Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas.

It's a repeat post - but seasonal - & if you are new to this blog, you might not have seen it last time.  A homage to my very happy childhood in Southgate, North London which occasionally looked like this at Christmas time. Merry Christmas everyone!


Snow falling, snow on snow - almost forty years ago. On a warm winter night, at a blanketed bus-stop, four year old hands clutch a calendar of lions - a prize for attending mother’s Old Girls. A glimpse into the impossibility of life before us, a chorus of “aahs” and “how sweet”, and this gift of shiny yellow baring teeth, a talisman to wave at older siblings who visited, instead, exotic aunts in their exotic flats in Petty France, and got tea and several kinds of cakes. And the snow falls on other midwinters, when the dining room is dark and cold, inhabited by the ghosts of exotic dead aunts. Dead aunts who spent their remaining days under our curious gazes, in the neat white double bed, presided over by the cold, gold crucifix, and the visiting priest giving last rites, a blessing on the way out of life to – where exactly? Heaven, mother says, and leaving behind the cold, white bed.

Snow falls on snow, on the way to catch a glimpse of father’s life, seated in the front row, while boys dressed in perplexing drag, sing of pirates or fairies and we are all examined by many eyes, specimens of teacher’s children – his life outside school grounds.

And the evenings of Blue Peter and Jackanory and the nights of childish fights and games, and stories round grandmother’s bed in the candlelit, power-cutted dining room. Grandmother, whose eyes and teeth and voice are just the right size (no wolves here), and whose presence banishes dead aunts into the night. Grandmother, who nonetheless, spots hidden grape-stealing fingers, once the light returns and banishes seven year-old naughtiness from her sight.

Snow falls on snow as Christmas comes around, And the lights of the hand-picked, hand-painted Christmas tree colour the dining room; the milk bottles freeze and the bluetits steal the cream;and all through the house there is more than one mouse awake. There are muffled giggles through the night and Father Christmas cannot come till we sleep but sleep is not possible tonight and there are rustles and chuckles and the waiting is impossible, and no sign of coal-dusty appearances, and we are waiting and we are waiting and we are waiting…

… and suddenly we are awake and he has been and left in his wake treasures to share:

between three - a father-made dolls house, complete with working lights

for two - a pink plastic pram, to mimic mother, and push through snow and ice.

for all of us - a collection of slightly singed books, rescued from the flames of a rather unfortunate bonfire (how that happened, no-one knows).

. Snow falls on snow, and a houseful of children are thrown out into the back garden and the recreation ground, booted, scarved and gloved, sliding down the slippery slope, again, and again and again, till at last the joy of snowball fights pall and we return to the hot-chocolated kitchen and the iron-boarded mother who steams away the cold. And in the dining room at night time dead grandmothers meet with dead exotic aunts, and the journey from living room to bed, becomes in the darkness, an epic voyage, with brave advances and cowardly withdrawals and stairs taken three at a time to avoid the open, black dining room door where dead aunts and dead exotic grandmothers expose their groping dead fingers to grab us in the dark (no matter what mother says) until we reach the safety of the landing and at last to bed and pillow fights. And only the Christmas tree lights are bright enough to banish such ghosts from sight. Father Christmas comes again and again and again, until he is one day exposed as a big brother wrapped in a counterpane from top to toes.

Snow falls on snow and there are carol singers in the night, and sometimes we join them in the orange sodium light to sing of snow and bright angels. And now we are old enough to tramp to church for Midnight Mass where we listen to long sermons, breathe in the incense, and experience the miraculous birth - shepherds, kings, and angels, peace on earth. And the twelve-year old night when snow freezes traffic so that we abandon the bus on the way home from school (or it abandons us) at frozen traffic lights, with walking the only option, a slipping, and a sliding that very soon palls, so snowfall is cursed, and at last after two hours of icy travelling we arrive home to a tomato-souped kitchen and a threadbare holey-jumpered father who steams away the cold.

Snow falls on snow and life expands beyond the house and the fights and noise of all these girls and boys, and friends extend our experiences beyond the bounds of the local recreation ground. Now boyfriends banish the ghosts of dead aunts and grandmothers from the dining room as we sit in the cuddling armchairs springing apart at the inopportune opening of the door by mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers. Then boyfriends leave and we grieve for a while, and the home-worked dining room becomes haunted by the ghosts of kisses past, till Christmas comes again and we realise we are surrounded by friends who laugh in passing at the tiny hand-picked, hand-painted tree that colours the room. And how fast our childhood has gone and it is time for us to take our leave, but before we do we celebrate the twenty five years that have passed since our parents made their vows in the impossibility of life before us. And so we go to church and sing a chorus of snow falling on snow.

Midwinter:long, ago.

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