The Christmas of the ‘flitting’ was the first time in years that I actually felt like we were having Christmas. We arrived at the house, which felt even more spacious than usual because Bad Santa wasn’t there. I don’t know how to describe the feeling which is just what most people consider normal – safety in the home. When your home is the place you feel least safe, when you’d do anything rather than be there, it’s very strange to suddenly be able to breathe again. To expand into a space. And I loved that country house. Because it has outdoor space, even when he had been there, I had places to escape, so I always felt safer there. And it was just us. Just the real family. If only my dad had been there it would have been perfect. I still craved my dad, though now of course he was just a fantasy dad, after seven years of not having seen him. I would have given up all my Christmas gifts in order to just go back to the life we had before I opened that Advent calendar door before my turn.
But this was the next best thing. I suppose we were all punch-drunk to an extent. We believed that the random violence was a thing of the past. That we were no longer victims but survivors. That we could rebuild. That this year there really might be peace on earth, at least for us.
And so it was, for a time. We went out on the Saturday, Christmas Eve and sourced a tree locally. We decorated the tree. We’d taken the decorations with us! This is the first and last time I really remember engaging with the whole preparation for Christmas with pleasure. Taking an active part that is. In the early years you are a recipient not a player. It’s all some magic which comes your way but you don’t have to do anything to make it happen. Except, of course, be good. But that Christmas, which felt like the first real Christmas, I remember being happy to listen to Christmas carols of little drummer boys and decking the halls and tinsel seemed brighter and paper chains were worth making and time spent placing the baubles and putting greenery round the mantelpieces was all part of some great new hope that Christmas could be all that we dreamed it should be. The sort of Christmas everyone wants was to be ours.
I remember just a moment of pause when my mum got ready to place the wreath on the outside door. I knew that that door was the one real barrier to our safety. One day, I knew that HE would come knocking. Even a Christmas wreath couldn’t ward off that evil spirit. I was happier indoors. For once, indoors was safe.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day passed without a glitch. I think my mum even laid off the worst of the ritual obsessions. At least I don’t remember the hoovering, and since there were just the four of us; me, mum, big brother and wee sister; there was no one to put on a show for. There was still a mountain of turkey and trimmings but Christmas dinner was a lot less stressful than usual. Things just seemed to flow. We seemed to have more time to just ‘be.’ You’ve no idea how wonderful it can be just to not be afraid. I’ve never understood why people willingly put themselves in scary situations – on roller coasters, or even reading frightening stories.
How people can experience a frisson of fear eludes me. Real fear is naked in its look and dominant in its power and it’s not something I ever want to feel again. It’s something I avoid at all costs. And it’s something I know could always come back. I’m tempted to think that fear in childhood is unique, because of the lack of power and control one has as a child. But I look at the elderly and think they are similarly disempowered and it does make me fear for a future where I once more may be cast into that environment. What I know for sure is that once you’ve lived real fear, the sanitised version is something to be avoided at all costs. So I’ll never understand why people do it. My past has certainly made me risk averse, which may not be all a bad thing. But it isn’t all a good thing either.
I don’t have the words to describe the pure pleasure we experienced over those two days. It is a sort of blur. I wonder if it’s how normal people experience Christmas each year. I’d like to think so. That way I can understand why people keep coming back for it year after year. But when you see the ‘build up’ to Christmas on the television and in the shops and when you talk to people (or listen to them talk) about Christmas, they all seem to moan about it. On the occasions that I confess I don’t ‘do’ Christmas, the response is as often as not ‘I wish I didn’t.’ There’s a feeling that we just have to do this ritual every year, like it or not. But I say, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. If spending time with your family is painful, stressful, don’t submit to it. If you don’t have the time, the money or the love to spend - just don’t do it. But I know this counsel will fall on stony ground, especially at this time of year.
Of course come Boxing Day things stopped being perfect. He did come knocking at the door. But this time we were inside like the three little pigs and he didn’t get in. There was some shouting and screaming but we stayed safe. No door was broken down. He must have known the game was up and that a new one was on the way. Strategies had to be changed. And he was probably quite pleased to see the back of us if truth be told. The days of Hogmanay parties in the flat were over – for us at least.
We did have one bit of unscheduled excitement that year before the Christmas tree came down. We had a visit from the fire-brigade. We had an open fire and I don’t think my mum believed in chimney sweeps. It had become so blocked over the years no self-respecting Santa would have tried to come down it even if he did exist. And some time after Christmas Day the chimney went on fire. It was the first time I’d made an emergency phone call that wasn’t to the police, so that was a novelty. They rushed out and then there was a problem. The wrought iron gates had to be removed from the drive because the fire engine couldn’t get through. Once this was achieved, the sitting room was filled with burly firemen who managed to put out the chimney fire with minimal damage inside – and I suspect introduced my mum to the concept of regular chimney sweeping! I’d like to say that the black-faced firemen were our first footers, but I’d be stretching things to say that the great chimney fire happened on Ne’er Day. Still, with memory these things all sort of meld together, the good with the bad, the funny with the sad. They all exist together somewhere or nowhere in my particular synapses – behind the doors which I’m opening for you on a daily basis. Reading them back, I think I should be trying to get more humour injected, or more detail or more something… but I’ve taken a realist stance. I’m trying, as best I can, to draw the pictures as I see them in my mind and put that straight down on paper. It’s not great writing, I know but I’m going for substance over style. Though where is the substance in memory?
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.