The Christmas Card: a tragi-comic epistolary novella in heroic couplets
I would, if I could, write you a letter
asking you politely if you’re better.
The tone would be quite tricky to get right:
I’d have to keep it cheerful, tender, light.
There’d be a lot to say – it’s been two years.
No doubt you’ve grieved a lot, shed several tears,
and written more since your last book came out.
I’d need to ask what that was all about
then fill you in on most of what I’ve done,
conveying seriousness as well as fun.
I’d want to tease you gently, not too much,
then make firm promises to keep in touch.
But here’s the rub – I’d surely have to know
whether you’ve yet forgiven me or no.
Darling, I need to use a different tone.
It’s hard to think of you as sick, alone.
So many days, weeks, months, have been and gone…
I would have written sooner if I could
but every time I’ve tried, it’s been no good:
so much has come between me and ‘I should’.
Right now I’m thinking: what if I’m too late?
I twist, I turn, delay, prevaricate.
My soul, mind, conscience, have achieved stalemate;
all I can do is pace here to and fro
regretting that the Christmas post is slow
and wondering if you will write or no.
“I’ve kept the pile of letters that you sent
that first long summer when you went
off like a gypsy, travelling with your tent.
I read them sometimes, wishing you’d write now,
write soon, before the first thick fall of snow
freezes our love and will not let it grow…”
That wouldn’t do, that wouldn’t do at all.
Who am I – Cinderella at the Ball?
(Am an attendant maid, one that will do
to swell a progress, start a scene or two…)
That’s it! A jokey letter with some quotes
hits the right slightly ironizing note,
and anyway why should I bare my soul?
It’s not my character, it’s not my role
to make my fragile feelings clearly known.
And so, dear stranger, sitting there alone
beside the fire, I’ll send a card instead.
No doubt your sons will tell me if you’re dead.
“Fond greetings, Jim, I do hope all is well.
Let’s meet if you have time – give me a bell?”
There. That’s one more chore out of the way.
I’ll put it in the first class post today.
The sun is up; it thaws the frosted lawn
which has been glittering like ice since dawn.
Of course I didn’t post my Christmas card –
it seemed much too perfunctory and hard:
lacking in tenderness, respect, and all
you might be needing (if you had the gall
to need a remnant of the love you wrecked.)
How do I write to you when I suspect
you may be dead, or dying? Do I go
out of my way, avoiding what I know,
to miss that dark and dreadful subject out –
as if it were a passing phase of gout,
best not discussed at all, to be polite?
Or do I tiptoe in, meek and contrite,
with loving wishes and solicitude,
making enquiries that may well be rude?
If there’d been recent news at least I’d know
how matters stand, and if you’re dead or no.
“Ghost of the man I loved, here is my letter.
I fear there is no chance you’re getting better.
Yes, that is why I toss and turn all night,
remembering our bitter, pointless fight –
and how you left for good, and how I wept;
and how your words still lingered as I slept.
Spirit of him I loved, I’ll write to you
each day like this, in words both plain and true.
Discard my letters, as you did before –
rip them to bits and throw them on the floor,
I’ll still keep writing till you answer me
to tell me you are living, and now free.”
Scrap that. I couldn’t send it. What would he
make of my final sentence, and especially
the word “free”, weakly trailing off like that
as if he were some bit of bargain tat
touted around the town, put up for sale,
and marketed until all efforts fail?
Dear ghost, I’ll have to be more careful now
I sense you might be living. Tell me how
I should address you. I’ll obey your rules.
Speak to me still as if we’re both at school,
and you the Master. Punish me if I
do wrong. Rebuke me, make me cry –
anything, anything, just so I know
that you’re alive, and that your feelings flow.
“Dear Jim, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard…
How are you? No-one here has breathed a word
re how the chemo went, so I don’t know
if you’ll read this. I’m writing, anyhow,
to set a few things straight about that night
we had our pointless and destructive fight.
We’d both had quite a lot too much to drink:
this made us disinhibited, I think.
I hope that’s in the past. It is for me,
I wish it were for you; then I’d be free
to worry less. How have you been since then?
I heard you wrote a book, I’m not sure when.
I feel so out of touch with all you’ve done –
even the prizes that you’ve been and won,
you wonder-boy, so clever, so astute
and me still way behind you, picking fruit.”
No that will hardly do! Too meek and mild –
and too beseeching, like a little child.
I’ll out into the world and see if I
can get some air to do my thinking by.
The sun is lighting up the apple trees,
and pigeons peck among the fallen leaves.
Good-bye dear ghost, I will return in time
(I hope) to catch the last post with my rhyme.
I’m back; I had a walk, and now the night
is falling. There are many things to write
concerning how we parted. If you can,
read what I have to say and be a man.
I’m sorry that I took my wedding ring
and chucked it in the lake, the wretched thing.
I’m sorry that I ripped the photos out
of our old album, hurled them all about
and slashed your suit to pieces – your best suit,
dear ghost, that made you look so cute.
I’m sorry that I cut the landline flex
and spoiled your Christmas with my witch’s hex,
and made sure all your letters went astray
between then and the coming New Year’s Day.
My, what a lot of violence in one night!
I wouldn’t put it past you, out of spite,
to go and die before I got the chance
to send my letter to you there in France.
Dear ghost, please don’t. There’s time for you to mend.
Let’s see what Christmas Day this year will send.
Four days to go, I’m counting down the hours.
Christmas was our special time, all ours.
You used to give me presents, kisses, flowers,
until that dreadful night when you revealed
all that you had been feeling and concealed.
I think back to that cold and heartless day,
wondering how it was you got away,
regretting how my jealousy took over
with all the pent-up fury of a lover
who has been scorned and lied to many times.
There – you can hear the anger in my rhymes:
it still goes on, though two years have now passed –
the only thing, it seems, that’s made to last.
“Dear spirit, should you bring yourself to speak
to one whose anger made her vengeful, weak,
I urge you please to tell the truth for once.
Don’t dish out lies fit only for a dunce.
Don’t cover up with half-truths what you think;
don’t take me yet again to that dark brink
where meaning drops away and I am left
gaping, astonished, at the sudden theft
of all that I had known and understood.
I’d take you in my arms now if I could.
We never yet have truly been apart.
No – do not flutter, do not wince and start,
dear ghost, dear invalid beside the fire.
I must not pester you too long, you’ll tire.
I’ve talked enough for two days, maybe more,
and start to be, like Byron, quite a bore –
disgorging reams and reams of shapeless verse
when I should be quite humorous and terse.
Tomorrow I will try to set all right.
Meanwhile, dear patient pallid ghost, goodnight.”
The clock ticks loud, the midnight hour is here.
Today will be the shortest of the year.
Greetings dear ghost, I’m hoping that you’ve slept,
and that (however sad) you have not wept.
Thanks so much for the message that you sent
just now, when I was anxious, feeble, spent.
It came as I was sleeping, in my dream --
then slipped away like ripples on a stream
leaving me waking, nervous and distressed,
but not before my brain had been impressed
with images of you worn down with pain –
your wide mouth open, crying out in vain.
I heard you in my dream, I hear you now,
your soft voice pattering like melting snow.
I picture you with silver hair cut close,
sat up in bed to take your hourly dose,
your pillowed head severely gaunt and wan,
pale as the sheets you rest your body on.
Where is my anger when I see you lie
alone like this, with no nurse standing by?
I feel for you as does a tender mother
watching a child, not like a jealous lover
who half-despises one whom she adores,
forgetting qualities to dwell on flaws.
Sleep well, dear ghost, and wake again when dawn
slips through the hedge and creeps across the lawn.
At first light I’m awake, hoping for post
and wond’ring how you are, dear shrinking ghost.
I slept a little, tossed and turned too much,
remembering the pleasure of your touch –
and when I dreamed, it was of our first kiss:
a clammy, warm, experimental bliss
which left us panting, wanting many more.
So this, we thought, is what our tongues are for!
I wonder what your tongue will do today,
still moving in its socket, cold as clay?
If you’re half-dead (as I believe you are,
dear fading ghost, my ever-dwindling star)
you will not feel, as I do, so frustrated.
Sex, in the dying person, is sublated
into a longing to survive – or worse,
a sudden wish to shuffle off the curse
of living chained each day to a sick-bed,
stranded among the living, not yet dead.
Enough! These morbid fantasies are not
what you’ll be wanting. I’m a clot
to write them down and long to feel your eye
roving all over them before you die.
I should be telling you about the trees,
the first glad stirrings of the morning breeze,
the traffic humming on the nearby road,
the postman setting out with heavy load,
the milkman going on his early round
the steady rhythm of diurnal sound…
I wonder, if you ever read these rhymes,
whether they’ll make you think of happy times:
you in your study writing many a tome,
me like the proverbial angel in the home
picking the fruit from off the orchard trees
and gathering honey from the honey bees,
making you bread and all your favourite foods,
tending you carefully to soothe your moods.
Oh what a quirky life we led, with me at night
writing my rhymes – oh, how I’d write and write
as if to stave off all domestic chores
and realise my own creative laws!
How kind you were when I once dared to show
my work to you – and how you made me glow
with an unreasonable surge of pride.
But think of all the reams of lines I’d hide –
my secret outpourings of lonely hate,
repudiating my downtrodden fate
and all the duties that I must go through
to keep you in the limelight while I grew
sadder and more reclusive day by day
sensing you draw apart and drift away.
How hard it is to conjure up our life
and be a faithful, loving, humble wife
knowing what I know now, and didn’t then –
that you were the deceitfullest of men.
Dear ghost I’m sorry, I’ve been out all day
looking for Yuletide gifts. I meant to say
(and I’ve been thinking this throughout the week)
how sad it is that you’re too frail to speak.
How wonderful if we were now to meet,
enjoy the festive fare we used to eat,
then take a walk on Christmas afternoon
feeling that every minute was a boon!
How good to spend the last hours of your life
chewing the cud with me, your second wife!
Yet better far that I should silently obey
the law of distance and keep well away:
to see me now would break your fragile heart.
You are much calmer when we are apart,
and so am I, to tell the truth. I yearn
for solitude, but somehow never learn.
Enough of mournful thoughts. I’ll be alone
on Christmas Day (with all my shopping done)
and so I guess, my darling, will you too.
Now let’s run through the things that I will do,
remembering the festive days gone by,
with snow soft-falling through the cold blue sky.
I’ll hang your stocking up, as I have done
shedding a tear each year since you have gone
and into it I’ll put the following:
the twisted remnants of your wedding ring;
the tatters of your shredded navy suit
(the one which made you look so very cute);
the letters that your mistress wrote to you,
which you forgot to take when you were through
with shouting at me on that fateful night;
plus all these detailed letters that I write
now, in your sickness, as you die alone –
no nurse in sight, no access to the phone.
I’ll add some cheering foodstuffs, just for you:
your favourite sweets, a tangerine or two,
a bottle of the most distinguished wine
(I’ll drink this later; what is yours is mine)
and a few trivial stocking-fillers –
nothing, though, so solemn it would kill us.
At lunch I’ll raise a glass and drink a toast
to you my darling ex, my dwindling ghost.
The moon is full tonight, and Yule has come.
The owls hoot but your ghostly voice is dumb.
I’ve reached the end now of this tragic verse,
and what is making these sad matters worse
is lack of information about you.
Have you survived to see the solstice through,
or are you even now laid out upon your bed
to all intents and purposes stone dead?
We’ll never know, because no-one has said.