❉ As you take down the decorations, spare a thought for young Chester O’Reilly, who hasn’t had the merriest of times…
“Happy New Year! Nice Christmas?” we ask each other once the partying is over and normality returns. But as you take down the decorations and polish off the last of the chocolates, spare a thought for young Chester O’Reilly, who hasn’t had the merriest of times…
In all my 15-and-a-bit years on this shitty little planet, I don’t think I’ve ever been as aggravated as I am right now. Sartre was right: “L’enfer, c’est les autres”…
It started with a sickening argument this morning. I’d taken Frodo for a walk before breakfast, which I thought was pretty considerate and responsible of me, especially since I hadn’t even been asked to. We went up the High Street and round the Green twice, me strolling at a casual pace, Frodo dashing about and excitedly sniffing everything under the sun like the dumb mutt he is. There weren’t many people about, which suited me fine, and I was in what you might almost call a good mood, largely because I would be seeing Maggie at the party tonight.
Or so I thought. But when we got home and Frodo had finished rushing up to Mum and Dad and Polly like he’d never seen them before in all his little doggie life, the wheels started to come off the whole so-called season of glad tidings and joy.
“Chester, don’t forget you need to be home by six tonight” said Mum in that half-anxious, half-bored way of hers.“What for?”
“Food, carol service, then drinks at Grandma Judy’s. Same as last year.”
“But I’m going to Dave’s party, remember?”
“What party?” This from Dad, under-informed as usual.
“Dave’s party! It was all arranged weeks ago.”
Dad just looked blank, and I turned to the fridge to avoid openly sneering in his face.
“Aren’t we going to Judy’s for drinks then?”
“Yes we are, after the carols” said Mum.
“I’m not. I’m going to Dave’s party. As agreed.”
“No, Chester, we’re spending Christmas Eve together as a family. It’s only two years since Grandpa Ian. Grandma needs cheering up at this time of year.”
“Not all night though.” I was started to feel desperate. “I can go for a bit, apply the favourite grandchild charm, then head to Dave’s.”
“Who say’s you’re favourite” piped up Polly.
“It’s a bit bloody obvious, Pippy” I threw at her. She hates being called Pippy, which is why I do it.
“Don’t swear at your sister” droned Mum automatically.
“And her name’s Polly” joined in Dad, inevitably missing the point.
“He knows that, Daddy. He’s just being stupid.”
I know you shouldn’t hate little girls, but my sister makes it difficult to live within the conventional bounds of morality. At barely 11 years old she was shaping up to be a right royal Snowflake, with a woke opinion on any given subject and an alarming crush on Greta Funberg. (I always have to spell the Swedish Swot with an F on account of how terrifically entertaining she is.)
If you want to see a squeaky juvenile foaming at the mouth, all you need do is say something vaguely mean about Saint Greta, and Polly will dutifully start to hyperventilate before running to Daddy to weep hot tears of injustice onto his corduroy lap. And when he’s rocked his little darling back to a state of comparative normality, he’ll come shuffling over to me to broker a sibling peace accord. It’s pathetic.
“Dinner. Carols. Grandma’s,” intoned Mum. “That is the order of service tonight, Chester, starting at six o’clock.”
“But – ”
“Don’t make a fuss, Chester. Your Mother’s told you the score.”
What’s the saying? “How like a badger’s fart it is to have a spineless cretin for a father.” Something like that.
“I’m going to Dave’s, and that’s final!”
I flung down my cereal spoon with undeniable dramatic flair, and stormed up to my room, stumbling slightly as Frodo gormlessly got under my feet. But as forceful as my exit was, my stomach sank with the knowledge I wouldn’t be going to Dave’s party tonight.
The levels of irony involved in the wearing of Christmas jumpers are manifold and complex. They are also age-relevant, but this factor is one of the multitude of blindingly obvious truths to which parents are oblivious. Just because eight-year-old me thought it was hysterical to skip about with a chunky knitted snowman on my chest, complete with flashing carrot nose, doesn’t mean that at nearly twice that age I’m going to take the same attitude to looking like a twat. You’d think these things were self-evident, but apparently not.
Sometimes once you’ve weighed up all the options and considered all the available strategies it’s just easiest to throw a massive strop and behave like your worst self because that’s the position you’ve been forced into.
I’d texted Dave. I’d texted Maggie. I’d paraded the unfairness of my situation all over social media, to near-unanimous sympathy apart from a few tits who posted laughing gifs. Dave texted back “Sucks mate”. Nothing from Maggie yet. And now our little family unit, having feasted on When-Shepherds-Watched-Their-Flocks Pie were taking our cheap Christmas jumper clannishness out into the world.
The carol service was in what people insist on calling the “New” church, even though it was built in the 1990s and is therefore not only from before I was born, but literally last century. But because it’s not prehistoric it must be referred to as “New” to differentiate it from the stocky grey stone hulk of St Mary’s up the road. As far as I was concerned they were both ostentatious caverns for the practice of superstitious nonsense, but at least the “New” church was close enough to rational civilisation to have embraced the concept of central heating.
The carols, though! O.M.F-ing.G! Has a more putrid collection of fawning musical obsequiousness ever been assembled? Nearly two hours of holy arse-licking about the fictitious saviour baby from up on high, paradoxically inspiring amazement at his meek and mildness while also being bigged-up for his nepotistic superpowers. If Jesus ever was a real baby, I bet he was a wailing shit machine just like all the rest. By the time Little Fucking Donkey trotted sickeningly around, I was almost ready to make a dirty protest myself.
I still hadn’t heard back from Maggie, which was making me properly stressed. If I was really blocked from the party, anyone there would be free to make a move on her. There was nothing official between us, but we’d been giving each other positive vibes for ages and there was a sort of unspoken agreement that Dave’s party was when we’d move things up a level.
But events (aka “parents”) had thrown a spanner in the works, and Maggie’s silence was driving me mad. I kept trying to check my phone during the carols, but I was next to Dad and he was having none of it. So it wasn’t until we were in the taxi to Grandma Judy’s house that I got Maggie’s message.
That was it. Two words. No emojis.
“Never mind”?! What did that mean? “Never mind, we’ll get together another time”? Or “Never mind, I wasn’t that bothered anyway”? It was frustrating and worrying in equal measure, and by the time we got to Grandma Judy’s I was feeling sick with uncertainty and even more furious with Mum and Dad than I’d been before.
It was not an ideal mood to go into a family gathering, especially a family as annoying as mine, but Grandpa Ian’s death at Christmas two years previously meant we were obliged, apparently, to join Grandma Judy and celebrate her misery.
I remembered Grandpa Ian with fondness. Alone amongst my grandparents, from an early age he treated me like a person in my own right rather than a performing animal to be admired with amazement and quizzed on what exciting things I was doing at school. Grandpa Ian had a maverick streak to him, and encouraged me to cultivate a sense of the possibilities that lay outside the parameters of rules and regulations.
But Grandpa Ian was no more, having been fatally electrocuted while attempting to fix a second-hand snow-making machine. The remaining acts in the O’Reilly circus of horrors included Dad’s parents (slightly more middle class than Mum’s, and still not quite ready to endorse the match), Mum’s sister Grace (Ha!), Dad’s brother Dan (who he affects to dislike although they’re alike as two peas in a particularly insipid pod) and a cloud of cousins who like summer gnats were as maddening as they were insubstantial.
As the youngest of the ambulant children (a few babies were present but mercifully silent – perhaps directly descended from the exemplary sweet Jesus? – Polly was in her adorable element. She mostly clung to Dad’s side playing court as various guests approached to pay tribute to her cuteness and compliment her on the brave maturity of her festive top. This abject offence to both aesthetics and intelligence depicted a weeping Rudolph single-hoofedly spiriting a skeletal Santa around a world in flames. It was like Edvard Munch via Primark, the design presumably copyright Funberg.eu, all proceeds to blah blah.
While Polly lapped up the attention, I was trying to figure out what to text back to Maggie. How do you respond to the multi-interpretable “Never mind”…? Obvs it had to be something laid back and not panicky. But this had been going to be a big thing for us so surely I had to make it a significant move, if only as a place-holder? I could play it jokey… Or with an edge of world weariness. Certainly no grand romantic statements. Definitely not. Best to save them for further down the line when the relationship was properly established.
I felt a shadow loom over me, and a wheezy voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Must be something very important to be taking up all your attention in a room full of your family?”
I looked up to see one of the older cousins – or was it a half-uncle? – staring at me expectantly, as if he thought his words of wisdom would magically snap me into the proper mode of social bondage. I gave him a slow stare that I hoped mixed “Oh really?” with “You bore me to death”. Only once I detected his assumed superiority starting to dissolve did I reply.
“It is quite important, actually. It’s for you – apparently you’re urgently needed back in the 1940s.”
I beamed my most innocent smile by way of a cherry on top of my ace retort, and turned away in search of some vestige of privacy. At that moment my phone pinged and I looked at a new message from Dave. It was just a picture. Him and Maggie, arms around each other’s shoulders. But while Maggie was looking straight into the camera with a typically ambiguous expression, next to her Dave was in profile, looking hungrily at Maggie with his freakishly long tongue unfurled in a sickening sort of pre-lick position just next to her cheek.
I mean, WHAT THE ACTUAL CHRISTMAS FUCK?! Dave knows I’m into Maggie, and that this party was going to be significant for us and I’m being prevented from being there… and he sends me THAT?!
I’m peripherally aware that the cousin/uncle has gone to snitch on me to Mum, who as usual has been sharing woes and white wine with her sister Grace (Ha!). I sort of realise that a chain of events has been set in motion. Part of me knows I should be thinking damage limitation, but the rest of me is in Fuck It mode. Mostly I’d just really like some space to compose a perfectly pitched response to Dave’s disgusting pic of him and Maggie.
But here staggers over Mum, a tottering beacon of disapproval, a piss-head launching another broadside against her sober son.
“Chester! Why are you being so rude?!”
“Sorry, Mum – it’s my instinctive aversion to being patronised by idiots.”
“Patrick’s a professor of Philosophy – hardly an idiot.”
“What’s the point of qualifications when you just spout irritating garbage at people who’re happily minding their own business?”
I flinched as Mum reached for my shoulder. I wasn’t sure if it was meant as a gesture of affection or if she was just trying to steady herself.
“Chester, I do love you so… so much…” She let out a little white wine burp before continuing. “So much… love… But when you behave like this you make it really… really difficult.”
I had a faint instinct to apologise, but as I looked at my mother with her earnest but slightly unfocussed expression, swaying discernibly from side to side, I couldn’t bring myself even to humour her. Here was the woman who was supposed to be my nurturer and my emotional bedrock, and instead she was nothing but a miserable dictator who only showed her gentler feelings in the haze of a Sauvignon binge.
“What would Grandpa Ian have said?” She peered into my face with such saccharine insincerity that I felt something inside me crack.
“Grandpa Ian?” I started, aware of a speech brewing inside me, a wave of indignation with a foaming crest of sarcasm at its peak. “A.k.a. your Dad? What would he have said, you ask? Well, Mum, I’ve got a few ideas…”
I was aware that my voice was a bit loud, and that people were starting to shut up and stare. Good!
Also noticing the focus sharpening on us, Mum attempted a defusion, but just purring “Chester…” in a supposedly soothing tone wasn’t going to cut it. I resumed my flow, gaining confidence as I went, no longer caring about the bridges I might be burning behind me. I was now addressing not just Mum but the whole room.
“What would Grandpa Ian have made of tonight’s debacle? Would he have delighted in his grandson being forced to endure a never-ending religious ceremony of schmaltz in a cheesy jumper followed by some more hours of tedium in the company of his alcoholic aunts and uncles? I don’t think so. More likely he would’ve slipped me a tenner and said ‘Sneak out the back and get yourself a taxi to that party of yours. I’ll cover for you here.’”
Grandma Judy stepped forward from the crowd of observers, her thin lips taut and her milky eyes large and liquid like badly fried eggs.
“I think I knew my husband better than you, young man.”
“Biblically, maybe, but you were always chalk and cheddar as far as I was concerned.”
I made a swift mental note to rein in the finessed metaphors before storming on.
“D’you know what I think Grandpa Ian would say if he could see us now? The enforced jollity and the piousness and the strangling of real joy? I swear I can hear him now… His voice is coming to me, softly but getting louder… Yes, Grandpa Ian, I hear you! What’s that you’re trying to tell us? Louder, Grandpa Ian – louder! Oh, here it comes…! From beyond the grave…! Grandpa Ian declares: ‘I’M SO FUCKING GLAD I’M DEAD SO I DON’T HAVE TO PUT UP WITH YOU CUNTS ANYMORE!!!’”
The journey home was a little on the tense side. But for all my parents’ fury, I maintained my own rage at a mute seethe – not only had they fucked things up for me and Maggie, they had forced me into a position where I had been sensationally rude to the extended family including the widow of the only one I had ever really cared for. They had brought it on themselves, and at least if I had disgraced myself I had done it with some style.
Arriving at the house, I didn’t need to be told to go to my room. Narrowly avoiding stamping on Frodo, whose brainless yapping predictably greeted the opening of the front door, I leapt up the stairs three at a time and slammed my door shut behind me.
I felt dizzy with the adrenaline of hatred, boiling with an almost exhaustive sense of injustice and persecution. I longed for nothing but the oblivion of sleep, from which I fervently hoped never to wake. I had strength left for one more act: staring at my phone and channelling all my anguish into my face, I took a baleful selfie and posted it to all my social media accounts with the simple message: ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS FOR EVERYBODY TO FUCK OFF AND LEAVE ME ALONE. And then I crawled under my duvet and wished the word away.
My eyes peel open. It is morning.
I sigh at the realisation that I have been expelled from the heaven of sleep once more. I don’t think I’ve had any dreams. I lie still, the daylight around my curtains softly painting in the familiar contours of my room.
A thought ignites: It’s Christmas! Automatically, excitement and anticipation flicker in my chest.
Another thought ignites. Or rather, a memory.
It seeps back into my consciousness like a spreading stain of dread. Me standing in the midst of my family being about as insulting as is imaginable. I must be in big trouble. Really big trouble.
I scrunch my eyes closed again and wish that it had been a dream. It doesn’t work.
Then Maggie comes into my head, and the whole reason for my outburst. The party… Dave’s pic of him and Maggie…
I groan and pull the duvet over my head. Even though I know this will not alter reality, there’s a sort of comfort to it and I feel somehow shielded from the world. I stay like this for a while.
What makes me surface is the need to check online – I remember I posted a defiant statement before going to bed, and I want to see what the reaction’s been.
Reading it back, I concede to myself that although it’s completely justifiable and defensible and I had been placed under intolerable strain, it may read as slightly over the top. I fully expect a load of eye-rolls, face-palms and witty gifs taking me down, and perhaps superficially that’s what I deserve.
Not a single reaction. Not a single comment.
I check that I actually posted it, and indeed I did – at precisely midnight.
Probably the fucking wi-fi! Dad’s always too cheap to keep us up to date with the best packages. I check other sites and profiles, and sure enough nothing’s updated since 12:00am.
Acknowledging that I’ll have to wait on technology for now, I turn my attention to more immediate matters. Specifically, how to play Christmas morning after a fractious Eve.
I wonder if affecting a bashful “I’m sorry, I don’t know what got into me” persona would help? My instinct is not to add fuel to the fire, but just how inflamed would Mum and Dad still be, even after a night’s rest and even on the most friendly day of the year…?
It’s 8:20am, but I hear no signs of movement in the house. No Frodo running about scratching on doors, or even Polly doing the same.
I open my bedroom door a few inches. Still no sounds. I open it wider and look up and down the landing. Polly’s door and my parents’ are closed. Are they sulking?
I decide to face the music, and trot down the stairs half expecting to see the family assembled round the kitchen table with practiced glares to greet me. But the kitchen is empty.
This is confusing. I put the kettle on. I need to do something to break this stalemate – maybe taking coffee up to Mum and Dad will help.
I make two black coffees with sugar and carry them carefully upstairs. Outside my parents’ door I set the cups down on the wooden table with the droopy pot plant and knock on the door.
No reply. I knock again.
Still nothing. An irritation flares – they may be angry but they should surely realise they can’t just ignore me.
I knock a third time and then open the door.
“Coming in, ready or not…”
The room is empty of parents. The bed is tidily made.
I go to my sister’s room. I don’t bother to knock, just swing the door open. Polly’s not in there.
My brain begins to spin. Have they gone out? Some early morning activity that I’m not invited to because I’m in disgrace? To which they’ve also taken the damn dog?
Maybe they’re pranking me. Maybe they think I need to be taught a lesson and are leaving me to “stew in my own juices” so that when they return I’ll be chastened and repentant…
Good luck with that! My family have underestimated my resourcefulness. I go to the lounge and stick on the blue-ray of I, Claudius. This should fill the time: an appropriate saga of politics and betrayal from which I will barely raise my gaze when they return expecting to find me beaten.
After a few hours of togas and treachery, my concentration wanders a little and my eyes flicker ever more frequently to the Christmas tree in the corner of the room. It’s a fake but it’s realistic and nicely proportioned, with decorations that Polly and I hung on it a couple of weeks ago.
Underneath the tree the presents spill out like a multicoloured mudslide. Parcels of all shapes and sizes, wrapped with various degrees of skill, from my adequate efforts to be-ribboned artefacts whose elaborate exteriors could surely not be matched by the gifts within.
It’s past 11 o’clock now. How long am I to be left in this isolated state of punishment?
Where are they? I look out of the window to the houses across the road. Some have lights around their porches, twinkling trees are visible in most, and at the end of the road a large plastic snowman stands guard in what I think is probably a residents-only parking space.
I can’t detect any movement inside the neighbours’ houses. Are my family in one of those houses, peeking around the curtains and taking care not to let on where they are? Or perhaps they’ve gone further afield in their mission to Teach Chester A Lesson.
Well, sod ‘em! Enough is enough – if I have to do Christmas all on my own, then that’s what I’ll do. I kneel in front of the presents and extract the ones addressed to me.
The first one I open is from Dad. It’s a large heavy rectangle so almost certainly a hardback book. As I set about filleting the gold wrapping paper, I wonder what misguided subject it might be on.
It’s an illustrated history of engineering. I’ve always been interested in how things are put together, but I can’t remember ever discussing it with Dad apart from maybe years ago the usual “How do ‘planes fly?” and “How do they make bridges?”
I open the book – its weight feels significant, its pages thick and glossy – and find a series of intimately reproduced technical drawings: steam engines and motorcars and buildings and viaducts rendered in tiny detail with scientific annotations and explanations. The spindly but precise markings are almost magical, and I feel myself rather bewitched by it.
Next I pick up Mum’s present to me. It’s the size of a cushion and equally soft, so I know I’m in for some item of clothing. This doesn’t usually end well for obvious reasons, but still she persists. I open it and it’s a sleeveless puffer jacket in a sort of shiny burgundy colour. I try it on and take a look in the hall mirror. It’s a decent fit and I like how the stripes of material rise up. I sense an unprecedented thought taking shape in my mind: my Mum has bought me something I actually want to wear…
The label on Polly’s gift to me says “To Chester, Woof! Love from Polly”, and inside is a cuddly toy dog. I don’t expect much from my silly little sister, and I’m far too old for cuddly toys. But as I look at it, I realise that it bears a funny resemblance to our own Frodo, even down to the inane expression on its furry brown face. I jiggle its arse to make its tail wag, and I find myself smiling.
Was I out of order last night? Really? It was definitely unfair to ban me from going to Dave’s party. I’m sure of that. But was it the end of the world? Maybe detonating a C-bomb in front of my widowed Grandma had been a slightly disproportionate reaction…
I make a decision: even though I had a legitimate grievance, I don’t want to carry on this fight. It’s Christmas, after all – surely a time for letting bygones be bygones? I go to send a text but along with the non-existent wi-fi I’ve got zero phone reception too.
I leave the house, still wearing the jacket my Mum’s given me. That will be a sign when she sees me that I want to smooth things over. But I still don’t know where they are.
I start with the house next door: the Osmans. Nice enough couple with twin baby girls. I ring the bell and wait, but there’s no answer. I try again, but still nothing. The Christmas tree in their front room has coloured lights and a bit too much tinsel, and underneath is a mass of presents waiting to be unwrapped. I try the bell again, and poke open the letterbox to listen for sounds of activity, but I don’t hear anything.
It’s the same one door up at the McDonald’s. They were at the carol service last night and I distinctly remember Mrs McDonald complaining that they were having a million in-laws over and it was going to be chaos. But there’s no sign of life in the house. I yell through the letterbox for Billy, who’s in my year at school. Nothing.
I run across the road, starting to panic a bit. There’s nobody at home at number 62: the Haywoods’. I start ringing and knocking at houses I don’t even know, but there’s no response from anywhere.
This isn’t funny. This is beyond the education of an unruly teenager – the whole street can’t have gone into hiding just to help my parents scare some sense into me. Can they?
I check my phone again. No reception, no wi-fi networks available. All I can see is my last angry post from midnight on Christmas Eve, still devoid of comments or reactions, as if at that precise moment the internet and all its billions of users had simply ceased to be.
I continue up our road towards the High Street, and the story is the same: empty houses that look like they’ve been abandoned just as they were about to become alive with Christmas celebrations. No cars on the road, let alone pedestrians. My home has become a ghost town.
Did I do this?
I suddenly feel very alone and afraid. If I did do this, if I’m somehow responsible, then I want to undo it. I want everyone back – my family, my friends and neighbours.
Maybe this is a nightmare. Maybe I’m feeling guilty and my brain is playing a massive trick on me.
I close my eyes and wish as hard as I can. That I hadn’t been such a dick last night. That I hadn’t let one disappointment blind me to everything else.
Most of all I wish that I haven’t really been left alone forever.
I open my eyes. Nothing has changed.
I stare up to where our road meets the High Street. That corner feels like some kind of threshold. It scares me because I sense that if I cross it and there’s still no-one in sight then I’ll know for sure that I’m the only person left in the world. But on the flip side of that terror is a vision of hope that I cling to with all my desperate despairing might: it’s a vision of everyone coming around the corner in a sort of procession. Headed by my idiot dog Frodo, it’s a parade of people who just disappeared for a few hours and now they’ve returned and things are going to go back to normal. It’s a vision as wonderful as the alternative is appalling.
I wish really hard for that vision to become true.
❉ Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles