They were his best pair of shoes: Nikes, outdated by a few years and worn around the edges, but still the fact remained. They were his best pair of shoes and he stepped lightly in them because they had belonged to a priest's nephew. Father Matapang (most of the Catholic priests in the area had come across from the Philippines) had given them to him after Mass nearly a month ago, one of the last times his mother had been in a fit state for church. Robert treated them as through they were made of glass.
They were living in a flat in Adelaide then, a rough part of the city, in a great grey tower-block where the artificial lights shone in the concrete foyer and the traffic kept him up at night. They never got much money from the government because of his father, but he didn't send them a lot either. He had at first, until he found out about the drinking. He had a theory that if he only sent enough for necessities, she wouldn't be able to spend it on booze. What actually happened, predictably, was that they just never had quite enough for necessities and always enough for a bottle.
The phone had been cut off last week, but there was a payphone in the foyer. He would wait until his mother was in bed, then sneak the keys and creep down to the hall in his socks. He would grip the phone to his ear and slip the coin in, his heart pounding at the sharp jangle. He knew the Czechoslovakian dial code and then his father's home number off by heart now. He would phone, let it ring three times, and then hang up. If his father was home, he would call him back straight away. The first few times, just after his father left, three months ago, Robert would cry down the phone. He would whisper, avoiding the echo, and beg his father to come back.
"I miss you too," his father would answer, his strange mangled voice so familiar, "we'll have to arrange for you to come over here and see your babička. I show her pictures of you all the time. Listen, this research project only lasts six months. It'll fly by."
After the first few calls, there wasn't any more talk of his father swooping in to collect him. He talked to Robert about other things. He kept mentioning some woman from his research tem (called Marina, but Robert didn't care), a new car (American, he refused to buy German), a new job in Prague. A new life.
His mother had gotten worse as Christmas approached. Rowan couldn't make it, too swamped with work, he said. Her sister Raquel had promised to visit them, but her husband had caught malaria on a trip to Papua New Guinea so they were staying home.
When Robert heard the chink of wood on glass as he opened the front door, he knew that things were bad again. She was lying on the sofa, mumbling about a headache. When she saw him, she smiled widely, her lipstick uneven. Her cardigan was buttoned up wrongly and her eyes were glassy, he noticed right away.
"Look at you," she said. "The state of your jeans."
Her trembling hand dropped the TV remote, which hit the side of the glass on the coffee table and knocked it onto the floor. The clear liquid was lapped up by the carpet immediately.
"Dammit!" she snapped, so loud and sharp that he flinched.
She tried to smile, which only made him more uneasy. What the hell was going on with his life, flashed through his head.
"W-what would your father say, if –if," she was on the verge of tears. "If he could see the state of you?"
"I don't bloody care," he growled thickly and fled back into the hall.
He knew where he was going before he had even thought of it. St Michael's was several streets away, near the train station. He had been running, but as he neared the church he slowed to a walk, curling and uncurling his sockless feet in his treasured trainers. Father Matapang was in the porch, negotiating with a pair of tramps. Robert edged closer to them.
"…I can drive you myself," the priest was saying, "it's just a little across town."
One of the tramps rubbed his stubbled chin guardedly. "We don't want to go to some stinking men's shelter. We've been sleeping in this porch for months."
"I know that, gentlemen, but the city council-"
"Balls to the city council," muttered the other tramp.
Father Matapang was about to answer when he noticed Robert hovering at his elbow.
"Robert Chase, nice to see you. Gentlemen, we'll talk again later and see if we can't work something out."
Five minutes later, Robert was sitting on a hardwood chair in the church vestry, a cup of milky tea between his hands. Father Matapang was laying out his cassock for the half-past five Mass.
"And how are things at home, Robert?" the father asked, hidden from sight by the open mahogany doors of the cabinet.
Robert glanced awkwardly around, his eyes taking in the plain room, the big leather tome of parish records on a stand at the front, the dressing screen in the corner, the stone piscina basin mounted onto the wall. On the walls were four paintings of Christ in various scenarios and a framed photo of the Manila skyline by night.
"Okay," he finally answered. "But I think I hate my dad. Is that a sin?"
"'Honour thy father and thy mother'," the father quoted.
He leaned back, so he could see Robert, the stole in his hand. "But I don't think you really hate him, deep down."
Robert considered this, before moodily announcing: "He's got a girlfriend."
"Well, isn't he the lucky one?" Father Matapang smiled wryly. He shut the wardrobe and sat down on the other chair, drawing it opposite Robert. "I think you know that he and your mother aren't getting along very well right now. But when he comes back, both of them will have calmed down, and perhaps they'll get along better."
"You always think," Robert muttered, "you're supposed to know. Sorry, Father," he added hastily, bowing his head. "That's why I'm here. I want to know what I should do."
"I can't tell you what to do. The only one who can is God, Robert, and He will. You just have to calm down, clear your head and listen. No-one thinks to listen for the Lord anymore. Life is too loud. But ask Him, and He will answer."
Robert drank a mouthful of tea. It was sweet and strange-tasting.
"What I can do, however," the father continued, "is arrange something for you if things at home are getting-"
"I'm not being put into care. I'm all right."
"You can come here whenever you feel like it. The Church is always open. I'd like to see your mother, too, if she feels like it."
"She's embarrassed to come," Robert said. "She's ashamed," he looked up quickly, "not that she's done anything wrong." He drank the last of the tea. "I should go home."
"Will you be back for midnight mass?"
"I don't think so, Father. Maybe tomorrow."
"Look after yourself, Robert. Merry Christmas."
"You too, Father."
Five minutes to twelve. His mother was asleep now. He got out of bed and padded down the stairs to the lobby. There was someone bundled up asleep in the porch, and the linoleum was a sticky. The whole building seemed so silent and empty, and the coins in his pocket and the sirens blaring past were the only sounds. He pressed himself against the wall, his cheek on the cold paint where half-hearted graffiti was scribbled. The bar light overhead always flickered, throwing odd shadows over the wide hall. Robert slipped in a coin and dialled the familiar number, let in ring three times and then hung up, a sickly feeling in his stomach.
And that was how he saw in Christmas, 1990: shivering next to the payphone, the wind rattling the entrance doors and litter rustling in the stairwell, waiting. The church bells across the road struck midnight as the phone finally rang. Robert swallowed hard, crossed himself and picked up the receiver.
They were wintering in Minneapolis that year. She preferred this by far to last year's Christmas in California, when not a flake of snow had fallen. Here, the edges of every sidewalk and gutter were lined with crisply brushed lines of snow and purplish ice crusted in the corners of windowpanes. The sky had never seemed blacker, the glare of the streetlights obscuring the stars.
Even the windowsill below her hands seemed to hold a chill. She watched herself in the glass until the mist of her breath clouded it. Outside, cars stretched far back, jammed head to tail on the long straight road. The room smelt like carpet shampoo, that impersonal hotel smell that she hated. Allison straightened up.
"Teddy!" she called softly, and presently a fair-skinned boy of eight entered her little room.
"What's up?" he answered.
He watched curiously as she slipped on her sneakers and began tying them, pulling nervously on the sleeve of his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pyjamas.
"Do you want to go down and see the Christmas tree across the street?"
"It's nearly midnight, Ally," he whispered. "I'm in my PJs."
"Just put a coat on over them," she said, walking to the door and out across the hall to the main room of the suite.
Her father was listening to the radio and reading the business section of the paper. He smiled at her over the thick black line of his glasses. Her mother was sitting by the big bay window, staring down over the pinpricked black of the city with a glass of wine.
"Can I take Teddy to go see the tree?"
Her mother looked around at her, noticing her presence for the first time.
"You ought to get to bed. You don't want to look awful tomorrow, do you? Everybody should look their best on Christmas."
"We won't be long," she said, "and it's just over the road," she turned to her father, predicting his response.
He glanced at his watch, which was set five minutes fast and showed five to twelve.
"All right, sweetie. But make sure you're back by a quarter past."
"Is Teddy wrapped up warm?"
Her father lowered his paper again. "Maybe we should come with you. It'll be nice to see in Christmas together."
"Oh, Alex!" her mother groaned. "You know I'm waiting for a call from Sylvie about that place in Hong Kong. She said she'd call the moment she found out."
He raised his eyebrows at Ally helplessly, and both smiled at the private joke.
"Well, you kids have a great time."
She took Teddy's gloved hand tightly in hers in the elevator and didn't loosen her grip as they navigated the packed sidewalk. The pungent smell of mulled wine saturated the frosty air and took the edge off it, and the low sizzle of chestnuts on open fires on the street. Fireworks shot up and hung as dazzling webs in the smoky air. Teddy gawped up at them, craning his head back to stare.
At the end of the road was the tree, illuminated by blurred belts of coloured lights. Alison slowly halted them as they reached the crowd which surrounded it. In the hotel behind the tree, heads poked out from the windows, craning out to look over the scene. The happy buzz of the crowd underlay the brass band playing under the branches. This was a hotel district; the people here didn't have homes to be in.
"Can I have some gingerbread, Ally?" Teddy asked.
He pointed at a tall, lean man in a shabby coat who was selling pieces of gingerbread out of a box that looked as though it had fallen off the back of a truck from an hotel porch. She guided him over and bought him a piece. The man watched them from above his turned-up collar.
"You kids oughta be at home in bed 'stead of wanderin' the streets," he remarked gruffly, and his breath smelt like liquor and his cheeks were thin and flushed.
"We don't have a home," Teddy chirped through a mouthful of gingerbread.
"Now, you don't expect me to b'lieve that you two's on the streets?" he grinned, eyes raking their warm jackets and shiny shoes.
"What he means," Ally hastily intervened, blushing, "is that our father travels a lot and we mostly stay in hotels."
"I'd like to be on the streets," Teddy said thoughtfully.
"No, you wouldn't
The bells of the chapel across the way began to ring, and a low murmur of excitement passed through the air.
"And there's Christmas," the man noted blandly. "And a happy one, I hope."
He extended a hand clad in a worn glove.
And that was how she spent Christmas, 1990: eating gingerbread and shaking a strange man by the hand in a hotel porch in Minneapolis.
His mother wasn't angry with him. She just couldn't bear to show her face in the neighbourhood with everyone knowing that her son was a thief. Perhaps it would be best if they spent Christmas at his uncle's, his father said. He wasn't angry either. He was just disappointed, and Eric could sometimes hear him praying through the bedroom wall.
His uncle, his mother's brother Elroy, lived a few miles outside of Atlanta. The house was fairly big, but ramshackle, crumbling a little around the edges and definitely a little crooked. They had been in the process of replacing the original yellowing clapboard for some years, making the outside of the house an odd mix of white wood and brown brick. Elroy owned a paint store in the city, his wife Joanne worked as a secretary to a private physician. Living with them were Eric's cousins - Jacob, Phil, Shaun, and Natasha - as well as his Grandpa Hogg, and now Eric, Marcus and their parents. It was a house of change. Grandpa picked at his twelve-string guitar in the front yard while his cousins hooked up their speakers in the basement and played their Public Enemy CDs at full blast.
Elroy, bearing Natasha on his shoulders, was waiting for them on the porch when their pale blue saloon turned off the road, throwing up dust, and rolled onto the stubbly brown grass in front of the house. Eric nudged Marcus awake, and they stepped out of the stuffy car and into the crisp, clean Georgia morning. His mother breathed deeply as they headed up onto the porch.
"Lord, I miss this beautiful air. It's so relaxing and fresh. Elroy, how are you? Tasha, you are becoming the prettiest girl I ever saw! Come give your Auntie a kiss!"
She threw her arms around her brother and kissed him loudly on the cheek. Eric's father shook his hand, a benign smile on his face. Eric and Marcus lingered on the edge of the porch until Jake and Phil came round the screen door and, grinning, thrust out their hands. Eric and Marcus obediently joined in the ritual handshake – shake, twist, knuckle tap, high five. They'd been doing it since they were tiny, and now they laughed self-consciously at themselves. They climbed onto the porch, when little Shaun came tearing out of the door and then stopped abruptly and stared, suddenly shy in front of the visitors. Eric's mother laughed and scooped him up.
"Eric, Marcus, nice to see you," Elroy nodded, as though he had no idea why they had decided to descend on his house en masse.
There was a dinner laid out in the neat, airy kitchen. When Joanne saw them, she straightened up from laying out plates on the broad table and bestowed kisses on everyone. She untied her pinafore and ran a hand through her tied-up hair.
"I hope this is all right for everybody," she said, gesturing to the crammed spread on the table. "It's Cajun chicken and vegetables. With ice cream for dessert, of course," she winked at the children.
Eric rolled his eyes. What is this, the Forties? he scorned inwardly.
"Grandpa's upstairs taking a nap. He said not to save him dinner, he already ate down at the cafe," Elroy informed, coming back from upstairs and taking his place at the table. "Shall we say a grace? Reverend?"
Eric quickly phased out as his father cleared his throat and began intoning. He had become tired of graces which seemed to be directed straight at him. He only tuned back in when he heard the sound of forks clattering on plates. The whole meal was full of warmth and friendliness, everyone pretending they didn't know what Eric had done, and it made him feel unbearably awkward. Even his cousins didn't seem to know what to say to him.
He and Marcus were sleeping in the attic. A space had been cleared amongst the boxes and upended furniture for a pair of cot beds. They dumped their bags on the dusty floorboards at just after ten o'clock, when the adults retired to the living room to drink and reminisce. As they changed into pyjamas, the faint sounds of old boogie-woogie records drifted up to them.
Marcus went out like a light. Eric sat cross-legged on his bed, trying to force his way through a biology textbook in the lamplight. The noise downstairs cut out at around eleven-thirty, followed by pairs of feet shuffling up to bed.
He sighed. He had promised his parents he would work his fingers to the bone, he would do better. He remembered how scared he had been at the station, how he had vomited in the corner of his cell and half-fainted in the foyer. How Darrell and Will had kept up their tough-guy acts, jostling against their guards as they were marched to their cells and muttering about the 'pigs', while he had stammered through his interrogation on the verge of tears. His father saying "Eric, I got you a weekend job in my friend Robert Granger's garage. You can start putting that expert knowledge of cars to lawful purpose.". His mother shooing his friends away from the front steps, even the ones who hadn't done anything wrong, while he watched glumly from the top window. Those eyes all fixed on him in church, in school, at home.
He closed the book and dropped it on top of the pile of clothes in his open suitcase. Moving softly to the skylight, he opened it a little and looked out. It was a weird place at night, out in the middle of a bare, dark plain, with the lights of the city outskirts in the far distance. The road was a little-used back way into the city and odd barks and rustles mingled with the deep hum of the occasional car trundling by. Listening, Eric suddenly heard the loud 'a-hem' of a throat being loudly cleared, coming from somewhere below him, on the porch.
He grabbed his jacket and padded down the ladder, down the stairs and along the darkened hall. The front door was open. He stopped in the doorway.
Grandpa Hogg was sitting on the porch in his baggy denims and faded peaked cap, in a narrow-legged kitchen chair. He had his guitar on his lap, but didn't seem to be playing it, except the occasional note, as if to remind himself it was still there. Eric looked at his profile in the moonlight. He was a tall, thin old man of about seventy, with white hair edging his face and a sparse white beard. His face was cragged, his teeth yellowed but more or less all present. He turned his head and smiled.
"Sit down, Eric," he nodded at the empty chair beside him.
On the seat stood a bottle of bourbon and a bottle of soda water, with a half-full glass between them. Eric picked them up and started to bend to put them on the porch floor.
"Just help yourself to it," Grandpa Hogg said, "it's no good for me anyhow."
"My dad won't like it," Eric muttered as he took a swig from the whiskey bottle and planted it between his knees.
"Your daddy don't like a lot of things. He never cared much for me, for a start," he smiled crookedly.
There was a long, comfortable silence. Eric breathed the piny air and took another swig of the liquor. Grandpa Hogg very softly picked out a melody and hummed along under his breath.
"What do you do out here?" Eric asked finally.
He could understand the need to escape the suffocating niceness of the house, but, however he roamed his eyes across the landscape, there was nothing of any interest in view. Even in daylight, the surroundings were flat and brown, and in the dark nothing was visible beyond the other side of the road.
"I think," Grandpa Hogg replied. "I was a railroad engineer, a hogger – that's why they call me Hogg – and my whole life I spent criss-crossing the country."
He sipped his whiskey and soda and played a melancholy chord.
"I visited every city in America and I seen a whole lot of fine things and I met a lot of in'eresting people. But I never had no time to think. So that's what I do," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I sit here and I think all the things I never had a chance to think before. But you," he said gently, "you still got time to think. You got time to figure out just who you are and where you're headed. You got to think long and hard and act on what you find," he stopped, chuckled to himself and took a long gulp of his drink. "At least that's how I see it."
He pushed a low, broken whistling sound through his teeth and tapped his long, bony fingers on his guitar. Eric shifted in his seat and looked out into the blackness.
And that's how he saw in Christmas, 1990: hunched barefooted on a porch in Georgia with a bottle of whiskey between his knees, listening to an old man whistle into the still night air, and thinking.