Carp for Christmas

There was a time when Christmas Eve meant three things – carols, carp, and the Golden Pig. Presents would be opened after dinner, the main course of which was a carp that prior to being fried and battered had scales that shone like burnished gold. Some of these scales were dried and kept in purses and wallets, as a good luck charm to attract more gold in the coming year. When I was very young, maybe five years old, my grandfather kept the carp swimming around in the bath, which delighted me, until one day it wasn’t there anymore. “Carp’s gone on holiday,” said my grandfather at dinner when I asked where it had gone, ladling a big serving of battered carp onto my plate. The carp requires extreme care when being chewed, for it is the boniest fish known to mankind. Bones in every corner, tiny sharp slivers of needle-like bones in unexpected places. What use the fish has for these bones is a mystery, except as a means to get its own back on anyone who serves it up. You would never eat on Christmas Eve until it was time for carp in the evening – fasting meant that you would see the Golden Pig flying high above. When I got a bit older I cottoned on that my father was behind it, shining a torch he was hiding under the table up at the ceiling and convincing me it was a flying glowing pig. I would pull the same trick a few years later with my own children. I can’t quite remember if I tried to catch him out, the way my brother’s girlfriend notched the carrot her parents left next to the milk and cookies under the Christmas tree. Stories that her parents told her about how the reindeer had it for a snack didn’t really stand up, not after the notched carrot magically reappeared the next morning, back with its fellow carrots. After dinner, after the presents got dished out, my mother would sit at the piano to play Czech Christmas carols, taking the music scores from her handbag where they had waited all year.

#

Only a few years later, and new things started to come into play each Christmas. By the time I was sixteen, after the carp and the carols, I would go out into town. One year I saw a friend of mine from way back when called Jesse. It was just after another friend of ours, Kirsten, had left him. The time I am thinking of, years ago now, was the last time I saw him. Jesse weaved his way across the sawdust and made his way to the stage (sawdust, the last time I ever saw it in a pub). He heaved an acoustic guitar across his chest and sat there for a minute, collecting himself. His eyes were red through. There was a toughness to him, always a kind of swagger to him, characteristics that made Kirsten like him. Characteristics I liked about him too. But not tonight – he’d been crying a lot and didn’t care enough to hide it. Day and night, smoking out, and he was having trouble standing. His right hand was bandaged up and he could barely hold the plectrum. Kirsten told me he put it through the windscreen of his car when she told him she was leaving. He cast a bleary eye across the audience, and began to sing in a low, clear voice, with that rich Welsh undertone that filled the room. The song was ‘For the Good Times.’ The place was silent as he played. Stone-cold silent. I tell you it was the best performance I have ever seen in my life. Every word resonated; it penetrated your bones. And I wondered what it was. Whether it was the hard sincerity of him singing about the girl who had left him a week before that he was still desperately in love with, and that he would never see again. Or whether it was the fact that I was in love with her myself.

#

What did I do? I took her out drinking, of course. Through every bar in Bristol. Every bar, every floor, through all the shifting lights that put everything into silhouette, through the lights that merged and became cold or warm or dry as dust as the night ploughed forward. This was back when everyone had a cigarette in one hand and the plumes of grey-white smoke merged with the dry ice so that the dance floor looked like something glimpsed in the lights from the porthole of some deep sea vessel.

Kirsten had moved to London, taking a course in midwifery.

Kirsten told me: “The first lecture, I’m there, and the lecturer points a finger at the room, sweeping across everyone watching. He says: ‘Half of you will be pregnant by the end of the first year.'”

She had the longest, blackest hair you’ve ever seen. The times when I saw her get up on stage to sing, the whole joint turned to see her, watching. Sometimes, she would watch me from the stage as she sang.

#

Kirsten’s lecturer turned out to be smarter than I gave him credit for. Kirsten was pregnant by the following Christmas. She left London and came back to Bristol to live with the father, and after a while I moved away. I sometimes think that some of her character seeped into me, that the best parts of me were down to her. Sometimes, I see flashes of her, in my daughter’s dark eyes.

Hailing from Croydon, Andrew Kolarik spent ten years writing post-punk lyrics for live performance in London and Cardiff. His work has appeared in Pulp Metal Magazine, Supernatural Tales, and Carillon. He lives and works in Cambridge.

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