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Christmas Fiction Drama

The aftermath of my family's backyard Christmas lunch always resembles a festive warzone. The flies, ever the opportunists, descend to finish off our leftovers. Their gentle buzz is audible above some popstar's pitchy attempt at a holiday hit. Having had enough of the cheery screeching, I cross the destruction of winter-themed decorations and soiled paper plates to shut down Mum’s brandless Bluetooth speaker. As the music vanishes and the flies chorus intensifies, I survey the carnage as it bakes in the afternoon heat. Usually, I would be helping clear it all away before we settled into our food comas. This year, it has been left to rot thanks to my inability to keep my mouth shut, causing the family to clear out instead.

               I look at the novelty wall clock my parents crack out at this time of year. It accompanies every other mismatched discount store holiday decoration that adorns the back patio. An underweight Santa and his disjointed arms inch closer to twelve and three. If only I could conjure up some Christmas movie-like miracle to rewind his toothpick-thin limbs earlier in the day. I might be able to tell myself to stay home or perhaps go and help the kids put their presents together when the lunchtime conversation turned ugly. Since that would not happen, I just had to sit in this mess I had created.

               The growing dampness on my forehead trickles down into my eye. I blink furiously to restore clarity to my vision and look around again at the season's reds, greens, and whites. Why do Australians insist on decorating with the winter themes of the northern hemisphere? It would be more appropriate if the wrapping paper littering the ground had pictures of pine trees on fire instead of being surrounded by snowflakes. I imagine a different reality where my family lives in another part of the world, trapped by snow and forced to stare uncomfortably at each other. The only hazard here is a smoke haze, so everyone had the chance to disperse after I decided to do the unthinkable.

               Is this churn in my stomach from eating more prawns than one person needs to? Or is it the growing guilt of disrupting the peace? Either way, I am growing weary of the nausea. So, I stand up and jiggle Santa’s tiny arms back to a time before I opened my big mouth.

               All I did was mess around with a cheap Christmas clock. But in my mind, I flashback to the moment I awoke in my childhood bedroom earlier that day. The room that, for years, had been preserved as a museum to my youth. However, it had eventually been transformed into a bed and breakfast that only ever had one visitor. Naturally, that one visitor was me.

               A slither of sunlight blinded me through that one part of the window the vertical blinds could not reach. It gave me a déjà vu of Christmas mornings from my younger years. Only now, I was not catapulting out of bed to discover the gifts I had been deemed worthy of. Instead, I was mildly annoyed at being woken earlier than was my norm. The silver lining was the smell of eggs and bacon finding its way to my nostrils from the kitchen at the end of the hall.

               My parent's single-story home was typical suburban fare. A fibro shack that had been bricked over once the government decided they no longer wished to house low-income earners in the area. The living room and kitchen could be easily confused for a photo gallery. The long hallway provided a runway to three modest-sized bedrooms, a laundry, and a bathroom. All with floorboards so well polished you could see your reflection in them. Its actual selling point was the size of the front and back yards. Both seemed like football fields compared to what you get in a modern housing development. That is probably why we always had Christmas lunch here. My inner-city shoebox (apartment) and my three siblings’ new-century family homes paled compared to the hospitality our parents could offer.

               ‘Joseph, my love, get out here and join your old parents for a champagne breakfast,’ came my mother's shrill voice from the kitchen.

               ‘Coming, Mum,’ I replied as I dragged myself out of bed. I cracked open a window to let some air in on my way out. A heatwave had been forecasted, and my room felt like a sauna.

               My parents had laid out quite the spread for me. Even though I had not spent the holidays at home in years. There were towers of croissants, pancakes, scrambled eggs, and whatever else Mum had thought was appropriate for three people to start their day.

               ‘It is so good to have you home, son,’ Dad said as he raised a glass of sparkling wine. Buying actual champagne would have broken the budget. However, the mass-produced Australian sparkling did not completely offend the palette.

               It warmed my heart how much they enjoyed the rare occurrence of my presence. It seemed to annoy the living hell out of my brothers and sisters in equal measure. Although they had yet to arrive, I was happy to enjoy the quality time.

               A dramatic jingle filtered in from the lounge room. Dad always loved watching the news on Christmas day. It made him chuckle when they peppered in interviews with shopping centre Santas between updates of everything wrong with the world. Cities were being choked with smoke from raging bushfires, and a brutal war was expanding on the other side of the world. The latter was now a Grinch on my parent’s TV.

               ‘Bloody hell,’ said Dad, his voice garbled by a mouthful of eggs. ‘You think they could give it a rest on Christmas day.’

               ‘People are dying, Dad. Also, parts of the world are in flames. It is not something that takes a break,’ I replied.

               Dad raised one of his bushy eyebrows at me, scrunching up the wrinkles on every corner of his face. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘They can still tone it down on the news for one day.’

               ‘There was supposed to be a ceasefire for today. Sounds like it didn’t happen,’ I said with a sigh.

               ‘Right enough of all this,’ Mum said as she sprung from her chair. Even though she sat with us to eat, she still wore her Mrs Claus-themed apron. You had to admire a woman who ate one meal dressed to prepare the next. Her silver hair bounced up and down as she ferried plates and trays between the dining table and kitchen. Some remained completely untouched due to their lack of necessity amongst the kaleidoscope of breakfast offerings she had made available.

               ‘Can I help with anything, Mum?’

               ‘Don’t bother, mate,’ Dad interjected. His speech showed a hint of the effects of the cheap sparkling. ‘You know your mother is a one-woman band today.’

               Regardless of Dad’s advice, I tried to aid her efforts. We ducked and weaved around each other as we stacked the dishwasher and filled Tupperware containers. Our domestic ballet continued for some time. It evolved into a roast meats and cold seafood production line for the impending lunch. The flurry of activity kept me so preoccupied that I barely even noticed Santa’s shorter arm moving closer to ten. That meant it was almost time for the others to arrive.  

               My two brothers and one sister each exploded through the reefed front door with enormous bags of gifts. They looked so heavy that carrying them around would likely lead to attractive muscle gains. The only thing that looked more exhausting was the horde of children that accompanied each of them. I have almost lost count of how many nieces and nephews I have. The fertility of my siblings and their partners was unmatched.

               ‘Well, look who decided to grace us with his presence,’ said my sister Joanna sarcastically. Given her tone, I would have thought she was unhappy to see me. However, she still leaned in to kiss my cheek without dropping her cargo of wrapped festive goodness. ‘Where’s the boyfriend?’ She asked, knowing full well I was ending this year single.

               ‘Good to see you too, sis.’ I said with a smirk. She rolled her brown eyes and pushed past me. I watched her intently as her shoulder-length brown hair and purple dress disappeared into the kitchen. She was followed by her giant of a husband, Sam. He forced a handshake in my direction as he herded their four pre-pubescent and flame-haired children into the living room. Sam and I rarely saw eye-to-eye, both literally and figuratively. It was best to get the pleasantries out of the way and hope we do not get seated next to each other later.

               I remained at the door as the informal greeting party. My brother Jack and his wife Simone came in with their three tween girls. Each had the same platinum blonde hair reaching down to their legs, just like their mum. Jack still had them all wearing his footy teams’ colours. Even though their grand final win was now several months in the past. Jack embraced me as he always does. He was the only one of my brothers who was a hugger.

               Finally, John and his partner Belinda appeared in the doorway. They had never married because she did not believe in it. She was also thirteen years his senior and had been there, done that. Their newborn baby was hanging off John’s broad shoulders; I felt a little embarrassed that I could not remember his name. Belinda had also brought her adult son, whom she had named Kale. So, one could assume that the baby's name was perhaps chia or quinoa.

               Before anyone could settle in, Mum forced all the siblings to stand before the Kmart tree, which had been overstuffed with baubles. She awkwardly held her second-generation iPad up to get what would no doubt be a grainy photo. I was glad the new iPad I had for her under the tree would mean never again seeing her fumbling with that frayed hot pink cover.

               Our arms snapped away from each other’s shoulders as quickly as it took to snap the photo. I looked at each of their faces for a moment. It was like travelling through time, given how much we all looked alike. The same rounded chins, blue eyes, and brown hair. Jack had a slightly more chiselled appearance, given his love of playing sports. However, the distractions of fatherhood are making themselves known around his midsection. I was the upper middle child, with Joanna as the oldest and the heaviest. Her weight had been undulating for years, and it would not have surprised me if she was on some new trendy diet. Usually, one that Sam had insisted she try.

               With introductions over, the anarchy was given the green light to commence. The kids attacked their presents under the tree like dogs driven ravenous by the taste of blood. Mum and Joanna tried in vain to form a human shield between them and their bounty. They were hoping for a civil ceremony where each child holds up their gifts for a photo. Instead, they got shreds of paper covering the entire rainbow of colours, flinging into the air like wheat being harvested by a tractor. One child chucked a tantrum because they didn’t get some game they wanted. Meanwhile, another had their worldview altered by an older sibling admitting that Santa was not real. The tears and sounds that followed probably had the neighbours thinking we were torturing someone.

               ‘The actual war is less violent than this,’ Belinda said jokingly. She did not seem phased by the lack of anyone laughing with her.

               Thankfully, the adults performed their exchange with a lot more disinterest. Each unwrapping was followed by a high-pitched feigning of excitement or a promise that receipts had been kept. I'm pretty sure we all just wanted to get it out of the way so we could dive into the feast Mum had been preparing. At that point, I noticed Santa had unnaturally extended both arms towards the twelve. It was time to move outside and eat.

My brothers had emptied multiple cans of beer whilst Joanna and I were not shy with the prosecco. I offered to open a fresh bottle to try and melt the usual ice between us. As I went to pour, Sam quickly guarded the rim of her glass with his hand.

‘You might want to slow down a bit, babe.’ Sam said in his gruff voice whilst glaring at me. His military-style buzz cut and box-shaped head made him slightly intimidating, so I headed the warning. He diverted his eyes back towards my sister. She chose not to meet his gaze and instead found a spot on the ground to focus on. Once he returned to his prior conversation with John, I poured her drink anyway. I cannot remember the last time she smiled at me like that.

‘Come and get it,’ Mum shouted from the makeshift buffet on flimsy fold-out tables. Another bloodbath ensued as adults and children alike piled up their plates. The rush was unnecessary, given there was enough food to feed the entire street. Supermarket crackers popped around the table. Colourful paper hats appeared on heads, and the world's worst jokes were told. Dad claimed not to tell the jokes was “un-Australian,” and honestly, it was cute how he laughed at each one.

‘Are you burning something on the barbeque, Dad?’ John asked as he grabbed another round of beers from the ice bin. There was a smell of ash and burning in the air, but it was not from the cooking.

‘Just the fires again, mate,’ Dad replied. He glanced at a smoke haze rolling into the yard like a morning fog. It dulled the summer sun and my sense of taste.

‘Bloody arsonists,’ Sam said bluntly. ‘We should be pouring taxpayer money into tracking them all down instead of all this climate change bullshit.’

‘You believe that?’ Jack asked whilst screwing up his nose.

‘Mate, the only manmade thing about these fires is the crooks starting them,’ Sam said as he turned to Joanna. ‘All those bleeding-heart lefties like your mates on Facebook, babe. All she does is let them brainwash her instead of doing anything around the house.’

Joanna and everyone else fell silent. I opened another bottle.

The savoury delights of lunch were replaced with the sweet treats of dessert. We all forced bowls of lopsided pavlova, fruit cake and trifle into our bursting stomachs. Conversations around the table drifted away from the fires and toward sports. That was until Belinda found a way to force conspiracy theories into the discourse.

‘There is no way he is getting vaccinated,’ she said in response to a query from mum about the baby. ‘He needs to build his natural immunity. The program is a government hoax to prop up the big pharmaceuticals.’ There was never any arguing with her once she got going. I had long since given up on trying to understand her worldview. I drained another drink to stop myself from saying anything.

Belinda wiped a clump of a trifle from her plump face with a serviette and said, ‘Times have changed since you raised your kids, Betty,’ she told my mother. ‘John and I will raise this baby our way if you don’t mind.’ This caused my mother to start clearing plates with furious anger. Her desire for the perfect day overruled the compulsion to bite back.

‘Shame the Christmas ceasefire didn’t stick,’ said Jack to change the subject. I don’t know why the war was his topic of choice.

‘Oh, don’t get me started,’ Belinda said, slurring. No one had noticed how much chardonnay she had put away. She always had plenty of wine capacity. ‘The media is just blowing it all out of proportion. It is just a distraction from those governments to make money off…’

‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I interrupted abruptly. The booze had given me the courage to speak up instead of keeping me silent. ‘Thousands of people are dying or starving every day, and you are honestly going just to spin your bullshit theories?’

‘All I am saying is…’

‘No, I don’t want to hear any more of it. We always listen to what you are saying. Entire countries are without food, this one is burning alive, and all you can do is sit there with your tinfoil hat on.’

‘You might finally keep the weight off if you lived there,’ Sam said, chuckling to Joanna.

What!’ I exclaimed. ‘That is your wife, man. The mother of your children. What kind of an asshole speaks to his partner like that.’

‘Mind your own bloody business, Joseph,’ Sam snapped back.

‘Joseph honey, maybe go for a walk?’ Mum pleaded.

‘No, I will not mind my own business. You’re a dickhead, and you don’t deserve my sister.’ My heart was racing from a mixture of intoxication and adrenaline. I turned to Belinda, ‘and you, with your selfish opinions and shitty parenting. Just shut the hell up. You all wonder why I never visit; this crap is why.’

‘Get the kids. We are leaving,’ Sam said as he dragged Joanna away from the table by the elbow.

Belinda ordered John and the surprisingly silent Kale to the car. Everyone else slowly peeled off, unable to handle the tension left behind in my drunken wake. My mother was crying, so Dad took her for a walk to give me some space.

With that, here I am, back in the present. I am trying not to cough as smoke fills my lungs. I feel a vibration against my leg and pull out my phone. There is a text message from John that reads, way to go. And another from Joanna that says, I love you.

November 28, 2023 21:23

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1 comment

Sophie Irish
21:27 Dec 06, 2023

So similar to mine even writing style. Enjoyable read


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