Whatever You Want - A Christmas short story from Stuart Evers
Stuart Evers shares a Christmas short story, inspired by suggestions received on social media.
Christmas was born in 1995; too late for my parents, but just in time for me. My father was a union man, a singer of the Red Flag, a firestone preacher of socialism, a prophet of a race war, a scorner of organised religion. He conceded to a tree, bought on Christmas Eve and dumped outside the house the day after Boxing day, he conceded to turkey, though he complained at the expense and the tough, tasteless meat, and he conceded to drinking from the moment of his waking on the day itself. We did not meet with family, though we knew Uncle James had all the cousins and family over, and we were permitted one present each, which was always a book. It didn't matter. He knew we were right. In the undecorated house, the gas fire on, him falling asleep while reading the book mam had bought him.
I met Adelaide and nothing changed; her parents militant in different, more moneyed ways. Christmas Day and we would go into the city, a short walk from her parents' house in Tufnell Park, imagine the empty streets our playground, the architecture quiet without people to populate it, the roads clean, shorn of vehicles. We opened champagne filched from her parents' cellar, and drank it in celebration of us, and nothing else. The Christmas after she left, I walked the same streets with a bottle of Pernod and saw other adventurers around the Bank of England, by St Pauls and Oxford Street. Taunting they were, these couples, doing what we had done, but better, so much better.
The squat was repossessed in 1991, in the winter, in the cold. They came in like a police raid as Jeff was serving out dhal. Christmas at home for the first time in years, my father still hopped up from the poll tax riots, the demise of Thatcher, and dismayed by the fall of the USSR. My mother sighed more than ever, joined in the morning drinking, while my father provided violent advice.
‘You need to get a job,' he said. ‘A man's nothing without work and you've been nothing for too long.'
A fair point, one not to be argued with. Had we believed in it, someone might have said, please, not today, not at Christmas, but my mother kept her own counsel, probably agreeing with Dad with every stab of his index finger.
Activism leads to charity work, this at least in my experience. The difference is that people listen when you tell them a sob story, rather than harangue them for capitalist fatalism. The process is much the same though, the singularity of the argument. Jeff from the squat got work with a homeless charity, and suggested I apply for some volunteer work there. Within a month I was working on their campaigns, finding new ways for people to feel sorry enough to hand over a few quid. I was helping and I was being paid.
Christmas was the best of times, the worst of times. I managed to snag a celebrity – I won't say who as the years have not been kind to his reputation, his name now synonymous with a tree found in graveyards – to work at one of the soup kitchens the week before Christmas. The money came flying in. But for years, I was there, on Christmas day, watching the fallen queue for bread and soup, their families wherever they were, perhaps raising a glass in memory to them. In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds and so on.
Anna got divorced in late 93. She blamed herself, the hours she worked at the charity, the time she spent with us all. I'd met her husband, Phil, and I blamed him for being a Tory. She had a girl called Josie, a delicate, blonde girl with ringlet hair and clothes so primped and fresh she always looked as if recently styled for the set of a movie. Hard not to be entranced by her. She sometimes came to the office, and just her smile would brighten the gloom of the daily plight we peddled. We did not have a Christmas party – I'd nixed that, saying it promoted the wrong messages – but there were organised drinks in the New Year. We kissed there. No mistletoe in sight. We tried to keep it a secret, but it was clear we were both too happy at the same time for there to be nothing going on.
My father and mother met Anna and Josie several times over 1994. They died happy, I think. They didn't get to meet Leon, though they knew he was on the way. Perhaps that was enough for them both. While Anna and Josie spent Christmas at Phil's house, I organised my mother's effects, cleared out the council house for the next occupants. They'd had a right to buy, but my father refused point blank. What would the next generation do, he said, if there aren't council houses for them? It was probably worth about a quarter of a million. The next generation was gutted to be excluded the windfall.
Phil was an estate agent, worked rentals mostly, the Hyde to my Jekyll. He was a good father, at least in material terms, Josie would have expected nothing else. Even though Leon was well on the way, he agreed to continue to fund aspects of Josie's life. Clothes and toys, mostly. An offer of help with school fees was met with profound thanks and a polite decline in public, and an almost cataclysmic argument behind closed doors.
‘Don't you want the best start in life for Josie?' Anna said.
‘What about Leon?' I said. ‘Won't he expect the same?'
It was a good point, and I made it well. And so the argument died down, especially as the local primary had recently been well-graded in the school league tables.
I wished that my father had had a couple of hours with Phil, that's all it would have taken. The brimstone fury he would have unleashed upon him. I was allowed to mock, but only gently, and never in front of Josie. She preferred me anyway, this I could tell. No matter how many presents she received, it was me to whom she turned when she needed something. And then Leon arrived.
She was five when Leon mewled his first, mewled it in the living room of our house, Josie arriving a few hours later, to meet her baby brother. She was intrigued, I think by him, and wanted to hold and pet him. But towards me, she became cold and distant, mummyish as she was at the age of three. She knew already I would be distracted by my own. As the year wore on, it got worse. Anna thought I was imagining it. She told me all the times Josie said she loved me, kissed me without prompting, would ask for me at the end of the day. But I knew something had to be done.
That Christmas, there was just one thing she wanted. It was what every child wanted that Christmas. Buzz Lightyear. Phil was tasked with finding one, but had come up with nothing.
‘There just aren't any!' he said when he came over to talk contingencies. ‘There's not a one in the country. Not one anywhere.'
‘She's going to be so disappointed,' Anna said, breastfeeding Leon. ‘It's going to ruin everything.'
He flounced out, feeling blamed, no doubt. The house was silent in his wake, Leon asleep now in Anna's lap. She started to cry.
‘I just wanted this Christmas to be perfect,' she said. ‘Our first Christmas together.'
It had been busy at work and I hadn't thought about Christmas at all. There would be Christmas Eve for Josie at Phil's parents, but Christmas Day here at home. Anna had put up the tree on December 1st, but I had not been around. I came back and it was up, but the lights wouldn't work. I checked each bulb until they shone in reds and blues. And it was like that, the sudden illumination, when I realised what was happening.
My father once bought a gun. An old gun, possibly from the war. For protection he said, he was big on protection, if the bomb drops. He let me hold it, he showed me how to clean it, how to load it. I don't think he ever fired it, but it lived in his bedside drawer, wrapped in cloth, hidden under socks. My mother never knew anything about it, he made me promise never to tell her about it.
‘Where did you get it,' I asked him. ‘Where can you just buy a gun like that?'
‘The lorry park,' he said. ‘You know the one off the main road. You can buy anything there. Anything at all.'
It was a long drive in cold and mist, directions from memory and not from maps. It occurred to me that he had lied about the lorry park, just an excuse to dodge an awkward question, but that was unlike him. Always a straight bat, no matter how hard the question. The lorry park was lit by orange sulphur lights, most of the cabs had their curtains drawn. Around a brazier, five men were drinking from a bottle of vodka, big coats, ski jackets, making them look warm. I could smell nuts roasting on the brazier. Suddenly that the smell of Christmas, knowing it, hearing Nat King Cole singing about the nuts roasting.
I wandered over to them and they silenced as I approached. They passed the bottle and looked me up and down.
‘Hello,' I said.
‘Lightyear,' one said to another. ‘Fifty quid says Lightyear.'
‘No one'll take that bet,' another said.
‘Okay,' the man holding the bottle said. ‘You'll be after a Lightyear then, will you?'
‘Told you,' the prognosticator said.
‘Okay,' the man with the bottle said. ‘How much you willing to pay?'
‘How much are they?' I said.
‘You understand capitalism, don't you, friend? At this time of year, especially, it's not how much things cost, it's how much you're willing to pay for them, ain't it?'
I had two hundred quid in cash, and a chequebook. I had no idea how much the doll was to start with.
‘I won't be ripped off,' I said.
‘A fine strategy, that, my friend. I like it. Don't want to appear too desperate now, do we? But I know you're desperate. We all know you're desperate. Question is, how desperate?'
The look on her face as she opened it. The look on her face from disappointment to joy. The reminder that I had delivered and not her daddy. That it was all down to me, no one else. The perfect Christmas.
‘I have a hundred and fifty,' I said.
The man with the bottle laughed.
‘Well bully for you, a hundred and fifty, you say? How wonderful for you. I'm glad you came all this way to tell me.'
He was an older guy, well past his sixties, nose huge and red – later, I'd say it looked like he ripped it off Rudolph – but nothing jovial about him, nothing that didn't have an edge.
‘I could probably get together two hundred.'
‘Big money!' he said, impersonating a long-dead quiz show host.
‘That's all I've got,' I said.
‘Well I don't know if that's going to be enough to get that look from your kid on Christmas Day, now is it?' the man said. ‘How much is that worth? Is that worth another fifty? Another hundred? Is it worth another grand, I'm asking myself.'
‘It's worth two hundred,' I said. ‘Take it or leave it.'
He looked at me. His eyes narrowed. It was cold enough for my shakes to look like chill.
‘You're not Bill's lad, are you? Bill Milton's lad?'
‘You heard. Are you Bill Milton's lad?'
‘Yes,' I said. ‘Yes, I am.'
‘How is he? Haven't seen him in years.'
‘Died,' I said. ‘Earlier this year.'
‘Oh,' he said. ‘My condolences. A good man, was your Dad. Stood up for the common man he did.'
‘Yes,' I said. ‘Yes, he did do that, yes.'
‘Mac, go get a Lightyear. Get one for Bill's grandkid, will you?'
The man with the bottle put his arm around my shoulder. He gave me the bottle to drink and I took a sip from the bottle. Mac came back with a black plastic sack, inside a Buzz Lightyear doll in a pristine box.
‘Christmas miracle, isn't it?' the man with the bottle said. ‘And all yours for a hundred.'
I passed him the money. I thanked him profusely. I got into the car, relieved I hadn't had to pull the gun.
It was the perfect Christmas. It was the first Christmas. I wore a jumper with Rudolf on it, sang carols, opened presents from Anna and from Josie and from baby Leon. There was a fire and we roasted nuts upon it, we had duck and decided this was our Christmas tradition. And most of all, it was the opening of the present, the Buzz Lightyear and the kisses and the tears of joy.
And every year the same after that. The perfect Christmas, each and every year. And each Christmas an impossible gift that only I can deliver. Twenty-three perfect Christmases, Josie and Leon beaming even now as the thing they most want magically appears before we sit down to eat our duck. And each Christmas, down to the lorry park, down in the mist and the orange light, to barter with the men, ask them for whatever it is the kids want this year. And each year, the gun in my pocket, a reminder of my father, and a reminder I always, always keep my Christmas promises.