‘Dad, what am I giving Stan tomorrow?’
‘That body wash and deodorant set. Sorry I couldn’t do any better mate – Laura doesn’t give much away.’
Did she have to wake up to this? Her kid brother got on her pigging nerves at the best of times. Hadn’t Stan come already?
‘At best he’ll think you haven’t made an effort. At worst he’ll think he smells.’ Mum incoming. Laura sighed and rubbed a thick layer of grime from her eyes.
‘What time is it?’ she groaned from the armchair.
‘He should be here in ten minutes,’ Mum said, extracting a book from the coffee table before striding off again.
They’d put the fire on and she could make out freshly laid snow in the dusk – a white Christmas like some cringey ad. Dad bored stiff by his new paperback; Peter frowning at his tablet, tongue poking out. Happy families.
‘Do you need to, you know, doll up a bit?’ asked her Nineteenth-Century father.
‘He doesn’t buy into that kind of thing,’ Laura said.
Her clothes were rank with sleep but Stan wouldn’t care. The hand-crafted Christmas cottage on the mantelpiece might be a sticking point, though. ‘What d’you call this love?’ he’d grin through the steam of mulled wine. ‘Meta-bourgeois?’ No, she was sure he had said that once. When would it have been?
‘Mum says Stan’s ruined Christmas,’ chirped Peter.
‘Is that right?’ asked Laura.
‘Because of the vegan thing sweetie,’ hollered Mum. ‘It just means more work for your father.’
‘So, you know, the whole increased CO2, intensive farming, genetic modification—it’s all fine as long as Dad isn’t put out?’
‘I didn’t say that,’ squirmed Dad. ‘Did I say that?’
‘You didn’t,’ said Laura. ‘But seriously don’t raise the vegan thing around Stan, he believes pretty strongly in it.’
‘Duly noted,’ Dad sighed and ploughed on with his book.
Laura slumped further into the chair and looked sadly at the tree. Normally decorating it was her job, but she’d been busy this year. Mum hadn’t even bothered with the tinsel.
‘Why do we have to have Stan for Christmas?’ Peter piped up. Oh, fucking hell. She heard snow crunch as Stan’s car crawled into the driveway – thank God – but the headlights, she could swear they lit up this odd lump on the lawn as they swung round. Then it was dark again.
‘That’ll be him,’ Dad said and opened the door.
‘Hey,’ Stan said simply.
‘You must be Stanley.’
‘Come in. It’s him, Laura.’
‘Hey you,’ she said and kissed him lightly on the lips. ‘This is my little brother Peter; Mum’s just in the other room, she’ll be out in a minute.’ Peter scowled at Stan, moody little bugger that he was.
‘A drink Stanley?’ Dad said. ‘There’s mulled wine if you want it.’
‘That’d be great.’
‘Is it how you imagined?’ asked Laura when Dad was out of earshot.
‘Worse love,’ laughed Stan quietly. ‘Stuffy doesn’t do it justice.’ Peter was listening – eyes narrowed at them.
‘I missed you,’ she said.
‘I missed you too love, s’not the same without the two of us.’
She heard the mulled wine start to bubble and straightened slightly for Dad. Stan sighed a little – he’d always thought she was too proper. Old impulses still need rewiring, he’d say.
‘One mug of mulled wine for you,’ Dad said as he came in with Stan’s mug. ‘There’s enough for you too if you’d like some.’ She said she would. Stan had caught sight of the Christmas cottage and after Dad left again he bounded towards it, mulled wine nearly slopping over the edge of his mug.
‘What d’you call this love?’ he grinned. ‘Meta-bourgeois?’
‘I said behave!’
‘I’m only playing,’ he laughed. Dad came in with the second mug of mulled wine. They settled back on the sofa.
‘So,’ said Dad, ‘Laura says you’re a philosopher.’
‘That’s right,’ Stan laughed. ‘Read up on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, all the greats.’
‘And do you have any plans for, um, afterwards?’ Dad pressed. Jesus – right in at the deep end.
‘Travel for a year maybe, after that who knows.’ Dad only looked half-dismayed. What was he thinking? It’s OK, he’s not a keeper – she’ll have someone new by the summer. Was he wrong?
Dad was still talking to Stan but she couldn’t listen anymore – there were voices coming from the dining room. She had to check, thought she was going crazy. No one seemed to see her leave the sofa.
The table was set for Christmas dinner, the window pale blue with weak afternoon sun. They were all sitting there yelling: Dad’s face comically red, the vein on his forehead that always stood out when he was angry throbbing like crazy; Mum purple with rage; Pete kind of folded in on himself. And then she saw her and Stan: both real scared – of her parents? Stan filled a glass of wine and drained it, hand shaking; she just stared.
‘Have you worked it out yet?’ Stan’s voice came from behind her.
‘It’s not really Christmas Eve, is it?’ she said after a while.
‘What’s going on here?’ Laura gestured at her family. She and Stan had risen sharply from the table; Dad blocked their path. ‘What the hell have we done? Dad never gets like this.’
‘It’s about my ex – I tried to tell you so hard love, all those times we were plastered I thought I’d just let it slip and then I wouldn’t—I’m sorry love.’
‘Stan, what have you done?’
‘When I started dating her I didn’t know. She was in a fucking club—but she was young: fifteen. Just a number I thought. A month back she—started saying she had issues, all my fault she said; she was going to tell her parents, I was trying to stop her. Your brother—he’s got something against me—stole my phone and pieced things together from the texts, then spilt the beans over the turkey.’
‘I go with you, don’t I?’ Laura said eventually. ‘I can see us. You’ve just hit Dad and I’m still holding your hand.’ She paused. ‘It’s instinct; it must be. What happens next?’
‘You drive away with me.’
‘Haven’t you had—?‘
‘Quite a bit yeah.’
‘What, so, does anything happen?’
For a while Stan said nothing. Then: ‘I’m sorry love.’
He was gone. In the living room the window had shattered, little shards of glass lodged themselves in the tree and fairy lights sparkled off them. Finally decorated, she thought. The carpet was damp with snow. She could see the lump outside again and in the daylight the snow around it was pastel pink. Stan’s car in the driveway was crumpled and smoking.
She opened the door and crunch – the snow soaked through her socks. Walking towards Stan’s body was freezing and painful and she couldn’t stop thinking Not him. There’s a guy somewhere, maybe, someone I could lie beside and call it quits but not him.
She lay beside him and heard bones crack. His face was bisected by an angry gash.
‘I’m sorry love,’ he mumbled. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t have been someone else.’
By Simon Fearn, for The Bubble’s Creative Competition 2016, based on the theme of ‘Christmas’.