(A short story I wrote for Eat Me magazine’s Christmas Issue about a man who decides to spend Christmas Day alone)
“… real live turkey! Feel free to share what you’re up to today by sending in more of your festive pictures. Here’s a lovely photo from Patty in Bristol who’s getting into the ‘spirits’ with a bottle of Amaretto! Lovely. And look, she’s put an adorable little Santa Claus hat on her cat. Or rather, Santa Claws.” The news reader gurns at his co-anchor, who auto-chuckles before they move swiftly on to a more sobering news item about a woman who went missing this morning.
Their voices have disturbed my sleep, or at least what felt like sleep after passing out from the obscene amounts of bourbon I imbibed the night before. I search for the mute button on an unfamiliar remote control. It’s a struggle with sleepy, hung-over vision, and I have to close one eye to focus. I find it and throw the two figures on the television into mime. They continue to deliver serious news about murder while adorned with tinsel.
Opening and closing my dry mouth, I start feeling around for a bottle of water when hazy memories of last night start to creep in. I remember drunkenly storming from shop to takeaway to petrol station in order to stock up. I look around the hotel room and see that Past Me didn’t just pick up ‘a few bits’ for Christmas Morning, but in the event of a localised zombie apocalypse, made sure I could ride out the storm until rescue came.
One cold, half-eaten double bacon cheeseburger; one giant, unopened Toblerone; one half-eaten bag of chocolate coins; one half-eaten Terry’s chocolate orange; one unopened box of ready-to-mix stuffing; one open bag of nuts, a few of which have been obliterated under a shoe heel in the absence of a nutcracker; one posh pot noodle; one (now) defrosted chicken (the juice and melted water of which is probably ruining the leather of what was once a very nice chair); six empty brandy miniatures stacked into a pyramid formation on the desk; one open bottle of bourbon, ¾ of its contents gone; one half-smoked packet of cigarettes; a small jar of supermarket own brand cranberry sauce, and a cardboard tube of gravy granules, now oozing gelatinous brown globlets onto the carpeted floor - I must have filled it with water, such is drunken logic.
Well played, Past Me. You have outdone myself.
The dull thud in my temples is excuse enough to not have to deal with this. I figure I’ll have to pay for the carpet to be cleaned anyway, so I may as well leave it.
I inhale deeply and realise that I can smell myself, and it is bad. I’m sweating alcohol out through my pores and my mouth tastes like I may have tried to chew the cigarettes.
Getting to the shower takes three attempts: on the first I have to pause before actually standing up from the bed, the second time requires a few moment of intensive leaning against the ensuite bathroom door, while the third attempt has me stumbling into the shower cubicle and knocking my elbow on the door. A few seconds of holding my elbow and silently mouthing “BUGGERFUCKBALLS” later, and I’m ready to stand under running water for half an hour; a truly pathetic tableau.
This is not the Christmas Day I had quite expected, nor the kind I usually enjoy. Though I’m playing it fast and loose with the word ‘enjoy’. There’s only so much enjoyment that can be got from three days of family members shouting, “Eh! Emergency chairs!” in a poor Bolton accent that they think resembles Peter Kay’s, or sharing rooms with gassy cousins, or staring intensely at our plates while we pretend that Mum isn’t crying.
No, today I had hoped to thoroughly enjoy all the selfish delights that come with Christmas Day alone: singing Little Drummer Boy in the nude, keeping the remote control to yourself, going for a little stroll without having to wait 20 minutes for everyone else to get ready because someone said, “Ooh! That’s a good idea! Let’s all go for a little wander round.”
Once I’m showered and somewhat more with it, I take another look at hotel room. The half-eaten food and empty bottles strewn around the place aren’t helping me sail through this hangover, nor do they contribute to the Christmassy vibe I was aiming for. I don’t want to eat anything that Past Me has kindly foraged, but I do want decorations. I suddenly want a warm fire and Christmas cheer, but not with anyone I actually know. What I need is a friendly local pub. Some place where a stranger is usually given the side-eye, but today will be welcomed with open arms. I throw on some clothes and shiny shoes, and leave the mess to housekeeping.
The first pub I come to has a heavy green door and thick iron bars on the windows. The only indicators I have of what to expect inside are the warm yellow glow coming from behind the foggy windowpanes and the old fella having a fag in the doorway. Around his neck is a bowtie fashioned from tinsel, no doubt the handiwork of the friendly and festive landlady that I find inside.
“Merry Christmas and welcome! What can I get for you, my love?” She looks about 50, maybe late 40s. She’s put on a lot of make up that she probably wore more frequently when she was younger, but is just too garish for her now.
“Double vodka with soda and fresh lime, please.”
“Ok, let me just go to the kitchen and get a knife. Oh, actually, we don’t even have any limes. Lime cordial OK?”
“No, that’s alright. I’ll go without. Thank you very much, though.”
“Mmhm. You too.”
“Not in the festive spirit?”
“Certainly getting into the spirits though, eh!” The old-timer with the tinsel neckwear has returned from his fag and his husky laugh grates on my ears.
“Not really. Sorry.”
“Christmas not a good time of year, love?” She’s leaning on the bar top with her forearms, her face turned towards me in Christmas-induced sympathy.
I sigh and indulge her. “My brother… he sort of stopped… he didn’t… he died a couple of years ago.” Saying it out loud still makes me feel sick, still makes me feel cold, a bit numb. I hate that.
She places a hand on my shoulder. “I am so sorry.”
I shrug. “It was a couple of years ago.”
“Are your parents still alive?”
“Yeah, but I don’t like being about the forced jollity. It’s just so depressing. I’d rather just get drunk with you fine strangers.”
She frowns at me, and I’m taken aback. She had been so cheerful up until now but suddenly she looks furious. Incensed, even.
“There’s no room to be selfish at Christmas. You should be at home with your Mother. She’s lost one child already, so I expect she’ll want you round even more.”
“No offence, but it’s not really got anything to do with you.” And I take a victory swig of my vodka, feeling suitably smug and self-righteous. My brother’s dead for fuck’s sake; how dare she.
She smacks a hand down on the bar top before calling me a selfish twat and disappearing through the kitchen door.
There is a behemoth of a man behind me and I’m surprised that I didn’t hear him coming.
“I’ve paid for this drink.”
He drops a crumpled up tenner on the bar.
“You can keep the change, son. Now fuck off.”
As I slide off the high stool I clock a framed picture above the bar; the pub’s landlady, maybe about ten years younger, is beaming proudly at me while a young man wearing a cap and gown hugs her shoulders. He looks happy. They both do.
I take a slow walk back to the hotel and let myself think about Danny and Mum, properly, for the first time today. It’s been hard, even at this age, to suddenly be promoted from middle child to eldest. It’s hard to go home and be reminded that she liked him more as a person. It was hard yesterday when she got upset and asked why I couldn’t try to be more like him. I grew so fed up with apologising for my own presence, and the lack of his, that I just wanted to be selfish this year. And that turned out brilliantly, so…
In the hotel room I shove any inedible food in the bin, pack up the rest and leave an apologetic note for housekeeping (complete with a generous tip for what will be their trouble). The taxi is already waiting outside.
“Don’t suppose you saw any petrol stations open along the way, did you, Drive? I want to pick up some flowers.”
“Oh dear. Messed up, have you?”
I think about the hangover, the gravy in the hotel room, and insulting the pub landlady. I think about the look on Mum’s face when I walked out.
“Something like that.”