Not a Suburban Christmas
A large Victorian villa with as many family and friends as will fit round the dining table. Fifteen at a squeeze. Shining under an Edwardian rise and fall lamp the table is set with crystal glasses, silverware, linen napkins tied with tartan ribbon, a dozen candles in polished brass holders, newly gathered holly and ivy, placement cards - carefully drawn by the children, and centrally, a large female winged plaster sculpture holding tinsel aloft.
Champagne, smoked salmon and quails eggs in the drawing room to start. The tree, a Scots pine, difficult to find even here in Scotland, is decorated with a mix of baubles from Fortnum and Mason, tiny toys, chocolate Santas and spiced dried slices of orange. Presents, mostly wrapped in brown paper and decorated with more tartan ribbon were stacked beneath. Across from the tree stood a boudoir grand piano piled high with hymn books ready for carol singing later.
Lunch was homemade: goose (the largest wouldn't be enough so there'd be a turkey as well), stuffing, prunes in armagnac, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes and parsnips, carrots, red cabbage and brussel sprouts sautéed with chestnuts, shallots and bacon, and cranberry and bread sauces.
One couple brought a mixed case of burgundy and four bottles of pudding wine. Others come with generous supplies for the cheese board: Epoisse, St Felicien, Roquefort, Italian truffe and Stilton. Mother-in-law brought a trifle and there'd be a pudding steaming on the cooker in the back porch because the exhausted aga had given up. On the sideboard there'd be four malt whiskies, two bottles of port and one of brandy. A family, stressed more than most by ego and drama would peacefully enjoy the conviviality and fun of the Christmas feast. This meal, albeit interrupted for present opening, carols and stories, lasted for 6 hours. A Christmas fantasy? No. That was my family Christmas for years.
Christmas 2014, was different. The children had grown up and the previous April, I did, with good reason, the unthinkable and fled Scotland for France. It was decided that although I had travelled 1200 miles to be with them, the three girls would have Christmas lunch with their father, who couldn't be relied on to cope on his own at his parents' or sister’s. Friends stepped in with offers of lunch for me. I accepted the first, from David, a GP, and his wife Lyn, one of the couples who'd come to us on previous years. The girls and I celebrated on the 24th with dinner and present opening in Glasgow's West End at the eldest's flat. Cooking together and sipping Bolinger, we were cheerful. Each of us had a better time than we'd hoped for and looked forward to Boxing Day when we'd be together again.
The following morning, Christmas day, I stood outside my middle daughter's flat in a poorer part of town waiting for a lift. Tenements on either side were rundown and most were occupied by Asian families. One family of children habitually shouted 'Gori!' (Hindi for white girl) at my daughter as she walked home. Standing there freezing I wondered if this could be classed as a racially motivated hate crime. The thought, that such an utterance from a white child probably would be, was interrupted. My lift arrived.
Lyn had mentioned that David’s elderly parents, both fans of my minor-celeb artist ex, were coming too, adding, 'Isla said she'd probably say something to you about the situation.' I dreaded any such talk. 'Please ask her not to.'
David collected antiquarian and rare Scottish books. His wife collected ceramics and jewellery. A generous woman in her fifties, Lyn loved Christmas and decorated their Arts and Crafts villa with a tree that could've leapt from the pages of Good Housekeeping. A 3 foot Santa leaned heavily against a book case, one hand on an old copy of The Scotichronicon. Close by a reindeer and an elf were seated primly side by side on a tapestry stool. The doorbell rang. A pair of real corgis exploded into a deafening welcome. On the way to answer it David handed me a large glass of champagne. I gulped down a third in one go.
David's father, Ian, a retired minister of the Church of Scotland and academic, shared his younger son's enthusiasm for the Disruption of 1843. He didn't speak much but when he did, despite his deafness, it was a whisper. David’s mother, on the other hand, spoke shrilly and often, mostly to her preferred older son, a fashion writer, John. John's clothes were inevitably beautiful and expensive and he dressed his mother with the same lavishness. He drifted past me carrying a large H&M bag at arms length, leaving in his wake a scent which was so divine I momentarily forgot who or where I was. In the bag were 6 garish Christmas jumpers, each a man's XXL. We were to put them on immediately for the group photo. My response to this sort of thing is generally an inward groan so I groaned inwardly and pulled the hard acrylic wool over my head.
The family welcomed me to their table and graciously avoided difficult subjects. Lunch, as far as I can remember was delicious, accompanied by fine wines and gentle, polite chatter. I was grateful for their kindness but I wasn't really there.
At 5pm I called a taxi. I was heading for the other end of town to a schoolfriend's family gathering. Twenty years previously, after a spell of working in Germany as a midwife, Laura came back divorced with two young sons. Always a worker she quickly found a job, and with no help from her ex husband bought a 20s built Art Deco semi, one of a few non council houses on the edge of the scheme where she'd grown up. She had no need for her husband but a great need for her family, thirty members of which were now were squashed into her small living room. Most were dressed up. I was handed a pair of red antlers on a green headband.
One of Laura's brother-in-laws, Findlay, a man of around 5' 6" was dressed as an elf in green tights, elfin shoes, big ears, pointy hat and 'Bah Humbug!' tee shirt. His expression was a study in tipsy sardonic as he greeted and kissed me. Laura's eldest son, now a 6' 3", 15 stone wannabe paratrooper was dressed as a fairy. He handed me a gin and tonic and sat heavily on the sofa beside me, his tutu doing little to cover his massive, naked and well-parted thighs. 'Nice dress...' I said.
After a few minutes the room became hushed and we all looked to the door. It opened slowly and another naked leg appeared, this time female, with a yellow clawed foot attached. This had to be Laura's middle sister Louise. Her dressing up outfits, which include a naked-except-for-nipple-tassles fat suit, are legendary. A woman sized oven-ready turkey strutted, in the manner of Mick Jagger, into the room. On her head was a smaller turkey but at the press of a button the drumsticks shimmied and shook in time with Lulu's 'Shout' which it played over and over again. In what looked like a premature attack of the DTs, three toy poodles: Floyd, Teddy and Hamish, in merino blend Christmas jumpers, tried to bring down the turkey. A less Christmas spirited turkey would've kicked dogs through the unopened window.
When the uproar died down I noticed that the sequoia sized fairy had vanished and been replaced with the slight figure of Laura's 82 year old mother, Anna. She held my hand and said, 'I knew. I heard and could see, you should've left years ago.' My eyes filled with tears. I sat quietly, grateful for her understanding and listened carefully to her speak with wisdom about marriage, divorce and local 17th century witch trials. It was only after several minutes I noticed she was wearing a gorilla onesie.
Sooner than either of us would've liked our discussion was interrupted by a bell ringing in the hallway. A deep and festive, if slightly embarrassed, 'Ho, Ho, Ho!' was heard. For a heartbreaking split second instead of a room full of exhausted, dyspeptic, impecunious, asthmatic wrecks, we were a classroom of excited 6 year olds and in unison, held our breath. A confident voice led us in 'Jingle Bells' and we cheered. The door burst open and in came Santa with a sack of presents. After much jollity and waving and a few more 'Ho, Ho, Hos', Santa was shown to the largest chair in the room. Each guest in turn sat on his knee and was given a gift. Eventually my name was called. 'Have you been good this year?' he asked as I perched on his lap. 'Well, actually Santa, I could hardly have been worse...' The room erupted with kind laughter. Santa laughed too, told me he appreciated my honesty and handed me a present, a gift box containing expensive hair products.
A while later I stood again on the pavement waiting for a lift. Santa, now transformed back into Laura's younger, even taller, handsome, bagpipe playing, law student son drove up in a new Mini Cooper. Despite everything, I'd had myself a Merry Little Christmas.