Jim and Toby had both worked in the health service long enough to know that you took Christmas when you could. Jim was a radiographer and was rostered on-call for the 24 hours spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, while Toby was a paramedic working the graveyard shift of Christmas Day evening to noon on Boxing Day. They resolved, therefore, to have their own little Christmas on the 23rd, in Jim’s flat, while everybody else was still shopping and making last minute preparations. It was early days in their relationship. They had been introduced by mutual friends at a work function some four months earlier and while neither of them were quite ready to say it, both thought that this could be something special.
Jim had sensed a certain coolness in Toby towards the idea of Christmas, but did his best to convert his ex-council flat into a snug winter grotto. He lit candles and decorated the small tree he had paid over the odds for at Columbia Road flower market. While dinner cooked in the oven, he began mulling some red wine and the scent of spices, cloves and cinnamon filled the room. Adding to the christmas ambiance was a specially-purchased CD of Christmas music that played on the hi-fi. Bing was singing pah-rum-pum-pum-pum when the entryphone buzzed over him. Jim didn’t bother to check the tiny black and white screen on the video phone (the camera downstairs never worked anyway) and pressed the button to unlock the downstairs door. After putting the front door on the latch, he checked his appearance in the hallway mirror, fussed at the obstinate cowlick that wouldn’t stay down and then ran back into the kitchen to give the impression of being both casual and diligent. His eyes scanned the room. There was no time to change anything, but still he worried. He wanted everything to be perfect for their first christmas together.
Still, it didn’t pay to seem too keen, so he needlessly stirred the mulled wine as the footsteps on the landing got closer and clumped their way towards his front door.
“Brrr,” Jim called, “it’s cold as fuck out there. Close the door and get your admirable backside in where it’s warm.”
Jim wore a smile on his face as he turned the corner from the small kitchen to his modest hallway, but the expression dropped off his face once he saw the figure standing there, dressed in a black coat with a fur-lined hood that obscured his facial features.
The hooded figure stood there without saying anything.
“Um… hello,” Jim said.
The hooded figure didn’t reply.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Jim asked, but still the hooded figure said nothing.
Jim glanced back into the kitchen, where a sabatier carving knife gleamed on the sideboard. Two steps back and it would be in reach.
“Toby…?” Jim asked, mentally calculating distances and arm lengths and staying out of the hooded figure’s immediate snares. “Is that you?”
When the hooded figure raised his hands, Jim flinched and very nearly made a dive for the carving knife, but within seconds the gloved hands had popped down the collar of the parka and revealed Toby’s grinning face.
“Merry Christmas!” he said.
“You dick!” Jim gasped, smacking Toby lightly on the arm. “You scared the shit out of me in that thing.”
“You like it?” Toby said, giving a slow twirl so Jim could see the back and front of the long padded parka. “A&F sale started early. 40% off. Can you believe it?”
Jim shook his head. “You’re an arse.”
“Yes, I am,” Toby nodded solemnly.
Jim started to turn back to the kitchen, babbling inconsequentially about turkey and marinades when Toby caught his arm and gently pulled him back towards him.
“Hey,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
And one long kiss later, Jim forgot all about being angry.
The rest of the evening went well. Once dinner was finished, they retired to the sofa and gave each other their presents, each gently chiding the other for going above their pre-approved spending limit. As they lay on the sofa in each others arms, each thought about the year ahead and realised that they were looking forward to the prospect of spending it together.
They sat, looking at the glow of the gas fireplace, quite content just to be with each other and let the music wash over them. As the Carol of the Bells faded out, a more synthetic melody started seinto the mix.
Jim felt Toby tense up in his arms.
“What is this?” he asked.
“This?” Jim said, “You must know this. It’s the greatest Christmas song ever written.”
Synthesizer pads gave way to a jaunty drum-machine pattern and a familiar voice started singing from the iPod speaker dock.
# Last Christmas, I gave you my heart #
“Stop it,” Toby muttered.
# But the very next day, you gave it away #
“This year,” Jim sang, accompanying George Michael on the stereo, “to save me from tears,”
“FUCKING STOP IT.”
Toby stood up, wrenching himself from Jim’s embrace and marching over to the stereo and hitting the stop button violently.
Jim, surprised by this sudden development and dabbing away the wine that had been spilt by Toby’s sudden outburst, asked what the fuck that was about.
Toby, breathing deeply and apparently shaking with rage, got enough of his breath back to say:
“I just… don’t like that song.”
“Really? You don’t like Wham?” He narrowed his eyes in mock suspicion. “Are you sure you’re gay?”
Jim’s attempt at levity faltered before it ever had a chance. Toby looked at him with an expression that said he wasn’t in the mood to play.
“Don’t ever play that song again, you understand me?”
Usually, Jim would have said that it was his stereo and his flat and he would play whatever he felt like, but there was something in Toby’s expression that told him not to. The petty anger slipped away from him and he stood up and went over to console Toby, who now appeared to be on the verge of tears.
“Hey,” Jim said. “What’s this about? It’s a song, that’s all.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “It’s stupid. It’s just that it reminds me of…”
“Reminds you of what? Come on.”
Toby let himself be led back to the sofa and sat down. Jim refilled both their wine glasses and Toby took a greedy slurp, draining half of the large balloon glass in one go. Jim took Toby’s other hand - the one still holding the iPod - in his and held it.
“Can I trust you?” Toby asked after a few deep breaths. “I know it’s only been four months, but I feel like we have something here.”
“I’ve never told anyone this,” Toby said, his voice shaking, “but if I tell you, will you swear never to tell another living soul? Even if we break up, or I turn out to be a wanker or any number of things happen, I need to know that you’re never going to tell anyone about this. Can I trust you to do that?”
“Of course you can,” Jim nodded. “Really. I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. Whatever it is, I won’t tell a soul.”
Toby nodded and took another gulp of wine before proceeding.
“I guess you know that I’m not really into the whole Christmas thing. I mean, today’s been great, but as a rule I don’t really celebrate it. No, it’s more than that. I hate it. I have ever since I was six years old.
“You haven’t met my mum yet. That’s not an accident. I love her and everything, but I know how difficult she is to be around. She’s one of those hard women, you know? She sees the worst in everything, just because that’s hjopw she’s had to survive. She brought me up by herself and with all the problems she had along the way… I don’t know. It’s not like I can excuse some of the things she did when I was growing up, but I also can’t blame her either. For better or worse, she did what she could.
“I know that she loved me, even if it felt like she didn’t really like me most of the time. I look back on it now and she was only sixteen when she got pregnant, her family turned their back on her and never spoke to her again. My dad fucked off before I was born and nothing was never easy, you know? We never had much of anything and I suppose I learned from an early age that life was hard. Still, I wished that she wasn’t so… spiky. It’s the way I always think of her. She’s been better as she’s got older. A bit. I don’t know. You don’t want to hear about all of this.”
“I do,” Jim insisted softly. “I really do.”
“Anyway,” Toby continued, “even though things were always tough, Mum always made a big thing out of Christmas. She loved it and really went to town. She would buy a tree on the first of december and just cover the whole thing with tinsel and baubles and all the trimmings, I mean so much that you couldn’t even tell that there was a tree under all that silver and gold. She really pulled out all the stops for Christmas. She said it was the one time of the year when everyone was supposed to have a good time, no matter what. I loved it, but it wasn’t really because of the presents or the carols or the films on telly, it was just her. I liked it when she was happy and she always seemed more… loving, I suppose, when it was Christmas time. More fun.
“But there was another side to it, in that she would go out drinking a lot and leave me by myself. It’s one of those things that you just accept when you’re a kid, but when you look back on it you start to see that maybe being left alone when you’re six isn’t so clever. Sometimes there would be a babysitter or a neighbour, but a lot of the time it was just me on my own. I got used to putting myself to bed at night, but most nights when mum was out I wouldn’t go to sleep until I heard her come in. I couldn’t stay up, but I’d stay awake in bed I’d know that she had back OK and then I would go to sleep. Or I would try to, because Mum was never that quiet when she came home. She’d either put on The Osmonds and sing along, or she’d knock something over or she’d have somebody with hr and they’d make all sorts of noises, if you get me. But it was OK with me. I always felt better when I knew that she was back and I could sleep through pretty much anything she did. Like I said, it’s what you get used to, isn’t it?
“Still, this was Christmas Eve 1984 and Mum had left strict instructions that I was supposed to go to sleep. She said that if I didn’t, Father Christmas wouldn’t bring any presents for me. When she went out , I was kind of torn between wanting to sleep and wanting to stay up so that I’d know she’d got home OK. Anyway, it gets really late, and I must have gone to sleep for a little bit, because I woke up and I could hear noises coming from the front room.
“At first I’m happy, because it means that mum’s home and that we can have Christmas. But then I listen and it all starts to change, because I can hear my mum crying and talking really low. The crying’s not that unusual - she often had a case of Malibu tears when she came home - but the way she’s talking is different from anything I’ve heard before. I listen in the dark and I can hear that in between the sobs and the tears there’s another voice in the room, one that I don’t recognise, and my mum saying ‘please… please… please….’ over and over again. She’s begging this other person and that just fucking shocks me, because my mum never begged anyone for anything, not in her life.
“So, I think she might be in trouble and even though I’m only six, I don’t want anything bad to happen to my mum, so I get out of bed in my pyjamas and I go to the front room and look in through the crack in the door.
“There, standing in my living room, is Father Christmas. I mean, it looks like Father Christmas from the adverts and the cards, you know - red costume with the white trim, big white beard, all that - but it all seems wrong somehow. I mean, I know that thing that they tell kids, that you shouldn’t stay up for santa, because you won’t get any presents, but that wasn’t the reason I stayed outside the door, looking in. It was… just wrong somehow. Little bits and pieces come back to me over the years. Some of them I think are true, some of them are just things that I think my mind’s tried to use to fill in the gaps. But there are some things that I know for sure. One was that this Father Christmas had his trousers around his ankles. I supposes that should have seemed funny, but it didn’t. He had a can of beer in one hand and he took a swig out of it and he looks down at where my mum’s sitting and says something that I didn’t catch. It might have been something about being a bad girl this year, or that might be one of the parts that my mind’s filled in. Either way, the next part definitely happened, because after he’s taken the swig out of his beer, he turns around and he says that she doesn’t deserve any presents and he takes his dick in his hands and aims it at the tree and the presents. And my mum, who never begged anyone for anything in her life, she wails and pleads with him not to do it. She says that she’s sorry and that she didn’t mean it and begs him not to do what he’s about to do. But that doesn’t stop him and he starts, you know, going all over everything. I mean, he’s pissing on the tree, on the presents, on everything.
“And as he’s doing it, he’s singing ‘Last Christmas’ by fucking Wham.
“Mum tries to get up to her feet and I see then that it’s not because she’s drunk, it’s because she’s hurt. Her dress is torn and she’s got a black eye and a cut lip and as she tries to get up, I can see that it hurts for her to move, but this fucking bastard is still singing as he’s pissing on our christmas tree and she… she just lunges at him. I think she was just trying to get him to stop, but because he’s got his trousers around his ankles he falls over in a heap, knocking the tree over and falling into the presents and then he just fucking roars at her. I mean, it’s the only way I’ve got to describe it. He roars at her, he calls her a bitch and he’s trying to get his trousers up and get up and get his footing, when mum picks up this brass horse thing which always sat by the telly and she cracks him over the head with it. That doesn’t stop him, so she hits him again and again and again, crying and swearing at him until eventually he stops moving and he’s just there, laying on top of our christmas tree, the presents crushed beneath him, his red and white trousers still around his ankles.
“He was dead. I mean I didn’t really know what dead was, not properly, but I knew. I knew that my mum was hurt too, so I ran into the room and even though she was in shock, she took me in her arms and she just kept saying sorry over and over again. It’s the only time she ever apologised to me. I don’t know if she was sorry for killing him, sorry that I had to see it, or sorry for ruining Christmas. Either way… you see why I don’t like that song.”
Toby took a deep breath and looked at Jim, who was completely shell-shocked by what he had just heard.
“It’s… dreadful.” Jim said. “I mean, you poor thing, to have to see that. It’s terrible.”
Toby shrugged awkwardly. “Yeah, I mean… people go through worse, right?”
“Listen,” Toby said, holding up his now empty glass. “do you mind if I have another drink?”
“No, of course. Jesus. I’ll be right back.”
“And I’ll put the music back on. I’ll just skip past that track, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course. We never have to hear it again.”
“I’m sorry for making everything so miserable,” Toby said. “I didn’t mean to ruin everything”
“No, no,” Jim said soothingly. “That’s not how it is at all. I’m glad you told me. To be carrying that around for all these years… It’s dreadful.”
Toby pressed a button on the stereo and a new song started playing. A sweet melody filled the air and as Toby hung his head.
“It has been tough,” he said. “I’m glad you understand. It’s just that most people don’t understand when you tell them-“
The sweet melody turned into a patented Wall of Sound as the Ronettes started singing and Toby accompanied them, slightly altering the opening lyrics as he did so.
“I saw mom-my kill-ing Saaaanta Claus!
“Under-neath the mistle-toe laast niiiight!”
Toby was wearing the same expression he had done when taking down his hood. He pointed at Jim and jigged around the room, utterly delighted at the trick he had played.
“You bastard,” Jim said. “You absolute fucking bastard.”
“I had you!” Toby crowed. “I really had you, didn’t I? Oh, it’s too sweet! Too, too sweet!”
Jim shook his head and had to turn away in disgust. Their first christmas together was also going to be their last.