I remember staring out of the window for a long time. Counting snow flakes maybe. There wasn’t much else to do and I was trying to ignore the excited chatter coming from downstairs. Where my head was, I can’t say for sure. Maybe I was imagining Christmases past, running outside in the heat of a southern sun and jumping into swimming pools with my sister. Instead, I was now halfway across the world, shivering in an over-sized jersey and wishing the time would pass faster.
The creak of the door – that house always creaked – drew me from my contemplation. I didn’t turn my head; I could see her reflection in the glass before she even spoke. My big sister, Annie, was wearing an over-sized jersey of her own, proudly displaying a laughing penguin in a Christmas hat. Her nose and cheeks were bright red and when she reached out to touch me, I nearly flinched from the cold.
“Becky says we can go with to pick the Christmas tree,” she said, “Why don’t you get your coat?”
“Its cold,” I protested.
“It’ll be fun,” she poked my cheek playfully, “Come on, I know you want to.”
I did. I remember I did, but the mention of Becky made me nervous. Fifteen years older than Annie, she seemed more like an estranged aunt than a stepsister. With her came a husband and kids of her own, something I couldn’t even contemplate my own sister having someday.
Annie grabbed my hand before I could refuse, pulling me along. Down the too narrow stairs we went, sock covered feet pattering nimbly on the carpeted floor. The happy sounds from the kitchen grew louder, Mom and Becky laughing about something. Mom was cooking. I could smell something warm and sweet.
Annie passed me my coat, hat, gloves and boots, calling out to Becky as she did. Mom came out too, smiling at me widely. I tried not to look at Becky too much, feeling the flush in my cheeks and wishing I could hide my face. Mom kissed me on the cheek, I think she told me to have fun. I was too worried about having to talk to anyone.
I did want to help pick out the Christmas tree though.
We had never had a real tree for Christmas. I don’t think I’d ever known anyone who did. Every year, Dad would burrow his way into the garage, growling and grunting as he pulled out the old plastic tree and boxes of decorations. He’d say every year we needed a better system.
I wondered if he took it out this year.
There were a lot of things about this place I had found hard to get used to. The fact that lunch was now called ‘dinner’ and ‘tea’ wasn’t just a warm drink you had on a cold day. The sun set way too early, not that it mattered because I hadn’t seen it in what seemed like weeks. The house was poky and narrow, with hardly enough room for anyone. School was odd too and I missed my friends back home desperately.
But there were Christmas lights and things called mince pies, which didn’t actually have any mince in them. There were also real Christmas trees, just like in the movies.
Becky’s son, Jack, came with us. He was still a toddler though, his most basic repertoire of words consisting of ‘I want’ and ‘no.’ I sat next to him in the back while he drooled over a toy. Annie and Becky talked eagerly in the front, every now and then throwing back a question to me.
“Are you excited?” said Becky.
I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I imagine it came out as a bashful mutter, for she just gave a kind of laugh at my answer.
It was already getting dark when we arrived and the light gleamed against the gentle flurry of snow. Christmas music was playing softly, accompanying the dozen or so people milling about. It wasn’t really what I had imagined either, not like you saw on TV show with the trees all presented as though they were growing right there. There were already wrapped up in white netting and lined up against the wall.
Becky seemed happy though, jostling Jack on her hip and pointing happily.
“Come on then!” she said, leading the way, “Let’s get a good one!”
In the end, she dragged us over to a bunch of candidates that were approximately the right size for the living room. Annie cajoled and encouraged me into choosing one which I did, pointing to the one I thought looked the greenest. It was hard to tell though, but I secretly hoped it would be the best one.
A couple of men helped carry it to the car. It was an awkward drive back with half the tree sticking out the back. I remember thinking how odd the tree smelt and finding loose pine needles all over the floor of the boot. My stepdad, Richard, came out to help, praising us for the find. His greying hair was a bit damp and when he bussed each of us on the cheek, I could feel the tingle from his beard.
The tree was strange too. When we unwrapped it, it wasn’t as full or as green as I imagined it would be. I was worried I’d picked the wrong one, but Richard and Becky seemed pleased. I thought it looked too sparse, its arms sticking out instead of falling flat. When we got it up, it bent to the side a little and as the decorations were piled on, I couldn’t help but miss our ever-reliable plastic Christmas tree back home.
When I mentioned this, Richard gave a great guffaw and said there was nothing better than a real tree.
Rose tinted glasses now firmly removed, I had to disagree.
Mom made everyone hot chocolate and we sat in the living room, watching the lights twinkle and Jack trying to gnaw at a bauble. Annie sat next to me on the carpet, pointing to the glittering lights and grinning widely.
“It’s not so bad, right?” she asked, eyes darting up to the tree.
I looked around the room instead. Smaller than back home, missing some faces and gaining a few more. Mom sat curled next to Richard, looking content and Becky was messaging her husband, one eye watching Jack to make sure he didn’t gum anything too toxic. The lights from the Christmas tree added a warmth though, fighting back against the icy encroachment of the night.
It wasn’t what I expected.
I remember smiling back, unsure still. I remember how warm and good the hot chocolate was and I remember that first tree.