Home for Christmas

by Jo Withers

Bing Crosby’s malevolent ghost greets me on the front step of my parents’ house, scratching yellow fingernails down the flaking paint as I unlock the door and step past into the hall. Inside, there’s not the slightest flicker of Christmas spirit, not a single decoration in sight, the crisp snow falling from my boots the only indication it’s Christmas Eve. Bing pushes a silver strand of hair from his red-rimmed eyes and stands uncomfortably close as I call upstairs to Mother. When she doesn’t answer, I make my way through to the lounge and Bing follows, rotten toe bones cracking ominously with every stride.

As we reach the lounge, Bing floats ahead and settles wraithlike on the sofa. I notice he’s wearing a faded turtleneck with polar bears bowling snowballs around his chest. He smiles as I watch him, famously straight teeth gleaming like tombstones. I shake my head trying to dispel the vision. I know Bing isn’t real, he’s just a manifestation of my anxiety, a symptom of my unease at being home again.

The fire starts up with a flash of flame, and for the first time I notice my mother standing at the mantelpiece with her back to me. She’s thinner, much thinner, and I feel guilt spiralling in my chest – it’s been way too long since I came home. From the sofa, Bing smirks at my discomfort.

“Mum,” one small word drenched with a lifetime’s meaning.

She flinches at the sound of my voice but doesn’t turn around. She reaches up and pulls a picture from the mantelpiece, begins to polish it with her sleeve. Thick dust escapes in wisps around her like tiny fleeting phantoms.

“I know it’s been a long time, Mum. I should have visited sooner.”

She continues her rhythmic polishing. Bing crosses his loafer-topped legs, enjoying the drama.

“It must have been hard on your own since Dad died.”

At the mention of his name, she stops polishing, becomes unnaturally still. Suddenly, she spins around and begins to walk towards me. She looks much older, skin ash grey, eyes cold with the frost of a thousand crystallised tears. As she reaches me, she thrusts the picture hard into my chest.

It’s a photo of me on Dad’s lap when I was four. She doesn’t say a word, but I know exactly what she means.

“I know, I should have come back for the funeral. I’m sorry. The business was so busy at the time…it’s no excuse.”

She pushes past me and heads upstairs. Bing rises from the sofa grinning gleefully. He floats after her, passing straight through me, icy and unsettling as a flurry of snow. I sigh and follow them upstairs.

The landing at the top is filled with boxes. Cardboard cities piled high on top of each other, random contents printed on the side—six cartons spearmint toothpaste, twenty tinned tomatoes, eight bars lavender soap. There are enough boxes to keep an army in supplies for weeks—why would Mum need all this stuff?

Seven doors lead off the landing—all of them are closed. Bing reappears, sticks his yellow head and torso through a door at the far end. He beckons me with one long bony finger. I walk to the room that used to be my parents’ bedroom and push open the door.

One of my parents is inside but not the one I expected. Dad sits in a chair by the window glaring at me through his one good eye, the other half of his face ravaged beyond recognition by the cancer that killed him.

“So, you’re finally home,” he spits, tumour wobbling as he speaks.

Bing floats in and stands behind his chair.

“Three years it’s been, not so much as a phone call. Have you any idea the pain you’ve put your mother through?” The mass bulges as though it might pop. Bing pats his shoulder sympathetically.

“I’m not discussing this,” I blather. “You’re dead and you’re not real.” I point from Dad to Bing.

“I’m sorry I’ve been busy and I’m sorry I missed your funeral, but I need to speak to Mum.”

“She’s in the bathroom,” Dad sneers.

I leave the room, tripping over boxes as I go: ten packs masking tape, eight cans mushroom soup, floor wax.

I knock on the bathroom door, “Mum? Are you in there?”

She doesn’t answer. I turn the handle. She’s leaning out of the large bathroom window looking over the snow-sprinkled garden. She looks so fragile, as though a sudden gust of icy air would blow her onto the ground below.

“Come in, Mum, it’s freezing.”

She doesn’t reply. I take a step towards her, she leans out further. Dad and Bing appear beside her. She leans out further still.

“Stop it, Mum, come inside… tell her, Dad, make her stop.”

Dad and Bing begin to laugh, Bing takes a monogrammed handkerchief from his trouser pocket and dabs his delirious eyes.

“Such concern! It’s been three years! Never a letter, never a phone call. She resorted to ordering shit online just so someone would come to the house, a few seconds with the delivery driver or small talk with the postie…’

Mum edged closer to the window again.

“Careful, Mum!”

“It’s too late,” Dad shouts, yanking the shower curtain back. Mum’s skeletal corpse is slumped in the bathtub, dried blood ink-black on the porcelain base.

I spin back in horror forgetting the open window.

Seconds later, I’m staring down at myself on the frosted ground, brains splattered across the ice like raspberry syrup on a snow cone.

Dad appears beside me, leads me back into the house. Mum smiles as I walk into the lounge, pats a seat beside her. Bing leans on the mantelpiece, dead eyes twinkling like broken fairy lights. He winks a wonky wink and launches into “Winter Wonderland.” Mum kisses my head and pulls me close.

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