Christmas Memories

This is a stock pic of a chicken from Unsplash taken by Claudio Schwarz and nothing like the Godzilla of the avian world that we faced at Christmas

Merry Christmas!

Instead of the flash fiction that I normally post on Mondays, I thought that I would share some memories of Christmas which not only explain why I can get very tense around this time of year but also perhaps explain a little of how I came to see the stories in the world.

My parents divorced when I was quite young, and it was quite unusual in that part of the world at that time. I was the only child in the school with divorced parents. Nowadays there is a sort of rhythm in shared parenting when both parents try their best as people have an idea what to expect. My poor parents just made it up as they went along.

Me and my brothers were still quite young and fully believing in the magic of Christmas. My mother did her best on a very tight budget and had a few tricks to keep us happy. One of which was that we didn’t decorate until Christmas Eve, and that we had to make a lot of the decorations ourselves. She had hoarded shiny paper and eggboxes for months and they all came out, and after a lot of effort, running around and glitter, we were exhausted and collapsed into bed early enough to get a good sleep. Mother wanted us out of the way for the last of the wrapping and the stockings and she wanted an early night.

Father doted on us as kids and was desperate to see us open our presents, so he would come around on Christmas Eve, sleep on the sofa and then be there when we clattered down the stairs at 8am (mother really had us trained on this!). Every year he promised that he wouldn’t be late, he would be there at 9pm – 9.30pm at the latest and everyone could have a nice early night. Every year my mother pretended to believe him. Every year he was late.

Back in those days, if a pub or bar wanted to keep their licence then they had to close at 10.30pm, and it was strongly enforced by police who didn’t want more fuss than necessary on a night that they didn’t want to work anyway. However a lot of the working men’s clubs would informally have a ‘lock in’. That is, they would lock the doors to the general public but the bar manager, staff and their favourite customers would stay after hours and have a few drinks extra. Father was a very social person. He was a member of the clubs for all the political parties in the town plus a few clubs affiliated with businesses that he had never worked for as well as all the social clubs. He was great company, a happy drunk and always willing to buy a bartender a drink. He could take his pick of lock ins and he frequently did. He usually rolled up at our house around 1am, happy and swaying because he had to celebrate Christmas and it would have been bad manners to leave.

Father’s favourite tipple, image from Unsplash, taken by Anders Nord

When my brothers and I dashed down on Christmas morning we would find father perched on the sofa and looking fragile while holding a cup of tea in both hands. Mother would be banging in the kitchen. They did their best to keep a brave face on as we fell on our presents (mainly books), but there was a lack of Christmas cheer. Father was desperately hungover and mother, due to waiting up for father, had barely got enough sleep to get the sheets warm before she had to crawl back down stairs to sort out Christmas dinner. And that was also father’s fault.

It wasn’t exactly father’s fault, but that didn’t stop mother. Mother cooked Christmas dinner for all of us, including her ex-husband, and in return father donated the voucher that his work gave him as a Christmas bonus together with the turkey. The voucher wasn’t huge and was for the local small supermarket, but it covered stuff like potatoes, sprouts and stuffing, and mother was grateful as, like I mentioned, money was tight. She didn’t have such a charitable attitude to the turkey.

You see, father had an uncle and later a cousin who had a farm locally and they ran a few turkeys. I never visited but I could almost hear them thinking, ‘we can’t let our kid have a small turkey’. I remember mother pleading with father to get a little one, or even just a turkey crown, or a chicken. There were five of us (three small kids, father who had a normal appetite and mother who ate like a bird) sitting down to Christmas dinner, so it didn’t need to be too big. It was no use. I think the smallest one was 18lb (just over 8kgs) to 23lbs (around 10.5kgs). We only had a small electric oven. More than once my mother had to take out the oven shelves, line the bottom with foil and grease the sides. Turkey is supposed to cook for 20 minutes per pound and twenty minutes over. A 23lb turkey would take 8 hours, and mother would never be able to rest if the oven was on, so she was somewhat sleep deprived and tetchy. At least it had turned up plucked and dressed, though I believe it was a close call a few times.

Much daintier than the roast potatoes we had, image from Unsplash, taken by Jonathan Farber

Along with my brothers, I would quickly lose myself in one of the books that Father Christmas had left. I would still be aware that after at least two more cups of tea, father would go to offer help in the kitchen. There would be more banging.

Then we would all sit down to the feast. Mother firmly believed that you should only put what you could eat on your plate. There were plenty of goodies dished up, but a reasonable portion, and we could go back for more if we wanted to. Father believed that the world would end if you could see the tiniest bit of plate exposed under Christmas dinner. There would be mounds of potato, barricades of turkey and a lake of sprouts dammed with stuffing. He would eat about a third. Mother would mutter darkly as she handed around the Christmas pudding. Father wouldn’t feel it was Christmas if he didn’t have a good helping of Christmas pudding with extra brandy butter, brandy cream and rum sauce. He ate about a third of that as well.

Then we would be faced by the remains of the turkey. Even with father’s best efforts, we would barely make a dent. Father would take a huge box home with him for Christmas supper. It would probably last him over a week as he had a very poor idea of food hygiene and a notoriously iffy stomach. Mother stuck rigorously to keeping cooked poultry for no more than three days, perhaps stretching it to four in desperation. Our freezer was tiny so there was no chance of freezing any leftovers, and I suspect that after three days mother couldn’t look it in the wishbone. And with everyone in the UK having turkey, we couldn’t give the damned stuff away. We always finished up with a glorious turkey scouse which was the food of the gods and far better than Christmas dinner (and father usually turned up for that as well).

And then, with a certain amount of relief, things were over for another year. I can genuinely see the point of view of both of my parents, and they both did their best to bring magic to their kids for Christmas Day. It got better over the years, but it sort of stuck with me and I learned from it. This year, me, my husband and my son had steak for Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. It may not be tranditional, but it doesn’t take 8 hours to cook.

The Longest Night

I love the idea of solstices and equinoxes. I love the idea of the wheel of the year turning and four times during that year there is a sense of balance. I love the feel of the rhythm of it.

I love the markers of the passing year. I always notice when the forsythia first comes out in spring and watch for the first dandelions. They always look so sunny and are one of the first wild plants out and welcoming bees. I love the rhythm as Palm Sunday and Holy Week lead to Eater, followed by the schools having fits in the run up to exams, and the caravans and motorhomes coming out for Late May Bank Holiday. I love the progression from FA Cup, to Wimbledon, to Charity Shield, to school uniform shopping, then gearing up to that time at the autumn equinox when the day and night are the same length, then the year slides down through Halloween and Bonfire night to the first storms and the first frosts and the longest night of the year.

It is rarely the coldest night here. The solstice, like Christmas, feels like it ought to be the middle of winter, but for me it’s the start. September, October and November have been spent winding down after summer. If I was any sort of gardener it would be about getting in the last of the harvest and preserving it. Then it’s time to get the big blankets out and the warm sweaters and make sure that the heating, of whatever type, is working properly.

The real winter starts, for me, in January. It’s usually getting colder then and the last traces of leaves have gone from the trees. It’s a hard slog through the grey days, past Valentine’s Day with all the artificial pink and red, and into Lent and spring again. Where I live I am statistically more likely to see snow at Easter than Christmas. This longest night is more like the start of a sleep, where you snuggle down in a warm bed and dream. Then the days slowly start getting longer and you see the first green hints of growth and you are back into the sunny rollercoaster of growing things.

This dark, long night is like a pause. We’ve journeyed down into the dark of the year, but now we pause and gather our strength to climb back up towards summer. Perhaps for me it is a better time for New Year’s Resolutions. It’s a standing time, where nothing is moving and it’s a chance to look back at the last year and gather our resources for the next one. It is a moment of soft quiet between the tinsel and the parties.

As a writer, it feels like a time for stories. When it is bright and sunny, I feel like I ought to be up and doing, out and about and generally being active. As the nights grow longer and colder, it feels more like a time for telling tales by the fireside. So I will taking the quiet moments in the next week or so, between all the fun and family, to take stock of my stories and get ready for the upswing into the New Year.

Book Review: A Kiss for Luck by Isa McLaren

This is a scandalously sensuous book which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It starts with the heroine receiving an inheritance that takes her away from small town USA to the richly historic streets of Italy and on to the luxurious South of France.

Luxurious is the key word, I think. The author has a wonderful way of bringing in details of luxury furnishings, exquisite art, elegant designer gowns and the finest cuisine, and all in a way that supports the story. It’s like reading while being wrapped in a stole of the finest cashmere while resting on silk and velvet cushions.

These details are a constant in the background, and a support to a story which is well paced, well plotted and full of twists and turns. The characters are believable, intresting and complex and their dialogue is sharp and true to life.

The story takes you on a journey full of bluffs, double crosses, subterfuge, and chicanery and I enjoyed every minute. I can’t share too many details as that would spoil the plot, but it’s just so much fun. I really hope that there will be a sequel.

I very much recommend it.

Tinsel

Image from Unsplash, taken by Nareeta Martin

Martin walked into the White Hart and then stuttered to a halt. Pink tinsel covered the till, the card stands and the wrapping paper. Cerise tinsel hung from the lights and shocking pink tinsel embraced the case with the athames. The palest rose tinsel wound around the café serving area intertwined with strands of deep maroon. He stood for a moment and stared. Then he looked at his wife as she staggered into the shop with a huge wicker basket full of more tinsel. “My dear, what’s happened?”

Lady Freydis sighed in relief, dropped the basket and ran over to him for a desperate hug. “Mrs Tuesday is not here.”

Martin looked around the shop. Underneath the drifts of decorations there were the occult books, the magical supplies, the herbs and the decorative knickknacks that the tourists loved. At least, he thought they were there. It was hard to tell under the sparkle and shimmer. “This isn’t a very safe place for elfen,” he said. “It’s too shiny. Besides, Fiona got all of the decorations sorted with the brownies. What’s going on? Mrs Tuesday will be back this afternoon.”

Lady Freydis clung onto him. “But what if she doesn’t return?” she said. “What if she abandons us? We should be diminished!”

“She’s just gone on a coach tour with Jason,” Martin said. He looked around the shop again. “Perhaps you should ease back on the decorations. She wouldn’t be happy if the customers couldn’t see the goods. You know how particular she is about the herbs.”

Lady Freydis stared at him. “What if she is so upset by the new decorations that she leaves forever with this Jason? What else could go wrong?”

“Mrs Tuesday is not leaving us,” Martin said. “Besides, you know how she feels about Christmas. She doesn’t worry about the decorations, but she hates the thought of anyone being alone.”

Lady Freydis frowned. “And that means that she wouldn’t leave us here alone, right?” She clutched Martin’s arm pleadingly. “We have everyone invited to Christmas dinner in our realm, with everything of the finest, don’t we? I can’t think of anyone else to invite.”

“Ian and Jeanette are having their own meal with their pack,” Martin said, “And Darren is joining them. But the rest of the staff are coming.”

“Is that enough for Mrs Tuesday?” Lady Freydis said.

Martin laughed. “Mrs Tuesday will always come back. This is her home. But I wouldn’t be surprised if she terrifies everyone again and brings home Jason. We can include him in our celebrations and that will keep her happy.”

Lady Freydis looked thoughtful. “He scares a lot of people,” she said.

“Mrs Tuesday thinks of him as a son,” Martin said. “And he paid for this tour as a treat for her. I’ve heard that he adores her.”

Lady Freydis looked at her husband and then around at the store. “I need to get this place cleared up before it opens,” she said. “I don’t want Mrs Tuesday to think that we are slipping without her.” She slid the basket of tinsel towards the back room and started to pull out the strands from around the Tarot decks. “Even if we are.”

You can find more about these characters in Tales of the White Hart and some of the stories that followed are on the blog here. I hope that you enjoyed seeing them again.