Lay Me Down: A Christmas short story by Lucy Caldwell

‘Was it bad parenting, I wondered, to send your ten-year old down then back up three flights of stairs to bring you a top-up of spiked mulled wine?’

Christmas illustration

We were at a Christmas drinks party. Or rather: we were two floors above where the Christmas drinks party was happening. Our toddler wanted to be with the other kids, in the attic playroom, but the flights of stairs were beyond her, or at least beyond our capacity to relax while we thought of her tumbling down them, so the attic playroom it was.

We didn’t both need to be there. But where my husband was I wanted to be, which I suppose was saying something.

Our toddler was happy enough, beavering around after our friends’ kids, playing with our friends’ kids’ toys with a commitment she never showed to her own, near-identical versions.

We, meanwhile, were playing a competitive version of Where’s Wally? which went like this. One person selected a page, and timed with their phone’s stopwatch the other person finding Wally. The first two times, my husband found Wally in under thirty seconds, while I gave up after four then three minutes.


You either get it within the first minute or you’ve no hope, I said.

Interesting theory.

Well then, what’s your technique? I asked.

I look for the one, he said, that looks like Wally.

And he hadn’t even meant it to be funny.

Are you ok? he said.

Flip me I love you, I said, when I’d stopped choking on my laughter.

Are you pissed already? he said.

We’d both watched Jason, our host (or half of them) lashing most of a bottle of vodka into the mulled wine, then shrugging and adding the rest. We’d looked at each other, but then, screw it, we’d both drunk it anyway.

Probably, I said.

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There was something Marguerite Duras had said, I thought, that knowledge of sexual relationship was there either from the beginning, or not at all. Or something. We’d been through so much – I mean, who hadn’t, in our case twelve years and three kids – and we were such good friends now, that we had to remember that.

Why don’t we slip into a spare room for two minutes, I said, and–

You really are pissed. Don’t you be having any more of that stuff.

He went to take my glass, probably only half in jest. I surrendered.

There’s a non-alcoholic version too you know, he said.

It’s not non-alcoholic, I said, it’s alcohol-free. It’s a positive thing, not defined by its negativity. Like carefree, footloose-and-fancy-free. Like the way you don’t say childless these days, you say child-free.

On cue, our eight-year old barrelled into the room, followed by our ten-year old, and someone else’s, and someone else’s again, all Shloer-crazy. In what world did we have a ten-year old? In what world had we decided, just as our youngest was in P1 and we were starting to get our lives back, that it would be a good idea to have another? Had it been love, or fear?

Oh Lord. Here we were. This was us. This was it: what we got. This was our life.

I look for the one that looks like Wally.

Was it bad parenting, I wondered, to send your ten-year old down then back up three flights of stairs to bring you a top-up of spiked mulled wine?

Should we try to go downstairs again? I said.

She’ll only gurn. You go, if you want.

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Jason was my husband’s oldest friend: another one of the cream of Ulster, as Junior Master Mr Samuel Beckett had famously called the Campbell College boys, adding, for clarification, rich and thick.

It’s ok, I said, you go. Just don’t get stuck with the guy with the antlers.

The guy with the antlers was always at Jason and Aisha’s parties, though not, obviously, always in antlers. He and his wife had three kids, too, all girls, all always dressed the same, right down to their hairstyles, right down to the colour of clips in their hair. There was a desperation to his antics (antics: I thought, noun, plural, a purportedly quirky habit of wearing a reindeer headband through the festive season). A desperation too, of course, to his performative drinking, though what was it someone else had said? – that which we despise most in others

I was no good at parties any more. I got drunk on one glass and talked in quotes I only half-remembered.

On you go, I said. Go on! Being serious. I need to work on my Wally-location skills.

My husband smiled, got off his hunkers to his feet, mock-groaning. There was that funny thing where, if you’d met someone in your twenties, you sort of always saw them that way, their older selves just layered on. Or maybe it was the other way around: the memory of their younger self always surfacing. Either way, he was looking well, I thought. Tired but handsome. One of Jason and Aisha’s friends, maybe the woman with daughters, whose name I had to try better to remember, would probably flirt with him, and that would only be a good thing.

I love you, I said as he left, and I meant it.


Outside the curtain-less window, it was mizzling. The dark shape of the monkey-puzzle tree in the garden, faintly sinister in the dusk. The bare branches of the lime and chestnut trees on the Earlswood road beyond, swaying patiently. Maybe, I thought, this all really had once been some Earl’s wood. James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Claneboye, who’d taken vast tracts of County Down in the seventeenth century. Or Conn O’Neill, he of Connswater, the river – well, and present-day shopping centre. The Earl’s wood, the way the Donegall Pass, where I’d gone for music lessons twice a week for years, had actually, literally been one of six passes cut through his forest by Lord Donegall, so that people could more easily get to the south of the town.

You started to find yourself interested in that sort of thing as you got older, or at least I had. Who had been the people who came before. It was when you began to realise, maybe, that one day you’d be one of them. I’d been looking at a book of photographs of old Belfast by Robert French that morning, 1890s people queuing on the jetty off Queen’s Island to catch the paddle-steamer to Bangor for the day, return fare of 1s 6d or concession 1s, the caption said. Looking at them, giddy in their finery, the pleasure-boat and treats of the day to come (dulse, yellowman, the penny machines, a poke) you couldn’t help thinking just how far from their minds it would have been that they were the people of the past, that the world was rapidly moving on around and without them, and they hadn’t even realised it yet.

Christmas illustration

I felt a bit like that yesterday passing the Christmas Market, my husband said when I said this to him.

Very funny, I said, though it sort of was. He didn’t think about death, or at least not in the ways I did. We’re here now, he said, which was exactly the thing I’d to constantly remind myself. In the photographs, everyone, but everyone, male and female, and even most of the little boys, were wearing hats. You thought of the hatters and milliners then, how it must have seemed the stablest of trades, until all of a sudden people stopped wearing head-gear, almost overnight, it must have seemed, when before it would have been unthinkable to be in public without covering your head. I often thought of that: of unforeseeable obsolescence. Video rental shops, for example. London A-Zs. Alarm clocks. You could do the history of a generation in suddenly-obsolete things. Floppy disks. MP3 players. Camera film, and one-hour processing labs. Tamagotchis. Hair mascara, for which you either saved up your babysitting money or else nicked, from the Debenhams in Castle Court. Body glitter! When that arrived from America, by way of Claire’s Accessories, we thought we were living the dream.

But who were we, our generation, if you could even call it that? We weren’t the previous generation, but nor were we the one almost immediately after, the one people called the ceasefire babies. Who were we, and what had we done? We’d gone away, mostly, those of us who could, and then we’d come back, or started to, when we realised there wasn’t really anywhere else. I’d gone to Manchester, my husband, defying his Campbell College posh-boy peers (St Andrews, Durham, Bristol) had chosen East Anglia. We’d then met during a miserable year in London – miserable individually, though less miserable, mercifully, together – and stuck out our respective flatshares and then shared bedroom for a further two before taking the plunge and moving back – and we said the word with an audible quote unquote – home.

And now we had a son sitting the Transfer Test and another almost as tall as him and a daughter who bossed us all about, as well as friends-from-home moving back at a rate of knots. Or at least at the rate of FlyBe, who advertised their planes with the slogan, Faster than road or rail, to which you always felt tempted to add the unspoken, though implicit, but only just.

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Jason and Aisha had swapped East London for East Belfast just this summer, in time for their elder girl to start school. They’d bought this house – a vast run-down former something-home – for less than the price of their two-bed London flat with its boxy one-and-a-half metre balcony, or so they never stopped telling us, whether boasting or apologising we weren’t quite sure. They now talked about Ballyhackamore and the Belmont Road with the zeal of the convert, or at least the desperation of those hoping against hope they didn’t wake up one morning to find, square meterage and garden notwithstanding, they’d made a huge mistake. Or maybe it should be the zeal of the ­revert. Jason had – if only nominally – converted to Islam in order to marry Aisha, for her family’s sake, and they called it reverting, which I kind of quite liked, as if it had always been there, and it was you who’d just finally come to your senses. It all seemed to be going ok, so far. Aisha hadn’t even had any of the well-are-you-a-Protestant-Muslim-or-a-Catholic-one jokes. Though to call that a joke, even ironically, would technically and maybe even legally be an abuse of the word.

I liked Aisha a lot. She was a secret smoker and a terrible cook. For this last reason alone, she loved Northern Ireland: the land of the traybake, in philosophy and practice impossible to fuck up. She couldn’t believe you just mashed it all up a bit, put it in a tin and chilled it. Un-fuckup-able, she said. Or un-fuckable-up.



Oh, I said turning. Hi. It was Jason. Sorry, I said. Miles away. I checked for my daughter, who’d been, I realised with a start, suspiciously quiet. It was ok, or at least, she was, if not the playroom around her: she was methodically shredding a whole box of tissues into tiny snow-flake like pieces. Sorry, I said again.

No worries, he said. Good party?

Yeah, no, class, I said, automatically, before realising he was probably being sarcastic. For some of us, anyway, I said, sarcastically too, then added: Sorry about your playroom.

He looked slightly vaguely at the tissue-snow. No worries. Cleaner’ll sort it tomorrow.

He rubbed at his head. Jason had been really good-looking once, all cheekbones and floppy curtained hair. If you liked that sort of thing. But his hair was receding at the temples now, and thinning on top, and the cheekbones had sort of receded somehow too, or the rest of his face had whatever the opposite of receded was. Accumulated? Advanced? Countering my earlier theory entirely, I had a sudden vision of him at fifty, or sixty, or whatever, for us, would count as middle-aged. Catch yourself on: I thought. You are middle-aged. You are, probably literally, and that’s if you’re lucky, right now in the exact statistical middle of your life.

You ok? he said.

What? No, yeah, grand, I said. Just –

I gestured out the window.

Thinking, I finished, lamely. Like if this was a film, I heard myself saying, a Christmas film, there would be snow. But all’s we get is rain.

So says the Confucius of Connswater, he said. What? What is it?

Conn and his water, I said. I was just thinking about him there. About who he might have been. Whether all this once was his.

Is his grave not up for sale or something? Jason said. I think I read that somewhere. Or what they think might be his grave. The last King of Castlereagh. It’s just up by my folks. Off the Holywood Road. Planning permission for half a dozen houses, or something.

I didn’t know that, I said.

Yeah, no, I’m pretty sure.

Neither of us said anything more for a moment.

All’s we get is rain, he said.

I liked Jason. Or at least, I liked him well enough. Or at least minded him less than most of my husband’s friends. And since they’d moved here, he and Aisha and their girls were ninety per cent of our social life. Or what passed for it.

I’m a veritable fount, I said, of what would you call it – Confusion?

That made him smile.

You, he said, nodding at my glass, need a top-up, Missus.

He was holding a bottle, which turned out to be Goats do Roam. Who bought that stuff, I’d always wondered. Apparently, we did. Or at least we drank it. He topped up my glass, right to the brim. Winked at me.

Cheers, you.

Cheers, I said.

We touched glasses; drank.

Daddy! His daughter Sufia was at the door. Here Daddy, come on!

A handful of months, and her accent pure Belfast already.

Honest to goodness, Daddy, she said. She whirled in a circle and darted off.

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I’m coming, Jason said. He turned back to me. I’m putting on a film for the rug-rats. He added, So I am. It was the way we’d started to talk: saying the things we’d once said, and would probably still say anyway, ironically.

What are you screening? I said.

Wait for it. Are you ready? Frozen...2.

Wait, what, she survives?

Jason didn’t get my joke. To be fair, it wasn’t my finest.

Oh, just let it go, I said. This time he smiled.

Here’s one Sufia likes, he said. How does Olaf get around Arendelle.

How, I said. How does Olaf get around Arendelle.

On an ice-cycle.

Very funny.

Jason wasn’t exactly standing close, but it was close enough that I could tell he smelled of weed. He and my husband had apparently been stoners back in the day, the flat they shared in Norwich, stories of munchie-sessions, of legendary hash brownies that knocked you out for eighteen hours straight. It wasn’t my sort of thing, and hadn’t been either of theirs since they moved to London and started work for law firms, Jason as an actual lawyer, my husband in IT.

Do I reek of it? he said. Is it really that obvious?

What? I said. I hadn’t said anything.

Half a mile up the road, he said, I used to hide my smoking from my parents. Now I hide it from my kids.

And Aisha? I said.

As soon as I’d said her name, I was glad I had.

Jason looked at me. Then he laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh. It was a laugh like he almost felt sorry for me.

It’s not like she doesn’t not know, he said.

I was still parsing the double-negatives when my daughter, who’d finally run out of tissues, or stamina, cannonballed at me. I picked her up: glad of the weight of her, the solidity. The excuse.

Bibi want milk, she said.

Okey-doke, I said. Let’s get this Beatrice some milk.


Downstairs (down stairs and stairs) the party was in full swing, or as full-to-swing as a Sunday afternoon on the Earlswood Road seemed likely to get. The boys were in the den, where they’d located Jason’s X-box, and were embroiled in a game of Fifa-something. In the kitchen, Aisha, bless her, even if he was her neighbour and so technically her responsibility, was indulging Antler-man, and looked to have been doing so for quite some time already. I got Beatrice her milk, plonked her on a beanbag with her brothers, then went to find my husband. He was in the living room by the fire, indeed flirting with the mother of the three-girls-in-dresses. Their cheeks were rosy, with alcohol, or heat, or novelty. I went up to him and took his arm, kissed his pink cheek. He looked surprised, then put his own arm around me. Neighbour-woman looked surprised, too, or maybe amused: maybe she thought she’d been doing him the favour. She took the hint, though, and drifted away.

Hey, you, I said.

Heya. What’s up? He’d definitely not stuck to the alcohol-free stuff: his words were slurring.

What’s Jason’s Islamic name? I said.

You what? my husband said.

The name he took, I said, when he converted. Reverted. To Islam. When he married Aisha.

Oh, that, my husband said. Yeah, I don’t know, he said. Shall I ask him? Where is Jason? Why?

It doesn’t matter, I said, I just wondered.

Aisha had told me once that her maternal relatives, back in Pakistan, did this thing where they’d change a child’s name if the child was badly-behaved, or kept getting in trouble. They’d change it officially, with a ceremony and everything. It usually worked: as if the new name came with a new energy, new potential, or as if you really could leave your old self behind. I thought of the time in secondary school I’d decided to go by my middle name, but was too shy to actually tell people. I’d taken my husband’s name when we got married, in an ironic-not-ironic way, though now all I thought was the dullness of being yet another son of John, whoever the original John had been. There was something, I thought, something maybe even heinous, about having a whole other name, personality, possibility, even, and not even bothering to use it.

My other half, we’d called each other, self-mockingly, for the first few years of our marriage, and I suddenly wanted him to call me that again, his other half, his better. I thought of the books that used to live on his bedside table, when he used to do things like go on retreats to sweat-lodges in, I don’t know, the middle of Kent, that I used to tease him about. The sheer ridiculousness of a bunch of white IT boys sitting in a circle in a tepee, drumming. The books had said things about the Yakuts of Siberia believing that every shaman kept his soul, or one of them, incarnate in an animal carefully concealed from the world. The Samoyeds of Turukhinsk having familiar spirits in the shape of wild boars, which they led round on magic belts. Now I thought that he had part of mine, or at least, he’d had it. We’d been each other’s gift, not obligation; each other’s secret power. I wanted that again. I wanted him to do his sweat-lodge things again, and for me not to take the piss. I thought if he did, too, if we could get there, if we could only get back to that place–

Are you ok? my husband said.

I took a breath. The room resolved itself around me.

The boys and Bea will need their tea soon, I said.

The boys have eaten their bodyweight in gingerbread. And Bea’s fine. Sure it’s Christmas!

Ok, I said.

Why, do you want to leave or something, or what?

It’s not that I want to leave –

So what do you want to do? he said.

I want you to take me home, I said. I want us to love each other always. I want us to drink less, at Christmas parties and in general. I want us not to have ambiguous or half-hearted encounters with friends or their neighbours in rooms at parties. I want you to take me home right now and lay me down.

I will, he said. And we will, and we will, and we won’t, and I will and I will.

Except that for some reason, I didn’t, couldn’t, say any of it.

Lucy Caldwell’s latest novel is These Days, published by Faber & Faber