P Pirann lives currently in Montreal and works as contributor for the journal of a community center. Some of his fiction and nonfiction has appeared in American and Canadian journals. He is fond of observing the diversity of life around him and listening especially to the stories of solitary persons. At present, he is finalizing a collection of tales based on experiences from the past.
Another Christmas Day Occurrence
He had finally moved into the apartment for which he had waited seven years on the housing list. It was significantly much better than the ones in which he had lived previously. Each of the rooms was big enough to come near the full size of his previous apartment. The windows were generous and the view outside was completely free of growing high rises.
But the expenditure on the move had been considerable. He had thought it more prudent to spend a larger sum on a reliable mover who would take good care of his prized, fragile keepsakes and souvenirs than on a doubtful one. Last time some cartons of his goods had fallen on the road in the course of transit and been crushed mercilessly by tires, much to his anguish.
Dinaldo decided that, in his new domicile, he would initiate the practice of pacing to and fro with a glass of thick coffee in hand upon waking up every morning. It was for the sake of his legs. The old place had been so cramped it had hardly given him space to stretch out his body. As a result his limbs had tended to become otiose, refusing to bear him easily in his outdoor walks.
It was quite a novelty to wake up to the sound of singing birds and to take in the settings of the new residence. Extensive green yards stretched out from brown-brick buildings set down at very regular intervals. He was on the top floor of a four-storey edifice. It was autumn but the trees were still in verdure. The land spread away beyond the residences, side streets and car parks to a horizon topped by hills across the river. It was all so delightfully at odds with the claustrophobic surroundings in which he had previously dwelled.
Dinaldo thought he should introduce a pet in his new apartment, preferably a dog of a grand size. He had always cherished the idea of keeping a pet when his domestic situation became more congenial. The dog could easily make the living room his or her own; Dinaldo would not be having very many visitors who would stay. Almost the only person to visit him would be his sister; she would remain for about an hour, take a drink and depart. The city had already provided her with an accommodation for single, elderly women. She made monthly visits to him purely out of courtesy.
At fifty-seven he sometimes considered himself a failure. He could have married in his thirties but things did not eventually move in that direction. He often engaged in debate with himself over whether he had been mule-headed over nothing but a minor matter with the woman concerned. Though he would invariably clear himself, he asked the same question again and again. In any case, how could marriage have made him successful if work always brought fundamental dissatisfaction? He moved frequently from one meager-paying job to another as a secretarial employee—often in the charge of bulky inventories—ending up making phone calls to customers and agents most of the day.
It seemed that only those enterprises that would soon go bust were the ones that needed his services. Seeing him short and chubby, they surmised he was good to move things around every hour. For little extra compensation, most of them would require him to do more than initially laid out; he would protest and eventually quit. But, now, the city had finally allotted him a proper apartment. That mattered a lot. It was not only that he was no more in unacceptably confined quarters. He also did not have to contend with single neighbors who, unable to live on their own, made life more miserable for everyone else.
Dinaldo took to getting up earlier than before. Making himself a flaskful of coffee, he walked back and forth with sufficient vigor in his new place. It made him feel lively and upbeat; in time, he thought, he could even set out early in the morning to take a brisk walk. The optimism that could make this happen seemed to be on its way now.
Nothing, however, allayed the sting of the solitude in other periods. He thought himself a failure principally because he was brought into acute loneliness again and again. He had been let down many times in personal circumstances. Now, without being an idealist, he believed that only those opportunities may be right which arrive to you. Those that you try to create lead inevitably to disappointment and disillusion. He did not trouble to go out and deal actively in a world that did not seem sympathetic to his presence.
His sister was the only relation he had. She had a circle of her own and she spent Christmas with benefactors to whom Dinaldo did not take a liking. All the same, he had a friend of some years named Nicholas that he met at least once a month. Nicholas lived by himself but had a divorced wife and separated children that he saw on occasion.
The two of them had met in a software training class offered at a modest fee in a community center. Nicholas was not so solitary but he understood Dinaldo’s expressions of discontentment at the lack of warmth and support in his life. In their conversations, the latter’s pride would nevertheless ultimately resurface; he would tell both his friend (and himself later) that he was well prepared to stick it out all on his own.
When the city had informed him of the address of the apartment on offer, he had gone to study the location carefully. He had stood outside the building, putting questions to the residents as they came in or went out. A number of children were among them. It was clear that a multitude of people from other parts of the world lived in this neighborhood. They all said the place was tranquil; they had few, if any, problems with anybody. Some said lightheartedly that only cockroaches and infants made the most commotion, and that was all.
Each time that he entered his new house, it was a novelty to be greeted by children occasionally tripping down the stairs. They said “Hi!” to him vibrantly and that, to a large extent, made the mood for the rest of his day. On the other hand, not all his current neighbors were disposed to greet him or even look at him. This did not rankle as long as the children noticed and said hello.
Walking along the length of his new apartment with coffee in hand, he stood at the window, imbibed the fresh morning air and studied the contours of the locality. He believed there was reason to feel hopeful. Time would take care of his situation and give him a fullness in his existence. For now, he felt the urge to throw up his arms and stir himself in all the abundance of place that was his.
Now it so happened that, despite the amenity of space, the floor of this apartment was grating and creaky in keeping with the majority of houses in the city. He was sensitive to the concerns of others and, in his earlier dwellings, he had done nothing knowingly to upset the peace of those living below him.
But he could not forego easily the exuberance that he felt in his new home. Dinaldo loved moving around and singing to himself every morning with coffee in hand. When he came back from the outdoors he did the same, this time with a tumbler of brown ale. Yes, the old travertine tiles and the pinewood planks did squeak and groan most horribly under his feet, but he could not help it. At times he thought he heard voices in the apartment below coming together and rising in pitch as if at the sound of his moving feet. But, being so rightly and ably settled now, he dismissed the notion of protestation to his presence from any part.
He had not become a misanthrope in the sense in which this word is taken but, since a number of years before, he had preferred to spend Christmas on his own. He kept himself cheerful through the holidays. Spending within his tight budget, he bought wine, cake, cap, candles, tinsel, a desktop tree and imitation mistletoe for his place. His rooms were then decked appropriately to reflect the festive tide.
This year he had no employment at the start of winter; this did not worry him, he was even glad to take a break from work for a few weeks. Moreover, he needed a period of reflection. His sister paid him a visit on the twelfth of December, saying she would be going away this time on a trip with her benefactors. Dinaldo did not care much how she spent her holidays; the two of them sat quietly for a considerable time without feeling ill at ease.
He was in an overriding rejoicing mood from the change in his residential situation though he communicated little of this to her. Every time he stepped out of the house and walked the pavements in the neighborhood, he made it a point to look up beamingly at everyone coming along. It was a fulfilling expression of his inner self such as had not existed for quite some time, and if he ceased to keep up this countenance after a while, it was simply because he was essentially bashful
Snow arrived in consistent flurries in the days leading to Christmas. On one day so much snow fell to be followed by rain that even high boots were submerged in fresh, marmoreal quicksand outside. For those staying inside on long evenings, the nights were bright from reflections of snow and cloud upon the windows. Dinaldo kept the lights out in his living room and watched the vivid window in the wall with a drink in his hand. From moments in the past, he had forged a habit of singing out loud to himself or simply declaiming some impromptu lines in a stentorian tone. It had become a way to stave off not just an occasional tide of aloneness, but also the blow to mind and spirit resulting from aggressive disturbances caused by neighbors
No neighbors made him lose his peace of mind in his new apartment; he was certain this was how it would be as long as he lived in it. Still, he did not withdraw from the practice of vocalizing all by himself, especially with the progress of the season of celebration. In the joy that he felt and anticipated, this articulation reached an almost deafening level.
As in his previous abodes, he did not seek to provoke those in the vicinity with his voice, but simply made his own world to eclipse the rest of the wider world. Exercising his cords to the full, Dinaldo found a release that was overwhelmingly satisfying. He again became convinced that a dog to share his living space would roundly complete his felicitous gains. Already, from the early morning, indoor perambulations, his legs were losing their rigidity and becoming liberated. He would have to tell Nicholas about this turn of circumstances when they met the next time in the new year.
It was with a sense of exuberance such as he had not felt for years that he got up to the sounds of children, birds, snow shovels and garbage trucks every morning. Making his coffee and striding across his apartment for a length one-way of almost forty feet, he took to singing unrestrainedly in all the might of his voice. These were strains that he first heard in his youth from films and singers as well as nonsense lines, but he also regaled himself with ditties from plays that from long before were memorable. He would boom out, I'd like to settle down but they won't let me/ A fugitive must be a rolling stone, and then, in the same breath, he would croon, When that I was and a little tiny boy/ With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, not caring who might be hearing and wondering.
After all, children were making themselves audible all over the building, so why should he not contribute to the general gaiety? He recited sentences as well in the manner of an orator, sentences that he had made up in other, straitened situations to make his own oblivious buoyancy in the moment. He gave vent to them in the full spontaneity of spirit of a new morning, a new day, a new beginning that he tried to believe would eventually bring him happiness.
One morning, just a few days before Christmas, he was relaxing on his sofa with a drink, looking out at the falling snow. He was quite at ease, enjoying the holidays in his own style. The new snow meant that it would not be facile walking outside, especially as heaps were accumulating and hardening along the curbs, causing car owners to shovel chunks on to the pavements. Most times, Dinaldo made himself go out whenever he felt he had passed the point of pleasurably doing anything in the house. Now, all at once, he heard voices on the landing that were reminiscent of those that came to his ears on early mornings from the floor below, when he was traipsing in his apartment.
The conversation was coming from the direction of the door of the concierge, who was one of Dinaldo’s neighbors on the floor. Keeping his drink fixed in his hand. he tried to listen. Someone seemed to be making an inquiry in a flustered manner. It was a female that was speaking and the voice was somewhat familiar. Another voice, most likely that of the concierge’s wife, seemed to mention his own name. “Oh, well!” thought Dinaldo. “Someone is making a fuss over a trifle. Can’t I have fun now that I have my own, really good place? People!”
He, as we know, was not the kind to harbor malice against those that he encountered on a regular basis. So he did not attempt to demonstrate who ruled in the building by walking more forcefully and opening his mouth more thunderously. Yet, the next morning, he did not either relent at all in the force of his strides as he marched with a mug of coffee for almost an hour, hollering out as loudly as before but with no intention to insult anybody.
On Christmas Day he woke up to a blustery cascade of snowflakes outside his window. It was startlingly white all around; there could not be a whiter Christmas than this. The wind began to pick up, driving the flakes impetuously toward the south-west. The brick houses were blinded as they became dimmer and dimmer. In spite of this fury, it seemed to Dinaldo that Nature was really celebrating the day in her own fashion. He would make himself merry as never before in all the glory of the white light pouring into his apartment.
Once his matutinal ambling was over, he laid out two alluring bottles of wine on his kitchen table. Cutting a hefty portion of multilayered cake with a delectable creamy and scarlet topping, he placed it tastefully on a saucer. Returning to his already decorated living room, he placed his legs up on the sofa and lay back indolently, raising a glass of fresh red wine to his lips. Although the sun was not shining, he did not think the large window had ever looked any brighter than on this day. Life was bliss! He did not get drunk at all but took to singing with a roaring baritone, as never before, all the ditties that were his favorites, including his own, improvised ones. The euphoria of the moment made him spring out of the sofa, stomp around with the wine glass in hand, then return to his sofa to chant and orate once more.
Already, from the early hours, he had heard a number of people in the apartment underneath, apparently coming together for the marking of the day. They were talking and laughing in a festive hubbub. Once, he believed, everybody below had become silent at the sound of his own intense frolicking, but then he thought it ridiculous that anybody could be bothered about the actions of neighbors on such a day.
Dinaldo gorged himself on the cake and the wine, thinking he would make the meal of the day at a very late hour. He became heedless about what he was doing as he bounced and sang abundantly in all the rooms of his apartment. He did not worry in the least that there might come a moment when there were too many hours ahead of himself.
As he leaned back again on the sofa, Dinaldo saw that the snowfall outside his window was slackening and the sky beginning to clear. Soon, before his eyes, the wind picked up in gusto and, under a clear blue sky, the flakes went skittering across the air. Three black birds raced madly from right to left, then abruptly reversed course and started back the way they had come. Dinaldo let out a yell, “Hurrah!” and beat his knees rapidly with his hands in jubilation. He could not help believing that all that was happening on this unique festive day was absolutely fitting. Getting up, he took vigorous steps in his apartment as he had done in the morning, gobbling a large portion of cake held between both hands. As if possessed by a bacchanal, he bellowed out lustily from start to finish his favorite song of the season—“Merry Christmas Everybody” by Slade, a band that had its heyday in the seventies. Then, with a sly reference to the voices he heard beneath his floor but with no intent at all to be wicked, he belted out at the top of his voice another song by this group, “Mama Weer All Crazy Now”.
Finally weary of these extraordinary exertions, he began to snore on the sofa. In less than ten minutes he opened his eyes. There were reminiscent voices on the landing outside his front door. One of them was clearly familiar: it was one of the ladies who lived downstairs and who had come up once to his floor. Dinaldo became perplexed. “Are they really exasperated with me on this day?” he asked himself. The sounds came nearer and he thought they were uttering his name.
He raised himself from the couch and sat down. Leaning forward and cupping his face with his palms, he asked himself if he should really open the door in case they were going to make a grievance. Knocks sounded distinctly on the door. Dinaldo did not budge. Almost a minute went by during which the raps came two more times. Dinaldo thought he would sober down for the rest of the day but he would not open the door to confess he had perpetrated a social sin.
It seemed the people outside were turning away. Dinaldo began to heave a sigh of relief when another knock sounded, as if by a younger, timid hand. He got up, stayed still for a moment and then proceeded toward the door. He was sure that he should only wish them a good Christmas. He would say that peace would henceforth prevail, then close the door with determination.
Dinaldo’s mouth was already open to speak as he wrenched open the front door and confronted these visitors. There stood a woman in glasses with a bandana of slanting stripes on her head of braided hair, and an expression other than querulous on her face. Next to her was a younger woman, very likely in her early twenties, with loose, equally black hair, modest embedded earrings, a light in her eyes, and a look of curiosity that was not coarse. Dinaldo had been so keen to regard only the faces of his visitors that he did not notice, until some seconds had passed, that the elder lady bore in her hands a large platter with a domed opaque cover.
He recalled in a flash an occasion in his previous apartment when he had stayed up half the night on Christmas Eve. He had been watching a film on his tablet that had him splitting his sides with laughter. Sitting on a wooden chair, he had been moved to such convulsions that the legs of the chair had scraped harshly on the floor again and again. In the morning, the dweller on the floor directly beneath knocked on his door and told him in no uncertain times not to repeat the act, on pain of being cited in a formal complaint. This neighbor was carrying a tray of edibles set in glittering paper overspread with translucent sheeting, clearly meant as a present for someone. Not once did he either offer anything from the tray to Dinaldo or even wish him a merry Christmas.
Dinaldo was almost sure that something like this was repeating itself. Still, the gentleness, tranquility and radiance on the faces of the two people outside his door put him off his composure.
“You…you must have come to the wrong door,” he stammered. “There is no family here, nor do I know you…”
“Yes, we know,” said the older woman, maintaining her amicable stance. “We are your neighbors below. I am Mrs. Oumuna and this is my daughter, Delphine.”
She added: “We wanted to partake with you some of the food we cook at home. I hope you are not averse to a vegetarian fare of papaya and plantains, rice and beans, with crispy patates. There is raisin cake made by Delphine. By the way, there is also a bowl of homemade candied toddy inside—we drink it from a bowl, you know. It is rather strong—so you should sip it gently!”
“I am not averse…”, blurted out Dinaldo. He wanted to say more but just could not find the words. Something like this had not happened to him before.
“Merry Christmas!” said Mrs. Oumuna, placing the platter in his hands and turning away.
“Merry Christmas!” rejoined Delphine.
Dinaldo took the plate and sat down in his living room. His mind was in an unprecedented flutter. He was fond of food from almost anywhere in the world and, of course, now he did not have to bother about preparing lunch later.
But, more than that, as he dug into the food with bare fingers and relished it, a feeling of sublime ascendancy came over him. He had entered into a higher kingdom where there was bliss, calm, peace, heartsease in all supremacy. Surely, it was wonderful to be born on this earth. The spirit of Christmas could not mean anything else.
He had made himself happy on his own on other Christmases. He did not wish to believe that anything had been lacking in those personal celebrations. But this Christmas was better than all the rest. It could have happened to him only in such a house as the one in which he presently resided.
But this should remain, this should remain! He wanted so much to abide in this spirit every other day of his life. What should he do? He still did not think it likely that he would ever have a family of his own. Nonetheless, he would go out from now on, not into the wider world from which he kept a distance, but upon the currents of the local sphere. Keeping a reinforced interest in everybody, he would aim to kindle a mood of warm-heartedness in the presence of people.
In their next meeting, he would spill out impatiently to Nicholas, almost like a child, the experience of the day. And there was something else to do. He would search for a dog with whom to share his moments—no, wait, he could afford to keep two dogs in his apartment. They would make him realize he was not unknown to the rest of creation. All the boisterous merrymaking on his own was really an effort to hide an intense forlornness. This day, his neighbors had succeeded in taking away from the core of his self that which rendered him forlorn.
He slept in a long contented sleep, well into the evening, that brought him dreams of rolling in heaps of snow with tumultuous children in spacious yards. Grown-ups were coming out of the houses and were gathering around to watch in amusement. Despite his age, they thought he belonged with the children.