Friday, 23 December 2016

Just Keep Smiling and Pretend Everything's All Right - a Christmas Story

by Janet Cameron 

Honestly, I am a nice person. It’s just that some people bring out the worst in me and Aunt Alice is a case in point. So when Mum says, ‘Aunt Alice asked if she could stay for Christmas,’ I’m not exactly overjoyed.  
    Stunned, I stare at Mum. ‘What did you say?’ I enquire, my voice dangerously low.
    ‘What could I say?’  
    ‘You could’ve said you’d ask me first,’ I suggest. ‘Then we could think of an excuse.’
    ‘Yes I know, Jessica. It’s going to be difficult for you.’   
    She’s right there! The trouble is Mum and Dad will be away for Christmas visiting Dad’s relatives up north. She was gutted she had to go, but I assured her I didn't mind, rubbing my hands with glee at having the place to myself - and Liam.
    'I know she’ll be your responsibility,’ continues Mum. ‘But, well, she looked sort of... sad.  Honestly, Jess, I hadn’t the heart.’
    I’m furious, but I really can’t help it. If Alice was a little more appreciative, maybe I’d cope.  But she isn’t.
    ‘Last time I took Auntie Alice shopping,I never got a word of thanks.’
    ‘You shouldn’t expect gratitude,’ says Mum.‘Even if people aren’t nice to you or tell lies about you, you should remember that virtue is its own reward.’
    Honestly, sometimes I really wish Mum would get down from her soapbox, but she hasn’t finished preaching yet.
    ‘After all, it’s all about the Christmas spirit, Jessica. It’s about loving our fellow human beings unconditionally and not expecting thanks in return.’
    I spend some time thinking about this. If I’m kind to Alice, although she doesn’t even notice, would that make me a better person? Do I need to be a better person?
    You may wonder why I’m uncomfortable with Alice but although she’s Mum’s sister, you never met two women so different in looks and character. Mum’s great but Alice is impossible to live with because she makes everything wrong.  
    I give in.  ‘One night,’ I say.  
   She wants to come for three days.
   ‘Great,’ I glare at Mum.  ‘That’s abso-lute-ly great.’

 Alice arrives, imperious, dripping in bling and with three large suitcases. Very worrying!
I’ve invited friends for drinks and nibbles on Christmas Eve and Liam, my boyfriend, is there too.       There’s a tasty buffet, with a slightly Indian flavour, which our friends enjoy. Politely, they defer to the old lady as she glides the length of the table, peering at the offerings, bending a little closer to sniff, while one arm trails behind her, entwined in gold lurex. Who does she think she is?  ‘I don’t care much for this peculiar-smelling food,’ she pronounces. ‘It’s off. You’ve been cheated by the caterers.’  I don’t bother to explain it’s a takeaway. Liam senses my discomfort and gives me a hug and I try to ignore Aunt Alice’s patronising stare.
    I pop upstairs for my ear-rings. Coming down, I pass Liam’s old friend Jonathan on his way upstairs to the bathroom. ‘Lovely to see you,’ I say giving him a peck on the cheek, and notice Alice staring at us rather strangely. Friends continue to arrive, and as I rush to the kitchen for back-up supplies, I overhear Alice talking to Liam:
    ‘I saw Jessica kissing a man on the stairs.’   
    ‘Don’t worry about it, Aunt Alice,’ says Liam.  ‘He’s an old friend.’
    ‘She was definitely kissing him.’
    ‘A hello kiss or a French kiss?’ teased Liam.
    ‘She was definitely enjoying it,’ says Alice.
    ‘OK Auntie,’ says Liam again. ‘Don’t worry about it.’   He catches my glance and his eyes veer ceiling-wards. I feel anger welling up. Fortunately, I have a trusting boyfriend, but if he was the jealous type, it might be very different. What an old busybody!
    After our friends leave, Alice sinks into an armchair. ‘I’m whacked!’ she mumbles. She sways a little, hiccups and I suspect she’s worse for sherry.
    I stare at the decorative cuddly Father Christmas on the sideboard and think about people who do kind things just for their own sake, without thought of reward. Well, it is Christmas.
    ‘Come on, Auntie,’ I say. ‘I’ll help you to your room and bring you a nice drink of water.  Then you won’t feel so bad in the morning.’
    Alice leans on me heavily as I help her to her room, find her nightdress and bring her some fresh spring water with a lemon slice floating in it. I feel like Florence Nightingale.
    ‘Just give me a shout if you need anything,’ I say generously.
    ‘What do you think I am, an invalid.’
    Christmas Day, she’s hung-over so I make black coffee, open the window, give her dry biscuits and read her the headlines from the local newspaper.   
    When Liam arrives in time for dinner he brings me a huge present and a box with peppermint creams inside. I can’t help thinking he looks good enough to eat himself. I add a box of chocolates from the fridge to the smellies I’d already bought to give Alice. Her eyes glow.Then she munches her way through the chocolates and most of my peppermint creams before I serve up our Christmas lunch. I am exhausted, hot and stressed but also very proud of the yummy feast I've created.
    ‘I don’t fancy that,’ she says, staring at her plate. "That turkey looks like it's got measles."
    After dinner, she asks if she can telephone her son, my cousin Daniel in Australia.  
    ‘Of course, Auntie,’ I murmur.

    I don’t mean to overhear. They say eavesdroppers never hear anything good but that’s untrue.
    ‘Jessica’s an absolute angel,’ Alice is saying.
    Almost against my will, I feel a flush of pleasure spreading through my body while a halo forms above my head. How lovely to be quietly good then loudly praised!
    ‘I used to think she was offhand, but she’s not. She’s a very nice young woman. Can’t do enough for me, and doesn’t make any fuss about it.’
    Alice suddenly notices me there and beams. ‘Actually,’ she continues,‘I like it here very much and I think I’ll stay for another two weeks.’
    Liam digs me gently in the ribs. ‘Smile,’ he whispers. ‘Remember what your Mum says.  Virtue is its own reward.’

Copyright: Janet Cameron

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