As Harry passed right through the closed front door he chuckled “that’s never going to get old”. He could almost feel the tinsel tickling the back of his neck as he emerged into the hall. Not three months ago it would have taken ten minutes and several testy arguments with that lovely nurse with the lively bosom to get him and his wheelchair into the living room. But here he was floating along like, well, like a ghost. That made him laugh again, and not an old man’s wheeze either, a bright, violent cough of a laugh.
The kids were tearing tornado-like around the living room. Toys were scattered, ignored, or clasped with a dying man’s last strength, the wrapping and boxes given just as much attention and love. Food smeared faces were lit by smiles and smudged with tears. Grubby little paw-prints were everywhere. An aberration that would once have had him reaching for a heart pill, a calming pale ale or, more likely, caused a tetchy volcanic outburst. Christ, what a waste of energy that was. All those old man clichés he’d indulged in. He’d pretended to hate Christmas for as long he could remember. It was almost like he’d cast himself in the role and over the years forgotten that he was acting. He wondered if Grace had done the same with her over the top love of all things tinselly?
Outside the kids were beached around the table. The grandkids were either wrestling the great-grandkids into submission, stretched out in the sun by the pool or playing with their gizmos. He liked calling them gizmos. If only to see their exaggerated despair and hear them say slowly and loudly “it’s a MOBILE PHONE Granddad, it’s like a computer, but smaller, and a telephone”.
It worked every time.
As he cast his eye over the scene, a retired Scrooge and recently employed Marley, his eye naturally sought out Billy. There he was, his youngest son holding court - a bright ball of fierce intelligence. What they called in those days an accident, a full 11 years younger than Julia, it had seemed like he arrived fully formed. Engaged, talking and walking before Grace even woke up from the worst of all the kid’s births. You’re not supposed to have favorites and Grace would never have admitted it. But no one had to. It was a given. Everyone adored Billy. The girls had the toy to end all toys - a blue-eyed living breathing doll, with an almost supernatural life force. The boys had an admirer, a willing accomplice and a scapegoat. A scapegoat who could never actually get into trouble no matter what they enlisted him in. He’d smile at the annoyed teacher, irate neighbor, or exasperated milkman and they’d simply melt.
And yet somehow, Harry had hardened.
As the years passed, and Billy burned his happy way through what should be murky teenage angst, Harry became stifled in his presence. It was a slow insidious suffocating. Back then, when it mattered, he just couldn’t do anything about it. Billy’s jokes, wild University life and his success, built a barrier between them. He’d tried to hide it, but Grace knew, and it broke her heart.
Of course, now he understood.
Billy and his burning charisma had scalded his ego and intimidated him. How shallow. How stupid he’d been.
Billy looked across at his Sara. She knew. She knew how hard it was for him to maintain this façade. But somehow that was the role he’d been cast. And what was the alternative? Lose the plot? Self sedate with single malt? Curl up into a ball and sob? No, he had to make them smile. Amuse the kids and entertain the adults.
Even at the funeral he couldn’t shake the part. He’d like to get hold of the casting director of this shitty made for TV movie and give him a strongly worded slap around the chops.
The cruel irony of it was so obvious now. All these years he’d been trying so hard to get his dad to smile and ruffle his hair and yet in the trying, the overt effort, he’d pushed his dad away. His beautifully, restrained, dignified dad.
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