This short story forms part of our Six Tales of Christmas series. Learn about the authors and find more exclusive fiction here.
We knew summer was fading when the eucalyptus leaves started to litter the lawn and the morning air began to bite. Autumn smelled of sharpened pencils and wood smoke. It tasted of apple crumble and porridge topped with golden syrup. And it sounded like the White Christmas LP.
As soon as we returned to school in September we began our Christmas countdown, playing the LP in the Best Room every Sunday afternoon. Usually reserved for visitors and music practice, the Best Room contained a grand piano and a record player which was, even in the days of ghetto blasters and Walkmans, already something of a novelty. Television was permitted on weeknights and Saturdays, but we children were required to seek alternative entertainment on the Sabbath. God didn’t mind the record player. We were never quite sure why – maybe He was a Luddite, or perhaps He approved of our music collection which mainly consisted of religious numbers and a Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack album by Neil Diamond.
After closing the Best Room’s door and drawing the floor-length curtains, one of us removed The Tabernacle Choir’s White Christmas from its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. The songs weren’t religious, but they were performed in four part harmony with orchestral accompaniment and therefore sombre enough for Sundays. The record crackled like a fried breakfast. Then the violins played their introduction and we started to dance. By the end of the first track we were flinging ourselves from one end of the room to the other; our Sunday dresses tucked into our knickers, your necktie flapping as you leapt and spun. Our dancing was improvised. We expressed the longing of I’ll Be Home For Christmas with swooping, bird-flight arms. During Winter Wonderland and Sleigh Ride we wielded imaginary reins and drove teams of galloping horses around the room. As we danced we sang along with the sopranos – even after your voice broke you joined in with the singing, adopting a comedy falsetto. When White Christmas finished we might crowd onto the piano stool and sing a few carols from The Complete Piano Player: Christmas, or rehearse our nativity play, heads wrapped in warm towels borrowed from the airing cupboard, the rocking horse requisitioned as a donkey. By tea time we were giddy with anticipation and laughter – if Mary Poppins had been our nanny we’d have had no choice but to float up to the ceiling and eat there. A squabble of siblings, that’s the suggested collective noun. We rarely bickered; we were a hurtle, a bellowing, a band.
As autumn ossified into winter, we wished for a white Christmas, our expectations rising as the time neared. Advent calendar flaps revealed snowy scenes: a robin on a sparkling branch, an igloo, a pair of skis; and we helped hang Cadbury’s chocolate snowmen on the tree (one year you secretly ate them all, leaving the hollow wrappers to be discovered in January when the tree came down and it was time to share the booty). Occasionally, we witnessed a scattering of delicate, powdery snow that seeped through our woollen gloves before we could scrape it off the ground. But we never saw glistening treetops. And we never heard sleigh bells.
We grew up; dispersed; spent Christmases with friends and partners, abroad and in homes of our own, some of us had children. Our presents to each other were wrapped during early December and balanced on the backs of buggies or bolted into car boots and delivered to Post Offices. We found new songs and new ways of anticipating Christmas. One of us walked down the aisle to All I Want For Christmas Is You. One curated a collection of singing Christmas toys. Another binge-watched The Muppet Christmas Carol with her children, crying on cue every time Kermit the Frog said, “We shall never forget Tiny Tim, or this first parting that there was among us.” You romped through the Yorkshire countryside with friends. Once, in the weeks following Christmas, you went dog-sledding in Montana and sent us the video: you, finally riding through a wonderland of snow.
It was May, between Christmases, when you left us, suddenly. The sun shone at your funeral. We played Kate Bush’s Snowflake. It had been your favourite, part song and part story, the snow’s descent mirroring the eventual drop of the choirboy’s voice, as high as yours once was: now I am falling. I want you to catch me.
The day before the inquest we assembled in a hotel; incomplete – a barren, a wreck, a pity of siblings. We closed the navy curtains and sat on the bed, phones loaded with photographs, messages and the old Christmas songs that we could have played, but didn’t. It was late September, a Sunday afternoon. There was no sense of a countdown, only a futile desire to count back to the moment when you were falling so that this time we could catch you.
Christmas Eve, and our children, who have no experience of record players and interminable Sunday afternoons, track Santa on the internet. Once they are tucked up in their beds and cots (except the one we haven’t yet met; the one who is tucked inside his mother and already named for you) we switch off our lights and peer out from curtains and blinds, into our various gardens and yards.
The world is quiet; perhaps because it is about to snow. Or, more likely, we think, the world is quiet because you aren’t in it. We watch and wait, haunted by memories of the Christmases we used to know – no sleigh bells or glistening treetops, just a hurtle of dancing siblings: music, laughter, and wishing. And we wish. And wish.
The Museum Of You by Carys Bray (£12.99, Hutchinson) is out now
Illustration: Clym Evernden