By George Aitch
It was the chalk cliffs coming into view from the window seat that let me know I was coming home. When I was waiting in line for my ticket at the station, when I had called my sister to ask for a lift – those plans had formed the seed of a homecoming. But it was only when I could see the white cliff face that I knew Swanford station was racing around the corner with my parents’ house in tow. I was coming home for Christmas. I felt it, a spreading warmth of that knowledge seeping between my collarbones.
This feeling was chased by a second thought. How many times will I come home? That expanse of ivy coated chalk welcomes me back each time, though it is a diminishing return. When I’m on a fast train passing through, the green and white smear together and my childhood passes by in a blur. For a second, I can watch the place where we used to live. But from a high speed carriage I can’t reach the house where I grew up, the parks I played in. They are so close to me – only for that second.
However, this time the train slows to a stop. Hoisting my heavy bags, I alight. Rachel sprints down the platform and bowls me over. She’s wearing one of her twelve seasonal jumpers. I haven’t seen this one before, cream coloured wool featuring pugs dancing with reindeer and pine trees. We pull back and split my luggage. The wheeled suitcases clatter across the floor and the train pulls out. Next stop Upton Neverett to deliver more prodigal daughters to their parents’ firesides.
Rachel’s green hatchback is parked nearby. In the back seat, Lizzie is fiddling with the aux cable in an effort to broadcast her specially compiled playlist. She looks up at me and smiles when I tap on the glass. After I’ve loaded my bags into the back, the car pulls away. It is a cold yet clear winter afternoon, Christmas Eve eve, and the tyres crackle over the gritted road. There is only a short drive home, but it is enough for three sisters in a small car to fog up the windows together. Rachel flicks the heating dial to demist the windscreen, unsuccessfully, so then opens us up to an arctic shock from outside. This is how I arrive home: breeze-tousled hair and heavy bags which are part filled with presents and the remaining space loaded with everything from my kitchen which might expire in five days. The offerings of a quarter pint of milk and a head of lettuce will spend the holiday period sitting in the back of the fridge.
The gravel pops and snaps as the car pulls up. Outside the red brick house, Dad is chopping big logs into smaller logs. He looks up at us, his approaching daughters and lodges the hatchet into the firm block. He welcomes me home to the house I haven’t lived in for seven years. Rachel and I dutifully pass the heaviest bags to his outstretched hands. As we pass the growing woodpile, he wipes his brow.
“The best thing about chopping firewood is that it warms you twice.” He says and calls for Mum to put the kettle on. She appears from the kitchen and upon seeing me, pulls me down for a kiss on the cheek.
“How was your train?” she asks
“Fine, once I’d gotten through London.”
“Yes, the crowds are always worse this time of year” Rachel adds “but don’t you love how they decorate the stations? The tree they have at St Pancras this year is huge!”
“If only it didn’t appear every November.” Says Dad, passing between us with one of my suitcases. “What do you have in here anyway?”
“Presents” I say, and mime a single finger spread over my fastened lips.
“Are we all getting rocks this year?” he asks
“That’s just the coal for you.” Lizzie says, tugging at her boots. She crosses the hallway and enters the kitchen where mum’s smooth jazz carols are replaced with crooning Michael Bublé; the first herald of her bumper Christmas CD.
Shortly after my arrival, we fall into line in the kitchen, dicing the veg and subtly ignoring Mum’s preference for saltless meals. Lizzie has set the table just as it used to be when five of us lived here. I am upstairs, last minute wrapping my presents in gold coloured crinkly paper, bought more for its ability to be recycled than for its garish hue, no doubt. In preparation I put out a row of Sellotape strands on my desk. They dance with static as I set to carving out the paper on the bed. The scissors glide like dancers on ice and soon I have four square shaped boxes, nicely labelled with no tape going to waste.
My old room feels like a museum. Dusty photograph frames show echoes of me, a shorter girl who liked swimming and maths. After stashing the gift wrapping gear, I linger. Compared to downstairs, it is quiet up here and there is room to ponder. My fingers roam over collections of frivolous paperweights I used to collect while we were on holiday. The lamplight from the street peers through the curtains and shines into a vase filled with sea smoothed glass I collected whenever we would visit our cousins in Devon. There was a time not so long ago where I would fall asleep watching the patterns from passing cars chase each other across my ceiling. It barely feels as though these decorations belong to me. They have become exhibits. It is soulful to consider now and I carry some of that solemnity with me as I take the presents from the bedroom.
Downstairs, I peep into the front room to see the tree for the first time. With the lamps off and the faerie lights on, a stream of glitter and constellations is thrown across the floor. A thousand twilit suns reflect off tinsel and imitation snowflakes. Refrains from the kitchen waft in behind me and the mix of carol and gravy strikes the right chord. I pad across the bare floor and stow my gifts at the back. As I withdraw, I come away with a collection of pine needles lodged in my sleeves; we have another real tree this year.
Back when the trees looked much bigger, Dad would drive us up to Upton Neverett where we’d mill about in pink Puffa jackets, comparing spruce. Every year, Lizzie would skip out from the car and run up to the first tree she saw. It would be this one, she declared firmly, we would take this exact tree home and no other. The moment Dad landed any other tree next to it, she would turncoat. And again and again until we had all settled on the ideal tree to hand our stars from. Usually whichever one Dad thought he could optimistically fit in the back of the car.
Then at home, Dad would play amateur woodsman (as he definitely had this year), pruning and taking the pine down to size whereupon it would sit in the front room and we’d festoon it with bright paper chains and lights.
My reverie is interrupted by someone calling me through to the kitchen.
“Sarah! We’re making gin and tonic!”
On the second day, proper Christmas Eve, the lodged excitement erupts. We three rise to a fizzy feeling of joy, that sort of childish glee which although becomes fleeting after your teenage years, never quite fades under the right circumstances. Despite this sense of anticipation, the eve is not the real event. As a family, we pass it furtively shaking presents and telephoning relatives whose numbers we keep especially for this time of year. The sun hangs low in the sky, behind a thin stream of cloud. Running those last few errands, Rachel drives us two into town.
The car park is as busy as the shelves are bare. We aren’t the only ones with last minute preparations in mind. As it is, Mum’s list of essentials is pretty easy to whittle down; Sainsbury’s is out of cinnamon, goose fat, eggs and orange juice. We take what we can from what has been left behind by earlier, more prudent shoppers. I try to keep Zen as absent minded trolleys run over my new boots. It is only the Christmas spirit which holds my tongue. Rachel, meanwhile, ducks and dives through aisles hoping not to be recognised by anyone we grew up with in her bright red corny jumper.
We are not, checking out with a purchase of brandy and chocolate biscuits. Both items high on our lists and low on our mother’s. Sore toes lodged inside car footwells, we head for home and the collection sigh in front of the television. There is nothing to watch. As a family we watch it anyway. Come eleven o clock and we troop dutifully to bed, eyes watching that final advent calendar door.
I have aged a decade backwards overnight. On this morning, the merriest of the year, we are visited by the patron saint of petty arguments. Whose turn is first in the shower? Who gets the last ginger spice teabag? These important problems of life are only resolved through squabble. Dad flicks the kitchen lights on to boil the kettle and confiscates the teabag. Without speaking, he herds us into the front room. The spell is broken and as we did ten and even twenty years ago, we sit in a line and wait for Mum to get the camera ready.
To each girl a stocking. In each stocking are many things. This year I have the traditional tangerine and set of socks with matching dressing gowns for the three of us. Fewer blasts from the past come as I reach further inside. Wrapped up is a lightning bolt earring and a book definitely not to be read by anyone under the age of fifteen. At the bottom we compare and swap then responsibly cram the wrapping into the recycling bags. Like good daughters do, we hand our gifts to Mum (wine and a book) and Dad (cheese and more wine). The presents are over, but they are such a small part of it.
Other households must have finished this section at the same time as us; the phone begins to ring non-stop which signals the next event in the Chrismathlon. Mum answers and fumbles to find her Great Second Aunt’s card pinned to the wall above the dresser. Dad, on the other hand, poaches some eggs and hands a bottle of not quite champagne to Rachel. Lizzie slots her iPod into a new set of speakers, triggering our patron household saint to descend again: I firmly believe that it is too early for loud seasonal pop music.
Here are the rules of our Christmas drinking. Champagne breakfast first then coffee with whiskey second. Brandy goes into tea (or tea goes into brandy, whichever you prefer) then wine with lunch. Between us, this is enough to mute any further quarrel. Simmer for three hours then take out for a frosty walk and a good stir. Finally, leave to ferment in front of the television and serve, if anyone has any appetite by at that point.
We eat our main meal at lunch, which is proper. All evening dining is picking over at the cuts and cold potatoes which have been left. Mum has a small chicken for herself, Rachel and Dad. Lizzie and I being good vegetarians tuck into a nut roast and some overly dry fake sausages. It is enough to soak up the wine I have sunk by now. The sister to my right pulls the first cracker. After cacophony I am left with a mess while my neighbours receive a paperclip and miniature screwdriver set. These are the rules of Christmas; the crackers have spoken. In my unworthiness, I scoop myself more stuffing and carrots.
The lights go out and Dad strides in, bearing a lit Christmas pudding. The blue glow descends and bathes the table. We get through the first verse of ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ before Mum starts to screech;
“John! You’ve set the table on fire! The table’s on fire!” Dad bats at it with a tea towel and it is extinguished. Luckily, Lizzie has captured this on her phone so that the rest of our family and Twitter can enjoy it. I am handed a plate, onto which I splodge some brandy butter. We roll back into the front room and pass out to Doctor Who and Michael McIntyre.
Bleary eyed for Boxing Day, I wrench open the fridge and lift an assortment of leftovers onto my plate. The six days after Christmas are the leftovers of the year. They don’t count for anything and there is nothing that we might do with them. Instead of trying to achieve anything in that time, I am perfectly content to sit idly for nearly a week and come up with resolutions to better myself. As I was unable to yesterday, I ring around my friends to make plans to ring in the coming year.
That day we go out for a family walk on the hills. The first portion of leftover time is chewed and swallowed. It is spent too soon, devoured. In fact, it scarcely seems like six days before I am stood on the platform with the winter sun overhead. Christmas is over and the new year is before us.
George Aitch's writing can also be found places in Storgy, Litro, Bunbury Magazine and The Crazy Oik among others. His essay ‘What Do You Do When It All Goes Wrong’ was recently shortlisted by Ascona.