A few weeks ago I set my writing group a prompt, which was simply ‘Christmas Is…’ I was hoping they would come up with either a memory, a rant, or a piece of fiction based on the prompt which I could then use as a guest post on my blog. I had some amazing responses, and as usual, all very, very different! But I had to go with this one by the wonderful Anna Lock. A poignant piece of fiction on the fragility of family life at Christmas…
Christmas is …
I looked through the box of photographs the other day Dad, the ones from that last Christmas. It was difficult but I made myself do it. There you were, sitting on that shiny blue settee smiling at the camera whilst Janet and I played with our new toys at your feet. I can see it now, of course, the illness, the portents of death that were written into your face, but then, we were children and unaware. Do you remember that Christmas Dad?
The next photo is the one with Joe wearing a hat from a cracker and blowing a silly whistle – it must have been taken after lunch. I don’t recall. It’s strange that isn’t it? The way when you look at a photo you can convince yourself that you can remember that very moment in time even if that isn’t true? He looks really happy; so youthful and unworried, God, he was so young then, my big brother and I was totally oblivious of how difficult that period of his life was for him. He was rarely at home –that was the source of so many rows and bitter fights between you wasn’t it? Janet and I used to pull the blankets over our head in bed to block them out, that and the sound of Mum sobbing and pleading with you both.
Joe is pretending to be tipsy; so ironic when I think of him now, and wonder where he is. How is he spending Christmas this time? Another year in some remote godforsaken land, keeping us all at arm’s length, and in that place he goes to in his head, where the hurt can’t penetrate. He’ll be wasted and alone. I could always try texting him again, although he probably won’t reply and then I’ll get sad and worry that he’s dead somewhere and the cycle of anger with him, you, Mum, God and the world will start again and cripple me. That unbearable burden that each of your children carry, because you left us too soon.
In this photo, Mum and Auntie Audrey are clinking sherry glasses and laughing at the camera. Audrey always spent Christmas with us didn’t she; all those years, before she finally married in her 40s. How she made us laugh! Her exuberance seemed to fill the house, revelling in everything, even Julia’s dreadful mince pies and inedible Christmas cake. Looking back I can see now that we were her surrogate children but at that time, all I knew was that she was such fun to be around; the loud bubbly extrovert and contrast to her quiet sister. Mum looks okay, given the circumstances. Did you know, she mentioned that Christmas to me a few years ago? I can’t remember the context but unusually for her, the rose tinted specs were off, and she told me how Joe had lost yet another job a few weeks before, and that she had given him some money to buy his sisters a present each. Money was so tight then, and she could ill afford it, poor love. But I remember what he bought us, Dad. We had a bottle of bubble bath each and the stopper was like a Barbie head! Janet’s was blond, mine was brown and Julia had a red head.
Mum said that because you had been so ill that autumn, and hadn’t been in work for such a long time, she had been rushing around and consequently neither of you had been able to get a present for Joe – it is difficult to find the right present for an 18-year-old whose only interests are T. Rex, Slade and Manchester United I suppose. So you had decided to give him a cheque. But what with one thing and another it didn’t get written, so you had tried to do it secretly on Christmas morning and hide it in the tree. But somehow that hadn’t happened. Mum was still so sad about that after all these years you know? She had tried to tell Joe later that it wasn’t because you had forgotten him or didn’t care, but deep inside she knew that his pain that day, just added to all the other hurts he was collecting in his heart. She didn’t know then how to handle him – after all her life was so busy with the relentless struggle to make ends meet and look after four children in addition to an increasingly ill husband. And so time ticked on, and Joe gradually dropped off the edge of the family until one day, he slipped beyond our reach.
But none of this is visible in that photo. Maybe in that fleeting moment, Auntie Audrey had succeeded in resurrecting her fun-loving older sister and Kevin had captured it with a “click” – proof preserved forever that the happy, smiling mum once did exist. After you had gone Dad, that mum vanished too. Oh, I’ve seen a similar smile on occasions, when she looks at a new-born grandchild, or when they climb onto her lap for a cuddle but it’s never quite as full, never whole or secure, never quite complete again.
In the photo of Julia, I can see the tree behind her. Ah, the tree; our one luxury, always a real tree, no matter what eh? And the excitement of the trip to choose it! Do you remember Dad, the fun we had fixing it to the car roof and the drive home again singing Christmas carols in the car all 4 children squeezed in tightly in the back? Mum kept this ritual, despite the financial frailty – did you know that? We tried hard, but with just Janet and me at home, and little money the tree became thinner, subdued and less robust – a bit like us.
Do you remember the Christmases before that Dad? How you and Joe would carry the massive tree through the house and upstairs to the cosy lounge, where Mum had lit the fire in the huge Victorian fireplace, scattering pine needles in your wake. The annual drama of wedging it into the bucket and the “it isn’t straight yet” arguments between Joe and Julia, while Janet and I danced around gleefully, full of anticipation, picking up on wafts of excitement and cheer from the conversations between the adults, happy, for once, that there were no rows or slamming of doors, or tears. We inhaled the wonderful pine scent that meant Christmas was really here as the fire crackled cheerfully, impatient for Mum to finish untangling the old fairy lights, traditional red, green yellow and blue, with a nursery rhyme motif that mysteriously tangled themselves in their box each year.
For two weeks the tree shone in the huge bay window, and on Christmas morning it was surrounded by a sea of wrapped presents quietly waiting for the 6 of us, Auntie Audrey and Godfather Kevin. Oh, the anticipation of that moment, the build-up was almost unbearable for us then. I can’t find any photos of the tree Dad. I suppose that’s because only Kevin had a camera, and he liked to take pictures of people. Thank goodness he did, otherwise, we’d only have our memories and that would be unbearable. It was thoughtful too, of him to send us the photos, or bring them with him when he came to stay the following Easter. He knew of course; he was your best friend and confidant. He stayed loyal to us Dad – but you’d know that wouldn’t you, why would you have doubted that?
We found loads more photos from Christmas when we cleared his flat – he kept them all you know; we hadn’t recognised our value to him then when we were children. But we loved his expensive gifts from Harrods and Selfridges. The trip to the station to collect him from the London train on Christmas Eve was the start of Christmas proper. He was the one who bought Mum the lovely presents, perfume, expensive chocolates and silk scarves because he could see what the rest of us could not, her selflessness, and the grim future that lay ahead.
Do you remember Dad, those endless monopoly games with him that lasted the whole week between Christmas and New Year? All the arguments and negotiating that went on – that time when Auntie Audrey stood guard of the board over night because we were convinced that Kevin was cheating! It was all put on of course, for Janet and me; adults conspiring in the great adventure, and jolly larks, and, oh, how we revelled in that! Leftover turkey with bubble and squeak, cosy afternoons with the telly, satsumas and Christmas chocolates and that protracted game of monopoly. Those were the best Dad, really happy times, for us all I think because everyone joined in, battles forgotten, money worries, sickness and impending loss and grief suspended momentarily. A family united and sharing good times with a friend.
That was over 40 years ago Dad, such a long time ago, yet it’s as fresh a memory as if it was last year. The grief is less raw now of course, but it never goes away; all those other Christmases stolen from us, future photos that were never taken and happy new memories that could not be born. Just memories of that last Christmas, kept alive through those photos, and made so poignant by the knowledge that 3 of the key players were keeping a dreadful secret, and hiding it from the children. Do I wish we had known? I don’t know Dad; how could an 8 and 6-year-old handle that knowledge? You all meant well I realise that; you thought you were doing the right thing.
But each Christmas became harder to get through than its predecessor, for fifteen years. The tree lights that didn’t work and were cracked or broken came out of their box only to be put back – no money to replace them. The Chinese lanterns that we repeatedly sellotaped together and resolutely stuck to the ceiling were eventually thrown away when they became beyond repair and the decorations that we fixed to the tree using paperclips grew fewer each year. It was good that we had learned at school to make 3 d shapes. Janet and I would spend Sunday afternoons each December making a batch and eking out the remaining glitter in the Christmas decoration box, to hang on the tree when the time came to cover its bareness.
So here I am, with these photos and memories, planning Christmas with my children Dad. I shall check the boxes of decorations surreptitiously to reassure myself that everything is intact and working, so that when they open them to start decorating our tree, and I watch their excitement at discovering favourite treasured memories again, when they exclaim aloud at the ones they had forgotten, I shall know that we will not have to put things back in the box quietly and go without. I will check, double check and then check again, that everyone has been accounted for with presents and cards well in advance, and that I have some spares tucked away just in case, so no one can feel the hurt of being overlooked.
And there will be the real tree. We’ll all go to collect it, and we’ll pick a huge, bushy, scented evergreen – all of us together; my children, their boyfriends and cousins and the dog, all crammed into the car. There will be shrieks of laughter as we try to fit the tree into the car, around all the bodies and the bags of Christmas veggies, while Pip the Christmas tree man joins in the fun giggling at them all while he secures the half open boot with rope. Then we’ll drive home, boot slightly ajar, with two feet of Christmas tree trunk sticking out behind, children clutching the dog, and complaining merrily of pine needles ticking their ears and everyone will sing along loudly and exuberantly, to my old Christmas cassette tape that is saved just for this occasion each year, and marks the start of Christmas proper. Faces will be suffused with happiness and smiles at the golden oldies, groans will be heard at the corny cheesy songs and, then we will get to track seven. In that moment I will look back in the mirror and watch as my children exchange glances, nudge their boyfriends, and my nieces grin at their cousins, and, then, surrounded by the heady pine scent mingled with that aroma of satsuma that epitomise Christmas as one, we will take a deep breath and sing. We will sing at the top of our voices and slightly out of tune, to accompany Wizzard with “I wish it could be Christmas every day” and everything will be all right Dad.
Thanks so much Anna! Now, don’t forget, I am always on the lookout for guest posts and submissions for my blog! I’m looking for anything to do with writing or reading, as well as essays/articles/rants etc on being an outsider, and any short fiction or extracts from novels which are along the same theme.