Twenty-six

Dad sweeps a feather duster across the coffee table, over the mantelpiece and then across all four window ledges. He opens the curtains wider and switches on both lamps. It’s as if he’s trying to warn the dark away.

Mum, sitting next to me on the sofa, has a face shocked with the familiar. ‘I’d forgotten,’ she says.

‘What?’

‘The way you get in such a panic.’

He glares at her suspiciously. ‘Is that an insult?’

She takes the duster from him and hands him the glass of sherry she’s been swigging and re-filling since breakfast. ‘Here,’ she says. ‘You’ve got some catching up to do.’

I think she woke up drunk. She certainly woke up in Dad’s bed with him. Cal dragged me along the landing to look.

‘Number seven,’ I told him.

‘What?’

‘On my list. I was going to travel the world, but I swapped it for getting Mum and Dad back together.’

He grinned at me, as if it was all my doing, when actually they did it all by themselves. We opened our stockings and presents on their bedroom floor while they gazed sleepily down on us. It was like being in a time warp.

Dad goes over to the dining table now and shuffles forks and napkins about. He’s decorated the table with crackers and little snowmen made of cotton wool. He’s folded serviettes into origami lilies.

‘I told them one o’clock,’ he says.

Cal groans from behind his Beano annual. ‘I don’t know why you told them anything. They’re weird.’

‘Shush,’ Mum tells him. ‘Christmas spirit!’

‘Christmas stupid,’ he mumbles, and he rolls over on the carpet and stares mournfully up at her. ‘I wish it was just us.’

Mum nudges him with her shoe, but he won’t smile. She waves the feather duster at him. ‘Want some of this?’

‘Just try it!’ He leaps up, laughing, and dashes across the room to Dad. Mum races after him, but Dad protects him by standing in her way and batting her off with fake karate chops.

‘You’re going to knock something over,’ I tell them, but nobody listens. Instead, Mum shoves the feather duster between Dad’s legs and jiggles it about. He grabs it from her and sticks it down her blouse, then chases her round the table.

It’s odd how irritating I find it. I wanted them to get back together, but this isn’t quite what I meant. I thought they’d be deeper than this.

They’re making so much noise we miss the doorbell. There’s a sudden rap on the window.

‘Oops,’ Mum says. ‘Our guests are here!’ She looks giddy as she skips off to open the door. Dad adjusts his trousers. He’s still smiling as he and Cal follow her out to the hallway.

I stay just where I am on the sofa. I cross my legs. I uncross them. I pick up the TV guide and casually flip through the pages.

‘Look who’s here,’ Mum says as she steers Adam into the lounge. He’s wearing a shirt with buttons, and chinos instead of jeans. He’s combed his hair.

‘Happy Christmas,’ he says.

‘You too.’

‘I got you a card.’

Mum winks at me. ‘I’ll leave you two alone then.’

Which isn’t exactly subtle.

Adam sits on the arm of the chair opposite and watches me open the card. It has a cartoon reindeer on the front with holly wrapped around its antlers. Inside, he’s written, Have a good one! There are no kisses.

I stand it up on the coffee table between us and we both look at it. I ache with something. It feels thin and old, as if nothing will make it go away.

‘About the other night…’ I say.

He slides himself from the arm of the chair into the seat. ‘What about it?’

‘Do you think we should talk about it?’

He hesitates, as if this might be a trick question. ‘Probably.’

‘Because I was thinking maybe you were a bit freaked out.’ I dare to look at him. ‘Are you?’

But before he can answer, the lounge door opens and Cal comes crashing in.

‘You got me juggling clubs!’ he announces. He stands in front of Adam looking utterly amazed. ‘How did you know I wanted them? They’re so cool! Look, I can nearly do it already.’

He’s useless. Clubs spin across the lounge in all directions. Adam laughs, picks them up, and then has a go himself. He’s surprisingly good, managing seventeen catches before dropping them.

‘You reckon you could do it with knives?’ Cal asks him. ‘Because I saw this man once who juggled with an apple and three knives. He peeled the apple and ate it while he juggled. Could you teach me to do that before I’m twelve?’

‘I’ll help you practise.’

How easy they are with each other as they flip the clubs between them. How easy it is for them to talk about the future.

Adam’s mum comes in and sits next to me on the sofa. We shake hands, which is slightly weird. Her hands are small and dry. She looks tired, as if she’s been travelling for days.

‘I’m Sally,’ she says. ‘We’ve got a present for you too.’

She hands over a carrier bag. Inside is a box of chocolates. It’s not even wrapped up. I get it out and turn it over on my lap.

Cal passes her the juggling clubs. ‘Want to have a go?’ She looks doubtful, but stands up anyway. ‘I’ll show you what to do,’ he says.

Adam sits in her place next to me on the sofa. He leans in close and says, ‘I’m not freaked out.’

He smiles. I smile back. I want to touch him but I can’t, because Dad comes in, sherry bottle in one hand, carving knife in the other, and announces that dinner is served.

There’s mountains of food. Dad’s cooked turkey, roast and mashed potatoes, five different kinds of vegetables, stuffing and gravy. He’s put his Bing Crosby CD on, and antique music about sleigh bells and snow drift over us as we eat.

I thought the adults would sit around discussing mortgages and being generally boring. But because Mum and Dad are a bit pissed, they’re gently silly with each other and it’s not awkward at all.

Even Sally can’t help smiling as Mum tells the story of how her parents thought Dad was too working-class and banned her from seeing him. She talks of private schools and coming-out parties, of how she regularly stole her sister’s pony and rode across town to the council estate to visit Dad at night.

He laughs at the memory. ‘It was only a little market town, but I lived right on the other side. That poor pony was so knackered on a Saturday, it never won a gymkhana again.’

Mum tops up Sally’s wineglass. Cal does a magic trick with the butter knife and his napkin.

Perhaps Sally’s medication allows her to touch alternative realities, because it’s really obvious how Cal’s making the napkin move, but she looks at him in awe.

‘Can you do anything else?’ she asks.

He’s delighted. ‘Loads. I’ll show you later.’

Adam’s sitting opposite me. My foot’s touching his under the table. Every bit of me is aware of this. I watch him eat. When he takes a sip of wine, I think of how his kisses might taste.

‘Upstairs,’ I tell him with my eyes. ‘Upstairs now. Let’s escape.’

What would they do? What could they do? We could undress, get into my bed.

‘Crackers!’ Mum cries. ‘We forgot to pull the crackers!’

We cross arms and link up, a Christmas cracker chain round the table. Hats and jokes and plastic toys fly through the air as we pull.

Cal reads his joke out. ‘What do you call Batman and Robin after they’ve been run over by a steamroller? ’ Nobody knows. ‘Flatman and Ribbon! ’ he cries.

Everyone laughs, except for Sally. Maybe she’s thinking about her dead husband. My joke’s rubbish, about a man going into a bar, but it’s an iron bar and he gets a headache. Adam’s isn’t even a joke, but an observation that if the universe had appeared today, all of recorded history would have happened in the last ten seconds.

‘That’s true,’ Cal says. ‘Human beings are really trivial compared to the solar system.’

‘I think I might try to get a job in a cracker factory,’ Mum says. ‘Imagine making up jokes all year round, wouldn’t that be fun?’

‘I could put the bangers in,’ Dad says, and he winks at her. They really have drunk way too much.

Sally touches her hair. ‘Shall I read mine out?’

We all shush each other. Her eyes are sad as she reads. ‘A duck goes into a chemist’s to buy some lipstick. The chemist says, “That’s fifty-nine pence.” The duck says, “Thank you, could you put it on my bill please?”

Cal explodes with laughter. He throws himself off his chair onto the floor and waves his legs about. Sally’s pleased, reads the joke out again. It is funny. It starts as a ripple in my belly, then moves up to my mouth. Sally laughs too, a great gulping sound. She looks surprised to make such a noise, which makes Mum, Dad and Adam start to chuckle. It’s such a relief. Such a bloody relief. I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud. Tears roll down my cheeks. Adam passes me his napkin across the table.

‘Here.’ His fingers brush mine.

I wipe my eyes. Upstairs, upstairs. I want to run my hands along you. And I’m just about to say it out loud, just about to say, ‘I’ve got something for you, Adam, but it’s in my bedroom, so you’ll have to come and get it,’ when there’s a rap on the window.

It’s Zoey, her face pressed against the glass, like Mary in the Christmas story. She wasn’t supposed to be here until tea time, and her parents were meant to be coming with her.

She brings in the cold. She stamps her feet on the carpet in front of us all. ‘Merry Christmas, everyone,’ she says.

Dad raises his glass to her and wishes her the same. Mum gets up and gives her a hug.

Zoey says, ‘Thank you.’ Then she bursts into tears.

Mum gets her a chair and some tissues. From somewhere two mince pies appear with a large dollop of brandy butter. Zoey shouldn’t really have alcohol, but maybe the butter doesn’t count.

‘When I looked through the window,’ she sniffs, ‘it looked like something from an advert. I nearly went home.’

Dad says, ‘What’s going on, Zoey?’

She stuffs a spoonful of pie and brandy butter into her mouth, chews quickly, then swallows it down. ‘What do you want to know?’

‘Whatever you want to tell us.’

‘Well, my nose is stuffed up and I feel like crap. Do you want to know about that?’

‘That’s caused by an increase in HCG,’ I tell her. ‘It’s the pregnancy hormone.’ There’s a moment’s silence around the table as everyone looks at me. ‘I read it in the Reader’s Digest.’

I’m not sure I should have said this out loud. I forgot that Adam, Cal and Sally don’t even know Zoey’s pregnant. None of them say anything though, and Zoey doesn’t seem to mind, just shoves another load of pie into her mouth.

Dad says, ‘Has something happened at home, Zoey?’

She carefully reloads her spoon. ‘I’ve told my parents.’

‘You told them today?’ He sounds surprised.

She wipes her mouth with her sleeve. ‘It may have been bad timing.’

‘What did they say?’

‘They said a million things, all of them terrible. They hate me. Everyone hates me in fact. Except for the baby.’

Cal grins. ‘You’re having a baby?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I bet it’s a boy.’

She shakes her head at him. ‘I don’t want a boy.’

Dad says, ‘But you do want a baby?’ He says this very gently.

Zoey hesitates, as if she’s thinking about this for the very first time. Then she smiles at him, her eyes watery and amazed. I’ve never seen such a look on her face before. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I really think I do. I’m going to call her Lauren.’

She’s nineteen weeks pregnant, her baby is fully formed and weighs roughly two hundred and forty grammes. If it were born now, it would fit into the palm of my hand. Its stomach would be pink-veined and transparent. If I spoke, it would hear me.

I say, ‘I’ve put your baby on my list.’ I probably shouldn’t have said this out loud either. I didn’t really mean to. Once again, everyone stares at me.

Dad reaches out a hand and touches mine across the table. ‘Tessa,’ he says.

I hate that. I shrug him off. ‘I want to be there.’

Zoey says, ‘It’s another five months, Tess.’

‘So? That’s only a hundred and sixty days. But if you don’t want me there, I can sit outside and maybe come in afterwards. I want to be one of the first people in the world to ever hold her.’

She stands up and walks round the table. She wraps her arms around me. She feels different. Her tummy’s gone all hard and she’s very hot.

‘Tessa,’ she says, ‘I want you to be there.’

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