“History,” Jonna once said to me, “Is all about Christmases.”
I might have raised an eyebrow at that, but he insisted. “Think back on it, Chas. Like, nineteen-eighty-one: what do you remember about that year?””
“I got a bike.”
“Aye, and when did you get it?”
“There y’are then!” Said Jonna, his case proven.
“I’ll tell you about hist’ry. Nineteen eighty-three was the goal I scored against St. Luke’s! That’s hist’ry!”
“Aye, but what got you started with the football?”
I had to admit it. “I got a ball for Christmas.”
“See? Last year was the exams, but no-one wants to remember them! The computer under the tree on Christmas morning – that’s what they want to remember. History!”
“You getting a computer this year then?”
It was lunchtime, so we slid down from the wall at the corner of Ox Terrace, plodding homeward up the grey street which wound like a discarded snake-skin through the houses on the hill. Perhaps I might have raised objections to Jonna’s simplistic reasoning, but I was only thirteen, and I was hungry. He had a point. There were many reasons to remember Christmases in our family; many more than that pine needle quilted pile of presents beneath the tree on the day itself.
The lines for battle would be drawn long before November’s foggy end. It would be at the breakfast bar when I might first burble something over my bowl of Coco-Pops, like: “Can I have an Amstrad for Christmas, Ma?” Although I raised the subject as a request it was not a question.
My mother’s face would darken, and had I paid more attention I would have seen the slight droop of her shoulders, the way she had of becoming smaller as each blow struck. She was smaller with the years – there had been a lot of blows. “I dunno, Chas, they’re too expensive for us, pet.”
Five or six years earlier I might have thrown a sullen fit, or bashed my cereal into volcanic eruption with my spoon; nowadays I was a lot more subtle: “Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one. He says they’re really cheap down Argos.”
Of course I knew how envious my mother was of Jonna Sutley’s family.
“Well, I’ll have a look.”
“I need a new bike an’ all. Mine’s too small now.”
That was the beginning of a process as irreversible as Advent. Over the weeks that followed, always at breakfast, I would open another small door: the Manchester United shirt, the puzzle game, fishing rod, Tonka truck.
“Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.”
The list grew; my mother shrank; and though I knew the pain I was causing I could never desist. My Da’ only learned about it in the evening, after each new demand had a day to settle. If I thought he was going to shout I’d be well away, playing with Jonna down the recreation, or over at the halls with Sue and the girls. I’d hear them shout at night, though, he and Ma, and I’d hear Ma crying sometimes.
On Christmas morning that heap of gaily wrapped boxes harboured more guilt and despair than anything in Isaiah’s most desperate moments.
“Aye, give him his presents.” There would be a bitter edge in Da’s voice, even though he’d started on the beer an hour earlier.
I opened each gift with savagery, and the only element of surprise was in guessing which demand each packet would satisfy, and the overwhelming disappointment at those which remained unmet.
“The bike’ll have to wait another year, son. We can’t afford it, we really can’t.”
“What’s a lad need a bloody computer for, anyways?”
No thanks, no shining faces; by Christmas dinner our sitting room was Hiroshima after the bomb: by five o’clock all but maybe one or two of the gifts would be forgotten. Amid the snores of evening I would plot my appearance on the street the next day. Which of these should I take out with me – which could I claim proudly: what presents had the others, Jonna and the lads, been given that would outmatch mine?
The gifts of Christmas were good for a week – the boxes they came in often hung around the place much longer. It took three days for me to get Da’ to set up the computer, and I played with it almost obsessively for five. Ten days into the New Year a brand new bike stood waiting in the back shed when I got home from my football. Ma was watching from the kitchen when I discovered it, so she heard my crow of delight. Nor did she miss the crisp punch at the air – my expression of victory.
“I borrowed off the Provvy.” She said. She was wringing her hands together in a way I had not seen before. Did I thank her? I don’t remember.
That was the way the fire curtain dropped on Christmas nineteen eighty five. The repercussions would last all year.
Da’ lost his car in the spring. A repo. van came for it when he was down the Waggoner’s. It wasn’t a very good car, Da’ said; which was right, because it was always breaking down, but I saw his face when Ma told him it had gone. From then on he had to start for work even earlier in the morning, getting a lift from Jamie Hicks down the South Side.
It was the beginning of my fourteenth year, a year when meanings began to change for me and new emotions needed explanation. As Spring sun bathed our grey slate roofs I found myself more frequently in the company of Dave Crabtree and the girls, and especially deepening my friendship with Sue Crabtree. Just as Dave was a little older than me, his sister was a little younger, a sprightly girl whose raven curls bounced across her pale face as she ran, so that she was forever brushing them back: the hand movement was habitual: once when we were talking I sat in front of her, mimicking each pass and she stared at me for a full minute before she understood. One afternoon, sitting by the river, she asked me:
“Do you want to be my boyfriend, then?”
“Nah, no time for that!” I said it dismissively, but it still didn’t come out right. Sue was not deceived.
Words like ‘boyfriend’ and ‘lover’ had been common parlance between us for years – they were without interpretation – just things we said because they existed everywhere in the world around us; we had no idea of their significance. Now the curtains were drawing back. Sarah Coldbatch, a stubby, hearty girl of my own age, always wore dresses of gingham. She possessed knickers in as many colours as my socks, and since her speciality was handstands we knew Sarah’s knickers almost as familiarly as I knew my own socks, and it never worried any of us. Then one day the handstands stopped. Suddenly, for no apparent reason I could see, even a brief revelation of those gaily coloured undergarments would bring a flush of embarrassment to Sarah’s apple cheeks.
“You can stop starin’, John Hargreave!”
Jonna, not to be outfaced, would counter with: “I would if you’d stop flashin’ em at me. Same pair as last week, I see.”
We spent a lot of time by the river that year. There was a place that was ours, down the wooden steps behind the Rugby Club – a wide, stony stretch of placid water that rattled with shiny black pebbles and accompanied our games and songs and conversations with an orchestral murmur to rival any piped music. Here was a bend in the river, where it gently nosed its way around Burdlehope Hill, beneath the old brewery walls which still clung to the slope, though roof and windows were long gone; and once, before they dammed them up in the hills, the waters here would have been much deeper. A concrete jetty, chewed by neglectful years, pointed out across the stream, in memory of times when boats would navigate all the way from the sea. It stood eight feet above stony scree: the shoreline did not even reach it anymore.
Beyond the jetty a patch of level grass rich with buttercups was wide enough for play, hidden enough to pretend secrecy. There, upon a sunny afternoon in May, Sue and I shared our first kiss. It was an inelegant affair, a mixture of nervous peck and film star tonsillectomy that brought none of the thrilling sensations my television-based sexual education promised.
“Do you want to kiss me, then?” Sue had stumbled as we clambered down from the jetty. I had caught her and our faces were suddenly inches apart. I was taken completely by surprise; such a thing had never occurred to me – but I was a man, wasn’t I? So I tried. I snapped turtle-like at her lips: they were cold and thin – our teeth banged together. She grabbed my head and moved her mouth around mine, convulsively grinding until my own lips felt as though they had been minced. I prayed for it to end. At last she stepped back.
“You’re not a very good kisser, are you Chas?”
For the rest of the afternoon she and her companions kept catching me with covert glances, giggling conspiratorially as though I had something stuck on the end of my nose. I was far too naïve to understand the rules of the game: I was plunged into fathomless humiliation, a perpetual blush which stayed with me through all the hours to sunset. By the time the others had begun to drift homewards I had resolved to restore my tattered reputation, and when Sue made to leave I grabbed her wrist:
“Stay a bit?”
I had expected Sarah Coldbatch’s disparaging laugh; been afraid Sue would do the same: she didn’t.
“Alright then, Chas.”
We sat watching for fish in the water, catching the subliminal rubies of red sunset in the ripples. We talked; about what I don’t know, now, but I know they were adult things: how I worried for my Ma now Da’ was away at work all the time, and how Sue wanted to move to another desk at school, because Jess Abbott was a distraction. She wanted to work, she said, so when she left school she could go to university and become a nurse, or a teacher – she couldn’t decide which. There were other things, but, as I say, I can’t remember what they were.
Nor can I remember exactly when I put my arm around her shoulders, or when I drew her to me. But her lips were warm, their touch soft. I know we got it right that time, both of us, obeying rules neither of us understood. We were learning though. From then on, everything was changed.
It would have been the end of June: rain had been falling for days; cold rain that got under my collar so that I ran home from school to be away from it – rain that kept me in my room after tea, wiling away the hours with comic books or my Amstrad. It was a Wednesday.
The front door was open, yawning an invitation to the street. Seeing this from several doors away, I thought I would find Ma and Mrs. Potter or someone inside out of the weather, wrapped in one of those conversations neighbours seem to have about nothing in particular; but the house was silent.
I took off my shoes as I always did, adding them to the scruffy little pile of footwear behind the door. Then – I don’t know why because I was never this careful – I closed the street door behind me. The doormat was soaking wet. Maybe something – some quiet voice – was reminding me that this was my home and it was precious to me: that same quiet voice told me something was different, something was wrong.
I went through to the kitchen. We had blue plastic worktops in there that Da’ had bought from the Auctioneers one week when he was flush. I helped him put them in: I held his tools, I even drove in some of the screws, turning them so hard my hands were red raw and my fingers hurt for days afterwards. Looking back, those tops were crudely assembled and probably not very strong, but at the time I was proud of them: I had helped to make them – they were partly my own work. So seeing how one of them had collapsed, breaking the spindly leg supporting it and tipping the toaster, a pot of the raspberry jam I liked and the last of a loaf of bread onto the lino floor affected me more profoundly than it should. There were other things scattered about, too. A saucepan from the stove by the door to the back yard, my Da’s weekend jacket ripped from its peg with a big tear in the sleeve, some recipes Ma had cut from her magazines in a heap at the end of the surviving worktop.
“Ma?” I called out. I was seriously worried now and half-way to tears. “Ma?”
My Da’ should have been there then. He should have led the way up the stairs to search each room and make things right. But he worked away these days – he wouldn’t return until Friday night, or sometimes even Saturday. There was only me: I had to climb those narrow twilight stairs one by one, listening to my own breath as it followed me. I wanted to go straight to my room; to hide there, to wait for whatever was baleful and angry in this cold place to leave; but I could not. At the head of the stairs I turned the knob on the big bedroom door.
She was lying on the bed. At first I could barely recognise her because I was seeing another person in my mother’s body and her head was turned away from me towards the window. I had seen her in a slip before, though never this slip: never this lilac thing with purple lace. Bras and knickers were not new to me either, they were the stuff of sniggers when she came down half-dressed to make breakfast, sometimes inadvertently letting the coat she wore as a dressing gown peep open to reveal the forbidden things beneath. But they were never carelessly uncovered; never displayed as openly to my sight as these. She lay very still.
“Mam, wake up, please?”
For an age she didn’t move. Then, so, so slowly my mother turned her head to me. A clown face of thick make-up and cheap mascara smeared by weeping said, in a stranger’s voice:
“What do you want?”
When I could find no words to answer her she repeated it in a shout: “What do you want?”
Closing the door on her, I went to my bedroom and sat on my bed, staring at my wall with the picture of Mick Jagger on it, as if he might provide a solution. I stared for an hour before I heard the light switch on the landing and her footsteps on the stair. I cringed inside as her feet approached my door, shrank back as the latch turned. And there she was, standing in front of me with a different, alien smell about her; her open dressing gown exposing that lilac slip, and a plate in her hand.
“Your bike’s gone. I sold it. You’ll have to have this. There’s no tea.”
She closed the door. A moment after, I heard the door of her own room close.
I ate the bread and jam she had slapped together in a sandwich for me, carefully picking off the bits of dirt from the kitchen floor. A shard of glass in the jam cut my gum. It hurt for days.
This piece feels as if it should be the start of a book. Maybe I’ll work on more episodes to feed into the blog, if anyone wants them. It’s an idea to explore, anyway.
© Frederick Anderson 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
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