“The Outsider” by Carol Brick-Stock

“What would you like for Christmas, Julia dear?”

The window in my narrow, Parisian kitchen was open despite the cold November weather. Conversations on mobile phones from the footpath below were audible and as a result I was slow to pick up my own phone and answer my mother’s prosaic question.

 

I’ll tell you what I would like for Christmas. I’d like to see my father gather up the strewn wrapping paper of our gifts rudely flung to the sitting room floor, see him push the shiny, crinkly matter into a large, plastic bag and carefully separate the string before tidily winding it around his broad left hand for future use. I would like to see that same string in springtime, colourfully supporting tomato trainers in the greenhouse, garish blues and yellows weaving gaily although not organically, between the green stalks. To see him move quietly on to his next job, the most important one, the fire, would be the only gift that would truly make me happy. I can still recall the furious reaction that throwing cardboard into the roaring hearth elicited:

“How many times do I have to tell you all? Do you want to put it out, is that it?”

If I could see him carrying briquettes and wood and piling them up beside the fireplace just once more, it would the happiest Christmas ever. In his role as head of the household, on this day at least.  But it will never be the same again. Not in that house. My father’s dying forced me see my siblings and my mother differently, see them in the harsh light of the individuals they were and their attendant true natures.

Anyone who ever sat in the vicinity of that hearth was never cold. My father was always pensive on Christmas Day, probably taking stock of what had happened during the past year. Having told us that we shouldn’t have wasted our money on buying anything for him, he sat back and gave in to a glass of sherry. One glass drunk in three large gulps usually made him doze off. His next words were usually:

“There’s enough here for four people Leena. I’ll never be able to eat all that.”

Of course he did. He knew there would be hell to pay if he didn’t. My mother had toiled for a week and not only would we eat the results, but we would have the dense, brandy-laden pudding straight afterwards. There, however, he put his foot down.

“I’ll have that later,” he always answered while unceremoniously scraping the bones of the turkey from his plate onto the nearest empty one, usually mine, before removing them.

“I’ll just go and have a look at the fire.”

It remained a task that no-one else could carry out. And if new slippers had been offered, usually by my mother, he still shuffled around is his old, comfortable ones, the soles of which he had repaired himself with thick rubber.

“Waste not, want not,” was his credo.

On Christmas night my father always went to bed early.

“Well, I’ll leave you all to it. See you in the morning with God’s help.”

Memory now suggests that this decision always came after a hectic love scene during the Christmas movie watched in the dark with candles lit on the mantelpiece and boxes of cheap chocolates passed around until only the strawberry filled ones were left. I think it embarrassed him. My father had always been an old man: old when I was born, old when I was growing up, old by the time I married and was hoping for my first child. Part of the festivities was to hear him say:

“This time next year I won’t be here.”

It came with the presents, the fruit cakes and the wine. Of course this dismal prediction lost its punch having heard it for thirty-five years running. So much so, that in my mind, it would simply never happen. And when it did, it was a sickening shock that took many months to absorb. This would be the first Christmas that he wouldn’t predict anything or impose calm on the hysteria that came with the day.

“For the sake of the children,” was the last thing my mother said as we said goodbye and I waited for her to hang up.

“Whose children?” I wondered as I closed the window against the freezing air.

 

I only understood after my father had gone that we were all going to miss the same person whether we were forty or four. All those Christmases, all that string, pudding and briquettes. It wasn’t what we didn’t get or the selection boxes we devoured and robbed before we even got dressed for mass. The feelings of being cherished and loved, expressed by the glow and spitting of his fabulous log fires was what it was really all about. But the flame was now as cold as the headstone on his grave. In the event, Christmas Eve was the usual search for gift tags and paper, a bottle of something for a kindly neighbour who would surely turn up sometime as night fell.

Despite polite and measured behaviour for the first few hours of our reunion, it was as though someone had driven a juggernaut through the very fabric of our family. All that was left was an undignified, gaping hole. He was the one who had united, never said a bad word, who soothed bitter recriminations over who got what, and don’t take my white shirt again, and why he is allowed to have new jeans and all I get are insults?  Because we were all good and beautiful in my father’s eyes and that was the end of it. Now sides were taken. Some stood close, others saw their interests, cracks broke open and the underlying ugliness spewed forth. The lid was off and old anger from past spats boiled over. The man who never went out without a hat, his walking stick shining and his tie as straight as his posture had disappeared from our world. A brother elected himself to the irreplaceable position of family head. A sister took sides and protected her husband and daughters. I, Julia, counted the hours.

 

Three faces stood in the front room window. My mother, brother and sister-in-law. I couldn’t discern whether it was relief, remorse or indifference that they expressed as I quickly ran to the car, hard rain beating down so that my hair was soaked within seconds. My husband Luc had put the heating on full blast. I waved to the hazy outlines one last time as though they were the ones disappearing, not me. I wasn’t sure they waved back. Urging the small, rented car to move away as quickly as possible I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. No tears this time.

We drove in silence to the airport and I thought of all those Christmases before boyfriends, girlfriends and then spouses and children came on the scene, their attendant expectations and demands changing everything. I had always looked forward to December with the same naivety and enthusiasm as I had when I was a child, unfailingly returning home. Then exclusivity came with each new addition, the traditions of our original clan disrupted and abandoned forever.

“Liam only likes the breast of the turkey, Mam.”

“Luc brought some champagne to have before dinner.”

“Can we eat a bit later? Sarah isn’t hungry yet.”

“I’ll serve my own kids, they don’t like those vegetables.”

And on it went, my father sitting peacefully chewing a toffee, observing the bedlam with mild amusement, wrapping the gift paper, folding the ribbon, throwing the briquettes into the grate. His absence had reduced us to our worst, most childish selves, all determined to fill his shoes too big for any one of us.

The car moved sluggishly along theDublincoast road, the white-tipped waves crashing angrily off the rocks, spray rising like demons. We had become husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, all closed off from one another, deaf and blind to any truths but our own.

 

On Christmas morning I had woken early. Luc’s face was turned away from mine. He had enjoyed a bottle of Jameson whisky on Christmas Eve with his brother-in-law, probably to numb the pain of forced hibernation the following day. I leaned over and pulled a portion of the curtain back. It was daylight and I could hear my mother in the kitchen moving about, the sound of the television in the background. Thirst finally pushed me out of the warmth of the bed and onto the cold landing. The door to my father’s bedroom was firmly closed. I gently pushed it open and the odour of old clothes and tobacco escaped, bringing back memories of sincere, bone-crushing hugs. The bed was gone, the bookshelves still in place but empty. His dressing gown, however, was still hanging on the back of the door. I buried my face in it. It hadn’t been washed. My tears fell and the smell intensified. He should have been downstairs eating porridge before setting the fire to be lit after mass. All traces of his having slept in that small room for the past fifteen years, when snoring became incompatible with sharing a bed with my mother, had been obliterated. The photographs of his grandchildren, sweet tins of various knick-knacks including the famous Christmas string had disappeared. The room looked more like a monk’s cell. I thought about wrapping myself in his dressing gown, lying on the dusty, beige carpet with the four indentations where his bed had once been, and staying there until it was all over. Looking past the faded green curtains I noticed a few brave leaves hanging on to his famous rose bushes in the garden, reminding me of the wisps of hair on his head just before he died.

“Mum, where are you?” the imperious voice of an eight year old shouted.

On the other side of the door I could hear my sister Rachel hurry up the stairs, answering her call to motherhood. It was going to be a long day.

Sausages and rashers on the pan. Luc wouldn’t get up until it was all over. Coffee and nothing else before midday.  So I quickly finished the last delicious mouthful of butter, brown bread and sausage washed down with scalding tea when I heard his footsteps on the staircase.

“How can you wake up and eat all that food?” he said in French, shaking his head.

My brother arrived with his three unkempt sons trailing behind. If only they would all go away and leave me with my memories. Stop interrupting them with their continuing chatter. I recognised the selfishness of my thoughts as well as their necessity.

“Who’s coming down the pier for a walk?”

So the house had become God-less as well as father-less. I was glad however when I found myself looking out at the calm, slate-hued sea and a magnificent, blue sky for December inDublin. No one had so far mentioned my father’s name, his absence, or the day that was in it. That was the worst part of it, everyone getting on with their lives.

“Would she ever just get on with hers and stop all this sentimental silliness,” I imagined them saying as soon as I left the room.

Yet I had swallowed revolt when I saw the large fire grate closed up and replaced with a gas fire boasting fake, orange wood.

“No more dusting and cleaning. Far more practical. I don’t know what the fuss about having a real log fire is all about.”

My mother had effectively eliminated any comment on the change. But it was my father who always did those jobs, the dusting and the cleaning, even before he took his retirement.

When we got home from our walk the kitchen smelled of freshly ground coffee beans.

“Who opened the smoked salmon?”

“For God’s sake, I told you not to touch it Liam!”

Of course they had needed a sandwich before going to bed. Whatever was at hand. I had done it myself in the past.

“Now we have no starter.”

“Stop making a fuss Rachel,” I heard my brother say with the smooth take of the new hierarchy.

“Oh shut up Michael.”

“Julia will go. She doesn’t have any children to get ready. She won’t mind,” I heard my mother say.

Where I was supposed to be going and for what I wasn’t sure. But my childlessness had been pointed to for the second time that day. As it happened, Rachel had something to announce at lunch. I didn’t wonder what it could be. It was my sister retching into the toilet bowl that had woken me that morning.

I made myself a strong, hot port and enjoyed its soothing sweetness, sipping it from a mug to avoid any remarks about alcohol from my mother. Luc was ensconced in Le Monde now two days old in the corner of the couch, safe from the line of fire.  In the sitting room there was no hiss from the fireplace and not a piece of crinkly paper in sight. The presents were in envelopes on a polished side table. No more selection boxes, bad for teeth and stomach. No strange shaped presents under the tree. Give everyone what they want. Money. Any sentiments that day were kept inside, private thoughts were held tight and forced smiles got us through the turkey and roast potatoes. I couldn’t remember afterwards whether it was that too much wine had been taken in secret while stirring the gravy. Neither could I recall which of my siblings had thrown out the careless remark that had led to one terrible, almighty row. My mother looking on, taking one side and then the other, my brother and sister at hammer and tongs, and I, violently accused of being an outsider by all, with no right to give or suggest an opinion about child rearing or Irish politics or indeed anything else to do with the country.

“You’re more French than Irish now anyway,” Rachel threw out as a parting shot, filled with spite and enunciated clearly in her sober state.

Pregnant with twins, she must surely have been right.

 

It would be a long time before I would return to that house again. I had misunderstood how things worked there since my father’s demise and what my place was within the new order. He wasn’t by the fire to interpret and intervene for me, to make the differences I had accumulated by living in another country, seem unimportant. The Christmases of my childhood had been buried with him and now there was a new rhythm and new laws, laws that didn’t include me. My brother and sister were right.  I was an outsider. Now I was going home.

 

Biographical Note:

Carol Brick-Stock is an Irish writer who has been living in Paris for many years where she teaches Food Policy and is a freelance book reviewer for a French publishing house. Her story “The Last Round” was short listed for the Wasafiri Short Story award and she has completet her first collection of short stories. She is currently studying for a Masters in Life and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University in London

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