A short Christmas story about eczema, grief and the miracle of the Pet Shop Boys.
Woolworths’ white shelves are drowning in tinsel and the doors don’t ever close. She can’t see the floor between the people ebbing and faster flowing through. Her feet slide unsteady on the walked in drizzle dirt that slicks further than the tills. She wraps her hand tightly round her son’s as she cajoles and drags him through the crowd. There aren’t baskets, they can’t keep up, she resolves to choose and clutch with one arm. She leads him firmly, she hopes the barrage of bodies will not alert him to the presence of pick and mix. She hopes the intensity of the crowds will keep him passive. Better intimidated than excited.
The air is thick with the sound made by people. The tannoy buzzes, a strained request for more people on the tills. A hiss of static, a beat taps alone then synthesiser stabs explode like fireworks, a disco beat gallops in time with the shelves being cleared. Somewhere in there is a small, sad voice. It moves under the music and above the noise. It sounds like something else. She half recognizes the tune but she doesn’t recognise the hook and it doesn’t matter because it’s all noise and motion and you’re only in because you want to get out and anything that pushes you forward is fine.
Her coat feels suddenly cumbersome, it hangs heavily where seconds ago she had pulled it close. Eczema running from finger nail to knuckle pulses raw in the heat. The skin seems to pull away from her hands, boiling beneath the surface, pulling the digits apart. She wants to stop and rub the skin away but she winces and pulls him along.
They make a fraught sharp retreat as she realises they are going down the wrong aisle, they then pivot forward again and round. Back up towards rectangular boxes; purples, reds and blacks. She manages to split her free fingers round three selection boxes. No, they are presents, no you can’t have anything now, soon, soon, soon. He doesn’t argue, there isn’t space for a scene.
She pulls him closer as they head towards the checkouts. The queue runs way back into the store, she holds his hand tighter knowing waiting will be harder than moving. Time seems to hang, the queue moves millimetres in minutes whilst they are jostled as people push past. She pulls him closer to her, he pulls himself into her and away from the frantic mass around him. They finally reach the till and she exchanges smiles with the woman serving and the end maybe somewhere in sight.
“Would you like a bag?”
She think about her hands. You can put foundation on your face but not on your fingers. It’s all in the details. No one will be looking, no one is looking. The younger girls have put the effort in and she doesn’t know if she wants to keep up, doesn’t know if she’s still even in the competition. The room is dark enough for it maybe not to matter. One of the lads from the post room has set up two record players and some disco lights. The strip lights have been switched off and the room stutters in splashes of gaudy colour.
A small selection of beige food on paper plates. Oven cold sausage rolls, three flavours of crisps, sandwiches – cheese, ham, egg – celery smeared with prawn Primula, cheese balls with cardboard coatings and chalk like centres. There are three cheese balls left on her plate and she has half a glass of sweet white wine. She picks up the cheese ball and wonders if the wine will make it bearable.
She realises she is by herself. The girls have moved on. Some are dancing, some are speaking in a smaller group further down the table. That feeling in the pit of her stomach, a sense that no one is noticing her but everyone is looking at her. She looks up and catches his eye. He is holding a paper plate and a pint. He puts them down in front of her. He smiles and speaks. She smiles because that’s what you do. He asks her to dance, other people are dancing now, enough people are dancing now and there’s not much else to do but agree.
Does he know? Everyone knows now. She had mostly kept it together, no tears, no theatrics – but that’s never what gives you away. It’s the overextended conversation, the swollen small talk that makes eye contact awkward and sentences drop to the floor. Those days when she can’t help but occasionally overstepping the threshold of “how are you?” The days when smiles tighten and eyes look for excuses as you give more than they are ever prepared to take.
But that matters less because now they are dancing together. A voice that veers from a girlish innocence to take bites out of the air. Octave jumps in runs of primary colours:
“I wanna dance with somebody, I wanna feel the heat with somebody.”
He reaches out and they hold hands, he twirls her round.
“Dance… dance… dance”
The brass backs down and she is laughing, they are both laughing. She is still laughing. He is smiling. He is unsure. He looks to pull her closer as the song comes to a climax and begins to fade. The boys from the post room don’t miss a beat. A rumble, a cymbal, synthesiser stabs that rush like waves through the room.
“Maybe I didn’t treat you quite as good as I should…”
The drive is insistent and she isn’t sure if she is really dancing, she spins around without his hands on hers, she twirls without permission.
The voice can’t compete with the firework display it is at the centre of, it relaxes and follows. Her hair flickers across her face and she hears glass break and for the briefest of moments is startled but she rapidly realises it’s part of the record, it’s insistence is pushing everything in it’s way. It’s everywhere and everything and she is within and without and she doesn’t know if she is even dancing. She swings her hands in front of her face and they catch yellows and pinks that make the soreness invisible.
“Maybe I didn’t love you…”
He looks at her and he is still smiling but his eyebrow suggests something else. He asks her if she’s ok and she laughs and of course she is and of course she is fine and would she like a drink and now there’s another song and it doesn’t matter because they are dancing again.
The same song is playing in the taxi on the way home. Apart from the distant driver she is alone with the synthesiser and sad voice. She tells herself not to cry but she does. Pin pricks pulse rounds her eyelids but she is still smiling. As she gets out and hands over the cash the driver ask if she needs help:
“You alright love?”
“I’m fine, actually.”
There are too many plates on the table but enough chairs around it. This year no one’s legs awkwardly avoid another. After the crackers and the party hats have been perched on heads the conversation is minimal. Occasional observations and half remembered anecdotes. Her son pushes peas around but manages to eat enough before he devours the ice cream that melts on a much smaller slither of pudding.
The table is cleared and she helps with the drying up. Her mother looks at her hands, she tells her about a cream her friend has used. She tells her mother they flare up even when she wears rubber gloves, her mother says she should still use rubber gloves, her mother says she should try goats milk, her mother says maybe she should think about things less.
The television is on. Her father has her son on his lap. Top of the Pops. A few years ago she would have known all the names in the top 40 countdown. Now in amongst the stalwarts are names that speak a language she has not kept up with, a language she is starting to forget.
“If you ask any artist the most prestigious chart position is the Christmas number one.”
“Now these guys have had more than their fair share of number ones over the past few years but this is a particularly deserving one because it’s Christmas time… Here are the Pet Shop Boys, “Always On My Mind”.”
Those synth stabs and that galloping beat again. They don’t look quite right, one casual on keyboard and computers which just seem to flash out the name of the band. The other in an almost oversized suit. He doesn’t look like a pop star, he looks like someone she might work with; he looks almost embarrassed to be there. When he briefly catches the camera eye the awkwardness seems to be a sadness; as if he isn’t singing a song that someone else wrote, as if he is actually apologising to a certain someone on live television. When he crosses his arms it is isn’t defiant but reticent, he looks like he is guarding himself against the world.
“Pet Shop Boys? More like…”
“Dad!” She glares at her father, she glances at the boy.
They don’t speak for a couple of seconds. In their silence the song builds and it now sounds like a carol, it sounds like a hymn, unstoppable explosive momentum, keyboards rising to the rooftops and the sad voice in the centre.
“So is this Christmas number one?”
“That’s what they just said.”
“I was still washing up. It’s not very Christmassy is it.”
“It’s not very good.”
“Well, I like it Dad.”
“It’s a cover version isn’t it? Why don’t they write their own songs any more.”
“Yeah. Elvis Presley.”
“I think it sounds sort of Christmassy.”
As the song reaches its crescendo the singer seems to smile, almost laugh, he taps himself on the side of his head, it seems at once a parody of the passion he should convey and a genuine gesture of disbelief. She looks at her son.
“Are you ok?”
“You’ve had a tough year.”
She almost smiles.