But among the dolls I did get some good presents. I just can’t remember which came when. One year I got a plastic Dalek suit. It was great. Plastic was, as I’ve mentioned before, the must have thing in my childhood. This Dalek suit was red (television was still in black and white so the colour was a surprise. There was a heavy (for a child) black helmet with the iconic plastic stalk on the front of the ‘face’ and this huge, enveloping red with black dots plastic body. It went on over the head and I ran around endlessly shouting ‘ ‘sterminate, ‘sterminate.’ I remember that we adapted the Dalek suit (as we did most of our toys) later on, turning it upside down to play Siamese Twins. If we put it on that way we had plenty of room at the top and it tapered down so that our feet were pretty well stuck together at the bottom. No so much running around that way, but it still amused us!
But the last best Christmas and presents I can remember as a child happened the Christmas we stayed at my grandparents. Of course I was fully expecting more doll horror along with the Christmas Annual which was my grandparents’ standard offering. And I was somewhat concerned that Santa (who I really wasn’t sure even existed any more) would find us. I was re-convinced when shown that my grandparents had a real chimney. So in fact it would be easier for Santa to find us. And hadn’t I written him a letter telling him we were going to be at our grandparents for Christmas? Of course I had. But I didn’t give him the address. I didn’t know the address, I just knew it was Grandma and Grandad’s and a long way in the car. I was reassured that Santa would know the address. I finally bought it. I mean, if he can flee round the world in one night delivering presents to all the good children, a small thing like a change of address isn’t going to stump him now, is it?
That last ‘Happy’ Christmas does stick in my memory. So I’ll open one last door with a nice picture for you. I warn you, it’s all going to get a lot darker from here on. A lot less fantasy, and a lot more real.
My grandfather smoked a pipe. And cigars. And cigarettes. It wasn’t that unusual in those days but my grandma didn’t like it. So he was banished to one room in the house which was a constant fug of smoke. I quite liked the smell, of the cigars and the pipe tobacco at least. And I loved my grandad. My grandma, I could well do without. She was the buyer of dolls. And through the year she sent monthly magazines for which we had to write thank you letters, even though she sent magazines we didn’t want to read instead of ‘The Beano,’ ‘Roy of the Rovers’ or the ones we did. She sent improving magazines with ‘facts’ and ‘knowledge.’ We wanted entertainment. Grandad knew that.
I remember clearly that he took me on his knee in his room during that Christmas and proceeded to read me Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. ‘Marley was dead: to begin with, there is no doubt about that.’ I was hooked. We must have had several sessions of it, and I have an overwhelming fuzzy happy memory of the whole thing. Apart from one moment which I’ve never been able to make sense of. And almost can’t believe. It alerts me to the fact that memory is not always fixed, not always reliable and not always clear.
Grandad was one of those who played the coin behind the ear trick, and the blowing smoke out of the nose trick. Was it nose? Or ear? I can’t remember. Anyway, at one point in the narrative (I think I remember) he broke off and told me to put my hand on his chest and if I pressed I’d be able to see smoke coming out of whatever orifice it was. And then, while I was looking hard, I felt a sharp burn. He’d put the end of the match on my skin. Now, even as I’m writing this I can’t believe it. Why would you do that to a child? Why would my grandfather do that? I’ve even tried to remember it and wondered if he stubbed the end of a cigarette on the back of my hand, but I cannot believe that was what happened. The memory is too vague for me to really know what I experienced then or what in fact he did, though the sense of pain and shock is still real. He didn’t blow smoke out of his ears that’s for sure. I will wonder for ever what it was that actually happened. Obviously he was playing a joke and maybe he made a mistake, maybe he never thought of the consequences. I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt me, and I’m definitely not accusing him of anything.
After all, I have a memory of my father shutting my fingers in the hinge of the door. He did it. But he didn’t know he did it. He was the other side of the door. My fingers shouldn’t have been there and he didn’t know they were. But for a child that sense of something going wrong and the realisation that adults don’t always keep you safe, is palpable. The fact that everything that went wrong in my childhood happened (what seemed) horribly soon after the fingers in door incident, didn’t help to make it seem less significant. It was the first sign that my father, in whom I trusted implicitly, could hurt me. And he did. In absentia. A door was shut metaphorically that was more painful than the real one. A pain that has lasted most of a lifetime.
But let’s hang onto the good memories as long as we can. If I can shut my eyes over the moment of madness of the pipe/match/smoke in ears, and focus on the frisson of fear yet total excitement of the Dickens narrative as told by my grandad, then I’m ready to complete that final Happy Christmas.
The presents that year were amazing. Maybe I got a doll. I don’t know or care. Because what I did get, what we both got, were space hoppers. Giant orange bouncy plastic. It gets no better for a child of the late sixties/early seventies. But wait, it does get better. Because I also got a Red Indian outfit. Not a full head-dress, more the sort of squaw type Indian, and if I think back carefully the top was probably more like a tabard (the kind of thing I hate in normal life, the kind of thing cleaners wear or they got you to wear during craft sessions at school so that you didn’t get your clothes dirty. I hated craft sessions).Why force us to wear tabards when dad’s old shirt on backwards would do just as well? That’s what we used at home.
The Indian suit did have fringing on it though. That was the main thing. Fringing on the trousers and on the top. And it wasn’t a cowboy suit. Because I was always the one for the underdog. If we played Cowboys and Indians, I was always the Indian. If we played Batman and Robin, I was Robin. I don’t remember whether my brother got a cowboy suit when I got my Indian one, I think he’d have been too old to appreciate that. And I have no idea what he got when I had the Dalek suit – what present could possibly have topped that? But I do remember that Christmas at my grandparents there was none of the usual torment that went with our Christmas mornings. I’m sure my mum and grandma were horns locked over who could be the most martyr-ish regarding cooking Christmas dinner but we had both a grandad and a dad to keep them at bay and a huge garden to run up and down, and bounce up and down.
I remember that initially the Space Hoppers were to be played with indoors but soon we’d caused enough mayhem that we were allowed to risk the fact that plastic might burst – so stay off the gravel – and bounce them up and down the garden. In my case, dressed as a Red Indian. I may have been the only Red Indian ever to master a space-hopper! There’s no such thing as incongruity in a child’s imaginative play. It was a great Christmas. The last great one ever. But even Space Hoppers don’t last for ever. And sooner or later you have to face the fact that Santa doesn’t exist. But that will keep till tomorrow.
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.