“Hhrrrrggnn”: this is the noise my sister makes. Or something like it. Her mouth is wide open as if she is yawning and her eyes roll back like she is about to chuck a fit. Then she makes this noise. Mum’s just said we’re going over to Gran’s for Christmas lunch.
It isn’t even December yet. It’s November the eighth and stinking hot. Wet too. When it isn’t raining the air is so sticky and moist that your clothes stick to you, every invisible particle of dirt in the air too. It gets so that when you take off your shirt your skin is shiny and slippery. If you roll your palms over your chest and tummy you can make these thin rubbery worms out of your own dirt and sweat. I roll them around my belly button to gross out Tilda, my sister.
“Why are we going over now when it’s not even Christmas?” she says. Tilda might be wet but she’s not dumb and she smells a rat.
Mum is flustered. She is unpacking all the shopping out of plastic bags and putting it away. “Look Tilda,” she says. “We’re having people over for Christmas lunch and now is the only time we could go and see your grandmother.”
“Why don’t we just invite Gran over for Christmas lunch with the other people?” Tilda says. This is Tilda at her sneakiest. She knows damn well the reason Mum won’t have Gran over when other people are around. She’s embarrassed. Gran is Dad’s Mum anyway and Mum figures she shouldn’t have to put up with her any more than absolutely necessary. I’ve heard her say a couple of times to Dad, “I married you, not your family.” She means it especially about Gran.
“Well,” she says, “because we’ve already invited a lot of people over and we won’t have enough chairs for any more.”
“How many people are coming?” says Tilda.
“Look Tilda,” says Mum, smashing the milk carton she has just picked up back down on the table, “it doesn’t matter how many people I’ve invited, there just won’t be enough room. And that is why we are going to your grandmother’s for Christmas lunch today. She wants to see you kids especially, so you’d better be on your best behaviour.”
When she picks up the milk carton to put it away in the fridge she sees that the spout is partly open and that milk has shot out the top and dribbled down the sides to form a puddle on the table. There are milk spots over the sleeve of her shirt. “Tilda,” she says in that voice she does, real soft and without opening her mouth much, “get me a cloth.”
After Tilda has given Mum the cloth, we both decide it would be wise if we got out of Mum’s way. That’s what I decide anyway. Tilda has a weird expression on her face, sort of thoughtful, and goes through into the dining room. I want to see what she is doing so I follow her in there. When I creep in behind her she is standing just inside the doorway, staring at the dining room table. She nods her head as she looks at it, then again. Then, with that same, careful rhythm, six more times. A total of eight. I know what she’s up to and I don’t want anything to do with it. Tilda sometimes just doesn’t know when to stop. But I sure do want to be there when she tries it on Mum.
So I sit down and watch television for about ten minutes, watching Tilda move from room to room, that same, thoughtful expression on her face. I quickly switch the TV off when she goes into Mum and Dad’s room. Mum has finished putting away the shopping and is sitting down at the dressing table putting on some make-up. She doesn’t have a shirt on because she hates accidentally smudging her collar with mascara or whatever. Putting on make-up is a real rigmarole for Mum, it takes her nearly half an hour. That’s probably why she’s doing it while Dad’s at work. He gets real impatient with the whole thing. When he gets cranky about it though, she says to him, “Listen Daryl. You set your alarm an hour early just so you can laze around the kitchen. At least I’m doing something constructive with my time.” Sometimes when he’s on call, like today, he pretends he’s in bed when they call, just so he has half an hour before he has to leave.
Tilda looks at Mum very seriously, her hands on her hips. I’m standing just outside the door so I can get a good view without being in the blast radius. “Mum,” she says.
“Yes Tilda, what is it?” Mum says, and you can hear she’s getting cranky already.
“Are twelve people coming on Christmas?”
“Are twelve people coming on Christmas?”
“What are you talking about, Tilda?”
“Counting the one in my room, the one in Jake’s room and the two on the porch we have twelve chairs. I thought twelve people must be coming over since we won’t have enough chairs for Gran.”
Watching Mum go through the roof is never pleasant, except when it’s happening to Tilda. I make sure I sneak away before Mum notices me. I’m watching TV again when Tilda comes through on her way to her room.
Dad comes home about half an hour later. Mum lets him kiss her on the cheek in the hallway as he comes in. He tries to kiss her on the mouth, but she won’t let him. “You’ll ruin my lipstick,” she says.
He sees me sitting in front of the television. “Hey there, tiger. Why aren’t you dressed yet?” he says.
“I am dressed, Dad. I’m not naked am I?”
“I meant properly, mister.”
“Go on. Get your tie and jacket and bring them out here and I’ll put them on for you.”
Great, noose and straitjacket. Gran doesn’t even care about all that. Last time we visited her she said, “Your Dad made you wear that, did he? You must be bloody hot. Take it off if you want.” It’s not as if she dresses special for the occasion. Same old baggy dress and funny slipper-shoes. Happy shoes she calls them. But I guess Dad thinks he has to show Gran what a beautiful family we are.
When we’re in the car I say to Tilda, “I wonder what she’s cooking for us this time? Do you remember last year there was a slug in the salad and you ate it?” But I say this very quietly so Mum and Dad won’t hear. They’re having a discussion in the front anyway.
“I did not,” Tilda hisses.
“Oh that’s right,” I say. “You didn’t notice the slug and I didn’t say anything. I was going to afterwards but I guess I forgot until now.”
“Shut up,” she says, “that’s not true.”
“Yes, it is Tilda,” I say, “but don’t believe me if it makes your stomach feel better.”
This is pretty childish for a kid in sixth grade I’ll admit, but I only do it because I get such a good response. Tilda’s squirming in her seat. I can see that she wants to reach over and hit me but she’s afraid to with Mum and Dad in the front.
“What’s your problem, Tilda?” I say.
“You are, you big idiot.”
“Now that’s not very nice. Gran won’t give you a present if she finds out you’ve been talking like that to your big brother.”
“She will too. She likes me better than you.”
Tilda doesn’t usually want to be Gran’s favourite. Tilda’s actually scared of her. I just think Gran’s crazy. She’s got these big glasses which make her eyes huge and she bends down close to tell these weird stories. Some of them she gets out of the Bible.
“Yeah, I wonder what she’ll give you?” I say. “Probably yesterday’s newspaper.”
“Shut up, Jake. She will not.”
Tilda says this way too loud, I’ve really got her annoyed. Mum looks round from the front seat. Her discussion with Dad must have already made her a bit angry because her teeth are clenched real tight and when she does her voice, loud this time, drops of spit come out and land on me and Tilda. “What is the matter Tilda?” she shouts.
“Jake’s teasing me,” Tilda says. “He said that Gran would give me a newspaper for a present.”
“Well she might,” I say, but I say it under my breath so Mum won’t hear. Half the things I want to say I have to say real quietly so that nobody else will hear them. Otherwise I’d get in trouble. It’s a bit of a shame when you have funny things to say, but that’s the way it is with families.
“Jacob, leave your sister alone. If I hear one more word out of you there’ll be trouble.”
Dad also turns round. It doesn’t seem to bother him that he’s driving and is meant to be keeping his eyes on the road. “Now listen Jake,” he says. “Gran doesn’t have much money so she can’t always afford the presents that we give you, but she cares for you children very much. Going to her house for Christmas lunch means a lot to her. So just settle down, OK?”
“Now apologize to Tilda,” Mum says.
“Now,” she says.
“Tilda, I am deeply, truly sorry that I teased you in such a cruel way, I-”
“Cut it out Jake,” Dad says, losing patience. “If I hear one more word out of you there’ll be trouble.”
The rest of the trip passes fairly uneventfully. I keep pulling faces at Tilda the whole time, keeping one eye on the rear-vision mirror to make sure Mum isn’t watching. Tilda’s still squirming but she knows better than to say anything at all with Mum and Dad in a cranky mood.
Inside the car it’s cool because of the air-conditioning, but there’s no air-conditioning outside. Halfway up the path to Gran’s house Mum says to Dad, “I wish we had moved to the beach when you got this job, Daryl.” Mum says this a lot around this time of year. You can see that she is sweating underneath her make-up. It must be hard for her, all that make-up makes her face hot.
I’m glad we didn’t move to the beach. I mean, it would’ve been alright, but I like living in the city. When it isn’t raining, there are all these cool drains which me and my friends play cricket in. There’s usually a little bit of water flowing through, so we use that as the pitch. We always fight over who has to be wicket-keeper. Nobody wants to be wicky because everyone’s always bowling or throwing the ball at the wicky as hard as they can and wet tennis balls really sting. When you bowl one that bounces well, a stream of water flies off behind it, like the tail of a comet.
Gran must have seen the car through her kitchen window because she opens the door before we even ring the doorbell. She’s wearing what she always wears, except she’s got on her “work-glasses”, a big, brown pair of glasses with a brown chain on them that goes right round the back of her head. I know it’s to keep the glasses on but I once told Tilda that the chain went under her hair and into her head and the glasses let her see through people like an X-ray. Tilda got me in trouble when I tried to describe what people look like inside, but it was a good joke for a while.
“Come in,” Gran says. “Come in. Hello Jake, hello Tilda.” She kisses everybody. You can see that Mum doesn’t enjoy it much, and nor do I really. It’s not sloppy or anything, just a bit embarrassing.
Dad’s got the shopping bag with the presents from all of us in it. “We brought you some things, Mum,” he says.
“First things first,” she says. “Lunch first.”
Lunch is alright. Gran always cooks the same thing for Christmas lunch. Roast lamb with mint sauce, potatoes and pumpkins. She makes weird cordial for us as well and every year the flavour is different. Last year she made us chilli cordial, can you believe it? This year at least it’s watermelon cordial which isn’t so bad. The only thing wrong is that she always cooks cabbage. I don’t like cabbage at the best of times but Gran’s cabbage is even worse than normal. I don’t know what she does to it, but somehow it goes all soggy and slimy. Last year Tilda made a noise like “Eeauurgch,” when she had to eat the cabbage: but she got into such big trouble that I’ll bet she doesn’t do it again this time.
After lunch, Gran, Mum and Dad sit around the table, talking, while me and Tilda wander round the house. Gran always tells us that if we can find where the presents are hidden we can have them straight away instead of having to wait until she opens hers. Gran’s presents are never very good though and I stopped looking seriously a couple of years ago. Tilda still looks, so I follow her around to bug her.
“It’ll probably be the Telegraph Mirror,” I say. “That’s cheaper than the Herald.”
“Shut up Jake,” Tilda says. “She won’t give me a newspaper.”
“We’ll see, Tilda,” I say. “We’ll see.”
This year the presents are ‘hidden’, if you could call it that, under the sofa next to Gran’s Christmas tree. I guess Gran’s imagination let her down. She’s been doing it for years though, so maybe she just ran out of hiding-places. The presents are wrapped in newspaper. I give Tilda a big nudge in the ribs with my elbow. “See,” I say, motioning at the presents. “Newspaper. Old too.”
“Stupid. That’s just the wrapping paper.”
“Have you ever played pass the parcel, Tilda?” I say.
“Yes. We played it at Emily’s birthday.”
“Well, it’s just like that. You open one layer of newspaper and find another layer. You open that layer and find another one. Except that instead of there being a present in the middle, all you’ll find is more newspaper.”
Tilda’s thinking this one over. She doesn’t want to believe me but with Gran who knows? Inside, I’m killing myself laughing, but then I think, what if she goes and asks Gran? In front of Mum and Dad. To distract her I say, “What do you hope it is, Tilda?”
But Tilda isn’t paying any attention to me. She’s just noticed the Christmas tree. It’s a real one in a big, black plastic pot. Gran always has this same tree, which is better than the plastic one we have at home. It’s nearly big enough to touch the ceiling. But it doesn’t have any decorations on it. Gran sometimes makes decorations out of coloured paper and balls of wool and things like that, but this year it’s just the tree.
“Where’s the angel?” says Tilda. Her voice is quiet and her mouth is hanging open. It’s like she’s about to cry. Before I can say anything she goes into the kitchen. I hear her shout as she’s going down the hall, “Where’s the angel?”
When I get to the kitchen Gran has just finished making a pot of tea and is holding the kettle in one hand. Steam is coming out of the top. Tilda’s blocking the doorway, her legs wide apart and her hands on her hips. Gran looks at her. “What’s the matter Tilda?” she says.
“Where is the angel from the top of the tree?” Tilda says.
“Ah,” says Gran. “I wouldn’t have been able to fit one on top of that little tree.”
“Why not, Gran?” says Tilda. “We have an angel on our tree.”
Gran doesn’t usually tell lies so she just must be losing her marbles. That tree’s pretty big and there’s still room before it touches the ceiling.
“No, no,” says Gran. “That’s not an angel you have on your tree. That’s a piece of supermarket Christmas. Something somebody made up because the real things’s too scary.” She waves her arm around when she says this and the steam from the kettle fogs up her glasses. She puts the kettle down and wipes her glasses on her dress. When she puts them back on, though, there are still marks on them so her eyes look all streaked and watery. “I’ll tell you what angels are really like,” she says. She reaches up to a shelf above the stove and brings down a book. A bible. She must have one in every room.
“Come here Tilda,” she says. “Come on Jake.”
We both go over to her. Tilda stands as close to me as she can, her back pressed into my side. Gran crouches down. Her knees crack when she does. “Some of them are like men,” she says. “They wear white and you wouldn’t know they were angels except they bring messages from God. But others-” she says, “others are like this…” The whole time she has been flipping over pages in the Bible until she finds the one she wants.
“They’re something like human beings,” she says, “but they’re much, much bigger. Their legs are straight and Jake wouldn’t even reach up to their waist. Their feet are like calves’ hooves, hard and split down the middle and they glow and burn like molten metal. And they have four faces and four wings. Under all their wings they have human hands. And their faces, do you want to know what their faces are like?”
I nod. These angels sound cool. Tilda doesn’t move.
“They have one face like a human being, one face like a lion on the right side, one face like an ox on the left side, and one face like an eagle on the back. And each face is furious enough to frighten even the bravest person. You’d think you might die if the human face even just looked at you, or if the ox breathed on you with it’s fiery breath, or if the lion roared, and the eagle with it’s sharp, sharp beak. They hold two of their wings straight out and they use the other two to cover their bodies. And when they look at God they use these wings to cover their eyes because however fierce and frightening those angels are, God is too bright and fiery, too full of glory, even for them to look at.
“You know what cherubim are?” she says. “Cherubs?”
“You mean those chubby little guys with the wings?” I say.
“Like you put on Christmas trees,” says Tilda.
“No,” she says. “Those things aren’t cherubs,” she says. “The angels I just told you about are the real cherubs. Cherubim they’re called. So you can see why I didn’t put one of those on top of my tree. It would have been far too big, and it would have frightened my guests.”
“It would have been cool Gran,” I say.
Tilda’s looking at Gran with her mouth wide open. She’s always like this when Gran tells one of her weird stories. Gran picks her up and holds her up at her shoulder. Gran’s still pretty strong but I’m glad I’m too big for her to do that to me any more. Gran smells funny. It’s not real awful and Dad says all old people smell a bit funny. “Like they’re going off,” I said, but he gave me a whack.
“Time to open the presents,” Gran says.
Tilda cheers. She still thinks any present is a good present. Last year Gran gave her a writing set. She gave me a book of illustrated Bible stories. Actually, some of them aren’t too bad. There are stories about some cool people and lots of weird stuff happens, but I thought the times Tilda and I played cricket in her back yard with a ball and a piece of wood would give her the hint that I wanted a bat. In the end I had to wait ‘til my birthday and it was Dad who gave it to me.
Dad gives her the bag of presents we brought first. “There you go Mum,” he says. “Happy Christmas.” He kisses her on the lips and gives her a hug. Dad doesn’t mind kissing Gran. He does it for the longest of any of us and hardly tries to get away at all.
“Thanks,” she says. “Thanks alot. Christmas is my favourite birthday of all,” she says. “It’s the only birthday where the whole world gets a present.”
“Christmas isn’t anybody’s birthday Gran,” Tilda says.
“It’s Jesus’ birthday,” I whisper at her, giving her a whack in the arm.
“Leave your sister alone,” Mum says, real quick.
After Gran’s opened her presents, she reaches behind the sofa for ours. “I suppose you found where these ones were hidden.”
“You’d have to be blind not to,” I say, not to be rude, just because it’s true.
“Jake!” says Mum. And she means it.
“This one’s for you Tilda,” she says. “And this one’s for you Jake. I’m sorry about the wrapping paper, but I don’t get down to the shops much and I thought, well, no sense wasting the wrapping paper the delivery-boy brings me every day.” Tilda is tearing at the newspaper like there’s treasure inside, but I know that I can afford to take it a bit slower than that. Tilda’s present is a scarf with rainbow patterns on it and some pieces of writing paper. “It’s a story,” Gran says. “I wrote it. I hope you like it Tilda.”
Mine is a book. Again. When I get it out I see it’s big and heavy like all of Gran’s Bibles. It’s got gold writing on the front and gold stuff on the edge of the pages. When I flick the pages they stick together. They’re made out of thin, crinkly paper. Gran has written in the front, “It’s time you had your own Bible. The stories about Jesus are the best. Read them first or get your Dad to read them to you. Love Gran.”
When I look up to say thank you like I’ve been told to again and again I see that Gran is crying. I’ve never seen Gran cry before.
“I only give what I’ve already been given,” she says.
I ask Dad what she meant on the way home, but he doesn’t tell me.