Coldest Christmas

Duty visit, pre-Christmas. My mother stands at the sink with her back to me, rinsing out a duster. Beyond her, sleet fizzes against the large sash window that keeps the kitchen icy. I am shivering at the small grey Formica-topped table on one of the two stools that used to seem high. Their bright red padded seats are flat and beige from years of scrubbing.

‘No one uses yellow dusters any more,’ I say.

‘I do.’

My New Year’s resolution is to find my father but so far she has built a wall of chores against my news, as if she already knows.

‘Twenty-six years ago it was, almost to the day,’ she says, throttling the wet duster. ‘Coldest Christmas we’ve ever had, down here.’

Dad moaned about taking me to the Art college but this time Mum said he had to.

‘She’ll freeze to death at work with me, so you have her for once.’

‘She’ll be all right with you.’

‘She won’t, then. This is the coldest winter ever, they’re all saying, all the shops. Alfie says you can walk on sea ice right across from the ferry to the Island.’

Dad sighed while he did the toggles on my duffel coat for me but Mum left for work anyway.

I watched snowflakes fall on his coat as he walked ahead of me. They didn’t melt. By the time we reached the Avenue I was already tired and my nose was sore from wiping it on my mittens.

‘Can I make a coil pot, Dad?’ I called after him.

‘You don’t know how.’

‘I do! Miss Golding showed us before we broke up.’

He didn’t do the Kerb Drill but went straight over the road in long strides. The yellow lights of a car blinked behind a snow flurry. I hurried across, sliding in my Wellies.

‘I’m going into Muriel’s for some tobacco,’ he said. ‘Wait there.’

Huddled in the doorway, I peered into the window and screwed up my eyes to make the purple tinsel and red baubles twinkle. Then I squidged my nose against the door to see the rows of shiny glass jars with bright labels. A woman pushed it open, in a warm smell of butterscotch and chocolate. Behind her, Muriel handed Dad a box of Milk Tray.

I hrrrr’d smoke out of my open mouth.

‘Why don’t you go in, my babe?’ she said ‘It’s bitter out here.’

‘My dad’s coming now,’ I said.

He tipped his hat and she smiled at him.

At the park a yellow Labrador grinned at me, then jumped up and left white pawprints on my coat, but ran off before I could stroke him. I followed the paw tracks in the snow until Dad told me to hurry up. The whole way across the park I pretended we had a dog and then we were at the college. We slithered over the icy car park and reached the courtyard.

‘Look, Dad!’

It was a blank white square, with no mark at all to spoil it.

Dad stepped out. ‘Hurry up. I told Christine I’d be in by ten.’

‘Why is she here? It’s Saturday.’

I rubbed my sore nose and stomped after him, kicking up the snow until I wanted to cry. Some fell into my boots, making my socks wet. The top toggle had made my chin hurt. I felt bundled with clothes and my new cardigan was scratchy and I was too hot.

‘Dad, can we make a snowman?’

‘I’ll be too busy.’

‘But you never work on a Saturday. Can’t Christine do it?’

‘She’s my assistant, not yours.’

I scuffed the snow. ‘I didn’t mean I wanted her to help me. I wanted you.’

He stopped by the pottery door.

‘It’s the exams next week. Christine’s here to help me set up. Anyway, you like Christine.’

I especially hated the fact that she had my name.

She was waiting for us in the studio, perched on one of the high stools in a fluffy coat and slacks. She gave me a silly wave but I struggled out of my wet boots, pretending I hadn’t seen. When I was putting my slippers on Dad slid the box of Milk Tray towards her. It left a trail in the white dust on the bench, which he swept away before I got there.

The cold blue light from the skylight above made Christine look like Dusty Springfield. I was always drawing women who looked like her, with eyes like spiders and big slides saying ELVIS in their high, white hair.

‘It’s ever so cold in here.’ Christine pulled her coat round her, to hide the chocolates.

‘My office will be nice and warm,’ said Dad.

He unlocked the door for her but didn’t open it very far so she had to squeeze past him.

Dad came back to me.

‘Let’s get you fixed up first. What do you want to do?’

‘A coil pot,’ I said, determined.

He sighed and shook his head but went and got a bag out of a dustbin. He delved into the red clay and pulled off some big lumps, which he banged onto the worktop to make rough cubes.

‘It’s really cold, Dad.’

‘It’ll soon soften up,’ he said. ‘Just keep working it.’

I shivered.

‘The heating’s on. You’ll warm up all right, working that clay.’ He put the stool back under the bench. ‘Got everything? Christine and I have a lot to do and I’ve got some important phone calls, so try not to interrupt us, all right?’

‘All right.’

‘Don’t wet it too much or you’ll lose the coils.’ He reached his office. ‘If you need a wee, it’s down the corridor and past the stairs, on the right. OK?’

I bashed the squares of clay, as hard as I could. Every time I stopped I heard their voices and her stupid giggle. The clay stayed cold, even when I was kneading it, and the tips of my fingers were white, with blue nails under the dusty clay. There was quiet in the office now, so Dad was probably going to use the phone. Then a chair or something scraped and banged and she laughed, then murmurs again. I got back to work, counting the long snakes of clay as I rolled them and again when they were all lying on the bench. More scrapes and shuffling. I counted the coils and layers of the pot. Sometimes I would have to start all over again.

When I was on the twenty-fourth Christine came out. I kept working so she would go away but she came right over to me.

‘What’s new, Pussy Cat?’ She smelled different. ‘Ooh, that’s funny! Guess what happened to me this week!’

I smoothed the inside of the pot.

‘You know my Dad’s got the tackle shop up the road? Well, he’s just about to shut up for early closing, when this bloke comes in with a big cardboard box, who’s brought some rag worm in for Dad, before. “Hello, Reg,” says my Dad. But Reg just puts the box on the counter and smiles. “What’s all this, then?” asks my Dad but Reg scarpers. The box starts shifting about and this awful din’s coming from it. Go on, guess what it was.’

Her face looked like a smudged drawing. ‘Go on.’

I shook my head, wanting it to be a puppy.

‘Only a flamin’ cat! What do you make of that?’

I was frightened of cats, with their needle claws and devil eyes.

‘A cat bit me once,’ I said.

‘The thing of it is, what about you having the cat? Your Dad says you’re always going on about wanting a pet, with your Mum working and that. Lonely, and that.’

Hope flamed through me. ‘I would like a dog.’

‘You’re not having a bloody dog,’ said Dad. He clanged shut the clay bin. ‘You can’t keep a dog in a flat and anyway, the landlord won’t let us.’

‘Mr Bernard is nice,’ I said. ‘He lets me play in the china shop.’

‘Even if he let us, your Mum would go mad with all the dirt a dog brings in.’

‘I’d clean it. Please, Dad.’

My coil pot bulged sideways.

Christine and I both grabbed it and one side came away in my hands.

‘Sorry, sweetheart,’ she said.

Dad came over and bashed it all back to a big square lump of clay in four slams. I blinked hard, trying not to cry.

‘Poor kid,’ said Christine and hugged me.

Rigid on her bony chest, I was closer to the smell of Avon talc and Old Spice, like Dad. And something underneath, like seaweed, or bait.

‘I feel a bit sick,’ I said, glad my father didn’t run a tackle shop.

Dad swore.

‘Never mind him, my babe,’ she said. ‘I’ll make us all a nice cup of tea and you’ll be right as rain in a minute. You go and make those phone calls of yours, Kenny.’

He only liked to be called Kenneth, but I didn’t tell her. She winked at me and went to fill a battered and dusty electric kettle. Dad went straight to his office, smiling. Christine switched it on and came back to me.

‘You’d better have that cat, my babe. My dad says he’ll drown it, otherwise.’

The snow had stopped when the three of us left the college. We waited for a bus because we were going to Christine’s. No one said why. I was hungry and wanted to go home. Cars hissed past us in grey slush and my socks were still wet inside my boots. When the bus arrived we climbed aboard and went straight up to the top deck so that Dad could smoke his pipe. I had a window seat but then Christine came and sat next to me. I made footprints on the fugged-up glass with the side of my hand.

‘Would you like me to make you some doll’s clothes?’ she asked.

‘I’m too old to play with dolls,’ I said.

I wiped the window with my sleeve. Blurry women in macs and headscarves were picking out vegetables at the greengrocers, or smacking children, or queuing for fish and chips. The bus passed smoky pubs, where men filed out on their way up to the ground.

‘Three o’clock kick off,’ Dad said, checking his watch.

We got off at the next stop and Russell’s Tackle and Bait was after a hairdresser’s. I could hear the dryers roaring above women with red faces and fags.

The door pinged and Christine’s father looked up. He was showing a man some reels and did not stop talking. We went on through to a dark kitchen at the back that smelled of boiled cabbage and fish. Something pushed against my Wellies and I jumped.

It was a black cat with glowing green eyes. It pushed through again and I wanted to run away.

‘She likes you,’ said Christine, picking it up.

The cat struggled and clawed her hand. She pushed it into a cardboard box and blood went all over the flap. Dad took out his handkerchief but she shook her head. I wish the cat would make her bleed to death, I thought, then felt ashamed.

Dad kissed Christine on the lips when we left the kitchen.

Dad walked slowly on the way home, carrying the cat box. The snow on the pavement had turned to city slush, filthy with car dirt.

‘You like Christine, don’t you?’ he asked. ‘It was nice of her to give you the cat, wasn’t it?’

I nodded.

‘How do you feel now? Still feel a bit sick?’

I nodded again.

‘Listen, love, I wouldn’t say anything to your mother about not feeling well today, or ... anything. You know how she worries and you don’t want to upset her, do you?’

‘What about the cat?’

‘Leave it all to me, that’s a good girl.’

He smiled and I put my mittened hand in his pocket. We stopped at Muriel’s and he bought me some Spangles. I hoped we might do some drawing together in front of the TV, and have egg and chips when Mum got back in front of ‘Dr Who’.

Just before we got home, he stopped.

‘What do you say to Christine coming to live with us?’

It was like a punch.

‘All four of us, your mother, too, of course. Christine doesn’t get on with her parents and I thought it would be good fun, all of us together. What do you say, love?’

My mother puts a cup and saucer in front of me.

‘A mug would have been fine.’

‘That letter came this week,’ she nods towards the sugar bowl. ‘It’s from your father’s sister, Vera.’

The envelope has writing slanted down the page in blue biro. I have been staring at it all this time without realising.

‘Do you remember how ill I was, that year?’

‘I remember how cold it was after Christmas.’ She sips her scalding tea. ‘And that bloody cat.’

I told him I knew what he’d been doing. I told him I would tell my mother what had happened that morning if Christine ever came near us. I shouted all this into his white face. I was afraid.

I was sick when we got home and was sick all the rest of that day, off and on. In bed, I heard the voices downstairs when there was usually silence. Had he asked her if Christine could stay? What if she agreed? What if we ended up with Christine as well as the cat? I always wanted a Christmas Day when I would wake early and rush downstairs and find a puppy. Now getting a dog was even less likely. Now I knew why I hated Christine so much.

My mother woke me next morning banging the hoover about on the landing. Then she came into my room and jabbed it at the bed.

She switched it off and I felt dizzy.

‘I’ll have to change those sheets,’ she said. ‘I’ll take them up to the Washeteria when your father gets back.’

‘Where is he?’ I asked.

‘Taken that bloody cat and don’t ask me where. Back to ... or he can drown it for all I care.’ She gave me a look at the door. ‘I won’t have any animal messing the place up and making more work.’

I rushed to the bow window in time to see Dad reach World Stores. Snowflakes slowly drifted past in greyness and it felt like it was me, floating upwards. I craned my neck to catch sight of him. Outside the paper shop he stopped, holding the box with the cat that no one wanted. I wanted to shout that I did want the cat after all, that he must bring it back. The flakes got bigger and whirred past the window. He stood there and I willed him to come home. I saw him walk on, past the shop, the snow gradually blanking him out until he had dissolved into whiteness.

I look at the letter, crumpled in my hand. “Kenneth died at home,” it says, “with all his family around him.”

‘Family!’ my mother spits. ‘He didn’t even leave you his watch.’

‘It’s all right.’ I kiss her dry cheek. ‘I have to go, Maud’s in the car.’

I pause at the kitchen door, feeling suddenly free.

‘Happy New Year, then,’ she says.

Outside, I drink in the bright air. Maud’s sweet face is watching for me, keen behind the misted glass. As soon as I unlock the car she pushes forward and I land a kiss on her velvety ear. If I’m away for a minute or a week her greeting is the same: just as loving.

‘I love you,’ I say, switching on the engine.

My dear old dog settles on her blanket and I sing to the Beatles Greatest Hits all the way home.

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