Christmas was coming. But there was still no snow.
Oh it will come! the girls has said to her. You wait and see! And they badgered her into buying a great, bright winter coat.
She wore it now, and despite the cold outside was sweating as she turned up and down the aisles in search of Thai salad, looking like a fat, synthetic goose. She was despairing, and considering hanging it all - and fuck them all too – when the music began again. It had felt like an instant of Christmas each time it had played in November though she wasn't sure it was supposed to be festive. All jingles jingle, after all … It certainly wasn’t the song she had thought it was at first and her stomach twisted in new surprise each time this became apparent. The jingle was jaunty, and whistled and sounded just like a Christmas ought to sound. But she didn’t know it. It didn’t feel like Christmas at all.
She stood in front of a shelf of bottles and grabbed one calling itself 'cherry likor’. Was that the same as liquor? It also had the word syrup, lower down on the label, in big letters. On the shelf below there was a darker, more expensive bottle called 'Sour Cherry'. She didn’t think that would go down well. Her phone was almost out of battery. She didn't dare another call. She had already made a fool of herself with the frozen vegetables.
Her eyes drifted, hoping for a sign, and rested on a bottled of Baileys. She remembered one night the Christmas before, when they had all drunk mulled wine heavily dosed with amaretto, long into the evening. When everyone had left, Roger fell asleep at her feet and she put on carols, and sat drinking and smoking until she was sure that if she stood up she would wobble, her legs deliciously weak. It hadn't been snowing then but the moon had been bright, and the air that occasionally whipped in through the window was harsh, and exhilarating. Wrapped in a blanket she had cracked walnuts with her hands, letting the pieces of shell drop to the floor, skipping the boring carols, and played her favourites over and over again. Later she had clambered up to pick at the turkey, pulling of the strings of tinsel that stuck to it, and then returned to the sofa and played the carols again.
The next day she had taken a train home and listened to more carols on her ipod and waited for the snow to fall. She felt a reluctant shiver of excitement. She had left it as late as possible, and she would be back soon enough, after all.
On the platform where she had to change trains, a portly and ruddy cheeked, poorly-dressed, but sweetly-decorated troupe had begun singing carols. She had paused the music on her ipod and watched them. She laughed to herself as she imagined her mother in the crowd. When they ended to splattering applause, she called Roger.
She read the message again, to check she hadn’t forgotten anything and heaved the basket up towards the counter.
Her first step out of the shop fell into an icy puddle and she froze as she felt the cold creep around her ankle; through two pairs of socks and a sandwich bag. She walked on, slowly, swearing as her toes accustomed themselves to the cold.
Robert had rung the day before. How long are you staying? She had been taken aback by the question. Indefinitely, it had always been, he knew that. But there was no sign of a plea in his voice, and she surprised herself when she answered, We’ll see what happens in the summer. Because she never lied to Robert.
Are you looking forward to Christmas? He always was; the advent calendar, the lights, the songs. But not this year, he said. Only a few of them would be there.
Dispirited after speaking to him she called Mick. He was excited and told her that he had managed to miss the carol service this year. Izzie had to go though, alone with Dad.
She had once gone alone with Dad. He had sat stiff, and staring straight ahead, but would look down at her when she looked up at him, wanting for the thousandth time to tug on one of the curly hairs that sprung loose from his beard. He would nod and give her a small smile, and then resume looking straight ahead.
A child wailed intermittently through the carols. The choir were singing at the front, two groups of them across a gangway perpendicular to most of the congregation. Some however, those closest, were sitting facing the same way as the choir, and in this group she had seen a woman crying to herself. She still wore her coat, and scarf but her black hat and gloves sat in her lap. She dabbed at her eyes, as the choir sang. Looking up at her father she saw that he was still stiff, and again looked down at her and smiled, though a briefer smile this time, and he appeared more stern when he looked back up. Her impression of churches were confirmed and she felt like she was in a film, or a book.
And she remembered another Christmas, when she had been working in a café, her first full-time job, and one evening Roger met her excitedly as she was closing up, and dragged her to their favourite bar; and on their favourite table he had told her that he had got an audition on Christmas Eve in the capital.
‘We can see the lights! And the tree!’
‘The trains will be expensive …’
‘Not if we stay for a few nights.’
‘And make our own Christmas lunch?’
‘We can find a funny old pub to have it in. Just have a bit of meat and sprouts and something.
And get a few bottles of wine. And make friend with the other people there.’
‘Your family won’t mind?’
‘Not if I say it’s for work.’
But they did mind. And so she was at home for Christmas. And it was as lovely and as tiresome as always.
Her left foot was now growing cold in empathy with the other. The shopping was heavy, and she damned the whole night, and the whole month. The Christmas lights ringing the heads of the tower blocks ahead of her were a throbbing, nauseous green. They pieced through the fog, above the other twinkling multi-coloured and dancing decorations that shone on the windows.
She was coming up to a stall that had been erected the previous week. It was steaming and she could smell chocolate and nuts. A woman, tall and tightly wrapped up, was standing at the counter speaking to the man inside who tied something up for them in parcels. Around her legs wobbled two little children, the same size and in identical ivy green snow suits, making them look like little aliens, or giant gherkins that had sprouted limbs. One toppled over, unnoticed, as she approached them.
She was only a few feet away when a little dog rushed out from behind the legs of the woman, and hopping around the struggling child on the floor began growling and snapping at her. It was on a lead which was a neon-red, like its collar and shining in the night. The woman turned to her with a blank, questioning expression, and from her hands the red lead seemed to extend indefinitely as the dog came closer to her, snarling from its scrawny throat. She stumbled back guiltily from the family, and the shed, and the smell of chocolate and nuts, and hurried on towards the green lights, fearful that they would
engage her in conversation.
Up in one of the building, out of one of the high windows, a small face peeped out, watching the figure in the bright coat hurrying away along the damp path.
No snow, still, he thought.
The steam billowed out of the mulled wine and crepe stand. He and his mother had been there that morning and she had bought little stocking-fillers and glazed apples; decorated almond biscuits and chestnuts in bow-tied, paper bags.
He watched the tall woman walk away from the stall in the opposite direction to the figure with the shopping bags. The two little girls stumbled and tripped along next to her, and the dog trotted amongst them all, playfully snapping at their green boots and turning its pointy nose into the fog, its tail erect. And further on, others bundled into and out of the supermarket, and the lights of the city were accompanied by whirling rides in the squares, shining baubles in the trees, and lit hut upon hut amongst the crowds who thronged into the Christmas markets.
He heard the girls cry out in the flat below him. He couldn’t make out the words, but they were bright and cheery and welcoming and would annoy his father. He yawned, pulled the duvet higher up around his shoulders, and resting his chin on the window sill, prayed for snow, like there had been last year.
Bertie Digby Alexander