Here’s a seasonal offering from our occasional guest writer of gory stories … with best wishes of the Festering Season to both our readers.
No Time Like the Present
by Zelda McLeich
xxxThey say that opposites attract. Well some of them say that. Others say we’re drawn to genetically similar folks. It’s probably a bit of both. What I’m trying to say is that his easygoing nature had a strong appeal but it also jarred with what he called my ‘OCD’. And we could both be as stubborn as mules selectively bred for stubbornness.
xxxOr can you selectively breed a sterile hybrid?
xxxSorry, I’m having trouble concentrating. Sure you’ll understand.
xxxOh yes, stubborn. But I was always told there’s a right and a wrong way to do things. And especially I love tradition. Christmas is all about those traditions or it’s nothing. When you know what’s coming at any given time, it makes the anticipation that much greater. Same with presents, a pleasure deferred is a pleasure increased. Then it’s knowing when but not knowing what that makes the surprise that much better, isn’t it?
xxxHe wasn’t like that at all, but he went along with it, for a quieter life. I still had to hide things well, usually round at Mother’s, or he’d have been … sorry. I’m rambling, I know. But you have to know I like my festive routine just so. There’s a right way to do Christmas. End of.
xxxStart of December, put up the Advent Calendar. Cards hung from cotton along the wall as they arrive. Tree and the rest of the decorations up on Christmas Eve. Not before. OK, I have compromised on that a bit. His family always put theirs up on the first Sunday in December, with their Advent Crown — all very Blue Peter. He said it seemed such a lot of effort for something that had to come down again in less than a fortnight. So I let him put the tree up and hang the baubles then, but the lights and tinsel always have to wait. So I still got some of that magic of the special night. And I was sure he’d come to realise how romantic it all was, and how much better it would be when we had our own kids to share in it.
xxxBut presents; yes. That routine was such an important part of it all for me, since I could remember. Come down Christmas morning, not before the stroke of nine (though we’d been awake since God knows of course). Have a full breakfast — evening blow out not for hours — and only then go through to the sitting room to see what was in our stockings or under the tree.
xxxIn the early years he was always badgering me to open a few little gifts early, but I think that was because he wanted an excuse to see some of his. Like a kid: couldn’t resist the short term stuff to get a bigger thrill later on. He tried renaming them as Advent Gifties, as if that would change everything. It took a few years but he stopped asking and I assumed he was cured of all that, round to my way of thinking.
xxxOffice parties, meals out, secret Santa stuff, that was fine of course. Visits to friends and rellies — presents would be exchanged, but they all knew I wouldn’t be opening mine until the big day, so they never opened theirs from us when we were there. More fool them if they rip the paper off the second we leave, I always say.
xxxYeah, so we went for this romantic meal for two at our favourite tapas bar a week or so ago — Friday it was, the Sixteenth. We got there earlier than usual but they’d opened the kitchen half an hour early when he’d rung to book. He told me it was to save us the hassle of coming home from work and coming into town again; he hadn’t fancied meeting in a crowded festive bar beforehand with all the booze we were already getting through this month and I said he must be getting old. But it sort of made sense, and we’d be home in time to watch Have I Got News For You, and get an early night before the weekend parties. It all made sense at the time.
xxxAnyway, we were enjoying a nice meal, cheeses, hams, gambas, a lovely bottle of Rioja, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves for three quarters of an hour at least. And suddenly he produces an envelope from his jacket and hands it to me, saying Merry Christmas, darling!
xxxWhat’s this, I ask, and he says it’s an early Christmas present, a ‘very special one’. I say that’s lovely and start to put it in my handbag. But he asks what I’m doing, with a knowing smile.
xxxI’m going to take it home and put it under the tree, I say, and thank him profusely so he knows I am truly grateful for the thought. But he interrupts and says it’s really important to him that I open it on the spot. I say we’ve been through all this before but he says it’s something really special and I say in that case it’ll be even more special if it’s the big finale on the day. At the correct time.
xxxBut he doesn’t want to give in, though he also doesn’t want to spoil the surprise. He gets really agitated and starts hissing at me about being stubborn and even calls me ‘anal’. And I say it’s him that’s being the pig-headed one, opening up old arguments. He tries cajoling, he tries threats, tells me I’ll be sorry, but of course this just makes me dig my heels in. When he says he’s going to have to tell me what it is, I just say if he does it’ll not only spoil the surprise, it’ll spoil our whole marriage. It’s true, it really is. I’m not religious or anything, but Christmas is a very special time of year to me.
xxxEventually he just shouts, have it your fucking way then and calls me a stupid stubborn bitch! Just as another couple walked in. I was so embarrassed, moreso ‘cos it was also in front of Juan and Consuela — we’d been there so often, they’re almost family.
xxxWell, that put a damper on the evening, to say the least. He hardly spoke, just muttered through clenched teeth from time to time. Things like, I’d be sorry, wait and see, me and my hidebound attitudes and so on. I tried a couple of times to lighten the mood, but it was pointless, so we ate up, skipped postres, and went home. I popped into the kitchen to apologize for the scene and assure them we’d be fine, see them in the New Year. Hah.
xxxI did think he’d get over it pretty quickly. Even if he didn’t, it was important to nip this ‘early present’ thing in the bud, before we ended up putting the decorations up in October and giving so many ‘Advent Gifties’ we’d have nothing to look forward to on the day but a selection box and a satsuma.
xxxI thought he was just trying to outdo me for pigheadedness He didn’t stop speaking to me or anything quite as childish as that, but he was amazingly surly for the whole week. I was tempted to tear open the envelope shouting, OK, so spoil Christmas, Grinchy, or even rip it up and throw it in the recycling unseen, but I didn’t give in. In fact he made no further direct attempt to get me to open it and I thought he was giving in — ungracefully.
xxxEven when we put the lights on the tree and arranged the parcels beneath it, with his ‘special’ gift in pride of place, his mood didn’t lighten. My attempts to apply generous helpings of alcohol only made him more withdrawn and grumpy.
xxxEventually I suggested we turn in early. A cheery ‘I suppose a Christmas shag’s out of the question’ was probably a mistake too. But I still thought the day would work its magic, that we’d come down at breakfast and there’d be enough surprises to change our moods. He seemed to find that idea rather amusing though I did notice that his laugh sounded hollow and grim.
xxxSo this morning I came down and prepared the usual — buck’s fizz, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, toast, fresh-brewed coffee. I had to shout up a few times before he deigned to grace the kitchen with his presence. He still looked thoroughly pissed off, but also amused in a bitter way. Grim as he was the night before. And even then I reckoned on a bit of Christmas magic turning things around when we got to the tree.
xxxIt wasn’t promising. He hardly touched his food, though he did replenish his glass quite freely. Then he asked if we could finally open the presents, so I could get what was coming to me — I remember now, that’s how he put it, but I didn’t think about it at the time. He said he hoped I was ready for my ‘big fucking surprise’.
xxxI tried to keep it light, but it was damn near impossible. I said if it was so big I’d definitely leave it to last, which he snorted at derisively, but I admit I was really intrigued by now and even excited, despite the atmosphere. I was sure that it would be really amazing and when I opened it I’d show how grateful I was and he’d be pleased and agree with the value of waiting … and all the nonsense would be forgotten.
xxxBut he opened his gifts in stony silence, the clothes, the box sets, the CDs, even the top-of-the-range power drill set I knew he’d wanted, or grunted some sort of thanks, always staring at that ruddy envelope.
xxxSo I finally picked it up. My hands were trembling and he had that grim smile again as he watched me open it. And take out the tickets. Two to see Robbie Williams. My favourite singer. My teenage crush. The best seats in the house. For the gig he’d said was sold out before he could book. Live, in a one-off, rare visit to the Symphony Hall. Two blocks away from the La Mancha tapas bar. On December the sixteenth, the night of our romantic fucking opening-early-specially fucking pre-Christmas fucking meal!
xxxSo it’s manslaughter right, not actual murder? Can I plead diminished responsibilty or something? No jury would …? No?
xxxI don’t suppose I can even get the money back on the drill, what with the damaged box and all the blood. Sorry, I’m still not really thinking straight, am I? Anyway, thanks for coming down to the cells. I know you’re the duty solicitor but sorry you had to get called out for this sort of thing. It’s supposed to be such a special day, after all.
xxxAnd … Merry Christmas, I suppose.