Mum’s the word: in this case baby mums. Here they are, just starting their third week. Incredible how they have lasted. Wedding anniversary > Christmas Eve > Christmas Day > New Year’s Eve > New Year’s Day > heading for Reyes (on January 6). Who knows how long they will go.
Some friendships are like that. They appear out of nowhere and go on, seemingly for ever, in spite of so many changes. I guess a few good friends are worth a great deal more than many casual acquaintances who flicker in and out of our lives, or those fine weather friends, who are there when all is merry and well, and gone at the first sign of a dark cloud gathering on the horizon.
Think too of the caring, giving friends, who are there when you need them. They are a pleasure to be with. Then there are the friends who always borrow, and take, and never return … nice to be around, while they are receiving. Gone when they realize they can take and receive no more.
So, here’s to those faithful friends who stand by and with us. Like well-watered flowers, they hang on and are loved and respected. Carpe diem: seize the day, and hold both friends and flowers tight while you still have them, for one day, like it or not, much sooner than you think, we will all be gone.
23 December: my mother and I travel to my mother’s mother’s house, leaving my father to follow, if he wants to. No instructions as to where we’ve gone, or how, or when. But he’ll know and follow eventually, like the good dog he is, when the Pavlovian Parties are droolingly over.
24 December: Christmas Eve. Everyone is very secretive, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and the ‘boy’ is sent from the room while the grown-ups discuss whatever secrets grown-ups discuss when the little one is not present. I never ask questions any more. Why should I? Little boys should be seen and not heard is the only answer I ever get.
25 December: Christmas is here. Late last night, my grandfather, on hands and knees, shoved a box under the double-bed in the front room where my grandmother sleeps using his walking stick like a billiard cue. I could see him clearly from my bed on the floor on the far side of the room, beyond my grandmother’s sleeping place. I had a feeling it would be him. It’s been a long time since I believed in Santa Claus, let alone the spirit of Christmas. The Christmas spirits, yes, I believe in them. My grandmother keeps them locked up in a little bottle beside her bed labelled Hennessy Cognac. I have sampled the Christmas Spirits. They are nice. I believe in them. My grandmother has already risen. I’ll get up soon. I guess my father will be downstairs and the Christmas Spirits will be here in plenty. My guess is they have already begun. Joy to the world, peace at Christmas, and a truce and a laying down of arms throughout the joyous day. Perhaps I’ll get a soccer ball and we’ll play soccer in the no-man’s-land that lies between the barbed-wire tongues that simulate the trenches.
26 December: Boxing Day. By the time I get up, the gloves are off and the sparring has already begun. I hear voices, walk into the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slash the thick atmosphere. It’s Boxing Day. On my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her tenth cigarette of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from bruised lips. Whether they are beaten or bitten, I will never know. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He is breathing heavily, like a Boxer Dog in mid-summer heat, snoring and snorting at the leash. In the middle, my grandfather. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating his breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from the Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round. I look around the heaving, threshing silence of the room. My father breaks that silence, pointing at me: “It’s all your fault!” he says, his red-dimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between my father and me. “Go and see granny. She’s in the kitchenette, by the stove,” he says. “Go now.” I run a gauntlet of staring eyes and go to my gran. As I shut the door behind me, voices rise higher in the room I have just left. Boxing Day, indeed. The gloves are off. The battle has begun again.
They come in all shapes and sizes. The ones closest to Christmas, are they the best? Good question. Are the later ones any better? Who knows? In my case, January born, all I remember are the broken promises.
“I’m not buying you a Christmas present this year. I’m saving up to buy you something special for your birthday. What do you say to that?”
“Thank you, Auntie Gladys. You are so kind. I’ll look forward to my birthday.”
I next meet Auntie Gladys two weeks after my birthday. “Oh,” she says. “Was that your birthday just went by? I forgot all about it. Sorry.”
That’s just one example, but I remember many broken promises. I had to be older, sadder, and very much wiser before I realized that perhaps my Auntie Gladys didn’t have enough money to buy me one present, let alone two.
Then there was my mother’s mother’s birthday. It took place on December 23rd every year. During November, my mother never mentioned it. At the beginning of December, silence reigned. When my father’s office parties for Christmas drew closer, around the 15th or 16th of December, my mother’s mother’s birthday grew in stature and importance.
“Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s late. He should be home. Did he tell you what he’d be doing tonight?”
9 pm, 10 pm, 11 pm … then a key in the lock, I’d run to the door and heave at it with enthusiasm, and my father, pushing against a door I was now pulling open, would fall face first onto the mat, writhing and giggling.
Two or three nights like this and, on the evening of the 22nd or the morning of the 23rd, my mother would announce to me in a loud voice and in my father’s absence: “It’s my mother’s birthday. Pack your bag. We’re going to see her.”
“Aren’t you going to wait for dad?”
“Aren’t we going to tell him where we’re going?”
She’d call a taxi that would drive us to the train station or the bus station. She’d buy us tickets to her mother’s hometown, 40 miles down the road, and off we’d go.
I was often too tired to note the anxious tones of my grandparents’ questions. The mumbled conversations behind my back. The little errands that I was asked to run while the ‘grown-us’ discussed the nature of the current situational crisis.
“What do you want for Christmas?” my mother’s family would ask.
“I want my dad,” I’d reply.
Then, On Christmas Eve, still fatherless, but full of hope and the promises of presents and joy, I would go to bed and fall asleep, too tired to wait up and spy on dear old Santa.
Next morning, my father, hung over, rather smelly having slept in his shirt, unshaven, and looking sleepily sheepish, would appear and offer me whatever special gift he had been looking for during the past three days.
“Just for you,” my father would say, handing me his wrist watch (one year) or his fountain pen (another). “I went up to the North Pole specially to get it,” his smile lit up the room.
“Liar,” my mother would say and her family would roll their own sheep eyes and look at the ceiling or at their shoes.
“Well, maybe not the North Pole,” my father, now a little moth or butterfly, would wriggle on the pin my mother was sticking into him. “I went to London, actually.”
“But it was the office club’s official party trip. We saved a shilling a week to hire a coach and drive up to London to see Swansea playing Tottenham Hotspur.”
“Liar, liar, liar.”
“Well,” my mother’s father would mediate, “Swansea were playing Tottenham yesterday.”
“Told you so,” said my dad.
It was Christmas. Mistletoe would appear, kisses would be exchanged, peace would be bought, my watch wouldn’t work, and next time my father saw me he was wearing a brand new wrist watch that actually went tick-tock.
23 December … it’s my mother’s mother’s birthday again. I welcome the day with open arms, yet I always fear what might happen, and I always wait for the worst to come when the first of those Christmas birthday ghosts arrives to sit on the end of my bed and taunt me as I lie there, eyes wide open, haunted, sleepless remembering …
Even though it was Christmas
I am as free as my father was free. He was free to walk on his walker, as far as he could go down the street. Free to walk in the wind and the rain. Free to sit on his neighbor’s wall when his legs and back got tired. Free to sit there, although it was raining, until he had recovered his strength and energy. Free to get soaked so badly that he caught a cold. And the cold was free to turn into bronchitis and the bronchitis was free to turn into pneumonia and the pneumonia was free to perform its assassin’s work as it tried to kill him. But my father was still free and strong enough to call the doctor and the doctor was free enough to call at the house and visit my father and write him a prescription for a free anti-biotic that would free his body from the pneumonia that was free to leave when it’s time was up and it felt ready to go. Pneumonia, the old man’s friend, they used to call it, sitting there, in my father’s lungs, muttering away to him, day after day, louder at night, and my father slowly getting stronger and the pneumonia growing weaker until one day it felt free to leave and freed my father from his immediate ills. Then my father was free to get up or to stay in bed. Being a free man, he chose to stay in bed all day and to listen to the radio and to read a book and when he got bored with reading he just lay there and counted the dots on the wall “one, two, three…” and “seventy five thousand, one hundred and forty three,” he told me one day when I was free to visit him, “though I have lost count once or twice and have had to start again from the very beginning. And the sun gets up at seven-oh-three, and strikes the third dot at seven fifty-three … and goes round the wall thirty-three dots to the minute; and leaves that third dot from the right at a quarter past three …” And there he stayed, day after day. But he was free. And sometimes the home help came and sometimes she didn’t, for she too was as free as the birds in the garden. And sometimes she remembered to buy him some food and sometimes she didn’t. And she was free to come and go, free to remember or forget. And my father was free to mumble or complain or grumble, though he rarely did. And he was free to eat, so long as there was food in the house. But when I went there to visit him I often saw that the cupboard was bare and my father had neither milk, nor eggs, nor bread nor cereal, nor tea nor butter. And all those people, those acquaintances, those friends, they too were as free as the sea-gulls in the sky. But to find the time to set my father free from the hunger and thirst he seemed predestined to freely suffer, they were never free enough for that.
Neither was I. Even though it was Christmas.
Even though it was Christmas
This story is dedicated to all who spend time alone this Christmas, be they street people, homeless, or merely forgotten and neglected. Please consider sharing this story. And if you know someone who is alone at this time of the year, please phone them or visit them.
“Oh no, another rejection!”
“And rejection equals dejection, or doesn’t it?”
“Only if you let it get you down. I wait until I am in a foul mood and ready to tear things to pieces because my mean streak is surfacing. Then I go to my rejections pile, re-read the rejection letters, then read again the pieces that have been rejected.”
“Why on earth would you do that?”
“Above all to work out why the work was rejected. What did the editors see that I didn’t? When I write, I wear rose-tinted glasses and all my little babies are the prettiest, the strongest, the fairest in the land, especially when I give them the ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’ test.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“It’s simple: you look in the mirror and ask ‘Who’s the fairest writer of all?’ and the mirror answers ‘Why, you are, of course.’ If you believe that, and as writers, we often do, then rejection becomes a hard realistic rock, shattering both Ego and Id. The immediate response is to deny the editor’s taste and judgement. It is amazing how many stupid, dumb, and uncultured editors there are out there. They hate us and don’t understand us.”
“No it isn’t. The fault, dear Brutus, lies in ourselves, not in our editors, that we are not great writers. Understand that, and you have a chance to succeed and to improve. Re-reading allows me to try and understand what went wrong, why the mirror lied, how the rose-tinted glasses distorted the actuality of the written page. Understand the other and how the other perceives what and how you write and maybe, just maybe, you can condition yourself to improve. Many budding writers are dropped on stony ground and fall by the wayside. Others land in the desert and their things of beauty bloom where nobody sees them. Some fall on seemingly fertile ground and earn an immediate immortality that fades in a season when the fad wears off. A few writers, an occasional few, go back to the drawing board and water their flowers with the sweat of their brow. Eventually, if they are lucky, their work may be accepted.”
“You always preach the bus story, Julius.”
“Of course I do. Get off the bus early, and you’ll never finish your journey. Remember Sir Walter Raleigh: ‘it’s not the beginning, but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished that yieldeth the true glory.’ He didn’t sail the Golden Hind around the word by setting up house in Cadiz and living in luxury on a beach in the south of Spain. He continued on and on, always forward, until he arrived back in his home port.”
“So we must just keep going, then?”
“Of course. But never blindly. Take criticism to heart, remembering that it comes from another’s heart. Learn from your mistakes. Correct them when you find them. Never give up.”
“You’re always happy, Julius. I bet you never get rejected.”
“Oh I do, Brutus, I do. And each rejection is a dagger to the heart. But I keep going. For example, last week I received my fifteenth consecutive rejection. So much work, so much genius, and all denied.”
“But you’re still smiling.”
“Indeed I am. I have just received my second acceptance in two days. I no longer feel betrayed by my editors.”
“I’ll never betray you, Julius.”
“You will, Brutus, you will. Never fear, et tu, Brute.”
Kicked him out, she did, just like that. Told him to sleep in the spare bedroom. She couldn’t take it any more. She couldn’t sleep. He had to go. It was the diuretic that did it, mind, the diuretic.
After the radiation treatment, they gave him hormone injections, told him he’d put on ten to fifteen per cent of his current body weight, but not to worry. It was quite natural. It was the hormones, see?
He stood on the bathroom scales without a care in his heart. Watched his weight rise, five per cent, ten per cent, fifteen per cent. When he reached twenty per cent, he started to worry. Swollen ankles. Swollen knees.
At twenty-five per cent, he was really worried. Socks no longer fitted. Couldn’t put on his shoes. Couldn’t bend to tie his laces. Had to wear sandals and slip-ons.
At thirty per cent, he started to cry. He was ugly, so ugly. He was down to one pair of shoes and one pair of sandals that fitted. He went to the pharmacy. The pharmacist took one look at his feet and gave him a long list of Latin names. Told him he’d need a perscription, from his doctor, to get pressure socks, and medical shoes that would help him walk.
“It’s the feet, see, the feet. Once they start to swell, you’re in big trouble. There’s nothing we can do. Go see your doctor.”
“I’ve seen the doctor.”
“Go see him again.”
So he did. Broke down crying when he entered the surgery.
“I’m down to one pair of shoes. You’ve got to do something, doc.”
So the doctor wrote him out a perscription for pressure socks, medical shoes, appointment with a psycho-something, attendance at a clinic, everything he wanted. Then, just as he was about to leave, the doc stopped him.
“Hang on a sec,” he said. Sat at the desk. Checked the computer. Wrote out another perscription. “New tablets,” he said. “Take these yellow ones. Stop taking those brown ones.”
He went away happy. Stopped at the pharmacy. Got the new pills. Went home. Took them. And straight away started to pee. He peed all day and he peed all night. Every 15 minutes. That’s when his missus kicked him out of bed.
“Go,” she said. “Every fifteen minutes. I can’t stand it.”
So he went. Grabbed his faithful Teddy Bear and went to the spare room with its cold, lonely bed. Except he had his Ted.
Lost four pound that first night. Twelve pound the first week. Twenty pound the first month. God, he felt good. Tried to get back to his own bed. Missus wouldn’t let him in.
“Go sleep with your Teddy,” she said. So he did.
He’s looking pretty good now. Back down to ten per cent body weight up. Says he can live with that. Likes sleeping with his Teddy. Says it doesn’t snore. Or kick. Or punch him. Unlike his missus. It’s the first anniversary next week. He says he and his Teddy are doing fine. They’re going to have a Teddy Bears Picnic to celebrate.
No, sorry, I don’t know what his missus thinks about that.