I have just written out my Christmas list.
“Dear Father Christmas — Forget the weekend at Champneys. Forget the new iPhone. You can even forget Michael Buble’s Christmas album. Just get rid of her. Love, Libby. P.S. If the dog could go with her, that would be even better, but I don’t want to be greedy.”
Having her belly button pierced is one thing. Flaunting it around the house by wearing red low-slung jeans and a zebra-striped push-up bra and not much else is quite another. The weather has been unseasonably warm for a few days, and my suggestions that she cover up are met with hand-waftings and “Oofs” and “It’s much too hot to wear anything else”. I get my own back by pondering aloud whether menopause sends women back to a second adolescence (or in this case, prolongs it.) She doesn’t like that.
So we haven’t been out at all after that trip to the mall. Walk with Sandra down Main Street in Woodhaven and get arrested for solicitation? I don’t think so. Thankfully, the weather has cooled off now, and even Sandra concedes that see-through belly-shirts don’t look very nice when teemed with a rash of goose pimples.
When she comes downstairs today, somewhat subdued in a sweater and thick socks (I turned the heating down, too, to make sure she didn’t go back to the Victoria’s Secret ensemble) I suggest we go to a local farm shop to look at Christmas trees. A lot of people round here seem to put their Christmas decorations up the minute the Thanksgiving turkey carcass has been picked over by the cat, but of course, I was in no fit state to do that, being in hospital with mother-in-law-inflicted food poisoning. Anyway, November is too early to put up a Christmas tree. But now it’s well into December, I think this might be a way of wholesomely entertaining my monster-in-law. Better an expedition for a Christmas tree than for dubious lingerie.
The farm shop is lovely. They only sell Christmas trees and wreaths now, but a couple of months ago it was all pumpkins, apples, and strange, warty vegetables; in the summer when we arrived, there were Busy Lizzies and punnets of blueberries, and signs inviting people to pick their own strawberries and raspberries. Jack and I went there a couple of times, and increased the frequency of our visits when we discovered that they also sold homemade ice cream.
They have Christmas trees of all different sizes, and, apparently, shapes. You wouldn’t think there was such a difference between trees of the same breed, but picking the right one — judging by the pernicketiness of other customers — is like getting the right wand to choose you in Ollivander’s Wand Shop.
After meandering up and down aisles of green bristly twigs that all look the same, I’ve eventually had enough.
“This one, I think,” I say, pointing to a nice bushy tree about five feet tall. It’s green, it’s got pine needles, it’s got branches — what’s not to like?
“You can’t have that!” Sandra screeches. Her screeches aren’t as bad in the open air, but this one is still loud enough to make several customers lose concentration in the serious matter of evergreen selection, and they shoot us disapproving glares. “It’s much too small! Your ceilings are as high as Westminster Abbey’s.”
Not quite that high, but there are a few spaces of double height – such a waste of heat and floor space, in my opinion – and I’d planned to put the tree in the hall, in one such wasted space.
“Now this is more like it,” she goes on, pointing at one at least eight feet tall. “Go on, Libby, get this one. I’ll pay for it. It can be your Christmas present.”
Well, all right then. Admittedly I’ve had better Christmas presents, but not from Sandra. An eight-foot tree is better than, say, an eight-foot pet cobra, which is probably what she’ll give me if I don’t accept the tree.
The tree is all bundled up neatly in netting, and two men wrestle it onto the roof of my minivan — “It’ll be much easier to get off there at the other end,” they assure us — and home we go in our tree-topped car, much to Jack’s delight. He thinks we’re playing soldiers and the car is our camouflage.
To give Sandra her due, she hauls the tree down on her own, drags it into the house, and then, together, we manage to set it up in the tree stand.
We stand and survey the tree. God, it’s even bigger now, out of its chicken wire. “Where are your Christmas decorations?” Sandra ask.
Damn. They are in the loft in our house in England — not that I’m going to tell Sandra that, because it’s her house for the time being, and I’ll never see them again if she becomes aware of their existence. But even if they were here, thinking about it, they’d be useless. The lights are wired for UK sockets, and the number of decorations and lengths of tinsel would barely cover the bottom branches on this monster.
“How do you feel about a trip to Wal-Mart?” I ask.
Silly question. Of course she wants to go. She’ll fit right in.
I’ll even let her wear her zebra-print for the occasion if she likes. No one there will think anything of it.
* * *
We return from Wal-Mart with more bling in the car than the average rapper stores in his mansion. Ten strings of lights, enough tinsel to stuff a mattress, lots of really quite tasteful silver and red ornaments, and a Holiday Sparkle Barbie as the angel. (Well, a girl can always use another Barbie, can’t she?)
Jack loves all this, of course, and starts chucking the strings of tinsel around. Then Fergus joins in the fun and runs around the house with his mouth full of silver glitter.
“We’d better get this lot on the tree before Jack breaks something or Fergus eats it all. But—” I look at the top of the tree, far out of reach “—we’ll need the stepladder.”
“I’ll get it,” Sandra says, without missing a beat. “You’ve done enough lifting today.”
She goes into the garage to fetch it, and once again, as so often happens with Sandra, I feel a bit guilty that I might have misjudged her.
“Here we are!” Sandra lugs the ladder toward the tree, opens it up, and tests its wobble. “Safe as houses. Up you go.”
Me, up the ladder? Only this morning, my Pregnancy Planner app on the computer had cheerily advised me: “You are now 17 weeks, and probably starting to feel a bit off balance. As your belly grows, your center of gravity changes. Try to avoid situations with a high risk of falling.”
I look at Sandra quickly, to see if she’s joking. She isn’t.
“I can’t go up the ladder,” I say.
“Well, I certainly can’t. I’m scared of heights.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before you insisted we buy a bloody sequoia, then?”
Sandra gets all huffy, just like she did when I didn’t appreciate her gift of a tarantula, and after a few minutes of her sulks and wobbly voice and moaning that nothing she does is ever appreciated, I lose patience. Anything for a quiet life.
“Give me the fairy lights and that doll,” I say.
Sandra beams. “Just think what a nice surprise it will be for Oliver when he comes home tonight.”
I take two steps up the stepladder, then two more. The floor is even, and there’s a little bar at the top of the steps that I can hang onto, so I’m sure everything will be all right — and everything would have been all right if Oliver hadn’t chosen that moment to come home.
Fergus, as you know, adores Oliver as much as he despises me. Already over-excited, he hears the door from the garage opening into the laundry room, and with a trail of tinsel dangling from one side of his mouth, he charges toward the kitchen to meet Oliver.
Sadly, Fergus has never quite got the hang of manoeuvring round obstacles. He prefers the direct route. On this particular route, the stepladder with me on it is the obstacle in question.
He runs under it, then tries to jump over the bar on the other side of the A frame. He misses. The ladder quivers, rocks, and falls sideways. Fergus gracefully swerves out of the way.
I, alas, do not.
By the time Oliver reaches the hall, I’m in a heap on the floor with tears of pain squirting from my eyes, choice phrases issuing from my mouth, and nursing an ankle that is surely twisted, if not sprained.
“What the hell happened here?” Oliver asks. “Mother, you’re supposed to be looking after her. Sweetheart, are you OK?”
Sandra pipes up. “I told her not to go up that ladder, you know, but she wouldn’t have it, she said she wanted…” Her voice trails off as she catches my eye.
Oliver looks from me to her and back again. He’s guessed the gist of what’s happened, if not the details. Sandra’s emotional blackmail can make people do all manner of stupid things. He’s been the victim of it many times.
“I’m taking Libby to the hospital — again — to make sure she and the baby are all right. Do you think you could possibly look after Fergus and get yourself some dinner without setting the house on fire or anything?”
“Of course!” Sandra, desperately trying to worm her way into Oliver’s good books. “And I’ll see to Jack, of course.”
“No, Jack’s coming with us. We’ll get our neighbour to look after him instead.”
* * *
After we’ve deposited Jack with Maggie, driven to the local ER, handed over our insurance details and are sitting waiting for my name to be called, Oliver takes my hand.
“Some good news and some bad news, I’m afraid, love. I’ve got to go to Milton Keynes again next week for a couple of days. That’s the bad news.”
“No!” I wail. “You can’t do this and leave me with your mother while she pretends she can’t get a flight until year after next!”
He puts his finger over my lips. “Shhh. I haven’t got to the good news yet.”
From his jacket’s inside pocket, he takes out an envelope with an airline’s logo on it. “I’m flying with these guys next week, like I usually do. Racked up a lot of points with them in the last year. I’ve just hit Gold status.”
“Brilliant,” I mutter. “So now you can eat peanuts and have free beer in a posh airport lounge and push to the front of the check-in queue. Big deal.”
Oliver pulls out a slip of paper. “All that, yes. Plus a companion ticket to London. I can take her home, Libs. Free. She really will be gone by next Monday. I promise. And when I come back, I wondered if you’d like a couple of days at that nice spa hotel near Springfield? Maybe ask Maggie to have Jack and Fergus?”
* * *
Dear Father Christmas –
Really? Really? Get rid of Sandra and let me have a weekend at a spa? Now, that’s just showing off. But it’s OK. You can do it again sometime.
Lots of love from Libby.
© 2011 Kate Allison