Lights-Off

South Yorkshire Police Internal Records

Transcript of statement given by Mr. James Cartwright

Interview conducted by arresting officers Jones and Scott

02:35 AM — 03:15 AM

01/12/2020

No lawyer present

This is something we’ve been doing every year since I was a little kid. Without fail. Midnight on the first of December. It’s kind of like this big tradition in our family. My old man started it off one year. Think I was five, or maybe six. That would have been back in Ninety-Eight, Ninety-Nine. Eh, that’s not important anyway. But the whole family would gather for it. Back then it was me, Mam, Dad, Nanna, Grandad. Aunts and Uncles, bunch of cousins I’ve never seen since. It was pretty big back then, from what I remember.

Not as big as tonight, mind you. No, tonight was something else entirely. But anyway, that’s how it was back in the day. 30th November, Dad, Grandad and I, would spend the entire day putting these decorations up. Then the aunts and uncles and cousins would arrive in the evening. The grown-ups would get drunk and the kids would run around causing a ruckus; the typical festive stuff you get up to this time of the year. Come midnight, we’d all gather outside in the front driveway. We’d start a countdown, and when the first of December arrived, the lights would go on. 

And by God, they were something to behold. We have these big… had these big old Irish Yew trees out front. Tall thin ones, either side of the driveway. They’d be dressed up in these twinkling blue spirals, and a bunch of lights and baubles and crap would dangle between them like a banner. You know, like at the finish line of a race? We had some of those fake icicles as well, the plastic ones, to hang from the gutters and the windowsills. They’d light up all different colours. Red and blue mostly. They seem to be the most Christmassy, don’t you think? Anyways, we had the chimney wrapped in lights, the hedges, the walls out front. When you stood out in the road, looking at it head on when it all lit up… Well, it was really something, you know? And we became known for it, on our little street. Folks would walk past and say, Look, the Cartwrights have got their lights up. They’ll all say, It’s really Christmas now.

Can we get to the point please, Mr. Cartwright? Some time before the sun comes up? Believe it or not, your little stunt left us with quite a bit of paperwork to get through. Let’s skip ahead to the events earlier tonight, shall we?

Right, yeah, it’s just… this is kind of important. You kind of need to know the whole story. It’s one of those things. Otherwise it won’t make sense. But I can see you’re getting impatient, Officers, so I’ll pick up the pace a little. Okay, so where was I? Ah, right, yes. This tradition carried on for most of my childhood. Eventually the novelty wore off for a lot of the family though. They stopped coming. The extended family, that is. Me, Mam, Dad, and Nanna always carried it on, even after we lost Grandad. But when I was a teenager I kind of saw the whole thing as a chore. And I could never understand why Dad was so adamant about carrying the tradition on. No one was coming over anymore, and putting up all those lights was a hell of an effort. 

But like I said, we’d been without Grandad for a few years. I only properly grasped it later on, when we lost Dad, too. He’d lost his own father, and putting up those lights was something we all did together. The first year without both of them, when it was just me, Mam and Nanna, I felt I owed it to pass the torch, you know? Or pick up the baton, I think that one makes more sense. So when the end of November rolled around, I spent the entire day fighting with those decorations. It was tough, but I managed to get them all up by myself before midnight. 

So me and Nanna stood out on the driveway and counted down, loud enough for Mam to hear us inside. Someone had to be inside to switch the lights on; they all flowed into a single plug socket in the hallway with this five-point extension cable for all the different lights. I’d never really given it much thought before then, but Dad had always been the one to do the switching on. He’d never actually gotten to see the lights outside with all the rest of us, the first time they spark up and everyone watching lets out a long and collective, Wooooaaahhhh. He’d been so preoccupied with making sure we all got to see it, you know? That was Dad all over. Selfless. 

Nan and I teared up a little when those lights came on. I think Mam was a little confused when she came out to see if it had worked, and saw the two of us in tears. We’d felt something, you see. Not that spiritual feeling the dead guy’s presence kind of crap, but we felt something. It was nice. While it lasted. Because that’s when the lights came on over the road. 

You’re referencing the lights at 13 Aldringham Street? House belonging to the Gregory family? 

Yeah, that’s the one. Except we didn’t know who the Gregory family were. Hell, we didn’t even know anyone had moved into Number 13. It’d been on the market for a couple years, and well, we never really gave much thought as to whether anyone might live there or not. Until we saw their lights, that is. Like I said before, we were kind of known for our Christmas lights. Famous for them, you might say. No one else on our street had lights, and if they did, they weren’t much to write home about. But now here was this new family. And as much as it pains me to admit, their lights were a damn sight better than ours. 

They had all the crap we had; lights on trees, hedges, walls, fake icicles. But they had some crazy stuff on top of all that, like this sign on the front of the house. Each letter would flash one by one, M-E-R-R-Y-C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S, and then the whole thing would flash a bunch of times all at once. It was almost migraine inducing. They also had this glowing Santa statue in the front drive, whose head would move side to side, and wave a sack full of presents in the air. I just remember this Santa statue sat there, grinning at Nanna and I as we shared that moment. You see, I hadn’t cried about Dad, not even at the funeral. I wouldn’t let myself. But now here I was, stood in the middle of the road balling my eyes out on my little old Nanna’s shoulder while that Thing blinked its beady black eyes at me from across the street.

You have to understand, Officers, I wasn’t jealous of the Gregorys’ decorations. It just came at a bad time for me. I felt like they’d ruined something special. How could Dad and Grandad look down from Heaven, if there were such a place, with pride at our measly little tea lights? Because that’s how they appeared, when put next to the Gregorys’ firework display. Well and truly dwarfed. So yeah, I was angry. And yeah, I held bit of a grudge. I think Nanna could sense it; she held me tighter and turned me in the opposite direction when 13’s lights came on. She started stroking the back of my neck. She always used to do that to calm me down. And this is what she said while she did it. She said, Don’t worry little Jim. She told me, We’ll get ‘em next time.

And that’s how it started. The following year, Nanna and I trawled just about every supermarket and electronic store within an hour’s driving distance, buying up what we could. Mam was never all that supportive of the whole thing. I don’t think she saw it the way Nanna and I did. So anyway, we were pretty confident of putting the Gregorys to shame that year. We’d found a flashing sign of our own, and it was double the size of 13’s. We couldn’t find a spot for it on the front of the house without it covering up a window (Mam was pretty adamant about not letting that happen), so it went up on the roof. Our glowing Santa statue was much like the Gregorys’, except it rode a dazzling red sleigh and forewent the terrifying mechanically blinking eyes. We had a bunch of other stuff too; we doubled the lights on the two Irish Yews, got some more fake icicles, and threw some tinsel in where we could. All in all, it would look spectacular. 

But so would the house across the street. They put their lights up a couple of days earlier, but waited to light them until we unveiled ours, as though they wanted all along to one-up us. Prior to midnight it was difficult to gauge which house would come out on top; we’d made a fair few additions to our display, but so had they. Only the Switch-On would be able to decide it. And when the time came, we were outshone again. 

Better luck next year, Mr. Gregory said, poking his head through the living room window where his wife and two kids sat motionlessly staring into the glare of the television. That’s all we ever got from them. Better luck next year. So the annual midnight Switch-On became a competition. We never had it in writing. There would be no official prize for the winner, and no official judge. Hell, we never even spoke to the Gregorys. About anything. And that’s something that always pissed me off, too; they never came outside to see the Switch-On. They just didn’t seem to take it as seriously as Nanna and I, and yet they carried on winning. It was as though they knew we weren’t a threat, that whatever new and whacky decorations we came up with, it would never be enough to threaten their own. 

And they were right. For five years, the Gregory family held the invisible crown for the best Christmas decorations on Aldringham Street. We’d put up a sign, a flashing sign, with an arrow pointing down our chimney, that read Santa Stop Here (Don’t worry, Mam, we just won’t use the fireplace this year). Their sign would do all that, and then it would sing you a song. We’d replace our Santa’s sleigh with a bigger, more expensive model (We’ll just park the car on the corner, Mam, don’t sweat it). They’d turn their car into a sleigh. We’d plant a third Irish Yew so we could drape even more tinsel and shiny shit above the driveway (It’s okay, Mam, we don’t need natural light). And they’d… Well, you get the picture. Whatever we could do, they could do better. 

Anyway, Nanna and I had just suffered our fifth defeat in a row, not counting the first year (we didn’t, anyway), so morale was low. Mr. Gregory had just given his annual, Better luck next year, and Nanna her subsequent, We’ll get ‘em next time, little Jim, (She still called me this even though I was twenty-six at that point). I was starting to think we would never get ‘em, and was beginning to suspect we had bought up every crappy Christmas decoration from every corner of the internet. Unless we wanted a second Super Deluxe Jumbo Santa’s Sleigh, or a fourth Irish Yew, we were going to have to buck our ideas up. But that was the year Mam finally put her foot down. She told Nanna and I, in no uncertain terms, we were not to buy any more of those crazy contraptions. She wanted her fireplace and her driveway back, and she couldn’t stand to see how competitive we’d become. 

I’ll have a word with her, little Jim, Nanna said to me. She said, Your mother will see sense. You can’t just ignore a tradition like that. 

But Nanna never got around to having that word. She passed away in May. When November finally arrived, I hadn’t even considered taking part in the Switch-On. It just didn’t seem natural, not without Nanna. The Switch-On had become ours. Even if we never won the damn thing, it was something we did together. Me. Her. Dad. Grandad. There may have only been two of us competing against the Gregorys. But when those lights switched on, for a split second, all four of us were together again. 

I’d been living away from home for the past four years. Each year, I would drive two and a half hours to take part in the Switch-On with Nanna. But now she was gone, there was nothing tying me to that house on Aldringham Street. I hadn’t seen Mam since the funeral, and I think that’s why I was so surprised when she called. 

Sweetie? she said over the phone. Are you coming for the Switch-On tomorrow? 

I don’t think so, I told her.

You should, she said to me. She said, I really think you should.

I told her I’d think about it. I timed my journey so I’d arrive no more than ten minutes before midnight. I didn’t want to have to do the whole day-trip, or stay the night. I decided I would just be there for the Switch-On, and head home straight after. I was about seven streets away from Aldringham when I saw the first group of people. I thought it was odd, sure, but I didn’t actually put two and two together until I pulled onto Melton Avenue. If you don’t know it, the end of that street turns onto Aldringham, and it was flooded with people. I couldn’t actually take the car any further. So I got out and started to walk with the crowd. That’s when I saw the flyers, printed in black and white on that horrible translucent yellow paper, because Mam never thinks to buy actual printer paper. The flyers were advertising The Aldringham Annual Switch-On: The Ultimate Christmas Light-Off Competition, and they were everywhere. Taped to lampposts, stuffed under windscreen wiper blades, pinned to front doors. People even clutched them in their hands, as though they were tickets to a concert. 

I squeezed my way to the front of the crowd with twenty seconds to go before midnight. There must have been two hundred people there. At least. Mam must have been in the hallway, ready to flip the switch. Just like Dad. Prepared to miss the magical moment, so long as everyone else got to enjoy it. I wanted to go to her, bring her outside and flip the switch myself. But the countdown had already started. They were pretty damn loud, all those hundreds of people chanting together. But I always imagined our little family had been louder, you know? They were in my mind, at least. 

As was the custom, we went first. When the lights came on, the crowd erupted. It was extravagant, yes, and they had every right to be impressed. But I suppose I’d been right about there being no more crazy Christmas decorations out there to buy. It was just the same stuff as last year, the same decorations Nanna and I had used. Nothing new. 

The crowd turned away from our lowly little display when the Gregorys unveiled their masterpiece. I didn’t even look at it. I didn’t have to, to know we’d lost again. So Mam came up the driveway to stand beside me, and she said, I didn’t think you’d come. 

I thought we weren’t doing the Switch-On this year, I said to her, Thought you wanted your fireplace and your driveway back.

Well, she said, I suppose you can’t just ignore a tradition like that, can you? She slipped her hand into her coat pocket and produced a small black object, with a big red button on the face of it. Push it, she said to me. 

And so I pushed it. And by God, it was magnificent. Fireworks flew from the ground and exploded in the air above our heads, painting the sky with bright flashes of red and blue. Something on the roof began to flicker to life, and as it did so, three images began to take shape. The first was Dad’s face. Either side of him were Nanna, and Grandad. Mam squeezed my hand. We didn’t say anything to each other. We didn’t have to. Five minutes later, the fireworks ceased. A solitary blinking light flew overhead, letting out a mechanical rumbling sound. Behind it trailed a long white banner, illuminated by four bright lights in each corner. It read, Better Luck Next Time. 

So anyway, that’s when things started to go wrong. At first it was just the odd flicker, you know? Like a reading lamp running out of batteries. Then it became more frequent, more jarring. The entire house, clad in a thick winter coat of electricity, began to pulsate rhythmically. Next came the noise. A high-pitched buzzing, the type of buzzing you hear in movies when a bomb goes off or an old person taps their hearing aid. People began to jam their fingers in their ears and cry out. And then the streetlights went; one by one, starting at each end of the street and moving inwards towards our house at the centre. The screaming came from the people below, when the glass started to rain down on them, following each inevitable POP—POP—POP of the lamps exploding above their heads. 

And remember what I told you Officers earlier, about all the cables leading to the same socket in the hallway? I told you all that stuff at the start would be important, and now, here it is. You see, over the years, we’d accumulated far more cables than could possibly slot into one extension. So, we plugged another extension cable into that, and another into that, and well, you get the picture. I don’t know how many cables led to that one plug socket in the hallway but I know it couldn’t possibly live up to any official standards of health and safety. And that’s how the fire started. 

I suppose the crowd didn’t help when it came to letting the fire engine through. Maybe they could’ve saved the house if they’d been allowed through sooner, maybe not. I don’t know. I suppose you could call what followed a mass-panic. I believe I heard one of your colleagues use the word stampede. But I don’t know about all that. I was just standing in the driveway with my Mam, watching it all unfold. Nanna was there too, I think. So were Dad, and Grandad. And you have to admit, Officers, we gave them one hell of a show. 

[Recording pauses at 03:10 AM. Resumes 03:12 AM.]

So, am I under arrest, Officers?

Since this was technically down to an electrical fault, I don’t think we can press charges. I think I’m safe in speaking for my partner here, when I say I don’t see any laws being broken in this case. There were no casualties, and no one was physically harmed. I’d say a simple slap on the wrist would be fair. And, of course, you’ll have to promise this won’t happen again.

Oh, I’m ever so sorry, Officers. I don’t think you can just ignore a tradition like that. 


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