The Eighth Day of Christmas
(Lyndall Bywater, January 2022)
I love our differentness. You think regular hoovering is fundamental to a civil society, whereas I think it’s only ever to be undertaken when absolutely necessary. You alphabetise everything, whereas I just shove things wherever there’s a space. You can actually watch a whole film without needing secondary entertainment, whereas I’m on Facebook after an hour at most. These are the things that make us. But these last few weeks I’ve hated all the ways we’re out of step. It’s felt like a constant pulling at the seams.
Christmas adds its own weight to everything, doesn’t it. Our little seasonal disagreements are usually so good-humoured: you’d happily not put the Christmas tree up till Christmas Eve; I’d go for September if we could. You think it’s calling down some kind of curse to listen to Christmas music before December, so I just wait till you’re out before I crank up the festive tunes in October. You’re a late starter, but woe betide anyone who dares undecorate before Twelfth Night. I’d happily pack the lot up on Boxing Day but you won’t suffer the removal of a single snowflake before the Sixth of January. It’s us being us and it’s usually fun, even the low-level bickering. Not this year though.
And I know it’s all been my stuff. You’re used to me telling you you’re doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way every year, but this year I’ve been so brittle. Her dying changed me. Trouble is, I didn’t send you the memo because I didn’t even realise it myself.
I love Christmas. I love it all. But that was the problem. If I let Christmas happen, I might end up enjoying some of it, and that felt so wrong, so disloyal somehow. That’s why I wouldn’t do our usual Christmas shopping day, the one where we deploy the survival technique of having one hot chocolate for every five presents we buy. Thank God for online shopping, perfect refuge for the thoroughly depressed, entirely devoid of sudden outbursts of fun.
That day when I came home and you’d decided to ‘surprise me’ by getting the decorations out of the loft … in the middle of November … I was furious. I’m sorry. I know you were totally confused by that. I’m normally the one trying to find excuses for doing the whole thing two weeks earlier than last year, but it felt like a lame attempt to cheer me up. I’d had that awful week where I could hardly get up in the morning and here you were, surrounded by our forty-seven boxes of Christmas paraphernalia, thinking that would somehow make everything better.
I admit my resolve to shun all festive merriment did crack a few times when I kept finding decorations hidden away in strategic locations around the house. It’s the first time a reindeer has ever seen the inside of my knicker drawer, that’s for sure! I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe I should have shown you that. But that might have meant you thought things were OK, and they definitely weren’t.
If we hadn’t had that amazing evening buying the tree, I reckon by Christmas Day I’d have bludgeoned you with one of those hideous light-up Santas you love so much. But you know me so well. You know the way to get me to lay down arms is to show me someone who’s having a worse time than me. Christmas trees grown, cut and delivered by guys going through drug rehab … even I couldn’t resist feeling festive when I saw how made up they were with what they were doing. I know I cried pretty much the whole way through decorating the tree, but at least I wasn’t swearing at every ornament you pulled out of the box. If half those decks aren’t covered in snot, it’ll be a bloody miracle.
It went bad again when you suggested we go to that carol service. When you saw the look on my face, you made a valiant attempt to re-nose the idea by suggesting it was a perfectly normal thing to do in Advent, but that was never going to work. Herald angels singing and cattle lowing for a little baby, those are definitely Christmas things, not Advent things. This year of all years, I couldn’t be doing with the baby Jesus showing up early. Looking back, maybe I was trying to put the whole thing off because I couldn’t face the thought of it happening without her.
It wasn’t that simple though. I did think of telling you we needed to cancel Christmas this year. You’d have understood. People do drastic stuff like that when people they love have just died, right? But that didn’t feel OK either. Enjoying myself felt like betraying her, but so did skipping Christmas altogether. She loved this time of year. Somehow I knew she’d be there in it all; that Christmas would make her feel closer, if only I could get it right.
By the end of Christmas Eve I was ready. I sobbed my way through midnight mass, but I was ready. It could all happen, the beautiful folds of it sliding out across our days. Christmas Day was lovely, with your family and that spectacular Christmas dinner. Of course I was missing her like hell, but everything was right. I did nearly freak out when you suggested we didn’t need the sprouts (‘who likes them anyway’), but the look of horror on my face put paid to such bizarre notions, and there were sprouts a-plenty. You need to know how much I love you for being able to read me and change course instantaneously. It’s an art.
I did let myself enjoy it a bit, especially those lazy days in between, visiting friends and eating chocolate for breakfast … and lunch … and dinner. There were times when the fog would lift for a few minutes and I’d feel vaguely normal. It was going OK. But then the star thing happened.
It was New Year’s Eve and it was like mid-November all over again. I came in from the shops to find you surrounded by the aforementioned forty-seven boxes of Christmas decs, only this time it was because you’d taken everything down. If I’d stopped to think, I would probably have worked out that you’d done it for me, since I’m the one who’s always longing to clear the decks … ah, the pun never gets old! But I didn’t stop to think. I couldn’t. I just started emptying those boxes like a maniac. You didn’t know I was looking for something, did you. I’m not sure I knew I was looking for something at that stage either. I could just feel something draining away, swirling inexorably downwards, like water when you take the plug out, and I knew I had to stop it. Most years I’m happy for Christmas to end. This year it can’t; it mustn’t. If it does, something will be gone that I’ll never get back.
Stars … stars everywhere! Why the hell do we have so many stars? Metal stars, pottery stars, stars made of foil and feathers, stars made of nasty plastic which will one day eliminate entire colonies of sea-life. My star rage new no bounds. You can vouch for that because you had to duck several times to avoid being hit by the heavier specimens I was flinging aside. Eventually my frazzled brain managed to surface some useful information. I was furious at every star I found because none of them were the star I was looking for. None of them were her star, the one she’d made for a frightened five-year-old me.
You stood there looking totally bemused, and that riled me up even more. Being a grown-up, I can rationalise that you didn’t know about the star because I’d never told you about it, but grown-up me had left the building. The sobbing five-year-old me was in charge and she was raging! Why weren’t you finding the star for me? How dare you not know about the star. Grown-up me gets that you probably thought the tatty little bit of Origami was one of those random tree decorations that turn up from who knows where, but little me remembered sitting on her bed late one night, watching her use her ‘paper magic’ to fold me my own Christmas star so I wouldn’t think about the shouting and crashing going on downstairs. Little me apparently felt safe whenever I looked at that star, but grown-up me knew nothing of that till I couldn’t find it anymore.
One of the amazing things about you is that you can navigate the layers of feistiness and insecurity and reach me wherever I am. But your face was completely blank. It was like you’d lost track of me and I didn’t know how to help you find me again. I couldn’t help you make sense of any of it because I couldn’t make sense of it myself. How could a paper tree decoration, one I’d hardly looked twice at in previous years, suddenly matter so much. And if it mattered so much now, why hadn’t I spent the whole of Christmas with it under my pillow or something? How could this ridiculous attachment to a scrap of paper suddenly be turning me into a mad woman?
The next bit is something not even grown-up me will ever really understand. You knew you were surplus to requirements, what with your utter ignorance of extremely important matters, so you went out into the garden for a breath of fresh air. While you were gone, I found it. It was tucked right in the corner of that huge box we have for the baubles. I just stood there staring at it for ages, studying every intricate fold and remembering her face, the little frown of concentration as she manipulated the flimsy paper into impossible forms. Maybe you noticed I’d stopped searching or maybe you’d just had enough of standing out in the freezing cold, but either way, you picked that moment to open the French doors again, and a huge gust of wind whipped the fragile little star straight out of my hand.
I can’t describe the feeling. It was like someone kicked the last support strut out from under me. I know – so dramatic. That’s the point though … I never feel that kind of despair. It’s just not how I am, so when it hit me, I crumbled. Do you remember that neighbour of ours who sank into a deep depression when her dog died and it turned out she’d never properly grieved her husband in the five years since his death? Well, at least it was a real live actual dog who unblocked her grief, not a little Christmas decoration! I am clearly some other level of defective.
I’m really sorry I made you hunt in the rain for so long. It was insane. The thing had either blown away or been mashed to a pulp by the torrential downpour that turned up just as we started looking, but I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t let you stop. If we didn’t find it then she was properly gone.
I must have given up eventually. I’ve read books about grief where the writers have said things like, ‘I lost track of time,’ or ‘I don’t know how long I stayed there.’ I know what they mean now. The frenzy must have petered out at some point because I ended up sitting in the middle of the lawn just crying and getting totally soaked.
I have no idea how long I sat there. In the end the water went right through my trousers and my knickers, and a wet bum turns out to be a good motivator, so I came in.
It was New Year’s Eve. We should have been at a party. We’d booked taxis, chosen clothes to wear and persuaded reluctant friends to give up their quiet nights in. Cradling a cup of coffee, trying to stop shivering, I had no recollection of any of that. All I could think about was losing the star; losing her all over again.
I read this thing once that most of our memories aren’t actually direct recall of an event, they’re just memories of the many times we’ve remembered that event in the past. It’s a bit like knitting or crochet: each time we remember something, we add another knot to the thread of memory. The more we remember, the stronger that connecting thread becomes. I knew I needed to get on with the remembering before I lost even more. I wrapped myself in the spare duvet and lay on the sofa, digging out all my memories of her. If remembering would strengthen that thread of connection to her then I’d rummage for every tiny detail: the Christmas she sang a solo in the school play; the boiling hot day when we bought ice lollies and ate them dangling our feet in the town square fountain; the time she emptied a bottle of glitter over my A Level art project (she always claimed that’s what got me the A grade)
It was only when I thought about how much she loved Champagne that I suddenly remembered it was New Year.
You and I have had a fair few rows about January the First in our time. OK, not rows, just robust intellectual disagreements. I’m clear on the matter – and I’m obviously right – that it’s New Year’s Day. You, on the other hand, have this bizarre notion that it’s first and foremost the Eighth Day of Christmas, and that calling it New Year’s Day is a Heathen aberration. You’re impervious to any evidence to the contrary. I point out that if I stop someone in the street and ask them what January the First is, they’re not going to say, ‘the Eighth Day of Christmas’, they’re going to say, ‘New Year’s Day’, but you just come back with that favourite shut-down of yours: ‘Just because people believe it, that doesn’t make it true.’
I have to admit that your little bit of wrongness came to my aid that night. I couldn’t bear the thought of New Year. I couldn’t bear the thought of setting foot in a year where she would never be. So I hunkered down in denial and kept telling myself that tomorrow would just be the Eighth Day of Christmas.
The dawn eventually brought horrendous back ache. Remind me again why we didn’t opt for an actual sofa-bed. I needed to move around but I didn’t want to wake you so I went back out into the garden. Walking rekindled the frenzy and I found myself scouring the ground again, looking for a paper star, bedraggled but miraculously still intact. I pushed aside piles of leaves, cursing our lack of horticultural acumen. If we were proper gardeners we’d have put the garden to bed and there wouldn’t be any piles of leaves to push aside. I got to the bit by the pond – the bit you laughingly refer to as ‘wilderness wetland’ – and I poked around a bit. The shrubs are quite tall there. I figured they might have blocked the star’s flight, causing it to land safely in the mass of weeds/wildflowers growing at their roots. I was ninety-five per cent of the way to resignation by that stage though, so I wasn’t expecting to find anything.
And then I did find something. I spotted a flash of white in amongst the greenery. I knelt down and started moving branches aside, trying to be gentle because I didn’t want to crush or tear the fragile, dried-out paper.
I needn’t have worried. My sister’s Origami star wasn’t there.
There was something white though. It was a tiny, fragile flower, shaped like a perfect star. Half an hour earlier I’d probably have pulverised it in my disappointment, but like I say, I was listless with resignation by then so I just flopped down on the grass next to it, all my energy finally gone.
Isn’t it a bit early for flowers? It’s weird what your brain latches on to when you’ve burnt it out and run it into the ground. Mine kept circling the single thought that there shouldn’t be flowers at Christmas time. In the end the only way to stop it looping round and round was to pick the flower.
I held it on my palm. It was utterly perfect. I instinctively cupped my other hand over it to stop it being blown away, and suddenly, silently, the connection was made. I’d lost her star. Nothing I could do would ever bring it back. And here, in the soggy mess of winter’s debris, I’d found a star – not a paper one but a living one. No replacement at all. No cure and no solution, but a star nonetheless.
I used to think flowers had no place in Christmas. I’m sure you remember how narked I got when Aunty Sylvie kept trying to foist Poinsettia on me – and no, it’s not just because I kill them within days! To me, flowers are spring. They are new life and a new start, whereas stars are part of Christmas’s flamboyant salute to the passing year. I’m not so sure now though.
I learnt later that what I’d found was Wood Stitchwort, tiny white wildflowers that twinkle in dark, shady places, tiny white stars that bud and bloom, die and grow again. Stars that are flowers; flowers that are stars.
Thanks for sticking with me. Neither of us new it but This year needed to be different. I needed to find a star: not an Origami one, not the celestial kind that light the cosmos with riddles for kings, but a star fallen to earth, a tiny new-born scrap of organic matter, the glimmer of consolation for a soul-weary traveller.