Almost dark, the air cold and damp. A lawn merges into a shrubbery with large patches of wet, bare, mossy earth. I place Douglas, stiff and still, on the ground. I look around; no dog-walkers, no noisy gangs of feral teenagers gathered round a bottle of tonic wine, no rough sleepers hunting for a dry spot. Nearby there’s only the aspiration of a light wind in the taller trees, but I can hear the dreary rumble of traffic outside the park and some shouts from early evening revellers. I make the spade bite into the soft earth. Before long, warm with effort, I’ve formed a dark mouth with damp, mouldy breath. I look around quickly, as if afraid that Douglas might have wandered off. Of course, he’s still there, prone on the ground as before. I haul him to the hole I’ve made and am pleased to see that it’s just the right size, shape and depth. Quickly I drop Douglas in and start to refill. I return along the slippery, muddy paths that took me there, holding the spade as inconspicuously as possible and reflecting on how Douglas came into my life.
It had been a few weeks before Christmas. My mother called, “Jessica? Have you decided what you’re doing on Christmas Day yet? I need to know how many to cater for.”
Oh, well, the time had come to make my announcement, “I’ll be having dinner at the flat, Mum. I’ve got Andy coming over.” Well, Andy would already be here, actually. I’m sure Mum and Dad were well aware of the domestic arrangements.
“We’ll pop round and see you in the evening. How about that?”
Mum didn’t give any audible sign of being put out and replied brightly, “That’ll be nice. Perhaps you could make it in time for The Vicar of Dibley and we could all watch it together?” Mum is ever polite, ever accommodating. Disagreement, conflict, they’re simply too vulgar to admit to. But anyone who knows her can read behind the text and sense the suppressed hurt. She outlined the plans for the family Christmas Day. An enticing trailer to draw me in and change my mind. There would be a cooked breakfast, presents under the tree, Kelvinhill Parish Church for the Christmas Day service and a walk in Kelvingrove Park . The next delight would be a light lunch, then Mum would start the long, slow progress to making the epic meal that was the McDermott Christmas Dinner.
“Sounds great, Mum. We’ll pop in after dinner, and…”
“Mum? What’s that?”
“If you’re spending Christmas on your own you’ll need a Christmas tree!”
With two waitressing jobs, a PhD in gestation, a flat with more cockroaches than conveniences and Andy, tree acquisition was low on my To Worry About list. (I should explain here that Andy, like many young West End men, has close-cropped hair, wears £80 shades even in December and claims, vaguely, to ‘work in media’.)
“Your father and I could run you out to that garden centre and help you choose a real one. How about this weekend?”
I recognised one of Mum’s clumsily offered olive branches. “Yeah, Mum, I’m not working on Saturday morning: I can take an hour or two off the thesis.”
“Fine, we’ll pick you up…”
“No!” Not with Andy still stomping around in his night attire, if he was there at all. “I’ll get the 11 along to you. Don’t worry about coming for me.”
‘Garden Centre’ was the rustic-sounding name for a plate-glass structure, like a municipal swimming pool, planted in open countryside. An area had been set aside for Christmas tree sales. Great piles of them, pinioned with twine, lay in ranks. They had a chilling air of deadness. Green they might be, the air tart with the tang of their resin, but the days of their glory were numbered. Each trunk had been severed, a young life cut short. I pictured them after the festivities; left out for the binmen, dry, devoid of needles – they’d be down the side of sofas, blocking Hoover bags and getting stuck in stockinged feet.
“It’s not environmentally friendly, is it?’ I said.
“There’s no need to worry about that!” said an eager sales assistant, still too young to have outsped his acne.
“What do you mean?” asked Mum, suspiciously.
“Come with me.” he smiled.
He led us to an area where a number of fir trees, similar to the chopped and trussed ones but shorter, stood upright in peat-filled pots.
“A lot of people worry about chopping down Christmas trees and the effect on the environment. So we now sell these potted, living trees.”
This looked promising and I directed an interested smile at my parents.
“It’s three times the price of a cut one,” said Dad, but the sales assistant had grabbed the bone and was running with it.
“But it lasts much longer! The pot will be big enough for a year or so: you could keep it outside and re-use it as a Christmas tree next year. Then plant it in the garden.”
I could tell, from his characteristic twitch of the head, that Dad’s interest had been captured by the illusion of saving money.
“But Jessica,’ said Mum, “You don’t have a garden! Where will it go after Christmas?”
“She could put it on our patio,” said Dad, in the longest utterance I’d heard issue from him in years. Mum nodded. Environmental concerns had won the day. We left in proud possession of a self-recycling Christmas tree. I hesitantly led my parents into the flat and was relieved to find that the house contained no sign of Andy. Dad moved the tree on to a low table near a window, then made a series of minor positional adjustments until Mum was satisfied. Once they had gone, I moved it to the opposite end of the room, since Dad had neglected the need for an electrical supply to power the tree lights. By this time, I had named the tree ‘Douglas’.
I put a lot into decorating Douglas, juggling lengths of tinsel and baubles and chocolate dangly things and wrapping the whole in a girdle of lights that shone with a pale ivory glow. I did a big shop, buying food, presents, little treats and surprises for Andy and a few other decorations to brighten up the gloomy front room.
Andy rarely troubled me with his presence. Perhaps it was the ‘big new project in development with BBC Scotland’ he sometimes hinted at. We only saw each other in brief departure lounge moments in the flat. Mum was constantly on the phone, reminding me to water the tree regularly, checking up – again – on our likely arrival on Christmas Evening and wondering if I would be at the Kelvinhill Parish Church watchnight service. (Answer – no, I would be waitressing until the early hours of Christmas Morning).
On Christmas Eve I popped into the corner dairy to buy milk on the way home from my afternoon job. I had a quick dinner ready to prepare and had alerted Andy (by note) on pain of death to be there. I unlocked the entry door, trotted upstairs and let myself into the flat.
No Andy. No surprise. But something felt different, wrong, out of focus, phase-shifted. I went into the bedroom to find it cleared of his clothes and his (profuse) collection of toiletries. I ran back into the living room – all his CDs (and some of mine) gone, similar gaps in the DVD racks. At least the bookshelves were unscathed, books not being Andy’s thing. There was a note. No scenes with Andy. No fraught, emotional, heart-rending exchanges. Even dumping-by-text was too dramatic for him. Just an off-screen flit and a note on the coffee table.
Sorry to do this its been wrong for me for a long time the’re was just no conection any more. I think its better this way. Im moving in with Angela from Lowland Media.
Hope you have a good chrismas all the same. Maybe text you in the new year
I went off to my evening waitressing job. I have few memories of that night, but no one has since complained that I didn’t listen, didn’t speak or kept depositing nouvelle gloop down people’s party clothes. All I can remember is running over in my mind, again and again, my dilemma: do I phone my parents in the morning and tearfully fall upon their house after all, in surrender and with a body language that screamed, ‘You were right! He was no good! I was wrong!’? Or do I opt for a long, lonely, quiet and unavoidably reflective Christmas on my own?
I woke about ten o’ clock, washed and dressed, made myself a coffee and sat in the soft chair beside Douglas. Something was missing. I leaned over, switched on the Christmas tree lights, then settled back again. It was gloomy outside, rain falling in a smir from charcoal clouds. The only puddle of brightness in the room came from the tree lights. There was a faint whiff of pungent resin and a dull odour of moist peat from the pot. I lifted my coffee mug and toasted Douglas.
By now I’d have missed breakfast at my parents and the household would be in church (the service too far advanced for me to sneak in unnoticed at the back). I looked outside: dullness and drizzle. No real incentive to join the family walk, more duty than pleasure. Surely even Mum wouldn’t insist today?
While the family were wolfing down a pre-prepared cold lunch I was unwrapping my presents. There was bath stuff from Mum and Dad, a CD from my brother, various bits and bobs from friends and people at the university and jewellery from my sister. Nothing from Andy, though I noticed he’d removed my presents to him.
I picked at the lunch I had intended for Andy and myself as I sat in the glow of Douglas’s lights and pictured the remaining family arriving, the drinks being served, the muted chatter of the TV in the living room, the buzz of the restrained smalltalk of close relatives who see each other once a year. I imagined Mum’s quiet, unannounced departure into the kitchen, never to emerge until the food was ready to load onto the big dining room table.
I awoke to find myself staring up from the floor through Douglas’s branches. They formed a pattern familiar from the brisk healthy walks and Sunday picnics that were an inevitable part of growing up a McDermott. A criss-cross lacework of reddy-brown branches stippled with the narrow green brushstrokes of pine needles, filtering the sunlight and obscuring the sky. Or in this case, the ceiling, with the added features of lights and tinsel and baubles. I turned to look at the digital clock on the hi-fi, nearly eight o’ clock. I freshened myself up, did a quick change into a smart but comfortable trouser suit and hurtled towards the front door. At the last moment, I paused, turned back to look at Douglas, smiled for the first time that Christmas Day and left.
There was a sparse festive bus service in the direction of my parents’ home and I just reached the stop in time. As the bus swished its striplit way through rain-soused streets, I wondered what I was going to say. Andy couldn’t come, he had work to do, Andy had to travel at short notice to his parents’ on Christmas Eve. I was still undecided as I stood on the doorstep. The door opened and Mum smiled, then looked puzzled, the theme tune of The Vicar of Dibley blaring from the living room. My face crumpled into a squashed fruit as the tears burst through. Dad, as silent as ever, drove me home. The last thing I did before I went to bed was switch off Douglas’s lights.
I worked for most of the Christmas and New Year period. I was surprised to be invited over for dinner on New Year’s Day. Just as the fruit salad dishes had been cleared away and the coffee machine had started wheezing, Mum said, “Oh, Jessica! I forgot to say – the potted Christmas tree? We won’t be able to keep it on the patio after all: we’re having decking put in the spring.”
And thus, as the darkness began to close on the feast of Epiphany, came my furtive visit to Kelvingrove Park to introduce Douglas, my most loyal Christmas companion, to his new home for perhaps the next hundred years. I paid several visits to Douglas and poured water around his roots (transported there in 2-litre Coke bottles carried in a backpack). If this seems a little unnecessary in a Glasgow winter, my Dad had always emphasised the importance of watering-in newly planted saplings. “Thirsty fellas, trees,” he would say, when in the mood for a lengthy soliloquy.
Over the same period, Mum had started on her peace moves. I was invited to tea again, on a Sunday afternoon. I opted to get to my parents’ house from the bus stop on the far side of the park, giving me the opportunity of feeding Douglas. It had been some weeks since my last mission of mercy. It was a breezy, cloudy, but dry afternoon, not long after three, but already darkness was palpably on its way. I turned the corner of path that led to Douglas’s domain and stopped as if hit in the face with a shovel. Douglas had gone. I ran over to the spot, and did not take long to find, among the shrubs, his uprooted, denuded, lifeless form. I stood looking at him for some time. Then I pulled out the Coke bottle, poured the water onto the ground, like King David at the Cave of Adullam, and then crushed and binned the bottle. I walked slowly across the park to the bus stop. Mum, no doubt, would put out further peace feelers by inquiring after the progress of the tree, and I needed time to think of an appropriate response.