Friday, 23 December 2011

In Moments


Christmas comes in moments.  For me, it's buying red cyclamens to put in my blue Brannam bowls; the ritual changing of the nose stud, from chip of diamond to a rather more festive ruby which my mother mistakes for a scab; gazing at the landslide of cards to write and presents to wrap and realising that Only Whiskey Can Save Me Now.

Then there's my father.  He has his moment too, which he chooses with style.  It's usually about three days before Christmas when my house is upsidedown and it's all coming to a head. 

'Going to town, Deb?  You couldn't get these few bits and pieces for your mother, could you?'  He brandishes a list. 'And pick up some boxes to put them in.  Supermarket ones will do, so long as you cover them with wallpaper and make them look nice.'

I was determined to pre-empt him this year.  Being shopaphobic, I bought as much as much as I could on-line, thus whittling trips in person down to two, one to town, the other out to Cribbs Causeway.  Before each one I asked him what he wanted me to get but he didn't respond.  In the end I did something he's always despaired of me ever learning and Showed Some Initiative, coming back from The Mall clutching fifty pounds' worth of Marks and Spencer vouchers.  Plus, I had a very impressive box in which my leaving present from my old job had been packed and I'd even remembered tissue paper.  Sorted.

'Oh … all right,' he said.  Then, 'I'll need some Nivea Light as well, mind – two tubs.  She doesn't like the ordinary stuff.  And some of that Island Mix from that place in The Galleries – you know, where you got it last time.  And sugared almonds.'  Perhaps sensing my rocketing blood pressure but only making it worse, he added, 'Your mother's out having her hair done so I wrapped up the other things I've got. Thought I'd save you a job.'

'Thanks, Dad,' I heard myself say.

Another ritual: the carol service at St Mary Redcliffe.  This is Chatterton's church and I can never quite believe my luck at getting to sing in such a hallowed place, even if my voice is all wrong for the music and I must pitch it right down in my boots.  Even better is knowing that up in the Muniments Room Thomas is blowing the dust off the parchment that he's found, with all his life before him, while somewhere Wordsworth picks up his quill and Henry Wallis begins a painting that's already famous, of the marvellous boy, that damned shitten arse boy …

Then there's the one-off moments that mug you, send you flying.  A Christmas twenty-four years ago, during the first of many house moves, this one from Taunton to London, so technically homeless.  I'm thirty yards away from where I sit now, in my parents' house, my first-born in my arms.  The baby’s father is going out to wet her head; his friends take a scant glance at the ostensible reason for their revelry and push off down the pub.  Alone and suckling my daughter, I'm holy as Mary …

A candle-lit midnight five Christmas Eves ago, and the minister speaks of T S Eliot, dazzling darkness, Henry Vaughn …

It's Christmas Day 1998, and somehow I'm on my own.  As I collapse onto the settee a programme comes on – an appreciation of Ted Hughes who's just died.  I pour myself a glass of Shiraz.  At the back of the house I can hear voices but no one comes, no one disturbs my miracle.  I plump up the cushions and relax.  Once more the story of 'Birthday Letters', and Heaney reading 'The Day He Died', his voice rusty with grief …     

I hope your Christmas is filled with moments.



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