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Christmas Eve: A Short Story

A girl kneels on a stool so she can see her whole face in the mirror. She’s trying something new with her hair, a lot of spray and heating tongs. She doesn’t look like the model in the magazine. The room smells of burned things. Her face is red from trying. Hope is a beat in her blood, running laps of her body.

Downstairs, her mother preps next day’s feast. Bacon wrapped around Brussel sprouts. Parsnips peeled into snowmen’s noses. She almost envies the predictability of tomorrow. She knows what time her younger brother (a surprise apparently, although she’s pretty sure her parents knew what they were doing) will run into her room to tug off her duvet, drag her downstairs. The surprise she’ll feign when he tells her his present is just what he asked Santa for, when she bought it, wrapped it and stuck on a big bow because her love for him hits her hard and oddly sometimes. She knows what time they’ll eat smoked salmon on posh brown bread (her father will comment on the price, demand they all eat the crust). Her mother will be hot from the oven and menopause and not making the bread sauce lumpy. Her auntie will arrive in the afternoon. Chocolates in a tin, best ones already gone.

But tonight, tonight, as she presses glitter into the corners of her eyelids, is still unwritten. Tonight is filled with the deliciousness of not knowing what might happen. 

Her mother is reading to her brother, the bedside lamp making his face glow. He wants to sit up until he hears the reindeer on the roof. He wishes it were tomorrow already. She pauses by the door, one hand pressed up to the pale wood.

“Do you think he will remember Dolly’s gift? She’s seemed so sad lately.”

Her thick-soled boots are quiet on the stairs. She wishes she still believed in fairy tales; wonders what day the scales fell from her eyes. For one second, she falters. Maybe she could cancel, wipe off the glitter and wash off the perfume. Slide into his toddler bed and whisper Dr Suess stories to him until he falls asleep. Wrap them both under his Wind in The Willows quilt, in the world of childhood.

Her phone buzzes in her hand. “Where are you?”

He pours two sherries, his hand shaking slightly. Was the decanter always this heavy? Thick crystal, an anniversary gift. The liver spots on his hands show up under the bright tree lights. A pig to untangle, and how his back ached as he wound them round and round. Ah, but she loves the way they sparkle. When the fairy fell off the tree on its shiny plastic legs, she made a pair of velcro trousers. Tiny stitches, impossibly neat. There is the bauble their eldest son made at school. He’s never known what it’s supposed to be, she’s never let him ask.

He will be here soon, bringing the cold air in with him, unwrapping his scarf, kicking off his shoes. Once, he did these things for his son. Now his son will tell him to sit, will carve the turkey and offer to drive to church. It is good, it is as it should be. There is a time to hack down tall trees and drag branches across the carpet and a time to buy one in a box that packs down easily. A time to tiptoe through icing sugar in big boots, and a time to move to the downstairs bedroom because the stairs are a trial. A time to buy your wife a new coat each year and a time to realise you’ve nowhere new to wear it to.

Cars fly by outside. He listens for the sound of the one that will slow, pull into his drive. They don’t have long left alone. He slides the record out of its sleeve, gently like it is something precious. O, Holy Night, he sings, baritone still rich with sound. O, night divine. He carries the tray holding sherries and mince pies carefully from the dresser. Pauses briefly to close his eyes for the line, “fall on your knees,” feels his own give slightly, carpet slippers shuffling him across to her empty chair.

The boy wakes as the moon moves across his face. He doesn’t let himself look at the time. Creeps out of his bedroom and slinks down the hall. His feet are cold on the floorboards. In the living room, he can make out the shape of his presents in the half dark. Everything he wanted is here. The boxes are stacked, spilling out across the carpet. The fake candles flicker in the window. Outside, the world is still asleep. The boy wedges himself behind the Christmas tree, pine needles poking him in the side. Makes himself as small as possible. He thinks of narnia, of the list he gave his mother, and the list he kept for himself. Tomorrow he will pull crackers, will pop batteries from plastic blister packs and make things work. He will model his new clothes, eat two helpings of turkey. He will play charades in front of the fireplace. One word, the only thing he wanted for Christmas. Dad.

Mary wants her boyfriend not to have cheated on her for Christmas. Sam wants to be tall enough to ride The Hulk. Penny wants her sister’s breast cancer not to spread. Nina wants her missing daughter to come home. Kate wants her dad not to get drunk early and start a row. Seb wants to get the part in the play. Viv wants one day without pain. Alex wants a hostel for the night. Will wants to drive his car off the cliff and into the sea. Faith wants her spots to disappear overnight. Rob wants more volunteers at the soup kitchen tomorrow. Charlie wants her mother not to comment on her dress size. Rose wants the email she’s been waiting for. Ada wants a proposal. Jo wants to redo the last year. Nicole wants a holiday. Hallie just wants the meat not to be dry. Lauren pines for someone she shouldn’t. Morgan wants his best friend to be gay. Tessa wants a baby. Sally wants her daughter to cuddle her, just once. Tony wants a new job. Donna wants not to be in debt.

Above them all, the stars burn holes of gold into the night. A spangled banner of hope, tangled across the world.


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