We all know that Christmas isn't always the joyous festival it ought to be, so I thought I'd share with you one that particularly sticks out in my mind.
Now this all happened forty five years ago, and many of the major players are now dead. It occurred to me that if nothing worse than this has happened in the forty four succeeding Christmases, life can't have been all that bad, in fact. Anyway, here it is.
As I said, forty five years ago, and I was in my last year at University. My first husband and I were living in a studio flat in Cambridge, and getting around with a motor bike and sidecar, for reasons of economy. That year, I had not been able to get a holiday job, so we were able to travel down to London in the combo to spend Christmas with my in-laws in a council flat on Tulse Hill, just above Brixton*. The flats had been built in the nineteen thirties, and were as you might imagine deficient in several areas. Still, it was Christmas and they were family.
As it happened, my sister-in-law had just moved in with her current boyfriend, so there was actually a room for us. We had feared we would be lodged on the sitting-room floor, but we actually had a mattress on the floor of her old room. Heating was a bit problematic, the electricity was via a coin-in-the-slot meter, but there was a fire in the sitting room at least. And snow was forecast.
The first sign that this would not be a shining light occasion was when we arrived to find that the television had broken down. It was Christmas Eve and money was short all round. Now some people would be pleased that they could escape the relentless replays of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", "The Sound of Music", and the Queen's Speech, but bear in mind that this flat was the overcrowded home to four generations of the family at that time, and the one hope for peace on earth and a bit of goodwill to men under those circumstances was to get them all round the telly and stuff them full of turkey and Christmas pudding. So the television had been taken out of the equation.
Oh, four generations of humans, plus a cage of budgies which was kept in the bathroom. Well, it was the only little bit of space left by then. You washed with the prickling feeling at the back of the neck that something was watching you with little beady black eyes.
Then - trouble in Paradise. The sister-in-law had some sort of falling-out with the boyfriend and came back to the flat to find us in her room. Our possessions ended up in the fireplace. Luckily the fire was not alight at the time. But, we fits, we sits, so she went back to her love-nest.
It was a piece of luick that one of her children (who were still on the premises) was given a Scalextrix set for Christmas, so we did at least have something to play with and occupy our time. The children did discover after a few goes of driving the little cars round in circles that it was much more fun to run each other off the track by accelerating into the corners instead of decelerating. You just have to accept that when playing with youngsters.
They say that a dog is not a Christmas present. Oldest nephew's girlfriend proved the point that Christmas. Nephew had given her a puppy for Christmas. The puppy was returned later on Christmas Day by her family on the grounds that it was not house-trained. They were right. It was not house-trained all over the track of the Scalextrix set.
I have to say that my mother-in-law did the very best she could. At that time she worked the night shift in an old people's home not far away. She always had to work the night of Christmas Eve, and would return in the morning, having had to walk from Streatham because of course there were no buses on Christmas Day. She would then get the Christmas dinner ready, for eight or nine people, turkey in the oven, and try to have a bit of sleep before it all had to be served up. What can you say about a woman like that? I just wished she didn't tell us all about the old dears who didn't make it through the night, whom she had laid out before coming home.
The only other problem was that she was so involved in giving everyone the best for Christmas. There would always be a turkey or a capon for Christmas dinner. Because of the late start, this would be served up eventually at around 3 pm, on the largest plates she could find. An hour or so later there would be tea and fancy cakes. Then after another hour or so there would be turkey sandwiches and Christmas cake. And the rest of the French Fancies. On Boxing Day this would all be repeated only with a leg of pork and a whole ham on the bone instead of the turkey.
My mother and grandmother lived five miles away or thereabouts, but to get there it was necessary to drive up and over several hills, including the one the flat was on. Did I say that snow was forecast? And that we had a motorbike combination? They tend to steer a bit sideways at the best of times, and snow is not the best of times. We got a few yards up the hill and had to give up and come back. We phoned my mother to say we weren't coming. She sulked. Never mind, there's still plenty of turkey. And pork. And ham. And French Fancies.
By the end of the Christmas holidays the children were attempting to murder each other, the sister-in-law was lurking in the kitchen giving us the evil eye, the puppy was barking continuously with all the excitement and decorating the Scalextrix track, which no longer worked,.The neighbours upstairs were banging on the floor in complaint at the barking of the puppy. The. tv had not been fixed, the money in the electricity meter had run out and nobody was going to be the first to put another shilling in it so the flat was in darkness.
We set off back to Cambridge with relief. Finally we could stop eating for a day or two and enjoy the peace and quiet of revising for Finals.
* Transatlantic readers: this is not a very salubrious part of London.
I don't know if you can conceive of the joy of arriving late in the evening at ones holiday home and not having to hack ones way through the jungle in order to get to the outside lavvy. Carrying a bucket of water. In the dark. Perhaps it's something you have to have done yourself.
We arrived late in the evening, to find that we had indoor plumbing. (The outdoor facility had been fixed as well, for anyone who felt moved to use it, and now had a proper English syphonic tank.) We gazed in wonder at the porcelain throne, and then looked a little further to the large cylinder which in due course would hold hot water, so we could bath or shower without having to boil kettles. So it was connected via a trailing flex to the socket in the bathroom - who cared?
The whole experience of going on holiday had changed. No longer would we be content with just being there, away from our ordinary every-day existence, enjoying the simple life.
Actually our ordinary every-day life had come a lot closer to our French experience since we'd first bought the place. We had both achieved early retirement, so doing as we pleased had become the norm. We had also moved from our modern house in a large village in Wiltshire to a stone cottage in Wales which bore distinct resemblances to our stone cottage in France. Including the impossibility of getting a mobile phone signal. But that's a story for another time.
The work was nowhere near finished, of course, and the next thing, we decided, was the tiling round the bath. We got directions for two places in Caen where tiles were to be had, and set off.
"You can't miss it," we were told. We missed it. We stopped at the back door of a warehouse on the zone d'entreprise and asked for directions. They tried to explain how to get to the first place, but after driving around in circles we gave up on that one. We headed to the second, which indeed you couldn't miss, as you can see it from the peripherique or ring road. And it wasn't one of those places that you can see, but in a Kafka-esque world can never reach. We found it, and went round the tile section.
I don't know, whenever I'm looking for a particular thing,. it always seems to have just gone out of fashion. I wanted a nice light aquamarine sort of colour. There was white. There was bright red. There were mirror tiles,. and ones that looked like beach pebbles, and boring beige ones. Finally we settled on one which wasn't quite what we wanted, but by then our feet were hurting and we'd very nearly come to blows.
As is apparently common in French DIY stores, there were hardly any in stock. Could we order them? Naturally. We gave all the details, paid up. When will they be in? In a fortnight. We shall be back in Wales by then, but we can probably get Brian the Builder to pick them up. Look, the invoice actually says a week, so maybe we'll be lucky.
So a week later we take the forty-five-minute drive to Caen to see if the tiles have arrived. Except that we get almost to the junction and find the back of an enormous traffic jam. Articulated lorries have parked up on the hard shoulder. I fancy the drivers are off playing boules in the field alongside, or enjoying a prolonged lunch break in the restaurant the other side of the dual carriageway. The other side of the dual carriageway that is surprisingly quiet and traffic-free. We inch our way through the slalom of parked lorries to the junction with the peripherique and find, not the major pile-up we had feared, but a pile of, well, manure basically. And old tyres
It seems that the French farmers have chosen that day to demonstrate against low farm prices. "Angry Peasants!" proclaim the placards on the tractors that are blocking the peripherique and the roundabout. They are blocking the exit from the roundabout back to where we have come from, as well, so we can't even turn around and go home. We must plough on, through the centre of Caen, a place we avoid usually by going round the ring-road.
All I can say is thank goodness that when I bought the satnav I made sure it had European maps included. We join the back of another traffic jam of cars avoiding the peripherique. We go past some more roundabouts blocked by tractors and old tyres (but luckily no more manure) and ignoring instructions to "turn around where possible" we inch through the centre of Caen and eventually approach the DIY store from behind.
The tiles, of course, have not arrived.
So, where were we?
Oh yes, camping out once again in our house in France. Half a roof by then, no plumbing, no heating, one tap, and a toilet you had to flush with buckets of water.
Well, it wasn't too bad really, and the weather was reasonable. When I say no heating, we did have an assortment of portable heating devices, ranging from an old oil-filled electric radiator with a cloth-covered flex to a gas heater which used expensive cubes of gas at the rate of one every other day if you ran it full blast. Electric kettle for hot water, and there was even gas in the bottle out the back for the cooker, after all that time.
There was also a small leak in the incoming water pipe. On the other side of the water meter, which made it their problem, not ours. We wrote a message on the "we called to read your meter" card, and you have never seen a French official body move so quickly. They, in the shape of a small Gauloise-smoking Frenchman, were on our doorstep the morning after the first day they could possibly have received our card. The old stopcock was out and replaced before you could say "Zut alors!"
The real purpose of our visit though (apart from the bread, cheese, and wine) was to look at plumbing supplies. We toured the DIY store with John the plumber, looking at toilets, baths, and basins. No, we did not need a fancy bath or basin, though we did want a vanity unit with a cupboard underneath to put the spare toilet rolls. We were happy to have a shower over the bath. Would the pressure be adequate for a shower? No problem, and luckily no need to put a header tank in the little bedroom upstairs. The immersion heater in its tank could go in the glory hole - you remember the glory hole? Rough floor, even rougher walls, pine lambris ceiling? All gone now, and what were we going to do about that? Brian the bulder was consulted: it would take a lot of plaster, but everything could be levelled up. Tiles for the floor? Of course.
There was a small possibility that the bath might have to be put on a platform, to give enough of a slope to the drain. I rather fancied a bath on a dais, I must say, but it turned out that we didn't need it. So no throne for me.
Brian got some samples of tiles, which were just what we wanted, and said he'd sort them out. We went home feeling almost cheerful. The project was moving forward, and we were really looking forward to having indoor facilities after fifteen years.
Then Brian phoned. There were no tiles to be had - what he'd thought were more of the same were another design completely, put at random on the shelves where our tiles should have been.
We bought some in England and took them over on the next trip. Have you ever thought about the weight of enough tiles to do the floor of a bathroom and toilet, even one of such an odd shape? We hadn't, either. The back end of the car was almost dragging on the ground when we boarded the ferry for the next trip. We were stopped, yet again, by Security before we could get on the ferry, and asked to open up, please, and had we packed the car ourselves? And could we open the bonnet please?
It turned out we couldn't open the bonnet; the catch had broken some time since we'd last had it up. You may have realised already that the old man is not one to be fiddling about under the bonnet of our car. Much embarrassment all round, as my husband jiggled and pulled. In the end the nice lady let us off, or got fed up, or something. I suppose we looked honest enough.
I have to say that the port authorites and Customs have always been very nice to us, in their own way. I particularly remember the time when my husband inadvertently tried to travel on my daughter's passport. There is of course a certain resemblance, but unfortunately the moustache rather gives him away. (That's his moustache, of course.) Did he have a photo driving licence which would serve to identify him? We had lived at our then address for so long and had never had occasion to renew his licence, so no. In the end he travelled on his official identity card, which he was not supposed to take out of the country but always forgot to remove from his wallet. Don't tell anybody.
That of course was many years ago now, and no doubt things are a lot stricter these days. As evidenced by the port security inspecting our car's contents nearly every time we travel, even though we look so innocent and law-abiding. And finding that the reason the car was dragging its backside was a few packages of floor tiles, and not any of the prohibited items it might have been.
Have a nice day, they said. Off you go.
Off we went.
Doreen lives in the empty bit in the middle of Wales, where since her retirement she has taken up writing. She says it's better than working any day.
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