Boxing Day, a short story by David Park
A father drives his son to visit his mother by the sea on the day after Christmas
David Park. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey
For four years my father drove me on Boxing Day to spend time with my mother who lived on her own in a small bungalow facing the sea. He took me after lunch and as arranged always collected me at six. Each year I argued that he should collect me earlier, only to be met with the same reply that it wouldn’t be right to make my stay any shorter. All his life I believe my father tried to do what was for the best and perhaps he was right about this, but I made my first journey when I was thirteen and when you’re that age nothing seems as important as what you want. And I didn’t want to visit my mother on Boxing Day. I suppose he didn’t either but understood that although he had legal custody of me it would be a kindness if she was able to see me at Christmas and so for four years we took the same half-hour drive to the coast.
I made the last one when I was seventeen. On that final journey we didn’t talk much and used the radio to fill the silences but already it sounded as if those tired old festive songs needed to be stored away until next year, and their insistent jolliness seemed as meaningless as the discarded wrapping paper from the day before. I mostly stared out the side window in my best effort to convey my reluctance to converse and, when he tried, didn’t say much in reply, or even turn my head in his direction. What I was punishing him for was that each of those four journeys signalled the end of my Christmas and I didn’t want it to end so soon because what my father had given me was happiness which is a difficult thing to give up.
The day he told me he was leaving my mother we were sitting in the rickety stand of our local lower league football team and as usual at half-time sharing a flask of tomato soup and the sandwiches he’d made. I remember clearly that my first impulse was panic so strong that it was a wonder I didn’t grab his sleeve and refuse to let go but already he was telling me that I was coming with him. The questions tumbled out. Did Mum know? Where were we going? When was it going to happen? Some of these questions he answered fully, others he seemed less sure about, but the one thing I understood was that the worst was over because he had already told her. As the second half began he set the flask aside then dabbed my orange moustache with his handkerchief,
I tried to work out when he had done so. There was no obvious moment that I could think of, no recent screaming voices or slamming doors, no sense of final crisis.
You see, my mother was ill. ‘Your mum’s not well, Robbie,’ was the earliest explanation I remember my father giving me. When I was older he added medical words and tried to help me understand. And as the wind snaked through the tiered seats he repeated those earlier words before adding, ‘and I tried very hard but I couldn’t help her to get better’. It was strange to hear him refer to her in the past tense and that afternoon as we sat watching the game, even though the pattern of play seemed increasingly disjointed, devoid of rhythm or purpose, I didn’t want it to end, didn’t want to go home.
In the car on this last Boxing Day the world skimmed past under my disinterested gaze. There had been much talk of snow but it didn’t look as if it would come to anything and as we drove towards the coast, although it was very cold, the sky seemed untroubled and layered only with a thin wash of brightness.
‘It’ll be fine, Robbie,’ my father said.
‘It won’t be fine. You know it won’t be fine,’ I answered as I clutched the present Bethany my stepmum had bought on my behalf. I couldn’t even remember what it was.
‘It’s only a few hours and you know it means a lot to her.’
I said nothing but if I had, it would have been to say that I couldn’t remember my presence all through childhood, or on any of my visits, ever seeming as if it meant that much to her. One Boxing Day after a makeshift lunch that looked as if it had been squeezed out of pretty ancient leftovers she lay down on the settee, curled herself into its narrow softness and fell asleep for a couple of hours. She didn’t have a television and the house was filled with an eerie silence that I didn’t want to disturb by switching on the light or even in desperation the radio. When she woke it was as if she looked at me through a swirl of fog and for a moment I wasn’t sure if she knew who I was.
‘It’s Robbie,’ I said.
‘Robbie, of course you are. Robbie – I know that, silly.’
I remembered it as I drove with my father and as he struggled with the radio to find the football commentary on 5 Live it seemed to me that my mother never fully grasped who I was or how I had come to be part of her life. When I was younger she had a habit, almost as an afterthought, of lightly patting my head when she passed and I began to think of it as the closest she could come to giving me her blessing.
‘Find the football for me,’ my father said but when I located the station the reception was poor and the voice kept breaking in to booming echoes before fading again. ‘Must be the weather,’ he said.
We passed through a hamlet where the local pub was decorated in fairy lights and where, despite the cold, smokers hunched over an outside table, their smoke like a wreath of frost above their heads. A little further on we got diverted briefly because the local hunt was out and as we drove we glimpsed red coats and horses coursing across a distant field that sloped up towards the horizon.
‘A drag hunt,’ my father said. ‘At least I hope so.’
It was childish but I felt a momentary annoyance that he should be expressing his concern over some dumb animal when he was about to deliver his son to misery.
‘Why do I need to keep doing this?’ I asked, turning off the radio to signal my seriousness.
‘Because it’s the right thing to do and because when all’s said and done she’s still your mother.’
There were many things I wanted to offer in reply to this but I held back, saying only, ‘I’m eighteen next year.’
‘When you’re eighteen, it’s up to you what you do. Fair enough? Let’s not fight over it, Robbie.’
I slumped back in the seat and put the Christmas music on again. The DJ must have drawn the short straw to be working on Boxing Day and then I wondered if it was recorded in advance and it was all an elaborate charade of jollity. So this was to be my last year. There was some comfort in that at least. And I wanted to tell my father that one of the reasons I didn’t want to come was because I loved my new home and family so much. I had a new mother I called Bethany and Mia, a new older sister. Bethany was funny, good to me and made my father happy. When she hugged me I felt myself trampolining against her ample body and as I’d bounce away I was always conscious of her scent that was a mixture of something sweet and the antiseptic smell of a hospital. Mia had started art college four months earlier and I thought everything about her was cool, from the art she produced to the weird self-made clothes she wore.
Dad had met Bethany on an Internet chat site and then discovered they both worked in the same hospital. He was in administration and she was a nurse. I think they were going out for a year before he told me about her. So on the first day of the summer holidays and before I started a new school I left my home and moved in with Bethany and her daughter. We stayed there for about a year then moved to a slightly bigger house within walking distance of my new school. My mum also moved shortly afterwards – ‘a necessary downsizing,’ she called it and said the sea air would be good for her although my father worried that she didn’t know anyone. But I think it didn’t really matter where my mum lived because inside her head she was only ever in the one place.
It’s not easy to describe this place she lived and I don’t know what it was like to be her but when I think about it, it always felt as if there was something separating her from life itself and even perhaps from herself. And it was as if nothing was ever fully in focus for her and she didn’t have the inner strength to force the world into clarity. I suppose too because of that I found it difficult to know who she was although I told myself that when she met and married my father she must have been her real self and not this one who had slipped behind a veil. There were periods of sustained lethargy where getting out of bed in the mornings represented a challenge for her and all the small necessities of the day such as getting dressed or making a meal for herself became increasingly difficult. When afflicted like this she stayed in her dressing gown and watched television with the sound down. ‘It’s too loud, everything’s too loud,’ she would say and there were times when sounds seemed to hurt her – my dropping of cutlery into a drawer, the judder of the washing machine – and she would go to her room and close the door quietly behind her. Sometimes I didn’t see her for days.
I got used to this and preferred it to the other state that she entered from time to time – I now understand that it was probably her medication, or perhaps one of the numerous changes to it, that resulted in a sudden flaring of energised intensity that saw her supposedly about to embark on a range of activities – spring-cleaning the house, wanting to help me build a tree house, planning a camping holiday – all of which were destined to fade into complete failure and then be erased from memory. But there was something else I understood on that journey and it was that although we were separated she was always there, lingering silently on the edge of every new happiness, always only a thought away.
Little half-hearted plashes of sleet began to lace the windscreen. The wipers scudded and squeaked.
‘Looks like it might snow,’ I said because by then I’d started to feel bad about giving him a hard time.
‘No chance – it never snows this close to the coast.’
‘Are you coming in when you drop me off?’ I asked.
‘I’ll stay a while,’ he said as he peered up at the sky. ‘Everything will be fine, Robbie, and I’ll be back for you at six.’
‘Don’t be late.’
‘I won’t and Bethany’ll have something hot cooked up for us when we get in. And there’s a couple of top films on later we can watch.’
He didn’t know how good a prospect those simple things seemed and I didn’t try to tell him as we started to drop down towards the sea, the road unspooling in narrowing ribbons and falling away until eventually we were able to glimpse it in the far distance.
‘Will you and Bethany get married?’ I asked, for some stupid reason tormenting myself by imagining that my newfound happiness might prove only temporary and naively believing that the exchange of rings would increase the prospect of permanence.
‘I think so, but not for a while yet. Is it important to you?’
‘No, not really. But you think you’ll stay with her?’
‘I hope so – you like her, don’t you?’
And then to avoid further conversation I tried the football again but the commentary was still broken by static and I switched it back to the music.
‘That’s doing my head in, Robbie,’ my father said and he shuffled through his CDs ignoring the Leonard Cohen, the Van Morrison and Fairport Convention until he found one of the compromise discs we kept in the car and so for the rest of the journey we listened to The Very Best of The Smiths but didn’t, as we sometimes liked to do, sing along with ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’. Then we passed frozen stubbled fields until we were funnelled into even narrower roads where the high hedges had been cropped so they were topped by ragged swathes of pointed spears. And when Morrissey sang about driving in his car and begging not to be dropped home, we both glanced at each other and my father drummed a nervous little tattoo on the steering wheel with his fingers. Then as he smiled he started to sing song titles at me:
‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’.
‘The Boy with the Thorn in his Side’.
‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’.
I didn’t know the song titles as well as him so I had to lift out the CD cover and scan it before I said, “‘Bigmouth Strikes Again,’” and he chuckled a little the way he often did and which always made me think he had something soft and warm slipping slowly down his throat.
We were almost there now and we could see the sea but it was a disappointment, seemingly stripped of any drama or colour, a grey stretch of nothing fading into a similarly coloured sky.
‘It’ll be all right,’ he said and this time I didn’t argue with him.
Parked outside the house we both paused and with our seatbelts still on glanced up at it and for a second I thought there was just the possibility that he would drive us both home but then I heard the click of his and a few moments later we were standing at the front door. My last time.
It was a while before the door was opened and when it did she was a little flustered, smoothing her hair that looked exactly the way her hair always did but as if somehow she hadn’t been expecting us.
‘Hello,’ she said, smiling, but for a second she didn’t move and I wondered if she thought we had come to sing carols.
‘Merry Christmas, Jane,’ my father said as I felt his hand gently pushing me forward.
‘Yes, Merry Christmas. Come in – it’s getting really cold,’ she said, holding her hand palm upwards across the doorstep as if testing for rain.
Then despite what he had suggested earlier my father said he’d head on and after a few minutes of conversation that I didn’t quite catch I heard him drive away. The living room was cold, warmed only by the single bar of an electric fire, and over the back of the settee was a red woollen coat and I could tell from the wisps of the same coloured threads on her jumper that she had been wearing it before our arrival. I felt sorry for her the way I always did in those first moments and so I handed her the present and wished her Happy Christmas. I even came close to using the word ‘Mum’ but at the last moment decided not to break my stubborn resolve from an earlier age.
By then I had remembered what the present was and after she had removed the wrapping paper in such a slow and careful way that suggested she was going to preserve or reuse it, she thanked me and putting the cardigan on wore it for the rest of my visit. In return she handed me a small package telling me it was ‘nothing much’, just a little thing she had picked up in a local shop. I remembered with apprehension some previous presents that had required an intense effort to simulate gratitude so although it was a long way off the best thing I had received that Christmas, I felt some relief that I was looking at a magnifying glass. It was a nice object with a prism about the size of my palm and a black ebony handle. A little smudge of frosting on the glass and some small scores on the handle suggested it wasn’t new but that didn’t matter and although I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it I thanked her and she seemed pleased in turn. Then I held it to my eye and looked at her through it as I said, ‘Perhaps I should become a detective, use it to look for clues.’
‘You could be the next Sherlock Holmes,’ she said as she fastened all the buttons on her new cardigan then plopped down on the chair closest to the fire before standing up again and plumping a cushion and smoothing out wrinkles from the chair’s arms. ‘I read somewhere there’s a new one on television and they’ve messed about with the stories. Updated them or something. Why do they do that, Robbie?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said as I lowered the glass.
‘It’s beyond me. Things never change for the better.’
And as I thought of the warm house I had just left awash with decorations and fun, part of me wanted to tell her that yes they did but it wouldn’t have been a kindness, would it? I looked around the room and saw our old box of Christmas decorations sitting under the sideboard, a string of fairy lights lolling out over the side, saw too that the only thing she had used was the garland of reindeer which looped across the fireplace, each end weighted by ornaments.
‘You didn’t put up all of the decorations.’ ‘Seemed a bit silly when it’s just me. But I put up the reindeer in honour of you coming. When you were small you always liked them.’
I had no memory of this but then I had no real memory of what anything was like when I was a small child and she was my mother. Perhaps that was a time when she was well so it seemed a bad thing that I couldn’t remember. I was curious about this part of our shared past but it wasn’t something I knew how to pursue. So I nodded as if I did remember and thought how much better it would be if there was a fire burning in the hearth. I don’t think she had much money but knew my father still paid for certain things – it was the only argument that I had heard with Bethany. And I’m not sure but I think she got to keep most of the profit on the sale of the house.
‘How’s school going?’ she asked and I tried hard to think of things that she might find interesting, and knowing how many hours needed filling rambled on about my subjects and teachers, telling her what universities I was considering until eventually I ran out of steam.
‘That’s good,’ she said and she stifled a little yawn with the back of her hand.
‘And how are you keeping?’ I asked and when I spoke these words I knew it sounded as if I was the parent talking to his child.
‘You know how it is, Robbie. Good days and bad days. Trying my best. Got to keep going. Nothing else for it, really.’
‘That’s good. And your medication is working out all right?’
‘Mostly, but it’s a bit hit and miss sometimes. And I don’t think my doctor here is as good as Dr Hamilton who never made you feel she was in a hurry to see the next patient. And this one is still reading your notes on his computer when you’re talking to him.’
We both stared at the bar of the electric fire that had started to burn more brightly as the first strength of light seeped out of the day. Then she stood up suddenly and went to the kitchen, returning with a piece of chocolate cake on a saucer and a glass of cordial. Her own glass was filled with wine. I looked at her as she handed me the cake.
‘It’s Christmas, Robbie. I don’t think the world’s going to stop after one glass.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘You’re such an old fusspot,’ she said as she took her first sip. ‘And tell me, is she looking after you properly? You look a bit thin?’
‘Bethany?’ It was obvious that she had resolved never to use Bethany’s name but after she had nodded I told her everything was fine.
‘That’s good, Robbie, good that you can play happy families. Very good.’
I said nothing and then I thought for the first time that my mother was probably glad that we had both left because it removed what was an often painful distraction and allowed her to focus exclusively on herself in the full way she needed to. The house would be quieter without any of those sharp-edged noises that tore at her as we moved through it. It was quiet now even though on the other side of the road the sea’s low moan was a constant presence.
The cake tasted stale but I finished it and drank the cordial as she sipped again at her wine.
‘This is a good place to live, Robbie,’ she said.
‘The sea air is good for me. I try to walk on the beach most days. Some days the wind’s so strong it feels like it’s blowing all your cobwebs away. Know what I mean?’
I said I did and she talked about how earlier in the year there had been a great storm and lots of strange things got washed up on the beach – a large branch of a tree still with some green leaves on it, bits of wooden crates and battered lobster pots.
‘Perhaps later we could go for a walk on the beach,’ I said.
‘Well it’s a bit cold today and I’d get the blame if you caught a cold. Sometimes there’s a wind would cut you in two.’
I walked to the window. The sea seemed locked into a stupor, slumbering in some forlorn memory of its former motion.
‘They say this used to be a smugglers’ cove hundreds of years ago,’ she told me.
‘What would they have smuggled?’
‘I’m not really sure. Brandy, silk, goods from France, I suppose. There’s a mobile library comes round once a week and I should try and see if they have any local histories.’
We ran out of conversation and after a while I could see that she was tired. She finished her wine but continued to hold the empty glass.
‘Shall we listen to the radio?’ she asked. ‘I think there might be something interesting on.’
And so for the next hour we listened to an abridged version of A Christmas Carol and sometimes we smiled at each other at some of the jokes. Sometimes too she closed her eyes but whether it was to take more in or to keep something out, I don’t know. And so we sat in the thickening gloom while the Ghost of Christmas Past carried Scrooge over the rooftops towards the person he once was and it made me sad that I would never know my mother as she must once have been, and perhaps it was brought on by the sentimentality of the story but to my shock I felt as if I wanted to cry before that impulse was replaced by a resentment over what had been denied. And I wanted to go home to the scented warmth of Bethany’s embrace and Mia’s stupid jokes about my wardrobe and her offer to give me a makeover. I wanted to be sitting in that rickety stand with my father as we played our local rivals.
Then before the programme had finished she set the glass on the hearth and curled her legs under like a young girl and as if her head had assumed a weariness that couldn’t be resisted she rested it gently on the side of her chair, moving her neck slowly until she had sought out the most comfortable spot. In a few minutes she was sleeping just as she had done once before, so I was left listening to the radio on my own. Her breathing was steady and she snored occasionally, once so loudly that I thought she was going to waken herself but she simply snuggled into a new position. It was getting colder and I tried to put on a second bar of the fire but nothing happened. Taking the red coat I draped it over her and sat down. My father wouldn’t return for several hours. I put on my own coat. There was nothing I could do but wait.
I grew nervous about her sleep. Sometimes in the past it didn’t always bring the calm that might have been expected but rather a swing in mood and a greater disturbance that expressed itself in old resentments about people and moments from her past. In this state she might talk more rapidly and her words, edged with bitterness, would focus on some aspect of her earlier life that had supposedly sent it spinning into the wrong direction. And on occasions I had seen my father’s efforts to calm her rebuffed and then her invective would turn on him and he’d always take it without defending himself, except for saying quietly, ‘If it makes you feel better.’ Sometimes when my father took me out of the house and after we’d run out of ways to put in time we’d share a palpable nervousness as we stood at the front door and we’d look at each other and inhale a deep breath before he turned the key in the lock. And she might have merely refuelled in our absence rather than burning out and would criticise us for ‘running away’, or for ‘sneaking back’, but if we were lucky she would have gone to bed and then in the kitchen my father would make us toast and when we’d eaten it we’d butter the crunchy crusts and eat them too.
I looked round the room until my eyes fell on the box of Christmas decorations. It was always the true start of Christmas when the box was brought down from the roof space and I was allowed to unpack everything. I’d help my mother decorate the tree and she was good at things like that. She’d gone to art college and knew how to make things look right. Sometimes she told me she should have been an artist and occasionally drew in her sketchbook but always seemed dissatisfied with the results and never liked me looking at what she had done.
I quietly removed the box from under the sideboard and started to examine the contents. As well as the run-of-the-mill plastic decorations that had been bought in the supermarket there were other things to look at and which to my surprise still held an echo of the curiosity and pleasure I had felt in childhood. So there were the handful of much older glass decorations that had survived from my grandmother and which because of their fragility only my mother was allowed to hang. There were the carved wooden nativity figures we had brought back from a holiday in Austria and all the various bits and pieces I had made from shiny paper and cardboard in primary school. I remembered how my mother would tell me to put the nicest objects at eye level and those that weren’t so wonderful on lower branches. And there were the little children’s story books about Christmas she liked to use to decorative effect, a collection of birds with brightly coloured tail feathers and the large snow globe containing a winter landscape complete with village encircled by fir trees. Then on impulse I lifted the coloured fairy lights and draped them across the fireplace and plugged them in and taking some of the different decorations arranged them beside the garland of reindeer. I didn’t know if she would be pleased or not but the lights softened the room and although it was only in my imagination momentarily made it seem warmer. Finally I placed a framed picture of me sitting on Santa’s knee with an unopened present, my mother beside us, her eyes angled away from the camera’s stare. She was wearing a kind of woollen beret and a long scarf that almost reached her knees. A thin trim of black velvet edged the collar of her winter coat and I liked to think that when the photograph was taken it was during that part of her life when she was truly herself.
She made a snuffling noise then went on sleeping in her curiously childlike position with her head resting on the pillow of her hands that were clasped as if in prayer. Music came on the radio and I turned it off. I stood perfectly still and stared at her, thinking she seemed older, slowly leaving behind my memory of her physical reality. Then taking the magnifying glass and standing behind my mother’s chair I looked at her hair, saw the pale gleam of her scalp at the parting and the way the bristly toughness slipped into a finer greyness at the roots. Saw too the delicate coral neatness of her ears that seemed like a young girl’s. But it was after I had moved the glass to her hands and looked at the white-flecked nails that I saw the cross-hatching on her right wrist and stopped looking through the glass. The marks were no longer red as they must once have been and were now scabbed over and dulled but they were there all the same. I went and sat down again. I wanted my father to come, wanted him to take me where the reality of such things didn’t exist, and as the shadows in the room thickened I didn’t want us to be the people who were to blame.
She shifted in the chair and used her arm to settle the coat on to her shoulder then made the snuffling noise again. I couldn’t see her wrist now and I was glad. So far as I knew she had never done that sort of thing before but I didn’t know everything and there had been times over the years when she had been hospitalised.
‘Well isn’t this jolly,’ she had said once when I was younger and we were visiting her in a day room, surrounded by people who looked as if they didn’t know where or who they were and a woman who had to be helped away by staff when she started to ask the same question over and over again, her voice getting ever louder. But I remember too whenever we were leaving my father asked me to wait for him in the corridor and through the glass panel in the door I saw her clutch at his arm in an attempt to hold him longer as he bent down to kiss her on the cheek. On the drive home he cried – it was the only time I have ever seen him do this and he stopped as soon as he saw me looking at him, then in an attempt at mutual consolation we went to McDonald’s and had a Happy Meal.
I looked at the decorations on the fireplace and wondered if I should take them down because now they seemed a foolishness. I wasn’t sure about what to do and certain only about one thing. As I fastened my coat I realised again that this was going to be the last time I would visit on Boxing Day and in that moment couldn’t convince myself that I might return on any future day. Going to the fireplace I took the framed photograph and nestled it in my coat pocket beside the magnifying glass then closed the door as quietly as I had opened it.
I had over an hour to wait before my father’s arrival so I walked along the sea front until I found a seat in a green-painted wooden shelter where graffiti and cigarette butts suggested it was the hangout for local kids. It faced the sea and I sat there knowing I couldn’t phone my father to come earlier without inventing a reason that I could carry off convincingly. There was a coldness eddying off a sea that still looked bored by its own motion as it broke lifelessly on the shingle beach. Above it the clouds hung low and heavy and as I tried to shelter from the cold the air was suddenly flecked by a dreamy breath of snow. I had this stupid idea that if I could let a flake land on my skin I could look at it through the magnifying glass and see one of those ice crystals, all of which are supposed to be different to any other, but of course it didn’t work and the snow seemed to melt just as quickly as it was swallowed by the sea.
By the time my father appeared it was coming down in a steady fall. I pretended I had walked to the end of the road to meet him and made a show of buttoning my coat.
‘OK, Robbie?’ he asked as I got in the car. ‘Everything go all right?’
‘And your mother was OK?’
‘She was fine,’ I said as I turned up the car’s heater.
‘And she liked the present?’
‘Yes, she liked the present. You told me it never snowed this close to the coast,’ I said as fat flakes softly drifted against the windscreen.
‘Never seen it before. And by the way we didn’t miss anything this afternoon. We lost four-one – stuffed like a Christmas turkey. Now let’s get you home. You’re shivering,’ he said, stretching his arm across to mine.
‘The house was a bit cold, that’s all. I’ll be all right in a minute.’
He blasted the heater on full and I held my hands against the vent. We didn’t talk much as ahead of us snow slanted sleepily across the headlights and when we started our climb through the narrow roads I thought of the fairy lights I had left on the fireplace and how behind us the snow was silently disappearing into the sea. And as I felt the objects in my coat and the car carried us ever further away, I knew that we could never travel far enough, no matter how much we tried, and I wanted something to hold happiness bigger and brought up really close, a glass that made misery fade. The jagged hedges channelling the car bristled with white-tipped spears, the road ahead a trembling splay of snow. Morrissey started to sing about the light that never goes out but as my father started to accompany him, and with a glance invited me to join in, I wanted him only to tell me that it wouldn’t be our fault, that we weren’t the ones to blame.
This is taken from David Park’s latest collection of short stories, Gods & Angels, out no win paperback from Bloomsbury. Park has written nine previous books including The Big Snow, Swallowing the Sun, The Truth Commissioner, The Light of Amsterdam, which was shortlisted for the 2014 International IMPAC Prize, and, most recently, The Poets’ Wives, which was selected as Belfast’s Choice for One City One Book 2014