Is there no escape from this torture? I must be mad, agreeing to see this deranged woman again. For old time’s sake she called it. I think I’d sooner be roasted alive by my family than being subjected to a porky harridan at Christmas. A brief picture forms in my mind: being pursued across the Swedish landscape by Mother Christmas on skis until I drop.
A white-shirted dark-haired waiter is leaning over me asking if I want to order. Shudder awake.
“What’s the most alcoholic drink you’ve got in the place?” I hear myself plead.
He shrugs theatrically. “I can get you a brandy. Sir.”
“Good. Make it a double, then.”
She is late. Maybe my luck is in. The urge to sneak out before it’s too late is strong, but instantly the moment has passed.
There, framed in the doorway is a vision from hell: a fat woman in a tight pink t-shirt and tighter jeans. On her head, a pair of festive antlers festooned with tinsel; an MP3 player slung over her ample bosom has a flashing pink light, not unlike a third nipple.
“Karl-Erik!” she bawls.
“Karl,” I say in a stage whisper through gritted teeth, “Call me Karl.”
Three Christmas parties pause in mid-fork. 45 covers stare at this apparition in pink and blue. I grin inanely, sliding down in my seat. Erin sits opposite and beams contentedly, apparently oblivious to the disruption she has caused.
“Oh Karl,” she murmurs, “It’s so wonderful to see you again. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Isn’t that just my luck? A fat cow diagnosed with Avoidant Personality Disorder and I can’t get rid of her.”
“Oh, Dr Holland is so proud of me. I can go out with someone I trust, like you, and accept their judgements…and not even cry or scream a little bit. I’m so much better. And it’s all thanks to you,” she squeaks.
I mime throwing up, but it makes no dent on her festive mood.
“Don’t be such an old grumpy boots. Time you enjoyed a bit Christmas spirit. I want to make you so happy!”
The prospect of Erin trying to make me happy defies all known parameters of fulfilment. I think wistfully of a Christmas involving a great deal of alcohol and sex, none of it shared with Erin, when the waiter places the brandy under my nose with a very meaningful nod towards Erin. I scowl back at him. Erin fails to take the hint.
“Ooh, brandy. How lovely!”
“A SMALL brandy for my friend,” I frown at the waiter.
“Sir,” he intones while unfolding a menu gratiatingly in front of Erin, then tossing me the wine menu with an insolent smirk.
Erin busies herself with taking off the antlers and music player, then fussing over the menu, keeping up a relentlessly cheerful monologue while I stare vacantly over her left shoulder.
“I do love Christmas, don’t you? I know it’s magic when you’re a kid, but it’s always been my favourite time of the year. Carol singing. And presents. And lots of chocolate. And so romantic, don’t you think? Well, when I was a teenager I always hoped I’d get kissed by the boys under the mistletoe at Christmas parties, the ones who ignored me all the rest of the year. Never seemed to happen somehow, but there was one…” she frowns at the memory. “He took me to the bathroom first, though.”
“I think he wanted to get in some practice without his mates watching,” I murmur below my breath.
“What about you?” she enquires.
“Did I kiss boys in the bathroom?”
Helpless giggles. “No, silly, you know what I meant. Did you get to smooch with the girls under the mistletoe?”
Vivid memories of going well beyond kissing under the mistletoe during my teenage years, plus the subsequent scandals in smalltown Sweden. Erin ploughs on regardless.
“Yes, those were such happy times at Christmas.” The smile fades and the truth is painted momentarily in her eyes. She regards me thoughtfully before hitting well below the belt:
“So, Karl. Are you going back to Sweden for Christmas to see your family?”
I grip the sides of the table involuntarily, suddenly deluged beneath a tidal wave. A fork falls to the floor with a clink, muffled by the general hubbub. “No I am not going back to sodding Sweden! I’d crash every Volvo into the nearest Ikea and spit roast Abba over the fire if I could. London is too close. I never want to see anything Swedish ever again. Do you understand?”
There is a small pause, during which Erin’s mouth falls open wide enough for me to inspect her fillings. “Oh!” she says, “I heard it was a lovely country, actually. I was rather hoping you’d take me and show me some of your old haunts sometime.”
“You and Sweden are made for each other,” I growl. “Just stay there.”
She looks downcast and for a moment my conscience prickles. Don’t do it, not another panic attack. No tears or howling, please. Thankfully, I hear a philosophical whine: “That’s a shame.” Relieved sigh. What is this unfamiliar feeling? Surely not guilt.
The waiter returns with her brandy and fauns over Erin, oozing fake charm like snake oil She wriggles contentedly in her seat in the warm glow of attention and orders food. I nod: “The same. Whatever.”
Erin has used this interlude to gird her loins ready to sally forth: “So if you’re here in London for the holiday… well, I can’t go to see my father right now… and my flatmate’s going back to Nigeria…so there’s plenty of room in my place if you wanted to pop over. I can cook you turkey. Swedish style….”
I glare back at Erin. “…or maybe just plain. Anyway, we could have such a jolly time together. Watch a few films. I just love Mary Poppins and the Wizard of Oz. And I’ll buy you a bottle of brandy to have with your mince pies, too…” On and on it goes. She could witter for England.
At times like these I’m often haunted by my own personal Ghost of Christmas Past, and sure enough, there he is, sitting in his Swedish rocking chair by the light of an open wood fire, puffing on a briar pipe and nodding pensively at a defiant 10-year old boy with a broken Christmas toy, resolutely calm. There I am, torn between ambivalent emotions, angry with myself, angry with him for not tearing me off a strip, simultaneously afraid, wanting his love, wanting a cuddle. And wanting to rip off that ridiculous moustacheless beard when he sends me to bed. I cry myself to sleep, that night and many more. He made me the man I am today…a bitter and twisted twenty-something misanthrope. Oh no – Erin’s psychological illness can’t be contagious, can it?
She is raising her glass for a toast. “So here’s to Christmas, Karl. You and me. Together.”
Sudden panic sets in. Must resist. Can’t show weakness to someone who has brought me nothing but chaos: “I’m sorry?”
“Well, it’ll be cosy, just the two of us. We can do whatever we fancy…”
Knock back half my glass and cough violently. And then she is in the chair next to me, patting my back vigorously.
“In any case, I’ve got to give you a pressie. I’m sure I can find something for a man as cool as you. Bet you’d like a nice massage…”
Her hand strays lazily down my back and comes to rest somewhere near my waist. Overwhelmed by the torrent. Her undertow is carrying me down, down. I can barely manage a wave, let alone avoid drowning. How does she do this to me? Women are supposed to be the ones who play hard to get.
“Enough, enough already. You win. I’ll have Christmas lunch with you. But I’m not sleeping with you, have you got that?” A sudden vision of all the women I’ve horribly mistreated over the years. That’s it: she’s a demon come to punish me for all my sins.
The childlike grin returns. “You’re an old softy really, aren’t you? You like to look mean, but you love it on the quiet.” She giggles mischievously, downs her brandy in one swig and slips her chubby hand casually down to my trembling thigh. For some reason I don’t find it within my power to resist.
“Who knows what you might feel like after Mary Poppins and a couple of drinks?” she says playfully, then winks at me.
Swallow heavily. “Mary Poppins? That’ll be nice.”
Erin’s face is a picture. “There, I knew you’d come round to the idea. This will be the best Christmas since you were…ooh, 10.”
You know, it’s funny but I never expected Karl-Erik to howl like a baby and collapse into a blubbering heap on my lap, but then I’ve got a soft spot for a vulnerable man, particularly at Christmas. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…