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Christmas Coming of Age Contemporary


Waiting outside a psychiatric unit at half seven in the evening isn’t an ideal way to end Christmas day, but it’s worse for my three teenagers. They’ve waded through floodplains of grief since our family fell apart ten months ago and their washed-out faces are beyond more tears. It’s stressful living with a mother who’s either roaring toward the stratosphere or drowning in oceans of despair. 

*  *  *

Our marital relationship was like living in New York City; it was full-on twenty-four hours a day. That sounds like fun for a long weekend, but after twenty years, I’d had enough. I’d tried to help Cathy, however, her toxic behaviour patterns never disappeared for long. My parents suggested I wasn’t helping the situation by making excuses for her and some distance might expedite matters. It was no secret to them we disagreed on most issues. We never came to blows, but we often released a phalanx of emotions, resulting in a nervous household and a home that creaked from one disaster to another. 

   “Your marriage is a rudderless ship,” my father had said, peering over his newspaper. “You’re like two sea captains arguing at the wheel in a storm.”

   I had an acute case of donor fatigue and walked away, hoping she’d change her ways. After my departure, there was no doubt Cathy’s life altered its direction. 

*  *  *

My three guys have visited the Tolworth Hospital many times and know what to do. There’s a routine checklist of essentials sellotaped to the back of the kitchen door, next to the overnight bag. They gather Cathy’s toiletries and toothbrush, pack her nightwear and underwear, and choose a couple of books, before heading off on their mission of mercy. The best strategy on a visit is to employ empathy, which roughly translates as sit and listen. They’re caring and intelligent young people, but accept it’s best to be stoic. The medical world is at a loss; they’ve run out of ideas for treating Cathy. They can’t decide whether she has a mental health issue or a hormonal problem. It’s not the only hospital Cathy’s attended and her latest admission is a voluntary section. She’s developed complex scenarios involving consultants, nurses and doctors; they’re all trying to undermine her and won’t listen to her complaints and protestations. My guys listen to their mother and their patience is commendable, however the experience is corrosive. It’s a protracted form of attrition that’s wearing them out like dripping water hollowing out a stone, not through force but through bloody-minded persistence.

*  *  *

Their little faces are impassive as my tyres crunch the gravel in hospital’s driveway and pull up in the visitors’ car park. In the silence that came after they slammed the car door, I felt a stab in my chest that took my breath away. I want to support them, but I know if I join them on the ward, all hell will break loose. 

   They’ve witnessed their parents disagree and heard us argue enough to know there’ll be tears before the end of their visit if I attend. We always had a competitive relationship, however nobody imagined it would end so acrimoniously; we don’t talk because we can’t communicate. Period. It takes very little to spark off a blazing row. I don’t have any choice tonight. And so, this evening of all evenings, I remain in the car. They won’t be too long. The visiting hours are strict at Tolworth Hospital.

*  *  *

It was my daughter, Hanna, who called me early on the twenty-third of December. 

   “Mum’s been sectioned,” she whispered. “Can you do Christmas this year, Dad?”

   “Of course,” I said, catching my breath. “What’s she organised so far?”

   “Well…” There’s a sniff. “Not much.”

   “Blimey, love.”

I was familiar with what was required. I’d done most of the shopping in previous years. The Christmas dinner didn’t intimidate me either. I’d got used to organising the meal when Cathy was otherwise engaged or recovering from our annual Christmas Eve party. It was always a fun-filled evening, which was an excuse to invite over our neighbours and local friends for drinks. There were always plenty of drinks. Cathy told everybody we’d host the event if they brought a wrapped present for their offspring and a bottle. 

   Cathy always had a way of organising and delegating people. In another life, she might have been a politician, a CEO, or a diminutive dictator. At five-feet-zero, she was a formidable presence and a bundle of irrepressible energy. I recall our first house was a doer-upper and needed a few years of TLC to restore its former dignity. We used to enjoy choosing colour schemes and décor, like a couple in love. Anyhow, there was one occasion when she’d got fed up with the mess in the rear garden and decided we’d spend a Saturday sorting it. 

   “I’ll get on the phone and invite a few friends to help and you skip off and get some beers,” she said. “We’ll get it done in no time.”

   It sounded like a splendid plan. When I returned from the off-licence, she was still on the phone and suggested I made a start out back. I assumed our friends would get round soon enough and made a start. Time passed by and having filled half a dozen bags of leaves and autumnal detritus, I paused, wondering where everybody had got to. I heard a tap on the kitchen window and turned to see our friends raising the last of the beer bottles and toasting my hard work. It wasn’t the last time I’d fall for one of Cathy’s routines.

*  *  *

Over the years, we’d assumed traditions that became regular Christmas Eve fixtures. When our guys were young, we initiated a special visit from Santa Claus. Of course, it was yours truly with a false beard, dressed in a red suit padded with pillows and chunky black motor-bike boots. The tinkle of sleigh bells announced my arrival and I uttered a throaty, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” 

   Taking a seat amongst excited toddlers, I handed out presents to our little guests, provided in secret by their accompanying parents. The wide-eyed look of wonder on the toddlers’ faces was heart-warming; they couldn’t believe their luck. I recall one anxious girl approached me. “Does this mean you won’t be coming on Christmas Day, Santa?” she whispered, clutching my sleeve and fearing the worst.

   “Don’t worry.” I said, disguising my voice. “I’ll bring presents for everyone later.”

   My guys are a bit too old for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. This year I’d be in our kitchen without a costume, peeling potatoes in Cathy’s absence.

*  *  *

It wasn’t the first occasion Cathy had gone A.W.O.L. There was one year when she thought it would be a great idea to invite my parents for Christmas. They’d always had a tense relationship, and it was an opportunity to offer an olive branch. My parents arrived in good faith on Christmas eve to witness Cathy holding court and swilling back Prosecco as if it was mineral water. They entered the spirit of the occasion and enjoyed seeing their grandchildren besiege Santa. However, it wasn’t until the next day they discovered their daughter-in-law had succumbed to “a touch of flu.” In good part, we prepared the Christmas feast and delivered restorative fluids to the ailing hostess upstairs. We believed she’d miss the meal because of her mystery illness, but just as we were about to carve the bird, Cathy graced us with her presence, having made a remarkable recovery. 

   “I feel so much better,” she said, “knowing you’ve saved the day and rustled up the turkey without me.”

*  *  *

The turkey wasn’t a problem to find, even at short notice. I’d never bought a bird this late in December, however the butcher assured me his frozen bird would defrost in time for Christmas. They were correct and at half price, it was a bargain. The various vegetables and trimmings were easy to locate too, along with pigs-in-blankets, bread sauce mix and meat stock for homemade gravy. I loaded up my car with all the goods, borrowed a collapsible six-feet tall plastic tree and three sets of lights and dashed round the local department store to buy a few stocking fillers; cosy tartan pyjamas, pocket puzzles and a few assorted smellies and trinkets to hand out during the meal. It was going to be a memorable day despite my children’s absent mother. By the morning of the twenty-fourth, I’d wrapped the gifts, repacked my car and got ready to deliver Christmas.

*  *  *

It was my daughter who acknowledged the effort. “This is nice, Dad,” she said.    

   “Actually, I’m impressed.”

   “Thanks,” I say, fixing a cheesy grin.

   “Mum always said you’d make someone a good wife.”

I blink and shake my head as if she’d thrown a glass of iced water over me.

The lads both smirk and Hanna’s phone chimes, punctuating the moment like a digital drum roll. We’ve all been expecting the call. It had to occur at some point. Across the table, I can hear the stifled sobs, and the choked words emanating from the iPhone’s mini speaker. My daughter’s rosy face drains of colour like sun-bleached painting and she avoids eye contact, lowering her voice and mutters into her iPhone. 

   “Yeah, yeah, we’re fine, Mum.” Hanna hunches forward, supporting her chin with her fist. “Yeah, of course, Dad can drive us over to see you,” she says, rolling her eyes towards me. I furrow my brow and she shrugs her shoulders. I nod. The lads leave the table and head off for their boots and jackets. It’s cold outside this evening. We set off for Tolworth in silence, passing through the deserted streets. 

It’s drizzling by the time we arrive at the hospital’s mental health unit.

They pile out and leave me in the car. 

*  *  *

I tried my best to make it a pleasant day for everyone, but I guess nobody’s perfect. It disappointed Hanna that I’d forgotten to buy table decorations and sparkling headwear. The lads complained there were no appetising nibbles before the meal and, of course, what Christmas meal is complete without crackers to pull?

So, imagine my surprise when the kids return to the car with a bulging carrier bag.

   “They had a party on mum’s ward.”

   “You’re kidding me, right?” I chuckle.

   “We told Mum you did all right.” 

   “Ah,” I say, setting my jaw. “And?”

   “She said no doubt you’d forget the important stuff.”

   “Did she now?”

   “Then she handed us this bag.”

   “What have you got there?”

   “Mad caps, nuts and crackers.”

   “Thanks.” I smile, sifting through their haul of treasures. “That’s made my day.”


The End


December 22, 2023 22:01

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56 comments

20:48 May 11, 2024

No new story from you so I glanced down and saw this sentence. "It’s stressful living with a mother who’s either roaring toward the stratosphere or drowning in oceans of despair.' Had to read on. The ending was an 'Aaw' moment. Beautifully written, a story that grabs you and you have to read on. It reminded me of a situation in our family. I married a man whose first wife was bipolar. His two daughters loved her but for obvious reasons they lived with him. She was often inside (committed) and not voluntarily. I was the new younger wife e...

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Howard Halsall
23:23 May 14, 2024

Hey Kaitlyn, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. It sounds like my story’s had quite an impact and reminds you of your own experience in many ways. The responses you described from the first wife and girls must have been exhausting and placed inordinate pressure on your relationship. It’s easy to forget that people with an axe to grind can create incredible levels of toxicity and it takes great mental and physical strength to endure their onslaught. In my honest opinion, I’d say you ought to write a story based on the ...

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01:50 May 15, 2024

Thanks, Howard. Haha I could write books and books about different facets of my life. And through Reedsy I've been able to write stories using some events from my memory. But not total facts as there is more to the enjoyment of a story than the bare facts. As for anything about mental health, I have a lot of understanding/experience but the topic nauseates me. My husband had the right idea when he married me. He loved my sanity. It was probably a situation where he wanted the polar opposite (no pun intended) of what he had endured. I'll keep...

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Howard Halsall
21:00 May 15, 2024

Hey Kaitlyn, You don’t necessarily need your story content to be autobiographical, but it sounds like you’ve a treasure trove of experiences from which to draw your writing’s raw ingredients, in terms of plot ideas and character development…. Maybe you should experiment and see what happens :)

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03:43 May 16, 2024

Thanks. The next one will be an amalgamation of some things that really happened. And dramatic embellishments as well.

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Howard Halsall
05:48 May 16, 2024

Sounds intriguing….. I look forward to reading it :)

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Alexis Araneta
12:44 Jan 14, 2024

You truly have a way with imagery, and this story was no exception. I loved the way you painted the scenes with your words. I truly felt like I was with your main character and the kids. Brilliant work !

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Howard Halsall
13:24 Jan 14, 2024

Hi Stella, Thank you for reading another of my tales and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. It’s certainly a challenge to conjure up new scenarios and characters every week however, gauging by your reaction, I must be doing something right, which is a relief. I’d hate to think I wasting my time :) HH

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Alexis Araneta
13:34 Jan 14, 2024

Keep at it, Howard. I truly am enjoying your work.

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Howard Halsall
13:42 Jan 14, 2024

Likewise :)

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Rose Lind
21:18 Jan 09, 2024

I liked all your ideas (Im playing the role of your dominatrix past english teacher), but there seemed to be a flow problem. The concept of this story's dysfunctional family is admirable. The boys seem to have their father's servitude but Cathy runs riot. I would like to know how your father character processes that? I have two children, one from each failed marriage. Both children expressed traits of their fathers, some watered down, others potent. I did have my stomach clench when the trait appeared in one child's youth. I did not know ...

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20:55 May 11, 2024

This is all very interesting dissecting, Rose. There's also such a thing as intergenerational trauma. Where kids are affected regardless of not being like either parent. They play out their lives not able to trust fully, open up, or get over their anxieties. It has crippled them emotionally.

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Rose Lind
06:51 May 19, 2024

Yes, I agree. Ancestral clearing necessary..

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Rose Lind
21:48 Jan 09, 2024

Remember I promised I would be your unrelenting English teacher for your growth as a writer! What I didn't say, in my musing is, you would be my human abducted on the alien mothership! The story had conjecture and a wonderfully well thought out skeleton. However, I think, that with the long term negative family communications, the father needed ruminations. From my own life and I share because it's cleared and moved forward. "She's just like her mother" or "the boys are just like me" would be a good statement. I know many times, I though...

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Martin Ross
17:15 Jan 04, 2024

What a stunning grabber of an opener, and “Our marital relationship was like living in New York City; it was full-on twenty-four hours a day” was a perfect stage-setter. This is terrific, trusting adult fiction. Great stuff.

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Howard Halsall
00:43 Jan 05, 2024

Hey Martin, Thanks for reading my bittersweet Christmas story. I’m glad you enjoyed it and hope it wasn’t too dark for this time of year, when everyone is hoping for better times and an end to the current insane state of affairs. HH

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21:57 Dec 30, 2023

This stuck in my throat. It's so sad and so true for so many. I felt for that family - more for the kids and the dad - but partly for the mum too - even with her trickery and deceit. So many people don't manage a merry Christmas, for whatever reason. At least these guys have something good amongst the bleakness every year.

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Howard Halsall
01:20 Dec 31, 2023

Hello Katharine, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your feedback. I trust you didn’t find it too depressing; it’s a bit of a grim tale for this time of year. Take care HH

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01:26 Dec 31, 2023

Hi Howard, no, not too depressing, it aims for a certain mood and captures that perfectly. It's very well written.

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Howard Halsall
01:39 Dec 31, 2023

Phew! That’s a relief, Katharine, It’s tricky setting the correct tone, especially when the humour’s on the dark side, so I appreciate your positive response. HH :)

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Rose Winters
21:02 Dec 30, 2023

This is great, and so true-to-life. (I've lived through some of this as well.) I loved "It’s a protracted form of attrition that’s wearing them out like dripping water hollowing out a stone, not through force but through bloody-minded persistence." Excellent work.

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Howard Halsall
00:58 Dec 31, 2023

Hello Rose, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and relieved it rang true to life. I trust you survived your experience and thrived in the aftermath…. Take care HH

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Rose Winters
19:53 Dec 31, 2023

For sure!!!

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Stevie Burges
06:46 Dec 28, 2023

Thanks, Howard. Another well-written short story. I thought it was a well-documented piece regarding the sadness of any illness at important events in our lives. Enjoyed it.

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Howard Halsall
08:20 Dec 28, 2023

Hello Stevie, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive feedback; it’s much appreciated. I hope the dark humour added a balance to the piece; there’s always a funny aspect, even if it’s partially buried by circumstances. Take care HH

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Philip Ebuluofor
14:11 Dec 27, 2023

Fine storyline. The description is wonderful.

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Howard Halsall
19:08 Dec 27, 2023

Hello Philip, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your positive feedback. Take care HH

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Philip Ebuluofor
15:20 Dec 30, 2023

Pleasure mine.

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Helen A Smith
11:12 Dec 24, 2023

This is a powerful story, Howard. The mother’s mental health is putting a strain on the family and everything is amplified at Christmas. Complex relationship between the parents and the children having to be stoical. Can relate to that. So many people will be able to identify with this even they haven’t experienced it directly. The expectations around Christmas are set ridiculously high, they are almost certainly to end in some kind of disappointment or disaster for some people. It resonated a strong chord for me for more personal reason...

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Howard Halsall
02:22 Dec 25, 2023

Hello Helen, Thank you for reading my latest story and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your comments and feel a sense of relief that the themes are broadly relatable. I wasn’t sure about the tone and wondered whether it was a bit arch and bordering on the melodramatic. The comedic element is also very dark and strays into an area of concern that’s become increasingly humourless. However, as the narrator is fairly self-deprecating, maybe it’s acceptable? Comedy has become such a minefield nowadays, which is a shame because it’s such a gre...

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Helen A Smith
10:02 Dec 26, 2023

Hi Howard, It works for me, but bear in mind that the story is going to be subjective to each reader and shaped by their own experiences. I’m sure you’re very aware of this already. I tend to take things more literally, even with the presence of dark humour. I guess there is a melodramatic element here, but that’s how difficult experiences often play out. It may be the only way of keeping “sane” in them. The main thing was the story held my attention. I was gripped by the children’s experience of their mother’s mental health. They handle...

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Howard Halsall
18:50 Dec 26, 2023

Hello Helen, Thank you for getting back to me and offering your thoughts and ideas. I appreciate your response and yes, find it constructive, so don’t be nervous; it’s interesting and helpful. As you say, it’s all subjective and humour is particularly ephemeral; it fluctuates and changes according to so many variables. I trust you had a lovely Christmas Day and look forward to reading your next submission. Take care HH

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Mary Bendickson
21:20 Dec 23, 2023

I think people put their own stress in Christmas. Remember the reason and forget the trappings. May you have a blessed one. Thanks for liking my 'Too-cute Meet'

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Howard Halsall
21:32 Dec 23, 2023

Well said, Mary, “Keep Christmas simple” should be the mantra for the festive period; most people get too stressed and forget it’s little things that matter most. I find a simple exchange of cards and a loving smile go a long way, wouldn’t you agree? I hope you enjoy a relaxing festive weekend…. HH :)

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Mary Bendickson
22:03 Dec 23, 2023

To you also. I have spent the last two weeks with a miserable hacking cough that may have been pneumonia so have done little to prepare for the big day other than get out my cards. My daughter and granddaughter braved coming over to put up our tree but I have not gotten anything else out or done cookies, etc. Christmas day will be a potato bar at my son's with most of the in town cousins etc. So no stress there. Was supposed to have a guest but he made other arrangements. Did some virtual church services. Can't sing carols but went to childr...

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Howard Halsall
22:23 Dec 23, 2023

Oh dear, Mary. That sounds awful. I hope you get some relief and the situation improves for you. Maybe you could postpone all celebrations until Easter? HH :)

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Trudy Jas
12:10 Dec 23, 2023

Whether you've "been there" or not, I feel the heaviness everyone carries. the stoicism of the kids, their divided loyalty, their teenage need for normalcy in their shaky world. Merry Christmas. May you have all the ingredients this year.

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Howard Halsall
12:58 Dec 23, 2023

Hey Trudy, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts, especially at this time of the year; it’s a busy period for most people so it’s much appreciated. I hope there were enough amusing moments in the story to counterbalance the dark tone? Life’s always better when you can pause and see the funny side, wouldn’t you agree? Anyhow, I hope you enjoy a wonderful Christmas holiday and look forward to reading your next submission. Take care HH

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Trudy Jas
17:20 Dec 23, 2023

Thanks, Yes, there was. Especially liked, the yard clean-up. One story coming up. tj

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Trudy Jas
01:57 Dec 24, 2023

I'm a little slow on the uptake today. It finally hit me that the ward party had mad caps nuts and crackers left over. Thanks.

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Howard Halsall
02:25 Dec 25, 2023

What else would one find there on Christmas Day I wonder? Have a wonderful Christmas Take care HH

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Trudy Jas
04:38 Jan 06, 2024

Howard. Are you still with us? Miss your quirky humor. Busy at home/work. I assume.

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