In olden times, Christmas consisted of singing carols, having a mug of mulled wine and attending a church service. Children would find pencils, small home-made toys and a few tangerines in their stockings. Affluent families would give their servants yards of cloth on Boxing Day, intended for new work clothes. Horribly feudal, but better than nothing.
Modern humans spend two days slaving away in the kitchen and/or driving around the country to visit relatives, and for the past few years, blatantly ignoring the Covid rules. No government is powerful enough to stop its citizens from going all the way at Christmas, and I cannot but understand them.
My mother was recovering from cataract surgery and could not drive. On Christmas Day, Anne and I picked her up at her flat and had a lovely lunch at Pippa’s house. That evening, she had dinner with us at our place.
Maurice and Alec went to the Burger Vomit on the M4 for their midday meal. Alec came home wearing a cardboard crown and happily playing with a plastic figure he’d found in his kiddie surprise box.
Mum laughed when she saw him and gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘I say, is that a ballerina?’ she asked as he held up his gift. His answer was lost on all of us. It was probably an action hero – notably wearing a miniature face mask. He had always been a sucker for meaningless movies.
Maurice had told me a few days earlier that he and his lover would not join us at the dinner table downstairs. ‘You ought to spend some quality time with your family and I’ll have a long haul to Oxford and back the next day.’ Christopher Hall, Maurice’s old father, and his wife Terry had invited him and Alec to a brunch.
Mum was sad that our two friends would not join us for the famous Durham turkey with its stuffing (our secret family recipe) and all the trimmings. They disappeared upstairs.
When dessert was served, I grew worried. They had not mentioned any dinner for themselves. You must be starving I texted Maurice. When I got no answer, I sent the same line to Alec. No probs, we’re getting high as fuck he replied. Then I looked at the orange-meringue pie and china dishes of chocolates, suddenly feeling lonely. ‘That’s your second glass of Grand Marnier in ten minutes, Clive dear,’ Mum admonished kindly. Anne grinned. She knew.
The dining room had double doors that led to the conservatory. They were closed now and its curtains were drawn. ‘What’s going on in there?’ Mum asked.
Anne grinned again and explained there was the sweetest little hole in the ceiling. Some roof tiles needed replacing, but it was rather hard to get a repair man at short notice in the middle of the pandemic.
‘We keep a saucer in there now to catch the rain water,’ I added. Mum laughed. Perhaps she was on to us.
It was all a lie. The roof was fine. I just did not want to spoil the surprise.
At half past nine, Mum yawned discreetly and asked Anne if she could drive her home.
When I went into the hallway with them, I tried to detect any sound coming from upstairs. All was quiet. That is, until Mum roared: ‘I’m going now, boys!’
Presently, Alec rumbled down the stairs, wearing an old bathrobe. She hugged him and wished him a merry Christmas again. ‘Same to you, love,’ he smiled warmly. He treated her like his own mother, and she liked it. She ruffled his hair.
Maurice followed a minute or so later, looking dazzling in his grey silk kimono.
When she asked him if he was going to bed early, he nodded and explained to her that he and Alec would drive all the way to Oxford and back the next day. ‘I never had the honour of meeting your father and your stepmother,’ she beamed, ‘but do give them my regards, Maurice dear.’
It was all too logical. Both Christopher and Terry were professors. She would not have sent her holiday greetings if it had been Alec’s mum Jenny and her boyfriend hosting the party.
After more hugs and goodbyes, the front door finally closed. Alec dashed back to the attic. Maurice lingered on the staircase, gripping the handrail and staring at me with eyes slightly out of focus.
‘You’re high,’ I observed. ‘Very much so, old chap,’ he giggled.
‘Who’s driving tomorrow?’ I asked. ‘Not you in any case,’ he chortled, thinking himself funny.
Then he rushed upstairs with a light step, humming and talking to himself.
I remained in the hallway, breathing in the faint smell of Dutch weed, wondering which one of them would get his license suspended for zigzagging on the M4 the next day.
I was still standing in the hallway when Anne got home. She talked to me but it all went past me.
Instead of clearing the dinner table, she grabbed some cans of beer from the fridge, got out her cigarettes, slumped down on the sofa in the lounge and switched on the TV.
Betsy and Lily joined her, probably purring loudly and expecting some leftover turkey.
That’s an idea, I thought, suddenly awake. I went to the kitchen, cut up the meat and whistled my ‘come and get it, kitties’ signal. To my surprise, Clivie was the first to turn up. He was an old cat and barely left the attic. Furball followed and howled as if she were starving.
I watched them gobble up the treat until some noise could be heard from upstairs.
There was shouting, about beer being spilled on a carpet and making a mess in the loo and about committing the carnal act with oneself. Doors were slammed. This happened more often, and on those occasions Clivie always fled the scene.
It was then that I took a can of Carlsberg from the fridge and downed it in practically one swig. When I had opened the second one, I went out into the garden, lit a cigarette and stared at the sky, which was so hauntingly quiet now that air traffic had become restricted.