Here We Are As In Olden Days by Simon Webster


Image by Silvo Bilinski via Pixabay

Grandma sits in her rocking chair humming old Taylor Swift songs to herself. The rocking would make you believe her mind is elsewhere. The humming would make you think she isn’t focused. But it’s the eyes, it’s her blue eyes. There are seven white strings dangling down the wall because it is Christmas. They hang four sixths of the way down and upon the ends are tied the heads of brown rabbits which, aside from being very pretty, provide a weight to keep the strings hanging straight I suppose. But I must dwell on their prettiness because it feels poisonously cynical to think of the heads as having a functional role. Each string emanates from a tiny hole in the ceiling from where it is being agitated by the little attic beings who have been bred all year for the occasion. Their jerking agitation above makes the rabbits’ heads dance with more grace and joy than they would ever have displayed in life.

The wall is fattened with layers of red paint. A jolly plump wall of paint, it is. Thousands of coats, like the rings hiding within trees. And although unseen, but for this year’s coating, together they swell and bloat towards us to reassure of the longevity of beautiful tradition. There is a strong smell of lime from the paint that summons spit in my mouth. I let it pour over my bottom lip and down onto my bright silk garments as a sign of my appropriate arousal. Christmas is a time when you show your relatives you feel love for the season, you are excited by the season, you are aroused.

My concentration gets its first wobble when I see this year’s painter has missed a spot in the bottom right-hand corner about 1.3cm by 2.2cm. It is an upright rectangle, noticeable by last year’s coating darkening from a year of Grandma burning incense sticks. I feel something I don’t have a name for that Grandma might notice. I feel something else that the painter might be executed. I feel a third something that this might ruin my great purpose. All these feelings might have different names to describe them but I dismiss the lot before I become troubled by the rectangle and troubled by not knowing the names of all the feelings and I assure myself that my Grandma’s blue eyes are fixed upon me and nowhere else. It is my swiftness in dismissing that what I do not know that has given me my cherished reputation of having a long attention span. My Grandma’s blue eyes look at me and only me because it is today that I get the chance to wish my family a Happy Christmas.

All my life Grandma named the Christmas strings from one to seven. Not left to right, or right to left, but in a peculiar order that isn’t commonly done these days. From left to right she names them: One, Four, Six, Two, Five, Seven, Three. She long insists there is a logic to the old system and she could show me too if I grew my hair long because it is like plaiting. It seems an unnecessarily complicated way to go about things. The modern way of counting is with letters and is better although I do understand change is difficult for the old. It is a strange thing, the mind.

Take for example my decision. In the Spring I had no idea which string I was going to choose. I was asked about it daily during the Spring because Grandma had just chosen me so there was a great excitement about it. In the Summer I was settling on an even letter but I kept this private in case I should change my mind and bring a shame on my family. By the Autumn I had settled on an even lettered string for definite, string number D, but by then Grandma had chosen my younger sister for the following year’s Christmas (because the silk has to be ordered in advance) and everybody’s attention was on her. By then nobody cared what string I’d chosen.

The truth is now I am here and presented with these seven white strings with their seven rabbit heads I can see I have no power in knowing which one will actually wish my family a Happy Christmas. Perhaps this is poisonously cynical of me but it is the truth. I have no way of knowing how the attic beings have ordered themselves. I have decided on D for weeks. String number Two in the old system. But there is a problem. You see my sister’s name is Diane. Now say I pull D and it is the wrong answer and I do not get to wish my family a Happy Christmas, well, then I will naturally harbour murderous thoughts about my poor sister. But say I pull D and it is the right answer, then not only will she be heralded for being next year’s chosen but her name will start with the letter of the Happy string! My sister is two. She will also be heralded in Grandma’s old system. I won’t be praised for doing good for others if I pull D and it is the Happy string. I would rather an Unhappy Christmas for everyone than this.

My name is Eric. I put my pudgy hand around the chosen white string. Grandma gasps and stops humming. I can hear her spittle trickle onto the porcelain floor. The murmurings in the attic stop. The whole world knows now I have made my decision. Before I pull the string I think this: Whether I have chosen correctly or not we know that we are continuing the true spirit of Christmas and although my actions might make us sad this year, we will surely feel happy at how our sadness is brought about.


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