‘For chrissakes, put it away!’
We winced as Aunty Vi bellowed at my cousin again, her voice as subtle as a dying mule’s. Lille was fiddling with her phone, her face hidden by her fringe, the gift she’d unwrapped lying like a discarded toy on her lap. I remember the room was already steamy, oily; too much summer and suntan lotion and angst. The Christmas tree drooped like an exhausted clown.
‘You’ve been on it all morning, Lille. It’s Christmas Eve! Stop being so bloody rude.’
Rolling her eyes at her mother Lille tucked her mobile in her back pocket. ‘Thanks guys,’ she said in a bored voice, holding up the makeup box Mum had given her. ‘Just what I needed. Another one.’
‘She never gets off that bloody phone,’ Aunty Vi stage-whispered. ‘It’s masturbation for Millennials.’
‘Eww.’ From behind the lounge, Errol’s squeal almost drowned the carol singing crooning from the CD player. Bloody Bing Crosby. Mum played him over and over, every Christmas, year after year, and normally I’d be complaining. But this December it reminded me of Dad. He’d always dreamed of a white Christmas: ‘Anything but this heat,’ he said, every year.
Just not this year.
‘Oh Vi,’ said Mum. ‘You don’t have to be so, well, literal, in front of the kids.’ She was smiling though, a half-smile; the first I’d seen on her all day.
Lille grabbed her strawberry mocktail. ‘You should see what she got for you, Aunty,’ she hissed with a nasty smile at Mum. We all glanced at the glittering, unwieldy parcel squashed beneath the tree. A branch had become unhinged when Aunty Vi shoved it under, and now hung like a broken limb.
‘Shush!’ said Vi. ‘It’s a secret.’ She tutted. ‘That girl.’
What’s she talking about?’
‘Just wait and see.’ She grinned her horsey grin, and brayed loudly.
As Lille stomped from the room she pointed at her mother then twirled her finger at her temple. I snorted; mum glared at me.
Vi clanked her glass against Mum’s. ‘Merry Christmas, love. Thanks for having us.…I know how hard it is for you lot.’
Mum gazed at the framed photo of my father on the side table. Despite daylight saving, twilight was battling, and a half shadow crawled down his face. Only his teeth grinned luminously from the frame. ’One year today,’ she said quietly. ‘I still can’t believe he’s gone.’
Silence fell with the shadowing, and for a moment I saw a silvery flicker in the corner, flurried and fast, like Dad on a squash court.
Mum leaned up and switched on the lamp and the room was shocked into a sharp fluorescence again. Errol crawled out from the sofa’s backside and curled next to her on the carpet. ‘Thanks Aunty Vi,’ he said, and hugged the metallic Viking doll to his chest.
‘My pleasure, sweetie.’
Vi and Mum sat cross-legged on the floor surrounded by wads of torn wrapping paper and shiny tinsel. Wiping her forehead with a tissue Mum took another long sip of her drink.
’You’ve nearly finished that, love,’ said Vi, and looked up at me. ‘Poppy, can you get us another one, please?’
I raised an eyebrow at Mum — I wasn’t yet of drinking or pouring age — but she was again staring at the photo, her eyes panicky yet faraway, her lips collapsing. Sighing, I unfurled my bare legs from the lounge and wrapped the artichoke green sarong Aunty Vi had given me around my shorts.
‘You look gorgeous!’ she cried. I usually twirled when she bought me new clothes, even the ones I disliked (which was often), but this year I just smiled, mouthed a ‘thank you.’ She smiled back, her face momentarily as mournful as mine.
At the kitchen bench I poured canned spritzer into their glasses, swore under my breath when I opened the freezer and found no one had refilled the ice container. After cooling my forehead with the two remaining cubes I dropped one in each glass. Taking a mouthful they both pulled a face at its warmth. ‘Errol took all the ice,’ I blurted.
‘My God, Drew,’ Vi said to Mum, ‘surely you’ve got a fan? This room is roasting. I’m gonna burn to death in here.’ She blushed, and glimpsed at Dad’s photo. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered.
Mum waved her hand. ‘It’s okay. I’m just glad you’re here.’ She swallowed the spritzer and tried to place the glass on the side table. It toppled to the carpet, a few watermelon pink drops spitting onto the nylon. ‘Thank god we’re using plastic glasses,’ she muttered. ‘Vi, I take back my whingeing. It was a good idea of yours to celebrate Christmas like Europeans and open the presents on Christmas Eve. Just like we’re in Paris.’ I could tell she’d already swallowed too much cheap cocktail, her words were lopsided, her faux cheeriness too desperate in her flushed cheeks. ‘Here’s yours. Can you bring it over, Poppy?’
Aunty Vi murmured warmly as she unwrapped the gift, thanking Mum for the candle. I felt embarrassed; it was a pretty crappy present, but Aunty Vi seemed to be overawed. ‘Perfect colour, Drew. It’ll match my bedroom!’ She hauled herself from the floor and stepped heavily to the Christmas tree. ‘And here’s yours!’
I’d wondered what the huge package was when Aunty Vi arrived, balancing it with both hands, and attempted to hide it behind other gifts under the tree. An oversized rectangular prism wrapped in glossy red foil, emblazoned with a gold ribbon. Mum placed her drink tentatively on the lino as Aunty Vi handed it to her with outstretched arms, as if awarding Mum with a medal. ‘A special something for a special someone,’ she gushed.
Mum oohed and ahhed nervously, running her fingers over the foil’s velvet design; it slipped from her hand but she grabbed it.
‘Careful!’ Vi gasped.
‘I hope you haven’t bought anything expensive,’ said Mum. ‘It’s not been the best year for any of us.’
With a handful of chocolate almonds sticking to my palms I slid back into the armchair. Aunty Vi had always enjoyed giving unconventional gifts, more to her taste than ours. A reversible poster of Buddha, wine glass holders for the car, pearly lobster shears. Quite the opposite of Mum, until Dad had died. Then she lost interest in caring, in purchasing the right gifts, in generosity.
My mother propped the present on the table then carefully unfixed the sticky-tape. From the flamboyant wrapper she wrested an elongated box.
‘Open it from that end!’ yelled Vi, pointing. ‘Kids! Come and see!’ She wriggled excitedly, her bouncing bosom causing her reindeer necklace and earrings to jiggle dangerously.
‘It’s really heavy,’ said Mum uncertainly. As my cousin strolled into the room Mum lifted what appeared to be a vase or jug from the box. ‘You just wait and see,’ Lille smirked.
An elaborate lidded vessel — like a samovar or amphora I’d learn in Ancient History in year 11 — a burnt-brown bronze, burnished and lightly scratched, with a tapering gold lid, its glamorous handles adorned by lions’ heads. It took my breath away.
No one spoke. Against the lounge’s jaded beige polyester, the drooping tree that had endured too many Christmases, the shabby wallpaper and the lamp’s painful, sweltering fluorescence the vessel’s patina glowed darkly, opulently. Like a queen’s crown jewels, like an object only found in distant foreign museums.
‘I warned you,’ Lille sniggered, her arms folded ‘Where’d you get that, Mum? Did you steal it from an old person’s home? Or rob a church?’
‘Don’t listen to her, Vi,’ said Mum. ‘It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it. Truly.’ Clinging onto the lions’ heads she peered intensely at Vi. ‘Really, you shouldn’t have. It must’ve cost a fortune! Where did you get it?’
Vi touched the side of her nose with her index finger. ‘I’m not telling,’ she giggled. ‘But the old lady told me it’s an antique. I knew you’d love it!’
‘Is it for petrol?’ said Errol.
‘It’s a vase, isn’t it?’ I asked. ‘It looks like a bottle that the genie lived in in that old tv show.’
Vi laughed. ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’
‘You could keep litres of grog in it,’ said Lille.
‘It’ll make a lovely vase,’ said Mum. ‘Though it’ll only suit very fancy flowers.’ She cradled the vessel in the crutch of her elbow and cautiously tugged at then twisted the lid. ‘It will need a lot of water though, it’s quite heavy—’
The lid unexpectantly sprang off; Mum’s arm flew in the air as she lost balance and the vessel crashed to the floor. We shrieked. As it hit the carpet it bounced and rolled, remaining intact. But thick black powder splattered from its open rim and the air was suddenly dense with dust.
‘What the hell?’ Aunty Vi croaked, her hand pressed to her mouth.
Coughing, we waved at the gritty cloud enshrouding us, flicking at the soot settling on our skin.
The lid still between mum’s fingers, she gaped at the vessel lying forlorn on the floor, at the lumpy pile of grey-black speckled dust disgorged from its mouth.
My heart went cold. ‘Mum…No…’ I whispered.
She stared at me, bemused, then turned abruptly to my aunt, gasping. ‘Vi — you wouldn’t. Tell me you didn’t.’
Vi was brushing the powder from her red Santa shirt, grimacing as she tasted it on her lips. She spat into a tissue. ‘What are you talking about, Drew?’
‘It’s ash, isn’t it?’ Mum’s face had blanched a soiled ivory; the flecks on her cheeks scowling like dirty freckles.
‘What do you mean?’ Vi wheezed, rubbing her shorts, frowning at the stains. My legs were smudged as if sifted with black icing sugar, but I couldn’t bring myself to wipe it off. I wanted it to stay there forever.
‘It’s Theo’s ashes, isn’t it?’ Mum’s voice was shrill now; she grasped at the sofa’s arm, teetering. ‘You’ve given me — for Christmas — my husband’s ashes! How…how could you?’
Vi gaped at Mum as if she’d gone mad. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Don’t lie to me!’ Mum dropped to her knees and seizing fistfuls of ash jerked her hands at Vi. ‘He died in Syria – and you got his ashes! How? How did you do this? Why?’
Again I saw the flicker in the corner; Dad visiting me again, as he had every day for the past year. I’d tried to talk to him, to touch him, but he never materialised, had remained a wraith in the shadows, like a spectral figure in a ghost story. Like the Dickens tale: I’d hoped that dad would appear on Christmas Eve, the ghost of all my Christmases past, present and future, and here he was, scattered on the ground: nothing but dust. But here, with me, no less.
‘Did you contact Médecins Sans Frontières? Where he worked? Did they send you his ashes?’
Vi sighed, shook her head, lowered herself to the sofa. ‘No, love. Why would I? You called them so many times…I tried to help, remember? His body…his ashes…were gone. In that explosion.’ She flapped her hand at the pile. ‘They could be someone’s ashes, but they’re not Theo’s. I bought the vase from a woman I work with. She had a garage sale out past Lakemba. She didn’t tell me it was full of…Oh Jesus. Maybe she didn’t know.’
We each all sank onto the sofa. Cheers rang from a party next door; what sounded like fireworks exploded a few streets away. Our house was silent. No one spoke for a few minutes, and even the Christmas CD had finished. Somewhere outside a choir sang a lugubrious carol: I climbed next to mum and squeezed her, tried to wipe some of the cinders from her jaw. She tilted my chin and saw that I too was weeping.
‘It’s all over your legs, hon,’ she said softly.
I touched a speck on my knee. ‘It can stay a while.’ She nodded back, pulled me to her chest.
‘I really need a drink now,’ said Vi. ‘I’m so sorry, Drew. I had no idea.’ Her skin had turned a mottled crimson. ‘Actually, I’m mortified. What can I do?’ She scanned the room then said, in a small voice, ‘Do you want me to get the vacuum cleaner?’
Lille choked again; I drew my breath.
‘You know,’ mum said to me, ‘your dad would think this was really funny.’ She smiled dolefully. ‘You know what a sick sense of humour he had.’
‘He would’ve made some pun about it for sure.’
‘It’s the dead centre of Matraville,’ said Errol. I slapped at him, but Mum just snorted gently.
‘Let’s just leave it there for a little while’, she said. ‘I’ll get us another drink.’ She meandered to the kitchen around the mounds, her footsteps leaving a trail of charcoal. ‘And let’s eat.’ She and Aunty Vi brought a plate of roast chicken, and placed buns and salads on the coffee table. We made sandwiches, and stepped over the embers when we moved about the room. Lille left her phone in my bedroom; Errol leaned his head on Mum’s shoulder.
At midnight, as my aunt and cousin prepared to leave, Vi apologised again. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to help clean it up?’ She jerked her chin at the ash. It had suffused the carpet with an ornate grey pattern.
‘Leave it. I’ll do it tomorrow. Strangely it’s cheered me up a bit.’
Aunty Vi frowned, unconvinced.
‘I like it,’ I whispered to Mum after we’d closed the front door. ‘I know it’s not Dad, but…’
‘Me too. But it’s bedtime now. Santa’ll be here soon.’
I rolled my eyes, but nodded. Hugged her and went to bed. In my room Dad was resting against my bookshelf; I spun quickly but as always, he disappeared, preferring to exist in the corner of my eye. ‘I miss you,’ I cried.
Slouching towards the bathroom before dawn I heard a stifled moan and peered nervously, hopefully, into our tiny lounge room. But it was only Mum, on her knees on the carpet, her hands sifting through the ashes and rubbing the smoky powder on her face. An empty wine bottle lay beside her knee.
‘Theo, Theo,’ she groaned, and bent forward again and again, her face in her hands, as if crazily bowing or praying.
‘It’s not him, Mum,’ I said.
She flinched and turned to me. ‘I know, sweetie. Oh god, I know.’ Her eyes were bulbous, cherry red. ‘But I can pretend it’s him, can’t I?’
I nodded mutely, and knelt beside her.
‘Feel it,’ she said, and softly wiped a charcoal line across my cheek. ‘It’s so soft. Just like his skin. Oh, Poppy, he would’ve found this hysterical.’ Her cheeks were damp, but she was smiling. ‘Even I’m laughing.’ She spoke to the crumbling pile in her hands. ‘I have a feeling you planned all this, Theo, somehow, from far, far away. Thanks, my love, for one hell of a Christmas present.’