Mattie turned towards the kitchen, straining to point at the big scary ghost with no face behind him.His heart hammered even faster when his mother failed to emerge.
Racing into the kitchen he nearly tripped over the threadbare blanket trailing from his hand.He skidded to a halt in the doorway and looked around.The pounding in his tiny chest eased when he realised that his mother was alone and safe from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.It tightened again as he clocked the cigarette dangling from her long white fingers and the glass of red juice that make her breath smell funny in the other hand.
“Mummy will be with you in a minute.”
She didn’t turn to look at him when she spoke.Mattie lingered by the doorway, watch the back of her neck, exposed beneath a short crop of hair.He had told her she looked like Tinkerbell in “Hook” when she had come back from the hairdressers.She had laughed her throaty laugh and squeezed him close to her, almost smothering him against her belly despite her bony frame.But he hadn’t minded.Her cuddles were sporadic at best, and he hadn’t wanted to say something that might make them stop altogether.
“Mattie, are you deaf?Then why are you still there?”
He scuttled away without answering.His mother was forever asking him if he was deaf.He didn’t understand why – she knew he could hear just fine, but experience had taught him that it was best not to answer.Just like he knew it was best to stay away when she was in what his father called “one of her moods.”
He climbed back onto the sofa and stuck the corner of his blanket into his mouth.He knew he shouldn’t but, as neither of his parents were watching, it didn’t really matter.He stared at the group of cackling women, the ghost and Bill Murray looking on.He sucked on the soggy fibres of his blanket, waiting for the action to comfort the funny sensation at the back of his throat.
Mattie was wrapped around his father’s legs before he was even able to close the front door.Mattie closed his eyes tightly, trying to suppress his tears, a cocktail of fear, anxiety and relief.
Mattie let his father untangle him and pull him to his broad chest.He buried his head in his father’s woollen jacket, not wanting his unease to start yet another argument.He let his father shift him in his strong arms and met his gaze dutifully.His father frowned.
“What’s up little man?”
Mattie shrugged and rested his head against his father’s shoulder.The rumble of his father’s laughter soothed his small body.
“Well, never mind.I’ve got something outside that I think will cheer you up.”
“What is it, daddy?”
Mattie reached for the door, his excitement pushing his worries out of the way.His father laughed again.
“Well, let me go say hello to your mum then I’ll bring it in, okay?”
Mattie let his father gently lower him to the floor and watched him as he strode towards the kitchen.He thought about calling after him, to give him some warning about Mummy.But then she might have poured away her drink before it made her get angry.She might greet his father with open arms and the offer of her famous spag bol.It had happened before, Mattie was sure, even though the memory was so distant it was dreamlike.He hovered by the front door, straining to listen to their voices.
“Don’t you think… What about… No, it isn’t the same… You deny me my only…So full of…”
Mattie ran into the living room and pulled the remote control off the coffee table.Squinting, he aimed it at the telly and pressed the + button like Daddy did when Mummy came home from her night at the club.Soon Bill’s excitable voice filled the room as he romped across the screen.Dropping the remote, Mattie clamped his hands over his ears and shut his eyes.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Mummy’s voice was loud in his head.His arm was suddenly in her hand, his toes only just touching the floor as she pulled him up.It took Mattie a few moments to realise that the wailing noise that had just started was coming from himself.
“Suzie, let go of him.”
The anger in his father’s voice made Mattie cry even more.This wasn’t what he had wanted.He wanted Daddy to bring in the surprise, for Mummy to be delighted, for them all to kiss and hug like he saw other families do.
He landed hard on his elbow.The shock of the impact stopped his cries.The deep tenor of his father’s shouting was now in full conflict with his mother’s shrill screams.Without looking up at their looming bodies, he crawled away and ran to the sanctuary of his room.Before he was able to push the door closed behind him he heard the familiar snap of skin against skin, the scrape of furniture being shoved across the floor.
He tried to ignore his father at first.He knew deep down that it wasn’t his fault, but he wanted to be left alone.He didn’t know how long he’d been hiding under his duvet, but he hadn’t dare to leave it, even when he’d needed the toilet.Eventually he let his father peel it away.
His father spoke softly, but Mattie couldn’t help but feel ashamed of the wet patch around him.Without meeting his father’s gaze, he let him pull him out of the bed and strip off his soggy pyjamas.Wrapped up in his towelling dressing gown he sat in the corner of his room as his bed sheets were changed.
Mattie tried to swallow back the tears but it was no good.Once more he felt the comfort of his father’s body against him as he was pulled into another bear hug.
“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about mate, nothing.Okay?”
His father tilted Mattie’s face towards his own and looked him in the eye.Mattie held his gaze for a moment and nodded solemnly despite his confusion.That wasn’t what Mummy would have said.But then, Mummy and Daddy seemed to disagree about everything.His father smiled and ruffled Mattie’s hair with his free hand.
“Good.Now…” With a groan he shifted Mattie from one arm to another.“How about I show you that surprise?”
Mattie nodded again and managed a small smile.He let his legs dangle around his father’s waist as he was carried into the front room.
His father took a deep breath.
“Mummy’s gone out for a bit.Now, close your eyes.”
Mattie did as he was told.He felt the coolness of the leather sofa his father lowered him onto and listened intently to his footsteps and the flick of a switch.
Mattie gasped at the sight that beheld him.The Christmas tree filled the corner of the room, its tip scraping the ceiling, its branches dripping with lights every colour of the rainbow.
“Is it real?”
Mattie’s father laughed.
“Yes, it’s real.I know artificial ones are in vogue these days, but I always had a real one when I was a kid, and wanted you to experience it too.”He bent down and picked a couple of stray pine needles from the floor.“Here.Smell these.”
Mattie slid off the sofa and padded towards his father.He took the needles and held them up to his nose.
“In a few days, the entire flat will smell like that.”
Mattie looked up at his father.The smell made his nostrils tickle a bit, but he didn’t want to tell Daddy that.His father looked down and met Mattie’s gaze.He held it for a few moments before looking back at the tree.
“Now, I have to go away for a while.But when I get back, I want to see this tree covered in tinsel and baubles.Do you hear me?”
Mattie nodded uncertainly.He thought back to the other years when he had taken on the task of maintaining the family’s Christmas cheer.It hadn’t been easy.
“When are you coming home, Daddy?”
He was expecting the usual reply.
“In a few hours mate.I just have a few errands to run.”
“I’ll be home before Eastenders.”
Instead, his father hesitated.
“I don’t know, mate.”
Mattie watched his father walk out of the room, passing his hand across his face as he did so.The front door creaked, then clicked shut softly.Mattie looked around the living room, at the lights twinkling gently, at the empty sofa and the dark hallway beyond.
It was the first time that Mattie had ever been alone.