Saturday December 25th 1897
Anyone crossing the yard and catching sight inside the end-terrace house on Christmas afternoon would have seen what they thought was an idyllic Christmas-day scene, as the family crowded round the table, swelled in numbers by others: Henry, Agnes and the boys, perched on chair arms or upturned crates. Dinner had been roast tenderloins and crackling, then Christmas pudding with a shiny silver thruppence inside, that the finder wasn’t allowed to keep since it had been used in the family every year since before the first Jubilee. A fire was roaring, the gas mantle was lit for a change; holly sprigs that Rab had collected decorated the room. Everyone was in their Sunday best and the children were rosy cheeked from sitting on the rug by the fire playing with their new toys: the girls had squeaking India rubber dolls, gratefully received from Uncle Henry as had been a toy horse for Little Rabbi which was talking to his prized elephant. Henry’s boys had tried and failed to convincingly perform conjuring tricks out of the box they’d received – to everyone’s greater amusement than if they had in fact succeeded. Rab had saved his present for the tea-table: a large, beautiful pork pie which he had placed on a plate which brought a cheer of anticipation but which when tackled with a knife proved to be made of wood. The lid was then lifted to reveal chocolates and sweets inside the box. ‘Typical lack of bloody substance!’ muttered Dennis under his breath.
They all went on the tram to see Selina on Boxing Day, picking it up from the terminus. As he boarded, Rab recognised the bookie’s runner he’d seen before, crossing the street behind them, and wondered to himself that there should be business for him even on Boxing Day.
When they saw their mother the girls were very quiet and would not leave her side; Little Rabbi had innumerable kisses on his hair and face that he had to wipe off. He had insisted on bringing her the elephant that Father Christmas had brought him – in fact it was now his constant companion – and she sat down in a corner with him to play elephants in the jungle. Sarah Ann was thrilled at the arrival of so many guests and she set the table with her best lace tablecloth and crockery. She laid out all manner of cheeses, pickles, pork pies (real ones), and even opened a tin of ox-tongue and some salmon in their honour. When he finally got near her, Rab gave Selina the present he had bought her, as she presented a cheek for him to kiss. She unwrapped the potted meat and the jar of preserved cherries from their brown paper and handed them straight to her sister for putting on the table. Albert Lovell insisted on opening a new bottle of Scotch whisky then proceeded to drink most of it himself from a bone-china teacup as he fell to regaling them with stories of the old days and something about Jesus and how the flounder got his crooked mouth. Rab barely spoke to his wife all afternoon: she was absorbed in the children and was evidently enjoying having the company after being in the house on her own so much, waiting.
‘Have you everything ready for when the baby makes her mind up, Selina love?’ asked her mother. ‘Is there anything you still need me to fetch?’
‘No Dei, I don’t think so. When it starts I’m going to go round to a friend of Sarah Ann’s who lives on her own – she can let us have her house for a bit while she’s at her daughter’s in Rotherham.’
When he took his leave of her Rab got a “goodbye” and a kiss on the cheek, much the same as the others, ‘Thank you for coming Rab. Bring the children again soon won’t you?’
He walked down the hill after the others feeling very lonely. It was already getting dark; the remnants of the meagre December light slipping away. The wind sprayed rainwater out of an over-brimming gutter onto his face; he turned up his collar and pulled his cap down tighter. His mouth was dry and his tea hung heavy in his stomach. The ox-tongue and cherries churning there came to his mind; he felt he could wretch. Nothing he did was right – he couldn’t stand living with this constant scorn – he was always being judged and always being found guilty. He couldn’t set the rules himself and say himself whether he had followed them; the rules were set for him and he would break them without knowing. The constant blowing of the whistle for things he didn’t understand. So he’d try and follow the new rule to the letter only to find it had changed since the last time. And when he got it wrong, the love Selina once had for him – and she did, once she had admired him, revered him even – every time that love seemed to shrink a little more. It was further poisoned by those around her, adding little drops to the roots to make it slowly die. He thought her love in recent years had not been for what he was but for what she wanted him to be; he could not be himself but had to be this other – for then he would be loved. He couldn’t go on with this; life did not lay there; it was slipping by. He had to do something about it. As he turned the corner, there was Little Selina waiting for him. ‘Come on Daddie slowcoach,’ she said, slipping her warm little hand into his and pulling him along. She smiled up at him, ‘I love you and Mummie,’ she said. Little haloes formed and grew around the street lamps’ globes of light and shivered as he blinked. He stroked her hand with his thumb.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish