Nine Lessons and Carols

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 glittery red and green 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 tid-bits 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 every one!” 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, 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 that told 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. The look on their faces at the magic of it all. I mean, it’s all about a child being born anyway.”

To continue reading this story please consider purchasing a pdf or print copy of issue 8. Purchase options are in the sidebar at right.

Image by Emphyrio from Pixabay