And then they say, what about Peppermint Poppins?
Eldest smirks, middle sniggers and youngest,
eyes stretched like white socks with weights in the toes,
looks up, up, up to the dad. And the dad knows.
He hates that look.
And what about the advent calendar, the one with
the detachable baby Jesus? It was lost in 2014. He
remembers all the Christmases it has and hasn't seen.
Every one of them came somewhere close to what he’d wanted.
Now, the mum is out and he’s had too much to drink,
taking his time on FIFA, winning easily. Cheats are
on and Grimsby Town are winning in Europe.
A belief that something so beautiful could be real.
Are we decorating this weekend? No. Sad face. But not for long.
Smirks from middle and eldest. Second weekend, they chime.
Little bells tinkling their taunts.
The dad sighs, heads to the under-stairs, youngest’s stares
weighing his steps, soles of his feet crushing baked beans.
Alice at the tiny door, dizzy, tired and achy-kneed.
Drink me, it had said. And then he pleads,
What about Peppermint Poppins?
She'll turn up, he said.
He, youngest said.
I thought it was she?
He bangs his head.
Peppermint's a boy’s name, youngest said.
Nothing under the stairs, just dust and shoes, and
electricity and gas meters, copper pipes and fat grey switches.
A tiny world, dominated by old wrapping paper for
birthdays and Christmas, a sad summer sight, now
pretty feathered tubes in the night.
And spiders’ webs, grey strands, all dried out, cold clingy
cotton, not silk, against his hands.
Trudge, trudge, trudge up the stairs, lower the ladder and
climb to the loft. Shaky feet on a shaky ladder, poke his head up
through the hatch, soggy mobile torch in drooling mouth, look
about, just a head above a hole, light from its mouth like the
very worst lighthouse, searching, hoping nothing's lost. No wrecks tonight.
Climb up and his head’s a few centimetres from a thick new frost,
flicks the light, his breath an animal cloud, stamping and pawing
across dull silver-grey space, feet crunching and scraping on a dusty snow.
Where is it? That bloody elf and its bloody shelf. In the corners,
away from the light of a bare bulb hanging, its jagged little corpse
covered in dust and cold, cotton cobwebs, velcro hands clasped
in hypocritical supplication, unyielding through all the frustration.
He hates that elf.
He can’t see it. The wind in the eaves, whistling through the gaps
in the tiles. A laugh, a taunting little bell. Grab the box, the big box,
the biggest box, an old seven-foot tree box, full of smaller boxes
that rattle and slide just a little inside, not quite a perfect fit.
Shaky feet on shaky ladder, huge box balanced on his head,
youngest right below his feet, eyes wide like stretched white socks,
hands clasped in supplication, to some elfish god, to some red-suited,
pointy-hatted, thin thing, fat man, flying deer, red-nosed deer,
sleigh-pulling deer. A clinging to what children hear:
a desperate hope that something beautiful can be real.
Move! he shouts. And youngest does. And he inches down the shaky
ladder on shaky feet, his head wobbling, the box sliding, slowly, slowly.
Big box, lightweight, almost nothing, boxes inside filled with dark light.
Drop it in the living room, head to the kitchen. Coffee.
Youngest follows, eyes still wide but tremulous now. Middle and
eldest loll in front of the Xbox, make no effort to help with the big box.
Send youngest to bed: sh, sh, sh, wait till morning.
Of course she’ll be here.
Alright, he’ll be here.
He will be.
And if he isn’t, there’ll be 23 more days he could show up.
Sad face surrounded by a pillow, balled-up socks on a marshmallow
Back down the stairs, middle and eldest smirking, cynical, too old,
too young to believe something beautiful can be real. Big box open,
little boxes sifted, dark lights and mass graves of baubles, tinsel
the shed skin of lizards.
No elf. That bloody elf and its bloody shelf.
He thinks it’s time. All the Christmases that baby Jesus has and
hasn’t seen; they've been somewhere close to what he wanted,
somewhere close to something beautiful. An absent elf is as
good a way as any to show that somewhere close will have
to be enough.
He takes out his phone to message the mum.