A festive story, concerning a very special gift …
Robert had avoided spending Christmas with his mother since his father died over twenty years earlier.
There’d always been a valid excuse to stay away. After university he’d back packed around India, Nepal, Thailand, been an aid worker in Southern Africa. Later, his work in finance had taken him to New York, Paris, Munich. He’d even survived the frantic bustle of Hong Kong for two years, preferring the neon canyons and fevered press of the city to the chill silence of ‘home’.
He’d never felt entirely at ease in his mother’s company. There was the silence of course, the way she closed down conversations with chippy, clipped answers, as if her health or well being were none of his business. And the way, when he attempted a fillial hug, she stiffened in his arms, transforming into a Chanel scented carving of a woman, a wooden Madonna in an M & S cardigan.
And yet there he stood on her doorstep, staring up at a holly wreath through rain misted glasses. He lifted the knocker and let it drop, rain dribbling up his sleeve.
When she finally came to the door, he was surprised at how small she was, as if she was falling in on herself, slowly deflating.
‘Robert,’ was all she said.
For a moment they stared at one another, her body a barrier.
‘I came for Christmas,’ he said. ‘You invited me.’
‘Yes, of course. Come in.’
As he wiped his feet on the mat, he wondered if she’d forgotten all about him.
After dinner, he went to fetch the Christmas decorations from the loft. Clambering up the rickety ladder was too much for his mother now, but Robert couldn’t face the house without something to cheer it. In every room the paintwork was dull and chipped, the ceilings stained and glossy with nicotine. The poor state of the place surprised him – she’d always been so particular.
Searching the loft felt like reliving moments from his parents’ marriage. There was the tall lamp with the tassled fringe that had stood behind his father’s chair, spilling a pool of light just large enough for him to read the sports pages. There was a fur coat pressed too tightly in its sheath of plastic – she’d worn that to Father’s work functions, her throat sparkling with diamonds, hair piled high like a curl of auburn whipped cream.
Finally, he found the Christmas box, balding tinsel snaking from one corner. As he picked it up something fell to the floor. Stooping, his fingers brushed up against a large cigar box tied with raffia.
‘Robert.’ Mother’s wavering voice drifted from downstairs. ‘I hope you’re not making a mess up there.’
He tucked the cigar box in with the decorations and headed for the ladder.
He quite enjoyed the next hour, slotting together the artificial tree, testing fairy lights, digging baubles out from their tissue paper shrouds. With every decoration, Mother leaned forward in her chair, nodding at each as if reacquainting herself with old friends.
Once the tree was finished, Robert remembered the cigar box. ‘I found this upstairs.’
She nodded but said nothing, so he slid the raffia aside and opened the box. At first he wasn’t sure what he was seeing – there were postcards of brightly lit city skylines, clippings from newspapers and magazines, a plastic biltong wrapper, a paper twist from a fortune cookie. All were laid flat, pressed so tightly, one or two sprang out as the lid opened. It was only when he spotted the fanned sail of a junk he realised what they were.
Every item was linked to his times abroad – an article about New Year’s celebrations in Time Square, a picture of the Eiffel Tower lit up, an iron Christmas tree for a whole city. It had never occurred to him to send her postcards or momentoes of the places he’d visited, never thought her sentimental enough to appreciate them. He imagined her clipping the pages, brushing fallen cigarette ash from the paper. Imagined her chewing the leathery biltong, sharing a snack with him, thousands of miles away.
‘You were always so distant,’ she said.
He had never thought his absence had mattered to her, thought her life was full enough without him.
‘So, Fiona left you,’ she said softly. ‘Took the children.’
He laughed. ‘Well, the children are old enough to take themselves. But yes.’
‘And your job?’
He shrugged. ‘I’ve lost my edge, so I’m told.’
She nodded. ‘Horrible industry anyway.’ She stared at the Christmas tree, at a slowly rotating bauble. ‘Just the two of us, then.’
He reached and took her hand.
Merry Christmas all and a happy and peaceful New Year.