Fragmented images flashed and swirled about me, none of them lasting long enough to decipher. It was the tail end of a convoluted dream that had confused me even while I was having it, and I wanted to wake up and get back to reliable, linear reality. At last, I struggled into consciousness and lay with my eyes squeezed shut. I wanted to be awake, but didn’t want to get up. The weather had been frigid lately, and I knew once I emerged from the duvet, bits of me would start to freeze. The acidic tang of coffee hit my nose and made me think I was lying on the sofa downstairs. Disoriented, I opened my eyes and saw an envelope with my name on it leaning against a steaming mug on the floor beside the futon. I frowned at it, utterly baffled, until I remembered it was Christmas Day.
I propped myself up on the pillows and opened my card. Jonah had sneaked in while I was sleeping. I smiled at the snowman on the card. Last night I left Jonah’s card on his computer keyboard because I didn’t trust myself to go into his room. His present was hidden in a plastic bag bundled up beside my bed and I was a little anxious over his reaction.
I was on my regular trawl of the charity shops, looking for Christmas presents and bargains, when I found it. I worked my way methodically through Scope, Mind and Shelter, and a bunch of others – the names all blurred into one after a while. Each shop was more depressing than the last. No number of brightly coloured signs or jolly window displays of mannequins in wigs at a jaunty angle, prepared you for the smell. These were shops of death, the clientele shuffling between the fusty racks like vultures picking clean a carcass.
By the time I reached Oxfam I’d found two tops and a skirt for me; a chunky ashtray made from recycled glass in the shape of a four-leaf clover, a perfect present for Danny; and a faux-fur jacket that would look great on Mum, once I’d given it a clean. All I needed was something for Jonah, and I was struggling.
I was zipping through a rack of men’s stuff when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark purple sleeve poking out from the shirts. I dove on it and yanked it out, holding it up for inspection. It was silk and looked the right size. Could this be the actual shirt? What would happen if it wasn’t? Would it just remind him of his horrible ex? We could always ceremonially burn it if he hated it.
I put my snowman card on top of the pile of books beside the bed and picked up my coffee. There was a soft knock at the door, then Jonah’s head appeared, smiling.
‘Merry Christmas,’ he said. ‘Ready for your present?’
I put the coffee back down and nodded eagerly. He came in holding a large box wrapped in gold and silver paper. He was still in his pyjama bottoms, dressing gown hanging open showing off a muscular torso. I took a deep breath and kept my eyes fixed on his face. He perched on the edge of the bed and put the box into my lap.
‘If they don’t fit we can exchange them,’ he said, beaming with anticipation.
I tore at the paper and opened the box to reveal a pair of hiking boots. They were the right size. I was dumbstruck. Jonah must be the first person ever to give me something I really needed. I hadn’t even asked for them. I wanted to cry.
‘Jonah, they’re fantastic. I don’t know what to say. I mean, thank you.’ Tears started to roll down my cheeks. I felt ridiculous crying over a pair of boots. What was wrong with me? ‘Now look. You’ve made me cry. I never cry.’
I lifted a hand to wipe my cheeks but Jonah beat me to it. He leaned across and gently ran his fingers under my eyes. There was a pause. We both seemed to hold our breath. I became absurdly aware of the mess of box, paper and boots piled between us, and wanted to push it all onto the floor and lunge at him. Instead, I turned and grabbed the plastic bag from the other side of the bed, thrusting it into his hands.
‘Sorry I didn’t wrap it. I don’t know if it’s the one, but… well…’
Jonah opened the bag and peered in, his eyes opening wide in astonishment. He pulled out the shirt and held it up, letting the bag fall to the floor. He pressed the silky fabric to his face and inhaled.
‘They washed it,’ he said in surprise. ‘I can’t believe you found it.’
He grinned at me then shoved the box of boots and accompanying jumble onto the floor, and dropped the shirt on top.
‘Are you sure it’s the right one?’ I said.
My heart was doing back flips. Jonah shunted up the bed and took my face in his hands, looking deep into my eyes. There was no way he was thinking about the shirt.
The heat from his fingers on my cheeks tingled and I felt sparks spread through my body and bounce around my belly as I leaned towards him. His breath felt warm and soft on my lips. He tasted of coffee. I could feel his heart pounding through the air between us, the heat from his body rising in waves. I ruthlessly quashed a stray thought about how my coffee was going cold, then all thoughts dissolved into skin and hands, limbs and tongues, and I didn’t care about the coffee, or the boots, or the shirt, or anything.
I opened the door to Danny’s flat and had to take a step back as a putrid stench engulfed my senses. Since I’d moved out the place had descended into olfactory anarchy.
I found Danny sprawled on the sofa nursing a bottle of Glenfiddich tied with a red bow. He was surrounded by the usual carnage of half-eaten takeouts and crushed cans. On the coffee table was a jumbo pack of condoms. What had he been up to?
‘Don’t you ever clean anything?’ I said.
‘Where d’you get expensive booze like that?’
I’d guessed that from the bow, but who was responsible? An image of Ella flashed into my mind and I pushed it aside. It seemed unlikely.
‘What’s with the jollies?’ I said.
Danny grimaced and looked like he might be sick. The sooner we got some food into him, the better. I stepped across the mess and stood over him, took hold of his wrist and pulled.
‘Come on, time for dinner.’
He yanked his arm back. ‘Not going in that bitch’s house. She’ll poison me.’
‘Not at Mum’s, you idiot. The Village.’
I dragged Danny to the van parked outside, where Jonah was waiting patiently. I bundled him into the back and got him strapped into a seat. He was still clutching the whiskey bottle. I hadn’t been able to liberate it from his sticky fingers, but had managed to replace the cap. He hadn’t noticed and tried to drink from the bottle without removing it. There were a few confused moments before he realised what had happened. He looked at me reproachfully.
‘Where’s this village, then?’ he said.
‘It’s just a house.’
‘Stupid,’ slurred Danny.
Jonah drove us the short distance into Fenham. I sat beside him in the passenger seat and grinned. I’d been grinning all morning. I hadn’t felt this good in a long time. I stole tiny glances at Jonah as we drove. Every time I looked at him, he was looking at me. He was grinning too.
Danny held onto his bottle and watched the grins bounce back and forth: the happiest tennis match ever played.
‘What in the name of Glenfiddich has got into you two?’ he said.
The Village was swamped with tinsel and streamers, hundreds of cards clustered on every flat surface, and incense thickened the air with frankincense and myrrh. The rum flambéed chicken stuffed with plantain went down without touching the sides and every plate was licked clean. Replete and bloated with food and wine, the party moved to the more comfortable seats in the living room so we could spread out and loosen belts.
I curled up with Jonah on the sofa, Lucy, Ray and Robin stretched out in arm chairs, and Danny sprawled on a beanbag in the middle of the room. Everyone ignored the flickering TV. We were waiting for Doctor Who.
The cat slipped through the door and jumped onto my lap. Maya turned round a couple of times then dropped into a ball on my belly and began purring so loudly everyone turned to see what was making the noise. Eyebrows shot up all round and Jonah smiled.
‘Traitor,’ said Ray.
‘Apparently, she would like to be called Maya,’ I said.
‘You come round here,’ said Robin, ‘eat our food, name our cat, shag our guitarist, making him all happy and shit.’
A chuckle purred deep in Jonah’s chest.
‘Where are the songs going to come from now? We’ll have to disband,’ said Ray, hamming it up. ‘Or find an unhappy replacement.’
‘Don’t fret,’ said Jonah. ‘It works just as well with joy. Better, possibly.’ He crooked his neck to look down at me, nestled against his chest. ‘I’ve never tried it before.’
I smiled up at him and saw my happiness reflected in his eyes. My toes tingled and a yawning relaxation spread through my body. I recognised the feeling immediately. It was the beginning of a trance. I could feel it creeping up on me but was too comfortable to fight it. The whole room seemed to breathe out. I closed my eyes and sensed the others close by, breathing with me. Danny began to snore, someone chuckled softly, another shifted in their seat.
My body suddenly felt very heavy. I was pulled into the sofa, like I was made of stone. It felt like falling asleep and staying awake at the same time: the body relaxes and the mind sharpens. My mind opened into an endless space, an infinite panorama; and I could see – like my eyes had snapped open, even though I knew they were closed. Shapes and patterns formed and shifted in front of my open/closed eyes.
It started in black and white with basic geometric forms, zigzags and squiggles. As the patterns became more complex, they changed, in a flash, to colour. I slowed my breathing and relaxed further. Intricate and exquisite patterns hung in the air around me, fractals twisting and evolving into new explosive shapes. The whole display was revolving clockwise, like I was inside a vast tube, watching the patterns on a screen, sliding slowly past, a couple of feet from my face. The fractals pulsed and the display moved gently towards me then away again, as if it were breathing.
With a surge of joy, I noticed this movement matched my own breath. All through childhood I had seen these patterns in the air. I had lain in bed, with my eyes open, and enjoyed the show. It was better than television. Later, when I found pictures in books of the same patterns, I was overjoyed. There were many different types, but one had stood out: the Mandelbrot set, the Thumbprint of God. I was looking at the mathematical foundations of the universe, of life.
I opened my eyes and the fractals continued their dance. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and I wanted to cry with joy. I could see the room behind the translucent patterns, and was dimly aware of voices.
‘What’s she doing?’ said Robin.
‘Is she epileptic?’ said Ray.
‘She’s fine,’ said Jonah. ‘It’ll pass.’
‘I wish I could see what she’s seeing,’ said Linda. ‘Oh, this is so exciting, to be here and see it happen.’
‘Shush, now,’ said Jonah.
I could feel him stroking my hair. He was watching over me, keeping me safe. The fractals were beginning to fade and I felt a momentary panic; I didn’t want them to go. Something else was circling in the darkness. I could feel the presence of someone powerful, someone trying to push into my consciousness. My stalker was back. I concentrated on the softness of the cat’s fur against my fingers and tried to resurface, come back to reality, but something stronger gripped my mind.
The shock of the man’s voice jolted me upright. Linda was crouched beside the sofa, watching me with rapt eyes. I felt Jonah’s hand rub my back, and I sank, gratefully, into his arms.
‘Okay?’ he said.
I nodded, but it felt like two thousand volts had just detonated through my body. I ran my hands over Maya’s quivering form and tried to synchronise my heartbeat with Jonah’s. Slowly, calm returned. I didn’t want to deal with the avalanche of questions I had no doubt Linda would assail me with, so I pressed my cheek to the warmth of Jonah’s skin and pretended to be asleep, one hand buried in the cat’s fur.
Maya continued to purr.
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Images: Christmas; Xmas TV; Fractals 1; Fractals 2