Christmas, 1955: A short story from Stuart Evers
Stuart Evers shares a Christmas short story set in the world of his novel, The Blind Light.
This Christmas story by Stuart Evers is set in the world of his powerful novel The Blind Light, with an appearance from one of the novel's central characters at the end. The Blind Light is both an ambitious story of our nation's past and an intimate portrait of a family, from the 1950s to the present day.
Hot water dares the lip of the bath; fizzes when doused with French fern salts. The grains drift, dissolve and fade in sherbet scent and erratic vapour. She watches them, knowing she should turn off the taps, but instead, and in rebellion, dips a hand into the bathwater, runs it stern to bow; bow to stern. There’s almost as much pleasure, she’s always thought, in watching the fill as the bathing itself: something in the scuttle of the flow, in the steam. The taps are still running as she enters the water; her body delighting in the shock of the scald, in the tightening around her skin. Full immersion then. Under and out.
June claims this tradition as her own, though she stole it long ago from the lady of the house where she was once in service. On Christmas Eve, as family and guests gathered in the west-facing reception, Madam would ring down and ask for a bath to be drawn in her en suite, and there would stay until dinner was over. When June turned sixteen, this task fell to her: a task as much of a gift as those glittering beneath the eight-foot fir in the dining room.
Submerged, June is there in Madam’s en suite, the way she always is on the Eve. The whiteness of the white-tiled walls against the darkness of the walnut parquet; the candles on the marble sink; the card table beside the large claw-footed tub, set with an ashtray and a bottle of whisky.
‘Oh, June,’ Madam said that first time, letting slip her chiffon robe. ‘I could just die right here and now.’
Madam got into the bath then – were there not rose petals in the water? Little flowery ghosts floating on top? June is sure there were – and June turned away, already dismissed. She closed the door on Madam and promised herself – in that way we carelessly promise ourselves the impossible – that all June’s future Christmas Eves would be taken just like that: alone, in a bathroom, up to her neck in salted water. Some fantasies, if they are suitably meagre, have the possibility of coming to pass.
Jane comes up for air, water in her nose, water in her mouth. She dries her face on a towel, then picks up the glass of whisky. She raises it to Madam.
‘My girl,’ Madam says, sitting on the toilet seat. ‘You are looking old.’
‘But alive, still, Madam,’ she says. ‘Still alive.’
‘Tsk,’ Madam says. ‘You say that like it’s a blessing.’
Madam died a year before the second war, in the bath of all places. Drink and pills; heartbreak mostly. June’s mother told her of the whole sorry affair in a letter, the year June and Peter and their eight-year-old son Thomas moved south, away from houses without indoor plumbing to this brown-brick terrace boasting a small bathroom with a pull-chain water-closet. In its timing, the letter was taken by June as a reminder of the promise she’d made to herself all those years before.
Madam is sniffing, her haughty nose in the air, cartoonishly appalled by something’s smell.
‘Is everything okay, Madam?’ June says.
‘Oh goodness,’ Madam says. ‘He’s not in, is he? This won’t work at all if he’s at home. I can hear him downstairs. I can almost smell him. You know, whasisname.’
‘It’s Peter, Madam, as you well know.’ she says, smiling. ‘He retired this year. They got him a clock, you know. A gold one like the one you had in your suite. It’s in the living room now, ticking away. Makes a hell of a racket.’
Madam lights a black cigarette disapprovingly.
‘My condolences,’ Madame says. ‘Under your feet the whole day now, is he?’
‘He’s taken to it well enough,’ she says. ‘All things considered.’
It has been the focus of the year, Peter’s September retirement; the reckoning of it. Meeting her friends for tea, she asked those who had gone through the same how best to help him make the transition. Keep him from the pubs, was the instant response. Give him his space, the second. Then specific advice: do not expect him to do any chores (and praise him like a dog if he does, said Helen), do not make him come with you to the shops (they feel like schoolboys, Elsie said, poor little mites), and do not let him get any ideas in the middle of the day (Jilly, who looked like she had learned the hard way in this regard, offered).
June has been effective in most of these, the first two certainly, and though Peter’s arm still stutters like he’s holding a rivet gun, still knows exactly when the hour is approaching, can still drain a pint of hot tea in under a minute, he claims not to think of the place. That he is glad to be shot of it. Though over dinner he is the one who asks his grandson Drummond what happened at Ford’s that day, whether there is talk of speed-ups, of industrial action, of new management. Drummond humours him, and for this June is grateful.
‘All things considered?’ Madam says, ‘he appears to be downstairs rather than on a drunk with his factory chums.’
‘He thinks it’s best for Drummond,’ June says. ‘Gives him a bit of space.’
There are long enough years between June and Peter for her to know when he is convincing himself of something. His staying home is not really about Drummond but about Peter walking into the bar alone rather than in a group; about there being no oil deep in his cuticles; about having not shared the previous hours in shared and choreographed isolation with his shift-mates. That was the crux.
Years ago, he’d returned from his Christmas Eve in a more contemplative, more reflective, mood than usual. He was almost sober; he did not carry his usual bag of chips; he offered none of the amour that normally followed his revels. In bed, him in pyjamas rather than vest and pants, she asked what was wrong. He false started for a while, skittered around things that had annoyed him, but eventually settled on the real reason.
‘You remember Curtis?’ he said, looking up to the ceiling, ‘Shop Steward. Retired at the start of the year. Married to that Yvonne, you know?’
She nodded, though she wasn’t certain if she was thinking of the right person. A boor, if she were. A boor but not a tyrant, so she remembered. His wife’s make-up made her look like a harlot, though.
‘Well we got to the pub and Curtis was there already. Like he was waiting for us. He was sitting on the big table at the back of the Eastcote like he owned the place. Some of the younger ones, they don’t even know who he is, but he starts ordering them around, telling them to get the drinks in and all of that. He’s talking about bosses who’ve been dead as long as some of these kids been alive. Telling them about the time he met Ford himself, and expecting them to be impressed. And at first everyone’s friendly, but after a while, they just start drifting away. Me included. Later on, I looked over and saw he was on his own. He was just drinking his beer, looking round for someone to talk to. And I darted my eyes away quick smart, joined in a conversation about football of all things. And I felt terrible, Juney. I could’ve cried for him, I really could. Because I’d be crying for all of us. Because that’ll be all of us one day.’
It was this that he worried about, the white-knuckle cling to a past that had long since cut him free. And to do that in front of his grandson. He could not countenance that.
‘And how is your grandson?’ Madam asks.
‘Do you care?’ June says.
‘No,’ Madam says. ‘Unless he has a girl. Does he have a girl?’
‘No,’ June says. ‘No girl as yet.’
‘Pity,’ she says. ‘I could do with some scandal, some real in flagrante delicto. Do you have anything like that for me, my dear?’
‘I haven’t had anything like that since 1937,’ June says. Madam laughs and crushes her cigarette into her palm.
‘Well in that case, I shall take my leave,’ Madam says. ‘Besides, I can hear your Peter approaching, loud as an elephant troupe.’
June can hear him too, though Peter is not as loud as all that. He is clearly trying to soften his movements and by the sounds is looking for something: scissors, a ball of twine, a penknife, something of that order. She knows he wants to call up to her, but does not want to risk her ire: she has been clear he is not to bother her unless the house is on fire. But the frustration is clearly getting too much for him; soon it will be unbearable and he will have no choice but to knock gently on the bathroom door, as though she is newly asleep, and whisper instructions for locating whatever has been misplaced.
He is on the stairs now; June can hear his soft padding on the runner, his hand on the bannister. Do not dare. Do not knock on the door. Do not set foot on the landing, on the board that squeaks by the airing cupboard. The strength to keep him from the door. The iron will of it. Turn around now, head back, retreat. She hears him pause on the stairs, then the weight of him move backwards The muscles in her neck, in her shoulders, retreat and relax; the wrinkles smooth on her forehead. She soaps a leg and raises a glass again to long-gone Madam. To this, her original tradition.
‘And look, the picture of indolence! Of infamy,’ her mother says. She is standing to in front of her husband dressed in a spotless pinafore; he butlered-up in his preferred coat and tails.
‘She has earned her rest,’ her father says. ‘How much you’d have given for a long soak just one evening the year.’
He winks at her. They are in good humour, always happiest when at low-lying bicker.
‘The bird will not be prepared as yet, I’ll wager,’ her mother says. ‘Christmas lunch is so important for the menfolk. Especially now Drummond is working.’
‘June knows what she’s doing, Marjorie,’ her father says, and winks again. ‘Old Juney’s done this more times than you ever have.’
The comfort of them, of their Lincolnshire brogue and corrected vowels, of their straight backs and family concern. It does not last, however. Their appearance is always fleeting; their appeal always rebuked. She knows what they want to ask of her, but she never lets them get that far.
‘How many years is it now?’ her mother asks, and it is a question that could mean so many things; though she knows it means only one.
‘Thirteen,’ she says. ‘Since Thomas died.’
‘That was not what I meant,’ her mother says. They hang their heads, they pray, though they should have no need now of prayer. Her father’s head shines like a buffed shellac helmet; it is as grooved as a record.
‘Peter’s retired,’ June says, changing the subject. ‘Has been since September.’
‘He is a good man,’ her father says. ‘But not everyone in life has been as fortunate,’
‘Not everyone has had your easy passage through life,’ her mother says.
‘Enough,’ June says. ‘And you wonder why we talk so little?’
She closes her eyes and they etch on her eyelids, their serious faces and their accusatory glares.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I will not be plagued this way.’
And they slope away, muttering a name with muted fury, the same as every year. A name they did not utter in life, but will not stop saying in death. She sips whisky and closes her eyes. The water is cooling around her. Her eyes are open now, awaiting her last audience, the one to which Madam and her parents have, like the turns before the singer at the Regal, merely been building.
‘Another year,’ June says, ‘and our boy still does us proud. This year starting at the factory, off at the pub now with his shift-mates, the proper little worker.’
But she is talking to herself. She cannot raise her son, nor his smiling wife. The house is not silent, and for this particular resurrection, it appears, silence is required. She hears Peter downstairs, but not the voice of her son, of her daughter-in-law, Pearl. They are not standing by the door, the two of them paused at the age of twenty-two, dressed in their summer clothes, eating candy-floss on the beach at Leigh-on-Sea, the baby Drummond sitting on his mother’s thigh. There is scratching downstairs. Like he is pulling at the underside of the kitchen units.
June closes her eyes. Nothing changing. The scrape from downstairs and then a whine as the backdoor opens. She can hear him pull it to, strike matches, one after another, the scratch of vesta against the rough edge of the matchbox. A small light blooms on the frosted window. He smokes and he paces, the sound of his boots on the yard cobbles. Wanting to go, but staying. Imploring himself just to sit tight.
There is no chance of Thomas and Pearl arriving now. She soaps a leg. She drinks the whisky. It is the first year since their passing they have not appeared to her on the Eve; the first year they have not sat awkwardly, asking for news of their son. What would she tell them of him now, anyway? That their son is now a man? That he works at the factory and he comes home and eats his meal? That he plays dominoes with his grandpa? That he goes to bed and there is no talk of girls? That there are nights out at pubs but they are few and far? That he is a man she no longer knows in any material sense? That he lives so wrapped within his own mind it gives her fear?
It is a communion, this tradition, it is an armistice with the dead; but it is also a reckoning of sorts. Perhaps her raising of Drummond has displeased her son and daughter-in-law; perhaps they expected better somehow: the grammar school, or polytechnic perhaps. Their non-attendance is a slight. It is a reminder of her failures twice over.
It is the whisky that makes the tears, the whisky, yes. And outside it is the dogs who make the clattering in the dustbins, or maybe some kids hoofing about in the alley behind the yard. She hears someone shout, a male voice that could be Peter or could be anyone. A scuffle of some kind, then no sound at all. She closes her eyes and the doorbell rings.
The doorbell rings again, a long ring followed by a loud clatter on the letterbox. Carollers, perhaps. Always a penny for carollers, but too late for them now, surely. She waits for Peter to get the door. There is silence. No scramble from the backdoor to the front. She cannot even hear him breathe. The doorbell rings again. The letterbox clatters. No slippered feet on the carpet or lino.
He has locked himself out, she realises. Gone to chase the dogs or kids and the yard door locking behind him.
‘All right, all right,’ she says. ‘Keep your wig on, I’m coming.’
Her body weighs heavy, then light on release from the water. She cinches her robe around her, tight as a garotte around Peter’s neck. Steam follows her out of the bathroom, wreathing her as she stomps the stairs, the doorbell ringing once more, though gentler, somehow, the closer she gets towards it.
When the ringing stops there is the silence she has craved, the silence needed. She looks up to the open bathroom door, the pale light against the darkness of the sitting room, the bottle of whisky and the glass on the coffee table. A last ring and she opens the door with violence, about to say something exasperated, or quickly enraged, but stops before anything can be said.
‘Oh,’ the man says, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realise you were…’
In his hat and his large coat, in those elegant shoes he always favoured: her brother. Two decades past, but certainly him; his soft dawn-light hair, his hornet-stung lips, his nose broken from a childhood fall not entirely his fault. The spectacles she doesn’t remember, but they become him.
‘Can I come in?’ he says, taking off his hat. ‘It’s getting chill out here. The wind, you know.’
‘Nudge?’ she says.
‘Haven’t been called that in some years,’ he says. ‘No one ever calls me that but you.’
He takes her silence as invitation and enters the house, removing his trilby and clasping it to his chest as he does so. Nudge brings inside the smell of pubs and lodging houses, of scullery washes and stale clothes. She closes the door behind him, but not before looking up and down the street, watching for a curtain twitch, for faces at windows.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘For the noise and so on, but I don’t have much time, you see.’
He moves to the mantel, warms his large hands on the fully-barred gas fire. Rubbing and warming, hands held like ‘Stop!’, then back to the rubbing and warming.
‘I was on a job nearby,’ he says. ‘I travel these days. A selling job. The money’s not great, but I get to see a lot.’
‘You always did see a lot,’ she says. ‘It’s what gets you in trouble.’
He looks back at her from the fire. She knows what she’s said doesn’t quite make sense, but that it contains a deeper, more general truth, one that even Nudge seems to accept, his smile dimming, then sparkling again.
‘Perhaps you’re right,’ he says. ‘Yes, Juney, you’re always right about these things.’
June feels underdressed to the point of nakedness. She pulls the robe closer around her. His clothes look expensive, but are in poor repair, mended often, bodged regularly.
‘I should go and dress,’ she says.
‘I can’t stay long,’ he says. ‘So please don’t let us waste time on decency.’
She is reminded of their secret raids as children; the way she would lead him to the bathrooms and bathe him when Madam’s family were off the estate. Washing him in the tubs of the gentry, calling him her little man though he was only four years younger than her, him laughing and splashing her face and pinafore. How she later wondered whether it was this that had given him the taste for the illicit.
He does not take off his overcoat, but stands there with his back to the fire, his eyes on hers, same eyes as the last she saw him, the night before his arrest, dressed all flash and heading to a ‘gala’ or so he said. A monkey suit and bow tie. So proud of himself and then later everyone knowing; knowing but mostly not saying. The silent scandal of it, the crime that dares not, but the look on the street, them knowing. Understanding.
‘How did you know where I live?’ she asks, though she knows this is a pointless question. What difference does it make, really.
‘You always ask how visitors find you?’ he says. ‘On Christmas Eve, is that what you do?’‘It’s been so long,’ she says. ‘So very long.’
‘Yes,’ he says, picking up Peter’s glass of whisky and drinking it down. He pours more and swills it in the glass. ‘And whose fault is that, dear Juney?’
There was the letter, the first one. His handwriting neat and the pages perfumed, or at least how she remembers them. The same as the flowers in Madam’s bathwater. Not there. Added for colour.
‘It’s your fault and yours entirely,’ she says. ‘Your way of living.’
He shakes his head and takes cigarettes from his inside pocket.
‘I do not allow tobacco in the house,’ she says. ‘Please do not smoke in here. Peter is out the back having a smoke himself. He will be back in a second. Probably best you go before he gets back.’
She watches him put the cigarette in his mouth, light it from a small silver lighter. The smoke pools, and he sucks it to the back of his throat.
‘I’ve done enough of that,’ Nudge says. ‘Disappearing. Fading into the background. I don’t mind him coming in and seeing me here. Is Drummond at home? He must be, what, sixteen now?’
‘Seventeen,’ she says. ‘And he’s out tonight.’
He picks up the photograph of Drummond taken that summer, a parting gift from a friend before he moved to London to be a photographer’s assistant. Drummond standing on an old bombsite, wearing his best suit and adopting a boxing stance, his fists up to his chin.
‘Put that down,’ she says. She feels the urgency as fleet as heartburn, wants to prise his fingers from the lacquered frame. He weighs it in his hand and puts it back.
‘Good looking lad,’ he says. ‘Taller even than his father.’
‘He doesn’t get it from our side of the family,’ she says. It is a weak remembrance of an old joke, one that could still simmer between them, but does not thaw the cool.
‘What do you want, Nudge?’ she says. ‘Please. I don’t want you here when Pete comes in.’
‘Why not?’ he asks. ‘I’ve missed him as much as I’ve missed you.’
She wonders if this is true, or whether a calculated slight. Perfectly possible either way. Always good friends, the two of them, though no one to know it now.
‘He’s not said your name since,’ she says. ‘And I’m not going to be the one to remember you to him, after what you did to him.’
He smokes his cigarette, flicks ash on the fireplace. He smiles and it is the kind of smile she thinks he must reach for often. Wry and knowing, a defensive smile.
‘I did nothing to him!’ he says. ‘I did nothing to no one!’
He calms his voice down, lower than even before, not more than a whisper, really.
‘Father said the same when he came to visit that first time. He sat there in his commoner clothes, trying to disguise himself, I think he was, and he said to me “How could you do this to us, son? How could you do this us?” and he was almost weeping, and I wanted to give him a slap. “Did this to you?” I said then. “What has this to do with you? It’s me here in the prison. It’s me suffering for no fault of my own.” And he said to me then, “Your sister, she’s devastated.” And it was all right then. It was all right, because I thought you understood. That you’d come see me and tell me you loved me and you’d be looking forward to seeing me on the outside. But you never. You went to pay your respects to Madam, I heard about that. You turned up for her old man too. How many others, I don’t know. You turn up for them in death, but not for me in life.’
He is remarkably calm as he says this. The anger is there, but it is coiled and sprung beneath the polish of his words.
‘You don’t understand,’ she says. ‘I wanted to, but…’
She is watching the door, waiting for Peter to enter, but there is no one. There is no one else in the house. It is her and her brother. Just the two of them.
‘Oh I know, I know you had your reasons. Mothers don’t like their sons around my kind, so I’m told, though they’re happy having them around bullies and brutes. I at least recognise that kind of simple mindedness. But not a letter. Not a visit. Nothing. All these years and nothing?’
‘What do you want me to say?’ she says. ‘That I am sorry? That I beg for forgiveness? That I wish I had done something different? I can say those things, Nudge, but I won’t mean them. I can say them, but it won’t make me sorry. You brought us shame, Nudge. You made us pariahs, Nudge.’
He puts out his cigarette on his palm. He nods his head towards her.
‘You entertain the dead,’ he says. ‘You absolve them of their sins. You misremember their violence, their sickness, their pig-headedness. You are an apologist for their views and their actions. You can laugh and joke with them in your mind without once stopping and asking, how can you account for your behaviour? You live in that world of past glories, fixed in time, and yet you will not cross the street for the living, for the moral and fallible. You will not do that for even for me. For your own little Nudge.’
He picks up his hat and puts it on. He picks up the whisky and drinks it down. He blows her a kiss and it feels like a punch.
‘Enjoy your Eve,’ he says. ‘Dear sister, enjoy these hours. Maybe I will see you when I have been absolved. When my transgressions can be boxed well away.’
He opens the door.
‘Goodnight, June,’ he says and closes the door quietly behind him.
She stands by the fire, the heat against the back of her robe, shivering slightly. She feels its burn. She feels the material catch fire, her body immolated in the sitting room. The smell of flesh, of her skin and bone. And then Peter comes in from the kitchen, his strong smell of tobacco.
‘You’re out?’ he says.
‘Have you seen the scissors,’ he says.
‘Bottom draw,’ she says.
‘Thanks, love,’ he says. ‘Been looking for them everywhere.’
She sits down on the settee. She should ask Peter what he has seen, what he has heard, but he would have said had anything suggested another person being with her. She sips whisky. Best not to say anything. Best always to say nothing.
June’s mother once told her that love is making your own traditions. She was full of homily, makeshift wisdom of this kind, the sort nodded at in the first instance and only remembered many years later when you find yourself repeating it. She watches as Peter wraps the Christmas presents for the first time in his life. He is exact and precise, even when wrapping the jumper she has knitted for Drummond.
‘You should do that every year,’ she says. ‘You’re better at it than me.’
He smiles and nods, moves on to the watch he has saved the year for.
‘It’s a fine watch, isn’t it?’ he says.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Drum will love it, I’m sure.’
He sets to work and the gold clock ticks and she falls asleep as the wireless plays carols and songs from Kings.
‘Hey Grandma,’ he says, waking her gently, so gently on the settee. ‘Grandma, wake up.’
She wakes and smiles and Drummond is pubs and chips and maybe perfume somewhere.
‘Did you have fun,’ she says. ‘Are you terribly drunk? Be sure to drink water before bed.’
He is sitting beside her. Peter is whistling in the kitchen, getting plates for the chips Drummond has brought home for him.
She looks at his cowlick hair, his face like an actor she saw on the cinema earlier in the year. The open eyes and the share of a secret. The paleness of his skin. Perhaps from the drink. Perhaps not.
‘Grandma,’ Drummond says. ‘Who is Uncle Nudge?’
And she does not know what to say. How to answer this. How is it that he has heard the name.
‘Uncle Nudge?’ she says.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I was told to ask you about Uncle Nudge.’
‘By who?’ she says.
‘Does it matter?’ he says. ‘Does it matter who asked?’
His voice is urgent and it is too late to fight. It is too late for her to argue. And on the mantel is the picture of her son and his wife, and she wants to see them again. For the tradition to be the tradition again. For it to be the way that it was, and always be that way.
‘He is my brother,’ she says. And to say so makes Thomas and Pearl smile. And her parents smile. And Drummond smiles. And that is enough as the midnight chimes toll, and she holds her grandson, and her whole family, in her arms. It is ample, and enough.