Christmas fills me with a sense of dread.
Nothing to do with the commerciality of it; I love that shit… the chai lattes, the films, the music, the ornaments. No, it’s not that. It’s the fact that for the first time of the year, my mother and father and I will be together, all cooped up… the three of us, in a two bedroom apartment.
The thing with them is they were never together. Well, I guess they were initially, met at work, became an item and then I was a “happy” accident. The one thing I can say with confidence is they’ve never demonstrated love between the two of them…no clues of fondness, of warmth, only clashes and venom and sometimes violence. I still can’t tell you what they are to one another.
Friends with benefits? Two people with a kid?
Living with them through the years, I exhausted theories, labels, but still couldn’t work it out. I no longer wanted to be part of the confused dynamic, so when I managed to get into university I jumped at the chance to move out. So did my Mom, who left for Paris.
After art school finished, I was more or less penniless, bouncing from one unpaid internship to the next, so had to move back in with my dad. My domain was my loft bedroom and his, the study and the living room and when we would come into contact, it was like two lodgers who’d cock up their head as hello.
Then December rolled around and there we were, in that tiny flat in Paris, nowhere for me to hide.
It didn’t take long for the inevitable to happen. This year, it was at the shoe shop.
A young buck with a blasé attitude and shaved head was running the place. I tried on a pair of 250 euro trainers and just as I did the obligatory “walk round the shop” my Dad screamed
“I can’t fucking do this. Have a nice holiday.”
So I guess that was a no to buying the shoes? I walked outside to find him red-faced and pacing, being cooled down by mum. I could hear him sputter “spoilt brat” and “someone Paris Hilton would be friends with”. It wasn’t the words that hurt so much, I was used to them – it was how it made me erupt on that street in Le Marais. The kind of anger you forgot you had in you, throat dried out from screaming, neck veins bulging – like some beast born in a lab. French onlookers stuck up their noses and it wasn’t the smell of piss on the rue.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy the shoes, at least not then (I bought a pair later in the sales). After dad’s wobbly things started to simmer down but I was still shaken; strictly answering him with yes, no and maybe – thinking that’ll teach him.
Something was different this year though, and may have been the thing that stopped me on Christmas eve from offing myself. For the first time EVER, we were spending Christmas (evening) at Mom’s friend Lynette’s, who conveniently lived opposite.
Here’s how the day played out …
5:00pm. Christmas day. Paris.
Presents were opened and a roast chicken was eaten.
It wasn’t the lunch that did me in, but more the post lunch “grazing”. Any excuse for me to be in the kitchen, I’d take it.
“Oh, Dad, looks like you need a napkin!” And I’d be gone for ten minutes, throwing brie and mince pies in my mouth like some kind of savage.
“Anna sweetie, did you get the napkin?”
“Get your own bloody thing.”- crumbs falling out of my mouth.
But we had another place to be and still more food to eat!
Lynette and my mom live on the Rive Gauche (the left bank). Old women walking chihuahuas so small you could kill them with one stomp, men with cardigans slung and wrapped over their chests…yes, nauseating stuff for most, but my Mom felt that her nest in this part of Paris was where she was finally meant to be.
7:00pm Lynette’s apartment
had a Christmas tree with dried oranges and dustings of silver glitter, candles that smelt very “eau de North Pole” (cinnamon, cloves) and jazz music playing softly in the background. I wanted to bottle her place up in a snow globe and stay there forever.
Two French women sat on the sofa. Her “core group” apparently.
Wore a black dress, which showed a figure that clearly only ate chicken and vegetables. Her short hair had a slight wave to it and pearl earrings dangled just below the curls near her ears. She must have been in her 80s and had that kind of timeless elegance that was intimidating, looking at her was like watching a film noir, but the movie came to a halt the moment I glanced at her feet. Clunky, velcro-strapped sandals. With no socks… In winter! I smiled at her and thought perhaps you’re not so intimidating after all.
The other was
A tough looking cookie, with short grey hair, a sturdy figure and purple trousers that cut above the ankle, just revealing the skin-coloured tights she was wearing underneath. She was by far the oldest of the crew and looked like she had seen things.
Lynette boomed, in her nasally New York accent. She was carrying a tray of champagne flutes, wearing a black jumper with a Santa hat on it.
Her dog, Bailey, followed, dressed in a red bow tie.
Elodie spoke about her time working for the government and Genevieve about her time teaching at Harvard. I knew then and there I didn’t know enough to contribute to the conversation, so tossed around a “Wow!” here and there to show I was still in the room. But I wasn’t really there; I was thinking about the guy who had just sacked me off, the Christmas presents I’d got, and the way my trousers now dug into my belly button which made me want to rip them off and toss them out the window.
8:00pm “Take your seats.”
We were told. I positioned myself next to my Mum but more importantly, in front of the box of red wine on the shelf behind me. I’d be lying if I said these were my “type” of people, but it didn’t matter what they did or said – they were buffers, there keep the blister from erupting into a pop of puss.
“Hope you all brought your appetites!” and Lynette came in with a foam tray laden with oysters, pineapples and a huge lobster in the midst of it all. The group said in unison said
and that’s when we were all part of something.
It may sound odd, but in situations where I’m uncomfortable, I find the toilet a place of solace. Lynette has two. One small and opposite the dining room, and another near her bedroom. That one was perfect for me on the night. It was long, with marble floors, tennis ball-sized shaped and a collection of Guerlain perfume. I dreamed of having a toilet like this and only went back to the table so people wouldn’t think it strange.
In all honesty, I don’t know if they noticed my absence. I really wished I could have contributed more. I longed for an opinion, wished I cared more about politics… anything to feel like less of a shell. The few times I’d mustered opinions in the past, I’d get a “Sweetie, Kabul isn’t in Pakistan”. I mean, if the conversation was about dating and “The Real Housewives of New York”, I’d be working this room!
8:30 Round 2 : Homemade carrot soup and bread.
“No, no I can’t have a bite more.” Dad groaned as if he thought this fooled us into thinking he was Gwyneth Paltrow or something.
I mean, you could see his beer belly bulging out his shirt as he leaned back in his chair for christ sakes. I wasn’t hungry, but the bread was warm and the soup smelt good so I tucked in, feeling like the man of the family.
Lynette was uncharacteristically quiet. She always had something to say, always going off on a tangent that you never understood but nodded along to anyway. That night it was Elodie and Genevieve dominating the table, arguing about the French language.
“It’s low class not to say “ne” before “pas.” Elodie said.
Genevieve, a former French teacher, rolled her eyes.
“No, Elodie. It’s like saying “dunno” instead of “I don’t know.”
Elodie turned to me, and whispered “She doesn’t know what’s she talkeeng ah-boat!” and I smiled and winked as if I agreed because I wanted her to like me. But I didn’t agree. I don’t think.
And so the conversation rolled on, and between the amount of boxed wine I was consuming and the dryness of the topics, I was in and out of sleep; like being on a red eye flight but not being quite comfortable enough to nod off. In this languor I didn’t feel present, but I felt cocooned, safe from the shoe shop, safe from the conflict that would be consuming me if we weren’t here.
9:00pm Round 3: Avocado salad with salmon
“Oh, no, no this is too much!” Dad piped up again.
I was beside myself with confusion, as I thought this meal had been pretty light. Fish, veg, soup… I practically felt like I was losing weight throughout the eveni-
“Don’t you DARE feed my dog that. It’s unBEILIEV-able! You know not to!” Lynette screamed. She was terrifying when she got angry. Even wearing a Santa jumper.
I looked under the table and saw a hunk of bread dangling out of Bailey’s mouth and Genevieve’s already hard face harden some more.
And right then and there, Lynette was back in the room.
10:00pm Dessert : Bouche Noelle (traditional French cake).
Two of them, almost too pretty to eat – until I had a piece of each. Maybe I had a tape worm, because I didn’t feel that full.
10:30pm Time to leave
We were the first to leave along with Genevieve who put on a black coat with white flowers that made her outfit look less M&S and more Chanel.
“I love your coat!”
“Yes, thanks. In the 60s the blacks on the street used to tell me they liked it.”
And off we went and as I saw the Eiffel tower twinkling, I thought have you ever seen such a beautiful night?
Dad and I returned to London and although it was back to us both in separate rooms with doors shut, the cocoon of the snow globe I still felt.
Around 6pm the phone rang. It was my Mom.
I could tell by her absent tone something was wrong but she insisted otherwise.
Finally she said
“I’m a bit shaken up.”
Her tone shifted to one that was more alert… weighty… as if after every word she was thinking are you writing this down?
She said she was on her way to go to dinner with Lynette, when she was told to come up to the apartment beforehand.
When she got there, Lynette greeted her with
“I’ve got a mystery for you to solve…” and she started to guide Mum down the hallway.
“Well I was up until five am cleaning!” she huffed and puffed.
They were now in the toilet, the big, marble-floored one.
“This is where it all happened” she said. I came in here after you all left and discovered somebody had done a huge dump right in the middle of the floor.”
“Jesus. What?? Couldn’t it have been the dog?”
“Bailey would never do that. Plus, this was way too big for a dog. Oh, and there were huge footprints all over the place too!”
“But, who in their right mind would do that?”
“I know who. Elodie. Did you see her sandals? She was also the only one who used that toilet.”
But mum and I knew there were two other people who used that toilet.
Myself and my father.
I could no longer see an orange covered tree and smell cinnamon, I could just see a big, fat shit sitting on marble. It prayed on my mind the next few days- I just couldn’t see anyone at that house doing that! They all seemed so… respectable.
I didn’t know what to do! I felt restless…twitchy… like I needed to make a mind map like they did on crime shows. I had no choice but to exit my bedroom, go down the steps and confront this head on. All I had wanted to do was to get drunk on boxed wine but there I was, knocking on Dad’s door with the same apprehension as one gets outside the headmaster’s office.
“Hey-yy Da-ad. Did you, um, hear, about what happened at Lynette’s?”
He didn’t answer straight away, but his eyes, which were in the new reading glasses he’d got, making them look buggish, moved from the pages of his book to meet mine.
“No?” His voice went up an octave, and his lips pursed just like my gran’s did when she was alarmed.
“Someone…someone. Well, the night we were there for Christmas…Somebody, (I was thinking of the polite way to phrase it) did a poo on her bathroom floor.”
“Oh. He was still biting his nails.Well. I, uh… don’t think we should dwell on it.”
And I nodded and shut the door and knew what I was about to was wrong.
I went downstairs to the shoe rack, and grabbed the pair of trainers my dad had worn that night. I smelt the damn things, couldn’t smell anything and went back upstairs feeling partly relieved but still guessing who in the hell dunit!
This would be a story I tell again and again and every time, nor me or the person who hears it can point the finger at any of those at Lynette’s on Christmas day. Just like my parents relationship, this would be one of those things left a mystery, one left looming over the three of us; the snow globe all shaken up. Though, isn’t that what snow globes are meant to do?