Thursday 19 December 2019

First Christmas

By Caroline S. Kent

cold tea


Your eyes open, and the stillness hits you. You take a deep breath, listening. Just silence. More than silence. It’s not the absence of noise, because you can hear the neighbours banging around, you can hear the dog over the road barking. But in here, in your home, just silence, no one breathing next to you.

You heave yourself out of bed, gently moaning to yourself about your aches and pains. You slide your slippers on and shuffle to the toilet. After your sabbaticals, the correct term is ablutions, but you misheard it years ago and have stuck with sabbaticals ever since. You make your way to the bathroom; clean your teeth, brush your hair. Then return to the bedroom to get dressed. Just as you pull your slip over your head, your alarm goes off. It’s the radio, the song White Christmas of all things is playing. You stop and listen to the song finish, then the presenter, who is far too cheerful, talks a little before introducing the next Christmas tune, another number one from a December long ago. This tune you can remember when it was in the charts, many, many years ago.

You find yourself maudlin, so you turn the radio off and go down stairs to make yourself a cuppa. When you have your cup tea in hand you walk into the living room and sit down. Checking the time you see it’s only just past eight o’clock. Sipping your favourite brew you remember your daughter will be round at eleven to pick you up. She doesn’t want you being alone on this day; this day of all days.

You hear the knock at the door and it breaks you from your dreamless reverie. It’s five past eleven. Where did the last three hours go? You can’t even remember what you were thinking about. As you get up, you hear Mary letting herself in. You gave her a key a few years ago, but she always knocks first. You always go to answer the door, and she always beats you to it. You get up anyway and greet her with your customary hug.

She kisses you and asks if you are OK. You nod and reply of course. “Fine I am dear, fine, just fine”. Without pausing for breath you continue; “I was just about to make a cuppa. This one’s gone cold.”

“I have the kids in the car; if you are ready we can get straight off to their dad's.” She asks, but it’s really her telling you to get ready, we’re leaving now.

You have everything you need in the bag in the hall. All the presents, neatly wrapped. All named and ready to be given out. Only your Santa’s sack isn’t red, it’s black, and plastic.

After putting your cold cup of tea in the kitchen sink you change your slippers for some sturdy shoes and let Mary walk you to the car. She says she doesn’t want you slipping on the frosty path. Frosty? At eleven? But walking to the car you can feel the chill; good job you put your thick winter coat on over your knitted cardigan.

In the car you have the front seat. The back is full of three noisy children, your grandchildren. Two boys and a girl, you greet them all individually. Lidia is the only one to say good morning back to you. The two boys arguing over whose turn it is to play on the game thingy. Thomas, the eldest, usually wins, normally by bullying James a little.

Mary is a careful driver. So much more so after her little accident a few years ago; bloody taxi drivers you mutter under your breath as you recall being told about the incident.

A short drive and you arrive at Dave’s house. When him and Mary split up it was very amicable, but still, why did he get to keep the big house all to himself? It’s been like this for three years now. This is the first time you have joined them for Christmas dinner. Mary has been taking the kids round to Dave’s every year since their split. Why can’t they sort it out? They clearly still love each other? It’s no good pretending otherwise. But you suppose with him being away weeks on end with his work, and Mary being a teacher, they were just too busy with their lives to concentrate and make time for each so they simply drifted apart. Shame really, they make such a great couple.

You realise you are maudlin again, so you start to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Dave has welcomed everyone in. The aroma drifting from the kitchen smells divine. It should do, he’s a Michelin starred chef!

Everyone is shuffled into the living room, all coats taken & hung up. You see a TV on the wall; it’s so big it could be a cinema screen. A Disney animated film is showing. All colour and jollity, typical of kids films these days.

You settle yourself into the huge arm chair, and as you are making yourself comfortable Dave arrives with a cup of tea, with writing on the outside which reads ‘World’s Greatest Nanny’.  It’s the small things you think to yourself as a smile grows on your face.

Thomas asks his dad if he can plug the games console into the TV. “No need he replies, I already have one set up.” He opens the cabinet doors beneath the huge screen and takes out two black ‘game controllers’ whatever that means, and the two boys squeal in delight as the see the pile of games in the cabinet that he has got for them. That’s them sorted for the next few hours then.
“Daddy…” Lidia calls out, “where’s my present?”

Dave reaches behind the large cream leather soda and hands her a large wrapped box. She tears into the wrapping to find a Cindy house full of dolls and their dresses. Lidia squeals louder than the two boys as she rushes over to give her dad a huge hug. Mary asks Dave is she can help with anything. He replies shaking his head and saying everything is in hand.

After the children have been playing for a while, you ask them if they would like their presents from you now. “Yes please” they scream in unison. You hand them three wrapped presents each. They each have a book, because you encourage reading, and you always check with Mary who’s popular at the time so you get the right books to interest them. Each of the two boys has a tin of sweets, whilst Lidia prefers a box of chocolates. The third is a gift card. A hundred pounds each to spend in any high street store.

Mary gently scolds you for spending so much, reminding you that you only have one pension now. You tell her you have some savings tucked away, and it’s your pleasure to spoil the grandchildren.
At one, Dave announces “dinner is served.” And you all make your way to the dining area. He was always a stickler for eating at the table. He was never one for eating off a tray in front of the telly like you do at home.

After dinner you find yourself nodding off during the Queen’s speech. Probably only the same platitudes that she says every year you think to yourself as you wake half an hour later. Ever dutiful, Dave has another cup of tea ready in minutes after your eyes flutter open.

As you watch the kids, you join in with the idle chit chat with Mary and Dave, never once taking your eyes of the children as they play.

You realise that you hadn’t been paying too much attention to the conversation when you hear Mary say a little loudly “Mum!”

“Sorry dear, what were you saying?”

“Dave was asking how long were you and dad married for?”

“Nearly sixty years.” You reply. “He was always the fit one. Not like me with all my aches and pains. He was even doing his Tai Chi the Tuesday before he died.” You pause for a moment. “He died exactly three months before our sixtieth wedding anniversary”. You choke a little saying those words and Mary reaches out and squeezes your hand for a minute.

“So you got married when you were twenty-one then Jean?” Dave asks.

“No dear. We got married the Saturday before I was twenty-one, which was on the following Wednesday”. You take a sip from your tea. “We had my birthday on our honeymoon.” You give Dave a sly wink. “We spent the whole day in bed. We carried on that tradition every year on my birthday. I’m sure we made our daughter on my thirty-fourth birthday”.
“Mum!” said Mary as she started to blush. Dave chuckled.

The three of you talk of more pleasant times, and you have that warm glow inside from being with family for the first time since Eric passed away in January. This gives you the realisation of how lonely you have become living on your own.

A while later as Dave hands you your coat, you stop and say “Thank you for a lovely day, I really did enjoy it”, and give him a hug. Mary rounds up the three kids, and bundles them and all their presents into the car as you say goodbye to Dave. You watch her give Dave a quick squeeze and a look, but they exchange no words on the doorstep.

The drive back to yours is a blur of Christmas lights on what appears to be nearly every house and tree. On exiting the car, you thank the children for a wonderful day and blow them each a kiss. At the door Mary gives you a big hug and asks if you will be OK. “Of course dear, I’m fine, honestly I am” you reply.

Back in your home, you make yourself a cuppa and settle into your favourite armchair. This time you make sure to drink the tea before it goes cold. But you still nod off anyway. Something stirs you from your slumber. Through blurry eyes you see Eric before you holding out his hand for you to take, a yellowy golden glow behind him.

As you look at him, you wonder if you would like one more family Christmas like you have just enjoyed, but realise you miss Eric more. You smile and take his hand…

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