Ruth loved Christmas time. She loved the white lights, like icicles, dripping over the cobbled street and how they glittered silver in the black river. She loved stepping in from the cold, how the bite of the wind and the sudden rush of heat made all the seasonal shoppers rosy-cheeked and cheerful, and how random ‘Merry Christmases’ were exchanged over snowflake covered shop tills or café counters. At Christmas, the city came alive, thrumming with infused excitement, and she did too.
It was hereditary, her Christmas spirit, fueled by childhood memories of her mother, in her festive apron, humming along to the carols waning from the staticy radio in the corner, face flushed in the warm air. The tang and kick of fruit and spices wafting from the kitchen all the way down the hall, into the good sitting room where her father would be untangling the Christmas lights, jacket off and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Ruth would sit at his feet, holding the wrap of untangled lines and would stare in awe at the bushy tree bursting out from the corner.
‘Ah Martin, would you not have got one that actually fit in the house?’ Her mother would ask him, as he and Jimmy Flanagan lumbered with it through the back kitchen door, her face contorted with a mixture of awe and disbelief.
‘Sure what good is having a tree if the whole town can’t see it, Nance?’ He’d wink back, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
In the evening, they’d all be let into the good sitting room for a slice of spiced loaf, soaked with butter, and a drink of fizzy pop from the grown-up’s cups. The lads would bang some tinsel on the tree and race back out to the yard, ready to resume their match, but Ruth would stay with her mother, handling the delicate decorations gently, careful to steady her quivering fingers before lacing them around prickly branches. There were no Christmas presents under there yet, but that night Santa would come, and bring her her babóg.
Ruth’s stomach twisted at the thought, even now, and her breath came in short puffs as she weaved through the throngs, past the rambunctious crowd of shirts and ties heckling outside the forty-foot and around the shawled women sitting on damp newspaper and bits of cardboard, holding up crinkled TV Guides. Ruth’s eyes zoned in on the front, where a woman with very white teeth in a very white kitchen laced her arms around a sack of flour and a tall man with black roots wrapped his arms around her. The image was replaced by the shawled lady pushing her weathered face into view, her black eyes large and pleading, her lined lips mouthing at Ruth, but her words were lost in the jovial air. The bubbles of excitement in her tummy suddenly felt heavy. She pulled the scarf tighter around her neck, buried chin to chest and powered on.
Ger was in the hallway when the door clanged shut, fixing a bit of holly that had come loose from the gilded mirror on the wall. Christmas music drifted in from the front room and she could smell the peaty fumes of the fire, crackling away. She’d spent all morning decorating so that fairy lights, sprigs of holly and bushels with silver and gold pinecones framed any surface she could get her hands on. Ger had brought down the Christmas tree the day before and it sparkled in the corner of the room. Beside the tree, she had placed the annual red velvet bag, bursting with presents for all her nieces and nephews – Santa’s special sack.
Ger waggled his eyebrows at her as she brushed the slush off her shoes and dropped a cold kiss on his ruddy cheek. He smelled like port and old spice.
‘God, you’re freezing. Thought you were never coming home. They’ll be here any minute.’
He’d changed into his new shirt, the one she’d left out for him on the bureau, and the buttons strained marginally. He was starting to grow a bit of a belly, she realized, as she hung up her coat and smoothed her hair out. She’d have to watch him with the mince pies tonight.
‘Had to get a few last-minute bits for Brendan and Denise’s hamper. They’d think it sparse as it is.’
‘What are you like, the Kris Kindle was only meant to be 40 quid.’ The skin around his eyes crinkled, soft.
‘I know your family, Gerald Lawlor. It’s quality and quantity.’
He pinched her bum and as she laughed, the cold from outside melted off her.
An hour later, the house throbbed with the chatter and laughter of mulled wine filled guests and chocolate filled children, whipping around in flashes of velvet and velour. The sack lay wrinkled and unremembered under the tree, simply a creased swathe of fabric now. Ruth could feel the lather of sweat across her forehead, her back to the roaring fire, trapped in place by a host’s duty and her sister-in-law. The heat crept up her collar in waves and her neck was slick.
‘And, I mean, with Eliza starting school and Jeremy in preschool, there always seems to be so much on, you know?’
‘It must be very hard.’ Ruth swirled the wine glass in her hand and smiled.
Debra’s face scrunched, knocking a hand against her forehead. ‘But sure, what am I going on about. You don’t care about all this. Why would you?’
Ruth’s stomach dropped.
‘No, no, I do. It’s so much work, especially around Christmas time.’
Debra threw her head back, blonde curls bouncing against her own glowing forehead.
‘Oh, don’t talk to me about town at Christmas, it’s bloody mayhem. Dashing round like a madman, all today and yesterday, desperate for any moment to myself. I envy you, Ruth; seriously I do. I’d love the time to just potter round and not have to worry about how to get fish finger out of my hair.’
The festive bubbles in Ruth’s stomach burst as she watched her sister-in-law knock back half a glass of bubbles, her whole body ringing from the sting in her words. Ruth smiled, tighter this time, and felt the prickle of warmth flush her entire body, until she was sure she was radiating heat. The thrashing noise of the guests muffled and twanged in and out as she excused herself. She was just being silly. It was just the heat. A splash of water in the bathroom, and she’d be fine again. There were moments, just moments, when she thought… but then, there was no point thinking like that. Silly.
After the clean-up that night, Ruth slid under the cold sheets of their bed, thankful for the cool against her hot skin. Ger sat, hunched over, on his side of the bed. His face creased in pain as he stretched out his bad back. He was getting older. They both were.
‘Did you hear Deb’s pregnant again? Three under 5, she’ll have, can you believe it?’
Ruth turned on her side and reached into the pool of yellow light, switching it off.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’
Ger threw a heavy arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him. His breath was sweet and hot against her neck.
‘Merry Christmas, darling,’ he said.
‘Merry Christmas, Ger.’