SHE SIPS HER TEA AND THINKS ABOUT THIS MYSTERY
Then placing the white china teacup on the left arm of her chair, she rises in two steady movements, a hand on the right arm of the Shackleton supporting her first rise, a little push with the second, then with the merest hint of a shuffle in her gait, she moves towards the mantelpiece. This tableau of Christmas cards ordered methodically, her son and daughter-in-law’s taking the right centre stage, To Mother, with all our love, Chris and Jean. Her daughter’s taking the left of centre, To Mum, Merry Christmas, love Deirdre. And dead centre, in the prime placing of all, stands the smallest card of this hierarchy of near-relations, a glitter-strewn snowy rooftop where stands a cartoon Rudolph, clown-like nose sparkle-red and slightly flaking, thought-bubble thinking He’s been a long time, and underneath, in the X-rayed insides of a terraced house, a fat ruddy Santa snoozing on the sofa, brandy glass in hand, nose aglow, ZZZ... For the third time today she takes all this in, and with a smile spreading soft across her pale lined face, she picks the card up from the mantelpiece, with care not to dislodge the others from their carefully orchestrated standing, up and open in a slow near-perfect right angle beneath her still smiling face, her nose tilting up to give her field of vision a pathway through her bifocals. To Grandma, love and hugs, Billy XXX... She replaces the card on the mantelpiece with the same near-perfect right angle and returns to her chair, her still unsolved mystery soft-footing itself back into her thoughts, back down into the still warm Shackleton, one eased movement into her comfort, the teacup to her lips, a sip, then another, and still the mystery remains unsolved. Where did it all go? She thinks about the Christmas day tea of salmon and turkey, the trifle, the cake, Schweppes lemonade and white wine. The cracker she pulled with Billy, his elbow jagging back to knock Deirdre’s wine glass onto the floor. Jean saying Oh Billy! and her saying Oh it’s alright Jean, it’s only a splash, and then the smile her grandson gave her for sticking up for him, the red paper crown she placed on his head, the cracker-birthed bottle opener he attached to his belt loop. She thinks how quickly he’s grown these last three years. That big eyed, lank-haired skinny puppy that regarded her nervously on that first meeting, this ten-year-old boy that she knew would be her grandson within months, her son to be a father to a full-grown boy, a boy made by another man and this woman that her son loved. And how he loved her. She could see this from the very first... She drinks deeper of her tea, lifting her legs from the carpet just enough to view her new slippers. Red, with a black-ribboned bow. Not what she might have chosen herself. No. But she will wear them, wear them until they tire, and thin. Merry Xmas Grandma! Love from Billy XXX... She puts her feet to the floor, looks to the tree with its white angel twinkling at its peak, its flicker-creep lights slow-travelling crimson through the branches, and she thinks again about the mystery. After Christmas tea they watched the Morecambe and Wise repeat. What did they drink? Deirdre had more white wine. Jean had white wine too. Chris had beer. She had one gin and tonic. Then after Morecambe and Wise they all had crackers and cheese and played charades. Oh how funny it was. Billy pretending to be seven cowboys riding seven horses one at a time, holding his fingers up to count One cowboy, two cowboys, three... What a sweet, funny boy… Through the window she sees Dolly Faversham walking her old Labrador. She thinks about what Dolly told her about Jill Baker’s son. Sent to prison for robbery. How the news shocked her. She remembers Martin Baker when he was a young man. Jill telling everyone how well he was doing at university training to be an architect. Dolly told her she’d heard that Martin had gotten into drugs. Why do people do such things? All that promise burnt up for what? To make their head all stupid that’s what. Poor Jill... And after charades she remembers Billy putting a record on. What was it? Was it that Abba record? Billy likes that one, doesn’t he. Such a sweet boy. She thinks how proud she felt when he played waiter for them all. Chris laughing at how much head was on his beer, Deirdre and Jean laughing at the little umbrellas Billy had placed into their wine glasses, and the tea towel draped over his arm when he brought the tray of drinks through. Just like a real waiter, Grandma! he’d said. And oh the six cherries he put into her gin and tonic. How they all laughed. She didn’t have the heart to tell him about her drink being too strong, stronger than she would’ve liked, but still, there’s no way she drank half a bottle of gin to herself... Is there?
14. In the barn