O Christmas Tree!
(a slightly cynical short tale)
“What am I bid for this lovely set of vintage, nay, antique, Christmas tree ornaments? Who’ll start the bidding at £10?”
She was never sure why she chose to bid that day; perhaps it was disappointment that the items she had been after had gone beyond her limit. Perhaps it was the chill outside and the few lonely flakes of snow drifting down; maybe the holly and the ivy dotted around the auction house put her in a festive mood. It may even have been the softly twinkling bauble that the auctioneer held up, twirling on a wisp of thread. Whatever it was, she found herself determined to buy something that day, and though she spent more than she intended, once she’d looked at the ornaments, she realised she’d got a bargain.
Some of the set was displayed on a threadbare artificial tree, each glass globe slightly different, each battered wooden toy unique. There was what the TV antique dealers referred to as patina, (what her mother would have called ground-on grime) and a sense of age that was deeply attractive in an era when Christmas had become throwaway. She’d seen entire trees, festooned with ornaments and with tinsel and fairy-lights, left out for the bins even before New Year’s eve. Her friends from the school gates and the PTA all vied to have the most original Christmas decorations, scouring the hand- made sites online, and even making their own.
This set, however, was instant history, traditional Christmas in a box, as if handed down from great grandma with a few treasured heirlooms from even further back. It reeked of old money. As the auctioneer’s assistant dismantled the display, wrapping each item back in tissue paper that was falling to dust in his hands, she sighed happily. Surely this would win the unofficial contest for best tree.
At home, in the half hour before she needed to go to collect the children, she lifted the lid and inhaled. A smell of old books (that must be the paper?), wood and a tiny hint of mildew reached her nose, and she resolved that when the kids were safely in bed, she’d examine each one, cleaning them enough to be hygienic but not so much they lost that glorious patina.
“Can we put the tree up?” her older daughter demanded, more or less the moment she got in.
“Please, mummy, please please please?” the younger one chimed in while her son tried to stay aloof.
“You can put your tree up,” she said, with an emphasis on your. “Mummy is going to do her own tree, too, this year.”
The tree stood already in the garage, a perfectly formed specimen of some sort of exclusive fir, delivered that morning. Other mummies took their offspring to select a tree as a family, but she’d ordered one online, hoping to trim the expense a little. But that meant she’d need to get another one, for herself. She’d been allowing them to choose an ornament each whenever they went to the shops, ever since the shops started stocking Christmas tat.
She supervised the rather tedious squabbling between siblings that always occurred when they did anything as a group, and once the tree was decorated to the satisfaction of all, she made them stand together in front of it, holding hands and with great fake smiles, so she could take the obligatory photos. From bitter experience, she knew they’d be swapping things around until Christmas Day itself whereupon the tree itself ceased to be of interest at all.
She left them to drape everything else in the house with garlands of tinsel and the other tasteless items they’d insisted on, and went to make dinner, though her son was hassling for pizza instead. Her mind was full of ideas for her tree, something that would be completely different from anything anyone else was likely to have. It was gone ten before quiet descended on the house and she could have a proper look at the decorations. She laid out an old blanket on the wide old farmhouse kitchen table she’d spent far too much on (“How much? We could have bought a bloody farmhouse for that!” her husband had said, horrified, when it had been brought in. “What was wrong with the old one?”) and one by one, unpacked the box, discarding the ancient, crumbling tissue paper.
There were fourteen hand-blown glass baubles, their silvering perfectly imperfect, and below the dust their surfaces were iridescent and slightly smoky; their fixings were tiny little silver bell-like structures. Layers of thick, sticky dust covered most of the ones that had been at the top of the box, and she wiped them down with a damp cloth, grimacing at the black filth that came off. Fifteen beautifully rustic carved wooden figures, from toy soldiers to fairies, angels and robins, and stars, paint flaking and in one or two cases, rubbed off almost entirely. These too were given a wipe over; but not too thorough.
It was only when she was wrapping them again with layers of paper towel that the fragility became apparent. The bauble she held just seemed to pop in her hand, exploding in a shower of glass slivers and a smell of smoke. The white of the paper towel became dotted, then flooded with crimson, for the wafer-thin glass had opened up a surprisingly large gash in her hand.
“So that’s what you’ve sneaked off for,” said her husband, appearing behind her, empty glass in hand. “What the hell have you just done to yourself?” He’d seen the blood and the shattered glass. “Idiot woman. Can’t you do anything without making a mess of it?” He helped her clean the gash and put a plaster on it but left her to sweep up the shards of bauble.
“What is this load of rubbish anyway?” he’d asked before dumping his glass in the sink (“The dishwasher, put it in the dishwasher!”) and returning to the ten o’clock news.