I write romance. To write romance you need to be in “the zone”; to be steeped in a world of pounding hearts and trembling limbs. You need silence, order and isolation. The only visitor you want is your muse.
Let me explain by taking you back twelve months …
I was just coming to the climatic love scene THE DOUBLE. Aleksandr (a Ukrainian smuggler) and Beth (the beautiful stand-in for a rock-star-in-hiding) know they can never be together but they have ten minutes – only ten minutes – to throw honour and duty to the wind and make love ... one passionate memory that will last them a lifetime …
Easy to ignore, of course, but something is inching into the hotbed of lust in my fevered brain. Christmas ...?
Fuck! It’s Christmas!
I run down stairs and throw open the door. I love my family, I really do. But not NOW, please! I’m coming to the most hauntingly romantic scene I have ever written – I cannot, I must not, lose the moment.
No problem, I tell myself calmly. I’ll just get everyone inside and settled, then slip back upstairs.
There’s quite a crowd on the doorstep: mum, dad, aunts, uncle, nephew, nieces and step-nieces. All wanting Christmas dinner. Good cheer. And yuletide bonding.
Mum kisses me on the cheek, her eyes like laser-guided missiles as they target on the untidy sitting room and the even more untidy kitchen. ‘You were expecting us, weren’t you, Alison?’
‘Of course!’ I exclaim.
Oh, God. I didn’t want to do Christmas dinner but Mum and Dad are having their kitchen re-modelled, Auntie Doris lives alone, and Uncle John mistakenly believes his Ukrainian mail-order wife, Ivana, will be better behaved if she’s on someone else’s territory. And since Timothy left me a month ago (“It’s either ME or those damn books,” he threatened, jealous of my teeming bunch of sweating hunks who swill around in my brain) I’ve been on my own. Blissfully on my own. But Mum sees it as loneliness. And this whole we’ll-invite-ourselves-to-your-house is to cheer me up, put a glass in my hand and a smile on my face.
‘Merry Christmas, sweetheart.’ Dad gives me a hug. He smells of Old Holborn and bonfires. ‘You still have that drip?’
‘He left a month ago.’
Dad laughs. ‘I meant round the back of the house. I’ll go take a look.’ And he’s off before Mum orders him to peel the sprouts.
My Uncle John gives me a friendly wink as he carries in an armful of wrapped gifts. His wife, Ivana, is wearing something tight and carries a bottle of vodka and a dish covered in tin foil. ‘They fuck yet?’ she asks. (She’s been helping me with the Ukrainian side of THE DOUBLE). ‘Almost,’ I say with a sigh.
Next is Tommy, who is 9. He doesn’t want to be kissed and sidles past as if I’ve got leprosy, while Aunt Doris flaps sheets of paper above her head. “I’ve brought song-sheets,’ she bubbles. ‘Nothing like Christmas Carols to work up an appetite!”
The twins, Natasha and Florica, give me the vacuous smile that only a thirteen-year-old can give. They are totally pampered - Paris Hilton without the charm. They drift past, anticipating HOURS of EXCRUCIATING boredom.
Wendy is six. She’s struggling to hold a fat puppy that doesn’t want to be held. ‘This is Bobbo,’ she introduces solemnly. I shake Bobbo’s paw, ‘Hello, Bobbo.’ Wendy stares beyond me. ‘But there’s no decorations on the tree!’ she wails.
Damn. I forgot to dress the tree. In fact, I’ve neglected to do most everything I intended to do. (The muse arrived just as I was dropping the turkey into the roasting tin).
‘It’s OK, Wendy, I especially left it for you to do,’ I lie.
Grandma and Grandpa are the last to arrive. They totter up the garden path, holding on to each other as their shoes slide on the ice. I hadn’t noticed the snow. It looks magical.
‘Where’s the turkey?’ Mum yells from the kitchen.
‘In the oven,’ I call back.
‘But the oven’s not ON!’ Mum is wearing my apron. My Mum doesn’t care for salacious humour so I’m guessing she didn’t see the suspender belt and sagging boobs on the apron when she snatched it from the hook in the cupboard.
Ivana, knocking back a hefty vodka tonic, turns ABBA up to full volume and heads towards the kitchen declaring she will make the mulled wine. Uncle John turns off the music, ‘For God’s sake, Ivana. Ease up. Someone give her a sandwich to soak up the booze.’
‘I wanna sandwich, too!’ Tommy demands.
Everyone – realising that the E.T.A .of the turkey will be three hours late - start snacking. I’m just tip-toeing up the stairs, back to Aleksandr and Beth, when a little voice pipes up from behind me. ‘Where are the decorations for the tree?’
Wendy is standing at the foot of the stairs. I fetch the cardboard box, tear off the packing tape and throw it open. ‘There you go, Wendy. Decorations! Knock yourself out.’
‘But I don’t know what to DO.’
I hurl a handful of tinsel at the tree. ‘Just throw it all on.’ Even to my own ears, my voice sounds shrill.
‘OK…’ She seems unsure. She’s such a serious child and always looks at me as if I’m frivolous to the core.
The twins are on the sofa hooked up to theirs ipods while texting their friends. I bend down and raise my voice to get their attention. ‘Can you both help Wendy decorate the Christmas tree, please?’
‘What?’ They screw up their faces in either incredulity or deafness.
‘Help. Wendy. Decorate. Tree.’ I say in text speech. With a sigh, they drag themselves up from the sofa.
I’m half-way up the stairs and already I can feel the heat burning between Aleksandr and Beth, their lips-
‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All The Way…’ Aunt Doris sings lustily as she hurls the Hoover over the carpet.
‘Alison!’ Grandad calls up. ‘Have you got salt?’
‘It’s next to the pepper.’
‘I meant salt for the path. Someone’s going to break their neck.’
Dad appears. ‘Your guttering is totally blocked,’ he informs me.
‘Bobbo is hurt!’ Wendy screams. ‘We have to take him to the vet.’
Vet? Guttering? Break their neck?
Bobo is limping. I hurry down, inspect his paw and dislodge a tiny plastic angel. ‘There! All better. No need for the vet.’ The muse is leaving, I can feel it.
Mum stands over me eyeing my Snoopy slippers, Jamaican rasta trousers and black sweater. ‘Alison, are you not going to change into something more … Christmassy?’
‘Yes, Mum.’ I dive across the room. ‘Of course, Mum.’ My feet thunder up the stairs. ‘But I may be a little while.’