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.
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.
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.