I've set myself a big challenge this Christmas: I'm spending it alone. There's no point being with people for the sake of being with people. And there's no point buying presents for the sake of it. I'm not good at the presents anyway. I can't get into someone's head to think what they'd like. Christmases past, I've found myself on Christmas Eve spinning up and down Market Street thinking socks, gloves, handkerchiefs, chocolates, bubble bath, thinking what'd she like, what's she not got? It's a bit of a stress and costs way too much. And she always had that look when she opened a present from me, a look on the verge of terrible depression, as if she was thinking, You don't really know me, do you?
So: I'm opting out of the whole charade. And when Sharon said, "Oh let's just get each other something small," I had to say, "No, that never works. One person keeps the bargain – under a fiver – and the other one doesn't and then the one that doesn't ends up feeling bitter, and says, 'Oh well, it's the thought that counts.' Like hell! It's the money that counts. It's all gone crazy," I say.
Sharon pulls a face. "You're like Scrooge," she says.
"I'm not. I'm not mean. Look what I forked out on you last year!"
"Oh – are you saying you didn't like my present? Is that what this is, Cheryl?" Sharon is indignant.
"No, it's not – but it was a rubbish present," I say. Sharon looks hurt. "Joke!" I say.
"How come your jokes are not jokes," Sharon says. "How come your jokes are jibes? They're not proper jokes."
"I'm having a laugh; where's your sense of humour?" I say to Sharon.
"And that's not nice either" Sharon says, close to tears.
"What's this about?" I say. "Is this because I'm not ' getting you a Christmas present?" Sharon nods, silently, and the tears start to roll down her face. She wipes them away with her fists. "I didn't mean to cry, sorry," she says.
"You're a cry-baby," I say.
"I know," Sharon gulps. "I'm a cry-baby."
"Look, OK then. I'll only get you a present and not my other friends."
Sharon says nothing, just keeps wiping her tears.
"Is it because you've only really got me who buys you a present at Christmas?" I say. What an idiot I am. Sharon's got nobody. She's big, huge, with massive knockers, and has bad skin and she likes me more than I like her. But I couldn't fancy her in a fit. Sharon doesn't have family; well not any family that she's found anyway. She's been with, I reckon, about 12 foster families. Sometimes I think the only thing that's similar about us is our colour. "I'm so rubbish," I say. Sharon starts to smile. "You're not. It's me. I'm just out of sorts. I've not even got anyone this year to invite me to Christmas dinner."
"Look, I'll get you a present, but I'm not having you round for dinner," I say, a bit too quickly.
Sharon really starts to heave, really going for it. "Don't cry," I say, half-heartedly.
Sharon talks and cries. It's horrible: worse than somebody talking with their mouth full of food. She half-chokes, half-speaks and the snot is pouring down her face. "D... d... d... don't b-b-bother with the present. Don't b-b... bother with any of it. You've got no Christmas spirit. And you're not very nice." Sharon buttons up her navy duffle coat, sniffs and snorts, takes one last sad look at me and leaves my house, quietly closing the door.
Christmas is one way of measuring the year. Last year, at Christmas, I had a partner; I had a job; I had friends. This year, no job, smaller house, and I want to be on my own. She's going to be with her new lover, the Ex is. She'll be doing all that roast bird, potatoes, gravy, bacon-wrapped chipolatas, honey carrots, stuffing etc shit for her. She loves crackers; they'll have crackers. She loves roast parsnip; they'll have roast parsnip. Am I bovvered? No, I'm feeling gooooooooooood. I've been liberated from the ordeal of Christmas! Hurray! I can opt out of the fattening Christmas meal, the sodden, shrivelled roasted veg, the Christmas pud – do you have brandy butter or custard, do you microwave or steam – and the wrapping paper, the horrid fights about what to watch on television. I'm having none of it. I'll miss her kids, though. I liked her kids. But at Christmas she spoilt them rotten and there was nothing left for me to get them. That was a stress. That was a big stress: what to get the partner's kids. One year I actually queued from early in the morning for a Woody! It was frantic.
I'll still get the children something and leave it on the doorstep on Christmas Eve; won't matter so much now, because the new girlfriend is loaded, so I'll go for something very small. Brilliant! I don't think I'm even going to go and get a bird this year. No chicken, no capon, no turkey, no goose, no duck. No three birds stuffed into one. Fabulous! I can say that word like Gavin and Stacey. Fab-lus!
I think I'll get a nut roast. Maybe a nut roast is too lesbian? Something like aubergine parmigiana then instead; something like that. Or I could make a veg lasagne in a small casserole dish, so it doesn't look weird. One thing I've decided is that I'll do the shop soon. I don't want to be in the supermarket with family trolleys heaving with food, and me and my small-and-obviously-alone basket. One of this, one of that – a small carton of milk. I could buy more than I need and freeze the stuff I don't need in case of snow. Or I could invite Sharon. But I don't want to invite Sharon. I want to spend the day on my own.
I need to get out of my house and go for a winter walk. I wrap up well. It's cold enough to snow but the afternoon sun is shining through the bare trees, like it has a love interest on the other side of the Ease. How still the Mersey, today, and dark, like a big mirror. I stand over it for ages to see if I can see the water move. People are out with their dogs and their children, their hats and their scarves and gloves, puffing cold air out of their mouths. The clouds are pink in the sky like candy floss. It's freezing, but the sun is so bright, it makes everyone look happy. I can't stop the chatter in my head. I'd like to be somebody who could simply walk and take it all in, not be constantly thinking all the time. I'd like to have a head that is as still as the winter river. I walk along the riverbank, across the fields and through the woods. At the end of the woods I spot my first red robin of the winter pecking on the frozen earth. It doesn't fly off as I get close. It's not shy at all.
If I don't invite Sharon, she'll spend Christmas on her own, and I'll spend it on my own. We'll both be in our different terraced houses. She'll mind and I won't. I won't mind being on my own. I won't feel the loneliness that some people feel at Christmas time because actually I'm quite self-sufficient. That's what my Ex didn't like about me. She used to say, "I wonder if I make any difference in your life," and I'd say, "Not really," then I'd say, "Joke!" But she didn't like my jokes either. I don't really think my jokes are any worse than the jokes you find in crackers and nobody seems to mind them; they just groan – but nobody does that with my jokes.
When I get in from the cold, I take off my scarf that my middle sister bought me when we were still talking to each other, and I take off my hat that my Ex bought me, and I take off my red coat that I bought in Oxfam in Didsbury. I often wonder about the person the coat belonged to; what she's doing this Christmas? I wouldn't mind that: track down the girl who gave away the red coat to charity, and offer her Christmas dinner in exchange for the coat. It makes me feel a bit glam, this red coat. But there'd be no way of finding out.
It does make me realise, though, having that thought, that I'd quite like a stranger to turn up at the door this Christmas. Somebody a bit different. A tall dark woman with a pressie! That would be something! Imagine she turned up with frankincense or myrrh? Then I'd have to believe in Christmas. Except: I don't really know what frankincense or myrrh look like.
It's cold so I decide to put my gas fire on, and I put the telly on. I have to have something on even if I'm not listening. There's a Christmas choir singing "Once in Royal David's City". I always liked that when I was a kid; I used to imagine what the royal city looked like, crowned in jewels. Sharon thinks it's all about her. It's not. It's all about me. I decide to ring and tell her.
"I'm sorry about earlier, Sharon," I say.
"Nothing to be sorry about, Cheryl," Sharon says.
"I'm just a bit all over the place."
"We all have off-days," Sharon says. Her voice sounds nice and kind. Her voice is nicer than her face. When you speak to her on the phone, you imagine somebody quite slim and lovely.
"You have a nice voice, you know," I say to Sharon.
I manage to stop myself saying the other part: "When you hear your voice on the phone, you imagine someone quite slim and lovely."
"I was thinking... I wonder if you want to come to mine for Christmas dinner? I mean, I'll be cooking for me and it's a bit of a waste..."
"Oh, that's nice of you Cheryl, but I've got other plans now," Sharon says.
"Other plans?" I say.
"I thought you said you wanted to spend the day on your own?" Sharon says.
"What's your other plan?" I say. I mean, who does Sharon have?
"I'm helping in the Soup Kitchen for the Homeless."
"Oh!" I laugh. "Well, that's good – easily changed. Come round for two, then?"
"No, I can't change it," Sharon says.
"You can't be serious? You'd rather spend Christmas with the homeless than your mate?"
"I don't want to let them down. Thanks anyway. What about Boxing Day?"
"All right, then, Boxing Day, stay over if you want. Bring your 'jamas."
Boxing Day is actually just the day after Christmas Day and now that I have company planned for Boxing Day, Christmas Day will pass in a whizz and I can save some of the aubergine parmigiana for Sharon. And actually, it's kind of perfect because it's what I wanted: to spend Christmas Day on my own for the first time in my entire life.
I've bought myself some presents and wrapped them. In the morning, I will get up and put on the television. Then I'll make myself my Christmas breakfast. I'll have the same one that I used to have: scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, Bucks Fizz. Then I'll open my presents. Then I'll watch It's a Wonderful Life and cry when James Stewart is happy when the knob comes off the bottom of the stairs. Then I'll try to call my middle sister and wish her Merry Christmas and keep my voice very cheerful. Then I might call my stepfather and wish him Merry Christmas. Then I'll slice my aubergine and salt it and leave that for a bit. It's amazing watching the bitter juices come out of the aubergine. I'd like to do that with myself, just pour some salt over.
On Christmas morning, I wake early. I open my pressies and disappoint myself. I should have splashed out a bit more. I can hear that it's snowing outside, because the voices are high in the street and I can hear the squeaky, muffled footsteps. I look out the window. I'm right, there's a flurry of snowflakes. Snow is lying thick on the car roofs and on the roofs of the terraced houses. It looks pretty, the thick snow and the red brick, the white snow and the red postbox. I try not to think she is right now having breakfast with the love of her life and I am right now eating breakfast on my own. Sharon could have come, it's my fault. But I had to face it. I had to say to myself, you are alone. You have lost your love. You have nobody to spend Christmas with. And you are having the time of your life. You are. It's wonderful! You can do what you want!
I channel-hop. I laugh hysterically. I sing "Silent Night" at the top of my voice. I eat a mince pie straight after my breakfast. (I didn't go for the silly smoked salmon in the end – just toast and marmalade.) I sing "The holly and the ivy/ When they are both full grown/ of all the trees that are in the wood/ the holly bears the crown." I dance around my small house. When I catch a vision of me in the mirror with the paper hat from the cracker on – I had to pull it myself; the left hand won, rubbish joke, though – I stop and speak to myself, I say, "This is a blast. Isn't it? This is such a blast." And then the door bell rings. And I tear down the stairs. And who should be standing there in her navy duffle coat but Sharon. She's carrying a big bird on a plate and she's smiling sort of a shy smile. There are snowflakes in her hair, snowflakes on her duffle coat, flakes everywhere, melting. She says, "I did my volunteering on Christmas Eve." She says, "Is it OK if I come in, or do you want to be on your own?" I grab hold of her and hug her. (There's a lot to hug.) "Merry Christmas, dear pal." I say. "Merry Christmas!" n
Jackie Kay © 2010
About the author: Jackie Kay
An award-winning poet, novelist and short-story writer, the Edinburgh-born Jackie Kay was recently awarded an MBE for services to literature. This year, her hugely acclaimed memoir, Red Dust Road, detailed her search for her birth parents. Her collection of poetry, Fiere, a counterpart to her memoir, will be published in January by Picador, priced £8.99