Read by Most Valuable Player (Acting) 2016, Jim Cogan (Full podcast here)
Snowmen, with top hats, making jazz hands.
Is this really what Christmas has come to? The snowmen seem to think so. Their black button-eyes are grinning, and they’re practically crawling all over the wrapping paper.
I look at the paper again. It’s cheap, but folded precisely. The sellotape is smudgeless and cut with scissors. I know who did this. There’s only one person this neat in my family.
But I don’t look up. Instead, I feign ignorance and weigh it in my hands. Rule number one of Secret Santa: stretch out the suspense. So I shake it, I “hmmm” and I squeeze it in my fingers. It’s firm but gives slightly. A book of some sort, but thin and almost the length of my arm. Too big to sit on any respectable coffee table that I know of.
I use my nails and rip a thin, tapering slit. It’s barely off when my brother says, “I know what it is.”
This is no coffee table book. It’s a wall chart. The wall chart. The wall chart that lived in our kitchen-diner for 20 years, that framed a thousand conversations about history and power, that was 18-feet long, that my sister was sick on, and that was fingered so many times that Dad had it laminated. It is the wall chart of The History of The World.
“I’ll swap with you,” says my brother.
This is another rule: swapping. You see, we do Secret Santa blind. It started after the divorce, nobody knew what to get Dad’s girlfriend, so he suggested we just put a random present in there, not with anyone particular in mind, and then swap after. Now we pretend it’s matter of principle, that swapping crap, generic presents, is somehow less consumerist.
But I like my present this year. And anyway, we normally swap after we’ve unwrapped them all. So I stall.
“But Pete, you haven’t even opened yours yet.”
His lips smile, but his eyes are dead-still. He watches me for a moment, from the depths of the sofa, then turns to his gift. I turn to mine.
It’s a thing of a wonder. A weird, Victorian, pre-Darwinist concoction, that plots Adam and Cain at one end and Queen Vic at the other. Each biblical character and nation is a hand-drawn root, creeping through history, splitting, connecting and merging. It was all there. Eden to Egypt, Rome to Napoleon. The empires rise, rule, and ultimately fall. And it was the fall that I loved: a great flood, a bloody battle, or in Rome’s case a decay, a dwindling of influence, a gradual slide and decline of power. They all fall in the end.
I look up at my sister. She has outdone herself. She tries to look blank, but then breaks into a grin. I want to hug her. Where did she find it? I imagine her hunting through a musty bookshop, on a dark Oxford night.
Pete, however, is not grinning. His broad shoulders and bear paws are hunched over a small blue box.
He says, “It’s some kind of girly spa weekend. Right up your street. Swap?”
I say, “I’ll think about it.”
Normally we’re polite about swaps, we don’t push. But Pete can’t sit still. He sucks his teeth. He drums his fingers on the box. And my sister hates conflict and is awkward now. Her smile’s gone all wrong, it’s forced and tight-lipped like a chimpanzee’s.
Pete doesn’t care. He leans back, then forward, and shakes his head. And when he shakes it - something happens - his over-gelled hair dislodges somehow and reveals his scalp.
He’s thinning on top. It’s bad in fact. I’m not sure how he covered it. He must have layered each strand to get that ‘out of bed’ look. But now it’s all wrong. A combover. A vanity.
This is my brother - my taller, stronger, better looking brother. The one my friends ogled at through school. Who won ‘hunk of month’ on ski trip. My Dad’s pride and joy. Now looking... kind of old. I reach back and check my hair. It’s still there.
He speaks to the crowd, lays it on thick: “Come on, swap with me. It’s Christmas. And in any case, where would you put it?”
But I see it in their eyes, they’re distracted by his hair. A surprise they weren’t banking on.
I look at the chart. Where will I put it?
He was obsessed with it when we were little - always quizzing Dad, showing off the pointless facts he’d collected, hogging the conversation. But that’s just what he was like. It doesn’t make it more his. And yeah, he has a house - but my parents helped buy it, before the crash, before they went broke. He persuaded them it was an ‘investment’.
He has a fucking house. I’ll be damned if I give him my Secret Santa.
But I know the rules. So I frown and consider.
I think back to the Christmas in Finchley when he got a Nintendo, and then banned me from using it all holiday. And to the one in Yorkshire, with our cousins, where he wrote a sign that read ‘gay lord’ and stuck it on my back. Or the time when he woke up early and unwrapped all my presents. They let him off because he was ‘too young to know’. He knew exactly what he was doing.
But in those days he was cute. You can get away with a lot when you’ve got dimples and charm. And when he grew up into a 6-foot, tanned, athletic teenager, with perfect teeth - well then you can get away with more.
He’d prepare for Christmas by making long lists, just to push the limit. He’d need a new bat for cricket, or a board for snowboarding, or whatever new sport he was learning. And he’d always get them. And I, like the sucker I was, would get some books or a board game, that cost a fifth of the price. And then we’d finally play the game, and he’d find some way to cheat and spoil it.
But he’s not so cute now. The dimples gave way to lines and jowls. His trousers look tight, his shirt bulges. There’s something ogrish about his slouch. There are bags under his eyes from too many parties, or maybe he’s struggling at work. And his girlfriends are wet, and come one after the other. Nobody likes them.
And now, his hair.
“Come on,” he glowers, “swap with me.”
I could protest. Tell him that I bought that voucher. That it cost me £50. But instead, I look at Rome, look up, and shake my head.
He squirms. Looks around. He clears his throat. The words come fast.
“You know that chart means more to me,” he says.
I hold it tighter, in my lap.
“You’d have never swapped - you were just pretending.”
It’s true, I know, but that’s not the point.
“You’re only doing it to piss me off. You fucking, ball-less, piece of shit.”
And he’s gone too far. He’s broken the rules. He’s ruined the mood. Never insult the presents. The moment you do, the system breaks. We’d all have to recognise how shit they are. How little we still know Dad’s girlfriend. How much Christmas stinks.
He’s run out of steam. The room is with me. But just to be sure, I say, “Calm down Pete.”
And it works. He hates it, being told to calm down, to chill out, to relax. And he chokes and throws his present straight at me. But it’s not cricket, or tennis, or something he knows - it’s a girly spa voucher and it doesn’t fly true. The box curves in the air and knocks Dad’s wine on the Ercol sofa.
Dad shouts: “Get out!”
My brother gets up, walks to the door and slams it behind him.
Dad’s girlfriend grimaces. My sister rolls her eyes. Dad says: “What a selfish cunt.”
And they all nod.
This is the gift I’ve been waiting for.
(c) Michael Mann, 2016
Michael Mann would like to clarify that any resemblance of his characters to his friends and family is purely superficial. Seriously, he loves you all. When not writing (or worrying that friends will read his writing), Michael ‘manages programmes’ in a charity and lives in East London with his partner Joe.
Jim Cogan is a scriptwriter, documentary maker and occasional voiceover artist based in Oxford. After far too much acting at university, he studied Creative Writing at Birkbeck and jointly won Liars’ League Most Valuable Player (Writer) 2015 and MVP (Acting) 2016.