Christmas With Debbie
Ten pm on Christmas Eve and a text message arrives. It’s from Debbie. "Can we talk ?"
Richard hesitates before replying. Debbie seldom sends him text messages and the ones she does send are usually work related. What could she possibly want to talk about on Christmas Eve ?
Richard calls her. As soon as she answers he can tell by her fractured, hesitant voice something is seriously wrong: tears are being shed, alcohol has been consumed. He pictures Debbie sitting in her house, wearing her red dress, lipstick smudged across her cheek.
‘Are you OK ?’ he asks, rather foolishly.
It’s difficult for her to enunciate her words. They seem to be getting stuck in her throat - vaporized perhaps by the copious amounts of vodka and lager that he imagines have coursed through her. ‘I’m sorry Richard…’ she says. ‘He got angry with me…’
‘He ? Who’s ‘He’ ? Who got angry with you ?’
‘A bloke…a bloke I met…he pushed me…he said I was messing him around…’
Richard gets dressed and drives to Debbie's house. She too lives on the north side of Worchester in a row of railway cottages overlooking the river. Richard has been here before – he’s dropped her off after work a few times whenever her car was being repaired or seconded for its MOT. He didn't ever go inside though, despite Debbie's pleas that he join her for coffee and cake, "the least I can do."
As he approaches the front door he's wary about what he'll discover. Should he have called the police ? An ambulance ? In the thirty five minutes it's taken him to dress and drive across town any number of terrible things might have happened.
He rings the doorbell. He knocks on the door. He shouts Debbie's name several times through the letterbox. There’s no answer so he shouts his own name through the letterbox, yells at Debbie to open up, yells that if there's a man in there assaulting her he’s going to break down the door. He pulls out his mobile phone and begins to punch in 101. Then, thankfully, he hears movement from inside. He cancels the number and the front door opens revealing Debbie with a swelling below her right eye.
'Jesus Christ - what happened ?'
She looks to be in semi-shock. Her eyes are vacant and her right cheek is red. He asks her if she’s in pain, if anything’s broken, if the culprit is still around.
Slowly, languorously, in a daze, Debbie shakes her head.
Her house is tiny - tiny hallway, tiny lounge, tiny uncarpeted stairs leading to two equally tiny bedrooms. The lounge looks as if it’s been ransacked - books, bottles, food and ornaments strewn across the floor, the flat-screen TV on its side, the wire pulled tight in the socket.
'Debbie - who did this ?'
She's not wearing her red dress as he imagined but jeans and a white blouse. She certainly looks shaken, a bit spaced-out too although Richard isn't sure whether this is due to the trauma of recent events or too much booze.
'I'm sorry Richard' she says and begins to cry so he moves towards her and takes her in his arms. 'Are you going to tell me who did this ?' he asks again. There’s a moment before she answers. 'Some guy I met' she says and buries her head in that warm comforting place between his head and shoulder.
He dislodges her and says he'll call the police. But Debbie doesn't want to hear anything about the police. 'No, no...' she says and grabs hold of his wrist before he can reach for his phone.
'Debbie, somebody has hit you…trashed your front room' Richard says, his voice becoming stern, calculated, and a touch unsympathetic. 'You can't let him - whoever 'he' is - get away with it.'
'It was my own fault' she says. 'It was a guy I met online. I invited him here. I was lonely. Maybe I gave the wrong impression. It was a stupid thing to do. I should’ve known better.'
Richard looks around him and tries to make sense of this unexpected turn of events. It’s Christmas Eve and he's standing in a trashed room with a respected work colleague who says a stranger assaulted her. He now sees that a bottle of red wine has been smashed against a wall; the contents of her bag have been tipped over the sofa. So why is it, he wonders, that he doesn't believe a word she says ?
'Debbie - are you being honest with me ?'
For a moment she looks as though she's about to topple over, as if it’s his question that has hit her full in the face. But she regains herself, fills herself with indignation, lambasts him for doubting her, shouting, trembling, asking him how he could possibly dispute anything she’s said. Richard knows it was a bad move to question the authenticity of the situation, the sincerity of her suffering. So he backtracks, apologizes, tries to calm things down, and before he knows it she's back in his arms sobbing again, spewing out the legitimacy of her emotions. She’s lonely, she says, has been lonely for such a long time; she puts on a face at work – “Oh, how well I hide my loneliness from everybody. Tell me Richard, what did I do wrong ? Is seeking out companionship such a crime ?”
She pleads with him to stay, confesses that she's held a torch for him for years. Surely he knows that ? Surely he's aware of her feelings for him ? She attempts to kiss him full on the mouth but Richard guides her head back onto his shoulder, that warm place that seems, all of a sudden, to be reserved for Debbie alone. “Stay with me Richard” she sobs. “Stay with me please!” And, apart from calling the emergency services and asking for her to be sectioned, he can't think of a more natural, logical way to end the day.
And so Richard stays, in the hours leading up to Christmas Day, with Debbie. At 11.30pm on Christmas Eve he finds himself lying next to Debbie on her messy double bed.
It’s an uncomfortable night. Debbie’s bedroom, a dysfunctional tip that Tracey Emin would be proud of, breeds such anxiety in Richard that he can’t nod off to save his life. There are half filled bottles of wine on the bedside tables, a laundry basket overflowing with Debbie’s smalls, and printed documents – bills, bank and credit card statements - scattered across the floor. Debbie, once Richard has repelled her drunken advances, sleeps soundly. She attempted to undress but Richard prevented her from doing so, eventually letting out a sigh of relief when her head transferred itself from his shoulder on to her pillow. He covered her clothed form with half of the duvet before scouring his half of the bed-sheet for evidence of stains, crumbs and bugs. The cleanliness of Debbie’s bed – the cleanliness of her house - leaves much to be desired. Have the sheets been washed recently ? Have the sheets been washed at all in the past six months ? Richard doubts it. And the bed itself – a king size bed – is far too big for such a small bedroom making it difficult for him, at 01.30 in the morning, to make his way to the bathroom to pee. He lies on her bed rigid, unable to sleep, and feels his jowels tense up as a procession of vulgar images come to mind. Debbie has never spoken about her love life to him. Looking around her bedroom, and armed with his new insight into her secret existence, Richard imagines that the bed has played host to a hundred one-night stands, one-night stands of the most desperate kind – culled from online meet-ups, drunken Saturday night get togethers, and merciless predatory excursions into Worchester’s unseemly districts. Richard shivers thinking about it all – Debbie, the Worchester Vamp! He hasn’t even got the courage to turn off the bedside lamp. Will Debbie’s latest – and most violent - hook-up re-appear with a carving knife ? Or with Timmy’s lump hammer ? (Surely Debbie’s attacker and Timmy are good friends). This leads Richard to wonder how many of Debbie’s past conquests were given their own front-door key…or how many times she’s had to change the locks on the house. He stares at Debbie’s sleeping form and considers waking her to ask these questions as well as a hundred others. But he resists – their relationship, he knows, will never be the same again.
At 7am Richard, still rigid, still awake, gently pats Debbie’s head and informs her that it’s Christmas Day. His announcement is greeted by a low growl. Semi-conscious, hung-over, fully clothed and still humiliated after the desperate, sordid events of whatever took place the previous evening with her online date – she isn't in a festive mood. Richard, though, perseveres. It's important that he gauges her mood because he needs to return home. He's got things to do. He's got to prepare food and drive to the Nightingale nursing home. He's arranged for his father to join him for Christmas lunch after their annual trip to the cemetery to lay a wreath and pay their respects at the grave of Richard's mother. But first he wants to make sure that Debbie will be OK, that she isn't going to do anything silly if left alone, such as trawl the net for another masochistic playmate.
'Debbie - I've got to leave. Have you got any plans for today ?'
She mumbles something to the effect that yes, she's got something planned. She'll be going to her parents’ house for Christmas lunch, not that she's looking forward to it, but Richard can rest assured that she'll be OK.
He strokes her head and tells her to take care. And, as he sidesteps a hitherto unnoticed mound of tights, half eaten chocolate bars and discarded t-shirts, he tells her that he'll call sometime later in the day.
Despite not showering (he took a peek in Debbie's bathroom and decided he'd prefer to remain unwashed) he drives to the Nightingale old people's home to pick up his father. On arrival he's met by the east European care assistant with tattoos on his neck who tells Richard that his father is experiencing one of his periodic angry moods and is refusing to leave his bed. He also wishes Richard a Happy Christmas, leaving Richard uncertain as to whether the man’s greeting is naive or ironic.
His father is being attended by two nurses both of whom are trying to encourage the old man to get up, get washed and dressed, and prepare for Richard's arrival. The senior nurse gives a deep sigh as Richard enters. “He's being a very naughty boy I'm afraid” she says. “I've told him this is not the way to behave on Christmas Day. He should be grateful that his family is willing to go to such lengths to accommodate him. Not all of the residents are so lucky.”
Richard's father tells the senior nurse to 'shut up your stupid cake hole' and Richard has some sympathy for the old man's point of view. The nurse turns and says with a sigh: “I'll leave you to sort out Mr Grumpy.”
Despite his best efforts Richard is unable to ‘sort out Mr Grumpy’. The old man asks to be left alone. He doesn't want to celebrate bloody Christmas and what's more he's not interested in visiting the cemetery. She's dead he says - just like Uncle Eddie's dead and his brother, Richard's Uncle Robert, is dead. “They're all bloody dead and none of ‘em are ever coming back” he says. “I'll be the bloody next one to go” and with that he turns over and pulls the duvet over his head.
What can Richard do if the old man refuses to acknowledge Christmas Day ? While all the other residents of the Nightingale are washed, dressed and issued with crackers and tinsel, Richard’s father remains curled up with the duvet drawn tight against his neck.
“He's very stubborn, aren't you ?” says the plain-speaking nurse, now returned to the room in order to assess the situation. “I suppose we're going to have to put up with him like this for the rest of the day.”
Richard feels a great desire to cause harm to this woman. Instead he says: “If Dad isn't in the mood to celebrate Christmas then I'm not going to force him. If you feel it's going to be problematic to look after him then I'll stay here until he feels better.”
She back-tracks of course, telling Richard his father isn't in any way a burden and 'putting up' with the old man was just a figure of speech. The east European care assistant has also entered the room and tries to defuse the situation by saying: “I will look after your father personally. I will make sure he is given everything he requires.”
Satisfied that his father will be well-cared for,Richard gets in his car. Clearly Christmas day isn't going to turn out as he'd planned.
Richard arrives home feeling exhausted, so exhausted he contemplates following his father’s - and Debbie’s - lead. Why not just get into bed and pull the duvet over your head, he thinks. What else is there to do ? There are probably millions of people all over the country desperate to do the same, people having anxiety attacks in the kitchen, people tearing out their hair as their kids run riot through the house, people arguing with spouses, mothers-in-law, sisters, brothers...and all for what ? To celebrate the birth of a hippy-Jew whose relevance to the modern world is, for a majority of people in the UK, less than zero. Bed seems to be the answer. Bed seems to be the most logical solution.
Richard showers, changes into his pajamas and prepares to enjoy a stress-free Christmas Day lying between the sheets. Before he crawls in to his bed he hears the clattering of cooking pots and goes into the kitchen where he discovers a Chinese girl standing at the cooker frying meat in a pan.
'Hello' she says with a smile, as if cooking in Richard's kitchen is the most natural thing for her to do.
'Sorry' mumbles Richard pulling his bathrobe a little tighter around his stomach and then wonders why he's apologizing for being in his own house.
'I’m cooking Christmas lunch' says the Chinese girl. Richard takes a step forward and peers into the frying pan. 'Is that chicken you're frying ?' he asks. The girl nods. 'Chicken is the correct meat for Christmas, yes ?' There's an air of doubt in the girl's voice. There's also doubt written across Richard's face, a doubtfulness that questions whether chicken breasts, fried in sesame seed oil and garnished with what looks like dried chili flakes, constitutes a traditional English Christmas dinner at all. ‘Is it not correct ?’ she asks. 'You're close' Richard says 'but there seem to be one or two technical problems that need to be addressed.'
Instead of spending Christmas Day in bed Richard finds himself taking on the role of cookery expert and instructing Miss Liu’s girlfriend in Module 1 of English Christmas dinner preparation. After all he's got the ingredients - the turkey crown, the vegetables, the pigs in blankets, the cranberry sauce. 'My father was due to visit' he explains 'but unfortunately he's a bit under the weather.' The girl gives Richard a rather vague look. 'He doesn't feel very well' Richard says and the girl smiles, nods her head, as if to say: 'Ok - now I get it.'
He discovers that her name is Yan and, as Richard predicted, is studying Business Management in Birmingham. She's good friends with Richard's lodger, Liu, as well as Yang-Si, the chubby lad who follows Liu around like a dog. 'Yang-Si is not my boyfriend' Yan says rather forcefully. 'He not Liu's boyfriend either. He just a good friend.'
Richard smiles and nods and suggests she turn her attention back to sprout-peeling, an important job that she's mastering very slowly indeed.
He slips back to his room to change and finds himself rubbing his neck with eau de cologne before re-joining Yan in the kitchen. Occasionally Yan scampers upstairs to inform Miss Liu and Yang-Si of her progress. 'They will not eat here in the kitchen with us' says Yan. 'Liu is, what do you say, under the weather too.' Richard also learns that, as a precaution, take-away food has been ordered from one of Worchester's premiere Chinese restaurants. 'Just in case' Yan says with a smile. Richard, who has now opened a bottle of German Hock to help make the final two hours of cooking even more amenable, pours Yan a generous glass and offers a toast 'To our Sino-English Christmas dinner.' Yan drinks but looks unsure. 'Sigh-noh ?' she says. 'I don't understand.'
By two o'clock dinner is ready to be served. Richard lays the kitchen table and begins to plate up - two plates on a tray for Miss Liu and Yang-Si and a plate each for himself and Yan. One person he hasn't considered is his other lodger, the elderly and eccentric Billy Nutter. Just as Yan seats herself and Richard is anxiously trying to stir the gravy and make sure the oven-roasted parsnips are not over-cooked, Billy, fresh from his Christmas Day walk, enters the fray, eyeing Yan with a mixture of terror and surprise after which he refuses (with a terse grunt) Richard’s offer of a turkey lunch. Instead, Billy takes down from his cupboard a tin of Tesco basic spaghett hoops which he tips into a saucepan.
Yan looks at Richard and giggles.
'Merry Christmas' says Richard, raising his glass.
'Merry Christmas' says Yan and, after allowing Richard to gently touch her glass, they drink.