William Boyd

Christmas short story: The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, by William Boyd
Illustrated by
 Carolyn Gowdy

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The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, by William Boyd

Illustrated by Carolyn Gowdy

Bethany Mellmoth is in a quandary — and she doesn’t like quandaries. It’s December 20th. Five days until Christmas. The fact that this is a Christmas quandary makes it no more bearable. In truth she thinks that this fact makes it more unbearable. Her mother and father — nearly two decades divorced — both demand her presence on Christmas Day. The quandary will be resolved — Bethany is good at resolving things — but she hasn’t quite figured out how — yet.

Her father — Zane Mellmoth — texted her from his home in California. ‘Coming to London. Must see you Christmas Day lunch. Big surprise. Lots to celebrate.’ Bethany had felt the first prescient pang of worry: all her life, all her 22 years, she had eaten a Christmas Day lunch with her mother. She was four years old when her father left home and she has no memories of a Christmas lunch with him ever — although, logically, she assumes she must have had four. She telephones her mother, Alannah. Mum — what do you say to us having a supper this year, this Christmas? ‘Our having,’ her mother corrects her grammar. ‘Gerund.’ Then adds. ‘You must be joking. Don’t. You know how important it is to me.’ Bethany does. Zane Mellmoth walked out on his wife some time between breakfast and lunch on Christmas Day, 1991. Alannah and Bethany had a lunch alone. Four-year-old Bethany and her mother. It is a sacramental, immovable feast for Alannah Mellmoth that has nothing to do with the notional birth of one so-called Jesus Christ in Bethlehem millennia ago. For Alannah Mellmoth, Christmas lunch with her daughter is symbolic proof of her ability to survive and flourish without that sad pathetic bastard she once called her husband.

As if — Bethany says to herself, indulging in some justifiable self-pity — as if my life isn’t complicated enough. Emotionally, the last year has been difficult. Her boyfriend Sholto left her suddenly — spontaneously and without any warning — to go travelling in Namibia and Laos, so he said in his terse farewell note. The two relationships she’s had post-Sholto — first with Kazimierz and then with Hunter — had been complex (not to say fraught) and both had been unilaterally ended by her. Professionally, also, the picture is just as bleak. After dropping out of her media studies course early in the year her various subsequent jobs as shop assistant, novelist, film extra, gallerina and juggler’s aide all ended prematurely and unhappily with nothing really achieved. She has only her self-published photo- graphy book, Suffering from Optimism, to provide any consolation for all that wasted time. What she needs is a quiet Christmas at home, nice food and telly, time to chill and re-gather her thoughts, make new plans for the coming year, see where her destiny lies, set new goals, dream fresh dreams…

Bethany has a new motto, a mantra that she chants to herself to ward off the demon procrastination. DO IT NOW! She waits until her mother goes out to the gym and calls her father in San Diego where he is an Associate Professor of Contemporary World History at a small private university called Brandiwine University California. She apologises for waking him up: she’s forgotten about the time difference. Dad, she says, I can’t do Christmas lunch. How about supper? ‘Won’t be in London at suppertime,’ her father says. ‘We’re driving to Devon after lunch to see Grandma. Why don’t you come?’ Bethany says she can’t. ‘It has to be lunch, honey,’ her father says. ‘We’re only in London for 24 hours.’ Only when she hangs up does she realise he kept saying ‘we’.

Do it now, do it now, Bethany says to herself when her mother arrives home from her work. However, she waits until her mother is on her third glass of wine before she breaks the news that her ex-husband will be in London on Christmas Day. ‘So that’s why you don’t want to have lunch with me,’ Alannah says, nodding grimly. Bethany explains that Zane is only in the city for 24 hours, that he’s going to see his mother in Devon. I don’t want to have lunch with him, particularly, Bethany says, but I would like to see him. I haven’t seen him for two years. Alannah stares at her in that direct way she has, as if she’s checking my face for tiny blemishes, Bethany thinks — it’s most disconcerting. ‘All right,’ she says. ‘Maybe a Christmas dinner would be nice. I know, I’ll get a capon.’ What’s a capon? Bethany asks, hugely relieved. ‘A castrated cock,’ Alannah says. ‘It’ll be ideally symbolic.’

* * * *

On Christmas eve, Bethany rides the lift in the Fedora Palace Grand to the penthouse floor. Her father is staying in the Alcazar suite. They hug and Zane Mellmoth kisses his daughter’s face many times. His hair is much greyer, Bethany thinks, realising that her father is now over 50. But he looks thinner, fitter and his hair is cut in a short neat crewcut like that playwright, what’s his name? Bethany is annoyed she can’t remember. ‘Come and look at the view,’ Zane says and leads her to the plate-glass floor-to-ceiling window. She looks down the silver river towards Tower Bridge and at the glittering night-time city spread in front of her. Wow, she says, this suite must cost a fort — ‘I’m here with Chi-chi,’ her father says quietly. Bethany is aware that Chi-chi is her father’s girlfriend but that’s about all she knows about her. Great, Bethany says, I’m really looking forward to — ‘We’re going to get married. In Bali, on New Year’s Eve.’ Amazing, how romant — ‘She’s pregnant. You’re going to have a little brother.’ At this moment a tall, thin Chinese girl comes in from a bedroom, dressed in black. ‘This is Chi-chi. Chi-chi, this is my daughter, Bethany. Didn’t I tell you she was gorgeous?’ Chi-chi hugs Bethany and Bethany feels the small hard convexity of Chi-chi’s pregnant belly press against her. ‘I love your hair,’ Chi-chi says. Her accent is American. ‘It’s so cool. So long and thick. God, I’d pay a small fortune to have hair like that.’

As Zane Mellmoth pours champagne at the suite’s small cocktail bar Bethany takes the opportunity to look Chi-chi over as she sits on the white leather sofa, texting, her legs folded underneath her, her back rigid, held like a dancer. She’s very beautiful, Bethany realises, and wonders how old she is. She goes and sits beside her. How did you and Dad meet? Bethany asks. Chi-chi stops texting and frowns, as if she can’t remember for a moment. ‘My Achilles tendon snapped,’ she says. ‘I was a dancer.’ Ballet, Bethany asks? ‘Contemporary. So I figured I’d go back to school while I recovered.’ Zane comes over with the champagne glasses. ‘I took this guy’s class,’ she says, pouting a kiss at Zane. ‘He was teaching from Novaville, it just blew me away.’ Novaville is Zane Mellmoth’s only published book — and the basis of his academic reputation, Bethany knows — a psychogeographic, Situationist analysis of the modern city as if it were a newly discovered planet. Bethany has tried to read it many times. ‘I saw this stunning creature with her left leg in a huge plaster cast sitting in the front row. Quite threw me off my stride,’ Zane says, taking Chi-chi’s phoneless hand. No pun intended, Bethany says. ‘Ha-ha, clever clogs,’ Zane says. ‘No champagne for me,’ Chi-chi says. ‘I left my water in the bedroom.’ She places her phone on the arm of the sofa, unfolds herself, and strides across th e room in that splay-footed, buttock-clenched way dancers walk, Bethany notes. Zane takes the unwanted glass of champagne back to the bar and, as his back is turned, Bethany picks up Chi-chi’s mobile and quickly reads the text she was about to send. She knows one shouldn’t do this, just as one shouldn’t read a person’s diary or letters, but it’s a temptation that no one can resist. The text reads: ‘Missing you hunk xxxxx’. Bethany puts the phone down.

* * * *

‘How old is she?’ Alannah asks. She and Bethany are standing in the kitchen on Christmas morning. Alannah is preparing the capon for roasting. It’s hard to tell, Bethany says, breezily: you know that smooth-skinned Chinese look, almost ageless in some — ‘Or rather: how young is she?’ Alannah interrupts, rephrasing her question with a sneer. Bethany says Chi-chi was taking Zane’s course at Brandiwine U. ‘How disgusting,’ Alannah says, ripping the heart and liver from the capon’s body-cavity. ‘One of his students. Same old sad story. Leopards and spots.’ Part-time mature students, Bethany corrects her. She was recovering from an injury, she’s a dancer, really. ‘Even more disgusting,’ Alannah says. ‘A lap-dancer, I assume.’ She seems very nice, Bethany says, deciding not to tell her mother that Chi-chi is pregnant. She offers to peel the potatoes instead before she goes over to the Fedora Palace Grand for her Christmas lunch.

Chi-chi opens the door, gives a small shrill cry of pleasure and hugs Bethany. Happy Christmas, Bethany says, handing Chi-chi the present she’s brought her. It’s a first English edition of Novaville with a photograph of the snarlingly handsome, longhaired Zane Mellmoth on the back, when he was a history lecturer at East Battersea Polytechnic in the 1980s. Where’s Dad? Bethany asks, going to the window to survey the grey silent city below her, looking down on a police car speeding noiselessly along the Embankment, blue lights winking. ‘He’s in the gym,’ Chi-chi says. ‘Want something to drink?’ Bethany asks for a vodka and cranberry juice. Unthinkingly, she asks Chi-chi if she can smoke. ‘I quit,’ Chi-chi says and taps her belly, ‘and little Arnie wouldn’t like it.’ She hands Bethany her drink. ‘What star sign are you?’ Ah… I’m Pisces, Bethany says. ‘Cool,’ says Chi-chi, picking up her phone and checking for messages. ‘We’re going to get along. I’m a Taurus.’ The fish and the bull, Bethany says, suddenly given pause by a worrying thought. How old are you, Chi-chi? she asks. ‘I’m 22,’ Chi-chi says, putting down her phone on the bar. ‘Where’s Zane? Gym-bunny. I’m gonna go get him.’ She pauses at the door. ‘Room service should be here any minute to set up the table.’ Bethany goes to the bar and tops up her drink with a gurgle of vodka. Taurus, she thinks. Sholto was a Taurus and his birthday was in May. Bethany’s birthday is the 7th of March… She and Chi-chi are both 22. Which can only mean that Chi-chi is younger.

Bethany paces round the room munching on peanuts trying to stem her craving for a cigarette and trying to come to terms with the fact that she will soon have a stepmother who is younger than her. Don’t forget you’ll also have a half-brother called Arnie, she says to herself. Arnie Mellmoth… Chi-chi’s phone begins to ring — that Dial-M-for-Murder ring-tone — from the bar. Bethany goes over to the bar and looks at it. She picks it up and is about to say: Hello, Chi-chi’s phone, when a man’s voice — an American man’s voice — starts talking without introduction. ‘Chi-chi babe don’t speak don’t speak it’s six in the morning and guess what I am naked in my hot tub drinking wine guess what I’m doing I can’t wait for you to come home talk dirty to me baby talk dirty — ‘Hello? Bethany says, who is this? Click. The phone goes dead. Bethany places it carefully back on the bar. The suite door opens and in come her father and Chi-chi. ‘No sign of room service?’ Chi-chi asks.

This capon is delicious, Bethany says to her mother, we should have castrated cock more often. She’s glad she’s hungry as she found herself unable to eat much in the Fedora Palace Grand. Her father had ordered the full ‘Christmas turkey with all the trimmings’ lunch, Chi-chi chose a salad Niçoise and Bethany, for some reason, distractedly ordered a selection of sushi and sashimi. Then the thought of eating raw fish had turned her stomach. She was feeling nauseous enough anyway after overhearing that brief monologue from the naked man in the hot tub. She asked if she might step outside for a cigarette and her father told her to use the balcony off the bedroom. Bethany stood there, high up on the tallest edge of the Fedora Palace Grand, drawing deeply on her cigarette, now feeling both vertiginous and nauseous. When she came back in her father and Chi-chi were kissing. They exchanged presents. Chi-chi and her father gave her a black cashmere sweater. Chi-chi was entranced with her copy of Novaville — ‘My god, look at Mr Too-Cool-for-School! Look at your hair, dude!’ She turned to Bethany, smiling: ‘I see where you get your looks.’ Bethany smiled back, queasily. Bethany gave her father a copy of her self-published photography book, Suffering from Optimism. Chi-chi flicked through it. ‘These are photos of plants?’ she said. Plants growing out of rock, of concrete, of brick, Bethany explained. Places where you think no plant could ever grow. Hence the title.

When she leaves her father says he’ll ride down to the lobby with her. In the lift Bethany says: Dad, how can you afford all this? Zane smiles. ‘I just sold the game rights to Novaville,’ he says. ‘And NBC renewed my contract.’ Bethany has forgotten her father has another life as a TV pundit on all things urban. ‘Life is pretty good at the moment, what with Chi-chi, etcetera.’ You never told me she was younger than me, Bethany says. ‘Age is just a number.’ Zane says, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles. ‘It’s not an issue. Chi-chi may be only 22 but she’s far wiser than me. I learn from her.’ Bethany decides to drop the subject. As they stand in the chill afternoon air, waiting for a taxi, the sky darkening as the winter night rushes on, Zane asks: ‘Have you told Alannah about me and Chi-chi?’ Not really, Bethany says, carefully. ‘She should know. She’d want me to be happy.’ Bethany says she’ll tell her everything after Christmas. ‘How is she?’ Zane asks. ‘I’m upset she won’t talk to me.’ She’s great, Bethany says, deciding not to tell him about Alannah’s flourishing business as a conference organiser, or her appalling choice in men. Alisdair, Trevor, Jean-Pierre, Jason, Severiano, Kwame, Nigel and Sergei had all entered Alannah Mellmoth’s life for a while and then abruptly exited. She’s doing well, Bethany says, loyally.

Do it now. While they are stacking the dishwasher Bethany says to her mother — we need to talk. ‘Let’s tidy everything up, first,’ Alannah says, pragmatically. Later they sit down with their glasses of wine and both light cigarettes. ‘Fire away,’ Alannah says. Dad’s going to marry his girlfriend, Bethany says. ‘Good luck to her.’ She’s younger than me, Bethany adds. Her mother makes a face as if she’s just smelt the world’s worst smell. She’s pregnant, Bethany goes on. ‘That’s repulsive.’ Bethany takes a sip of her wine. And I think she’s having an affair. ‘Fantastic! ’ her mother exults. ‘Brilliant!’ Then she looks shrewdly at her. ‘How do you know?’ Bethany explains about the phone call and the naked man in the tub asking for dirty talk. Alannah takes this all in, nodding assent: ‘Pretty conclusive evidence, I would say.’ Then Bethany asks her: what should I do? ‘Do nothing,’ Alannah says immediately. ‘Nothing. It’s none of your business. What if you hadn’t picked up her phone? Pretend it never happened.’ Maybe the child’s not his, Bethany says, he’s got a right to know. ‘It just keeps getting better and better,’ Alannah says. ‘If you tell him I’ll never forgive you.’

Bethany lies in bed wondering what to do. What to do with her life and what to do about her father. She can hear her mother pottering around in the kitchen above her head and it pains her to realise that she is back at home again with her mother, living in her old basement bedroom. Her life is regressing, she feels: one step forward, two steps back. There is a new year coming — everything has to change, she has to reclaim her independence. She forces herself to think about Zane and Chi-chi. She loves her father — and that love is unaffected by the clarity with which she sees him — but it seems to her, at the very least, unfair that she should say nothing given that she is all too aware of the existence of the naked man in the hot-tub. If Zane knew about it also, Bethany reasons, then at least he would have the opportunity to talk things over with Chi-chi and hear her side of the story, before they plight their troth in Bali and little Arnie is born. She sits up and reaches for her phone. She feels certain and unequivocal about what she’s about to do and at the same time odd and strangely shaky, as if she is crossing some invisible boundary in her life. Maybe this is what she needs — maybe this is the first new step forward. No going back. It is her choice and therefore her responsibility. Do it now. She brings up her grandmother’s number on her phone. She calls and her father answers. She asks about the long drive to Devon. Send my love to Granny, she says. They talk about how great it was to be with each other at Christmas, finally, and agree it was a great lunch. Then Bethany asks him: Dad, are you alone? ‘Well, I’m alone in the hall,’ he says. ‘Why?’ I’ve got something to tell you, Bethany says, sitting up, straightening her spine like a dancer. It’s about Chi-chi…