Christmas Guest Post; Anna Lock

A few weeks ago I set my writing group a prompt, which was simply ‘Christmas Is…’ I was hoping they would come up with either a memory, a rant, or a piece of fiction based on the prompt which I could then use as a guest post on my blog. I had some amazing responses, and as usual, all very, very different! But I had to go with this one by the wonderful Anna Lock. A poignant piece of fiction on the fragility of family life at Christmas…

Christmas is …

I looked through the box of photographs the other day Dad, the ones from that last Christmas. It was difficult but I made myself do it. There you were, sitting on that shiny blue settee smiling at the camera whilst Janet and I played with our new toys at your feet. I can see it now, of course, the illness, the portents of death that were written into your face, but then, we were children and unaware. Do you remember that Christmas Dad?

The next photo is the one with Joe wearing a hat from a cracker and blowing a silly whistle – it must have been taken after lunch. I don’t recall. It’s strange that isn’t it? The way when you look at a photo you can convince yourself that you can remember that very moment in time even if that isn’t true? He looks really happy; so youthful and unworried, God, he was so young then, my big brother and I was totally oblivious of how difficult that period of his life was for him. He was rarely at home –that was the source of so many rows and bitter fights between you wasn’t it? Janet and I used to pull the blankets over our head in bed to block them out, that and the sound of Mum sobbing and pleading with you both.

Joe is pretending to be tipsy; so ironic when I think of him now, and wonder where he is. How is he spending Christmas this time? Another year in some remote godforsaken land, keeping us all at arm’s length, and in that place he goes to in his head, where the hurt can’t penetrate. He’ll be wasted and alone. I could always try texting him again, although he probably won’t reply and then I’ll get sad and worry that he’s dead somewhere and the cycle of anger with him, you, Mum, God and the world will start again and cripple me. That unbearable burden that each of your children carry, because you left us too soon.

In this photo, Mum and Auntie Audrey are clinking sherry glasses and laughing at the camera. Audrey always spent Christmas with us didn’t she; all those years, before she finally married in her 40s. How she made us laugh! Her exuberance seemed to fill the house, revelling in everything, even Julia’s dreadful mince pies and inedible Christmas cake. Looking back I can see now that we were her surrogate children but at that time, all I knew was that she was such fun to be around; the loud bubbly extrovert and contrast to her quiet sister. Mum looks okay, given the circumstances. Did you know, she mentioned that Christmas to me a few years ago? I can’t remember the context but unusually for her, the rose tinted specs were off, and she told me how Joe had lost yet another job a few weeks before, and that she had given him some money to buy his sisters a present each. Money was so tight then, and she could ill afford it, poor love. But I remember what he bought us, Dad. We had a bottle of bubble bath each and the stopper was like a Barbie head! Janet’s was blond, mine was brown and Julia had a red head.

Mum said that because you had been so ill that autumn, and hadn’t been in work for such a long time, she had been rushing around and consequently neither of you had been able to get a present for Joe – it is difficult to find the right present for an 18-year-old whose only interests are T. Rex, Slade and Manchester United I suppose. So you had decided to give him a cheque. But what with one thing and another it didn’t get written, so you had tried to do it secretly on Christmas morning and hide it in the tree. But somehow that hadn’t happened. Mum was still so sad about that after all these years you know? She had tried to tell Joe later that it wasn’t because you had forgotten him or didn’t care, but deep inside she knew that his pain that day, just added to all the other hurts he was collecting in his heart. She didn’t know then how to handle him – after all her life was so busy with the relentless struggle to make ends meet and look after four children in addition to an increasingly ill husband. And so time ticked on, and Joe gradually dropped off the edge of the family until one day, he slipped beyond our reach.

But none of this is visible in that photo. Maybe in that fleeting moment, Auntie Audrey had succeeded in resurrecting her fun-loving older sister and Kevin had captured it with a “click” – proof preserved forever that the happy, smiling mum once did exist. After you had gone Dad, that mum vanished too. Oh, I’ve seen a similar smile on occasions, when she looks at a new-born grandchild, or when they climb onto her lap for a cuddle but it’s never quite as full, never whole or secure, never quite complete again.

In the photo of Julia, I can see the tree behind her. Ah, the tree; our one luxury, always a real tree, no matter what eh? And the excitement of the trip to choose it! Do you remember Dad, the fun we had fixing it to the car roof and the drive home again singing Christmas carols in the car all 4 children squeezed in tightly in the back? Mum kept this ritual, despite the financial frailty – did you know that? We tried hard, but with just Janet and me at home, and little money the tree became thinner, subdued and less robust – a bit like us.

Do you remember the Christmases before that Dad? How you and Joe would carry the massive tree through the house and upstairs to the cosy lounge, where Mum had lit the fire in the huge Victorian fireplace, scattering pine needles in your wake. The annual drama of wedging it into the bucket and the “it isn’t straight yet” arguments between Joe and Julia, while Janet and I danced around gleefully, full of anticipation, picking up on wafts of excitement and cheer from the conversations between the adults, happy, for once, that there were no rows or slamming of doors, or tears. We inhaled the wonderful pine scent that meant Christmas was really here as the fire crackled cheerfully, impatient for Mum to finish untangling the old fairy lights, traditional red, green yellow and blue, with a nursery rhyme motif that mysteriously tangled themselves in their box each year.

For two weeks the tree shone in the huge bay window, and on Christmas morning it was surrounded by a sea of wrapped presents quietly waiting for the 6 of us, Auntie Audrey and Godfather Kevin. Oh, the anticipation of that moment, the build-up was almost unbearable for us then. I can’t find any photos of the tree Dad. I suppose that’s because only Kevin had a camera, and he liked to take pictures of people. Thank goodness he did, otherwise, we’d only have our memories and that would be unbearable. It was thoughtful too, of him to send us the photos, or bring them with him when he came to stay the following Easter. He knew of course; he was your best friend and confidant. He stayed loyal to us Dad – but you’d know that wouldn’t you, why would you have doubted that?

We found loads more photos from Christmas when we cleared his flat – he kept them all you know; we hadn’t recognised our value to him then when we were children. But we loved his expensive gifts from Harrods and Selfridges. The trip to the station to collect him from the London train on Christmas Eve was the start of Christmas proper. He was the one who bought Mum the lovely presents, perfume, expensive chocolates and silk scarves because he could see what the rest of us could not, her selflessness, and the grim future that lay ahead.

Do you remember Dad, those endless monopoly games with him that lasted the whole week between Christmas and New Year? All the arguments and negotiating that went on – that time when Auntie Audrey stood guard of the board over night because we were convinced that Kevin was cheating! It was all put on of course, for Janet and me; adults conspiring in the great adventure, and jolly larks, and, oh, how we revelled in that! Leftover turkey with bubble and squeak, cosy afternoons with the telly, satsumas and Christmas chocolates and that protracted game of monopoly. Those were the best Dad, really happy times, for us all I think because everyone joined in, battles forgotten, money worries, sickness and impending loss and grief suspended momentarily. A family united and sharing good times with a friend.

That was over 40 years ago Dad, such a long time ago, yet it’s as fresh a memory as if it was last year. The grief is less raw now of course, but it never goes away; all those other Christmases stolen from us, future photos that were never taken and happy new memories that could not be born. Just memories of that last Christmas, kept alive through those photos, and made so poignant by the knowledge that 3 of the key players were keeping a dreadful secret, and hiding it from the children. Do I wish we had known? I don’t know Dad; how could an 8 and 6-year-old handle that knowledge? You all meant well I realise that; you thought you were doing the right thing.

But each Christmas became harder to get through than its predecessor, for fifteen years. The tree lights that didn’t work and were cracked or broken came out of their box only to be put back – no money to replace them. The Chinese lanterns that we repeatedly sellotaped together and resolutely stuck to the ceiling were eventually thrown away when they became beyond repair and the decorations that we fixed to the tree using paperclips grew fewer each year. It was good that we had learned at school to make 3 d shapes. Janet and I would spend Sunday afternoons each December making a batch and eking out the remaining glitter in the Christmas decoration box, to hang on the tree when the time came to cover its bareness.

So here I am, with these photos and memories, planning Christmas with my children Dad. I shall check the boxes of decorations surreptitiously to reassure myself that everything is intact and working, so that when they open them to start decorating our tree, and I watch their excitement at discovering favourite treasured memories again, when they exclaim aloud at the ones they had forgotten, I shall know that we will not have to put things back in the box quietly and go without. I will check, double check and then check again, that everyone has been accounted for with presents and cards well in advance, and that I have some spares tucked away just in case, so no one can feel the hurt of being overlooked.

And there will be the real tree. We’ll all go to collect it, and we’ll pick a huge, bushy, scented evergreen – all of us together; my children, their boyfriends and cousins and the dog, all crammed into the car. There will be shrieks of laughter as we try to fit the tree into the car, around all the bodies and the bags of Christmas veggies, while Pip the Christmas tree man joins in the fun giggling at them all while he secures the half open boot with rope. Then we’ll drive home, boot slightly ajar, with two feet of Christmas tree trunk sticking out behind, children clutching the dog, and complaining merrily of pine needles ticking their ears and everyone will sing along loudly and exuberantly, to my old Christmas cassette tape that is saved just for this occasion each year, and marks the start of Christmas proper. Faces will be suffused with happiness and smiles at the golden oldies, groans will be heard at the corny cheesy songs and, then we will get to track seven. In that moment I will look back in the mirror and watch as my children exchange glances, nudge their boyfriends, and my nieces grin at their cousins, and, then, surrounded by the heady pine scent mingled with that aroma of satsuma that epitomise Christmas as one, we will take a deep breath and sing. We will sing at the top of our voices and slightly out of tune, to accompany Wizzard with “I wish it could be Christmas every day” and everything will be all right Dad.

Thanks so much Anna! Now, don’t forget, I am always on the lookout for guest posts and submissions for my blog! I’m looking for anything to do with writing or reading, as well as essays/articles/rants etc on being an outsider, and any short fiction or extracts from novels which are along the same theme. 

The Enduring Magic Of Children’s Books

Just recently my two and a half-year-old son achieved a milestone I had been particularly looking forward to; that of being able to sit, listen and enjoy longer picture books such as The Gruffalo. We are now very much past the baby board books and the Usborne ‘That’s Not My…’ books (thank God!!)  We are still very much into flaps (Is There A Dog In This Book is a constant favourite) but we have moved on from touch and feel baby board books.

Finally, I can say with slightly emotional pride, my little lad can sit through the entirety of Room On The Broom without losing attention for a second. Oh, what wonderful opportunities now flood our way! Literally, bookshelves full of them!

He has enjoyed ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’ and ‘Rattletrap Car’ for some time now, but the length of rhyming prose in books like The Gruffalo and Room On The Broom were too much for him until recently.

I’ve felt quite tearful reading to him lately, for many reasons. Of course, when your child passes a milestone, whether it’s starting to walk or starting to talk, you always feel a strong mix of emotions. Pride and excitement are the dominant ones, but there is always an added pang of wistfulness. Your little baby is growing and changing and time stands still for no one. I sat with him last night, his little legs pressed next to mine, his bottle of milk on his lap, while I read him The Gruffalo for the first time. By this, I mean for the first time since he’s been able to appreciate longer books! He was leaning over the pages and I could feel his concentration and anticipation. I wondered how much of the story and the tricks the mouse plays on everyone, were getting through to him.

I found myself drifting back in time, just as I had the day before with Room On The Broom. I have a strong minded, very individual fourteen-year-old daughter, who was once an equally strong-minded two-year-old. After her bath, we used to wrap her in a towel, sit her on her potty and read Room On The Broom to her. I will forever associate that book with potty training! And reading it again in its full glory, to my little boy brought back so many memories I could have cried. I found myself doing the same voices (I make the witch sound rather old and croaky, and of course the dragon has to sound like a ruffian from the East End of London)

The same thing happened while reading The Gruffalo tonight. My voice was getting louder, my accents more pronounced, along with my hand gestures! My little boy cracked up when the mouse said ‘gruffalo crumble!’ and we laughed about it for ages afterward. God, I must have read that story so many times to my older kids. How wonderful to be introducing such magic and laughter to another generation.

It was my oldest son, my nine-year-old who got into the Julia Donaldson books the most, though. For a fair few Christmases we would ask friends and family to buy him one of her books, so we have quite a collection now, which I am so pleased we held onto. The other day when reading to my youngest, his older brother drifted into the room and joined us on the bed. He requested Tiddler, which if I remember, was his favourite when he was just a tiddler himself. I hadn’t read it in years, but it all came back to me, and yet again I felt transported back in time. The loveliest thing was that my older son started reading it too, matching my voice, so that we were both reading it out loud at the same time. Tiddler! Tiddler! Tiddler’s late! Like an earworm, the refrain has been in my head for days since. I like tiddler’s story, said little Johnny Dory…and he told it to his Granny…who told it to a plaice!

Childhood books are like windows in time, taking you back to another you and another place, filling you with sweet warmth and stoking your belly with fresh giggles. I recently re-read Watership Down for the first time in adulthood, and I was hooked from start to finish. Not only that, I felt like a kid again. Touched by magic and wonder, on the edge of my seat with worry for this troubled band of runaway rabbits. Every chapter delivered a new adventure, the stakes even higher once they finally found a new home and discovered the vicious dictator in the next warren. I cried when I read the last chapter. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was that ten-year-old girl again, curled up in the arm chair in my childhood home, totally absorbed, my cloth ears closed to all but Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig, my teeth biting my lip, my eyes welling with tears when Hazel realised he didn’t need his body anymore… (Gulp)

watership-down

Children’s books are powerful magic indeed. Reading them, sharing them, reliving them in later years. Research shows that reading to babies and toddlers helps them associate books with love and affection, fostering a lifelong love of books and reading. I look at books as adventures waiting to happen, as worlds waiting for you to step inside them. I am so excited that my youngest can enjoy longer books; there are so many places we can now go!

What about you? What were your favourite books as a child? What books have your own children become obsessed with? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay In Your Own Lane; first music gig

Last night I took my thirteen year old daughter and her two closest friend to their first gig. The band was their current favourite, Twenty One Pilots (their wikipedia page describes their sound as schizophrenic pop, in case you’ve not heard of them!) Anyway, the genre and the band are not particularly important to this post, although I will say I was enormously impressed.

My daughter has been to family music festivals before, but this was the first time she got to a see a band of her choice, a band she has discovered and fallen in love with herself. I have to admit, I felt kind of privileged to be able to experience this rites of passage experience with her, even if it was politely from the side-lines. I watched their excitement build as we finally arrived at the venue, and watched their confidence soar as they joined the massive, snaking queue of teens, who all looked just like them. (Checked shirt, skinny jeans, red beany hat.)

My daughter has a phrase she sometimes uses when I show an interest in her music tastes, or when we discuss our musical differences. She will say jokingly; ‘stay in your own lane’! Which basically means, don’t try to get it, don’t try to understand, go back to the 90’s where you belong!

So, with this in mind, I kept to myself in the over excited queue, whilst keeping a watchful eye over my hyperactive charges. I wasn’t there to enjoy the band, and had to keep reminding myself of this. I wasn’t there to join in, or embarrass them in any way. I was only there because under fourteens must be accompanied by an adult.

Once inside, they queued for their merchandise or ‘merch’ as they call it these days, we found the toilets, and then found our seats in the circle upstairs. Once seated, I looked around and felt immediately old and out of place. I go to gigs and festivals as much as I can, but I go to see either music from my era, the 90’s, or music I have gotten into lately. I was surrounded by teenage girls and boys who all looked remarkably like my strong minded daughter. I was also really tired and could have easily dropped off asleep at that point. I then started to notice the other parents. Dotted here and there among the beany hats and checked shirts, sat sedately and smiling gently while the excited chatter built to a crescendo around them, were parents, around my age or older. They were out of their lanes too.

Then the band started. The four teen girls in front of us instantly leaped to the feet and started bouncing and screaming, and pretty much didn’t stop. Everyone else followed suit, while us oldies remained seated, as we were only there because we had to be. We didn’t want to get too excited or too involved, no matter how good the band was.

I tried to mind my own business, whilst stealing the odd glance at my teen as she enjoyed herself. I’ll admit I had to choke back the odd tear or two, watching the utter joy on her face as she sung along to the songs she loved. It was more than just excitement though, more than just joy and the wonder of a first time time experience. It was their sudden sense of belonging, of being part of a tribe to while they automatically knew they belonged, of seeing themselves in the people around them, feeling a powerful sense of unity and without a doubt, pride in who they are.

It made me think back to my first gig. Pulp is always the one that sticks in my mind. I think it was 1994 and I went with my then best friend, a girl who had always been bullied and ridiculed at school. I remember how it felt for us, to walk among a crowd of young people who looked just like us, who loved Pulp as much as we did. We belonged. We’d found our people, and no one was going to laugh at us for being different.

That feeling was repeated for me many times over the years, and even more recently when I finally got to see the reformed Stone Roses at Finsbury Park in 2013. That smile you get on your face when you recognise the people. When you all sing along. When you jump and bounce and wave your arms all as one. A tribe. A belonging. Add to that the utter thrill of finally seeing a band you love, in the flesh, right there, and they are talking to you, and singing for you, and giving it all for you. Nothing can beat that! The only sad thing is that it ever has to end.

So, in the end, I was up on my feet like the rest of them. At one point a mini drum kit had been placed on a platform, and passed out on top of the crowd. The drummer then climbed onto it and drummed on top of the audience! The singer vanished, only to suddenly appear up on the balcony with us. Like all great front men, he had complete control of the crowd. If he had asked them all to jump off the balcony for him, they would have done so willingly.

I crept out of my own lane just a little bit, just long enough to be extremely impressed, and to wish I was young again! I didn’t sing or dance though. My daughter would have been mortified.

On the way home, the kids were buzzing and hyper. My daughter talked about the next gig she wants to go to. I can see now that she has the bug and I am happy for her. If anything can help you get through this confusing life in this crazy world, it’s music. It reminds you why you are alive.

I was left wondering if I would be welcomed along next time. By that date, she will be fourteen, and in most venues, won’t need and adult with her. I felt a brief stab of sorrow at the thought of being asked to merely drop her off and pick her up again. I’d miss out, but that is as it should be. She’s got her lane and I’ve got mine. I’m sure they will cross paths again at some point. Festivals are great for that.

In the meantime I will just savour the memories, of being able to witness one of her first experiences once again. Like watching her take her first steps, learn to ride a bike, and learn to read. I’m glad I got to be a part of it, even if it is unlikely to happen again!

Too Like You

Memories evoked by music are a bit like dreams sometimes…

You can feel the emotion, there is no avoiding that. That is the thing that hits you over the head, blind sides you and stops you in your tracks. Christ yeah…I forgot about that song…I forgot about that. As well as the emotion there is something visual there, something tapping at the corners of your mind, something stealing into your vision, a bright flash that fades again just as quickly as it came. Like a dream you try to hold onto it, try to hold it still for examination but the more you try to see it and explain it, the more elusive and teasing it becomes. It’s like it does not really want to be caught or defined.

It’s all you can do not to cry, or just sigh. It’s fleeting, like everything in life, here one minute and gone the next, just like the moment itself, when it happened all those years ago. I don’t want to keep getting older and forgetting all of these things.

Money Mark singing Tomorrow Will Be Like Today. That was a new CD you bought over, and it was a small garden, enclosed by tall panel fences. The smell of yesterdays barbeque lingering in the air with cut grass. My knees pulled up onto the plastic garden chair. A crack in one leg playing on my mind. Too Like You. Hand In My Head. Makes me smile and think of you.

Did I become more like you, or did you become more like me?

I used to be the negative one, the worrier, the anti-social, and you used to be the smiler. Sandy haired and loose limbed, you used to say it all of the time; don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t ever worry about anything.

But that is not you now. Now I am the one who encourages you to see the light and to smile. Now I am the one who says don’t worry, and you are the one reluctant to go out there and deal with people and time and life.

You rubbed off on me. That was the way it happened. From moments like that, always with a new album playing in the background. So much of our story has a soundtrack. That’s why it happens like that when I hear a song, when it takes me back. Bang and I am young again. Not sat in the car staring solemnly at the rain on the window while you nip into the shop to buy some bread and milk.

How easily we grew up. It’s not really fair the way it happens like that. It takes you by surprise, because you are never paying attention as the years creep up. Then suddenly a decade has passed, and then another. It’s sometimes like we are still back there, existing back in time. We are two lots of people. Them and us. Then and now.

I am too like you now because you got inside my head.

You say that tomorrow will be like today and I say that sometimes you are wrong. I can’t remember what happened to that day. How did it end? Where did we go? What did we talk about and laugh about? I can just remember the feel of the plastic chair under me and the wobble, the give, from the crack in the leg. I can just remember the music, and that it was summer. I can see your face and the way you always smiled about everything and I can see you walking in with CD’s in your hand. I miss us.