A False Memory of Happier Times Filled with Laughter and Music
Claire had been looking forward to Christmas for a month, more, but within minutes of being in her parents’ house, she was yawning, bored. It was like she’d wrongly remembered what a few days in the home she’d grown up in might be like. Some false memory of happier times filled with laughter and music, the sun streaming in through the sitting room windows. But the house was artificially hot, airless, and a flat featureless sky sucked all the colour out of the back garden. A pair of magpies pecked the grey grass.
It was the first time she’d visited since Tom had left her. She’d told her mother on the phone not long after it had happened and recalled the silence on the line, her mother’s inability to say anything in response. On their next call, her mother asked whether Tom would be joining them at Christmas and Claire had wondered if she was showing signs of dementia.
“We’ve split up mum! It’s over.”
She’d tried to sound calm. Tom wouldn’t be coming for Christmas. Or any other family gathering, ever again.
“I liked his father,” her mother had said, and Claire sat on the bottom step of her maisonette staring at her phone like there was something disgusting inside it, a terrible smell.
Claire’s brother and his family would be arriving soon. His wife and her awful opinions. And the two kids who Claire adored and would play with until her mother asked her to stop mucking around.
“When are you going to grow up Claire?” she’d asked.
“Never,” she’d wanted to say.
She’d be thirty in February.
Claire thought she’d come to stay because she wanted to. Because she was lonely, and she wanted company and it was Christmas. Because she clung on to some sense that family Christmases were something she always looked forward to, she valued. But the reality was she’d forgotten she had a choice. She’d come for her brother’s kids, him too. And out of some sense of duty. The older child. A deep family bond that she failed to realise wasn’t there.
She’d arrived a day earlier than the others, saying something nice about having looked forward to coming home and about her mother. But she’d been thinking about an ex-boyfriend, the one she’d been out with at school, and had planned to meet with him. It had been a dozen years and although Eddie was married, she thought he might still want to see her. She walked to the address he had texted and a woman she’d never met welcomed her at the door.
“You must be Claire,” the wife said, her hair clean and tied smartly in a ponytail. Claire had wanted to tug it, to hurt her, to mess her up, but the woman was a stranger and invited Claire into her house.
Claire sat at their breakfast bar and drank a glass of white wine quickly, and then poured another when no one was looking. She’d come to believe that Eddie was obsessed with her. That behind his marriage and a decade of silence was a great weight of unexpressed love and regret.
But all of this was in Claire’s head and as the reality dawned on her, she just felt angry and bitter. Eddie sat opposite her across the slab of expensive marble scrolling through his phone.
“This is what we want to do with the kitchen,” he said.
His wife made a random comment about a friend of theirs who’d been to Victoria Beckham’s house, and Claire closed her eyes. The man across from her was unrecognisable and for a moment she wondered how much she’d got wrong. Not just about the fantasy, but the address, the fact that they’d ever gone out with each other in the first place.
Back then, it had ended when Eddie told Claire he wanted to see someone else. At the time she’d tried to be cool and said that was fine, but looking back she thought she loved him, and she’d been heartbroken.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” he’d said, on the corner where his parents lived.
She’d planned to use that line again herself, imagining Eddie’s broken face at the front door, a second time around. But his wife had her hands on his shoulders, saying something about their wedding and how it was a shame Claire hadn’t come.
Claire drained her glass and left knowing she’d never see him again. ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ she thought to herself as she stumbled up his driveway and away from their house.
She tried not to think about him as she lay on the single bed in her old room upstairs. The bed that she and Eddie had rolled around on after school, when her parents were out at work. She’d imagined that she was the only person he’d ever loved and now she wanted to howl like an injured animal. She’d seen a dog get clipped by a car once, the back half dragging on the road like meat.
She could hear her mother making a racket in the kitchen, stacking plates, the sound of pans being fitted inside one another. She looked at something on her phone and masturbated unenthusiastically. After she’d finished, she lay there wishing she hadn’t, the room small, her cheeks red, the heating oppressive. She was tired, spent, and the prospect of five days here, all of them crammed in together, filled her with a gnawing hollowness that made her feel hungry and sick all at once.
There were greasy stains on the mottled ceiling and Claire remembered a poster of a band she’d Blu-tacked there and her father’s rage, half a lifetime ago.
“Poofters, the lot of them. Is that what you want Claire? Hanging out with gay boys?”
It was one of the few times she’d seen her father get angry. His eyes all buggy, like he’d been caught doing something unsavoury. Claire had enjoyed the feeling, of being noticed, her dad’s teeth bared, and she’d got her nose pierced the following day to see if he might bite. It was that – the disappointment that her father’s fury was short-lived, that her throbbing nostril appeared unseen – that she recalled now.
There was something about being in the house that made her feel like a child again. She knew Martin, her brother, felt the same and she remembered the time a few Christmases ago when he’d become maudlin because they hadn’t all watched an old black and white film ‘like we always do’. He was incredibly drunk, on Baileys she thought, and like her seemed to have misremembered Christmases past. They shared a fake recollection of another kind of family gathering. One that was filled with laughter and love and rock and roll. The windows thrown open, the call of turtle doves purring from the stand of oaks at the bottom of the garden. Colour, light, sound.
Claire wondered if it might be the house. The stifling heat and a strange damp smell at the back door that only she seemed to notice and that permeated the kitchen and the room where they ate. Or something in the carpets that hadn’t been changed since she was a child. The same faded floral patterns in green and red that she used to trace her toy horses around when she was small. She imagined there were spores in the fibres that induced a sense of her having been an unhappy child. Something benign but ever present. She felt angry and sad but struggled to locate where these feelings were coming from, what it was that triggered them.
Downstairs, her father was coughing explosively in the little room at the side of the house that he amusingly referred to as his study. He would be sat at an ancient laptop balanced precariously on a pile of hardback books, a stained handkerchief clutched to his mouth. Sitting there, perched on a wooden chair for hours, endlessly scrolling through ancestry sites, tirelessly researching a family history that Claire wanted to know nothing about.
Her brother, Martin, showed an interest in her father’s hobby, his preoccupation with where they all came from, and Claire had never failed to be amazed by this. She marvelled at how he could sit with their father and together they would pore over the notes he scrawled on vast pieces of flipchart paper. Martin would crouch patiently alongside his messy desk while their father barked and wretched into the soiled square balled in his fist. On the few occasions Claire had forced herself to engage with any of it, she’d found herself overwhelmed by tiredness. Her eyes filling with something viscous, the lines on the paper blurred. She could hear her father speaking but it was like nothing said registered with her, everything instantly forgotten. Not even forgotten. Not even grasped for a second before her head was nodding and she was stifling yawns. She’d enjoyed history at school and was fascinated by politics. But her family’s ancestry made her want to curl up in a ball and sleep for a week.
She heard a car horn outside and pulled up her knickers. In the dressing table mirror she half expected to see her teenage self. A naughty sparkle behind her eyes. That playfulness that she knew Eddie had fallen for, initially. But instead, a woman of indeterminate age, frowning, scowling. She practised a smile, but most of her face wasn’t in it, and she left the bedroom descending the stairs two at a time.
In the kitchen her mother had both hands in the cavity of a huge turkey. She wore a black apron and had the air of a tired magician. She half expected her to pull out her watch and ask if this was hers.
“They’re here,” her mother said.
Claire just stood there until her mother raised her eyebrows at the turkey. It was a cue that she should get the door, but she stood her ground for an extra moment because she knew that her mother was disintegrating. Family, Christmas, the long worn-out façade. A daughter who she’d never really been able to love.
Her mother’s dead eyes lowered to the huge bird, and Claire enjoyed the silence a moment longer. No boyfriend, no children. A pointless job that her mother never asked about. Claire fiddled with her nostril, a lump beneath the surface where the piercing had closed.
The doorbell sounded repeatedly, a xylophone thrown down a flight of concrete stairs, and she pictured a sticky finger pressing the button, a child held in her brother’s arms.
She truly loved Martin, but she’d resented him as a child. A baby brother to suck up all the attention. But when Claire reached puberty, she was glad of a younger sibling to distract her parents from her growing roster of failings. She’d struggled at school in ways that seemed to confound her mother and father, but Martin did well, and they focused instead on him. In recent years she’d felt close to him although they rarely met. She believed they had a deep bond, a strong connection rooted in their shared dismay that they weren’t more broken, more fucked up.
In the hallway she smoothed her hair pointlessly. There was the excited chatter of children on the doorstep. Beneath this, an incomprehensible squeak that would be her brother’s wife reprimanding someone.
Later they’re in the sitting room and Martin’s kids are riding Claire like a horse from one end of the room to the other. She makes up a story about how the horse is called Thelonius and has a voice like Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh stories.
“I hate Christmas,” says Thelonius. “All these stupid kids who want to ride me up and down. I hate everything.”
The kids pat Thelonius’ head and tell her that she should be happy, that they’d bought her a present. The boy, six, jumps down off Thelonious and runs to find his grandmother, to ask for a carrot for the horse.
Martin is listening to their father describe a TV programme he’s been trying to follow. Claire is still on all fours, Grace, the five-year-old, bumping up and down on her back. ‘Go horsey, go!’ Martin’s eyes are almost shut, and Claire can see that he’s fighting to stay awake. That he’s struggling against a tiredness that’s crashing over him. Yes, it’s a long drive from Norfolk and it must be exhausting having two young kids, Claire thinks, but he’s visibly collapsing in front of her, the structure in his face soft, malleable.
“What’s the black fellow up to? The one who botched the operation? Bonking the girl with the red hair and glasses.”
Their father is barking randomly, not seeming to expect an answer. His questions may relate to the TV show but nobody’s listening. He’s mumbling and then the odd word is shouted like a command, or a threat.
Martin’s wife is slumped in an armchair in the far corner of the room. She thumbs her phone absent-mindedly and Claire wants to grab it from her and look at whatever it is that has her attention. Probably emails from her boss although Claire can’t remember what she does for a job. Something to do with prisons or meat processing. She wears a lanyard, usually, even around the house, with her photo, name and job title. Next time she wears it, Claire will try and take a proper look.
Grace has bored of Thelonius and jumps down to run and find her brother. Claire sinks into the carpet face first and buries her nose in the sun-bleached swirls of the pattern. She can hear her father muttering something that could be construed as racist, and Claire shuts her eyes. For a moment she wonders if she’s dying. It’s like her life is being leached into the sitting room floor, her soul oozing through to the underlay and the floorboards below. Her brother’s breathing is uneven and deep. He’s asleep and now their father is going on about wind turbines.
Claire has an urge to stifle her father. To grab a cushion and suffocate him. But she feels pinned by a tiredness that’s subsumed her. It’s like a shroud that someone’s draped over her body.
Claire has been going and then she’s gone, suddenly.
She dreams that she’s in a pop band. There are five of them and they wear matching outfits. She’s playing the guitar left-handed and singing into the microphone. The song is about a sister and a brother who become lovers and have a baby. It’s just a song but Claire can picture the baby and in her dream she feels a warmth across her heart like hot treacle.
The song’s chorus repeats and although Claire can’t understand the words, she knows exactly what it means. And then finally it fades and in its place is a shrill sound like an alarm. Something urgent, portentous. Ominous.
“Claire”, shrieks Martin and for a moment she thinks her brother has entered her dream and can see and hear what she’s been dreaming. That he’s discovered that they’re lovers and that together they have a baby who she loves.
She can smell something burning and then she’s on her feet, struggling to come back into the world of her parents’ house. She stands in the middle of the sitting room for a few seconds and forces her eyes open. The room flicks like a poorly projected film and then it’s stilled and there’s smoke and her father is running across the doorway, a tea towel flapping.
“It’s just the grill. It does this,” her mother calls from the kitchen over the sound of the alarm.
It’s as if Claire has been in the deepest sleep imaginable or under a general anaesthetic and then woken suddenly. Her head feels like it’s stuffed with packing peanuts mixed with a heavy liquid. Bromine or mercury. She wishes she was drunk or high. Or just somewhere cool and airy.
“Can everyone get out of my kitchen!” her mother half sings. “I’m serious, Derek.” Claire’s father will be flustering with the towel, a failing attempt to silence the piercing shriek.
Grace and her brother are screaming.
“It’s ok,” says Martin weakly. “Granny’s made a bad smell and the naughty alarm thinks the house’s on fire.”
Claire stumbles into the hallway. The kids are stood side by side, like they’re at attention, their faces contorted into upside down smiles. Their eyes are magnified by huge oily tears that have yet to fall. Claire is transfixed, the heaviness running through her. She searches their eyes, glassy and vast, and feels an ache in her chest that she assumes will be fatal.
In the kitchen her mother still has both her hands in the turkey. She seems calm and mentions someone who Claire used to know who’s been on television. The smoke hangs dull and grey like something vague and gelatinous dripping from the ceiling. Claire moves across the room but everything else has slowed. The bird is huge on the counter and Claire imagines it’s eating her mother. That the cavity is a mouth and it’s gradually making its way up her arms. Her mother is going on about someone else from school and says proudly that they’ve become an airline pilot.
“Seven-eight-sevens,” she says, as if it’s the answer to some complex riddle.
Her father is doing an elaborate dance with the towel, deliberate and ineffective. Her mother looks repulsed by both the dead bird and her husband’s attempt to quell the deafening scream with his hopeless choreography.
“Derek!” she spits, like it’s the worst word in the world.
On the counter is a magazine open on a double page recipe for roast turkey. In the accompanying picture two children wearing paper crowns smile broadly as a woman, their mother Claire guesses, slices the cooked bird. In the picture a man stands at the head of the table clapping. He looks like she’d imagined Eddie would look. She wonders if they’re happy before remembering it’s just a magazine and most likely the photograph isn’t real. That it’s probably someone’s idea of a modern family and that the image is an idealised version of a wonderful Christmas dinner.
In the photograph there is a boy and a girl, and even though Claire is now sure they must be models, she wishes she was the girl, and Martin the boy. She wishes that she had a different mummy and daddy, and that together they had a fantastic turkey, and everyone smiled all day. And that later she and Martin would sing songs to their baby until it fell asleep in her arms.
Claire wants to fall into the picture and live there forever. The colours pop and vibrate, and Claire wants to check it isn’t real, that the photograph isn’t a window into another world. Everything about it is beautiful and happy and for a moment she thinks she might sob, overcome with sadness that she can’t be that girl. The one with the paper hat and the pigtails, confronting her own sadness with a smile.
The girl in the picture turns and it’s like she’s looking at Claire, smiling with what might be recognition, or sympathy. Claire is aware of her father in her peripheral vision, still dancing, the tea towel a white flag waved in surrender. Her mother is up to her elbows in the turkey, slowly disappearing into its cavity. The alarm continues to ring, and she knows now it will never stop.
In the hallway, the children are bawling; just one sound amplified by the power of two. It’s of a different register and plays under the alarm like a drone. In the sitting room, Martin snores. Great gouts of sound rolling up from deep inside his ribs. The snores inconsistent, like an airway is blocked, like he might choke.
The sounds and the smoke have filled the room, white and grey.
Framed in the doorway, Martin’s useless wife, whose name Claire has temporarily forgotten, starts to speak.
“Can I help anyone? Does anyone need any help?”
David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. He’s recently been published by STORGY Magazine, the Cardiff Review, Lunate, Bandit and Tiger Shark, and was shortlisted for the 2022 Bristol Prize, the 2020 Fish Short Story Prize, and 2021 Brick Lane Short Story Prize. His first novel, The Winter Son, is currently on submission through his agent Robert Caskie. He lives in Brixton in South London.
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