Tuesday 20 August 2019

Homeward bound for Christmas

A short story by Ciara Ferguson

A view of Dublin City and bay just before landing in Ireland
A view of Dublin City and bay just before landing in Ireland

There is a quality of quietness to be found in the nights around Christmas that is not otherwise present. As if time were suspended, and anything could happen. For Marian that was the real hidden magic promised to children, and mutating out of recognition with the passing years and all that excessive sentimental advertising that almost rendered the meaningful meaningless.

At the airport Marian was waiting for her flight to be called. Impatience made her fidgety. She wasn't prepared for the journey home to Ireland. Not because of the hysterical noise of the season, but for the peculiar invasive stillness, that quietness, that might allow the unseen to be felt.

Engaging now in the detritus of distraction to stop herself from feeling too much, she flicked through a magazine, skimming over the images of shiny lives, sucking on a bottle of water, eating a bar of chocolate and obsessively looking at her phone although the last thing she wanted to do was to connect with anyone. She opened the new lipstick just bought in the duty free. Red for Christmas.

The distractions weren't working this time. She still felt utterly invisible. The intimacy and solitariness of her personal grief encircling her in an invisible ring of titanium. No one could get in and neither now could she get out. It was too effective, her determination not to feel the pain and sadness that threatened to consume and overwhelm her. She no longer recognised herself. Everything seemed alien and threatening, stripped of beauty.

How was it possible to exist on two separate planes? The reality inside and the relentless, everyday appearance of normal life going through its motions. She was doing all the things you might do at the airport but it was the esoteric and the abstract that was more real to her these days.

"That is how I have been changed by grief," she thought.

She felt like a ghost among the ghosts of Christmas past. She would see her family back home in Ireland but the one closest to her, her brother Dan, would not be there. No good could come of anything ever again. So much was over. Memories invaded her brain, sent her thoughts sparking out into the air in the form of incessant noise. She could not find peace of mind. She wanted a drink to calm herself but it was too early. "What if this were my last Christmas? What would I do differently?" she said to herself, and the stock self-help answer immediately came. She would be more present in the moment and appreciative of her own life. She would be grateful for the ones still here. Blah, blah, blah. Actually she would probably just get drunk, if it still worked. But instead she was stuck in this malaise, obsessing on those who are gone.

She had become so used to this state it was almost comfortable. Well, as comfortable as a hamster on a wheel in a cage.

The voice on the microphone calling her flight interrupted Marian's reverie and she gathered her things and boarded the busy plane. There was a sense of excitement and good humour amongst the passengers that she found irritating in her present state.

Marian settled into her seat, fastened her seat belt, willed time to pass and maintained her aloofness to be with her thoughts. She knew no one would talk to her anyway, not while she was invisible. People could sense far more than was projected to each other. A whole world of subliminal communication going on beneath the surface of civility and ordinariness. Nothing ordinary about this life.

When they were young, she used to love to watch her brother's eyes when he was thinking. It was as if tiny sparks ignited there, the synapses of his intellect firing and illuminating a path less obvious. Always a different perspective. His eyes mirrored the refraction of his thoughts. Once she willed herself to swap places and be him so that she would know what it was like. It was his expansiveness that she loved most, and often he gave her the benefit of it. They were Irish twins, only a year between them, yet he took the position of big brother seriously and she certainly tested it with plenty of trouble. They understood and accepted each other.

She loved him and trusted him more than anybody. More than herself even at times. There had been other losses in Marian's life but this was different, because he was still young and because she expected him to always be there.

Now, despite all the good things in her life, the world had turned grey. Ireland grew that bit more dim like the colour had been washed out of it. She was with him when he went, not gently in the end, but like a comet, a star shooting far away out of her orbit and taking with him her innocence, her hope. Because that too, along with so much more, is killed by grief.

As kids, Dan would be the one to wake her first thing on Christmas morning. Descending the staircase, turning the brass knob on the old door into the sitting room, to reveal the presents, the indulgences, all the things that promised to make it all better. The fire and candles lit, Christmas Mass, people calling, champagne bubbles, the lovely big lunch in the red dining room. It was charmed. Not because of the treats but because it was a time when they were all still alive. By the time their father had donned his paper hat and lit his annual cigar, the moods would be changing across Ireland, descending like a darkening fog. Too much drink. Too much suppressed grief and fractured nerves. The child Marian didn't have ghosts then. But her parents did and the haunting would gain access through the magical elixir of wine or punch that could knock you out if you were lucky before all those dead souls would make their absence felt. Home for Christmas Day they would bring the full weight of the empty place at the table to attention and all the buried pain and regret seeping to the surface. She sensed this long before she ever understood it. The losses accumulated that could not be quelled by tinsel, talking turkey and time grown turgid. They would settle around the hearts of those who remained at the beautiful holly bedecked table. Luckily there was Christmas TV to take the edge off when all the family intimacy and inability to be authentic turned ugly. Too much unresolvable when history turns inwards. The yellow brick road never looked so good. Oh, yes, in those days, ruby slippers was the only way forward. Dan was her ally, then and always.

Her grandmother would wait in anticipation for the giant wishbone of the turkey's bum, as if bigger bone meant more wish and small child opponent meant sure thing. She knew the value of a big wish. That one long, special day, that was indeed closer to the bone than any other.

Last Christmas was Dan's last Christmas. It had been excruciating knowing it was the last and indescribably precious for the same reason. The need and the difficulty to be present countered by the unspoken knowledge of the awful impending doom of a terminal diagnosis.

Two days before Christmas they told him the treatment that was only ever going to buy a bit of time, didn't work.

Tear the leeches from the skin.

Tear the skin from the bone.

Tear your hair out.

A scream internalised forever.

Impatient with the nuances of denial Marian used to think that truth was the only way forward. Denial was for weaker beings. But that was when she knew nothing.

Dan was brave, stoic as a condemned chieftain. He gave her a little painting she liked. It depicted a bag of sugar called Silver Spoon and the irony was not lost. He told her she was the best sister ever. She wanted to swap places, again.

They didn't talk of the inevitable, though it hung in the heavy air. Later, Marian understood that acknowledgement would have meant having to say goodbye and while he could handle the sickness, the pain, the unfairness of it all, he could not handle the goodbyes.

What now? Gazing out the window of the airborne plane she whispers outwards. She had no idea how to go forward.

Yes, it is the ones who are gone that dominate Christmas, their absence the most solid and persistent presence in winter's early gloom. She wished she could cheer up. She wished she could feel alive.

The air hostess came with the drinks trolley. Marian ordered a red in the hope it might muffle her racing mind. She wished she could feel enough to value her own life again. Instead she drank the red wine too quickly and surrendered to the soporific effects.

When she tired of going over yet again the details of his last months and last days and last hours she turned to other thoughts.

Had Dan merely shape-shifted into a rearrangement of atoms that she cannot access easily? Maybe that was why he was so completely gone. Maybe she was doing something wrong. He could not be simply gone. Others maybe. But not someone as special as him. She could not accept that. And Christmas with all its yearning, all those hearts and hands reaching silently out must surely skewer the veil between the living and the dead. That made perfect sense to her.

Eventually there would be no trace of him, only the ripple under the water where his ashes floated. We lose everything bit by bit, that is what life is about, until eventually we lose life itself. It all disappears into the ether.

Christmas to her was the great delusion, the defiant spangled and glittering, baubled and glistening great denial of the dark. Of course, it was a religious festival and a time to take stock, an ending injected with the solace of parties and presents and mass for some. Our collective reinforcement of life, collusion of the highest order. But then, harmless and effective too. The dark is dissipated by light. Our belief in that makes it so. Is that not the hope? She didn't know. She didn't know anything anymore.

It had always made her sad, even when she was happy and just didn't know it. It was as if she already had the anticipation of loss, nagging and worse than the actual loss because it is a state without the grace of resilience.

She could not voice any of this confusion to anyone. It was not acceptable in the society invested in denial. You were supposed to move on. So, she left. Survival meant keep moving. Until Christmas. That meant home. There was no getting away from it.

Images filtered through the dark thoughts like an insistent theatre. Memories of Christmases past. All the effort by her mother to make it perfect and the disappointment when it was merely messily human. The parties, pretty clothes, sparkly shoes, good food, special wine, chocolate santy, Christmas songs, cribs, cold and cosy, twinkly fairy lights (how she loved fairy lights), the smell of the pine tree, midnight mass, the candle in the window, the glorious illusion, tears, broken things, smashed crystal, crying, longing and back to parties. But at least if they were alive there was hope. And change. That's the difference.

Christmas is a marker, highlighting the moments of life and the passing of time. Images frozen in memory. Yet memory lives and warms. It is how we keep the ghosts alive. Loss becomes fragile instead of brittle. Loss opens eyes to the nuances of every day. She knew it in her mind but couldn't feel it in her heart.

The air hostess arrives with the drinks again. Marian orders another red in the hope that it would warm her further inside. It doesn't. Like Christmas, the idea of it has always been better than the reality.

Outside the window across the crepuscular sky she sees the clouds beneath and imagines herself and Dan as children jumping across them. Just then she sees it, the vague, shadowy, misty, swirling outline of something she doesn't recognise, and yet is familiar. Maybe the wine is having more effect than she thought. But no, she feels a tingle in the shoulder and more than that, a sense of him. It is nothing more and nothing less than a knowingness. She holds her breath, feels a faint shiver up the back of her neck.

She feels small and insubstantial, as ethereal as the little fairy skewed at the top of the Christmas tree.

The captain comes on the speaker: "Fasten seatbelts immediately. We are about to experience some extreme turbulence. No need for alarm." Everyone is suddenly alarmed.

Marian lurches forward, the little wine bottle goes flying to the floor. The plane is shuddering. As it continues like this for too long, people become agitated. So does Marian. There is nothing to do but surrender to it. Her heart is beating so loud she cannot but be aware of it. Her mind is racing to the grand finale of her own life. Her stomach feels sick. Fear awakens all her senses. She looks out and imagines jumping onto the cloud and running towards the figure. But she doesn't want to. The plane continues to shudder and now people are crying out. It's not alright. Nothing is alright. No more pretence. She sees her face reflected in the window. She is inside the plane and it's shaking and dipping. She feels dread as she sees her life being extinguished, now, here, on Christmas Eve. She sees the faces of those waiting for her in Ireland, those she will never see again. She calls out to Dan. "No. No. No." This is not what she wants and she knows it, feels it with every breath in her body. "I WANT TO LIVE."

It comes out of her mouth loud and clear, like the greatest cliche of all time. And just like that she is back in her body. The plane steadies. She is sobbing and shaking with shock and relief. She isn't the only one.

"Sorry about that," says the captain. "Relax, sit back, enjoy the rest of the ride." She starts laughing. Turns to the man beside her and gives him a watery smile.

"Scare over," he says. "You'll be ok now." The light in her eyes refracts. It is as if all at once she sees infinite possibilities. She is seeing with a different perspective.

For the first time in a long time she feels the faint flurry of peace drifting like snow over her and inside her. Outside it is darkening. The clouds no longer visible. Essence of Dan or whatever that was, isn't out there. He is inside her now, his atoms encompassed into her being. At her shoulder. She knows it. She feels it. It feels like love. The love that never dies, that cannot die, though it may mutate and hide for a while. It is invincible, indestructible. It is the thing that is left behind and the only thing that makes her finite, fragile life worthwhile. This is her conclusion. An ending in a beginning. A beginning in an ending. The bloody great continuum.

She looks around and spies a few shaken wistful faces. Everything is quiet now. In her insularity, she did not consider that they all have their own story and that some of them may be grieving too. Of course, that we all must. It is the other side of love. Compassion like an old familiar friend seeps into her cold bones. How could she forget. We are all in it together, however lonely it feels.

It is deep blue outside. Twilight over Ireland. It makes her want to cry. But then it always did. But now she knows you cannot anticipate loss. No point trying to prepare for it. Might as well choose the light in between instead. Grab it wherever you can find it. She sees the small, twinkling lights beneath, the bright blue glow of the runway at Dublin airport. The plane lands softly as if with a sigh. No longer in transit she knows she is back. Changed. And with that Dan is both here and free.

She steps outside and faces into the cold brisk air. People smile. She smiles back. The man at the passport desk says her name when he gives it back to her. She must be visible again. Outside waiting are the all the other people who are still here, still alive.

There are fairy lights everywhere. What would she ever do without Christmas fairy lights in the dark? She feels the ground beneath her feet. Solid. Not like before. She is here. She is home.

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