He stared out over the river, enjoying the reflections of the city lights on the calm surface, and trying to empty his mind. Another year over, and still he was watching time’s inexorable progress alone. Sure there were thirty people inside his flat that he knew well, that were in some sense ‘with’ him tonight, and indeed always, but the place by his side?
He took a long slow drag on his cigarette, an annual ritual that had long since ceased to be about pleasure and smoke and become something deeper about control and choice. He concentrated on the smoke trickling down into his lungs, tried to visualise little particles entering alveoli, nicotine molecules crossing the cell boundary and bonding with blood cells.
He was roused from this internal reverie by the sound of the veranda door closing. Looking up and opening his eyes he could not see anyone there, but the little sounds of soft soles on the concrete told him he was not alone. He waited patiently for the woman he could now smell to step out of the shadows.
Alex turned the page on the paper that she had found on the Tube, and sighed again. She had been at work for seven, as requested by her sister, but she was starting to think that Pearl was mad for wanting to be open that week. Everyone knows that the world does mostly stop between Christmas and New Year, so what trade was a café in The City going to do on a Monday between those two holidays?
The paper was crammed with useless crap about celebrities and who was cheating on who, being seen getting in and out of cars without their knickers and generally nothing of any use to her. She might not have been Brain of Britain, but something to occupy her attention was what she needed. The Sun was simply not cutting it, particularly on this slow news day.
She checked the coffee machine, and then came out from behind the counter to straighten some chairs. She had her back to the door when the bell made her start.
“You are open, yah?”
He was gorgeous, and he had a voice like Hugh Grant. She straightened her apron and nodded.
Snow on the ground, for the first time in the year and yet the year was nearly gone. I looked out of the window into the moonlit garden and it looked for all the world as if someone had sprinkled several tonnes of caster sugar over the hillside. I remember thinking that it was a good thing that none of us needed to drive anywhere in the morning. Spending Christmas week at the top of a hill in the Lake District has its downsides, and one of them is getting stranded. I say ‘downsides’, but for me it was positively an advantage. After the helter-skelter rat-race of London, the family home just outside Stavely was a welcome refuge. Sure it was a disappointment to once again be coming back alone, instead of doing my part to fill the place with grandchildren, and providing my mother with another ‘new daughter’ as she put it whenever one of my brothers would moor himself in domestic bliss – wedded or otherwise – to a woman unlikely to take their shit.
Veronica would have liked it; that was all I could think. Damn it.
This was the third time that she had shouted up since I had retreated to the back bedroom with three rolls of positively festive paper, sellotape and all of my resolve. Let’s be clear I HATE wrapping Christmas presents. If I had the money to shop in the kinds of places that would do it for me, then that would be a perfect solution. It’s not that I disapprove of wrapping gifts, I think it’s a lovely practice in fact and get very upset if I am presented with an un-wrapped gift, but put simply I am utterly useless at doing it.
I suppose it all started as a child. My father, in particular, was very good at wrapping presents, and I was never as good as him at doing it, so soon I was getting other people to do it for me in return for extra washing up, money, whatever it took to not have to compete in the gift-wrap wars that go on between afficianados of the pursuit.
So anyway, I had been upstairs for a little over an hour and I had still failed to wrap any of the five gifts that I had to do.
“There’s a man in the courtyard, standing by one of the big stone planters, and he’d been there for over an hour.”
“So?. I mean I know it’s a locked courtyard, but people lock their appartments as well, and he might be a new tenant or anything. What if he’s having a cigarette?”
She raised one eyebrow, a feat that I was genuinely jealous of at the best of times;
“For over and hour? That’s one hell of a cigarette. Come on, if he has a real reason for being here, looking up at our hallway, on a night where the temperature outside procludes the excuse ‘I like being outdoors’, then he won’t mind a resident asking him his business.”
I shrugged, and headed for the door. As I descended the three flights of stairs I smiled to myself at how easily Jess had got me off the sofa; any excuse to be the ‘man’ of the house. Still my ego seemed to like this way of showing me that I was needed.
I pulled the heavy outer door open and looked out into the courtyard; a weasley looking chap was there by the planter, fag in his mouth.
Through half-closed eyes I could see the lights on the tree twinkling in the corner of the room. The others had all gone into the other room to watch something or other on the television, and I had decided to stay put and have a nap. I was just thinking about going back off to sleep when I felt a hand upon my shoulder; it was Rach.
“Hello, babe. You didn’t want to see Doctor Who then?”
I smiled up at her, enjoying that she had came back in to find me.
“No Rach, but thanks. Come and sit with me, babe?”
She smiled and plonked herself down next to me and snuggled in. The kids were up in their bedrooms; video games having claimed their souls after Christmas dinner was done. My sister and her bloke and my parents were, according to Rach, watching some dreadful reality TV show about dancing; filled with food, and with my woman next to me I was pretty certain that Christmas could not get any better.
“I need to tell you somethin’, Felix, are you awake enough?”
“I’m pregnant, and it’s yours. I’m going to keep it.”
The house is quiet, the kids are sleeping, and my wife is despairingly following me about the place as I insist on not only providing stockings brimming with little presents to each of our little ones, but also unearthing bundles of larger, more lavish presents from various hiding places around the house and placing them under the tree. This all has to be done in almost complete darkness and long after we have managed to get the children to head off towards the land of nod, in order to preserve the illusion; yes none of them yet know for sure whether or not Santa real.
The last of the presents is safely under the tree and my wife coaxes me out onto the deck, into the warm night air, and immediately the illusion is lost for me as well. I grew up in England; the idea of being able to stand around outside in shorts with my shirt off is not a part of the Christmas experience for me, even after twelve years in Australia.
Still the ocean does look beautiful, waves breaking on the moonlit beach,