“I fucking hate Christmas” he thought as he bounced off the crowds of mindless shoppers. All he wanted was, “No not you.” he thought again, reverting to the song that insisted on revolving round in his head, “Not bloody YOU!, I just want a pint of milk and some eggs. And I’d rather get them without the vomit inducing sound of good religious carols being murdered by some arsewipe commercial singer pretending to be deeply involved in the song when you know he’s no more interest in God than you have in bloody, fucking tampons”
Dave was a balding, slightly overweight 60 year old with the curmudgeonly views that come from getting sick of the cant and hypocrisy all around him all the time. The only thing he liked about Christmas was that sometimes a couple of good films were on TV. Not the dross of talking snowmen or Santa Claus losing his mind, or all that crap. Maybe a film from the 1950s, put on as a filler in the morning. Not one you’d buy, but interesting to see again – the Brothers Grimm, Warner Brothers was it? In Technicolor and widescreen and stuff. The rest, celebrity bake-off dancing on ice or funny outtakes from shows (some starlet fluffs her lines 8 times and then says ‘fuck’ – hilarious), that could be funnelled straight through the rectum of television to the flush toilet of all media crap.
Someone looking at his mobile phone rather than where he was walking was assuming everyone would shift out of his path so he could text or whatever. He hadn’t met Dave, Dave adjusted to nudge him. “Oww, grandad, watch where you’re walking!”
“Fuck off!” He was in one of his more short tempered moods, actually he tended to be in these much of the time, with good reason. It hadn’t been helped in the post office. He wanted a book of Christmas stamps, yeah yeah, he hated Christmas, but even he sent some cards and he knew that Rory collected stamps so ... The queue had 3 people in front. The man in front was an old git who wanted to know if his letter would arrive in Boston, USA before Christmas and thought this person behind the counter should be able to guarantee it. Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit. Dave wanted to say “Just send the frigging thing and then it might arrive you stupid old fool.”, he just tapped his foot. The woman behind the old git finally moved to the counter with her envelope. Yes it was a large envelope and would need a large stamp madam. “Obviously!” thought Dave. Then everybody waits whilst she puts her bags down, picks her shoulder bag up, unclips it, unzips it, reaches in and roots around, finds her purse and takes it out, puts it on the counter and then puts the shoulder bag down, picks up the purse and unclips it, asks for the third time “The third TIME!!!” thinks Dave “I know, why don’t you?” How much it will be and then laboriously counts out the change to pay for it and then clips the purse, puts it back in the bag, zips the bag and clips the bag and...”OH FOR FUCKS SAKE!” Dave is thinking, but he’s English and just mentally imagines a holy war against women with purses in bags who can’t take them out before they get to the till. And off-key carol singers. And popsingers making Christmas albums. He imagines chasing Adele down the street with an AK47. Actually, she’s alright; at least she sells her records on talent not how much of her tits and arse you can see. “Sir? Sir? Can I help you?” Bugger, now he was holding the queue up.
Now he’s queueing up with the eggs and milk. Okay so that went quickly, then back to the chaos that was the shopping street.
A woman came out of a shop, bounced off him, dropped bags and bags of shopping. She looked about to scream at him, then she burst into tears.
“Look, sorry, I didn’t see you, let me help” Dave started to pick up the shopping, noticing lacy underwear, socks, oranges, books. The woman was picking things up and still crying.
“I hate Christmas.” she said quietly.
“Umm, coffee?” Said Dave “No, not a pick up line, more of a pick-me-up line, you look like you need it.”
“I haven’t got time, I’ve got to get the meat and get to H&M and ... oh sod it, yes, please, coffee.”
The nearest coffee was that romantic tryst nirvana – Starbucks. Dave laughed inwardly, if it had been a pickup; the last place he would go to would be Starbucks, they didn’t pay their fucking tax! But he could see this was not the time to raise this and suggest a café further away. By the most amazing fortune in the history of history, since the first Christmas probably, (no wait, he thought, even that first Christmas there was no fucking room!) there was a table for two free at the back. “You go and sit down, what would you like?”
She reached into a pocket and brought out an open purse. He liked her already. “Latte please, let me give you some money.”
“Wouldn’t hear of it.”
He bought two coffees and a couple of mince pies, and went and sat with her.
She smiled “I don’t usually come to Starbucks, they don’t pay their taxes.” Yes! He really was starting to like her. “I just thought ‘what the heck’ today.”
“I hate Christmas too.” He said, and as she sipped her coffee, he observed her quickly. Like him, a stone or two overweight, at that age where you either dress to the nines and look elegant or you start to think it isn’t that important. She was in the latter camp. Still looked attractive in a wobbly kind of way he thought, then added ‘well aren’t you the smooth, well-built lothario?’ He laughed.
“Oh, nothing, I just thought, what will we say if someone says they saw us with a strange man-stroke-woman.”
“Depends” she responded “If I’m in a good mood I’ll just say you helped pick up my packages; if I’m not I might say I discovered someone who hated fucking Christmas as much as me. Sorry about the language.”
“Refreshing to find a middle-aged, middle-class lady willing to be Anglo-Saxon.”
“Refreshing to be called middle-aged! I get quite vociferous when I have a couple of drinks, then I say ‘excuse my French’. I remember last year telling a lovely couple why they were ‘fucking well wrong’ about immigration. Kathy and Frank were shocked. Dick, was too I think.” She laughed “We shouldn’t need alcohol to tell people what we really think.”
Dave’s heart was sinking, she was some manic, intolerant anti-immigrant.
“I mean Kathy and Frank are nice, and I’m sure they have reasons for wanting to be like Crazy Trump and ban Muslims, but they are just wrong.”
“Oh, so you aren’t against immigration?”
“Wow! We’ve got into this quickly, what’s next? Politics or religion?” She was laughing and wobbling slightly as she did so. “My grandfather was an Italian prisoner of war and yet England was happy, mostly, to let him stay. We just seem to be much less welcoming or tolerant in our” she made a gesture with her fingers “‘inclusive’ society”
“My great grandfather fought on the German side in the First World War, same. War over, yes, come and stay. Course his shop got trashed in the next war, but then some neighbours came and helped him clear up.”
The coffee and chat continued until lunchtime and it seemed natural to extend the meeting to lunch. Presents could wait. But they didn’t stay in Starbucks, they went to the next best thing on the romantic tryst route – Marks and Spencer’s café. He’d let her pick somewhere and she’d said they did a good soup and a roll. In the event she was right. Sweet potato and gherkin or something it was, he couldn’t remember. He enjoyed his conversation so much. Something kept nagging at him, what was it? Oh yes ‘Dick was shocked too.’ So she was married. Not surprising really, she was nice to be with. Still, never mind, enjoy this brief interlude in the grey, Slough of Despond that was now his life.
“So having a big family Christmas?” he asked
“Yes; well, it depends what you mean by big I suppose. I was the last to get married and so I ended up helping Mum and Dad, okay, just Mum, organise the Christmas Day conclave of brothers and sisters with their burgeoning horde of mewling babies. Then I got married and had a couple of my own; and of course immediately switched from regarding babies as smelly nuisances to them being the beautiful creatures they are. I have a couple of grandchildren now and I vacillate between the two opinions.” She smiled “Why am I telling you this?”
“It helps to talk to a stranger sometimes.”
“Yes, well, Mum died a few years ago and somehow I’ve become responsible for everybody coming to me instead of Dad’s now. Even with my husband leaving; or maybe because of that; maybe people think I have nothing better to do. So, my son Max and daughter Rachel and their respective partners, Toni and Tony - I know, what are the odds? Really Antonia, but Tony was christened that way - plus one baby each; they come because it saves them having to cook I think; then brother, Dick plus his third wife – young, pretty, perky, dim; does that sound bitchy?”
“Yes, but probably true and entirely understandable”
“Then there is his son and partner, Tristram; they’re nice, they’ll come for tea and they actually bring some food with them. And I’m still waiting to hear if my bloody sister is coming; she probably will and she’ll drift in at the last minute and probably not even bother to let me know before she rolls up in the drive. She’s between partners. We don’t have a good record do we? Oh, and Dad of course, who Dick may deign to collect if I plead with him enough. Else I’ll have to do that too.”
“Sounds a houseful, makes me pleased to be alone.”
“Oh, don’t you mind, really?”
“Our son is in the US, he and his wife, Sharmala tend not to do Christmas”
“It’s Thanksgiving is the big thing there isn’t it?”
“Yes, but Sharmala is Hindu too, so they have a kind of joint celebration but it always seems neither one thing nor the other to me. My turn to sound bitchy?”
“Not at all, and umm, your son’s mother?”
“Nicely put. Angie died four years ago.”
“Thanks, I was pleased when she died. No, that really does sound too brutal. I mean she had been ill for two years before and it was horrible seeing her slip away by slow degrees. She had lost contact with the world about a year earlier. Stupid, moronic people still said things like ‘sorry’ when she died, I was pleased for her ... and yes, for me too I admit. She was just a shell by then.
Oh, I wasn’t saying you were one of those people. It was those who had seen her decline and still trotted out the same clichés.”
“That must have been hard.” Unconsciously she took his hand as a sign of empathy. Then, realising how it could be misinterpreted she let it go again. He was old and experienced enough not to jump to conclusions, he assumed that here was someone who could get beyond the normal bounds of gender politics. Touching someone did not mean sexual harassment (well, not necessarily mean that), just showed that you cared.
“It was.” He could feel the pit of despair beginning to fill up. He could feel that his ability to maintain a coherent front was starting to fade. He would cry soon; couldn’t help it. He could still feel the sense of desperate, all-encompassing loneliness that had swept over him when she finally died. Up until then there had been so much to do, then there was a tunnel of black, not even black, at least that is a colour of sorts, just nothingness stretching into the future. He’d not sunk into self-pity, he knew people who had experienced far more of a wrench than he; people whose lives had been so bound up with each other that it was like an organ being pulled out. He and Angie had had a good, healthy relationship. She liked her choir, he liked his beer. They met sometimes after a choir practice in the pub; often he would have had a couple of pints with friends by then. He went to her choir ‘things’; she joined him for pub quizzes. But they weren’t ‘joined at the hip’ (he hated that phrase), it worked.
Still, when she died he was lost for a month or so; he pulled himself up. Forced himself to do stuff. Slowly it became easier, became a habit, but still he could be taken by surprise; a song on the radio, a play about bereavement, sometimes a seemingly minor, unconnected thing – last week buying frozen peas he had remembered the day he dropped a bag of peas on the floor and she came in and slipped over on the frozen green balls. They’d collapsed in the kitchen in hysterical laughter. There, in the centre of the supermarket, by the frozen foods he had quietly started to cry.
Abruptly he changed the subject, but she was sensitive enough to realise why “Do you do a lot the day before, so there is less to do on the day? I always used to peel the potatoes, parsnips, carrots, Brussel sprouts and leave them in lemon water overnight”
“Oh, you cooked! Yes I do some of that, though probably not enough. There always seems to be too much on the day. I know this will seem moaning again, but I just wish Toni or Rachel or even Andie – Dick’s current wife” she smiled at the little dig there “- would offer to help more. I suppose since you cooked in your household you think me sexist, why should the women cook while the men drink? Good bloody question! But then I want food that has been peeled, washed, and cooked properly, not something that the RSPCA would reject for their dogs.” She was laughing now, she knew, she said that men were capable, just that hers were lazy SOBs.
He smiled “Sounds like you need to exchange your menfolk for some newer models. Trade them in and get some new ones.”
“Ah, if only ... No, I love them dearly. Look you’ve been a breath of fresh air, and I hate to go, but I still have lots to do. Are you sure that’s okay? Thank you so much. Ummm I don’t suppose you’d like to meet for coffee again? I just liked chatting; it’s supposed to be women who do that but most of my friends are still happily, or unhappily, married and it’s nice to have a change from the conversations.”
“I would love to, and, just so we are clear, I have no preconceptions or ideas; this is just a chat.”
“Phew, I did wonder if you’d get the wrong impression. The last man I had coffee with – someone I knew from church – immediately started telling people we were going out. We’d had one cup of coffee.”
“Stupid fu- I mean silly man. At our age, no, no any age a man and a woman should be able to have a coffee or even a tea together without sex necessarily being involved.”
“Oh yes, I mean sex in Starbucks is okay, but not in M&S” they were both laughing, the same slightly warped sense of humour; and they left and went their separate ways, both imagining sex with the other on one of Marks and Spencer’s café tables. Perhaps it was coincidence, but they both imagined the most unlikely scenario (if any were more unlikely than others), they both imagined themselves stark naked on the ‘table of love’. They both imagined both of them a couple of stone lighter in their naked glory. They had arranged to meet again the following Monday at Charmaines, a café that had a ‘no under 30s’ rule (implied, but clearly defined by the clientele), but they also did cakes that were enormously bad for the waist line, thighs, and heart. They both agreed it would be a pre-Christmas treat.
“So, Margaret, who was that man I saw you with in Charmaines on Monday?”
“Umm? When? Oh, Monday? Yes that would be my new lover. Took me home and rogered me senseless after.”
“You are incorrigible, and since he turned left and you turned right, I know that isn’t true. Though if it was I’d be very jealous.”
“You followed us? Oh, no, that’s right we turned out of the shop different ways. Where were you?”
“I was in the shoe shop, trying on shoes for the wedding you know, Chris and Janet? I saw you and was going to come over, but then you both upped and left. Didn’t get the bloody shoes anyway, I’m determined that Miss Prissy Pants’ mother isn’t going to show me up.”
“Miss Prissy Pants? Your daughter-in-law to be? I take it you still aren’t wholly and completely bowled over by Chris’s choice? I thought you liked her.”
“So did I until this frigging wedding. She has changed her mind about the flowers this week more times than I’ve changed my knickers!”
“More than once then?”
“Cheeky! No seriously, she and her mother want everything to be perfect; which means micro-managing the occasion and squeezing any fun out of it. When I got married we had 30 people, a second hand dress, AND the wedding car got a flat tyre...”
“And we had coal in the bath, only washed in leap years, and lived 15 to a room. But we were ‘appy! Times change Anne. You’ll have to go with the flow. What does Chris think?”
“He thinks the sun shines out of ‘er arse; so I have to be careful what I say. You are coming to the wedding aren’t you? I haven’t even seen the acceptances.” Anne was a delightful Yorkshirewoman who had said, more than once, ‘you can take a person out of Yorkshire but you can’t take Yorkshire out of a person’. And so it proved with her. She had lived in this ‘bijou’ town for 20 years and still spoke broad ‘Yarkshire’ and used more basic and direct language than many middle-class detached residents. That’s why she and Margaret got on. Margaret was the only person who wouldn’t take offence at being told that yes the skirt made her bum look huge, and Anne was happy to have a blazing row and then forget all about it.
“I wouldn’t miss it, especially now. I want to see you get drunk and tell everybody what you think.”
“No fear of that, I only got drunk once, many years ago on holiday. I told Michael he could ... no, no never mind.”
“No, what, oh tell, tell.” They had moved from 50-somethings to gossipy teenagers, as they always did when they got together.
“Promise never to repeat it!”
“I promise, I promise.”
“I told him he could do what he liked if he went down on me first”
“Went down? Oh, oh, I see, and err, did he?”
“Yes, oh yes, it was very pleasant I seem to remember, but the little bugger wanted his pound of flesh. He” she hesitated “Let’s just say I woke up next day with a very sore bottom.”
“He did! At least twice!”
“Well I never, no I mean I haven’t but I never realised he was that way inclined.”
“Turned out it was a fantasy he’d had for years. Like I say, I never got drunk again, and he never got the chance again.”
“And the other? What he did for you?”
“Oh, yes, once he’d started that there was no stopping him, he liked visiting me down there. God rest his soul. I miss that.”
“I bet. My Mikey was a strictly missionary position. I’m sure that’s why that bimbo left him –”
“- she was 45, not really a bimbo”
“Okay, that man-stealing bitch. I think she got bored. Did I ever tell you he tried to come back?”
“No! Really? What did you do?”
“He wrote to me saying he’d realised now I was the only one for him. I sent his letter back to him, torn to shreds. He got the message.”
“And, I hate to be the Gestapo, but the man in the café?”
“He helped my pick up my shopping after I dropped it. Well, he knocked it out of my hand. By accident! He bought me a coffee and then we met again for a chat and a coffee. He’s just a nice person, turns out he hates Christmas more than me.”
“No man is ‘just a nice person’. You wait.”
“Maybe I don’t want to.” She smiled at her friend and Margaret realised that the joke she just made wasn’t entirely untrue. She would quite like to be in a romance again. Okay so Charmaines wasn’t Rick’s Place, but who cares?
The week before Christmas Margaret and Dave met again, “I’ve done a silly thing” he said “I’ve bought us two tickets to the pantomime.”
“You hate panto!”
“I know. What can I say? You bring out the child in me. Do say you’ll come. I used to go with the children but I could never see the point. I want to understand what I was missing.”
She agreed, they went, and came out with him saying “I still don’t see the point. The story’s crap, the acting is crap, the songs are crap.”
“I think, then, that you do see the point. Remember Morecombe and Wise? The plays wot he wrote? They were trying to take the piss out of that kind of rubbish. Panto can’t be made fun of because it is deliberately bad.
I enjoyed it, despite sitting beside a grumpy old curmudgeon.”