• A Christmas Story

    This isn’t a night like any other. If only because it’s full of hope and promise that it’s going to be special. It’s a time for forgiving, loving, forgetting differences. And yet every year, decade after decade, I see the same anguish, the same lies, the same stories. I see children repeating the errors of their parents. I see grandchildren laughing at the same pranks that made their grandparents laugh. Only the time changes, and for me it doesn’t pass so quickly.

    Seven in the evening.

    The air is beginning to smell of sweet fritters and firewood.

    The blonde girl wipes her tears and retouches her makeup in the car’s rear-view mirror as the young man takes some bags from the boot. Without a word he waits for her to decide to get out, take the baby that’s asleep in the back seat and follow him to door number seven. I haven’t seen her looking so sad since that time when she used to wear her hair in braids, her knees skinned under her dress and a dog, forever immobile, lying in her arms.

    At the window of 4E, a woman peeps anxiously between the curtains. He won’t be here for hours, she knows. But she can’t help gazing out at the street that’s dark now, in anxious expectation of the headlights of the blue Ford.

    At number nine on the second floor, the man is still on the sofa. He’s lost count of the number of beers his wife has brought him every time he’s shouted for one. The kitchen is full of fumes as the extractor fan’s been broken for three years. And she still has the rabanadas* to make.

    On the fifth floor is the happy family. Their tree is the prettiest, their children the best-behaved, their presents the most expensive. The smiles multiply as the rest of the family arrives in groups. Four generations.

    And now a car stops down below, but it isn’t the blue Ford. Two men say goodbye with a kiss on the lips. One, the driver, sets off. The other, the passenger, takes a deep breath and hides his wedding ring in his jacket pocket as he makes for his parents’ house in the building next door.

    Nine in the evening.

    A drizzling rain is falling that everyone wishes was snow; except for me, as it would burn my leaves. Snow would be more romantic, it’s true.

    The blonde girl is smiling again. The young man too, although the rage still simmers in his eyes. The baby is passed around, infecting everyone with its innocence as if to prove to all those who opposed its existence how magic a tiny being can be. The incarnation of hope. Every possibility still open.

    At the window of 4E, the woman looks out one last time before going to sit alone at the table. She could have gone back to her hometown. It’s always at times like this you regret not having gone back. But then again, what would she have to say to them all? How was she supposed to show an interest in their provincial lives, always the same stories, always the questions wrapped up in reproachful tones?

    The man on the second floor keeps drinking, though now he’s finally left the sofa. The children pretend they don’t care. They have to smile for their mother’s sake, she’s had so much to do. She even made the rabanadas, which are always left over, because no one likes fries.

    The happy family is all smiles as it shares a sumptuous meal. The father of the children is busy sending text messages under the table. His wife pretends not to understand. It’s Christmas. We’re supposed to smile. The envious sister-in-law can’t take her eyes off her brother’s wife, who’s always so well dressed, so well turned out, while she doesn’t even have money for a manicure. The matriarch of the family looks wide-eyed at her husband every time he refills his glass. ‘You shouldn’t drink so much. Who’s going to drive us to church?’ The adolescents are playing games with each other on their mobile phones. Grandmother pretends to be deaf and makes the most of the occasion by seeing only the good side of things: the family all together, perhaps for the last time, who knows. She also makes the most of the occasion by hiding a few more dried figs in the pocket of her cardigan, to enjoy when no one’s looking.

    The man in the house next door keeps on mouthing off about his fantastic travels and confecting stories about his Parisian girlfriend that things are getting serious with. Maybe next year, if all goes well, he’ll persuade her to come to Portugal. His mother’s eyes shine with joy. How she’d like to have a grandchild.


    The magic hour.

    The blonde girl pretends to like the present the young man has given her. She doesn’t want to go to bed in a bad mood yet again. He’s a good boy, deep down. Really, he is.
    The woman in 4E is dozing on the sofa as the candles melt down in their holders.
    The man on the second floor has staggered off to bed, without waiting for the opening of the presents. His wife fights back her tears. It isn’t all bad. She has her children and her grandchildren. She has to keep going, for their sake. Tomorrow’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it.

    Most of the happy family has gone to midnight mass. All except the adolescents, who have stayed behind to look after their younger cousins. They smoke joints at the window as the children jump on the sofa, cranked up on sugar.

    The man in the building next door hands out expensive presents he’s brought from his exotic travels. But all his mother wants is a grandchild. Don’t say she’ll die without having a grandchild.


    A mist falls.

    The blonde girl tells the young man sorry as soon as they get in the car. Let’s start again. Let’s have another baby. A baby makes everything right with its sweetness. Everything will be different, I promise.

    The blue Ford finally arrives. The woman at the window squirms with excitement. She knows she doesn’t have much time. He told his wife he was just going out for a little air, to get over his supper. But that one hour is enough for her. The hour she pretends they’re a couple. The hour she pretends she has a family. He’s brought her another piece of jewellery, when all she wanted was a little more love. But that’s all right. One hour’s enough to dream.

    At number 9 on the second floor, the woman is cleaning the house in silence. She can’t wake up her husband, for she knows what will happen to her. She cleans the house as if she were cleansing her life of its sorrows. These sorrows are many, encrusted like the grease in the extractor fan that hasn’t worked for three years. She swallows back her tears and her visions of what might have been. As long as you have your health all the rest you can endure.

    The happy family disbands. Tomorrow the cynicism will continue. Now each couple sets off for home, bad-mouthing the others all the way. Except for the teens, who are sleeping sounder than the children. Little angels.

    The man in the building next door calls a taxi. He’s looking forward to getting home and laughing with his partner over the lies they had to tell their respective families. They laugh to conceal their chagrin at not being able to spend that night together. Maybe next year it will be different. Maybe next year they’ll have the courage.

    One by one the lights go out and the noise of the car engines fades. Another Christmas Eve has come and gone. There were no miracles to bring instant happiness or solutions to all the problems no one wanted to talk about. In a few hours' time, everything will be as it was before. As it always is.

    I wait for the first rays of sun to warm my branches. It doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, now.

    *rabanadas is a typical Potuguese Christmas dessert, similar to French Toast
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