A Christmas Story
The flickering, impossibly bright Christmas lights hung chaotically on the small, artificial tree perched on the table in the corner. Anthea acknowledged its ineffable cheerfulness as she took her first cup of tea to the love seat under the window, to sit watching the grey dawn shift almost imperceptibly into day.
The radio, her constant companion, played Christmas hymns, chiming bells, and old classics from her childhood. She smiled a little, at the songs about family and love and desire. Christmas stockings and presents and family. All the things from the past. A sprig of fresh holly arched over the Christmas ornaments on the mantel – the misshapen snowman her son had made, decades ago now, and the battered old Christmas train that had emerged, year after year, to take pride of place. It was showing its age now.
As was she. She didn’t feel as old as she was, but time ticked and the year turned, and even the floods and rain of global warming, the unseasonably high temperatures the weather announcers talked about, even these did not ease the cold in her bones. She was not afraid of her age. Every day was a gift. Anthea feared only the loss of her memories. They were all she had left. Of course, there were some memories best left behind. She would erase those if she could. And yet, even those, as dark and tormented as they were, gave some comfort.
Christmas. Jolly voices and still the silliness of buying, buying , buying, the rush to fill the house with everything, for just one day. Anthea’s Christmas now featured a small Christmas pudding made to an old recipe, half a dozen mince pies, and her favourite roasted vegetables which would be more than enough for one day. That, and the text from Will. He would text, he always did, a long text, rambling, as if he had just remembered he had a mother and she might want some news of him. Forgetful, careless maybe, but he had a life and she had never wanted him to feel obligated. He would have sent a card, he always did, but it would arrive late, sometime in January, battered and damp in the ever-present rain, bearing postmarks and stamps from distant lands. Knowing this, she put last year’s card up on her mantel, next to the card from her neighbour Clay, who, like her, spent Christmas alone. Clay never said what had happened to his family, but there were too many of them, forgotten, the wrong side of fifty, traversing the rocky slopes of solitary middle age towards the beckoning finger of ‘old.’
She was not sad. She had her memories. The oldest ones, taken out and dusted off like the old ornaments, were faded, mere snapshots of childhood. The smell of tinsel, the remembrance of opening a special gift, the namesake doll she had loved until all its hair fell out. Teenage years, yes, she remembered that cusp between child and adult, and the longing to retain the security of those Christmas rituals whilst yearning for a new way of being, of being seen. Then her first marriage, and Will as a baby. All those firsts. First Christmas, first photo with Santa. First affair, first divorce. First attempt at internet dating. Being swept off her feet, and thinking she knew what love was.
Anthea smiled at the tree. Its bent wire branches were a little bedraggled now, but it was an old friend. And beneath it sat her yearly gift to herself, the stack of books wrapped in assorted Christmas paper, saved from the previous year, and the year before that, her gifts to herself. The only things she had ever wanted for Christmas. There had been that year… oh, she shouldn’t revisit it. The damp garden beyond the glass showed storm tossed trees, and her mind projected the images. All the not-so-happy Christmases. The shredded wrapping paper and the screaming, the gifts thrust back at her in disgust. The pressure to perform, all those days of shopping and cooking, preparing, cleaning the house, dressing the tree, buying the right presents, wrapping them just right. Standing dutifully whilst guests arrived, taking coats, providing drinks, snacks, more drinks, changing the music, smiling dutifully, laughing in all the right places. Years and years of it, dressing the table, presenting the perfectly browned turkey, cooking the sprouts the way she was supposed to. And waiting for the words to fall like blows when no one else could hear.
The perfect family Christmas, bookended by expectations and abuse, criticism and censure. The shining epitome of the constant abuse. Smiling and giving effusive thanks for the gifts she did not want. What had started out as a love affair had segued into a series of disappointments, culminating in the penultimate Christmas morning, when she had woken to find the large box with her name on it contained a new hoover. How she had hidden her tears that day she never knew. The fact that Will was there, aged 13, still loving the excitement and delighting in the rising drifts of discarded wrapping paper, had helped her to keep the smile in place. That and knowing what would happen later if she did not.
Yes, it had taken her a year, but it had been worth the wait. Another year of being told she was not good enough, not cheerful enough, not sexy enough, that the housework came before her work, that her career didn’t mean anything, really, that her friends were no good for her, that her memories were wrong, and it had been her own fault that her parents were estranged from her, that her previous relationship had ended. No wonder her ex-husband had had an affair. Smell of well-stuffed Turkey and the stack of presents smaller, Will gone to his father’s that year, after months of negotiations and relationship building, dispatched with love and a sack of gifts and reassurances that she would be fine, just once, without him.
Funny how, now, she missed that concern most. He had been such a caring, loving boy, a considerate young man. But she wondered if that had been compensation for the emotional wasteland of her marriage, if he had known, consciously on sub-consciously, that his was the only light of love and affection in her life.
Anthea finished her tea, looking with satisfaction around the room, revelling in the bookcases and the many ornaments from her travels around the world, the photographs of herself and Will, the mismatched furniture and the colourful throws and cushions. It was unrecognisable as the room she had inhabited all those years ago, with its constantly replaced carpets and curtains, the matched furniture, the ornaments chosen to fit in with a style or colour scheme. This space was organic, growing with time and memory, a testament to a life lived in freedom of self and of expression, a comfortably messy homeliness. No sign now of the torment of years.
No sign except the holly tree at the edge of the lawn, planted that last Christmas, the last Christmas before she had discovered just how much pleasure there was in being alone at this time of year. That tree…. She had bought it especially, part of her gardening duties. She remembered the barbed comments about how long it had taken her to get the garden in shape, finally put some effort it. As if keeping house, managing a career, and raising a child, were nothing if she did not also maintain a beautiful garden.
It had taken her days to get the hole deep enough. It was cold and wet, as usual, and the earth was sodden. There had been roots, and stones, and at one point, the bones of someone’s cat, which she had laid back into the hole gently when she was done. She remembered the sheer physical effort of it all, how she had gloried in the ache of her muscles and the strength in her arms, relished every blister on her hands.
What was it she had been told that year? You won’t be getting any books for Christmas. No good can come of so much reading.
Anthea smiled. All that was good in her life had come from books. Books were the constant friends she had never found in people, the love that she had been denied. Books asked nothing more than a little time and attention, and gave so much back. Feelings, information, dreams and inspiration. Comfort. It was more than enough. Books were the instruction manuals for living a hundred lives. Or just one life. This life.
No more familiar rituals, not after that year. Oh, she had cooked the veggies and all the trimmings, but after that year, she couldn’t bear the smell of turkey roasting. Instead, she had baked a salmon, or roasted beef, or boiled a ham. Will hadn’t minded. Sweet, sunny Will, all he had wanted were his presents and her presence. The absence of the darkness had made their time together so much sweeter. Good memories.
She remembered rising early, that last time, to prepare the bird. How she had stuffed the herbs under the skin, lots and lots of thyme and rosemary, parsley and sage, to hide the taste and smell of the other herbs, the ones she had grown in secret, harvested, dried and kept for this day, this Christmas day, the day she had planned for so long. The first year there were no guests for lunch, the in-laws and the cousins having taken a trip to Florida to escape the greyness and the rain. Just the two of them, and the perfectly green sprouts, and that turkey, the smell permeating the very walls with its fleshiness, is herbal earthiness. Flesh and blood and bone and those powerful green leaves, ground and mixed into the stuffing too, and infused in the gravy. Taking no chances. There was no room for error. Of course, Anthea had been alone with all the preparations, as always. The kitchen was her domain. She was the wife in this relationship, that was her role. How she had smiled then, all fear passed in the face of the act. It had been so simple, really, in the end. Though she had taken the precaution of burying the turkey under the holly tree, deep at the bottom of the hole, covered by the bones of the cat and the sodden earth and the displaced stone. She had flushed the gravy and the stuffing down the loo. The almost clinical cleanliness of her kitchen had been no cause for concern, as family and friends had attested. It was always spotless.
And no one had known. She had read widely, done her research well. Amazing what you can find in old books, isn’t it, including the perfect poison, the one that is metabolised so fully it can’t be found in a post-mortem? You wouldn’t find it on the internet either. Just in an obscure old book bought in a second hand shop, dustily occupying its shelf space with no indication of its contents. And there were so many books, so many shelves, even if someone were to grow suspicious, it would take years to trawl through every book for a clue to how she had done it.
She remembered the table, with the festive table cloth, the new red and gold cloth napkins, the best crystal glasses. Red candles flickering. The pop of the champagne cork, the fizz of the bubbles in her nose. She remembered the toast, to another year together, to happiness, and the crackers with their disappointing contents. Silly hats and terrible jokes, and her painted-on smile. She remembered how well the turkey had carved, juicy and succulent. How beautiful the plates had looked, the bright colour of the cranberry relish, the neat pool of gravy, the golden roast potatoes. She remembered how she had nibbled carefully on a potato not touched by gravy or turkey or stuffing, whilst watching first one plateful, then a second, disappear into that mouth, that cruel mouth, those lips, the lips that had kissed her so skilfully, seduced her so surely, wooed her and lied to her and turned vicious, in the end. How the first spasm hit shortly after brought the mince pies into the living room, and refreshed the large glass of wine. She had not expected it to be so painful. Or drawn out. It had taken about 40 minutes, in the end, and she had had to turn up the TV to mask the sounds. Ample time to clean up and dispose of the evidence, scour the kitchen thoroughly, and check that the bowl of ‘leftovers’ she had prepared was pride of place in the fridge. She had washed the pots three times. She had even put her clothes and apron into the washing machine, showered, and washed her hair. Reapplied her makeup. The groans had subsided by then, which meant she could replace the phones in their brackets, put the mobiles on the coffee table, and the other gadgets could be distributed around the house, artfully. As if they have never been removed.
It had been dark when she had finally called the ambulance, concerned that the slumped figure on the sofa could not be roused from their after dinner nap. Shock, they said, when she fainted at the news that ‘they had done all they could.’ It was easier than faking any other reaction. There had been the post mortem, the funeral, the sympathy and the grief. Yes, it was tragic. No, she couldn’t quite believe it. Yes, Christmas would never be the same again.
Silent night, a choir singing, painfully poignant. Anthea smiled. Picked up her festive glass of port, left out last night for Santa, and eyed the first mince pie with anticipation. Merry Christmas love, she raised her glass to the holly tree bending in the wind, its green leaves edged with vicious spikes.
And may you rot in hell.