Despite being told not to have any decorations up until the photographer had been, the proprietor of this two-up two-down in Morecambe looked like she’d let Santa come all over her walls. ‘We need a little cheer this year. I know I was told to leave the house bare but…you know…the kids.’ Explained the mother of two young boys of around eight and four. Her hair was greasy and flat to her gaunt, pale face. A forced smile ran into the bags of her dark eyes whenever her sons momentarily pried their attention from the television and called out wanting something. Her clothes hung off her rounded shoulders that appeared to have some significant weight pressing down on them. ‘I don’t know if the estate agency is going to be able to use these.’ I replied, scrolling through the photographs on my camera. ‘Can you not crop them out? I thought all good photographers could crop out and erm what’s it called? Photoshop?’ She prodded. ‘Not even Annie Leibovitz could roll this shit in glitter.’ I replied, unjustly overly defensive. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ ‘Sorry that came out wrong. What I meant to say was…well, you shouldn’t have put the decs up until I’d been.’ ‘Christmas is next week for Christ sake.’ She snapped, ‘I’m only selling my home because I’ve been made redundant and we’re having to downsize.’ I looked around. There wasn’t a lot to downsize. ‘Well I’ll show my boss and see what he says, but don’t be surprised if I’m back again in the New Year.’ ‘Mum what time’s tea?’ Interrupted the woman’s eldest. He had a shaved head, with a set of tramlines engraved down one side and was wearing a Liverpool football jersey with Manchester City shorts. ‘Kids today have no concept of allegiance’ I thought, frowning. ‘Once this gentleman’s gone darling.’ Replied his mother. ‘What we having?’ ‘Daniel, I’m in the middle of a conversation. What have we said about manners?’ ‘I just wanna know what’s for tea for God sake. It’s not a fucking difficult question is it?’ He erupted. ‘Little bastard.’ I thought, somewhat stunned. ‘YOU’LL BE HAVING NOTHING IF YOU CARRY ON LIKE THAT YOUNG MAN!’ Shouted the mother. Daniel scowled, fists clenched, muttering something inaudible under his breath. The youngest didn’t flinch from the chaos on screen as his mother turned her attention back to me. ‘Sorry about that. He’s not even a teenager yet. God help me.’ She half smiled, half pleaded above. I packed away my belongings and walked to the front door, noticing two holes in the wall that were covered by a plastic Star of Bethlehem. The homeowner noticed me notice them. ‘Not as easy to cover up as the one’s on your face. No makeup for them you see.’ She said sheepishly, turning toward her children, making sure they hadn’t heard. ‘The kid did this?’ I asked startled, trying to keep my voice down, noticing concealer smeared across her left cheekbone. ‘Are you retarded or something?’ No, my son did not do this. Neither of them. They’re eight and a half and five.’ ‘Sorry I wasn’t trying to…I dunno…’ I stuttered, feeling stupid for asking the question and my earlier judgments. ‘Is there something you want me to report?’ I continued whispering, making sure the kids couldn’t hear. ‘Nothing TO report.’ She replied defiantly, ‘It’s about the only thing I asked for off Santa that’s come true this year.’ I wasn’t sure how to react, so smiled sympathetically as the electric meter spun and hummed trying to keep up with the counterfeit seasonal cheer. I wanted to say something engaging or meaningful but knew all I would mutter was some regurgitated line one uses when commiserating, so left, escorted off the premises by an eight-foot inflatable snowman and an absolete washing machine.
Along the promenade the wind howled, the sea crashed, and the towns external decorations clung for dear life. I got in my car, turned the ignition and cranked the heating, turning the vents away until the air warmed from the engine. It was the last Friday before Christmas; affectionately known as “Blackeye Friday” around these parts on account of the early finish to the working day and ferocious pace of drinking that entails, leading to torrid tempers and lively fists. What a year it had been. A decade’s worth of shit in twelve months. This time last year my biggest concern was trying to fit “Nightcrawler” into my top ten films of the decade. Now look. The previous house had been my final location of 2020. All wrapped up by three. This “Blackeye Friday” I had decided not to go drinking heavily, especially if a meal had to be ordered at every pub. As an intellectual scholar once declared in the Globe beer garden one stifling summer’s eve on the cusp of downing several bottles of blue WKD one after the other, ‘Eatin’s’ cheatin’. Instead I decided to go for a wild swim off the southern shores of Windermere. Despite my moaning, I’d actually enjoyed my dip with Faye on our first date in Coniston Water a few weeks back and decided to go again this evening. I’d also read an article on the benefits of cold-water swimming and how it decreases your chances of dementia. Granted I am only thirty-six, but I had more than my fair share of class A’s back in the day.
I set off back to south Cumbria, driving along the A6 through Carnforth and Arnside. Away from the coast the wind shied. Pink neon filled gaps in the shattered twilight sky. Trees in the forefront of the scene wore no colour; instead lending themselves as silhouettes. I couldn’t rid the thought of that final house and its inhabitants from my mind. Those children; a hardened skin as thick as bark had begun to grow around the eldest. A permanent grimace masked his innocence, serving as a warning to anyone not to encroach him or his brother. A misguided anger clouded with confusion and fear caused a volatile temper and white-knuckled fists. I didn’t know for sure what had gone on behind closed doors. Truth be told, I didn’t need to. The look in the mother’s eyes as she adjusted the decoration told a horrifying tale, that didn’t need the obvious pointing out. Since my late teens I’ve chased the feeling of excitement only this time of year can bring, feeling self-pity when the trail leads down a blind alley. Those children, despite their mother’s highest endeavours may have never experienced the merriment many of us know that I write of to begin with. A child unable to experience magic and fairy-tale before the vines of adulthood begin to entangle and grip is nothing short of a travesty.
Even if those two young boys had been shielded from the visual horrors of domestic abuse, they will have known on some level. Even if they perhaps did not understand the full-scale vulgarity of it. It’s all too easy and understandable for fear to burn into rage, latching onto innocence like a highly contagious virus. Helplessly, I hoped that with love and a better dealt hand that family would one day soon come through the other side. And if they weren’t better for the experience, they could at least move on.
I got out the car at Fell Foot and changed by the driver’s side, struggling into my wetsuit as my nipples shrank and erected at the same time; my dick shrank, and stayed shrunk. The stones on the path underfoot poked, prodded and probed the soles of my feet in a pair of two sizes too small, one size fits all water pumps. A full moon rising tipped the scales from day to night. An old boy walking his wide-spread legged chocolate Labrador cut across me. ‘Can’t believe it’s dark and not even four-thirty.’ He muttered, maybe to me, maybe to his chocolate bitch, or maybe to himself. ‘It’s been dark at this time every December 18th every one of your seventy-something years on this planet’ I thought, ‘Why is it still unbelievable?’
Lapping water orchestrated clinking masts on the mystic water. Out of the falling dense fog the final sailing of the diesel powered “steamer” locked hard on full starboard as she glided from east to west with all the grace of a swan, before reversing into her final mooring berth of the night at Lakeside. Christmas lights up towards Silver Holme and Hill of Oaks blinked and twinkled behind dancing trees. I implored something deep inside to flick through files of memories stored and find that feeling that is only known as “Christmassy”. But nothing. I waded in. The cold maliciously hurtled toward old broken bones and wounds, nestling into them. I took the plunge, losing my breath and purposefully trying not to catch it again too quickly. The black fresh water was thick like tar, pushing through it felt like wading through dense jungle. Every once in a while, the boats would cease clinking, revealing the faint voices of the crewman across the way attaching night ropes and chains to their vessel. Jovial shouts and off-coloured remarks made for a welcoming distraction in the isolation. Once the gangway had been removed and their voices lost their way, the isolation stretched like a web. A melancholia took a hold of the wintery air, that I didn’t mind too much once I became accustomed. Alien splashes only metres away but out of sight started the engines of my racing mind until I convinced myself I was the only alien in this medium, despite repudiation from my apex predator egotism. Sonars bounced, guiding bats through the assault course; swooping down so close that I took cover under the surface, causing brain freeze. Moored yachts attached to buoys slowly turned and creaked as I crawled past; there imposing hulls taking on an intimidating pose from the angle below. Hundreds of pairs of floating eyes lit up in neighbouring fields as commuters passed from the road behind.
My already slow pace decelerated after fifteen minutes (well, it felt like fifteen, it could have easily been three or four), so I turned back. A couple were stood in front of one of the old Victorian gothic boathouses that’s only function these days is a receptacle for take-away coffee cups and plastic lids to blow in and float down the Leven. I swam closer to the couple, hoping I’d overhear a remark about how brave I was for swimming in open water this time of year, but all I heard was the guy call out ‘Look at this bellend.’ Toward the shoreline, the heavens opened, sounding like a distant round of applause as raindrops landed on treetops. I took pride imagining the round of applause was for me and my valiant dip.
As I emerged from the water and back on land looking like the mid-point of the “Evolution of Man” my toes began to itch unbearably from the faint temperature change. I stopped multiple times on the way back to the car, frantically scratching at the swelling that had now moved up into my feet and ankles – bad circulation; I get it from my mother’s side.
Deciding to pull in at the nearest pub to thin my already gaunt blood, a heavyset but pretty barmaid came over and took my order. ‘What will it be doll?’ She asked in an accent from across the pond. She had squeezed herself into a tight pair of black leather pants, causing her love handles to overflow, that looked kind of sexy. Her black staff t-shirt had flour stains all over it. On top of her curly auburn hair she wore a pair of light-up reindeer antlers. ‘I’ll have a pint of blonde, whatever it is. Thanks.’ ‘You have to order food too I’m afraid sugar.’ Doll, sugar- I liked this girl. ‘Cheeseboard please.’ ‘Coming up.’ She replied with a wink and a smile. I scanned the room. It was quiet, but for a few hard-lined locals, staring deep into their drained pints and tumblers; twisting them, hoping for fresh answers. The decorations and festive music only added to the jejune of their ambience. As I waited, I grabbed the local paper from the rack that had an article with the headline: “Every UK Lake and River Fails Pollution Test.” ‘Great’ I thought, ‘I’ve just prevented dementia but have gained cancer. Just my luck.’ I rubbed my throat up and down feeling for any irregular lumps from accidentally swallowing the most minute intake of lake water.
After a couple of pints and an ungodly amount of Applewood, I drove home. My parents were lounging in the living room. Fire roaring, tree glistening, the television volume a few notches too high. ‘Oh, hi love.’ My mum called, ‘I’ve made a veggie curry, it’s just cooking away. Should be ready in half an hour if you’re hungry.’ ‘I’ve just eaten, but won’t say no.’ ‘Where have you been? Thought you had an early finish?’ My dad piped up. ‘Went swimming.’ ‘At the baths?’ ‘No, Fell Foot.’ ‘In the lake? In this weather? You must be demented.’ ‘What you watching?’ I asked, turning my attention to the television. ‘Just some quiz show. My dad answered. ‘This poor sod’, he continued, ‘has the chaser breathing down his neck and has just answered “Al Capone” to the question “Which ‘Al’ was Bill Clinton’s Vice President from 1993 to 2001?”’ I nodded slowly, paying little attention. ‘You want a drink?’ My mum asked, ‘I’ve not long opened a bottle of red.’ ‘Yeah go on Mum. I’ll get it though. Anyone for a top up?’ I asked, walking to the kitchen. ‘Out already. Knew it.’ My dad shouted toward the screen. I poured myself a glass and joined my parents back in the living room. ‘How was work?’ My dad asked. ‘Fine. Keeping busy.’ ‘Oh well that’s good. Because it said on the news a lot of people are struggling to find jobs at the moment.’ ‘So I believe.’ ‘Did you see the lights outside? Your Dad put them up this afternoon. They’re solar-powered.’ My mum announced proudly, changing the conversation. I walked over to the window and looked out, noticing my Lady Di hairstyle from lack of product since my swim. ‘They look great. Good job.’ I looked around the carefully decorated room, settling on the tree. Noticing a bauble that read “Jack’s first Christmas, 1984”. An advert for electrical appliances snapped me out of my trance, immediately pulling me into another. ‘You ok son?’ Asked my mum; concern etched across her face. ‘Yeah fine, I smiled, ‘Just a bit cold.’ ‘Run yourself a bath, I’ll call you when tea’s ready.’ ‘Thanks. I think I’ll just take a shower.’ I walked upstairs, responded to a message off Faye that read “Our first Christmas!!!! Can’t wait!!!!”. I ran the shower, cranked the window, undressed, stepped in and stood under the steaming cascade, eyes closed. The search for that “Christmassy” feeling didn’t seem to matter too much no more.