holly berry

You come downstairs early. The wind woke you so that’s that. Anyway, you like being down there on your own, pottering around the kitchen while they’re all asleep above. You switch on the Christmas tree lights. Somehow they’re more comforting in the pale grey dawn than in the dark of the night.

Then you get a yearning for the Arvo Pärt Cantus, so you dig it out on your iPod and put on your headphones and listen to it as you wash up the wine glasses. It was good of Jenny and Chris to call even if she does think she knows it all.The state of your nails – maybe Liz will give you another voucher for that place on Grafton Street. You vow not to drink tonight when Claire comes over. How you’d manage without your amazing sister you’ll never know. You empty the dishwasher quietly, feeling the curve of every cup, the silvery heft of every knife as the strings hold that long long final downward major chord, searching for the silence that comes after the last bell toll.

You sit and look at the tree as you eat a small orange, the name of which you can never remember, something to do with a song, and have the day’s first cup of tea. That bloody rain will never stop. You wish there were more presents under there but Santa’s will bulk it up on the morning. There would be more if that beautiful brown eyed American man of yours hadn’t upped and gone back to California to chase whatever piped dream he’s after now. One year, three months and… twenty two days ago. Not that you’re counting.

Clementine, that’s it. Oh my darlin’. Now that’s a depressing song, you won’t go there.

And here’s the question – why didn’t you put on some Christmas music? There’s plenty of it for Christ’s sake (ha ha). What kind of person wants to listen to a Latvian elegy to an English composer while most of the Western World is celebrating a baby’s birth with hymns and carols, many of which you’ve been teaching the choral class for the past month?

But you know this is the same person who always identified more with the losing team than the winning one when you used to sit down and watch matches with him. And the same person who would like – once, just once – for the bad guy to win in a film. Not just the funny bad guy, but the real bad bad guy – Javier Bardem bad. So you know what kind of person.

You put on your Christmas podcast shuffle and stop dead with the first notes of Bach’s Oratorio. Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage. Which reminds you of your father, teaching you the chorus when you were thirteen. ‘Joy, Jennifer, Joy! Think of the happiest thing you can possibly think of and then sing it. Celebrate, rejoice, rise up! Happiness! We’re all saved!’ Him in that ridiculous house coat of his, almost hopping with the pleasure of it all. ‘Happiness, Jennifer. Feel it! Sing it!’ And then you think you’ll cry, but you hear a thump upstairs. She’s up. How a two and a half year old can make such a racket you’ll never know. But you’re glad. More thumps. She’ll wake her brother now and embolden him to come down to watch Ceebie Beebies.

And down they traipse; he, still groggy, with his blanky and her with her pink Teddy. She’ll need a new onesie soon the way she’s growing. Face a regiment already, she would; like her grandmother. So you negotiate TV and promise them pancakes and they consent to a hug because they really want to watch that TV and there are only four sleeps until Christmas. And the heat of them. And the smell of them. Apples in her hair from last night’s bath. Sweet little boy sweat on his neck, the skinnymalinks – got that from his father, the same nose too.

And once they are settled under the duvet on the sofa, you return to the kitchen and are relieved to see five eggs in the box for the mix. Those other two lazybones won’t be up for hours, but you’ll make enough for everyone. And you put the iPod back on and the song changes to O The Holly She Bears a Berry by the Chieftains and you half hum, half sing as you measure the flour into the jug:

Oh the Holly, she bears a berry, as white as the milk.
And Mary she bore Jesus all wrapped up in silk.

And Mary she bore Jesus our Saviour for to be.
And the first tree that’s in the green wood, it was the Holly.
Holly. Holly.
And the first tree that’s in the green wood, it was the Holly.