You’ll be pleased to know that at least in our family, the high level domestic abuse didn’t last for more than seven years. It was Biblical in its proportions while it lasted, right enough, but like plagues of locusts and grain famines, we endured our seven years and then we escaped. And it was during Advent that we followed Caesar’s advice, as I’d learned it my first year at primary school – ‘and each went to their own land to be taxed.’ Well, we escaped at any rate.
We had, by this time, a house in the countryside, some fifty miles away from Edinburgh, which we went to at weekends and holidays. The money from the students staying in the flat with us paid for it. So you see there are always silver linings to the clouds. And since my step-dad couldn’t drive we often went there without him, leaving him in Edinburgh working. I guess that was the first sign of the marriage breakdown. My mum was running a careful game to avoid the inevitable beatings – keep the house full of people and have a bolt-hole.
Well, the year I was about to turn fourteen, my mum shared a secret with us. We were flitting. She was going to serve divorce papers on my step-dad and it was all timed for the last day of Christmas term. The planning went on for weeks before. It was an Advent to remember. We had to denude the flat of all the possessions we wanted. For weeks we took trips to the country house with books, toys, clothes and the like. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t noticing things getting thinner around the flat. Once he did ask my mum what was happening, why things were moving, and she said she was doing some re-organisation and cleaning out. De-cluttering. Somehow she convinced him that she had found some great storage solutions and that loads of things were being held in the capacious storage cupboards. He bought it. He didn’t have the same inquisitive nature as I did about opening doors in Advent. The cupboards became increasingly more bare as the month went on. And every day had the frisson of Advent I remembered from the early days of opening the calendar. But with none of the pleasure, only rising fear with each day.
I guess with students and Christmas coming and general mayhem and him not paying attention anyway because he was busy at work, we somehow got away with it, but I still look back and wonder how it was managed. I had never been so glad to be at school during the days because I was sure all during Advent that we’d be caught. As the days ticked down towards the flitting, I got more and more tense. It was an event looked forward to with even more intensity than Christmas ever could be, and with a deal more trepidation.
But the great day came. It was one of those years when Christmas was on a Sunday and so school went right through till the Thursday. I left for school that last morning as normal but was due back before lunch – just the carol service to endure. I was under strict instructions to come straight home. Did I want to be left behind to face the music? No way. I was out of school like a rocket when the last carol was sung.
The memories of that day stick with me as mildly comic, now that the immediacy of the fear is gone. I remember the moment my mum said we were taking the washing machine. The WASHING MACHINE. It was a hundred and twenty three steps up to our flat and we’d made every one of them literally hundreds of times in the last month. But a washing machine? She was determined. I wouldn’t have been much use in the exercise given my small size and weakness, so I left my mum with my brother (he went to a different school and had already broken up) struggling down the stairs with the washing machine. I couldn’t believe it. Did she want to be caught? Never mind the weight of the thing, but the audacity to remove ‘white goods’ just stunned me. But, practical to the last, a washing machine was the one thing our country house didn’t have and my mum wasn’t for leaving any more behind than she had to. I can never look at a washing machine even today without thinking of the great feat of daring undertaken in the ‘flitting’. Shifting that washing machine down all those stairs was a woman the age I am now and a teenage boy. Hats off to them.
Luckily we had a big estate car and the washing machine fitted into the boot. I remember turning the corner from school to see them all there, waiting for me. We were ready to go. I don’t remember shutting the door on the flat for the last time, I don’t remember any sense of loss or sorrow, or anything except adrenalin fuelled fear, as we were about to pull away. I remember much looking at watches and I think we began our escape around 12.08 but of course I could be making that bit up. That’s the thing when life becomes legend, the legend grows. But this is how I remember it now, and I’m pretty sure it’s near as dammit accurate to what happened then.
We knew he had been ‘served’ the notice at midday at his office and I swear (though of course this could be a fantasy memory coming through) that we saw him charging up the street across the park towards the car as we pulled away. It was what I feared, so I may have imagined it. But I think not. I’m sure we laughed about it afterwards, when we were in the brief aftermath period of thinking we’d pulled off the flit of the century, got one over on him finally – escaped to freedom. We knew he couldn’t drive (not legally) and so couldn’t hire a car that close to Christmas without a lot of bother and would need to ‘find a friend’ to bring him over the bridge, so we felt pretty safe for a while. I know that in life you have to take the rough with the smooth and not every advent door that you open has a decent picture in it. Not every present you open is something you wanted. But that Christmas we believed we’d got what we wanted. Freedom from harm. It was intoxicating. While it lasted.
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.