I’m here again in this honeycomb of cul-de-sacs and it’s hot, like it always is. The white heat of the day evaporates the outlines of the houses and blurs them into a repetitive reel of blocky windows, flat lawns and tired looking fences. I’m walking. There are blisters on my feel and I feel them rubbing painfully against the damp insides of my boots as I make my way through the immaculately cartoonish suburban nightmare.
I’ve been here before and it always end with heart ache.
My feet stop outside a house distinguishable from it’s kin only by the Christmas decorations in the windows. It can’t be Christmas – it’s too hot to be Christmas. I walk up the path way to the front door where a wreath hangs sprayed in fake snow. There are flakes of it all over the door mat that someone has etched a ghoulish outline of Santa’s laughing face on. I reach into my pocket and draw out two keys attached to a solid silver snowflake charm. I hold them for a moment in my sweating palm and feel all the saliva in my mouth dissipate.
I’ve held these keys before but these keys used to open the doors to a small apartment in a wooden building by a man made lake. I think of how cold it was there and how the tree swallowed the view of the lake from the front room and I feel my heart stammer in my chest. I don’t need the second key for this house because there is no second door. Just the one before me, white as snow with the hanging wreath on it.
I open the door and step inside. It smells like cigarettes and clean washing. I push open a window to try and let some air in but there is no air. There is never any air in this place. It’s like it’s stopped moving and when I look up and see the vast empty room before me, my blood stops moving too.
Crammed into the corner of this empty room is an extravagant Christmas tree that reaches from the floor to the ceiling. I take a few steps closer and see that it is tied with small navy blue velvet bows and expensive looking glass baubles that catch the sickening off yellow lights of the pulsing bulbs that smother the tree. Beneath this monolithic creature are a handful of small wrapped presents with oversized tags.
I make my way closer to the tree, my sweat smeared face flashing in time with the bulbs. I kneel down and feel my knees click. I want a cigarette. That’s my first thought. And there just so happens to be a packet of Chesterfield red tucked to the side of the tree with a clean ashtray that has a Greek island painted on it and a packet of matches. I light a cigarette and inhale three times before I feel anything at all.
Then I turn my attention to a present in front of me. It is small and square and neatly wrapped in white paper with silver trees stamped into it. I hold it in my hands and flick the tag back with the tip of my finger, spilling a dot of ash onto the carpet. There in the looping handwriting that adorned many of my own gifts, another persons name is written.
I feel my eyes start to itch as hot tears force themselves to be heard but I fear my head hasn’t caught up with my heart and as the tears begin to fall and my stomach hardens, I march through the other presents.
There’s a stocking right at the back. It’s red and has glittering gold reindeers embossed into it’s expensive fabric. Along the white cuff of the stocking is the same name.
The stocking is empty.
I put my cigarette out dead in the centre of the one of the gifts and I stand to leave, my eyes now raw with hot, angry tears that match the way the rest of the room feels. I turn to leave when out of the corner of one bloodshot eye I see another gift, wrapped in brown paper and tied with dark green string. It’s by itself, underneath the window. The curtains are drawn, to keep this bastard heat out I think to myself, but it’s low enough that it’s got a view of the garden.
I wonder, then, if there’s a lake.
I make my way over to the parcel, my body suddenly tired, my muscles sore, my bones splintering. I’m running out of time here. When it starts to hurt too much I am pulled from this house that I’ve been to so many times before, but I can’t go yet. Not just yet.
I lay down flat on my stomach and my hair falls into my face. Beneath the blind I can see the garden, so I lay my face flat on the floor and turn my head so that the tiny brown package now looks as big as the tree behind me. The lights twinkle in the glass of the window.
The garden is covered with snow.
I let out a breath and melt into the carpet with my tears.
There are shapes out there that I know – a bench, a barbeque that’s been covered over, a bird bath, flower beds, a little sagging shed – and the sky is white and frozen and everything is calm. I turn over ever so slightly and look at the window behind me a few feet away from the tree and it’s the same as it ever was – harsh beating light, scorched grass, lazy birds flapping slowly through the bright blue sky.
I turn my head back to the winter window and take the parcel off the floor. There is no tag on this one and its small and flat and square. I pull on the green twine that holds it together and it unfurls like a flower. I feel fresh tears spike as a piece of card falls out onto my face. There is a name on the card written in the same looping handwriting.
There’s a CD case inside the brown paper. It’s cheap and flimsy and green like the twine. I open the case and written on the opal coloured front of the hand burnt disc is one word – sorry.
I close my eyes and let my chest judder out a sob as I clutch the case white knuckle on the floor as through the winter window it starts to snow again.