Erica Wickerson

Happy Brexmas

Erica Wickerson

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     'The wine was passive aggressive.’

     ‘What—how can wine be passive aggressive? Wine is nothing but generous – overly generous in the circumstances. It isn’t loaded with symbolic meaning or whatever Kierkegaardian crap you’re on about.’

     ‘Keep your voice down. If you wake the baby, you’re the one settling him again. And don’t you mean Lacanian crap?’

     ‘Fuck, forgot the monitor.’

     Daniel left the kitchen. Sally pulled a biscuit packet out of one of the Sainsbury’s bags her mum had thrust into her hands as they were leaving that evening. She opened the cupboard. A jar of vitamins fell out and hit the counter with a crack. She put all limbs on pause and listened for the sound of distant wailing. But only the muffled thud of Daniel’s feet on the carpeted stairs answered the vitamins. A cheap box of chocolates. Another two packets of biscuits. A bag of crisps. Daniel returned and shoved the baby monitor into the plug socket. The green light lit up.

     ‘If mum’s constantly on a diet, why all this?’ Sally gestured to the pile on the counter. ‘It’s like the before photo at a diabetes workshop. Or was it all meant for the journey home?’

     Daniel moved round her to the sink. ‘You say the wine is passive aggressive –’

     ‘Which it was –’

     ‘You say it’s passive aggressive but you’re the one who bloody well made the calendar.’

     ‘It’s photos of their grandson for god’s sake.’

     ‘Yeah – on holiday in Germany. Isn’t that passive aggressive?’ He raised his voice to compete with the gushing tap as he filled the kettle. ‘Look mum and dad, look at Sam’s smiling little face, how happy he is as an EU citizen. This is what you’re taking away from him, thank you very much and Merry fucking Christmas.’ He slammed the lid of the kettle and placed it back on its pod, whacking the switch.

     ‘Now you’re exaggerating.’

     ‘Actually, I don’t think I am. I think it’s healthy, nay – necessary – for them to be confronted with their actions.’

     ‘You think a bottle of French wine and a happy holidays calendar is confronting them with their actions? It’s hardly hard-hitting journalism, Dan. You filled that too full, FYI.’

     ‘Why do you keep criticising every little thing I do?’

     ‘I don’t. I’m –’

     ‘You do.’

     ‘Well.’ Sally perused the long past use-by dates on the assorted vitamin jars that were crowding the cupboard, then replaced them with the biscuit packets.  

     ‘I just had to spend two fucking days locked up with your blasted family. Who still make no effort whatsoever to disguise their hatred of me.’

     ‘That’s not true.’

     ‘Oh Sal don’t deny it. They bring up the Jewish Question every time. Your mum asked me if I’ve met Alan Sugar. As if we all know each other.’

     ‘Well –’

     ‘Which tea?’

     ‘Don’t take this the wrong way –’

     ‘Which tea?

     ‘Oh, er, rooibos. Don’t take this the wrong way –’

     ‘That always means there’s only one way to take it.’ Daniel grabbed the box of tea off the shelf with unnecessary vehemence.  

     ‘No, that’s not what I’m saying. But maybe you enjoy provoking them. Just a bit.’

     ‘What on earth? What does that even mean? That’s like saying I enjoy slamming my head against the wall.’ He whacked the tea bags into the mugs.

     ‘Well maybe you’re a bit masochistic.’

     ‘Masochistic? That’s just a way of justifying exposing me to their aggression.’ Daniel opened the freezer and the icy, slightly sour air spread a mini pool of winter. ‘D’you want any toast?’

     ‘Sure.’

     He pulled out a plastic bag of frozen bread, pulled off the peg, and prized apart a few slices. Shove into the toaster. Slide down the button. Up again. Down again. Up again. ‘Why isn’t this working?’

     ‘The iPhone charger is plugged in. Hey, don’t unplug it, my phone is dead.’

     ‘You want me to unplug the monitor instead? Your phone can wait til this is done.’

     Sally picked at a loose bit of skin under her fingernail. ‘The mums’ whatsapp group has been going wild. All the unwanted Christmas presents already up for sale.’

     ‘I thought you’d left that group.’

     ‘No.’ She picked up the kettle and poured the water into the mugs, one navy blue Tesco one and one tourist mug from New York.

     ‘You always complain about it.’

     ‘Yeah, it gets on my nerves.’

     ‘So why not leave?’ He unbuttoned one of the sleeves of his red, chequered shirt and began rolling it up his forearm.

     ‘Might spy a bargain. Or want to sell something.’

     ‘You could put that junk in my study on it.’

     Sally opened the fridge and scanned. ‘Oh shit, we’re out of milk. Is Tesco open tomorrow? I never know when they’re open over this stupid period.’

     ‘It’s pretty easy. They’re closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. And the Spar will most likely be open anyway.’ Daniel leaned past his wife into the open fridge, grabbing the butter.

     ‘You smell sweaty.’

     ‘What do you expect? Three hours driving with nutters on the road, after having spent the day trying to explain to my bloody in-laws that there’s something fucking hypocritical about their appreciation of Indian take-aways and their suspicion of Mr Patel taking over the post office.’

     ‘Don’t you think Beth had a point though?’

     ‘Not words I ever thought anyone would say about your blessed Auntie.’

     ‘No, but when she said the thing about identity.’

     ‘Oh god Sal, not you too.’

     ‘No, don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel like that. Obviously. But I just thought it was interesting. I mean what it says about her. That she feels her identity is being threatened.’

     ‘It’s called racism, Sal. Marmite?’

     ‘Please.’ Sally stuffed the orange cloud of Sainsbury’s bags into the cloth bag collector thing they’d brought back from their honeymoon in Verona. ‘But I’m just saying, if you suspend judgement for a second – ’

     ‘Not something your family do often.’

     ‘Yeah, but just hang on, if you don’t judge her for a second, I mean, obviously it’s horrible and sad that people feel like that, but if you try and think about what she’s saying –’

     ‘I knew you shouldn’t have done that counselling course.’

     ‘Dan.’ 

     ‘Sorry.’

     ‘I just thought it’s interesting. I mean, doesn’t that show some pretty deep insecurity? I mean, why feel so threatened by other people? It’s a class thing, isn’t it?’

     Daniel wiped a finger around the rim of the marmite jar and sucked it.

     ‘It’s just, like, if you’re brought up to feel superior and confident and go on gap yahs,’ Sally continued, ‘building wells in Africa or whatever, then that’s all very well. But.’

     ‘But what?’  

     ‘But that’s not where I come from.’

     ‘Oh Sal, gimme a break, you went to fucking Cambridge.’

     ‘I’m just saying they don’t have the confidence to see anyone different from them. That’s threatening.’

     ‘Yeah, it’s called xenophobia. You didn’t take the teabags out.’

     ‘No, sorry. But don’t you get what I’m saying?’

     ‘Not really. And I’m bloody tired.’ Daniel rubbed one eye and looked at the clock on the microwave. ‘It’s almost eleven. Why aren’t we sleeping while he’s asleep? Maybe we are masochists.’

     ‘I’m just saying my school wasn’t like yours. We weren’t taught that it was okay to give your opinion, like, that if you talk, people will listen.’

     ‘What’s your point?’

     ‘That it’s scary being like that. If you’re in a group, I mean, say we’re both at a party or whatever, you feel comfortable just saying what you think.’

     ‘It’s hard always being right, but, yes.’ Daniel bit into the toast and pushed the plate along the counter towards Sally.

     ‘Yeah, but I don’t feel like that. I don’t feel I can just say what’s going on in my head. I don’t just expect people to listen to me or respect me. You always assume they will. It just feels safer if you’re with a bunch of people who are like you, who you know have the same opinions.’

     Daniel said nothing, then grunted and chewed.

     Sally picked up a piece of toast. ‘You never spread the marmite properly.’

     ‘Criticising me!’

     ‘Sorry.’

     ‘You see.’

     ‘Sorry. It’s just, it’s quite easy to do.’

     ‘What – criticise me?’

     ‘No, I meant spreading the marmite.’

     ‘I know, I was kidding.’

     ‘Sorry.’

     Dan shoved half a piece of toast into his mouth, distorting his face as he did so. When he’d finished chewing: ‘Do you wanna go up?’

     ‘Are you propositioning me? Or you mean you wanna sleep?’

     ‘Maybe.’

     ‘Maybe which? You’re not too tired?’

     ‘Maybe not.’

     ‘You might have to have a shower first.’

     ‘Aw, I’m not that bad, am I?’ Daniel sniffed his armpit. ‘Okay, maybe I am. If I pop up quickly and shower, will you come up?’

     ‘Just gimme a sec to clear this stuff.’

     Daniel left the kitchen.

     Sal continued leaning against the counter and sipped her tea, which was still too hot. Daniel had left his. Her phone buzzed. iMessage from Mum.

Are you home OK? Was lovely to see you all. When you have a chance, perhaps have a quick word with Dan and suggest an apology to your dad might be nice. Just to smooth things over. Sleep well. Xxx

     Sal put down her mug, the blue Tesco one, and typed back with fast moving fingers:

Yep, home fine. Thanks for a lovely Christmas. What’s up with dad? Xx

     Sal watched the screen. The message said delivered, but no thought bubbles appeared to indicate that her mum was typing a reply. She gulped a bit more tea then tipped the rest into the sink, filled the dishwasher, and grabbed the baby monitor.

     The sound of the rushing water mingled with the hum of the extractor fan in the bathroom as Sal stood in their bedroom. There was still laundry to sort, but she felt weary. She pulled her clingy green top over her head and chucked it on the floor. Her jeans felt too tight after seemingly endless eating over the last two days and they unbuttoned with a relieved sigh, her tummy bulging out in gratitude. She gave a quick tap and opened the bathroom door. The room inhaled her into its warm vapour. Dan pulled back the shower curtain and stood dripping and swirling in steam.

     ‘Can you pass my towel?’ 

     ‘Just had a bit of a strange text from Mum.’

     Dan began rubbing his hair, the curls of which had straightened out and become longer with wetness and were now dangling over his ears. ‘Mm,’ he mumbled.

     ‘Did anything happen between you and Dad?’

     ‘You what?’ Dan pulled the towel off his head and moved it over his body. ‘Mm, you look nice just in your bra and jeans.’

     ‘It’s just Mum seems to think you’ve hurt Dad’s feelings. What’s that about?’ Sal squeezed toothpaste onto her toothbrush.

     ‘What? In what way? What did she say?’  

     ‘Nothing really. Just that you might like to apologise.’  

     ‘What the fuck? Apologise for what?’

     Sal raised a finger to signal that she couldn’t speak while brushing her teeth.

     ‘Seriously? I have to apologise to him? Seriously? What did she say exactly? She didn’t give any clue as to why?’

     Sal shook her head. Dan wrapped the towel round his waist and joined her at the sink to brush his teeth. They stood in silence, standing in front of the fogged-up mirror.

     Sal spat out the toothpaste foam. ‘Just said thanks for a lovely time kinda thing and that you might like to smooth things over with him. Nothing more. I thought you might know what she’s on about.’

     ‘Well that’s bloody rich coming from them. With the shit they come out with.’

     ‘Dan. Come on. They are my parents. I do love them.’

     ‘I’m just defending myself against wild accusations, Sal, accusations so nonsensical they haven’t even bothered to back them up.’

     They tiptoed down the landing to their bedroom, the extractor fan humming for a few seconds more. Sal’s phone buzzed on the bed where she’d thrown it. ‘Oh Mum’s replied.’ She breathed in quickly. It sounded half like a laugh and half like a gasp. ‘Apparently you called him a fascist?’ Sal turned to her husband, who was pulling on pyjama shorts.

     ‘What? A fascist?’

     ‘That’s what she says.’ Sal continued staring at the screen, her face lit up by the blueish glow amongst the soft bedroom lighting.

     ‘Can I see?’ Daniel took the phone from his wife’s hand and read the text. ‘No, no, no. Hang on a second. This has been totally twisted. I’m sorry, that’s complete bullshit.’

     ‘Shh, keep your voice down! You’ll wake him up.’ Sal shimmied her skinny jeans down her thighs. She sat on the corner of the bed and tugged at the ankles.

     ‘Just so we’re clear: I didn’t call your dad a fascist. In fact, he started it. He said I didn’t see the need for an immigration cap cos I am an immigrant.’ 

     ‘What?’ Sal paused mid tug, her jeans inside out now. ‘He said that?’

     ‘Yes. Yes, he did. All I said was that it was that kind of thinking that meant my grandparents had to leave Nazi Germany in the first place.’

     ‘Dan!’

     ‘It’s true!’

     ‘That does kind of make it sound like you’re calling him a fascist.’

     ‘And calling me an immigrant when my parents and I were born in this country makes him sound like a fascist.’ Dan was breathing heavily. ‘I don’t know if it’s the Jewish background or the German one that bothers him more.’

     ‘Well this is a fucking mess. I wish you could all just get along.’

     ‘Like Sam and his nursery buddies? That’s never going to happen while they hold such bigoted views.’

     ‘Dan, you’re hovering.’ Sal slid beneath the duvet. Her husband, standing topless and angry, looked like some Roman warrior statue. ‘Come to bed. I’ll give ‘em a ring tomorrow.’  Dan climbed into bed next to his wife. He folded his arm behind his head and sighed. ‘God, I hate Christmas.’

     ‘That’s cos you’re Jewish. Sorry, I’m joking,’ Sal added quickly.

     ‘I do think you could defend me more.’

     ‘You’re perfectly capable of defending yourself.’

     ‘That doesn’t mean it’s morally right of you to let me.’

     ‘I’m too tired for an ethics lecture.’ 

     Dan rolled over and put his hand on Sal’s stomach.

     ‘I’m still feeling full,’ she shoved his hand away. He moved it to her thigh and pushed her nightie up. He shuffled closer and kissed her on the neck, lingering.

     ‘Eugh, you’re all stubbly!’

     ‘Oh come on, I just had a shower for you.’

     ‘But not a shave.’

     ‘It’s like half eleven.’

     ‘Is your phone on night time mode? I don’t want bloody twitter interrupting us.’

  Dan rolled back to his bedside table and his screen lit up. ‘Done.’

     Sal turned to face him. Their mouths met. She ran her fingers through his hair, he moved his hands down the curve in her waist, over her hip bone.

     Buzz buzz buzz buzz.

     ‘For fuck’s sake.’ Dan rolled back onto his back. ‘That must be your phone. Oh the hypocrisy.’ The buzzing continued.

     ‘Oh god, it’s dad ringing.’ Sal sat up and swiped the screen to answer. ‘Dad? Hello? Is everything OK? You… well…’ Dan rubbed his eyes and reached a hand out to Sal’s thigh beneath the covers, massaging it. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know, but…’ She shook her head at her husband. He hoisted himself up onto his elbows. ‘Oh dad, he didn’t mean it like that. No, of course not. You’re twisting things. No, no, I didn’t… Hang on… Listen… Couldn’t we talk tomorrow? It’s very late… Hello? Hello? Hello mum? Where did dad go?’ Sal pulled at an embroidered flower on the bedsheet. ‘Oh for goodness sake. No, that’s not fair. No, I’m sorry, but he’s being silly. No, that’s not what I meant. Look, we’re all really tired. Perhaps…’

     Then came a screech amplified on the baby monitor. Dan let out an animal groan. ‘For fuck’s sake!’

     ‘Mum, this has woken the baby… No, I wasn’t blaming you, but… For goodness sake. No, no. I have to go. We’ll talk tomorrow. Just tell him: he’s misunderstood. No, I’m not being patronising, I’m just… Ok, fine. Bye.’

     The crying continued.


Erica Wickerson


Erica writes short stories, cultural journalism for The Independent, and academic books and articles on literature, graphic novels, and film. She is currently a Research Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge, writing a book on Kafka as well as her first novel. Her first book, The Architecture of Narrative Time, was shortlisted for the Waterloo Centre for German Studies Prize.