Chapter Ten: A Manchester Christmas

Christmas has crept up on me this year.  I used to get so excited about it when I was little, I would spring out of bed on Christmas morning, long before sunrise, and run down the stairs to open my presents, only to be thwarted by my mother who, knowing what I was like, had hidden the presents the night before.  I would pester her unremittingly for hours until she would give in and get up, then, I would help her make Christmas dinner, and we would eat it off trays in front of the telly; afterwards, we would open our presents.

  This Christmas Day, I got up around nine o’clock and made my way sleepily down the stairs to the kitchen, where my mother was already washing and preparing potatoes for roasting.  The radio was on, and a selection of Christmas records was playing.

  “Merry Christmas,” she said, jollily, as she passed me a handful of carrots to wash, scrape, and chop.

  “Merry Christmas,” I replied, equally cheerfully, as I set to work.

  The day was typically cold, yet fairly bright, with not a flake of snow in sight.  Later, as it grew dark, we lit candles and outside, house after house set off fireworks, and the noise grew until it drowned out every other sound.  No carol singers walked along our streets, no snow fell.  My mother put down her glass of brandy and bowl of Christmas pudding, walked over to the T.V, and turned up the volume.

  On Boxing Day, I went to see Tony in Mottram, and, as usual, came home wondering why I’d bothered.  It’s not even a case of whether I love him or not, how can you love someone you never knew?

  Lise, my pretty and precocious blonde thirteen-year-old half sister let me in.  She was wearing low rider jeans, a hot pink tight t-shirt, emblazoned with the message ‘Porn Star’, and an expression of studious boredom, which contrasted sharply with the harassed tones of Emily, her mother, who could be heard all the way from the kitchen.  Inside the living room, Andrew and Tony were playing Nintendo, whilst Jay, an uncannily angelic six year old, watched them from the sofa, stuffing down the contents of a Thorntons selection box at an impressive rate.  The curtains were still drawn, and Jay and Andrew were both still in their pyjamas.  Suddenly, Emily barged past me and Lise, relieved Jay of what was left of the chocolates, and turned off the Nintendo, to much protestation.  “You two!” she roared, “Upstairs, now! Get dressed!” and with much sulky muttering, they obeyed.  Tony got to his feet, and stretched luxuriously.  We share very little physical resemblance; about the only thing I get from him is the height.  He followed Emily through to the kitchen, and, ignored and forgotten, Lise and I settled down on the sofa.  She picked up the selection tray and offered it to me, I selected a praline, and we settled in for the long haul.

  Lise wants to meet my mum, she says.  She says that when her dad talks about her she sounds “totally wild.”

  “What does he say about her?” I asked, curious.

  “He always goes on about being a punk for ages, and how all my music is shite, then he starts talking about your mum, and how she was, like, this mad, sexy actress woman… then my mum gets this evil expression on her face and makes him shut up.  I want to be an actress…”

  Since Lise has wanted to be something different every Christmas since I’ve known her, I didn’t take this latest career decision too seriously: The previous Christmas she had wanted to be a pole dancer.

  “How’s your mother?” asked Tony, gruffly, as I waited for my taxi home that evening.

  “Fine,” I replied automatically.

  “Good.”

  We had been reciting this particular series of exchanges for the past five years.

  “It’s your birthday next month, isn’t it?” he said.

  “Yes, that’s right.”

  “And you’ll be, what, nineteen is it now?”

  “Twenty.”

  He shook his head, “Twenty… you all grow up so fast these days.”

  “How was he then?” asked mum, indifferently, when I arrived back that evening.

  “Oh, you know…” I replied vaguely, “the same.”

  She nodded sadly, “I’m sure he tries…”

  “I know he tries,” I found myself echoing her emphasis on the word, “but it was never going to be normal, was it?”

  “No,” she agreed quietly, “it wasn’t.”

  Katy, amidst much complaining, and definitely against her better judgement, had gone home to the Cotswolds for Christmas, taking Fliss with her.  The plan was for Katy to spend the 22nd, 23rd, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day with her parents, after which she would decamp to Fliss’ family’s house.  The pair of them are due to return on the second of January, just in time for our first interview with ‘NME’, which is due to take place on the third.  It’s to be part of a feature about “The New Manchester Scene,” apparently; whatever that is.

  Flora, like me, had stayed in Manchester for Christmas.  She’s been temping and doing phone work, plus working on assignments for University.  Her parents have gone abroad for Christmas and, fearing that she might be lonely, I arranged to meet her for a pre-Christmas drink.

  We met up at Hardpop on the 22nd.  The One Way Or Another Christmas party had happened only days before, yet you wouldn’t have known it; the tinsel was still there, complimented now by fairy lights, but the glitter had been swept from the floor and although the crowd was equally boisterous, the atmosphere was somehow different.  The D.J alternated between playing electroclash and new Detroit punk, presumably unsure as to which side he ought to come down on.  Flora and I sipped our drinks sceptically. 

  “This is nice,” she said at last.

  “Yeah”

  There was an awkward pause, during which we took it in turns to stare at the floor and ceiling.

  “I hope Katy isn’t having too terrible a time at home,” she remarked, before adding, “I wish that you two could learn to get on.”

  “Katy hates me,” I stated.

  “No she doesn’t,” sighed Flora, “she just doesn’t understand you.”

  “Well, I don’t understand her,” I snapped, “but I tolerate her.”

  “You scare her,” said Flora, quietly.

  “I scare her?”

  “You’re very cold, very casual… very… distant and evasive.  She doesn’t like that.”

  There was a long silence between us; ‘Seven Nation Army’ blared out.

  “I’m not cold.” I said at last.

  “Maybe not intentionally cold,” replied Flora gently, “but that’s how it comes across… Fliss says you’re different at home, so does your mum.”

  “What, are you psychoanalysing me now or something?” I snapped, angrily, “This isn’t what I came out for, Flora; I came out to enjoy myself.”

  “And to keep me company,” she said quietly.

  I looked away.

  “It’s alright, quite flattering really, but I’m not lonely,” her brown eyes showed that she was at pains to get this across, “I just like my own company, still,” her tone became more business like, “I did figure that I had a chance to talk to you about Katy, because I really don’t want this band to fall apart when we’ve barely even started…”

  I nodded.

  “Good.”

  I saw Fergus briefly at The Twilight Studios Christmas party; he accosted me whilst I was there, and extracted a promise from me to go and see ‘Ghost World’ with him at The Filmworks on the second of January.  Fliss hadn’t arrived home before Fergus picked me up, so I left her a note, telling her where I’d gone.

  As we walked through the dark, echoing, noise-fuelled, crowded arcade that was the Printworks, he asked, “Have you eaten?” I hadn’t, so after we’d bought our tickets we decided to dodge our way back through the crowds, already spilling out of the bars, and find somewhere to eat.  We went to a restaurant next door to the cinema, where the décor had a Mexican theme, and indie rock made up the soundtrack.  It was quite dark inside, so each table was lit by candlelight.  We ordered penne pasta with tomatoes, olives, and cheese, and then shared a huge chocolate ice-cream sundae.

  I waited at the table as he went to pay the bill.  It seemed to be taking him a long time, and when I looked over to see what was taking so long, I saw the woman at the till hand back his card.  She was frowning and shaking her head.  I saw him take the card back and count the cash in his wallet; there was some hesitation there and, sensing some kind of difficulty, I joined him by the till.  “What’s up?” I asked, sotto voce.

  I sensed his embarrassment as he said, equally quietly, “I don’t seem to have quite enough cash…”

  “What about your cards?” he shook his head and I decided not to pursue the matter, “how much do you need?”

  “Ten pounds twenty seven pence.”

  I paid up.

  As we travelled up the escalator to cinema five in the airy, carpeted Filmworks, he said quietly, “I’m so sorry, I will pay you back, just as soon as I can.”

  “You don’t have to” I shrugged, “that’s what friends are for.”

  “Yes,” he said dully, “friends.”

  We had arrived at the top of the escalator then, and as we walked along the thick, plush carpets, past the fast food stops, past the screen showing trailers, to the sweet shop, I asked, “Do you want anything?”

  He shook his head each time, seemingly preoccupied.  He didn’t speak to me once all evening after that.

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