I do not know the exact moment when Christmas ceased being a time of joy; I believe it was a gradual shift as I grew out of my teenage years and into my twenties.
It was now something to be endured, though I hid my feelings well.
The chill twilight air slunk around us, buffering our coats and cloaks, my breath a fine mist. I trod carefully upon the icy footpath, fur-lined boots crunching softly, my paternal grandmother, Betty’s thin yet wiry arm linked through mine.
“You’ve been awfully quiet this Christmas,” she said, leaving the obvious question hanging, as was often her way.
We had fallen behind of the main group, my niece and nephews skipping ahead, running laps around my older sister, Evie, and her husband, John. Mother and Father huddled together as they walked, whilst old family friends swept along at the edges, shoulders hunched against the weather.
Murmurings of other adults and many squealing children could be heard nearby, converging on the soft throbbing of the village hall. Pink and green lights shone skywards, visible above the rooftops, a beacon to all willing revellers. I longed to feel some form of excitement, but that particular sensation eluded me. Skirting by like a ship of bloated sail failing to dock at an inhospitable island.
A waxing gibbous moon flooded the village in ethereal silver light, the street lined by small warm houses glowing yellow this New Year’s Eve.
“I guess I’ve just been thinking a lot about… everything.”
The wind picked up a little, flapping my loose brown hair across my face. Somewhere nearby, an owl hooted; the sound lingering. I’ve always found something mournful about owls, like their call is to no one in particular, just a long sad call to the darkness.
“I don’t like my job.”
Betty waited a second, probably to see if I would elaborate, before asking, “What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s… repetitive, every day is the same.” I’ve worked in the same department store for five years now. Folding jumpers, smoothing shirts, pointing out the special offers… on occasion, I deliberately leave my watch at home, just to add a little something different to the day.
“All jobs are repetitive to a certain extent, my dear. That’s not it.”
“What’s bothering you.”
We reach the end of the street and turn left down Hill Road, where the village hall lies in wait on the right. The backdrop of dense pinewood forest accentuates the colourful lights flashing from the windows. Voices babble and gurgle from within.
“I guess I want to do something more… oh, I don’t know.”
“Maybe.” Up ahead, my sister throws her head back, laughing, and pats John’s shoulder. “Maybe I’m just lonely. I’m still single, things didn’t work out with—”
“Being single isn’t a problem to be solved, my dear.” Betty waved her free hand and sighed, abruptly wistful. I wondered if she thought of granddad then, with his mirthful laughter and kind eyes. She must miss him. “Besides,” she continued, “love is shy. It only comes along when you aren’t looking for it.”
I nodded. Would I ever be so calm and wise? She was like the owl, piercing the darkness, seeing things that others didn’t.
“The kids have grown so much in a year,” I said. My seven-year-old niece, Josephine, had a bright red ribbon in her thick brown hair. She had adopted a knowing crook to her smile and a way of lifting her chin as she walked, which would look incredibly arrogant on an adult. On her, it was adorable.
“They do that,” Betty said, “But you’re not finished growing, you know that, don’t you?”
I frowned. “What do you mean? I’m twenty-five.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, “We’re never really finished. It took me a long time to realise that, but it’s true. Oh, we stop growing physically and when you get to my age, you actually start shrinking!” She chuckled softly to herself. “But not emotionally, my dear. No. Not intellectually… and not spiritually, either.”
My brother-in-law held open the door for us and I thanked him as we stepped inside. The warmth thumped into us, reminding me of holidays in Spain, the shock of heat as we stepped off the plane onto quivering tarmac. Excitement crackling through the impossibly bright Mediterranean sun.
I took my grandmother’s long black coat and hung it up with mine, before leading her into the main hall, making a bee-line for some free tables and chairs near the dancefloor. The theme to Ghostbusters was playing. My nephews were already sliding across the hardwood flooring on their knees, narrowly dodging Josephine as she spun round and round, faster and faster, the red pleats of her dress rising up like a spinney-top.
“White wine?” I ask.
“Yes, dear, thank you.”
I turned towards the bar as Josephine stopped spinning and giggled, staggering sideways. I knew that I should have smiled at that, but I just felt numb.
Waiting at the bar for my drinks, I surveyed the hall. Balloons and streamers hung from the ceiling, an enormous disco ball sparkled and the hubbub of merriment clinked and tinkled around the room.
I suddenly had the oddest sensation of being… separate, like I was looking down on myself, observing the scene from afar. When I was little, my dearly departed grandfather, Betty’s husband, gave me a beautiful snow globe for Christmas. Inside was a wooden lodge, five children and a snowman – all actively engaged in a snow ball fight. When I shook the globe, the snow would bluster and whirl before settling once again, but the people and the snowman continued playing. Smiles upon all of their faces. I believed they played when I wasn’t looking, that they whispered magical secrets. Things I desperately wanted to know. In the night, I would peek at the globe through heavy-lidded eyes, trying to catch them out.
I never did.
What was the secret all of these people had? All these joyful, smiling people, clinking glasses, their eyes glossy with unfeigned festive cheer.
“Two glasses of white wine.”
“Yes, thank you.”
I wish I lived in that wooden lodge… where life was forever blanketed in crystalline flakes of pure white and where snowmen came alive to play and flash their charcoal smiles.
Instead, I still lived with my parents and their disappointment soaked through the carpeted floorboards. Despite what Betty had to say, being single did feel like a problem. At twenty-five, my sister had been married to John for seven years and all three kids had already been crawling or running about their perfectly square lawn. She had always known what she wanted and when she wanted it.
Me on the other hand, well, people had started to look at me funny, wondering if I had some disturbing trait that wasn’t obvious right away. If I produced a partner, it would be one less thing for my mother to raise questions about over the breakfast table.
“I suppose I should try harder to meet someone,” I said, returning to my grandmother’s side. I had no wish to mingle; the smiles were far too shiny. I groaned, sipping my wine, “It would make things like this more bearable.”
Betty raised an eyebrow at me over the rim of her wine glass.
“I didn’t mean you,” I said quickly, “I meant, you know, the fake happiness, the singing, the songs… Christmas is just for kids, isn’t it? If you don’t have kids...”
I trailed off as Betty fixed me with one of her more discerning looks.
“Christmas is not just for kids,” she said, “It is for the child within all of us. You must remember how you used to feel at Christmas. I remember and I’m ancient.”
“Sure. I remember, but that’s not the same.”
Betty shifted in her seat, facing me fully, her bony finger tapping the white tablecloth. “You’re not usually like this… all moody and melancholy. Did something happen this past year?”
I sighed. “No. Nothing.”
And it’s true. I have no tangible reason to be miserable. No loss, heartbreak or professional wreckage to explain myself. I know this, which is why I’ve kept it all on the inside. Though my grandmother has seen through the act, I doubt anyone else has. She always understood me better than anyone else, even my mother.
“I remember when you were little,” she said, her tone taking on the storytelling lilt I knew so well, “You used to spend all your time in the village library, pretending to read books too old for you to understand, shoving as many as you could into your purple Aladdin backpack, ripping the seams. You so loved to read, just like me.”
That was true; the memory surfaced, eagerly bobbing into my consciousness. I did have an Aladdin backpack; I was obsessed with it. Strange, the things parents and grandparents remember that you forget.
“When was the last time you read a book?”
“I…uh…” I didn’t know. Years. Shame warmed my belly.
“You mustn’t forget her, my dear.”
“That little girl who talked back to the librarians when they said she was too young to read the adult books. Yes! You did! You would lift your chin and flick your hair over your shoulder, like this.” Betty laughed, slapping her knee. “That girl wouldn’t let anything get in her way.”
A sour taste dried out my tongue, my stomach squeezing as I stood up.
“I’m sorry, grandma,” I said, “I’m just going to get some fresh air. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Whatever you need, dear.”
I walked away, careful not to look back at those knowing eyes. I couldn’t cry; not here.
The backdoors swung out onto a small patio, the forest lay ahead and disco lights flashed intermittently into the gloom. The smokers were gathered here and so I walked away from them and leant against the brick wall. I couldn’t stay out here long; I didn’t have my coat and my body was already trembling from the cold as I looked up at the stars.
My grandmother’s words echoed in my mind: You mustn’t forget her, my dear. But, I’m not the same person anymore. I grew up. A shooting star streaked across the sky and I made a wish.
“Alana?” I turned to my right. A young man with short dark hair was approaching, cigarette smoke unfurling from his right hand, head cocked to one side. “It is you, isn’t it? Alana Jameson?”
“Yes. That’s me,” I said. I knew this man, but couldn’t place him. Was he from the village? Did I go to school with him? Then, it hit me. “Karl? Karl Baker?”
He grinned, “You remembered.”
“You moved away.”
“Yeah, my dad got this job.” He gestured, clearing expressing how boring that topic was. “I’m visiting my brother. He still lives here and he’s just had a baby.”
“Congratulations! Wow, Uncle Karl, that’s weird.”
“Isn’t it just… Auntie Alana.”
I smiled. Karl and I had stolen two enormous bags full of pick-n-mix sweets from the corner shop when we were eleven, eaten them under the wobbly bridge at the park and then vomited by the duck pond. Someone’s dog had then appeared and promptly eaten it. I had laughed so hard, my knees buckled as we raced away, tripping over rocks and fallen branches.
He’d moved a year later. Thirteen years ago. So much time. And what had I done since?
Nothing sprang to mind.
“So, did you become a teacher then?”
I frown, “Wha—” An image of me helping Karl with his spelling flashed in my mind’s eye, his fierce concentration, me prodding encouragement. I couldn’t remember exactly when or where, but I remembered the feeling. Pride.
Did everyone else know me better than I knew myself? I shook my head, swallowing the lump forming in my throat, “No. I didn’t become a teacher.”
“Huh, I know it was a long time ago, but I really thought you would have.” He shrugged. “So, what do you do?”
“I’m, uh, in-between things,” I lied. It sounded so much better than the truth. “You?”
Huh. Didn’t expect that. “You like it?”
“It’s alright, yeah. I always liked numbers more than words.” He smiled. “It’s logical and there’s only one answer, well, most of the time.”
Suddenly, a miniature version of Karl leapt out of the double-doors. “Uncle Karl! Uncle Karl! Watch me slide!” The boy grabbed Karl’s sleeve and started pulling him away. He quickly stubbed out his cigarette under the sole of his shoe. “You coming back inside? You must be freezing.”
I nodded; if I stayed out any longer, my teeth would start chattering.
The dancefloor was packed mostly with children. My niece, Josephine was bouncing up and down, her little bottom wiggling from side to side.
“Is that your daughter?” Karl asked, following my line of sight.
“Oh no! That’s my niece. I don’t have children.”
“Well, she’s the spitting image of you. Look! She even dances like you!”
“I do not dance like that.”
“You used to.”
I looked away, embarrassed by the heat rushing to my cheeks. I had danced with Karl at the school disco, yes, but we were nine!
As I was trying to think of something clever and witty to say, a small warm hand gripped mine. I looked down to see Josephine’s big brown eyes staring up at me, “Come and dance, Auntie Ally.”
I allowed myself to be pulled into the undulating masses of hairspray and glittering sequins. Suddenly, 1999 by Prince burst out of the speakers and Josephine squealed, jumping up and down in delight. I was holding her hands and so, I jumped with her. Each song was cheesier and more buoyant than the last and I didn’t care. Josephine twirled and leapt… and I did much the same.
I danced until Josephine wiped floppy hands over her eyes and cried for her mummy. After reuniting mother and daughter, I returned to check on Betty.
“Enjoying yourself, my dear?”
“Yes,” I said, hearing the surprise in my own voice. Betty simply nodded and sipped her wine.
When did I lose her? The child-me who had dreams and danced and lifted her chin to face the world. Defiant and proud. I wept inwardly, begging her forgiveness, but I needn’t have worried. She was there, waiting patiently, simply relieved to have been remembered and given life once again.
I’ll never forget you again, I swear.
That was something. A revelation, one might say. A step in the right direction, a rung on the ladder of positivity.
Maybe I could become a student, – a mature student – and then become a teacher. I would still like to do that.
But I could do anything. It wasn’t too late. All around me, people discussed New Years resolutions, plans, gym memberships, holidays and projects.
What was I going to do? Where was I going to go? I had no idea, but the possibilities flooded my mind, stirring my imagination, the froth bubbling over.
Electricity surged, tingling my extremities, ordering me to get up.
I put down my glass of wine and shimmied back onto the dance floor, singing along to every song because, of course, I knew all the words.
Earlier, before billions of stars, I made a wish… but it was also a promise.
Next year would be different.
And next Christmas, I would not be pretending.