A jingling synthetic beat begins and a voice croons a wordless melody. It ignites an image in my mind.
It’s the smell that comes back to me first. Warm cigarette smoke surrounds me, enveloping not suffocating, and fills my lungs with its stinging nostalgia. It is intermingled with the scent of a newly opened box of wrapped sweets, a strangely comforting blend of chocolate and manufactured plastic. Elsewhere in the house, potatoes are being roasted, inevitably just past the point of burning which will cause the first point of contention at the Christmas dinner table.
The music continues, bringing back with it more memories as the voice begins, “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart.”
The room, as I remember it, is warm, heated by an overcrowding of cousins and candles. Outside, there is no picturesque field with newly fallen snow, but rather the slushy street of an industrial town with cold pavements and flickering street lights. Some venture out, dragging on their cigarettes to warm their insides as they stand in the icy air. At that young age, I do not realise the irony of their actions.
“Once bitten and twice shy, I keep my distance but you still catch my eye.” The layering of synths resonates, and the landscape of my memory deepens.
My grandmother is there. She towers over me, imposing, intimidating, yet warm. It is strange which parts of a person stick in your memory, strange that I cannot for the life of me remember what she said to me but I remember her soft dressing gown and the way that she slept with her mouth wide open, snoring noisily. Her home was the epicentre at Christmas time and the festivities ripple out from her. She sits in the middle, the root of this family tree whose branches stretch out in front of her as her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gather in her tiny living room.
As the notes build to a climax, I am fully immersed, I am a child again. “Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away“.
Standing a few feet lower than most others in the room, conversation swirls above my head and out of reach of my understanding as Christmas songs play on a loop quietly in the background. I like it that way. I play with newly opened toys as those dearest to me mill around, sharing, for the briefest of times, the same room, the same air, the same memories, before we all return to our own lives. This collective feels stoic, unchangeable, and makes me feel untouchable. The ever opening and closing door never brings a dark stranger but rather a familiar face and the steamed-up single-paned windows are the sturdy walls to this familial fortress.
The song descends into a fade and, with it, my memory fades too. I am left with reality, cold and harsh as it is. And yet, the warmth lingers for just a moment more.
That house seemed concrete and its inhabitants and visitors seemed like characters in a play, frozen in the timelessness of my childhood. I know now, however, that I was wrong. I drive past that house sometimes and try to picture my family members in the window but it is impossible. All are changed by time and some are no longer with us. It is only through the channels of music, of certain songs, that I can return there, return to my childhood, and recapture that ‘Last Christmas’.