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.
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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