Inhabitants of High Barnet were searching online for 'nipple' and 'grandma' and 'guilt'
Sabre-tooth tigers had marauded through the sitting room, shredding wrapping paper, crumpling chocolate coin wrappers and ripping open gift envelopes, before slinking back upstairs, miffed not to have received the latest iPad.
Danny high-stepped over the Christmas wreckage, string lights blinking on the bedraggled tree, under whose fallen needles lay untouched objects last glimpsed on a shelf at Waterstones. His presents for the kids had flopped, it seemed. Then again, in his own childhood, Mum and Dad had given certain objects gifts he’d spurned but cherished later.
He consulted his watch — as per Boxing Day tradition, Phil was arriving soon. The two friends had met 18 years earlier, aspiring screenwriters in their twenties then, Danny Berger from north London, Phil Schachter from Minneapolis, both secular Jews who had bonded over a secret passion. At first, their predilection had leaked out sheepishly. Finally, they confessed: both were rather partial to Christmas.
Raised on separate continents, they had grown up resenting all the pushy holiday bonhomie, hiding out on December 25 at movie theatres, and not for a seasonal picture. But, just as one shudders at certain tastes when young, only to develop a perverse savour for them in maturity, they reached their mid-twenties with a hankering to stuff stockings, smell pine trees indoors and gnaw limbs off gingerbread men. (Both still shrank from the Christmas ham; there was a limit.)
After Danny married Sue, who was not Jewish, he was able to quench his closeted Yuletide yearnings — always with the excuse of the kids. To be clear, the religious aspects held no interest. It was the pagan indulgence, not least the grub. And Phil joined in, schlepping up to High Barnet annually to scoff their holiday leftovers, all with the pretext of watching Boxing Day football on telly.
As years passed, the two spoke less of their screenplay, placing it gently into that deep snow where hopes retire. Phil was still writing, mostly for small-time TV dramas, bad ones. Danny designed websites from home now, cooked for the family, drove the kids around when Sue was overseas for work.
Danny’s life kept expanding, adding kids and dogs and cat and gerbils and hamsters and mice (some uninvited). Meanwhile, Phil’s life became narrower, more ascetic and directed. When he’d first arrived in London, he had set his heart on some day living by the canals in Maida Vale and moved nearer every few years, obliged to take increasingly cramped flats, thereby reversing the path of his peers, who had started in tiny central digs and entered middle-age on the spacious periphery, besieged by torn wrapping paper. But Phil planned everything, which was why he’d had no kids — if you planned enough, you never ended up eating fajitas at Christmas, as the Bergers had the day before.
“Greetings,” Phil called out (the Bergers’ front door was always unlocked), sloughing off his natty Scandinavian overcoat, which smelled of a recent cigarette. “Your kids don’t rush down the stairs to greet me?”
“Why, did you buy them something?”
“Why, should I have?”
“Absolutely not. They’re over-indulged already,” Danny said, leading Phil upstairs. “We all agreed on non-electronic gifts this year. You’ll see how that went over.”
The first child they encountered was Lily, a pre-teen with flashes of how she used to be when still willing to watch old movies with her parents, though now she inhabited a chillier guise, in make-up and ill-fitting heels. She sat at the computer, engrossed in a shoot-em-up video game.
“Weren’t you and Sam playing Trivial Pursuit?” Danny asked.
“He’s looking at porn on his iPhone.”
“Am not, liar,” said her brother, who slouched from his bedroom, a shag of bouncy hair and a caterpillar moustache, his tight T-shirt emitting the fug of cannabis and sweat. Each time Sam appeared, so did the Seventies.
The adults congregated in the kitchen for cold leftovers, and Sue provided Phil with updates on her life. She worked on conflict resolution in South Sudan, where her local assistant had recently suffered a motorcycle accident, skinning his arm from wrist to shoulder. The only reachable medical facility was a US military outpost, at whose entrance Sue had demanded help. The soldiers obliged, free of charge.
“As an American,” Phil said, “I find it comforting that should I ever be without health insurance in the States and need urgent care, all I have to do is travel to South Sudan.”
“It’d probably be quicker than through the NHS,” Danny grumbled.
“Oh, come on,” Sue said. “The NHS may be rubbish for small things. But if it’s a major issue, the system does snap into action.”
“Yes, what you have to do is complain of shooting chest pains,” Danny said. “And when they’ve got you under the defibrillator, you shout, ‘Oh, and I’ve also got this rash!’ ”
Sue swatted her husband with a napkin; Phil laughed.
“And you?” she asked their guest. “What’s news?”
“Headline is I’m moving.”
“Two yards closer to the canal?”
“No, to California. In January.” Years of coping in London had been all right but he’d been offered work on a new HBO drama. It made sense to be home again.
“And it’s the golden age of television,” Danny remarked, sounding blithe but inwardly disconcerted. This must have been in the works for ages. Phil hadn’t mentioned it. “Golden age of television,” Danny repeated, addressing Sue.
Her eyes widened in nominal agreement, prompting a rush of irritation in Danny at being married to a scold, one who deemed every box-set series a waste of time, and ... Though, this wasn’t how he felt about Sue; he admired her. But aren’t you allowed to feel one way and its opposite about your spouse?
Sam swaggered in, chortling at his smartphone. “Just found literally the most hilarious app. Look, Dad, you can see what words people are looking up online.” The inhabitants of High Barnet, it transpired, were searching for “nipple” and “grandma” and “guilt”.
“Faintly disturbing,” Sue said.
Lily shouted from upstairs, “See what they’re looking up in Chelsea.”
Sam read aloud the answer: “cowering” and “sycophantic” and “griping”. He flashed them the screen. “I’m literally not making this up.”
“And my people?” Phil said.
“Yes, what says Maida Vale?” Danny asked.
“No, check LA,” Phil said.
“In Los Angeles,” the teenager replied momentarily, “it’s ‘peephole’ and ‘ephemeral’ and ‘prodigy’. What’s ‘prodigy’?”
“Not you, dear boy. Not you.”
They switched on the football but nobody really watched, given all the chatter. By the second half, Danny had drifted upstairs. He’d bought no Christmas present for his friend; they never exchanged them. But he wanted to give Phil something. Instead of seeking an impromptu gift, he stood at the edge of his bed, dreaming.
The same person may be switched from ally to enemy. Phil had never invited them to his latest place. Phil’s Leftie politics were such a put-on — was there an American who really hated Boris Johnson that much? And he made cringe-worthy misuses of slang, such as: “Hey, bloke, how’s it going?”
Absurd as Danny knew it to be, he’d still been harbouring expectations that they would make their film together. How long into improbability does one clutch at dry ambitions? Long as possible, he supposed.
“Game’s ending, Dad!”
He grabbed a DVD as a present — Escape to Victory — still with Sainsbury’s £3 price sticker on it.
Phil waited at the bottom of the stairs in his overcoat. “Time to mosey on, I think.”
Danny abandoned the DVD on the stair behind him and hastened down, hand extended, taking Phil’s in both of his, not embracing — they never did. He spoke softly in order that the kids not hear: “You’ve done so well, my friend.”
When alone, Danny lingered before the tinsel-strewn tree. There were places online that enumerate your life: how many more meals you’re likely to have, how many trips abroad, how many Christmases. How many more friends would he have? Friendships were so rare and so brittle. Women seemed to accrue friends with age; men seemed to shed them. He recalled Hanukkah presents as a child, and the competition with his brothers over who had received the bigger gifts.
If there’s a god, Danny thought, he has no idea what to get anyone.
“What are you doing over there?” Sue asked.
“Pondering a godless universe,” he replied cheerfully. “Any mince pies left?”
“I just finished them.”
“That’s proof then: there is no god.”
“But there are gingerbread men.”
“Yes,” he said, following her to the kitchen. “There are always gingerbread men.”