(With apologies to Dylan Thomas, whose A Child's Christmas in Wales is a masterpiece and, in homes like the one I grew up in, a beloved holiday classic.)
One Xmas was so like another in those pre-Wii years around the sea-town corner that I can never remember whether it rained for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it rained for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. Experience with West Vancouver tells me it was both.
All Christmases tumble down into the sluice of memory. It was on the afternoon of Xmas Eve, and I was sprawled on Mrs. Rothenberger’s leather ottoman, waiting for aliens, with her son Jordan. It was raining. It was always raining at Christmas. December, in my memory, is grey as England, although there were no gryphons. But there were aliens. Patient, cold and callous, our blistered fingers bandaged, we waited to kill the extraterrestrials. Dead-eyed and non-English-speaking, armed with a never-ending assortment of grenades and guns but no motivation that we could understand, they lurked behind walls in our Halo game until Jordan and I, hopped-up on eggnog lattes, hurled our own bombs at them on the gloomy dust-free screen of his giant TV.
We were so silent and intent, like blind people speedreading Braille as we manipulated the plastic buttons that snuffed out our oppressors, that we never heard Mrs. Rothenberger’s first cry from her yoga studio at the top of the garden. But soon the voice grew louder. “Fire!” cried Mrs. Rothenberger, and she beat her Buddhist gong.
And we ran up the wet grass, with our Halo controllers in our hands, toward the yoga studio; and smoke, indeed, was pouring out the building, and three sweaty people in workout gear were repeating profane mantras, and Mrs. Rothenberger was predicting that she would be horrendously taut by New Year’s Eve if the studio were not saved. This was better than all the aliens in Halo standing on the wall in a row. We dashed toward her, and stopped at the open door of the smoke-filled room.
It smelled intensely of cinnamon incense. Or perhaps the culprit was Mr. Rothenberger, a red-headed movie producer who led the chanting on special occasions, which caused his face to become more and more flushed until it seemed it would erupt into flame from the effort. Perhaps this time it had. He was standing on his head in the middle of the room in a dhoti, saying, “A fine Ex-mas!’ and smacking at the smoke with a yoga mat.
“Call the fire department,” cried Mrs. Rothenberger as she beat the gong.
“They won’t be there,” said Mr. Rothenberger. “It’s Ex-mas.”
“Don’t be so cynical, Jon,” she said. “Has yoga taught you nothing?”
“Do something,” he told us, as we were standing there pointing our Halo controllers at the fire but somehow not putting it out.
“Let’s call the police, as well,” Jordan said. “And the ambulance. And Mayor Goldsmith-Jones. She likes fires.”
But we only called the fire department, and soon the fire engine came and two tall men and a muscular woman brought a hose into the studio and Mr. Rothenberger, who was making himself and Mrs. Rothenberger triple espressos, got out just in time before they turned it on. And when the firefighters had put out the spicy blaze, which had smouldered in a silk pillow on the floor before it lit a pile of hemp thongs, Jordan’s aunt, Miss Rothenberger, came in out of the damp garden and stared at the brawny crew. Jordan and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three firefighters in their gleaming helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving hemp, and said, “Do you have a recipe for tofurkey?”
Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were cottages in West Van, and only white people, except for the Indians who were there first, it rained and rained.
But here a small boy says: “It rained last year, too. I drank the rain and my brother drank the rain and I knocked my brother down and then we went to Delaney’s and had two hot chocolates in a row.”
“But that was not the same rain,” I said. “Ours blew in from the typhoons of Asia and the hurricanes of Louisiana and the monsoons of India, it wrenched trees and houses up into the thunderclouds pressed against the North Shore mountains and set them down in Haida Gwaii the day before the previous Tuesday.”
“Were there postmen then, too?”
“With sodden hoods and streaming cheeks the postmen came, and postwomen, and delivered packages of water and then dissolved into mist before we could even offer a ‘Merry Christmas.’”
“And were there presents?”
“There were the useful presents -- new Hummers and motorized snowboards and trips to Bora Bora.”
“Go on to the useless presents.”
“Clothing with no logos; knock-off purses; biographies of wastrels from Paris Hilton to Lindsay Lohan. And a packet of cigarettes: you put one in your mouth and you stood propped against the wall in the vestibule of an Ambleside restaurant and you waited for seconds for someone to call the police to arrest you and put you in jail, and just as they were about to cuff you, you smirked and ate it. And then it was family dim sum catered in the guest pagoda, and fireworks.”
“Were there uncles, like in our house?”
“There are always uncles at Christmas. The same uncles. Some of them snorting coke in the washroom, others urging their new wives to model the Victoria’s Secret lingerie they ordered for them while they were still married to their previous wives, which has finally arrived. And a few surly teenagers, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sitting on the very edge of their chairs text messaging insulting remarks about their relatives to each one of their thousand equally trapped and unfairly encumbered best friends.”
“Was there music?”
“Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle threatened to play the accordion, an Acadian got out the spoons and began clattering. My sister put on Jessica Simpson’s Christmas album, ReJoyce, and I began playing the spoons to that and she whacked me on the head with the Lindsay Lohan biography and everybody laughed. And then we both went to Lions Gate Hospital for reasons no one can remember and then we went to bed. I put on my iPod and started listening to Dylan Thomas reading a real poem called A Child’s Christmas in Wales. And because I have the abbreviated attention span of anyone born after 1973 I fell asleep almost instantly, well before he ‘said some words to the close and holy darkness.’ And on I slept.”