Authors: Elizabeth Forbes
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Post Traumatic Stress, #Combat stress
‘My knickers’ she said.
‘Are you some kind of pervert?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Yeah, that’s what I think. A twisted, stalking pervert. Keep ’em if you want. Add them to your collection. Listen, what just happened … It was great, really. You’re a good fuck. But honestly, you’re not my type. So let’s not go through that charade of taking my number, the “I’ll call you” business. It ain’t going to happen, and no hard feelings, OK?’
‘Sure. What makes you think I was going to ask for your number, anyway?’
‘I didn’t assume … Oh, fuck it. Just let’s get on with our lives, shall we?’
‘Absolutely. Great meeting you.’ And with that he disappeared into the trees and she didn’t see him again. The next morning Juliet’s mother cornered her over breakfast and told her how lucky she was that such a wonderful young man had shown interest in her. Juliet handed her mother a cup of coffee and then said: ‘He’s a complete weirdo, Mummy … but a great fuck.’
The thing about Christmas, Juliet believes, is you set out to make everything perfect, but all that seems to happen is that each one piles another layer of shit onto the festering compost heap of previous years. All her memories are coming out along with the decorations. Memories of the stupid things that went wrong when Alex
home flood back like they happened yesterday; the pointless rows caused by nothing but the tension of trying to make everything and everyone happy and OK, because the next Christmas he might not be here. Not just here as in
, but anywhere. Christ, it was like waiting for a terminal diagnosis. The saying goodbye, all that shit. Feeling that you should remember every little thing, just in case. And above all else you mustn’t row, you mustn’t complain, you mustn’t spoil anything, because it’s all got to be one hundred per cent fucking perfect.
And then the loneliness, the sheer bloody pain of missing him when he was away from them and the silent prayers even if you never set foot in a church: please, God, let it not be today. Juliet knows that there are people around them – friends – who can measure out their Christmases like Eliot’s coffee spoons. All of them engraved by the predictable and the unremarkable, the familiarity of repetition, the importance of the minutiae of established family tradition, the sanctified festivity, the redemptive Christian flirtation with charity and forgiveness.
But for Juliet all the glitter is dulled and the baubles are tarnished. Her experience of Christmas is mostly of something to be borne, to be suffered, to be got through without breaking down and spoiling things for everyone else, regardless of whether Alex was home or not. And now that he’s home for good and she doesn’t have to worry any more, she still can’t enjoy it because of what’s happened. Once again she’s going to have to pretend that everything is happy and wonderful, for Ben’s sake. So that is why Juliet feels it wholly appropriate that a magazine came in and staged their Christmas, because Christmas has become no better than a staged magazine shoot, a parody, with everything on the surface arranged perfectly but bearing no relation at all to the real thing. Still, one must go through the motions, one must try and swim through the shit.
She’s so tired of acting. But it’s Christmas – ironically the
Christmas – and she still has to act. Alex has to act, Geraldine has to act, they all have to act for Ben’s sake. Maybe next year he won’t even believe in Father Christmas. Some little monster is bound to tell him. Or maybe he’ll see Juliet planting the stocking at the foot of his bed. Alex is more than happy to leave it to her because he says her footstep is so much lighter and she’s less likely to wake him up. He’s happy to drink Santa’s whisky – yes, whisky and not sherry – and stuff down the mince pie. He draws the line at Rudolph’s carrot so Juliet will crunch her way through half of it and leave the rest on the hearth. Then she will make a footprint in the ashes with Alex’s boot.
* * * * *
Juliet is standing with Ben in the hallway. Both of them are bundled up in coats. She looks at her watch accusingly. ‘Alex, if we don’t get a move on we won’t be back before Geraldine arrives. In fact, why don’t you ring her to tell her to come an hour later? The traffic’s bound to be terrible. And as we’ve left it so late we might not even get a bloody tree.’
‘Don’t swear, Mummy.’
‘There’ll be loads. God, why do you always have to make a drama out of things?’
‘Alex, I’m not making a drama. It’s just that it’s lunchtime on Christmas Eve and the rest of the world and his friend has bought their tree two weeks ago. Just because you’re so hung up on bloody tradition.’
‘Could you just stop being negative?’
‘I’m not being negative, I’m being realistic.’ Ben skips ahead of them to the car, chanting, ‘We’re going to get a tree hee-hee … we’re going to get a tree, with Mummy and Daddy and me …’
Alex pushes the key in the ignition and Adrian Edmondson’s voice blares out. Alex turns the volume down. ‘
Cat in the Hat
, Daddy. Want
Cat in the Hat
‘Later, Ben. Let’s just get going, shall we? How about some nice music?’ Alex flicks the controls and AC/DC fills the car. In spite of his irritation, he smiles at Juliet. ‘My little rock chick.’
Alex puts his hand on her knee and squeezes, then he rests it there. This feels good. At the moment it’s all right; his wife and his child in the car doing normal things, the sort of things that normal families do. They sit at the junction of Sheen Lane waiting for the red lights to change. A motorbike comes up on the outside and sits unnervingly close to the door. The rider is covered from head to toe in black. Alex can feel his chest tightening. The visor is dark, making the face invisible. Alex focuses on the gloved hands, waiting for any movement. He flicks a look in the rear-view mirror. All Alex can see is a vast radiator grill of a large lorry which is almost grazing his tail. He’s hemmed in. He clears his throat but it’s hard because his mouth has gone dry. He tickles the accelerator and turns the music right down. He touches the gear stick, wipes his palm on his thigh, then rests it on the gear stick once more, brushes his foot over the accelerator, checks the rear- view mirror, the motorbike at the side of him, a cyclist on the inside, his wife and child in the car. He lets off the handbrake and moves forward.
‘Alex, the lights are still red …’
He edges forward, dodging a car coming in from the right. The car hoots and Alex hoots back, then he’s free of the junction and he puts his foot down, overtaking the car in front. He almost hits the bollard in the middle of the road, but he manoeuvres past it. He can feel Juliet’s tension beside him. ‘Alex, what the fuck …’
He is breathing heavily. His chest still feels tight. ‘It’s fine,’ he says. He forces a smile and squeezes his hands on the steering wheel. The wheel feels oily and slippery from his sweat. He wipes his palms one by one on his thighs. Juliet can see what he is doing. She knows what’s going on. He’s showing weakness. He’s showing he can’t cope. But he can. He just knows more than most people what the threats are; he knows what to look out for, the dangers coming from every corner because you just never know. You’ve got to be watchful all the time, otherwise you’re likely to be taken out, annihilated, turned into pink mist.
His body starts to shake. ‘Alex, pull over. Let me drive. Sweetheart, look, you’re in no fit state. It’s OK. Come on … please … pull over.’
‘I’m fine.’ By clutching the steering wheel he can make it go away. If he takes some deep breaths. If he thinks about the tree, the decorations, the boxes they’ve got to unpack, the bloody fairy lights, his mother and how he’s going to cover up his lack of patience with her. Will he be able to get through Christmas without snapping? Just a couple of days, that’s all. Just a couple of days.
It’s subsiding now. He’s beginning to feel he’s getting a grip. The tree lights, the fuses, the whereabouts of the screwdrivers. The need to buy lots of batteries. All of it a distraction; if he focuses upon it hard enough he will be OK.
When they get to Petersham the car park is bursting with vehicles. Juliet says she’ll go on ahead, take Ben. ‘Fine,’ he says.
‘I’ll meet you inside.’ He watches his wife and son, hand in hand, retreating from his view. Exhaust fumes from the car in front fog the air. Smoke, explosives, gunfire … just an exhaust … in greater London … the suburbs. Nothing to be afraid of except finding the right change for the ticket machine. It’s a shop, no need for a ticket. They just want you to spend lots of money. The tree – there’d better be a bloody tree after all this. And what else will she buy? He’d better hurry up and get in there so he can see what she’s doing. Christmas, just one big bloody expense. The smoke in front of the car... it’s spreading over the bonnet. He can taste the fumes, lead and diesel and petrol. Where’s the cordite …? He should be able to smell the cordite. But he’s not there, he’s here. ‘Jesus Christ, help me,’ he prays silently. He’s not a religious man, but any port in a storm … Christ, can’t you get out of the bloody way and let me park. His anger is rising. He needs to hit something. In a moment he’s just going to put his bloody foot down and ram that bloody bastard idiot in front of him and just get him out of the bloody way. He winds the window down. Thick smoke, lead, diesel and petrol filling his lungs. He screams: ‘Get out of the fucking way before I fucking kill you …’ But his words are lost in the petrol-thick, frost-heavy air and the car in front moves slowly forward and Alex finds a parking space and then he turns off the car engine and leans his head upon his hands on the steering wheel and for just a few moments he sobs like a child.
* * * * *
‘Got them working yet?’ Alex is sitting on the floor with a red plastic light bulb tester patiently – seemingly – checking each tiny bulb. It’s the same every year that Alex has been home. The times Juliet’s been on ‘put away’ duty after Christmas she’s either fixed them or chucked them, so that she doesn’t have to go through this whole effing palaver on Christmas Eve. And the times Alex has been away she’s got the tree a whole two weeks before Christmas. So what if it was almost bare by the time Christmas came around;
it was just the joy of doing something
‘I can’t decorate the tree until we’ve got the lights on. We should have bought some more. They’re so cheap these days. The time you’re spending trying to fix them –’
‘Juliet, could you do me one small favour …’
She raises her eyebrows, anticipating what he’s about to say.
‘Just shut the fuck up.’
‘Language, Alex.’ Geraldine has brought in a tray of tea.
‘Thanks, Geraldine. You’ve just arrived in time for the light show – or lack of it …’
‘Oh look, well done, darling …’
‘Oh, well done, darling …’ Juliet echoes.
‘Well done, Daddy,’ Ben comes jumping into the room and bounces onto the sofa. Can I put them on the tree, please?’
‘Let Mummy put them on and then you can start putting the balls on.’
‘I expect Granny would like to help, too.’
Geraldine is not a difficult guest. Juliet is fond of her because she feels an affinity, and an understanding. But she hates her weakness, even though she understands the source of it. Women were supposedly different in those days. Of course they weren’t really different at all, they were just subjugated and brainwashed into being domestic slaves. At least that’s what Juliet thinks. And here’s Geraldine, a living example. Alex is much nicer to his mother than he is to Juliet. He would never, for instance, call her a ‘fucking bitch’ or variations on the same theme. He is able to control his outbursts in front of his mother, but then she is wealthy and they depended on her largesse. There she goes, being cynical again.
Alex’s sister, Lucinda, lives mostly in Scotland, having married an impoverished Scottish earl on some godforsaken, impossible- to-get-to, midge-infested island, with her four obnoxious children, and so, not surprisingly, Geraldine wasn’t that keen on travelling there alone. Alex’s father had, much to everyone’s relief, dropped dead of a stroke at the age of sixty-nine. Geraldine had been of independent wealth before she married, and so once her husband died it finally meant she could get her hands back on her own money. It was ironic that Geraldine was the one with means but was timid and retiring while Deborah, Juliet’s mother, was the flamboyant socialite. She and SF (stepfather or Sad Fuck as Juliet called him) were spending their Christmas with ‘friends’ in Gstaad. A great opportunity for Deborah to parade around in her mink without getting cans of red paint thrown at her. Perhaps the difference boiled down to the fact that Deborah relied on a man, while Geraldine was perfectly self-sufficient and, once bitten, had no need of one.
How have they managed to accumulate so many decorations? It’s slightly tricky because Geraldine keeps adding to the stocks: ‘I thought you might like this, dear, I was having a clear out and look what I found …’ Juliet likes her tree to be organized and themed. She might change it each year – last year it was mostly red with a few touches of orange, and this year she’s planning to go all gold. She’s already earmarked the correct box of baubles, but, annoyingly, Alex is opening up the others and trying to act as though he’s helping. Ben is always interested in what Daddy is doing, wanting to copy him, so naturally Ben is delving into Daddy’s box. ‘Darling, not that one,’ Juliet says. It’s all getting a bit out of hand because now Geraldine is starting on the red balls.
‘Geraldine, I thought we’d go gold this year. They’re all in the box just here. Benjamin, not that one.’
‘It doesn’t matter, they’re just decorations. Why do you have to be so fussy? I think the tree looks better when it’s got all sorts of different balls on it. We don’t want it looking like something out of Selfridges’ shop window, do we?’ Alex says.
‘’Fridges is where I saw Father Christmas,’ Ben adds.
‘I’d be perfectly happy if it looked like Selfridges’ window,’ Juliet sighs heavily.