The Winters’ Winter.
“I love Christmas, I do!” exclaimed Mary-Jude Winters. “Y’can always tell when it’s time to start thinking proper about it.”
“Oh, aye?” said her mother, Susan, mid-way through hanging up some decorations. “How’s that?”
“Music channels start playing all the Pop Factor Christmas singles,” Mary-Jude replied absentmindedly. She was flicking through all the e-cards her mam’s friends had sent on the computer; cards on which Santa was slim, fit, and tanned (a chubby Santa was advocating obesity), even though children were brought up knowing he didn’t exist. Mary-Jude had always known it had been her parents to buy the expensive gifts lavished upon them.
Children were not expected to buy presents for their family until they reached the age where they were able to produce offspring of their own. The Season of Goodwill was to demonstrate how much parents loved their children, which meant buying anything their little darlings wanted: from sweets to puppies, from mobile phones to a personalised seat in the local McTucky Queen. There were even programmes aimed at ensuring that the children were not being denied the entitlement of consumerist joy; the most popular were You’ve Been Shamed and World’s Stingiest Parents. Both made it clear that spending a limited amount on little Satsuma Mack, managing to buy only a laptop, a digital camera, and a guinea-pig, was robbing her of her youthful happiness and could have serious affects in her later life. With shows like this, the pressure was on to give children the best childhood ever.
Unfortunately, depending on how many children a couple kept, the necessity for spending a certain amount of money came attached with some inevitable consequences.
“It’s a shame we had to sell Timmy-Tom,” sighed Mary-Jude. Timmy-Tom was her youngest brother, and she was fond of him despite his tantrums, nose-picking, and tyrannical racist outbursts. At only twelve years old this was only natural.
Susan’s eyes watered a trifle.
“Now, Mary-Jude,” she gently admonished. “You know how it is. It was either sell Timmy-Tom to the local celebrity power couple or we wouldn’t have been able to afford your obligatory Sweet Seventeen car with gold-leaf alloys. It’s been a bad year, you know that!” Susan started to sniffle slightly.
“I know, I know; I’m not blaming you, Mam!” Mary-Jude was quick to jump in.
“We haven’t been able to host the annual Gin and Fox Party,” continued Susan, voice rising in pitch and volume, “and I was reduced to wearing last season’s Stelia Blanks to the twins’ parents’ evening last month!” She covered her face with her hands, a string of real pearls laced through her fingers and leading up to the mantelpiece where the rest of them where half-hung. A suppressed squeak slipped between the white polished globes.
Mary-Jude suddenly felt a little ashamed of herself and crossed the room to comfort her mother, but since the word ‘sorry’ had become more or less obsolete, she did not know what to say.
“I just thought, y’know, in the Olden Days, Christmas was family time.”
“It is,” said Susan, a little tartly. “Timmy-Tom’ll have time with a new family.”
“Oh, yeah...I didn’t think of that!” smiled Mary-Jude. “That’s OK then.”
Mother and daughter were just putting the finishing touches to the decorations when Joseph Winters stomped through the hallway with Lila-May-Kelly and Johnny-Rob-Dave, who were shepherding the token orphan each family had to support for one day of the year. Most families preferred to host them on Christmas Eve Eve – this way, the orphan wouldn’t spoil the actual Christmas celebrations but the Council would see that they were doing their bit for impoverished children, which was essential if one did not want to be heavily frowned upon or, worse, subjected to tutting. After all, it was the Season of Goodwill, and what more could a poor child want than a hot dinner, the honour of glimpsing a prosperous and bountiful world, and seeing that there is indeed hope?
Joseph gave Susan a peck on the cheek and patted Mary-Jude on the head.
“Very pretty,” he declared, nodding in approval.
“How was the town?” Mary-Jude asked, eyes wide with anticipation. She hadn’t been allowed to go to town because her hat had gone missing and her bright ginger hair might have distracted the construction specialists putting up the lights, or sent epileptics into fits.
“Oh, it were alright, lass,” Joseph answered, sinking into the peacock-feathered sofa. “Much of a muchness but much more. Twins’ll tell ye.”
Joseph turned his head towards his wife who was glancing meaningfully at the suspiciously healthy boy in the corner.
“Oh, ah!” Joseph scratched his head. “This is... He’s, er...” He called for the boy to stand where he could see him. “What’s your name again, lad?”
“Lennon, sir,” the boy replied quietly, politely.
“Ah, like the airport!” interjected Susan.
There was a slight pause.
“Well, lovely to have you, Lennon.” Susan gave the usual greeting of Goodwill and charity and how pleased she was he’d get the chance to spend some quality time with a quality family, then made him promise not to walk around the house with his shoes on or touch anything apart from the plastic cutlery and a blanket that would be disposed of later. Lennon returned to the corner.
While the twins and Mary-Jude were chatting to each other on their MyPods from different corners of the room, Joseph and Susan spoke about the goings-on in town.
“Bumped into Old Michael,” Joseph began.
“How is Old Michael?”
“Much of a muchness but much less. Think he’s been at the vegetables again.”
“No! Oh, his poor wife! How can she keep putting up with his bad habits?”
“You put up with mine.”
“Yes, but you’ve never...” She paused, making sure the children were engrossed in chat. “...done Greens!” she mouthed. “Plus, the Council pays for couples to stay married. We need the extra £500 a month.”
Joseph grunted his assent.
“Saw Sharon and Bill as well, at the Orphan Collection Point. Surprised they’re takin’ part.”
“I suppose at least they’re making some attempt at normality,” Susan conceded. “It’s just not right, the little amount of decorations they put up. Last year, all they had was ten metres of tinsel, paperchains, ribbons, a wreath, plastic baubles, and a moving, laughing Father Christmas. Odd people. I hope you didn’t spend long talking to them!”
Joseph shook his head and snorted.
“Ha! As if! They were banging on about wanting a tree. A tree!” He started to chuckle, as if this were the most ludicrous idea in the world.
“All these antiquated practices – heathens!” Susan frowned and tutted.
Lennon, during this conversation, had stood quite still and listened with carefully / life-savingly concealed disgust. It was not unheard of, despite the veneer of piety, for families to beat orphans senseless if they spoke out of place. He cleared his throat, stepped forward, and humbly begged permission to speak.
“With respect, miss, sir, but those traditions were around for decades; it’s only in recent...”
“Oh, no, no, no,” interrupted Joseph. “That’s a myth, lad, like unicorns, school dinners, and Jeremy Clarkson. What sort of history classes have you been having?”
Mary-Jude became mildly interested.
“Did they really use to have trees, Dad?”
“Nay, lass, that’s a myth, like I said.”
Now the twins started clamouring for old tales.
“Go on, Dad, tell us!” cried Lila-May-Kelly.
“Even if it is only a story,” Johnny-Rob-Dave added.
Lennon flickered his eyelids and inhaled slowly, the only signs of his irritation as he watched Joseph Winters shrug and scratch his neck.
“People say that many years ago, at Christmas time, they used to eat turkey, and only turkey with a little cranberry sauce.” He decided not to mention the Greens – who knew what sort of behaviour that might encourage in the children?
Gasps of horror arose from the children.
“Is that all they could afford?” asked Johnny-Rob-Dave.
Joseph nodded solemnly. “So they say.”
“But what about the trees?” insisted Lila-May-Kelly. “Did they really have them in the house?”
“Oh, no, lass! Trees indoors is a preposterous idea. You wouldn’t have room, for one thing. Where would you put the pets?”
The new practice was a way of physically being able to look upon the love for your family: instead of the absurd centre-piece of a tree, which means nothing to anybody, where the family gathered to open all their gifts, chocolates, money, and assortment of upmarket crackers with gift vouchers nestled inside was a towering ensemble of stuffed pets. The more pets you had owned the more you loved your children because animals gave hours of entertainment and felicity to kids. In the middle of the Winters’ sitting-room there was a stuffed menagerie: a tortoise, three cats, two dogs, a couple of rabbits, some small tropical fish, and – the most recent addition – Ice-Angel, Mary-Jude’s beloved white pony that had died six months ago choking on a pork pie.
All glimmered and sparkled with lights, and tinsel weaved between ears and tails, fur brushed to perfection, The tortoise shell crowned the animal pyramid with silver-plated glory, the reptilian neck stretched out in the noblest of poses for a Christmas finale, and the unblinking black raisin eye fixed on Lennon seemed to say: ‘Yeah, I know.’