Authors: Pierre Szalowski
Published in Great Britain in 2013 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE
This digital edition first published in 2013 by Canongate Books
Copyright © Pierre Szalowski, 2007
Avec l’accord des Éditions Hurtubise. Tout droit réservés.
Translation copyright © Alison Anderson, 2012
The moral rights of the author and translator have been asserted
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library
ISBN 978 0 85786 162 7
eISBN 978 0 85786 888 6
Typeset in Plantin Light by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd, Falkirk, Stirlingshire
For Antoni, Tom, Sophie.
For yesterday, today and always.
In life, there is nothing to fear and everything to understand.
Nowhere and everywhere in Montreal
Thursday, 25 December 1997
CHRISTMAS GOES BY SO FAST
‘Wait a little longer. Your dad’s asleep.’
The clock said nine nineteen. I went and sat back down on the bed. I’d already been awake for two hours, waiting in my room. We have this family tradition. Every year Dad orders me not to
show my face until after Santa Claus has come and gone. But I’m eleven years old and I stopped believing in Santa Claus five years ago already!
Five years, that’s a secret; my parents think it’s four.
I was six and a half when Alex, my only friend, came and told me the sad news with a big smile on his face. I was suddenly thrust into a world where there was an explanation for everything. To
get over my disappointment, I did the same thing as Alex, at school. I got a kick out of telling the younger kids that Santa Claus was just something our parents made up. At home I dropped a few
remarks to try and make Mum and Dad understand that it was about time they stopped telling me that if I wasn’t a good boy Santa Claus wouldn’t bring me anything. But when I saw the
panicky look my mum gave my dad, I gave up trying. I didn’t want to make them unhappy. Sometimes you have to lie to your parents to keep them happy.
‘He’s really cool, Santa Claus, because normally there’s no way you can get an electric car that’s a metre long to fit down the chimney!’
The following August, when I was out fishing with my dad at our summer cottage, I stared at the water for a long time.
‘I don’t believe in Santa Claus any more!’
He turned to look at me, and I turned to look at him. He stared at me for a minute, with a fatalistic little smile, then he put some bait on my fishing rod.
Dad’s not much of a one for talking. Mum says he’s a man of few words. He came out with it as if he had known all along I would eventually find out, but he didn’t want to be
the one to tell me. He didn’t try to find out who had told me, either, which you’d think would be instinctive for a policeman – well, former policeman. Now he was an instructor at
the police academy. The doctor, who’d seen his fair share of brave folks, had diagnosed a mild case of burnout. What’s so stressful about issuing parking tickets for the ladies who
lunch on the rue Laurier! Besides, you shouldn’t feel guilty, it’s their husbands who pay, he’d said.
Mum says that the pressure comes from within. Only you can know why you’re putting that kind of pressure on yourself, since you’re the one who’s doing it. My dad went on
telling me bedtime stories anyway, about nice policemen who arrested naughty motorcyclists. Then one evening two years ago he quit. Every year, mid-January, my mum freaks out when the time comes
for him to send his letter explaining why he doesn’t want to go back to patrol work.
I don’t enjoy it any more, and besides I get paid the same!
After our fishing expedition, when we got back to the cottage, my dad whispered something in my mum’s ear. She just pursed her lips. In her first grade class she’d seen plenty of
kids who’d had to deal with learning the bitter truth about Santa Claus:
‘Why are you crying, sweetie?’ she’d ask.
‘My dad told me off ’cause I broke my Christmas present and he hadn’t finished paying for it!’
But there in the cottage it was her own kid. Something had just ended forever. I’m an only child. Never again would she be able to play Santa Claus with my dad. That’s when I
realised that Christmas is as much about parents having fun as it is about kids.
Nine twenty-nine. Last night dinner went on forever. There were six of us around the table – me, my parents and Julien, my dad’s best friend. Julien came with
Alexandria and Alexandra, his unbearable twins. They screamed non-stop and since they look the same, it felt like it was always the same kid screaming. My mum was even more annoyed than I was.
Then they linked arms and started dancing and singing. ‘
The sirens in the port of Alexandria, still sing the same melody . . . woo woo . . .
‘Julien, couldn’t you have given twin sisters different names?’
‘Yeah, but then I would have had to have met their mum somewhere other than at a party devoted to Claude François and his song about Alexandria . . .’ For the umpteenth time
he was going to tell everyone about their names. ‘Hey, and let me remind you . . .’
Every year Julien would explain that we didn’t need to call them twin sisters, just twins, because one twin is bound to be the sister of the other twin – provided they’re both
girls, of course; they mirror each other.
‘Say, who’s prettier?’
I could never tell which of the two pests was asking me this question. That was understandable as they were absolutely identical, so one or the other, same difference. The only good news was
that Julien was divorced.
‘I never wronged my wife, I just chose the wrong wife!’
So Alexandria and Alexandra sang the same melody only every other year. I never understood why he and his ex-wife didn’t just share the twins. Since they had two just the same, they could
each have taken one. But apparently twins can’t live without each other. They’re like parents, or my parents, anyway.
I wasn’t supposed to know, but the twins had almost been my sisters. Julien was my mum’s fiancé when they were both students at the teacher training college. Then he made the
dumb move of introducing my mum to my dad, who was as handsome as they come, with his uniform hugging his abs, and his shoulders wider than his hips. He’d just joined the force. Love at first
sight, she said. Dad said the same. As for Julien, he’d tried to mix business with displeasure.
‘Hey Anne, hey Martin . . . I won’t bother you any longer . . . Just stay there, I’ll switch off the light!’
When the twins finally collapsed on the sofa in the living room, my mum came over and gave me a kiss.
‘Bedtime . . .’
‘But Mum, it’s Christmas . . .’
‘The sooner you go to bed, the quicker you’ll have your presents in the morning!’
On the way to my bedroom I saw my dad and Julien opening another bottle. My mum wasn’t there. Things looked serious because when I went by and waved to them, neither one gave me a smile.
They even looked a little sad when they caught my eye. They must have drunk another bottle afterwards because when I woke up during the night to go for a wee they were still whispering in the
Women fall in love because they think you’re different. And then they do everything they can to make you just like everyone else
. . .’
My mum opened my bedroom door. She looked in and she wasn’t smiling.
‘Your father is awake . . .’
I didn’t jump out of bed the way I usually do on Christmas morning. I could hear the sadness in my mum’s voice. At the time I didn’t notice that she’d said
‘father’ instead of ‘dad’. It was just her sadness that struck me.
When I left my bedroom I saw in the kitchen that it wasn’t one more bottle my dad and Julien had drunk but two. Dad was waiting for me in the living room, slumped in his armchair in front
of the television, which wasn’t switched on, as if he’d made some sort of major concession for Christmas morning. He forced a smile and rubbed his head. I wondered if there were any
other empty bottles hiding out on the balcony.
Christmas may come only once a year but that’s no reason to break with tradition. I was surprised my parents weren’t sitting together. My mum wasn’t perched on the arm of my
dad’s chair but on the sofa, further along. Separate.
Even when you’re eleven, you always open the biggest present under the tree first. I knew at once that the chemistry kit was Mum’s idea. She always buys me educational toys. For her
a present should be useful. I’m a year ahead at school because she taught me to read when I was four. I was the star at daycare. Now I’m the bookworm who’s a full head shorter
than everyone else.
There were three presents left, almost all the same size. In this situation, you open the heaviest one next.
‘This is Dad’s little surprise . . .’ He was staring at me.
I pretended not to see the dark look that Mum had just given him. I tore off the wrapping paper and my eyes popped out. Unbelievable! A video camera! I turned to my dad. All I could say was,
‘Wow, Dad . . .’
He settled back in his chair, pleased. My mum clenched her jaw. I couldn’t let her stay sad like that.
‘Thanks, Mum, you too! Thank you, both of you . . . Thank you, Santa Claus!’
Her smile was strained. The video camera hadn’t been her idea. I quickly opened the other two presents: first came a box of Lego, another of my mum’s ideas, intended to help develop
my fine motor skills. Actually, I’m so developed in that department that I can pretty much take a watch apart wearing a pair of hockey gloves.
The last package was a clock radio shaped like a football. It was from Julien. I’d told him last year that I was fed up with presents that had to do with baseball.
‘But that Yankees bathrobe looks great on you!’ he’d said.
I think he would have liked to have a boy. Maybe not two, but at least one of the two. Having to buy Barbie dolls in duplicate all the time must be frustrating for even the best dads. So he kind
of made up for it with me.