Errol Cornshaw believed that if he joined the army, his wife, Betina, would take him seriously. If he got into battle, he would show what six generations of Cornshaws in the military meant to a town like Hicksville. He might get a medal for bravery and a letter from the president. If he was killed in action, they would present her with the Stars and Stripes, which she could keep with her favourite photograph of them together. Errol worked in the catering corps.
This Christmas he would show Bettina just what an accomplished man she was married to. He bought the biggest tree he could carry and ignored her irritation at the trail of pine needles from the front door to the corner of the cramped living room. “Non-shedding” was five bucks extra, but he had shrugged at the old guy and peeled another five bucks off for a tip.
Errol had two Alsatians, four guns and a talking parrot. The parrot never spoke much, although of late it had taken to shouting “Hello Tony” at random hours throughout the night. Tony was their next-door neighbour who rarely called other than to deliver the post if he went to his house by mistake. He worked for the Christian Mission and called his house “Massabielle” which Betina told him was a grotto in Lourdes dedicated to some saint.
She had little patience for the balding parrot, but it came with the house and Errol felt sorry for it. If you could call it a house. More of a nod to a log cabin, made with plywood and a hint of desperation. The tree looked a bit cramped if he was honest, but he decorated it with tinsel from the five and dime and an angel with a trumpet held to its mouth. He winked at the angel when he placed it on top of the tree.
“We both got big news to announce this year, lady,” The angel refused to acknowledge him.
Errol's army pay just covered the mortgage, and the yard was big enough for the dog pen. Betina hated dogs. When he went to salsa dancing classes in the next one-horse town on Saturday mornings, he told Betina he was going to his gun club. She loved guns. He had bought her a Ruger SP101 Southwest revolver with Duracoat and jewelling in topaz, her favourite stone but he planned to give it to her after the deeds of the house. It would remind her of this Christmas and was small enough to fit in the backpack she used for her spare hoodie and protein drinks.
He found some faded wrapping paper from last year and it looked for all the world like a jewellery box when he placed it under the tree. She must have forgotten to put his present out because they usually put the gifts under the tree at least a week before Christmas. To be fair, she had worked long hours and extra shifts over the festive period, even more this year than normal. Many times he wanted to tell her she didn't need to but his plan was in place for almost a year now and he was determined to stick to it. He never wanted to see her expression like last year when he bought her an air fryer from Amazon.
What his wife didn't know was that while she worked nights at Walmart, Errol wrote novels for Mills & Boon using the pseudonym Ellie Corcoran. He had earned over two hundred thousand dollars in the last five years, but he was careful to hide it until he had figured out what to do with it. He would be a laughingstock at work if word got out, and it would mortify Betina with her bowling pals, so he buried the money he cashed from his cheques under the dog pen. He was careful to use a plastic container so the crisp new notes would be dry and he marked the spot with a garden gnome who fished eternally with a smile on his face and kept his good humour when the dogs routinely cocked their legs over his white beard and red hat. Betina thought the gnome was ridiculous.
This Christmas morning, he would present her with the deeds for the house, paid for in full, in both their names. They would eat steak and drink tequila, (Betina hated turkey) laugh about the years they had to eat pasta for weeks on end because the suspension was broken on their Chevrolet, or the air con unit had to be replaced in the height of summer. They would curl up on the sofa and watch a documentary on the history channel although given the circumstances this year, she might relent and agree to watch “A Wonderful Life”, just this once.
When Tony dropped in some Christmas cards and an envelope with Final Demand printed on the front, the parrot ran up and down his cage shouting “Hello Tony, Hello Tony, Hello Tony.” Tony refused the offer of a coffee and left.
“We should grab a beer for the festive season, or maybe sometime in the...” Errol called after him.
The front door of “Massabielle” slammed shut before Errol could finish his sentence. He forgot Tony didn’t drink. He opened the Christmas cards first, two from his sisters and one from his aunt Belle, “Happy Christmas to a Wonderful Couple”. He loved Aunt Belle like she was his mother. He never knew his mother. Belle was as close as he got and when she was sober, she was his best friend.
The brown envelope was sealed tightly with “Confidential” stamped across the front. The final demand was for over one hundred and ninety thousand dollars.
“This is a mistake,” he told the parrot. The parrot cocked his head to one side but said nothing. The angel ignored him as she waited suspended in time, trumpet to her plastic orange lips. Errol’s wages were paid directly into their joint account. There had to be a mistake. Betina took care of the bills and incidentals. It had been that way since they bought the house. She got a discount on dented tins and just past its “sell by” date meat. Belle always said sell-by dates were a gimmick to encourage poor folk to spend more and throw away good food. Betina liked Belle. Errol turned vegetarian the year they were married.
He stayed up all night until she came home. He switched the radio to play Christmas music which was normally barred for the duration of the festive period as Betina said she had to listen to it all the time at work and it was “silly sentimental tripe”. He presented her with the letter.
“Tell me this is a mistake” he pleaded. She refused to discuss it. Said she was tired. Said the Christmas tree was too big for the house. Said she hated the house. Hated him. Hated the Hicksville backwoods they lived in and most of all, she hated the fucking parrot. She loved Tony. Before Errol could form some kind of response Betina had stormed into the bedroom and stuffed some clothes into her backpack then stormed past Errol tripping over the Christmas present on her way to the front door.
“You can keep whatever cheap tat you bought me this year as well.” Errol opened his mouth but nothing came out other than a very faint calling of her name as she stormed across the front yard and climbed into Tony’s pickup. She slammed the car door shut as Tony stepped on the gas, reversed the pickup out of the drive, and drove off in a haze of dust.
“Well, fuck you and Tony,” Errol shouted. But the red pickup was already a speck on the highway trailing dust in the morning sun. He ran to the garden. The dogs were out of their pen and nipped his ankles as he kicked the fishing gnome out of his way and dug the earth frantically underneath their kennel. For such a harsh winter, the soil was strangely soft and pliable. He dug for over an hour. The sun rose high in the sky but he could not feel the ends of his fingers around the handle of the spade. His shirt was wet and cold. Tears mixed with sweat and burned his eyes. He dug some more. The gnome lay on his back, his fishing rod pointing upwards, still smiling although half his face was covered in dirt. It took a while for the penny to drop. He heard Perry Como singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” but above the music through the kitchen window, he heard the parrot saying,
“Hello Tony, Hello Tony, Hello Tony.”