Each year Stuart Evers, author of Your Father Sends His Love writes a Christmas story based on suggestions from people on social media. 'White Christmas' is his festive story for 2016.
In the new car, driving against the lightly falling snow, he continued to consider the year soon to pass. It was an annual event, one to decide whether he had won or lost. It had begun, this reckoning, in his early twenties as a simple double-entry style ledger of debits and credit; but over the decades it had refined itself into a more exacting, more complex process. A win or a loss was now determined by his success in six key areas – personal, physical, political, professional, sexual and spiritual – each of which was rated out of ten: anything below five a loss, anything above a win.
Each category was also weighted due to its importance, some carrying significantly greater value than others. The year of the hernia, for example, was in all other categories an unqualified win, but the pain and distress he’d suffered in Physical ultimately meant defeat. This year he had completed a half-marathon, had had a full check-up with the doctor with resoundingly positive results, and had lowered his cholesterol through a balanced diet and Statins. It was an eight. A good basis, a satisfying score. He liked giving himself an eight. A win, certainly, but with ample room for improvement.
The traffic slowed for an accident, cars creeping past the wreckage. Slower even than usual on Christmas Eve: the there-by-the-grace-of-god-go-I’s, the tuts and shakes, the mental notes to keep your distance and stay within the speed limit, the sordid eyes searching out a body, a face, a survivor shivering by the side of the road. He did not look. He was proud of never looking. Once he’d looked, when he was young and drove a clapped-out old Fiesta, and had seen a man dead on the ground. The body had a lightning strike of blood on its face, the eyes fixed, trained at the heavens. The image had persisted for many years. It reminded him that David Bowie was dead and his wife had been upset by his death, though he told her it was inane to mourn someone she had never known. It was what she needed to hear, he thought, and he was glad she had not mentioned him again. She did not repeat the performance when Prince also died, though she had talked to her friends on the phone about it. Better them than him, he figured.
Sexually it had been a solid year, far from vintage, but nothing to complain about. No birthday treat, there hadn’t been one of those for a long time, no matter how much he had hinted, but otherwise an average return of once a month or so, though it was possible it wasn’t as often as that. Either way, a solid six.
He was pleased that he’d stayed faithful during year, too; though he had fumbled with Gill at the summer party. He could have taken it further, but she rightly told him that it was time to stop. He missed his liaisons with Bella, but all things considered the affair was not worth the considerable chicanery needed to avoid being caught. She had broken the thing off, which was a relief, and when the redundancies came it was good they could both get a clean slate and move on. He’d emailed to tell her he’d done all he could do, and her silence suggested she’d accepted this. Her work had not been up to standard anyway, so she could have no complaints, nor was there any real recourse he could see.
The consultancy process over the redundancies had begun in August, and this was the crowning achievement of his professional year. It had been a long time in coming. The previous two years had been fives – a score higher than he warranted, but he’d awarded himself extra marks for tenacity, spirit and the rigour of his long-term strategy. A strategy that had now paid off handsomely. The long-standing power struggle with Sawyer had ended in his favour, those nights at the Conservative club with Gardner and Powell and some broken confidences finally giving him the edge. Sawyer had insisted on his project, there was nothing he could have done to stop him, and it was Sawyer’s fault it had blown up so badly. He had helped it along, but he reminded himself that sabotage was a dirty, grubbing word and what he had displayed was leadership, clarity and nous. Professional could have been an eight, but watching Sawyer collect his things from his office, a pot plant visible in the box as, flanked by security guards, Sawyer was escorted from the building, made it a nine. The company car he was driving, the leather smell and heated seat could have pushed it to a ten, but he was not the sort to believe in absolute perfection. There was always more he could do.
He arrived at the airport, Heathrow, and parked up in the short stay carpark. He liked Heathrow, much preferring it to Gatwick, Heathrow being more convenient. He was glad they got the nod for the extra runway. Heathrow was virile, he always thought, more grasping, more worthy of the skies. He watched a plane take off and then another. He had travelled first class for the first time this year, for the first time in his fifty-five years, and now could not imagine travelling any other way. With his car and his coat, the well-knotted scarf and leather driving gloves, he looked the kind of man who always turned left on entering a plane.
The arrival hall was filthy with people, there hardly any room to even stand and wait. His daughter’s plane was on time, she would be through soon. He checked his phone, but she had not called. He said a prayer, thanking God for His keeping of his daughter safe. God seemed to be more present in his life, more of a force. He had prayed a lot during the run up to the redundancies and had been rewarded. He had only managed one church service, however. His wife was more observant. She had started praying each night. She had also started seeing friends more often, a drink with them once or twice a week, of which he approved. She spent all Sundays now at the church. He was there for her as her rock, now their daughter had left. He felt that this was his Christian duty, as well as a marital one. He was sure God would score him a seven; more services, and more charity work and next year he would be up to an eight.
Charlie leaving had been hard on them both. He was fond of saying it was just empty nest syndrome and that it would pass and that always seemed to console her. Charlie called home regularly, but he didn’t get chance to speak about much aside from money and asking her about grades. This needed work, he realised. He should make an effort to call her on the way to work and find out how the course was going. His wife said it felt like she’d been a long time gone, but as he pointed out it had only been a couple of months. She’d reminded him that she’d been gone since her A-Levels had finished. Since June. She’s been back though, he countered, that weekend after she got back from Berlin. I remember that, she said. How could I forget?
All parents and children argue about politics, he knew this and knew also that it would pass. She would see the world as it really was. He was not going to apologise for his views, and he was not going to pretend for her sake that he wasn’t happy that country had made the right decision. He’d won money at work from Sawyer after the big vote. Two hundred quid the bet. He’d won three hundred from someone in accounts after the US election. He knew people. He knew what they wanted, and what they needed. He understood. And his daughter would too. When she’d called, the day after the woman lost, he picked up the call and she said Don’t say a word, just put Mum on, and he’d laughed. She had a dry wit just like her father. He checked his phone. No messages. Politically it was a nine; the best he’d known for a decade or more.
Another flight came through the double doors. He saw people rush to hug their loved ones and felt like he was in one of those sad romantic movies they played at Christmas. Reality overlooked, and love seeping through the floor like effluent; the races of the world hand in hand, arm in arm, looking as one, though they’d usually be scratching out each other’s eyes. It felt fabricated and unreal, their gestures and movements learnt from television, rather than from the true depths of emotion. People, he realised, do not understand how to communicate without making a show, making a fuss. They lacked the self-knowledge to be themselves.
He held his phone in his hand and waited. He looked at the arrivals board and counted his scores – eight, nine, six, nine, seven – and realised he had yet to score Personal. That he judged, quickly and effortlessly, an eight. Same as the year before, same as always. He had won the year in a landslide. It was the best year since records began.
His phone rang, a picture of Charlie lit up.
‘Are you at the airport?’ Charlie said.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘I’m not,’ she said.
He looked around as though she might be lying.
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m not coming home. I’ve just spoken to Mum. She understands.’
‘But I’m waiting at the airport, why didn’t you say?’
He looked around again, wondering what people would make of him talking on the phone, not looking out for anyone. They’d take him for a chauffeur.
‘Speak to Mum about it.’
‘I’m asking you,’ he said.
‘I’ve got to go. Bye, dad. Merry Christmas.’
He didn’t know quite what to say. He heard her shift the phone in her hand.
‘Dad,’ she said. ‘Sorry, one last thing.’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Happy. New. Year.’ She said, and ended the call.
He put away the phone. He shook his head. People were everywhere, so many people. They were all crying, all hugging, all pretending. He walked back to the car and put on his gloves. He sat inside the car and turned on the engine. The radio came on. It was playing a song about driving home for Christmas. He switched the channel to the news. As he drove out of the car-park he deducted two points from Personal. Two points deducted, but it was still a win. It was still the year to beat. The best year ever. Nothing could change that.
Stuart Evers' latest story collection Your Father Sends His Love explores the complex, baffling relationship between parents and their children.
‘Witty and accomplished. . . Evers's sparse prose resounds meaningfully, sending out ripples across the pond of family life' - Daily Mail