Read the 3rd Prize Winner 2024 - Guardian Angel by Jaime Gill

 Guardian Angel
Jaime Gill

Jinny’s cheeks are splotched red from the cold when she scampers into the living room and throws herself in front of the Christmas tree. Her eyes twitch over brightly wrapped gifts, devilry all over her face, and I grin with her.

“Don’t even think about opening one,” Katrina says, following, weighed down with bags of groceries. She looks tired. This isn’t a good time of year for Katrina. Extra emergency shifts at the hospital and her melodramatic family always calling over trivial disputes. For her, Christmas is a parade of extra chores, not a festival of joy. She doesn’t love it like me and the kids.

“I wasn’t going to!” Jinny says, a perfect pantomime of grievance.

“Fantastic! Then we don’t need to argue again.”

Ryan skulks in now, my old iPhone 6 in his hand. I’ve watched his moods swing all over the place these last few days. I worry. He’s only elevent but turned into an angry teenager three years ahead of schedule. I know me and Katrina haven’t helped, but it isn’t just that. It’s this whole culture of wittering social media and braindead memes, making him think like a Californian twentysomething, not a young British boy. We should have stuck to our guns and banned the Internet until he was older, but too late now. If we cut him off now, he’d go on hunger strike.

“Let me put this stuff away and we’ll watch a movie together,” Katrina says, with a brightness that doesn’t reach her eyes.

“Can’t I…”

Katrina cuts Ryan off. “No, you can’t. It’s Christmas Eve. Family time.”

Family,” Ryan mutters with a sarcasm no 11-year-old should have mastered. I want to tell him off, but Katrina just ignores him, and perhaps she’s right.

Ryan gives in and, after a little bustling, everyone sits down to watch “The Incredibles”.

It’s beautiful watching their faces as the film plays. Jinny is agog with pleasure from the start, then Ryan succumbs and starts smiling and then laughing, and I watch Katrina’s body slowly relaxes as she sinks into the sofa with her arm over Jinny’s shoulders.

Bedtime comes too soon and the living room is empty again.

I’m awake first for Christmas Day. When I was a kid, I remember waking at 5am, a walking earthquake of excitement, begging my parents to come down to open the presents. They never did, they prided themselves on their discipline, and expected the same of me. I always vowed to do things differently, to join the excitement with my own kids. Children have so much these days that gifts no longer carry the same incredible thrill, but I’m expecting Jinny at least to wake early.

She doesn’t disappoint. She never does. It’s 5.57 when she storms into the living room, dragging a bleary-eyed Katrina with her. Bleary but beautiful. She just is.

I glow with delight as Jinny opens my present first, ripping the paper apart like a lion mauling a fresh kill. She vibrates with glee when she sees it’s an art set - acrylic paints and beautiful paper. She’s so enthralled it takes her another five minutes to remember there are other gifts. This. This is what Christmas is about.

Katrina doesn’t open her gift from me and I try not to be hurt, to stay immersed in Jinny’s joy. Ryan doesn’t drag himself out of bed for another hour, but even he can’t quite hide his excitement to open his gifts. I steel myself for his disappointment when he realises nobody is buying him the Nintendo Switch he craves, and he is predictably – but painfully - indifferent when he opens the huge Times World Atlas I bought him instead. When I was his age I loved maps, loved to think of all the places that weren’t my home. But parenthood isn’t about creating little copies of ourselves. I know that. I wouldn’t want that.

My disappointment sours into mild, suppressed fury when he opens the next gift, from Katrina, and it’s an iPad. Used, but still. For one flickering moment he’s again the little boy he should be, eyes wide and wild. But at what cost? I’ll find a way to speak to Katrina about it later. These decisions are too big, too life-moulding, to take alone.

The doorbell rings and I hear Katrina’s mother, Alison, already braying complaints about the uselessness of one of her three sons. Why is she here so early? I try not to add that to my growing little Christmas gift pile of resentments. Alison’s probably going to help cook, so I should be grateful. I’ve always said you can taste Katrina’s stress levels in the meals she serves.

As the day proceeds, the numbers of people and levels of hubbub rise. One uncle, one brother and sister-in-law, two nieces for Jinny to play with. It’s not a big house, Katrina has often made her opinion on that clear, but the living room is large enough to crush ten people in after Christmas dinner, spilling over sofas, stools and the floor. People bob up and down for cigarette breaks, toilet trips and drink refills, but the living room remains the hub of the day’s chatter, laughter and TV-watching laziness.

Melancholia creeps over me, despite my efforts to bat it away, to take pleasure in the small moments. I moved from Salcombe to Dunbar when Katrina and I married, a whole country away, so my family have only ever spent one Christmas with us. Katrina said never again even as we waved their car off, and I refused to admit it, but she was right. My family are stiff and cold as frostbitten Christmas trees, compared to the warm front that are the Banks clan. I do love the way Alison is with the kids, especially Ryan. She steamrolls over his sulkiness, refuses to accept it, and he always surrenders and giggles at her stupid teasing jokes about girlfriends. “Or boyfriends!” she’d said once, and I had to tell her off for putting ideas into a little boy’s head, which she, typically, laughed off. She’s never taken me seriously.

I’ve never felt part of this family, not really. The other spouses – all from Edinburgh or near enough - are treated so warmly you’d think they’d all been born in Banks wombs. But not me. “Is it a Scottish thing?” I’d asked Katrina after a particularly difficult family night out at the local Indian. She looked at me unhappily, and said “no, it’s a you thing.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I’d asked, and she’d explained, and that night didn’t end well. Tears and bruises for us both and the worst was when Ryan came down crying and begging us to stop. It doesn’t feel good to see your 9-year-old child beg. I hated both of us then, me and Katrina.

But it’s Christmas and not the right time to think of these things, if it ever is. Best to move on, look to the future, focus on the moments of joy. One comes in the early evening when most of the family have disappeared. There’s just Alison and her latest husband, the -too-young Gareth, and Katrina and the kids.

There’s a movie or show playing and it must be a comedy because the sound is constant squawking and Alison is actually crying with laughter. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone except Alison do this outside of books. Katrina has dozed off, head lolling awkwardly on the sofa armrest, and Ryan picks up the Atlas and starts reading. Christmas joy washes over me.

Katrina wakes when the movie finishes and leaves Alison and Gareth alone in the living room while she puts a happy but exhausted Jinny to bed. Ryan vanishes with them. I watch Alison laughing, and hugging Gareth closer to her, and almost see what appeals to him. Katrina used to be warm like that, before the frost got into everything.

I can fix it, though. I just need time. Katrina can’t be angry forever. She loves the kids as much as me, I know she does, despite what I said that time. She knows they need to grow up in a happy home with two parents who love each other and act like they do. Next Christmas, things will be better. Everyone will be happier. Secretly, I’ve been studying the Banks clan, watching the way they are together. The way they laugh, the way they hug, the way an argument will gather like a stormcloud until one of them punctures it with a joke. I want to be like them. I can be like them.

When Katrina comes back she spreads herself across the sofa and sighs with relief.

“Alright, love?” Alison asks. 

“Yeah, fine really,” Katrina says, eyes closed. “Just the usual stress, you know. It’s hard doing this on your own.”

“Oh no,” Alison says, leaning forward. “You’d best not be thinking about having him back.”

I snarl “cunt” at that fat, malignant toad. The sound and suddenness of the word frightens me.

Katrina’s head turns, wearily.

“Don’t worry. We’re done this time, I promise.”

The tears surprise me, blur my vision. I wipe them away and stare hard at the laptop, zoom in on Katrina. Her image pixellates, breaks apart into a Monet face inspected close up, and I can’t tell if she really means it. She doesn’t. She can’t.

“Please stick with it, love. You’ve taken enough of that man’s shit.”

“It’s Christmas,” Alison says, dragging her hand through her hair as if to reimpose order on chaos. “Let’s not talk about him.”

When did I stop having a name?

When they go to bed I stare forlornly at the screen. I never really know how I feel, there’s always too many emotions in this heart of mine, crashing around the place and upending everything.

When they dump the tree for collection a few days later, my view goes with it.  I can only see the front of the house now, and Katrina never opens the blinds to the living room. I’m locked out. Life, love, family – it’s all happening inside that house, and I’m here in this shitty little rental 10 legally mandated miles away.

Later, they leave the house together, Katrina leading Jinny to the car by hand, Ryan trailing with eyes glued to iPad. 

I drive as fast as I can. It’s a risk, but the cameras and microphone were expensive, and I have a paranoid terror that someone is going to try and salvage the tree and find what I’ve hidden in it. That could go very wrong, the law could get involved again.

I pull up and dash out of my car, hoping no neighbours will see, and grab the silver angel hanging limply from the wilting tree. It feels heavy, obviously expensive even if you don’t know what’s inside. I can’t believe they’re just throwing it all out. Perhaps I should be grateful they used the angel at all, given it was a gift from me. I’d bet it was Ryan who insisted. He still loves me, I know. He calls me twice a week, secretly, outside of supervised visits. That iPhone 6 comes in handy after all.

I hurry back into the car, feeling like a criminal. Katrina’s made me that. 

It can all be fixed. Time works wonders. It has before, easing Katrina’s anger and softening her stubbornness. Next year there’ll be a Christmas miracle, and we’ll be a family again. Ryan will keep working on Katrina. I’ll help him with the right words.

I take a last look at the house I’m still paying for. Katrina hasn’t taken the glittery “Merry Christmas” sign over the door down yet. I’d like to remind her it’s bad luck to leave decorations up so late, but how can I without telling her I was here, that I’ve been here the whole time?

Next Christmas I’ll take them down myself. We’ll be lucky, a family again.


Jaime Gill said…
Thank you to Exeter Writers for providing a showcase for new writers like myself. It means a lot and I hope people enjoy this slow-burner of a story... The two stories that placed above me are wonderful, and I bet there were many more that didn't quite make it. So many talents out there. Thank you