MY PARTNER Errol tells me that every year I lose my mind at the beginning of December and don’t get it back until mid-January. He may be right. But I always tell him I lost my mind long ago, and the holidays have nothing to do with my insanity. I then remind him of how we started dating, while telling him he’s as insane as I am for being with me.
When I was growing up, holidays weren’t for the family. My father partied and networked the entire time, for the good of his “business.” He was hungover and cranky for most of it, and there were more fights than fun at home because of that. The house always looked like what Hollywood imagined Christmas should look like, including empty, fake presents underneath the professionally decorated tree. Nothing homemade or “childish” was ever hung on it. The dinners and parties were catered, so the house never smelled like cooking. It was as if fairies were responsible for the whole thing, and just as unreal.
I was fourteen when the divorce happened. Mom and I moved out one day without any warning, followed by a couple of tense meetings with lawyers. And since my mother didn’t like Christmas, we never really celebrated it. Mom died right after I started college. With nothing to hold me at home, my senior semester abroad in England turned into me living here permanently, and then moving in with Errol after we had dated for a couple of months.
Today, the whole house smelled of spices, sugar, and chocolate from the baking I had done. The gingerbread men were various flavors besides the conventional ginger, including some green tea ones, because I was feeling daring and bored. Errol was on a business trip, and I was expecting him back tomorrow, Christmas Eve.
I was in the kitchen singing to some inane pop version of a traditional carol, decorating biscuits for the Yule gathering the next night. The biscuits were just a few of the things I had baked for the party, along with some mince and fruit tarts, fairy cakes, brownies, and a couple of different kinds of cakes, not including the fruitcakes I’d been soaking in rum and brandy for about a month. The fumes coming off them would make anyone drunk. Along with enough sweets to fill half a dozen Nutcracker ballets, I had a banquet of meat, seafood, veggies, and pasta to feed an army. Or all the men who were showing up for the party. Quiet time before the insanity of Christmas and Boxing Day with their families, and something Errol and I had been doing as long as we had been together.
I was pulling the last batch of gingerbread men out of the oven when the doorbell rang. I stopped singing, wondering if I was hearing things. I wasn’t expecting either a package or a visitor. I peered out the kitchen window, curious about who it could be.
Outside was a young lady in her teens. I blinked and then looked closer at her with a frown. I didn’t know why my younger sister Prudence was standing on my stoop, but I wasn’t going to get any answers unless I let her in.
I’d received a Christmas card from my father’s company every year, containing a “family” picture of him, Pru, and his current wife, which was the only reason I recognized her. I don’t know why I was still getting a company card, since I hadn’t talked to the man in almost a decade.
He was on his sixth marriage, with a woman who claimed to be younger than I am. He went through wives like they were a seasonal accessory, and they got younger and dumber each time.
I unlocked the door and opened it just as she went to jab the ringer again. She was trembling and exhausted, looking very ragged.
That was all I had to say. Pru started crying and fell over the threshold and into my arms, dropping the overnight bag she held. I caught her, and she wrapped her arms around me and didn’t let go as I shut the door behind her and then maneuvered the two of us to the sofa in the reception room at the back of the house.
Pru was my half sister, the product of our father’s third marriage. She was fifteen years younger than I was. While I didn’t talk to my father, I had kept track of Pru. We had exchanged e-mails for a couple of years, since it was something our father didn’t think to block or monitor. Most of the e-mails had been short notes about the things going on in her life and what was happening in mine. Nothing had prepared me for her showing up at my front door on Christmas, though.
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” she mumbled into my chest after crying for a couple of minutes.
She took after her mother, petite and pretty, with big blue eyes and blonde hair. I took after my mother’s family—huge, hulking men, who were big and ugly enough to scare small children when they smiled at them. Okay, I wasn’t that bad, but I knew I wasn’t good-looking. I was comfortable enough in my skin now to accept that, but it had been hard growing up. Father hadn’t thought of putting me on the company’s Christmas card even when we were still talking, since I hadn’t been attractive enough for him. That wasn’t something you should tell an eight-year-old, but he had.
“I didn’t know you had a passport,” I said inanely.
Pru giggled when I said that, a semihysterical, semirelieved sound. She probably thought I wouldn’t let her into my home, even after she had flown over the pond from America.
“They went on a trip for Christmas,” she said quietly. “I was told I should stay at school and not annoy them—either Dad or Mom. No one bothered to check if the place closed or anything for the holidays.”
I took a deep breath but didn’t say anything. Pru continued, relieved she finally had someone to talk to about how hurt she was. It probably also helped she was talking to my chest and not me.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone what they did, so I took the money they sent me instead of a present and figured out how to get a bus ticket and then a plane ticket here. I had a passport, because in the fall the school took us to Quebec for a trip. I figured coming here, even if you weren’t here, would be better than staying alone.”
“And you didn’t tell me because you didn’t want me to tell you no?” I asked Pru sadly.
She nodded against my chest.
“Let’s have a cuppa,” I announced. “Then I can make the bed in the guest room for you. A nap after you’ve had something to eat will be just the thing.”
“You don’t really know me, and you’re just going to let me stay?” Pru sat back and looked at me as if I were insane. She rubbed her eyes and looked so young and hurt. I wondered what the fuck had happened to make her think like that.
“You’re family,” I said. She was, and it was all that mattered.
“What’s a cuppa?” she asked me, blushing and looking down at the sofa.
“A cup of tea,” I explained to her. “I’m very British now. I think tea solves every problem, from a bad day to a terrorist attack.”
Pru smiled shyly at me when I said that. “Where’s Errol?” she asked me.
“Business trip,” I told her briskly. “He should be back late tonight.”
“He won’t mind?” Pru sounded embarrassed, as if she’d just realized I didn’t live alone.
“Errol would love to meet you,” I informed her. “He thinks I should have invited you over for a visit long before this.”
“I feel stupid now,” she mumbled. “I should have gone to a hotel.”
“Would anyone rent you a room? And is there even one available at this time of the year?” I asked. “You’re not even old enough to drive. You did the right thing coming here.” I refrained from commenting on our father. Pru didn’t need to hear it.
I shooed her into the kitchen, making her sit at the island that separated it from the rest of the living area. She looked around in wonder as I went over to shut off the radio and filled the kettle to make another pot of tea. The kitchen was all stainless steel and very professional looking, while the reception area was decorated in warm greens and browns. The furniture was modern and heavy with clean lines, built for two men who were very big. The table next to the garage door was covered with plates of cookies between Christmas decorations. There was a small tree in the far corner with some presents underneath it. The tree was tastefully decorated for the most part, and I was panicking over whether I should remove the penis-shaped candy canes right now or wait until later. Pru really wasn’t old enough to see such things. But then, until five minutes ago, my mental picture of her had her frozen at five, Christmas card photos or not.
“It smells wonderful,” she told me in wonder. “It’s like Christmas exploded in here.”
She clapped her hands over her mouth after she said that, as if she thought she had said something wrong instead of admiring my work.
“Errol thinks I’m insane,” I said with a smile, trying to put her at ease. “Are you hungry? You must be exhausted. It’s at least a ten-hour flight from where you are.”
Pru nodded and poorly hid a yawn behind her hands before putting them down. “I’m both.”
“I have some fresh-baked bread, and preserves,” I offered. “Just something to tide you over to tea.”
“Tea?” she repeated. “We’re having…. Oh, you mean the meal one, not the liquid one. It’s really a thing here? You… you sound so British. It sort of shows up in your e-mails with the way you word things, but you sound like you’ve never even been to America.”
“I make it one, since both Errol and I like to eat,” I said, grabbing the bread and bringing it over to the table. It was a boule, made to be ripped apart to be eaten. I took a couple of different pots of jam out of the refrigerator, grabbing some plates and putting them in front of her. “The jams are gooseberry and apple. I got them at the local market.”
“Did you bake the bread?” she asked, tearing off a chunk.
“I made it between batches of everything else,” I said. “I was home for a couple of weeks, so I think I went a little crazy on the baking.”
“It’s a really nice place,” she said shyly, dipping her head. “Even if the address was weird. What’s a mew?”
“It’s a British thing,” I explained. “Just like the ground floor is the American first floor. That, and the building called that used to be some sort of barn, so they call it ‘mews.’”
“Cats lived here?” she asked, smiling tentatively at me as if I would yell at her for the joke.
“Hunting hawks mostly, but where there are birds, there’re cats, so ‘mews’ works for me too,” I told her with a smile.
I went back to fiddle around with choosing a tea, something herbal and soothing so she would sleep. She didn’t need to be keyed up on caffeine now. She was overtired and frightened, which was why she was acting oddly, most likely. I didn’t want to think this was the way she normally acted, because it wasn’t good. It was as if she expected me to yell at her for any mistake she made. But knowing our father, he probably acted like that a lot, shouting at her and making her feel like shite whenever she was with him.
The kettle boiled, and I poured it into the pot and carried it over to the table with two mugs, milk, and some sugar on a tray. None of those artificial sugar substitutes for me, and Pru looked too skinny. Not the usual teenage girl “I need to be a size zero,” but more like she had been sick. “Have a cup of tea. It’s a nice mint mixture.”
Pru nodded, and after it steeped, I poured her a cup as she nibbled on the bread. I tore off a chunk for myself and slathered it with some of the gooseberry jam. “How’s school going?”
Pru grimaced and shrugged, trying to appear casual but failing. “It really never changes. I have to figure out what college I want to go to. Dad’s been threatening not to pay for it. I don’t know if Mom will either. Both of them think I can go someplace for spare change, and not even state colleges are really expensive. But he’s willing to pay for that school, so why shouldn’t he pay for college?”
“He said the same to me, even though it was in the divorce he had to pay for my college education,” I said. “So he paid for most of it, which still astonishes me. Granted, I didn’t go to an Ivy League, but it still wasn’t cheap. But is University something you want to do? Do you want to do a gap year and then Uni?”
“‘You’re not going to be a hippie like your brother,’” Pru said, mimicking our father. “‘You are going to get a real degree in a useful field and have a real job and make something of yourself.’”
I choked on the bread in my mouth, trying not to laugh. “I assure you, I’m not a hippie. But I wasn’t a business major, so my degree is useless to him.”
I had been an art history major with a minor in art preservation and museum work, with high marks in all areas. I worked at some of the numerous museums in London, doing textile preservation. Anything from an ancient tapestry to a mod Dior dress, I could fix it. It was fun and interesting, and I liked work that showed me I had built something that day, unlike a lot of office jobs.
“I like math,” Pru said quietly, as if it was something to be ashamed of. “But not accounting. I want to figure out why the numbers work.”
“Accounting’s like that, I’ve been told. At least that’s what the forensic accountant I dated kept telling me.”
“Isn’t Errol an accountant?” Pru asked me.
“Programmer,” I corrected her. “All the numbers he cares about are ones and zeroes. That’s why I manage the household accounts. He still thinks money’s magic and can’t balance his accounts to save his life. But he’s a great presenter, so he does get jobs. Someone else just finishes the details, like contracts and payments.”
Pru giggled at that, sipping at her tea. “Go back to whatever you were doing,” she said. “I don’t want to bother you.”
“You are not a bother,” I scolded her. “I’m glad you came.”
“You are?” she asked me, her eyes shining. “I… I felt so stupid when I got on the plane, I almost got off of it. I didn’t even know if you were home. Or if you wanted me here. Or—”
“Never think I don’t want you in my life,” I said to her, cutting her off. “You’re my sister. If I didn’t want you in my life, I wouldn’t have contacted you. I’m just mad that I waited so long to do it.”
“Dad was angry when I told him,” she said, tearing up a little. “At Thanksgiving. It slipped out. I’m not ashamed of you, but I didn’t want to have a scene. And us talking to each other would cause a scene when he found out. It seems everything I do will cause one. Tiffany thought you were being weird. But she’s not the sharpest pencil in the box. She looked really pissed I was with them for Thanksgiving. My mom called me, but as soon as she found out Dad didn’t like you e-mailing me, she thought it was the best thing in the world. But she sounded distracted. I think she has a new boyfriend, but then neither one of them can keep track of which holiday I’m supposed to spend with them, so both of them making plans without me isn’t new.”
Pru sniffed and quickly drank the rest of her tea, probably remembering her parents were united again, with both of them dumping her for Christmas because they didn’t care enough to bother to see what each other’s plans for the holidays were. She yawned again, looking worn with dark circles under her eyes.
“I think it’s time for someone to take a nap,” I announced, like she was five. But she needed to rest. I think getting to London had taken all the energy she had.
Pru nodded, and I went upstairs to make up the daybed. I put on the sheets and added a couple of quilts. I kept the house cool, and I didn’t want her to be chilled. I was finished when Pru walked up the stairs.
“There’s a full bath on this floor,” I said. “The master bedroom has its own, so you don’t have to deal with us stinky boys.”
Pru looked a little uncomfortable for a second. “I don’t want to be a—”
“Whatever shite you’ve been told, you aren’t a bother.”
Pru’s lip quivered, and I went to hug her. She sobbed once. I rocked her for a couple of minutes, rubbing her back. I wondered what a mess the current wife was making of Pru and why Father didn’t stop her. But then, he’d have to give a damn to stop something like that, and I knew he hadn’t for me. For all I knew, he was the one treating her like this.
“I’m bushed,” Pru said, stepping out of my arms after she had cried herself out again.
She wasn’t lying. She had come in on the red-eye and had probably been a bundle of nerves since she had bought her ticket.
“Take a nap, and then we’ll go out to get something to eat,” I promised her.