A Gift – a Christmas story by Kevin Scott
Ian stirs a pot of bubbling baked beans, humming along to a song on the radio he was sure his wife would have liked. Toast pops and jolts him. He shouts his son’s name and hears thunderclap footsteps above. He scratches his greying beard and nudges his glasses upward to dry his eyes for his son’s arrival.
‘What we having?’ says Ollie as he swings open the kitchen door. His hair is a chaotic mound of dark curls that grow almost as swiftly as their owner. Since turning thirteen he has gained two full inches. While Ollie appreciates this spurt of growth he worries that he would be unrecognisable to his mum if she could see him now.
‘Beans on toast,’ says his dad with his back turned, failing to muster enthusiasm.
‘Again?’ says Ollie as he takes a seat at the small table hugging the wall opposite the worktops and window.
‘I know, I know. Next year is going to be better. I’ve got a good feeling. New job, maybe even a holiday.’ Ian glances over his shoulder to see his son leaning back but frowning, his school shirt un-ironed and untucked. He turns back to pour beans over slices of brown toast and delivers the plates.
‘For monsieur, beans avec le toast.’
‘Dad, you can’t do accents,’ says Ollie as he lifts his cutlery. Despite his grumbling, he knows it is all they can afford at the moment.
The only noise in the room is steel scraping against porcelain as they eat. Ian picks while Ollie devours. In two days it will be Christmas; the first one in fifteen years without Ian’s wife waking next to him like an excitable child.
In the nine months since he took the phone call at work asking him to confirm his name before telling him there had been a car accident, everything had fallen apart. His job – gone: ‘We’re sorry, we know the timing is terrible, but you must appreciate these cuts are necessary’; his friends – staying away unsure of what to say or where to look; his son – broken, crying into his dad’s helpless arms night after night for weeks until one day, inexplicably and unexpectedly he just stops. His wife…
Ian chews slowly, eating only because he has too. He rubs a hand over his flat stomach.
‘Done. You’ve got the beating of me again.’
Ollie gulps down the last couple of forkfuls and triumphantly discards his cutlery.
‘I’ll get the dishes Dad, go and play for a while.’
Ian smiles and looks inquisitively at his son. ‘Seriously, Dad. It’s fine.’
‘You’re a good kid Ollie,’ says Ian as he rises, his throat croaking as he coaxes the words out.
‘Get out,’ screeches the boy, laughing as his dad ruffles his hair.
Ian walks down the cold hallway into the living room and lifts the black Gibson Epiphone Les Paul guitar from its stand next to the fireplace. He sits down on the couch that was bought before the crash but delivered after it and begins to pick at a blues riff. His fingers move effortlessly across the fret board, but the sound is feeble with nothing to amplify it. In his mind reverb echoes throughout the room as it once did. He casts a glance at the bare television unit and his fingers stop moving. He got #400 for the TV and his beloved amplifier: a good deal, enough to fill the kitchen cupboards for weeks. Ian thinks with Ollie’s stomach these days; his own heart and mind jealous bystanders.
A door opens in this mind and Lucy walks in wearing jeans and a long cream cardigan over a white shirt. Her golden hair is loose and flows down until it crashes into her shoulders.
‘Play for me,’ she says. She sits down cross-legged on the floorboards they’d just finished polishing. Ian sits on his amplifier in the unfurnished room. It was the first thing he’d reached for when the removal team left.
He plays until she stands up and walks over to him, taking slow deliberate steps that are in time with her hands unbuttoning her shirt.
Ian sighs and opens his eyes. He puts the guitar down and retrieves its well-worn case from the cupboard at the back of the room. What was once its cradle will soon be its coffin.
‘Dad, do you need anything? I’m going upstairs to watch telly,’ comes Ollie’s voice from the hall.
‘I’m good. I’ll catch you in a bit.’
Ian falls into the couch face first.
Ollie leaps up the stairs two at a time, scissors and tape in hand. He bursts into his bedroom, closing the door behind him, his plan to do the dishes having worked to perfection.
He sits in silence on his bed trying to work out how to wrap the present he somehow managed to smuggle into the house two days before.
His plan has grown from a single thought one night after he should have been asleep, when he crept downstairs and heard the barely audible sound of his dad’s guitar on the other side of the living room door.
While he wraps the present he thinks about last Christmas. Images of a gleaming bike and juicy turkey jostle for position at the front of his mind but lose out to his mum’s face honing in for a kiss and leaving the scent of make-up and perfume stamped on his cheek.
Ollie turns his attention to a wooden-framed photo of the three of them at the caravan park when he five. It rained for days. In the photo they are soaked and smiling. It sits proudly on top of his drawers, next to an empty space. When his dad first sold the big TV Ollie took his portable downstairs, but when he woke up the next morning it was back in position in his room, where it remained until his plan began falling into place.
He looks at his mum’s face in the picture as she kisses his cheek, and wonders if she would approve of his idea. He wonders what the driver of the car that crashed into his mum’s Clio was doing at the moment this picture was taken and turns his attention back to wrapping.
The next morning Ian sits on the bus while his son remains asleep, the condensation on the windows creating a barrier that he strains to see through. The outside world moves on without him bearing witness. Inside, he wants the ability to silence a dozen conversations, and force the hum of anticipation back into the winter gloom.
He gets off in town and blindly forges ahead through the crowd. The air practically sings with the frantic thoughts of last-minute shoppers and as Ian turns off the high street he fills his lungs with clean icy air, free again to walk at his own pace. The door of the music shop chimes as he enters.
‘How much for cash?’ he asks the assistant as he places the guitar case on the table and opens it.
Three minutes of pathetic bartering later he leaves the shop with a fistful of used banknotes; scant reward for the aching that beats through his body.
Job half done, Ian knows that from this point on the look on Ollie’s face will be able to haul his spirit back out of its wallowing abyss. Within the hour the money is gone and he is back on the bus, sharing a seat with an elderly woman, whose generous width pushes him tightly against the cold window.
‘That looks like someone’s Christmas present,’ she says, leaning in towards him, her breath full of smoke and egg sandwich. Ian nods, a smile where a grimace should be, and taps the box on his lap.
‘It’s for my son.’
‘And what is it they call them, Gamestations?’
‘Playstation.’ Ian corrects her. ‘Playstation 3.’
‘I’m sure your boy’ll be over the moon, sonnie.’
‘Well, we’ll find out in the morning,’ says Ian and turns to look out the window as politely as he can. Deep inside his ear he can hear Lucy giggling.
Her laughter still lingers when he twists his key in the front door lock and pushes it gently open. Nimbly he makes his way to the living room, where he opens the cupboard door and buries his new purchase beneath a pile of linen. The cupboard looks empty without the guitar case.
‘Ollie, you busy?’ he shouts as he closes the door. Startled footsteps above indicate his son has been disturbed.
‘What’s happening? Where you been? It’s lunchtime,’ shouts Ollie as he bounds down the stairs.
‘Never you mind. I’ve got a plan,’ replies Ian, allowing his eyes to open wide.
‘Well, I thought seeing as it’s Christmas Eve we could go and catch a film then grab a pizza or something.’ Ollie’s face glows in a manner Ian remembers well from times past.
‘Are you sure?’ he says, his expression unable to mask the excitement his tone suppresses.
‘Come on you.’ Ian grabs his son in a playful headlock and drags him towards the coat rack. ‘Hat, jacket, scarf: it’s freezing outside.’
That night as Ian searches every corner of his bed for sleep, his mind conjures up moments yet to pass, instead of reliving many that have. He finally drifts into a dreamless slumber, where he remains until he is awakened by a gentle knock on his door. Ollie has grown up more than he should have in the last year, thinks Ian, as he recalls the running jumps onto the bed that used to serve as an alarm clock on Christmas morning.
‘I’m coming,’ he shouts, ready to start making amends.
In matching navy dressing gowns, they race down the stairs, squeezed tightly together. Ollie jumps the last three to record victory.
‘Winner waits outside,’ says Ian, opening the living room door. The earthy glow of the tree lights warms the dark room, sending him back to his own childhood for the briefest of moments.
‘You wee rascal,’ he says to his laughing son.
‘Beat you to it, Dad.’
Ollie squeezes past and opens the curtains, his heart pounding. Sunlight washes over the room, allowing Ian to see two presents beneath the tree; one significantly larger than the one he placed there the night before.
‘What have you been up to?’ he asks, his brow developing ridges like a windswept tundra, but the question remains unanswered. Ollie slides on his knees along the faded floorboards, coming to rest inches from the tree. He slaps the floor to entice his dad to join him. With one eye remaining on his own present he taps the top of the present for his dad, who tentatively moves towards the base of the tree, his head slowly shaking.
‘You go first,’ says Ian. He kneels down opposite Ollis and watches as the boy tears at wrapping paper. He stops abruptly when the box beneath emerges. His face turns white when he sees the Playstation 3 logo.
‘Well, what do you think?’ says Ian.
‘I’m sorry Dad. I’ve done something…’ He begins to laugh nervously.
‘What is it?’ asks Ian, but the reply is incomprehensible. Ollie’s face has turned crimson. He points at the unopened gift.
Ian cautiously begins to unwrap it, taken aback by its weight. It’s only when he sees the wrinkled black plastic of an amplifier beneath the silver wrapping that he realises the price of his present is beyond Ollie’s meagre savings. In fact, it’s about the same price as a portable television.
Like father, like son, he thinks as he leans forward and hugs the boy, tighter now than ever before, confident for the first time that they’ll find their way back to the world they left nine months ago.
Kevin Scott (December, 2013)
This section: Christmas Poems , Stories and Winter Tales
Filed under: Christmas Poems , Stories and Winter Tales
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