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Festive Spirit

A new short story by Kate Atkinson.

 “Here’s to you, Sal,” he said loudly, chinking his glass with hers so that the wine within sloshed around carelessly. “Happy birthday.” He glanced around the restaurant, feigning amused tolerance for his surroundings. It was Lebanese, in Camden. It irritated him that no one seemed to know who he was here. He liked to bask in recognition, even if it was hostile.

The world’s resources of tinsel had been seriously depleted in order to decorate the restaurant. “A bit tacky, isn’t it?” Richard said with a little shudder. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he grumbled, when she told him where they were going, “if I was seen flying the flag. Somewhere more British, English, anyway – the Scots dine on lard and I don’t think the Welsh have restaurants.” A lot of people seemed to find this kind of blustering talk amusing, thinking that he didn’t really mean it, that he was some kind of clown to be tolerated, treasured even, in some quarters. “I mean,” he dropped his voice, “they’re Muslims. They don’t even celebrate Christmas, for heaven’s sake.”

“Well 40 per cent of Lebanese are Christian,” she pointed out. “Just as well you’ve never been in the Foreign Office.”

“Hah.”

“You said I could choose the restaurant,” Sarah said. “I chose this. So shut up.”

“Happy Christmas,” a waiter said doubtfully, handing them menus. He was of indeterminate origins but darkly handsome and quite possibly Lebanese and was wearing a Santa hat.

“Just out of interest,” Richard said to him, “are you a Christian?”

The man laughed nervously and shied away from their table.

“For God’s sake, Richard,” Sarah said. “You wouldn’t ask a white person that.”

He shrugged off her criticism. He was newly cocky, having survived the night of the long knives, the “purge” as he referred to it. Sarah couldn’t imagine how – something underhand, she supposed, some Faustian pact. He had backed the wrong side in the great debate and had been terrified of being flung into the outer darkness. Fear had softened him, made him almost human, but now that he was safe he had reverted to being the old Richard.

Her birthday was just before Christmas, a proximity that irritated her family, as if she had chosen the date herself. As a child her family had solved the dilemma by combining her presents, “This is for your birthday and your Christmas, Sally.” Something which seemed enormously unfair at the time. Now too.

They had met – so long ago – at university. Sarah and Richard. “When Dick met Sally,” someone said, as if they were players in a romantic comedy, but really it was neither romantic nor comic. (It was a marriage.)

He had been a posh boy, she had been a poor girl. An old story. No one ever called him Dick except, occasionally, his brother, Robert. He reciprocated by calling his brother Bob. It was a family joke: Dick and Bob. They were furiously competitive. Sarah was surprised they hadn’t killed each other.

Both she and Richard (she was still Sally then) had studied law but she had travelled before university – India, Thailand, Australia, the usual – whereas he had worked at Sotheby’s for a year in some kind of front-of-house capacity. Not really what Sarah would have called work. He had never been interested in travel. Two weeks with the children in France in the summer was all he was ever prepared to compromise on. “Gîte hell,” he called it. He preferred Cornwall. Sarah hated Cornwall, it did nothing but rain.

One day, as they came out of a tedious jurisprudence class in their second term he turned to her and said “Fancy a coffee?” and she said “OK” and that was that, their fates sealed by a couple of bitter cappuccinos in the student bar. Afterwards they went back to the flat he shared with two other posh boys and he put a bootleg copy of Gary Numan’s I, Assassin on to his tape deck because even then he was pretending to be someone he wasn’t.

He had no feeling for music, current or otherwise, and the tape was from the extensive pirated collection belonging to one of the other posh boys who these days was a music industry mogul and spent a lot of his time harassing Richard about the implementation of the copyright laws, “which have absolutely nothing to do with me,” Richard groused. “I’m in Education, for Christ’s sake.” He had recently moved from Health (“a poisoned chalice if ever there was one”). So she was seduced to Numan intoning “White Boys and Heroes”, which was not what she would have necessarily chosen. Richard saw himself as both, she supposed.

Apart from her father, he was the only person who still called her Sally. When she became a barrister she had reverted to the more earnest-sounding “Sarah”, although she had taken Richard’s surname. He had already fought an unwinnable by-election (“taking one for the party”) and he needed his new spouse to “sound like a wife not a feminist”. (“Sarah Kingshott, Richard’s wife, pleased to meet you.”) She had laughed and indulged him but only because her own name was “Pratt” and she wanted to be a QC eventually, and “Kingshott” made her sound as though she were halfway there already. (“Sarah Kingshott, QC, how do you do?”) She knew that Sally Pratt still dwelt inside her though, waiting to make her move.

“Are you listening to me?” he said, flapping the menu.

“No, sorry, I was miles away.”

“Are you having a starter?” He was a man of appetite.

“No.”

“Well, I am.”

****

The first time she had taken Richard home to Sheffield (more than a year after those cappuccinos; she had delayed the introduction as long as possible, for her parents’ sake rather than his), her mother had greeted her with open arms on the doorstep and shouted over her shoulder, “Bill! Sally’s here!” in a way that was infinitely more effusive than when she had actually lived with her parents. (It had never struck her that they might miss her when she was gone. Youth was callous, she knew that now.)

When she had disentangled herself from her mother’s awkward embrace she caught the expression of surprise on Richard’s face as he stared down the narrow white-woodchipped hallway of the small semi. She had never really talked about her home and she had no idea what image he had formed in his mind. She supposed he had expected something more gritty and northern, a mean little back-to-back terrace, her mother in headscarf and curlers, her father in a tin bath in front of the fire. The nondescript Fifties ex-council house and her father’s membership of the local Conservative club must have wrong-footed him. The kitchen, fitted out with new oak laminate cupboards, the ugly stone fireplace and double-glazed windows, were all evidence that her parents had come up in the world. He had hoped for sedition but instead he found that her mother enjoyed passive evenings in front of the TV, eating crisps and Kit-Kats, while her father downed a modest two pints of Tetley’s Bitter and played a game of snooker at the Conservative club.

“He’s very good-looking,” her mother said as they washed the pots together after a ham salad and a frozen cheesecake from Marks & Spencer. It wasn’t a compliment, more the opposite.

For her part, Sarah had been equally surprised to hear Richard’s parents declaring themselves to be “old-fashioned Liberals”. They were Whigs, really, more Tory than the Tories. Mr Kingshott senior was a
bumbling country squire from another century and Mrs Kingshott was a sovereign figure, as autocratic as a large bird of prey (Sarah was the prey).

The Kingshotts lived in Oxfordshire in an enormous, rather grubby house called “the Manor” that looked as though it hadn’t been decorated in decades. Dog hair everywhere and the smell of something dead in a downstairs cloakroom that was as big as her parents’ living room. “The filthy rich,” she said to her mother, who would have been horrified by the untidiness and general lack of cleanliness, but she never saw “the Manor” as she died of pancreatic cancer towards the end of Sarah’s third year at university.

By the time she graduated Sarah was four months pregnant and had, rather reluctantly, a wedding ring on her finger. The wedding had been modest, the baby and her mother’s recent death curtailing the celebration. Would she have married Richard if she hadn’t fallen pregnant? Probably not. “You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it,” her father said, when she was thinking of leaving not long after the baby – Tom – was born. (“It’s not you, it’s me,” she said to Richard. Which was true. Now it was the opposite.) Her father was a harsh judge of people due to a loveless childhood. His own father had been a steel worker, killed in a horrific accident, when he was just a boy. (“Molten steel,” was all he would say.)

Richard had begged her to come back, said that he needed her and she supposed that she was flattered, because everyone admired him in those days. He was the coming man and everyone told her how lucky she was to have him. Nowadays people were more likely to say how lucky he was to have her. “You just have to knuckle under and get on with it,” her father told her. That was the Pratt family motto: “Knuckle under and get on with it.” A donkey ambulant on a field of nettles on their coat of arms. So she did. Get on.

Her father was still alive, still listening to Radio 4 and hobbling along to the Conservative club every evening. She visited him more regularly these days. She liked the way it never occurred to him not to speak the truth.

Despite her father’s political leanings, Richard used her “working-class background” to his advantage. Her father had owned an ironmongery shop and Sarah didn’t think that qualified as working class but it did to Richard, of course. He had attended Charterhouse, following in his brother and father’s footsteps. When he was a boy he didn’t know anyone who got their hands dirty for a living. Now he was an MP everyone he knew had dirty hands.

While he was doing prep and beating up smaller boys at Charterhouse, Sarah was delivering the evening papers on her bike and working on the cheese counter in Liptons every Saturday.

He used her to mollify his origins. “My wife is from the north!” he would proclaim on the hustings in the early days, as if she were some kind of Celtic tribal leader (how nice that would be), raising a subdued cheer among the crowd. As a reward for his self-sacrifice (he lost by over 20,000 votes) he was given the opportunity of a more genteel constituency and he no longer needed to champion her “industrial” background. He stayed elected because he was a bit of a personality, the big silverback. Often on TV, “not afraid to give his opinion”, “speaks his mind”. And so on. A showman. Or “a wanker” depending on your viewpoint.

They had a house in his rural constituency although he treated it more as a holiday home really. At the beginning of the marriage they had bought a place in Doughty Street, near where Charles Dickens once lived. (Helped by some family money – his family, it went without saying.) Lovely house, if a bit gloomy, but she could walk to the Temple, where she was in Chambers. Not straight away, of course, she had to fight a bit in those days, northern girl, humble background and so on. She had wanted babies and a dazzling career. It had been the Eighties, she was greedy, she wanted it all, like you were supposed to. Now she didn’t really want any of it. “I just wanted some of it,” Mandy, Richard’s secretary said to her once, rather sadly.

She had Tom first, then, a few years later, Emma. Both times she went back to work after a week. (How ridiculous that seemed now.) The nanny used to bring Emma to Middle Temple Gardens where Sarah breastfed her. The fact that they had a nanny was not something that was shouted from the hustings.

The children had gone to private schools, a fact that was also eradicated from Richard’s history. “I’m at Education, I’m a socialist” – well, that was debatable, she thought. “I can’t be seen to have spent a fortune on fees for a private school.”

“I spent the fortune,” she pointed out.

Her own good girls’ grammar school (a state school, gone now) had been her ticket out from a life trapped between white-woodchipped walls. It was different for Tom and Emma. Success was the birthright given to them by their parents – Richard Kingshott MP and Sarah Kingshott, QC. A “power couple”, as Sarah had seen them described in a Sunday newspaper magazine supplement (Who are the movers and shakers these days? What crap.) There were potted biographies for each of them, histories that made them seem like different people.

He: self-proclaimed people’s man, surprisingly scandal-free and not afraid to challenge his party.” (Why “surprisingly”, she wondered?)

She: lioness of the High Court courts, the woman who defended bullion thief Michael Angers and racist killer Timothy Blair.” (He wasn’t a racist, just a killer. She was forever defending herself rather than her clients.)

Together: they have had their own personal struggles, there is a rumour of a separation for a short time in the Nineties and their son narrowly escaped a prison sentence for criminal damage. He says his son’s problems gave him greater understanding of mental health issues. She refuses to comment on the subject.”

He was careful – no overblown expenses or obvious bribes. No holidays taken on some Russian oligarch’s yacht. And he never struck her as the unfaithful type. He was too lazy and she gave him the gloss of legitimacy that he otherwise lacked. When she had been going to leave him after those first few rocky months of marriage he had begged her to stay, had even cried. “I need you,” he said and she felt sorry for him. “He did the same to me,” Mandy told her, “when I was offered the job at No 10.” Mandy had been Richard’s secretary for years. He probably couldn’t function without her but she was closer to Sarah than she was to him.

“Mum, why don’t you just leave Dad?” Emma said. “You don’t love him, you don’t even like him any more.” Sarah supposed hypocrisy seemed a crime to a 30-year old, not a way of life. Emma and Tom didn’t much like Richard either. Somewhere along the line, when Sarah hadn’t been looking, Richard had sold his soul to the devil, yet it felt like she was the one paying the ransom.

****

He produced a little gift-wrapped box and placed it on the table in front of her. “Happy birthday,” he said again.

A brooch, pretty, a little black cat, with tiny emerald eyes. Victorian. Nobody wore brooches any more, except for the Queen but it was the kind of thing Sarah liked. No doubt Mandy had chosen it. He ran his hand through his hair. It was gesture he had developed over the years as a signal – “Get me out of here” usually, or some other sign of dissatisfaction, aimed at either herself or Mandy. He had good hair, almost too good really.

“You’re making that sign,” she said.

She was startled by the appearance of a waiter, bearing aloft a small cupcake with a candle. The waiter was joined by a handful of other waiters and they all sang “Happy Birthday” to her in a touchingly cheerful fashion and she suddenly softened towards Richard, but then she realised he was as surprised as she was so Mandy must have arranged the little cake.

 “Make a wish,” he said. So she closed her eyes and blew out the candle and wished.

He had drunk nearly a whole bottle of wine and she had no idea what he might have imbibed beforehand, although his tolerance for alcohol was remarkable. A solid night of drinking that would have felled a younger man left him merely ebullient and indeed now he was brandishing his car keys and strutting along the pavement like a hero. She hailed a cab and said, “Don’t be an idiot, Richard, you’re well over the limit. Get in.” He fell asleep almost immediately, giving her an opportunity to study his self-satisfied features.

Turned out he was having an affair. She was genuinely surprised (what an idiot she was!) when Mandy said, “Do you fancy lunch?” and over a corner table in
J Sheekey’s she showed Sarah the evidence in his texts and his diary. “She’s called Lily,” Mandy said. “She’s half your age and a researcher in the Home Office.” Mandy was ruthless. And fair. And loyal. Just not
to Richard.

“I don’t want to go all Harry Potter,” Mandy said, “but I think between us we can do something about him.”

****

Both Tom and Emma came to the Doughty Street house for Christmas dinner. Tom had a new wife and a new baby. The baby wore a bib that said, “Baby’s First Christmas.”

“Where’s Dad?” Tom puzzled. “Why isn’t he here?”

“He’s here in spirit,” Sarah said.

“What does that mean, Mum?” Emma frowned.

“It’s a bit hard to explain.” She supposed she would have to come up with something, but not now, not at Christmas.
The turkey had exhausted her.

“The tree’s lovely,” Tom’s new wife said. “I love your decorations, are they from Liberty’s?”

“Some of them,” Sarah said. She went over to the Christmas tree and gazed at one of the baubles. It was made of clear glass and there was a figure inside, a homunculus, a tiny Santa Claus. No one except Sarah noticed that the tiny Santa Claus was jumping up and down in a fury, banging on the inside of the glass sphere. No one could hear him shouting, demanding to be released from his little festive prison. One of the little black cat’s emerald eyes winked at him and Sarah murmured, “Happy Christmas, Richard.” He was going to have to knuckle under and get on with it, wasn’t he? Sarah set the bauble spinning, faster and faster, until the tiny Santa Claus was just a blur of red and white. 

Kate Atkinson’s novels include “Case Histories” (Black Swan) and “Transcription” (Doubleday)

Short story copyright (c) Kate Atkinson Ltd 2018

This article appears in the 05 December 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special