Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
I once saw a picture in Julian's bedroom of Julian's mother, taken at a wedding.
Strictly speaking, it wasn't a picture of her at all. Neither was it of Julian, standing next to her, or of Tony, a friend of his father's, who was measuring someone up with his camera out on the left of the frame. Whoever had taken the picture had created a family portrait without a centre, capturing the moment just before the ersatz community of a group photo. Everyone is mooning about, awkwardly. Women (not women: "wives") clutch their children and smile neutrally at no-one in particular. At the right-hand edge, Julian's dad is sighting a camera overarm, as though it's a pair of binoculars. He looks comically alone; his suit is bagging around him and his hair is being blown above his forehead by the wind.
Still, Julian kept it. Mainly, I guessed, it was because of the way his mum was standing. She is facing him, leaning slightly forward with her legs in a tight triangle, She has brought her hands up like she is in a boxing match. Clearly, she is joking. Not about boxing; this is the way, you feel, his mother always joked, on the balls of her feet, acting up. Her hands are illustrating something. Half martial art, half prayer, it's a gesture that I'd seen him copying, in the early days, until he no longer felt like copying her. (It wasn't long before the picture disappeared.)
She is demonstrating to her son exactly how to hold his camera, and he is delighted. His legs are triangled, just like his mum's, and he is mimicking her jokey face. She, though, you feel, is demonstrating that she is demonstrating how to hold a camera to her son. This is a woman, you might want to say, who takes things seriously, who knows how to speak to her son – who makes a point of speaking to her son – and this is exactly what she would want you to think.
What the picture doesn't tell you (how could it?) is that she is, or has been, sleeping with Tony. That there are two or three men out of shot who she has, at least, flirted with and who Julian suspects she has slept with. That she will, later, hurl the wedding cake at Julian's father's face. She will be carried out, feet first, and deposited in the car, so that his father has to drive her away with Julian in the back.
He told me this on Christmas Eve. We were walking into town, along the river, away from his parents' house. We had been to the graveyard but it wasn't the same. We hadn't wanted to stand around in the cold. It was overgrown, and Julian didn't want to muddy his shoes. Anyway, we were stoned; we couldn't have kept our balance. We weren't ready to go back, and we had decided to do the walk along the towpath, which ran parallel to the road. The clouds came and went and the sun hit sparks out of the surface of the river. The reeds and plants looked drowsy; as out of it as we were.
"She makes me want to fucking heave", he said.
He worried at his hair with jittery fingers.
"She just can't help herself. She has to be the sexiest woman in the room."
He took a final toke then held the joint up like a dart and threw it, gracefully, into the water.
He shook his head.
"He doesn't say anything?"
"He's a fucking fart. He should kicked her out years ago."
He pushed jerkily at his hair again.
"And me", he said, ambiguously.
I was delighted with all of this. Not only was he confiding in me but we had left Desmond back at the house. They were an item, of course, and it was Desmond who had persuaded Julian to go home for Christmas. I think that he was anxious to legitimise it; that he had got it into his head that they were having a proper relationship. Julian, meanwhile, must have wanted simply to rub his mother's face in it, but she had outflanked him. She had been charming, he said, offering Desmond tea-cakes and brightly-coloured liqueurs. I had come over from my parents' house and Julian had virtually bundled me out before I got in the door. I caught a brief glimpse of Desmond, head back, laughing up at the ceiling. Even in this posture, his belly fattened downwards just like water fattening from a tap. All of a sudden, I said,
"I never skinny dipped."
I was having to hurry to catch up with him. I'd had the same urge that I'd had in Chinatown; to try and say something meaningful now that Julian had lowered his guard.
"I made it up", I said. "I was too scared. It was the other kids, not me. I used to stand and watch."
I made a helpless little gesture. I could tell that he didn't know what I was talking about.
"What I said in the van", I said. "I was lying."
He was still bewildered.
"I was trying to be, I don't know. Interesting. Or less uninteresting."
A blank. I felt a sudden gust of anxiety; a premonitory shudder. I laughed, or tried to laugh, and grabbed his arm. He looked a little scared. He was, briefly, his age again. I said,
"All this. Desmond. The band. It's odd, you know? Getting used to it. I've only ever really knocked about with you."
I had tossed it off lightly, like a joke, but I regretted it immediately. I watched his face freeze back into its customary irony. He said,
"I'm not surprised."
He pulled away a little.
"I mean. God, look at you."
Grinning, he got away from me. I gave up, following him as best I could. The towpath swung up through a meadow to a train station. Across the roundabout, there was a tiny park – they still had lovebirds there; people threw butts inside the cage – next to a swimming pool, or else you turned left and the church was on your right. The statue held its paintbrush up just like a sword. It was continually stepping into a future that was never going to arrive. Its face was covered in pigeon shit; it looked like someone had thrown a custard pie. I said,
"For God's sake not The Blue Boy, Julian."
He turned towards me. It looked like he had been grinning all this time.
"I mean it", I said.
"Poor old sod."
"I'll go home."
Still grinning, and ignoring the passers by, he took three pixie steps away from me and did a comic little pirouette. There was the market on our right, with traders in Santa hats. A loudspeaker was playing Christmas songs. It seemed to orchestrate the shoppers, so that they dipped and rose and walked in time. Most of the faces looked tautly determined. They were blundering wordlessly against each other, pressing their advantage. Julian and I kept to one side of them, threading our way to where the road separated into two, then down to The Hand On Heart. It was quieter here – there were antique shops and shops selling maps and tiny globes – but the pub itself was packed. We fought our way up to the bar then over to the corner of the room. Balloons bumped and nuzzled on the ceiling. We stood with our drinks held up to our chests, nearly touching.
"Just one", he said.
"I only want to stay long enough to irritate her."
I couldn't, now, think of anything to say; it didn't feel any longer like we were in a conspiracy. All around us, people were singing and shouting. It struck me that their expressions were every bit as atavistic as those I'd seen on the street outside, struggling to keep up with Christmas. People were standing toe to toe, shouting in each other's faces. Someone slapped somebody on the back so that he lurched forward; someone else was bellowing along with Slade. There was a man in a Santa hat and he had slipped a piece of ice down the dress of the girl beside me. He howled with laughter as she screamed. She rumbaed to retrieve it, then mimed a punch. He mimed cowering submissiveness. I was almost certain that it was the first time they had met. Eventually, she rang his bobble like a bell. She was laughing. I nudged Julian, who had been looking somewhere else. He watched them for a moment.
"She's been playing the room", he said. "It could have been anyone."
"Oh please. Look at her."
She was broad, and the roots of her hair seemed to be spreading, like oil. She was wearing big hooped earrings. She tugged at the man's tie, which was half-way down his chest, then mimed another punch. He leered. They briefly wrestled and then struggled off towards the bar. Julian said,
"Another satisfied customer."
He was lighting a cigarette. He brushed away the smoke, irritably. There was a whirlpool effect – a kind of vortex – with Julian briefly at its centre. Now he was disposing of a fleck of tobacco. Looking at me, he grinned. He tousled my hair.
I didn't pull away.
"This world of hearts and flowers you insist on living in."
Leaning into me, he pointed towards the bar. He was holding onto my arm to steady himself. For a moment, I was confused but then I could see the Santa hat; it was squashed against the man's head and the girl's hands – stubby, with bitten nails and scrappy shards of varnish – were roughly moulding it while she kissed him. Over his shoulder, glimpses of her earrings came and went.
"See?", he said.
He had leaned in even further and was precisely enunciating his words, separating them from the thrum of the room around us.
"Dirty cow", he said.
Pulling away slightly, he smiled. His eyes took in my forehead and my eyes and then my mouth. Quickly, he kissed me on the nose.
"Trust me", he said.
There had been no intimacy in the gesture. His eyes were empty. The words sounded like a joke that he assumed we shared. I realised, all at once, that I didn't know him at all. It was like a sudden smack in the face. I looked past him, at a man and woman who were toasting each other. The woman had plump, almost parodically, full lips and luxuriant hair. The man said something and she responded with a laugh. Really responded: the laugh suffused her face, making sense of it. They hugged. I wanted to get out. I downed my bottle.
"Right", I said. "Come on."
I started forward. Julian shrugged, smiling, but followed me outside. By the front door, a girl was sitting on a bag and crying while two men argued over her. The cold air made me feel doubly stoned; like I had become lost, somehow, inside my own skin. The town was incongruously twee, all of a sudden, with fake snow on the windows and angels on the lampposts and those frontages, like bulging foreheads, that you always think are Elizabethan, and then I thought: maybe it's us; maybe we're incongruous. We were the only people on this side of the road; everybody else was squeezed up, rummaging through the market. The town was like something that the dope had manifested; like an illustration of just how removed I was from everything.
The sun had gone in, and the river, now, was like hammered pewter. Neither of us were talking. When we got back to the house, Tony and his wife had arrived. Everyone was in a circle in the middle of the living room. Desmond was leaning forward, telling a joke. He grasped something two-handed. Slowly, he dipped his head down over it, then slowly opened his mouth. It was a daring mime, considering his relationship with Julian. Looking nervously from side to side, he said,
"'Hello mum. Hello dad.'"
And the circle collapsed. Julian's mother screamed loudly and then laughed with both hands on her knees. Desmond looked modestly down at his drink. I was struck by how much he seemed to fit in. You could almost have taken him for one of the adults. Julian, meanwhile, was clearly, and surprisingly, a teenager. He had grabbed a can of lager and then dumped himself on the settee. He seemed to be floundering in it a little. I sat carefully beside him. His mum inhaled sharply on her cigarette.
"Oh look", she said. "It's Little and Large."
Tony came over and held out his hand. Both he and Julian's dad looked like market traders, which is what they had started out as. Tony was handsomer, with sideburns and a tan. His hair was brilliantined. There was, actually, something of the teenager, or the very young man, about him too. Where Julian's dad had allowed himself, you felt, to soften slightly around the edges, Tony seemed to have fought to hold on to his silhouette. He had a single stud in his left ear and, I noticed now, a red and white canvas wristband.
"Jools", he said.
I could see that Julian didn't want to give him his hand. Here, though, in his parents' living room – in the presence of his parents and of Tony's wife – the best that he could do was make a show of reluctance. He limply presented his fingers, making a gift of them, just like he had with the interviewer in the college.
"Tone", he said.
"I hear you're in a band."
"He is", said Desmond, eagerly. "He's going to be massive, aren't you?"
He had taken on the demeanour of a concerned parent. Julian looked levelly at Tony for a moment and then carefully withdrew his fingers, one at a time. Slowly, he wiped them on his legs. As an afterthought, Desmond said,
"Right", said Tony. "Simon."
He took my hand and pumped it up and down.
"Oh, he's the mastermind", said Julian's mum. "He clicks his fingers, and."
Even that, a simple click, had an element of high drama; she looked like a flamenco dancer. She was a little drunk already. Anne, a puppyish woman with dancer's legs, was watching her closely. She kept sketching, and erasing, a smile, uncertainly. There was a moment before Julian's mother spoke again; a stilted pause. Then she cupped her hand under her cigarette and passed me on the way to the ashtray. She tapped at it then turned and chuched me, swiftly, under the chin. She said,
"You're a demon, aren't you, love?"
The dope was wearing off but everything was still magnified and slightly distant. His mother was larger, and less explicable; a monster. The ambience, too, was wrong. The carpet and knick-knacks and the tinkling Christmas tree were making me feel both clumsy and disaffected. Julian was more practised at this sort of thing than I was but I could tell that his relaxed demeanour was also largely willed. He had placed himself in a kind of cross, his arms following the contours of the backrest. He was looking up at Tony, his lips stretched slightly outwards.
"You should come and see us, Tone. I mean, I know you're a bit old these days, but."
He smiled, sweetly.
"We get a lot of women. You should be in your element."
His mother wheeled round from the ashtray and swiftly said,
Tony shrugged and started to walk away. Julian's mum was saying,
Archly, Desmond came over towards her, nearly on tip-toe. Tony had his arm around Anne, who looked a little lost. She had a humorous face; her lips were obtruded and her eyebrows seemed to be arched ironically. Julian's dad was fiddling with the CD player, studying a pile of CDs carefully before he put one on. It was a party mix – a catch-all compilation: "Car Wash" then "Staying Alive" then "YMCA" – but the tracks were gesturing towards a party that bore no relation to the one that we were having. Anne had started to sway stiffly from side to side, clutching her drink with both hands. Her face wasn't registering what her body was doing. Tony was still holding on to her. Julian's dad was straightening, or polishing, or cuddling, the CD player. His mum had raised her voice. She had stepped back and was acting out enthusiasm.
"Love to", she was saying. "I mean, I was never going to get an invitation from his lordship, let's be honest here."
She made a gesture that was strikingly similar to Julian's, worrying her fingers through her hair and then doing it again, unnecessarily. Julian didn't react. He had pushed his head backwards and was staring up at the ceiling. His hands were crossed, demurely, in his lap. Smiling so that her lips almost disappeared, his mum offered him a cigarette. He waved it away.
"Oh come on", she said. "Who are you trying to kid?"
She waggled the cigarette backwards and forwards in front of his face, like she was ringing it.
"You're a big boy now, Julian. You don't have to pretend. Go on: have one."
"I don't", he said.
He pushed it away with the back of his hand. She leant into him. It was a complicated moment. You could tell how tipsy she was, but there was something else; some taunt, or challenge.
He sat, not moving, his hands in his lap. There was a beat – a breath – and then she said.
She swiftly turned around. She wrinkled her forehead, making a show of concentrating, hard, on Desmond. Desmond, meanwhile, was doing his best. Julian hadn't removed his head from the back of the sofa. As the evening went on, he stayed in the same position, reluctantly leaning forward only to move a piece on the Monopoly board or accept another can of lager. I admired his willpower, but it was typical of his brand of asceticism. He was punishing himself – he must have been dying for a cigarette – and I wasn't sure why. Desmond became more and more anxious. He had been selling himself as a civilising influence, had referred to Julian as though he was a successful case study, but now, as he tried to draw him out – as he tried to talk about the band; about its trajectory, its image and songs and sound, all with particular reference to Julian – Julian just sighed and nodded, or slowly shrugged. He couldn't, or wouldn't, give a damn. It looked like wilful sabotage.
"Give up", his mum said. "Look at him. He sulks. Don't you? And then you have to wait for days. I had to pick him up once, in the car. He'd stormed out in his dressing gown. He got halfway into town before I managed to catch up with him."
Tony and Anne both laughed. Anne said,
She hadn't meant it unkindly. Julian turned and looked at her. He didn't say anything.
"Nothing", he said.
"No. What? You look."
She made a face, turning her mouth downwards in an exaggerated pout.
"You look like that. Like someone's slapped your botty."
Elsewhere, you could tell, she had friends who found her demeanour – its tang and peppiness – sympathetic. Julian stared at her.
"God, Julian. What?"
"Talk about idiot."
She looked confused. His eyes lingered on her face for a moment. Then, smiling, he emptied his can. He threw it, approximately, at the bin.
"And anyway", he said. "I'm always having my botty slapped. What's that thing we do, Desmond?"
He was mock-innocent now.
Desmond looked helpless. Before he could answer, Tony said,
"Well, it's nice to see you, too, Julian."
Anne laughed, uncomfortably. His mother did a sort of bark that could have meant anything. His father was feeding the CD player. He had disclosed an unexpected competitiveness at Monopoly; had gleefully wiped out Tony and then borne down on his wife, ruthlessly reducing her to bankruptcy. Now, softly, he said.
It was a warning, or a plea. Julian said,
But he didn't say anything else. He sat backwards in the sofa. I found that I couldn't get drunk. I was holding on, gripping the seat so that the muscles in my arms had started to ache. We were playing Cluedo now. Desmond didn't seem to want to look up from the board. Tony was lighting a Christmas cigar with a series of rapid puffs, like little kisses. His tight curls caught the light. He was being very affectionate. He had a hank of his wife's hair – a murky blonde bob – in one hand. They looked like they had been stitched together at the waist. Nuzzling her, he said,
"Your turn, babe."
A vertical line had appeared between Anne's eyebrows. She had been to a nail bar; there were pink zig-zags underneath the white edge of her fingernails.
"Professor Plum", she said.
There was a comic redundancy to the way she said it. She bore down on the plosives and the "m". There was no need for it; it didn't relate to anything.
"With a knife. In the ermmmm."
She squeezed her face into a grimace and then shook it up towards the ceiling. She said,
She slapped her cards on the board.
Tony was smiling indulgently.
"Come on come on come on come on come on."
Julian's dad was smiling too, but nobody else was. Anne shook the hidden cards into her hand. Looking at them, she pushed a fist into the air.
"Yesss", she said.
Tony stroked her back; it looked like he was winding her.
"T'riffic.", said Desmond.
This was like Anne's demeanour; an echo of what Desmond was like outside. He was a good enough salesman to know that he had to tone himself down. He had recovered, a bit, but he was still staring down at the board. It was taking him a long time to put his cards down. Julian's mother was irritated. She gave a thin little smile.
"I was one away", she said. "I had the Conservatory and the knife, but I fancied that."
I barely heard the "that"; it was obscured by Julian saying,
He was still looking up at the ceiling. The new CD had started, playing "Oops Upside Your Head". Anne wasn't dancing this time, though. Julian looked over at his mother.
"I'm sorry. Had you not finished?"
His dad said,
"Julian, I think."
"Do you? That must be a first."
He pointed at the Cluedo board.
"Not like Anne, though. Anne doesn't miss anything, do you, Anne?"
Desmond was saying,
"Listen, old mate."
But Anne cut across him. Her voice was dry now; there wasn't a trace of affectation or of eagerness to please.
"Julian, if you've got something to say then I suggest you say it."
She was looking at him steadily. There was an unnatural stillness to her top lip, and her nostrils had tightened slightly. Tony was studying his cigar. There were two strong lines that seemed to have been scored on either side of his mouth. He had plush, plum-coloured lips that gave the impression of sensuality gone to seed. He said.
"For Christ's sake, he's a kid, right? Can't we move on? I mean, look at him: he's loving this. Aren't you, mucker? Let's leave it, shall we?"
But Anne said,
"No. I want to hear what he's got to say."
Again, Julian's father said,
But Julian was taking a visible breath. He smiled around the room, turning his head slowly so that he included everybody. I thought: shit, here he goes. To Anne, he said,
"Your husband fucked my mum."
As he was saying it, he was taking a cigarette from his mother's packet. He took his time lighting it then threw the spent match across the room.
"I caught them at it", he said.
He exhaled, carefully, into the centre of the group. Desmond had his head in his hands. I could see that Julian was beginning to enjoy himself.
"On the sofa. It was funny, actually, because I came in to look for a rubber, and there they were. Doggy-style. It was quite sweet."
Several things seemed to happen at once. Tony had reached across and slapped Julian's face, making Julian pull sharply backwards, knocking my lager over, and Anne was pulling on Tony's arm, trying to get him to stop. Julian's mother was on her feet, saying,
"You little shit."
Julian's father was running across, trying to get between Tony and Julian, and then, once Anne had got hold of Tony, Julian and his mother. The bin went over and the CD jumped, just for a second, so that it seemed to say "kuh". Now Anne was saying,
"We're going. That's it. Come on. Come on."
She was half-pushing Tony out, even as Julian's mother was shouting, over her husband's shoulder,
"You fucking little shit."
She burst into tears. It was all over in seconds. The front door slammed. Julian's mother collapsed dramatically onto the carpet and continued to sob. We heard a car drive off. Julian's father stood in the middle of the room, not knowing what to do, and then retreated into the kitchen. "Boogie Wonderland" had started in the background. Desmond was still looking down at the Cluedo board. Julian turned slowly in his seat and looked down at his mother.
"God", he said. "Sorry. Was I not supposed to say that?"
Then he did the weirdest thing. Seemingly in slow motion, he came forward and held his mother's hair, like Tony had done with Anne. Leaning forward even further, he pulled her head up and kissed her on the lips. It was a contemptuous gesture, the gesture of a conqueror, but then I saw – we both saw; Desmond and I both saw it, I'm sure we did – the slight returning pressure, an almost unconscious hunt after a memory of pleasure, before his mother remembered where she was, and who she was supposed to be, and what had happened. Julian pulled sharply away, but, for a moment, she had kissed him back. I suddenly felt short of breath. I knew what "get the lot" meant now. I knew why Julian's bedroom was so spartan and why there were no pictures of his mother; why it always sounded like he was punishing himself when he was having sex. An insistent woman, he'd said; she wouldn't take no for an answer. As I watched, he pushed his mother's shoulder, so that she toppled back over. She lay in a ball, hugging her knees. Julian said,
He put his fingers to his lips. It was a snapshot; he was doing a bathing beauty, already removing himself from what was happening. Watching, I understood it all – all of it; right from the very beginning – and, as I sat there, uncertainly looking at him, he turned and looked at me and saw what I was thinking.
And he never forgave me for it.
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.