This short piece of fiction on divorce, family and the failure to communicate was shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature Short Story Award. The annual festival’s details are here – http://www.wellslitfest.org.uk/competitions.php
“I can’t believe you bought it for him.”
“I thought it would be festive.”
“And you put it in his stocking.”
“It seemed the right thing to do.”
“But he’s only eight.”
“He’s very sensitive.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like his mother.”
“What are you trying to say?”
It was the first year since the divorce when I was allowed to take care of Eliot at Christmas. I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted everything to be more fun than a day with his mother, Raul and Raul’s kids. But this was not happening.
I had spent the previous Sunday in a shopping centre outside of town. I picked up a toy from a movie about cartoon rats that Eliot said he liked. But this did not cost enough to warrant the title of a proper present from a parent. So I had to keep searching. I knew Eliot wanted a specific computer game where ninjas kill aliens in a medieval castle. The player could either be a ninja killing an alien or an alien killing a ninja. I called his mother to check to see if she had already bought it for him. She sighed down the line and then said that wasn’t I aware that Raul and herself “refused to buy Eliot any violent gifts”. I told her that I understood her feelings and it was always welcome to hear Raul’s opinion on what was best for my son. But I did not reveal how pleased I was, as it meant that this year I could take the credit for giving Eliot his big present.
But I also had to buy him a bunch of smaller gifts. They had to be cheap and fun. I went to a joke shop and bought a pair of chattering wind-up teeth, some fake plastic spectacles with a nose and moustache and a bottle of soap suds to blow into bubbles. From the supermarket, I picked up chocolates in the shape of Santa Claus and his elves, a couple of oranges and a thick red and white stocking.
Next to the supermarket was a cafe where I sat down to drink a cup of tea. As I emptied these small presents onto the table, I realised I had bought nothing new and nothing interesting. I had a stocking full of what parents were expected to hang at the end of a kid’s bed. I needed to find something that no one else in Eliot’s class would have. My son had to be the target of envy.
The present had to be unique or crazy or dazzling or scary. There were only a few stores in this shopping centre which seemed to be different from the ones found in every other shopping centre. I hoped that inside these places I could find some kind of object that at least could pass for being original. One of the shops was an organic food store. None of the products there were fun. Another was a wooden toy store. Its model trains and puppets and cars and animals were elegant and pretty, but they lacked that spark needed to ignite conversations in the playground. Eliot had to be talked about. Then I found a Swedish delicatessen, which sold frozen meatballs, hard black bread, cans of apple juice and butterscotch-filled chocolate bars.
Inside a cold cabinet hanging from a metal bracket by a piece of string was a long cylinder of salami. I picked it up and looked at the label. One hundred per cent reindeer. Surprisingly, it was not expensive.
Outside was clear. The morning light was breaking through and there was no snow, only a sprinkle of frost on the lawn and the driveway. I was standing in the kitchen chopping up carrots. I had started to heat the oven and was wondering when to put the turkey inside. I only needed to buy a small bird, as it was just the two of us, but decided on a larger turkey because I wanted to show Eliot that I was capable of organising a proper Christmas. I wanted my turkey to be as big as the turkey Raul was cooking.
From upstairs I heard a scream. I put the chopping knife down and ran into Eliot’s bedroom. He was crouched on the floor in his pyjamas. Spread across the carpet were the plastic spectacles, the bubbles still unopened and the chattering teeth unwound. In his hand was the cured sausage. His face was covered in tears.
I ran over and took him in my arms. The salami fell to the floor. His lungs heaved with crying and he pushed his hands against my chest.
“Dad!” he shouted, “you did this!”
It was late in the morning when Eliot came downstairs to eat breakfast. I said he could only have a bowl of cereal because I would soon cook him a large meal. He did not reply, but I poured him some cornflakes and milk and, without looking at me, he took the bowl and left to the living room.
I checked on the turkey. It had spent three hours at a low heat and now I needed to see how tender the meat was. I put on a pair of oven gloves, pulled out the tray and placed it on top of the oven. With a spoon, I poured some of the oil over the breast.
After I pushed the turkey back into the oven, I heard a voice in the corridor. I walked out of the kitchen and Eliot was standing there, both his hands grappling with the large telephone receiver.
“Yes Mum, he’s here,” he said.
He passed the receiver over to me and went back to the living room.
I had to hold the telephone a couple of inches away from my ear. It helped me think I was overhearing the conversation. That it had nothing to do with me. That it was targeted at someone else.
“Do you know what they do at school in December? The kids play reindeer in the nativity play. Yes, the nativity play has reindeer now. Reindeer visit the manger at Bethlehem. Along with the horses, the donkeys, the chickens and the cows. You may ask why? Well, I am glad you do. It’s because kids get so obsessed with reindeer around Christmas that they ask their teachers – Why were there no reindeer coming to bless the baby Jesus? Why did God keep the reindeer out? Did God hate the reindeer? So the school puts reindeer in a stable. In the desert. In Palestine. Are you getting what I’m saying? Every kid in this country spends the last three weeks of the school term learning about reindeer. They draw pictures of reindeer. They sing songs about reindeer. They write stories about reindeer. They find out everything there is to know about reindeer. Everything but the fact that people eat reindeer.”
“How the hell am I supposed to know what Eliot has been up to lately when I’ve not seen him for a month?”
“But,” she said, “where is your common sense?”
“I wanted to buy him something different,” I said.
“You have ruined Christmas,” she said, “as you always used do. That’s why I had to leave. But that isn’t enough for you, is it? I leave you and you still ruin Christmas.”
At the dinner table, I offered Eliot a cracker and he pulled on this with little effort. A faint bang sounded and a hat, pair of plastic scissors and a joke fell out. I asked if he wanted to hear the joke. He shook his head. I asked if he wanted to wear the hat. He said it was not a good hat and he did not want to wear it.
I opened a bottle of Merlot for myself and poured out some cola for Eliot. I carved up the turkey and served roast potatoes, thick gravy, vegetables and cranberry sauce. Eliot ate in silence. Afterwards I microwaved a Christmas pudding, brought this into the dining room and poured brandy over the top. I set fire to the spirit. A blue flame danced across the dessert for a few seconds. Eliot watched in silence. After he ate two portions of pudding, he asked if he could have another glass of cola. I said it was okay. I helped myself to some more wine.
“Were you arguing with Mum again?” he said.
“Because of me.”
“But it was about me?”
“It’s about us.”
“That includes me.”
“Why don’t we go into the other room.”
We sat opposite the Christmas tree. I turned on the fairy lights and asked Eliot if he wanted to watch television. But he said he was not interested in any of the programmes this year. He unwrapped the ninja game, bowed his head and said ‘thank you’ quietly. Then he opened his second present. The plastic rat with moveable arms and legs and a small block of plastic cheese. He handled the toy, seeing how far he could stretch the head and twist the limbs. He pulled the tail and it squeaked and said something I could not hear properly.
I kept drinking my wine.
“Do you like your rat?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “It is the right rat.”
“Do you want to play your ninja game?”
“I can set up the machine on the TV if you want.”
“Do the people in Lapland love reindeer?”
“Do the people in Lapland eat reindeer?
“At the North Pole, there are not a lot of things one can eat.”
“I think it tastes a bit rough.”
“They are hard to catch.”
“Arctic fox? Snow wolf?”
“They don’t have much meat on them.”
“So they eat reindeer?”
“Does Santa eat reindeer?”
“I don’t know about Santa.”
“But he lives in Lapland.”
“And people in Lapland eat reindeer.”
“So Santa probably eats reindeer.”
“Which reindeer does Santa eat?”
“I don’t know their names.”
“There’s Dasher and Dancer – does he eat Dasher and Dancer?”
“And Donner and Blitzen?”
“Does Santa eat Rudolph?”
“I’m not sure about that,” I said. “Rudolph is his favourite reindeer. He helps Santa guide the sleigh through the fog with his red nose.”
“But if Christmas isn’t a foggy day…”
“Then he doesn’t need Rudolph.”
“And it isn’t foggy today.”
“No,” I said.
Eliot put down his toy rat, stood up and looked over at his empty glass of cola.
“Can I play that ninja game now?”
He placed the game box in my hands and then picked up his empty glass.
“So who do you want to be first – ninja or alien?” he asked.
“Ninja of course,” I said. “Aliens are kind of girly.”
“I’ll get the consoles.”