A Little Something For Christmas

A Short Story by Kristen Bailey

My mother likes a real tree for Christmas. It's the smell, David, you can't beat the smell. I like to think you can get that real pine smell from a good supermarket brand toilet cleaner but I don't say that out loud for fear of incurring her festive wrath. And so there’s always a real tree and like we endured when we were teens there’s still a daily rota of vacuuming up the needles as we watch that bastard go crusty and brown as it’s shoved up against the radiator.

     I lie under it now with Tess, my niece and we look up at the branches and my mother's multicoloured lights twinkling in some erratic fashion that my eyes can't quite handle. I've been to raves that were less of an assault on the senses. It’s an overwhelming memory of our childhood, lying in silence wigging out on mum’s trippy disco lights, absorbing the magic of the season. The lights reflect off Tess’ eyes as she cosies up next to me. She’s a wondrous gem of a child and I like the wisdom behind her eyes. They seem to know that my mother's not changed her tree decorations since the seventies.

     'Aunty B, did Santa come to see you?' she asks, her head nestling into my shoulder. I rake pine needles from her hair.

     'He didn't,' I say, pouting.

     'Is it because you were naughty?' she asks, mortified for me but also intrigued. Oh dear. I could get this very wrong, eh? What lies have we spun for this little one? Do I create more? Maybe I could say the reindeer got cramp before they reached me? I don't have a chimney in my shitty house share. In fact, I think if Santa did leave me anything, it was possibly stolen by my housemate, Daz who I suspect steals my bread.

     'Aunty Beth is naughty. Very naughty.' Meg suddenly says, rolling under the tree to join us. Tess cups her hands to her mouth to giggle. She's like a tiny clone of her mum. I do love how motherhood has mellowed Meg. Her eyes read calm even though her face has more lines, engraved from all those emotions of having another little person in her life. She stares up at the undercarriage of the tree and picks a pine needle out of her mouth.

     'Define naughty?' I enquire.

     'You're drunk for a start. And you're only lying under this tree to avoid Mum asking you about Will.'

     I crease my eyes at her. She expected me to be sober for this? It's called merry and I believe it's the normal state of affairs for this time of year. Will is a new-ish boyfriend. What we have is fun and it's been going for about a year but I don't want to put labels on things and have my mum scare him off, judging him on his Quality Street choices.

     'I’m allowed to be drunk. It's called Christmas.'

     Meg smiles at me. You can tell she misses the all-day drinking. Before she married Danny and had her daughter, we used to pour double shots of Baileys in our morning coffees and not bat an eyelid. Christmas milk, she called it.

     'I'm actually hiding from Grace's new bloke,' I whisper. We cast our eyes over to the sofa. His name is Ben. He's also in accounting like Grace and has socks adorned with mathematical symbols. I've already had a conversation with him over his love of jigsaw puzzles. He got a one-thousand piece from his mum that is a lovely vignette of a horse with its foal. He anticipates the grassy background will be the killer. Ben replaces someone called Tom who Grace had been dating all the way through university. Tom wore hats, could do accents and at Meg’s wedding he did the worm on the dance floor. He disappeared on Grace to go travelling so she's replaced him with Jigsaw Boy, who is well presented but seems to be a bit of a personality vacuum. You always wish more for those you love so dear.

     'He could be worse. He could be…'

     On the other sofa sits Simon, Emma's husband. Do we like Simon? Simon is the human equivalent of a verruca. I’m still in shock that my super smart, beautiful sister opted to marry that weed. He sits next to Meg's husband, Danny who entertains his talk of motoring politely in the kindly way that Danny does. I drive the biggest car with the biggest engine to compensate for my teeny-tiny penis.

     'Maybe we just lie here until they both leave…' I whisper.

     'We can ask them to pass the parsnips down here. We can pretend to be stuck.'

     Tess looks at us like we both might be mad. This is what it means to be a part of this family, I'm afraid. I reach over and give the little one a drunken kiss on the forehead. This is also part of the joys, being smothered to death by your aunties.

     'When you're quite done girls…'

     Our mum's slippered feet stand by ours. We slide our bodies out from under the tree to find her glaring down at us. I know that look, we're not spared it, not even on Christmas day.

     'Meg, go upstairs and help Emma with Iris. She peed all over her Christmas outfit.'

     Meg escapes, bundling Tess into her arms. 'And how tipsy are you, Beth? Are you too far gone to fold napkins?'

     ‘When did drinking on Christmas day become a crime?' I ask.

     'No one else is drunk.'

     'That's because they're either a parent or trying to make a good impression on a new boyfriend. I have nothing to prove,' I whisper as she pulls me up.

     'Is Grace's man wearing a sweater vest?' she says out of the side of her mouth.

     'Yes.'

     She pauses for a moment to cast judgement. He may be really nice, Mum. He may bake her cookies, remember her birthday and give her regular orgasms.

     'If you look closely at the pattern, it's Christmas themed. I think those are Brussels sprouts.'

     'Or green festive bollocks,' she mutters.

     I laugh so hard some snot vents out of my nose and she surveys me strangely. 'Save some Baileys for me. I might need it to stop me stoving Simon's face in with a roasting pan.'

     Mum’s not normally one to do humour or curse so this might mean today could get interesting at least. She hands me a pack of holly print paper napkins and I sit down at the table. This is my role now: the napkin folder. I’ll also be the one who goes around with the bin bag after we open all the presents, checking no one’s thrown away envelopes with cash. Christ, there better be cheese at the end of this. Good cheese too. If Mum thinks cheddar and a Boursin is going to cut it then she’s sorely mistaken.

     ‘PEOPLE! I’M HERRRRRRE!’

     As soon as I hear her voice, I jump out of my chair. Thank the Christmas gods. Lucy. The youngest sister is in the house and finally I have someone to get properly rat-arsed with. This will be everything because then we can get Twister out, or karaoke, or both. And do it absolutely sloshed. I shuffle into the corridor to meet her but stop in my tracks as I glimpse her by the staircase. She’s brought a guest.

     ‘Oh! Hi. Lucy?’

     Lucy lets out a little squeal and brings me in for a hug. I thought Emma’s baby dressed as a snowman was too much but no, Lucy has gone full Mrs Claus. And a slightly inappropriate Mrs Claus at that. Imagine the wife of Santa if she shopped at Ann Summers. As if that wasn’t enough, she has with her, well, an elf. This could be construed as an offensive reference because the gentleman is actually short, like four foot tall, but he’s in tights and shoes with bells.

     ‘Beth, this is my mate, Tony. Tony, this is one of the sisters.’

     He comes over and puts his arms out. Is there an etiquette here? I mean, it’s Christmas and I’m a hugger but do I bend down? Kneel down? I opt to bend, conscious that I will be offering him a good hint of cleavage.

     ‘Merry Christmas, Beth,’ he says, a sprightly tone in his voice.

     ‘Ditto. You both seem to have opted for another dress code I feel?’ I say, my hand presenting my lowly offering of jeans and trainers.

     ‘We’ve just come off an all-nighter promo job in a nightclub. Huge Christmas Eve bonus. Tony and I were leaving and then he told me that he was going to have Christmas alone which I said was not acceptable so he’s here.’

     You’ve brought an actual elf to Christmas Day and I can see a hint of a suspender belt, little sister. Are you two, together? Have you had sex with him? Dressed like that? Mum is going to freak. I’ll have to fold another napkin. This is a bloody gift, though. He starts pulling at Lucy’s hand.

     ‘Luce, we may have a tiny problem.’ He gestures up to the top of the stairs where four-year-old Tess sits there, her mouth agape to see Tony.

     ‘Oh, that’s Tessie. Come here, little bear. It’s me, Aunty Luce?’ she says, like her niece wouldn’t recognise her in scarlet red lipstick. She scampers down the stairs into Lucy’s arms but kicks her legs, begging to be put down. She stares intently at Tony.

     ‘Are you real?’ she asks.

     Tony smiles. It’s quite an endearing smile to be fair but you can tell he’s not going to crap over a young child’s dreams on Christmas day. He can’t in that costume.

     ‘I am. Sometimes Santa forgets people so I visit their houses and deliver their gifts.’

     Her eyes sparkle with wonder. He’s got a bit of an East London twang to his accent but we’ll forgive him that.

     ‘Did you bring something for Aunty Beth?’

     He turns to me. ‘I did. Your Aunty Beth is on the good list this year.’

     ‘I knew it.’ She jumps into the arms of this random man that Lucy has brought into our family home, just as Meg is coming down the stairs with Emma. Both of them stare in wonder and awe at our youngest sister and her new friend.

     ‘What the hell have you come as?’ asks Emma, cradling baby Iris close.

     Lucy strikes a pose. She’s not wearing a bra with that outfit, is she?

     ‘Lucy, are you shagging a dwarf?’ Meg asks as she studies Lucy in the mirror of our parents’ bedroom.

     ‘I don’t think that’s the politically correct term, Meggsy,’ she says with a hint of judgement in her voice.

     ‘Then what are we calling him?’

     ‘He has a name, Tony?’

     ‘Are you shagging, Tony?’

     Lucy doesn’t reply. She’s been sent upstairs by my mother to put on some leggings under her skirt after she leaned over to say hello to Grace’s new fella and well, showed everyone in the room her giblets. Naturally, Meg and I follow out of nosiness. She’s definitely shagging Tony.

     ‘Lucy, you’re having sex with him?’ I say.

     ‘There’s nothing wrong with that? He’s a really nice bloke and he’s so fun. Ask him to whip out his wolf tattoo. It goes all the way across his back.’

     ‘I’ll pass, thanks. But he’s…’ I say.

     ‘I didn’t take you for a sizeist, B.’

     ‘I’m not at all, I’m just… surprised?’

     ‘Is he small… all over?’ Meg asks, widening her eyes.

     Lucy sticks her tongue out and shakes her head while Meg collapses on to our parents’ bed, cackling. Oh deary deary me. I don’t need that vision in my head as we’re about to sit down to eat. Lucy is nineteen, the world is her playground and you suspect she’s sampled every ride in the park and then some. Maybe you get that courage from being the youngest, from having four elder sisters’ experiences as precedent.

     ‘Mum’s not going to be happy,’ I say.

     ‘Because I’m having sex with Tony?’

     ‘Because you’ve brought him to Christmas dinner. It’s a sacred space. Mum will hate that she hasn’t got him a gift,’ Meg informs her.

     ‘Just stick a bow on a bottle of wine. Anyway, Grace has brought that speccy fella? And at least this means I have something to distract me from having to look at Simon’s shit-eating face all day.’

Meg and I don’t disagree but we’ve had no run up here. Tony could be anyone. Is he safe? He could be a master thief. A knock on the door gets our attention.

     ‘Lucy, are you decent?’

     ‘Come in, Dad.’

     He cranes his head around the door, looks at Lucy and then shakes his head.

     ‘Well, when your Mum and I discussed the many ways you were going to upstage everyone this year, we didn’t predict this.’

     Lucy goes over and hugs our dear father tightly.

     ‘Grace is quite upset. You can read it in her face. I think today was supposed to be about young Ben making an impression.’

     ‘Chill. There’ll be plenty of time for him to do that. We can get out the Scrabble and he can out-geek us with his scoring and double pleated chinos,’ Lucy replies, putting on a nerd face.

     We all may chuckle in unison. ‘Just make amends with her, alright? The last thing I want today is some screechy wrestling match.’ Lucy salutes him, reluctantly. ‘And you girls better get downstairs.’

     ‘Why?’ Meg asks.

     Dad smiles broadly in reply.

     ‘Oh my god… because he has snow balls. You are a riot!’

     Meg, Lucy and I stare curiously into the kitchen. Christmas music blasts out the radio as my mother is doubled over in laughter at Tony’s brand of festive smut. Tony seems to have made himself at home with a large glass of brandy and he’s dancing. He invites my mother to join in and she doesn’t refuse. What have you done with our mother? I’ve never seen her laugh like that in her life. Tony looks over and shrugs at Lucy. There’s a charm, a quality to him that is warming, that puts a smile on my face.

     ‘Lucy, did you know that Tony speaks four different languages?’

     ‘Yes, I did. Nice to see you’re looking so cosy?’ Lucy says, knowing my mother has had a tendency to not really take to Lucy’s boyfriends of past. There was one with many piercings that my mother still refers to as the Colander.

     ‘He’s a very nice man and polite. You know I am won over by manners.’

     Christ, has Tony drugged her? What has he said? What’s his secret? Share it with us immediately.

     ‘Can one of you take the sauces out?’ she asks, as she takes a whisk to the gravy.

     ‘Let me, Fiona,’ Tony says, reaching up to the counter, his hand resting on my mother’s back. Tony, you’re a little bit smooth.

     As he leaves, he winks at Lucy. ‘Told you I was good with mothers,’ he whispers.

     We all stand there and look at my mum, still dancing and humming on the spot. Is she drunk?

     ‘I don’t know why you’re all standing there, this all needs to go out on the table before it gets cold.’

     Silently, we all do as we’re told and I grab a bowl of stuffing resting on the hob. My mum’s stuffing is a thing of legend, topped with crunchy croutons and perhaps quite criminally to some, a full bottle of those fake bacon bits you can get in a plastic bottle. We all have our food things but that is mine, I’d sprinkle them on my cornflakes if I could. At the table, people have started to take their seats and there’s the general commotion of kids being strapped into highchairs and Simon trying to inch his way to the head of the table, offering to carve the turkey because you know, he’s a surgeon and his ego dictates it. I really hope he chokes on a sausage and can prove to us the extent of his worth by saving his own life. Tess still can’t believe Tony is here and partaking in lunch. I watch as her eyes follow his every move. Emma who is stuck in between her Iris and Ben tries to catch my eye from the other end of the table. Do you know that potatoes are 80% water? I hear Ben say. Christ, someone move Ems on to the hard liquor.

     All of us sat here together, however, makes me realise that I’m the only partnerless person here. Apart from the little kiddies, of course. I am the lonely Christmas turkey stuck on a piano stool at the end of the table. This certainly needs more wine. I pour myself a large glass of some supermarket red and also fill the glass next to mine. Tony. Well, at least the small talk will be better than Ben. Shouldn’t really say small talk, eh?

     ‘So, Tony. Are you in the performing arts like Lucy?’

     He laughs heartily. ‘I’m actually studying Italian and philosophy at UCL. The nightclub thing is just a good gig on the side, the money’s too good to turn down.’

     You’re also smart and fiscally minded. With the four languages, I get why my mum approves.

     ‘I get it. Students have to eat. And where are your family today?’

     ‘Went on holiday to Aspen this year, without me. The bastards.’

     ‘Wow, sorry.’

     ‘Not your fault. And tell me Beth, are you single?’

     Was that an eyebrow flash? A cheeky glint in his eye. Woah there, Tony.

     ‘No,’ I reply, smiling. I watch as the rest of the table are engaged in platter swapping and trying to figure out what’s missing off their own plates.

     ‘But your other half isn’t here today?’

     ‘His name’s Will. We’re just a casual thing. It’s been going for about a year but…’

     ‘But?’

     ‘You’re cheeky.’

     ‘Beth, a year is a long time. What’s he like?’

     ‘He’s training to be an architect. He likes music.’

     ‘Don’t we all? Is he fit?’ I laugh and load some potatoes on to his plate. ‘Don’t be stingy now, Beth.’

     I give him two more. ‘Well, I fancy him.’

     ‘But do you love him?’ he asks.

     ‘Yeah, I think I do.’

     ‘Where is he today?’

     ‘Battersea. With his brother.’

     ‘Then bite the bullet, get him down here for pudding. It’s literally down the road. Does he drink?’ He leans into me. ‘Because I’m looking around the table and we’ve got all these new parents who are so going to flake on us later and I suspect sweater vest is not one for shots?’

     ‘So basically, you just want to amass an army of drinking pals?’

     He winks at me.

     ‘What I’m saying is, Christmas should be about being with the people you love. Trust me, I’m an elf, I speak the truth. This time of year is all about that magical romance shit.’

     Emma’s ears prick up at the swearing.

     ‘Now hand me that stuffing. That looks mega. I love a good stuffing,’ he says, cheekily.

     Tony, Tony, Tony. Lucy, sat to the other side of him smirks at the innuendo, and he squeezes her thigh under the table. Seriously, Luce, where did you find this one? He readjusts the cushions in his chair and his belled feet jingle. Tess’ eyes light up to hear the sound.

     ‘Beth, you’re closest. Slip out and grab another serving spoon,’ my mum suddenly orders from the other end of the table. She waves at Tony who gestures at the magnificence of the spread. I do as I’m told and head into the kitchen rifling through Mum’s big drawer with the dodgy handle. It’s about being with the people you love. I pause for a moment and retrieve my phone from my back pocket.

     You turkeyed out yet?

     Yes. Quick question, Yorkshire puddings with Christmas dinner. Yay or nay?

     Yay. They act as a ship for the pigs in blankets.

     I knew there was a reason we’re together.

     So I had an idea, come over later for a mince pie, some Monopoly. Meet the family.

     You sure? Your mum won’t mind?

     You can meet Tony.

     Tony?

     ‘HURRY UP, B! WE’RE DOING THE CRACKERS.’

     He’s Lucy’s new friend. He’s a big fan of stuffing.

     Has he come down her chimney then?

     LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

     ‘AND BRING TWO SPOONS! AND ANOTHER FORK! AND ONE OF THOSE SMALL PLATES!’

     Have to run. Bring a bottle. And cheese if you can find it.

     Little baby Cheesus?

     That’s a grate joke. I love it.

     Not as much as I love you. Too cheesy?

     Never. It’s Christmas. Love you too.