Happy Christmas

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Featured Review on this writing by 88 fingers

Simon Caldwell, Elspeth, a gap year. Made in heaven, right?

Simon is sitting on the cold, hard floor of a corridor, his back roughly braced by a concrete wall. It is as silent as a catacomb. He is quite alone in this basement passage which meanders to a subterranean kitchen.

The students on campus have all gone home; Simon has elected to stay for his own complicated reasons, is sitting there introspecting, struggling to figure out who his actions are hurting, really.

Just the usual people.

---

Elspeth was the biggest part of it, he thinks. She has to be part of the background to his current estrangements, his refusal here and now to do the right thing.

It was the thing with Elspeth which had prompted the most egregious round of their moralising, even leading to physical violence. Yes, Simon thinks, his father had really lost it there: "I never touched another woman before your mother," he had shouted as the blows landed on Simon’s shoulders, battering his raised, defensive forearms.

Why not hit him back? That would surely have marked the path of no return, he thinks. Besides, in a moment of insight he saw, in part, where the anger was coming from: the despair and emptiness in his father's nasty moralistic little life.

---

His relationship with Elspeth came in three phases, the first of which was quite innocuous. Simon had left high school a year ago, in December, but was not due to start college until the following September (he has been here at college for four months though it feels like forever).

There had been some discussions of voluntary work overseas but the dates didn't quite work out. Instead he would spend the spring and summer in that cold, distant northern town, working as a live-in assistant at a special residential school for orphaned kids. These were teens who couldn't do much of anything. He helped  them get dressed, taught them and organised trips.

Simon had been assigned his own little bedroom at the end of a shiny new corridor (the school was refreshingly modern). Next along was a staff room. And then there was Elspeth's room, laid out, as he was to discover, just the same as his.

Simon Caldwell was just eighteen: away from home for the first time, growing his hair, pleased that the school had an electric guitar he could practice on. He was in that pleasant state where everything was new, everything he encountered was for the first time. He had the arrogant self-confidence of the intellectually successful, knew he was going places though he didn't know quite where. Perhaps he didn't appreciate the effect this would have on a sensitive working-class girl steeped only in the rough, brawling, macho culture of that bleak, impoverished region.

Elspeth was petite, perhaps a little on the plump side but blessed with an artless fashion-sense. On their days off she would show Simon around her home-town. They’d visit discos, funfairs and the seaside. They shopped, frequented cafés and bars and generally hung out. By local standards they were bohemian - exotic creatures in a drab town.

The kids were the first to notice: "Are you going with her, sir?"

Unlike Simon, Elspeth was not on the road to college. As far as he could tell she had no useful qualifications whatsoever and no real interest in ideas. Her strengths were her warmth and her capacity for affection, traits which were rapidly focused on him. Elspeth said she loved him... but all she got back were mumbled placeholders.

The Easter holidays marked the end of phase one of their relationship. They were both keen in their separate ways to progress things so they concocted a plan: Simon would mislead his parents, inform them that term was starting a few days earlier. And he would come up and stay with Elspeth at the house she shared with her brother.

Their teen deception worked. After a long day of connections and delays, his train eventually pulled into town and he made his way to her house (it was late, dark and raining when he arrived). To his frightened bemusement, he was met at the door by her brother. Simon was struck by his greasy black curly locks before noticing the knife he was waving in his hand.

While Simon was frozen and confused in that shadowy hall, Elspeth appeared and stretched her arm to bar her brother. The message was clear: Simon was hers. Urgent words were exchanged, hissed fragments that Simon could not make out. The young tough backed off and vanished into the dark interior of the house; the slim, nervous intellectual entered Elspeth's home.

That night in her bed things were so easy between them. He whispered to her afterwards, "That was my first time."

She said, "I know."

---

Simon looks up and down the deserted corridor. He's early, not required for half an hour yet. He sinks his head back between his knees, ignores the numbness in his buttocks and thinks back six months, to the start of that fateful summer term.

And now they could not keep their hands off each other. At midnight he would stealthily creep along the dimly-lit corridor, tiptoeing past the closed door of the staff-room where the affable night-nurse would be ironing (she of the friendly, knowing look and closed mouth). And now he would arrive, silently turning the handle and slowly easing her door open, slipping into Elspeth's room - and into her bed.

During those weeks he was - they were - in a bubble of delicious happiness. A bubble bounded by Simon’s approaching departure for college - but they never thought about that.

Simon remembers back to those happy days. If she was on early shift she might interrupt her rounds to wake him with a cup of tea. Was it so surprising that he would drowsily draw her into his bed? Despite her protestations that she didn't have time, that she had duties to perform, that there were people waiting? Didn't her feeble attempts to stop him make it even more exciting - as her panic was stifled with kisses and sudden passion, as he thought?

That was her vulnerability, that she could not deny him. And yet somehow they stayed out of trouble. People said nothing - and covered for them.

The school term ended too soon. During the summer holidays she came down to his home to meet his parents and see his sights for a change. Phase two: they were still radiant with mutual attraction, each a focus for the other: for her emotional commitment, for him a blind, hormonal storm of desire.

Simon wonders in retrospect about his father's reactions. Crammed into their small apartment was an extraordinarily ravishing teenage girl with a stunning figure - her tight blouses and short skirts revealing much of it. Did he think her very presence was an affront to the Lord? Was he jealous of his son's success? Did he even ludicrously try to chat her up? At the time Simon did not give it a second thought. He was too busy pooh-poohing his mother’s tentative suggestions of marriage (laughable!).

Saturday morning he takes her on the bus to town, shows her the art gallery and the shops. Free from the cramping presence of his parents they walk hand in hand in the warm sunshine, oblivious to the background hum of traffic, each conscious only of the other.

On the bus back they're in the front seat of a sparsely occupied top deck, kissing and canoodling. A sturdy woman sitting at a window half way back studies them from the corner of her eye, a moue of disapproval curling her mouth, watching his arm around her shoulder, her quiet gasps of pleasure. But inside she feels a disquieting warmth, is pierced by a stab of fierce jealousy.

They get off half a mile from home, the nearest this bus goes (is that why he chose it?). The track rises across a field and through a line of trees before entering the outskirts of his housing estate. Fifty yards on he whispers, "Shall we do it?" With a nervous smile she lets herself be pulled to the left, through long, bleached stems over the brow of a small rise. Here it's dotted with small bushes: a small, secluded space of calm.

She settles gracefully into the grass, arches her back to remove clothing.

And offers herself.

Afterwards they get to their feet, tidy up. He pulls her close and they hug tightly, dizzy with relieved euphoria. He takes her hand and they trudge back to the path, back to the chastity of his parents’ home.

A few days later they'd had an evening out at a city centre disco. It was getting towards last bus time and he roamed the town centre with her in tow, looking for somewhere, anywhere, private. In the end it was a multi-storey car park, a gap between lonely cars in the dark. She protested but, senses in a whirl, he insisted. And so she complied, lying on her good coat on the gravel with her knickers clenched tight in her hand.

Simon wrote to her after she'd returned: crass, indiscreet phrases such as 'missing lying between your legs.' He secreted the letter in his bedroom, waiting for a chance to post it. This was where his mother duly found it.

Another mark of his former naivety, he thinks. He had taken the issue here as breach of confidence - how dare they read other people's mail! His weeping mother and violent father, battering him round the room, bludgeoned him with a bigger picture.

---

And so the world moved on to autumn, the start of college and phase three of Simon’s tortuous relationship with Elspeth. Once he was at college he obviously couldn't see Elspeth at school any more. She had moved into a bedsit (he never inquired why) and he would hitch up Friday afternoons to spend the weekend with her, returning Sunday afternoon. It was a long way, hours on the road in both directions. Simon forged an intimate relationship with motorway service stations and the best spots to seek a lift.

Their relationship could not survive without daily closeness and work together. Once she said to him in dismay, "Can't you get sex at college without having to drag yourself all the way up here?"

Simon was breaking her heart.

But Simon took her question literally, as something to ponder. He had grown tired of her neediness and despised her drinking (although when drunk she was tearful and honest and... the sex was intriguing). But the lustre was gone; he had lost interest in Elspeth.

It was a week after he’d dumped her when she wrote with her news. He had never given the matter the slightest thought, had assumed she would have had it sorted.

'Don't worry,' she wrote, 'I'll make the arrangements.'

He wonders now what it took her to write those few, utilitarian lines?

And a few weeks later the follow-up: 'It's been done.'

He remembers his interior dialogue at the time, a debate which lives within him still, edged in barbed shards of guilt.

'You should have gone up and supported her,' he says to himself.

'But we had already broken up,' he responds, 'I'd moved on. There was nothing practical I could do. I had nowhere to stay up there and she didn't want to see me again anyway.'

What a fine collection of excuses! He wants to hang his head in shame. And yet his remorse is extraordinarily limited. There is even a consoling sliver of masculine pride: I am potent!

Naturally Simon did not share any of this with his parents, he’s telling them nothing these days.

We have reached the outer limits of Simon’s capacity for empathy but we should pause a moment with Elspeth. What did she think when she met (for the first time?) a guy who seemed to her to be bright, witty and sensitive? Someone who listened to her, treated her (when out of the grip of lust) with some respect?

Surely she was bowled over. I think she suddenly saw another life ahead. Her parents and siblings and neighbours, she thought, need not mark out her destiny. She must have asked herself over and over again: why had it all gone wrong? And in her culture and experience that must have come down to: what had she done wrong?

Did she ‘make the arrangements’ or did she think that that was the best she was ever likely to get, a gift to be treasured? Simon considered this possibility once (much later) but rapidly dismissed it, putting the thought down to his own vanity.

---

Simon has already moved on. Here he is, he thinks, one term at college and he’s already changed course from science to politics. Maths and physics merely bored him - he’d already covered all that stuff at his rather good school. It felt like he was wasting his time in remedial classes here.

And here at college all his radicalism, his anarchist tendencies, have found fertile soil. He has become a student activist, joined a campaigning organisation.So far Simon hasn’t made a single lecture in his new politics course - he’s been way too busy organising propaganda and demonstrations (there was a faculty occupation in his third week which gave shape to his politicisation). Simon believes the authorities may have started to notice his absences, that he’s living on borrowed time.

Simon is right; he will not finish his second year here - to his parents’ anguish and consternation.

Simon has been home once since term began, he hitched down in his usual student garb. He did not anticipate his parents’ response to Critical Race Theory and his accusations of their own implicit complicity. His shoulder-length hair, dirty combat jacket, torn jeans and bare feet didn't totally cut it with the neighbours either. There were arguments: raised voices clearly audible within their high-rise.

So it seems to Simon idiotic to go back now, to scandalise them further and to have them beat up on him with their old-fashioned, patriarchal thinking. Better to earn some cash here as a temporary kitchen porter, servicing the conventions they're hosting over the holidays.

Thinking deep thoughts.

Simon’s head jerks to the sound of clanging utensils. Someone is wheeling a trolley full of dirty pots and pans towards the sinks. This is his cue. Simon trudges, head down, towards the wash-up room. Above the door, someone has outlined a cheery message to staff in gold and silver tinsel.

Happy Christmas.


Submitted: December 21, 2020

© Copyright 2021 AdamCarlton. All rights reserved.

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88 fingers

Life doesn't come with instructions.

Tue, December 22nd, 2020 6:26pm

Author
Reply

Sure doesn't. And surprisingly little experience is transferable too, more's the pity.

Tue, December 22nd, 2020 11:03am

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