Candia Mcwilliam

The tree without

Christmas short story

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Since last Christmas, John and Edie have been watching their tree, which they keep outside, with the mixture of helplessness and pride familiar to mothers of sons. They first decided to have a tree that was to enjoy a full life, roots and all, in its pot, five years before.

'I thought it might have happened, and it has,' said John, from behind the tree, more accurately from within it, which he was attempting to fit through their front door. 'It won't come without a fight, this year. It's even prickly on its smooth bits. Did we like it once?'

Edie saw where this might end, with a lot of spiteful lopping and some vinous remorse. 'Leave it outside,' she said. And, to make certain, 'I remember you saw an outside tree once, do you remember? You liked it.'

John had seen such a tree, when first he had lived in a city. It was in an unloved street, gritty and neglected, decorated in the early morning with rattling cans and half-eaten, never edible, but absorbent meals. Once he had been walking home, at Christmas, and there was a thirsty but assertive Christmas tree, defiantly gay, almost in his path, not tall but sure of itself, its snappy branches decked with little painted wooden horses and baskets containing apples the size of berries, the whole impression hardy, generous and not frivolously lavish, as are the trees in the windows of department stores, but expressive, or so it had seemed to John, of something held on to in a difficult time. This hard, small tree almost certainly had no roots, was dead already, but it was the tree he thought of when people said 'Christmas tree', even now.

'We could bring it inside,' said John, pleased to realise that he wouldn't have to, but reluctant to be read so easily by his wife.

'Of course we could. Well, you could, and it'd be lovely. But let's leave it outside, and decorate it, too. Just little things.'

'Oh, not diamonds and pearls like usual, then? Not at all the same, one may find.' They were safe and flirting now. The qualified kind of dusk you get in towns was arriving. It was almost time for a cup of tea.

Every family has its habits about the decorating of their home for a religious festival. Each person has his or her allocated task, the threading of blossoms or the twining of tinsel, the dredging of sweetmeats with rosewater syrup and icing sugar, the compilation of the brandy butter. There is, it seems, one decision that is invariably intail male: when the tree may be put up, when decorated.

John was an unusual man in this as in some other ways. He curbed his sense, gained from his mother, that it was somehow vulgar, even wasteful of the tree's spell to put it up before evensong on Christmas Eve, and let Edie put it up when she felt the first stirrings of Christmas, around the end of the first week in Advent. There was the additional benefit to her clients.

Edie worked from home. When asked what it was that she did, she replied, 'I help people put their lives to rights.' She discovered much from the rejoinder, which might be, 'So, you're a lawyer,' or might, depending upon whatever drama was occupying her interlocutor, be more revealing. Her favourite ever reaction had been, 'So are you one of those terrifying ladies who teach people how to dress?' She was, of course, a psychotherapist and, the better to recede and empathise, had long ceased to trouble herself with questions of self-presentation beyond courteous cleanliness and, when she remembered, earrings. Sometimes, when clients felt they had resolved whatever had entangled them, they gave to Edie a present; it was always earrings, those earrings themselves disconcertingly liable to be in the shape of things: violins, knives and forks, shells, once even fully articulated skeletons in dark silver. These Edie did not wear. They troubled her, as did the flower paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, too easily and too obviously declaratory.

The Christmas tree, though, was another matter quite for Edie, who loved each year to teach it how to dress, a little like last year, but more so.

A faint, fresh rain had begun. You could see it in the halo of each street lamp.

'Before we do anything else, we must do the lights,' said John. Electricity had fallen to him in the marriage. He fetched the box with its compost of green flex and little glass buds, the cardboard spool through which one was meant to poke each separate bulb for a year's safekeeping still superstitiously in the box the lights had come in. Lugging out the reassuringly boring-looking transformer, lifting more gingerly the tangled lights, teasing them into a looser nest, and plugging in the whole pretty mess took John 20 minutes and took up their narrow front hall.

'Here's your tea, sweet,' said Edie. She didn't officially approve of endearments, in case they should spill into her professional life, so she smuggled them out like this. Their cat at this moment arrived, saw a pleasing quantity of what looked like string filling the hall, the open front door and the scented street beyond.

Putting none of his four feet wrong, Sigi stepped between the bulbs on their twist of string until he reached the centre of the nest John had made, paying down the flex as he untangled it.

'Brace yourself for attention, Sigismond,' said John, preparing Sigi for something he had never not had, being the favoured beauty of a childless family.

Edie passed John his tea. It was a front hall with room for just that, 300 points of light and an unswung cat. Sigi sat in the lights as though he were the bulb, they the moths, but he showed no interest in them as he would have in moths. His stillness made his gaze look wise and timeless, his gloss appear to be a steely patina. He was neat and alarming like an idol.

'It's nicer in the dark,' said John. 'Everything's nicer. Frightening and safe and bigger.'

'Speak for yourself,' said Edie, who was moved and sad, she could not say why, and it was too soon for that, weeks too soon. She put the overhead light on, not especially kindly.

Sigi adjusted his eyes and stood up in a silver hoop of muscle. He stood always on tiptoe, four feet together like brooches on a royal portrait.

The tree lived in its terracotta pot all year, to one side of the front door, at Christmas rolled and cajoled to a position rather closer, so that the lights, their flex fed and wedged beneath the front door, would stretch.

It seemed faintly risky always to handle the strings of tiny lights, but it was the way to balance the tree, to be sure that every gap had its spark, every extremity its spangle. John swallowed the tea, remembered that he should be on a diet in case Edie gave him something to wear, wondered how pleasurable skimmed milk actually was, and began to wind and stuff the flex, which he could hardly see, around the extremities and about the trunk of the Christmas tree, which he could mainly feel.

As a child he had sailed, so he understood the suddenness with which a length will shorten. He paid out the flex with punctuating attention, settling each bud of light at a juncture of the spiky tree where it might actually have grown, or where it showed up the tree's own architecture. Edie stood on the pavement and watched him wind and stop and look and recommence. It was like watching someone drawing, bringing what they only could see up to the surface where others too could see it, a private act of mutual benefit.

Along the street, lights were on all through the houses, not just on the ground floor, except in the houses of the very old. In one house a girl was dying. The front room was full of terrible flowers in noisy paper. The girl was down to living in that room by now. Edie visited her when she could and tried not to give advice as she might a client, since they were old friends. 'I'm going to live till the real flowers come,' said Anna. 'It's not long now and there's a window box.' She couldn't lift her hand to point, nor incline her head, but she seemed to point with her eyes, that were a hard, beautiful green. 'That's th e world,' said Anna, and she meant the window box, and it seemed to Edie then, such was the clarity of death's certain presence, that the window box was great with life, that even one bulb within it was.

So behind her single lighted window this Advent evening Anna lay dying some houses beyond John and Edie's own, her last attributes to depart fury and susceptibility to beauty. Each house, each window could no doubt account for a soul, thought Edie, but she could not blunt her selfish grief as she watched, in the light from Anna's front room, its curtains closed at odd times in the day but seldom at night, an assiduous urban squirrel burying something for its future in Anna's window box.

'It's lovely, John.'

'You mean you're cold. And wet.'

'It is lovely, though.'

'Your hair is wet through, it's that kind of rain. Sneaky.'

She knew at once that he wanted to be safe inside, and her price was acknowledgment of her unhelpful selfish misery about Anna.

'Look,' she said, pointing at the squirrel fossicking in the window box several houses down. It was surprisingly, as birds and animals and even stars are often not, still there, so urgent was its business.

'I know, I know, darling. And it's a squirrel. And she's...'

He let her cry, which was a relief in the undecided rain beside their budding illuminated outside tree.

Later, they turned to the business of doing their Christmas cards. Twice they had almost given up this equivocal enterprise. The millennium had offered the opportunity, for how could one mark that sufficiently, so why begin at all? But that was not the stuff of which John was made. Almost no one they knew had got further than 'C' in their address book the Christmas after that, unless they were religious bigots or equipped with secretaries and a database. There had been a communal inner faintness after that last September, a glimpse of how frail it all was and how hollow and culpable the hectic Christmas nimiety.

So much the more then, now, this year, must they send their cards, but they were coming to that age when their address book told too many tales.

John remembered his mother's address book, padded leather, long ago green, with her maiden initials on its cover, and how he had been happy to sit reading it at her desk, his first lesson in reading script. As a tiny boy, he had been more than content to sort the buttons or wooden cotton reels from her sewing box, but the address book, with its literary and human appeal, exerted its more powerful influence over the boy who would become the biographer of forgettable soldier-scholars and actually good poets.

So, he had known that a time would come when lines must be drawn through names in the address book, when loss and change must be recorded quite literally, under the appropriate letter. The intractable untidiness of life, displayed like this, letter by letter, became for John a lengthier version of the prayer that had begun with the happy limited list of his infancy, when he'd had to dragoon even teddy bears to be blessed by God, lest the awful blessing was too heavy on his mother and father and sister and dog.

Now, of course, it was a cat. Sigismond saw potential in the tall pile of slippery envelopes, the crackling inorganic cellophane that had wrapped the cards, the heap of cards themselves. Having supervised the business with the tree, he was ready in his secretarial capacity for his next Christmas duty. Deserting the fax machine he recognised as in some ways his rival, with its enlivening chirrups and longish dormant periods, its continual low heat, he was at hand to mark the cards.

The card this year had been chosen by Edie, in a hurry, in summer. It was a low-key but devastating painting of the Virgin and Child, the mother adoring the son on her knees, her hands together, her wrists bound and veiled with muslin spun as fine as the rays of her almost invisible halo, the paving stones on which she knelt penetrated decisively by, here and there, mortal and irrefutable flowers, only apparently frail. In one of her textbooks, when she was training, Edie had come upon the deadly psychotherapeutic phrase for this state of minutely bound involvement depicted with such wise brightness by Verrocchio: 'the illusion of oneness'.

John had moved on to whisky. Sigi sneezed and finished cleaning the street off his paws on to the Christmas cards. Edie was addressing the envelopes. As they were still at the beginning of the alphabet, John was writing too much in the cards. Do people whose surnames begin with A or B think everyone as blest with garrulous friends and acquaintances?