I always looked forward to Christmas at Mum’s—until the Monopoly board appeared
Author Chris Wright Illustration Michael Byers
In my late teens, I moved from my home in London to a new one in Boston and immediately succumbed to a loneliness so complete I could recite the lyrics to every song The Cure ever wrote. A particular favorite was “The Figurehead,” with its evocative opening line: “A scream tears my clothes.” A cry of anguish that could ruin a perfectly good pair of pants? It was like they were talking to me.
It’s not that Boston was a bad place to be, but I missed home. I missed the TV, the music, the food, the friends. I missed my mum, Tilly, and my older sister, Gill, and the Christmases we spent together. On this last score, at least, I could satisfy my longing. Every December, I’d fly back to London and spend the holidays at Tilly’s, engaged in an endless round of spiteful quarreling—otherwise known as Monopoly.
Like many families, mine has never viewed Monopoly as a game so much as a chance to air grievances. “That is just so typical of you,” Gill would spit after I’d made her sell the hotels she’d worked so hard to acquire. “Never cared about anyone but yourself.” Then, my sister would requisition Tilly’s Utilities, and her own character flaws would be exposed. Someone, at some point, would flip the board.
This is not to say we didn’t have bright spots. I can recall entire minutes when we got along quite well. But the dynamics of my family were such that, if you put us all together under one roof for more than a few hours, one of us would end up storming out, often with the imprecations of a ruined property developer in our ear: “And you can take your precious Park Place with you!”
And yet, year after year, I’d attend these roiling family reunions, reinforcing Freud’s theories on repetition compulsion. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe I was simply clinging to the hope that my family didn’t have to reenact the Battle of Blood River once a year. Maybe one day I’d show up and we’d have a great time. Maybe.
The family fights were inevitable, and so too were the bouts of critical self-appraisal back in Boston. What a horrible son I was, what a horrible brother, what a fantastic Monopoly player. Every year I’d vow that the next year would be better, and every year it wasn’t. And then, during one particularly rollicking row, Gill stormed out and stayed out. I can still see Tilly and me, wearing our paper crowns, waiting for the knock that never came. That was the last game of Monopoly we ever played.
Of course, over the years we found other things to squabble about. We’d be watching an old movie on TV and Gill would insist that Cary Grant had once played James Bond, or someone would dare to breathe during the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast, and Tilly would spend an hour going on about how she’d missed the important bit. For a finale, she would drop a vital part of our holiday meal on the kitchen floor: “Now look what you’ve made me do!”
Then, slowly and steadily, our mother descended into the fog of dementia. At first it wasn’t so bad—I’d pretend to have lent her money the previous week; she’d joke about forgetting to take her forgetfulness pills. But that didn’t last. I came home one December to find that neither of us knew who she was. She didn’t get cross with Gill or me that year, but she did seem quite annoyed with a point right in front of her nose.
The last Christmas we spent together was at Gill’s, maybe a decade ago. There were a few of us there that day, friends and extended family, sitting around a long wooden table, all of us grinning insanely at my mum. I found myself thinking about the outrageous demands she used to make, such as that I give her two red properties in exchange for a single blue, on the basis that she had raised me, all the sacrifices she’d made. I looked over at her—the faraway frown, the averted eyes—and knew then what real loneliness was.
I wouldn’t describe what happened next as a Christmas miracle, but it was definitely a stroke of luck. We had the radio on, and the Eagles’ “Hotel California” started playing. A few bars in, someone began singing along: “My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim/I had to stop for the night.” Soon we were all doing it, our voices rising until we weren’t singing anymore but shouting, deliberately mangling the lyrics: “They stab it with their silly knives, but they just can’t kill the bees!”
It was as if a blister had been burst; the tension drained from the room, and the rest of the meal was a muddle of laughter and “pass the gravy.” Later, after we’d cleared the plates, my sister slapped her palms on the table and said, “Shall we have a game?” I can’t be sure, but I thought I saw a flicker of something on Tilly’s face, the look she’d get when she knew, but couldn’t prove, that you’d been taking money from the bank.
Ink Global international editor CHRIS WRIGHT is proud to announce that he once won second prize in a beauty contest.