Artemis’s short story explores the complexity and difficulty of relationships with family, especially over the Christmas and holiday season.
My family is the Christmas gift you say you love with an abnormally high-pitched voice and a festively plastic smile. We are tightly wrapped, us four, in our own awkward packages, and the doors are closed.
My brother: bubble-wrapped in his bedroom where sunlight, filtered, sludges in. The single-glazed window offers no insulation and a bubble wrap layer is our meagre solution. (Still too bright, he grumbles, and the Grinch slinks back under his covers). When my family moved here, they inspected their bank balance, took into account I would be away for university most of the year, and decided to rent a house without room for me. I am offered the air mattress that my brother turned his nose up to, protesting that the bare ground was more comfortable (and my aching back agrees). He has a bed now and spends most of his time in it and on his phone. He is still a baby, as all younger siblings are, and clings to me when my back hurts too much and I slip in bed next to him. I worry that my brother lives as I did, caught up in fantasy and solitude, not quite understanding how to be a human.
The kitchen is unheated but my mother’s presence is warm. She has filled the space with plants against the winter with homely scents of thyme and rosemary for her cooking; climbing vines and fat ugly leaves with no name; sunflowers and primroses that do not belong; green onion roots put into water for regrowth. Life is her domain. She gave birth to my brother natural as oranges, early in the darkness when the doctors hadn’t arrived and couldn’t sedate her. She peels oranges for us and works in a cafe. They have a dishwasher at the café and my family has me. Food screams inside the fridge like babies, discounted and discontented, out of date but hoarded by stomachs that disbelieve fullness. This family is made up of the particles of this difficult food. We have ten different types of tea; my mother drinks chamomile to stop the dreams that roll her off the bed. The last time I rolled out of bed, I hit the floor so loud that my flatmates thought we were being burgled. We have ten different types of tea. I drink coffee.
My father who has built our family from having nothing moving into this country heads the empty dining table. He carried it and every other piece of furniture into the house and read every word of the 30-page rental contract with all its addendums. Yesterday he mentioned how his colleague asked why he’d post Christmas cards because it was a ‘woman’s job.’ It was amusing to him and I heard all its misogynistic undertones. He laughed and told me it was nothing. But it wasn’t nothing because it was something to me. I was angry but wasn’t I proving him right by being the Emotional Woman? And shouldn’t I be emotional? My father is a stranger to emotions but likes fiddling with bicycles and learning how to fix the pipes while I try to fix myself. We went out on the bikes he had repaired yesterday afternoon and it rained on the way back. I said I liked the chocolate cookies from Tesco a few months ago and my mom says he still buys them, even when I’m at university.
The living room bares itself against the cold, on the ground floor facing north. It is liveable because my father fixed the heating and my brother put bubble wrap on the windows. I took it for myself; no one had claimed it yet and I needed somewhere to live.
I fashion myself Dickinson, and Nobody is my confidant. Passers-by may ogle me as they please, I keep the curtains open to let in sunlight. I am a sucker for sunlight that is warm to touch. My mother has hung up an ornamental Christmas tree that she made herself because we cannot afford one and she is full of hope. She rolled up pieces of newspaper in sticks and shaped fairy lights on them till it looked like a Christmas tree. There are no presents under our tree that Santa Claus has long forsaken but our tree still flashes in the night. In those brief moments of illumination, I do not need to grope for understanding in the dark. My family loves in different languages, and in tentative whispers. We are always still trying to interpret each other in a lifelong work of translation.
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Artemis Lam is a third-year English Literature student at Durham University. She is an advocate for open and honest conversations on mental health, as well as a literary representation of such experiences. When she is not reading or writing poetry, she can usually be found in the gym or indulging in her mildly worrying addiction to coffee.