I’d not seen Neil for a couple of years when, one Saturday in November, he called my home phone. He had, he said, a few days off at the end of his band’s European tour. How did a catch-up sound? An hour or so later we were in Bridgend, talking and drinking coffee in his girlfriend’s kitchen.
Neil and I had met in art college and bonded over The Ramones. Originally from Port Talbot, he was now a guitarist in a punk band, and looked the part, with blond-dyed, unkempt hair, worn leather jacket and ripped jeans. The down-at-heel-rocker look was set off by Neil’s tall, lanky slouch, beaky nose and wasted complexion. From a distance, he could look threatening, but there was sly humour in his pale, grey eyes.
He was on good form, as ever, chain-smoking and cracking off-colour band jokes. As we chatted, though, reminiscing and bullshitting, I thought he looked tour-weary and a little preoccupied. He didn’t suggest jamming, as he usually did, so I let it slide, though I’d brought along my acoustic guitar. Instead, the subject of Christmas came up. Neil said he dreaded going home for Christmas. I asked him why that was, though I had half an idea.
“Oh, the same thing happens every year,” he said gloomily, lighting a cigarette. “It’s like clockwork. The family gets together, and, after dinner, the men go into one room and the women into another. In the men’s room, so to speak, there are always these flagons of Brain’s ale, loads of them. The men just get stuck in, drinking like there’s no tomorrow, and then my uncles start laying into me.”
“Why do they do that?” I asked. Neil thought for a moment, the creases of a frown forming between his eyes. I fancied I saw the beginnings of a thousand-yard stare and wondered if I’d gone too far, but he was speaking again.
“Well, it’s kind of a traditional family, see. Men are men, and women are women, and that’s it. They just don’t get it if you step outside the box. The men, especially, are a bit suspicious of me ’cause I’m in a band, and they hate the way I look. So they get drunk and it all comes out.” He summoned a bleak, lop-sided smile. “It’s a tradition in itself.”
Long journeys between gigs in a clapped-out tour bus had honed Neil’s gift for sharing stories, and I sensed he was okay with the family stuff. I decided I could press him further, though I doubted his family could be crazier than mine. I wanted to know, and I didn’t. Neil’s words were moving something in me, like a magnet over iron filings. In spite of his family’s treatment of him, Neil had survived fairly intact and was living his dream, but I knew it could go either way. What was it with uncles? Neil made his guitar howl like a banshee on stage and could tell a fine story, but one of my cousins, equally gifted in his youth and with similar family issues, would never speak again.
“So what happens?” I said. I wasn’t sure I liked where we were going with this, but Neil was hitting his stride.
“It’s like the script’s already written,” he replied. “It always starts with rugby. Most of the guys are mad keen on the game. In our family there’s a history, goes way back, of the men playing for the Harlequins. It’s like I’ve let the side down or something. ‘Why have you got long hair? How come you never tried for the Harlequins? What are you, a poof?’ If the drinking goes on long enough, one of them might take a swing at me.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Bummer.” The iron dust shifted and coalesced, fixing frames from my family’s past I hadn’t viewed in years and was mostly unaware of. If I was being honest, I had a lot of time for the mind’s dark corners.
“Yeah, well, I usually have a few beers, too, so it doesn’t bother me that much,” Neil went on. “I sometimes get a couple of swings in myself, but I’m no match for those rugby guys. They spend their lives fighting on the pitch. It’s second nature to them. Most years I get a good kicking.”
“Jeez, mate, that’s a hell of a family welcome,” I said. “If it happened to me I’d be spending Christmas somewhere else, for sure.”
Neither of us spoke for a minute or two, staring at the floor. I thought about sharing what was in my own head, but Neil was looking at me intently, prompting.
“So what happens next?” I asked, knowing the answer already.
“It’s not so bad, really,” he said, grinning. “When the guys have punched themselves out of breath, the women come in, right on cue, and have a go at their men for having a go at me.” He paused. “To be honest, I’d rather take a beating off my uncles than a tongue-lashing from my Auntie Glad.” He dragged on his cigarette. “Then the women take me into the kitchen, patch me up and make a big fuss of me. It’s brilliant.” He thought for a second. “Come to think of it, I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
He laughed, then, at the brutal absurdity of it all, and so did I. There was a shift in perspective. The images that his story had conjured in me sank out of sight, and that was that. Neil looked at me shrewdly as he ground his spent cigarette into the ashtray. He winked.
“So, what are you doing for Christmas?” he said.
Andy Lumborg lives in the hills at the top end of a Welsh valley. He also writes poems.