple-flavoured glass. On its top were four black liquorice rings in place of the electric plates.
“Daddy, look!” Maisy pointed at the kitchen counter and drew Steve’s attention to a little gingerbread house, absolutely identical to the one they’d finished building just minutes before. Whoever had put this place together had an eye for detail, Steve realised. This thought was soon followed up with the question of who this skilled craftsperson was, whether they were a giant who planned to eat him and his daughter along with the gingerbread house, and how the fuck they had ended up in the situation. But he ignored the queries, because there was a whole other floor to explore yet.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he said, and he raced Maisy back down the corridor and up the stairs. Their feet bounced with every step, thanks to the springy, sour rainbow lace flooring.
At the top of the stairs they were met with their own smiling faces as usual, but it wasn’t their framed photographs which hung on the wall. Instead, their images had been recreated with colourful syrups painted onto rice paper canvases.
They popped their heads into the bathroom and noted a Polo toilet seat upon a sugar paste bowl, with a co-ordinating sink and bath. Steve briefly wondered what it would be like to poop on a minty seat, and whether the bath would disintegrate when he ran the water. Then he wondered whether there was water in the pipes at all, or if syrup would flow from the taps instead. Maisy dragged him away and towards her bedroom.
The room was overwhelmed by a bright pink, marshmallow bed, which Maisy leapt upon, face first, and began to sink into. Steve noted her muffled giggles and, confident she wouldn’t be asphyxiated by marshmallow, left her to chew her way out of the sticky situation.
He went to check out his own room next door. His oak veneer wardrobe and chest of drawers had both been recreated in Caramac bars. His bed appeared to have a white marshmallow base, like Maisy’s, but a deep, blue icing duvet had been poured over the top. He ran his fingers across it and scooped a dollop of the sugary stuff up. He popped it into his mouth and grinned with teeth coated in the blue goo; it was bubblegum – one of his favourite flavours.
But it was the gingerbread walls which spoke to Steve the most. He’d resisted nibbling on them so far, but his mouth had been watering for the Christmassy treat for hours, ever since they’d put the first batch into the oven to form the foundations of their little gingerbread house.
He approached the doorway, wrapped both hands around the frame and took a ginormous bite. It was perfection. It offered the perfect degree of satisfying crunch without doing harm to aged fillings, and he tasted hints of cinnamon and allspice beneath the delectable burn of fragrant ginger.
Maisy poked her out of her doorway and giggled at her Daddy’s reckless gluttony, then she followed suit, taking a bite from the frame of her own bedroom door. The pair gave approving yummy noises and grunts as they chowed down on the wall, stopping only for breath in between great gobfuls.
Steve and Maisy became so absorbed in their gluttony that they failed to hear the house groan and creak. The gingerbread brickwork that they had chosen to nibble on just happened to be a load-bearing wall. It was primarily responsible for holding up the peaked, chocolate button-tiled roof, which quickly began to crack as the wall grew smaller and smaller.
Steve only realised their error when it was too late. He took a break from his munching to wipe the crumbs from his mouth, and saw flakes of royal icing plaster rain down upon him from the ceiling. Shortly after the icing came the roof itself; two great, gingerbread slabs caved in on themselves and dropped down upon the greedy pair with an ear-splitting crash. Steve and Maisy’s gluttony was quelled in matter of seconds.
When people say sugar is the biggest killer in the modern world, they don’t know the half of it.
Read more in the Night Before Christmas short story series.