The door opened and with the same fluid motion, Mrs. Drewitt turned away and called, “Gilly. He’s here,” before walking primly down the hall. The whole motion was executed with a poise he had come to expect from Mrs. Drewitt. The arc of the door, the slight step and turn in the opposite direction were all perfectly balanced. Jacob was inclined to think that she’d been practising.
There was also a balance to the way Gilly appeared, stomping heavily and stiffly, her head down, eyes a bit dimmer. Like Mrs. Drewitt’s performance Jacob assumed it was gradually mastered.
“Hey,” she said.
Perhaps, this demeanour was more sudden. Last year, Gilly was still somewhat pleased that he had come. She wasn’t as excited as when she was little and he was indisputably her hero, but she tried. Today, she wasn’t even going to fake it.
“I just thought I’d pop over,” Jacob said.
He had never had to explain his visit before. It was taken for granted since the first invitation a decade ago. Initially, he didn’t think her parents meant it. Then they called and called again the year after. By the third year, it was part of his Christmas tradition. It gave him a break from his own family. Plus the Drewitt’s really went to town, turkey, chicken and ham and imported beer. By rescuing their daughter, he figured he’d paid in advance.
“Invite him through,” Mr. Drewitt called out.
Gilly rolled her eyes and stomped toward her father’s voice. Jacob followed. He could have made his way to the living room without his reluctant guide. Though this was the third house the Drewitts had lived in since he saved Gilly, they all followed the same pattern – a large empty shell of a living room to the left, filled with pristine furniture and fixtures, all impossibly light and now guarded by vacant-eyed Santas and misplaced snowmen. It seemed fitting that the Drewitts would have more than one Santa. Teams of them would be working in shifts, bringing more and more things to their two girls. On the right was a closed room. The closed room only appeared in the second house, where Gilly once referred to it as “Daddy’s study”. Mr Drewitt didn’t strike Jacob as particularly studious.
All three houses came together in the middle. The Drewitts preferred a spacious tiled room for everyday use. The room leapt in size by a couple of feet with every move, reflecting, or anticipating, the increase in the TV’s dimension. The lounge always looked out onto a lawn. They could’ve brought that with them even if they left their furniture behind. This middle room was hardly decorated for the season at all. A few figurines huddled at the base of the TV. Some Christmas cards were strung overhead.
“Jacob,” Mr. Drewitt said grabbing Jacob’s hand in his ruddy ones. The grip tried to convince Jacob this same hand held a gear stick or steering wheel of an earthmover. Jacob would’ve believed it if he hadn’t overheard Mr. Drewitt talking about his catering business one year. Apart from that one occasion, the most he said about his job was “It’s tough work in the mines. Tough but the money’s good.”
“Gilly, get him a beer,” he said now and dropped into the sofa beside Mrs. Drewitt. Gilly scowled so fiercely that he expected her to gob into the can.
In an armchair was Gilly’s younger sister, Karla. She was plugged into an iPod and offered a half raised hand in welcome. Jacob figured any more in return would be sneered at.
Mrs. Drewitt started to ask him how he was going when Mr. Drewitt cheered wildly. Something was happening with the cricket. One team had to be Australia. The other might have been South Africa. One team had bowled out the other. It was the Boxing Day Test.
Gilly returned, shoving the can toward him. The label may as well have read “Finish and Fuck Off!”. At least it wasn’t open, so he could be sure it only contained beer. It would have to be only one if he wanted to drive home. The heat always made him drunk. He watched her as he opened it. She only glared at him then swatted Karla with a pillow before leaning on the armrest.
“You two,” Mr. Drewitt barked before the conflict could escalate.
“Anyway, Jacob, how are you? Are you still doing the radio thing?” Mrs. Drewitt asked.
The radio thing was his breakfast slot on community radio. That was mentioned in the article too. For a couple days after it was published, the station had its highest listenership ever. Soon after the gravity of indifference pulled the show back to the solid ground of its usual ratings.
“I’m still there. Still working away.”
“It’s nice to have a hobby.
Hobby was not the right word for something he did day in day out for the last twelve years. Nor was job. A job required a pay packet. Mr Drewitt would be the first to inform him of that. What was the word for something you threw yourself into for no material reward? Love? Obsession? Except that he had started by accident. A friend had offered him the slot. He preferred it to studying.
“I’ve got some work lined up with one of the other networks.”
He had told the same lie last year.
“You should think about the mines. I could speak to someone, it’s…”
Mr. Drewitt was prevented from finishing his trademark sentence by a fumbled catch. Mrs. Drewitt tapped him on the leg gently as the tirade started. It was for Jacob’s benefit, even though he had seen Mr. Drewitt swear at the Australian cricket team on Boxing Day before, even though he had seen Mrs. Drewitt tap Mr. Drewitt’s leg before.
“You got me a present?” Gilly said, not so much leaning into the chair as using her back to smother it into submission.
“Gilly,” her mother said with a blend of admonishment and pride which only parents were capable. The tone said, “You selfish brat, you dear sweet angelic selfish brat. Our selfish brat.”
“As a matter of fact, Santa dropped something off,” Jacob said reaching into his backpack and pulling out a small gift.
This was another part of the routine he couldn’t let go. It made sense to say it when she was five and six. Between seven and eleven, her parents encouraged it by asking what Santa had given Jacob to give Gilly. It was probably more for Karla’s sake. At twelve Gilly asked herself. It was the first moment he’d noticed her growing up. In the year gap puberty had taken the pot-bellied eleven year old and rolled her out thin and pale into early womanhood. Her clothes hadn’t caught on. She still dressed sloppy and bright. Only in the last year had she realized the woman she would become and seemed to be taking a darkened short cut of dyed hair and black eye-liner to get there.
She pat out the word, “Santa.” and took the gift from him. Karla grinned evilly, as though Jacob was still the only one who hadn’t worked out the truth. The paper was ripped in a jagged triangle. Wrapping paper always opened like that. Her impatience, and afterwards indifference, made those edges sharp.
“What is it?”
“They’re great. The Minute Minutes. They’re like this unheard of band who released some singles back in the early eighties. Over time they’ve become like a cult band. Nowadays, everyone’s talking about them. And they’re from here.”
“A band from here?”
Gilly dropped the CD into Karla’s lap. The tone was disgust with an admixture of incomprehension. Music, good music, did not come from Perth.
Jacob gulped down a mouthful of beer.
“Maybe, you kids, I’m sorry Jacob, I’m mean, well you, you three, you three guys, can go and listen to it in the back room. The Minty Minutes. Did we go and see them?” Mrs. Drewitt asked her husband.
He stuck out his lower lip and shook his head with the similar abhorrence and confusion worn by his daughter. Jacob took his can again and finished it in a gulp. Mr. Drewitt also reached down for his. It was empty.
“Gilly. Another one. And one for your guest.”
“And bring Jacob his present,” Mrs. Drewitt added.
For a moment, Mr. Drewitt held Jacob in his stare. He was sizing him up in one go, gulping down the details, and storing them with the other assumptions he had made.
Gilly came back with the beer then took her place once more on the armchair. Mr. Drewitt noisily opened his can and settled back. Her mother reminded her about the present, so Gilly shuffled off again, the most reluctant Santa on the shift, not even bothering to be in uniform. Mrs. Drewitt wiggled into position on the seat, touching her hair and smiling. It was a billboard smile, a waiting room smile. Jacob was startled when she spoke.
“And your parents?”
Gilly returned with the present. From the way it sagged, he knew it was a shirt. He would’ve been a little disappointed if it hadn’t been. The last five years had yielded shirts. He was keeping up his part of the bargain, and so should they.
“Open it now,” Mrs. Drewitt said.
The shirt was identical to last year. Everything was the same. Only Gilly marked any change in time.
Gilly studied Jacob from the armrest. Satisfied or no longer interested, she plucked one earphones from Karla, delicate despite the malice in lips.
“You’re not even listening to anything, you retard. It’s not even on. Mum, she doesn’t even have her iPod switched on.”
Mr. Drewitt used the same disciplinary technique as before. His chastising hand drawn back by his telephone ringing out the X-Files theme. While Mr. Drewitt nodded and answered in quick short sentences, Mrs. Drewitt signalled to Gilly to pass the CD over. She looked betrayed, but she handed it over. Mrs. Drewitt mouthed the band’s name and Karla, sulking, fixed the ear piece back in place.
“And I brought his for you,” Jacob said, handing over a wrapped bottle.
This year’s gift was another recommendation from his father. The Drewitts always remained silent about the choice. At the most, Mrs. Drewitt would say, “That’s for later.” This year it was the billboard smile again.
Mr. Drewitt’s replaced his phone.
“Dave’s here. Yeah, out the front. Jacob, be a mater and help my brother. He’s got an eski and whatnot. And Jacob, next year, how about a case of beer. Only Simone drinks that.”