I find that as I look back I can’t always pinpoint at which particular Christmas any of the following ‘incidents’ happened, but believe me they did. I know that I may seem an unreliable witness what with my suggestion that my grandad burned me with a match (I really don’t think he meant to and I may well be misremembering that in some important respect) and my complete gullibility regarding Santa; added to my own crime of advent calendar opening. But believe me, there are some things, and it doesn’t matter the day or the date, which you remember for ever. So, since it’s the 13th and my title is ironically Goodwill to all men, I’m going to open the door on some of these events, to get them out of my box. It may explain what happened next and it may explain a lot more than that. Either way, its time these things were unwrapped. I’m sorry if they make hard reading, but believe me they made pretty hard living for a child. All of these events happened when I was between the age of 7 and 14 and I contend that no child should be exposed to such things. When they talk of childhood abuse, and domestic abuse they always skate over the actuality with the phrase – too graphic to tell, or too graphic to show. But I think that if people did reveal the acts in all their gruesome detail, more people might put more effort into stopping them.
My family was seen as solid middle class. There was a big smokescreen going on. My mum and my step-dad were local councillors. Most people didn’t even know that my step-dad was that. They changed our surname when they married without even asking us. And my brother used to get seriously annoyed when people (as they often did) told him he looked just like his father. He does. It’s just that his step-father wasn’t his father and that’s who they were meaning! People see what they want to see. And you can cover up a lot of domestic abuse if you’re the right class of person. Believe me.
Enough of the skipping round. This is a particularly difficult door to open. But here goes. It doesn’t matter which Christmas it was, but here’s some reasons I don’t like Christmas. Where to start? My step-dad had an uncontrollable temper. Nice get out clause eh? He went into ‘red’ rages. We learned early to try and avoid this but we also learned that anything could bring them on. Like the time I was sitting quite peaceably eating breakfast at the kitchen table – a big, heavy wooden one – and some argument kicked off. This time it went beyond the flinging of grill pan and he came towards the table – which I’d just absented myself from on the way out the door, fearful of said grill pan – and he upended the whole thing. It sat in an alcove and he simply turned it upside down with all the ephemera of family breakfast still on it. None of the finesse of a magician pulling a tablecloth from the table and leaving the crockery unharmed. The scene was one of complete devastation. But at least no one was harmed.
I did get harmed in the next one. That was unusual. Normally I was a bystander – I learned that if I left the room the violence against my mum could be worse – so I tried to intervene simply by bearing witness. But one time, my threatening to phone the police backfired. I reached for the phone and he reached for my throat, and stood there, throttling me till someone (I don’t remember if it was my mum or brother) managed to get to the phone and start dialling. Then he dropped me. I know kids can be irritating but I will never believe anyone deserves that treatment.
Of course, domestic violence, untreated, escalates. And his did. So brace yourself. I should remind you that when not in his red rages, my step-dad was seen by all and sundry as a really friendly, charismatic guy. Learn from that what you will. It taught me to be very, very wary of people who are over-friendly on first meeting - or at all. Never, as they say, judge a book by its cover. My mum fell for it, she didn’t walk into it eyes open, but once in, it was pretty hard to get out of.
Our family has always been book-crazy. In what was their bedroom at the time there was a whole wall of bookshelves. Again, I don’t know what sparked the rage – it doesn’t matter does it, there’s no excuse for what follows – he turned on my mum. At the time she was pregnant with what would be my little sister and so his rage was turned (we thought) off person onto property. He launched a karate style kick at the shelves – we’re talking about ten shelves loaded with books remember – and he brought them all down. That sort of power is terrifying. The scene was carnage, but obviously not enough for him. This time there were afters. Before anyone could do anything – and what could a 4 foot 6 girl do against a 6 foot 4 man? – he launched at my mum, punched her in her pregnant stomach and the force sent her crumpling back upon the bed. I remember thinking that he’d beaten up my sibling before she was even born. I wasn’t old enough to realise the potential danger of his action, and fortunately my mum got through it unscathed. He’d gone a step too far, realised it and left the room. Christmas was over for that year. No one spoke for days. Not until the Hogmanay party when everything was back to normal, bright, breezy, party-hosts and my mum never let on a word. Not that I know.
Another time a well aimed heavy lead crystal bowl, the kind you’d put a pudding in for a party, was thrown at my mum. It hit her on the shin and cut right through. Not only were there shards of crystal everywhere but the blood flowed freely. That one ended in a hospital visit. But she didn’t (to my knowledge) tell them what had happened. Doubtless it was a ‘tripped and fell’ explanation or some such. No one asks too many questions if the victim doesn’t volunteer it. And no one volunteers such things because what is the way out?
The last ‘incident’ I didn’t actually see but I saw the consequences of. They were out in the car, just after New Year shopping. Just when you thought the Christmas flash point had ended. He launched out and broke her nose. That one landed her in hospital for a stay. I don’t know if she told them how it happened. Probably said it was a car accident. The consequence of that was that he was left in sole charge of us for the best part of a week. Fortunately that week is something of a blank to me.
But these are the memories that Christmas brings back to me. Like the rest of you, I’ve got some of those happy memories from being a small child, the magic of Santa and the joy of ripping open presents. But they cannot be stripped away from the later memories. Domestic violence isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life and the memories associated with it don’t just come at Christmas. But Christmas was always a flash-point, I think it is for many families and I fail to understand why people keep putting themselves through the stress of it all. I don’t understand why society feels the need to put people under the kind of pressure that so many people can’t handle. There’s definitely something wrong with the profit motive, isn’t there?
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.