Friday, 21 November 2014

Red Christmas


I sometimes wonder whether it's really fair to preserve the anonymity of a former partner specifically by referring to her as either Dora the Explorer or Edna Mode from The Incredibles, cover identities chosen because she resembled both and I take cathartic pleasure from the admittedly venomous intent of such references. Perhaps, on consideration it is both childish and unfair, and after all, neither Nickelodeon nor Pixar have ever said a bad word about me, at least not so far as I know. Perhaps I need to take a different approach to this...


I met Dora Mode from The Explorables during the summer of 2005 as I was delivering her mail. By October we were romantically involved, and by November I'd been asked if I would like to spend Christmas with her at her mother's house in Richmond, Surrey. I was overjoyed and I said yes, taking the invitation as an indication that this relationship would be going somewhere, or at least that it would probably stop being quite so shit at some point in the near future.

The mother in question was old, frail, and in her nineties. She came from a wealthy upper class family, and had once worked as secretary to someone significantly ministerial in France. I had the impression she may once have been the just sort of girl to catch the eye of Cary Grant as he played the fruit machines of Monte Carlo, a giggling d├ębutante who could probably knock back her own weight in cocktail olives on one bar tab - for all of her possible failings, an ultimately good natured soul. Unfortunately she was also the cause of everything bad that had ever happened to Dora Mode of The Explorables, at least according to the whining testimony of the endlessly wronged child.

We stood on the doorstep late Christmas Eve. The door opened. The old woman was clearly delighted to see her only daughter, but the feeling was less than mutual.

'Hello Mum,' Dora Mode of The Explorables chirped with the weary resignation of an Ealing comedy policeman catching a serial safe-cracker once again up to his old tricks. She breezed through to the kitchen and began removing things from the fridge, checking the sell-by date on each and registering trace elements of disgust with tutting noises. 'Oh Muuuum,' she whined, barely able to conceal either her revulsion, or the pleasure she took in her revulsion.

Christmas morning came as a welcome distraction from Dora Mode of The Explorables' seemingly endless round of complaints and observations regarding the myriad ways in which the frail old woman had let everyone down - the numerous criteria by which she had apparently failed as both a mother and a human being. Of the many criticisms expressed, there were few I could really see as being either justified or worth worrying over, or as necessarily having any bearing on anyone other than the old woman herself. My girlfriend ground her teeth with unalloyed rage over the state of the vast mansion which was her mother's home. The place could have been in better shape: a cracked window pane here, maybe a careless splash of paint intruding upon a skirting board there or a washer requiring replacement. I had the impression that Dora Mode of The Explorables was mainly concerned about how much work would need to be done before she could sell the house once she had inherited it, and the rest of her testimony was just the usual passive-aggressive coercion by which she interacted with people, that being her principal means of communication; but as I say, Christmas morning had come.

Dora's mother beamed and clapped her hands softly together like a charming Victorian child. 'Oh goody!'

I opened one present. Dora Mode of The Explorables had bought me a green and black knitted woollen sweater with matching gloves and hat. I liked the sweater but the gloves and hat seemed weird, something that would be worn by a website designer named Toby as he dropped Jessica off for her violin lesson, a man who was like really into Dylan at the moment, yeah?

A few weeks after the relationship had been declared official, Dora Mode of The Explorables had told me that she was not going to try to change me because - in her own words - she had learned from past experience that it never worked. I had foolishly said that I didn't really mind, and so she took this as an enthusiastic invitation, and I became her project.

At the time I favoured plain white shirts with a suit, a little worn but not actually scruffy - dark jacket and trousers and occasionally with a tie if I was feeling a bit snazzy. I never felt comfortable with any sort of affected Bohemian look, and still believe that a person who is truly able to express their personality through the way they dress probably doesn't have much of a personality to express. Additionally, the suit had worked well for me in Mexico. I guess I didn't look so smart as to suggest I was worth robbing, but neither did I seem like a tourist - smart but not officiously so. This was what a couple of people told me in any case. Dora Mode of The Explorables said that I dressed like an old man and that I needed to get with it, and it didn't seem worth arguing because I was usually either wrong or just plain stubborn.

I liked the sweater, but at the same time it made me feel sad. My one true love had given me a present which could quite easily have come from one of those aunts seen only every few years, usually at either a wedding or a funeral. It didn't say much for our relationship.

The other present was a box about the size of a packet of Jacob's cream crackers. This seemed more promising, more suggestive of possibilities. The present turned out to be four short lengths of curved track for a Hornby clockwork model railway of the 1920s, still in the original slightly dusty box. The track was, so far as I could tell, made of tin and was a little rusted. At some point during the previous three months I'd told Dora Mode of The Explorables how I had loved model railways as a child.

'I hope it didn't set you back too much.' I was trying to work out why someone would shell out what I presumed would have been steep collectors' prices for something of such esoteric interest, something which made no sense in isolation.

'I found it in the store cupboard at the back of the toy shop. It seemed a shame to throw it out, but I could never quite work out who to give it to.'

Merry Christmas. Here's something I stole from work.

She elaborated, returning with relish to the recurring theme of how she felt she had deserved a little payback from that place. She often spoke of the one previous job I recall her mentioning in such terms as the sort of grinding shit we all have to put up with from time to time as we work the post, the buses, security guard, canning factory, on the bins, street sweeper, or a couple of months behind the till of a toy shop in West Dulwich. We've all been there. We've all had to carry that weight.

Christmas dinner came and went, most of it taken up with Dora Mode of The Explorables' commentary regarding how her mother had ruined Christmas dinner in addition to everything else.

'I would have enjoyed some bread sauce,' the old woman sighed quietly to herself as her only child launched into further critical discourse punctuated with resentful mouthfuls of turkey.

Christmas came and went, and then came and went again. The second year was at Dora Mode of The Explorables' home, with her mother being delivered by taxi on the morning itself. The day was about as festive as its predecessor and by this time I realised that the old lady and myself would have enjoyed it more without the presence of the one person we had in common.

The last Christmas was preceded by my announcing that I was looking for a flat of my own. I had moved in with Dora Mode of The Explorables because there didn't seem to be any other option, and I hoped it might be the detail our relationship had been missing, the element which finally got everything working. Nevertheless I had also feared it would prove to be a mistake, and sure enough it was. After about six months I felt like killing myself, by which I don't mean that I was having me a big ol' sad, but that some days I would lay in my hot bath after work and consider all that I had heard about its benefits as a crucible in which one might open up a major artery or two. Life with Dora Mode of The Explorables was dark and joyless beyond anything I had been able to imagine, and I knew that escape could only be affected by means of gargantuan effort. I wasn't sure if I had the willpower left to do so.

It turned out that I did. I reasoned that a leap in the dark would land me in a better place, because nothing could be as terrible as the present; and so I began looking at horrible flats the size of rabbit hutches for which I could barely afford rent. I told Dora Mode of The Explorables that this would be the best thing for our relationship, because we would no longer be living on top of one another. We would have room to breath.

The first few places I saw were unbelievably bad, but I kept on looking because I knew that once I was gone, I would never have to see Dora Mode of The Explorables or deal with her aggressive and psychotic insecurity ever again. All I had to do was keep her happy for another couple of weeks, or if not happy, at least disinclined to hump all my shit out onto the street and set fire to it.

I had already ruined the last Christmas with my stated desire to move out, but regardless of this, I bought her a tin opener and a stuffed owl. I had, against all expectations, found a flat in Camberwell which if extortionately priced and tiny, was at least clean and had not recently been used as a shooting gallery. I was on the home stretch, just a few weeks left in which to sit and wait for the end of my sentence.

Dora Mode of The Explorables had once phoned me at work, asking me to come home and open a tin of cat food. For some reason she was unable to open this particular tin of cat food under her own steam, so I had to suspend everything and cycle back because this was the sort of thing a truly loving boyfriend would do for his sweetie, and because I had no choice, and my obstinacy and selfishness had been noted.

'Pringle is meowing,' she informed me testily, apparently adding animal cruelty to the list of my crimes.

So I bought her a tin opener for that last Christmas, an expensive model from a pretentious kitchenware boutique that had recently appeared at the lower end of Lordship Lane. It was well made, an ostentatious precision tool by which even Dora Mode of The Explorables' feeble hands would be able to open the toughest, craggiest tin of Whiskas. It was to be my replacement.

The stuffed owl was something to which she had specifically directed me with the words I'm going to tell you what I want for Christmas this year so that you don't mess it up again. We had seen the owls in one of Dulwich's many gift shops, suppliers of pretentious knick-knackery to the overmoneyed and vacuous. They were hand sewn from recycled materials, and each one sold funded the travel expenses of either Sting or Bono visiting a deprived village in Africa, or something of the sort. Dora Mode of The Explorables resembled an owl in a certain light, and seemed to have a thing about the creatures. I suspect she regarded an owl of some description as her spirit animal, but had probably decided I wouldn't understand and so had never deigned to discuss it.

Her world was informed by all manner of personal esoteric beliefs, mostly derived from wishy-washy new-age sources and self help literature - feng shui, the power of positive thinking, whatever drippy motivational crap was filling column inches that week - which could be adopted without having to think too hard about any of it. Anything which provided an explanation for why her life hadn't turned out quite how she wanted besides that which involved her own agency was always welcome. If she appeared unemployable, it might be a misaligned chair blocking the flow of ley lines emanating from the front room. She once took all the doors in the house off their hinges so as to allow for the free passage of positive energy, then had to put most of them back on when winter turned the place into an icebox. One element of this custom mythology was the colour red. Its apparent significance explained a home-made motivational message handwritten on a piece of paper and blutacked to the wall behind the telephone:

I am the red light that calls people to stop what they are doing, to come out to play and have fun.

Dora Mode of The Explorables' life coach had probably drawn this one up for her, or out of her or whatever. Unfortunately, Dora Mode of The Explorables' presence was not something which caused people to have fun in my experience, quite the opposite in fact; and no amount of motivational mantras were going to change that. I often wondered if it ever occurred to her that the associations of red lights were generally quite different, mostly serving as a warning or else prohibiting some action, both of which struck me as greatly more suited to her personality. Anyway, the point is that she liked red so I coughed up the twenty quid, bought the owl, and wrapped it in red paper.

The last Christmas came.

She opened the package containing the tin opener, and regarded it as though I'd bought her a butt plug for Christmas. She had taken it as a token of my sarcasm, which surprisingly it wasn't.

'That isn't your main present,' I squeaked, trying hard to appear confident, or at least to avoid sounding like I was delivering the apology she would almost certainly soon demand.

She opened the second box, carefully so as to avoid tearing the precious magic red paper. The stuffed owl sat inside its clear plastic packaging. Dora Mode of The Explorables stared at it for a moment before speaking. 'Did you keep the receipt?'

I tried to work out what could be wrong, given that she had specifically asked for this one. I felt a surge of panic bordering on terror. 'Yes. Do you not like it?'

'I wanted the red one.'

There had been a number of owls in the shop, all different colours, and I recalled that she had been looking at a red variant when we were there on the browse. The one I had bought was the last owl left, and was pale blue in colour.

I handed over the receipt and we didn't discuss it again. The next day I noticed that the red wrapping paper had been carefully flattened out and pinned on the wall as though it were a poster.

Months later, once we had separated following one of the most enjoyable rows I've ever had the pleasure to inspire, she admitted that the tin opener had come in very useful. She had grown determined to view our split as a trial separation at the end of which we would surely be reunited, all the stronger for the experience. She may simply have been scratching around for whatever she thought would make me happy, or she could have been telling the truth.

Years later, once the nightmare was finally over, I sold the vintage model railway track on eBay. It turned out that it wasn't in great condition, despite having the original box, and two lengths of the track that would have originally been included were absent.

Some bloke gave me a fiver for it.

Maybe I should have bought her a butt plug.

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