Martin viewed the children with suspicion. He was suspicious of all children who called at his home, especially in the evening just after dusk, and particularly when they rang his doorbell twice before he had a chance to answer the door. Now he was unsure who to watch the more carefully; the child in a rather rumpled green elf costume who was sitting on the bonnet of his car in the drive, or the decidedly grubby example who stood before him – clearly guilty of over-zealous bell ringing, as charged.
“What do you want?” He asked, hospitably. He was not given to bullying eight-year-olds.
The campanologist produced a dirty red Christmas hat from somewhere and jammed it on his head. “Good evening sir. May we be the first to wish you a Happy Christmas?” The line had obviously been subjected to scrupulous rehearsal, as had the gesture with the extended hand: the cupped hand, palm upwards.
Martin frowned. “Well, you’re certainly the first. It’s December 3rd” He said, ignoring the implied demand. “Happy Christmas!” And he closed the door.
The doorbell rang again, instantly. He opened the door to the same outstretched palm, the same plaster smile. “Sir, it is better to give than to receive, ain’t it?.”
“It is.” Martin acknowledged, catching sight of the ‘elf’, who now had one foot on his car bonnet, tossing a fifty pence coin between his hands. “So give me some peace!”
His caller was far from nonplussed. “Would you care to reconsider your decision, sir?”
The child accorded him a pitying look. “Com’on then Edwin. No Christmas spirit here.”
The pair walked away. As he walked, the merry elf scored a long line in the paint on Martin’s car with the fifty pence coin.
The repair, Greg at the garage told Martin, would cost the smellier side of a hundred pounds, advice which was sufficient to dispel any admiration of the children’s enterprise, or the grubby child’s grasp of language. The season, with all its compliments, had begun.
Christmas shopping, Janine declared, would occur on Saturday 12th. This was quite late because of Janine’s work commitments, but should have been alright if Martin had remembered. He did not. Further, returning late from work on Friday night, the 11th, she failed to remind him. Which was why, waking from her morning lie-in, she discovered him painting the dining room ceiling.
“I started early;” He told her brightly from the top of the ladder. “I’m just having trouble with this crack, but I should still be through by lunch.”
“I wanted to go out this morning.”
“Well, we can’t. I have to get this sealed up.”
“Then hurry! If we don’t get into town early everything will be gone.”
Martin hurried as best he could, jamming the fissure with gunk and reminding himself to complete his painting on the Sunday morning.
“How many are coming for Christmas Day?” He asked his wife as he drove through the seasonal traffic, picking bits of plaster from under his finger-nails in quieter moments.
“There’s our two, of course (Janine was referring to their two sons, Tarquin and Simon, who were both at University. Tarquin was in his final year) then Corinne and her mother. Oh, and Tarquin’s bringing a friend from Peterhouse – Paul, I think he’s called. His parents are in Hong Kong. Then there’s you and I, and your gay brother Francis, of course. Oh my god! That’s eight! You’ll have to help out.”
“Francis’ll be late.” Martin commented.
“As always, darling.” Janine agreed acidly. “Actually, I believe we may have a rather momentous Christmas this year. A tiny bird happened to mention that Corinne is anticipating The Proposal.”
“They’re too young!” Martin muttered. “Tarquin’s not mature enough to commit to marriage.”
“Oh, nonsense! Young love? It’s been an absolute whirlwind, hasn’t it? She’s completely besotted, you know. Why don’t we take the top road and park in the Richmond Avenue car park. Its only one pound twenty in there, and it isn’t much further to walk.”
The top road was gridlocked. An hour later, though, steering into the Richmond Avenue car park, Martin managed to find a space with relative ease.
As he manoeuvred irritably into the vacant lot, Janine went to the dispenser for a ticket. She was soon back. “Have you got four more pound coins? They’ve put the rate up to five pounds.”
“It’s just for December.” Janine consoled him.
Martin and Janine as a couple were, broadly speaking, the perfect match. However, perfection stopped at the end of the High Street. Janine was an enthusiastic shopper, Martin was a reluctant loiterer, as reticent as his wife was competitive and usually to be found fidgeting in a corner while she sailed into the throng with spinnaker raised and handbag for’ard like a bowsprit. Trouble was not unknown.
Had Bevans’ the Department Store not decided upon a pre-Christmas sale all might have been well. Even then, had they not displayed a ‘Flash Sale’ offer of laptop computers at half price, the couple might have escaped unscathed; but Janine saw the sign as soon as it was raised: “Oh, Martin! That’s just what Simon needs, darling!” She ran up every inch of available canvas, and thrust her way forward through the growing crowd. “You wait there!”
Martin waited, and as he was wont to do, he drifted with the tide. The tide took him gradually to shore in women’s lingerie and rested him gently on a beach there, swaying a little in the eddies. He was inclined to become somewhat sloe eyed, almost drowsy at such times, so the perils of the nearby reef escaped him.
She was a brightly-colored angel (fish) picking her way about the coral, an elegant, maybe even beautiful woman whose boyfriend, not wishing to enter the lingerie lagoon, stood close by. He, in his turn, was something of a Great White, stern and authoritative. The reef was a carousel of bras and pants in matching sets; and Martin was drifting closer and closer; a progress that was already drawing some curious looks.
Exactly what it was about a particular dark red underwear set that drew the woman to it, is disputable: what drew Martin to it was purely and simply inattention. He did not realize where he was. But when she withdrew the set from the rail and he saw the bra, and he suddenly saw the woman, his focus was drawn, inexorably, to the garment’s lacy transparency and the woman’s very adequate breasts. Once focused, he could not tear himself away – until, that is, the Great White tore him.
Meanwhile, Janine had acquired a half-price laptop by the simple facility of collapsing the scrum, many of whom were still regaining their feet as she sought out her husband. She found him in the midst of a group composed of an outraged woman, her Olympian boyfriend, and a store detective.
“I can’t believe you actually grabbed that poor woman’s bosom!” She remonstrated angrily as they wove their heavily-laden way through the Richmond Avenue car park in search of their transport.
“I didn’t GRAB her. That big goon started shoving me and I reached out for something to hold on to. I thought I was going to grab the rail!”
“Well, she says you did. Oh, look, someone’s banged their door against our car. How inconsiderate!”
All things considered, the remaining days to Christmas Day passed without much incident, and apart from a shame-faced visit to Greg at the garage, who could barely conceal his laughter, and a frantic race to finish decorating the dining room, Martin had little cause for complaint.
On Christmas morning by slow degrees the family gathered. Tarquin and Simon had arrived on Christmas Eve, diplomatically saying nothing about the bruise which still tinted their father’s eye, at least while he was within earshot. Corinne and her mother, and Paul, Tarquin’s university friend, all arrived at about eleven. Tarquin was still in bed. Paul, a quiet, polite blond boy with a pleasant smile, volunteered to go upstairs and ‘turf him out’, while Janine buzzed about like a rather stalwart bumble bee, cooking this, displaying that, and apologizing for the other.
“The profiteroles simply didn’t work! I’m so sorry! You can use a spoon and fork and eat them that way, though, if you like.”
Corinne was visibly excited. A tall, attractive, startlingly blue-eyed brunette, she scintillated from family member to family member, all the while exchanging knowing looks with her mother, who had already begun to combine the sofa with the sherry.
Martin would remember those moments of calm. The last moments, before Francis’s Jaguar drew up on the driveway, and the man himself breezed into the room with a phrase all those assembled would remember. “Merry Christmas, dear ones! Martin, you old so-and-so, you’ve been keeping a secret!”
“Have I?” Martin was pouring Corinne’s mother a third sherry.
“Yes, you trollop! You didn’t tell me young Tarquin batted for my team!”
The words dropped like stones into a pool that was all at once silent and very, very deep. In retrospect Janine would admit to herself that the look on Corinne’s face had been entertaining, but no-one thought so at the time.
“Oh dear!” Francis affected contrition: “Have I dropped a clanger?”
Martin gritted his teeth. “What do you mean, ‘your team’, Francis?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean, and frankly I always suspected. Anyway, it’s obvious.”
Janine asked coldly: “Where is Tarquin, Francis?”
“Out in the hall, Jan. He and a rather nice little fair-haired chap, nuzzling each other like ponies.”
Corinne passed Martin on her way to the door, her face as white as an iceberg. She made her way into the hall and closed the door behind her. The assembled guests stared wordlessly at the walls, the floor, the furniture, anything but each other as slowly, like the gathering energy of a cyclone, the sound of voices from beyond the door grew in volume.
“Did you know?” Martin mouthed at Simon.
“No! Of course not!”
The discourse having eventually burned itself out after spreading to the floor above the dining room and apparently acquiring, by the sounds of thumping and the vibration involved, a physical aspect, Tarquin and Paul, arm in arm, made their entrance. Of Corinne, apart from the slamming of the front door, nothing more was heard. Her mother remained, rendered oblivious by sherry.
Dinner was later than expected, the turkey was drier than last year and the potatoes and carrots were burnt. Paul, who proved to have a well-developed sense of theatre, burst into tears all over the bread sauce, and the mood around the table probably resembled that which prevailed in the conference at Yalta. Only the Christmas Pudding, it was generally agreed, lived up to expectations: it flamed magnificently and absolutely looked the part, though no-one got to eat it. At three-thirty precisely, the dining room ceiling fell on it.
“Probably not our best Christmas ever.” Janine admitted to Martin as they sat together in the Accident and Emergency Department. “But still, at least we know about Tarquin now. I wonder how he hid it so successfully all these years?” She stretched a bandaged hand, flexing her fingers thoughtfully. “I suppose he could lean both ways, couldn’t he? Oh, there was one wonderful moment for me, though – I didn’t tell you, did I? It was before you came home last Monday, darling; a little boy and his friend came to the door. They were dressed up so beautifully, too, in Christmas costumes! You cannot imagine what he said, bless him! He can’t have been more than eight years old, and he wanted to be the first to wish us a Happy Christmas. I was utterly taken! I gave him five pounds.”
© 2014 Frederick Anderson
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This story is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.