The first Christmas I ever spent without my wife was the year she studied on exchange in Germany. I was in the final semester of my own studies when she left and in the months leading up to the festive season I had struggled with life in her absence. At the time I was flatting in Remuera with Ingrid, a Plunket nurse working in Glen Innes, and her eleven year old daughter Emily. After everything I’d put them through all I wanted was to give them a perfect day. I owed them that. And so I decided to avoid the usual calamity with my family in favour of remaining in Auckland with the girls, and any other unloved orphans left in town on Christmas morning.
I thought I could hear Ingrid moving around her bedroom. I didn’t want to wake her but the milky concoction in my hand only she could call coffee was lukewarm at best and I was already considering making her a new one. I pushed my glasses back up my nose, looked at my watch, and knocked.
“Are you awake?”
I opened the door just enough to see her stir.
“Sorry if I woke you,” I said. “Here.”
She took the coffee and blinked the sleep from her eyes. I meandered to the top drawer of her dresser and took out my pills.
“Show me,” she said.
I held out a single orange Clonazepam for her inspection. “Don’t forget your Sertraline,” she said. “Did you sleep okay?”
“Good,” she said. “Oh my god, you shaved?!”
“You just noticed?”
“You look so different.”
“So skinny now.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Camille’s never going to recognize you,” she said. “You reckon?”
“Yeah. You’re doing so much better lately.”
“Hey, don’t get up,” I said, as she began to. “I’ve got everything organized.”
“All under control. Stay in bed. Drink your coffee. If it’s not cold by now. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”
She smiled. “Thanks Peter.”
I’d planned the whole morning out the day before and all I had to do was stick to it. Coffee followed by fluffy coconut pancakes with real maple syrup followed by presents. Just the three of us; Ingrid, Emily and myself. Everyone else had better places to be. I didn’t mind. We even had a real tree, a pine seedling we’d liberated from the Waitakeres and adorned with kitschy decorations and sprigs of pohutukawa flowers tied on with ribbon. I was proud of our tree. It was going to be the best Christmas ever. All I had to do was stick to the plan.
When I went into the living room to put the last of the presents under the tree Emily was watching cartoons on the couch and pohutukawa petals had moulted all over the floor.
“Em, are you able to just try and clean this mess up a bit for me?” I said. “Before your mum gets up?”
“Okay,” she said, although she didn’t move. “Merry Christmas!”
I headed back to the kitchen to start breakfast. I was getting the ingredients out and organized when I turned around to find Emily right inside my bubble drinking a glass of water.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello. Have you tidied up yet?”
“What are you making?”
“Can I help?”
“I helped last time?”
“I know,” I said, trying to work around her. “But not today.”
“Can we open presents yet?”
“I said no, Emily.”
“Can we Skype Camille when we do?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Because she’ll be sleeping. It’s the middle of the night in Germany.”
“Oh. How does that work?”
“You’re right in the way, Em.”
“What did you get her?”
“Nothing, yet,” I said. “Seriously Em, go watch TV, okay? You’re being really painful.”
She finished her water without another word and left her glass on the bench.
“Emily, go get dressed,” Ingrid said, when she came into the kitchen drying her hair. She stood on her tiptoes to peer over my shoulder.
“What sort of pancakes are you making?”
“Organic ones. Wheat free. Coconut sugar, coconut milk, coconut flour, coconut eggs even.”
“You know it.”
I smiled. She leaned against the bench to read the recipe.
“I’ve got this, if you wanna go chill out, or whatever,” I said. “There’s champagne in the fridge.”
But instead she stuck her finger into the bowl and licked the batter clean off it.
“Umm…” she said.
“Where are zee chocolate chips?”
“What chocolate chips?”
“You gotta have chocolate chips in pancakes.”
“I didn’t get any.”
“I think we have some,” she said, opening the cupboard. “Do you want chocolate chip pancakes?”
“Ingrid, if you want chocolate chip pancakes, why don’t you just say that you want chocolate chip pancakes?”
“Only if you want them. Do you?”
“I don’t care.”
“Put them in then.”
“Are you sure?”
“I just said put them in, didn’t I?”
“Are you grumpy?”
“Good,” she said, pouring the chips into the batter before taking the wooden spoon from my hand to fold them in. “You can’t get anti on Christmas.”
She leaned on the bench again as I pour the first attempt into the pan. When the bubbles began to form and burst I tried to flip the pancake, just like the recipe said.
“Woah,” she said. “Wanna hand?”
“I’ve got it.”
The congealed mess in the pan said otherwise.
“I think the chocolate chips are making them stick to the pan,” I said. “Why don’t you just use the pancake cooker?”
“Because I want to use the pan.”
But she took the cooker out regardless and while I failed with another attempt used it to produce two perfectly cooked pancakes.
“See?” she said. “Easy.”
But a knock at the door interrupted. Nothing was going to plan.
I’d forgotten Chia was coming. She was a Taiwanese student who’d lived with us for a while to help cover Camille’s rent until we moved into a smaller place. So we did have one friend who didn’t have somewhere better to be. I poured a generous helping of batter into the cooker and headed to join the girls at the front door.
“Hey, merry Christmas!” I said, offering her a hug. “Merry Christmas!”
“Your first in New Zealand?” I said. “This must be so much different from back home?”
“Ugh… what is… different?” she said, stumbling.
“Christmas in the summer. With the hot weather,” I said. “Does it make you miss home?”
“Oh, no,” she said, searching for the right words. “I left to… be away.” I knew exactly what she meant.
“You’re right, it’s so nice today,” Ingrid said. “We should have breakfast out on the deck.”
“Cool!” Emily said.
“But I’ve already set the table,” I said.
“I sure we can set things up outside,” Ingrid said. “I’m aware of this.”
“You’ve only set three places anyway.”
“Well I didn’t know anyone else was coming.”
‘Where should I…” Chia said, her voice trailing off as she held up a bag of presents.
“Under the tree,” Emily said. “I’ll show you.”
As Emily and Chia headed through to the living room I started gathering up the plates from the table.
“What’s your problem?” Ingrid said. “Nothing.”
And that was when the smoke alarm went off.
Beads of sweat pricked to my forehead as I took the batteries out of the alarm and Ingrid opened the cooker to reveal the sticky residue of another failed attempt. Burnt batter spilled down the back of it. The smell made me dry-heave.
“That’s exactly why I didn’t want to use it,” I said.
“You just put in too much batter in. Try less next time.”
“I think I’ll just stick to the pan next time.”
I folded my arms and leaned against the bench. And that was it. When she saw I wasn’t going near it she scraped the mess into the bin with the other failures, gave the cooker a quick wipe, and refilled it with a reasonable amount of batter. All I’d wanted to give them was the perfect Christmas.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said. “It’s just pancakes.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“Then smile. It’s Christmas.”
I dragged our moulting tree out onto the deck where the girls were eating the pancakes that Ingrid cooked. Most of the petals had fallen off the pohutukawa sprigs. It looked tacky. I didn’t care anymore.
“Aren’t you having any breakfast?” Emily said. I shook my head.
“Just not hungry.”
“Anyone want some more champagne?” Ingrid said.
When the girls finished eating Emily handed out the presents. There weren’t many and most were for her anyway. The pile of discarded wrapping paper rustled in the light breeze.
“Who’s this one for?” Emily said, holding a small gift without a label. “Your mother,” I said.
“Ooh, what is it?”
“Don’t get too excited. It’s nothing.” Ingrid opened it and looked up at me.
“Oh, Peter, wow…”
“If you don’t like it, no biggie. I kept the receipt.”
“No, no, I love it. Can you help me put it on?”
She held the delicate threads of the white gold necklace out to me and as I took them our eyes met. I fumbled with the clasp and she swept her hair to the side and turned around. As I put it on the tips of my fingers brushed the porcelain skin of her neck. I struggled with the lever until it clicked into place. Couldn’t even do that without making a fool of myself.
“Beautiful,” Chia said.
I could feel Emily’s eyes on me. I looked down to avoid her gaze and saw the wedding ring on my finger. Hot dread burned in my stomach. She didn’t say anything. Neither did I.
“Anyway,” I said. “I’m going for a run.” But I don’t think anybody heard me.