Nine Lessons and Carols

by Paul Brownsey

 

As the years went by, I got really worried that Richard was turning religious.

In the beginning, we wanted to spend Christmas alone together, a celebration of the miracle of finding each other. On Christmas Eve, as we made our excited preparations, the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, was playing on the radio, and it felt as though, in the bleak midwinter, love really had come down at Christmas. On our first Christmas morning, we made a reverent event of opening the presents we’d got each other—a Liberty dressing-gown from me to him, a Turnbull and Asser shirt from him to me. His enthusiasm about how the shirt looked on me totally swamped the fact that I wouldn’t have chosen it for myself.

We had a small artificial tree decorated with red and green glittery metallic baubles, the kind Richard remembered from his childhood. I liked to set one rotating slowly and mysteriously among the tree lights. We weren’t sure how to cook a turkey but didn’t want to spoil our self-sufficient seclusion by asking anyone, so we did it from a cookery book.

I’d have settled for the same indefinitely, Christmas as a sort of private retreat for the two of us in which we renewed our love and commitment. But one November I noticed him gazing at a Christmas card he was writing. It depicted people in Victorian clothes sitting around a massive table bearing the remains of Christmas dinner, while others were taking presents from a tree, feeding titbits to a dog, playing cards with an old lady in an armchair, standing at the door with skates in their hands, waving at a wee boy who was galloping on a rocking-horse. “God bless us, everyone!” said the legend across the top. At the time it didn’t alarm me, for it was Dickensian.

He said, “It’s a family thing, really, Christmas, isn’t it?”

I set myself to be accommodating. When Richard and I moved in together and told my parents we’d invite them for tea once we’d settled in, my mother said, “I can tell you now, I won’t be coming. The life you’ve decided to live!” But my father, accompanying us to the door, shook Richard’s hand and murmured, “Hope it all goes well,” adding still more quietly, “She’ll come round.” She hadn’t come round, but she was now dead, so I felt free to offer my father to fulfil Richard’s fantasy of a family Christmas. “My lump of a brother, too, I suppose,” I added. He always seemed tuned out from what was going on; I wasn’t even sure he’d cottoned on to the fact that his brother wasn’t just Richard’s flatmate, despite his mother’s fuss about it.

So there were the four of us in paper hats at Christmas dinner.

“His mother would be pleased Ewan’s got such a good cook to look after him,” my father said to Richard, who raised his glass of Chablis to him and then to the rest of us. On Richard’s behalf, I said, not yet alarmed by the first word: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” careful about where the comma came. Richard seemed elevated at being at the core of a family Christmas dinner.

“That went well,” I said afterwards.

“Ye-es,” he said in that two-syllable questioning way that I came to realise meant that Christmas had fallen short.

He screwed up his face. “Paxo stuffing. Waitrose Christmas cake. Mrs Peek’s Christmas Pudding from Tesco. Bird’s Brandy Sauce. Marks and Spencer mince pies. It’s all so commercial.”

“Shop-bought Chablis,” I said. “Shop-bought tangerines. Shop-bought sprouts.”

He seemed not to hear me.

“I mean, Christmas is about giving, yes,” he said, “but real giving is giving something of yourself. We’re just middle-men, just channels for big business to offload its products on our family. It’s all so, well, dehumanised. We’ve been turned into cogs exploited by capitalism.”

“O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny,” I sang, without realising the whiff of brimstone in it.

I needn’t have worried—not this time—because his remedy for dehumanisation was not to take up with religion, but to go on a Nick Nairn Festive Cookery course. The next year he made his own stuffing, his own Christmas pudding, his own Christmas cake, his own mincemeat, his own mince pies, his own pastry for the mince pies.

“Up to your usual standard,” commented my brother.

“The food was marvellous,” I reassured Richard as we washed up.

But he had that faraway look in his eyes telling me that something had been lacking, and I felt a tremor that, one day, that look might get trained on me.

“Somehow it’s not Christmas without children,” he said, “The look on their faces at the magic of it all. I mean, it’s all about a child being born anyway.”

“Unto us is born a son.” Was he raising the question of adoption? A procedure with test-tubes and a surrogate mother? I deflected: “I wonder if there’s somewhere we can rent a child for Christmas. It’s a perfect entrepreneurial opportunity. I can see the advert: ‘It’s not Christmas without a child. Contact Rentachild now. Backed by Barnardo’s.’”

“No, we don’t have to do that. There’s my sister’s two girls.” His sister, Beryl, had married an American but was now divorced and back in Scotland with Meredith, aged eleven, and Chyenna, nearly two, who was a failed attempt to save the marriage.

They lived a distance away, so we had to put Beryl and the girls up. Richard and I slept on a sofa bed in the living-room and I had to sort of slither into bed to avoid knocking baubles off the Christmas tree. He was starry-eyed at getting up in the middle of the night and creeping in with stockings for the children, stockings for which he’d been buying wee toys and novelties for months. He didn’t come back to bed at once but tiptoed to the hall cupboard.

“What’re you doing?” I said.

Without telling me, he’d bought a crib. That, and the way he fussed about setting out the crib figures on a coffee-table in the crowded living-room, on real straw that he’d driven out to a farm to acquire, started to get me seriously worried about where all this was leading.

We were up early on Christmas morning, clearing our bed away. Before the girls came into the living-room, he posed a light shaped like a star above the crib and set “Away in a Manger” playing. He got the look of wonder he’d been hoping for, but when I asked if he was satisfied, I got, “Ye-es.”

One evening, walking home in the dark from his job as regional manager of a chain of charity shops, Richard encountered our neighbour in the flat downstairs, Mr Robertson, poking about in a skip outside some tenements that were being refurbished. As they chatted, Mr Robertson leaned in to catch hold of an electrical cable and hauled up an old electric fire.

“His face was ecstatic. He said, ‘I can keep warm again’.” We’d known that Mr Robertson was unable to work because of MS, but apparently a new assessment had declared him ‘fit for work’ and his benefits had been slashed. He was getting food from a foodbank, and when his heater broke down he couldn’t afford to buy a new one. He had been entirely without heating until he found the discarded one.

“Gathering winter fuel,” I said.

“A modern version of it, yes.” Richard was enthusiastic. “You know, Christmas is a bit inward-looking with just ourselves and family. Perhaps that’s why it always feels like something’s missing. It’s supposed to be about goodwill to all.”

So now, cramped around the table in our little kitchen for Christmas dinner, there were me and Richard, my father and my brother, Beryl, Merry and Chyenna, and Mr Robertson. He complimented Richard on the food, telling him that when he married he wouldn’t need a wife who could cook. He brought us a calendar. I guessed he’d been given it at the church that housed the food bank. Each month had a picture of something like sunshine trailing through the branches of a tree or a sunset with multi-coloured clouds: not exactly religious, but pointing thataway. And each page bore a wee inspirational quotation. One was from somebody called C.S. Lewis: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

What if Richard connected that with his itch for something from Christmas that it never delivered? He might decide that God and religion were what was lacking. I put the calendar deep in a pile of newspapers due to go in the bin right after Christmas. With luck, it would have been ‘accidentally’ taken away before he realised.

Although—true to form—Richard didn’t feel that Mr Robertson at our crowded table was the perfecting touch, his next attempt to fill the gap was reassuringly secular. “We don’t do anything on Boxing Day except sort of slump around. Let’s go to a pantomime.”

“’Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la,” I said, and we all got press-ganged to the King’s Theatre on December 26 following, Richard having bought tickets nine months before. Merry said a cow with two actors inside was disrespectful to animals (Richard now made her a nut loaf for Christmas dinner), but Chyenna cried when the cow was sad. Richard joined in the cries of “Oh no, he isn’t!” with gusto; likewise the singing contest between the two halves of the audience. Did he really enjoy it all, or did he just like the idea of enjoying it as part of a family party (plus Mr Robertson)?

“The perfect end to Christmas,” he said afterwards, as we stood buttoning coats on the pavement outside the theatre, and I knew he wasn’t convinced. Though I’d thought of the panto as secular, I began to worry that a world dominated by an ogre, up in the sky at the top of the beanstalk, might suggest religious parallels.

I got a major promotion at work, and we decided to move to a bigger house. More rooms would make Christmas easier. Squeezed around the table in our little kitchen, we had nothing like the comfort of those depicted in that long-ago Christmas card of a Victorian Christmas.

We went to view a new-built house in Alba Gait, where porticos, Georgian windows, half-timbering and even, sometimes, a bit of a turret were meant to flatter. I didn’t stand a chance when the front door opened onto what the estate agent called an atrium, going up into the roof through two storeys.

“It would be a bugger to heat and clean,” I warned.

“Now we can have the Christmas tree we’ve always wanted.”

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum.” The little artificial tree, now rather broken-branched, that we’d bought when there were just the two of us, Richard put out for the bin men, but I rescued it and smuggled it into our attic in Alba Gait.

We took about two days to erect Richard’s chosen tree and decorate it. Chyenna asked if it went all the way up to heaven, and I said loudly, “Who wants a mince pie?”

“Well? What’s missing now?” I said in bed on Boxing Day. At least it was no longer a sofa bed.

“You’re right, there’s something missing.”

“Christmas needs carol-singing,” he said as next Christmas approached.

That was ominous.

“We’ll do it as a group on Christmas Eve. Around the houses here. Carol singers in the distance, then coming closer, then they’re at the door. The magic of Christmas itself coming closer.”

I sang, “Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation, Sing, all ye citizens of Alba Gait.”

He printed booklets of the words and in the run-up to Christmas Eve had me and himself practising harmony lines to accompany the tunes that the rest would sing. He supplied us with long stripey scarves, plus top hats for the men and Victorian-style bonnets for Beryl and the girls. He handed out old-fashioned-looking lanterns on poles. He even got Mr Robertson to stick on false side-whiskers. Perhaps Mr Robertson was scared he wouldn’t get his Christmas dinner if he didn’t comply.

While Richard prepared us, I tried to persuade myself that carol-singing wasn’t ominous after all. Yes, carols are all about Jesus coming down to earth from heaven, God, Mary, angels, etcetera. Carols touch deep things in us. But the deep things they touch go far deeper than religion. We can be moved by a line like, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!” but it trashes that experience to interpret it in terms of a theological doctrine about someone being born to be sacrificed to take the punishment for various ways in which people have offended a cruel and cantankerous tyrant. The dark midwinter forest, warmth, light, birth, hope, humanity, love, mystery—these things are what carols really express, and they’re much deeper than religion, so carol-singing was nothing to be afraid of.

It was a great success. The people in the nice new houses in Alba Gait said how nice it was to hear carols at the door, and they gave generously, sometimes not even asking what charity it was for, so I made a point of saying, “It’s for the food bank,” and even if some of our neighbours were among those who paid workers rotten wages on zero-hours contracts, they said how nice it was to support food banks. Sometimes I joked, “The Holy Family probably used food banks. A jobbing carpenter like Joseph would have been unable to compete with the new IKEA in Nazareth.”

Alas, my attempts at self-persuasion were in vain. Carol-singing was another station on the slippery slope. As we undressed for bed after the second year of carol-singing, he said, “It’s sort of incomplete, isn’t it? We sing away about the Word of the Father now in flesh appearing, but we just stop there. There’s that special service they have at midnight on Christmas Eve—Midnight Mass, is it? Christmas Vigil? Watchnight something? Anyway, that’s what we need to round off the carol-singing. The finishing touch.”

“And that will be the finish of us,” I thought afterwards, while we were making love. The obscure yearning that, year after year, had caused him to be dissatisfied with Christmas, had finally drawn him to religion. I knew that once he was through the church door there would be no stopping him: greater and greater involvement, new things to be believed, more sins acknowledged. And then would come, “It’s not God’s plan for us,” and he’d announce a divorce but add that it wasn’t really a divorce, because marriage between two men wasn’t true marriage anyway.

“We’ll just dump the lanterns and things at the house and then be off to St Margaret’s,” he said after next year’s carol-singing, as if I must be as excited as he was. Only Mr Robertson and my brother were coming with us, the rest begging off with excuses about the lateness. I thought it confirmed my brother’s lumpishness that he didn’t make the same excuse.

St Margaret’s was Victorian Gothic, so it felt like the real thing, which renewed my dread. People were streaming in. After the cold and darkness outside, there was brightness and warmth, a buzz, a sense of something important about to happen. That, too, was worrying. To one side of the altar was a tree even taller than ours.

Things began with a procession headed by a small boy carrying a lit candle almost as tall as he was. He sang the first lines of “Once in Royal David’s City,” voice wavering like the flame, and then the choir progressing behind him joined in. Last came a vicar-person in green and gold, smiling joyously, raising his arms—now to this section of the congregation, now to that. Richard turned to me and grinned, so sure that I shared his elation that I loved him for his certainty. Unlike me, who knew where all this was leading, he sang the carols heartily, and when people started heading down the aisle for Holy Communion, he moved to join them.

I said, “You can’t just go up. Don’t you have to be confirmed or something?”

“They won’t be checking tonight. Come on.”

Richard exited the pew into the aisle but I stood firm, my last stand against the encroaching evil, and he stared at me, puzzled, until my brother—my lump of a brother—who was next to me on the other side, hissed, “For fuck’s sake!” and shoved me out of the pew after Richard. What could I do but go with him? It would be the beginning of the end, but I had to be there for it.

And then he took my hand. Side by side, hand in hand—I saw Mr Robertson stare—we walked to the altar together for Christmas Communion. The vicar-person did not bat an eyelid when we knelt at the railing—was it that he just didn’t want a fuss, tonight of all nights?—and when we rose from our knees, there before the altar, before we headed back to our pew, traces of the bread and wine still in our mouths, Richard turned and kissed me on the lips slowly, with some fervour, people passing back and forth around us. And when we sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” the line about “God and man reconciled” seemed to acquire the Christmas spirit it hadn’t had before and to tell me my years of worry had been needless.

 

 

Paul Brownsey lives in Scotland and is a former member of the philosophy faculty at Glasgow University. His book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, was published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly as well as being a finalist in the Lambda Literary Awards. Recent work has appeared in The Ocotillo Review, Event, upstreet, Dream Catcher, and Orca, in which the present story previously appeared.