This story available on Jan 02, 2021
How We Tear Ourselves Apart
Staring into the box was like staring into Christmas itself. Glittering baubles, luxuriant coils of tinsel, and pinecones painted silver - all jumbled up together like the horde of a festive dragon.
My mother lifted the ornaments out one by one, passing them to me or my brother to put on the tree. I cupped each treasure with both hands, hanging them with great care on the lower branches. Robert, eleven already and nearly as tall as our mother, reached casually up to the very tips of the tree to place his.
"Look," she said, "here is the bauble from Michael last year!"
I took it proudly from her, the reds and yellows I'd splashed all over it at playgroup were still beautiful to my four-year-old eyes. Robert reached into the box to grab a shimmering shop-bought decoration and leaned across me to hang it at his own eye level.
Soon the glossy tinsel ropes came out, and we wrapped them round and round the tree.
My mother looked again into the box and her face fell. "Oh, Robert! Your angel!" Her hands were full of crumpled card and foil, glitter shedding to the floor.
"Get rid of it," said Robert. "It's stupid."
She began to straighten out the angel's battered robe, and smoothed its yellow woolly hair. "It's OK, I think I can fix her."
Robert snatched the angel, crumpling up the body and pulling off the head.
"It's stupid," he repeated. "I made it a million years ago. It's just a piece of old rubbish."
He threw the angel into the bin.
All my Christmases had been watched by the colourful angel, and I stared at the bare treetop. Would this mean we couldn't have Christmas?
My mother looked upset. "But Robert, what will we put at top? We have no angel, no star."
He shrugged. "I'm not a child any more. Michael can make a new one."
They looked at me, but the enormity of the destruction was already too much for me.
"Don't cry, Michael," she beckoned me over to her. "We can make a new one."
But we could not. The Christmas angel had been ripped up, and how could I possibly be expected to make a shining being? I began to cry in earnest, knowing that Christmas was never going to be, could never be, the same again.
"You're such a baby," sneered my older brother, "crying over a stupid bit of paper and wool. You..."
The voice was quiet, but my brother shut up immediately. My father, watching silently from the sofa, spoke so rarely that when he did the world stopped to wait for him. He didn't say anything else and the silence stretched. I was lost, my Christmas disintegrating around me.
My mother put her arms around me, telling me it would be all right, telling me we could make a new angel, telling me not to cry. I couldn't believe her, and abandoned myself to grief.
"Michael?" My father spoke to me this time, and I looked up in surprise. "Is OK," he said, as he swung open the back door and stepped out into the dark night. The sky, clear of clouds but blurred by my tears, was spattered with stars. He reached up and brought down a single star, then carried in inside, blue and fierce between his hands, and set it carefully on top of the tree.
He closed the door and went back to the sofa, leaving us – open-mouthed and open-eyed – bathed in the cold and glorious light.
As an adult, I remember that Christmas more vividly than any other. I sat for hours, staring at the star on the tree, wondering how something so beautiful could exist. Once or twice my father came and sat with me, as if he too enjoyed the feel of starlight on his skin.
I never asked how my father, who worked so hard with his hands and spoke so rarely, could pull a star from the sky.
By the time Christmas rolled around the next year, my father had slipped out of our lives. He left behind the two sons to whom he'd given robust English names, and the wife with whom he'd refused to speak their native language, and slid silently away. My class made angels, and I took mine home to sit on top of our tree. I noticed only a faint tingling along my spine when the school nativity play mentioned the glory of the star that hung over the stable.
Becky was delighted to get the keys to her flat in mid-December. "I can decorate it for Christmas, without any housemates to get all Scroogey and spoil it. I can have a tree! Will you help me decorate it?"
Would I help? Of course I would help, I would do anything for Becky. I went with her to buy the tree, and carried it home, and got it up the stairs and into its holder in the small living room just because it made her smile.
I opened the boxes of brand-new plastic baubles and passed them to her one by one, so she could arrange them to her satisfaction. She broke off to hit up Spotify for Christmas music, and then again to open a bottle of wine. She stood back, a bauble dangling from her fingers, to consider the effect.
"Are there any good Polish Christmas traditions?" she asked, hanging the shiny red ball on a long and spindly branch.
"I've no idea. Probably."
"But you're Polish, aren't you? Your parents were Polish?"
"My parents were. But my dad was determined that we wouldn't grow up as immigrants, he made us do everything the English way. They never spoke anything but English to us."
"But you do speak Polish, don't you?"
Only when I'm trying to impress women. And only a little.
"I started learning it in my teens. From a CD course." I'd intended to travel to Poland, to try and find my father. I'd wanted to have all the conversations I'd missed, to bring him out of the exile he'd imposed on himself when he said that only English would be spoken in our house. But somehow university, and a job, and the everyday business of living had got in the way, and I'd never got past the basics. Mum still smiled when I wished her happy birthday or said goodbye to her in her own language.
I passed up the last bauble. Becky hung it and flopped onto the sofa with her wine to admire the tree.
"I wish I'd bought some fairy lights, too. A tree should have lights."
I looked at the clock: half past six. On the Sunday before Christmas. Everywhere would be shut, and there was nothing I could do to make Becky's tree perfect.
"And a fairy! I forgot to get a fairy to sit at the top."
I finished my wine, and refilled our glasses. And I told her the story of the year my father pulled a star from the sky to complete our tree.
"Could you do that? Could you fetch me a star?" She gazed at me wide-eyed, lips parted. How could I tell her no?
The living room had what an estate agent would call a Juliet balcony; a window that opened like a door, with a rusty cage to stop the unwary falling into the traffic below. I threw open the window, and looked up at the lurid beige of the London night.
The stars were sparse, straggling across the sickly sky like the remnants of a jumble-sale. They were poor and weak, too weak to light up the room. But, more than anything else, they were an incredibly long way away. I tried to remember the Polish word for star, but wasn't sure if I'd ever known it. Becky watched me intently.
I stared and stared at the stars, trying to let my eyes unfocus the way I did as a teenager eager to see a Magic Eye picture. The bilious clouds swam and shifted until I half-expected them to resolve into the outlines of leaping dolphins. Then, suddenly, the perspective altered. The heavens were near, very near. I just had to reach out my hand towards them.
My fingers closed around a star, burning and cold, and without blinking I pulled it towards me. I walked across the room, careful not to look directly at my hands, and settled it on the topmost branch of Becky's tree.
Her face was pale, her mouth open in surprise. The starlight flooded her eyes as she said my name very softly. The joyful peace I remembered from twenty years ago rolled over me, and all I wanted to do was sit in the thin glow, with Becky, forever.
"Mike," she said again. "You did it!"
I did it. I brought her a star for her tree. But she had wanted fairy lights, too. I turned back to the balcony, looking up to a smear of tiny points of light clustered tightly together. I drew down the sky again and scooped out as many starlets as I could hold. They tingled and stung like fragments of glass on my fingers as I sprinkled them over the branches. Becky laughed, delighted, and I raked down handful after handful until the tree glittered and the brilliant points began to fall in drifts to the floor.
She picked up a few and threw them over our heads, stars catching and twinkling in our hair and eyelashes. She slipped an arm around my neck and pulled me close for a kiss.
It was the kiss I'd been waiting for, hoping for, four years. A kiss that repaid every errand I'd run, every plan of my own I'd cancelled, every sleepless night, every thoughtless comment. I put my arms around her and surrendered everything to her.
Too quickly, she stepped away. Over her shoulder, I saw the darkened patch of sky begin to tear apart.
Elizabeth Guilt reads and writes stories to make her daily commute on the London Underground more enjoyable. She has fiction published, or upcoming, in Luna Station Quarterly, Straylight Literary Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer.
Interview available on Jan 13, 2021