The First Christmas After


They’d never bothered with children. They hadn’t felt the need. Ellen wasn’t the maternal type and Phil was always away with work. When Phil died several of their friends had said, “it’s a pity you never had children. They’d be company for you now.” Ellen said they’d been happy enough as they were. But it got her wondering. Perhaps children would’ve been nice; just one or two; a boy and a girl. They’d be fully grown now. She might’ve been a grandmother; Lord knows she felt old enough.

It was almost Christmas by this stage -Ellen’s first without Phil- and the thought of little people running about the place, unwrapping presents and singing silly Christmas songs, began to play on her. The house felt too big for one person. Ellen rattled round it, eating most meals in front of the telly; there seemed little point setting a table for one. She went backwards and forwards when it came to the tree. Would she decorate, or leave it this year? It was no hassle throwing up a few bits of tinsel, hauling the tree out of the hall cupboard. But could she be bothered and what was the point? Would people think it too soon to be stringing up fairy lights with Phil only just dead? In the end, Ellen compromised: she put the tree up but didn’t bother with anything else. She knew that if she didn’t make the effort, it’d set a precedent. She’d never have Christmas in her house again.

With the tree up Ellen felt even lonelier. The fairy lights required too much of her. There was something particularly pathetic about crying in the company of a Christmas tree. She took to sitting in the dark, watching the murder mystery shows they’d once enjoyed together. She kept the TV going even when she wasn’t in the room. She couldn’t bear a silent house. Ellen was not without offers of company. The advent of December brought a slew of well-intentioned invitations. She politely declined them all. Her sister, in Larne, insisted she should join them over the holidays. Next door invited her round for Christmas dinner, (“no pressure, Ellen. Just pop in when you want and slip away if it gets too much.”) Then, there was the church’s Leftovers Dinner, for folks who’d no place else to go.

She didn’t have to be alone at Christmas but none of the alternatives appealed. Ellen didn’t want just anyone’s company. She only wished to be with Phil, doing Christmas together, in the usual way. By the twenty first she felt inclined to take the tree down and be done with it. She was in the cupboard fetching the box when she came across her knitting bag. Phil hadn’t been keen on her knitting. He’d said it was the sort of thing old ladies did and she’d said, “I am an old lady.” He’d laughed then and sneaked his hand up her skirt. “There’s still plenty of life in you yet,” he said. Remembering this knocks the wind out of Ellen. She has to sit down for half an hour. When she recovers, she notices the knitting bag is still in her hands. She takes out a ball of doubleknit and a pair of needles and, without thinking, casts forty stitches on. It helps to have her fingers occupied. Lately, she’s begun to bite her nails. She turns on ITV3 and is three ads into Miss Marplebefore she admits what she’s started to knit. A person; specifically, a man. Full-sized, with facial features stitched in black. Ears. Mouth. Fingers. Toes. No hair required, because this man is bald. Ellen knows this, because she knows it’s Phil.

It takes three days to finish him. While knitting Ellen keeps track of how many murders she’s watched on TV. Twenty nine. She’d anticipated more. It’s still more bearable than watching BBC or ITV. They’re showing Christmas specials on repeat. Once completed she dresses her man in Phil’s old clothes: brown cords, a shirt and mustard pullover, socks, shoes and clean underwear. The smell of Phil is still on the sweater. Everything else has been laundered since. Once dressed, Ellen stands Knit Phil up on his knitted legs. She wraps his knitted arms around her neck. He’s taller than her by several inches. She’s been careful with the proportions, still he doesn’t feel exactly right. His arms rest too lightly on her shoulders. He’s so very soft and flexible. But, when Ellen closes her eyes and breathes in deeply, her nose can believe this man is Phil.

They spend their first night together on the twenty third. Knit Phil sleeps downstairs, bolt upright in the big armchair. Ellen leaves the Christmas tree lights. She sleeps upstairs in her bed. It’s the first time she’s slept properly since Phil died. The house feels less empty than it has in weeks. She doesn’t wake up crying. That’s a first too. By Christmas Day, Knit Phil’s fully integrated into her routine. They talk constantly. When Ellen prepares meals, she makes a second plate for him and seats him at the table. Phil doesn’t approve of eating in front of the TV. In the evenings they sometimes dance to old Christmas songs. Then she helps him into his pyjamas and leads him up the stairs to bed.

On Christmas Eve Ellen makes a frantic dash around the shops, grabbing turkey and sprouts and a little something to wrap up for Phil. She gets the rest of the decorations out of the cupboard and finishes the living room. They watch the PointlessChristmas Special together and a repeat of Only Fools and Horses. The fire’s on and they’re snuggled up in dressing gowns and slippers. Drink’s been taken: mulled wine first, then a nip of port. Ellen’s blurred and content as she likes to be on Christmas Eve. They’ve always spent their Christmases together; just the two of them and some M and Sfood. She has her mobile on silent. She can’t be bothered with the world outside. The telly’s up high, for Phil always takes out his hearing aids at home. So, Ellen doesn’t hear the front door opening or the sound of her sister calling out, “Ellen, we’ve just popped in to check you’re alright.” She’s not aware her Christmas is ruined, ‘til the moment her brother-in-law appears at the door with a Poinsettia stuck in a festive container. “Bloody Hell, Margaret,” he shouts, and almost drops the plant, “your sister’s finally lost the plot.”



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