My publishers, Crooked Cat are running a series of daily posts with stories and other little treats in the run up to Christmas (https://www.facebook.com/christmaswithcrookedcats/)
For my contribution, I thought I’d offer a little story featuring some of the characters from the novel I’m currently writing. Narrator Claire is dreading the impact of Christmas on her recently bereaved father, who is also losing his memory …
It can be such a cruel time. There are more suicides at Christmas than any other part of the year. When people get together to engage in the more or less compulsory seasonal merriment, it only makes things worse when a person is feeling far from merry. Or, in this case, when one of those people is conspicuously no longer present.
I’d been dreading it, this second Christmas since Mum died. Not so much for my own sake – I mean, she leaves a big hole behind her, and this time of year inevitably brings back memories, but I’m a big girl. I can take it. No, it was Dad I was worried about.
For all that the two of them were always grumbling and cussing at each other, they had grown together like two plants so entangled you can never work out where one begins and the other ends. I had seen what happened to him when she was ripped away. Damage like that doesn’t heal – the best you can do is leave it alone and try to forget it. And forgetting was something Dad was getting very good at.
But Christmas had always been her time. She would orchestrate every last detail of it, from the glass baubles on the tree to the icing snowman on the cake. How could the memory of her not be forced back into Dad’s consciousness when Christmas was shoved in his face once again? This time last year you could see him shrinking into himself, ageing visibly day by day. You could feel her in the room with us, not as a presence but an absence, a person-shaped vacuum, sucking what was left of him into itself.
I’d thought seriously about trying to escape Christmas altogether – just taking him somewhere quiet and remote for a few days and let the whole circus just pass us by. His memory had got to the point now where he wouldn’t know it was Christmas if he wasn’t reminded of it. But then my sister Karen, who never comes up from London at those times when it would actually be helpful, decided that she and her entire family would descend on our house with a car full of presents, demanding seasonal food and entertainment. I think she had got it into her head that we wanted this, that she was doing us a favour.
And like a wimp, I capitulated. I put it off to the last possible minute, but as their car was already setting off up the M1, in my own resentful, half-hearted way I began to fill the house with the ritual trappings of the season, spread the table with its customary foods: cold meats, pies, pickles, cheeses and trifle. I did it more or less how Mum used to, but not half as well.
“There’s a Christmas tree in the corner,” he observed when he came back from the day centre. “Is it coming up to Christmas time, then?” Poor old bugger, he had no idea. He’d probably been eating mince pies all afternoon.
“Yes Dad, it’ll be Christmas quite soon.” Well, it was Christmas Eve. It wasn’t actually a lie. Perhaps if he thought it wasn’t quite Christmas yet, it wouldn’t affect him so badly. It seemed to be working. For the next couple of hours he seemed to maintain some kind of equilibrium – not exactly happy, not exactly sad.
Any illusions about what time of year it was were smashed by the arrival of Karen at half-past six. “Merry Christmas Dad, Merry Christmas Claire,” she cooed, enveloping us in over-enthusiastic hugs. Then she handed us each a big bag full of presents. He turned towards me with a confused look in his eyes. Was it starting?
“Grandad!” Seven year-old Jacob and six year-old Amelia rushed to wrap themselves around their grandfather, bringing a broad smile to his face. The kids – thank God for the kids! He loved them to bits. If anyone could keep his mind off Mum, they could. When they had all dumped their things in their rooms and come down for dinner, I suggested that Jacob and Amelia might like to sit next to Grandad and tell him everything they’d done since they last saw him. They were happy to, bless ‘em. That left me with Karen and Paul, and the duty of being the gracious hostess.
“So, Paul, how’s the world of accountancy these days?”
He thought for an inordinately long time before his weary response.
“Much as ever, you know. Too much work, too little time. You just get on with it. Pays the bills.”
It was faintly amusing to see that he was as unenthusiastic about coming as I was about his being here. But Karen was having none of it.
“He’s being far too modest, aren’t you, Paul? The reason he’s got so much work on is that he’s been promoted! He’s in charge of an audit team now, working for some big clients. I’ very proud of him. We might even be able to move to a bigger house, give the kids a bit more space. And how about you Claire? How’s school?”
I told them about the day to day hassles of being in charge of a primary school, with about as much enthusiasm as Paul had shown. From the other end of the table, meanwhile, came earnest voices and laughter as the children regaled Dad excitedly with all their news. We continued in this vein for quite a while, gradually shifting about half of the cold food from the table to our bellies as we talked. Then, since it was Christmas Eve, after all, I brought out some prosecco, and made milkshakes for the kids. It hadn’t gone too badly so far. But now came the moment I’d been dreading.
“Jacob, Amelia, it’s time for you to get ready for bed.” They reluctantly got up from the table and plodded towards the door. Karen turned to me. “I’d better go up for a while and get them settled down. Otherwise they’ll be too excited and they won’t sleep all night.”
That left me, Dad and the taciturn Paul. Leaving the stage free for the ghost of Mum finally to make her appearance. Dad was already looking round the room, inspecting the decorations and what was left of the dinner. But instead of the desolate, empty look he had worn last Christmas, there was a light in his eyes and a broad smile all over his face.
“By heck, that was a good spread, that was. Can’t beat a nice bit of trifle. She’s done a grand job, hasn’t she?”
“Who, Karen? Yes, they’re good kids, a credit to their parents. I’m happy they could spend time with you.”
“No, not Karen. Your mother. I don’t like to say too much to her face, or else she’ll think I’ve gone all soppy all of a sudden. But I don’t mind telling you when she’s out of the room. She always does a great job at Christmas and she’s done us proud again this year.”
A confused look came over Paul’s face.
“Herbert, I think you’re …”
I turned to him and put a finger silently over my lips. Let the old man enjoy this time. If we can talk to the kids about Santa Claus as if he’s real, surely there’s room in the house for one more imaginary figure. Why let the truth get in the way of a good Christmas?