36 Nash Lane:
“DING DONG MERRILY ON HIGH! IN HEAV’N THE CHOIRS ARE – “
I silence the choir with my fist, almost breaking my radio alarm clock, and roll onto my back. Grey light seeps through the curtains making it seem more like six in the morning than ten. But I congratulate myself on sleeping away a few hours of Christmas. Only fourteen more to go.
I lie a moment, listening to the silence of my Christmas day. It’s the silence of knowing that every family in the land, in Europe and in the western world, is cosily inside each other’s houses and busy being Festive. The eerie calm of not one car on the road, not one lorry, not one buzzing moped with the engine of a hairdryer.
Everyone’s gaze is turned inward, to their own circle, their own clan, their own tribe, in their own cave. Doors barred, fires lit, turkeys and geese basted to perfection – all for their own, and none for anyone else.
The season of goodwill.
I trace the zigzag of a ceiling crack as the chill of the house penetrates my bones. I want the heating on, but I’d have to go downstairs and switch it on myself. I want coffee, but I’d have to make it myself. Because there will be no merry clan arriving on my doorstep today. Nor will I be bundling eagerly into a car, its boot stuffed with presents, to visit loving relatives.
But it doesn’t do to wallow in misery. Life must go on – one shouldn’t ask why. So I swing my goose pimpled legs over the side of the bed and shiver. Various joints creak and crack, and I’m almost at the bathroom before I can straighten up completely. This will only get worse, of course, despite my sporadic attempts at yoga. The onward march of time: you can’t escape it.
As I sit lifting my feet off the chilly bathroom lino, a stout paw shoves open the door and Colin trots in. He rubs against my legs and I stroke him.
‘Merry Christmas, Colin,’ I say. Colin replies in his own language.
I wash my hands then swing my dressing gown over my shoulders and hobble downstairs to switch on the heating. Fork out Colin’s malodorous food in the tiny kitchen, and make myself a coffee with three spoons of instant. I need all the stimulant I can get today.
Leaving Colin chomping and snorting into his bowl, I carry my mug into the lounge and take up my position at the window.
There they are.
Cars everywhere: on drives, on the road, half on and off the pavement. Everyone’s dear family, come to wish them well. And not a single visitor for me. Well, at least none of the neighbours can tell they’re not for me. The only thing that’s worse than being sad and lonely is being pitied for being sad and lonely.
The house directly opposite mine is a grand detached affair, all high gables and mature trees. Its drive, already crammed with cars, gains another entrant as I watch. SUV doors fly open disgorging adults, children and parcels covered in shiny bows. Girls in frilly dresses, boys sporting burgandy velvet and tartan. The adults carry cases of wine – Cava, I’d guess. They probably keep the good stuff for themselves, at home. Clan is most things, but perhaps not everything. I take a sip of coffee and lean closer to the window.
There’s a brief tussle regarding who carries what and a spit wash for one of the children, then the crowd surges towards the wreathed door. They’re admitted by a plump woman with lively hair – the owner – I’ve seen her before. She opens the door wide to reveal the airy hall with its sweeping staircase swagged with ivy. More family emerges from within to greet the newcomers with much hugging and back-patting all round.
I turn abruptly away, feeling a little sick. Some television will put me to rights. It may be decadent to watch it in the morning, but it’s necessary today. I perch on the sofa and click the remote.
The whole thing is a festival of togetherness, from a selfish and miserable childfree couple discovering the joy of children, to loner-villain Scrooge miraculously transforming into a socially acceptable extrovert. I switch the thing off, slump backwards on the sofa and take a deep breath. I will not cry. I will not cry.
Colin trots in licking his fishy lips, and I lift him onto my lap. He’s warm and soft and vibrates with purrs. I bury my face in his fur and wait for Christmas to be over. It’s just one day a year. It will be over soon.
37 Nash Lane, “The Cedars”
My mother strides in and frowns. “Kat, your hair looks a fright.”
We’re in my spacious lounge which is immaculate for just this one day a year, surrounded by my children – also immaculate for just this one day a year. But she picks fault. Because that’s what my mother does.
She’s lucky I had two minutes to get dressed, frankly. I’ve been awake since five a.m. when a plastic dinosaur – clutched in a plump little fist – collided with my face. And I’d gone to bed just three hours before that, following a house-wide search for dust at the forensic level. Because if Eleanor doesn’t find a speck, my mother will. My dining table is decorated to Immaculate Home Magazine’s “This Christmas Must Have” specifications, my lounge wafts tasteful scents of citrus and cloves, and a real tree twinkles in the corner. No food or drink has yet been slopped on the kids’ new outfits and they have, as yet, not begun to wage war.
But she notices my hair is a fright.
My stomach churns with anger, but Westminster chimes prevent my uncharitable reply. I rush, as far as I’m able in my new heels, to the door and throw it open. My sister Eleanor is posing on the step with her perfect hair and perfect boyfriend. But perfect boyfriend’s presence doesn’t stop my husband Andy ogling Eleanor’s backside as she steps into the hall.
A few minutes later, my brother and sister-in-law arrive accompanied by their hoards of simmering children. And within moments of that, of course, my elegant lounge is a memory. One child tears down the holly and ivy swags, another chokes on a wooden tree decoration and little Lilly gets an amuse-bouche stuck up her nostril and bursts into tears.
Definitely gin time. I fetch the bottle from the dining room, concealing it beneath my pashmina, and pour myself a large one. I know, I know – I shouldn’t be drinking in the morning, but I need it today.
After in-the-closet Uncle Clive arrives, it’s time for me to continue preparing lunch. I slave in the steaming kitchen; sniping, sniggering, crying and occasional screaming drifting from the lounge as I toil alone. I tell a lie – not quite alone. My mother darts in and out telling me how dry turkey can be and how she would have managed everything so much better. But I keep my glass topped up with Gordon’s because I can get through today by drinking gin, or by committing murder. And I choose the humanitarian option.
After seemingly endless hours, and with sweat patches staining my new dress, the feast is ready. I rush in and out of the kitchen and dining room with heaped, steaming dishes, then call the Visigoths to gorge. Ignoring sounds of my table decorations being broken, eaten and inserted into bodily orifices, I make my final journey across the hall bearing the giant bird on its platter.
There’s a brief tussle over seating arrangements as I enter. Andy wants to sit next to my sister and Perfect Boyfriend tries to prevent him. But, as Boyfriend is also having to fend off advances towards his person from in-the-closet Uncle Bob, Andy wins. He plumps himself gleefully down then shuffles his chair closer to Eleanor, flicking out his napkin with a lecherous leer. Mother seats herself at the head of the table, though I asked her not to. And I, worn out, sweating, and with barbed wire sawing through my head, lower the pièce de résistance onto the centre of the display.
Andy gets to his feet, swaying slightly, and rubs his hands. “Well everyone, grub’s up at last! Merry Christmas and all that!”
He attacks the bird with the carving knife and hacks away for a few moments before peering closer. He makes an ominous mooing sound.
“Kat… Is there supposed to be… I think it’s blood?”
“Stop kidding, Andy. It’s not funny.”
“I’m serious. You look.”
I crane my neck and see blood seeping from the wound Andy made. Golden-brown skin on top, raw meat underneath.
How? How could this have happened? Did I turn the oven off instead of turning it down? Perhaps I’ve had more gin than I realised…
I look at Andy, who is now frowning, then round the table. Everyone is staring at me, and my cheeks burn with shame.
Eleanor, who lives on celery and water anyway, leans back in her chair with a grin. “Aunty Kat can’t do anything right,” she says to one of my nieces, and they both giggle.
My mother sighs. “I knew I should have supervised you, Kat. You really are a complete and utter waste of space. You always were.”
I jerk to my feet, upsetting my glass. Golden Prosecco arcs through the air and splats onto the scarlet table cloth. Then I turn and run. Out of the room, up the stairs and into the sanctuary of my bedroom. I close the door and lean against it, panting. Andy yells from the hall to “stop sulking and fetch us something else to eat.” Eleanor’s laughter floats up the stairs, along with my mother’s sanctimonious voice and the screaming of thwarted children.
I clench my fists and walk to the window. The street is full of parked cars, each one a Trojan horse packed with its own explosive relatives. Just the one house looks peaceful: the little one opposite ours. As is my habit, I scan the windows for the owner.
There she is.
Curled up on the sofa with her cute black cat on her lap. And still in her night dress at lunch time, the lucky woman! Serene, untroubled, alone. Not mocked, not belittled, not criticised. Free to live her own life, just as she pleases.
But it doesn’t do to be envious.
“Kat!” Andy bangs on the door.
I take a deep breath. I must return to battle. But only eleven more hours to go, and thank God Christmas is just one day a year.
It will be over soon.