A Terrible Idea

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This is my entry for the 2015 Christmas writing contest. It’s been rushed a bit, but I hope you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.

*

There are plenty of places in the world where Christmas is almost guaranteed to be white. Western Europe isn’t one of them, though. And for the myth of a white Christmas, we have Charles Dickens to blame. Dickens’ Christmases are invariably white, while the truth of the matter is that in those countries surrounding the North Sea, chances are that Christmas is like any other winter day: cold, wet, windy, and above all, grey.

So as Albert was driving to his grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve –alone, as always– the heating couldn’t quite keep out the disconsolateness of the weather outside. Was it the season to be happy? Certainly not for the large German car that cut in front of him, forcing him to brake and swerve, lest he would start his Christmas holiday with a collision and possibly worse. He considered honking his horn and making an obscene gesture, but the other car had already crossed another lane and was speeding up the exit ramp.

He sighed, as he knew what lay before him. There would be his aunts and uncles, and his idiotic cousins and their equally or possibly even more idiotic partners.

There was Lucas, for example. He’d always been a bully, and lived together with a slut that went by the name of Sharon. He never quite understood why they still were together, because whatever there was in their relationship, love didn’t exactly top the list.

Lucas’ younger brother, Martin, invariably turned up with a different bimbo every time, whose chest size in centimetres was considerably larger than her IQ. Not that it mattered much: Albert figured that Martin’s own IQ did manage double figures, but only with some effort.

Wilma, the product of different uncle/aunt pair, was perpetually ‘in between jobs’. She hadn’t actually worked a day in her life; instead, she spent her time complaining about foreigners, immigrants and other such miscreants that took our jobs and lived off the state. Thankfully, she was an only child.

Véronique had a nice name, but there the list of positive attributes more or less ended. She was heavily into new age and spiritualism, and would talk incessantly about ‘energising’ everyday objects and auras and such. Albert had found out that talking to her for more than five minutes had the exact opposite effect of energising.

Her younger brother, François, had a gift for anything electronic. From a simple radio to the latest large screen TV, he could fix anything. This gift didn’t quite compensate for his inability when it came to personal hygiene. Presumably he knew what soap and water were, and perhaps even that they could be combined, but that was about the extent of it. Albert always made sure to be downwind from him, or if they were indoors, as far away as possible, preferably in a different part of the house.

And finally Hélène –their parents had a thing for French names– who was in her mid-teens and therefore a demon from hell. She always got in a fit when people called her ‘Helen’, which was most of the time. With her being just over half his age, Albert had never paid much heed to her.

Véronique and François predictably didn’t have partners; Hélène was far too young to bring any boyfriend, if she had one, to a family event. Which probably meant a bit of relief for the poor boyfriend in question.

Of course, there would be his parents, and his younger sister, Charlotte. He hadn’t seen them in what must be a couple of months now. He’d call his parents a few times a month, and there was the occasional video call, but the job kept him occupied, as did his social circle. His sister… he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d spoken to her.

There had been another sister, Bernadette. Their parents had liked the alphabetical theme. But when Charlotte was less than a year old, and their mother was busy with the baby, Bernadette had momentarily escaped her mother’s attention. It was only a fraction of a second, but it was enough. Bernadette spotted a puppy across the road and ran to play with it.

Their parents had never recovered. They had become enormously protective of their remaining two children, and especially Charlotte was doted upon. They rarely left the house after that, except for school, and as a result, Albert and Charlotte had been very close as children, out of sheer necessity. This went on until Albert finished his studies, got a job, and escaped the virtual prison that their family home had become.

Albert remembered the older of his two sisters only vaguely. Mostly, he felt resentment towards her. This wasn’t fair, he knew that, but it also wasn’t fair that his childhood had not been as happy and carefree as it should have been. His relationship with his parents was cordial, but little more than that.

He was about ten minutes away from the big house where his grandparents lived. It would be the same as last year: how ikonbet giriş was he doing, how was the job going, how come he didn’t bring a nice girl with him, wasn’t it about time he settled down and started a family, wouldn’t it be nice if they could be great-grandparents…

Albert heaved a melodramatic sigh, even though there was nobody with him to hear it. It was a bit like the falling tree in the forest. If he heaved a sigh and nobody was there to hear it, did he actually make a sound? But he was there to hear it. According to quantum mechanics, the very act of listening to him sigh changed the act of sighing, and it didn’t actually make a sound until he heard it. Or something of the sort. He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he nearly missed his exit. At the last moment, he swerved onto the ramp, soliciting an angry honk from the car behind him. Albert raised his hand in a conciliatory gesture, although it would be hardly visible through the small, tinted rear window.

His grandparents lived in a large, detached house a bit outside the village. What with having four children, they needed the space. Now in their seventies, the house was far too large for them, but whether out of nostalgia or sheer pig-headedness, they had been reluctant to move to a smaller domicile.

Judging by the assortment of run-down and cheap cars, most, if not all, of his cousins and their parents had already arrived. His father was the oldest of the children, and had done well for himself, but from there on it was a bit of a downward slope. It would be cruel to call his assortment of cousins ‘good for nothing’, but it wouldn’t be very far from the truth either. He parked his car a safe distance away. His cousins thought of ‘don’t drink and drive’ as a recommendation rather than the law, and he didn’t want a dent in his car if one of them drunkenly reversed into him.

His grandparents’ house was decorated modestly, even by European standards. If it were up to his grandfather, the house would decked out with coloured lights, inflatable snowmen, singing Santas and reindeer with flashing red noses. Grandmother, however, was very firm in this, so there was merely a wreath on the door, and a lit up star in one of the windows.

He rang the doorbell. After a few moments, he heard the unmistakable firm step of his grandfather. The old man’s face lit up when he saw his grandson. ‘Alberto! Come va? Entra, entra!’ He gave him a friendly pat on the back, which nearly knocked Albert off his feet. Grandfather had been retired for quite a while, but he was still a strong man.

Grandfather was Gaetano del Vecchio, from a village some distance from Bari in Apulia, or Puglia as the Italians call it. It’s the ‘heel’ of Italy. He spoke the language of his adoptive country fluently –although Albert suspected that he exaggerated his Italian accent on purpose– but he liked to speak the language of the old country. And the Italian language, it has to be said, is as beautiful as everything else in that country.

He had gone to the dreary north to work as a miner, as happened in the 1960s. It was not entirely clear why a young man from a region that had virtually no mining activity would travel the length of the continent to work as a miner. Albert had a suspicion that there were some issues with the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian crime organisation, but grandfather was always evasive on the issue, so Albert let it rest.

When Gaetano had been working for a few years, he met a local girl. He immediately fell for her long legs and blonde hair; she found his handsomeness and Mediterranean mannerisms irresistible. One thing led to another, they got married, and five months later Mario, Albert’s father, was born. And whilst the wedding had more or less been forced upon his grandparents, it was obvious that they were still very much in love.

So that made his father 50% Italian. His mother, however, was the full 100%. Somewhere in the 1980s, his grandfather had taken all of them in their small Fiat for a family visit, on the gruelling drive across Europe and Italy. After all, northern Italy is closer to Western Europe than is the very south of the Italian peninsula. Mario del Vecchio had been in his late teens, and he had met a local girl. One thing would have led to another, had there not been the constant vigilant watch of a coterie of chaperones. But again, it had been a case of love on first sight. There had been letters; international phone calls were prohibitively expensive at the time. After many letters, there had been a marriage proposal. After the proposal, there had been much wrangling, wailing and drama by her family, but the young lovers persevered. There was a big and lavish wedding in the village, Antonella Proscia became Antonella del Vecchio, and followed her new husband up north.

As a result, Albert was 75% Italian. He was fluent in the language, and had a southern accent to it. His dark good looks ensured a steady supply of interested young women. ikonbet yeni giriş His Italian ancestry, and the fact that he was one of the very few grandchildren that had made a success of himself, made him his grandfather’s second-favourite grandchild.

Second-favourite, because there was no way that he could even hope to compete with La Principessa, the Princess. The adoration his grandfather felt for his sister Charlotte was only topped by his veneration of the Virgin Mary, and it was a close call between the two.

His grandfather ushered him into the house and seemed to make a glass of red wine appear out of nowhere. ‘Lizzano,’ he said, ‘from the old country. It’s magnificent.’

‘The old country’ meant Apulia. Gaetano del Vecchio would not stoop so low as to get a wine from further up north, like Lazio or, God forbid, Piedmont. Piedmont was practically France, and according to Gaetano del Vecchio, the French knew nothing about winemaking. Albert had long ago decided not to argue the point.

Albert took a look at the carnage that was his collection of cousins. Lucas and his partner Sharon looked bored. Martin had a girl with him that went by the name of Bambi and who was wearing an outfit that would have been inappropriate for any occasion, except perhaps for a porn shoot. Wilma was complaining about something to her mother. Véronique was de-energising her youngest uncle and François sat alone, engrossed by his younger sister’s smartphone, which she was playing with without even a sideways glance at her family. Kinds these days. ‘Hi Helen,’ Albert said, just to rile her a bit. Hélène shot him a poisonous glance, but continued to ignore the world around her.

By the looks of it, his parents and his sister hadn’t arrived yet. As far as he knew, Charlotte still lived at home with them, even though she would be 20 years old by now. While he was ambivalent about seeing his parents –too much had happened for their relationship ever to return to normal– he was, indeed, looking forward to see his sister, who was five years his junior.

Not too long after that, the doorbell rang again. He heard the voice of his grandfather. ‘Carlotta! Mia bellissima principessa!’ Ah… that would be his sister and, obviously, their parents.

His father walked him, spotted Albert, and shook his hand.

‘Son.’

‘Dad.’

His mother hugged him tightly, but let go when she felt his stiffness, tracing a mournful hand over his chest as she released him. Finally, accompanied by a big smile from grandfather, Charlotte del Vecchio entered the room.

When Albert had left the house, his sister had been in her teens. She was a young woman now. And although Albert had seen her occasionally over the years, it still amazed him how the little girl, to whom he had read bedtime stories, had blossomed in such a fine specimen.

Charlotte looked very Mediterranean. Long, dark brown hair fell in waves past an angelic face. Her eyes, the brown of caffé latte, were almond-shaped. Her delicate nose and ears gave her an almost doll-like appearance.

Her body was no different. She wasn’t fat or even full-figured; she was just very curvaceous. Her breasts were a bit larger than average. What she inherited from her grandmother, though, were her long legs. All in all, if Albert had to compare her to a famous person, it would be Sabrina Salerno.

Sabrina Salerno had started her career by winning a beauty contest, continued with modelling, and then started a singing career. Her biggest hit was ‘Boys boys boys’, mostly because of the video. It featured Sabrina jumping around in a pool, wearing a white bikini that was at least two sizes too small to hold her very generous bosom. It had been an instant hit.

Sabrina Salerno in her forties still looked better than most other women do in their twenties. But where Sabrina was a bit of a slut –actually, quite a bit of a slut– his sister was, well, his sister. Whenever he saw her, he would see the little girl clutching her teddy bear.

Charlotte spotted Albert from across the room. ‘Bertie!’ she yelled, and leapt forward in a few great bounds. She threw her arms around him and hugged him so tightly that he was momentarily out of breath.

‘Easy, sis,’ he said when he could breathe again. ‘I’m still here.’

‘Oh Bertie, I haven’t seen you for so long! Why don’t you come and see me more often?’

‘You know why, Lotte. It’s not you, it’s just… there are too many memories when I come back to that house.’

Finally, she released her tight grip, without actually letting go of him. Her hands were on his shoulders as she looked into his eyes.

‘Yes, I know,’ she said. ‘But that doesn’t make it any easier. I miss you, you know.’

She gave him a little smile. ‘But,’ she said, ‘because you didn’t bother talking to your darling sister, you don’t know that I have a place of my own now.’

Albert’s eyes went wide. ‘Really?’ he asked. ‘You moved out? How did Mum ikonbet güvenilirmi and Dad take it?’

She cast her eyes down momentarily, before looking at him again. ‘As well as could be expected. Which is, not very well. But I’m 20 now, they can’t lead my life for me. Not any longer.

‘And anyway, it’s not even that far from where they live. I can’t afford a car, so I’m still quite dependent on them.’ She looked a bit sad as she said that, averting her eyes from her brother’s.

But then she fixed her gaze upon his, and spoke firmly. ‘But I’m working on that. I have a job, and I’m saving. Next year when we come here, I won’t be coming with Mum and Dad.’

‘That’s brilliant, sis,’ said Albert. ‘I’m really happy for you.’ He gave her a hug and kissed her on the cheek.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I doubt that you know what it was, being alone with them in that house. Those were really the toughest three years of my life. Before, I had you. But when you left, I had to deal with them on my own.’

‘I can imagine,’ said Albert, his tone betraying part regret, and part guilt.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Bertie, but no, you don’t. It got worse.’

It was perhaps a good thing that the light in their grandparents’ dining room was mostly ambient, so that the mist in her eyes didn’t show so much.

‘Let’s go to the salotto,’ said Albert.

The ‘salotto’ was the formal sitting room. In English, it would probably be called a drawing room. This was the room with the expensive furniture, and certain classes of people –not the Del Vecchio family– would cover the furniture in plastic. Gaetano has insisted on having one of these in the house, but nowadays it hardly got any use. The family life took place in the kitchen, or if there were many guests, in the dining room. So it was the ideal escape if one needed a bit of privacy.

Inside the tastefully decorated room –needless to say, with furniture designed and manufactured in Italy– there was the traditional table with family photographs. Albert’s and Charlotte’s photos were considerably larger and in a more prominent position than those of the other grandchildren. The Del Vecchios were honest people, and made no secret about who were their favourites. In between Albert’s and Charlotte’s photographs sat a smaller frame, with a black ribbon partially obscuring the image of a cute girl of about three years old.

The siblings sat down on the sofa together. They sipped their wine, as Albert gave his sister a bit of time to recover. Not knowing what else to talk about, he decided –foolishly– to talk about relationships.

‘So,’ he asked, ‘are you seeing anybody?’

She looked at him sideways. ‘Me? No.’

‘Hey, a pretty girl like you could get any guy she likes.’

‘You’d be surprised,’ she replied.

He tried some light-hearted humour. ‘Come on, Lotte, I find that hard to believe. Or are you, um, more interested in girls?’

Her eyes went aflame. ‘No. Are you?’

Ouch. Never cross verbal swords with a woman, especially if she’s of Italian heritage.

‘OK, sis, sorry about that. That was out of line. But I still think that with your looks… I mean, you look amazing.’

‘You think so?’ she asked, while holding the wine glass in front of her mouth. It made her face more difficult to read.

‘Yes, well, of course. I mean, you’re my sister and all that, but from a purely esthetical point of view, you’re pretty much in a league of your own.’

She lowered her eyes, perhaps to hide the expression in them. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s what everybody has been telling me, and men try, but…’ Her voice trailed off.

‘But you haven’t found Mr Right, is that it?’

She paused for a few long seconds. Her intense gaze made Albert somewhat uncomfortable.

‘Let’s just say I haven’t found Mr Appropriate yet.’

‘That’s… a very strange thing that you just said,’ Albert replied. ‘Do you mean that… that you’ve met the right guy, but he’s not appropriate? That doesn’t make any sense.’

‘Forget I said that, OK? I shouldn’t have said it anyway.’ She leaned back, and her body language indicated that this conversation topic was closed.

Thankfully, their grandfather peaked into the room at that moment. ‘Ah, here you are! I was looking for you! Come, come, dinner has been served!’

The siblings went into the dining room, where they found their seats at the large table. Their grandmother has thoughtfully given them adjacent seats, close to her and Gaetano, and as far as possible from the more obnoxious of their cousins — although that distinction was a hard one to make.

Albert helped his sister with her chair. ‘Look,’ he said when both of them were seated, ‘I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just that, after three years, you are very different from what I remember.’

‘No longer a little girl?’ She gave him a teasing look from under her long lashes.

‘Yeah,’ he chuckled, ‘I suppose so. It’s just that I can still picture you in a little summer dress and ribbons in your hair.’

‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘I still wear little summer dresses.’

He gave her a look. ‘I bet you do,’ he finally said.

‘And I could wear ribbons in my hair, if that makes you happy.’

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