One Christmas Eve

A short story for national storytelling week

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Jessie woke as she always did. She flailed restlessly in the heavy bedsheets, feeling the weight of the winter duvet pressing against her body, willing her back into the soft white envelope of comfort and safety. Her heavy eyelids losing their battle against the dark unwelcome morning and beginning to sting slightly from the stale heat that rose relentlessly as though it were an army marching ever closer. Perspiration gathered across her every limb, falsely assuming her to be spring grass following an early fog, enveloping her in a stifling film; clinging and claustrophobic. Jessie had long since assumed that central heating was her mother’s weapon against her endless battle with December mornings. A cruel trick, commandeering comfort with this boiling poison to force her from an otherwise blissful union. She should have suspected today would reach feverish heights of heat exhaustion and discomfort, after their raging row the night before. Today, it seems, was the day of punishment. And with that foreboding thought she gave a deep, frustrated sigh, and heaved the layers of toxic deceitful discomfort from her reluctant body.

Ordinarily for a Sunday she’d scrape her hair back and fling on leggings and a jumper and be done with it. But today was Christmas Eve, and whilst she knew for certain that her mother would repeal the specialness of the day with loathsome intolerance towards her, she would not allow her the satisfaction. Jessie harboured the same stubborn inability to apologise first but had resigned herself to looking fabulous as she waited.

Nonchalantly they ignored one another completely, looking past and at times, even through one another with contempt. Their skill at moving in an uncommunicative rhythm around each other was almost hypnotising as they weaved across the kitchen, each gathering their own breakfast items.

She leafed through her unusually immaculately kept wardrobe, feeling a plethora of tactile winter fabrics between her finger tips before settling on her most Christmassy of outfits: the obnoxious Snowman jumper paired with outlandish Nordic print leggings. His carrot nose jutting confrontationally forwards as if spoiling for a fight, something daring and triumphant about its design.

Jessie descended the stairs in twos almost sending Archie flying backwards as he bounded towards her without acknowledgement. Great, thought Jessie, Mum’s got her secondary soldier already lined up then. It really was going to be a dull day. She rounded the kitchen, setting eyes for the first time on her Mother, aka, ‘The Nemesis’.

Far from fireworks, that initial heart stopping moment of confrontation and regret, the scene played out as predictably as it always did. Nonchalantly they ignored one another completely, looking past and at times, even through one another with contempt. Their skill at moving in an uncommunicative rhythm around each other was almost hypnotising as they weaved across the kitchen, each gathering their own breakfast items. Neither a word, nor glance of acknowledgement was made. It had taken the four years since her 12th Birthday to fine-tune this skill of indifference, and her mother, presumably a lifetime.

They ate in silence, they cleared in silence, and they left in silence. This was how the rest of the day played out. The internal sense of triumph over a provocative Christmas jumper was waning with each hour of progressive boredom. Archie didn’t speak to her all day. He floated past at times without a glance or observation. Perhaps he’d heard them last night. Archie could easily be described as a young 11 year old; playful, mischievous and not overly aware of his surroundings. But for someone a little daft, he was wise to the heated arguments of the females in his life, and he chose battlegrounds carefully. Sometimes he’d bait and annoy for a quick chase and a re-ignition of the screaming, other times he’d silently pick a side, showing his union by apathy. Today, clearly, he sided with Mum. Jessie didn’t blame him, it was Christmas Eve and Santa was no longer a myth. If she weren’t so consumed by obstinacy she’d have sided there herself.

She resigned herself to lie on the sofa, willing the hours away. A sad prospect for a festive holiday but there was little else for it. These battles of wills and stubbornness could last for days, but Jessie knew her mother better than to assume that even she could keep this up tomorrow. All Jessie had to do was whittle away a day and she would be delivered to Christmas Day; redeemed and re-birthed, all forgotten and never spoken of, like a delicately wrapped gift from Santa himself. The thick leather sofa surrounded her. Its heavy, musty smell filled her nostrils with comforting childhood reminiscences, the familiarity of 15 years of family life battling against the intruding scent of pine and cinnamon. Jessie had complained many a time about its unsightly cracked and sagging exterior, the brown fading into rings and crags of familiar worn beige, seats left forever in position as if by ghosts. But despite its ugliness, today she felt glad that it still called this room home.

The TV glared its neon flashes of frivolity, at times engrossing in their tales of Christmas cheer, and at others jolting her from her wandering preoccupations. Fleetingly she remembered the way she stood half bent over the Kitchen table, arms outstretched and open palms pressed sternly against the wood, jutting forwards provocatively, venom filling her veins. She was 16, he was 19. And he loved her. She knew he did. No-one was going to stop them being together. Least of all, her. Jessie succumbed to three, maybe four films, she couldn’t remember which, intermittently thumbing the glassy screen of her mobile phone to check her social media. It remained frozen, as un-interactive as her life. No calls, no texts, no media updates, no boastful high-spirited Christmas joy posts from Charlotte. That’s how she knew it must be broken – Charlotte would have flooded Facebook and Instagram by now with her good-tidings and sickening quotations of new beginnings. Jessie would call Ben later from the landline. She’d fix her phone later. She wasn’t too bothered right now, she wouldn’t have posted her own update anyway, and she wanted to leave her last status there a while longer yet. Lingering and bitter, glued like an immovable vengeance:

23rd Dec 15:30

“I am never going back there. I HATE HER!”

The clock flicked by, marching on as time always did. Dinner was served at 6pm with  predictable efficiency, routine never broken, except for Christmas Day itself. She sat, in the place she always did but there was no food made for her. Oh, her Mum had really outdone herself this time! Who even does that, what kind of mother?

Jessie stifled her internal rage, turning it instead to a triumph – a proving of how awful she clearly was. And so, without a word, like a well-oiled machine of teenage mulishness Jessie would not show a single care. Noisily pushing her chair from under her, with a deep inhalation of oxygen-rich power, she rose, gathered her second bowl of cereal of the day (her mum hated that – it served her right) and retreated to her familiar, welcoming leather palace. Not once did her mum look at her. If anything, she deliberately averted her gaze from where Jessie sat, never followed her movements, never even blinked. She just kept her head bowed slightly and her arms bent, as though deliberately cocooned in her own, private misery. Yeah, well, any remorse Jessie might have felt for the harshness of her words was vanishing rapidly. She really deserved it. And no, she was not about to apologise first. Not now.

Jessie drifted off to sleep, the empty bowl touching the fingertips of her limply hanging arm. She was abruptly awoken by the cumbersome backside of her younger brother, who, had she not opened her eyes at that exact moment, would have proceeded to sit most unwelcomely upon her face. She lurched backwards into an unfamiliar tread of leather fold, glaring with affront, injustice bubbling within her. Her mouth snapped open, lurching forwards to break her vow of silence towards the horrid, selfish little brat. But before the words of spite and poison could leave her, she was distracted. There, twinkling brightly like an unwelcome illumination jutting out from beneath her mother’s greying hair, sat the earrings Jessie had bought her for Christmas. This Christmas. For tomorrow.

The Bitch! The absolute Bitch! Opening her present early as if proving that the ‘love, Jessie’ gift label was in some way a justification. As if proving she didn’t need to speak first; proving she’d won. Jessie had a mind to rip them from her pathetic dangling ear lobes; lolling about idly like grotesquely decorated udders. To feel the fleshiness buckle under her weight as she dragged them from their intruder back into the arms of their rightful owner, the hot stickiness of blood running over fingertips, her mothers’ face as she gaped and gasped in horror. The battle not won, but merely started. She twisted her head in range and hatred. Then noticed, as if by lurid provocation, the bauble. The Christmas bauble that had encased them, hanging vexingly upon the tree, in pride of place, goading and gloating.

Jessie sprang like a twisted, supressed coil, pushing against the wilting leather, bracing herself against the cool wooden floor on which she landed heavily and with determined purpose. She lurched hurriedly towards the tree, grabbed the cool thin metal casing of the bauble, and slammed it into that same floor. Its thin, beautiful metal casing denting with the impact and snapping open at its half-way joint, the row of beautiful dancing penguins split symbolically in two. Splintered and fractured like cavalry in a war they never asked to be a part of. Jessie, screaming her words of profanity, obscenity, hatred and bile; a Christmas assassin no-one had expected.

But they did not move. Not a hair blew out of place. And with every breath and every push towards them she exhausted herself and yet still, they did not move. She reached and she pushed and she strove and yet she could not reach them.

Almost immediately Archie and her mother rose, scrabbling hurriedly to the bauble, clumsily on their hands and knees, each grappling for a piece, their eyes wet and sobs stifled. Shaking and unnerved, they clung to each other, tight and in union as though lost at sea. My God, they are distraught about the fucking bauble! What about Me?!Jessie felt her blood spill into her brain, pushing against the surface of her skull, hot and feverish. Her body shaking with the rage of a suppressed volcano, her ears echoing sounds of a mind she could no longer hear. Deep pulsing vibrations like a warning alarm passed through her body, surging out of her limbs as if looking for an escape where none could be found. Passion reverberated from her finger ends inwards, trapped. Intensifying in her fury  against such injustice she reached out, tears springing from her own eyes, and with all the force she could summon from the devil within her she thrashed forwards towards them both.

But they did not move. Not a hair blew out of place. And with every breath and every push towards them she exhausted herself and yet still, they did not move. She reached and she pushed and she strove and yet she could not reach them. Jessie collapsed to the floor outside the warm embrace she was not invited to. A love she couldn’t access. Panting and choking against her own stifled anger and confusion. And there, heaped like a crumpled melting snowman, his carrot dropping outwards towards the floor, willing to be melted into the ground forever, she saw it.

She saw the argument in the kitchen. She saw herself scream ‘I hate you’ as her mum staggered backwards, wide eyed, as though words were so potent they could fling you from your feet. She saw herself run then, at that moment, from the house, grabbing her shoes and phone. She saw herself run across the garden and through the gate; wild, frantic, determined. Flailing her arms, legs moving loosely, awkward and heavy, crunching against the frozen ground and battling a biting wind across the fields towards the town.

She paused on the bridge of the frozen lake where she’d swum and laughed and played so much in youth. Here she paused to catch her breath. Sitting on the icy wooden bridge she swung her legs back and forth, feeling the ice scrape her toes and the freezing air prickling and electric across her energised and dampened skin. She took out her phone. Determined to show the world the horror of her life; determined to punish. She’d tell Ben she was coming to move in when she arrived there, his mum was so cool, she’d never mind. She saw herself place the phone beside her and, using the top wooden bar of the bridge pulled herself to her feet. But she never made it. She saw herself slip, mid-stand, on the frozen dampness of the wood. She saw a frantic grab for security which never came and instead knocked her phone which spread itself in fragmented pieces across the frozen water. She saw herself fall backwards. She was in the water now. She felt it pierce her body like a thousand thrusting knives, paralysing through her unprotected veins.

Her thoughts reduced to nothing but panic; clustered, incoherent. She felt her limbs fumble in the darkness of the water, heavy and slow. She felt her fingernails gnaw against the ice that encased her, illuminated by the fading light of dusk, a cruel yellowing shrine like the mocking gates of heaven. Strands of her blonde hair floated gracefully across her face, angelic, a traitor of her suffering. Her lungs were heavy now, burning in anguish as though alight inside her chest, pushing against the walls of her soul to escape its torture. Eyes blurry and blinded, with searing pain circumnavigating her being. She felt she could feel everything, yet nothing, and all together. She opened her mouth. The water billowed forwards into unchartered areas, claiming her as its own, swallowing her into its depths. And all at once she felt warm. It washed over her like a heated blanket of blinding sunlight, calm, peaceful and content.

She stumbled to her feet. Shaken and unsure. Her vision clear now – crisp and focused in a previously unknown clarity. She could see with precision now. Her mother: older, worn and wasted by an incurable sadness; her brother taller, no longer youthful and joyous in his young experiences. They moved past her. Replacing the now dented bauble upon the tree, shaken by a seeming encounter from beyond the grave. She noticed the photos in the room now, more of her than there had ever been – moments of history trapped behind glass, the soul alive immortally. She noticed the place setting with no food. The phone broken in time. The heating still set for her comfort even though she could no longer feel it. The wardrobe kept undisturbed yet immaculate in a way she never had. Preserved, precious, too painful to change.

Jessie looked at them now, and intently this time. Seeing past the wasted anger and the pointless arguments. She studied the bodies of the two people she’d known her whole life, the two people who shaped her childhood, her dreams, her experiences and her laughter. The two faces she could read without sight, whose every wrinkle and line she knew to the deepest depths of her recognition. She saw souls; the flaws and the fights, but she saw their hearts. She could see with absolute transparency the hurt ripped across their faces like an unfading scar of despair and regret. Two people unable to know happiness, nor cheer, frozen like the optic glow of a Facebook status she did not mean, the aftermath of the tsunami still as rugged and broken one year later as the day it arrived.

Her mother opened her eyes uncertainly and gently moved a hand to touch the spot. An uncertain sense or a wishful thought was something she couldn’t be sure of, but she placed her hand back in a fist towards her heart and seemed to breathe more restfully.

Three lives were stolen in the same afternoon. Her heart swelled within her body, full and ripe, daring against the frosty exterior she’d come to call home. Aching for reconciliation, for peace, and for that final touch, a final moment they could share. Willing for a connection she could not make, to take back what no longer belonged to her. Instead she was forced to watch, painfully, an observer to a horror scene in which she was cast the unwilling villain.

At that moment she knew what she had to do.

The blanket of darkness outside slowly encased them and, with weary yearning for a Christmas they could not have, they lumbered their way to bed. Archie, sleeping in his mother’s bed now, curled into her as though a foetus, and his mother, as mothers do, wrapped her body around him. Their breaths were close and their crowns touching. Jessie gestured her hands as though delicately sweeping their hair from their foreheads, and placed a lingering kiss onto each. Her mother opened her eyes uncertainly and gently moved a hand to touch the spot. An uncertain sense or a wishful thought was something she couldn’t be sure of, but she placed her hand back in a fist towards her heart and seemed to breathe more restfully.

Jessie sauntered back downstairs. Feeling her way across a landscape both familiar and alien, breathing in the only home she’d ever known, and her gratitude for all that it was. She fumbled inside the kitchen draw of odds and ends for a pen, and taking a piece of paper tore from it a tattered piece. Resting against the cool marble of the kitchen worktop, steadily and with certainty, in writing only her mother could recognise, she wrote “I love you, always”.

Gently removing her bauble from the tree, she broke her army of soldiers into two once more. And placing the folded paper within it, there she left it in front of the fireplace.

Forgiveness, love and hope for Christmas morning.

________________

This story has been inspired by my experience of the death of a close family member. Whilst the whole story is fictional, my brother, who had a turbulent, aggressive and addiction filled life, passed away aged 31, in 2016. He would often say hurtful and hate-filled things, particularly in his younger years around aged 16 – hence the characters age and stubbornness.

The Christmas before he died he bought me and my now husband two thin metal baubles each with a gift inside. They are now my most precious Christmas decorations and I know that if I have children I’ll fill each with a gift every Christmas eve so that like Santa, their uncle (as he would have been) visits them each Christmas eve to show his love and be part of their lives. The story was born from this concept; of communication and love, and of the chances we want to say sorry, but never get.

National Storytelling Week

Between 27th January and 3rd February, we will be sharing a short story every evening submitted by one of our readers. Tune in at 7pm each evening to enjoy the story. Click this box to find out more about National Storytelling Week.
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4 Comments

  • Clare, this is such a heart-wrenching story, with a twist that is both brutally and sensitively woven into such a sad scene. I’m so sorry that the story was inspired from your own personal heartache. You are a natural with a pen in your hand, even if the subject matter this week has been both challenging and sad/very moving – ultimately, this story comes from a place of love and really gave me cause for some deep thought last night! I’d love to see you write more xxxx

  • Clare you are a natural writer. Have you written more pieces than you’ve submitted or are these your first? I would love to read more too.

    I felt your pain and hope that you found comfort in being creative. As you’ve probably gathered I’ve been grieving too, over the last 18 months after losing my mom, who I also cared for. I’ve written about it so much and have found it to be an immensely healing experience.. something about getting all your feelings out and sharing with others really does bring a sense of peace.

    You are very brave and also very talented!

  • So sorry to hear of the passing of your brother Clare and I think you are incredibly brave to share a story like this, albeit fictional, that was inspired by your own tragic circumstance. I do hope that this has been in some way cathartic for you.

    As a mum of teenage daughters, I read this with my heart in my mouth – how precious our babies are!

    Thank you for sharing this beautifully composed story with us – and I second the comments above…keep on writing!

    Cx

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