From where he was standing beneath a washing line we never took down, and which for three weeks a year was strung with Christmas cards at an angle we had to invert our necks to see, Hen declared he needed to go out and buy a shirt.
“Christmas Eve,” I replied. “Couldn’t you have thought of it sooner?”
“Couldn’t you be a woman who understands that a man’s wardrobe needs updating for special occasions?”
“If I don’t bother…”
And I knew exactly where he was going. Couldn’t you be a woman…a special occasion…what a man needs…My husband was going to visit his mistress. (Why should I modernise my vocabulary for him? Tell me why.)
“Make sure you’re back by one. I need help.”
“Don’t bang on. How long does it take to buy a shirt?”
I covered my tracks and became solicitous. “Not all the shops will be open. And don’t buy blue. Anything but blue.”
As I milled in the kitchen the mug of tea was still warm in my hands. It was a comfort. I somehow found myself outside checking the bird table. Nothing really keeps the squirrels and the pigeons away but sometimes a blue tit takes a glimpse through our windows with a nibble at the weathered peanuts.
Cardy, we called her Cardy because she couldn’t bear Carrie, let alone the sweet name of Caroline, and cardies were back in fashion and she usually wore one, with ballet shoes. It was fashion in one of its more feminine moments, for which Hen and I were grateful. She looked pretty up to the chin. These days I took my fill of my daughter indirectly. I peeked at her through a receding perspective of open doors. I watched her through the window, when she was leaving for school. Otherwise I fixed my eyes on her feet. “New shoes, Cardy?”
She was staring murderously at half a piece of dry toast with a scrape of marmalade. Butter was for losers.
“I thought maybe we could…”
“I’m going to Linzy’s.”
Finding myself alone in the kitchen I realised Jess wasn’t down yet. He was too old for me to call him.
I went back out to the bird table — it was actually a sparkling day, with cold you could smell and a gift of a blue sky — and tightened the angle on the skirt of chicken wire we thought might deter squirrels running up the pole.
Why, Hen? What’s the reason? Or do I mean cause? What’s caused it? But that didn’t seem the right way to think about it. Too logical. Let’s just imagine there was a prompt. Men get these promptings. They never thought of leaving, she didn’t do anything in particular, but suddenly there was someone else. Prompts were cruel. They could come from anywhere.
Jess appeared, in his pyjamas, squinting through the glass doors to the garden. I pretended not to see him, and turned my attention to some weeds still damnably flourishing in December. “Mum!” He finally made the effort to slide the door back a fraction. “Haven’t you noticed it’s winter?”
There’s quite a lot I’d like you to notice, Jess. That it’s Christmas Eve for a start. And already 10.30. We were none of us particularly early risers in our family, but whatever time we made an appearance, Jess always came last. As if he were delaying his entry into the adult world for as long as possible. That was, until his hunger got the better of him.
“Is there anything to eat?”
“Toast, cereal, whatever…” I’d learnt to sound more casual than I felt.
“But it’s Christmas!”
I didn’t like him in his selfishness and his lethargy. I left him to it.
“Where’s Cardy?” he yelled after me.
“Gone to Linzy’s.” The early bird gets the worm, I told the mirror in the bathroom. When I saw I looked as grim as Cardy I closed my eyes and sat on the unmade bed, but no tears came, so I sighed, banged the duvets, pulled the covers straight, threw the pillows to the right end, and in my exertion got…not a reason…not a cause…but a prompt for going out. I’d buy a Christmas tree.
They had them on the corner by the supermarket, hugely overpriced. You’ll think me a Scrooge but have you got one with a few broken branches, I practised asking. I could splint and bind the broken branches, no one would notice, they’d last the holiday and I’d be proud of not being ripped off. You’re a skinflint, said Jess. Mean, said Cardy. We don’t need to cut these corners so tight, I don’t know why you…began Hen. Sorry but not sorry. It’s how I grew up. It’s who I am. Take it or leave it. Well, not…I don’t know.
“Can I help you carry that beauty, Mrs Ries?” It was Stelios, my neighbour. I was somehow proud of having a neighbour, in London.
“Stelios!” Perhaps because it wasn’t Christmas for him he looked radiant.
“I’ve studied the English in my time here,” he said. “They don’t really like times of duty. They hate the cold. Self-abandon in the sun is what they’re made for.”
“Don’t write that home!”
“Why not? Now the world thinks all Greeks are lazy, why shouldn’t I say a few things about other nations?” But he was smiling as he said it.
“My son is lazy. I don’t know about the sun-worship.”
Stelios and I smiled together. There wasn’t anything else to say, not passing in the street like this. It had to be a bigger conversation or no conversation at all.
“I’ll bring it in for you.”
“Oh, would you?”
I stood looking at it, turning my head from side to side, shifting my vantage point as if it were a new painting on the wall. It was anchored by having its trunk tapered into one of those flat logs — they charge you extra for that and the result rarely seems balanced. It would be much better in a tub of earth.
We ended up rummaging for the largest possible pot in the shed, and Stelios filled it with earth from the shady patch under the wall. A dozen miniature daffodils with fresh white hairy roots were dislodged in the process. If anyone else had done that…”Don’t worry,” I cried gaily, “I’ll bed them in again.” It was good to be outside. Good to be in motion. Causes, reasons, prompts for joy. Hell, I don’t know.
When Hen came back, on the dot of one, I tried to see through him, but so much of my own stuff got in the way, I gave up. We had a sandwich and a bought mince pie. The pastry was thick and stuck to our teeth. He said none had ever been so good as his mother’s. I went to explain that baking pies at home takes time and effort and then gave up. Over a cup of tea we shared the thin newspaper, full of quizzes and crosswords and adverts for sales. “Keep your brain alive! Go shopping! Keep your brain alive, go shopping!” Stelios wouldn’t have said that, although Hen was right.
On Christmas Day, as people have taken to saying, because the 25th is the one we make the fuss about, things followed the routine they had for the last twenty years. Between nine and ten we gathered in the kitchen, not dressed, and while spinning out the time, vowed not to eat much because of what was to come. Hen put on the radio. Cardy ate several satsumas, Jess three slices of toast and Hen cereal and toast.
“Not eating, Kay?”
I took a while to get into the mood.
There were carols on the radio and suddenly Cardy burst into tears.
“Gimme a break! Can’t one be a bit sentimental?”
“Of course, Cardy, that’s what carols are meant for,” said Hen. “I read somewhere they’re our English folksongs.”
“Oh yes, and we haven’t got any folksongs because the Industrial Revolution wiped out our real heritage, while Christmas carols were the preserve of the middle class.”
“Thank you for your contribution, Jess. So you can put a few words together before four in the afternoon,” observed Hen. “At least we have Christmas to thank for that.”
Good way of putting it, Hen. We don’t actually know whether Christmas is the reason or the cause or the prompt. I wonder what believers would say. I guess they’d plump for cause. God causes things. But by now I’d left the table and was with my thoughts at the sink. Cardy had run away and Jess told Hen that either they should listen to the radio or talk, not both. He seems to be quite musical. Hen fetched some magazine article he’d been reading for months. It was so long since I’d seen the front cover I didn’t know whether it was from one of the weekend magazines he called rubbish these days or from the Economist, which he bought to give him the illusion of having a grip on the world.
“Can I help?” my husband asked, and it was genuine, if dutiful, in that way Stelios had told me the English don’t like.
“It’s fine, Hen. I’m better alone. I can pace myself.” I meant it. One morning a year spent peeling vegetables was no hardship, and it was almost fun. “It’s years since I’ve peeled anything. They’re used to eating potatoes and carrots with skins, and sprouts with all their leaves, by now. They may even get a shock.”
“The table looks nice.”
Cardy laid it. She had magically appeared, at 1.30, and I heard her stomach rumbling as she wordlessly adjusted the placemats and turned the knives the right way. “No flowers? God no flowers! Didn’t somebody THINK?”
“We, I, snipped branches off the evergreens in the garden.” Soon she was holding a bouquet of conifer, hebe and laurel.
Much better than anything you could buy in the shops. No, don’t say it! They’ll hate you for it. Skinflint mum. Mean, even at Christmas. Scrooge’s sister. Scroogina.
Hen, with a paper hat on, had his legs over the side of the armchair and was dozing. Jess had opened a second bottle of wine and had the television on. Cardy looked as if the thought of washing up had crossed her mind and got up saying she had something to do. “I’ll be back.” Yes. Four hours later. Wasn’t this the time when families used to listen to the Queen? Even Stelios, as a social observer, would be listening to the Queen, who might, even, this year, have some message. For the Greeks? You never knew. The Queen was…innovative. She wasn’t just doing the job. Good for her.
“I thought we’d go out for a walk,” I said. “There’s still a bit of sun. Come on.”
Jess looked questioningly at the sky.
About twenty minutes more light, I guessed, but I didn’t spell it out. We were always late for things.
The routineness of a walk after lunch made them willing to follow. At least they could be like everyone else in that. Did I hear the word family pass Cardy’s lips, sarcastically muttered? I think I did.
“Don’t ooh and aah about the beauty of bare trees, Mum, it’s embarrassing. We have seen birds before.” I’d stored up the reprimands and now cheerfully ignored them. The cause was probably the wine. The reason? God knows. Oh, I know, routine.
The open grassy hill descended and narrowed to where a brook sometimes flowed. It was only ever a trickle of water, but enough to create a slough of mud moulded in high relief by what seemed like hundreds of pairs of boots having recently passed through it. Countless pairs of feet tried with more or less success to step round it, leaving skidmarks and occasional deep plunges into the sticky black ooze, as part of the obligatory Christmas tramp.
Cardy, wearing fashionable polka dot wellingtons — she might not have come otherwise — complained of a substantial splash of wet earth sliding down her jeans-clad thigh.
“Makes you more sexy,” said Jess, who, even as he spoke, tasted earth where premier cru Médoc had recently been and had to wipe his face.
Hen and I hardly had time to look up before the runner, in spattered white shorts and vest top, the way runners never seemed to look these days, except at school, had passed us. His long white legs were powering him up the hill we had tottered down.
“Wow!” I said.
“I’d like to be like that. Free,” said Cardy. “I really wish…”
“Do it then, you know what they say, just do it.”
“I hate that expression,” said Hen.
“Hen, not now!” I wasn’t sure why I admired the runner, but I did.
“Mum, Dad, there’s something you need to know,” Jess began. Cardy had walked ahead. As if they’d planned it but I couldn’t believe they had.
“Shut up, Hen. Of course he’s not leaving university.”
“Mum, listen, I know you’ll listen at least, I’m gay.”
My mind was a blur. All I could think was of the runner looking like the record-breaking Roger Bannister fifty years ago, and what he had…not caused…but prompted.
“I’m glad you’ve found yourself, Jess, that’s what matters.” The afternoon had turned to dusk in a trice. The grass was wet, which cleaned our boots, but the sky was cold and unwelcoming as only high, unbroken white cloud can be. Make your own way, that kind of sky always said to me. I can’t help.
“Is there someone special?”
“No-o. It’s just, there was this girl, actually two girls — “
“You’re quite a catch, Jess.”
“Mum! I just knew it wasn’t me. I had to tell them, and now I’ve told you.”
Hen was silent. I couldn’t imagine what he was thinking about, unless it was his mistress, if he had one. I wondered whether it would be a self-defensive “at least I’m normal” that he was uttering silently inside to be followed later, when we were alone, with “I told you so” when he had never voiced anything of the kind. But he surprised me.
“You’re brave, Jess. I like that,” he said finally. He should perhaps have put an arm on his son’s shoulder. But then they hadn’t really touched for years. English awkwardness, Stelios would say.
Ah, Stelios! I have to say that for me the runner made me think of Stelios.