In Parentheses

So, this year I promised myself at least a kind of Christmas. For the last however-many years (could it really be twenty-four?) I have spent some (admittedly as little as possible) of every Christmas Day with Mum. This was not because she particularly wanted me to (I suspect she would have been happier pottering about in the garden or going for that interminably long and always the same walk around her home town).

She seemed to have selected this walk for its lack of any refreshing scenic qualities (for the roar of traffic; the tang of exhaust fumes; the graffiti and aroma of dustbins in housing estate short-cuts that only she could have discovered; the rattle of trains passing under a bridge; the recreation ground that seems to have shrunk to half the size since I played in it; the ugly little grocer’s shop she would never enter, preferring a weekly trip to Tesco – equally ugly but further away and close to a Cypriot café that sold really bad coffee and scrambled egg that looked and tasted like yellow rubber – and the public conveniences).

And as for me, I would rather (would always rather) have been at home with the cats. However, I visited her on Christmas Day out of guilt, out of duty (out of loneliness), because being divorced I was free to (and because no one else would). In earlier years she would cook (something like a) Christmas Dinner. The portions were small (unlike me, she was never very hungry) but tasty. She was a good, nursery cook.

It was at least something to have a cooked meal together instead of Ryvitas (the standard absolutely tasteless variety rather than the slightly more edible ones with the sesame seeds) and low-fat yoghurt or, in later years, nothing at all (she had forgotten about lunch). We ate it in silence balancing cold plastic trays on our knees and gazing out over the garden. In earlier years it was a lovely garden. Later it got kind of overgrown.

It always seemed to be cool and raining on those Christmas Days with Mum. (You know, those days when the sky is kind of Zen – white and featureless, and the occasional black bird flies across it?) We couldn’t converse much except in mime and notes, and it’s not that easy to pass notes back and forth and balance a tray.

And yet in my childhood it seems to me it was snowing every Christmas – thick, crunchy snow, and deep. We would scrunch along the road together, Mum, Dad, my sisters and I, to have Christmas Dinner all together at Nan’s house and watch The Queen’s Speech (recorded sometime in August, probably) and the Top of the Pops Christmas Special (much to Grandad’s grumbling annoyance) and get choked by the aromatic smoke from Grandad’s pipe, and watch the fat old Labrador snoring fitfully in front of a real fire. (I miss Nan and Grandad; I miss Nan’s Christmas Dinners, which were excellent, perfect and absolutely huge.)

Depressed yet? (Keep reading.) This year Mum will be in hospital unless she gets mobile really quickly after her operation, in which case she will be back in the residential home, and either way not knowing or caring that it’s Yuletide. This year I have absolutely no reason to go anywhere on Christmas Day, and that is good on the whole because – you know – twelve cats draped on and around the sofa, purring; CD of folk carols to play whilst reading; entertaining rubbish on TV; cook myself some vegetarian something (out of practice, but not out of mind) – something involving new potatoes, perhaps, and Brussels-sprouts, and peas, and some sort of quiche, and gravy…maybe even a bottle of plonk or some cider.

Leading up to the Big Day, and now that I am no longer at work I have been treating myself to a Christmas Movie almost every afternoon. Sometimes there are even two, one after another. I don’t know why I like them. Comforting, I suppose. I like that they are nearly always set in America or Canada where everything is slightly different and more interesting and where there is real snow (Canada) or an incomprehensible combination of sunshine, fake snow and summer clothes (America). I love how New York has always has an opening shot of yellow taxis so you can tell at once which city you’re in, otherwise it would just be all skyscrapers. I love that every single movie contains some variation on every possible Christmas song so you can sing along and feel sentimental, and I love that they are all sure to contain some if not all of the following tropes:

  • Father Christmas
  • Mother Christmas
  • Elves, in one guise or another
  • Reindeer
  • A sleigh that crashes
  • A red-haired heroine with perfect, glisteningly white teeth
  • A whole lot of other perfect, glisteningly white teeth
  • Men, women, children and infants all wearing green, red or maroon plus a jolly scarf and cute woolly hats from Thanksgiving right through to Christmas Day
  • Romance, several unlikely misunderstandings then more romance
  • Mountains of presents around a mountainous tree
  • Home-made tree decorations that come out of a box in the garage that everyone has forgotten about
  • Christmas cookies – spiced, iced biscuits, sort of – and the heroine always knows how to cook the best ones the hero has ever eaten and at that moment he knows he’s going to marry her
  • A gorgeous but modest fireman, in a uniform
  • A little boy looking for a new father
  • A little girl looking for a new mother
  • A bitchy mother-in-law
  • An angel disguised as a plump old lady
  • Santa hats
  • Candy canes
  • A smart, brittle city sister and a homely, gingham and woolly-scarf wearing sister
  • A bunch of mistletoe that no one has noticed before
  • An unexpected baby
  • Someone losing their job but finding another
  • Someone realising the true meaning of life is family, not fortune
  • A dog
  • Two dogs
  • A cat
  • Two cats…

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