‘Why do we have to come here again?’ said Charlie, putting the car into park with a sigh.
‘We’ve been over this already Charlie. Besides, what do you mean again?’ Penny pulled down the vanity mirror and rechecked her mascara, ‘We haven’t visited my parents in six months.’
‘You know what I mean. I don’t see why we have to spend every Christmas here?’ Charlie began searching every storage-compartment and cubby-hole of the Mercedes for nothing in particular.
‘We don’t spend every Christmas here. Besides it’s a time for family and you know my mother can’t travel anymore so we come here.’
‘We never go to my family,’ said Charlie, looking through the windows for the thing he wasn’t looking for.
‘Because you never want to!’ said Penny. She folded away the mirror and gave him a look that told him he should probably quit while he could.
He gave up trying to find whatever he wasn’t looking for and flicked the air-vents off and on and off again.
‘Anyway, let’s not argue, it’s Christmas, let’s have a happy one for once please?’ Penny looked back to check on Tommy who was pretending to sleep while listening and learning some important life skills from his parents. Within his short five years he’d already learned that it was important to bicker because it was how adults showed they loved each other by making up afterwards.
‘Besides,’ said Penny, wanting to get a last pertinent piece of truth out while she reapplied her lipstick, ‘it’s not my fault that you have an extreme dislike for humanity!’
‘I do not have an extreme dislike for humanity,’ he said.
‘Alright, you have mild one!’
He found no argument.
Anne knocked on the driver’s door and startled him. He conjured up a smile and flicked down the window. ‘Morning Anne, lovely to see you. How’s the hip? Still playing up I hope.’
Penny whacked him in the elbow and caught the lip of the coffee cup between them.
‘Lovely to see you too Charlie. Hi Penny love.’
As they went into the house, Tommy continued to feign sleep in his grandmother’s sweatered arms. Charlie stared at the badly painted green wooden door that he’d endured three hours of M1 congestion and another on un-gritted country lanes to face. Even the rusting 33 door number irked him. He considered driving back for another four hours rather step into that badly furnished house. If there was one thing he couldn’t accuse his parents of it was bad taste, the family home was always immaculately furnished with the finest solid wood antique furniture, hand-made sofas, and hand-woven Persian rugs.
‘Charles! How are you my lad.’ He hated being called Charles and doubly hated being called lad. But his father-in-law seemed to conveniently forget each time he advised him.
‘Charlie,’ reminded Charlie, ‘Nice cardie Bill.’ But he became despondent when his sarcasm was missed.
‘Thanks. Knitting’s Anne’s new hobby. Keeps her busy, and busy means it keeps her quiet,’ he whispered, winked and tapped his nose.
‘Hey! I heard that,’ said Anne as she shuffled past with Tommy in her arms.
Bill’s pat on Anne’s polyestered behind and cheeky wink unnerved Charlie, he wasn’t sure that eldery parents or parents-in-laws should display such signs of affection in front of their children. Against his own wishes, his mind tried to recall the last time he witnessed his father patting his mother cheekily on the behind or when any sign of affection was displayed in their perfectly furnished home.
He drew a blank as Penny tapped him on the shoulder and flicked her head towards the door.
She replied with two more exaggerated flicks, which he finally understood as an instruction to fetch the presents.
Anne took Tommy upstairs to wash his hands even though there were two working sinks downstairs. It always amazed him the lengths parents went through to lie to their kids, telling themselves it was in their own interests. Apparently Father Christmas knew exactly where Tommy would be ahead of time and had brought his presents directly to granny’s house. And it was up to Charlie now to perpetuate the lie by fetching them from their secret hiding place in boot of the E-Class.
As he stood on that quiet suburban street filled with imperfect pebble-dashed houses with imperfect overgrown gardens and broken brick walls which lined driveways parked with cheap, non-German cars, he tried to imagine what kind of Christmases took place behind those net-curtained bay windows.
He wondered if imperfect houses could entertain perfect Christmases or indeed whether a perfect Christmas existed. His parents’s perfectly adorned house became a bickering battleground from Christmas Eve morning until Boxing Day evening, with each day separated by frosty silent nights where his parents either became too tired or too drunk to argue anymore. He thought perhaps beyond these driveways with their modest Fords and Vauxhalls that there was some happy medium between the hellish Yuletides of his past and the sickly sugary one of the present.
‘Hey!’ Penny, who was well versed in the language of head signals, now signalled him with a swish and a shake of her hair, telling him to get a move on before Tommy came back downstairs.
‘Lovely meal as always darling,’ said Bill mopping his mouth with a kitchen towel. Charlie felt uneasy when he searched for some sarcasm in Bill’s compliment but found none. And even more so when Anne repaid the compliment with a kiss. After all these years it still didn’t seem right that couples like Bill and Anne could co-exist, especially at Christmas time without any traditional hint of sarcasm or bitterness permeating the mulled-wine scented air between them.
He couldn’t help himself and reminded Anne that she should give out proper napkins next time, ideally appropriately coloured, either a deep Christmas tree green, or a nice berry red. Like the ones his mother laid out then packed up because Christmas dinner was usually cut short before the turkey could settle as his parents still couldn’t agree on whether it should have been stuffed with sausage and sage or pine nuts and cranberries.
Penny shot him a look of disdain which strangely comforted him. Christmas, he reflected, was not Christmas without some icy bitterness nipping at your nose or some jealousy roasting on an open fire.
‘Time for presents!’ shrilled Anne. She grabbed Tommy and everyone else followed, leaving him at the table with the empty plates. He looked over at the pathetic Christmas tree. A modest affair that looked like it had been made of diseased plastic, the lights didn’t even flash and were all the wrong colour. Things just didn’t fit. Happiness shouldn’t take place in an imperfect house where the curtains clashed with the armchairs and the armchairs disagreed with the sofa. Happiness should’ve taken place in a perfectly furnished home.
After ten minutes of exchanging presents in which time Bill wowed at a new half-bent briar pipe, a pair of tartan slippers, a book on World War II airplanes, a model World War II airplane, another knitted cardigan from Anne, and a bottle of Paco Rabanne Eau de Toilette; Anne beamed at her Mary Berry Baking Bible, a pair of lavender-scented microwavable hand-warmers, two pairs of thermal walking socks, a chunky woven chain necklace, a tube of firming neck cream, a pot of anti-aging eye cream, and a tub of rejuvenating night cream; Penny delighted in her A5 false-leather, lined notebook, a pair of cubic zirconia earrings, a knitted red and orange scarf, a desk calendar with cute kittens, a bottle of Curious by Britney Spears, and a Best British Rom-Com Movie Songs in the World Ever! CD; while Tommy whooped at his Lego Star Wars AT-AT, AT-ST, Imperial Star Destroyer, Imperial Assault Hovertank, a Stormtrooper Pez dispenser, two Darth Vader sweat shirts, a Lego Star Wars Encyclopedia, and a Darth Maul double-bladed, light-up Lightsaber.
And as Bill paraded his new cardigan and splashed himself with Paco Rabanne, Anne tried out her socks and hand-warmers, Penny sprayed Curious onto her scarf wrapped neck, and Tommy abandoned his Lego to fight off Jedi rebels with his Lightsaber, Charlie sighed at his Gillette shaving gift pack and matching M&S pyjama set. He already owned ten sets of pyjamas, one for every Christmas they’d been coming here and wondered what he was going to do with an eleventh. Even if they weren’t always around to see them unwrap their presents, at least his parents bought them everything they wanted.
‘Come, come,’ said Bill chewing on his new pipe, ‘you know what time it is!’
Every year Charlie would hope his in-laws had finally arrived in the 21st century and installed a Sky dish like every other house on the street. ‘Time for Sky Sports!’ he always anticipated hearing but what he always received was: ‘It’s Scrabble Time!’
Penny dragged him over to the table as Bill and Anne scattered the tiles among hot mugs of Yorkshire Tea and discarded Quality Street wrappers smiling inanely at each other. He tried to remember the last time he’d played board games with his parents. But he could never remember them being in the same room for long enough to even roll a dice.
But after twenty minutes where the mismatched plastic chairs bothered him, after he followed an eight point ‘BORED’ with a double word ‘SICK’ and a triple word ‘TIRED’, Penny glanced his shins under the table in a tone he recognised all too well.
He opened his eyes wide and inclined his head to stare at her stare, her stare said: ‘What the hell are you doing?! We haven’t been here in six months and you can’t behave yourself for three hours!’ Charlie’s stare said nothing because it knew Penny’s stare was right. Penny’s stare was always right.
But as he continued to stare, he inclined his head too much and accidentally saw her readily-prepared 14 point ‘FAMILY’ smiling mockingly back at him and walked off.
‘Is he okay Pen?’ said Bill as he smiled and completed his 27 point, triple-word ‘CARING’.
Penny excused herself, she knew by now that when her husband went skulking off in silence it meant he wanted her to follow and pity him. She found him leaning against the Mercedes’s three-pointed star.
‘Jesus Christ Charlie! When did you start smoking again!’
He said nothing and continued inhaling fresh, cold December air through burning tobacco, formaldehyde, and ammonia hoping it would produce enough tar and nicotine to suppress the nauseating effects of Christmas cheer.
‘I thought you knew,’ he said closing his eyes and holding onto the intoxication.
‘No! I didn’t! Since when?’
He shrugged and ground and re-ground the cigarette stub over and over between the weeds peeking out between the imperfect paving stones.
‘All I ask for is two days! Two bloody days in six months for you to behave yourself!’
‘Alright! Alright!’ said Charlie lighting another cigarette, ‘If it makes you happy!’
‘Well don’t say it like that!’ Penny snatched the cigarette and inhaled, feeling the effects
‘Like what?’ Charlie took back the cigarette and took a long exaggerated drag before she could snatch it again.
‘You know? Like I’m doing this to make you unhappy!’
‘Well. Aren’t you?’
‘No! I’m not,’ she touched his arm, ‘Honey. I’m sorry, look I know you don’t like Christmas, but I love you. It doesn’t have to be like this. Let’s not argue anymore.’
He sighed as she kissed him. He knew she was right, she always was. She was right every year.