The Other Type of Christmas

And then there was the year when Christmas went wrong.

In my part of the world and in my family, Christmas involves a house decorated with bright colours. It’s a time of secrets and excitement as presents are bought or made and then hidden; for the wider family to get together, exchange gifts, play boardgames, eat a lot of very rich food for twenty-four hours followed by leftovers for what feels like twenty-four days. For some of us it might include one or more church services, for others not. It’s a few days of switching off from the normal world, being a little self-indulgent, and having fun. 

It’s nice and cosy. 

I was lucky perhaps to get to my mid teens before I first experienced one where it wasn’t.

That Christmas my parents had decided we’d have Christmas Day at home in South Wales and not visit my paternal grandparents in Reading till Boxing Day. It was possibly because my grandfather, then aged about seventy-two, had been ill with a bad cold and didn’t want visitors or any of the fuss. 

Early on Christmas Eve – a bitter cold day with biting rain – my parents, sister and I went to do last minute Christmas shopping. I watched my parents amble in the direction of the stationery section of Woolworths suspecting that they were going to buy me the calculator I’d asked for and fearing that they’d forget I wanted one with a square-root function to save checking my maths homework against a log table. (If you don’t know what log tables are, you don’t know what you’ve missed.) 

Aged fourteen, the fact that I’d be disappointed if my parents forgot the square root function (which they did) was about the worst thing that I thought could happen in my Christmas world. Then we went home and just as we were settling down to watch TV, the telephone rang. It was my father’s cousin who’d been trying to get through all day, saying that my paternal grandfather had died. She was caring for my grandmother who was distraught at the loss of the man she’d adored for over fifty years.

Why we didn’t go to Reading then and there, I also don’t know. It’s possible my grandmother said not to, it’s possible that my father, who always struggled with knowing how to express emotion or comfort in the right way, was too distraught. I can’t recall. On Christmas Day we went through the motions I guess and ate a meal that tasted of grief. I can’t really recall that either. 

We travelled to Reading the next day. Late afternoon, it started to snow heavily. My grandmother begged us to stay, my father refused. I’m sure he was simply overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t know how to deal with, but it was a downright stupid decision. He drove the hundred and forty two miles home in a blizzard, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (as she was inclined to). He could see virtually nothing. He drove along the motorway in the outside (‘fast’) lane using the central reservation barriers as a guide.

We were half-frozen, because a windscreen wiper kept getting stuck meaning that my mother had to keep winding down the window to give it a shove. On the radio was a play about someone contemplating jumping off a foggy cliff. My sister and I remember it as a sort of dreamlike nightmare of a journey which can never be a funny recollection because of the context.

When we finally did get to our village, Dad couldn’t drive up the steep hairpin bends to our house as they were clogged with snow. We had to go the back way which involved a narrow, twisty lane without much in the way of hedges or fences between us and a steep slope down to the river on one side. They were, in any event, invisible.

No amount of pretty decorations or colourful lights could make up for the misery of that Christmas.

The following Christmas wasn’t a great deal better. My grandmother seemed constantly half-asleep. She died two months later. Although the medical cause was stroke, we were always sure it was actually a broken heart.

Even after rather more years that I care to count, it chokes me up to write this. Several years passed before those shadows receded.

Illogical it is, people will often say ‘how much worse that XYZ happened at Christmas.’ There’s an expectation that everything at Christmastime should be happy and perfect and when it’s not that seems to be a travesty. 

In the grand scheme of things, I know that losing a beloved elderly grandparent to natural causes is not a tragedy, it’s just sad. I haven’t had to endure the kind of horror that people had suffered in the last few weeks – losing loved ones in situations which should never happen. My heart goes out to the bereaved families of the children who were playing on ice, those crushed at a concert, victims of car accidents, violence and of course war. I’m not trying to make a comparison. But that particular Christmas was when I realised for myself that the realities of life do not pause for manmade red letter days.

And I know that there are other reasons apart from grief why Christmas can be hard going. It can be boring if you aren’t interested but everyone else is, and the whole commercial nonsense is constantly bombarding you. It can be lonely when everyone is in family groups and for whatever reason you’re not, or you don’t want to be or your family life is toxic.

I’ve been lucky with family, but even so I’ve had times when I’ve been sad or lonely; wondering how to make ends meet; wondering if I’d ever have a family of my own to start traditions with; worrying about whether someone would survive the sickness they were suffering.

This is not about my books (I’ll post about that another day). But when I wrote the short stories for The Advent Calendar seven years ago, I wanted to reflect the true experiences of Christmas, even in the less serious stories: the expectations versus the reality. In it there are nativity plays and carol singers and office parties, but also neglected lonely relations, homeless people, and refugees. Nothing, including the refugee situation, has really changed since (including, just to lighten the mood – the possibility of my sister dressing up in a tutu and embarrassing me in public). But I also wanted to reflect that stripping away the nonsense, the commerciality, the hype – there can be the tiniest flicker of hope that things can change.

This can be a hard time of year, it can be a lovely time of year, sometimes it can be a mixture of both. I hope that for you, it is what you want it to be and that you have what you need. But if for any who need support, or who want to give to organisations who help others – please see the links below (these are UK charities – but if you have equivalent links elsewhere please let me know and I’ll add them).

Mind – mental health support

Give Us a Shout

The Samaritans

Young Minds

The Calm Zone

Papyrus UK

St Mungo’s – homelessness and mental health support

Beat Eating Disorders Support

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image https://www.dreamstime.com/print-image127586004

The Song (part one)

From the darkness came singing. It inveigled into my sleeping sensation of floating in green light.

I woke. For a while, within closed lids, I tried to restrain that fading dream which had left me smiling. But it had gone. I opened my eyes but the darkness was no less. I was not used to real night. In the city, all I had ever known, the day never truly ends. But here, now, for miles, there was nothing but fields and sky and distant mountains. A few scattered homes, long slumbering, dotted the countryside. My eyes adjusted and through the open curtains, I saw white random stars in a pigment beyond black and deeper than imagining.

I listened. I was not used to real night. In the city, noise never reduces, its rhythms ebb and flow. Nighttime brings sharper definition to each sound. But here, now, there was nothing but a throbbing silence. There was no flowing traffic, no predictable siren or anticipated shouting. The only sounds I recognised were in the room with me. My husband Stephen, deep in sleep, breathed soft and slow. I reached to touch him, my invisible, unconscious guardian in the shadows. Our baby stirred next to me, her mouth suckling as she dreamt of being nursed perhaps, but she did not wake. Somewhere in the distance a dog, or something, yelped. Somewhere nearer by an owl, or something, screeched. With a tiny squeak, a scrap of night shot past the window: a bat. Maybe.

‘Don’t go into the country. It’s not for you.’ That’s what Mamma had always said as we endured those scorching, heart-straining summer days in the city. The traffic was angry with the heat, sweating into the smog. Voices shouted from streets and open windows, impatient, risky. My friends went away, offered to take me with them, but she kept me home. School arranged trips, the cost waived for people like us but she said no.

Mamma had brought me up with a protective fury. I thought it was because I was different. Everyone said I must be delicate but appearances deceive. Mamma’s skin tanned, even in the city. Her working hands were hard and a little rough, her knuckles lumpy, her muscles knotted. She was tiny but could lift a bully twice her size by the scruff and shake him. She was tiny but I was tinier. My bones were so small, the bullies tried to snap my fingers like candy sticks, but never could. My skin seemed so thin, they called me porcelain girl as they traced my veins, tinging my whiteness with a subtle jade. They said my blood was green and that it had pooled into my eyes. They said I must be adopted or my father had been a ghost. I was different.

‘Who was my father?’

‘Never mind him.’

‘Am I really yours?’

‘Always and ever. Let them try to take you away,’ she’d say.

‘Who wants to take me away?’ I’d say.

‘No-one,’ she’d answer, ‘but just let them try.’

And I remembered then, a long ago remembrance of a knock on the door in the night and Mamma tense. In my memory, I see us like mice, backed into a corner. Me, no more than two years old, tucked behind Mamma and Mamma shielding me with her tiny frame, hiding me behind her skirts, armed with… what? A wooden spoon? A saucepan? What else would there have been? And after a long time, footsteps retreating and Mamma relaxing and gathering me into one of her enveloping hugs before we went back to sleep in the bed with the rose patterned quilt. Is that a real memory? Or another dream?

‘Don’t let them take her,’ she’d said to Stephen at the end, ‘if I’m not here to protect her.’

‘Who’d want to take her?’ said Stephen.

‘No-one,’ she’d said. ‘And the baby,’ she’d said, ‘keep her safe like I kept Tara safe.’

‘I will always be with you,’ she said, ‘I’ll never leave you.’

But you did Mamma, you did leave me. Your hand was still clasping mine long after you’d lost the strength to breathe, tears dried in trails running from your tired eyes, still fixed on mine but empty.

And when Mamma was gone, after all those necessary things had been done and the last thing had been organised and it was all over and everyone but me had filed her death away, I could not sleep. And I could not cry. And Stephen brought us out of the city.

‘It’ll do you good,’ he said, ‘the peace and fresh air.’

‘Mamma said I didn’t belong in the country.’

‘She had run away from it,’ said Stephen. ‘Perhaps you and she left in disgrace. It’s a shame we couldn’t have brought her and shown her there was nothing to fear anymore.’

I had slept for the best part of four days, waking to feed the baby, to eat and wash, to talk a little. Now I thought of Mamma and, in the darkness, the tears came. I longed for Stephen to wake but he slept on and the baby snuffled but did not stir. The noises of the strange countryside studded the night, unpredictable and startling. Another dog, another owl, the bat. And singing. A song both distant and near, both inaudible and deafening, both wordless and full of meaning, both enticing and…

I knew the song.

I rose and went to the window. There was nothing to be seen apart from stars and the shadowy garden. I tiptoed downstairs and opened the back door looking into shrubbery monotone and indecipherable. The song was louder and yet still distant. It created an image beyond myself as a small girl hidden from a knock at the door; beyond my first steps towards Mamma; beyond my tiny finger curling round Mamma’s finger. Before that, there had been the same song.

I recalled floating, curled in emerald waters. I remembered viridian eyes and jade skin, suckling something sweeter than milk.

The song ceased. A voice from the shadows, strange and yet known, said:

‘Stolen Daughter, you have returned.’

[to be continued]

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Words and photograph 2017 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without the author’s express permission.

 

 

My Father’s Eyes

They changed as you read; narrowed for villains, opened wide for victims and frowned for determined heroes.

You made us giggle by waggling your glasses and eyebrows.

You blinked as you marched us on sunny fossil-hunts, you peered into books and squinted at handicrafts you’d start but never finish.

Your eyes grew tired, old. One day, your eyes smiled love as we said goodbye but two days later, though they blinked, you were no longer there. Then they closed forever.

But I will only remember your eyes, sparkling as you told stories, bringing the characters alive, twinkling with love.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Prompted by Thin Spiral Notebook