The sun’s gift that Christmas morning was to shine and shine. Gallantly it made its way through the grime of the first floor windows in Goodge Place. It traduced the fairy lights laced through Victor’s tree to a grubby yellow, and turned those around the gilt mirror almost invisible. Walking into into the living room, Tom immediately wished someone else would arrive puffing merrily on a cigar: so seasonal would its smoke look suspended in the sunlight. Instead, there was a smell of freshly-squirted furniture polish, and recently disturbed eddies of dust wavered in the air.
“There’ll be six of us, maybe eight,” Victor had said when he suggested they spend Christmas together. Now, however, Tom noted, the table was laid for seven.
At the sight of this room: its table settings, its tree and the coloured lights, Tom sensed something akin to having arrived in a hotel on holiday. This wasn’t simply a place for lunch but he would be here for hours, in all likelihood well into the evening. A whole landscape of activities and events might unfold in here of which complimenting Victor on the moistness of his turkey would only form a very small part. Other than eating and playing games (he hoped there would be cards, Tom loved cards), there would shifts, developments and changing allegiances between those gathered around the table, mirroring the journey of friendships in life, but in miniature. Victor had told him, quite sternly, gifts were not to be exchanged, but Tom nevertheless had felt he should bring something for his host. In his bag therefore along with two bottles of wine, a bottle of the second cheapest champagne he could find, and a box of chocolate truffles there was also a book. To counteract its gift status he had considered not wrapping it but in the end had decided that looked both antagonistic and lazy. He intended to present it as a preemptive thank you. He was holding it in his hand when Victor returned from the kitchen.
“Sherry?” He offered Tom a schooner, the type of which Tom had only seen in pubs with hunting scenes on the walls. Bob then ambled in, silent as ever, never barking. He sniffed at Tom’s shoes then went round and round in circles several times before finally slumping down, his jaw resting on Tom’s foot. When Victor had taken Bob home as a puppy he had cried for the first three nights. Victor listened as the little dog searched the dark flat looking for his mother. He could hear Bob howl, then he would stop for a while and Victor would wonder if that was the end of it but before long he’d start up with the howling again. The neighbours might start complaining soon, Victor had fretted. On the fourth night, however, Bob stopped crying, obviously the small dog’s mother now forgotten to him.
“The table looks lovely, Victor,” said Tom.
“Thank you, my dear.”
They both admired it for a moment. The moment being slightly too long. Victor looked proud. The candles were already lit, small sprigs of holly at their bases. Tom had a sudden vision of making the Christmas news in one of those sad, tawdry stories the season specialised in. Seven queens dead in table decoration inferno, Moira Stewart purred.
In the centre, next to a ramekin filled with cranberry sauce, squatted a ceramic brown frog. “Ah, you’ve spotted, Toady, the mustard pot,” said Victor. “An Xmas pressie from Diana. It comes out every year.”
“Talking of presents, Victor, I know we said we weren’t doing them but this a little thank you, if you like.”
Victor took the book, looking quite serious. “I haven’t got you anything.”
Tom felt something atmospheric change in the room. “It’s not a Christmas present.”
Victor raised a doubtful eyebrow. “Well, it’s very thoughtful of you,” he said, before placing it, unopened, on a small table by an armchair.
Something tugged a little at Tom’s sense of guilt. His family back in Leatherhead would be eating smoked salmon blinis about now, not really so very long after finishing their Special Breakfast of scrambled eggs and grated truffles. Throughout the year, everyone told everyone else how much they disliked the woody, decaying smell of the truffles, (jock-strappy, Tom thought) although no one ever told Dad. So still they ate them. An annual unwanted treat consumed two days after Dad brought them home, triumphant from a drive to a delicatessen in Dorking, holding aloft the small bag, his face etched with pride as if he’d gone out into the forest alone, on all fours, and sniffed them out for himself.
Suddenly, Bob barked at something.
“What’s the matter with you, you daft ha’porth?”
Bob’s jaws snapped shut on thin, Christmas candle-scented, air and Tom watched as a fly lazily flew upwards.
“Bloody flies. They’re everywhere today. Must be a dead rat under a floorboard somewhere. Anyway, you calm down, Bob,” he said, gesturing at the dog’s basket. “Happy Christmas.”
They clinked their sherry glasses; Bob closed one eye; and the fly settled, injudiciously, in the molten wax of Victor’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ candle, causing the flame to quietly sizzle.