Last Christmas

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Imagine: Christmas in Surrey. The house is worth at least a million, although the son’s girlfriend, stepping through the front door for the first time, gets the overwhelming sensation that this is not a home. She is kissed on both cheeks by the mother, a plain woman with frown lines tipping her eyebrows together and thin, dry lips, and by the father, who has the same pale, freckled cheeks as the son. She follows the three of them through a painfully neat living room – polished surfaces, carefully placed magazines, gilt-framed family poses – into a kitchen that smells of lemon scented surface cleaner.

[private]‘You’ll want to put your bag upstairs.’ The son holds out his hand and she laces her fingers in between his, walks with him up soft beige steps. No dust on the skirting boards, no nicks in the paint. She has the constricting sensation of being trapped inside a photograph, pressed up against a glossed façade.

The mother and the father sit at the kitchen table and listen to the sound of the son and the girlfriend move through the house. The mother pours tea into the everyday mugs, which are painted with smiling animals and witty remarks. She takes the mouse, the father takes the elephant. It isn’t the first time the son has brought a girl home for Christmas. The mother notes this to the father and they try – half-heartedly – to remember the others.

‘There was that blonde girl,’ the father says. The one with big breasts, straining against a cotton shirt.

‘She didn’t lift a finger the whole time she was here,’ the mother says. ‘And I gave her that necklace and didn’t see her wear it once.’

The son and the girlfriend are in the bedroom now, they can tell by the whispers of the floorboards. The mother stares into her tea and imagines, fleetingly, the girl standing on tiptoe to receive a kiss.

‘When are your parents coming?’ the mother asks.
‘About three-thirty.’

They have had this conversation before. His parents come for tea at three-thirty every Christmas Eve, have done for as long as either of them can remember. Perhaps the mother asks the question to prove she has something to say. It’s true she gets frightened sometimes. Silence has a leering, mocking quality she finds. Often her fragile strings of words – questions repeated, safe ground retrod – don’t seem enough to quell it. She tips the remains of her tea down the sink, swills the cup under the hot tap and rests it upside-down on the empty draining board. Once she’d suggested they went away for Christmas, just the two of them. That was a long time ago.

The son and the girlfriend reappear, heads angled towards the floor, eyes avoiding contact. There’s a tinge of somewhere else in the girl’s skin. Not that the mother minds about such things, but there are the father’s parents to think about.

‘Well.’ The mother claps her hands together: a tiny, flat sound. ‘Why don’t you two help me put the cakes out?’

Another mother would have baked. She thinks that. The girlfriend thinks that. Even the son thinks that. Their collective thoughts almost conjure up the smell of hot sponge cake, the scattering of oily crumbs beneath a cooling rack. The mother takes two boxes of cake slices from the shelf in the larder and hands them to the girlfriend.

‘Plates in that cupboard, just mix and match. I’ll get the tea things out.’

The silence is defeated by the sound of cardboard boxes being opened, cellophane wrapping pulled apart, a low exchange between the pair of them the mother can’t quite make out.

‘Done,’ the son announces, and sure enough there are two plates neatly arranged with machine-made cakes – symmetrical icing, identical sizes. The mother throws a look at the kitchen clock. Two forty-five. The space until three-thirty solidifies, slowing the second hand to a tired, marble-heavy tick.

‘I couldn’t steal one, could I?’ The girlfriend already has a lemon slice held to her lips. The mother looks at her easy leanness, the laugh lines at the edges of her eyes. The father stands and says, ‘I might just join you,’ bites down into sweet sharp sponge without looking at the mother.

‘Do you follow racing?’ he asks the girlfriend.

She shrugs. ‘Can do.’

The mother watches the three of them traipse into the living room, hears the flare of noise as the television is switched on. They’ll crumple the sofa covers, and she’s not sure the son’s even taken his shoes off. She lifts the Christmas teapot onto the tray, pulls the cups and saucers out of the cupboard and decides they could do with a wash. She hovers her fingers over a bakewell slice, but doesn’t take one. At least she plays by the rules.

On Christmas day, the girlfriend sits at the dinner table and thinks that even spending Christmas with her own family would be better than this. The father is uncomfortably jolly. He keeps her glass filled to the brim and she keeps drinking, feels the hum of it at the back of her skull. She notices an unfamiliar slump in the son’s shoulders, and the way the mother’s hands worry at the edge of the table cloth. Just watching the mother, she finds she is holding her own breath.

It is just the four of them for Christmas dinner. The father’s parents go down to their other son – with his sprawling house in Kent, three children, two grandchildren. They eat in the dining room, which they don’t use much these days. It’s cold, even though she remembered to turn the radiator back on the day before.
‘More bread sauce?’ The mother pushes it towards the father, a violent shove across the too-red table cloth. ‘You haven’t had any bread sauce.’

His own mother makes it herself: laced with nutmeg, thick with cream, she knows that. She watches him take a spoonful of plastic, package sauce, scoop some of it onto a forkful of turkey – which is dry at the edges despite her efforts – chew and swallow.

The mother surveys the table. There’s too much food left. They haven’t pulled the crackers yet. When should you pull crackers? She’s never sure. She looks at the son. His cheeks are flushed with wine and his hand rests on the girlfriend’s thigh, she’s sure of it. She thinks of her yoga class. Breathes deeply. But it’s like there are mice gnawing at her stomach, climbing up in a squiggling mass towards her chest.

On Boxing Day, the son and the girlfriend take the mother’s car and go for a walk. The mother had thought about inviting herself along. Instead, she stands in the kitchen and looks at the string of Christmas cards that sags across the far wall. She’d bought tiny coloured pegs to attach them, pink and blue and red and yellow, like children’s sweets; hummed to herself as she fixed them on, obscuring the framed print of a French farmyard which they’ve meant to replace for years, but have never quite got round to. She imagines the son and the girlfriend, holding hands on Newlands Corner, smiling hello to couples walking their dogs, letting the morning burn off their hangovers. They will leave, this evening, taking turkey sandwiches for the journey back, their rucksacks filled with presents that will be absorbed into the lives she knows nothing about. The mother examines one of the cards, from a friend who has dwindled into hastily scribbled annual messages. It is a pen and ink drawing of a family Christmas, tiny children surrounded by wrapping paper, parents sitting, their shoulders touching, by the fire. It was easier when the son was young, there’s no denying that. A child takes away the effort of it all. Sometimes, the mother feels like she’s playing a game she’s forgotten the rules of. Sometimes she spends whole days walking from room to room, willing the clocks to move faster, and then when she gets into bed – reluctant now to reach out and touch his pyjama clad limbs, because it never comes to anything, not any more – she can’t think where the day went to, what she’s achieved. Her own mother used to say, it’s an achievement in itself, making a home, bringing up a family. It’s something to be proud of. But what if your son is more interested in his girlfriend than in you? What if your husband would rather watch men race cars in tarmac circles than talk to you? What if you look in the mirror and aren’t sure who is looking back?

The father sits in the living room, his eyes fixed on the television. The mother stands in the kitchen doorway and looks at the back of his head, listens to the wail of rubber wheels and the hysterical ebb and swell of the commentator. She is considering asking him if he wants to go for a walk. The thought of it – the two of them making their way through the garden, past the tennis court whose surface is pocked and ruined by weather and weeds, out of the back gate and onto the muddy path towards the woods – makes her palms sweat. Easier to stay indoors. Better the kind of silence that exists between walls, softened by the television and the hum of fridges and freezers, than that which sits between two people amongst winter-bare trees.

The mother is still staring at the Christmas card when she hears the car pull into the driveway. She snaps herself straight, rubs at her eyes and drags damp fingers across her lips. She knows the kettle is full, but she checks anyway, flicks it on to boil. A nice cup of tea, maybe a piece of cake. She’ll make the father turn the telly off and they’ll all sit down together and have a chat.

The son and the girlfriend enter in a flurry of cold air and muddy shoes, the story of the spider bubbling on their tongues.

‘It was fucking huge.’ The words spill from the girlfriend’s pearl-painted lips. She slaps a hand across her mouth, her eyes widening. ‘Sorry, I don’t mean to swear, but it scared the living sh – daylights out of me.’ She giggles and holds onto the son’s arm. The mother looks at the neat ovals of her nails, the young skin stretched taut across elegant bones.

‘I told you not to tell her.’ The son is giggling too. ‘She hates spiders.’

‘Spiders?’ It’s the brash speed of them, thin legs scuttering across surfaces. They make her stomach curl in on itself, her breath snag against her throat.

‘It’s fine, mum.’ He drapes an arm around her shoulder and she’s so surprised, so pleased, that she almost doesn’t register his words. ‘There was only the one, and it’s gone. We looked, but we couldn’t see it.’

She pulls away from him. She doesn’t mean to, she doesn’t want to, but once it’s done his arm is at his side and she can’t take it back. The father appears in the doorway.

‘There was a spider in the car,’ the son says. ‘A big one. Mum’s having a tizzy about it.’ Sometimes, the mother thinks, her son is not a kind person, but she can’t concentrate on this thought because her mind is caught up with the image: a huge spider abseiling from the roof of her car onto the girlfriend’s lap.
‘Don’t worry,’ the father says, and she can almost see the swell of his chest as he speaks. ‘I’ll find it.’

The mother stands at the sink as he gathers up the Dyson and the looped extension lead from the cupboard. He is animated, the television forgotten, his body tensed for action. She watches him through the window, wielding the Dyson like he’s going into battle. The car looks like a beetle, she thinks, with its wings extended, momentarily vulnerable. It is a wife’s car – a Nissan Metro, all cheeky red curves. He drives a BMW, leather-seated suave, and somehow she’s never questioned it. She repeats her mantra: an achievement – bringing up a family, making a home. Be grateful for a good man’s love and concern. She looks at his slight frame, the baggy jeans that cinch around his waist like women’s trousers, the thin Pringle jumper, navy blue like a school boy’s uniform. There was a time when he’d walk into a room and she’d feel the desire, like melting chocolate. Now, her heart strains at her ribs but it’s not from lust, or even love. Nonsense. She makes herself imagine the winter air on his face, how his cheeks will glow cold, how she might trace a fingertip across his skin and feel the familiar pattern of bones.

He has taken the carpets out of the footwells, removed the spare tyre from the boot. She wants him to stop. There is something childlike about it: his satisfaction in taking things apart and putting them back together, fixing what’s broken. He thinks cleaning the car will make a difference. She hates spiders, but she suspects she understands them better than he does. It will have tucked its legs in tight against its body, found itself a crack to hide in, safe from the blast and pomp of the Dyson. It will wait him out, and once he’s gone, rolled up the extension lead and put the Dyson back in its cupboard, placed – maybe – a dry, cold kiss on her waiting forehead, it will uncurl itself and walk silky steps across the clean upholstery, find itself somewhere to sit, and wait for her.[/private]

Sarah Butler writes novels and short fiction. She has an MA in Creative Writing from UEA and has been published by Route, pulp.net and Pen and Ink Press. She runs a literature and regeneration consultancy, UrbanWords.
www.sarahbutler.org.uk