I wrote a new piece for Solveig’s Advent Calendar posts, here. If you havent seen her blog this is the story
Carlton’s face wore its weariness like a badge of honour. He leant back against the front door and sighed with relief. ‘Alone at bloody last.’ He exchanged a look with the cat who seemed to shrug. ‘Easy for you, Martindale. You don’t have caring neighbours.’
He led the way into the kitchen, where Martindale snaked between his legs while Carlton retrieved the whiskey glass from where he had hidden it in the fridge. He toasted his pet. ‘Save me from worthy people.’ The cold liquid made him cough but he smiled through the tears. ‘Come on, let’s see what’s on the box. Crap I expect.’
The sun picked out the overnight puddles on the front paving outside the small snug living room as Carlton settled into his chair with a fuff of expelled air. Martindale eyed him dispassionately, waiting for the rug to be pulled in place before slinkily easing onto his lap.
‘Right.’ Carlton checked his watch. ‘10.15 and we can start our Christmas.’ He glanced at the picture on the piano, a woman with straight grey hair and a lopsided smile. ‘That bloody next door neighbour is just like you, Sal. Another Mama Fusspot who wants everyone to love Christmas like they do.’
He pointed the remote at the TV and began what to him was the delicious pleasure of scrolling through the umpteen channels. At channel 73 (Dave, Reprise) Martindale stood and turned a circle before pulling at the chair arm with his claws.
Carlton looked wistful. ‘You’d have tutted by now, eh Sal?’ He laughed. ‘Just chose one, you’d say. Never understood the pleasure of finding the unexpected.’ He stopped at channel 90, and briefly watched two earnest men in baggy khaki shorts talk about the true origins of the Christmas story. Carlton sniffed, his voice husky. ‘See. You’d’ve loved this, eh?’
The doorbell rang. Muttering, Carlton stood, leaving the nearly empty glass on his side table. The cat merely settled into the abandoned blanket.
Outside voices rose in a rendition of Good King Wenceslas. Carlton dug out a smile and opened the door. Sal’s best friend, Maureen McIver stepped forward to envelop Carlton in a teary hug. Behind her a group of women Carlton vaguely recognised from the WI fetes and flower shows bravely continued singing, some nodding, some incapable of eye contact.
Carlton eased Maureen away and stepped back. ‘You’d better come in.’ He led the group into the kitchen. ‘There’s a box of mince pies in the microwave – don’t ask – and who wants coffee, who wants tea?’
Maureen pulled off her coat and made for the kettle. ‘You sit. Let us get you sorted.’ She peered at the cold oven. ‘Not in yet? Are you having turkey?’
Carlton smiled. ‘Corned beef hash, mash and beans.’
Maureen looked aghast. ‘Surely something more…’ her gaze met Carlton’s and she stuttered, ‘nutritious? Sal…’ again she lost her thread, ‘you’ll want something green?’
‘Now sit, sit everyone. Coats off.’ His jollity grew as he clapped his hands. ‘How about we have another carol and… oh the pies. Now,’ he bent to microwave. ‘I’m sure these will be fine. They can’t go off, can they?’ He peered at the sell-by date.
One woman, who Carlton thought won the marrows every year, pulled her coat close. ‘It’s lovely to see you so jolly. But I really ought to be going.’ Another woman nodded. In five minutes, only Maureen was left.
She looked forlornly at Carlton. In a whisper, she said, ‘I promised her I’d make sure… you know?’
Carlton put his hands on her shoulders, meaty paws resting lightly. ‘And you have. I’m fine. I’m having a snack then Rodney and the kids will be round.’
Maureen perked up. ‘Oh I didn’t know. Oh good. Well, if that’s so…’
Alone again Carlton looked at the clock. Rodney. Yes, he probably would be round. Not exactly an attentive son but given the circumstances. He made for the phone. ‘Hi Rod, it’s your dad.’
‘Hi Dad,’ to Carlton he sounded wary.
‘Just calling to wish everyone a Happy Christmas Day. Hope Santa’s been kind.’
‘Yes sure. Thing is…’
In the background, Kayley’s unmistakable voice boomed, interrupting Rod. ‘Are you ready? We need to get going.’
‘You’re busy. I’ll catch you later son.’
‘Come ON. Grandpa will be eating if we don’t get there soon.’
‘Oh. You’re not thinking of coming here, are you? You didn’t say.’
There was a silence. ‘It was going to be a surprise.’
‘Oh no. I’ve arranged to go out. Maureen McIver invited me. Didn’t I say?’
Was there relief in his son’s voice. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m not doolally yet. Look, this isn’t going to cause an issue?’
‘Not at all. We can come tomorrow, do pressies then. If you’re free?’
The warmth came back into Rod’s voice. ‘I’m really glad, Dad you’re with people who love you. Mum’s perfect Christmas was loads of people, wasn’t it?’
Carlton forced himself to sound upbeat. ‘Yes, true.’
At 1.10, Carlton found himself back in his chair, whiskey refreshed and food on his lap. He held his knife and fork poised, anticipating the first mouthful. The doorbell went. And didn’t stop. Whoever it was, leant hard and didn’t let go.
Carlton and Martindale shared a glance. Can we ignore whoever it is? But the thought had barely been freed to roam before the noise stopped and a sharp tapping took its place. A face pressed against the window. ‘Open the sodding door, Cal, I’m frozen.’
Jerry Humpost slumped into the spare seat. His normally pale face was ruddy and the bags under his eyes unusually dark. Carlton spotted his shoes: soaking.
‘You been on some sort of hike?’
‘What? Jerry followed Carlton’s gaze. ‘God, sorry.’ He began to fumble at the laces, his raw and swollen fingers trying and failing to untie the knots. Finally, Carlton knelt down and did them himself. When he looked up, Jerry was crying.
‘Man, I’m in a mess. Pat threw me out two days ago and I’ve not known what to do.’
Carlton poured a measure of scotch, put it next to Jerry and sat down to listen. After twenty minutes, he fetched some food for his guest. After an hour, he found some spare clothes and a blanket. As the darkness began to envelope the trees that lined the road and the amber street lights tried to penetrate the gloom, Carlton realised Jerry was asleep. He flicked on the TV and let Martindale settle. As he wandered up and down the channels he thought back to countless Christmases, numerous empty protestations of goodwill and shallow pretenses at fellowship. All he had ever wanted was a Christmas with his beloved Sal, just the two of them. Alone, not lonely. Solitude. Jerry snuffled and slipped deeper into his sleep. Martindale purred. Carlton studied the photo opposite his seat and smiled. A compromise Sal, he thought. One guest, for you, who’s not going to speak, for me. Yep, okay, that’ll do. He raised his glass. ‘Merry Christmas, my love.’