Christmas had followed the same routine for as long as Brianna could remember. The cherries with soft warm flesh, mince pies with a cup of tea to make their noses sweat, then grazing through a huge box of melting chocolates, their fingers sticky, until lunch time. Now there were no children, opening presents happened haphazardly throughout the day. Lunch was a shoulder of ham, with salad turning limp in its bowl, then Christmas pudding with congealed brandy butter to finish. At three o’clock they were allowed to start on the wine, but Brianna suspected this year – since it was just the three of them and Florence’s absence would be keenly felt – they would start earlier.
She pulled her dressing gown over her pyjamas and wandered into the kitchen. The bones in her feet cracked against the grimy tiles. Lesley was already at the table, methodically filling a platter in front of her with pieces of fruit.
“Merry Christmas, Mum.”
Lesley looked up with red-rimmed eyes. “Merry Christmas, lovey. Want some fruit?”
“We’ll be shitting ourselves if we eat all that.”
“Brianna.” Her voice was tired rather than cranky.
Brianna sat and took a piece of pineapple. The house was quiet. So was the street outside. No vehicles or voices, just the stuffy muffled heat of Christmas.
“What time’s Gran coming round?”
With a shaking sigh, Lesley put the knife down and dropped her head into her hands. Her shoulders shook.
Brianna waited to see if she would speak but she just kept shaking. “It’s weird without Florence here,” Brianna said. The pineapple had stung her tongue and the words felt fat in her mouth.
Lesley nodded and laughed, a trembly tremulous sound. “I miss her.” Her eyes were watery but they always were these days. “But we’ll still have a nice day.” Her eyes found the photo on the fridge from when they farewelled Florence, the heavy white plane smirking through the window behind them. “It’s good she’s off being independent,” Lesley said, sighing heavily. “But it’s just so hard on us.”
It actually wasn’t hard on Brianna, or it wouldn’t be if Lesley could get over it, but she didn’t say anything.
Lesley went to shower and Brianna turned on the laptop in the kitchen. They had tried to organise a time to Skype with Florence but her sister was being uncooperative. They hadn’t spoken since Brianna had told her about the card from their father, and it hurt that her sister hadn’t asked anything more. Lesley knew as well, of course, but had shown even less interest. Not that anything had happened, other than Brianna putting it in the old shoebox with the ones from all those years ago, when he used to be in contact.
Lesley emerged from her shower looking fresh and clear-eyed, her hair already drying into a frizzy mop. She patted Brianna’s shoulder as she passed, and sighed. Every day for two months had been like the day at the airport, lived around sighing and watery eyes.
The doorbell rang. Jane was early. “No traffic on the roads!” Brianna heard her grandmother’s shrill voice as Lesley opened the door and helped her inside. “Couldn’t believe it. The taxi driver, a lovely man from Sri Lanka, said he had never seen the roads so empty. Can you believe it?”
“Merry Christmas, Gran,” Brianna said, standing to kiss the older woman’s cheek.
“Merry Christmas, dear.” Jane sat slowly on the couch. “Shouldn’t we have some Christmas music?” It was the same every year, though usually Florence had sourced an album of semi-tolerable Christmas cheer. Brianna put on Frank Sinatra’s Christmas Album, and handed around the bowl of cherries. The flesh was soft and warm, but it still didn’t feel like Christmas.
Lesley made tea and put out the mince pies, then cranked up the air-conditioning until the wall unit rattled and hummed like a disgruntled bulldog hovering in the corner. The sparkling wine, when they opened it three hours earlier than usual, went straight to their heads. Jane dozed on the couch while lunch was prepared, her glass of bubbles tilting dangerously in her hand until Brianna rescued it.
At two o’clock, they sat to eat. Outside, the clouds hung heavy over the dry earth. The salty ham had a metallic edge, as though part of the fridge had seeped into it, but still they ate steadily with little conversation to accompany the chewing. Brianna had never realised how much conversation Florence brought with her, but it seemed without her there was nothing to say. Tinny Christmas carols leaked from the stereo.
When their plates were empty, they all sat back in their seats, rubbing their full stomachs: it was a family trait which had made it through three generations of women.
“Well,” Lesley said, “I think it’s time for some more wine and maybe a nap.”
“I think so, too,” Jane said, nodding as though at something deeply philosophical. They paused to listen to the purring of a car, each expecting it to turn the corner and fade into the distance. The sound grew and grew. And then silence.
Despite the warning, the chime of the doorbell was surprising. Lesley and Jane looked at Brianna, and she heaved herself to her feet, the table wobbling under the strain.
The dark shadow was easily recognisable through the locked flyscreen door. He took a step closer and put his hands on the screen. “Brianna, merry Christmas.” He didn’t try to speak quietly, and his voice carried into the house. She couldn’t move. Her breath felt hammy in her mouth. She didn’t know if she should unlock the door to let him in. There was a presence behind her, a slow moving of air.
“Fraser.” Her mother’s voice was a murmur of disbelief, but it cut off on the last syllable as those years of pain forced their way into the room.
Fraser cleared his throat nervously.
“Hi there, Les, merry Christmas.” His voice was loud and blustery, as though he was attempting to make the situation natural. “Sorry to bother you, I thought you’d be finished eating by now.”
“We have,” Brianna said. She didn’t want him to leave, but she couldn’t open the door. The thought of him in the house was too unnatural, like a time warp that might make the world implode. But she didn’t want him to leave.
“Why are you here, Fraser?”
Brianna glanced over her shoulder at her grandmother, who was clasping Lesley’s arm and looking ferocious. Her frailty had disappeared behind her protectiveness. Fraser didn’t acknowledge Jane, or her question.
“I know you finished school, Brianna. I came to see how you’re going, what you’re going to do. I just – came to see you.”
“On Christmas day. At Lesley’s house,” Jane said. She had moved forward to stand next to Brianna, and Brianna could feel the anger radiating from her thin frame. Lesley cowered behind them. Fraser nodded, his shadow warped and grey through the flyscreen. “Well, Fraser, you can call and talk to Brianna tomorrow, and if she would like to see you then you can organise it with her. Okay?” Jane was now standing directly in front of him, a human shield for the emotional battering that was flowing from him to Brianna and Lesley.
“Get out of it, Jane, I’m not here to see you.” The anger that Brianna remembered came flooding into his voice. He was leaning on one foot, his hip jutting out. Just like Florence.
“You’re not here to see anyone. You’re here to make trouble, like you always were. And you’re not welcome. Not while I’m here.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Lesley always did need a babysitter.”
The slam from the door shocked all of them, even Brianna whose shaking hand was still resting on the wood. Distantly, she noticed a fleck of cherry under a fingernail, a smudge of red, like blood. Jane stared at her for a few seconds then nodded approvingly. Lesley looked as though a thousand thoughts were flooding her brain and she had no idea what any of them were. She moved like a shell-shocked soldier back into the kitchen. Brianna waited by the closed door until the sound of his car faded into the muffled silence.
Lesley poured herself a large glass of wine and took it, and a new bottle, to her room. No one tried to stop her, even though the brandy butter for the Christmas pudding was separating into oil and lumps, waiting to be eaten. Jane’s face was pale, as though her burst of strength had sapped all her energy.
Brianna tidied the dishes. The water was hot and sudsy and made her fingers wrinkle. She didn’t know how she felt. If Florence was there, she would be furious at their father. She was already in high-school when he left, and her fury had been adolescent and unabating, and strangely reminiscent of his rages. She would stand just like him, with that jutting hip and her chin high, eyes flashing. Her words were biting, nastier than seemed possible when she was calm. Last year, when Brianna had complained about their Christmas routine, Florence had called her a baby for wanting to feel special.
Brianna put down the salad bowl she had been washing, and felt her shoulders shake as she started giggling. Her stomach cramped as she bent over, trying to keep quiet, trying not to drip suds on the floor. The sounds were muffled, too quiet to be heard over the cranking air-conditioner, but they didn’t stop. Her father had brought Florence into the house, and it finally felt like Christmas. She laughed and laughed until her eyes dripped tears, and her stomach ached. Lesley was right, it was hard to be without her sister.
When the laughter subsided and the dishes were finished, Brianna took a wine glass, and knocked on her mother’s door. She didn’t know what to say, but she could be present, at least, to share in Florence’s absence, instead of pretending everything was as always. The chocolates were misshapen with melted heat, but Lesley took three, and Brianna sat by her. Next door, Jane’s snores morphed into a duet with the air-conditioner, the sound of their strange, muted Christmas.