A Family Christmas
Jon walked along the street with his head down against the driving rain. The rain had started three days ago and hadn't stopped since then; it seemed like this Christmas would be a wet one rather than a white one. He knew the route from Kay's office to the tube station without looking, he'd been walking it once a week for the last eight months, which was useful with this driving rain.
Christmas Eve was two days away, his first Christmas without Eddie. He’d spent that afternoon session talking with Kay about this, about how he missed Eddie and the deep guilt he’d felt over it all. Again, Kay had told him it wasn't his fault and again he'd nodded his agreement, though again he hadn't believed her.
When he reached the shelter of the tube station, he felt a moment of relief; the rain was stinging his face and was chilling his body even through his coat. He shook his head as he marched through the ticket barrier and stepped onto the escalator, heading down to the platform, as if trying to free his body from the rainwater.
It was his work that forced him to start counselling. Mid-March, his manager, Matthew, had sat down with him and said, "Jon, you're really screwed up by everything that has happened. You need to talk to somebody about it all."
"I'm working through it. I'm doing okay," he'd replied.
"You're not and I'm getting pressure on me because it's affecting your work."
It was Matthew who referred him to Kay, she saw other people at his company, and so every Thursday afternoon he took the tube to her office in Seven Sisters. Kay was a good therapist, not the stereotype of the woolly and "touchy-feely" one. She had a calm manner, she understood what he said and seemed to understand his situation. The problem was she repeatedly told him what happened, and how he'd lost Eddie, wasn't his fault, but he couldn't believe her.
With a rush of air and noise his tube train emerged from the tunnel, abruptly stopping at the platform. As the doors opened before him, Jon stepped on board, his eyes quickly scanning for an empty seat, and then sat down on the bench seat to his right where no one else was sitting.
He enjoyed riding tube trains, when the tubes were like this and it was easy to find a seat, it gave him time to relax and get lost in his thoughts. Today, with Christmas Eve only two days away, there was only one thing he could think about, though his thoughts were rarely far away from it.
He and Eddie had been together nearly five years and they were the happiest years of his life. He’d been so fortunate, in Eddie he'd found his perfect partner. They weren't just lovers, they were also close friends. They had the same interests and the same type of friends; their lives dovetailed together so neatly that living together had been easy and so comfortable. He was so happy with Eddie.
The only cloud in the beautiful blue sky of their relationship was Eddie's family, particularly Eddie's parents, but it was a dark and troubling cloud. It was the one thing that they argued about but with never a hope of resolving it.
Eddie's parents refused to meet Jon, saying he wasn't "a real" part of their family. They forced Eddie to attend all their family events on his own, and there were many of them because the Kirkpatrick family was a very sociable one. Jon repeatedly begged Eddie not to go to them, not to let his family drive a wedge between them, but he was loyal to his family, just as much as Eddie loved Jon. Jon resented this, but there was nothing he could do, short of driving Eddie away from him.
Every Christmas Eve Eddie's parents hosted a big family party at their grand detached home in Stanmore, North London. The party would take all evening. First there would be a buffet meal – Eddie's parents prided themselves on their buffets laid out in their conservatory – followed by a drinks party and ending with all the adults going to the local Anglican church for midnight mass. Naturally, Jon had never been to one of them, but he knew their routine from Eddie’s descriptions of them.
Eddie would always return home from these parties in the early hours of the morning, leaving Jon alone on Christmas Eve to watch television and worry about Eddie driving home with all those drunks and partygoers on the London roads.
Last Christmas Eve, Jon had been at home, in their flat, surfing his way through the channels of their cable television. He’d been feeling listless and unable to focus on anything. This was how he usually felt when Eddie was away at one of his family events. When he fell onto the BBC News Channel he decided to stay, it was as much of a diversion as anything else.
He'd only been watching it for a few minutes when a newsflash made him physically sit up and watch closely. The news anchor announced that there had been a shooting at a North London family home and the police believed that eight or nine people had died. The newsflash was accompanied by pictures of a large, whitewashed, detached house that looked surprisingly like Eddie's parents’ home.
In a panic, Jon snatched up his phone and called Eddie’s mobile; the only answer he got was a repeated ringing tone before it went to voicemail. Again and again he called Eddie's mobile number as the news report continued, but each time he received the same answer.
When, barely twenty minutes later, more details were released, Jon's panic rocketed to atmospheric levels. The news anchor announced what had happened and the family's name. An hour before, a man had entered the house, armed with four guns, and opened fire on those present; by the time the police arrived, just minutes later, eight people were dead and twelve others were injured. The gunman had shot himself when the police rushed into the home; he was Bryan Royce and the home he'd invaded was the Kirkpatricks’.
When he heard this, Jon felt the sharp and bitter taste of bile rush into his mouth. Bryan Royce was Eddie's ex-brother-in-law, who had been married to Eddie’s sister Amanda. Their marriage had been stormy; Bryan repeatedly had affairs and Amanda fought back violently. Bryan was also unpredictable as a father. One minute he would be a model father, lavishing attention and affection on his two children, Jesse and Jamie; the next moment he was calling them "the little bastards" and saying they’d ruined his life. The few times Jon met Brian Royce he’d disliked the man. He’d found the man arrogant and domineering with a nasty twist of homophobia when his attention turned on Eddie and Jon.
The last time Jon saw him Bryan Royce had been almost unpredictable in his mood, angry one moment and then shedding tears of regret the next. That was barely a week after Amanda had finally kicked him out of their home and started divorce proceedings. The following week, Bryan had attacked Amanda and beaten her over access to his children.
Amanda and the children moved back into her parents’ home; Bryan was denied access and things fell very quiet.
That had been five months before and, apart from Eddie’s mother complaining about the situation to Eddie over the phone, things had been quiet. Eddie's family's moved on to other dramas and Jon felt it was the last he’d heard of the volatile Bryan Royce. Then came that Christmas Eve party.
In near hysteria Jon had called the police. He seemed to be passed around like a parcel from one department to another, from one person to another, as his panic and fear mounted; all the while trying to find out if Eddie was safe. Eventually he was transferred to a female police officer who said she was coordinating all enquiries. He hurriedly asked about Eddie and in reply she told him someone would contact him; frustratingly, though, she wouldn't give him any information over the telephone.
The next few hours were a nightmare of stress for him, the panic of simply not knowing. He roamed their flat like a caged animal, not able to settle anywhere. Repeatedly he called Eddie’s mobile, but he only got the same answer, his call eventually went to voicemail, unanswered.
At shortly after midnight there came a loud knock on his front door. He’d rushed to answer it, his mind screamed it was Eddie who had somehow lost his keys; but he’d found two female police officers looking as tired as he felt. He knew from their expressions why they were there, but he let them into the flat and listened to what they had to say. He’d felt cold as he did so, cold and tired, the life oozing out of his flesh as he listened to those police officers’ words.
Eddie was dead. He’d died at his parents’ house before the police arrived.
Over the following days their Christmas dinner went uncooked in the fridge, the food slowly going rotten, and their Christmas presents were left unopened, he couldn't bear to look at the presents he’d brought for Eddie; the only thing that changed was that he found out the events of Christmas Eve. Bryan Royce had turned up at the Kirkpatrick house just as everybody was starting to eat their buffet, he’d been carrying four guns. He'd opened fire on the people there as soon as he was inside the house. He killed eight people there (including Eddie, Eddie's parents, Amanda, both of her children, Eddie's aunt and the girlfriend of Eddie's brother Dave), wounded all the other party guests, all except one seven-year-old girl, leaving five of them in intensive care. Bryan Royce then shot himself in the head when he heard the police entering the house.
As he learnt the cold details they gave him no comfort, instead they started that deep river of guilt he felt, a river that seemed too deep to cross. He'd seen how disturbed and volatile Bryan Royce could be. If he'd only been at that party, he could have been able to protect Eddie, he’d have seen how crazy Bryan Royce was; but Eddie's parents and their prejudice had stopped him being there. If he’d been firmer with Eddie he could have stopped him from going to that party in the first place. If he had only got Eddie away from that screwed-up family of his then Eddie would still be alive.
Those thoughts had haunted him since then, only adding to that river of guilt; there must have been something he could have done that would have saved Eddie.
By the time Matthew had first sent him to see Kay, Jon had been barely sleeping at night. He certainly hadn't been eating and could barely focus on work. Now, after eight months of seeing Kay once a week, he could get a whole night's sleep, the nightmares were now once every three days or so, he was eating healthily and could concentrate on this work; but the guilt was still there, no matter what Kay said.
As always, he changed tube trains at King's Cross, walking through the open white station they had finally upgraded it into, and caught another tube train home to Ladbroke Grove. When he left the tube station there, it was still raining that hard and cold rain, but it was now on his back and his walk home was much easier. It was only a five-minute walk from the tube station to his flat, the flat he’d shared with Eddie that was still full of their life together.
When he approached the block where his flat was, he saw a figure standing hunched in the doorway. For a moment he felt a knot of tension in the back of his neck, recently there had been problems with gangs of youths causing trouble outside the flats, but as he approached he saw the figure was using crutches to stand.
“Hello Jon,” the figure said and Jon saw it was Dave, Eddie's brother; but this man looked broken, his thin body held up by the metal crutches.
"Dave, hi," Jon replied as he took out his keys to open the door. "Surprise to see you here."
"I wanted to see you about something, about... You know," Dave said, his voice fading away.
"Sure," Jon said as he pushed the front door open.
As he led Dave up to his first-floor flat, Dave slowly hobbling up the stairs, Jon felt his mood sinking. He knew why Dave was there. It was only two days away, the first anniversary, and they wanted to mark it with a memorial or something. The family had excluded him, ignored his relationship with Eddie, and only after this tragedy had struck was he being thought of, and only at the last minute.
Inside his flat, he settled Dave down on the sofa in the sitting room. He was shocked at how difficult it seemed for Dave to sit. His walking had been stilted, dragging his right leg; but sitting down seemed far more physically difficult for him. Dave used his crutches almost as a lever to lower himself down.
"Sorry about the fuss," Dave said, referring to his limited flexibility. "The bastard shot me in the hip and back, this is the best movement I've got back so far."
"Sorry to hear that," Jon replied.
"The bastard’s dead," Dave said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I came to see you because it's the anniversary in two days."
"I know," Jon flatly replied.
"I'm trying to get around everyone to explain things, but it hasn't been easy."
Jon slowly moved back in his chair. Dave was going to talk about the memorial and he was the last person Dave had got around to seeing. He was always the last person the Kirkpatrick family thought about, or what was left of them.
"I wanted to tell everyone face-to-face why I won’t be having a memorial," Dave said.
"Right." Jon let the word slip out of his mouth very quietly. Suddenly he was listening to every word the other man had to say.
"They're dead. They died because of that bastard and there's nothing we can do to change that. It would be morbid to have a memorial, we can't bring them back."
"You should've known about Bryan Royce though," Jon said, the sentence falling out of his mouth before he’d even fully thought about it.
"We should have, but Dad and Mum said he wasn't part of the family anymore, so I didn't think about him."
"Your parents said I wasn't part of the family," Jon said.
“Dad and Mum were very fixed in their views. They got a lot of things wrong. I can see that now. You and Eddie were very close," Dave said.
"I should have stopped him going to that stupid party." Again the sentence was out of his mouth before his mind had finished forming the words.
"I should have saved Hayley," Dave said, speaking of his dead girlfriend, as his voice shook with a snob and his eyes stared down at the carpet beneath his feet. "The bastard shot me while I was in the kitchen. He killed Hayley while she was in the conservatory. He shot me first. I should have saved Hayley. I could have crawled out of there and saved her, but I just lay on the floor bleeding and crying until the police came. I should have saved my Hayley..."
Dave’s words stopped as his voice cracked and he started to sob. Small and regular sobs as he continued to stare at the carpet. Then his right hand started to shake, shivering almost with each sob. He released it, letting go of the crutch it held there, causing it to fall across his lap.
Jon felt himself pulling back from the man before him, pulling back from the naked guilt and grief before him. He wanted Dave to stop, he didn't want to watch Dave’s pain; but he didn't know what to say. He just pulled back into himself.