Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Prodigal: Christmas Past

Behind me, in the mirror, he lifts the ends of my hair with all the gentleness of a child handling a fledgling.
'How would you like it cut?'
'Well,' I said: 'I have a wedding to stop.'
'A wedding?' The sense of my words filters through a beat too late and he cannot disguise the pleasure in his voice. He flushes from his neck upwards.
'Any Christmas parties?'
'We don't do Christmas in my family.'
'What? not even when you were little?'
I think back to the memories of Christmas eves when Rafael and I were little. How he would push me further and further up the iron bed. We did have Christmas then. Of course we did. We must have.
I do remember being told to pray. Having my hands pressed together between Rex's massive fists, and Julia burning white sage to purify the air. And I won't forget the day I discovered him in the hedge, with a Bible pressed to his breast, reciting the words of Judges or Deuteronomy with the helicopter blades chopping the air into quarters.
The nights were scented with gas and tangerines. Frost ferned its foliage up the windows, and Julia would clap her hands with delight and call the frost Jack. No names for sun and wind in our house. The bare floorboards under our bare feet were a dustmap of our running wild. And yes, the tree.
In the vast room with its black walls, we did have a Christmas tree, in bright pink tinsel, which Julia lit with real candles. There were tiny glass trumpets which Rafael and I fought over, and broke, and suffered one of those sudden shifts from beauty to disgrace that marked our childhood.
Because Julia was a woman with a narrow eye, Christmas was kaleidoscopic. Bright and shifting , always on the point of falling away. We went up under the crag and cracked ice in the stream, and ate our Christmas picnic in the pink air. And Rex's kiss was perfumed with brandy and cold water, when I gave him his present, a tie I'd knit and purled from his favourite jumper. I saw the start of alarm in his eyes and mistook it for delight.
Then, like magicians, my parents brought out our presents. Impossible to guess from the wrapping: newspaper painted over. The very size and shape of a shelf. With all the heft of something magnificent. Which they were. It was the year of the stilts. Home-made, of course. By Rex.
Wild with delight we stalked the landscape of the Christmas day, as Julia learned to dive into the river on the valley bottom, bracing her flimsy heart with new definitions of courage.
By the time I look up, he has cut out all the split ends, feathered and frilled my hair into implausible curls.
'There now,' he says, bouncing my new hair in his palms.
'That should be enough to stop any wedding.'

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